Monthly archives of “August 2016


Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt (2010)

Great movie to watch the same week you discuss Hayden White’s “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” with a room full of smart graduate students. (I know: I have the best job ever.)

A group of settlers are headed for Oregon territory in their covered wagons. We think we know this history, because we know its story, and we know the story largely through the movies. There will be challenges — broken axles, hostile Indians, typhoid, etc. — but the wagon will eventually come over a crest, and the sun will rise over the fertile valley awaiting the plough and cross.

Except in this story, the narrative literally takes a fork. The settlers’ hired guide, Stephen Meek, diverts the group from the “main stem” seeking a short cut. After several weeks, the settlers (and, crucially, we too) become unsure about the trajectory of their narrative. Are they headed toward the expected climax, or have they gotten into a story that is all middle, with no end at all? In their confusion and anxiety, they reject Meek, their professional guide, because the story he’s telling no longer conforms to their narrative expectations. Meek reminds me of Asimov’s Mule. He not only disrupts this particular story’s predicted arc, he calls into question the possibility of narrative closure in general.

Reichart has the great good sense to let her “story” stop rather than conclude; any ending, happy or sad or surprising or reassuring or anything else, would have wrecked this movie’s accomplishment. This is a radical gesture for a western, since the politics of the genre’s narrative conventions usually demand resolution. What we have here is something that approaches a non-narrative representation of a historical reality, and, following Hayden White, perhaps a representation that thus avoids moralizing as well.

The other interesting conversation to have about this movie concerns the roles of women and men; if I weren’t in such a historiographical frame of mind this week that’s probably what I would have led with.

Oh, and I’d like to say just one other thing and then I really have to quit, everyone said this was like a Terrence Malick movie. I think that’s really shallow. Reichart’s deliberateness is rooted in completely different motivations than Malick’s. And no one gets to own a penchant for golden hour light on calico.


Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville (2015)

26-buckley-vidal-ledeABC News, lagging in ratings, needed something splashy to draw in viewers, so they hired liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. to debate on camera during the 1968 Democratic and Republican national conventions, knowing full well that these two masters of repartee would provide good entertainment. And entertain they did, as this excellently made documentary shows. One potential reaction to this story is to say, “Back then there were real intellectuals on TV, debating the issues, how sad that these days all we have is shallow demagoguery on the ‘real’ news networks, and the only serious journalists on television are, ironically, comedians (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Jon Stewart, etc.)” That’s not my take. Watch Vidal and Buckley “debate,” and you quickly realize that their discourse was all about contempt, point-scoring, sophistry, and adamant refusal to acknowledge the very humanity of the other. These guys don’t represent some prelapsarian alternative to our contemporary crisis of journalism, where noise masquerades as signal; they represent its beginnings. Super worth watching, especially between now and November 8.


Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson (2015)

1401x788-068-ANOMALISA-008RLike most everything Charlie Kaufman does, this is so wrong yet so right. The sad and simple story could come from Updike, or maybe Dreiser, or, if it were a little funnier and not so very American, from Chekhov. The author of a half-baked but successful book on marketing arrives in Cincinnati (starring as the epitome of flyover country: “See the zoo!” “Try the chili!”) to give a paid lecture to a convention of phone bank managers. He’s an utterly typical disappointed mid-life crisis type, unhappy with his perfectly fine family, desperate to feel like he’s still attractive. He calls up an old flame who lives in town and invites her for a drink; when he propositions her, she rightly chews him out and leaves. Desperate, he hooks up with a naive telemarketer who sees him as a celebrity: just his type. After they fool around, he gets histrionic and hyperbolic and decides she’s the love of his life, he’s leaving his wife, but of course she isn’t and he doesn’t. There’s a little bit more — some kind of paranoia about invisible forces pulling strings in the basement — but that’s just normal Kaufman neurotic epiphenomena. It’s all pretty straightforward, right? Sure it is.


There’s some other formalist funny business going on here — many of the characters (again, PUPPETS) have the same faces and voices, which I guess symbolizes something about something — but the overwhelming main thing about this movie is, obviously and thunderously, that everyone is a puppet, causing the viewer to have to ask him/herself at every single moment, regardless of how touching or pathetic or funny whatever is happening on screen may be, “Why is this happening at all?!”

It’s one thing to do the Svankmajer or Brothers Quay stop-motion puppet thing with texts like Alice in Wonderland, Faust, or The Street of Crocodiles — texts congenial to the grotesque and uncanny — but why would you shoot this sad little Updike story like this? People, it took two years! Some days they shot for twelve hours to get 12 frames! That’s half a second of screen time!

So inevitably and quite deliciously, the movie possesses an extraordinary Verfremdungseffekt. The story presents itself as pure naturalism; the ostentatious, even aggressive display of artifice completely thwarts any possibility of submitting to the narrative dream.

How does that insistence on the artificial map onto the movie’s narrative, and vice-versa? I think there’s a reading to be made there, something along the lines of the way that the customer service guru character is a sort of construct unto himself, a surface alluding to depth without possessing any, but I’m still in a swoon and not inclined just now to unpack this any further. Wonderful night at the movies.



Where I Was From, Joan Didion (2003)

Subject: Author Joan Didion with her Corvette. 1971 Photographer- Julian Wasser Time Inc Not Owned Merlin-1381191
One way of describing Didion’s genius (there are many) is to note that she always permits, even invites the subjects she endeavors to report on to report on her as well. Didion knew growing up that she was from an old California family; as she got older she realized there is no such thing. In Where I Was From, she explores the cultural, social, and economic histories of the state with her characteristic mix of brilliant synthetic summary and piercing detail, and gradually begins to incorporate her personal experience, seeking to understand not just a set of historical phenomena, but her own identity as well. It is thrilling.

There are so many moments and passages I could single out for their clarity of thought and elegance of expression, but as a would-be writer myself, I’ve got to call out Didion’s perfect and insane decision to devote a chapter of this book to a critical analysis of her first published novel, Run, River (1963), which Didion wrote about her home and family in California while she was homesick living in New York as a young woman. First, who does that? Second, her critique is remarkably clear-eyed and unsparing, considering her close connection to her topic. But more, the move is a dramatization of the fact that while we may tell ourselves stories in order to live (to quote Didion herself), the stories of ourselves we tell ourselves ain’t always quite correct. As a result, it’s sometimes necessary to look back at those stories and, if not revise them, have a look at why they made sense at the time, and how their usefulness has failed to endure. This is a great insight on Didion’s part, and it dovetails beautifully with her thinking about California. Is there any other place in the world where the actual and the imagined are so indistinguishable? Maybe one moral of this book is that we are each sort of Californias unto ourselves.


Hail Caesar!, Joel & Ethan Coen (2016)


The latest from the Coen Brothers, unless they’ve made another one while I’ve been typing this sentence, is Hail Caesar!, a curious mashup of nostalgic vignettes honoring old Hollywood and some kind of muddled effort to reckon with the blacklisting of communists in the 50s. Like Barton Fink (though a lot more fun), Hail Caesar! is best enjoyed for its moments — the caricatures of the standard issue Hollywood products of the era are wonderful, Frances McDormand as a kooky version of Thelma Schoonmaker is hilarious — than for its plot per se, which is pretty incoherent.

That said, one through-line does vibrate with significance. The main protagonist, a producer/fixer who works around the clock to maintain the purity of starlets and the sobriety of stars, is being courted by a Lockheed headhunter, who promises him a much easier and more remunerative job managing one of their plants. This is a crucial historical pivot in the history of California, and a brilliant touch on the Coens’ part. Just about now (1950 something), California’s about to change from a loose and rambling collection of farms and dreams to the most advanced and efficient munitions producer in history. In the movie, the Coens have the movie man turn down Lockheed’s offer. They wish.

Missed opportunity department: The Coens should have named the communist godfather figure at the beach house Gramsci instead of Marcuse. The anachronism would have been graver, yes (Gramsci died in 1937; Marcuse didn’t move to California until the mid-1960s), but imagine how tickled fans of Gramsci’s notes on Caesarism would have been!


The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos (2015)

The Lobster, very much like Her and also like Under the Skin, takes place in a future that looks almost exactly like now but a little different; in particular, facial expressions seem to have been outlawed. Everyone displays a lack of affect you’d call shocking if it weren’t for the fact that nothing’s shocking in this place. People react to extraordinary violence and soft boiled eggs with equal indifference. If someone does happen to feel something, the emotions erupt in bizarre and sloppy ways, like geysers or toddlers. The premise is that in this near future, everyone must either be coupled with someone much like themselves; or be consigned to a life of utter independence, caring for and cared for by no one; or be transformed into an animal. Pretty Procrustean! The movie is stylish and very much of its moment in that it dramatizes the contemporary young person’s affliction of feeling vaguely nostalgic about emotions but too jaded or fearful or I don’t know what to actually have them.

I’m going to hope someone else has the time and patience to thoroughly pick apart the gender and sexual politics here. The movie at one point realizes it is severely heteronormative and tries to make a little joke to try to excuse itself; the effort is transparent and ineffective. Meanwhile, as to gender, all the women are either bitchy and icy or nurturing types who sacrifice everything of their own for the sake of their men. (Again, compare to HerYou can even compare sad Colin Farrell above to sad Joaquin Phoenix on the Her poster. They’re the same character.) The men are uniformly hapless, either pushed around or coddled. It’s all highly regressive, but I fear the college kids will only see the cool and quirky surface and not the sexist same-old same-old underneath. They even fooled the brilliant Rachel Weisz, who’s usually so smart about her choices. (It’s time to forgive her for The Mummy; that was ages ago.)


Black Mass, Scott Cooper (2015) & Spotlight, Tom McCarthy (2016)

635909929539022067311335242_11201558_ori imagesWhen Wendy’s out of town I’ll do double-features — when she’s around I feel too embarrassed to sit in front of the TV for four hours straight. Last night’s theme: “STAY AWAY FROM BOSTON!”

But seriously, I appreciated that both of these movies, each based on actual events, are as much (or in the case of Spotlight, more) about the process of uncovering and covering “the story” as they are about the stories themselves. They’re as much historiographical as they are historical, in that both movies acknowledge, even insist, that the “true story” is largely inaccessible, that the truth of exactly what happened is changeable and changing. The church and city officials who were able to convince themselves they were acting in the best interests of the church while abetting child abuse; the FBI agents who believed they were fighting crime by permitting crime; in both stories we see how easy it is for a person’s narrative of their own actions to go off the rails.

And in both cases, it’s Boston Globe journalists who feature as the heroes to bump those narratives back into line with the dictates of civil society. Hooray print journalists! Too bad you’re doomed.

Final note: I can’t fully recommend Black Mass, which features a good deal of unnecessary graphic violence. We get it, the guy’s a psychopath; there’s no need to lavish so much time and attention on closeups of him strangling people to death. More than once! A less tawdry director would have spent more time on the really very interesting and complicated relationships between the main characters and less on the gore.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01For a movie that’s ostensibly a comedy, there’s a surprising rip current of anxiety and fear just beneath the surface of this story that seems constantly about to suck everyone under. So much is at stake for all the main characters; even as they try to act playful about the games they’re playing, they’re all very evidently terrified. To have no money, to lose your reputation, to be alone, to be cast out, to be cheated, to be stolen from — everyone scrambles to avoid these catastrophes, pressing for advantage, using whatever leverage fate has lent them. If you’re beautiful, you use that to get over; if you’re rich, you use that; if you’re clever, you use that. It’s all coated in sequins and soaked in champagne, but it’s a lot closer to Mother Courage than it looks. I see on Wikipedia that Fassbinder called it one of the best ten films ever, which seems insane until you think about it — isn’t Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee just as determined, wily, brilliant, desperate, and calculating as Hanna Schygulla’s Maria Braun? We know the story (thanks in large part to Fassbinder) of people doing whatever they had to do in postwar Germany to survive; maybe this movie proposes an analogous situation for single American women in the same period, with fewer weevils in the bread and more singing and dancing. Or maybe it was and is always thus. Anyway I found it depressing. Featuring matrimony in its usual role of deus ex machina.