‘The lonely man’ film is a term that I learned from writer/director Paul Schrader when he introduced Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver at the Royal Theatre in Toronto in 2013. Schrader penned the film during a deep and paranoid depressive state. As a woman, I identify with Travis Bickle’s awkwardness with social constructs, his isolation, and his disenfranchisement with society. As a film reviewer though, I am resentful of the modern world’s lack of lonely woman movies.
In identifying the lonely man genre you can look at a few things: man against society; man fighting with perceived injustices; man dealing with existential despair in a neuro-typical world, and a man’s reactions to that disaccord. Films like Taxi Driver, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, and Spike Jonze’s Her, fit neatly into these categories. However, they’re all films where the main focus is the man, while the woman either serves as secondary character or is the means by which the protagonist finds salvation. Mind you, they’re amazing films, but I am at a loss as to why writers dismiss women as possible Travis Bickle’s.
A lot of women are unhappy and we aren’t the manic pixie trope. Women do tend to be the driving forces in their own lives, and while some may have direction, a lot of us find ourselves agonizing to make connections in a world where we aren’t accepted as we are. Not all of us are mothers. Some of us are! Not all of us are grounded. Some of us are! Some women stumble and only find themselves in the disharmonies of life.
I’ve taken my frustrations with this topic on my blog by rewriting some of the main characters in lonely men film as women. The results have been enlightening, even amusing at times, but they often illuminate the fact that while the male characters can seem relatable to me, they could also be engaging to a male audience if they were cast as women.
One could argue that women-centered revenge films are the answer to the lonely woman movie. Films like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill are thrilling because women take charge (these films also tend to be about revenge after rape, a trope that while relatable, isn’t necessarily needful provocation to action). However, a lonely man film doesn’t have to be violent (case in point, Jonze’s Her was 2013’s seminal lonely man film). Looking at the other extreme, the female led romantic comedy does not exactly fit into the lonely genre. As much as I love and identify with Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary’s quirks, Bridget is a career driven woman whose desolation is only solved by the romantic ties to the men in her life.
I posit here three films that can be a wonderful foundation to the shortfall of today’s lonely women films: Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and (although I currently have issues surrounding the director, but not with the main actress’s talent in this film), Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
Loden’s Wanda is the story of an employed woman who’s left her husband and children because she cannot cope with life. Her drinking and depression have left her emotionless and without care. In cinéma-vérité fashion, Barbara Loden (who both wrote, directed, and starred in the film), paints a portrait of a woman who does not fit into expected societal constructs. Wanda lives from couch to couch, submits herself to her divorce proceedings by giving up custody of her children to her ex, and drifts aimlessly until she finds a way to feel again. The film is a combination of improvisational and method acting techniques, but its brilliance is in its grit and grainy textures. Loden was fixated on bringing veracity in independent film during the seventies. No one and nothing is perfect in Wanda. The fuzzy and muddled colors offer no relief to the sad situations in the film. Nor is there an uplifting theme to offer the audience a glimmer of hope. The charm in Wanda lies in the idea that this woman could easily be any one of us: man or woman.
Barbara Loden died of breast cancer in 1980 at the young age of 48. The rawness of her film earned it the International Critics’ Prize in the 1970s. It’s almost criminal to consider that this film is out of print and rare to screen.
Baumbach’s Frances Ha stars the critically acclaimed Greta Gerwig as Frances (she also co-wrote the film with Baumbach). Frances is a twenty seven year old modern dancer with no direction. While she awkwardly splits up with her boyfriend and loses her job, her angst is only truly provoked when her best friend Sophie decides to move out of their apartment. Gerwig carries this little mumblecore film entirely on her own through an assuming grace, and even manages to elucidate the unspoken world of the societally detached with her awkward nature.
There’s a wonderfully realistic scene that finds Frances irresponsibly escaping to France for two days. Instead of predictably partaking of the romantic sites and dancing through the streets, Frances ends up sleeping the day away. With cinematic tributes to François Truffaut and Leos Carax, Frances Ha’s answer to her aimless troubles is found in an almost expected, but unpredictable turn.
Allen’s Blue Jasmine was a surprise to me. Normally, Allen’s characters are a variation of the director’s own voice while the female characters act as the response to the protagonist’s neurosis. Jasmine (played by the extremely talented Cate Blanchett), is a former high society woman who is coming out of a mental breakdown. Her husband is jailed as a fraudster and her stepson leaves her to distance himself from the embarrassment. Jasmine leaves her New York City home and moves in with her sister in San Francisco to figure things out. She struggles, she fails, and she endlessly talks her way through, yet she doesn’t solve much of anything. She is aware that the unfortunate circumstances she finds herself in are mostly of her own making. But it’s in the audience’s revelation of her absurd truth that makes this film’s coda all the more touching and despairing.
While Wanda, Frances Ha, and Blue Jasmine are just a few examples of what can be done to portray lonely woman films, they are just a few, and there is a palpable need for more opportunities and better exposure of films like this. Cate Blanchett’s acceptance speech for her Oscar-winning role as Jasmine is fitting:
And thank you to… those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not —-audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.
As a film reviewer and a woman who loves writing, reading, and watching stories across the board, tell me, male, female, and transgendered directors why can’t we have Taxi Driver with a woman:
TRACY stands in the middle of her apartment, staring at her PALANTINE wall. Her eyes are glazed with introspection; she sees nothing but herself.
“Listen you assholes: Here is a woman…”
TRACY lies on her mattress, all bundled up in her shirt, oversized bra, sweater, jacket and guns. Her face is turned toward the ceiling, but her eyes are closed. Although the room is flooded with light, she is finally catching some sleep.
The big furry animal drifts into her own world.
TRACY (voiceover): “ … who wouldn’t take it any more, a woman who stood up against the scum, the douchebags, the dogs, the rapists. Here is …”
(her voice trails off)
Her diary entry ends with the words “Here is” followed by an erratic series of dots.
The world is round, people. Let’s start bending.
Jacqueline Valencia is a poet, writer, and film critic. She received her Honours BA from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in various publications including dead g(end)er, The Lit Pub, The Barnstormer, Little Fiction, and 49th Shelf. She continually works on conceptual mediums and spoke at the Kenneth Goldsmith uncreative writing workshop at the Power Plant in 2013. Her second chapbook Maybe was selected for the Arte Factum exhibit by Poetry is Dead Magazine in 2012. Her third chapbook The Octopus Complex was published by LyricalMyrical Press in 2013. She is the director of the Toronto conceptual poetry series Undefined. Jacqueline lives in Toronto where she’s a senior staff film critic at Next Projection and founding editor of These Girls On Film.