KISS THEM FOR ME
20th Century Women – Sound and Vision
Article by Mary Gent
About halfway through 20th Century Women, a melancholy but insistent guitar chord comes in, followed by a piano playing a harmonic version of the chords. Almost untuned, driving us into a pivotal scene. A moment where Jamie, (the phenomenal Lucas Jade Zumann) asks Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to take him to the club she frequents in Santa Barbara. She stares at him with a sort of unleashed sadness and off they go. That song is Devo’s “Gut Feeling” and it’s the perfect accompaniment to the growing pains of a teenage boy and the change that was to come in history. Music just beat it to the punch. Or had the uncanny sense. That thing that art does: predicting the future.
I love music. It is everything to me. More than any other medium, more powerful than any sense, it has remained constant and faithful to the story of my life. My parents are partially responsible for this. Music was always around, from CSNY, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Abba, John Denver, The Beatles, musicals, classical and my Dad’s favorite: Opera. As a little girl, I would sit in front of their sound system and hold the albums, carefully as if they were sacred. And they were. Looking at the pictures, reading the lyrics. I was eight in 1979 but by 1981 I was asking my parents for a Sony Radio because I needed the music all the time. It was here that I began combing the FM waves for songs and bands. It was here that I first heard The Clash and everything changed.
20th Century Women is one of these perfect films where music presents us with a time period but not in a knock you over the head, drag you down nostalgia road kind of way. It’s a meditation of director Mike Mills’ upbringing and the women that helped him become a man through feminist rhetoric and music. Mills has said that it’s a tribute to the women in his life, especially his mother. If this is true, he had an enviable childhood. Bohemian, living in a worn down, lived in, oceanside house. Annette Bening, in one of her finest performances, plays Dorothea, a chain smoking single mother who is strong and cerebral. Born out of the Depression, she still had ideas about that time and was confused by feminism but always willing to break her mind open. She wanted her son to be the man that she could never find. One that was cultured. One that was generous. One that was kind. One that understood the complexities of life. One that listened to women. Cared for them. But didn’t try to fix them. She enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to aid in this growing process for her son. Julie (Oh lovely Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s best friend and knows him so well. Tenacious and yet childlike, she holds on to Jamie as her safety net in a world full of teenage boy hormones. But it’s Abbie, one of Dorothea’s tenants, who has the maturity and pain of a 24 year old woman who has survived cervical cancer, who busts down the doors of life for Jamie.
Greta Gerwig’s performance as Abbie is untethered and raw. Mills has said in interviews that she represents one of his older sisters who was obsessed with Bowie and taught him about music. Abbie is a loner, exiled back to her hometown of Santa Barbara from the electric art scene of NYC after being diagnosed with cancer. She joins Dorothea’s tribe and is trying to feel alive in a place that she despised. She spends her time with a Polaroid camera, photographing the everyday objects that make up her life. She listens to Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Talking Heads, Black Flag, The Raincoats, The Clash, etc. and extends her knowledge to Jamie. In one of the many beautiful moments of this film, she makes him a mix tape telling him, “These were a bunch of songs that I think my life would’ve been better if they had been around when I was a teenager. So I’m hoping that if you listen to them now, you’ll be a happier and more realized person then I could ever hope to be.” As she delivers this painful voice over, Suicide’s “Cheree” begins playing as they are dancing in Jamie’s bedroom. Abbie, who after seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, dyed her hair bright red and found happiness in dancing. It was how she lost herself when she needed to disengage from her sadness. She then starts to mentor Jamie in her own way. Handing him Feminist literature: Sisterhood is Powerful, The Politics of Orgasm, Our Bodies Ourselves. This literary transaction is happening while NEU!’s “Lila Engel” is building steam. Mills doesn’t rely on the familiarity of music popular in that year, he takes us underground amongst the rubble of scavenged gems. One of my favorite scenes (there are SO many) is when Jamie and Abbie are at the club. She is telling him how to talk to, or “seduce” women. As he is chatting up an older woman, Abbie’s female Cyrano prompts him with lines like, “Age is a bourgeois construct.” Then tells him to give his most “inscrutable” face. Later he watches Abbie in awe. Dancing by herself, limbs flailing, lost in the music. David Bowie’s “D.J.” a fitting dance partner. A woman in all of her independent glory and pain. She teaches Jamie not just about women but who they are and what they need. And he learns that isn’t always about fixing them.
Music then was “divisive” as Abbie reminds us. This comes after one of Jamie’s skater pals spray paints “Art Fag” on one side of Dorothea’s white VW bug and “Black Flag” on the other side. It is a moment where she realizes that there is something happening in the world that she is naive to. She waxes nostalgic with Louis Armstrong and Rudy Vallee but still attempts to understand the modern music and ideas of the changing time if only to understand her son. She hasn’t quite embraced the brazenness of the feminist movement but she recognizes herself in some of their ideologies with a stubborn reluctance. There is a moment when Dorothea confronts a drunk and guilty Abbie after her and Jamie return from the club and says, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” Quietly, Abbie, eyes brimming with tears, fumbles through a stack of her Polaroids and hands a photo of Jamie to Dorothea. She say, “There.” Eyes closed, he is smiling and pure.
The freedom that I felt when watching this film was bittersweet. The music was like the Pied Piper to my youth. To a different time in history. My generation is older now. We are middle aged and the culture is empty. It touches the cell of memory with a stark reality that it will never be the same. We rally against that notion in private or, in Mike Mills case, on the big screen. We want to climb back into that place of discovery and rebellion. Long conversations, often heated, about books, music, philosophies, burned on until the last cigarette was smoked. To a time when being different, in all ways, was revered.
The devastation is realizing that I can’t get back there, no matter how much I want to.