November Round Table Round Up

Christopher Maher: Hey all, welcome to our newest segment: a Monthly Round Table Round Up! Sam and I, along with some of our favorite guest writers, will discuss some of the movies that came out that month (often times one or the other of us sees the movie after it’s been reviewed) and get a little more spoiler-y for it. This month we’re joined by Christine Stemmer and Tessa Duke! Hi guys! Thanks for stopping in!

Let’s start with Lady Bird, because we’ve now all seen it, and it was just unveiled as the best ranked Rotten Tomato movie of all time! It reminded me of two of my other favorite movies of the last year: 20th Century Women (which Gerwig starred in) and The Meyerowitz Stories (written and directed by her partner and frequent collaborator). All three films take a similar narrative approach: time moves fluidly, they focus on small scale relationships with big, big stakes, and they feel dramatic without adhering to a strictly traditional narrative codes, while still feeling narratively sound. I’ve said previously to Tessa that I’ve come to value more, recently, strong moments in almost equal measure to general narrative coherence/thrust, and Lady Bird mirrors the others by being composed of memorable almost surreally real moments that collage together to tell a greater story. 20th Century Women starts with a car on fire. Lady Bird starts with Lady Bird jumping out of a moving vehicle. Thoughts?

Tessa Duke: Until you mentioned both of those openings, I hadn’t given much thought to those action-heavy sequences that lead dialogue and character-driven plots. I think it’s a great way to snatch the viewer and bring them into the characters lives, and then follow up WHY she jumped out of car, and explained so by diving into tiny moments that mold her story. I felt as though Lady Bird’s greatest strength is the focus on tiny, significant moments that are ultimately relatable and genuine. Everything from ‘the mean girl’ who was actually just a pretty normal person, to being upset with a guy who lied about losing his virginity and doesn’t give a shit that he lied. I felt as though the entire film was exposing someone’s diary and letting you into the intricacies that shape who they are. Even more than that, this was probably one of the strongest coming of age stories I’ve ever seen. One that could appeal to many generations because of how universal the lessons/moments felt.

CM: What strikes me about both sequences is they’re almost surreal, but as you said they’re also totally genuine. Which is how life works. Sometimes I’m telling a story from my own life and I have to pause because it sounds so outrageous but I know it’s true. When she jumps out of the car at the beginning – it’ll be a funny story to tell in college, almost unbelievable, but also feels like a genuine thing for her to do in the moment: almost like it’s the only thing to do in the moment.

Christine, as our initial reviewer I’d love to get your thoughts on the above but two more things as well. While we were chatting over text I mentioned my mother (hi Mom!) reacted to both Lady Bird and 20th Century Women by saying how sad she was that these incredibly powerful mothers couldn’t quite articulate their bond with their children. Secondly, my father left a comment on your original review (hi Dad!) outlining the role of Lady Bird’s father in the film, and while it was a primarily coming-of-age/mother-daughter story I think he played an important and emotionally fulfilling role as well.

Christine Stemmer: Have other people not threatened to jump out of a moving car during an argument with their mother? Or has your mother never almost thrown you out of the car….Maybe that’s just me and my Mom.

In reading about the cinematography of the film Gerwig purposely wanted every shot to feel like a memory. (Which I feel she executed wonderfully – Also THIS WAS NOT SHOT ON FILM, WHAT?) Each scene feels genuine but also heightened – in the way we all heighten our own memories because we get sentimental or exaggerate for effect. So although I have not jumped out of a moving car myself that opening scene didn’t jolt me; instead I thought – I wish I did that, I could have definitely done that.

Having seen all three movies I agree they focus on truthful moments. For Gerwig, I think that stems from her writing process. I’ve only heard her speak about her writing process for Frances Ha which she began by scribbling small ideas/moments on scraps of paper like “debating whether or not to take money out of an atm because of the convenience charge.” So I think that this is more or less how she goes about storytelling. Stitching together tiny moments of truth into a larger narrative. Which is life, just like you said Chris.

Addressing your other thoughts, I do agree with your Mom. I wish there was maybe a scene or two where Lady Bird and her Mom were able to break through that barrier (truly for my own catharsis). A couple times I thought it was coming but it didn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if that existed and got smartly cut in the edit. I also wonder if the reason behind that lack of connection on screen in both Lady Bird and 20th Century Women has to do with the fact that Gerwig and Mike Mills wrote these stories from the viewpoint of the child. (Cause they were the child in real life…)

I absolutely agree with your Father’s comments about Tracy Letts as Larry McPherson. The complexity Gerwig imbued every character with is what makes this film so good. Larry’s struggle with unemployment and depression moved me very deeply because Dads are our heroes when we’re kids and we don’t see the pain behind their eyes both because we’re you know, kids, but also because they try so hard to spare us from it. It’s one of my favorite portrayals of a Father on screen. So human.

Sam Russell: Hey all! I think it’s interesting that Gerwig intentionally shot the film to mimic memory. I think filmmaking as a medium is so perfectly suited for dealing with and depicting memory. It’s recreating a perspective, it looks and feels a lot like real life, but, like you say, it’s heightened. All three of these films use stylized dialogue to achieve this heightened-but-genuine, surreal-but-real feeling. The people in these movies don’t speak the way people speak in real life- they vocalize their inner-thoughts much more candidly than we do in real life. That’s the “surreal” part of it. The “real” part of it, I think, is thanks to the incredible acting. Adam Sandler, Annette Bening, and Saorise Ronan all ground stylized dialogue with their honest performances.

Christine, you mention that you wish Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, were able to break through to one another. But I think their inability to do so is essential to the story. The scene in the thrift shop comes to mind. Lady Bird is trying on prom dress, she’s excited about it. All Lady Bird wants is a little bit of support, but standing stubbornly on principle (“Do you want me to lie?”), her mother refuses to compliment her. While it’s clear (well, to me, anyways) this choice is unhelpful to Lady Bird, Marion truly believes that ceeding to her daughter’s wishes would be detrimental parenting. She so firmly believes she’s doing the right thing. She’s a thoughtful, engaged, loving mother, who just so happens to fundamentally misunderstand her own impact on her daughter. I appreciate that it never fully clicks for her, because I think it’s truthful to how people are sometimes.

TD: I agree with that, Sam. I think it’s believable that Lady Bird and Marion aren’t able to really get a grasp on each other and actually communicate and articulate what they are feeling. One of the most devastating moments for me was near the end when the shot holds on Marion as she drives outside the airport, realizes what she’s done, loops back, and has ultimately missed Lady Bird’s departure. And how real is that?? When you finally know what to do, or realize you should be the bigger person, and it’s too late. And when Larry holds Marion and says “She’ll be back in a few months!” so enthusiastically while his wife is crying….and I was crying in the audience too, yes…I thought their inability to see eye to eye on their last argument was sincere, cringe-worthy, and well placed.

CM: Doesn’t shock me you guys highlighted my two favorite scenes. The thrift store scene is incredible, especially because her mother says “I love you” but Lady Bird asks if she likes her. You can understand why love is more important to an adult, and that being liked is more important to a kid. I don’t think I can articulate what kicked butt in that airport scene any better than Tessa did. What a great enemy for the climax of film. Airport traffic.

I’ll duck out now, having not seen 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and leave you guys to the fisticuffs of an (apparently) more decisive film.

CS:  Something that really interests me as of late is how much we know about movies before we go into them.  It feels almost impossible nowadays to go into a movie completely blind without knowing at least ten people’s opinions beforehand.  How do you all feel this affects how you view new films?  For 3 Billboards, I knew it had won the audience award at TIFF (to some people’s surprise) and that it was garnering a mostly positive response.  I also knew Martin McDonagh (writer/director) up until this point solely as a playwright.   Just haven’t gotten around to his other films.  So going into this, I was very aware of what would be coming at me and I was right.  McDonagh is a very, very dark but funny writer.  He doesn’t hold back and he makes the audience feel uncomfortable but with a purpose.  I thought Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell’s performances were nothing less than masterful.  I also felt the dialogue was as active and specific as any great play.  It felt written but in the good way.  I can see this movie not being for everyone but like I said I knew what I was walking into.   

SR: I agree that expectations play a huge part in how we receive films. I went in knowing a lot less about what I was seeing than you did, Christine. I have never seen any of McDonagh’s work, I just knew he was a playwright turned filmmaker. I knew it was receiving mostly positive reviews, though I had not read any specifics (essentially, I’d only seen the Rotten Tomato score). I really love all these actors, especially McDormand.

TD: Expectations played an interesting role for me with 3 Billboards. I love this director. I love In Bruges and Six Shooter (even though it also made me really upset when we watched in Intro to Screenwriting…I still loved it). So my expectations were fairly high. That being said, I knew nothing about the plot. I only knew about the billboards and that something happened to McDormand’s daughter, so I was ready for something entirely new. I think my favorite thing about this film was the acting, like you said Christine, McDormand and Rockwell knocked it out of the park. Watching them come together by the end was fascinating, how these characters found a new understanding for one another and also doubted their actions. I thought the pacing in this film was pretty interesting. For a brief moment in the beginning when we learn that Woody Harrelson has done all the research he could, I thought, well…what are they going to do now? We probably have at least an hour or so left? But I thought the layers of twists and turns were strong and captivating. How did you two feel about the way it was structured?

CS:  I thought the most interesting thing about it structurally was that Woody Harrelson died so early on.  It makes sense seeing the whole film, as it’s exactly the worst thing that can happen to that town and the other main characters.  The chief with an actual conscious and a lot of wisdom leaving all the children to fend for themselves.  I felt throughout the entire film like McDonagh skillfully knew how to turn the heat up on his characters, he made them squirm.  Which while watching, I enjoyed.  However, now that I’ve sat on this movie for a week, not much other than the acting and certain dialogue is sticking with me.  Which is making me wonder, how memorable is this film as a whole?    

CM: I think that’s a tough thing in film in general – viewing them as meaningful versus escapism. But I too feel like staying power is important, even in sheer entertainment. It’s why I’m happy Moonlight won over La La Land at last year’s Oscars. But it’s tough to assess when we’re close to films, which I why I, like an idiot, listed La La Land as my favorite film last year.

Well, as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit and since we’ve blown way past brevity at this point, I think I’ll bring us to a close here. Thanks so much to Christine and Tessa for being our Guinea Pigs, and happy December everyone! We’ll be back for another Round Table at the end of the month!

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