I was in the middle of writing a STAR TREK: GENERATIONS post that opened with an impassioned screed about how blind worship and knee-jerk defensiveness are the antithesis of true fandom and an essential part of loving a franchise like Star Trek is the ability to think critically about it, and thinking critically means acknowledging when it falls short. As Star Trek did with GENERATIONS. And went on to discuss how I watched it yesterday and if you asked me today what it was about, I couldn’t tell you and that granted, if you asked me what the TOS cast movies were about, I probably couldn’t tell you either (except for VOYAGE HOME. That plot is unforgettable), but I didn’t watch them less than 24 hours ago.
But then, before I could finish the post, I watched STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. And, as I would much rather write a post about a movie I love than a movie I didn’t, I’m going to write about STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT instead, because I loved it. I love Star Trek—and, after GENERATIONS, this was just the movie I needed to remind me why.
The optimism that has been the hallmark of this franchise since THE ORIGINAL SERIES can sometimes seem naive, but it’s hard not to be won over by it. We need movies and shows that predict that, by the 24th century, the human race will have evolved beyond money, and will seek not wealth, but to “better ourselves”—shows that don’t just portray us as we are, but as we have the potential to be. And FIRST CONTACT earns its place in that pantheon of hope.
Summary (primarily for me, since I tend to forget the plots of these movies, even the ones I love): the Enterprise E, defending Earth against an attack by the cybernetic Borg, follows the enemy ship back through time to several centuries ago. Most governments having been brought low by World War 3, the planet is ripe for the plucking, and the Borg attack, planning to “assimilate” humankind into their hive mind. One of the first places they pick to bomb is an apparently nondescript settlement somewhere in Montana—and once the Enterprise crew beams down, they find out why. This is the spot from which the first warp-capable Earth ship will be launched—a ship that will attract the attention of a Vulcan survey team that happens to be in the area, and that will subsequently establish contact with humans and usher them into a shining new age of space exploration, unmarred by poverty or war (that optimism again). The Borg are out to destroy the warp-capable ship—and the entire human race along with it.
FIRST CONTACT uses a classic TOS structure: two storylines, one unfolding aboard the Enterprise, one on the surface of the planet below, both of which will ultimately come together during the climax of the movie. On Earth, the away team is helping Zefram Cochrane, the designer of the warp ship, making sure the launch takes place as scheduled. On the Enterprise, Captain Picard and the crew are battling the Borg, who have infiltrated the ship and are assimilating it deck by deck. On Earth, conflict is created by Cochrane himself, who doesn’t want the fame and glory Geordi and everyone else keep assuring him will be his in the future if he launches his ship. On the Enterprise, we’ve got several different wrenches in the works. There’s the Borg, of course—and then there’s Picard, who was once assimilated by the Borg himself and harbors a blinding, judgment-skewing desire for revenge. And then there’s Data, who, when captured by the Borg, is offered something that may tempt him into betraying the very race that created him—the chance to truly, finally, become one of them.
Note that all three of these conflicts are firmly grounded in character motivation. We know exactly what everyone wants from the outset, and understand how their desires lead them to do the things they do. And this makes for a great, great movie. I’m not sure the Borg—though they’re probably my favorite Star Trek villains, and the only truly frightening ones I’ve seen yet—would have been enough, were they the only antagonists. Instead, you also have several beloved characters in conflict with themselves. Given the kinds of characters I like, Data should be far and away my favorite TNG crewmember, but his “emotion chip” arc in GENERATIONS was infantilizing and silly. The material he’s given to work with in FIRST CONTACT couldn’t be more different—complex, mature, moving—and Brent Spiner rises to the challenge. Star Trek, by and large, allows its alien/android/otherwise non-human characters (when they’re allied with the Federation, that is) to be true to themselves, and in doing so bestows legitimacy and dignity upon them and upon the very idea of difference. Data’s internal conflict arises from his desire to be other than he is; he triumphs by accepting himself. Which is why the image of him with the “skin” stripped off half his face in the end is so strikingly effective—it visually represents that acceptance. (Also, real talk—anything would be better than that ghastly makeup. I shudder to think of Data’s foundation-smothered face projected on a theater screen. My face breaks out in sympathy acne just lookingat it.)
Picard, for his part, triumphs over the Borg by making peace with his past, letting go of his obsession with revenge—and then staying behind on the “sinking” Enterprise to rescue Data, risking his own life. Which doesn’t really tie in to his arc in this movie, but does hearken back to the TNG episode(s? I haven’t seen it/them) in which he was assimilated, and in which the crew risks their lives to save him—as he says, he’s returning the favor. And speaking of dignity—Patrick Stewart. Holy shit. What a presence. I love watching James T. Kirk, but I don’t think I actually like him. (So stubborn! So hot-headed! So hammily acted! He’s someone I would steer well clear of in real life.) Jean-Luc Picard, though? I’d follow him into Borg HQ without a second thought.
Speaking of the Borg. They’re actually frightening—which isn’t something I’ve been able to say of any Star Trek villain I’ve seen so far. They’ll ignore you if they don’t consider you a threat, so crewmembers can walk among them unharmed, which doesn’t actually make sense—why wouldn’t the Borg just assimilate them, like they plan to do with the whole darn planet?—but which makes for several highly unsettling scenes. The Borg feel… alien, in a way that many Star Trek aliens just don’t, probably because of their indifference to us. It probably wouldn’t work if they were all indifferent, though, so we get one who isn’t—the Borg Queen, who grafts human skin onto Data so she can seduce him into divulging the encryption code that’s locking her out of the Enterprise computers. The scene where she blows on the newly transplanted rectangle of (very hairy) human skin on his arm, making him shiver with arousal, doesn’t quite make sense—if he can only be turned on after getting the grafts, why, when she kisses his still-synthetic lips, does he kiss her back? And why, for that matter, if he can’t feel touch, was he designed to be “fully functional” sexually? (Was it so that he could like service other people??!)—but it’s kind of kinky, too, in a welcome way. Compare the Borg Queen to the Klingon sisters from GENERATIONS, who look like their costumes were designed by a horny thirteen-year-old. The Queen oozes a kind of freaky sexuality—but the freakiness of it is actually part of its potency. Picard isn’t immune to it—he’s both repulsed by and attracted to her. (Just imagine the hate-fucking that would have gone down had he become her consort.) The Borg Queen’s not necessarily sexy, but she’s sexual, and the film, to his credit, lets her be that way.
Other things I loved: Jerry Goldsmith’s masterpiece of a score; I teared up every time the main title theme started to play. (The first three minutes of this movie are a battle to the death between that exquisitely gorgeous theme and the ugliest opening credits of all time for the soul of the entire Star Trek franchise. Goldsmith saves it. Just.) Alfre Woodard as Lily, who isn’t given much by way of character depth but who really brings her A game to every scene she’s in. Riker quoting Zefram Cochrane to himself. Picard’s Enterprise models! Picard quoting MOBY DICK! (That’s another reason Picard > Kirk; you kind of get the feeling Kirk’s never finished a book in his life.)
THE TRIP | 2010 | dir. Michael Winterbottom
I watched this directly after watching WITHNAIL & I and accidentally curated the best double feature ever. WITHNAIL—which gets a little less funny and a little more sad every time I watch it. And THE TRIP, which is more… nakedly from the outset. It’s about two friends—Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves—who go on a six-restaurant tour of the north of England for Observer magazine. Coogan was originally supposed to go with his food-loving* girlfriend, but she canceled on him, and his onetime colleague Rob Brydon is like his sixth choice for a replacement—as Coogan makes all too obvious in the phone call during which he harangues him into coming along. And they’re off—on a trip that slowly reveals itself as an attempt on Coogan’s part to stave off loneliness. Why Brydon? He’s a warm body. But like not in a gay way! Because Steve Coogan is not gay! Not gay at all! And actually his fear of people thinking he is vs. Brydon’s super casual attitude re: same perfectly encapsulates the differences between them!
Like WITHNAIL, this is a movie about two friends going on holiday in the country. As in WITHNAIL, both are actors. Withnail and I aren’t competitive—in fact, Withnail’s reaction when Paul McGann gets the part that is to separate them, perhaps forever, is maybe the most heartbreaking moment in the film, and one of the only ones in which the emotion on Withnail’s face is genuine and unfeigned, and entirely unselfish—happiness for his friend’s success. Coogan and Brydon’s competitiveness is apparent from the get-go, first surfacing in a Michael Caine impression contest over lunch, and manifesting itself various ways throughout the trip. (But mostly in Michael Caine impression contests.) Brydon seems content with his life and career, but Coogan’s dissatisfied, dreaming about winning Academy Awards and being courted by American directors, and jealous of the success of Brydon’s “small man in a box” character—even though it’s exactly the kind of work (like his own Alan Partridge) that he doesn’t want to be known for.
WITHNAIL AND I is about two people whose careers are presently languishing, but still very much yet to begin. The tragedy of the movie is that Paul McGann’s begins, while Withnail’s doesn’t, and may never. The mournful undercurrent of THE TRIP—accentuated, a tad heavy-handedly, by Michael Nyman’s piano score—is that Coogan and Brydon’s careers have kind of leveled out. Brydon, by and large, is content with his; Coogan isn’t. THE TRIP’s surface silliness is a perfectly paper-thin disguise. Coogan and Brydon’s back-and-forth is funny, but so much of what makes this movie great lies in what they aren’t saying—in the things that the white noise of their constant jokes drowns out: careers leveling out; relationships falling apart; children acting up. THE TRIP is an essential lesson in the power of the unspoken—in not outright saying what you’re actually trying to say—and how to use humor to achieve this affect. THE TRIP makes a great double feature with WITHNAIL, but could also totally work paired with THE WORLD’S END, another comedy whose climax reveals the corrosive sadness eating away at its core.
THE TRIP is subtler, quieter in its humor than WITHNAIL or TWE (which doesn’t mean I found it funnier—quite the opposite). And its final scene doesn’t pack the punch of TWE’s or WITHNAIL’s, because the tragic elements of those movies are treated as reveals. At the end of WITHNAIL, the lifestyle that’s been making us laugh for the past two hours comes to look an awful lot like a cage—not unlike the one in the background of the scene, with wolves in it—one that Paul McGann has escaped from, and one in which Withnail, like the wolves, may be trapped in forever. It’s suddenly, horribly sad. THE TRIP, however, is permeated by a constant, low-grade sadness. The last scene, rather than revealing something about these characters, simply underlines what we’ve known about these characters from the very beginning.
The bottom line is that this a sharply observed, surprisingly subtle, painfully funny and really pretty sad comedy that is kind of what GIRLS might be like if it were 40-SOMETHING BRITISH COMIC ACTORS and I was really impressed by it and you might be too okay bye**
*Which is a really stupid way of putting it, because who doesn’t love food. But the only other word I can think of is “foodie,” which is even snobbier and way worse
**Stuff I couldn’t think of a way to fit in: I thought there was no way the real Steve Coogan could pull such hot women but then I went to the “Personal Life” section of his Wikipedia page and apparently he like exclusively dates 20-something models so yeah I guess that’s accurate; I also spent most of the movie thinking “Steve Coogan could get it”; so wondering ~what is fictionalized and what is ~~real life~~ is probably dumb but I couldn’t help doing it anyway, like is Steve Coogan really so desperate to like ~make it in Hollywood; PHILOMENA!; the “same splatter of technicolor bird shit on every plate” line was probably my favorite (actual review?); I loved the (few) moments where Steve & Rob genuinely made each other laugh; other peoples’ reactions to their impressions were SO PAINFUL TO WATCH
STRANGER BY THE LAKE | 2014 | dir. Alaun Guiraudie
So. STRANGER is set, obviously, by a lake. A French lake. In summer. The film is set solely on and around a section of beach that’s known as a cruising spot, where guys go to pick up other guys. I think STRANGER is set in the present day, but its single location and repetitive qualities, with certain scenarios repeating themselves over and over, lends it a hypnotic, dreamlike timelessness. Guiraudie can make the most innocuous of images menacing, imbuing the film’s sun-soaked lassitude with chilling horror. The beach is aswirl with potent, dangerous erotic forces, and Franck, the protagonist, recently unemployed and a little adrift, is quickly pulled in. On our first day with him, he makes a friend, a vacationing middle-aged logger named Henri, and is attracted to a tan, fit, mustached stranger. And then he witnesses this tan, fit, mustached stranger drowning his boyfriend in the lake.
This is not an ambiguous scene. The two men are horsing around in the water, then the boyfriend starts yelling “Stop.” Mustached stranger doesn’t stop. He pushes his boyfriend underwater and holds him there for a while. Then he swims back to shore. This is straight-up murder, filmed in a single long shot. No tricks, no ambiguity, except the infinitesimal amount provided by how far away we are from them, their heads black dots against the evening blue of the water. But the way Franck reacts to what he’s seen—as if he’s willing it into a state of ambiguity, or just plain nonexistence—throws a veil over our own experience. Almost without realizing it, we somehow begin to doubt that it ever happened. And yet, like Franck, we know it did. We know it as Franck and the stranger, Michel, finally, passionately, come together, and as Franck begins to fall in love with Michel, even as Michel keeps a careful distance, refusing to go home with Franck or spend the night with him. And we know it when the boyfriend’s body turns up, the murder that Franck’s desire allowed him to push from his mind suddenly becoming all too real.
This is a film about the potency of erotic desire, and its capacity to precipitate us into dangerous, even fatal, self-delusion. Franck’s intense attraction to the mustached stranger, Michel, compels him to bury deeply what he knows he saw. And when that knowledge comes crawling out of its grave, refusing to be denied, it kills his desire—but not before that desire has led to at least two more deaths. The eroticism of that place acts as a moral dampener on everyone who frequents it.
It’s also a film about loneliness. Even though people come to the beach for companionship—so exclusively so that Henri’s desire for solitude is viewed as suspicious—it is also a place where the sinister selfishness of desire is revealed. The murdered man’s car sits in the makeshift parking lot, day after day; his towel lies abandoned on the beach, and no one seems to notice or care. The police inspector who, when the body is found, takes to prowling the beach, questioning everyone, expresses weary incredulity. “One of your own goes missing, and you don’t care? Imagine—this boy goes missing three days, his towel and car in plain view, and no one notices, not even his lover? … Can you imagine this young man’s solitude?” The film features several profoundly lonely sexual acts, most involving an overweight, awkward man named Eric—an outsider even in this small subset of society—who is invariably found masturbating while watching other men have sex. He becomes infatuated with Franck, following him around like a puppy dog before finally cornering him one evening on a deserted stretch of beach and pawing at him eagerly, whining “I want you so badly.” Franck pushes him away half-heartedly, an amused pity in his eyes (“I know,” he says, “I know”)—then we cut to the fully clothed Eric lying prostrate between Franck’s legs, sucking him off. Franck doesn’t reciprocate; finished, Eric stands and shambles away. Everyone—Eric, Henri, even Franck himself—seems trapped in their own solitary orbit; Franck ends the film profoundly alone.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE is about a series of murders, but the perpetrator isn’t Michel—not really. Michel is a cipher. Guiraudie gives us almost no details about him—not even his motivation for killing his lover. The real killers in STRANGER are erotic desire, self-delusion, loneliness; Michel is merely the vehicle through which these forces are expressed. Or something. The bottom line is an erotic thriller that truly delivers on the promise of those words it is sexy as fuck and scary as hell and you should watch it okay bye
Disclaimer: my mom wanted to see this. That’s why I went. I don’t know why I feel compelled to say that, except for the fact that this is kind of an old people’s movie. As proof of this, I offer up the fact it is set in the ’50s. And ‘60s. And ’70s. Kind of all the way up through the early ‘90s, really. And that every single one of the 6 white, heterosexual couples in the theater with us was older than 50. I think. It was pretty dark in there. I couldn’t see very well.
I could hear fine, though. And there was this one woman behind us who was a director’s dream. She reacted audibly to every beat in exactly the way Clint Eastwood intended. This woman laughed at every single joke. “Then you can find yourself another lead singer,” Frankie threatens; she made an “it’s on now” noise. Frankie receives the news that his daughter has died; she gasped in sympathy. And there I sat, her every sound a log thrown on the fire of my scorn. I’m not sure why her reactions were such a bad thing. Didn’t they just mean she and the movie were perfectly in sync? Isn’t that kind of an ideal viewing experience? Her gasps and cries, though, betrayed to me an eagerness to be pleased, a kind of childlike gullibility, at which I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. But how am I any different? I go into movies wanting to like them, too. I was probably just jealous that she was succeeding at it this time and I wasn’t.
That’s not entirely true. For at least the first half of the movie—the Four Seasons’ rise to fame—I liked it fine. But then, when they actually got famous, the woman quieted down—and my mind started wandering. I missed whole lines of dialogue, lost the thread of the narrative… I guess I was in sync with the movie, still, because it seemed to have lost the thread too. (Basically, the Four Seasons’ fame is a foregone conclusion from our vantage point, over 50 years later—but Eastwood does that foreshadowy thing where all the characters, the minute they hear Frankie sing, instantly know he’s going to make it big. Which is fine, I guess, but I always wonder when I hear lines like that—what about all the people whose friends/family/local mob bosses said they were going to make it big and who didn’t?)
Eastwood bypasses the fame itself—all we ever see or hear of it is throwaway lines about record sales, really—to pick, with myopic persistence, at the band’s descent into infighting and fiscal ruin. It wasn’t until reading Devin Faraci’s review at Badass—and seeing the tagline “Everybody remembers it how they need to”—that I even realized that when the band members spoke to the camera, they were supposed to be presenting their differing perspectives on events. Like Devin says, the fourth wall breaks don’t add up to coherent points of view.
The movie’s also hideously ugly. It has this weird plasticky sheen, like it’s breaking out in a fever sweat, and the palette is mostly pastels, but greyish, like the color’s been leeched out of them…
Are people complaining about tonal shifts in this movie? If they are, I say to them—what tonal shifts? THE HOST was far more schizophrenic than this, snapping from histrionic comedy to straight horror fast enough to give you whiplash. Which is a big part of what makes it great! If the same thing is happening in SNOWPIERCER, it’s toned way way down, and it’s a lot more visual than in THE HOST. Okay, so the year is 2013. Seventeen years ago, a failed attempt to stave off global warming plunged the planet into a second ice age—the only survivors are trapped aboard the finely calibrated, self-sustaining ecosystem that is the Snowpiercer train, which circumnavigates the globe precisely once every year. The most immediately apparent contrast is SNOWPIERCER is visual, and class-based. We begin in the tail end of the train, where the lowest classes live in squalor, subsisting on jelly-like “protein blocks,” menaced by gun-toting soldiers who perform periodic head counts and occasionally spirit people away for purposes unknown. The tone here is serious, and the palette uniformly dark, grungy: black charcoal on brown paper; the glistening black of the protein blocks, ragged clothes all the same muddy brown-grey shade. Visual contrast comes in the form of a young woman with a round, corn-fed face, shining blonde hair, and a bright yellow pea coat—an emissary of the first-class carriages, where the wealthy live, and where the clothes are eccentric and brightly colored, the environments futuristically lush, the acting styles hammy and over-the-top. It’s true that the histrionic satire classroom scene couldn’t be more different in look and tone than, say, the grim slow-mo fight scenes that preceded it. But contrasts like this firmly grounded in themes of class conflict. If it’s jarring—well, that’s kind of the point.
Stuff I love: every glimpse we get of the world outside the train, for instance: ruined, snow-bound shipyards, cities… The train’s rituals: ringing in the new year when they pass over a specific bridge; Allison Pill bringing her students to the window to look upon the eerie tableau of the fabled seven escapees, frozen solid less than 100 yards from the tracks… The arm-freezing torture scene…
SNOWPIERCER is the kind of movie that I like enough overall to forgive—and even enjoy—its occasional goofiness. Chris Evans is fine, if a little monotonous, when he’s doing stoic, but call on him to broaden his emotional range, and things get very silly very fast. I’m talking specifically about his weepy confession of past sins to fellow revolutionary Namgoong Minsoo (“You know what I hate about myself? I know what humans taste like. I know that babies taste best”). It’s not just his delivery, though—the story only works if chopping off your own limbs is as easy as slicing up a cucumber. (Supposedly a human finger is no harder to bite through than a baby carrot, right?) And, um, clearly Bong Joon-Ho hasn’t seen 127 HOURS, or he’d know that wasn’t true. Joke. But seriously. There’s no way anyone could do that unless their lives were at stake. And anyone who’s seen JACK REACHER would know that they might not be able to do it even then. (Is JACK REACHER where I got that baby carrot thing from?!)
The friend who didn’t like SNOWPIERCER said it was “boring and too quirky,” which, okay, how do you respond to that? “I didn’t think it was boring”? “I think ‘quirky’ has become essentially meaningless at this point”? He also said he wasn’t invested in the characters, which I get. I didn’t find Curtis super compelling either, but luckily, with lots of colorful supporting characters surrounding him, he didn’t have to carry the movie on his own. Furthermore, Bong Joon-Ho’s directorial personality—a character in its own right, you could say?—wrapped the whole thing up so securely that I was more than willing to accept it as a complete package. For me, it worked on an overall level, which is kind of all I can ask of a movie—and worked so well that a weak character or a misfire like Curtis’ confession… if they’re bullets, let’s say, and the movie is the Snowpiercer’s glass windows? They just kinda lodge in the glass without breaking it.
I’m trying to write something about everything I read/watch, because I really like having going back and reading ‘em after some time has passed, even if they’re kinda dumb. So. Last night. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. I’m writing this in kind of a vacuum—I have no idea what people think of this movie. they aren’t into TEMPLE OF DOOM and love RAIDERS, right? And hate CRYSTAL SKULL, obviously. what does everybody think of LAST CRUSADE? no idea. I liked it, though.
river pheonix—what a goddamn movie star. watching that opening scene—I think it was when the circus train first hove into view—I was like… this is such a movie, you know? the whole thing is like a well-oiled machine, with its tight script, its series of setups and payoffs. everything important is telegraphed in advance. Indy tells his class that “X never, ever marks the spot,” setting him up to later find the biggest, most spot-marking “X” ever… I think my favorite example of this telegraphing, though—a much more subtle one—is the shot of the Nazi officer who Indy’s just thrown out of the zeppelin. the camera is low, so that both he and the zeppelin rising off the ground behind him are in frame—and so that we can see the little biplane attached to the zeppelin’s belly. the plane is in no way the focus of the shot, but it registers, strongly enough that when the zeppelin begins turning back toward Germany, and the Joneses dash belowdecks, we know exactly where they’re headed. this kind of telegraphing—both obvious and subtle—gives the movie a kind of forward momentum—you know what’s going to happen before it happens. When Indy tells, um, Walter Donovan (thanks IMDb!) that this grail quest is really a job for his father, and that he should ask him, you can practically mouth Donovan’s reply—”we already did”—along with him.
and if at times that script shows its hand a little, if at times it begins to feel noticeably contrived, if at times it’s all too obvious that this line was phrased that way to set up the line that comes next—those things you can overlook. those mechanics undergird the entire film. if you don’t notice them, that just means they’re working well.
theory: the subtler the setup/payoff, the more effective it is? unless it’s being used comedically (think Edgar Wright), in which case it has to be obvious enough for you to get the joke? (there’s no way the third and final “COCK IT!” in SHAUN is funny if you don’t remember the previous two.) I’m not sure in a movie like LAST CRUSADE you want to notice them, at least not consciously… you do want them to register, though. the way that the shot of the underside of the zeppelin, with the biplane attached to it, registers…
I was astounded by the crudeness and resilience of the “my dad and I both fucked the same woman” gag. this is the kind of thing that, were you to joke about it in real life, you would (HOPEFULLY) immediately realize how gross it was and never bring it up again and try your best to pretend it never happened. that’s what I wanted Indy and his dad to do. but then they brought it up again like four more times! “that’s not the only thing we’ve shared”???! whose idea was this????! and how could anyone have let it get past the idea stage????! I also am not a fan of sean connery in this movie. AT ALL. his hammy, bumbling helplessness clashes unpleasantly with his incest-flavored lechery. I’m not sure I like having Indy’s dad in the movie at all. less sean connery, more river phoenix, I’d say. he could be Indy’s more “studious” half (I’m sorry, but I will never believe in Professor Jones, much as I love him), the nerdy boy scout, bolstered by self-righteousness, who believes that all artifacts belong in museums and that 70% of archaeology takes place in the library, and Indy could show him that all the fairy tales and bedtime stories he disparages really are true…
so much magic in these movies. they pay lip service to actual archaeology with Professor Jones, and then, with Indy, present it in its most exciting, adventurous, and wildly improbable form… the world of LAST CRUSADE is one in which immortality actually is possible, but only within certain limits: Indy can’t remove the crucible from its resting place. the immortality it provides is non-transferable, possibly only in a tightly circumscribed space, a fantastical world within our real one… in a way it’s kind of a metaphor for the movies. if you wanna be literal about it, they’re the only place where the holy grail, deathless knight–type magic can happen. but, in a less strictly literal sense, the magic of movies is boundless. the movies themselves can’t contain them. you take it away with you… and in you, it lives forever…
ALIEN 3 | 1992 | dir. David Fincher
Question #1 for David Fincher (and the screenwriters and whoever else I guess). Why be so coy with the alien? Ridley Scott withholds to terrifying effect for most of ALIEN, but I always forget between rewatches that even he gives us a good look at the thing by the end. And then there’s ALIENS, which raises us like 7 more of the things plus a queen in all her glory. You’ve got some of the best creature design of all time at your disposal here, Fincher—why not take advantage of it? Instead, he shoots like every chase scene from the alien’s point of view, which just gets boring after like 3 seconds.
Question #2: Why sexualize Ripley the way you did? It’s not that she hasn’t been sexualized before (I actually love that shot; while it’s certainly about showcasing Sigourney Weaver’s smokin’ bod, it’s also about how safe she finally feels, and how physically vulnerable she’s allowing herself to be, which adds to the impact of the alien’s reappearance…)—but that it seems so both throwaway and vicious here. Ripley crash-lands on a maximum security prison planet populated by “double-Y chromosome” prisoners (is this supposed to tie their criminal histories to some kind of excess of masculinity?) many of whom are rapists and none of whom have even seen a woman in years. There is, of course, a highly unpleasant attempted rape, with this tonally jarring, weirdly exciting-feeling electric guitar score that kind of makes you feel like you should be rooting for the would-be rapists… This scene is promptly forgotten about as soon as the alien threat makes itself felt, both by Ripley and by the prisoners. It’s like it never happened. Which kind of means it shouldn’t have. There’s no good reason for it. It’s the kind of lazy, sensationalistic insertion of rape that renders the act meaningless.
Then there’s Ripley’s abortive romance with Charles Dance, who is abruptly dispatched quite early in the movie, leaving one wondering why he was in it at all… He’s the facility’s medical officer, but he has a dark past of his own, which is darkly and heavily hinted at, only to reveal itself in such a way that it makes us sympathize with, not turn against him—moments before the alien yanks him out of frame to a grisly death.
This franchise is bursting with muddy but fascinating sexual and gender politics, its treatment of its female protagonist, to its confused but potent fear of the human reproductive process and its alien counterpart—I want to write a whole post just on ALIENS’ queen alone—to the girl-on-girl battle at the end of ALIENS, to the fact that in one of the deleted scenes from ALIEN, the creature rapes the only(?) other female crew member with its tail… None of this adds up to any kind of coherent statement, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. None of that is on display in ALIEN 3. The attempted rape is vile—perhaps more so for being, I suspect, unintentionally so—and the romance is bog-standard and just kinda pointless. We have to wait until ALIEN: RESURRECTION for the franchise’s gender politics to emerge again—luckily, this time, in Joss Whedon’s capable hands.
Question #3: why kill off Newt? This isn’t really a question. I get why a director might do that—having been saddled with a bunch of survivors from the previous film that you don’t want in your own, get rid of them all in one convenient crash landing, and having her in ALIEN 3 might not necessarily have been a good idea—but it’s such a slap in the face, and it set me up to feel like the trust built up by the previous two films had been betrayed.
Just glancing at the Wikipedia page for this movie, it looks like production was a mess, with shooting beginning before the script was finished, lots of studio interference, pressure on David Fincher to live up to the previous two films, and then editing-room revisions made by the studio without Fincher’s involvement… All that isn’t surprising—the Charles Dance/Ripley romance feels like the vestigial appendage of an earlier, abandoned draft, for instance. But it all led—as no doubt David Fincher was acutely aware—to a boring, decidedly un-scary movie that takes away everything great about ALIEN and ALIENS, without substituting anything of value in return.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | 2014 | dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
I may live in rural New Hampshire, but there’s a two-screen theater ten minutes away from my house that, in addition to rep screenings every Saturday (on DVD, but still), a monthly silent film with live accompaniment, and a yearly showing of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to which everybody brings handbells that they ring enthusiastically during the final scene, reliably plays first-run films like this. Which is one of the more unexpected reasons that I am pretty darn happy I live in rural New Hampshire. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON might be my favorite film so far this year.
The film’s premise in and of itself is riveting. When their son Keita is six years old, Ryota and Midori Nonomiya learn that he isn’t their son, at least not biologically—somehow, he and another boy born the same day at the same hospital were switched at birth. The Nonomiyas and their biological son Ryusei’s unwittingly adoptive parents, Yukari and Yudai Saiki, now must decide whether or not to “exchange” children.
Koreeda uses this premise to delve into issues of wealth, class, parenting technique, and, of course, father-son relationships. Ryota is a hardworking architect who spends very little time with his wife and son. More than a little unemotionally available, guided by the belief that it’s better for Keita to work hard now than struggle later in life, he sets high standards for his son. However, though he doesn’t express it with physical affection or even praise, he clearly loves his family. Once Koreeda has established this parenting model, he introduces another in the form of the lower-class Saikis. Yudai, who runs an appliance shop, has messy hair and a laid-back manner and wears rumpled, loudly patterned clothes, but distinguishes himself from Ryota primarily by his looser, more playful parenting style. When the families meet at a mall and the kids run off to play, Ryota sits primly on the sidelines while Yudai clambers into the food court bouncy castle with them, shouting and laughing.
As the sons start spending weekends at their biological parents’ houses to prepare for the eventual exchange, Koreeda’s eloquent deployment of details tells us more about them. He’s a master observer, and we learn by looking with him—at the Saiki’s small bathtub, in which father and children bathe together; at their messy but welcoming home. By holding a shot of Yudai’s chewed soda straw for just the right amount of time, Koreeda tells us everything Ryota is thinking. He has nothing but contempt for these people. The film, though, seems for a time to side with them. Make no mistake: though the film is shot and the story told in a naturalistic way, these are almost stock characters, the arrogant, emotionally sterile upper class family going up against the warm, loving lower class one. For a while, it seems like they’re losing, but Koreeda is too smart for such an oversimplified dichotomy.
Several times, I thought LIKE FATHER was ending when it wasn’t. This is probably partly due to Koreeda’s frequent fades to black, but also because if the film were, say, debuting at Sundance, it might very well have ended at those times without anyone finding anything amiss—such as the scene no more than 2/3 of the way through in which the two families, after deciding for once and for all that they’re going to exchange children, go on a fishing trip together to commemorate the occasion. The photograph they take, which Koreeda freeze-frames, perfectly encapsulates the two families’ characters: Keita’s stands stiffly, as if posing for a daguerreotype, while Ryusei’s father bends down, his unruly children reaching up to grab his face. Order and disorder are kept apart by the physical space between the two families; mere inches separating what might as well be different planets.
But, instead of ending the film there, Koreeda keeps on pushing. The children are exchanged; ups and downs ensue. Never are we given the opportunity to deem the families’ decision wrong or right. They’ve agreed not to contact their biological children, but this is easier said than done—Midori takes calls from Keita on the sly, and the film climaxes with Ryusei running away, back to his biological parents.
LIKE FATHER ends ambiguously. My grandmother, who saw it with me, was convinced that the families were going to exchange children yet again; I think the opposite is true. But that isn’t the point. The final shot is of them all entering the Saiki’s house for a meal—the point is that they’re now united in the facing of the still–wrenchingly difficult situation. Koreeda, to his great credit, doesn’t tack on an unearned feel-good ending to the film, but does find hope in Ryota’s personal growth and the way that it brings the families together.
TAXI ZUM KLO | 1980 | dir. Frank Ripploh
The opening scene of TAXI is a perfect example of how to get an audience on your protagonist’s side. It does so by simply taking us through Frank Ripploh’s morning—a morning in which everything seems to go just a little bit wrong. As a jaunty song plays, we watch a stark naked Ripploh sneak onto the landing outside his apartment; as he steals his neighbor’s newspaper from her mail slot, his own door slams shut behind him, locking him out. Using the paper as a fig leaf—to said neighbor’s outrage—he knocks on her door and asks to use her balcony. As he climbs onto his own, the bathrobe she gave him falls from his shoulders, taking a perfectly timed plunge to the ground below. Back in his apartment, Ripploh runs out of toilet paper; after washing himself in the bathtub, he dries off with a hand towel—then hangs it on the hook labeled “GUESTS.” (Show me a character/comedy beat more perfect. I dare you.) Already late for work, he stops at a gas station, where the attendant catches his eye. “If I need an oil change, can I call you?” he asks, in the first of the film’s many intricately encoded propositions, and writes the man’s number down on the first piece of paper he can find. Then, upon arriving at work, Ripploh the schoolteacher proceeds to perform an utterly charming reenactment of the locked-door fiasco for his young students—as if the sequence so far hadn’t endeared me to him enough.
What have we learned about Ripploh in this scene? We’ve learned that he’s a human being, in all the glorious fallibility denoted by those words. We’ve also learned that he’s gay. And we’ve learned the simple but still, unfortunately, nearly thirty-five years later, revelatory-feeling truth that his homosexuality is part and parcel of his humanity, included as it is in the course of the most ordinary of mornings, inseperable from the mundane familiarity of his daily routine. The sad truth, however, is that the world in which Ripploh lives—a world not much different from the one we live in now; certainly by no means different enough—demands that he erect a rigid barrier around his romantic and sexual life. Of course, such a delineation is impossible—as comically demonstrated in the scene in which Ripploh, seated on a public toilet, corrects his students’ homework while waiting for a hookup to enter the next stall. But nowhere is this enforced compartmentalization more painfully clear than the scene in which one of Ripploh’s students raises her hand and asks about the number her father found written in her composition book. “My father thought it meant to call you,” she says, “but when he did some man answered.” We know that this man was the gas station attendent. Without even looking up from the anatomical model he’s showing the class, Frank tells the student he’ll call her father and clear up the misunderstanding. It’s a frightening brush with exposure, superbly underplayed by both Ripploh the director, Ripploh the actor, and the character/past self he portrays. TAXI’s genius lies in the way it underplays all such moments, even when things come to a head in the film’s penultimate scene. By not railing against the injustice of their own existence, such scenes offer up the most irrefutable argument against that injustice that I can imagine.
The sex in TAXI some of the most explicit I’ve ever seen in a film—and in both its graphic nature and the matter-of-fact way in which it’s presented, expands upon the ideas established in TAXI’s opening scene. The Film Crit HULK piece that brought TAXI to my attention calls the sex “hardcore,” which I suppose it is: the film includes what I think are unsimulated handjobs, blowjobs, anal sex—and watersports to boot! (A careful pan assures us that the latter, at least, is the real deal.) I’ve honestly never been grossed out by gay sex (in fact, as an, um, avid reader of slash fanfiction in my teenage years, you could say that the opposite is true), so I didn’t have that particular hurdle to clear when it came to TAXI—but the word “hardcore” made me expect scenes intended to shock. What surprised me, then, was how natural they feel—even when Ripploh uses flash cuts, for example, to present them in an attention-getting way. Even though these scenes are bold, perhaps unprecedented, there’s no self-consciousness in them. On an episode of the Cinephiliacs podcast, Keith Uhlich takes Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN to task for turning the novel upon which it was based—which is similarly and importantly matter-of-fact about its protagonist’s homosexuality—into yet another story of gay shame and self-hatred. I imagine that, by the same token, he’s a fan of TAXI. The film as a whole expands upon the argument of its opening sequence—that sex, gay or straight, is as much part of the human experience as eating a piece of toast with jam, and should be treated with equal matter-of-factness. Of course, it’s also tender/erotic/all kinds of other things that eating a piece of toast isn’t. But you know what I mean.
If the aim of true art is to help us understand each other and what it means to be a human being just a little bit better than we did before we experienced it, TAXI is art of the very greatest kind. It’s saying something that probably the vast majority of the world still needs to hear; thirty-five years after it was made, it is even more vital than ever.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER | 1955 | dir. Charles Laughton
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is absolutely extraordinary; truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Which may, of course, be because I haven’t seen that many movies, but it doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema to know that this is a singular film.
NIGHT is shot in gorgeous, dramatic, often high-contrast black and white. This seems appropriate in a film about, essentially, good and evil—evil in the form of “Reverend” Henry Powell, who travels the country marrying and then murdering wealthy widows under what he believes is a special dispensation from the Lord himself, and good personified by its two child protagonists, John and Pearl, who are practically beatified by Mrs. Cooper’s closing speech. This speech, though, is less about their saintliness than their endurance—the ability of children to survive against all odds.
Practically every single one of Laughton’s compositions is perfect. Even the way he arranges figures in the most basic of shots is graceful and assured without calling attention to itself. But then there are the standouts shots, the ones that demand to be noticed—Powell standing frozen by his wife’s window, bathed in moonlight, hand upraised in an at once inscrutable and transfixing gesture, as if railing against or communing with his God, and, of course, the horribly extended shot of his wife’s corpse tied to the seat of their submerged Model T, hair floating around her face in a ghastly parody of the river weeds around her. If Laughton culled his images from our nightmares, this one seems taken directly from mine.
There are scenes, though, less terrifying than simply dreamlike, most notably the sequence in which the sleeping children are floating down the river in their skiff in the dead of night. Laughton frequently places objects in the foreground of his shots—as the converted Willa Powell is preaches to her husband’s congregation, Laughton keeps a flaming torch in the foreground at all times, metaphorically reinforcing her fervor and demonstrating his masterful ability to express the depth of three dimensions using just two. This technique, though, is put to especially haunting use in the river sequence, in which a spider, a frog, and two quivering rabbits watch the children float by. Laughton presumably used a double exposure to create these shots; both boat and animals are in crisp focus. The sequence is a peaceful interlude in a film that up until that point has been relentlessly tense and propulsive; you feel like you’ve entered a lullaby, a child’s dream, or perhaps the world children SHOULD live in, but cannot, in Depression-era America or any other country, at any time.
Not only is Laughton a masterful visual stylist; he also uses music to beautiful and sinister effect. The film is shot through with songs: a joyful harvest song, an casually cruel hangman’s ditty sung by the local children, and of course the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” John and Pearl, sleeping in a hay loft, are awoken by Powell’s rich tenor, and see him riding by, silhouetted black against moon-white sky—as David Ehrenstein puts it in his Criterion essay, “like some ghastly pop-up storybook image… come to life”—prompting John to exclaim “Don’t he ever sleep?” (The film, in addition to being one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, is also very funny.) “Leaning” is heard again in the climax of the film, when Mrs. Cooper, the older woman who has taken John and Pearl into her foster flock, is sitting in her rocking chair with a shotgun on her knee, guarding them against Powell, who sits on a tree stump in her yard, singing. All at once, Mrs. Cooper joins in, adding her voice to his. Powell has claimed religion for his own twisted purposes—with this simple, powerful gesture, Mrs. Cooper claims it back.
SEXY BEAST | 2000 | dir. Jonathan Glazer
"Do you wanna do the job?" "No." "Shut up, cunt, you’re going to do the job." "No I’m not." "Yes you are." "No I’m not." "Yes you are." "No I’m not." "Yes you—"
I could go on. These back-and-forth bickering sessions between Ray Winstone’s Gal and Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan are some of the most irritating I’ve ever seen. Gal is a former criminal who’s retired to Spain with his wife, DeeDee; in the opening scene, he’s roasting poolside in blinding white sun. His voiceover tells us both that he doesn’t miss England and that this is clearly not true. What he really doesn’t miss, though, is the life of crime he left behind. There are two interlocked pink and red hearts in the tiles at the bottom of the pool, symbolizing Gal and DeeDee’s love. As Gal stands by the pool in a heat-induced stupor, a massive boulder comes careening down the hill behind him, missing him by inches and crashing into the pool. The disruption this foreshadows comes in the form of Gal’s former boss, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley in a petulant tantrum of a performance.
Once Ben Kingsley shows up, things take a turn for the worse. I think it’s the writing, rather than Kingsley’s performance—but, no matter who’s to blame, Don Logan, who needs to be kind of terrifying, comes across as irritating, childish, and completely ineffective. It’s partly these “Yes you will”/”No I won’t” exchanges. Not only do they make him seem like a harried parent wrangling with a two-year-old who won’t eat his vegetables—they’re just straight-up bad drama. Instead of doing anything at all to move the story forward, they create these horrible pockets of stasis. I thought there would be no more such scenes after Don Logan’s death, but then one pops up quite late in the film: “Don Logan didn’t call you from Heathrow.” “Yes he did.” “No he didn’t.” “I’m not lying.” “Yes you are.” From what I understand (from Michael Scott’s acting night class), one of the rules of improvisational theater is that you have to say “yes” to everything. These scenes are the perfect illustration of why that’s so.
Despite these brief bouts of constipation, however, at times SEXY BEAST really picks up speed. The underwater heist scene, intercut with flashbacks to Don Logan’s gruesome, protracted death, is exciting, as is the “nested doll” expository sequence in which Don Logan explains the heist to Gal, during which Glazer’s cutting makes characters from all three temporal “layers” appear to be addressing each other. It’s complex while remaining comprehensible. During the heist, bills float through the murky water; a man unscrews an urn, and the ashes inside billow out in a black cloud.
Visually, Glazer does some interesting things with light. The sun in the opening scene, for example, is so blinding as to make me squirm, washing out everything but Gal’s burnished red skin. It might be the most effective depiction of heat I’ve ever seen. In all the scenes in Gal’s “hacienda,” however, Glazer uses sunlight to frustrating effect, placing Kingsley in front of huge windows, backlit by the full force of the sun, then not lighting him adequately from the front. I’ll do Glazer/his DP/his lighting designer/whoever the courtesy of believing that this is intentional—I’ll also say that it’s a terrible one. It might be some kind of commentary on the “darkness” of Kingsley’s character, but what it means in practical terms is that we just can’t see his face ever. And the way Glazer cuts between Kingsley and the other characters, who are lit just fine, makes it all the more jarring.
I’m not sure I have that much to say about the more surreal elements, though it seems negligent to ignore them. There’s this rabbit-headed, gun-toting creature that appears to Gal in his dreams like an omen of impending death. Although Gal’s superiors, suspecting him in Don Logan’s disappearence, refuse to pay him after the heist, Gal sneaks a gigantic pair of diamond and ruby earrings from the vault for DeeDee; she’s wearing them in the last scene. It’s a small victory, but a positive note on which to end—if the film in fact ended there. Gal has buried Don Logan beneath the pool; the last shot is of the rabbit creature smashing open Kingsley’s grave to find him alive and lighting up a cigarette, an impish smile on his face. Perhaps this final scene suggests that Gal—or his conscience?—isn’t rid of Don Logan after all.
THE RAID 2 | 2014 | dir. Gareth Evans
What I saw everyone saying on Twitter about this was that it wasn’t as tight as the original RAID but that Gareth Evans was to be commended for his ambition and for trying something new rather than rehashing a past success. And I suppose they’re right on both counts. There’s part of me that wants to say I would have preferred another RAID, but there’s kind of no point in talking about the movie you wanted rather than the movie you got.
Apparently the script of THE RAID 2 was originally completely unrelated to the original RAID, and was kind reverse-engineered to be a sequel after THE RAID did well, I guess? (I don’t actually know how well it did.) To me, though, it felt like a fairly organic—rather than forced—expansion of the world THE RAID established. Directly following the events of that film, Rama is recruited by a division of the police department dedicated to eradicating not only crime, but corruption within the police force. This means he must go undercover in order to get close to the incarcerated scion of a crime family that shares control of the city with what I guess is a branch of the Japanese mob. Rama saves the life (I think? or at least comes to the defense) of said scion, Uco, and is taken on as hired muscle by his father upon being released from prison. He works for Uco, who is basically a debt collector, but doesn’t want to be. He’d like his father to give him more responsibility, as befits him as the heir to his father’s organization, but his father is concerned that Uco’s fire burns too hot and that he’s not suited to take over. As THE RAID 2 proves, he’s right.
Uco’s dynamic with his father was the most interesting in the film for me—due in part to its humor. Though it’s never trying to make you laugh, here’s something comedic in Uco’s repeated attempts to start a gang war between his father and the Japanese Mr. Goto, with whom he has been in a truce for decades. Uco, in league with the smaller-fry Bejo, wants to pit Goto and his father against each other, paving the way for Uco and Bejo to take over once the dust has settled—but his father and Mr. Goto want to keep the peace too badly to let this happen.
The story, though far grander in scope than that of THE RAID, wasn’t all that complicated. The thing is, although I knew this film was more story-driven than the first, I wasn’t there for the story. I found that, although I could follow along okay, and although every action scene had a clear in-story reason for existing, I was strangely uninvested in them, even though they were the main reason I was seeing the movie. It was almost as if the rooting interest was unclear, although technically it wasn’t. Though character motivations were more, say, utilitarian, in THE RAID, I found their simplicity extremely effective. It’s not like they were necessarily any more complex here, but maybe it’s that you’ve got essentially one-dimensional characters in a plot that’s trying—and not necessarily succeeding—to have more dimensions than that. Baseball Boy and Hammer Girl are basically video game bosses, complete with little touches (her deafness, his repeated “Give me the ball”) that amount to little more than, say, a particular hat does in Team Fortress 2. Which is fine, right? That’s what Mad Dog in THE RAID was, after all…
I don’t know. The fights are extraordinary, of course. I’m kind of astounded that Iko Uwais and co. didn’t accidentally kill each other and/or the camera operator on set—which testifies, I suppose, to how good all of them (including Gareth Evans, of course) are at what they do. I was far more aware of the camera work in 2, especially in the Hammer/Baseball showdown—the camera is right up close, fully participating in these fight scenes; its operators movements must be as carefully choreographed and agile as Uwais etc.’s in order to avoid them. The kitchen scene is such a feat. And yet I felt barely any of the tension and adrenaline that I did during THE RAID while watching them. There was a strange deadness to the film. But mostly I just feel like it was… fine. And I really want to go write about something else.
ANTICHRIST | 2009 | dir. Lars Von Trier
Some of the title cards in NYMPHO looked straight out of a bad PowerPoint presentation; the ones in ANTICHRIST are all chalk on a blackboard; the handwriting looks like a child’s. Pink, red, olive green.
Also as in NYMPHO, we have selective use of black and white, this time in the prologue and epilogue. The prologue is shot in the slowest of motion: Gainsbourg and Dafoe (their characters remain nameless) make love while their toddler son, Nick, climbs out of his crib and up onto a desk and falls two stories from an open window to his death. Just as in NYMPHO, in which Jo’s son nearly meets the same fate, a mother putting sexual desire before her son’s safety leads to his death. Jo is more unambiguously culpable—when her babysitter blows her off, she leaves her son at home alone rather than skip her appointment with the sadistic K—but Gainsbourg’s character, though perhaps not as responsible as Jo would have been had her son died, feels far guiltier. At first, this seems unwarranted, but as it becomes clear how profoundly disturbed she is, we wonder. Dafoe, doing double duty as her therapist, reassures Gainsbourg that their son’s death wasn’t her fault—but, by cutting from Nick standing in the doorway of their bedroom watching them to a closeup of Gainsbourg’s eyes opening, seemingly staring right at him, Von Trier suggests that she saw him and did nothing. (I think that cut doesn’t appear in the prologue, only in a later flashback—giving it the character of a revelation.)
The first Von Trier I saw was MELANCHOLIA; I was transfixed by his use of extreme slow motion and otherworldly lighting to create shots that look like living paintings—they were like nothing I’d ever seen. Several shots in ANTICHRIST employ this technique, but taken perhaps to an even more painterly level; in one, as Dafoe limps through a blasted landscape, a network of artfully composed, ghostly white bodies fades into view on the ground all around him. In another, while Gainsbourg and Dafoe make love at the base of a tree, pale hands appear, reaching up between the roots as if from the depths of hell itself.
While the stylistic trademarks described above all appear in at least one other of Von Trier’s most recent films, ANTICHRIST uses a few I hadn’t seen before: perhaps my favorite is the way (most often in shots of nature—”Satan’s church,” as Gainsbourg calls it) Von Trier selectively distorts the right- and left-hand thirds of the image, so that you see it bend nauseatingly from out of the corner of your eye. The speaking fox transfixed me. I would have followed Von Trier into hell without a second thought after that—one could say, of course, that I did. I spent the climax of the film with my knuckles jammed into my mouth, physically sickened and on the edge of my seat. As for the final scene, I can’t claim to understand it, at least not intellectually: as Dafoe makes his way laboriously out of Eden, he sees a crowd of people climbing toward him. They pass him by; the final shot is of them continuing, almost in a swarm, up the hill. I couldn’t tell you what it means, but on an emotional level, it makes perfect, transcendent sense.
On the basis of that shot alone, which almost singlehandedly elevates the film out of darkness, I would say that Lars Von Trier is many things, but a cynic isn’t one of them. ANTICHRIST is a film about the worst of which humanity is capable, and both revels in its many provocations and seems to willfully invite misunderstanding. I’m not even tempted to take the bait. The New Yorker review of NYMPHO is titled “Lars Von Trier’s joyless sexual tantrum.” “Joyless” that film is not (the first volume, especially, is clever, playful and incredibly funny), but “tantrum” strikes me as an apt way of describing Von Trier’s provocations. Underneath all the acting out, though, there’s a filmmaker that more than deserves to be taken seriously. Part of that, of course, means realizing when he’s joking.
As for what’s actually going on in this film? This Criterion essay by Ian Christie is helpful (although he clearly doesn’t really know either). I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you know, not really. ANTICHRIST puts me in the intellectually frustrating but emotionally satisfying position of not being able to say exactly what it means, but knowing that it is without a doubt meaningful.
GIRL WALK // ALL DAY | 2011 | dir. Jacob Krupnick
Keith Uhlich put GIRL WALK // ALL DAY on his 2012 best of the year list; I heard him discuss it on the Cinephiliacs. So glad I did. I had a big goofy grin on my face for the entire 70-some minutes. The final scene made me cry. GIRL WALK engaged me emotionally pretty much from the early switch from black and white to color onward—there was barely a moment that didn’t make me feel anxious, uplifted, elated, profoundly uncomfortable, or some combination of the above.
GIRL WALK is, basically, a feature-length dance film (calling it a music video doesn’t feel quite accurate) set to the entirety of Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day. In a way, it is a music video, in that the film’s narrative is dictated, to an extent, by the album’s tone—when it goes angry, the film does too. But the film has narrative and themes of its own, exploring ideas of connection and isolation and the way that public spaces and the way we behave in them can foster both.
Anne Marsen as the Girl was the driving force behind all of this exploration, and honestly, she was the film for me. Dai Omiya and John Doyle, as the Gentleman and the Creep respectively, may have perhaps had more dance training, but their styles were more rigid, and their performances more insular and therefore less risky. They interacted with their environment less than Marsen, and not as courageously—the Gentleman, for example, dances on top of a telephone booth in one scene, drawing attention to himself from a safe distance. The Creep, dancing in front of the Staten Island Ferry, carves out a space around him; people stop on the edge of it to watch and take pictures, but as far as he’s concerned he might as well be alone. Marsen, though, bravely engages with everyone. She’s playing a character, of course, but I was constantly aware that this was Marsen herself approaching real strangers. Most of them either ignore her or are made visibly uncomfortable by her; their body language is stiff as they take evasive action, shaking their heads, waving her away, or staring determinedly down at their phones. I sympathized both with the Girl’s desire to connect and, just as strongly, with those who wanted nothing to do with her. Were I approached on the street like that, I’d respond in exactly the same way. It feels extreme to call Marsen’s behavior “invasive”—she’s so harmless—but were either of the male leads getting up in people’s faces like that, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word. The combination of Marsen’s goofy, endearingly eager face and slightly unhinged, even aggressive behavior is potent—I was simultaneously uncomfortable and charmed.
When director (and cinematographer) Jacob Krupnick begins using plants (in more than one sense of the word, in the flower people graveyard scene) in the final third or so of the film—tellingly, it’s because he kind of has to. The connection the Girl so desperately desires cannot be generated spontaneously—it must be planned in advance. Like dominoes falling, dance spreads through physical contact. At her loneliest, on the brink of giving up, Marsen is enveloped by a crowd that lifts her into the air. The final scene is something approaching sublime. The group processes through Central Park at dusk, sparklers in their hands, as John Lennon’s “Imagine” begins to play. Not only has the scene realized Lennon’s vision—in mashing up “Imagine” with multiple other songs, Gillis has done so in his own inimitable way.
NYMPHOMANIAC | 2014 | dir. Lars von Trier
Saw this (them) back-to-back in the theater—so glad I did.
I can’t decide if Lars von Trier is a badass, a genius, or an asshole. “Badass,” I thought, at that “sublime Rammstein needle drop” (as Keith Uhlich so rightly puts it), and, as soon as it Seligman started interrupting Jo’s story with digressions about fly-fishing technique, I thought, “Genius.” And then, after nearly four hours, after that final slap-in-the-face-with-a-black-leather-glove-full-of-coins scene, I thought “…Asshole?” To quote my own Letterboxd, I’m still trying to think through what that final scene means for the nearly four hours that preceded it. There has to be a way for it to reverberate back through them without like invalidating them, right? Badass, genius, or asshole—he is, of course, all three. NYMPHO itself is a masterpiece.
I jumped to pronounce the sex in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR both pruriently and clinically shot—and decidedly un-sexy. Not so NYMPHO. The sex was versatile: it what it needed to be at any given moment. Jo’s experiences run the gamut, and every sex act has its own qualities and is filmed in its own unique way: detached (on the train car), shitty-painful (3 + 5), transcendently sublime–painful (the 40th lash). I absolutely loved the “Little Organ School” chapter—it captures perfectly the idea that, for Jo, each lover fulfills a specific need, and in a way (as she says at one point) add up to a single, multi-faceted experience.
Could Jo be improvising her story based on the objects she sees in Seligman’s room? I don’t think so, but there’s something, of course, about how von Trier interweaves Jo’s narrative with Seligman’s interjections. Each feeds off the other. Seligman applies his essentially sterile body of knowledge to Jo’s narrative, turning facts about fly fishing, the Roman Catholic vs. the Orthodox church, Fibonacci numbers, and the Golden Mean into analogies and giving them human relevance. Seligman’s interjections enhance NYMPHO enormously, and humorously—in general, I was delighted by how playful and funny the film is, especially its first hour or so. The way Jo tells her story is extremely inward-focused. At least in the beginning, she’s telling it to prove to Seligman what a sinful, evil person she is and that she deserved her fate. Seligman’s interjections expand the scope of her story—make it about more than just her. Or do they? Maybe you just want more out of life than everybody else, he says early on. Is that such a bad thing? Later, he speculates that her behavior would be far easier to accept, for her and for society, were she a man rather than a woman. They’re neat arguments—too neat. Too easy.
This neatness is part of the joke. Seligman protests at some of Jo’s narrative’s more far-fetched coincidences, but this is because he hasn’t clued in to what kind of movie he’s in—the kind where every revelation (his own asexuality, for example), feels a little too fitting, more part of an overtly fictional, perhaps even parable-like, world than anything resembling reality. That’s why, when the final scene hauls off and slaps us across the face (hard enough to make us black out), as K’s slap was to Jo, so that scene should be to us: anything but unexpected. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell. There was a purity to Jo and Seligman’s relationship—by the end of the conversation he has become, as she puts it, her first and only friend, but from the very beginning they seemed to meet on a level that’s almost beyond intimacy—they strive, determinedly, side by side toward understanding. (His “But you’ve had sex with thousands of men!” brought to mind Dr. Arden’s attempted rape of Chloe Sevigny—who, of course, has been institutionalized for nymphomania!—in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM. Here’s another man assuming that a high libido means automatic, unconditional consent—and a woman’s violent, unconditional rebuttal.)
Von Trier’s filmmaking itself is playful, an at times irreverent mishmash. There are chapter title cards that recall this year’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL—and selective use of black and white, which does too! Von Trier throws up documentary-illustrations onto the screen, some of which seem pulled straight from Wikipedia, especially during Seligman’s teacherly digressions—one of them is a closeup of hands flipping through an illustrated book. He’s not afraid to go cheap and ugly—the picture of the Whore of Babylon, for example, is glaringly low resolution, and a shot of an airplane against the sky looks like it was shot on a home video camera. I kind of love that he isn’t interested in a flawless, immaculate look—seeing images on a big screen that look like they weren’t ever intended to be projected that way is incredibly satisfying for someone, like me, who gets annoyed by the ~film purists~ who smugly insist on only watching films “the way the filmmaker intended”—on 35mm at the Museum of the Moving Image or where the hell ever—and would spontaneously combust with shame faster than a pile of fucking nitrate film when a lit cigarette is thrown on it if they were ever caught watching a movie on their laptop, heaven forfend. NYMPHO is cerebral and sexy, funny, spirited, harrowing, sublime—chopped up in two and rented on iTunes or not.