On consecutive nights this week, for no reason beyond the random vagaries of summer vacation (when I regularly have to check myself as to what day it is), I watched Eugene Jarecki’s Reagan and Mike Mills’* 20th Century Women. I’d been meaning to watch the latter for a while, and there it was at my neighborhood library yesterday afternoon; not sure if I even knew about Jarecki’s film till a couple of days ago, but when I started checking around to get a copy, I found the whole thing on YouTube and was able to download it to watch on the big screen. Remarkable coincidence: both films more or less culminate with Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech during the summer of ’79, either the most politically suicidal speech in presidential history or the last time a president used such an occasion for an unvarnished appraisal of how bad things really were. Or both—Kevin Mattson’s “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” provides a thorough account of the events and subsequent fallout in and around the speech.
The only thing I knew about 20th Century Women going in was a vague sense that it had something to do with punk. So that was a bit of a disadvantage; the reviews I had semi-skimmed were great, and I wanted to see it, but I knew it would be impossible for the music to catch me completely by surprise, like Wire and “Sonic Reducer” in Carlos, say, or—not punk, but just about the most thrilling instance I can recall of being blindsided this decade—Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know” in Our Nixon. Surprises are, or should be, the very lifeblood of this blog.
I say all that by way of explanation as to why there wasn’t anything in 20th Century Women—and I’m talking about a film with Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” the Raincoats’ “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” and the Clash’s “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”; normally that’d be sensory overload for me—that viscerally knocked me out. But I did like the film a whole lot, and the music was far from incidental. It uses punk as an object of contemplation, something strange and new that needs to be deciphered. Not at all what I was expecting, and therein was the surprise: Annette Bening and Billy Crudup trying to figure out the Raincoats and Black Flag, asking questions about them as they attempt to feel their way into the music (literally—they dance to “Nervous Breakdown”!). I don’t remember ever seeing anything quite like those scenes before. An echo, somewhat, of the playing-records-over-the-phone sequence in The Virgin Suicides, but Coppola’s characters were wholly inside the songs they shared; Bening and Crudup are interested, puzzled observers who may or may not make it over to the other side.
They come up a little short with Black Flag, deciding they like the Talking Heads better (described in a dichotomy I’ll bypass—funny, but not the kind of thing you want to quote these days). As the two of them sway along to “The Big Country,” a song I hadn’t heard or thought about for, I don’t know, 30 years, the film even got me to really like the Talking Heads for 30 seconds, not an easy thing to do. Outside of American Beauty, I can’t think of another performance by Bening that ever made any kind of an impression on me; Crudup was one of my favourite actors 20 years ago, until he seemed to disappear soon after Jesus’ Son (he’s been in a few things recently). They’re both fantastic here, ditto an unusually subdued Greta Gerwig—she’s like the best punk-rock girl this side of Riff Randall. Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning are a throwback to the great weird kids of The Ice Storm and The Squid and the Whale. And I’ve got to say something about this recurring visual motif where blurry rainbow colors occupy the edge of the frame whenever people jump in cars and drive: not only beautiful to look at, it feels profound in a mush-headed Wes Bentley sort of way.
As for Carter, whose speech is used as a demarcation point of sorts—cultural, political, spiritual—Bening almost reduces the entirety of it to a single line of advice to her son: “Wondering if you’re happy, it’s just a great shortcut to being depressed.” Bening’s character loves the speech (“I thought that was…beautiful”), and so does, 30 years after the fact, Andrew Bacevich, a soldier interviewed in Reagan: “There was a moment when [Carter], however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament.” Which didn’t help Carter a whole lot—Bacevich voted for Reagan.
*Not R.E.M.’s Mike Mills; I got excited for a few seconds checking that on IMDB. I saw one of his films ages ago, Thumbsucker, and recall being indifferent to it; didn’t see Beginners, his last film. Scott Woods alerted me to something I’d read a while back and forgotten: the director’s openness about how influential Greil Marcus was on 20th Century Women, in particular a 1983 piece of Marcus’s on the Raincoats. Which makes total sense. When Greta Gerwig describes what she hears when she listens to the Raincoats, you can hear Marcus loud and clear.