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Girlfriends - The Criterion Collection
One of the trickier things about history is that history is a fallible record. What we think of fact is dependent on hundreds, perhaps thousands of factors, many of which don't actually have any bearing on what happened. This becomes even truer as we move away from a traditional history and into something closer to canon. Claudia Weill's Girlfriends is, by all accounts, an important piece of independent filmmaking, one that was directed by, written by, and focuses on women. Internet searching turns up no official box office data, but everyone involved remembers it being an impressive theatrical success (and not just in context with its $500,000 budget). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, and was championed by director Stanley Kubrick, who helped get it distribution through Warner Bros. Yet, the film was only first made available on DVD in 2010, and it took another 10 years for it to get a Blu-ray release.
Girlfriends follows Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), an amateur photographer living in NYC. For some time now, she's had a rock in the form of her best friend, Anne (Anita Skinner), but she finds herself struggling when Anne decides to marry her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) and move out. She's recently sold three photographs to a magazine, which she hopes will allow her to quit Bar Mitzvah photography and focus on art full time, but struggles to make further sales. Meanwhile, she finds herself in unexpected new relationships with a dryly funny but occasionally irritable boyfriend named Eric (Christopher Guest) and a slightly spaced-out replacement dancer roommate named Ceil (Amy Wright). Not to mention, there's also the charismatic Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach), the man who hires her to do Bar Mitzvah pictures...
Two angles of considering Girlfriends in the context of film history jump out. The first, of course, is the many films that owe a debt to it, in the sense that the DNA of Weill's film is visible over the years, directly or indirectly. The 2012 Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach collaboration Frances Ha is a big one, with both films charting what happens to a young woman struggling with relationships and her career when her best friend moves out. The other angle, which puts the movie at the forefront of an even larger cultural movement, is that it feels like one of the first films to focus on young people simply trying to live their life as young people, and Weill's documentary background provides a verite quality that even many other similar films from the same time period lack. A film like American Graffiti, for example, exists at a comparative remove, reminiscing about an earlier era, and containing a slightly heightened quality that makes it feel more like A Movie (not a criticism, merely an observation). Nowadays, the vast majority of independent films are about regular people, living their regular lives, but it's hard to think of many earlier examples of a movie that is both so unaffected or grounded, and also intimate or small.
Perhaps even more impressive is that as much as Girlfriends deserves a place in film history, it doesn't feel relegated to it. Aside from the fashions, the brands, and the city, the events of the movie could pretty easily be transported to the present day without much updating. Pounding the pavement looking for work, figuring out an equilibrium with a new roommate (and the new dynamic with the former one), considering an ill-advised relationship with an older person, figuring out how to advocate for oneself, deciding between work and family (and the class divide that comes with it) -- all themes that resonate and will likely continue to resonate for people Susan's age. Doubly impressive: they do so while also creating a unique and specific character, which Mayron imbues with a mixture of nervousness, humor, and warmth. On one hand, you have a broadly relatable character, and yet she's also a character that can have a discussion with Rabbi Gold about her experience of being a Jewish woman (a great example of the old adage about universality in the specific).
In terms of the cast, Girlfriends is Mayron's movie through and through, but the entire ensemble is fantastic. Balaban and Guest make great comedic foils, playing roles that allow Weill and Polon to bring things out of Susan and Anne without feeling like caricatures. Both men have great chemistry with their co-stars, and are very funny in the film. Wallach, the film's biggest name, is especially perfect as Rabbi Gold, whose genuine respect and interest in Susan end up being the set up for an equally misguided blurring of the boundary between patriarchal and romantic interest. There are also plenty of great moments with bit players, including Ceil, a fellow photographer named Julie (Gina Rogak), and an important gallery owner played by Roderick Cook. In some ways, it's actually Skinner whose character makes the least impression, although that has less to do with Skinner's performance than it does her function in the film as the friend whose attention has been drawn elsewhere.
The original theatrical one-sheet for Girlfriends featured an image of Mayron, camera equipment slung over her shoulder, portfolio in hand, on a white backdrop. When Warner issued it on DVD through Warner Archive, the design was the same, but they used a different image of Mayron. Criterion's Blu-ray artwork uses the second image but restores the background. It may be out-of-focus and barely visible, but NYC is a bit part of the vibe of Girlfriends, and I think the full image (and its thick sheen of grain) help orient the movie in a certain era as well. Inside the Scanavo case, the reverse of the sleeve is blank with an off-white color, and there is a substantial booklet, featuring not one but two essays, by Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan. Finally, on the plastic wrap, there is a blue sticker featuring an image of director Claudia Weill's autograph.
The Video and Audio
The first time I saw Girlfriends, Criterion had put up a dated HD transfer that Warner Bros. had provided to the late FilmStruck (in fact, I watched it on the last day the service was operational). At the time, I remember hoping that Criterion would do a 4K remaster for Blu-ray. Two years later, they've delivered exactly that, with the disc offering a brand-new 1.66:1 1080p AVC transfer. It's kind of academic -- Warner Bros. does not seem to have the older HD master of Girlfriends available anywhere (only SD), but the most massive improvement between the two is the lack of print damage and judder on the new presentation, which is stable throughout and shows no signs of scratches or debris. The film was shot on 16mm, so the film has a heavy grain field (which exhibits some compression artifacts in the opening scene but seems fine throughout the rest of the film), and detail is inherently soft, but colors are also more vibrant, and the overall appearance of the picture is very satisfying. Sound is an LPCM Mono track that adequately reproduces the dialogue and score with satisfying clarity, and there are optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Criterion has assembled a host of new interviews for this Blu-ray of Girlfriends involving almost all of the principal players (Eli Wallach, of course, died in 2014, and co-lead Anita Skinner is MIA -- it is interesting that her absence is never mentioned in any of the interviews). First, there is an interview with director Claudia Weill (26:46) by herself, which was recorded in 2019 and has appeared on Criterion Channel. She discusses her pathway into filmmaking through editing, the development of the movie (originally envisioned as an anthology until Weill decided to stick with the characters and conflict from the first story), the casting process (and working with Wallach, the film's movie star), attributes provided by various crew members, devising a new ending after the original didn't feel right, taking a single 35mm blow-up around to festivals and studios trying to sell it, Stanley Kubrick, and more. Weill is an engaging speaker and has great memories of making the movie. This is followed by another solo screenwriter Vicki Polon (12:32). She talks candidly about her relationship with Weill and getting involved with the project, how she writes dialogue and drama, developing specific scenes in the movie, and more. A great complement to the Weill interview.
Next, there are some group interviews. The arguable centerpiece of the disc is a remotely-recorded chat with Weill and actors Melanie Mayron, Christopher Guest, and Bob Balaban (16:00). There is a bit of awkwardness, perhaps unavoidable, created by the "video call" format, but all three of the actors have warm memories of the shoot. Guest recalls his audition and using his own clothes as wardrobe, Balaban enthuses on how well the film truly captures 1970s New York City and remembers a newspaper strike that might've derailed the film's release, and Mayron talks about learning how Weill captured the ending she devised, and handing out leaflets to promote the movie in front of a theater with Weill. Highly entertaining. Next, there is a second chat with Weill, interviewed remotely by Joey Soloway (22:13), the creator of "Transparent." The common ground that Weill and Soloway have as filmmakers opens up new avenues for discussion, with Soloway approaching the interview as a fan, throwing specific questions at Weill about her process and approach to the film. Discussion topics include getting in the headspace of the characters, the efficiency of the script, the depiction of Judaism on screen, the way both of them relate to Susan, shooting on location, and the struggle making It's My Turn, passing the torch, and more. I went in worried that this would be unnecessary with the other pieces, but it turned out to be a great discussion. Finally, there is one more piece not advertised on the packaging: an appearance by Weill and Mayron on the Canadian TV show "City Lights" (19:49). This is a pretty incredible archival piece, both in terms of the dynamic (Weill enters the interview very poised, and relaxes as it continues), but also the subject matter, fueled by intelligent, literate questions from host Brian Linehan. Mayron talks about the differences between working on studio projects and something independent like Girlfriends and the struggle of being an up-and-coming actress, while Weill talks about films she liked (The Godfather, Brief Encounter, Rules of the Game) and disliked (Husbands), being an optimist, and the fan letters she's received. One of the best extras on the disc.
The final two extras on the disc are both short films co-directed by Weill. Weill and Joyce Chopra's Joyce at 34 (27:49) follows Chopra (whose own film, Smooth Talk, is coming to Criterion next month) as she gives birth to her first child and the impact that the baby has on her life and filmmaking career, and Commuters (3:42), by Weill and Eliot Noyes, is a documentary about those who travel to work in NYC. Commuters is interesting, sort of like gallery of images around a theme, featuring no narration or interviews, creating a juxtaposition of white businessmen and black women traveling to and from work, respectively. However, Joyce at 34 is the real gem, an incredibly layered and intimate portrait of Chopra struggling with the idea of what effect her baby might have on her career, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with her husband, how the baby impacts his career, how her friends feel about children and childbirth, and of course, the actual work of raising the baby. It's incredible how much ground the short covers in just 27 minutes, and how Chopra and Weill get so much out of all of their subjects. There is a great sequence of Chopra's mother and her fellow teachers discussing what means to be liberated, a hang-out with Chopra and her friends talking about the women they know who have had kids, footage from Chopra's Sweet 16, Chopra's husband Tom Cole discussing division of labor (namely, shopping), and even an unexpected cameo from Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner. Essential viewing.
No theatrical trailer for Girlfriends is included.
Girlfriends is both a great movie and an important movie, and even if it took too long, it's cause for celebration that it's finally available in a really high-quality home video edition with a fine presentation and wonderful set of extras (including an equally great and important short film) that it deserves. Highly recommended.
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