Girlfriends (1978)

On Friday this week, a film is being released to UK cinemas called Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is billed as a comedy-drama. And while I haven’t yet seen it, I want to attempt something a little more difficult this week, which is to theme a week around the hybrid form of comedy and drama, particularly as it’s cropped up in recent American cinema. I’m not sure how much has been written about this particular category of film, and frankly I’m not exactly sure how to define it, except I think that a number of films have managed to successfully (in my opinion, but not in everybody’s) blend the two forms, such that they’re not simply comedies with serious dramatic themes or vice versa, but they amount to their own specific thing. The 1970s was a great time for new voices in American cinema, none more so than the women who have largely been (unfairly) forgotten since then. Once such voice was Claudia Weill, who went on to a career in TV, but made a captivating portrait of the era with Girlfriends, in which the comic elements of Melanie Mayron’s central character are tempered by the frustration of the situations she finds herself in.

This is the kind of small canvas of emotionally-honest socially-conscious filmmaking that must have been about a fair bit in the 1970s but is very hard to get to see, isn’t part of a curriculum or a constantly rotating canon of the era, and it should be. Plenty of people have mentioned modern parallels (much of it in television), but there were a number of women making American films in the 70s and 80s who just haven’t been given their due (for example Joan Micklin Silver, whose Hester Street I reviewed recently, or even Elaine May, only recently getting any kind of critical rehabilitation). That said, there are clearly aspects that have dated: the idea of someone working as a part-time photographer, selling small commissions and working bar mitzvahs and weddings to make ends meet, able to have their own place in NYC. But largely this film remains utterly delightful: Melanie Mayron (who would go on to work more in directing) is sparky and engaging as Susan, who’s been living with Anne (Anita Skinner), but when the latter moves out to get married, finds herself unable to forge the same friendships with others who pass through her life. The boyfriends in this film (Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest) are desultory and disappointing, and there’s an underlying (if never quite fully expressed) feeling that maybe the two women at the film’s core would be better off without either of them. It’s a charming film and one that should be better known.

Girlfriends film posterCREDITS
Director Claudia Weill; Writer Vicki Polon; Cinematographer Fred Murphy; Starring Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 12: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This wasn’t the first ‘mockumentary’ film to blend the documentary format with a fiction subject in a comedic way, but in many ways it set the standard for all subsequent attempts (including this year’s What We Do in the Shadows, as just one of many examples), not to mention much of writer/star Christopher Guest’s subsequent career. It also, rather more to the point given its thirty year vintage, holds up rather well, not something that can be said of a lot of 1980s films, let alone comedies. Part of that is to do with its target, the bloated pomp and self-importance of those within the music industry, which hardly seems to have diminished in subsequent years, and indeed many of the film’s plot points and characters are inspired by noted musical groups of earlier decades (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in particular). Spinal Tap the band (formed of lead guitarist Guest, vocalist Michael McKean and bassist Harry Shearer along with a rotating array of drummers) typify many of the trends of the era, from baroquely introspective progressive musical noodling to hair metal and electro-pop, and exhibit the same boorish tone-deafness in each of them — though the particular way they manage to do so is part of the comedy, for they’re not by any means awful musicians. The corporate shmooze and unprofessional management also gets a kicking though, and the image of Spinal Tap’s public school-educated manager wielding his cricket bat is a difficult one to dislodge easily. It’s a film which is still held in high esteem for good reasons, and it remains consistently entertaining.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Reiner; Writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; Cinematographer Peter Smokler; Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 December 2014).