Rooftop Films opened this weekend with an advance screening of Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” to a controversial reception. Almost drowned out by a spectacular spring thunderstorm, the evening started in the elaborately painted auditorium of Open Road High School on the Lower East Side. The band Brazos played eerie, rousing, psychedelic rock n’ roll as murals loomed over the stage and trippy reflections of color were projected on a screen behind them.
When the band put down their instruments to applause, Rooftop Films founder Mark Elijah Rosenberg announced the weather would hold and the film would be shown on the roof. Crowds pushed joyously to the top of the building where a clear sky and sparkling skyline greeted us.
Baumbach’s film follows a flighty Frances (Greta Gerwig) through a vision of New York that almost feels like the city it used to be. Shot in black and white, the movie is a study in dislocation and disconnection. Frances is a 27 year-old apprentice in a dance company in love with her best friend Sophie, though not sexually. Frances skips from chicly seedy locations in Brooklyn to the Lower East Side and back again, couch surfing with silly, self-absorbed slackers while her friends who are more successful at playing grown-up move on with their lives (with equally self-absorbed abandon).
Conversations take place through iPhones or computer screens. Many character’s sentences lilt into questions at the end even when they are statements, unsure of how they feel as well as how the world will feel about what they are saying. The studiedly messy apartments where unattached Frances finds herself are places we can exist in, not places we stay in.
The most poignant moments of peace come when Frances visits her parents and other family in Sacramento, California. These relationships seem more grounded, more unselfconscious and loving. The world is indeed larger than an elitist league of New Yorkers who live in their own lavish version of the city.
Baumbach’s wry humor doesn’t disappoint and as Frances struggles to do more than survive her day to day, she finds herself in increasingly hilarious situations that have fun at the expense of the characters’ expense accounts. An older female politician gets drunk and makes out with a college boy at a fundraiser, drinking starts at 3pm after a vintage Ray Ban shopping spree, a weekend trip to Paris turns lonely and results in massive credit card debt instead of romance.
Ultimately, Gerwig plays Frances with awkward grace. Yet, when the end result is triumph you can’t help but feel like no one in this cushy melodrama was ever really in trouble of failing at anything.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig joined the audience for a Q&A after the screening. A young audience member was the first to ask the question, “I saw the film mainly as a character study but I was wondering if it had any sort of larger social context… besides only being about middle- to upper-class white people?”
Gerwig bravely stepped in, “We were telling a very specific story. Every life has victories and defeats and struggles.”
“We wanted it to have a good soundtrack since it didn’t have any social value,” quipped Baumbach, to which the questioner replied, “Fuck you.”
“As a woman I found it very socially meaningful, so fuck you!” screeched an older audience goer.
At the Fontana’s after party, the argument continued. Audience members debated whether there was room in the movie for more social context, whether Baumbach was purposefully parodying a world where global issues give way before pressing personal problems (L train not running again!), or whether reaction to the comment seemed to only prove that the white bourgeois class is in full militant force and ready to fight for their Ray Bans, trust funds and screen time.
Either way, Rooftop Films has expertly brought art that inspires wild, passionate conversation to the Lower East Side and will hopefully continue to do so all summer at visually stunning venues.