“The great irony of Belle de Jour is that a sixty-seven year old Spanish surrealist has set out to liberate humanity of its bourgeois sentimentality only to collide with the most sentimental generation of flowery feelings in human history,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice in the early May 1968. His filing deadline was probably right before the events in France of, you know, May 1968, but even so you could say his overall grasp of the zeitgeist as he wrote those words was likely too inflected by some kind of Summer of Love hangover. All that notwithstanding, I have been reminded of Sarris’ observation by the elaborate praise bestowed upon two recent film releases, Lady Bird, an early-2000s coming of age story with autobiographical elements, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and Call Me By Your Name, an early-1980s coming of age story scripted by James Ivory from a novel by André Aciman, and directed by Luca Guadagnino.
They are the most critically beloved movies of the year, and while they encompass a certain amount of heartbreak and loss, they each hand the viewer a gratitude list—for family, to be precise—to ponder as the closing credits scroll up. They are relentlessly nice movies. They are sentimental.
In her essay “The Miseducation of Lady Bird” in The Baffler, Lauren Oyler circles around this point a bit. After expressing befuddlement over the fact that she has encountered “old white men,” one “middle aged man” and three young women “sporting leather backpacks and elaborate Nikes,” who were more moved by the film than she was, Oyner homes in on the finale of the movie, during which its lead character Christine goes to church, then calls her mother. While both actions as depicted are, I think, given sufficient dramatic buttressing for them to make both narrative and (for some) emotional sense, Oyner is not wrong to call the speech “unapologetically corny” and “exactly what a mother would want to happen.”
Lady Bird is about reconciliation, and in its world view reconciliation involves recognizing who your blood is. It means finally understanding that it’s a shitty thing to tell your mother that you will pay her back all the money she spent on your upbringing just so that you yourself may have the privilege of never having to speak to her again. Agains, I think the movie sells this point very well. Directorially, Gerwig never puts a foot wrong. Lady Bird is very assured and very much believes in the effects it wants to achieve. One thing it never does—and I understand that on a not insignificant level it is because it’s not this kind of movie’s function to do so anyway, maybe—is question why it is salutary to be a movie that makes you want to call your mother after you get out of the theater.
It’s as if this is a given, just the way everything ought to turn out. And this is not, for instance, what we get from the work of Maurice Pialat, whose ruthlessly unsentimental views of the family lives of children and teens are among the greatest highlights of French cinema. And as soft as Truffaut’s portraits of Antoine Doinel in his adulthood could get, one thing they never featured was any kind of rapprochement with the parents of The 400 Blows.
There is never anything too ugly in Lady Bird; there is almost nothing at all ugly in Call Me By Your Name. When its 17-year-old protagonist, Elio, is confounded by his erotic feelings toward Oliver, the spectacularly hunky academic assistant to his professor father, he is at first barely aware of the support system that’s devoted to helping him figure it out. An American academic seasonally situated in a most idyllic and sleepy corner of Italy in summer, Elio’s dad, Lyle, observes Elio and Oliver’s dance at a benign not-quite remove. Annella, the mother (played by Amira Casar, best known in the U.S. for her work in, um, Catherine Breillat’s 2004 Anatomy of Hell) evinces a concern that’s perhaps disingenuous but deliberately never anything like effectual. The situations and circumscribed worlds of these movies are elaborate demonstrations of the mantra of John Lennon’s anti-revolutionary song “Revolution:” “Don’t you know it’s gonna be/all right.”
Of course all of this speaks, indirectly perhaps, to problems of depiction. Lots of people, I suppose, have movies in their heads about their childhoods. But the worse the things recollected, the harder it is to construct the movie version, in your head or on a movie set. When I was in my final year of grade school I had a growth spurt, and my dad gave me this beautiful fringed suede jacket that he had bought in Spain when he lived there as a teenager. One day I wore it to school, and by the end of the day, about two-thirds of its fringes were gone, picked off by classmates who were not terribly fond of me. I can see how that would play in a movie scene. A few years later, right after turning 14, I went to a CYO dance in my town and there were two women in their early 20s there, who thought I was cute. They were sharing from a flask, and they offered me a few swigs from it, and a bit later on one of them was making out with me, much to the disapprobation of one of the dance chaperones, who was the father of a guy who liked to give me a mild pummeling every now and then. We (the woman and I, not that dude's father) left the dance and went a few blocks down to the house where she lived and she backed me up against the oak tree in front of it and showed me that she was carrying a condom. At the time I had very little idea of what a condom actually looked like, and I knew my parents were gonna be hella pissed off if I came home too late, so I went home. I know what that would look like as a movie scene—pretty funny, possibly. Around the same time another classmate bullied me into a series of not un-violent transactions that I had no real way of processing, which I’m still on occasion anguished by, and which I won’t go into detail about only in part because I don’t…want…to. (When this fellow, who seems not to have thrived in adulthood, got in touch with me again a few years ago, for the first time that I can remember, my stomach seemed to literally sink.) I couldn’t make a movie out of that. Neither Gerwig nor Guadagnino would want to, I suspect. Maurice Pialat, not to flatter my adolescence, would eat it right up.
Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name want nothing to do with this kind of discomfort. Lady Bird is commendably discreet, but perhaps unrealistic, in depicting Christine’s first serious sexual encounter within that time-honored cinematic convention of bra sex. Although the central sexual relationship in Call Me By Your Name is between two men, the only full-frontal nudity in the movie is female. While usurped original director James Ivory has expressed disappointment at the relatively chaste depictions in Guadagnino’s film (and the director himself has offered the craven defense that the “market” wouldn’t bear anything more explicit), most people who’ve written about the movie are pretty cool about it not being, you know, too gay. Jeffrey Wells is hardly alone in his consideration of what the movie is “really” about: “What counts is that the mood and drift of this film isn’t really about straight or gay or anything in between. It’s about 'being there' in every possible comprehension of that term — about sensual samplings, summer aromas, warm sunshine, fresh water and that swoony, lifty feeling, etc,” he wrote in January of this year. Other writers with more investment in being perceived as sensitive to certain cultural drifts have tempered that Universal Vibration take. One straight cis-male critic proclaimed that this picture could take an automatic place in the “Queer Cinema Canon,” which pronouncement has received some pushback from writers who, in some respects understandably, believe the Queer Cinema Canon be decided by the queer. From where I sat, the story as realized by Guadagnino, with its attendant extreme care not to depict the sex explicitly, could be said to iron the queerness out of the situation altogether. The movie opts instead for a soft counterculture “it’s all love and it’s all good” perspective, articulated in the much-praised speech that Michael Stuhlbarg, as Lyle, does deliver with spectacular care near the movie’s end. Even Marzia, the French teenager whom Elio uses then throws away like an old dishrag (Esther Garrel, the aforementioned female nude), is full of not just forgiveness but congratulatory fellow-feeling with respect to Elio’s self-actualization via heartbreak.
In a sense, then, this is the furthest thing from a “queer movie;” its whole project is to de-queer Elio’s mode of being. That’s the point of the film’s final shot. Yes, he’s heartbroken and crying, but there’s “beautiful” music, he’s literally crouching in front of a fireplace (the hearth!), and behind him his family, while giving him his space, is preparing a sumptuous holiday meal.
As for Lady Bird, the movie comes with its own feel-good sequel, in the current person of Gerwig. In interviews and on television shows we have access to her story. Not just of her life on her own, but of the making of the movie: the winsome letters she wrote to musicians explaining how much her otherwise–perhaps-much-costlier-to-license song selections were so important to her. The way she was able to hire a cinematographer and merely instruct him to make the film “look like a memory,” which certainly beats having to learn how to do that oneself. How she wore a prom dress while filming the prom scenes. When Matthew Maher turns up near the movie’s end, playing a character who gives Christine a crucial bit of information, I thought of the very particular brand of clout that allows a filmmaker to hire one of the best actors on the New York stage for the express purpose of having him say one word.
These are movies where everything’s going to work out, because “at the end of the day” everybody shares the same values. A rather more tough-minded movie about family was made in America in 1937. There are no real villains in Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, but the tragedy that ultimately befalls its central couple, a pair of seniors who are forced to separate forever, comes from their having raised their now-adult children in an American values system that all but obliges those children to forsake them. Lady Bird posits a family dynamic that’s fraught, but eventually all falls on the same side of provisional ideology, while Call Me By Your Name posits a paradise in European remove where romantic loss is ameliorated in that spectacularly nurturing hearth. That these cozy fantasies are animating so much enthusiasm is, as they say, very telling about the current cultural moment.
A couple of notes: this year the movies I loved and the movies I actually got to review did not overlap as much as they might have, as you'll see particularly in the uppermost twenty. You will see more documentaries than I normally put on such lists, and this is because I'm seeing more documentaries, a surprisingly pleasant side benefit, it turns out, of freelancing at The New York Times.
1) Hard To Be A God (Alexei German)
2) Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
3) Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
This is a picture I saw more or less cold, at this year’s EbertFest, and it just floored me. Not just in its commitment to its characters and its setting, but in its cinematic fluidity, which is best, or most noticeably, expressed in a scene in which its partying girl squad lip-syncs the Rihanna song “Diamonds.” I am about as far as you can get from a Rihanna admirer, incidentally.
4) Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Wherein Costa’s collaboration with the personage known as Ventura veers off from a statuesque poetic not-quite-realism into a realm of nearly sci-fi dystopia and dread. Intimations of the underworld and the very real spectre of fascism are given utterly convincing form in a shudderingly beautiful film.
5) Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
6) Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
7) Heaven Knows What (Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
The first five or so minutes of this film, which opens with an almost anti-virtuoso traveling shot through a fluorescent-ugly medical facility while electronic music blares very loudly and unheard characters scream at each other, constitute a sort of endurance test. Not that the remainder of the film is a picnic, but once you settle in, the movie tells the terrifying story of the routine life of junkiedom. I remember someone like Burroughs saying that addiction had a very organizing effect on one’s life, to wit, you got up whenever you got up knowing that you had to do two things that day: cop and shoot up. Everything else is leisure time. I have not seen another film that put across the algebra of need to pitilessly and accurately. A horrific masterpiece.
8) Brooklyn (John Crowley)
9) The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
It’s nice to see an actively anti-social Quentin Tarantino working his malevolent magic again. His sprawling but surprisingly fluid not-properly-locked-room mystery could have stayed within the prickly, racially incendiary whodunit conventions it seems to be setting up in its first half, but when the violence really explodes in the second half, Tarantino achieves Authentic Sadistic Cinema. Yes, by all means call it “objectionable.” It is.
10) Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)
Another beautifully realized movie, perfection from stem to stern, almost every pertinent detail the introduction to an observation or a gag that will pay off beautifully, sometimes within seconds, sometimes not until the end credits. Also a sincerely sunny and sweet-natured work that’s never cloying.
11) Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
I spoke about this picture with a filmmaker friend of mine and we both expressed a kind of irritated mystification about it: how did Alex Garland, an experienced novelist and screenwriter, become such a goddamn good director his first time out? It’s kind of maddening. Complaints about the film’s ostensible sexism are really…kind of sad, because it’s clear that the people making them haven’t really thought the piece through, and that questions of gender construction get kind of complicated when artificial intelligence engineered by a horny chauvinist are concerned. For further on the film's larger topic, see Heinrich von Kleist’s story “On The Marionette Theater.”
12) Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Classical form in cinema still has its uses. Petzold’s survivor tragedy tells a story that’s squalid and irrational in equal measure, and tells it with measured, masterly detachment. Killer ending.
13) Son of Saul (László Nemes)
My friend and colleague Manohla Dargis angrily condemned this film as “radically dehistoricized” and while the characterization is correct I kind of think that a form of dehistoricization was part of director László Nemes’ point. His demonic conception and execution of his Holocaust story, holding claustrophobically tight on his doomed lead character, removes the viewer from the realm of historical contemplation and into the realm of experiential phenomenology. It is a cinematically virtuosic “you are there” movie, completely harrowing and upsetting and confusing and nobody knows what time it is and death is all around and it’s coming for you. One recalls what Stanley Kubrick said to Fredric Raphael about Schindler’s List: “Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn'’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” Son of Saul is a film about The Holocaust—in miniature.
14) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
It takes a very smart storyteller to come up with the very simple idea that makes this movie work so well. J.J. Abrams understood the only way to unfuck the franchise—or the myth, if you really believe it’s a myth—was to go back to First Principles. So he remade Star Wars, or, A New Hope if you’re like that. And did a damn good job of it.
15) The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
I enjoyed the visuals and I understood the plot. So no worries.
16) Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
As I observed elsewhere, really would make an excellent double feature with Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
17) Carol (Haynes)
Tender, seductive, immaculately crafted. Also displays a side of Rooney Mara I really enjoy seeing, one in which she seems kind of happy. There was a rumor a while back that she was moving into my neighborhood (see entry for Mistress America, below) and I was worried that she’d issue edicts requiring everyone wear black, that no one make eye contact with her, or laugh, anywhere, ever. If she continues performances in this vein my perhaps mistaken impression of her as a person will abate. And she didn’t end up moving into my neighborhood anyway.
18) The Mend (Magary)
19) Timbuktu (Sissako)
20) Creed (Coogler)
You can look at this two ways: Director Ryan Coogler’s spectacularly engaging follow-up to his powerful debut feature Fruitvale Station, or an effective and rousing entry in a franchise that had squandered a good deal of its integrity and juice over the years. The direction and the acting are energized, invigorating, but I was also really taken with the construction—satisfying boxing-movie narratives aren’t as common as all that these days.
21) Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers)
22) Clouds Of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
23) The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu)
Iñarritu’s much-dreaded-by-me return to heavyosity turned out to be not so overbearing in its heavyosity as I’d dreaded, so I was kind of able to enjoy this as a drawn-out brutalist Western with spiritual touches. I know, I know—I said “overbearing!”
24) Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
It’s a bit of a no-no for me to include this but to hell with it, it was a super fun movie and Greg Jacobs is a fantastic director and also one of my favorite people, as are a few others who worked on this.
25) The Forbidden Room (Maddin and Johnson)
At first I thought this ripe-rot-suffused pastiche of serial, Expressionist, and Doris Wishman stylizations was on the drawn-out side, but on considering its spectacular climactic payoff and more, I think I’d like to see the three-hour version of which I’ve heard tell.
26) Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)
Both playful and earnest, Almereyda’s unconventional film about Stanley Milgram is as engaged with his ideas as it is with his life. Peter Sarsgaard takes his uncanny ability to come off like the world’s biggest know-it-all up to eleven, and makes you like it.
27) Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)
This tightly-focused exercise in Finding The Bad In People is even more assured and discomfiting that Perry’s Listen Up Philip. When will Mr. Perry meet people that he sincerely likes, and feels he can be himself with, and when and if this happens, will this change his art? Stay tuned.
28) Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones)
Another movie directed by a friend, the great critic and programmer Kent Jones…and a pleasingly thorough examination of two filmmakers, their sensibilities, and the collaboration that produced one of the great texts on cinema.
29) Democrats (Nielsson)
30) Field Niggas (Allah)
31) Bridge of Spies (Spielberg)
Mr. Spielberg’s Cold War picture is a frequent nail-biter even if, like this old man, you know how the story turns out. It is very Spielbergy but without crossing that line many say Munich crossed. I was one of a relative few people who thought it was hilarious that Eve Hewson had a part in a movie in which Francis Gary Powers was a character.
32) Eden (Nilsson-Love)
Discussed very briefly here.
33) Mistress America (Baumbach)
I've lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood since 1990. When I first moved in it was still a pretty solid Italian-American working-to-middle-class enclave with small pockets of quasi-bohemian folk, and the ensuing years have seen, well I don't really have to tell you, do I? The influx has been a mixed bag, from ambitious restaurateurs who buy their mozzarella from the local guy to sneery hipsters who giggle at the shrines to Padre Pio on some front stoops. As I get older, I find myself almost reflexively less amused by the self-regarding Bright Young Things and their strollers and such, but I try to maintain tolerance, understanding that aging will do that to you. Still. A couple of years ago a bistro opened around the corner from me, in a one-time eyebrow-raising doom spot, and with its big front windows, low-key lighting, and pricey menu in small type, made me think they might as well have put an equivalent of one of those debt-clock countdown signs on the roof, telling me how long I had before I was completely priced out of the neighborhood. I have to admit that one night there were a bunch of kids causing a ruckus at the park nearby, and as they sort-of dispersed, a few of them made some aggressive gestures into those aforementioned windows, and I was not displeased at the napkin-clutching of some of the patrons. I avoided the place on principle for a while, but recently I was coaxed in for a brunch with some friends and it was really, really good. I feel rather similarly toward this movie, for reasons I can't quite articulate.
34) Crimson Peak (Del Toro)
No, I did not find the narrative particularly satisfying. Yes, I really would rather see Del Toro get all the money to make all the Lovecraft adaptations. Still. Not just the visual ravishment but the clear emotional swoon-lust that animates this movie caught me up but good.
35) Grandma (Weitz)
36) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (McQuarrie)
A neat if slightly hoary elliptical narrative, sweet action set pieces, and Rebecca Ferguson.
37) Trainwreck (Apatow)
When “full disclosure” looks like name-dropping, I don’t disclose. So. Beyond that, I thought, some dips into celebrity absurdism at the end notwithstanding (I am totally fine with LeBron James’ role though), the movie worked very well as a credible, intelligent 21st century rom-com. I am, I have to admit, tired of all the Bra Sex in Judd Apatow’s movies. Which should not be misconstrued as a call for topless woman exposure. It’s just…try some different angles, maybe. Nobody has Bra Sex as a matter of course unless there’s a mild fetish involved.
38) Blackhat (Mann)
The old “Pure Cinema” defense applies here. Quite convincingly dynamic.
39) The Martian (Scott)
A minor peak in sci-fi optimism. Make NASA Great Again!
40) Love and Mercy (Pohlad)
41) Tangerine (Baker)
I like its vitality and its small innovations but it’s still a straight white man’s view of trans culture, which, you know, I could do MYSELF.
42) Spotlight (McCarthy)
This is a compelling story, well-acted. I’m not entirely certain how well-told it is. What’s funny is that should one observe that it’s visually flat, one runs the risk of being accussed of being some kind of shill for “pure cinema” (see above), which means you’re only interested in things like flashy camerawork and show-offy editing, and that’s bad, you see, because the thing about storytelling is that technique is supposed to be invisible. Only problem is, technique is also not invisible when it’s BORING. In terms of pacing, Spotlight is beyond pedestrian. Every scene is a very neat little package of a few minutes, one after the other, each one fixed on a single topic or action that will move the narrative to the next square, until all the squares have been covered. The possibility of surprise, spontaneity, perversity, anything that is not specifically related to The Lesson, has been squeezed out of the work probably before the first scene was lit. Even if Tom McCarthy had wanted to do something along the lines of the seven-minute split-diopter shot of Redford making the Dahlberg call, he couldn’t have, because there’s nothing for it in the script. Again: a compelling story, well-acted. And competently told. But if it hadn’t been so well-acted the competence would seem like mediocrity.
43) The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland)
44) The Big Short (McKay)
45) Ant Man (Reed)
46) I’ll See You In My Dreams (Haley)
47) Ballet 422 (Lipes)
Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice opens with an epigraph: "Under the paving stones, the beach!" which the author designates as "Grafitto, Paris, May 1968." The sentiment is frequently credited to the philosophers and activists now called "the Situationists," and beyond the nod to a certain mode of radical thought, the quote's resonance as the novel begins is, depending on how much context you freight the quote with, both melancholy—the events of the book take place in 1970, well after the May strikes were squelched, and soon after Manson and Altamont and all that perceptually put a stake through the heart of the counterculture—and kind of wry, as the semi-lost souls who populate the book are operating in and around a California beach town inspired, it is said, by Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon reportedly lived in the late '60s and early '70s while writing Gravity's Rainbow.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's film of the book places the epigraph at the very very end of the movie, after the final credits unroll. It's the movie's "stinger," so to speak. I can't speak to why Anderson chose to place it at the very end, whether that means he's paying a perfunctory respect to the philosophical current it represents (I don't believe that anyway) or whether he thinks that waving the Situationist flag in any form these days is perceptually the contemporary equivalent of going and carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. But it's there. And it's not unimportant.
More prominently placed in this beautiful film (and it is beautiful, from the very beginning, when a tight shot of a serene Joanna Newsom is interrupted by what looks like a blossoming deep blue lens flare, which turns out to be a dissolve into the nocturnal weed haze inhabited by the lead character "Doc" Sportello, a Firesign Theater idea of a private dick if there ever was one) is an observation about addiction and recovery and who's running that whole show in these United States. On investigating an entity called "the Golden Fang"—an entity whose identity shifts, in absurd and absurdist degrees, through Pynchon's narrative—the paranoid (or, rather, "paranoid") Sportello hits on an idea: "It was occuring to Doc now, as he recalled what Jason Velveeta had said about vertical integration, that if the Golden Fang could get its customers strung out, why not turn around and sell them a program to help them kick? Get them coming and going, twice as much revnue and no worries about new customers—as long as American life was something to be escaped from , the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers." The second half of that passage is repeated verbatim in Newsom's voiceover, and it's crucial.
The movie walks a very particular high wire, soaking in a series of madcap-surreal hijinks in an ambling, agreeable fashion to such an extent that even viewers resistant to demanding "what's the point" might think "what's the point." Which isn't to say the humor isn't delightful. Anderson has mentioned Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (EARLY Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, to be sure) as a reference point, and it's there, as in the near-obscene sight of Josh Brolin relishing a chocolate-covered banana in soft focus, or the dialogue misunderstanding beginning with "Go to bed." Hints of Jerry Lewis, too, as in a wonderful shot of a line of people veering to their right while Sportello, holding up the rear, continues straight ahead. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: the fun stuff engages but holds you in suspension, waiting for the kick in the gut. Which does happen, There is, about an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, a turnabout, a scene which again reproduces the dialogue and to a certain extent the action of a scene in the novel, but shifts the emphases in a way that's pure Anderson, bringing a shocking amount of raw emotion and wrong to an exchange that the book almost throws away. The scene delivers what the film has been withholding, and this places everything that's come before in a sort of relief, and colors everything that comes after. It is, to my mind, pretty incredible. And despite the scene being "only" two people in a room, it speaks to everything the movie has on its mind. It's funny; we can talk ourselves silly about how Gone Girl may or may not have a "woman problem," but when it comes to discussing the notion of how dominant ideology in a capitalist system also determines power relations between the sexes, it's "check, please" time. I'll leave it at that for now.
In hewing close to Pynchon, Anderson finds a new freedom, or a further elasticity to the freedom he started exercisng most strenuously in Magnolia. I've seen a scene in which Sportello is surrounded by a group of nose-picking FBI agents described as "cringeworthy;" and it is, if what you demand from motion pictures is a straight line, an unwavering tone, a particular fidelity to, I don't know, EXACTLY what it is that Altman or Ashby did and you no want his One True Inheritor to keep doing, or something. Pynchon's freedom is manifested in, say, the above-quoted sentences, which contain mordant observations on this American life juxtaposed against a character named "Jason Velveeta." The whole of Gravity's Rainbow, from banana breakfast to the head of a V2 missile touching the roof of a London cinema, is a musical, for heaven's sake.
I wasn't going to write about this movie until more people were able to see it, but I wanted to get these ideas out there, as people are talking about it and are going to talk about it. I'll have more at a future date. I should extend my appreciation to the New York Film Festival for the opportunity to see the movie at such an early date (it comes to theaters on December 12). I think it's great.
I suspect that even people who were very, very far from having been alive in 1963 reacted with some suspicion at the narrative recited by Don Cheadle at last September's Emmy Awards show, the gist of which was that John F. Kennedy's assassination in late-ish November of 1963 cast a pall over the United States that was only lifted when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964. While I think that lay people and historians can certainly agree about some of the pop culture ramifications of the Kennedy assassination—Phil Spector's Christmas album definitely, irrefutably took a hit, likely rendering what was already a dubious mental health picture that much shakier (in an alternate universe in which Kennedy hadn't been shot, would Spector be a free man today? I bet "yes!")—that "Beatles saved America" claim is a real reach. It wasn't until I started researching this post, which I'd merely intended to be about an idea and an emotional resonance, that I put together that this movie, directed by Stanley Kramer and recently released by the Criterion Collection in a remarkable dual-format home video package, happens to land smack-dab in the middle of the fall 1963 timeline of tragedy.
I don't remember ever having seen It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in a theater, although I reckon my parents had, maybe without their two kids—I had turned four in the summer of '63, and my sister Kathleen had turned three, and while my parents frequently took us on their drive-in jaunts, I reckon by November of that year it had gotten a little nippy for outdoor movie viewing and in any event it's possible that World didn't even hit the drive-ins on its initial theatrical run. The only reason I suspect my parents saw it was because it was an immensely popular picture that became the third-biggest box office hit of the year, this in spite of having been released almost at year's end and being three hours long. I remember the Kennedy assassination, or, more specifically, I remember the sense of urgency and upset that gripped all the adults in my world when the Kennedy assassination happened. As for World, as I grew older and grew up and grew into movie-obsessiveness, World was something that was always there: something that the generation before mine had identified as an instant classic, and which I came to look at as a not-particularly peculiar white elephant, as well as an emblem of everything that was "square" in cinema. But it's entirely probable (and maybe this is the seed of an idea that I ought to be pitching to a book publisher or something) that World was the nation's gloom cure rather than Beatlemania. Because aside from featuring a boatload of talents that Young Adult America had grown to love from the television (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, etc., etc.), the movie was also a soak of Old Hollywood comforts ranging from its other leading cast members (Spencer Tracy, Andy Devine, a pre-My Three Sons William Demarest , also etc. etc.) to its production value to its hypertrophied madcapness and so on.
Indeed, as someone who claimed to have never cared for the movie for much of his adult life, and who sincerely believed in that claim without ever feeling the need to subject it to much examination, I was slightly surprised when, watching the Blu-ray disc of the movie for the first time back in January, to find it enveloping me in a warmth that was virtually amniotic. Again, I had no memory of ever having seen it whole (I had caught bits and pieces of it on television over the years, my initial reflexive eye-rolling mutating into a snarkily ironic tolerance mutating into an aghast respect for it as a Unique Cinematic Artifact); nor could I really put my finger on the idea of its having held a truly special place in the consciousnesses of the people dearest to me in my childhood. And yet the movie embraced me in the way that has always made me feel the safest and the happiest. This particular emotional state is located in a pre-sleep state in childhood, tucked into my bed, lying maybe on my side, my hands balled up in little non-threatening fists holding tight to the blanket, the sound of the adults downstairs puttering about, chatting and maybe laughing a bit, the "all is well" place that led me gently into a dream state.
Regardless of the actual "statement" that World aspires to make, in spite of its eccentric cinematic inappositeness (widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals, Fritz Lang said something like that in Contempt; and he obviously had not seen World, else he would have added "car windshields;" Kramer's camera looks into moving car windshields more so than Bela Tarr's camera looks out of them in Satantango, and Tarr's film is twice as long and change), the extradiegetic world it inadvertently presents to the contemporary viewer with enough background to appreciate its signifiers is one in which All Is Right. Spencer Tracy, despite his character's descent into lawlessness, still functions as Spencer Tracy, the gruff but benign face of patriarchy. Buzzing in his periphery (he doesn't actually meet the band until the film's climax) are the kings and queens of comedy of this era, very few of whom made their most significant impacts in the movie realm. But their television fame renders them a little cozier. It scarcely matters if their contributions to the movie are genuinely funny; their presences alone suffice to constitute an axiom, if one is himself or herself in the context to receive it.
The movie bore me into an innocuous past: a past of giant movie palaces, of Cinerama itself, of the Times Square my mother used to speak of where she and some work colleagues could wander into a picture show and stay in there until midnight and then catch the A to the George Washington Bridge for the bus home. A past I not only had no direct experience of but which I had conceptually rejected with extreme prejudice well before I had even heard my first Velvet Underground LP. I was so beguiled that I watched the entire reconstructed 197-minute roadshow version of the movie less than five days later, this time listening to the commentary from Michael Schlesinger, Mark Evanier, and Paul Scrabo. Full disclosure: Michael is an old and dear friend. He is also, not to tell tales out of school, a few years older than me, and hence at least a little more clearly keyed in to World's cultural moment. I have to say, objectively speaking, the commentary is one of the best I've ever heard, affectionate without being fulsome, and incredibly informative. But it is also suffused with a subtextual yearning for an ostensibly less complicated time, and the kind of movie-love expressed by these fine fellows is very much tied to notions of both show business and showmanship that have less and less purchase in the ever-digitizing landscape.
My new-found appreciation for It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World does not, as far as I know at the moment, signal some kind of move toward an aesthetic reactionaryism. It's not like I'm selling all of my Sonic Youth records or anything, although, wait a minute, the first Sonic Youth record came out, like, 33 years ago. It probably means nothing, besides signalling the fact that I'm a human being who's aging, and who, as is not unusual, experiences a certain softening of attitude in the face of encroaching mortality, and in the realization that one's hardened attitude didn't really end up accomplishing a whole lot of good, or of significance. And a few other even less flattering things, maybe.
40 IS a bitch. Man, don’t I know it! I think it was Martin Amis who said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that turning 40 is the most fucked up thing ever for a guy, because it means, for all intents and purposes, that the first half of your life is over, and like, what have you got to show for it, right? You are never going to get that first half back, it’s all downhill from here, you’ve stopped growing, physically, and you’re actually starting to putrefy. You’re on your way to death. Things start going away, right away. In this film about you, Uncle Kent, you start having some problems with your sight—you’ve got to look at certain stuff on paper first farther away, then nearer to you, in order to read. Wow, I’m relatively lucky—I didn’t start getting eye issues when I turned 40, and I still don’t have ‘em, but man, beyond that…well, I gotta admit I was a little surprised and shaken at how much the story told about you in the film Uncle Kent had in common with what I was going through when I turned that age.
The affinities started hitting me pretty early on, as I watched you hunching over your work easel, doing that animation stuff—you apparently work as an animator, whereas I work as a writer, they’re both kinda solitary occupations. And then there was how you live by yourself, and how you drink a lot, and how you smoke a lot of pot, and how you hang out a lot with your cat. See, here’s you, with your cat.
And here’s me, a long time ago, back in my 40s, with my cat.
And my stupid fanboy Akira t-shirt. And my double chin. And my nose hair. Sorry about that. Gosh, how embarrassing.
Now I was never that much of a pot person—until this one period where I got so anxiety-ridden and insomniac that I started smoking it very intently…but I’m getting ahead of myself here—but I definitely had this routine back then of working and drinking and just sort of wallowing in loneliness. And you’re clearly not taking very good care of yourself in other respects. “Check” on that, for me, when I was your age, too. You live in L.A. , so you have a car, and you’re letting that go to shit; I haven’t owned a car in a while (an advantage of a certain mode of urban living, I’d say), but I dare say if I had, well, what’s happening to your car would have happened to mine.
And there’s even more, and here’s where it gets kinda weird!
Full disclosure: at a recent press screening of this motion picture, I laughed so hard and so frequently that I was shushed and chastised by not one, but two, fellow audience members. The first chastiser, a fossilized, overtanned old ninny whose cheekbones reminded me of Reggie Nalder's, hissed (I'm not making this up) "I bet you laughed at Sex and the City 2 too!" Which, as we all know, is a bet he would lose. The second fellow, that pasty, stooped-over hack whose shirts are always conspicuously unironed, who I think works for Bloomberg or something, objected to my "cackling." He was also ready, at one point, to give The New Yorker's Richard Brody some shit for sneezing, but thought better of it. The fucking punk. In any case, the point I need to make, because I am going to be registering some not-insubstantial reservations about this film, is that for all those reservations, it did make me laugh, pretty often, and quite hard, and as Roger Ebert has suggested elsewhere, if a self-proclaimed comedy has succeeded in making you laugh, it's done the most significant part of its job, and you finally cannot deny laughter, as much as you might want to seem above it, or something. (As a for-instance: I laughed my ass off at much of Home Alone the first time I saw it, in 1990, and nothing I can say in the aftermath of its obnoxious cultural iconography, or any perceived moral imperative to hold any Chris Columbus project in contempt, can change that.)
So. All the objections you've probably heard already—that the first fifteen minutes or so fill one with dread that this is going to be yet another film about a single drunk white male with problems, that the last ten minutes take back all the ostensible honesty and frankness and willingness to "go there" that had gone before, and replace it with the absolute worst kind of Hollywoodized "he ain't no delinquent, he's misunderstood/we're all sensitive people, with so much to give" sentimentality, that the female character in this bizarre love triangle between the aforementioned single drunk male, she, and her young adult son, is woefully underdeveloped—all hold. And for all that, the fifty or so minutes of extreme discomfort and postmodern Abbott-and-Costello style back and forth banter—the "Don't fuck my mom. Seriously." bit is genuinely, well, classic—between the film's two poles of not-goodness are, to this viewer's particular sense of humor, both cackle-and-guffaw inducing.
Hence, I'm also inclined to believe that the film is both too worthwhile in its particulars, and at the same time finally too generally inconsequential, to necessarily deserve the insistently well-argued takedown leveled against it by Michael Joshua Rowin at Reverse Shot. The need for the takedown comes from what I believe is the mistaken perception that this film represents something like a world-cinema-historical moment, where "mumblecore" meets "movie stars," or something. Or maybe it's just that there's little else for intelligent cinephiles to talk about this summer. But the historical idea was planted when the picture played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, putting some critical advocates of the 'core on the preemptive defensive.
Writing about the film from the Sundance Film Festival, Karina Longworth mused on how, in a film starring more-or-less well known (and in one case, Oscar-winning!) actors, "the classic Duplass anticipatory zooms take on a whole new level of invasive creepiness." Now the veracity/value of this statement rests in whether or not you buy the idea that the zooms that Cyrus is replete with are genuinely "anticipatory." I don't think they are. What I saw in the film were a lot of perfectly serviceable/banal medium shots and medium closeups that were almost constantly interrupted by a sudden, jerky, lunging-forward in perspective. One second, you're looking at John C. Reilly's face as he's saying something; the next, you're looking at his eyebrow, and contemplating just how little hair it has on it, and wondering why that is. The effect, frankly, was rather like taking a sizable slug of high-proof liquor, and having it come directly back up from your stomach, and just being able to catch it all in your mouth before you projectile-vomited it. (I allow that this is a somewhat specialized analogy.) Hence, I cannot say that I found myself even a bit on board with Longworth's later defense: "You could say that Cyrus looks ugly, but that ugliness is an artifact of a working method." What "working method" is meant here? The method of drinking a shitload of coffee before you pick up your video camera, so that your thumb hits the zoom toggle on the handle at pretty much any goddamn time? Because if you tally up the number of zooms in this picture, and examine the contexts in which they manifest themselves, it becomes pretty clear that they really have no compelling reason for being. Here is an instance of a critical defense in which some specificity would have been mighty welcome. The debate over this issue has extended to Twitter, wherein the aforementioned Richard Brody protests the Self Styled Siren's complaints about the film's "unmotivated zooms" by way of making a few snide asides about cinephiles who love old Hollywood (because the Siren loves Old Hollywood, you see), and citing precedents that I don't see as particularly apropos, e.g., "Tag Gallagher tells excellent story of R[ossellini] inventing remote-control zoom. See Rise of Louis XIV—lots of zooms there." And indeed, there are lots of zooms in Rossellini's film, and many of his others, and they vary as much from the zooms in Cyrus as they do, say, from Jess Franco's zooms into Lina Romay's pubic area in 1973's Female Vampire (a fabulous film in oh so many respects!) or Hong Sang-Soo's largely ineffectual zooms in 2005's Tale of Cinema or, for that matter, Hong Sang-Soo's more carefully deployed zooms in 2008's Night and Day. To object to the hallmark of Cyrus' visual one-hesitates-to-call-it-style does not, I insist, make one a fetishist for Old-Hollywood style cinematic "neatness," nor does it make one a Jeremiah-Prokosch style philistine. Yes, Richard, zooms represent a filmmaker's choice. In Cyrus the zooms are chosen in a way that alienates the viewer with no appreciable aesthetic payoff. I'm not saying this to be a jerkoff; I am genuinely curious as to what Brody thinks the value of these shots are, and what they "mean," besides being expressions of a filmmaker's choice.
And here, you see, we reach the sort of critical mass wherein the arguments about the film become more interesting than the film itself, which inevitably leads to the drive off of the cliff, after which we realize that none of it really was all that interesting, or important, or "important," anyway. In any event, if your sense of humor is anything like mine, you might get a few laughs out of Cyrus, and walking in a few minutes late, and leaving a few minutes early, won't kill you. When it comes down to brass tacks.
The now semi-retired film critic Nathan Lee, when writing at his most unfettered, is one part connoisseur, one part provocateur, one part contrarian, and three parts...well, probably best not to go into that. He's not afraid of passionate advocacy, or of stirring shit up, or of pissing people off. He contains multitudes; witness his most recent defense of director Richard Kelly in Film Comment (not online, alas; it's in the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue), wherein he seems to embrace a "it's-so-bad-it's-good" perspective on the abysmal Southland Tales before going on to castigate its detractors (e.g., the folks who pointed out how bad it was, you see what I'm getting at here) as "mental midgets." When you go back, you realize he's not really embracing a so-bad-it's-good reading of Tales, but something considerably more complex. Something that, as far as I'm concerned, gives Kelly too much credit, and is pretty untenable.
But anyway. My point is, for as many unpleasant exchanges as we might have had, and as irritating I've often found some of his provocations, Lee is both a genuinely sharp writer and what one should consider un vrai critic (in the same sense that Godard pronounced Scorsese's New York, New York "un vrai film"). Which is one reason why I thought it would be worth the time and effort to take his high praise of both 2007's Halloween and 2009's Halloween 2, rethinks of the John-Carpenter-originated 70s horror myth by rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie, seriously.
Now by "high praise," I'm referring to plaudits that have scant prose backup. Lee hasn't written at length about either picture. [UPDATE: This assertion, as Lee reminds us in comments, is incorrect. Lee wrote about Halloween at some length in an article for Film Comment's March/April 2008 issue. Sorry for the error, and for having missed the piece.] The sole testimony to his regard for Halloween 2 is its number two place on his 2009 Ten Best list for indieWire, right between The Headless Woman and Summer Hours, two pictures I myself have a very very great love for. As for Zombie's first Halloween, there's a very brief Village Voice review in which Lee describes the picture as "a biopic, and a superb one at that...every bit as reverent, scrupulous, and deeply felt as any Oscar grubbing horrorshow." One would hope for something more reverent, etc., than an Oscar grubber, but you see his point. In terms of evidentiary support, Lee asks us to consider the film's "strange circumspection, the discipline of tone, the utter lack of snark, the absolute denial of gore-for-gore's sake."
I have to say, Lee is on to something here. Whatever Zombie's talents and/or limitations as a filmmaker, his Halloween is, absolutely, conscientiously determined to respect its material. A near-obsessive student of the horror genre (hell, I used to run into the fellow back when they had the Chiller Theater Expos in East Rutherford before the Meadowlands Hilton...), he's an apt pupil with respect to both visuals and mood. But his style, at its best, is not without humor. I was particularly taken by the hilariously overdetermined horizontal planes (see almost any widescreen Italian horror flick from the '70s) and the blown-out lighting (see, of course, Kubrick's The Shining) in the shot at top, in which Malcolm McDowell's Dr. Loomis examines young family-killer Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch). As for the actual content, well, the specifics of young Mr. Myers' family situation do tend to lay on the white-trash histrionics pretty thick (and one suspects that Mr. Zombie learned most of what he knows about white trash from watching Spider Baby and such), but the scenario itself is not unconvincing and is conveyed with genuine verve. So much so that the viewer can actually feel Zombie's interest level dropping at the point wherein he's obliged to explicitly revisit the Carpenter original.
In the fear that the foul mood in which I first saw Where The Wild Things Are unduly colored my perception of the film, and in the spirit of fair play and all that, I went and plunked down my twelve bucks whilst in a better mood and saw the big-budget art film again. The results, which do not include any kind of Road-to-Damascus moment, are chronicled over at The Auteurs'.