The Predictably Short Flight of Lady Bird

Pop Culture

The Predictably Short Flight of Lady Bird

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Acouple of months ago, in an interview with late-night host Stephen Colbert, director and actor Greta Gerwig said that she used name tags on the sets of Lady Bird (2017). Gerwig, whose coming-of-age film was royally snubbed at the Oscars last night, admitted that the name tags were so that people could get to know each other and be friendlier.

In an industry that thrives on controlling the narrative, creating and managing reputations, and playing your cards close to your chest, the first-time director’s schoolgirl approach to bonding is oddly refreshing. Especially in a world that identifies strictness of method and rigidness of structure as a mark of quality. A film set is a mixture of many soups because it brings together egos, creative differences, and most crucially a subjective sense of aesthetic. It must then surely be indicative of an anomalistic simplicity that Greta Gerwig has come to embody.

The first time I noticed Gerwig in the comedy drama Greenberg (2010) alongside perennial odd-boy Ben Stiller, she hardly registered as a traditional actress. Despite the fact that she was cast by long-time partner and director Noah Baumbach, Gerwig seemed a strange choice even for a role opposite Stiller. Largely because our notion of women in cinema has either been educated by glamour – that one tight-suit role that ravishes male hearts – or the dizzying bravura of ditching the make-up altogether.

Gerwig didn’t fit either. Pretty but not seductive, bypassing the camera’s libido unnoticed, she carried intelligence without being belligerently evocative of its existence. It was a rare feat where the acting was done without feeling actor-ly. An adorably flawed approach to any form of art that has since seemed more like her than the person directing her.

A neo-realist, at times even impassioned portrayal of a teenager struggling to come to terms with adulthood and the things it makes mandatory to consider and contemplate.

The actor’s moment, however, really arrived in Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) a film, shot in black and white that followed Frances, a Gerwig-ish urban drifter caught in-between making art and staying true to its purity in the person. A seven on almost all scales; rarely excelling but hardly ignorable, graceful at times, overwhelmingly human at others. Frances seemed awkward and out of place in the many things she did on film, from dancing to even walking.

Every time Gerwig surfaced on screen, I told myself it was a matter of time before an industry that bears body types as insignia of starry authority would eat her up, reject her for trying to fill in shoes that neither make her sparkle nor pull her into the shadows.

By the time Mistress America (2015) came around, she had already acted in and anchored a couple of films that centre women or the little threads that connect or cut between them. Such a scenario in Indian cinema is unimaginable. It only plays out on the sofas of coffee/chat shows where gossip takes precedence over equations. Gerwig on the other hand comes across as light-handed, a self-aware hobo, the kind of woman who’d hang around the coffee machine or the cooler but is capable of stepping away with an artistic yawn.

Gerwig’s career until 2017 was a straight-wire act of sparkling yet weak lights. She essayed roles that showed the struggle of privileged ordinariness – circumventing art, literature, and anything that sounds cool to millennials, in a way, parodying herself. But could she transform that liquidity, that freedom of simple uninhibited movement into an entire film?

She could. Lady Bird, which also makes Gerwig only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, is much like herself: low on the technicality, but high on the expressiveness. A neo-realist, at times even impassioned portrayal of a teenager struggling to come to terms with adulthood and the things it makes mandatory to consider and contemplate. That said nothing that Gerwig does, like herself, is without its flaws. From the way she laughs to the extent to which she underplays her own stature is charming.

The media industry the world over, but especially the Indian film industry, is poorer for the kind of filmmakers and actors it generates. The cult of celebrity over talent, the directors who assume they are auteurs and therefore must act so and the collective that considers only the most laboriously constructed films as certifiable art. Such an industry produces divas, straight-up activists, feminist icons or just pure valueless glitter.

Rarely does a woman translate effortlessly between the stage and the other side of the camera like Gerwig has. Part of the reason, of course, is the way men run everything, defining what women are or ought to be. Gerwig on the other hand consistently understates the industry she inhabits, and remains herself, howsoever flawed or naïve. There must be a word that defines this lightness of being. Might we call her Lady Bird?