Design for Living

by Matt Brennan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The well-heeled Angelenos of Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money (2006) come together in the opening sequence to celebrate a birthday. Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful but increasingly embittered fashion designer, is turning forty-three, and despite the $800 she charges for thin, muted peasant blouses with beaded appliqués, she’s floundering. “I think this birthday was hard for you,” her husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), comments later. “You’re in your forties now. It’s real.”

Jane’s friends are scarcely more stable. Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs), screenwriting partners piling an ill-considered second story atop their house, strive to save their marriage with the prospect of an ocean view; Franny (Joan Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann) are ensconced in a life of conspicuous consumption. “They throw a party so rich people like me can spend $10,000 on a table, and then they give it to the sick people,” Franny explains about a charity fundraiser, as though she’s trying to convince herself. “That’s how it’s done!” And there’s Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), listlessly applying free samples of anti-wrinkle cream and staking out her ex-lover’s house. “She’s the only one of our friends not married,” Jane worries. “Is a pothead. Is a maid.”

As Olivia knows, there comes a moment in the unattached life at which it becomes evident you’ve fallen to the far end of the bell curve. In the abstract, you understand that the visible membrane of other people’s lives — engagement photos, wedding invitations, and “gender-reveal parties”; promotions and accolades; new homes, marathon times, compost piles, inspirational quotations — is an unreliable index of happiness, but the lonely imagination is a concrete tropic. No amount of rationalization can shake the impression, suddenly tangible in every interaction, that the ad-hoc family of close friends you gathered in early adulthood sped up at the very moment you stalled.

“You know what, fuck all of you guys,” Olivia says. “I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out.”

In Nicole Holofcener’s universe, figuring it out is the organizing principle. The way of life on display in her five features as writer-director is a narrow one, coded in the rambling dialect of white, liberal, urban affluence. But her design for living, pulling you through shadowy, regretful places until you emerge, load lightened, on the other side, intimates a wider understanding of what it means to forge, or to lose, one’s sense of attachment.

*

In Walking and Talking (1996), Amelia (Keener) girds herself for her best friend’s wedding. Laura (Anne Heche) is the girl with whom she examined The Joy of Sex at the lake house one summer, scanning the illustrations as they lay on the bed in their bathing suits, but now Laura’s met Frank (Todd Field) and everything will change. Is changing. Has changed. “Listen to what I’m listening to,” Amelia jokes in one of the many messages she leaves on Laura and Frank’s answering machine. “Music to slit your wrists by.”

Amelia reconnects with an ex-boyfriend and stalks the video store clerk with whom she shared a single failed date, but in the end her messages are for Laura. This is the detail in the film that strikes me most forcefully as an emblem of change, and not only of the technological sort. Amelia convinces herself that the reason she’s so resistant to Laura’s marriage is the envious knot that forms in your stomach when the couples pair off after dinner, but in truth she’s afraid that Laura won’t always be there listening on the other end of the line. “Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me!” Amelia tells Laura near the end of the film. “That’s all I want.”

The desire for this kind of empathy is Holofcener’s center of gravity, the force that holds her films’ constellations of family and friends in orbit. As the reversals of Lovely & Amazing (2001) suggest — the insecure, beautiful actress (Emily Mortimer) mauled by a dog; the married artist (Keener) who takes a job at the one-hour photo and embarks on an affair with a teenager; the mother (Brenda Blethyn), incapacitated by complications from surgery, who can no longer care for her daughters; the adopted child (Raven Goodwin) testing the waters of adulthood — everything does indeed change, except for the need to be understood.

The films’ almost uncanny naturalism stems not from the loose, halting dialogue or the simple aesthetic, then, but from their stories of people whose empathies are thrown out of balance by the fear that theirs will be the next screened call. In the moment of viewing, Holofcener’s work is awkwardly funny, but in retrospect it’s a catalogue of regrets. If you hadn’t laughed at your friend’s engagement ring, would she have answered your call? If she had answered your call would you have avoided falling in with the man who didn’t support your career, and would that have prevented the argument about the addition to the house? And if you hadn’t had the argument would it have saved your marriage, and if you had saved your marriage would your daughter be so angry, and if all of this were true would you have avoided the warp of your guilt? Did you listen, weigh the consequences of your actions, walk a mile in the other person’s shoes? And if you had done all of these things would it have turned out differently?

All of these examples are drawn from one or another of Holofcener’s films, but might just as easily be mistaken for an ordinary person’s moment of doubt. “I was trying to figure out what I knew,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ divorced masseuse remarks in Enough Said (2013) on this point, flipping the pages of her wedding album. But of course what we know is always limited by who we are: empathy, the necessary ingredient in any relationship, is also the most difficult to access.

*

When my friend Jesse’s younger sister, Molly, stayed with me for a few days this summer, she presented me with a gift of Japanese office supplies — felt-tipped pens in an octagonal case, five notebooks as crisp as starched shirts — and the news that her brother had recently married.

It’s been nearly a decade since I took a bus to New York for the Fourth of July and slept on the couch in Jesse’s apartment near Union Square, smoking pot on the roof during the fireworks and shoveling down arepas at a place called Caracas on East 7th. In those days, which I mostly remember for how I tried to shed my reputation as a kid who always colored inside the lines, Jesse featured prominently in my quiet rebellion. We left the dorm after curfew to share cigarettes and found ourselves sitting on the floor of my room, hazily high from a few cribbed Percocets, but as is often the case with this sort of thing, we gradually, almost imperceptibly, slipped out of touch. Life intervenes. Time passes. As I write this I’m sitting at a table in the courtyard of my New Orleans apartment, considering how strange it is that nothing much happens and yet everything changes, is changing, has changed. I checked Caracas’ website recently and discovered that it now lists four establishments — “Manhattan,” “Brooklyn,” “Rockaway,” “Roneria” — and though the last of these refers to the chain’s “specialized rum bar” on Grand Street, it’s been so long since I was last in New York I assumed it was the name of a neighborhood.

I recognize that drifting apart (from Jesse, from New York, from my former self) was probably inevitable, but I still suffer these periodic flashes of surprise that I am, in fact, an adult, one whose lapsed attachments now outnumber his extant ones. The digital lineaments of modern friendship, designed to hew us to each other across thousands of miles, cloud the uncomfortable truth that scrolling past posts, tweets, images, links, and hashtags demands even less attention than the call that goes straight to the answering machine. To Laura, Amelia’s plaintive voice is at least a forthright presence: for the length of the message they are in the room together, despite the growing gulf between them.

I can also imagine Walking and Talking set in the present, the relationship similarly imperiled, only Amelia would discover the engagement by way of a sepia-toned iPhone photograph, and her insistent desire for contact would register in Laura’s world as alerts and status updates, DMs and funny cat videos, a few more bytes of information absorbed in the feeds we use to measure the length of our days. Holofcener’s unmannered realism transcends the moment of its making, but the most underappreciated aspect of her films is how lo-fi they play. The low-key chatter of the immediate experience remains the leading part in her melody: nothing much happens, but everything changes.

I don’t mean this to sound like a paean to the analog, but it does seem to me that Olivia’s confrontation with the unattached life is qualitatively different from my own. Sitting in Franny’s living room or walking alongside Jane at the farmer’s market, Olivia bears witness not only to the material evidence of their successes, but also to the subtle vibrations of their failures.

“What are you so angry about lately?” she asks Jane.

“You buy your two-year-old daughter $80 shoes from France, and you’re giving me a hard time,” she accuses Franny.

The Internet’s cold ether upends this balance: rare are those who use social media to report road rage, cold pizza, routine sex; half-remembered arguments, ungrateful children, credit card debt; disappointment, alienation, ennui. And so we fill in the unseen spaces of other people’s lives using the visible evidence. By this metric, most of the people I know, or used to know, spend their days falling in love, eating street food in Singapore, and meeting foreign dignitaries. Celebrating anniversaries, births, awards, bonuses. Changing the world or at least grabbing hold of it. Keeping in touch. Staying attached. Figuring it out. I watch these developments from afar, in the grip of the same selfish impulse, increasingly difficult to ward off, that animates Amelia — the same fear that there’s no one listening on the other end of the line. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.

The evening Jesse’s sister told me he had married, I noticed the green dot of the Google chat feature next to his name. I considered writing to say congratulations. I am ashamed to admit that I did not. Instead I repurposed both items Molly presented to me that day. The news about Jesse became part of this piece, and one of those Japanese notebooks became my critic’s journal, a magpie’s nest of arrows, asterisks, quotations, and stray thoughts about the movies I’m meant to review:

Film Notes (Sept. 2013 —

Please Give (Holofcener, 2010)

Keener plays Kate, who buys furniture and artwork @ estate sales, refurbishes it, and resells it @ a huge markup, sort of takes adv. of the fact that ppl. don’t know the 1st thing about what their shit is worth.

Responsibilities, obligations (Rebecca Hall) v. fun, freedom (Amanda Peet, hilarious)

LIBERAL GUILT

MONEY

Keener searches the Internet for volunteer opportunities, gives money to ppl. on the street, but isn’t particularly charitable in her own life.

“Old furniture has ghosts.”

Opening song, last lines: “Some folks lose, some folks win.”

When I started writing this I think I was searching, at least in part, for an explanation of why I failed to respond to the beckoning of the green dot, but you see now that I had the answer in front of me all along.

*

“You know what, fuck all of you guys,” Olivia says in Friends with Money. “I’m sorry I don’t have my entire life figured out.”

I want to say I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry I was relieved when my call went to voicemail. I’m sorry I bailed on dinner at the last minute and grimaced at the photographs of your wedding. I’m sorry I burned the bridge between us or just ignored it until it became impassable. I’m sorry I broke my promise to keep your secret, I’m sorry I lied, and I’m sorry I told the truth. I’m sorry I drank too much bourbon and screamed at you in the backyard that night. I’m sorry you have not convinced me to quit smoking. I’m sorry I picked a fight I had no interest in winning on the ride home from the party one bitterly cold Christmas, that I kissed you under the restaurant’s eave on my twenty-sixth birthday (because even then I already knew I would never say “I love you” back), that I didn’t fly home for your funeral. I’m sorry that I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. I don’t have my entire life figured out, and I know, at some level, that I never will.

Writing about Holofcener in the memoir’s intimate first person feels appropriate. Her tacit project all along has been a time-lapse portrait of the women of her generation. No single filmmaker I can think of has rendered with such precision the full complement of pathways through adulthood available to this particular cohort — a depiction preternaturally attuned to the absurdities of this milieu without ever succumbing to satire. Holofcener is the foremost auteur of where our empathies lie.

And so this philatelist of regret, collecting it, collating it, pinning it down, is also the purveyor of what comes after. What Olivia hears next is as important to understanding Holofcener’s work as the apology itself.

“Olivia, we love you,” Franny tells her. “We’re the ones who love you.”

For Holofcener, a family is made up of the ones who love you. It is the ultimate form of attachment and the most difficult to sever, because to love someone is to know that he or she craves the same understanding you do. Stop for a second and think of what it’s like for me.

I suspect that Holofcener’s characters live on somewhere after the camera stops rolling, encountering new mistakes to regret and changes to absorb, but the final act always suggests a refreshed sense of attachment. This is her design for living: to forget for a moment that you did not hold up your end of the bargain and grasp your best friend’s hand as you walk down the stairs to her wedding, or join your sisters to welcome Mom home from the hospital. To give the right guy a chance, to help your neighbor in her time of grief, to make amends.

I’m probably not old enough to be allowed so many regrets, but consider this an attempt to make amends to the ones who love me. As Jane says in Friends with Money, I don’t know what I’d do without you guys. I think about what my days would be like without having you as friends and I would just want to die.

NOBODY’S PERFECT is another thing I wrote in my critic’s journal, but you already knew that.


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.