Based On A True Story: 5 Autobiographic Female Characters - Slightly Unbalanced
The Muse Letter No. 104
Some movies touch you in a way that the mark they leave stays with you throughout your life. They create this world inside of you, sometimes like a past life, which you catch glimpses of in recurrent deja vu. Sometimes they hold a vision for you, of something that could be, something that you should do. And sometimes they are based on a true story which gives them an eerie quality of being larger than just actors reading out a script in an artificial environment, previously imagined by someone on a page. It really happened. There’s something about that sentiment. That what you’re watching is somewhat more real, more tangible, more inspiring, maybe even more valid. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly but something is going on when you watch a movie and the other person goes: Did you know that this is based on a true story? Something in your eyes changes. Like a veil lifted. Like a hand stretching out from the screen, grabbing and sucking you in.
Almost Famous, (2000)
We are about to graduate, it’s late spring and Sunday and the flea market is open. We’re browsing looking for something, a change, a transformation, a piece of clothing that will distinguish us from the rest of the freshmen in autumn when we’re going to uni, and there it is, we both see it at the same time: A Penny Lane Coat. Dangling in front of us from a hanger.
If you have not watched Almost Famous, I don’t even know how to tell you, how to begin to explain the cosmos that this movie is for me. How many decisions I have based in my life on a curly blond woman, wearing a shearling coat and cool round blue glasses shouting: “It’s all happening!” in the background.
Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical movie by Cameron Crowe who as a teenager wrote for Rolling Stone. In the film, it is fairly dramatised but for the most part, in essence, it tells his real-life experience of following a 70s rock band on their tour and writing a cover story about them, meeting all kinds of flamboyant people. Cue: Penny Lane.
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.”
Penny Lane and her friends call themselves band-aids, live free-spirited, and dress fabulously. She is probably everything a young woman wants to embody: cool, mysterious, independent. She also struggles and almost trips over herself near the end of the film but she makes it and schemes one of the most beautiful plot twist in the film. Anyway. Cue: Penny Lane’s coat.
That to this day is one of the most searched fashion items on the internet, and to this day a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Because as I was standing in front of that coat 14 years ago, perfectly embroidered with flowers I didn’t have the guts to ask how much it would cost. I stepped aside and let my friend ask instead. My friend who to be fair wanted the coat just as much. And she got it: for 4 €.
Because it is all happening and if you don’t do something it is all happening to someone else.
Girl, Interrupted, (1999)
Girls and mental illness. Young and very beautiful girls with mental illness and it’s complicated to write about this film because it is not really inspiring or at least not in an uplifting way, it is actually a really sad movie about the real-life events of a young woman’s suicide attempt which leads her to commit herself to a psychiatric hospital for 18 months. And because it’s the 1960s and women’s rights as psychiatric wards were still quite repressive there is a lot of helplessness and tragedy.
“Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash? Have you ever been blue? Or thought your train moving while sitting still? Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe it was the 60’s. Or maybe I was just a girl… interrupted.”
Based on the memoir with the same title by Susanna Kaysen it describes the lives of several young mentally ill women at the ward, forming friendships and enemies. There is a lot that I loved about the movie but especially I loved the way Susanna portrayed by Winona Ryder slowly starts to have agency in her life, slowly starts to set boundaries with toxic people, and actually starts to live her life instead of letting everything happening to her.
“People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, it’s easy. And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. Most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening?”
My Mad Fat Diary, (2013-2015)
I guess there is a theme here now. It started out with a list of 5 autobiographic films / TV shows that I loved and is now turning into: Tell me what kind of autobiographic films you love and I tell you what kind of person you are. Or why I really love complicated, raging, sad, angry, vibrant sometimes mentally ill female characters that live a life. That get life in a way other’s don’t. That really truly fail and break and dust themselves off and get up again.
So here we go. Another unbalanced real-life heroine. Meet: Rae Earl.
Rae is fifteen, over-weight, and just left the psychiatric hospital after spending four months there to recover from a suicide attempt. Trying to reconnect with her friends she falls in love, lives through all those great early 90s brit-era moments, and is extremely funny while doing it.
“Sometimes it feels like everything is going wrong. Even with the things that are wrong already.”
Like all good TV shows about teenhood, it is still very relatable in your 20s and 30s. Because they tell you something about life itself: that everything is rapidly changing and constantly, even and especially when it feels like nothing is happening at all.
Persepolis 1+2, (2007)
Persepolis was my first graphic novel and to this day is my favourite. I remember devouring Marjane Satrapi’s beautiful illustrated childhood stories in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and later her teenage years in Austria, trying to find a new home in a foreign country.
Marjane herself is an artist, a rebel, and probably the most stable of all the other characters I have described so far. She is fierce in her opinions, always trying to figure out her own path.
I remember a scene distinctly when she asks a crush out for a date and gets rejected. Instead of “This will be the death of me” she turns that experience into an act of bravery.
“Listen. I don't like to preach, but here's some advice. You'll meet a lot of jerks in life. If they hurt you, remember it's because they're stupid. Don't react to their cruelty. There's nothing worse than bitterness and revenge. Keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”
Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, (2012)
And if you find yourself lost in the woods. Go deeper.
It’s New Year’s Eve 5 years ago and I’m going hiking. Alone because I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and I want to experience what she describes as: Putting yourself in the way of beauty.
Coming off heroin addiction, newly divorced at 26, and grieving the loss of her mother she embarks on the 3 month-long journey to hike 1,100 miles up north from the Mojave Desert to her final destination: The Bridge of Gods. Trying to find herself and a reason to move on.
This book, this monster of a memoir about Strayed walking the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-90s is one of the reasons why I find myself over and over again: lost in the woods.
Or rising up early at sunrise.
Or trying heroin.
Just kidding. I would never try that.
I guess the interesting thing about autobiographic characters, which I call characters for a reason because anything written/filmed is in the end a work of fictionalising one’s own experience not the actual person. Yet this feeling that it is not a form of pretense. Not someone imagining how something could be but someone has in fact tried this out and lived through it and made it to the other side. It’s a proof of life. A proof of being. Like a message on a toilet wall saying: I was here.
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ORDER THE SECOND EDITION OF "Things I Have Noticed - Essays on leaving / searching / finding”. A poetic memoir I wrote in these weird pandemic times, about the process of finding one’s own voice.
IN CASE YOU MISSED LAST WEEK’S MUSE LETTER
3.15 PM: So many ways to say Goodbye
Take your time. She says.
Take your time. She repeats. And I wish I could take your time. I wish I could take it and make it last forever. If I could I would take all the time in the world and lay it out in front of you.
But you’re a dog. And your life expectancy like a best-before date is attached to you since I brought you home that day four years ago when I put a lead around your head and you followed me home: I’m your owner now.
I didn’t need to say it. A dog figures it out.
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