‘You know the Bowery Hotel?… if you walk about a block South there is a laser hair removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room,’ quips Greta Gerwig’s Brook to Lola Kirke’s Tracey in the film Mistress America (2015). Five months after its release, Mistress America has stayed in my mind for its zany account of someone who restlessly chases after new beginnings. Brook, the central character of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s modern screwball comedy, is a 30-year-old multitasking dynamo with fingers in many pies. She’s a freelance interior decorator, specialising in the City’s ancillary spaces; a maths tutor and a spin-class leader. When Brook meets 18-year-old Tracey, an insecure college student and her future stepsister, she’s about to launch Mom’s, her most ambitious project yet. Mom’s will function as an eatery, hair salon and sanctuary for frazzled Manhattanites. But when investment from Brook’s absent rich boyfriend Stavros falls through, and she is sent on an unlikely hunt for funds via a fortune-teller, her arch-enemy and an ex-boyfriend, Tracey suspects that Brook maybe headed for ruin. Whilst remaining on sisterly terms with Brook in person, Tracey, an aspiring writer, turns this to her advantage, by penning ‘Mistress America,’ a story where the central character Meadow is a scarcely-camouflaged Brook. With the inexperienced sagacity of an eighteen-year-old, Tracey pathologises Brook for her combination of hare-brained schemes and lack of ‘follow-through.’
Brook might fall into martial arts trainer George Leonard’s definition of a ‘Dabbler.’* According to Leonard, ‘The Dabbler approaches each sport, career opportunity or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He loves the rituals involved of getting started, the spiffy equipment, the shine of newness… The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid.’ The Dabbler, Leonard considers, will never achieve mastery in his career or relationships because he finds the inevitable plateau that follows the initial spurt of excitement, unbearable. He is unable to plough on with his work when he’s not making obvious progress and gets bored and frustrated easily. Dabbler characteristics are anathema in martial arts and anything else where progress is slow and achieved with persistent hard work. But isn’t Brook required to be a Dabbler of sorts to thrive in the modern metropolis? Isn’t it her ability to abandon failing projects and find new ones that enables her to get by?
If we strip back the screwball glamour of Brook’s eccentricities, her character and lifestyle are hardly unique. She is essentially a young woman with abundant ideas and energy, who has been trying to not only survive in New York City, but contribute to its status as a hub of urban innovation. She has thrown herself into numerous projects, which have flash-in-the-pan satisfaction and limited currency. By the time she haphazardly conceives the idea for Mom’s, she is ready for a more substantial commitment, which will liberate her from having to expend her energy on finite enterprises. Living in London, a city, which like New York, is a shiny jewel for magpies with artistic skills, education and ideas, I have met many variations on the Brook theme. As someone with myriad eclectically-financed projects on the go, I’m a version of Brook. Her trajectory through niche commissions, part-time jobs and wild-goose-chases for funds, feels both hilarious and authentic.
Post-recession, I would even argue that those who have forgone the cover of a corporate graduate scheme or other equivalent stability, have had to show Brook’s level of versatility (and charm), in order to earn enough to survive, or to ensure that they collate the diverse portfolio of skills needed for an ever-changing job market. When short-term contracts and one-off commissions are the norm, even if you do want to stay in one role and achieve what Leonard terms ‘mastery,’ you have to move on. Or maybe your dream-job, that you’ve trained all these years for, is about as hard to come by as snow in June, (or December for that matter), so you’re taking baby-bird steps to get there, via serial loosely-related fringe roles. Maybe you’re doing your dream job anyway, and don’t earn a living wage, so you have to scavenge for something that pays. Maybe mastery in one thing isn’t that important to you and you genuinely enjoy trying different types of work – is that a valid reason for self-flagellation? Whatever, the causes, ‘Mistress America’, with more hats than the Mad Hatter and more wiles than Katharine Hepburn’s Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is no mythic unicorn, but a real modern type. Interestingly, the original 1930s screwball comedies with their untoward plots, physical humour and scrappy heroes who were capable of improvising their way into and out of trouble, were made in an era of mass unemployment following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Gerwig and Baumbach should re-invent a version of the genre for our own age of precarious employment and economic uncertainty.
I realise that this is an odd Winter Solstice post, but it resonates with what I’ve seen, heard and felt this year. There are beginnings everywhere, but how can we tell which ones have mileage and which ones will lead us on the quest for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And if they do send us on a leprechaun path is that such a bad thing?
*George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).