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“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture.

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year, to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling, to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in the Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet hair, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, the Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in the Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March