Monday, August 3, 2015

Something Wild: Greta Gerwig on dangerous women

Melanie Griffith stars in Jonathan Demme's 1986 comedy Something Wild.

Bear with me a moment. I am going to get a little geeky. Of course, if this site is evidence of anything, it is of my ability to be geeky when it comes to films. Last Cinema Standing was founded on the idea that seeing a movie in the theater is the best way to see a movie. Nothing matches the experience of a room full of people awed into silence when the lights go out. No matter what shines up on the screen next, that beautiful moment of darkness before the movie starts is full of possibilities. I love it.

Everything is digital now – the projection, the sound, hell, sometimes most of a movie. I am no purist. I understand how and why we have moved in this direction. That is fine, but there is just something about hearing the pop of a real soundtrack while watching celluloid projected, warts and all, on the big screen. I like the scratches. I like the dirt. It is tangible. You can feel it. You can sense it. It makes the experience more real.

Each month, the IFC Center in New York City dusts off the projector and shows a classic film the way it is meant to be seen. I wrote last year about the inaugural screening in the Celluloid Dreams series, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and a tribute to cinematographer Gordon Willis. Last Tuesday, I attended the latest screening in the series, Jonathan Demme’s screwball comedy ode Something Wild (1986).

The film was followed by a question-and-answer session with actress-writer Greta Gerwig, who was there to promote her upcoming film Mistress America, of which the audience was then treated to a sneak preview. Gerwig talked at length about Something Wild and other films of its ilk and the inspiration she drew from them in writing her newest paean to Generation Y’s search for purpose. The discussion was a fascinating look into the process of a gifted young writer and performer.

Greta Gerwig speaks at the IFC Center.
“In some ways, your impression of [the movies you’re inspired by] is more useful than what the thing actually is,” she said. “I thought about that a lot when I saw Mr. Turner. It starts when he’s coming back from Amsterdam, and the shopkeeper asks him what he was doing, and I think he says, ‘I was looking at the Rembrandts.’ And it placed you so much in that time when you wouldn’t have access to those paintings. You’d have to go to the place, look at the paintings, and do your best to remember what was great about them. It’s such a different experience of art than having it be accessible to you all the time. So while we would watch things, also sometimes our memory of things would be the feeling we were looking to recreate.”

Among the many influences Gerwig named were Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, and of course Something Wild, as well as the films of George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, and Howard Hawks and novels by Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth. It is an eclectic list, to say the least, but the common thread seems to be people trying to find where they belong or figuring out how to fit in once they have found a place.

Something Wild – which I highly recommend; it is on Netflix if you cannot find a 35-millimeter screening near you – follows yuppie Charles (Jeff Daniels) on a weekend fling with wild girl Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who, for all intents and purposes, kidnaps him and coerces him into an odyssey of drinking, fighting, and law breaking. It is the most fun Charles has had in a long time, breaking free of the shackles of his mundane life and letting his hair down, albeit by force mostly.

If that basic description sounds familiar, it is because modern romantic comedies have taken the trope of the free-spirited girl who teaches the uptight guy to have fun and turned it into a formula. However, modern films of this type are almost exclusively about the man. The girl is usually perfect, if a bit peppy, and the boy realizes maybe he needs more of that in his life – both pep and perfection. Something Wild and other like-minded films concern themselves with the stories of their women. Lulu is a complex person with goals and desires of her own, a fully developed female character, which Gerwig lamented the lack of in modern cinema.

“Melanie Griffith in [Something Wild] and Patricia Arquette in After Hours and even Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose – it’s a kind of female character that I feel really disappeared from movies,” said Gerwig. “They’re dangerous women. They’re not just being delightful for you. They could maybe get you into something that might get you killed, or you’re not fully sure their morality. Every third thing that comes out of their mouths is a lie. They put on lots of costumes. They’re amazing characters.”

Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig star in Mistress America.
Gerwig’s Mistress America character, Brooke, is descended from this line of dangerous women. She is a screw-up overflowing with self-confidence and a failure who senses success is always right around the corner. She is no role model, but she fancies herself one when she takes her soon-to-be step-sister (a fabulous Lola Kirke) under her wing.

Even the dangerous woman, however, is a bit of a trope, but the beauty of Gerwig and director-co-writer Noah Baumbach’s script is that it deepens the character and subverts the cliché. Ultimately, the person to whom Brooke is most dangerous is herself. Others will recover from her actions and move on, but she has to live with herself every day.

In Something Wild, Lulu faces the same dilemma. She does not like who she is or who she was, and she has no idea who she should be. She lies. She puts on costumes. She goes by fake names. No one in the world has to know the real her – but she does. The audience may see the film through Charlie’s eyes, but he is not the protagonist. That would be Lulu, and the movie hinges on her feelings and her choices. For an ’80s throwback to the comedies of the ‘40s, it is a pretty radical idea, but if we really take a hard look at the current cinema landscape, it might be even more radical now.

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