Director: Kaspar Kasics (Switterland). Year of Release: 2022
A familiar view of downtown Manhattan, but something looks strange. Although it’s daylight, the streets are almost all deserted. Pedestrian traffic lights turn green and red, but no-one’s around to cross or stop. I initially thought we must be in the aftermath of 9/11, but slowly realised that the streets have not been emptied by plane attacks but by Covid. We hear a telephone conversation between Erica Jong and director Kaspar Kasics wondering if they’ll ever get their film finished.
Erica Jong caused a sensation in 1973 aged 31, with her debut novel Fear of Flying. She introduced the phrase “zipless fuck” into the English language. The book was forthright and frank and posited the radical idea that women could have sexual thoughts. This film places Jong in the centre of Second Wave Feminism. We see archive film showing a (male) presenter telling Jong why he thought women should not swear because, unlike men, “they’re beautiful”.
While this was a necessary movement to document, my initial reaction to the film was: “why her? Why now?” While Fear of Flying was unquestionably an influential book, its heyday was a long time ago (and the release didn’t even wait a year for the 50th anniversary). Of the people who can still remember who Erica Jong is, how many of them could name any book that she’s written since? I know I couldn’t before I saw the film, and I own a couple of them.
Since the book was released, Jong has grown old disgracefully. She has married 4 times (her sister is wheeled on to say that while Erica was always seen as the radical member of the family, it was she who seemed drawn to the institution of marriage). She’s been with her current husband for 30 years now. They are good rich liberals and not without a sense of humour. In one scene he explains that he supports gay marriage as he’s a divorce lawyer and it’s brought him valuable business.
At times, particularly towards the start of the film, you’re not exactly sure if it’s supposed to be a satire. There the scene where Jong screams down the phone at a caretaker or someone because her washing machine isn’t working. She asks the camera whether Thomas Mann would have survived if he’d had to spend his time having to fix his washing machine. Jong’s darker skinned maid stands at the sink, looking on in bemusement.
In an archive tv interview, Jong explains how rich women have made some gains, but for poor women little has changed (I wonder if she’s mentioned this to her maid). But this is a case of “act as I say, not as I do”. Poor people – female and male – mainly exist in her word to serve at her champagne parties or open doors. As her poodles refuse to enter the car, she tells the camera that she spoils them. A uniformed black doorkeeper patiently waits, holding the car door.
Jong is fond of making a conversation all about her, losing no opportunity to drop the names of her famous friends. A discussion about something Susan Sonntag said (I forget what) is prefaced with an assertion that this was, of course, from a private conversation. When Jong visits a book store and buys a book by Kurt Vonnegut, she takes pains to tell the woman on the counter that he was a close personal friend.
Roughly speaking, Jong is on the right side politically, but her perspective always seems to be that of a comfortably off liberal. We see footage of a Fridays for Future demo and hear the voice of Greta Thunberg. Neither the narrator nor Jong comments directly on the demo, but we hear Jong saying that the majority of society has lost its way and it’s now time to hand over power to grandmothers. I’m genuinely perplexed whether the footage was added to support or subvert her.
Then again, using inappropriate footage is something that the film does. Remember the opening scenes of a deserted New York? That must have been used to make an important point, mustn’t it? Especially as some scenes are repeated later in the film. And yet, unless I missed something, they don’t seem to be saying much more than Covid struck before they were finishing making the film and that made things slightly inconvenient for the film makers.
One of the most instructive scenes does not foreground Jong, but 3 attendees of a trainee programme for budding female writers, which Jong sponsors. They are young, engaged and Black, and talk eloquently about the real barriers which still exist preventing them from succeeding as writers. Jong, however, mainly talks in platitudes, and most of her complaints about the lack of access for women sound hollow coming from her penthouse apartment full of expensive art.
Director Kasics says in the press kit: “Erica Jong belongs to the few writers, who have the ability to enthrallingly explain, not just in her books, but also in society or in front of the public. This may well be true, but which society and which public? In an early scene at a party to make women heard, waiters put champagne on the table but hold back the vodka and whiskey on a need to know basis. Yes, it’s a fundraiser, but it’s for a very specific social milieu.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too dismissive. Much exclusion of women from art and academia is still a serious problem, and was even more so when Jong brought it up 50 years ago. Yet she seems so determined to push herself centre stage, that the message is often lost. With scenes set in Venice because a couple of her books are set there, the film becomes more a portrayal of Jong’s opulent lifestyle than a serious intervention in an important debate. Could do better.