An especially wrongful cliché about feminism is that it promotes the advancement of women at the expense of men—as if gender relations were a zero-sum game, a particularly grim Social Darwinist scenario. To realize just how inaccurate this assumption is, we only need to examine how men fare in women-centered films: they are by no means relegated to the background. For instance Nick Longhetti in the film discussed last week, A Woman Under the Influence, is a truly memorable character. With his floppy hat and perpetual look of embarrassment on his face, Nick may be kind of a dummy, but not a villain. Through experiencing his wife’s struggles, we get to know him better too.
In the 70s there was a promising alliance between character-driven films and feminist thinking: both tried to capture how social values were expressed and at times challenged through the search for self. And here complex male characters could be showcased, even while being critically evaluated for how they—as well as their female counterparts–could be all too willing to buy into a system that favored the status quo, and enforced rigid beliefs about the behavior of men and women.
The film that will now be discussed focuses on the friendship between two women. At the same time, we see two fascinating male characters whose flaws not just make them realistic; how they are for the most part concealed speaks to their best intentions even if the outcomes are far from assured—or assuring.
“Did You Dream Again?” Girl Friends
(dir Weill 1978)
This film nearly sets a precedent for creating tension through restraint. In just under 90 minutes, we see the past, present, and possible future of Susan Weinblatt and Anne Munroe. In the first minutes, Susan takes photos of the half-sleeping Anne in the early morning light. As Anne wakes up and turns on a lamp, she asks Susan, “Did you dream again? Did you have a bad dream?” There is an intimacy between the two, perhaps even an erotic attraction. The opening credits appear while we see a series of photos taken of Susan and Anne together.
Because the film does not grant us access into the inner world of any character, we cannot be entirely sure of their feelings. They may not be even aware of how they feel: the unconscious aspect of the search for self. This is what makes watching the relationships in the film so fascinating–it is how people interact with one another that shows us who they appear to be. And Girl Friends does suggest that how we interpret the scenes with Susan and Anne together is left up to us.
Susan has recently gotten a career break by selling several photos, including one of Anne. But Anne announces she is getting married. Played with understated dignity by Bob Balaban, Martin is calmly nurturing to Anne, just the kind of man we might think is an ideal husband for Anne, which Susan also appears to notice fairly quickly. For now, Anne’s career as a writer takes a backseat to her being a Vermont housewife.
Susan is left in a vulnerable situation. In New York, the secret to artistic success is to keep moving forward—yet Anne’s announcement really takes the wind out of her sails. Melanie Mayron, who plays Susan, allow us to see her character’s hurt and how it guides her attempts to change herself in order to no longer feel this way.
In near, if not total, desperation, Susan talks her way into the office of a high-ranking editor. The man sizes her up—and with a mixture of pity and weariness, he tells Susan her photos are not for him, but he knows someone who might be interested. Giving her the name and location of a gallery, he sends her on her way.
The older woman who owns the gallery, meets Susan, likes her photos, and invites her to do a showing. Yet Susan’s confidence remains at an ebb. Even regarding her own work, she is deferential. Like the male editor that Susan met earlier, the gallery owner has evaluated Susan’s promise as an artist: she concludes that Susan needs toughening up.
While Susan is learning the artistic ropes, she meets Eric, a college teacher, at a party. Played with a sleepy charm by Christopher Guest, Eric is able to deal with Susan’s awkwardness. They joke with each other, go back to his apartment, and then sleep together. In the morning, Susan takes off; she is not ready for prolonged intimacy.
When Eric shows up at her apartment, after having lost his wallet, she is more receptive. At this point the film could end on a truly happy note. Two well-matched couples: Susan and Eric, Anne and Martin. But things are about to get more complicated.
Eric, for no good reason, suddenly backs out of a trip with Susan to Vermont to see Anne and Martin. Already upset, Susan arrives late and gets into a fight with Anne. Susan returns to Eric’s apartment, and he chooses exactly the wrong moment to pressure her into moving in with him. Susan is so distracted by the argument she is having with Eric—and her trying to figure out why she even likes him—that she forgets she was supposed to stop by the gallery to check the arrangement of her photos for her show the following night.
The night of her show, Susan is tense. Martin attends the show alone. Susan picks up on his visible anxiety and drives to Vermont. Anne informs her that she has had an abortion without telling her husband. She explains to Susan that she is afraid Martin would try to talk her out of it. And they already have one child, who demands constant attention. We realize, based on Anne’s concerns, that Martin has definite views about the marriage, some of which may not be in his wife’s best interests.
The film’s ending just as Martin drives up to the house may present less than a happy ending, but does end with a feeling of optimism. Anne has taken control of her family’s planning (and has set up a necessary confrontation with her husband), which will help her balance her domestic responsibilities with her artistic goals. Susan realizes that her relationship with Eric is not a substitute for her friendship with Anne. Both women have made mistakes, but have been freed from the limited thinking that results in bigger disasters.
Yet the decision making of Susan and Anne would not be nearly as important if their partners were not both likable and unlikable. The complex characters of Eric and Martin prevent us from knowing precisely what Susan and Anne should do, or to judge them accordingly. All we know is that, sooner or later, these women will have to decide about their relationships and that their decisions will shape the directions of their lives. Of course, we might conclude that Susan and Anne will remain friends, mirroring the iconic male friendships going back to such classic movies as Casablanca.
What is particularly fascinating about the film is how it raises questions about desire. Can what people want be directed by social values? How easy is it to resist being told what to want? What are the benefits? What are the costs? Girl Friends proposes that to ask these questions honestly is the very least art should do.