Much of 20th Century Women is zeitgeist. Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence”, those silent aerial shots, the punk scene, the American West Coast a psychedelic continuum, second wave feminism. Note that this sentence you just read has no verb. It is not a true sentence. With some nonchalance, it abstains from doing anything. Zeitgeist defies doing. At least in representation, it is an abstraction of otherwise frenetic action. It has that curious quiet of hindsight, a place in time (not necessarily posterity) when for better or for worse you know that you can’t effect change. And you’re the calmer for it.
Mike Mills’ work put me in mind of another film I love, made from a book I adore. Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, adapted from Michael Cunningham, has more doing in it. Or at least, there’s that one of a kind frustration that you feel when you cannot translate your world into palpable doing. That’s what underlies Virginia’s arrogant personalization of her madness: “If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know, only I can understand my own condition”. You’re mad because you know you’re about the world, and you can’t do anything about it. This is also, to an extent, Jamie’s madness in Women. His mother, he loves telling people, is from the Depression. She’d learned to fly planes, and in her time children were raised by communities. The world was full of actual doing. Jamie hasn’t inherited that world. His is one of happy plenty, enough for ‘happy’ to be a relentlessly strange category.
And doing feels like a lie.