When her best friend and roommate abruptly moves out to get married, Susan (Melanie Mayron), trying to become a gallery artist while making ends meet as a bar mitzvah photographer on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, finds herself adrift in both life and love. Could a new job be the answer? What about a fling with a married, older rabbi (Eli Wallach)? A wonder of American independent filmmaking whose remarkably authentic vision of female relationships has become a touchstone for makers of an entire subgenre of films and television shows about young women trying to make it in the big city, this 1970s New York time capsule from Claudia Weill captures the complexities and contradictions of women’s lives and relationships with wry humor and refreshing frankness.
Criterion presents Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The film has been encoded at 1080p/24hz on this dual-layer disc, and has been sourced from a brand new 4K restoration. The scan was taken from the 16mm A/B roll original camera negative.
Though the image is limited by the source and the original photography in a handful of ways, the digital presentation itself is does a fairly spectacular job rendering everything. The film is very grainy but it is presented so well that the image does ultimately pass off as projected film. I don’t ever recall the grain looking blocky or noisy at any point, even during some of the film’s low-lit sequences. Colours also manage to look pretty good, with sharp looking reds and blues, despite the colour scheme being a bit drab on the whole. Black levels are also really strong.
Damage isn’t a concern and I don’t recall any significant problem ever coming up. The final image is sharp for the most part but there are moments where it can look a little softer and out-of-focus, but it’s clear these instances are all true to the source materials. Outside of those minor quibbles the presentation an excellent one.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack manages to pack a bit of a punch, but this isn’t a film aiming to test sound systems. Fidelity and range are quite good, music sounding a sharp and clean, and dialogue is clear and easy to hear. While there is some minor background noise, which is expected, there is no damage to speak of.
Criterion saves the title from the Warner Archive, managing to not only give it a fresh looking presentation but an excellent range of supplements as well, none of it feeling like an afterthought. Things start off with a new interview with director Claudia Weill (recorded in a studio in 2019 before COVID led to more video chat features), running about 27-minutes. It’s a great interview featuring the director recalling how she first grew the desire to get into filmmaking and how she started out in documentary, talking about a few of these films. She explained how she then grew the desire to make a fiction film, where she would have to come up with the story beforehand and film it instead of finding the story in footage she had shot, which is what led to Girlfriends. Some of those documentary instincts came into play during editing, though, and she discovered the ending of the film through that process.
She eventually gets into how she found distribution (through Warner Bros. no less) and how that led to a multi-film deal that would eventually sour her on Hollywood thanks to the misogyny she suddenly faced when she wasn’t doing everything independently. This topic is picked up during another interview with the director, this time conducted by producer/writer/director Joey Soloway through a video conference and running 22-minutes. Though the two have a general conversation about influences and other filmmakers (including Cassavetes, Godard, Woody Allen, and so on), presenting “Jewishness” on screen, and what Weill was wanting to accomplish with Girlfriends, the two touch on the sexism and barriers that they’ve faced, Weill explaining how she was treated like a child working on her first studio film, not even allowed to make the important decisions for her film; for one example she explains how she had a cinematographer forced on her despite her fights to pick her own.
Criterion also gets a new interview with screenwriter Vicki Polon, who, during 12-minutes, explains how she came to be involved with the film, how she needed to create the conflict in the story, and how she writes dialogue (basically acting out the characters). There is also a 16-minute Look Back on the film, featuring Weill and actors Melanie Mayron, Christopher Guest, and Bob Balaban, who all call in through video conference software (most of the feature is a composite of all four participants). Weill acts more as a moderator as the other three recall how they were cast and talk about working with the other performers, including Anita Skinner, and then talk about the film’s success. Mayron also talks about the film’s final shot, which she does not recall ever doing, so Weill explains how it came together. These Zoom/Teams-like formats aren’t ideal admittedly, but this one manages to be a bit of fun.
Next is an archival extra, a 19-minute clip from the Canadian program City Lights, filmed in 1978 and featuring Mayron and Weill. There’s some discussion about independent films and the difference between bigger Hollywood films and indies (Mayron had smaller parts in some Hollywood films prior to Girlfriends) before Weill talks about her future projects. Criterion also includes two short documentaries that Weill was involved in making: Joyce at 34 (about 28-minutes) and Commuters (about 4-minutes). Joyce at 34 revolves around director Joyce Chopra and looks at how her career, similar to other women, took a hit when she became a mother, showing how women are forced to choose between a career and family. Commuters ends up being the surprise, though, managing to pack in a bit of a punch in its short running-time, starting off one way (like an absurd look at the morning commute into the city) and then taking a turn on subject matter right at the end (timed brilliantly, too).
No trailer is included but Criterion does include a booklet featuring two essays: a more general one about the film and its director by Molly Haskell, and another by Carol Gilligan around how the film and its protagonist stands up to patriarchy.
More of Weill’s other work would have been welcome but as it is Criterion has put together a rather thorough and engaging collection of material.
An effective special edition delivering a sharp presentation and a rich assortment of supplements.