Tag Archives: Film

Lady Bird: Discussing Teen Angst, Class, and Early Aughts Sacramento

Like many collaborative digital projects, The Metropole is entirely assembled via remote correspondence; as co-editors, Ryan and I send daily emails between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. In between editing submissions, we brainstorm future blog posts and trade banter about music, books, and movies. Ryan approaches pop culture with a typically Gen X cynicism, while I own my sunny millennial optimism. So in March, when Ryan suggested we review Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Sacramento, I was curious about how each of us would respond to the film. You might be surprised to find which one of us was the bigger fan.

Without further ado, our conversation about the film:  

AO: So, Ryan, I thought I would kick off this conversation about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird by asking you what you enjoyed about the film.

RR: Good question. Well first of all I am, even in my middle age, always a sucker for “coming of age” stories, particularly those with difficult protagonists. In some ways, Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronin) aka Christine McPherson is somewhat reminiscent of another problematic, angsty, coming of age teen character, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) from The Edge of Seventeen. Both fail to really appreciate the problems of others around them, take their respective best friends for granted, and drive their parent(s) crazy. Critically, both characters are also very compelling. So I’m glad that there seems to be a burgeoning effort to document the travails and challenges of adolescence for young women. Whether such efforts fall into the same traps as those focusing on young male protagonists such as Richard Linklater’s highly overrated and tragically boring (just one man’s opinion, don’t @ me) Boyhood, remains to be seen. Equally important, Lady Bird, to a much greater extent than The Edge of Seventeen, gives voice to the parents in the film. What can be said about Laurie Metcalf’s performance as mother Maureen McPherson that hasn’t been discussed already? Traci Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, is great also; a newly unemployed dad with the soft touch toward his daughter that complements Metcalf’s harsher (but sometimes justified) parenting style.

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Three other things to note. I like the inclusion of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), who may or may not have witnessed someone being stabbed in front of Sacramento City High School, and his girlfriend Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott). While I always enjoy movies depicting sibling relationships, both Shelly and Miguel enable the viewers to better understand Metcalf’s character, who Lady Bird believes doesn’t like her and at times feels overbearing. The truth is much more complex as both Shelly and Miguel convey to Lady Bird throughout the movie.

Second, I love both problematic boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, who plays the (obviously) closeted lead actor of the theater group Lady Bird joins, deviates from the role he played in Manchester by the Sea and provides a counterbalance to Lady Bird’s own self absorption. In contrast, Timothée Chalamet, the idiotic second boyfriend, loves to be seen smoking while reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, makes strange statements about state surveillance that sound smart at first but soon reveal a deep reservoir of stupidity, and delivers terrific pseudo-intellectual musings such as when, after Lady Bird loses her virginity to him and is upset that it wasn’t his first time, he says, “you’re going to have so much unspecial sex” in life. Oh, and he also tries to avoid capitalism by living by “bartering alone.”

Finally, as someone who attended 12 years of parochial Catholic school, I pine for uniforms and the regimentation of a religious education.

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Greta Gerwig as the titular character in Frances Ha from 2012

One does wonder if Lady Bird isn’t really a younger Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous directorial effort, though one she co-directed with her partner Noah Baumbach.  Baumbach tends to cover similar territory, meaning the troubled nature of the nuclear family, but his films focus more on elite or academic East Coast families that struggle with deep fissures of dysfunction (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) whereas there is much more warmth in Gerwig’s film, and for that I am deeply thankful.

You know at this moment a lot of people are hailing Roseanne Barr’s return to prominence with the new season of Roseanne–notably since, as in its first iteration, it focuses on the lives of working class/lower middle class families. In Lady Bird, I think Gerwig offers a real window into a similar demographic but one we rarely hear from, the West Coast working class. Often movies, like Nebraska, emphasize the difficulties of Midwestern or Rust Belt towns and their inhabitants, but Sacramento, “the midwest of California” as Lady Bird puts it, provides a different take on this well worn topic. Plus, Laurie Metcalf stars in both, a neat little “no degrees of separation.”

All that said, I feel like you didn’t enjoy this film as much as I did. So what bugged you about Lady Bird?

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Sacramento River view from across the water from Sacramento, California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

AO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Lady Bird did not resonate with me, though I do think it’s a fine film. I think it has to do with being stuck between Lady Bird and her mother. I’m past adolescence, but not yet distant enough to romanticize it. I still remember my own embarrassing decisions too vividly to comfortably watch Lady Bird make her own impulsive, selfish choices. And I’m not yet a parent who can nod along in sympathy with the McPherson’s frustration.

That said, I thought the performances were brilliant. Saoirse Ronin was magnetic, Laurie Metcalf was fierce, and the movie sparkles (with warmth, as you said Ryan) when the two of them are together on screen acting opposite one another. How many times have I been in a store with my own mother, bickering, when the perfect dress stopped us in our tracks? That moment felt so real and relatable to me.

You make a great point about the particular geography and demographic that this movie portrays. I think the use of the big blue house–which Lady Bird and her best friend admire while walking home each day, and then turns out to belong to the grandmother of Lady Bird’s first boyfriend–worked so effectively to communicate how social distance and spatial difference in Sacramento do not share a proportional correlation. The big blue house was not terribly far away from the McPherson’s, though the difference in wealth was palpable; and yet, although Lady Bird lives “on the other side of the tracks” she shares her whiteness, education, and middle class values with the family of her boyfriend. I could have dispensed with the entire subplot about courting the new boyfriend (though I agree the pseudo-intellectualism was funny) and the new rich friends that come along with him. The big blue house did enough to make Gerwig’s point about class.

So that’s what I liked and felt like Gerwig really got right–and also what I think was weak about the movie. Some women make it through high school without selling out their best friend for a boy. It’s a tired plot line.

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Racks Boutique in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

RR: Yeah, it’s not the most original take, though I wonder how much of that is about gender and how much is about the stereotypical structure of a teen coming of age story, even off-the-beaten-path adolescent experiences. The whole “journey” of self discovery often hinges on a protagonist approaching some unrequited love while ignoring the best friend standing next to them (which sometimes turns out to the be the love interest as well, the whole “not knowing what you have in your own backyard” deal). I guess what I’m saying is that dudes sell out best friends in movies for girls all the time–Rushmore and Better Off Dead are two examples that pop into my head. So in a very limited way, it felt like progress that quirky, difficult Lady Bird could be out there getting some without guilt or any terror, besides making a few mistakes in regard to her object of attraction and longstanding friendships. I could go on about heteronormativity, hence the next Rubicon to cross in the infrastructure of the “coming of age” film. I suppose last year’s Call Me By Your Name does this to some extent.

I agree the movie, as a colleague of mine put it, “treats Sacramento like a another character” even down to cliches like being from the “wrong side of the tracks” which both Lady Bird and Danny play for awkward laughs in very different moments. The town really does have a sort of West Coast Midwestern feel–warmer colors and light than you find typically in the Middle West, but with a very matter of fact approach to life. The Joan Didion epigraph that opens the movie is pretty telling in this regard: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.”

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Rosie the Riveter mural on an abandoned building in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Can I also applaud Gerwig for some pop culture bravery? I mean she rehabilitates Dave Matthews in a serious way in this film. In fact, the Matthew’s song in question, “Crash” (a tune that launched a thousand prom dances and wistful scenes of adolescents staring blankly out into their “future”) plays a critical role in Lady Bird’s maturation. The only thing braver would have been to do the same for Hootie and the Blowfish. Can Sacramento be the Dave Matthews “Crash” of American cities?

AO: I’m not sure Sacramento was ever cool enough to fall as far as the Dave Matthews Band did. I did recently find and listen to my copy of that album and, after years of dismissing and scoffing at DMB, I confess that I fell back in love with quite a few of the songs on it. So anything is possible!

 

Featured image (image at top): The 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

An Annotated Addendum to our Seoul Bibliography

While I’ve always hoped that I’m not the intellectual equivalent of the dullest spoon in your drawer of silverware, I’ve also always known I was not the sharpest blade in the kitchen. The former is aspirational and the latter factual, but the latter also demonstrates a valuable skill: knowing when you don’t know. Bibliographies for our Metropolis of the Month feature are always difficult; one always fears omitting some classic urban work, denying it’s author deserved public admiration and researchers a valuable source.  The reality we must all face as urbanists, however, is that no urban historian can know all cities, but collectively, with your help, we can know many of them better.

Sensing my desperation and performing the ultimate good deed, Stanford History Department PhD candidate and burgeoning Korean expert Russell Burge sent us a much appreciated addendum to our somewhat anemic bibliography. Burge provides a concise and valuable addition to our list and includes Korean language works that we regrettably ignored in our initial bibliography. Of course, Seoul being the entertainment capital of Asia, Burge included films in his list–adding to its interdisciplinary flavor.

Seoul Bibliography

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (1898)

14667Part of a vanished genre of English-language travelogue literature, Bishop’s book is a sprawling tour through Korea, one that moves almost seamlessly between late-Victorian chauvinism and real perceptiveness and affection for Korean geography and history. Korea and Her Neighbors is as valuable today for its colorful descriptions of Seoul as it is for capturing a way of seeing that defined early encounters between Westerners and Koreans.

 

 

 

Keith Pratt, Old Seoul (2002)

51DBFV6KSML._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA loving reconstruction of Seoul as it existed on the eve of the twentieth century, this book also uses the city as a microcosm to explore the remnants and broader history of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), the last ruling dynasty of Korea. A thoroughly engaging read for anyone who has been to Seoul and attempted to scry its past through the glass and steel palimpsests the city presents today.

 

 

Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul (2014)

9780520293151.jpgThis book is the first of its kind: an English-language monograph of deep original research that takes up the history of Seoul as its object of study. Henry focuses on the colonial history of the city (1910-1945), and sites of encounter between Seoul’s Korean residents and the Japanese colonial state. Paradoxically, this world – with its Shinto shrines and colonial exhibition halls – appears in many ways even more distant to modern eyes than the precolonial past.

Kim Paekyŏng, Chibae wa Konggan (2009)

While English-language works on Seoul are few and far between, the opposite is true in Korean; in South Korea, Seoul has a dominating presence as both an object of study and the setting for art, media, and literature. Still, Kim Paekyŏng’s Chibae wa Konggan (Domination and Space) stands out as a work of scholarship, charting many of the key transformations the city underwent in the colonial period, and its sometimes paradoxical geographies of power.

Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (1948)

contentThis book is better known as an account of Japan following the empire’s defeat in 1945, but a significant portion of Gayn’s work is also dedicated to Korea and the goings-on in and around the political nucleus of Seoul. In many ways Gayn’s account is the inverse of Bishop’s, as the author – a Manchurian émigré and veteran newspaper correspondent – describes with candor and horror the United States’ impact on south Korea following its liberation from Japan.

Chang Yŏngch’ang, Sŏul-ŭn pul t’anda (1978)

The title of Chang’s book – “Seoul is Burning” – sets the tone for this wartime account of Seoul’s occupation by North Korean forces, as well as the protracted UN siege that ultimately broke the North’s grip on the city. By turns lyrical, liturgical, and deeply personal, this obscure and quixotic memoir offers one of the most powerful sketches of what it meant to live in wartime Seoul, a city simultaneously besieged from both within and without.

Cho Sehŭi, The Dwarf (1978)

Available in a 2006 translation from Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The Dwarf is a classic of modern South Korean fiction, and chronicles Seoul’s rise as a sprawling jungle of exploitation and inequality during the period of rapid development in the 1970s. Many of the issues raised by Cho still haunt South Korean politics and thinking today, and the book remains relevant not only as a work of literature, but also as an introduction to an episteme.

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room” (1972)

Perhaps no better paean exists to urban alienation in South Korea. Writing at a time when apartments were still an alien fixture in Seoul’s landscape, Ch’oe follows his protagonist – a married man with a strained and distant relationship to his wife, his neighbors, and his apartment – through increasingly surreal states of hallucination and de-personification that call to mind later work by David Lynch. A translation of this short story by Kevin O’Rourke is available.

Valérie Gelézeau, Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk (2007)

Literally meaning “Republic of Apartments,” Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk is the Korean-language adaptation (trans. Kil Hyeyŏn) of geographer Gelézeau’s pioneering French-language work Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (2003). By turns sociological, ethnographic, and historical, Gelézeau tells the story of a single architectural form – the gray apartment tower – and how it came to stand as an urban vernacular and symbol of prosperity in South Korea.

 

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Dir. Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)

Director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the story of one family’s struggle against a river monster hell-bent on abducting and devouring as many Seoul citizens as possible. Simultaneously absurdist and terrifying, the real star of this film is Seoul, or rather the Han River that cuts through it and the labyrinthine network of bridges and tunnels that form its literal underbelly.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

220px-Cloud_atlas.jpgA work of historical and speculative fiction, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas covers an impossibly vast geography of places and times. Still, the setting of futuristic Seoul stands out for its attention to both historical and geographic detail, down to its neighborhood-by-neighborhood commentary on the city. If Tokyo once defined the mood at the heart of cyberpunk, Mitchell makes a similar bid for Seoul in this futuristic epic, though it remains to be seen if other authors will take up the call.

 

 

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Dir. Kim Kyung-mook, Stateless Things (2011)

Stateless Things is a film about abjection, and the intimate relationships that obtain between the powerful and the powerless. With Seoul as its low-thrumming backdrop, Director Kim Kyung-mook explores rarely-touched topics in mainstream Korean cinema that are a constitutive part of life in the city, such as economic abjection, discrimination against ethnic Korean immigrants from China and North Korea, and queer sexuality.

 

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Dirs. Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (2014)

One of the more creative initiatives of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is far from the typical tourist campaign fare. Edited from 141 selected video clips out of thousands of crowdsourced submissions, the film – directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong – brings together various experiences of life in Seoul in a vision that is altogether more diverse, more melancholy, and more vibrant than any other.

Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.