Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996)

This film isn’t really about romance or even love (and certainly not about weddings), but it does say something about relationships from a woman’s point-of-view, being largely about sex (as you might surmise from the title) and one woman who is starting to find some pleasure in it, without being leering or exploitative. The date is listed variously as 1996, 1997 or 1998, depending on where you look, which speaks more to the very underground production it was, and needless to say it took quite some time to be seen (Sarah Jacobson’s complete films have only recently been collected on a Blu-ray/DVD set).


A super-lo-fi low-budget grungy indie 90s film that somehow still has a ring of transgression to it, because even now how many films are there that deal with this kind of coming of age topic from a woman’s perspective? As if to underline this, it basically starts with the titular character (who is mostly called Jane, and played by Lisa Gerstein) losing her virginity — unpleasantly, to a jerk, in an uncomfortable location — and then moves from there towards her actually finding pleasure in sex. It’s structured around a number of dialogue scenes, mostly set around the cinema where the characters work, as well as some bars, and its Super 8mm aesthetic (for all its graininess) and the rawness of the acting, certainly lends a definable aesthetic to the undertaking. Sadly the director died from cancer only a few years later, barely into her 30s, so all we have left of her work is this and a few short films, but she remains an inspirational punk DIY filmmaker and it’s a film that should be better known.

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sarah Jacobson; Cinematographer Adam Dodds; Starring Lisa Gerstein; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 25 October 2019.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Every generation, I guess, has its cinema of self-involved navel-gazing, and for whatever it’s worth (not always very much to some critics it appears), this must be mine. I grew up in New Zealand which in the 2000s had its own micro-budget lo-fi independent digitally-shot relationship dramas, and New York it turns out has its (more widely-known) analogue with the so-called “mumblecore” scene (based largely around the creative personnel involved with this film), and presumably taking its name from the improvisational style of the dialogue. And yet, for me, it sometimes feels like there are completely different types of emotions unearthed within this idiom than in your more polished festival (and multiplex) fare, and for that I like it.

Andrew Bujalski (probably the pre-eminent director in the scene) plays Paul, the senior partner in a creative writing duo with Kent Osborne’s Matt. They work in a fairly bland little office for what appears to be a TV show. However, it’s their intern Hannah (Greta Gerwig) who is the film’s focus, as you might have guessed from the title, and her character is the one most nakedly exposed (quite literally in the first and last shots of the film). Over the course of the film, she gets into relationships with three of the men in the film, as she deals with a certain kind of early-20s ennui.

Having gone on to further successes, most prominently in Frances Ha earlier this year, it’s unsurprisingly Greta Gerwig who dominates the film, and your enjoyment of it is likely to be predicated on how charming and identifiable you find her. As it happens, I do. She has a deft and likeable comedic presence, while not sacrificing a kind of unfocused sadness at her character’s core, which she is only slowly (and with great difficulty) able to open up about in a conversation late in the film with Matt. She can be contrary and contradictory, but there’s an openness to the way she delivers it that I find likeable.

It’s the dialogue scenes, which I understand were largely improvised (hence the writing credits for most of the cast), that give the movie its momentum and with which some reviewers have taken issue. Yet I like the halting silences and lacunae that realistically inflect the conversations. For example, there’s a beautifully-judged scene in which Hannah invites Paul up to her flat and they meet her flatmate, who swiftly exits, whereupon the scene sort of judders to a fantastically awkward halt. Most of the time the cast banters affectionately, which provides the ebb and flow of the narrative, as unfocused as its characters.

It may not be a grand statement or a glamorous one, but in its way it says a lot about people in their early-20s learning to find their feet. At least as long as such films continue to star actors as watchable as Greta Gerwig, I’ll continue to be happy to watch them fumble through life on shaky digital video.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osbourne and Andrew Bujalski; Starring Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 August 2013.