by Wilson Holzhaeuser
I do not know Greta Gerwig, but I feel like I do. I know she’s from Sacramento. I know she acted in her Catholic high school theater productions which inspired her to pursue the arts in college. I know she moved to New York to study at Barnard, not Columbia, but didn’t quite make it as a playwright in school. I know that her 20’s were a little unguided and she may have felt like she was falling behind her peers as she was finding her path in life. She grew up largely working class and may have felt insecure about that sometimes.
I don’t know Greta Gerwig but when I watch her movies I feel like I do. How could you not? Her entire life seems to be up there on the screen. Her out-of-place adolescence in Lady Bird; her meandering 20’s in Frances Ha; even her alternate reality late-era hippy in 20th Century Women. All artistic work is, to some degree, an act of honesty and vulnerability, but Gerwig presents her work with such raw intimacy the audience feels as though we’re just watching her life on screen.
Gerwig’s films are personal in the way that anything just presenting one’s own experiences is personal. But it was in 2015 we saw her move away from only self-presenting and more fully explore self-reflecting with Mistress America.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, Mistress America features Lola Kirke as the aspiring writer and Barnard freshman Tracy. After being rejected by her university’s pretentious lit magazine, Tracy, feeling out of context and lonely, meets her magnetically confident future stepsister Brooke, played by Gerwig. Brooke, with her endless supply of hip friends, urban hot spots and just-wacky-enough-to-work business plans, is initially Tracy’s cosmopolitan ideal – effortlessly cool, ambitious, successful.
This image deteriorates when Brooke’s effort to find investors for her fledgling and ill-planned restaurant prompts increasingly desperate, poorly conceived behavior. Tracy starts to see Brooke is not the masterful urbanite she projects. Rather she is often rude, flighty, and self-absorbed; at her worst, she’s outright mean. Tracy decides to surreptitiously mine Brooke’s flawed character for short story material. Brooke, naturally, discovers this, leaving her feeling betrayed and objectified. And this, as they say, is where things get interesting.
Characters are not people and people are not characters. This is true because characters are constructed. There is a consciousness external to the character – the author – which made every choice for that character and these choices, when made well, are intelligently designed to deliver a message or meaning. The character is not an end in themselves. Rather, the character was created to communicate meaning external to the character. A character is a tool.
People, on the other hand, are an end in themselves. There is no single consciousness that crafted you to deliver some message. We are not created for a defined intent. Our meaning and purpose is both larger and smaller than that of the characters we create. Smaller in the sense that we are the end of it and larger in the sense that we get to define and modify that meaning and purpose as we see fit. Every single person in the world is more complex and nuanced than every character in every work of fiction. To treat people like characters is to reduce them. To treat characters like people is to misunderstand them.
This concept is particularly relevant when discussing artists who draw heavily on their own lived experience, as Gerwig does. Gerwig, as co-writer, seemed especially conscious of this during Mistress America. The theme of person-as-character comes up several times before the film’s major turning point. Earlier in the film, Brooke says to Tracy, “I notice something about myself that would be good for a character in a story” and then refuses to tell Tracy what the thing is. Later, playing with the dual meaning of the word character, Brooke and Tracy have the following exchange:
Brooke: It wouldn’t be like my character. It would just be something that I did.
Tracy: When does that become the same thing?
Here, we see our leads understanding themselves as characters in a story but also distancing themselves from such an interpretation. They are confronted with the idea that to be a character is to be a thing, not a person.
With these moments, and ultimately the central conflict of the film, Gerwig is drawing our attention to the danger of treating the people not as people but as sources, as constructed - a danger which Gerwig is particularly vulnerable to as a creator who draws from her personal experience so often and so directly. It would be easy for a writer in that position to do exactly what Tracy did here - ransack the lives of your friends and family for material for your short stories and screenplays, reducing them to objects in a narrative in service to something other than their own personhood and interior lives. The film comes down heavily against that practice but the lure of it is clear.
When the fact of Tracy’s plundering is revealed, Brooke calls attention to several inaccuracies and flaws in Tracy’s portrayal. Tracy vacillates between defending the work as fiction, and not a direct copy of Brooke, and accusing Brooke of not correctly understanding her own life, two incompatible positions. But it again calls to mind the artist’s responsibility to the subject. How can a filmmaker, drawing on their actual life, modify that life to fit a narrative and not misrepresent the people who are a part of that life? The film identifies this as a problem but does not identify a clear solution beyond making the subject aware of their participation in the work.
As an audience, we would be remiss if all we took from this was the fact of the issue. Interpretation alone is insufficient. (For a more strident take on this idea see Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation). We must continue to application. Even if we are not storytellers, there exists an impulse to view our lives as narrative and the people in our lives as characters playing roles in that narrative. Our experiences are so often mediated through narrative entertainment approaching our relationships with this gloss is almost unavoidable. It is also wrong and dangerous.
Not only is it manipulative and cruel for Tracy to steal from other people’s lives, it also inevitably warps her perception of those from whom she steals. Brooke is neither the iconic urban success story of Tracy’s initial one-night impression nor is she the delusional failure portrayed in her lit society submission story. Both understandings of Brooke warp who she is to serve Tracy, either as the neophyte New Yorker in need of a friend or the struggling writer in need of validation.
And anyone of us could easily fall into that trap, conceptualizing those around only within the context of ourselves and our narratives. It is, in a very literal way, dehumanizing. Avoiding that trap takes work and it takes awareness. It is not easy to remove ourselves from our default concern with the self, but this is why we should consume art. The character, while not a person, is so close a simulacrum that can offer insight into actual lives bringing us closer to realizing, in whatever small way, the breadth of humanity. The artifice of the make-believe person brings us closer to understanding the real people around us better than our own limited perception ever could.
Watch carefully. Watch consciously. Thanks for reading.