Registering the Registry 2019: Girlfriends (1978)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, documentarian Claudia Weill grows dissatisfied with waiting for life’s spontaneities to happen before her camera, and elects to film a narrative picture of her own to capture independent city life’s magical minutia in Girlfriends, presaging the likes of Frances Ha and Girls by several decades. Let’s see what she’s done.

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(Originally published November 29th, 2020)

Shouldn’t think it controversial to say we really love the arts for the in-between stuff, yeah? The grandiosity, the sweeping human drama, the high concepts, the intricate plotting, all solid draws, but hang around any online fan space or seriously grill an aficionado for why they love their favorite piece’ve story-driven art, and it likely comes down to the downtime. When folks are just goofing, breathing between the peaks, chatting about nothing in particular, partaking in the recognizable motions you can look at and go, “Say, that’s MY life right there!” For all the misguided moves towards big ideas and flashy concepts and gimmick layered upon gimmick, even the worst content producers know one needs a little sprinkle’ve mundanity to really grip the audience. And if you can position it at the forefront, pitch your work as the in-between stuff first and plot a distant second, then buddy, you’ve a winning formula. Last few years have seen plenty prestige TV shows and mumblecore movies tap into this wisdom, especially regarding the struggles of trying to get by and stand on your own two feet in the city. S’a winner if you can swing it.

Now, television and film alike have known the power of life’s underlooked moments for decades, long before Girlfriends came along in 1978. You need only look to the work of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin in the 50s to see the day’s minor moments fill the screen to great critical success. Where Engel and Orkin left their films plot-driven affairs, however — primarily focusing Lovers & Lollipops, for example, on a little girl’s day to day activities around New York City while slyly following her single mother and a new suitor on the bumpy path to marriage — Claudia Weill advances the style and brings it into something like the modern plotless milieu with an approach drawn from her documentarian background. A Jewish NYC resident, Weill began her career shooting actualities, codirecting the autobiographical Joyce at 34 with Joyce Chopra as she managed the early stages of motherhood, and the Oscar-nominated interrogation into mainland Chinese life The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. Going by retrospective interviews (particularly this one), though the work produced ample fruit, the act of waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to do something worth filming and then scrambling to catch the moment less she lose the shot or waste her film eventually exhausted Weill, and she determined to film her own narrative picture. Initially a thirty-minute short shot on the AFI’s dime, Weill’s ambitions for the project grew in scope, and after procuring a screenplay from friend Vicki Polon and an $80,000 dollar grant from the NEA and NYSCA, she spent roughly six weeks shooting over the course of an entire year, ultimately cobbling Girlfriends together from the endeavor.

In the watching, one can readily see Weill’s attempts to capture the feel of documented life in a predetermined picture. The film isn’t so much plotted as guided through a series of concerns in the life of one Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), a Jewish photographer who shares a small NYC apartment with her best friend Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). What we might call the plot is kicked into motion when Anne announces she’s marrying her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) and moving out, though none of the events which spring from this decision ever completely dominate the film. Despite the separation, Susan and Anne still find time to visit one another, although they never feel entirely comfortable with Martin around the house as they did when it was just the two alone. Susan continues to pursue her photography career, shooting bar mitzvahs and weddings for Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallch), for whom she gradually develops romantic feelings. Elsewhere she attempts to get her work into a gallery, and experiences the little indignities of secretaries blowing her off at the desk and curators telling her the work’s no good within seconds of their meeting. Her home is perpetually underfurnished, subject to power outages, and never exactly her own as she tries to share space with a new roommate, vagabond dancer Ceil (Amy Wright). Friends flit in and out of the film, as do lovers, as do opportunities, and all the while Susan’s pawing through the dark, looking for a way to make her life her own again, secretly suspecting Anne had the right idea leaving to pursue marital life — just as Anne suspects Susan was right to stay where she is.

One might charitably divide the film into three sections based on which relationship is most important to Susan at any given moment — first act sees the most visits to Anne and Martin, second finds her considering courtship with Gold before a nasty yet expected revelation gives her a cold reality shower, third brings Eric (Christopher Guest) to the forefront for a whirlwind romance that simply putters out. You could also segment the picture along the lines of her professional photography career, from shooting weddings for a friend to getting her own show, even if it doesn’t neatly follow the traditional structure. Follow Anne’s dissatisfaction with the demands and movements of domestic life, follow Susan’s friendships as they come and go, follow whatever you like in an attempt to call it conventional; Girlfriends rather denies any easy act separation. Susan’s life proceeds at its own rhythm. Major developments happen by simply seeing someone and coming to a quiet understanding, a small and unexpected intimate moment changing a relationship dynamic entirely, banal conversation turning to an argument because someone was a little more honest than they meant to be. When she needs space or wants someone in her life, it’s a few fussless words and there we are. It’s a picture of stepping through the days and sorting out what’s important later — in the moment, all the little, inconsequential bits feel of equal importance.

As conventional narrative eludes us, Weill does explore one all-important theme in Susan’s varied encounters throughout Girlfriends: the importance of feeling comfortable in her own space. Shots tend to isolate her in the frame, especially those in her house that physically divide her from fellow inhabitants, crowding the place with just one person. Great as her freely intermingling friendship with Anne was, she simply can’t have it anymore, not if she’s to respect her friend and keep jealousy towards supposed security and warmth from rotting her brain. So she tries to fill the hole with other people, and it just never works out. He’s unavailable, she’s got the wrong idea, she’s too professional, he’s too cold, this isn’t working, why me? There’s rarely a moment when her frustrations manifest into verbal or physical expression (and when they do, it’s again in the little things — crying at a television program, screaming when the lights go out), but the constant drifting from place to place without ever fully settling tells us she’s plain not finding what she needs in anyone’s arms or across anyone’s coffee table. And after all, what obligation has she to show any of this? I certainly don’t categorize all the myriad issues in my life into neat little boxes sorted by importance to my overall goals and pull them out to exemplify what’s going wrong or how I’m feeling when it’s all too overwhelming — I just kinda have a quiet little stress moment or a flailing breakdown over something unrelated, and then get back on the treadmill cause there’s nothing else for it.

Happily, Weill does provide Susan a reckoning and a conclusion. An argument with Anne leaves her temporarily estranged from her best friend, their mutual fears the other’s got some measure of happiness they’ll never know verbalized and scalding each. Stings her so bad, she finally gets her own gallery show, and plum misses the whole thing because she’s too distressed over possibly losing her best friend. Though an impromptu, unofficial opening party staged by all her friends and lovers from throughout the film is able to restore some semblance of normality to her life, there’s still the hole remaining, so she sets out to spend a little time with Anne at a remote cottage. Some talk, some apologies, some secret sharing, some emotional bonding all lead to the two deciding what they’ve got is too important to let a little thing like differing circumstance leave them permanently estranged, and by the final minute they’re laughing and joking like two old friends in their own space once more. It’s the last seconds that properly tie the picture together, however: Anne has to leave the room to see Martin again, and though Susan’s losing her best friend again, though she’s still in an emotionally vulnerable headspace, though she’s not at all in an apartment she’s slowly started to make her own and is sat on a couch in unfamiliar surroundings all alone once again, she takes a little steadying breath, braces herself, and looks perfectly OK as the camera freezes the final shot. Maybe it’s not long lasting, maybe it’s only in this moment, maybe the struggle to find satisfaction in her own skin and space will continue long after the camera stops rolling, but in this moment she is content with her lot, and that is enough. S’all we can do, after all. Make what we’ve got work, learn to face the paralyzing fears, and find contentment with how things are without casting eyes on others we think have it better, or losing sight on the importance of moving forward.

It’s a shame neither of the leads here went on to major projects. Though Mayron and Skinner were nominated for Best Newcomer awards at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes respectively, they both lost (to Christopher Reeve in Superman and Irene Miracle in Midnight Express), and they never got the starring roles their sensitive and well-observed performances here should’ve created. At least Mayron worked a respectable career as a supporting actor and TV director, with a high point of featuring across the run of Thirtysomething. Skinner, to all I can determine, only ever appeared in one other project, Thom Eberhardt’s Sole Survivor in 1984, and simply dropped off the face of the Earth afterwards. For what it’s worth, I’d recommend the picture, it’s a fairly solid slasher with creeping death in the vein of a Jean Rollin movie. As to Weill, her commercial high-point was probably the Jill Clayburgh/Michael Douglas vehicle It’s My Turn in 1980, which doesn’t seem to have done great shakes with audiences or critics, and likely stymied a promising mainstream career. She has found infrequent work on television, directing episodes of Thirtysomething and Girls every now and again, and it’s with this last we find why Girlfriends is an important picture beyond merely being a good one.

I ain’t the person to tell you any of this from firsthand experience — much as I pick around the internet and try to make myself sound all knowledgeable and insightful, I’ve only so much life and memory to draw on, and my interests rarely intersect with Peak TV relationship dramas or the mumblecore scene. Drawing from what others have written in practically every recent retrospective on Girlfriends, however, it effectively established the template for both decades before anyone considered the concept mainstream viable. Greta Gerwig expresses affinity for the film and its influence on her screenplay for Frances Ha, while Lena Dunham considered it a seemingly obvious inspiration for her work on Girls despite having never seen it, leading to the aforementioned directorial job. Plenty big names with just those two, and as Dunham’s example demonstrates, even if Weill wasn’t a widespread influence (despite high praise from Stanley Kubrick of all people, the film languished in relative obscurity for decades after release), she followed a very popular and resonant creative impulse ages prior to anyone else taking so high profile a swing after it. The model is nowadays set and ripe for exploration, women telling stories about women in the city without any larger goals than figuring out their lives and providing a sense of solidarity for other young women in the audience, all the way up to indie darling Lady Bird making use of it in the final scenes to heartbreaking effect. It’s mainstream now, a favorite of the festival circuit crowd, awards boards, and kids on tumblr seeking out adult-oriented media which can speak to their experiences all the same. It’s also Claudia Weill who got here first, and if she and her collaborators wouldn’t see the kind of success their knowing and unconscious proteges alike would know in the coming decades, planting her flag firm in 1978 and showing the world something new and modern that still feels modern 40+ years on is quite the fine belt notch. Just took the rest of us a little time to catch on and slow down to see art on life the way she did, is all.

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Yet another week squared away in the bag! If you’ve seen Girlfriends or any of its mumblecore descendants, what’d you think? Have a go in the comments, and look forward to next week’s picture. We’re heading forward into 1980 with Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, celebrated Loretta Lynn biopic starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones! Why yes, I AM a little late for the-avocado's coverage, but you can still find it to stream through Peacock, or do the usual rent/purchase rigamaroll through Amazon, AMC, Fandango, YouTube, Vudu… all sortsa places! See you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.

I write on the National Film Registry.