“I Looked for You”: The Queerness of Mistress America

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“I got rejected by the Lit Society. I’m so suggestible, like, I think that because I got rejected, I think I can’t write.” Tracy tells this to Brooke, whom she has known for maybe three hours, give or take. And yet, the closeness and trust that Tracy feels in Brooke, and perhaps vice versa, transcends the limitations of time. One can immediately tell that the moment Brooke appears on screen, they are as in awe of each other as we are of them.The way that their relationship manifests, though, seems to exist beyond the limitations of mere sisterhood or sororal friendship. That Tracy begins to write a story about Brooke that is equally in admiration and yet totally critical of Brooke seems to be indicative of this kind of projection that exists between the two of them. They project on to one another, with Tracy seeing in Brooke what she wants to be and yet what is totally ridiculous, and Brooke seeing in Tracy what she once was and how her trajectory could change under her tutelage.

Her story, taken from the name of an idea Brooke mentions in passing, is written in the first person, reflective of specifically how Tracy feels about Brooke, and how she feels about Brooke’s idiosyncrasies, habits, follies, desires, apartment, clothing, ideas – in short, “Mistress America” and Mistress America is about this tacit exchange of identities, not entirely unlike Todd Haynes’s Carol.

“Her beauty was of that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself and not like her,” Tracy writes, the words at once reticent and expressively honest. There lives in these words, and in Tracy in general, an ambivalence that oscillates between the desirous nature to want to be Brooke, in her best qualities of being ambitious and savvy, and yet want to retain her own identity, safe from the delusions that Brooke shrouds herself in. She works best as this pseudo-fictitious observer, thinking she can shield herself from the same kind of pain that she sees Brooke avoid, but their instantaneous, almost metaphysical connection to one another makes her just as vulnerable.

IN the way that Brooke is so game to unofficially mentor Tracy, their relationship ascends to that metaphysical level in an almost quasi “persona swap” way. Their dynamic doesn’t lack the similarities of Betty and Rita in Mulholland Dr, Maria and Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria, or Alma and Elisabet in Persona. That we see so many images of Brooke, very pointedly from the perspective of Tracy, and that one of Brooke’s crucial elements as a character is the need to brand herself, presents this constructed identity, something that Tracy is learning, through trial and error, how to do herself. The short story she writes is her version of that, part construction, part extension.

Though Miriam Bale is much more knowledgeable about the persona swap film than I, one could argue that there’s a misconception about the genre: that the films must have characters whose identities are fully developed. But that seems antithetical to the very idea of the persona swap film. Instead, the persona swap film seems more like an exercise for both characters to wax and wane, to build off of one another’s identities in order to create and construct their own, taking note of the flaws and imperfections, and, whether they like it or not, absorbing them to create their own self. Carol and Mistress America are curiously good examples of this, with both featuring blond leads whose lives and social status are ostensibly greater and are of greater privilege than their dark haired mentees’. Also, too, these bond leads, Carol and Brooke, look like their identities are fully formed; but they’re not. That’s the point.

Brooke and Tracy, though at different points in their lives, are still navigating who they are and what place they have in the world, especially for a universe whose cosmic tragicomedic possibilities won’t wait for them to catch up.

There is also the misunderstanding of what queer cinema is: that it must contain gay characters, that it must contain gay sex, that it must contain gay desire. ON the contrary, queer cinema is, as Little White Lies suggests, the opposite of everything, either blatantly transgressive or sneaking in its transgressions for an audience that is, consciously or not, resisting the normative frameworks of how to navigate one’s identity. Of one of B. Ruby Rich’s definitions, queer cinema contains a conscious understand of the way metaphor works to explore one’s self and the way that self is constantly in a state of flux. (Other definitions: the audience can be queer.) That identity is a social construct, that we are malleable and, as Tracy says, suggestible, is a crucial aspect. And in Mistress America, Brooke and Tracy are, in different ways, oscillating between the confidence in who they want to be and the unsureness of who they actually are.

Tracy and Tony discuss who they wish they could be, who they could be were it not for the people around them, were it not for themselves getting in the way of everything. “If I could just figure out my look, I’d be the most beautiful woman in the world.” But she looks to Brooke, the closest thing of who she does and doesn’t want to be.

It isn’t by accident that this film takes place (mostly) in New York, a city in which one can disappear into anonymity should they not have some idea of who they are or come conception of their selfhood. It’s a hall of sky-high mirrors, ready to reflect and refract anyone and anything. This jarring sense in which Tracy is unable to connect with anyone at school stings like someone fighting to be someone more than just a face in the crowd, making latching onto someone is the next best thing.

Co-writer/uncredited -co-director Greta Gerwig once remarked, regarding Frances Ha (another kinda queer film) that, for her lead character, there was “this feeling that she didn’t fit into heteronormative structures”. Frances Ha plays somewhat like a quasi-romance, and so does Mistress America, like a mirror image. The latter focuses on the observations of the way that Brooke and Tracy exchange power and desire (not of the sexual kind).

The way in which Tracy oscillates between kind of performative unfettered adoration for Brooke and a self-aware doubt is painful, the kind of realization and disillusionment that so informs Gerwig’s collaborations with Noah Baumbach. Its mimicry of the way relationships manifest is astute, but to call it a “relationship” in a conventional, even normative sense, is missing the point.

Maybe the most significant thing about Mistress America is its specificity of pain and disappointment, in addition to its adoration. The dynamic between Tracy and Brooke exists outside of the conventional and normative frameworks, and it’s as much a mirror image of Carol as it is of Frances Ha: Mistress America exists in a screwball universe, but it’s as cognizant of the failures of language to articulate love of any kind. While Carol distances itself from language, Mistress America revels in it, precisely for the same point: to reveal its shortcomings. On Twitter, through a pitch, using the words “break-up” when crying to one’s mother, and deluding oneself into believing in someone unbelievable (“And because I was in love with her, I decided I couldn’t’ see it either.”) – Words are useless when trying to approach the meaning of adoration and connection. The most honest frame in the whole film is at the end, when Tracy returns to see Brooke right before she moves. Tracy presses her hands and her face up against the locked window, and the two look into one another’s eyes. “I looked for you,” Tracy tells Brooke. Or maybe she’s talking to herself. The glass is both something to look through to see someone whom you want and want to be, but it’s also just a reflector.

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