Pretty good! As with Sicario, Villeneuve is able here to maintain genre conventions in such a way as to satisfy the casual consumer of action/sci-fi, while at the same time indulging in some more associative, lyrical, and thought-provoking passages. Neither are cinema for the ages, but they are solid and intelligent films. Notice too that both feature strong female leads (as did the movie for which Villeneuve is still probably best known, Incendies, which I actually haven’t seen yet). Indeed, in the case of Arrival, the men are really nearly irrelevant except insofar as they serve as obstacles for Amy Adams to overcome. I like this Villeneuve guy’s choices, and his style is very cool.
Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.
The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.
Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.
Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.
Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.
Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.
South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .
I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.
I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.
Ah the banlieue, city of fluorescent lights in drab office buildings, mercury vapor lights in the courtyards of the projects, police flashlights shining on dark faces. I just watched Sciamma’s movie, and it led me to go back to Kassovitz’s, which I hadn’t seen since it came out — more than twenty years ago now! While Girlhood is pretty depressing (though not depressing enough; see below), I have to say that if we’re getting our news solely from these two movies, things seem to be a bit less dire in 2014 than they were in 1995.
There’s good reason not to trust that narrative, though; both of these films about the experiences of poor French of color from the projects by les honkies from film school. Be that as it may. If you categorically disapprove of privileged people writing disadvantaged characters, you’ll want to skip both these movies.
Sciamma creates a convincing world for a while, but then starts exoticizing and goes off the rails. She’s so enraptured by the beauty of these girls as they work their hustles and dance and party and catfight that she forgets to show us just how truly dangerous and dire their situations really are. A black teenager living on her own dealing drugs at street level is going to get hurt, and this movie’s fantasy that she’ll instead turn into some kind of inspired and empowered super hero is, in my view, irresponsible. But maybe I’m being too rough; check it out for yourself. And remember to watch Kassovitz’s movie, too, if you’ve never seen it. It’s like if Spike Lee was French. Sort of.
I haven’t seen anything from Tykwer since The International (2009); I stayed away from Cloud Atlas (2012) because I liked the book too much to chance ruining it. This movie is in the classic Tykwer manner, both firmly pegged to reality and subtly fantastical. It’s small and quiet but quite beautiful. The sequence of Tom Hanks wandering the half-finished building projects in the Saudi desert should be read in tandem with the scene of Adela Quested in the Marabar caves. Our so-called global culture has a single god, Misunderstanding, and the Dollar is his prophet. The love story here is a total cop out and utter bullshit (which is also classic Tykwer), but since the love interest is Sarita Choudhury, all is forgiven.
P.S. One night in the early 90’s I slept in Sarita Choudhury’s bed. She wasn’t home; her roommate let me crash there. I tell this story every chance I get.
Warning for minor spoiler alerts below.
There’s a particular type of scene that often appears in movies, where the protagonist, who has witnessed or suspects something absolutely unbelievable, goes to “the authorities” in one form or another, to tell her/his story, seeking assistance or solace. It would be fun to put together a montage of these scenes. Having seen what the protagonist has seen, we know she’s telling the truth. But usually, the jaded cop/teacher/counselor/parent/adult on the other side of the desk is deeply skeptical.
The tension in such scenes arises from the question of whether the powers that be (a.k.a. the system, the man, the patriarchy, the hegemony, the superstructure, political society, what have you) are going to help or hinder the protagonist’s struggle toward life, liberty, happiness, success, etc. Or will this particular movie instead propose a world where the detective says, that’s ridiculous, get out of my office, and the protagonist gets no help from the very institutions that supposedly exist precisely to help citizens in need.
Jordan Peele sets up a scene like this in the marvelously disorienting Get Out. The protagonist is in grave danger. His best friend has come to an outrageous, ridiculous, and entirely correct theory concerning the nature of that danger. He goes to the police, and relates his story: He believes liberal upper-middle-class white people in the suburbs are kidnapping and brainwashing black people from the city to take control of their bodies. The black female detective listens intently. There’s a pause. She goes and gets some colleagues and has the guy tell the story again. All three cops, all black, stare at the guy for another beat. Then, predictably, they burst out laughing and throw him out. But for just a second, I thought they were going to say, “Yes, that seems entirely plausible. Let’s go investigate.” That would have been funnier, and also way grimmer. Because Get Out’s power and pleasure derive from its constant flirtations with opposites and inversions: what’s unbelievable is probable, what’s absurd is reasonable, what’s comic is tragic. And black people are always ready to entertain the possibility that white people are up to insane stuff.
I’ve enjoyed Key and Peele’s TV show, but this movie is on another level altogether. Watching it, I kept thinking of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” Not only do characters in this movie wear the mask, and in a sense find themselves forced to wear other masks; the movie itself keeps changing its masks so rapidly, we can never really feel sure of the expression or tone that lies beneath what we’re seeing and hearing. Many scenes seem both funny and horrifying, and in the theater, I many times heard laughter at moments that seemed to me heartbreaking. I’ve never really seen anything like this before. I would describe it as a work of social commentary, but the commentary is so ironic, complex, and self-reflexive, figuring out its “message” is like making your way through a hall of mirrors.
I just so happened last week to catch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on TV, after not seeing it in decades, and it’s maybe an interesting double-feature with Get Out, actually. Here too a guileless and handsome young male protagonist. Here too he has some set ideas about iniquity, but little substantive experience with it. Here too he discovers that the world he thought he had a reasonable understanding of, the world he thought was not necessarily fair but was at least reasonably stable and predictable, is in fact a thin veneer beneath which teems extraordinary chaos, violence, hatred, greed, perversion, and fear. The Get Out protagonist leaves the safety of downtown and almost dies in the suburbs; the Blue Velvet protagonist leaves the safety of the suburbs and almost dies downtown. Indeed if I was going to write a full comparison and contrast essay for EN 101, I’d probably start with how the two films end, with the Get Out survivors hightailing it back downtown, and the Blue Velvet survivors doubling down in the suburbs with sandwiches and lemonade. “Now it’s dark,” says Dennis Hopper, and truer words were never spoken. But which darkness is darkest? Hard to know for sure, but I think we usually believe it to be other one.
Wow, there’s so much more to say about both these movies; no time to do it.
Haneke is one of my favorite directors, but he is mighty intense, and it’s not at all surprising that it’s taken me five years to get to this. In fact this DVD has been sitting on my shelf for well over a month as I avoided watching it!
It’s a masterpiece. The actors are superb. The light is out of the most melancholy Vermeer ever. The script is crisp and nuanced, pellucid and mysterious, relentlessly denotative and playfully connotative. I think Robert Frost would have appreciated it.
Beyond the movie’s particular accomplishments, it’s in principle just so moving — and so rare — to see aging and dying represented with clarity and honesty.
There’s a sub-theme which I think concerns the possibility that art is not a consolation in the face of mortality. I don’t really want to think about it.
So many amazing moments, and such terrific editing. At one point, we cut to a young woman housekeeper vigorously vacuuming the rug, and the shock of her energy, her vitality, after we’ve been watching old people struggle with their failing bodies, is just incredible. Never thought fifteen seconds of watching someone vacuum a rug could make me cry.
I finished this several days ago and I feel like I’m still living in its aftershadow. Shouldn’t have waited so long!
A complete but very decadent and perhaps somewhat transgressive delight, based on the real-life story of August Engelhardt, a German nudist vegetarian who decamped for the south seas to start a utopian colony at the fin de siècle. I came across this by accident and really enjoyed it, not least, admittedly, because I realized that I went to college with Kracht and I had no idea he’d gone on to write novels. What a hoot! Kracht’s got a wonderfully arch and acerbic comic style and skewers placid colonial burghers and idealistic nuts (ha) like Engelhardt with equal verve.
Ben Lerner’s brief essay makes some smart if not new points about poetry’s most ancient and fundamental sorrow: It cannot succeed. The “re” in “representation” means that poetry’s always at a remove from the genuine. Plato was the first to note this bummer; folks still aren’t over it. As Lerner correctly writes, “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” An ideal and perfect Poetry can exist as an imaginative category, but every actual poem has fallen and will fall short of that ideal. Lerner quotes George Oppen: “Because I am not silent, the poems are bad.” Lerner: “Hating on actual poems . . . is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry.” Exactly right. Poems are always large or small failures, but the beauty and force of Poetry is eternal.
So what then? My personal advice: If the ideal matters to you, instead of writing poems, be a poet. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to write poems to be a poet.) Lerner astutely points out that “‘Poetry’ is supposed to signify an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy as we live it daily, but actual poems can’t realize that alternative,” because the making of poems is just another commodity production process. But being a poet merely means that you are devoted to the idea of the ideal. It doesn’t mean you think yourself (or anyone else) capable of realizing or reifying that ideal. That would be crazy. Writing poems is a doomed enterprise, but to be a poet is to live a dream. The only downside is that I mean that literally; you can only be a poet in your dreams. Once you wake up, you’re just a writer of poems, a failure.
I hope Lerner writes more criticism; he seems capable of being in uncertainties, which is my chief qualification for a critic. Nice read.
American Honey: Two hours and forty-three minutes of Ryan McGinley‘s Instagram feed, if he still has one. Or two hours and forty-three minutes of Larry Clark’s Tulsa updated for the century of Fetty Wap and fracking. Well anyway it’s definitely two hours and forty-three minutes. It is way too long and self-indulgent; I really wonder how Arnold got away without having to edit more. I’m thrilled when she cuts away to a dog wearing a superman cape in the parking lot of a crap motel. Pow! Super memorable image. But then a minute later she cuts to the dog again. And after another minute she cuts to it again, and stays on it for a good thirty seconds, while it has a pee. The movie’s full of this kind of overkill. No bee, butterfly, beetle, or grasshopper on Arnold’s set failed to get filmed, and not one of them wound up on the cutting room floor. The first bug crawling up a weed in the hazy honey light of a Kansas sunset adds to the atmosphere. The tenth makes you want to call Orkin.
The star of this movie is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who we get to know very intimately, as he draws a great deal of attention to himself. His story is deeply tragic. He can’t hold the camera steady, never learned to focus, and has a pathological obsession with lens flare. I sentence him to watch a week’s worth of Peckinpah — no, better, Cassavetes –to learn that you don’t have to jitter the camera constantly to infuse your mise with unease and spontaneity.
The movie’s formal failures are real and dispiriting, but what depresses me most is its content. Initial appearances suggest that Arnold’s primary goal is to celebrate the joys of American youth culture — getting high, getting laid, singing along to pop songs with your friends, eating junk food, falling in love, spoofing grownups, above all driving around — but that she also wants to expose some peculiarly American strains of loneliness, danger, and fear, through her depictions of poverty, abuse, and waste. I approve of both these messages! But unfortunately, Arnold drastically underrealizes both. The joy parts don’t seem very joyful at all, mostly because the kids on the mag crew whose adventures make up the plot of this movie don’t really seem to give much of a damn about each other. Their solidarity of purpose consists mainly of sharing joints and hooking up, and further we come to understand that they are explicitly in a zero-sum competition with one another, because if you don’t generate profit, you get dumped. So much for sticking it to the man; these kids are near-perfect little capitalists. Meanwhile, Arnold’s depiction of the dark side of these characters’ situation is so misguided it falls off a cliff into a chasm of irresponsibility. We do see children living in poverty and under threat of abuse, but the mag crew, our footloose heroes, never suffer any of the very real tragedies that their nonfictional counterparts do. If you live like these kids, bad things happen, such as rape, human trafficking, assault, drug overdoses, hunger, untreated illness, unintended pregnancies, police harassment, etc. We see none of that in American Honey. Arnold’s is a world where a teenager in a bikini can get into a car with three strange men, or a lonely truck driver, and not only have nothing go wrong, but make money and have fun. It’s absolutely insane.
It was late when I finished this, but I stayed up a little longer to watch some of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie, thirty four years old, does such a better job of conveying both the joy and the terror of being a teenager in America it’s not even funny. Literally, it’s not funny. Sure, there’s a lot of dated, goofy stuff in there. But you’re remembering the wrong stuff. Sean Penn is fun, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s story is the real one here. Her highs are transcendent, and her sorrows are crushing. I think the main reason the emotional contours of Heckerling’s story are so much more satisfying is that the relationships between the kids — whether healthy or unhealthy — seem real, rather than simulated.
Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.
In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.
Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.
Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.
Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.
High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.
Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.
His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.
The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.
Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.
The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.
“The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.