Apropos of nothing, Lindsay would like to tell you about some things she likes.
It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. — Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”
Lately, I’ve been compiling a mental list of books and movies about the experiences of young women in the city that do not contain any references to the following items: expensive shoes, lattes the size of Big Gulps, or, above all things, appletinis. Too many books and movies about Young Women in the City seem to act as though this holy trinity is the key to female happiness, but my life in the city has found a way to persist without them. Personally, I can’t afford designer shoes (ain’t getting paid to blog, as they say); I prefer Slurpees to lattes (probably has to do with being lactose intolerant); and I’ve only once tried an appletini (fresh-faced and under the influence of said books and movies, no doubt) and found it so sickeningly sweet that I couldn’t finish it. The stereotypical trappings of the Young Woman in the City have always felt ill-fitting to me, and so I’ve always sought out writers and artists who embrace different and more honest representations of this familiar trope.
Which brings me, first and foremost, to Joan Didion. Few writers have used the personal essay more expertly than she, and I consider her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That” to be one of literature’s most definitive statements about being young, female and living on your own. Didion writes, with stinging clarity, about her time spent in New York in the late 1950s. She was twenty when she arrived there from Sacramento. “All I could do during those years was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring. I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turns out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”
“Goodbye to All That” — and more or less all of the other personal essays that appear in Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem — pulls off the tricky feat of being both particular and universal. Her prose pivots from striking personal imagery (the gold silk curtains she hung in her stark apartment and the way they’d get “tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms;” the movements of a cockroach on her neighborhood bar’s tiled floor) to universal sentiments (“I began to cherish the loneliness of [New York], the sense that at any given time no one needed to know where I was or what I was doing.”) The material things that Didion catalogues are never things in themselves, but rather triggers for the memories they elicit. After having moved to Los Angeles, she wrote, “Now when New York comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would effect the distortion with which it is commonly credited. For a lot of the time I was in New York I used a perfume called Fleurs de Rocaille, and then L’Air du Temps, and now the slightest trace of either can short-circuit my connections for the rest of the day.” The feelings conjured by these flashes of memory range from joy to despair, but Didion’s careful cataloguing of the good and the bad makes for a refreshingly multi-dimensional account of her days of being young, broke and female in New York.
I can’t think of a film that conjures and celebrates that urban “loneliness” that Didion describes (“the sense that at any given time no one needed to know where I was or what I was doing”) as accurately as Chantal Akerman’s 1977 film News from Home. Its premise is simple: Akerman documents her experience arriving in New York from Belgium in her early twenties by filming the city in wide, emotionally detached exteriors. The soundtrack records the ceaseless hum of traffic and sidewalk chatter, overtop of which Akerman reads aloud the letters her mother wrote her from home. The letters progress in chronological order and recount very little narrative drama: news of family members getting married or having children, accounts of family members’ minor illnesses and Akerman’s mother’s expressions of boredom, loneliness and dissatisfaction. We’re privy to so much personal information about the filmmaker — the visual details that fascinate her, the intimate words of her mother — but the film creates an element of detachment since her responses to her mother are omitted.
News from Home is an exercise in duration and, for many viewers, patience. It rejects the traditional rules of film narrative and suspense in favor of minimalism and formal experimentation. But if you can get lost in its meditative pace, it’s a hypnotizing film that I think really captures the banalities of everyday life in the city and forces you to look at them in a new way. It’s a unique document of a female gaze, as well as a subtle reflection on (and, some might argue, rejection of) confinement within the maternal role. The closest thing News from Home gets to a dramatic climax comes in the pattern-breaking moment when Akerman’s mother’s voice becomes, in mid-sentence, obscured by the whoosh of a passing car, never to become fully audible again. It’s a tiny detail, but it speaks volumes about detachment, disconnect and the freedom that comes when no one needs to know where you are or what you’re up to.
True, none of these accounts are as exciting or melodramatic as many writers might want you to think the experience of being a young woman in the city actually is. But they capture some of my favorite things: the quiet moments between the bits that make it into the montage, the poetry in the stuff of everyday life. Maybe they’re not as sweet as appletinis, but I’m starting to believe that nobody really drinks those things anyway.