The Films of Greta Gerwig
Quilting has been around as long as humanity has needed to keep warm, but it wasn’t until it moved to the New World that it became its own art form as well as a comfort item. Over the course of the birth of a new nation that would be the United States, quilting would become a wholly American combination of practicality and artistic expression wrapped into one comfortable patchwork package. The Quilt is the type of thing passed down from one generation to the next, added on to, a piece of living history in the making.
In just 3 short years, Greta Gerwig has made an undeniable impact in the world of cinema. With her directorial debut Lady Bird in 2017 and her recent adaptation of Little Women in 2019, Gerwig has proven herself to be a remarkably assured writer and director in two films that many of her (male) colleagues could only dream of achieving over decades. Gerwig has brought a refreshing style and pacing to the world of cinema that should be recognized more than it is.
Gerwig’s subtle, yet distinct style is already brimming forth in her two films. They are, in many ways, like a quilt, filled with connected images, ideas, and patterns to form how we change over time. Gerwig is a cinematic seamstress and her first two films speak to a very delicate and intricate way of storytelling that has made her stand out from the other filmmakers around her. Greta Gerwig’s use of interconnected themes, scenes, and visual motifs in her films is something wholly unique to American cinema.
Quilts are passed down from generation to generation. What was once your grandmother’s became your mother’s which became yours. It is a physical representation of generations of women handing down traits and ideas to help the next one build on those ideas and create something further.
Greta Gerwig explores the relationship we have with the generation before us, our parents, and how we share distinct similarities deftly in her directorial debut Lady Bird. While the titular Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a lot of characters in her orbit from her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) to her two loves (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) to her siblings, the relationship at the heart of the movie is between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
Lady Bird and Marion are constantly at odds with one another because they are far too similar. When asked about her mother, Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) explains “You both have such strong personalities. She doesn’t know how to help you and that frustrates her.” Parents always hope that their kids can have a better life than they did and the problem is that kids will never fully comprehend that. At one point Lady Bird says to her mother “Don’t you ever wish your mom hadn’t gotten so angry?” to which Marion bluntly replies “My mother was an abusive alcoholic.”
Marion is someone who believes that she is doing the right thing by being hard on her daughter because Lady Bird doesn’t appreciate what her mother goes through. It is only through the perspectives of people who are not her mother that Lady Bird begins to see the whole picture. “She has a big heart, your mom,” her brother’s girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) relays to her at one point. It happens to a lot of teenagers with their parents. Growing up, your parents are not people with their own faults and dreams, they are these figures meant to stand in your way. However, Lady Bird begins to see her mother not only as another person but as a friend and a part of herself.
Gerwig effectively connects Lady Bird and Marion throughout Lady Bird not just through match cuts, but match scenes. Some scenes with Lady Bird are immediately juxtaposed with a scene with Marion demonstrating they are not so different after all. The best example comes about midway through the film when Lady Bird’s first boyfriend (and heartbreak) Danny comes to the coffee shop where she works to beg for her forgiveness after she discovered he’s gay. Lady Bird is at first furious, but when he breaks down in front of her, terrified and unsure of what to do, Lady Bird realizes his perspective and his pain for the first time and all is forgiven.
This is immediately followed by a scene with Marion with Lady Bird’s teacher, Father Henderson (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Marion works at a psychiatric hospital and Father Henderson has had bouts of depression that have caused him to take a leave of absence from his job. Marion asks him if he has any support and offers her own assistance. This is the heart of what Lady Bird is all about. These are two people who are so neatly intertwined, but they never realize it about the other because they’re not around each other to witness these moments.
Gerwig takes her time in showing us these moments of intimacy and care between Lady Bird and Marion throughout the film. The opening shot is the most peaceful the two of them ever look together and that’s because they’re asleep. They do get along when they’re awake, but those moments are short-lived. But the moments like Marion adjusting Lady Bird’s dress speaks volumes about their relationship and the true love they have for each other more than any snappy, contentious car conversation ever could.
Visually Gerwig also shows the connection between these two when they do have these moments of connection. Late in the film Lady Bird sits in the bathroom asks about sex and her father’s depression while her mother gets ready. Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy shot this sequence entirely through the perspective of the bathroom mirror, further emphasizing that these two characters are reflections of each other.
The ending of Lady Bird so perfectly encapsulates the connection between Lady Bird and Marion when Lady Bird makes a call to home after a horrendous college night of drinking. She leaves a voicemail talking about the first time she drove on her own in Sacramento and Gerwig beautifully cuts to from Lady Bird to Marion, showing us that Lady Bird finally understands the love she has for her mother and the love they have for each other.
Lady Bird is a lovely example of how we are extensions of our parents and how parts of our own personalities are inherited from those who came before. Each generation is a hopeful improvement over the other as we pass down ideals and behaviors to influence the future. Lady Bird is ultimately about a lot of things, but motherhood and the difficulties of parent-child relationships are the crux of the film. Some quilts can appear bizarre or really aesthetically unappealing, but they are just as warm and comforting as any other.
Gerwig takes the concept of thematic juxtaposition she explored in Lady Bird and cranks the dial up to 11 in Little Women. Adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Gerwig tasked herself with developing a perspective that was wholly unique and revitalized an old standard for a whole new generation of women.
Gerwig expertly uses thematic and visual threads to interconnect the past to the present. The pattern adorned throughout the timeline of Little Women is not as complicated as some Academy members may have scoffed at last year. In fact, the transitions to the past and the present couldn’t be clearer as Gerwig stitches together the often-elusive truth of memory and how our past influences our own future.
Gerwig so beautifully weaves between the past and the present starting with simple match cuts. Early examples are Jo writing in her attic window in Concord in the past to her writing in her boarding room window in New York in the present. Gerwig is using these matching images to get the audience adjusted to the concept of the structure and then moves to more sophisticated juxtaposition through match scenes.
The connections from scene to scene can be subtle at times, but no less effective. From Jo (Saoirse Ronan) dancing in New York with her new love Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) flashing back to her first dance with her first love Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) to the funeral of Beth where the entire family is present flashing back to the last time they were all together for Meg’s wedding in the past. To Jo’s dismay she bemoans “I can’t believe childhood is over,” at what she believes to be the end of her childhood at Meg’s wedding only to have Beth’s death be the definitive end to her childhood and start of her journey into adulthood.
Gerwig not only uses different color temperatures to distinguish the past from the present but also differing camera techniques and editing. The starkest contrast is Beth’s sickness in the past and the present. In the past, Jo wakes up to find Beth’s bed empty. She panics and rushes downstairs. It is frantic, energetic, suspenseful. But when she arrives at the table she discovers that Beth is alive and well. In the present, this sequence is mirrored almost perfectly, except for some subtle differences. When Jo wakes up this time, the camera takes its time going down the stairs, not wanting the truth to set in. This time when Jo makes it to the table, Beth is gone for good and with it the last of her innocence.
Gerwig sought to present Little Women as an examination of nostalgia and memory. In interviews, she questioned the optimistic nature of the first half of the novel asking “Is that how it actually was, or is that how you remember it?” Gerwig sought to show the danger of nostalgia and the power looking back fondly at the past can do. “The fairy tale version is that Beth gets sick and gets better, but the reality is that Beth gets sick and she dies.” Here, Gerwig is exploring a deeper truth to our connection with our past and how we try to justify it being better than the future it has given us.
Gerwig brought the same objectivity to the characters of Little Women that she did to Lady Bird by presenting everyone (especially the oft-reviled Amy) as people worth rooting for, loving deeply, and crying over. There are no bad people in Little Women, there’s no space for it. Gerwig seeks instead to show these famous literary figures as human beings that could fit just as easily in 2020 as they could in 1861. We care about her characters because she took such care in giving them the presentation they deserved.
Quilts are not just something that your grandmother makes for you when you are born. They can be expanded, worked on, never-ending. The same fabrics may not be available, so each addition becomes another part of who you were at the time you made it. Quilts can change over time, just as you do and what you bring to each addition becomes a tapestry of your own timeline.
Gerwig sought to make Little Women not only a story about the March sisters but also a celebration of their creator, Louisa May Alcott. Gerwig recognized the folly in the original ending in which Jo gets married to Professor Bhaer and sought to both give the audience what they thought they wanted while giving them what they actually needed. Intercut with Jo rushing to the train station, we see Jo negotiating with her publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) about the scene we are witnessing. It’s a compromise to get her work published, much like Alcott had to do. “I suppose marriage is an economic choice, even in fiction,” Gerwig has Jo bemoan. By showing the artifice of the ending, Gerwig is giving Alcott “the ending I think she would’ve wanted,” while also letting the audience have their say in what they would prefer.
The heart of what makes Little Women feel so refreshing is the fact that Gerwig found the freshness in the novel’s text and brought it to the surface. By jumbling the timeline, Gerwig is demonstrating how we often can mirror ourselves and how we change over time. “I’ve always liked this sense of being able to understand where we are today by looking at the…past,” and using child/young adulthood as “this common language for all of us. How do you continue to be big and brave and interesting and have all these big dreams when you’re past that point?”
Here we see generations of women working on the same story in new ways. Gerwig writing about Alcott writing about Jo writing about her sisters. It is Gerwig’s celebration of women artists and the influence they have on future generations of women. Little Women is the cultural touchstone, a literary quilt that is constantly being revised and added to and Gerwig’s is bar none the most expansive and monumental of them all.
Greta Gerwig has been a force in the world of cinema for years, but her shift into directing has truly cemented her legacy as one of the most important filmmakers working today. That success is due to her unbridled skill to write intrinsically woven screenplays that feel like moving tapestries presenting the past while exploring the future.
On the Off Camera podcast, Gerwig spoke of her writing process: “It like has to be built like a honeycomb. It has to all be interconnected.” It explains a lot about how Gerwig constructs her films. They come with an energy and pace that is relentless. Like all of life is passing by in an instant. Much like a quilt, you see how the patterns all connect to make this overall artistic vision that feels so vibrant, fresh, and comforting all at once.
Gerwig uses that honeycomb idea to explore the concept of how we perceive time and memory. Even in Lady Bird, she has the students performing Merrily We Roll Along, which is in and of itself a musical that explores how we change over time. Both Lady Bird and Little Women are period pieces that Gerwig uses to explore how much things have changed and also how little they have. Gerwig achieves that through rigorous and energetic pacing, giving you this feeling of “time tumbling forward, faster than you can hold on to it.”
Following the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig would be stopped by young women in the street and be told “I saw your movie and it made me want to be a director.” Gerwig has become a strong influence for a whole new generation of women thanks to her passion and adept abilities to craft these unique and touching films that make you feel whole even when they challenge you. Watching her films, one can’t help but feel secure and warm in their embrace because you can feel they were made with such care. Gerwig has added another massive, quirky patch to the quilt of cinema, leaving room for the next generation to add patches beside her.