We hit stop on the DVD player about 10 minutes in to the second episode of Jennifer Fox’s Flying, Confessions of a Free Woman. The documentary filmmaker had just said, in the voice over, that she’d spent 20 years in therapy working on – what exactly? I can’t remember right now. What was clear at that point is that we were not the audience for this film. “TWENTY years in therapy and she can’t figure it out!?” We were both exasperated.
In Flying, the filmmaker travels the planet talking to women about sex, motherhood, relationships, you know… the kind of stuff girlfriends in movies and sitcoms sit around talking about over bottles of red wine. Divorces, lovers, commitment, yadda yadda yadda. The women are sympathetic, but I felt impatient with the whole undertaking. The problem for me was one of contrast. The filmmaker lives a life of clear privilege, cool job, cool New York City loft, exotic boyfriends, travel…but in the midst of talking with a mother who grew up under apartheid in Soweto or woman in the midst of cancer treatment, she turns the camera back on herself and talks about her own existential angst.
I want to like her and I want to care about her. She has an impressive background and according to her bio, has done remarkable work. And maybe, in person, I would be kinder and embrace her story. She seems like the kind of person I’d want to be my friend. But the film is just too exhibitionist for me, physically and emotionally – there’s a scene where she’s at the gynecologist and shot of the doctor is framed by the filmmakers bare legs. Edgy? Not for me. Icky is more like it. I don’t know this woman and I do not want to be at her pelvic exam. Even if I DO know you, I don’t want to be at your pelvic exam. Please.
I get that these are personal, intimate conversations and moments captured on film. Okay. And I can imagine visiting a friend who’s undergoing intense medical treatment. Instead of talking about the weight of that, we change the topic to lighter things. “What’s up with your husband?” my friend might ask, and then we’d have the kind of conversation that Jennifer Fox films. But that would be between me and my friend, not between me and an audience.
There’s a scene when one of the boyfriends is saying something like, “I don’t feel comfortable having this personal conversation on camera. I’m perfectly willing to talk about this between us, but I don’t want this conversation to take place in some movie theater…” Um, yeah.
Artists should make work for themselves, of course. But vanity projects that are released into the world need to somehow transcend, to go from the personal to the universal. Because Jennifer Fox keeps turning the camera back on herself, we’re constantly reminded that this is all about her.
We have four more hours of the series to watch. I’m pretty sure we’re not going to bother.
Disclaimer: I responded to a call for screeners of this documentary film series. No money changed hands. After this, I probably won’t be invited to screen anything again. Ever.