Jennifer Fox’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman should be a supremely irritating movie. For starters, it’s a six-hour meditation on the filmmaker’s love life. It’s accompanied by an accordion-heavy score that makes you feel like you’re stuck in the most touristy square in Venice. And Fox herself is unappealing at first. Her voice-over narration is slow and deliberate, as if she were talking to a class of first-graders. She trains the camera on her face, one eye at a time, then on her nose and neck and feet, as if she were a first-grader. She insists on referring to her two boyfriends as “lovers.” And did I mention that the movie is six hours long?
Still, the cumulative effect of so much personal footage is hypnotic. I know how Jennifer cracks eggs, how she eats cereal when she’s alone, how her voice rises and catches when she gets emotional. I also know that she has spent the better part of the past few years obsessing over Kye and Patrick, the aforementioned lovers, wondering which would make the better partner (the answer—obvious to the viewer from the very first minute—is Patrick, since Kye is married with children and lives in South Africa). I’ve seen Jennifer’s naked body as she bathes, and her naked face as she learns that she’s had a miscarriage. (I’ve also, unfortunately, seen several of her gynecological exams.)
But what truly redeems this self-indulgence is that Fox uses her overwrought, Nora Ephron–ish personal crises as a jumping-off point to explore the emotional lives of dozens of women around the world—women who tend to be more interesting and engaging than Fox herself (and certainly have more common sense). Paromita, a grassroots organizer in India, called off an engagement because her fiancé did not approve of her activism; she is frank about her distaste for male companionship and her lack of sexual desire. L’Dawn, a single mother on a Wyoming Shoshone reservation, is fighting an epic custody battle against her ex-husband. “He’s still my beloved,” she says of him, “but he’s a motherfuckin’ son of a bitch cocksuckin’ go fuck yourself goodbye.”
Instead of interviewing the women from behind a lens, Fox gathered them in a room, handed over her small camera, and instructed them to pass it around, filming each speaker in turn. This can be jerky, but it captures the rhythm and flow of female conversation: sometimes sad, often bawdy, usually honest. Unfortunately, as a participant in this conversation, Fox is rarely analytical or intellectually rigorous; occasionally, in rural India and Pakistan, she is dangerously naïve about the realities of her subjects’ lives. In the end, Flying is a gentle monstrosity, swollen and silly, but shot through with some wonderful stories. And after six hours, I know this for sure: Fox is far more competent behind the camera than in front of it, better at observing life than living it.