A Guide to Cinema
This piece started out as part of 2013: Raising the Earth to the Next Vibration, but once my website was created, I decided that it made more sense to remove it from the book and place it here. Since then it has taken on a life of its own and changed into a movie review column. My initial yardstick was an elusive blend of catharsis and redemption; a bit of magic, telekinesis, or mythodrama never hurt—clearly no noir or nihilism. It is striking to me, in retrospect, how many of my favorite films have the same archetype: A person who is discounted, disparaged, or lost returns to redeem the family from which he/she is an exile, then works a miracle and/or heals some of its members. Alternately an outlaw, alien, or outsider becomes a transformative hero.
These are versions of the same theme; I will henceforth designate films favoring the former category by ∆ and films leaning toward the latter by Ω.
Once I posted the original list, I added films to it without these original parameters. (Note too: some of the quotes from these movies are exact and accurate; others are reconstructed roughly as I remember them.)
My Four Favorite Films Beginning with the Letter O may be My Four Favorite Films of All-Time, Period
1. Orphée (Orpheus), directed by Jean Cocteau (1949, black and white). Ω
Like the Greek original, it contains a profound and also credible metaphor for not only Death but the passage of creatures between planes of the cosmos. The myth, through all variant tropes and hyperboles, is somehow true. (Parallels occur in Japanese, German, Sumerian, Hebrew, Mayan and Nez Perce folklore.)
In the Graeco-Roman account of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Underworld is a shadowy land populated by denizens like Hades (Pluto) and Persephone. Cocteau retains this oligarchy but replaces the gods with bureaucrats, and the divine laws with scientific and philosophical concepts. Death is a beautiful, sophisticated woman with whom Orpheus falls recklessly in love at the expense of the more girlish Eurydice, thereby endangering not only himself but the metaphysical order of the universe.
Three Memorable Scenes:
1. Death explains the cosmic landscape to Orpheus, telling him that messages are ferried mysteriously across levels of creation like tom-toms sending transmissions across our Africa.
2. Heurtebrise leads Orpheus through the corridor between Life and Death, represented cinematically by bombed-out WW II Paris. There in a stark passageway they see glass salesmen still hawking their wares. Heurtebrise notes: “Nothing is more habit-forming than habit.”
3. Orpheus is taught that mirrors are passageways to realm of Death that can be opened with special gloves: In mirrors we all see our own Deaths working daily on our faces like bees in a hive.
2. Ordet (The Word), directed by Carl Dreyer (1955, black and white), set in rural Denmark and involving a theological rivalry between two families from local Protestant sects, each of which considers the other blasphemers. ∆
Orthodoxies and fundamentalisms are transcended, as simple faith at the core of heart and soul yields a miracle and the presence of something vaster and more profound. Faith proves to be direct and simple and requires merely a willingness to believe.
Three Memorable Scenes:
1. The resurrection. You need the entire scene, from the gathering of mourners at the open coffin to the film’s end. Johannes, the mad brother, unexpectedly returns; the children turn to him; he agrees to utter “the word”; the doctor raises a hand to deter the minister from stopping the event. It can be viewed again and again for the changing expressions and subtle movements of each of the characters—and there is always another nuance. In the theatre he audience gasps audibly.
2. Johannes watches the Angel of Death pass in the lights and shadows cast by the doctor’s departing car.
3. Johannes goes into exile across the hills and dales of a vast countryside under exquisite cumulus clouds and to biblical narration.
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Clint Eastwood (1976). Ω
All of Eastwood’s characters past and future, from his spaghetti cowboys to his curmudgeonly cops and warriors, are synopsized and foreshadowed in Josey Wales. At the same time, various picaresque landscapes of the Missouri-Kansas territory, headed west to Texas, in the aftermath of the Civil War are traversed with imagery and drama worthy of Fenimore Cooper or Twain. This was a self-published novel sent unsolicited to Eastwood’s company, and someone actually read it and passed it on to him.
Three Memorable Scenes:
1. At the crossroads of perilous confrontation, Josey tells Comanche chief Ten Bears that it is good the two of them can meet today on the road of life and death. Sincere and eloquent, he lets Ten Bears feel the honesty of his heart—and the chief lets it be life. Johnny Reb and Indian terrorist see into each other souls: they are the same: warriors in a world of double-tongues.
2. Chief Dan George, playing a civilized Cherokee, confesses to Josey that he’s been to Washington and met the President but can no longer track game or sneak up on people.
3. Iconically on horseback, the sun over his shoulder for slight advantage, Josey approaches the Comancheros to rescue the Kansas pioneer family that includes his future love, Laura Lee (played by Eastwood’s future love, Sondra Locke). Chief Dan George’s character, also a captive, voices over the action softly: “Now he’ll spit….”
All subsequent scenes between Eastwood and Locke are compellingly intense (and a little weird, as though conducted in trances)—plus every time Josey says, “I reckon so,” it is like a caesura of moaning of Greek choruses, and it’s the film’s closing line, the outlaw’s blood dripping from inside his clothing, as he and his Confederate adversary silently make their truce. Yes, that war damn near killed all of us. I reckon so. This scene cut cut directly to Scorsese’s closing timelapse for Gangs of New York (2002): America passing beyond the War of the States and its violent frontier into the melting-pot jungles and urban badlands of a dawning century. One explicit war is replaced by a cycle of guerrilla acts and organized crimes.
4. Once Were Warriors, directed by Lee Tamahori (1994). ∆
The chemistry between Rena Owen (Beth) and Temeura Morrison (tough-guy Jake the Mus) is as electric as anything that Marlon Brando or Ava Gardner ever portrayed. Add riveting Maori actors; a sacred-profane, New Zealand hiphop sound-track; the undercurrent of ancient warrior traditions dispersed through the ghettos of Auckland; plus rituals, tattoos, and gangs that would do Watts or Somalia proud—and you have the Polynesian Pacific warrior diaspora and tragedy, its revelation and rebirth.
Three Memorable Scenes:
1. Jake and Beth duet, “Here is My Heart” in front of their friends—and then the scence’s antipode: Beth going face to face with Jake and daring him to kill her. These are when the film jumps into another dimension, and you know this is special stuff.
2. The training lesson in Maori warriorship at the detention facility: The teacher seizes the taiaha staff from the student who is vandalizing and breaking windows and, after taunting him (“You think your fist is your weapon….?”), tells him to put the real taiaha inside himself.
3. Jake and the family in the car sing, “What’s The Time, Mr. Wolf?”: “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock…wooly wooly, wooly wooly.”
Jake’s culminating fight scene puts most Hollywood and Hong-Kong battles to shame with its blind emotional force. Every interaction between the doomed Grace and the orphan boy who lives in the car by the bridge is magical—the orphan played by a real Maori street kid.
One Eyed Jacks (preferably the version with the happy ending), directed by and starring Marlon Brando as Rio (1961), telling his double-crossing bandito confederate (Karl Malden), now a self-righteous sheriff, that he’s a one-eyed jack, “but I’ve seen your other side.” Ω
Ordinary People directed by Robert Redford (1980) and starring Timothy Hutton newly out of Berkeley High. A dysfunctional nuclear family merges with a coming-of-age drama and a hard-won redemption. Everything registers emotionally at just the right pitch, not a simple feat. ∆
In a wonderful scene from the generally trashed Outside Providence, (directed by Michael Corrente, 1999), an older, bushy-headed slacker kid is looking at a religious poster of mystery footprints with the lead’s young brother confined to a wheelchair. The slacker is a bit high and doesn’t get it—why there is only one set of footprints for a while. The boy explains, “You see, there’s this guy, and he’s looking back on his life, and he sees these two sets of footprints in the sand, like he’s been walkin’ all along with God. But then the guy looks and he notices that during the tough times, there’s only one set of prints, so the guy says to God, ‘Why did you desert me when I needed you the most?’ and God says, ‘No, dumbie, when you saw only one set of prints, that was when I was carryin’ you.’” The slacker looks long and hard, then shakes his head, chuckles, and says, ‘Whooooa. Fuckin’ God, man; he’s all right, ya know!’” Ω
Other Great Movies, Not Necessarily Beginning with O (chronologically)
The Vikings, directed by Richard Fleisher (1958). Antagonists Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis are joined by a secret, the clue to their bastard kinship: a primitive needle, pointing north through the fog. This tale of noble identity buried in rags echoes and foreshadows stories from Oedipus to Lord of the Rings. Its soaring Mitch Powell sound track forever evokes the North, the sea, and dragon-headed ships. ∆ and Ω
Billy Budd, directed by Peter Ustinov (1962).This is a classic, full-textured sea drama with enough of Herman Melville’s original language to make it a work of fine literature too, but what I am really after is Terence Stamp’s debut as Billy Budd, the angelic foretopman. Then go to The Hit, directed by Stephen Freers (1984) and see mature Terence Stamp’s performance as the existential former criminal in hiding in Spain (in hiding from his colleagues on whom he snitched). In both films with very different characters of different ages and levels of worldliness and sophisticated Stamp captures the sheer mystery of existence and the possibility of staring darkness and evil in the face and even having compassion and love for their necessary expressions in the world. Both are martyrs in their own ways. I wasn’t as taken with The Limey—his later return to the scene (as both actor and character)—but he still can’t help eliciting those same themes reeling toward irresolvable resolution. What he gets in The Limey is a nonanswer that allows him at least to live and return to what piece the kitsch-world offers.
Hud, directed by Martin Ritt (1963), considered in some circles the best black and white film ever made. I have seen this movie many times, and for me it always centers around Brandon De Wilde’s portrayal of Lonnie, a sweet, valiant boy coming into his manhood. The ill-fated De Wilde, a child turned young-adult star, died ten years later when he flipped his camper on a deserted Denver street, a replica of his fictional father’s fate in Hud. As the youth tries to find his true nature, his innate sincerity, integrity, and emerging courage come into conflict with his uncle Hud, a paragon of brooding, corrupt vanity. Paul Newman plays the violent rancher at perfect key; in fact, the volatile yet insouciant, womanizing Hud may be his signature role. Homer (Melvyn Douglas), a sage, dignified patriarch, confronts Hud with uncompromising Old Testament fire, while Patricia Neal brings panache and lyric spunk to Alma, the family’s housekeeper and surrogate mom, an itinerant frontier dame, three parts angel, one part floozy. The film’s understated power, almost unattainable in current American cinema, is a synergy of the stark gallery-caliber cinematography of James Wong Howe; the crisp, Zen dialogue of Larry McMurtry’s novel; and the movie’s archetypal theme of recessive nobility, the orphan/neglected boy who leapfrogs his elders, bearing his father’s—or grandfather’s—legacy (think Michael Corleone of The Godfather). This is a requiem for the old-time cowboy; a paradigmatic Western battle of good and evil, innocence and debauchery; a dialectic between the nascent existentialism of the twentieth century and the old-fashioned biblical purity of the frontier, operating in each of the characters except Homer who is pure Americana. At the death of his grandfather, Lonnie refuses the notion that he has gone to a better place: “Not unless dirt is a better place than air.”
Mickey One, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty (1965). A montage of Kafkaesque surrealism, exquisite mime, and experimental camera-work follows a paranoid comedian who may or may not be a mafia target, as he flees Detroit and uncovers a magical Chicago, a lover (played by Alexandra Stewart), and his own improvisational art. The camera turns the stage floodlight back on Beatty so that it is at once a primordial sun, the face of God, and the probe of the hitman. When Stewart’s character asks Mickey if he is afraid, Beatty answers, “Every moment I live.” Confession converts terror into its antidote. Ω
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, directed by J. Lee Thompson (1975), from an equally haunting novel by Max Ehrlich. Jeff Curtis is reincarnated so swiftly as Peter Proud that his immediate past life from the 1940s shines through déjà vus of his present one in the ’70s: the statue of the pilgrim, the night swim, the lights of the hotel reflecting in the lake, the bridges of Springfield, Mass. A drab, mean-spirited existence lived a few decades earlier seeps into a cheery reborn L.A. gambol. Michael Sarrazin plays Peter Proud, formerly Jeff Curtis; Margot Kidder is his witchlike wife in a previous life; Jennifer O’Neill is evanescent as his daughter now his lover. Her grandmother in the retirement home looks at Peter Proud but sees her son Jeff and asks him where he’s been and why he hasn’t come to visit her in so long. This is the most haunting scene in a movie which has many of them. Look for a remake in 2013. ∆
The Missouri Breaks, directed by Arthur Penn (1976). This bittersweet, bizarre “incident” involving rustlers (one, a young Jack Nicholson) and a regulator (a pompous, cross-dressing Marlon Brando) makes it on romantic purity and a cosmic eye that somehow transcends the mayhem and nonsense to achieve a full catharsis. Ω
Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner 1976). This Swiss art-film co-written by Tanner and British novelist John Berger moved me enough that I sought out Tanner at the Pacific Film Archive a few years later and persuaded him to give us the English rights to the screenplay; then had it translated into English by poet Michael Palmer. Though it doesn’t date as well as I thought it would, its key scenes are timeless: Miou-Miou (Marie) playing trains with the old man (Charles), Jacques Denis (Marco) teaching high-school history with blood sausage to illustrate the tunnel of time, Jean-Luc Bideau (Max) and Myriam Meziere (Madeleine) in their post-Marxist Shakti-Shiva love-play, Marie portraying life in prison after her release, the motorcycle pausing at the long, cold stoplight with Mathieu’s voice-over on the human struggle (“…as many times as the days of my life…”)—and, most of all, the scene at the dinner table where all the characters collaborate to name the unborn Jonah. Marcel: “Jonah is going to come. He fell from the ship, from the beautiful ship of fools we navigate on. He jumped into the water and you swallowed him because you’re nice. You saved his life and now you’re going to spit him out….” Marco: “In the year 2000 Jonah will be twenty-five. In twenty-five years the century will spit him out.” Max: “Or rather puke him up.” Marco (singing): “The whale of history will spit out Jonah who will be twenty-five in the year 2000. That’s the time left for us to get him out of this mess [literally, off the shit-pile].” Or not.
The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill (1979). Dated by the fact that street violence has gotten so out of hand that the gangs in this film are now comical and their fights as surreal something from “West Side Story”; nonetheless this odyssey through the length of the New York subway system by a group of Coney Island warriors on a bad night following a Bronx assassination, based on a text of Xenophon adapted by novelist Sol Yurick, reenacts the mythological perils and sacred transformations of Big O himself. Near the end, as The Warriors gaze out over the squalor of Coney Island at dawn, their leader wonders, “Is this what we fought all night to get home to?” Every manifestation of Odysseus/Ulysses has pondered the same. O.
Windwalker, directed by Kieth Merrill (1980). A morality play and Plains Indian myth come to life, this saga of old age, withheld death, and a stolen and recovered child would work in English but is absolutely stunning in Crow and Cheyenne with English subtitles. ∆
E.T. The Extraterrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg (1982). This is the ultimate fairy-tale, right from the scene in which young Elliott (Henry Thomas) shows his toys to E.T., explaining each superhero and then demonstrating to the visitor how his Pez dispenser works, to E.T. hiding among the toys, to the alien visitor heading off costumeless with the kids on Halloween night, to the crescendo of flying bikes. There is a constant kitsch link between the incipient alien who always exists and the actual one who never does. But which is E.T.? The boundary between child and adult fuzzes a different boundary, between alien and human, but the compassion and empathy are cosmic. Sadly Henry Thomas has been consigned to play weird preachers and deceitful ne’er-do-wells during his post-child-star career. Ω
Tender Mercies directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Robert Duvall and Tess Harper (1983). In one of the simplest redemptive love stories in the history of cinema, nothing happens; everything happens. A tiny shift in attention causes the desert to bloom. Ω
The Karate Kid, directed by John Avildsen and starring Ralph Macchio and Elisabeth Shue in their teen debuts, features Pat Morita in a grand Zen role, sort of like Don Juan Matus meets Yoda as both meet Bruce Lee (1984). This impeccable mythodrama can be watched over again or in pieces from any point. All its bits work separately—the mother-son migration from New Jersey, the primal confrontation on the beach, the “special girl,” the courtship, the retaliation, the punishment, the training, the initiation, the sacred battle, the victory, the koan: nothing is finally won or lost, only self-respect and the Tao. As the story operates just one octave above the typical teen sitcom, which is a big piece of of its charm, the magic and danger implicit in everyday life are exposed. Famous lines abound: “Get him a body bag!”; “wax on, wax off”; “do karate yes or do karate no; do karate halfway, squashed like bug”; “different yet same; no different yet different.” Ω
UFOria. directed by Frank Binder, starring Fred Ward, Harry Dean Stanton, and Cindy Williams (1985). A love story—half New Age jubilee, half Vegas badlands sleaze—is set in Melvin and Howard territory: the vast suburban desert. A UFO vision turns shop-clerk Arlene (Williams) into a priestess; Sheldon Bart (Ward), a drifter and small-time crook, has the hots for her and expects a quick hit-and-run affair but is converted to her faith and transformed. Stanton plays—what else?—Brother Bud, a priest selling stolen vehicles from the pulpit and trying to win Sheldon to the dark side. The UFO portrayals are so amateur that the movie almost disintegrates into farce; yet goofy, unflagging Arlene with her ridiculous-looking sky rigs wins the day. Ω
Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring a hip, jive Matthew Modine (1987). The first half of the film regarding a drill sergeant (played by a real one) who drives an imbalanced recruit to mayhem is a classic one-act drama, but it is the Vietnam landscape of the second half that elevates this realistic parable well beyond Platoon and Apocalypse Now. One didn’t think at the time that there was another Vietnam movie in the cultural bank, but Full Metal Jacket captures the tragedy, brutality, and banality of violence that shadows a bizarro occupying American post-counterculture army with a explicitness and irony that keep telling you, “There is something true about this.” One moment it is all a macabre joke; the next minute the guy who told it is dropped by a sniper. There are no victors or heroes, only muck and absurdity. The tough young Vietnamese prostitute who could suck the silver off a door knob is the proxy sister of the propped-up Vietcong male corpse to whom the men are paying homage for his warrior tenacity—his status as a superhero elevating their own forfeited lives to fabled times. The dying Vietcong sniper is no different from any of her victims, as sex and death converge in her agonized body. “Heavy,” the young soldiers understand, but all they can do is put her out of her misery and then be grateful that they get to live into another implacable twilight, marching through the paddies chanting “The Mickey Mouse Club Song” because it feels about as safe and rational as anything: equally vapid, equally profound. Ω
La Bamba, written and directed by Luis Valdez and starring Lou Diamond Phillips in a role so charismatic it seems that he has played only petty crooks since (1987). I know it’s watered down, pop, sentimental, and barely chicano—but it captures the holy chant inside the rock star—and its sentimentality is redeemed by its gentle innocence. Valdez celebrates Richie Valenzuela and the birth of rock and roll, plus he brings Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper briefly and indelibly to life for one ominous moment at the boarding of that fatal plane in Iowa, a scene so palpable that you almost feel that you are on it yourself. Valens’ initiation in Mexico is a true act of street shamanism. And who could argue with the songs covered by Los Lobos? ∆
Rain Man, directed by Barry Levinson (1988) and ensembled by Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise who plays Abbot to Hoffman’s Costello at the same time as they play Bonnie and Clyde. On their classic road trip, Hoffman masters the idiot-savant genre, and Cruise’s character is transformed by the contact with his rediscovered brother, as he finds his own conscience and then his heart too. Obsessive compulsion is given its ultimate portrayal, when Hoffman, citing a log of plane crashes—airline, date, and number killed—forces them to cross the country by car (this speech was of course cut from the airline version); then the duo has to stop and beg entrance at a farmhouse on the Plains so the Rain Man can watch Judge Wapner on TV. ∆
Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as the outlaw William Munny (1992). Seemingly a parable on the relationship between myth and reality, this is also, like Windwalker, a tale of an old guy seemingly at the end of his run, finding powers that not only restore and exceed his prior exploits but allow him to effect a core transformation. Eastwood’s commentaries on life and death (“When you kill a man, you take everything he has and everything he’s gonna have” and “It’s not about fairness”) give this anti-morality morality play an extra resonance. Munny’s gunfight against a full constabulary in a saloon serves as the transformative myth that explicates everything else, and is worth many rewatchings, from the explanation for why he shot an unarmed man (“he better arm himself if he’s gonna decorate his establishment with the body of my friend”) to his existential confrontation with the sheriff played by Gene Hackman, to his vanishing like a ghost at the film’s end. Ω
The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman (1994). The ultimate escape from hell becomes the ultimate sting, and cinema’s most delicious revenge. This is many people’s all-time favorite movie and it is the first of two Stephen King prison dramas directed by Darabont. The second, The Green Mile (1999), starring Tom Hanks, David Morse, and the revelatory Michael Clarke Duncan, is a tad mushy, hence a bit shy of the clarity of King’s book, but its allegory of innocence, evil, psychic healing, and a talented mouse starts me tearing around the middle, and I don’t let up till the end. As the prison guards, played by Hanks and Morse, etc., lead John Coffey (Duncan) to the home of the warden (James Cromwell) where his wife lies dying of a brain tumor, you know Coffey’s going to heal her, you know he will go to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit. I feel wonder, sadness, exhilaration. Ω (both films)
The Crossing Guard, directed by and starring Sean Penn (1995). In David Morse’s finest and subtlest role, he plays opposite Jack Nicholson (Freddie Gale) as a drunk driver who hit and killed Gale’s daughter and has just been released from a resulting jail sentence. Gale means to execute him. The reversal of good and evil, innocence and corruption culminates in a catharsis and conversion, as the purified killer leads the debauched father to his daughter’s grave to pray and receive her blessing. An attempt at the same concept fails utterly in the totally lame Reservation Road, but the story itself is archetypal and echoes Norse myths and the Brothers Grimm before there ever were motorized vehicles. ∆ and Ω
SubUrbia, directed by Richard Linklater (1996). This is a slacker Waiting for Godot set outside a convenience store half a century later: “Fifty years from now we’re all going to be dead, and there’ll be new people standing here, drinking beer, eating pizza, bitchin’ about the price of Oreos, and they won’t even know we were even here, and then fifty years after that….” West Asian immigrants and local teen dropouts collide in a clash of values and lives going in opposite directions (“…you’re given everything, and you piss it all away….”). Incredible speeches invoking cosmic freedom, success and celebrity, sex, identity, privilege, and despair belie the lost souls that populate the arid suburban landscape of America, as the characters dream up their ultimate babe/drug/booze/rock-star/Gilligan’s Island lifestyles, which would get boring but “…not for a long, for a long long, for a long long long while, a long long long….” Ω
Secrets and Lies, directed by Mike Leigh (1996). This working-class flipflop of conventional status and race is Leigh’s grandest and bravest ensemble improv, a switched-identity farce at a level that echoes Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing and then explodes: “Secrets and lies. We’re all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain? I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people in the world I love the most hate each other’s guts, I’m in the middle, and I can’t take it anymore.” ∆
Beautiful Girls, directed by Ted Demme (1996). This once-discarded sleeper, periodically revived on HBO, stars Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, and several other nascent and soon-to-be stars in a small-town homecoming fable, kind of New England (where the story happens), but also snowy Minnesota (where it was shot). From the very beginning, you feel as though these guys and girls are your own childhood friends, as you eavesdrop on their conversations about romance and Life. Rooted in their utopian but dysfunctional past, the characters reach to fantasy adult futures that are slipping away (like the beautiful girls of the title). Scene after scene hangs at that juncture—enigmatic, pregnant, unresolved: the group at the bar singing “Sweet Caroline,” Timothy Hutton’s character discussing baseball and love over the piano with Uma Thurman’s character, Michael Rappaport’s character launching into a Hamlet-like soliloquy about super-models (“…bottled promise, scenes from a brand new day, hope dancing in stiletto heels….”), and every interaction between Hutton and Portman but particularly their flirtation at the ice rink and across the space between their houses. For Portman it is a Lolita role (reminiscent of Amelia Shankley as Alice in Dreamchild a decade earlier), a glance that she will outgrow almost immediately. While Beautiful Girls defines the term “bittersweet,” it closes with mild hope and a possible future. The Brothers McMullen, directed and starring Ed Burns (1995), takes a run at the same nineties landscape.
Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Damon with Ben Affleck (1997). I’m a sucker for working-class New England dramas—their barely concealed racism, Boston accents and street-tough talk, the Patriots (before they were good), the shadow of the Ivy League. What makes Good Will Hunting their epitome and acme is the interaction between Damon as the untaught, intellectually bashful math genius and childhood-abuse victim Will Hunting who’d rather be at the bar with his friends (or in a fist fight) and Robin Williams as his psychiatrist. When Williams approaches Damon, pronouncing over and over, “It’s not your fault” as Damon (Will) goes from offhand dismissiveness to “yeah, okay, man” to “I know, I know” to “don’t fuck with me,” we are looking the best therapy scene in the cinema. Ω
The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir (1998). It’s been more than ten years since I saw this film before rewatching it in 2013. It is a film that lingered in memory and got deeper in absence. I kept picturing Truman living in his fiction, suspecting something but never the sheer extravagance of his cooption. The film operates on many levels. There is obviously the Buddhist fable: we are all living various illusions, myths, scripted lives, stores that are not real. But then there is the back-up fact that everyone around Truman knows that it is a fake town and a fake life. That doesn’t change the fact that for Truman it is real and for the rest of them, their lives are also illusions at another level. In fact, the way in which they kid themselves because they know the script makes them more unreal than Truman. For Truman everything is urgent and real, but then for all of us, life is not so much real as meaningful. At another level Christoff (the director) realizes that he is giving Truman a “better” life, but at the same time he is stealing Truman’s life from him by exploiting him. Truman is not even allowed to fall in love with the woman he loves because another actress, who doesn’t love him but is higher profile (a star) has already been given the part of his wife. What is most compelling to me (perhaps) is that while outrage at the gods is not possible, if the gods are megalomaniac movie directors, outrage IS possible, and one can break out. One CAN find the life denied. I am most taken by the exchange near the end after Truman finds that the sky beyond the sea is a wall. When he hears Christoff’s voice, he asks who he is. The answer (approximate from memory): “The director of a TV show.” “Then who am I?” Truman asks. “You’re the star,” Christoff says. Okay, Jim Carrey is a little over the top occasionally, but he restrained himself pretty well.
Under the Sun (Under Solen), directed by Colin Nutley (1998), set in 1956 rural Sweden. Understated and timeless. A single stunt plane in a biblical sky, again and again. Again and again the horses bathed down in the golden-green pond. A lonely farmer out of a lost short story by D. H. Lawrence. A woman with a mystery. People as simple as dogs and cows. The texture and subtext are never actually vocalized, even as they are stated so blatantly they could easily be missed. This is a rare movie that maintains its emotional truth, despite opportunities for distraction, in every scene. Ω
Little Voice, directed by Mark Herman and starring Jane Horrocks, a young Ewan McGregor, Michael Caine, and Mike Leigh icon, Brenda Blethyn (1998). This script involves a series of such complete relocations of its frame that it is, at once, a lower-class British drama about sadistic parental abuse that could have been made by Leigh, a story of a magical talent so unlikely and situational that it borders on multiple personalities, and an act of psychological individuation and cure represented by and manifesting in a fire that destroys the family dwelling with all its totem objects, dispossessing but actually liberating its characters. Horrocks not only plays all the dimensions of L-V (as she is called) but has the same astonishing ability of her character to reenact songs in the exact voice and spirit of the originals by Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, et al. ∆
The Deep End of the Ocean, directed by Ulu Grosbard (1999). The kidnapped child, Sam/Ben, played by Ryan Merriman, juggles the dichotomous weights of two families with the elusive gap of meanings between them. When he tells his birth mother that his kidnapper mom also cared for him (“They hugged me. They took care of me too”), it is not what she wants to hear—but she does hear it. Stolen out of his natal family, Sam should be the one traumatized and messed up but, instead, he returns to its disintegrating domestic chaos, bringing a calm judgment and intrinsic wisdom; he rescues his family individually and collectively because something in him has been redeemed in exile—some grace and existential lightness—that they never developed in themselves in his absence: “I knew you would find me.” ∆
The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (1999), starring Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis—but watch nothing else, probably ever, by this director. Many of the films on my list have a surprise ending. The Sixth Sense has the ultimate surprise ending, as if the entire story had been shot in blue and then suddenly turned red. Every scene has to be viewed a second time in order understood what it was. The living and the dead mingle freely without knowing it—the point of the film is to sort that out and get everyone to where they belong. But it is not mechanical; it takes empathy, transference, and actual communication between those on either side of the curtain. As in Cocteau’s Orpheus the movie has to unreel back at the end, undoing everything that has been made wrong after Death swung his Scythe. No other film captures the meaning and palpability of “ghost” so well. If you see the dead, you see them; there’s no negotiation and no compromise. You have to see it through until it delivers its final meaning and message. ∆
The Big Kahuna, directed by John Swanbeck, starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito with Peter Facinelli (2000). This is a three-person play set in a motel room in Omaha during an industrial-oils convention. Spacey and DeVito play veteran sales guys, Facinelli a born-again-Christian neophyte attached to their team. In a confined space the three men bond, feud, and reconcile many times over, as they strategize how to land the primo account (“the big kahuna). Human truths are explicated and great lines are spoken, enough of both to warrant a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller runner-up award. Facinelli’s character learns initially that he has, in fact, done things he regrets; he just doesn’t know what they are yet—and that’s why he doesn’t have character. Bummer! He learns later, and more profoundly, that, as long as you are a salesman rather than a human being, Jesus as a product is no holier or better than industrial oils. Together the men weave a kind of blind, existential love for one another out of the older guys’ despair and the young naif’s disingenuous earnestness.
A 2000 nod to You Can Count on Me, directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Mark Ruffalo, Rory Culkin, and Laura Linney. Most of the movie falls a notch off this list for me, but the gentleness with which returning fuck-up brother Terry (Ruffalo) unofficially adopts his nephew Rudy (Culkin) and gets into the heart of his pissed-off and forsaken sister (Linney) makes this quiet sitcom into something more than a minor family tale. Terry teaches his sister that if Rudy’s sheltered life gets a little bumptious via his own (Terry’s) impetuous spirit and tendency toward impropriety, it isn’t the worst thing in the world, for any of them. Stop fussing and trying to stage-manage everything, and let it all just happen. ∆
K-Pax, directed by Iain Softley and starring Kevin Spacey as Prot the walk-in from across the galaxy (2001). A gentler version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this allegorical tale of an alien masquerading as a mental patient raises basic issues of sanity, cosmology, and true power (who has what and who is playing an empty hand): “Where I come from, that’s known as the fastest gun in the West,” says the smug astrophysicist dismissive of Prot’s faster-than-light travel. “But,” replies Prot, “I don’t come from where you come from.” Ω
25th Hour, directed by Spike Lee, starring Edward Norton (2001). All American films are marked to a degree, most of them mutely and invisibly, by whether they precede or follow 9/11. Lee’s post-hippie crime-and-punishment drug-dealer drama has two different endings, one happy and redemptive, one tragic and brutal. All of the film’s twisted, tortured reckonings lead either to escape, reconciliation, and rebirth or to incarceration, tragedy, and despair. You get to choose. Though shot alongside 9/11 and drenched with its overtones and metaphors, the actual incident doesn’t enter the film.
Skins, directed by Chris Eyre (2002). This movie brought Chris Eyre out of the background for me and put Smoke Signals and Edge of America into context as part of a larger meta-Native American narrative. It’s a small film and a bit choppy, but it is pitch-perfect at not only modern Third World Pine Ridge Amerindian culture with its deep full heart, stolen spirit, and ancient vibration but also the source vibration as it radiates mysteriously through the lives of people in diaspora. Eyre’s meta-narrative makes Native Americans real by letting us in on their signals and cues to each other: “Remember, human beings don’t control anything; spirits do.”
Open Range, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, co-stararing Anne Bening, and Robert Duvall (2003). From the mold of a cattle-and-villain Western, this becomes a brilliantly understated period-piece love story in which the seemingly untouchable bad-guy rancher king is toppled as the existentially prodigal free-grazer (Costner) is redeemed, and the townsfolk are converted and liberated to a just cause—corny but down-to-earth and emotionally real—with one of cinema’s longest and most circuitous gunfights. Ω
Lilya 4-Ever, directed by Lukas Moodysson (2003) and Mammoth, directed by Luke Moodysson (2009) These two films could not be more different but, for the purposed of reviewing them, I am treating them as phases of the same larger theme: the severe, often fatal disruption of lives by the unregulated global marketplace and international flow of commodities and capital—in particular, the way in which people’s status and belief systems are torn apart in passage between incommensurate zones. In the flow of commodities, human and cultural values are trashed and replaced by the merciless squeezing of value out of flesh and personal identity. This is more than “lost in translation” translation is not even on the map for most of these characters.
Lilya 4-Ever describes trafficking in women. In this particular film the sites are Russian Estonia (as the source) and Sweden (as the market). Sixteen-year-old Lilya, played brilliantly by Oksana Akinshina, is abandoned by her mother who has attached herself to a nondescript male in order to get to America, leaving her daughter behind (Lilya’s father, a Russian military man, was never present). Although a situation has ostensibly been set up to take care of her, it is flawed and corrupt with a mere veneer of accountability and normality. Lilya’s apartment is stolen immediately by the greedy aunt who was chosen to protect her, and she ends up effectively in the street, her one friend a younger boy who has a crush on her. It is only a matter of time before she ends up a prostitute and is tricked by a seeming well-intentioned boyfriend to board a plane to Sweden where is immediately incarcerated and forced into one horrific sexual episode after another, the benefits of which go to her kidnapper-jailer, too disgusting a being to be elevated to pimp. Forget liberal Scandinavia. This guy is an ISIL-level abuser. He treats her like a farm animal, meant to be milked for profit until she drops.
The situations Lilya undergoes are graphically and creatively portrayed, intentionally forcing on the viewer a threshold between prurience and outrage/revulsion, with the meter weighted strongly toward the latter. The film is almost too painful to watch. I emphasize this because a near subsequent film by Moodysson (A Hole in My Heart, 2005) portrays three amateur pornographic film-makers (two men and one woman) confined by their obsessions to a squalid apartment with the alienated teenage son of one of the men, a boy who provides an outsider’s context for not only their lurid behavior (as he tries to block out the activities) but the implicit parental abuse.
Unlike L4E, A Hole in my Heart is, to my taste, fundamentally unwatchable: ninety-eight minutes of decadent, half-hearted sex, genital slapstick and mutilation, mayhem, and self-parody mixed in with a total trashing of the apartment, some of it in an over-the-top food fight bordering on S&M. Yes, Moodysson gives A Hole in My Heart a striking montage rhythm and sound track like something you might expect half a century after Stan Brakhage and John Cage and that makes it ontologically more meaningful but not still necessarily watchable. What you are left with in AHIMH is that fully sated, requited lust and erotic fantasy, when isolated in and of themselves and made their own sole purpose, are banal, absurd, and degrading beyond any pleasure they give.
The Swedish men who buy sex with the young Lilya in the 2003 film are vicious, cruel, and/or antipathetic forerunners of the two men in AHIMH, as if two years later Moodysson decided to pull two of them out of L4E and put them outside of narrative time and under a microscope while caricaturing their pathologized libidos.
In L4E some of the sex customers are shown in brief video mugshot format, whereas others are portrayed in full cowardly exploitation and/or sadism. L4E also has a small quotient of bursts of experimental music-like noise (and noise-like music), though there, because it is selectively used and in the narrative flow, it has a unique sort of power. I resisted the decibels of usually brief, very hard rock initially, but as the full scope of Lilya’s plight becomes clear, they seem the only way to match it and her panic on the sound track.
There is also a magical realist element to L4E, its only mitigating factor, in that when both Lilya’s young friend and ultimately Lilya herself leave their bodies and the world, they grow wings and become angels (In reference to some of the elements of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire).
For me the film’s most powerful and emotionally shocking scene comes very early when the young, hip, insouciant Lilya pretends not to care as her mother departs for good with her boyfriend. Then she suddenly rushes outside to the taxi and screams chillingly not to be left behind. “I won’t survive,” she pleads with unerring accuracy, but the mother manages to steel herself and then, once in the US, disowns the girl. For all the cruel and shocking things that are done to Lilya later, this is the moment when the glass is smashed, when her heart and her hope are broken. The movie is then a fait accompli: the natural flow of capital and desire to where it wants to
While Mammoth is set in upper-class yuppie American culture, with lowest stations being those of Filipino nanny, her two sons back in the Philippines, and a spirited Thai prostitute named Cookie, the engine of disjointed juxtapositions is the same. The husband and wife, who live in a swish Manhattan apartment, are respectively a web developer (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) and his emergency-room surgeon wife (played by Michelle Williams). The nanny (Marife Necesito) has left her two sons in the care of her mother in the Philippines while she makes money for a better life for all of them. Meanwhile the roughly seven-year-old girl she is caring for becomes closer to her than to her own parents to the point of committing to learning Tagalog, the nanny’s native language, a central trope of the film.
In the narrative the husband software-developer is dragged unwillingly by private jet to Bangkok to sign a 45-million-dollar gaming contract but ends up stuck there while his partner haggles for a better deal. He finally takes off to one of the islands in ostensibly the Gulf of Thailand where, while backpacking, he pays Cookie, a very pretty prostitute who pursues him, not to have sex with him (or anyone), which then leads to an actual romantic affair between them. In attempting to break the cycle of prostitution, he actually brings the two of them to the level of a consensual affair. But even that turns out to be grounded in the disparate power between them, as they each lie about who they are and turn the relationship into a game-like fantasy.
Meanwhile the older of the nanny’s two boys in the Philippines, through a series of childlike misunderstandings, ends up in the throes of a violent pedophile who almost kills him, leading the nanny to have to return, abandoning her charge in the apartment late at night while the girl’s mother is attempting desperate surgery on a boy stabbed to the point of death by his own mother.
The number and degrees of cultural and geographical dislocation in Mammoth are too numerous and disparate to inventory here, but suffice it to say, as a kind of overlay, that the title refers to super-expensive pens made from the bones of the extinct mammal, and one of the more interesting repeated scenes in the movie is that of the yuppie couple’s daughter, an aspiring astronomer, sitting with her nanny (and then her mother) at the Hayden Planetarium and watching the birth of galaxies in interstellar space. These end-markers give a sense of the ultimate scale of dislocation that Moodysson is getting at beneath the cloak of global capitalism in a terminal phase. It’s also molecular and Big Bang cosmological. No one can escape its gravity or distortion.
Since writing this, I have seen We Are the Best (2013) and Show Me Love (1998), films at opposite ends of Moodysson’s current oeuvre, both of which capture the inner and outer lives and language of teenage girls—the later film in a punk context, the former in a lesbian versus straight context. In each instance the girls are opposed by a mainline culture: boy and male punkers (WETB) and anti-lesbian boy-crazy girls (SML). Both films torque against expectations, as the heroines’ capacity for courage, perseverance in the face of tidal waves of obstacles and objections, social humiliation, and heartbreak, is, finally, no other word for it, inspiring. I found myself moved to tears by situations that wouldn’t ordinarily be emotional but were made so by the director’s meticulous sensitivity to layers and phases of consciousness, capturing nuances and shifts that are almost always passed over, in hundreds, if not thousands, of other movies that run along similar and vaguely similar tracks to these two. Moodysson captures those essential elements that are routinely left out, the muddled, middle-ground moments that define individuation, personal growth, and breakthrough. The recruiting of a born-again Christian girl to a punk band by the band’s long-bonded duo, her graceful entry and then innate transformation of the two of them (she in fact is an accomplished musician, while they can’t play a thing), and their recognition and springing of her into a new joy and self-confidence from her own familial traps are made all the more exquisite by Moodysson’s refusal to stereotype or vilify anything, however inviting a target, but to bring each to its essential humanity and the search for companionship and being seen. In the process we see emotional mixes and ambivalences not usually revealed in art. Likewise, when Agnes (the sullen, alienated, lonely, scorned lesbian) and Elin (the beautiful, popular, cheerful boy’s girl) swirl out of the bathroom where they have locked themselves to deal with the crisis of their incipient relationship, a huge crowd of their schoolmates having gathered and expecting to see Elin emerging with some guy, hooting and jeering in expectation, and then they startle the group as they declare their just discovered truth with brazen, in-your-face pride, it is a cinema moment for the ages, no less juicy as turnabout revenge than anything portrayed by Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.
Beyond the Sea, directed by and starring Kevin Spacey (2004). Spacey brings Bobby Darin back to life in this surreal musical that tracks the metamorphosis of a blithe pop hipster into a thoughtful critic of the Vietnam War, while staging each of Darin’s famous hit songs as a Broadway song-and-dance piece, several of which incorporate his brazenly confident courtship of Sandra Dee. The film captures Darin’s snazzy but doomed trajectory over the subtext of his covert parentage and roller-coaster marriage. Philip Kaufman’s 1979 magical realist adaptation of Richard Price’s gang novel The Wanderers elicits some of the same emergent countercultural history, as Dion and The Belmonts turn into Bob Dylan, and a slate of previous innocent sex acts and gang wars is wiped mordantly clean by drugs and Vietnam. ∆ (both).
Before Sunset, directed by Richard Linklater (2004). You start imagining a simple exchange—a romantic comedy in the making—but this eighty-minute, empathically transforming dialogue between two indelible characters portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy against a rolling Parisian backdrop and then in her apartment doesn’t let go until the last note reveals each of them nakedly to the other. Ω
A Fond Kiss, directed by Ken Loach (2004). Neither the title nor the description gives any sense of the subtlety or the nuancing in this film. This is a rare one I gave five stars (that Netflix game). After so many bad or unsatisfactory romances, this one is absolutely pitch perfect. Set in Scotland: Pakistani guy, Irish girl, one very pissed-off Pakistani family and one equally pissed-off Irish priest. The dialogue is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. How the couple navigates the outrage coming at them and keep reclaiming love is what makes it work. The film crosses that magical line where you stop thinking of it as a film and it becomes real. The thread for me actually goes Andrea Arnold (from Fish Tank to Red Road) to Ken Loach. Anything by Andrea Arnold is similarly worth seeing.
Me and You and Everyone We Know, written and directed by and starring Miranda July (2005). Yes, she is my daughter, but that shouldn’t disqualify her. The final montage of the coin clinking nervously on the pole followed by the giant sun rising and then—nothing—speaks to everything that led there. The movie starts with a soliloquy about love and terror and ends by trusting its characters and the universe to work out the messy details, with much Internet identity confusion along the way. ∆
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed by Dito Montiel, starring Robert Downey, Jr. (2006). The Wanderers remade three decades later, it equally hearkens back to a lost era, the eighties in lieu of the fifties. The magical realism of the street is now post-Warhol, post-mosh and hiphop. Barely staying true to his own coming-of-age novel, Montiel shows the saints, angels, and poets camouflaged in gang-and-slum-ridden Queens. Ω
16 Blocks, directed by Richard Donner, starring Bruce Willis, David Morse, and a scintillating Mos Def as Eddie Bunker, the petty thief who believes that “people can change” (2006). The film-long duet between Willis’s Jack Mosley, an aging, alcoholic New York cop, and Def, the rapper playing an ingenuous, irrepressible prosecution witness whom Mosley must shepherd to the courthouse to testify against renegade police is simultaneously light and dark, and finally liberating for both men. Yes, the distance is 16 blocks, but it takes almost two hours of movie time to get there, a route resembling that of Clint Eastwood’s Gauntlet. Ω
Grace is Gone, directed by James C. Strouse and starring John Cusack (2007). It starts out ordinary, even perverse and irritatingly choreographed, but by the time the mourning father and his two little girls reach the ocean and the eternal waves and sun, the entire absurd meaninglessness of the Iraq War has been deconstructed, condemned, and transmuted—along with humankind itself—on a virgin, bare, hopeful planet, with barely a mention of the war itself. ∆
The Visitor, directed, by Thomas McCarthy and starring Richard Jenkins (2007). “The planet Earth with its bright colors, bigger than the State and all its law…paranoid, heartbroken, disillusioned,” to mix tropes of two different reviews. This is the shadow side of the GWBush Homeland Security response to 9/11. Throw in anti-immigration fever, and you have an America not all that different from the Taliban-run Swat Valley or Stalin’s Russia, at least to those on the wrong side of the cult. Add a corporate, robotic Blackwater-like Prison Industrial Complex like something out of a 2150 asteroid detention facility. Lebanese actor Haaz Slieman is full of joy, compassion and tragic dignity as a young Syrian drummer camping out with his girlfriend in the abandoned apartment of Jenkins’ burned-out and widowed professor, and then imprisoned by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—but not before he passes on to his “landlord” the magic of the drumbeat and the person of his noble, tragic mother. Ω
Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle (2007). I picked this film because it was a strange-seeming science-fiction drama preview on Dark Matter, itself a sort-of mildly interesting astrophysics soap opera hauntingly and exquisitely sound-tracked by the Beijing Angelic Choir. I thought the odds were nine out of ten that it would be cheesy and terrible like most experimental sci-fi.
Though I understand why so many people hate it (negative Netflix customer reviews and poor Netflix rating of less than three stars) and I buy the arguments against it, it is finally so brilliant, so bizarre and original, and so, finally, spiritual that I ended up personally transformed by it despite its limitations. I think that the film’s vision of the Sun is the masterpiece. All the human activity aboard the spaceship is dwarfed by the actual presentation of the Sun, more powerfully than in any science or sci-fi film I have seen otherwise. The Sun is deconstructed and revealed. But the film also holds up dramatically and, though very flawed at every level and way too ambitious for what it can carry off, it still makes it with enough over the finish line to deliver the goods.
I think the film’s voice-over is original and an epiphany. I have never seen a film that contextualizes itself by a voice-over in quite this total a way. The voice-over begins when the Fox Searchlight icon starts, and it ends only when the last credits end. Thus it, in effect, puts the entire film into the same frame as it puts the Sun. The voice-over deconstructs the film and the making of a film in the twenty-first century in the way that the film deconstructs the Sun itself and the role of the Sun in all of human cosmic history. Many viewers hated the voice-over and found it pretentious, again as per Netflix; I thought the voice-over, whether pretentious or not, was so daring and outrageous, so confident and comfortable in its own device and artifact, that it transcends its pretentiousness and over-determination and really makes a film like no film I have ever seen before. There is a text that glosses and overrides not only the story-line but the matrix of a filmic beginning and end in which the film is set, and then the matrix in which that matrix is set. If the voice-over could begin before you even ordered the film from Netflix, it would. And if it could go on after you finish watching the film, it would, and it in effect does. The voice-over plus the Sun make this worth all the failings of the story. There’s really nothing like this I know of that’s even been attempted. It gets at what the Sun really is in the same way it gets at what narrative really is and what film really is. [Two years later, I realize that I almost certainly made a mistake. I think now that we inadvertently viewed the “visually enhanced” version of the film and thus got a voiceover narrative that began with the opening credits and continued through the last image on the screen. Every time this has happened since, I have had to go back to the root menu and eliminate the feature, which makes it impossible to watch the movie. Why did it take two years to figure this out? I think it is because the feature works so well singularly with this film that it becomes seamlessly part of it and I assumed that it was the intended aesthetic. Then it suddenly hit me: I was watching a version of the film meant for visually impaired viewers. Perhaps that’s how a film staring directly into the Sun should be. Perhaps that’s also why I rated it so much higher than the Netflix average.]
12 (12 Razgnevannyh Muzhchin), directed by Nikita Mikhalkov (2007). The Russian version of the American classic Twelve Angry Men is not a remake or even a transposition of the story into a Russian context. It is a different movie using the same premise: a unanimous verdict required, eleven biased or bored jurors anxious to declare the defendant guilty and move on with their day, one guy holding out…until the rest gradually come around to his correct position. The plot of 12 is wrapped around the Chechnyan war such that innovative urban-battlefield images are interspersed into the jury deliberations. Each of the twelve jurors is fully portrayed, so the drama starts out slowly, almost ploddingly, but it keeps getting sharper and sharper until it morphs from an ordinary film into an epiphany. But you have to be patient and wait it out. At an hour and a half in, I was like: This is okay, a little tedious. The tipping point is the moment when the doctor from the Caucasus takes the “murder” weapon from a bullying and angry member of their group and demonstrates the real potential of the implement with a dazzling display of knife-play. Two hours in, I began to feel the gathering power. When it got down to the last ten minutes, I was in the hands of a master. Shots whirled into one another, montaging across boundaries of time and space, and exploding into unexpected meanings. The defendant’s dance, simultaneously as a boy in Chechnya and as a young adult prisoner, was a tour de force. I have seen many good films that were great until they didn’t know how to end. This one didn’t quite know how to begin, but before we were done with each other, I was transported to the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Never Forever, directed by Gina Kim (2007). This is Vera Farmiga’s most nuanced and poignant role, as Sophie, an American woman married to a Korean man who desperately wants a child but does not have viable sperm. The first chunk of the movie, depicting their dilemma and culminating with his attempted suicide, is not credible and mediocre. The rest of it, depicting Sophie’s clandestine search for a Korean sperm donor and choice of a young illegal immigrant played powerfully by Jung-woo Hu, more than makes up for it. The idea is to trick the husband into thinking that it is his baby. The relationship between Sophie and Hu’s character, meant to be passionless pact of convenience, goes through many phases of emotional ambivalence, complication, and elusive feeling, opening both their worlds to new possibilities. What makes this film special is the resolution. Though some viewers on Netflix considered the mysterious ending a copout and it ruined the film for them, I thought it was a kind alchemical transformation of everything that went before into something elegant, innocent and, most of all, habitable. It makes Sophie’s former world seem like so much hoopla and hysteria. It is a perfect cameo of transformation and salvation.
The Stoning of Soraya M., directed by Cyrus Nowrastah (2008). While viewing The Stoning of Soraya M., I am struck by the power and passion of the images that the Nowrastahs created. Using a puppet and then an actress (Mozhan Mamo) with prosthetics, they created the effect of stones hitting and smashing her face as she is buried in the dirt up to her shoulders so that she cannot move, smashed into death. The shock of the first stone that her husband hits her with is so profound that, as her head rises, not only are her eyes defiant and revelatory, but the crack out of which her blood flows is another eye, even more profoundly revelatory and defiant.
Her altered body is her prophecy. The more they fire rocks at her, cursing her, calling her a bitch and a defilement, shattering her body—the more another prophecy is delivered onto them. All their shouts of “God is great” (“Allah akbar!“) cannot lift or alleviate the sentence that is being delivered on them, that they are delivering onto themselves.
It is no surprise that this work of art comes from the same production company and actor (James Caviezel—the rest of the cast is Iranian) that made Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth was not the only human crucified, the only soul who implanted a message in the human blueprint and collective planetary DNA by his death. Tens of thousands of unknown martyrs have implanted intelligence and passion in the blood of our species. Billions of animals have driven their death throes into our collective psyche and karmic record.
Stoning is pornography. I know that Iranian Islam, as well as the Islamic body, stands proudly against the vulgarity and pornography of the West. But their treatment of women is its own pornography. It is not sacred; it is not divine. Stoning is purely erotic and lascivious, a sanctioned snuff orgy in which shouts of celebration for Allah are more clearly heard as hex cries to ward off the spirits they are drawing and the dark spells that are being cast. They are getting off on their erotic murder. Once you see it for it is, the attendant meanings just explode. There is a thin line between loving protection and sadistic destruction; it shouldn’t be thin, and the fact it is is the gash that opens the act to pornography—for the eroticism of these stoning deaths is the sheer wonder and awe that certain barriers can be crossed externally, certain promises can be broken, and all that is aroused is the ambiguity and mystery of desire.
But even as stonings are pornography, the epidemic normalized pornography of the West, from x-rated films to women stripping as they swing around around poles to plasticized boobs, ads for jeans and cars, and all the rest, is a recreational form of stoning women. For all the claims of feminist liberation, these are sordid rituals whereby men get to symbolically stone the sacred feminine into submission, bestial regression, and snuff.
Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (2008). Hunger is neither a pleasant experience nor an easy film to watch. I have put it on my list solely for its uniqueness and rawpower. It is essential, not just in its depiction of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland but its reflection (via them) of any human event that brings together territoriality, ethnic and/or religious and class conflict, personal and regional sovereignty, asymmetrical warfare, conscience, honor, and the strategic and spiritual force of disciplined symbolic acts. The aftermath of watching it is more indelible than the initial viewing. It has to be. The film cannot be contained in the technology or on a glass screen; it throws one after another exquisite, unbearable, timelessly thick image at you, and the impact takes a while to settle in, get internalized, become emotionally, even cognitively, accessible, at which point they flow back iconically out of one’s own mind’s as if having just been in a museum exhibition of an unknown series of paintings by Rembrandt and Bosch or their more ephemeral modern shadow: the amateur postcards made by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
In an interview on the DVD , McQueen, an avant-garde African English painter, iterates his intention to make moving paintings with continuous attention to framing, color, texture, light, duration, and content. Duration and rhythm are key because cinema is not more but less than persistent the art of Lascaux or Da Vinci. In cinema, each deep image wavers and dissipates into its next inevitable transitional state or gets lost in the expectation and potentiation of its necessity to become something else. McQueen neutralizes that to make a gallery space. Some films are painting-like. This is a painting that is film-like because it is a film.
Many of the scenes are throwback Warhol in their stolidly fixed lens and unlikely length, yet classical in their richness and imagery like Dutch Mediaeval renditions of the Crucifixion or Bosch’s damned wandering or clustering in Hell. McQueen’s reconstruction of the 1981 hunger strike of IRA Maze prisoner Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), ending in Sands’ death—the film’s topic—is effectively a purgatory followed by a crucifixion. The latter third of the film is a record of the deterioration of Sands’ body in Fassbender’s gruesomely real presentation of his own body; the first third depicts the set-up: prison walls hand-painted shades of brown by prisoners with their own excrement, full frontal male naked bodies throughout, milling in prison groups, being tortured individually and collectively, confined restlessly and torpidly in their cells like animals in a zoo. The nakedness feels part of McQueen’s essential naked, transparent, Rembrandt-like aesthetic, building layers of painting that move away from motion to stillness, in part by breaking an unspoken rule about superfluous penises and making them essential (because ordinary) anatomy, in part by preceding modernity with a kind of Stone Age and feudal stripping away of nuance. There is one long, slowly evolving composition of a fly, broken jail wire, and a trapped hand exploring the wire and permitting contact by the fly (the fly freer than the hand). The longest Warhol-like composition is a guard with a squeegee disinfecting the hall of urine poured into it by the prisoners; he approaches the lens from faraway pushing the spills along, occasionally back under the iron doors of the cells.
A sequence comprising almost an astonishing third of the film—the middle third—is a discussion between Sands and a priest in which Sands makes a moral and existential argument for the imminent hunger strike to the death and the priest tries unsuccessfully to dissuade him. The dialogue is set at a greater distance than directors usually accomodate their audience, plus the words are softer and less theatrically enunciated, making the scene difficult to hear or interpret. The fact that the camera and and mike are intentionally un-user-friendly gives the sensation of eavesdropping. This makes the exchange more necessary and powerful, as if one were overhearing the real thing. The two actors capture the likely rhythm and alternately intense and idle tugs that such a conversation in life would have; one gets to overhear particularly poignant phases in which moral and political view come to a head, the whole sequence punctuated with aesthetically rendered flashbacks from Sands’ boyhood. These flashbacks and dissolves continue into his hunger strike, where they are mixed with the waning natural world so that Fassbender’s character can barely see or hear the events and visitors in his surroundings. Fades of dimension, memory, and Now into one another convert McQueen’s gallery to a more modern montage, but it is just as painterly and hard-earned. Again, I can’t say that it was an enjoyable film or one that I was drawn to keep watching, but brilliance and perfection are their own reward. The after-images in my mind continue to speak for themselves.
Looking for Eric, directed by Ken Loach (2009). After watching A Fond Kiss, I began researching other Ken Loach films. Looking for Eric is almost as good. More British lower-class drama a la Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh. The main character, a postman named Eric, has fallen on hard times and given up on his life. Living in a pigsty with two dropout teenage stepsons caught up in a local psychopathic gang, deeply regretting walking out on his first wife decades earlier, having just smashed up his car, in terrible physical shape, he mainly has his drinking and football (Manchester United) buddies. When one of them gets involved in a New Age self-help book, the group goes along with one of its premises , and each envisions a hero after whom to model his life going forward. One picks Gandhi, one Mandela, one Old Blue Eyes, one Sammy Davis, Jr. Eric picks Eric Cantona, a nineties star for Manchester United, of French nationality and given to philosophizing about life. Soon thereafter, the real Eric appears and begins to advise him in French and English, usually but not always translating the French. Well, I say the real Eric appears because Eric Cantona enters the film as an actor, but he is not playing himself in the way that, say, Joe DiMaggio plays himself in Little Johnny Strikeout. He is playing an imaginary version of himself. So instead of an actor playing the ghost of Eric Cantona, Eric Cantona plays the ghost (and his performance is mixed in with newsclips of his greatest goals and passes). No Zen master or personal life coach could have done any better, and Eric the postman’s life begins coming together almost magically. What follows are delightfully manic and romantic redemptions: he stars in Revenge of the Wusses while reclaiming his life and becoming a real hero. Three busloads of Manchester United fans wearing Eric Cantona masks end up attacking the psychopathic gang members and, yes, the real Eric is there too, wearing a mask, playing his own doppelganger. I know nothing about European football, but this is the best movie I have seen in which a sports star plays himself. ∆
Passing Strange, directed by Spike Lee (2009). It starts right in, no credits, so if, like me, you didn’t know what this movie was, you went through ten or fifteen minutes of adjustment before you realized what you were watching was the main event, not a prologue. It’s Spike Lee’s curtain-to-curtain rendition of the last performance of the autobiographical rock opera by Stew, founder of the band The Negro Problem, co-written with his partner Heidi Rodewald.
The ensemble cast switches from locale to locale (L.A., Amsterdam, Berlin), adopting different characters for each setting. Stew himself floats around the set as narrator and one-man chorus. The band members are also part of the landscape. Every actor or actress (except Stew, Daniel Breaker playing his alter ego, and Elsa Davis as his mother) creates three memorable supporting roles.
In their own urban-culture way the lyrics are original and heartfelt and as witty as Gilbert & Sullivan or Ira Gershwin (“Hey, Mr. L.A., I know a place where you can stay./Right next door to here is a nice flat, yeah, it’s okay” and “Oh the LAPD never thought he was that cute—/but now a squad of ice queens is in hot pursuit./I’m the Superfly in the buttermilk!/And we find him Zerr Gutt!/’cuz I’m the black one!”) The overall ambiance, music, and stagecraft at various times echoes Sam Cooke, Hair, Rob Brezsny of World Entertainment War, Cecil Brown of The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, Phantom of the Opera, and a coming-of-age blend of Baldwin and Salinger, Lawrence and Twain. The pacing is impeccable, the staging dramatic without being overwrought, luminous but not garish. The camera-work is innovative and improvisational, as you would expect from Lee (backstage, into the audience, actress De’Adre Aziza shooting with an old Bolex within the play).
Overall it’s about sex, drugs, and politics and “passing strange” as a black man in eighties Europe. It’s about home. It’s about making art. And it invents itself on stage in dance and song with epiphanies, crescendos, and bursts of exuberant insight.
Undertow, directed by Javier Fuentes-Leon (2009). I actually mean this as part of a pair, with Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh (2011). I pick Undertow not because it’s necessarily the “better” film–that’s a matter of genre preference and taste–but because it moved me to tears and hit at a really deep level, whereas Weekend more engaged me aesthetically and intellectually. Both are candid gay male films of which the two directors are gay but the four lead actors (amazingly) are not; they do an incredibly convincing job. Weekend is British, Undertow Peruvian. I watched Weekend first. It gets across the complex range of issues around true intimacy, commitment, maleness (macho-ness), “coming out,” and candor among gay lovers; in this case, a young life-guard and a young art-gallery employee. What makes the film work (for me) is the willingness to let the unstated ride and develop subtly on its own, with a few truths and insights gradually seeping out. What is difficult for each (being affectionate publicly and expressing real feeling, respectively) somewhat flips around by the last scene in which each overcomes his own reticence but may lapse slightly into the others’ reticence. They don’t stay together, but that’s almost incidental. Best line—and I approximate—was in relation to telling one’s parents. The art worker’s parents weren’t happy; he said something like, “Nature, nurture; get over it!” (In the special features during the audition the line is “You gave me the genes; get over it!”
When I began watching Undertow next, a few days later, I initially didn’t like it as much because the Peruvian magical realism seemed to make the whole relationship unrealistic—an affair between a local fisherman and the ghost of his drowned lover whom no one else could see. However, what might have seemed an indulgence or an arty distraction really came into its own, and the fact that Miguel’s lover was a ghost became irrelevant because all the same issues arose: intimacy, male identity and macho-hood (especially in such a macho culture), publicness, honor, etc. The fact that no one else could see his lover put all the weight on Miguel to transform himself and those around him, which he eventually did, though not without deep awakening and personal suffering. One of the key tensions in Undertow, not as developed in Weekend, is the notion that it’s okay for two men to have sex as long as they’re not “queer.” InUndertow,what “queer” means to Santiago, Miguel’s lover and a painter visiting the town to do his art, is depth of feeling, acknowledgment of desire, expression of intimacy, inner self-development; that is what Miguel is fleeing, even as he is drawn to the sex. Married and with a son born during the time-frame of the movie, he wants to be able to mess around with Santiago (alive and then dead) while still being a “real man.” Santiago doesn’t think that Miguel “has the balls” to be a real man.
The concluding set of scenes, in which Santiago’s body is found and brought to shore and Miguel has to come forward and claim it (against the wishes of Santiago’s wealthy family from the city) and buries it, as Santiago’s ghost requested, at sea, is epiphanic, lucid, and redemptive. Finally the whole village comes to recognition of what they have been denying—in a sense they all see the “other” ghost, their own homophobia—and they bury Santiago together with a true heart ceremony. ∆
Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik (2010). Check out also Down to the Bone and Snakebit by the same director. This is a crisp drama, no wasted motion or language, as a teenage girl, Ree Dolly played by Jennifer Lawrence walks the gauntlet of the Ozarks meth world with pluck and gumption in order to save her family’s land. What makes this work is the ferocity and commitment of each of the characters. Everyone’s condition is extreme, but the actors never overplay it, yet at the same time capture the desperation and urgency of not only every role but every act. A trip to the Underworld would involved passing among the dead and the metastasized. Likewise a journey to the realm of the Living Dead is just as mythological and fabulous, the beings who populate it must operate by the rules of the land. They didn’t make the rules, but they will honor and enforce them. A young girl is the perfect foil for this initiation. The internal dreamlike landscapes shot in Super-8 so that they don’t fill the whole frame are a revelation. The haunting “Missouri Waltz” of the sound track is a lullaby and dirge for the ages. ∆
The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell (2010). This movie is a lot about Reality, but it is neither Reality TV nor Cinema Verite. Mark Wahlberg, Christian Baile, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and crew reconstruct the extended families of Lowell, Mass. boxer half-brothers Dicky Ecklund and Mickey Ward. They do this onsite in Lowell with the “originals” present as models and to help reenact historical reality on the spot (and to be in the film as extras). The different layers of the real and the acted meld brilliantly to produce something that is beyond real (and certainly beyond the illusion reality of Reality TV and lives on websites) and also beyond just acting, though it is consummate acting. It is a gem, a perfect piece of complex art working at many levels–as classic and Shakespearean as it is avant-garde and Warholian. It also has that exquisite, irreplaceable texture of lower-class Eastern Massachusetts that permeates Good Will Hunting, Outside Providence, The Town, and numerous other Matt Damon/Ben Affleck dramas. Adams does a picture-perfect University of Rhode Island dropout bar skank with a heart of fire (and gold). Various actresses play the chorus of Ecklund/Ward sisters (and they are legion) as if this were Sophocles or Euripides. Leo captures the the fighters’ fierce, narcissistic, vulgar, outrageous but devoted mother—my favorite scene is her duet with Baile/Ecklund, reenacting together the BeeGees’ “I Started a Dream” to defuse tension in a car. ∆
White Irish Drinkers, directed by John Gray (2010). The year is 1975, the setting is Brooklyn. The moment that I knew this was going to be a special film was when the family’s younger son Brian, a college-age teenager not in college, gets together with his three long-time neighborhood buddies, one of whom has enrolled in college for computers, and the attention focuses on a particular girl (Leslie Murphy) at the bar. Brian, played brilliantly by Nick Thurston, likes her but felt ignored by her in high school, so he isn’t one of the guys going over to hang with or hit on her. Instead he goes to the bar’s outside-facing store-front window and, in the steam on the inside of the glass, slowly paints an astonishingly accurate portrait of her. One by one, people start to notice, and eventually the whole bar is watching as the camera focuses on her stunned abashed face in the center. The second most remarkable moment is Thurston’s and Murphy’s one love scene, which begins with them running naked in the graveyard and ends with one of the best simulations of passionate fucking in cinema history (at least my history of viewing). But it doesn’t quite end there. It ends with her looking at his paintings and trying to explain to him that he’s got something special, and then walking out abruptly before she can fall in love. The evolution of interactions between Thurston and Geoff Wigdor (who plays his brother Danny) is also powerful, culminating with each of their admissions of what the other means to him. They both play it just right, articulation bursting out of (mostly) inarticulateness (like early Brando). Karen Allen has grown from the teen siren in The Wanderers to the mother and trapped in White Irish Drinkers, but she brings that same fresh spirit to her role. The life of this film is the heart of its characters and the fact that they all have good hearts, even the nastiest or most banal of them. The dialogue, rhythm, pacing, and sound track are also pretty much without a false step. ∆
Biutiful, directed by Alejándro González Iñárratu (2010). Alejándro González Iñárratu opened and closed his film Biutiful in a snowy forest of bare trees. The main character Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, is approached by a young man. When we see the scene for the first time, we do not know who these people are or what is transpiring between them. In fact Uxbal has just died, and the young man who approaches him resembles the father he never met. In flight from Franco a generation earlier, Uxbal’s father left his wife (and Spain) and arrived in Mexico, only to die there three weeks later at the age of twenty of pneumonia. His embalmed body, shipped back to Barcelona and buried, was exhumed for cremation as part of a cemetery relocation within the time-span of the film. Uxbal gets to see him a second time as a mummy.
The story considers the weight of a life in the context of the the memory of the dead by the living, as well as vice versa: how the dead will recognize each other without their bodies.
Biutiful did not actually open in the forest. The scene was preceded by a brief anomaly a flash-forward from just before Uxbal’s death when he gave his daughter, a girl of about ten, his own mother’s ring. Afterwards he pleaded with her to stare at his face and promise not to forget him. The actual request occurs in the the body of the film’s narrative, not in its prologue, which has only the hands, father’s and daughter’s, and the ring changing fingers. He did not make a similar request of his son Matteo, a boy of about six at the time.
Just before Uxbal’s death, the terminally ill father visits his son, finds him sobbing on the bed and, though ordinarily gruff, comforts him. Matteo has been punished and denied a trip with his sister and mother (Uxbal’s estranged wife) to see the snowy woods of the Pyrenees.
So the young man at the beginning of Biutiful is not—or not only— Uxbal’s father frozen at twenty but his son, Matteo, grown up. But how does Uxbal recognize Matteo when he last saw him at six? How does he know that the youth that so resembles his father is not his father?
Matteo’s unique and timeless signal is the forest and snow, a phantom enegetic reality made of symbols, symbols that Uxbal will forever identify with Matteo because they represent an absence the needs to be filled—an unfulfilled trip to the Pyrneees. A very beautiful brown-and-white owl is lying dead on the snow, its feathers rustling in the breeze. As Matteo approaches, he says the exact words he will say (or had already said) at six, “Do you know that when owls die they spit a hairball out of their beak?”
Uxbal completes the encrypted exchange by saying that the sound of the ocean scared him as a child because he was afraid of the bottom of the sea and the things that live there.
It is not a real dead owl either.
Remember Me, directed by Allen Coulter (2010). This film is certainly flawed. The central plot device is clunky and synthetic. Some of the dialogue is brilliant, some of it is sophomorically raunchy and stupid, though the brilliant lines are profound enough to outweigh the assinine ones and they pick up momentum as the film progresses, leaving the adolescent hi jinks in their dust. In fact, the earlier banalities become s backdrop or baseline for the moral and intellectual evolution of the characters. Ultimately the emotional truth of pretty much all of them—but mostly the young people—cuts many layers down to big-time emotional revelations about family, relationship, loyalty, and redemption. Everyone grows and progresses. Along the way themes of grade-school bullying, parenting of adult children, risk-taking honesty, and the transformation of rage into courage take their turns in the sequential vignettes. The ending is untipped and changes the whole nature and meaning of the film. Clearly it was made for the ending and scripted backward from there. As in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, the drama you have been following and absorbed in is swallowed by global and millennial forces many times their scale. In that sense, there are two films, the one I have praised and criticized, and the same film contextualized by its end. I wasn’t happy that it ended that way, and I felt a bit tricked and used. On the other hand, the ending worked and had the power of raising a periscope to everything we had just scene while casting it into the far distance against a clash of civilizations. That made it all the more poignant and precious, and it also gave meaning, dignity, and integrity to so many other lives we will never know. A story about unlikely kids in love and a little girl being bullied becomes a parable of the meaning of a single life and the resonance of loss through time.
The Future, directed by Miranda July (2011). As Miranda’s father, I can say that she seems to have been born with a sense of how to move in and out of time, and also how to stop time. That’s why the movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeves and Jane Alexander became so special to her in adolescence; it awoke her innate power over time. This is a film in which all different slices of time and reality intersection and fuse in a symphony that is completely real and also a parable. A local LA man interviewed by Miranda for a piece on Pennysaver vendors ends up playing himself in the film, and not only playing his real-life role as seller of a $3 hair-drier but the voice of the Moon, which is totally involved in the stopping of time. The movie’s cat also speaks in Miranda’s voice both inside and outside of time. Miranda has also imbedded the cat and herself twice (herself as the cat’s voice and as the lead actress, and the cat as the cat we (her parents) had before we were married and well before she was born, and herself as our unborn child speaking in the voice of a cat, giving us needed advice from outside of time). But I don’t mean to imply that this is all tricks and aliases and symbols; it is completely a film of the heart adorned with brilliantly intuited metaphysics. I also pick up echoes of Prelude to a Kiss (which Miranda saw but didn’t remember when making The Future) and The Fantastics (which she never saw but which played the role of the The Future for us, her parents).
Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones (2011). This is an intricate, perfectly structured labyrinth of time travel qua alternate realities. A continuous eight-minute loop of reality from a dead man’s brain is re-run inside another dead man’s brain in such a way that the second man’s consciousness is restored (though he has no idea how the hell he got inside a commuter train entering Chicago and as a different person from how he was last aware of himself flying a helicopter around Khyber Pass, Afghanistan). According to the technology’s Dr. Frankenstein-like inventor, alternate source codes are created through “quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus.” Needless to say, actual science is nowhere close to such an application, but this is a cautionary tale.
The practical goal of the particular “source code” insertion (we eventually find out) is to prevent a second terrorist bombing, the first explosion having just occurred, resulting in the death of the man carrying the “code,” whose extracted memory traces have just been implanted in a new carrier’s brain—the eight-minute track that always ends with the blast. The memory transplantee, a trained soldier, has been sent in to sort through the virtual landscape and find the perpetrator, but his brain is running someone else’s recording.
Once inside the code, he can alter “hard” objects—cell phones, guns, his train ticket, the people around him—but none of these realities are “real,” not even the capsule in which he gets debriefed before and after each eight-minute mission, not even the explosion that does occur at the end of each segment (returning him to his “capsule” and setting the terms for his next reinsertion until he can finger the perp). They are memories, already past and complete. The capsule is his brain’s adaptation to its situation, its compensation for not having a body or moving in an actual external environment; it is a projection of reality across the brain itself, using projections from reality into itself. The landscape and events of the mission may have been transferred into his brain from another brain, but they are recreated by binding, cross-cueing, and dialogue in his brain.
But how is our own “real reality” different from an appearance archived in our brain? Source Code simply takes this notion to its natural conclusion.
Initially the point of the assignment is not to stop the original attack, which can’t be stopped because it has already happened, but to get information in order to prevent another, more serious bombing.
The reason that the mission can be run countless times (in the sense of playing a different episode with the same characters and props) is that each of the people within the eight-minute memory track has independent existence and free will, while the “source code” can be reinstalled and run as many times as necessary to find the bad guy.
By the end of the story we understand that each playback has its own ongoing energy basis and integrity and cannot be violated or expunged. The pilot, involuntarily enlisted, decides finally to buy into an alternate reality; he breaks ranks and takes independent action in order to save his new “self” and the girl seated across from him (both of whom are already dead in the original source code). He literally escapes into the archive of his own brain, which becomes reality. ∆
The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick (2011). Three Quick Things:
- The experience of childhood was proposed and shot from within a form resembling the actual sensation and phenomenology of existence on this planet, so was a stark and ecstatic rendering of a psychospiritual fact without ever calling attention to it.
- That family experience was set against the mystery of the cosmic frame in which it arises and into which it vanishes, which was offered not as a metaphor but an explicit and evident thing beyond our ken, but not beyond hermetic intimation and intuition: “As Above, So Below.”
- Like Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick concluded in the only way either of them could have, by breaking with the space-time continuum and letting everything happen at once such that each moment is eternal and a manifestation of the one unity truth.
Turn Me On, Damnit!, directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (2011). Ignore the title; this is a very smart, subtle, and ultimately jubilant film about Alma, a disaffected girl teen in rural Norway. Pretty much all the high-school kids are disaffected, despite the magnificent scenery around them, so their local ritual is to give the finger to the town sign whenever leaving or reentering. Alma opens the film with a quick tour of her town, pointing out the dumb sheep, the dumb farm vehicles, the dumb girls on the trampoline. When a boy on whom she has a crush, unexpectedly and somewhat guilelessly, takes out his penis and touches her with it outside a party, Alma tells her incredulous friends what just happened. Gossip spreads, the boy denies it, and Alma is humiliated, ostracized, and given the name Dick-Alma. Finally she runs away to Oslo to seek out the admired older sister of a friend in college there. The friend and her roommates have a much broader perspective on the world; they celebrate and applaud, Alma and her spunk and independence, giving her confidence. One boy even improvises a song on his guitar about the life and triumph of Dick-Alma. She returns a day later on the bus, rejuvenated and hopeful. Then she holds her own and forces the boy’s public confession. The nuances of this movie are hard to describe, so I’ll give you a few articulate Netflix reviewer comments: “A beautiful healing story about a girl who finds herself an outsider after a boy sexually harasses her (and denies it)”; “Adorable, intensely ‘real’ in the deadpan awfulness of rural adolescence, and sexually frank without being exploitative. This movie so steadfastly happens through the female gaze that it feels refreshing at every moment”; “Definitely different and superior to most of the mind numbingly bland drivel that passes for teen movies over here”; “I really enjoyed this movie for its stark realism and unabashed frankness…. Either Hollywood just doesn’t get it, has no talent, or makes enough money with crap that they just don’t bother to try.” ∆
2012 note apropos nothing in particular: Teen movies I watch on HBO, almost to a one (like Eurotrip, She’s All That, The Girl Next Door, or anything involving Freddie Prinze, Jr.) are about exchanging innocence for desire, fantasy for reality. One teen (either the boy or the girl) is innocent; the other has lost his or her innocence to the world but has gained some essential wisdom or hard truth. Each has something that the other needs and wants and, in order to get it, they have to exchange positions and share identities. The one who has lost his or her innocence and “beginner’s mind” (the high-school senior prom, romance over sex, etc., wisdom over social popularity) wants that as much as the other one wants the experience and consummation of desire. In a way this goes all the way back through literature and, in popular American culture, can be viewed at the core, say, of the 1927 musical Good News in which the Freddie Prinze role is played by Peter Lawford and the Rachel Leigh Cook role is played by June Allyson.
The Other Son, directed by Lorraine Lévy (2012). The premise of this French-made film, shot in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank with an international crew and cast, is that two newborn boys—one Arab and one Jewish—are accidentally switched in the hospital confusion during a Scud missile attack. When they are eighteen, a blood test of the Israeli seeking to enter the army reveals the error, and a subsequent investigation identifies the two families. In confronting and resolving the situation, the various individuals—the two boys, the parents, the boys’ siblings—are forced to enact the only real peace. The Israeli father, a military officer, must deal with the fact that the son he raised and loved is Arab and that his own biological son is a committed Palestinian patriot. The Palestinian father, an engineer unable to get a work permit to pursue his career, is just as enraged at the Israelis as the Israeli father is at the Palestinians. The Palestinian family must deal with having a Jewish son (Yacine) and the fact that their own son (Joseph) is a privileged Israeli. The older son in this family initially renounces his own life-long brother as the enemy and later tries to convert his biological brother. The boys themselves must deal with not being who they thought they were but their own adversaries. The mothers are who initiate reconciliation. The boys eventually become friends and allies. The fathers end up embracing both sons. In the end, as the Palestinian “Jewish” boy says, speaking for both of them (I don’t remember the exact quote, but this is its essence): “You have my life now; you better live it well and not mess it up. I have an obligation too to live your life for you.”
Searching for Sugarman, directed by Malik Bendjelloul (2012). So sad and so wonderful at the same time. Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, son of migrant auto workers from Mexico, composed pretty much the best songs, other than maybe Dylan, of the Dylan era, late sixties, early seventies. He was sort of a cross between Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, with a dash of Leonard Cohen. He made two albums; they didn’t sell, so he went back to manual labor and home demolition for the next twenty-five-orpso years, unaware that he was bigger than Elvis among hip Afrikaners in South Africa (particularly Capetown) and one of the sparks of the revolution that overthrew apartheid. In South Africa it was widely and legendarily assumed that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage, while in America his corrupt producer moved to LA and never told him about the sales or sent him any of the money. Then two South Africans went on a mission to find out how Rodriguez died, ultimately connected with one of his three daughters on the Internet, and brought him to South Africa for a series of concerts that were like Elvis returned from the dead. Plus Rodriguez’s elegance and integrity stand out above everything. These events are balanced against the innocence and integrity of both Rodriguez and the Capetown/South African scene.
Such an event could have only happened before the Internet with an anomalous combination like apartheid Capetown and ghetto Detroit. It is hard to imagine two orbits missing each other so completely on the same planet. But the key to the film is Rodriguez’s simplicity, simple elegance, and humility. He is more like a shaman or a lama than a rock star. He handles every piece perfectly as what it is, with an open mind and heart—no big deal. For me the highlights are Rodriguez’s first appearance on stage in Capetown, thanking the audience for keeping him alive; the reactions of his long-time blue-collar crew members in Michigan to the fact that he’s—what, you’re kidding!—going abroad to perform; and one of his daughters commenting how, seeing him onstage, she realized that this was who he really always was. I downloaded all of the original 27 cuts from the two old albums from iTunes, and there’s not a bad song. He’s a seventies rock superstar whom virtually no one in North America heard but who was in virtually everyone’s album collection in South Africa, unknown even to himself: “But thanks for your time/Then you can thank me for mine/And after that’s said./Forget it.”
I am going to change the thread here. While continuing to add to the thread above (when relevant), I am going to start writing more regular, different-length reviews of all interesting films I have seen as I see them. This is a ramble and, although I will gradually get back to these reviews and rewrite them, they (and most of the above) are first-draft splashes of paint.
Anatomy of Hell, directed by Catherine Breillat (2004), but you can watch pretty much anything by her. I found this one the most interesting so far, and the interview with her on the DVD extras is particularly brilliant. I wouldn’t say that she’s a great film-maker. All of the films are (to my taste) woodenly plotted, extreme to the point of caricature, indulgently ideological, heavy-handedly symbolic, and “forced” to make a point (which adds up to about the same); yet they are radicalizing, original, unique, and transformative. After watching Anatomy of Hell, I found that my own gender and that of others had subtly but irreversibly changed in texture and meaning, and that’s no small thing and not easy to do. In this film under contrived circumstances a suicidal woman is rescued from her attempt at a nightclub by a gay man and then, as part of her bargain not try again, she hires him to let her show him over several nights of his visits the nature of her womanhood, especially the part of it that would be most repulsive to him; for instance, he must drink a tea from her menstrual blood with her tampon the tea bag. Some of the other interactions are more overtly erotic. Several things happen during this sequential performance: she comes to full life in the ocean of her own depth; he is metamorphosed into a recognition of the nature of his own sexuality which he can find only in the archetypal profundity of her body and emotional range, and he falls in love with her, or maybe that’s not what happens but he finds her irresistible and indispensable, and when he can’t find her again, he feels lost and bereft. The visual symbolism in the film is that her sexuality turns into the moonlight and/or stormy ocean at night, artlessly (per above) but with absolute power, as Breillat forsakes subtlety to make sure that get the full power of the zenlike slap. In each of the films I have seen (Brief Crossing is another interesting one in which a married woman, pretending to be separated from her husband, masquerades as a free-spirited sexual adventuress and seduces a teenage boy on an overnight ferry ride) male and female bodies and roles are interrogated and turned upside-down and inside-out. Abandoning and even parodying conventional feminism or political correctness, Breillat goes for the core of human bodily existence and elucidates the actual desires and apotheoses that make up life on Earth for creatures at large.
The Killing (2011-2012), developed by Veena Sud. In this instance I am referring to the first two seasons of the American version set in Seattle. Wrapped around a single seemingly ordinary murder of a young woman, the plot is intricate and complex with just about every major character a suspect at some point or other during the first two seasons. That means 26 hour-long episodes to resolve the crime, the most I have ever seen.
The cinematography is crisp and moody and makes great use of Seattle rainy exteriors (though I am told that the rest was shot mainly in British Columbia). The dialogue is just as crisp, with particular credit to the lines and execution of cop Stephen Holder, played by Joel Kinnaman, a half-American Swedish-born-and-raised actor, who captures American street jive beautifully. A former junkie recruited to police detective, Holder is ironical, moving, self-parodying, witty, flamboyant, and vulnerable (youtube is full of great Holderism moments). His partner, Sarah Linden, played by Mareille Enos, is just as brilliant and quirky and neurotic. I just happen to prefer Kinnaman’s wacky, upbeat, indomitable, slightly Cheech and Chong Quixotism to Enos’s downbeat, obsessive-compulsive Agatha Christie persistence while her personal life is falling into shambles around her. They make a great team, and both actors have gone on to the bigtime mainstream since (I recommend checking out Kinnaman in later goofy indies like Lola Versus and the Swedish international drug-caper Sophoclean tragedy Easy Money in which he speaks, what else, fluent Swedish, though it is hard not to see Holder suddenly speaking Swedish). The Killing, though, is straightout wonderful. Forget the title: the Danish Forbrydelsen should be translated The Crime. All the other parts are great–the politicians, the family and associates of the murdered girl, the other cops, the casino Indians, etc. If you then buy an all-regions DVD player (as we did) and watch Forbrydelsen with English subtitles, you will be surprised to see that the characters are pretty much the same, and the plot is splayed out similarly, and Copenhagen plays pretty well as Seattle (just as moody and damp, but of course it is really Seattle playing as Copenhagen in chronological order). Forbrydelsen is an entirely different tempo, and Copenhagen politics are very different from Seattle politics, more international but less easily encapsulated around a crime like this. The use of the Indian reservation outside Seattle is an irreplaceable stroke of genius that makes the American one distinctive in its own way. There is no Danish substitute. This means that, despite the fact that it is basically the same crime with the same characters, the motives, the guilty party (or parties), and the resolution are entirely different. It is like the game Clue played with the same characters and weapons but a different crime and different results. Forbrydelsen is of a different savor than The Killing but just as interesting and well-done finally. The Danish equivalent to Sarah Linden, Sarah Lund, is played by Sofie Gråbøl, and she dominates aesthetically and intellectually over all her male partners–there is no equivalent to Kinnaman. Even more obsessive compulsive than Linden, she is also more stable and a more visionary detective. Likewise, the lead Danish politician is much more nuanced and emotionally and politically complex than his Seattle counterpart. The Danish “killing” (2007-2008) is resolved in one season, 2o episodes, so the second season opens into totally different territory, involving a genocidal-type crime committed by Danish special forces in Afghanistan and leading to a series of murders in Copenhagen and nearby Sweden. This is European political territory not broached by the American version, and the plot is so complex and the outcome so hinged around double-identities and twists that you would have as hard a time following the track-shifting thread as making your way through Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. I would recommend buying the all-regions DVD player and watching both. Elsewhere I will tout using the DVD player to watch Ken Loach’s early BBC work. It’s worth it for Holderisms alone (in the American one) and for watching Sofie Gråbøl unintentionally expose all that Hornet’s Nest garbage for the trite, unnuanced pop garbage that it finally is. These are really classic stories, and the fact that the same matrix is used to play two utterly different tunes in different cultures is an added treat.
Rust and Bone, directed by Jacques Audiard (2012). For me this isn’t a great film in the genre of most of the others on this list, but it is powerful. The roughness and authenticity and sheer emotional force of the main characters is faintly reminiscent of Once Were Warriors. There is also the element of Marion Cotillard breaking somewhat new ground by playing eroticism in a woman, an animal trainer, who loses both legs below the knee in a marine-world accident. Her boyfriend, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, is a selfish, self-involved kickboxer and streetfighter (for betting money) toting around a young son, who is transformed into a human being of depth by his engagement with her and finds her own selfhood and grief. As she gains confidence and strength after being suicidal following her amputation, she becomes almost an avatar, speaking with an immediacy and truth that defies everything around her (including the kickboxer after he leaves her at a nightclub for another girl). Her dialogue with him about that little event afterward is a priceless study in the tack anyone in similar straits should take. But perhaps most of all, check out the haunting sound track of Alexandre Desplat. There’s nothing quite like it. And the rock imports from Springsteen to Bon Iver are mostly great, but the best is the music at the nightclub by Swedish popstar Lykke Li. I had the phrase “Deep Sea Baby” rolling around in my mind for days, and I made my own playlist from the soundtrack off iTunes, including others’ renditions of some of Desplat’s melancholy themes.
Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler (2013). Having lived in the East Bay most of the time since the late seventies, I can avow that this is what it feels like–the scenery, the vibration, the human tone. I came to Berkeley counterculture (which has quite faded into the rest of the world since), but this is the backdrop to all of Berkeley and San Francisco and their radicalism and art and lifestyles. It is a drably urbanized, incompletely integrated multicultural tableau of incomplete possibilities, interrupted lives, semi-random and unexpected violence, and the integrity of individuals holding onto their own inner worlds. I have found that, unlike on the East Coast or in the Midwest (in America) where you generally know where to stay out of and where there’s trouble, in California cities violence lurks behind copacetic facades everywhere. In the seventies my son (then still a child) and I were mugged en route to a Mets-Giants game by very young kids leaving recess at a schoolyard. I have two friends whose young adult sons were shot and killed in ordinary neighborhoods as part of gang initiations (you have to kill someone, it doesn’t matter who). One would be a lot. BART has none of the Melting Pot characteristics of the New York City subway (or most urban subways). People cluster in private racial coteries, and there is lots of subtle glaring and very little aid, even for people obviously lost or struggling with suitcases. Fruitvale Station has all of that as its milieu, but it goes way beyond the everyday rattle and alienation to show single lives with their poignant internal narratives and struggle to achieve sanity, peace, and even epiphany. What makes this film a gem is that nothing is out of place, nothing is overstated, everything is as it is and flows from event to event seamlessly like a combination ancient Greek tragedy with a chorus and an operatic rap song. All the dialogue moves along so fluidly and musically that it actually has the quality of a street opera, though nothing is actually sung. Cinematic luidity, human dignity, an almost documentary neutrality, and “it is what it isness” combine to create a singular piece of art.
Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (2013). I don’t generally love Coen Brothers stuff (especially by comparison to their many aficionados); they seem to me perversely and even adolescently dark. However, this is a wonderful movie, and its darkness is completely earned. There is almost no perversity, no gratuitous violence or macabreness. If the creators of Mad Men think that they have reenacted America’s transitional late-fifities/early sixties, they are dupes of their own superficial and false artistry; all they have done is show a twenty-first century misreading of fifties ambiance; they have missed all the key tags in an effort to place the fashions and furniture. Brushing all that aside as if the playthings of amateurs, the Coen guys go right to the core of the transitional moment and fill the several scenes of this “day in the life” drama of a talented but uncompromising and self-sabotaging folksinger with absolutely pitch-perfect renditions of the characters and the era and, more important, the unacknowledged background meanings and unexamined precepts and proverbs of the time. The individuals who frequent the landscape here may be slightly exaggerated, but that is a minor nuance to their use in recapturing the exact mood and ambition and blindness of the time. Each is a capsule like an atomic chrysalis of so many others wandering the American landscape in states of excessive, self-congratulatory weirdness as if they were, damnit, normal. There is a lot of Llewyn in so many people I knew: my own brother who later committed suicide, a close college friend who left the US and abandoned his talents and career to escape the draft and still hasn’t returned, students I had when I taught college, angry poet friends who wouldn’t take yes for an answer because their were looking for their idiosyncratic yes that others, given the era, couldn’t ever get. What I love about Llewyn himself–and what a great job by Oscar Isaac–is his stubborn, reckless, self-defeating, mostly narcissistic, fuck-you integrity that finally wins my loyalty. Even though he can’t succeed, he reveals everyone else around him as a self-parody and failure of another, more fatal (finally) soul sort. Typical Coen Brothers reversal and breaking the genre cliche: after an arduous trip to Chicago with two madmen in a car, Llewyn performs for the impressario who makes careers and sings a beautiful, heart-breaking ballad. The guy should immediately be moved and sign him. Instead he says, in effect, “Well, you’re not a novice, but I don’t see how I can make any money off this.”
Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdel Kechiche (2013). It is three hours long and, if it were an American film, it would be half the length and all you’d see is the action and sex. The extra hour and a half go into the gradual changes of mood, recognition, and character awakening. This is a coming-of-age lesbian narrative with the central event being a love affair between, Emma, a sophisticated art student and then artist (who has a mature sense of not only her sexuality but her culture and art) and, Adele, a naive but daring and sincere (very direct) high-school student and then grade-school teacher (who is only coming into awareness of the nature of her sexuality and has only raw glimmerings of who she is or what she wants to become). For me the key to the melancholy resolution of the story is the fact that sex and sexual and gender identity, while obligatory and inevasible, cannot finally replace the more critical coming-of-age crisis whereby one finds his or her own calling, career, individuating destiny, and place in the culture. Emma knows this implicitly; Adele doesn’t and doesn’t know how or where to begin looking.
The Dark Horse, directed by James Napier (2016). This is the unintended sequel to Once Were Warriors (above). I say “unintended,” though I don’t actually know that. I feel that the continuity is not direct sequeling but a latent Maori cycle in which culture-hero warriors who have lost their soul but not their heart confront those who have lost their heart but not their soul—and struggle to heal the split, which is also a lesion in each one of them.
The story centers around a character based on Genesis Potini, the real-life founder the Eastern Knights youth chess club. Bipolar, Gen returns from a long stint in a mental hospital in search of something positive to keep him stable and sane. Coaching youth chess and rescuing his nephew, Mana, from a Maori gang against the wishes of the boy’s father Akiri, Gen’s older brother, define his mission.
The story itself is ordinary and, as several critics on Netflix pointed out, a prototypical chess tale that has been told many times already in film. It’s the Maori elements that give the film its depth and power. Genesis’ ostensible madness contains voices of Maori spirits as well as elements of the conflict between Maori and Anglo culture. Chess is hardly a transformative shamanic art, but the central chess set in the club has traditional pieces carved as figures of Maori myth, and Gen uses the game as a way of reimagining and internalizing tribal history while teaching the children. The kids themselves are touching and hilarious, as they convert pop culture and superheroes by Maori contexts. The film is also backdropped by mysterious waves of Maori voices and images. The gang itself could have been teleported right out of Jake the Muss and Once Were Warriors, except that things have gotten darker and more desperate in the decades since. In trying to train themselves for the so-called real world, the degraded world imposed on them, the “warriors” become too tough, hardened, and nihilistic—degrading and peeing on initiates is one of their rites—to listen to their own ancestors or spirits. Genesis plays a Christ-like role in confronting their cruelty and diabolism.
One other thing: the flashbacks to Gen and Akiri’s childhood together, while awkward and confusing as they occur in the film, are essential in showing the boys’ original innocence and hope. They provide the counterpoint against which Gen acts to save Mana, taking the role his brother once took with him. It’s a Maori theme, but in the epoch of Standing Rock, its indigenous message is attuned to humanity as a whole.