Twentieth Century Women (2016)

“Jimmy Carter’s Warning”

twentieth century women three women

Twentieth Century Women is an ambitious character study that uses American history to explore the relationship between a Depression-era mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son, Jamie. Director Mike Mills’ film is set in 1979, but it uses the traditions of film, music, literature, and sociology to explore the nature of American subjectivity, particularly that of women, as it was constructed by forty years of social transformation.

Dorothea and Jamie befriend Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer with cervical cancer who rents a room in Dorothea’s house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually troubled seventeen-year old girl. Yet the plot swirls around Dorothea, one of the most profoundly engaging adult women characters in recent memory.

Twentieth Century Women is a critical essay, replete with footnotes, in the guise of subtitles informing us of texts important to understanding America in the 1970s. Abbie gives Jamie the book, Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, an anthology of feminist criticism. Jamie reads aloud to his mother Zoe Moss’ 1970 essay, “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Ageing Woman.”

When Dorothea responds with anger and defensiveness to Moss’ lament at middle-age women being discarded by patriarchal culture, Mills steers his film from didacticism to emotional resonance. Dorothea scolds her son, “I don’t need a book to know about myself.” Mills’ characters may be too pained to interrogate themselves and the social order which has devastated them, but his film demonstrates how important such knowledge is for understanding why people suffer.

twentieth century women mom and son

Mills’ references to the 20th century history of cinema structures the film. As Dorothea describes the birth of Jamie, Mills inserts a shot of an elephant from an early Edison film made at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Shortly thereafter, Dorothea watches Casablanca (1942) with Jamie, snuggling on the couch together. Later in the film, Dorothea tells us that after watching Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), featuring David Bowie as a beleaguered space alien, Abbie dyed her hair red. Mills proposes that 20th century women developed across the century in the gravitational field that is the cinema.

The film’s adoptive clan gather to watch Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech. On July 15, 1979, the President delivered what is now derisively referred to as “the malaise speech.” Yet in retrospect, living under the crypto-Fascism of Donald Trump, the speech sounds shockingly prescient: “There is a growing disrespect for government, for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness, or reassurance. But it is the truth. And it is a warning.”

After the speech is over, the invited guests reflect that Carter is “so screwed. It’s over for him.” Dorothea alone is deeply moved: “Wow. That was so beautiful.” In his book, What the Heck are You Up To, Mr. President?: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country (2009), Kevin Mattson indicates, however right Dorothea is, the crowd around her produces the reaction that would allow for the neo-conservative destruction of our nation’s well-being.

twentieth century women watching carter

Carter’s speech was a warning that the values of consumerism and materialism would overwhelm America’s traditional greatness, its people’s commitment to the transformative values of justice and freedom. Mills reinforces this message not with politics, but with cinema. He accompanies the audio of the speech to visual images from Godfrey Reggio’s celebrated experimental documentary, Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

His subtitle informs us that director Godfrey Reggio’s footage was shot in the years 1975-1979, not only the exact years of the Carter Administration, but also the setting of Twentieth Century Women. Koyaanisqatsi, famous for its time-lapse footage of white America’s technological civilization intercut with Native American mythological reflections on nature, is subtitled, “life out of balance.” Twentieth Century Women thus sociologically positions Koyaanisqatsi as the filmic fellow traveler of Carter’s speech. It is an astonishing act of criticism.

Mills takes the premise of my film criticism project one step further. While I lament the fact that contemporary criticism is not equipped to extract the complex artistic and sociological meaning out of the traditional cinema which we consume, Mills demonstrates that a different form of visual art could function itself as criticism. If such a cinema would arise at this historical moment, not only could we correct the nation’s course away from the Scylla and Charybdis of which Carter so desperately warned, but film criticism itself could evolve into something much more profound, developing new paths toward greater human liberation.

–Walter Metz