By Christopher Sharrett.
I have no reservations about using a central, foundational handbook serving women as the subtitle to this piece (in part because my wife was co-author of the original edition), since the topic of Charles Dosunmu’s excellent film is women made peripheral and in transit in the current society. Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer in a remarkably restrained performance) is a caregiver to her aged mother, helping her eat and bathe; Kyra performs arduous and painful functions (given that this is a parent, whose infirmities portend death and emotional trauma for the child) that, in a civil society, might be assisted by nurses and others needing work who have competence in aiding the elderly. Kyra has left a husband (the details aren’t here – need we know them?) and therefore is dependent on her mother, the child actually resuming the child’s role while assisting the parent. Food and rent are provided by the mother’s Social Security (always very miserly). The scenes of Kyra’s caregiving are touching yet grueling; we face the archetypal role-reversal of life, as the child now feeds the parent, who almost has to be re-taught the feeding process. The parent is indeed now the child, but a decaying, infirm one, reminding us of impervious mortality.
When the mother dies, Kyra finds herself in serious trouble; without the mother’s scant resources, she can’t pay the rent or even buy food. She meets a sympathetic man (Kiefer Sutherland), himself living close to the financial brink. Kyra uses her mother’s gray wig and dresses in her clothes, affecting a stoop and halting gait as impersonation becomes a means of survival by cashing her parent’s checks. The scheme is doomed to fail of course; it might have lasted a bit longer if the boyfriend afforded Kyra assistance instead of overwrought judgment.
The current order of things is captured in Kyra’s pursuit of a job. Everything is minimum wage and degrading labor; there is the sense that employers want a younger, more malleable employee, to whom they can pay a wage even less than minimum – and is Kyra passed the age where she is sexually usable by the almost exclusively male bosses? Kyra says that she has been “downsized,” that awful word now in accepted usage connoting the disposability of human life in an economy based on waste and devastation of the world’s resources and productive capacity. Kyra is reduced to putting flyers on car windshields. She makes it easier by simply standing in the street holding up the pieces of paper in her hands, a beleaguered scarecrow in the New York winter.
Dosunmu took a bit of heat from reviewers for his deeply shadowed images, many with a strong sepia tone. His outdoor scenes appear shot with a diffusion filter, giving images a soft-focus aspect with a slightly green tint. Cinematographer Bradford Young makes superb decisions, making Where is Kyra? one of the more visually striking films of the season. But reviewers feel that Young’s images aren’t just tough on the eyes but “abnormal,” that is, not of the screaming palette associated with contemporary Hollywood “tent-pole” films. There is no awareness, these days, of the necessarily organic quality of the cinema, that image and sound of a film must complement text, indeed be fully integrated into the text. There is the sense now that we are entitled to tell Goya to use more primary colors.
Philip Miller’s score is also significant, and has not, as far as I can tell, been noted. Scenes often start with a jolting set of chords that I must call “industrial” (which is the area of music from which Miller seems to be drawing), along with traces of modernists like Penderecki and Bartok. The score is entirely appropriate to this horror tale (which evokes, at one moment, Psycho). The film’s horror is unnerving precisely because it is entirely outside the conventions of the genre. Today’s horrors are insistently prosaic as we take for granted the awfulness of existence – especially for women – in deindustrialized America.
The past couple of seasons have offered films about the lives of women, but none as distinguished, to my mind, as Dosunmu’s. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) is a triptych about three working women from different social classes, but aside from the dreary Montana landscape in which the stories take place, I cannot find a unifying principle in the film, and the individual tales seem underwritten and not well thought-through. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (2016) seems satisfying up to a point, but its limitations come from its source novel by Nikolai Leskov; why he invokes Shakespeare’s villainess (she can be defined otherwise) is puzzling, especially in the case of Oldroyd, who retains the title for his own lead character. She becomes monstrous only after her abuse by patriarchy. At least this film isn’t as overwrought as Shostakovich’s manic opera, or Andrej Wajda’s incomprehensible film Siberian Lady Macbeth.
I found Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) to be among the season’s most satisfying films. I avoided it for a time, mainly because of my aversion to Gerwig and her circle of associates with whom she creates. For example, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which instantly found its canonized place on Criterion, seems little more than a favor to a girlfriend, shamelessly and clumsily using tropes from the French New Wave as Gerwig romps through New York. I associate Gerwig with the “death of affect” of postmodernity, displayed in films about bored teens who accept boredom and enjoys their hip retorts. At times I have no idea what these films want to say, or if they have content at all – Whit Stillman’s Damsel’s in Distress (2012) makes the point.
But Lady Bird makes me think that Gerwig is a person to watch. She displayed a maturity I hadn’t seen in a supporting role in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (2016). As director, Gerwig makes Lady Bird a charming, straightforward story about transitional years of an adolescent girl, nagged by her frustrated mother (whose castrated father seems the source of the nagging), thoroughly bored by Catholic high school (that she isn’t oppressed by this school is to me problematical, but my recollections of such a place are fifty years old), dependent on her lone, overweight girlfriend – we watch the relationship (and identity) change when Lady Bird enters college. The film embraces young women.
There are few radical female voices in cinema – even Kelly Reichardt, an important artist, is quite restrained. Katherine Bigelow is still a reactionary – she will thrive. I await the new Charlize Theron film Tully, about a fed-up wife and mother, but the involvement of Diablo Cody, responsible for the atrocious Juno (2007), dilutes my anticipation.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International and has joined the board of the horror film journal Monstrum.