Upstairs at the Angelika a skinny dude, who looks like a teen to me but is probably at least in college, is taking tickets. He is extremely enthusiastic about Little Women. “It’s a really tight movie, she does stuff that’s really cool, it’s not what you expect” he tells all of us waiting to go in, “and in 35mm, it looks fucking sick. Wait, did you read the book,” he asks us. “You won’t really get how cool it is unless you see what she changed.” It feels like a joke and it isn’t. Oh you love Little Women so much name three of their albums.
The best thing about the Angelika is that the BDFM trains run directly underneath it. During the movie you can not just hear but feel the subway rattling beneath your feet, punctuating the action on the screen. At the Angelika, every movie is set in New York. The other best thing about the Angelika is the same best thing as every other small art house movie theater: They sell coffee, specifically very bad coffee, almost exactly the same bad coffee as bodega coffee and church coffee, which is to say the best coffee in the world, watery and flavorless and burnt at once, and you can take a tall paper cup of it into the movie with you and hold it warm in your hands.
The final best thing about the Angelika is that it is the same as it was. The Angelika still has the same old movie posters up that it has had up in the lobby since I came here as a teenager, younger than the greasy-haired kid so excited for us to see Greta Gerwig’s sick-ass movie. The pastel splatter-painted ceiling and the junk-shop chandelier casting spidery shadows across it are the same as they were when I was thirteen and sixteen and twenty-one. The auditoriums are skinny and unadorned and uncomfortable by larger movie theater standards, and you can buy questionable homemade baked goods and simple supermarket-sliced bread sandwiches. Umberto Eco said about Casablanca that it “is not one movie, it is the movies.” I get popcorn and I put too much butter on it, because butter popcorn is the movies. I have been coming to the Angelika since I can remember, with my parents and with friends and with exes and by myself, sitting in the earnest home-painted darkness of the skinny auditorium. The Angelika is, to me, not a place to see a movie; it is the movies.
One thing Little Women — the book, and all adaptations following— shares in common with other wildly popular mega-properties, franchises that have the particular traction gained by things beloved first and arguably foremost by teens, is that it functions in part as a personality test. Generations of readers have argued about whether they are a Jo or an Amy, just like generations of newer readers keep arguing about whether they’re a Slytherin or a Gryffindor. The discussion of who is a what and why would be enough to lend Little Women enduring popularity even if it had no other attributes.
However, Alcott’s book positions its reader not as any of the women of the title, but as Laurie, the rich-boy neighbor of the less-rich March family. Almost no one gets Laurie on a Little Women character quiz, but Laurie’s experience is the experience of reading this book, and, much more self-consciously, of watching Gerwig’s adaptation. The first moment that really got me was about ten minutes in, during the first flashback sequence. After the exuberant dance scene where Laurie meets the March sisters and then helps them get home, there are two paired shots of Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, first standing awkwardly in the March house as its numerous women tumble and talk over each other around him, everything the color of firelight except him, and then outside, in the banked and silent snow, about to begin the very short walk home to his very much grander house, turning to look back at the place he just came from, which emanates warmth out into the winter night so palpable you could nearly feel it coming off the screen. That was the point where I started crying, and I basically didn’t stop for the rest of the movie.
Little Women is a book about longing to get inside someone else’s family. Laurie is all the only children who spent our time in high school at the homes of friends who had bigger, warmer, messier families, the lonely kids who were always looking to shoulder our way into someone else’s family, for whom love was a means of inclusion in a warm room in which we were not naturally welcome, and perhaps did not wholly belong. One thing this film gets right is the part of adolescence that is about always trying to get adopted by someone else, trying to find a family who will actively chose you. It is a movie about other people’s houses, and about the friend you had growing up whose house was always warmer — literally, temperature-wise — than yours, and the feeling at the late end of the night at a friend’s house when you didn’t want to leave, the dullness of returning to your own chilly, empty home. It is a movie about how both childhood and family are fictions, our own and other people’s.
On the common application, the shared form that a lot of colleges use as their required document for applicants seeking admission, one of the personal statement essay prompts is, or at least used to be, “The transition from childhood to adulthood is partially defined by___.” I started this newsletter when I was still a college admissions tutor, which I’ve written about here often, but what I haven’t said as often, or at least not as explicitly, is that in some ways I started this newsletter because of that prompt. I don’t necessarily think it’s a great college-admissions essay prompt. Few people applying to college directly out of high school have the perspective to reflect on the transition between childhood and adulthood; it is like trying to photograph an ocean while swimming in that ocean. But from the first time I read that prompt, all I wanted to do was write an essay about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and how it is partially defined. Almost every single time I am stuck on a topic or on a way to approach the essay I’m already elbows-deep into, I come back to this question, created by a committee to go on a website for teenagers privileged enough to be applying to colleges. The transition from childhood to adulthood is partially defined by___.
The moment between childhood and adulthood as defined by the college application, by the idea of applying to college, by movies such as Ladybird, which I did not see, and by the flashbacks in Little Women, does not actually exist. It is as much a cultural invention as childhood itself. The idea of childhood as gentle and consequence-free, a time when we are sweet and unformed, a time when nothing counts, is an invention and a lie. Everything counts as soon as we can remember anything, and before that, too. Horrible things happen in childhood, to children and to adolescents, and children and adolescents sometimes do horrible things, the consequences of which echo down their lives. Money and privilege insulate some of us from this, which is why childhood stretches out longer, and looks more like the movies about it, the richer you are, but even that does not shield anyone from the permanence of every choice, and the weight of ongoing time. There is no practice run, no softer playing field, no world without edges before entering the sharper one.
The moment at the end of high school is celebrated in our culture to an absurd, nigh-on religious degree. But what childhood and adolescence actually are is something invented by old people, or people beginning to get old, people far enough away from youth to rewrite youth as a fiction, and little demonstrates this as much as the narratives that celebrate this moment. Childhood is not a lived experience but a word for an adult’s fear of getting older. When I taught teenagers, I found myself longing backward to when I was seventeen and eighteen, a time when I was objectively miserable, dealing with one family crisis on top of another, incapable of having a normal conversation with another human being, and making some of the worst choices of my life. My childhood was awkward and anxious and unhappy and I miss it every single day, which is how I know I’ve gotten older. What I miss is a fiction, a language to talk about passage of time.
Little Women, and I suspect Gerwig’s whole thing, which I really shouldn’t try to speak to since once again I cannot tell you how much I am never gonna watch Ladybird, is also centered on the question of what defines the transition from childhood to adulthood. But it seems to me that the point of Little Women is that childhood, and adolescence, and the transition between the two, are all fictions, as narrow and false and artificial as the college application, invented by adult regret, and that the relationship to one’s own past is often defined by the desire to create that fiction, to write for oneself a past that never quite existed. Gerwig’s films, as far as I can tell, are obsessed with this transitional moment, but in Little Women at least, that obsession serves to point out how these origin stories are artifice and invention. A similar artifice makes up both the subject and the form of my actual favorite film this year, Almodovar’s Pain and Glory (obviously Parasite was the best film I saw this year, but Pain and Glory was my favorite, the one that lives closest to my heart). Pain and Glory has several uncanny and unexpected parallels with Little Women, none of which I can talk about because it would spoil Almodovar’s film and I normally could not care less about spoilers but I truly want as many people as possible to see this film and get its full effect, please go see Pain and Glory. But both of these films state, I think, that what we live can end up being secondary to what we create about our lives, and that most childhood-to-adulthood origin stories are no more accurate than a hastily rigged-up stage set. The transition from childhood to adulthood is defined by nothing; we were never as young as we think we were, and none of us ever existed in a state before consequences or pain. Hope is not easy for anyone, even teenagers, and family is never as clean nor as beautiful as it looks from the outside when it is someone else’s family.
Little Women is a movie about wanting things, which is also an adolescent mood, a permission we give to the fiction of childhood. It is about wanting someone else’s family, but it is also — again like Pain and Glory— about art and artifice and fame and praise, things that can replace ideas of perfect love and perfect family. One part of the fiction of adolescence is the way in which as we get older we delude ourselves into believing ambition and bigness are only permitted to the young and the privileged. What I perhaps envied most in the time I worked with students on essays about passion and goals and plans and the future was the state of ambition in which they were encouraged to live. Too much of my life had closed up and narrowed for me to feel those things in that same full-throated way anymore, or so I thought, maturity a process of resignation.
I went to see Mitski play Central Park’s Summerstage two nights in a row this summer, in a crowd full of actual teenagers punctuated by the occasional thirty-something NYC-media person like chaperones at a very emotional outdoor prom. At the end of the second night, she played the first of the same two encores she had played the night before, and as it ended the crowd, just as we had the night before, screamed and yelled, shrieking her name, some people calling out “mom,” telling her they would die for her. Her show was extraordinarily, minutely choreographed, beautiful and compelling and by design not spontaneous at all, but for a moment at the end of these two nights, at the end of her last time touring for the foreseeable future, that performer’s shell seemed to crack, and she seemed to allow herself to take everyone in. She faced the audience and put her hand very simply over her heart. “This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted my whole life,” she said. I doubt I was the only person who burst into tears in the audience, but I felt it coming on like a wave with that sentence. It was the kind of absolute, undisguised want for which I had come to believe I had missed my chance, something I had told myself was necessary to leave behind.
When I was very young, I remember every second was saturated was this sort of pure illuminating ambition. Eventually I had told myself to grow out of it, and had had it numbed out of me. Wanting that much, only for myself, seemed lavish, a privilege for the young and the pure and the lucky. But standing in that sweaty field just after sunset, I wanted to hold onto it, to pull myself back up on its raft, to live in its stupid, immature blaze again. It is a childish feeling, and a selfish one, and movies like Little Women, movies about making movies, about the all-consuming desire to make art, to be an artist, are in some ways childish and selfish, too. But Gerwig’s film burns restlessly with the exact same desire coming off of that stage on that late summer night in its purest, sweatiest form.
I think a lot about how “Geyser,” a song off Mitski’s recent album, a song that sounds like a howling love song is actually, according to Mitski, a song she wrote about music, about making art. The end of Little Women is brilliant in a stupid, card-trick, Houdini-smug way. The only clumsy cut in the whole film is between the two versions of the big romantic kiss, inserted to make sure you see how false it is, to make sure you see that you have been watching a fiction, that romance is only in service of art-making. Love has conquered nothing; it exists only to be made into art. Most art I love is something that shouldn’t work, that gets away with something it has no business getting away with, and knows it, too, and knows that that’s part of its thrill. Art like this almost always has a moment where it shows its hand, where it reveals its author’s salivating desire to be called a genius. Little Women wants to make sure you know that it isn’t a love story; it’s a story about Mitski saying “this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted my whole life.” It’s the fact that “Geyser” is about art rather than about love. That shot of the kiss doesn’t want you to feel romantic; it wants the teenage film bro working at the Angelika to say that it looks fucking sick.
The experiences I had at the Angelika as a young person were probably not all that special; I didn’t even see movies there all that much. I feel a lot about it because I have chosen to feel a lot about it, and feeling a lot about it feels better than the actual experience of being a teenager ever did. It is a story and not a record. Little Women is a movie about a mercenary artist, and it’s a mercenary movie. Gerwig’s Jo-as-Alcott is writing herself a childhood that neither she nor any of us watching the movie had. It is an only child’s idea of what it is like to be in a large family, and a rapidly aging adult’s idea of what it is like to be young. It is a person who has lost a loved one’s memory of living with that loved one. It does not resemble reality because it is not meant to; it is what we conjure up, or escape into, when we recognize the dullness, the chilliness, the ongoing lacks in our own reality, the holes that the consequences of our actions have been gouging in our lives since before we knew either of those words. It is the swaggery, selfish comfort of rewriting our story to be better than the way it happened, to propel ourselves out of the past by way of the past. We are turning around in the snow on a cold night to look at back at the rose-colored warm windows of a house where we do not live, going home alone, just outside the light from someone else’s house, where we imagine a life that is not ours, and is not anyone’s, and does not and cannot exist at all.
griefbacon is ending, like, this week? I’m just finishing some drafts at this point, there should only be one or two after this. the archives are staying up for the foreseeable future. xo