Must-Read: Friendship Stories

Post may contain slight spoilers.


Since tittering with Acro coven-mate K.S. at the beefcake and bromance of Magic Mike XXL last month, I have been hungry for more stories about friendship. One of the best things for me about the Magic Mike sequel was the way it dwelt in male friendship and let the quiet moments between the men unfold. Those, more than any panting over hard dude bods, are the moments that I recognize as most genuine.

Friendship seems always to get short shrift in popular discussions about relationships. While desire, usually expressed as sex or ambition, romance or power, is compulsively and regularly narrated for us, friendship is always the consolation prize. It is the zone that represents thwarted desire. As a form of dependence that does not preserve the individualism undergirding our narratives of desire, friendship has the potential to be something radically affirming and constructive. And for all our chatter about the difficulties of romantic love—men are like this, women are like this, am I right, ladies???—it is friendship that feels truly dynamic, diverse, complex and difficult.

In preparation for this list I asked some of my friends to recommend their favorite stories about friendship, and as with most friendly advice, I summarily ignored it all (thanks, buds!). So below find a more or less idiosyncratic and personal list of friendship stories that I find particularly compelling.

Broad City

 

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Via @broadcity / Instagram

 

The relationship between Abbi and Ilana is the best-friendship I’ve always coveted. Both effortless and deep, whimsical yet vital, youthful but solid, their friendship is striking in its simplicity. Neither sex nor competition muddies their rapport and mutual devotion. And unlike other female friendships on this list, this is not the sweetness of girlhood dependence before adulthood and the world of men and sex intrudes. No rich dentist or kinky neighbor could hope to replace the spark that exists for these women in each other.

 

Ilana is the best-friend unicorn of every 20-something girl’s dreams. More adventurous, brazen and cocksure than the staid Abbi with a sporty suffer-no-fools attitude and a seemingly boundless well of affection, she is the exciting boundary-pushing fantasy girl that inspires so many submissions to Thought Catalogue. The manic pixie dream friend who doesn’t seek adulthood or personal development, but will joyfully hump a wall in triumph at learning that Abbi has finally, finally, pegged a guy.

Every time I hear Ilana’s “dooood!” I am reminded of all of my cusp-of-adulthood friendships and the self-contained intensity of young women who keep the best of themselves for each other.

We are, all of us, just Abbis searching for our Ilana.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

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There is a certain kind of friendship that is only possible in the presence of a shared enemy. I’m not talking about the kind of bonding facilitated by a bad boss or a mean teacher, but about a primal connection that can draw people hurt by the same person together. These friendships are built on the perverse satisfaction of dwelling in one’s misery, of discovering an ally who will poke your wound only to comfort you in your hurt. Finding someone who knows your pain intimately, and won’t ask you to metabolize it constructively.

This is the friendship that Roz, Charis and Tony share in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Each woman has fallen victim to Zenia, erstwhile best friend and recidivist husband-stealer, whose long-ago death is not as permanent as it should be. They are drawn together through their shared anger and pain at Zenia’s various betrayals, but they are equally bound by an unspoken grief at her loss. Although each woman rages and mourns at the loss of her man, filtered through that pain is the more fundamental betrayal of sisterhood and friendship perpetrated by Zenia herself. We might have expected it of men, they say, but how could a woman do such a thing to me?

Drawn together by the betrayal of another woman, Roz, Charis and Tony need each other simply to bear the pain of losing both their men and their sisterhood at once.

Withnail and I

 


Unlike other nostalgic 80s films about the 60s, Withnail and I remembers the era as intermittently hopeless and hysterical through the lens of a rapidly disintegrating friendship.

The film follows the relationship between the titular Withnail, played masterfully by Richard E. Grant, and Marwood (the “I” played by Paul McGann), two unemployed actors living one drink to the next in a grimy London flat as they attempt to snatch a little relief from the oppressive misery of their lives on a misguided holiday in the country. It is about the kind of friendship made possible by substance abuse and the kind of substance abuse facilitated through codependence. Alcoholism enabled by a friendship that feels distressingly like addiction. Withnail’s calls for alcohol are a constant refrain, and one of the best scenes in the movie has Withnail guzzling lighter fluid after they’ve run out of booze while Marwood objects that “you should never mix your drinks!” Riding the line where devotion slides into addiction, it deftly captures the feeling of emotional hangover.

Here is codependence and self-destruction at its most horrific and compelling. Here is friendship with a profound loneliness at its center. Here are men who consume each other with needs that can never be satisfied.

I should mention this is a comedy.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

The actual outlaws, Sundance and Butch bottom left and right / Wikimedia commons
The actual outlaws, Sundance and Butch bottom left and right / Wikimedia commons

 I am devoted to bromance. Although I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about women and their relationships, my heart positively melts in the presence of genuine affection between men. Bromance isn’t exactly rare in film—the buddy movie is a time honored tradition, as is the cowboy flick—but the friendship between Butch and Sundance transcends, for me, the usual perimeters of male friendship prescribed by Hollywood. Their jauntiness is not a cover for homosexual panic. Their friendship is not an excuse to flee shrewish wives. They do not compete for money or jobs or women. No grudging respect, this. Theirs is a meeting of kindred hearts.

Butch and Sundance are so obviously in love with each other in that way that we fall for friendships that feels like destiny. The movie feels a little dissonant because it looks and feels like a gritty revisionist western with the sparkling banter of a romantic comedy. It lets Paul Newman and Robert Redford be beautiful and charming at each other in a way that feels more consistent with Frank Capra than John Ford. Theirs is the closest to genuine sexual tension to appear on this list. The banter is clever and flirty, and it really seems that bickering through the desert on horseback is the greatest pleasure these men could imagine. If Robert Redford were a woman they would have found their way into bed before the third act. As it is, they consummate their love through the proxy of an apparently non-competitive romance with the same woman—Butch handles the seduction and Sundance gets the sex. But rather than doing the obvious queer reading this film is begging for, I want to dwell in the friendship. This movie allows us to enjoy the erotic potential of friendship without insisting that its only pleasure must eventually be sex.

 

Harry Potter

Dumbledore’s Army via @HarryPotterFilm / Twitter
Dumbledore’s Army via @HarryPotterFilm / Twitter

At its center, the Harry Potter series is about the vital necessity of friendship to the struggle, any struggle. The ties of friendship in this world have the power to mobilize armies and topple totalitarian regimes. These books believe that courage is a function of community and that the causes we fight for must include the people we love. Friendship here is nothing if not a political association. It is the very basis of revolutionary potential and political action. Fighting for a better world cannot be divorced from dedication to community just as investment in friendship is intimately tied to enthusiasm for justice. It is, perhaps, a romantic fantasy to believe that a pure enough love can solve political problems, but I think it is just as true that the model of anti-individualist dependence offered by friendship is a good place to begin building a sustainable politics.

Friendship here, as in a lot of other YA fiction, is so much more critical than romance. The crucible of puberty and sexual awakening is a strong presence, but desire can never sustain the struggle the way friendship does. The most touching relationships in the series are not the romances, many of which whiff hard, but the fierce loyalty and trust comrades carry for each other. They fight for the world so that their friends may continue to live.

 

Sula by Toni Morrison

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The friendship in Sula is, in many ways, quite the opposite of that in Broad City. While Abbi and Ilana can live uncomplicatedly for each other while high-fiving over their various conquests, Nel and Sula grow up violently and early to discover that the communion of women is perverse and destructive in a world organized by men under the sign of hetero love. Among many things, Sula explores the ravages that adulthood and sexuality have on the exuberance of female friendship.

Sula and Nel’s adolescent devotion disintegrates under the pressure of Nel’s choice to marry a man named Jude while Sula remains unattached and unapologetically unconventional. Eventually Nel loses Jude and Sula both, and they live most of their lives without each other. But Sula’s death provides one of the most heartbreaking moments of mourning for friendship I have ever found:

 

“All the same, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We were girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”

 

To be girls together. That is a loss worth mourning.


Do you have a favorite story about friendship? Any recommendations for must-reads? Let us know in the comments! 

Acro Collective Greatest Hits: Celebrating 100 Posts!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that this little project has already reached 100 posts! Thank you so much for continuing to grow with us and for supporting this community of thought, discourse, and love.

To celebrate our first major milestone, I highlight some of our most popular and beloved posts, in case you missed them or feel like revisiting the ideas they present. Stick with us! We love having you, and the best is yet to come.

Black Women and Mental Illness: Talking about “Fog” with Chelsea Woods

One of my favorite things about running Acro Collective is our ability to shine a spotlight on attention-worthy works in progress. Below, filmmaker Chelsea Woods discusses her exciting new project and its ties to a pressing issue in the black community. 



1) First, please tell us a little bit about your project, Fog. What is its focus?

Fog tells the story of Valerie, a successful African-American corporate lawyer. To most people, it seems like she has the perfect life — she’s on the brink of a promotion to partner at her firm and her college-age daughter is returning from school — but Valerie suffers from depression and anxiety which manifests itself as a fictional ’90s sitcom that follows her around her house. The film focuses on two days in her life where she is forced to confront her crumbling mental state and the consequences of trying to hide for so long.

2) What inspired you to make this short film? What kind of sources did you draw on?

Early last year, I went through a period of depression. I had been unemployed for months and what started as frustration turned into something much more emotionally complicated. Fast forward to the end of the year — I’m employed, I finished my first feature film script, I’m feeling good — and my mother and I had a conversation about that early part of the year. I finally admitted to her that I was depressed and while she was supportive, she also said “I just don’t understand how a Black woman could be depressed. That’s not in our nature. That’s a white people problem.” And that’s a mindset that is prevalent in the African-American community. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of African-Americans have mental illnesses that go undiagnosed because of the social stigma against treatment. It’s terrifying. So, I decided to write this film not only as a way for me to share my experience but as a way to portray mental illness as naturally as possible. So often mental illnesses are portrayed as epic meltdowns or violent outbursts. The reality of my depression manifested in the moments that were completely mundane — the intense struggle to get out of bed, breaking down as I searched through job postings — so I hope that bringing an honest look on screen can perhaps help other African-American women and men understand what they themselves or someone close to them might be going through.
3) What are your personal inspirations when you conceptualize new projects? What films/filmmakers are among your favorites right now?
When it comes to conceptualizing new projects, I usually start from some feeling or issue within myself. With Fog, it was my experience with depression. With my first short, Elevated, it was the question of racial identity and inhabiting both Black and White spaces authentically. Sometimes it comes from a desire to see just something different. The feature I’m currently developing stemmed from my love of graphic, masculine films like Fight Club and Pulp Fiction but a desire to put a woman in the driver’s seat, to see a woman have that wild adventure where she can cuss, be unladylike, and maybe even save the day.
The list of filmmakers and films that I love is very broad but at the moment I’m especially enamoured with the work of French director Celine Sciamma. She released a film called Girlhood (French title: Bande de filles) last year and it was moved me very deeply. I’d say it was my favorite film of the year. I’m also a huge fan of Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) and Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight). Recent films I’ve enjoyed include Mad Max: Fury Road, Eden, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. I try to make sure I watch a wide variety of movies and TV shows.
4) Tell us a little bit about where you started as a filmmaker, and how you got to where you are today.
I was born and partially raised in Pasadena, California, just outside of Los Angeles, and while growing up I actually despised the film industry! I wanted to be an astronaut and go to Caltech to study astrophysics. But around my thirteenth birthday I realized that I didn’t want to be an astronaut, exactly — I really wanted to be a Jedi like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The Star Wars films had inspired me so deeply and had actually shaped my life up to that point. At the same time, I had an amazing English teacher who encouraged me to write and I discovered that I had a passion for writing for the screen as well as directing and I’ve never looked back. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2011 and moved back to LA where I worked in television as a costume assistant for shows like Criminal Minds and Agents of SHIELD before leaving that behind to pursue my true passion. Earlier this year I was selected as one of ten directors for the AFI Conservatory’s Directing Workshop for Women where I’m set to shoot Fog next month.

5) Are there any resources out there you’d recommend for aspiring filmmakers, especially for women of color?

The number one thing you have to do as a young filmmaker is to make work and build a portfolio. Now mind you that’s easier said than done, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The best way to learn is by getting any camera you can get your hands on — even if it’s just your phone — rounding up friends or scouring the internet for other folks and going out there and making something. Do not let the word ‘no’ stop you ever. Instead use it as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles and find a new way. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. Always remember that beyond ego and accolades, the true mark of a great film is the story, so know why you want to tell the stories you want to tell. Know that and you’re cooking with gas right out the gate. Women and women of color are among the most incredible storytellers, yet we are massively underrepresented. As much press that’s out there about the predicament of women, it’s important for us as female filmmakers to not let the burden of history keep us from creating a present and future that is fruitful for diverse filmmaking. We cannot let that handicap us. Instead we have to take those statistics and use it as kindling so we can burn through this industry, make something fresh and inspired, and create real and lasting change. It’s not a crazy idea; it’s a reality that desperately needs to happen.

But there are also a lot of diversity programs out there. For women, the AFI Directing Workshop for Women is an incredible opportunity. There’s also Film Independent’s Project Involve which is open to women and men of color as well as members of the LGBTQIA community. The major networks and studios also have programs for writers and directors as well as guilds like DGA and WGA. There’s a lot of opportunities out there but sometimes it means a lot of digging.


Follow the film: facebook.com/fogtheshort  and @fogtheshort
Chelsea on Twitter: @TheOriginalCW

Reel Women: Sister Act

Today, E.L. brings us back to a movie invested in community—though this community is expressed in a somewhat unexpected way. As with all of the movies in our Reel Women series, this one offers up a kind of unabashed pleasure that can be the most radical form of self-care. And, like all movies in this series, this one is best enjoyed with your witch coven by your side.


 

Welcome back to Reel Women, our series featuring women on film. Last time we talked about the erotics of female competition in Working Girl. This time we’ll concentrate on the erotics of female collaboration in Sister Act.

 

Whoopi Goldberg, rare EGOT winner and shade-throwing daytime TV hostess, sparkles as a lounge singer-cum-nun on the run. My childhood memories of this movie include the musical numbers and habits, but I had totally forgotten the brilliance of Whoopi’s comic timing. She leads a cast of talented comedians who, dressed in habits, must more or less bring the laughs using only their faces. Considering the use of women’s bodies in mainstream comedy from the 90s, this is an impressive feat. Women tend to exist in these movies as either the objects of lust that reveal the limits of the male protagonist’s own attractiveness (think There’s Something About Mary), or as the undesirable butt of the joke (think every fat woman to grace celluloid since the inception of the film medium).

In Sister Act they are neither. Women’s bodies aren’t played for comedy here, which feels pretty impressive when you begin to count the number of non-normative bodies in this movie—the convent is filled with old women, fat women and a black woman, and none of these are targeted for easy jokes. Dressed in habits, their bodies don’t figure much at all (with a few notable exceptions, including Kathy Najimy’s dance scene). Instead, comedy grows naturally from women talking to each other.

Kathy Najimy, Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Makkena owning the face game in Sister Act (1992)
Kathy Najimy, Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Makkena owning the face game in Sister Act (1992)

Released in 1992, Sister Act feels like an anomaly. Part of a small cohort of early 90s sisterhood movies such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and A League of Their Own (1992), it is far more interested in the drama of female relationships than the will-they-or-won’t-they of heterosexual romance. In fact, the fantasy offered by all of these films is that of an escape from the stifling confinement and sometimes outright violence of a world with men. At best, the men in these films are well-intentioned but myopic (see Harvey Keitel in Thelma and Louise) and at worst, they are selfish and brutally violent (Harvey Keitel in Sister Act). And even Brad Pitt’s torso can’t soften the fact that the options for male relationships in these films are so much less compelling than those offered by women.

The action of Sister Act begins with the threat of masculine violence that sends us to the most homosocial place on earth. The convent here is at once a refuge from the world of men and a space in which female collaboration can transform the world for the better. Once sex with men loses its capacity to generate action and motivation, what’s left is the powerful, difficult and dynamic society of female friendship.

That’s not to say these female friendships aren’t also erotic. The taut looks that Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior shoots Whoopi Goldberg’s Deloris sizzle with angry energy, and their understated power struggles are nothing if not sexy.

Maggie Smith as the Reverend Mother with the look of a Dom in Sister Act (1992)
Maggie Smith as the Reverend Mother with the look of a Dom in Sister Act (1992)

But the true romance, I think, blossoms between Deloris and Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena), the convent’s hot young novitiate. Delores is the worldly older mentor to Mary Robert’s naive but curious pupil, and if Delores were a man we would expect a steamy kiss before the final credits roll.

Their relationship reminds me of another film in which witnessing a gruesome murder sends a worldly metropolitanite to a cloistered religious community. In Witness (1985), it seems obvious to us that Harrison Ford’s cop will end up in the arms of the Amish mother played by Kelly MicGillis, but in Sister Act the convent keeps queer possibilities safely in the subtext. Delores cracks Mary Robert’s shell and frees her voice, and Mary Robert in turn offers Delores a gentle welcome to the convent community and even sneaks into Delores’ bedroom to offer her flower (alarm clock) to keep Delores company while she sleeps.

Uncertain attraction in the convent, Sister Act (1992)
Uncertain attraction in the convent, Sister Act (1992)

Mary Robert is almost always shot in closeup to capture her doe-eyed gaze at Delores, and the looks they exchange are always tender and quietly knowing. Beneath their robes Delores is velvet wrapped in steel, gently drawing out Mary Robert whose self-effacing timidity belies her spunk.

The thesis of Sister Act is that really well-arranged choral music can revitalize a neighborhood. In this world, a rollicking arrangement of “Salve Regina” can entice teenage street toughs to Sunday Mass and a dozen nuns in a local church choir can become famous enough to attract the Pope himself for a visit. In this world, the rejuvenation of the church and the community beyond is made possible by the artistic collaboration of a bunch of middle-aged women. In this world, the final reward isn’t the arrival of a man (even if he is the Pope), but is rather the final musical number itself.


Church choir remixes “Salve Regina” in Sister Act (1992)

Community in this movie takes shape around the commune rather than the couple. Sister Act is interested in the possibilities that open up when we shift our attention away from heterosexual sex, reproduction and the nuclear family toward forms of connection that do not need men to thrive. Community spaces and relations are built through joint effort among non-reproductive women rather than through normative family structures, and the aesthetic appeal of the choir’s performances replaces the sex appeal of the female body as the site of community (re)production.

While heterosexual sex ends with Vince chasing Delores with a gun, female collaboration here ends with a bunch of nuns cackling joyfully over contraband tubs of ice cream.

Finally, because I can, I will leave you with this image of one of my favorite moments from the film: Delores dismissively eyeing Vince’s gift of a purple mink jacket while sporting a full-length fur coat. An allegory of heterosexuality if there ever was one.

Two fur coats in one scene, Sister Act (1992)
Two fur coats in one scene, Sister Act (1992)