A Drifter's Game
New York City and the obvious impossibility of "Frances Ha"
I have a friend who has disproportionately vitriolic opinions about the film “Frances Ha.” Here’s how he responded to another friend who asked him, casually, for his thoughts on the movie:
“Stupid stupid film about boring pretentious “waste of space” people. All the characters were detestable and irritating. The most enjoyable part of the film was hating it and making fun of how stupid it is. Adam Driver is the most punchable annoying actor in the world. God that scene where she is at the fancy dinner is so excruciatingly cringe I wanted to scratch my eyes out…The whole fucking plot is a rich person figuring out they have to actually make money to live.”
This came up because I saw “Frances Ha,” directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, for the first time last week. I caught a screening at Metrograph, a boutique theater on the Lower East Side with a bar upstairs that doesn’t serve a beer for less than ten bucks—an insignificant detail if not for the fact that the film, centered around the mundane Manhattan hangs of a late-twenties dancer named Frances (Gerwig), has cemented itself as the defining New York picture of the 2010s. It’s set down the street.
It’s safe to say that I do not share my friend’s animus towards this mostly harmless, occasionally inspired work. I understand the instinct to castigate “Frances Ha” for intentionally inflating the extent of its protagonist’s impoverishment—Frances is a reserve dancer in a New York company trying to make it in the big city—to artificially add character and tension to an otherwise empty slate. Personally, I think that reading is pretty unfair—look no further than the film’s title for a demonstration of its clear self-awareness about the richness of Frances’ problems, issues which the film consistently treats ironically1 (“That’s offensive to actual poor people,” her undateable pal Benji replies at one point to a grumbling Frances).
But given how synonymous the film has become with New York City, I’m absolutely positive that the larger point my friend is trying to convey with his critique is correct, which is that the premise of “Frances Ha,” more than merely trite, is completely preposterous. Don’t let its quick cuts, black-and-white treatment, and hyper-realist dialogue hypnotize you into thinking otherwise. It actually speaks to the writing and filmmaking prowess of the Baumbach-Gerwig duo that the film not only manages to somewhat successfully convince the audience that Frances is impoverished but artfully persuades the viewer that Frances’ lifestyle, in the lower Manhattan neighborhoods through which she predominantly roams, is even remotely plausible. It probably wasn’t in 2012, and the idea someone like Frances could exist in Manhattan today is wholly farcical.
The reason why: New York City prices are out of control, to an extent the film—one undergirded by the central motif of money—hugely understates. It’s one of those phrases you hear so much that you almost instinctively roll your eyes at it; yeah, duh, New York is expensive. But because it’s become such a cliche, the implications of this reality are often overlooked.
This is a massive topic, but because we’re talking about “Frances Ha” let’s limit the scope of the discussion a little to narrow in on rents in the Manhattan neighborhoods the film primarily features, ones which also happen to be symbols of the 20th century explosion of New York creativity: the East Village, Greenwich Village, and the Lower East Side.
In the film, Frances moves in with friends Lev and Benji on Catherine Street, just on the edge of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, and supposedly pays $950 a month in rent for her own bedroom, according to a couch conversation between the three roommates (a friendly discount off her fair share of $1,200).
The average non-doorman, two-bedroom in the Lower East Side was listed for $3,747 in 2012 ($1,874 per bedroom).2 That’s well above what the film claims Frances requires to join Lev and Benji, but it’s far less than what she’d likely need to pay in July 2023, when non-doorman two-bedrooms on the Lower East Side were listed, on average, for $4,306 a month ($2,153 per bedroom).3 A two-bedroom without a doorman in the East Village was listed for an average of $4,538 last month; in Greenwich village, $5,926 (anecdotally, renters I talk to looking for spaces in the area now anticipate paying a minimum of two grand a month to share an apartment).4
Now, this summer has been a particularly expensive one for renters, and inflation plays a complicated role in exact increases (though wages certainly haven’t kept up with general price surges). Prices will (probably) decelerate at some point soon. There are still some “steals” out there to be had, and these apartments quickly become legendary in city circles—I have a friend who pays $1,500 for a decent Lower East Side one bedroom, for example (though there’s a steeply inclining slant on one side of the living room which throws off the Feng shui). A three-bedroom on 22 Catherine Street, the exact address belonging to Frances, Lev, and Benji, was listed in February for $4,200 a month (though photos make it seem much, ahem, cozier, than the “rich boy” spaciousness portrayed onscreen).
But barring a blue-moon apartment find, it’s not difficult to understand how affording visits to the movies, tax-rebate funded dinners off Houston (try to find a 27-year-old “artist” dining out in the Lower East Side today who can’t access a credit card), and rogue weekend trips to Paris, all while paying at least $2,000 a month in rent, isn’t exactly a drifter’s game. It’s a lifestyle which requires the type of full-time salary offered almost exclusively by a corporate job, not a part-time dance company.
Or it requires family assistance, be it property or a family loan or just plain cash, on a scale far outpacing the safety net of the humble, middle-class Sacramento parents portrayed in “Frances Ha.” It requires, in other words, significant goddamn generational wealth, the kind accessible only to the upper class. For what it’s worth, I, for the moment, mostly belong to this group; if not for family housing, there’s no way living here and writing would be viable.
In the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods which dominate “Frances Ha,” formerly tough-to-find but feasible studio spaces (the kind Patti Smith and David Byrne could scrap to find a few generations ago) and their accompanying creative booms have all but disappeared. Filling their places are the young corporate professionals who belong to the only milieux young enough to accept the cramped reality of the area while simultaneously earning enough to afford it. Or, of course, those with other sources of means.
The reality of life in New York City is that the jobs which meet the required income level to live here are almost never those which grant the free time, flexibility, or bandwidth to pursue nascent creative endeavors. You might say that this is true in any city; that art has always been tied to capitalism in profound and deleterious ways, that bohemian is just another word for bourgeois.
I’d mostly agree with all that, but the hyper-rise of New York prices has acutely supercharged the structural forces historically keeping art in the hands of the wealthy. The scale of the problem is on a completely different level here, one which boxes out not just working but middle and upper-middle class creative endeavors. To buy into the whimsical New York vision “Frances Ha” presents is to accept a world which hadn’t existed for decades even at the time of the film’s release; it is to engage in pure fantasy.
At Metrograph, popcorn is available for moviegoers, but only comes in these sort of pre-bagged boxes, and is accompanied on the shelf by an assortment of fine Scandinavian candies. I saw the film on a Tuesday, and my screening was full of young people who, like me, almost certainly purchased their tickets with functioning credit cards. Two blocks from Frances and Lev and Benji’s supposed apartment on the Lower East Side, this was the audience most predisposed of any in the world to enjoy “Frances Ha.”
And a few laughs it got. But a simmering tension had slowly been working itself to a boil beneath the theater that night, one spiced with equally peculiar doses of envy and angst. We were watching ourselves onscreen, except we obviously weren’t, and how hard could making something like this really be, and, wait, how can the storage-container gallery curator next to me afford to live in a Greenwich Village studio again?
Around halfway through the film, Frances’ friend Sophie delivers something of a throwaway line: “You have to be rich to be an artist in New York,” she scoffs. It’s the sort of self-reflexive commentary Gerwig and Baumbach so expertly craft, directed at the exact demographic sitting in that theater. The perfect opportunity to cut through the tension, to escape our indictment in the coolest possible way—by laughing at ourselves—had arrived.
But the joke didn’t land. We sat in a screening room bathed in black and white, munching away at our room temperature popcorn, and remained dead silent.
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If anything, I think the most meaningful version of a critique of this film would tackle its irony overdose.
More data is available on two bedroom than three bedroom apartments, but generally the per-bedroom price of these listings is equivalent.
The most updated figures show a three-bedroom Lower East Side apartment—the kind featured in the film—listed for an average of $5,995 a month (https://www.zumper.com/rent-research/manhattan-ny).