Blue taffeta to the floor. Mint green, empire waist, tea length. Pink bows, pink ribbing, prairie style — though even Laura Ingalls wouldn’t wear this one.
All told, there are eight expensive, unbearable bridesmaid dresses — worn once each — hanging in my closet. On the shelf are eight pairs of shoes dyed to match. Think of it: mint-green shoes.
Really, what a strange tradition — wearing a dress identical to the ones covering the seven women standing beside you, stuck stock-still in a solemn row for a ceremony that is, glaringly, not for you. What’s the point — that we all look so bad the bride has to look good? It’s a joke in my family that by the time I get married — if that day ever comes — I could make each of my bridesmaids wear the dress she made me wear to her wedding. This is particularly funny to them because marriage is nowhere in my foreseeable future.
So it’s possible that Nina Davenport’s documentary Always a Bridesmaid may have (unlike my arsenal of bridesmaid dresses) been crafted especially with me in mind. Still, its universality is quite apparent.
Born out of a tradition of personal documentary — a genre that Davenport studied as part of Harvard’s Visual & Environmental Studies program — Always a Bridesmaid was a four-year project. The result has been likened to Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, a 1991 documentary based on that filmmaker’s quest for true romance. Though told in Davenport’s own voice, Always a Bridesmaid takes a long, hard look at the American cultural view of marriage, of how people come to the decision to be married, and why so many continue to embrace this shaky institution at all.
Mostly, it’s about the filmmaker’s personal search for her own understanding of marriage and her place in a society that expects it.
Davenport’s relationship with Nick — the younger, noncommittal boyfriend who compares their relationship to a pit of thick, slow quicksand — is not unfolding at the pace she’d prefer. What’s more, her job as a wedding photographer/videographer puts her in a position where she can be simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the convention of marriage all the time. The fact that her mother received 13 proposals before she got hitched makes Davenport even more consumed with the status of her own love life.
“It was always a schtick I would play with my friends,” she remembers. “I would say, ‘I’m going to be a spinster all my life.’ I joked that I would make a film about it — then a light bulb went off. It really was a good idea for a film.”
Beginning with bridesmaid Davenport checking herself out in a mirror before her brother’s wedding, the movie carries us through each nuance of her obsession: her fears of being alone; her anxiety about seeing her all of her friends, one by one, walk down the aisle; her worry that she may never get to walk down the aisle herself. In an attempt to better understand marriage and her inability to find it, Davenport asks everyone she can find for advice: her parents, her old boyfriends, her sister-in-law, her married girlfriends at a bachelorette party (all of whom advise her to get rid of Nick) — even a 90-year-old woman who has just recently married for the first time. So wisdom abounds — but the recipe for the spell that makes a boyfriend commit remains elusive.
Throughout most of the documentary, we are flies on the wall of Davenport’s personal life (some of which grows uncomfortably personal), but we also gain entry into the rooms of several other spinsters. Davenport allows us private counsel with these wise (but possibly lonely?) women, going straight for the sore spot: Do you regret not getting married?
Louise sits thoughtfully drinking tea and tells us she never met the right fellow, and therefore found love in her work. In the end, though, she admits, “It is tough. If you go somewhere and you haven’t got a man, you’re not of much use.”
Though these scenes start to stir us toward desperation (the single ones of us, that is), we do get to meet one very contented 82-year-old spinster who chose to remain single and insists she “wallows in the joy of being alone.”
When Davenport asks her what she should do about her own single state, her elderly interviewee advises, “If you haven’t met the right person yet, you still might. And if you meet someone and you don’t want them to be permanent, retain a friendship and move on. Live your life.”
Davenport’s first feature-length film is a funny, poignant, honest look at the state of singledom in a society where spinsterhood — even in today’s relatively enlightened atmosphere — is rarely a goal. Even little girls know. One 5-year-old interviewed says she wants to get married because, simply, “Everybody gets married.”
From intimate conversations with her boyfriend (one in which he pleads with her to turn the camera off) to private peeks at brides getting dressed in their churches’ back rooms, we’re allowed furtive glimpses at those nervous, emotion-filled moments that humans — single, married, divorced, heterosexual, homosexual, happy, lonely, fulfilled — all inherently share. As Davenport says during a near-riot scene at a wedding-dress sale, some of this marriage stuff makes us question the tradition, while some makes us question ourselves.
“Making the film was a cathartic process,” she admits. “It definitely made me calm down a bit about the whole issue in my own life. But also the film becomes its own object; it is a piece of art separate from me.”
A toast to attendants
As part of the 2000/2001 Southern Circuit film series, Nina Davenport will screen her film Always a Bridesmaid on Thursday, Feb. 1, at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Now in its 25th year, Southern Circuit is a consortium of nine sites across the Southeast (from Sweetbriar, Va., to Jackson, Miss.). More than 200 films from around the world are reviewed for Southern Circuit each year; Always a Bridesmaid is one of only six chosen for this year’s series.
“It’s impressive that a collaboration like this has lasted so long. It’s a great opportunity to bring live filmmakers to show their work and talk about why they do what they do,” says Asheville Art Museum Curator Frank Thomson, one of the reviewers for Southern Circuit. The series is co-sponsored by the Asheville Art Museum and UNCA, with additional support from Cinematique.
Admission to each film is $4/museum members and students, $5/non-members and free to UNCA students with ID. For more info about this and future Southern Circuit screenings, call the Asheville Art Museum at 253-3227.