WRB—May 2023 Film Supplement
Rohmer for Presbyterians
I don’t read novels. I prefer the Washington Review of Books. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as Chris McCaffery’s thinking.
[With this being the fourth installment of the WRB Film Supplement, I think it’s an appropriate time to ask you, our readers, for feedback on what you like and what you want as I continue experimenting. For example, we have a completely new format this month for Movies across the decades, and you can let us know what you think about that. But maybe you want longer reviews of what’s in theaters, or you want them to come out more often, or you want star ratings with them. Or you want me to come up with a better way of indicating that I recommend a movie than saying “Watch this one” at the end of the review. Or you want more coverage of something in the world of film. Or you want more lengthy essays (from me or otherwise). Or you want me, once fall rolls around, to forsake film for what is actually the most interesting thing you can see on a screen, college football. Or you want something I haven’t even considered.
No matter what you want from the WRB Film Supplement, send your comments to the Managing Editors at email@example.com. They and I will appreciate it. —Steve] [Yup. —Chris]
In the WSJ, Ted Rall on the decline of the DVD and streaming’s current failure to preserve the history of the art form:
Film buffs wonder how three-quarters of all silent films—including more than 90% of those made before 1929—could be gone forever, or how every title released by 20th Century Fox before 1932 was lost in a studio-vault fire. How could our ancestors have been so careless and disrespectful to our cultural patrimony?
Many of the movies disappearing from national consciousness were popular, important and critically acclaimed. In 2018 the film-data researcher Stephen Follows tracked the availability of the 100 top-grossing films from 1970 to 2017. Those released in the most recent decade were available via streaming, digital renting or purchase. As Mr. Follows worked back in time, however, movies became hard to find commercially. Just half of top-grossing films from the early 1970s could be streamed. Older, less profitable, experimental and independent works hardly streamed at all.
And in Vice, Aaron Gordon bids Netflix DVDs adieu:
By 2013, my Netflix DVDs were going to Trenton, New Jersey and I’d get a fresh disc within 48 hours of returning mine. I could sign up for the two-disc plan for about $10 a month and always have a movie to watch, or the three-disc plan for a few bucks more and usually have two. And they had every movie. I was living in a major metro area making about $40,000 a year, but I could pull up a website and order almost any movie I could think of to appear at my door for about $10 a month.
[We used to be a proper country. —Steve]
In the NYT, Devika Girish celebrates the 100th birthday of 16mm film:
When projected on the screen, analog film has a three-dimensional, pointillist texture called “grain,” a product of its synthetic makeup. There is more grain in 16 millimeter than in 35 millimeter, resulting in a fuzzier, flickering picture. In the 20th century, that was a drawback for professional filmmakers seeking crisp, theatrical images. But today, as high-definition media saturate our lives, some directors choose 16 millimeter precisely for its rougher look. It reminds us that what we’re watching is not the world as is, but filtered and transformed, with great creativity, through a chemical process.
For Sidecar (the New Left Review blog), Anton Jäger on what the discourse about Tàr (2022) says about the culture doing the discourse:
At that time, the subaltern classes could still look up to the most ennobling elements in Western culture. Highbrow composers were writing popular musicals and introducing TV-viewers to Wagner. Harold Rosenberg famously derided Bernstein as an embodiment of the kitsch implicit in all pop culture – yet, in a typically contemporary reversal, the kitsch of 1958 has morphed into the haute culture of 2022. Today’s bourgeoisie has not only shut its gates but dynamited the fortress itself. The students in Lydia’s Julliard class represent a ruling caste that grew up watching Marvel movies and Disney Plus: a cohort that can no longer honour the supposed ideals of their social stratum. To them, Beethoven is a dead white man; Bach a misogynist. In this new conjuncture, Bernstein represents a lost world – a fusion of high and low that was fleetingly possible in the post-war period and has now vanished forever.
[This is a Tár newsletter. —Steve]
In The Bulwark, Bill Ryan on the Coen brothers’ artistic separation:
One gets the feeling that some of this cynicism comes from the hangover they’re still suffering from, following the collapse of their dream project, To the White Sea, based on James Dickey’s novel. This all went down in the late ’90s/early 2000s. The nature of that novel meant that the film would be nearly dialogue-free, very dark in tone, and breathtakingly violent. When No Country for Old Men came out, I wondered if this was the Coens’ way of wooing somebody to finance a second go at To the White Sea. If they can turn that material into a successful picture, why not To the White Sea, which was set to star Brad Pitt? Anyway, it didn’t happen. So what good is being part of the establishment?
In Vox, two from:
On the recent wave of movies about making business deals:
Interestingly, these movies don’t bother doing what they might have done, had they been made in the era in which they’re set: insist on some romance subplot, or spend the whole movie trying to convince us our main characters are doing this because they’re estranged fathers. (There are whiffs of that here and there — Tetris’s Rogers is married and has kids, Bateman talks about spending time with his daughter on the weekend — but it’s never the main plot.) Instead, the stakes are all about the deal, and the movie makes you care. Its closest cousin is the sports movie, underdog against Goliath. Nobody’s truly a villain; “winning” means your company gets what it wants, which is less like saving the human race and more like being able to buy a really nice car. We’re rooting for them to make a lot of money.
On the role AI will play in the looming Hollywood writers’ strike:
As a writer (and a member of the WGA myself, though not the division that works for the MBA), I am concerned about AI’s potential. Maybe it’s my philosophical commitments, but I don’t expect the tools to ever turn out something as good as what a real human writer can achieve. I don’t think AI is going to be able to write Everything Everywhere All at Once, or Tar, or Succession. At best, it will be an okay imitation of things that humans have already written.
But here is the thing: Cheap imitations of good things are what power the entertainment industry. Audiences have shown themselves more than happy to gobble up the same dreck over and over, and get big mad when presented with something confusing or challenging. And labor agreements are only as good as the people who keep them.
In Tank Magazine,on 12 Monkeys (1995) and its depictions of the researcher and the 1990s:
This is not the least of 12 Monkeys’ discoveries: to have invented a deepening, ramifying arc of relation between a man and a woman that does not have sex as its endpoint, nor would resolve itself if it did. The almost exception, the brief, half-abashed kiss when they are in disguise at the fatal airport terminal seems to proceed from an uncertainty at what is now between them. If theirs is no longer a relation of doctor and patient, what is it? Their costumes provide a script, but no key to decipher the link between this make-believe and whatever might be taking shape beneath it. The echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which Railly and Cole catch at the movie theatre where they duck in to put on their disguises shine at best a partial light on the film’s central dynamic, which is not about a woman exploiting a man’s propensity toward guilty erotic fantasy, but rather about a woman – a psychiatrist – charged with dispelling fantasies who finds herself, ultimately against the resistance of her subject, drawn to believe in and enact them.
In Artforum, Jackson Arn on the cinematography of Agnès Godard:
Loneliness is one of the hardest things for the movies to get right. Visually, the easiest way to convey it is with smallness, and the easiest way to convey smallness is to contrast it with bigness, which runs the risk of seeming too grandiose. Think of Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti, dwarfed by nature and architecture at the end of L’Avventura—sublime, sure, but not like any loneliness I’ve ever known. Operatic cinematography drowns out the personal instead of accentuating it. Godard may insist she doesn’t think in terms of shots, but if I had to stake her greatness on a single one, I’d choose the final seconds of 35 Shots of Rum, in which Descas’s character, having said goodbye to the daughter he loves more than life, finds himself the owner of one rice cooker more than he needs. This won’t sound like much if you haven’t seen the film, and in fact the not-muchness of what’s in the frame is the most overwhelming thing about it. As precise as she is sentimental, Godard leaves you with a loneliness only millimeters removed from warmth, a feeling you can almost hold with your hands—not an opera but a long, hot sigh.
In Engelsberg Ideas, Agnès Poirier on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993) and its elegiac atmosphere:
The real force of the film lies not in its plot but in its peculiar atmosphere, a beguiling mix of loss, grief, love, fate, expressed in the characters’ choices and in the décor around them, in this case the Paris of the early 1990s. Binoche, with her gamine haircut à la Louise Brooks, is what binds it all together. Her face, both angelic and inscrutable, is spellbinding. Her habit of starting the day at her local café, with a coffee that she pours over an ice cream, her way of lighting a cigarette, her friendship with her neighbour, a young prostitute wearing ballet flats and no make-up, and of course her solitary swimming sessions at the Rue de Pontoise pool, a listed art-déco gem, make Blue one of those cultish moody Parisian films.
In Heatmap, Jeva Lange on How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023) as an attempt to imagine a leftist movement not riven by infighting:
Once it does, the relative harmony is also well-researched. “We wanted to tell a story that was aspirational … where the group doesn’t fall apart and doesn’t fall victim to infighting,” Goldhaber said. “We’d actually been given some pointers by some people who do engage with direct action movements about what it takes to really successfully build a group like that.” Malm likewise stresses in Pipeline that heterogeneity of thought, while necessary for progress, makes movements vulnerable to “internal tensions” — a reality, however, that “no movement that has altered the course of history" has avoided.
The Criterion Collection has a new selection of erotic thrillers out. In Current, its online magazine, Beatrice Loayza on the politics of those erotic thrillers:
In erotic thrillers, charges of rape and domestic violence are usually revealed to be the manipulations of wicked women. Like the postwar femme fatale, these characters are too smart and too attractive for their own good, making them criminals particularly well suited to an era characterized by a sharp increase in wounded male egos. This trope of mendacious women is rooted in an alarmist reaction to feminist gains. In the eighties, the good old days of horny-bastard-style seduction (i.e., harassment) seemed to be under attack, and many men feared that feminists, hellbent on social climbing, could cry wolf and accuse anyone, guilty or not, of foul play. If the subservient housewife is the good woman behind the great man, the late-twentieth-century femme fatale is the destroyer of worlds—a bank robber, home invader, and defamer packed into a body propped up by stilettos.
[I thought this was a family publication? —Chris]
I’ll never forget taking Lea to a screening of Totoro in Toronto last year when—to my embarrassment and horror—I realized too late that the film was being presented in a subtitled version. Nobody else in the theater was under 10, but Lea, who was 5 at the time, sat happily ignoring the subtitles. She knew the sentences by heart, and, as she told me quietly under her breath as the lights went down, “the words don’t really matter.” As the film went on, frame after gorgeous frame, forest paths extending in all directions beneath swaying trees and cloudless skies, I realized not only that I couldn’t have said it better myself, but also that I didn’t need to. Some movies demand our eloquence; the greatest ones transcend it.
In The New Yorker, Rachel Syme reviews a book by Stuart Klawans on Preston Sturges (Crooked, but Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges, January):
If Klawans stumbles, it’s because, for all his trenchant analysis, he veers too often into deep-dish territory. There is a moral impulse to put Sturges in context, to show how the church scenes in “Sullivan’s Travels” relate to the religious fervor of the day, or to reveal how the work-camp scene comments on the Roosevelt Administration. These readings aren’t wrong, but they favor the message over the fun. In fact, upon rewatching Sturges, one realizes that most movies today do the same. Oscars are still awarded largely to solemn, neatly packaged studies of social issues; blockbusters, straining to cater to everyone, forgo invention, idiosyncrasy, and the tang of irony. Even Sturges felt the market contracting for sophisticated, elegant comedies: “Efforts to make all motion picture plays suitable to all ages from the cradle to the grave have so emasculated, Comstocked and bowdlerized this wonderful form of theatre that many adults have been driven away from it entirely.” We live in an age of slickness and hypocrisy, fake news and extreme wealth. Sturges would likely look around and see a lot of fodder for a good script.
In Dirt, Terry Nyugen reviews Amanda Kim’s documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (2023):
Walking out of the theater, I realized another irony of Paik’s life. The arc of his artistic career looks a lot like the American Dream. Paik must have recognized this. He might be mentioned as a Korean artist, but Paik trafficked in American images and icons. It’s not a demonstration of patriotism, but a side effect of the US-dominated media landscape. “When I was growing up … Shirley Temple was the first name to register on my pre-kindergarten brain,” Paik wrote of his early life. He collaborated widely, perhaps in an effort to offset the Western influence. His work is a melting pot, a mishmash of influences.
In Slate, Dan Kois interviews Kelly Reichardt about her latest film, Showing Up (2023), and the process of teaching:
A lot of film has to do with time. Are you getting into the nitty gritty of someone’s day, or are you spending your two hours telling a life story? Those are like different trucks, right? But all the actors get to dig in, and nothing has to be too summed up, because we’re not covering a huge expanse of time. Usually it’s, like, a two-week window of someone’s life.
In Reverse Shot, Leonardo Gol interviews Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, directors of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2023):
Well, to be quick about it, as far as medics and patients are concerned, we were very surprised by how welcoming and ready to be filmed they were. Not to generalize here, but the doctors themselves were often very exhausted. They work extremely hard. Their lives are super routinized, ritualistic, repetitive. Surgeons especially are very macho. They’re like alpha males, near-godlike figures who are used to be all-powerful. And for them to suddenly turn into objects of this alien anthropological gaze coming from another country—they were intrigued by that, not scared. They would look at us and go, “Okay, let’s see what they can do.” Sometimes they’d make jokes about our work. “We’re your tribe. You’re anthropologists, and we’re your tribe.” Sometimes they’d introduce us to other colleagues, grant us access to different wards and people. And the patients themselves were just as welcoming.
In Vulture, Rafael Motamayor interviews Makoto Shinkai, director of Suzume (2023):
For Suzume, I wanted to do a movie that felt different from what I have done before, so I decided to make a road-trip movie. The closing of the different doors gave me an opportunity to explore all these different places across Japan, to go from Kyushu in the south to Ehime, then east to Tokushima to Tokyo, before finally traveling to Tōhoku, the site of the earthquake. Because I knew we would end in Tōhoku, it had to be darker and more serious than something like Weathering With You.
As we visit all these abandoned places, we also feel the people who once lived there, and Suzume and Sōta mourn them, so we don’t forget that these are more than just buildings, but places where people lived. Japan is full of abandoned places, houses, and buildings, and it is not just because of natural disasters but the population decline and people moving to the big cities, too.
Ridley Scott’s upcoming Napoleon (2023) will get a theatrical release in November before going on Apple TV+.
Dexter Fletcher on making a movie for streaming: “I thought it was great, this three-minute opening scene, and they said you can’t do it because if it [the opening sequence] goes on and something doesn’t happen in the first 30 seconds, we know the data shows that people will just turn off.”
In New York they put together the feast from Babette’s Feast (1987).
The classical music world has opinions about Bradley Cooper’s upcoming Netflix movie about Leonard Bernstein.
Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for your contributions to the ongoing conversation about revising old stuff.
“l’elevated horror (ou « horreur gentrifiée »)” [Ouch. —Steve]
Maybe they’ll start adapting books as TV shows instead of movies.
[Faun’s flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint’s vision.
We have TV for wafer;
Streaming for circumcision. —Steve]
Currently in theaters:
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (dir. Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, April 5):
Mario and Luigi do not have offensive Italian accents throughout, so this movie has no reason to exist. There is maybe one passable idea (Bowser as something like a member of Kiss) amid the constant lazy references to the video games. Congratulations to Anya Taylor-Joy on achieving new heights in phoning in voice work.
Paint (dir. Brit McAdams, April 7):
Using Vermont as a stand-in for the world is a wonderful idea. Vermont is one of the loveliest parts of the world. Like the world, it combines universality with insularity.1 The world is a big stage, though, and Vermont a tiny one: that makes no difference to the size of the human emotions. Fame can go to the head of worldwide celebrities: it can go to the head of Carl Nargle, a Bob Ross-style guy whose painting show on Burlington PBS has a fan base and who is incensed that they would bring in a younger artist to do a similar show.
This is the kind of movie Wes Anderson used to be able to make before he became unable to do anything but self-parody. It even has Owen Wilson starring in it. All the mannered elements and the goofy bits are in the service of a narrative about a broken man and the damage he does to himself and those around him, the depths of his neediness and his desire for what he denies himself. He even paints the same thing over and over again, his art perverted into a means by which his failures and his pathetic self-aggrandizement feed off each other. [Perhaps this too is commentary on Wes Anderson. If so he should pack up and go home. —Steve]
The critics have generally not been enthusiastic, and it’s easy to see why—the ending is quite a bit weaker than the rest, there is quite a bit of interchangeability to all the women at the station that Nargle has seduced and then discarded over the years, as if they were not fully sketched out (the interchangeability is the point, though, in the same way that he’s been painting Mount Mansfield over and over for two decades), and some of the goofy bits are just dumb. But these are small against the excellence of Wilson’s portrayal of a man, one whose arrogance and self-hatred have completely merged, struggling to escape what he has done to himself. Watch this one.
Air (dir. Ben Affleck, April 5):
Competently done. Nothing more and nothing less. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck can play these characters in their sleep and probably did.
[We have a Jordan oversaturation, and I blame The Last Dance (2020). America is interested in Michael Jordan. America is rather less interested in some guys who signed him to a shoe deal once. And what is most interesting about Jordan is not at all shared with those around him: his interior world, built up entirely of slights that everyone else has forgotten driving him to prove them all wrong. Who else would have used his Hall of Fame induction speech to attack everyone he has ever thought disrespected him? That he is also the greatest to ever do it makes him like Captain Ahab, a Shakespearean figure almost. It seems like he is very easy to understand and yet he is one of the most fascinating people alive. The Nike basketball department shares in none of this.
For a better two hours or so about Jordan, watch Jon Bois’s The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts (2022). —Steve]
Renfield (dir. Chris McKay, April 14):
Everything good in this movie comes from providing Nicolas Cage the opportunity to really camp it up as Dracula, and Nicholas Hoult is a worthy sparring partner as Renfield in their exchanges. But it lapses far too frequently into being a generic superhero movie, both in insipid musings about the nature of heroism and “well, that just happened”-style voiceover and dialogue. The side plot about the mob and police corruption adds nothing. There were some good ideas—Dracula in the modern world is a good idea, Renfield being in a toxic relationship with Dracula is a good idea—but the movie doesn’t exploit them to their fullest.
[There were a couple moments early on that made me think that this was going to be a “Rich People Behaving Badly” movie, and, despite my complaints about that genre, Dracula would be great material for it. It’s at least a little surprising that we haven’t gotten a great modern Dracula movie recently: what is the novel about other than a rich guy literally sucking the life out of everyone around him and a bunch of men creating massive problems for themselves by infantilizing and not listening to women? It’s all right there. —Steve]
Suzume (dir. Makoto Shinkai, April 14):
Sweet and sad in a way that few bildungsromans are, especially those in which the protagonist learns that she has a supernatural gift. The animation looks great more or less throughout (the scenes over Tokyo look weirdly bad, the world of the dead/world-underneath-the-world is convincing, and when Suzume rides her bike over the hill it’s just showing off how good it looks). As a meditation on the connection between the land and the people who live on it it has plenty of negative capability, willing to go wherever the cause in-movie of natural disasters takes it. It’s not perfect here—it doesn’t explain everything well about how the supernatural powers that cause and restrain the earthquakes work, which allows them to be beyond human comprehension but also makes some plot points a little confusing. But the connections it offers between the living and the dead and its idea that, whether caused by natural disasters or depopulation, towns and cities dying out is an evil in itself that opens the world up to yet more evil, are fascinating.
There is a romantic element here but it’s subdued: it gets the plot going, but the relationship between Suzume and the aunt who has been raising her after the death of her mother is just as important. At the end this movie takes a massive emotional swing. It earns it, and it nails it. Watch this one.
Mafia Mamma (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, April 14):
Very bad. Aimed at middle-aged women. Desperately horny. Desperate for white ethnic identity to provide meaning. [But enough about Nassau County! Folks! —Steve]
Beau is Afraid (dir. Ari Aster, April 14):
Two hours and fifty-nine minutes2 of pop-Freudian nightmare (less pejorative than it sounds, but still pejorative). For a movie that wants to explore the subconscious it never quite gets to that eerie dream-logic: too much feels forced, and too much is heavy-handed. The couple obviously trying to make Beau into a replacement for their dead son is the clearest example of that. Portions of this movie do manage to feel as if they come right out of Beau’s fears, and portions are very funny in the way pop-Freudianism can be, or in the bizarre way something like After Hours (1985) is, but only at the ending do both combine seamlessly. The rest of the movie is basically a total failure at managing that combination. It’s probably the most interesting failure of the year so far, and that’s worth something, but only so much.
[To be blunt about it: when you portray a character’s father on screen as a giant phallic monster with a proportionally small penis and large scrotum, I’m going to give it a sensible chuckle, because that’s funny. I’m not going to think that it works as an exploration of the human psyche. —Steve]
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (dir. Guy Ritchie, April 21):
This movie makes Afghanistan look stunningly beautiful, if also very dusty.
Good on Guy Ritchie for using this to bring awareness to the fates of the interpreters America left behind in Afghanistan. It’s better as that than it is as a movie. The opening, showing the war as mostly waiting around doing nothing much, conveys the feeling well, and the interpreter Ahmed carrying a half-dead Sgt. Kinley out of the Taliban’s territory is both breathtaking visually and a poignant display of friendship and sacrifice. (So much so that the movie, impressed with itself, shows it a second time through the memories of a somewhat conscious Kinley repeatedly given opium for his pain throughout.) The action scenes let it down, rote and uninspired and losing any semblance of the human touch.
[In his review Sonny Bunch mentions Stanley Kubrick’s critique of Schindler’s List (1993): “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.” Something similar does apply here, especially since this is not a true story. Whatever its intentions, it’s a form of wishcasting, of letting audiences pretend for two hours that things went differently, and so is at least a little dishonest. —Steve]
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (dir. Daniel Goldhaber, April 7):
This movie makes West Texas look stunningly beautiful, if also very dusty.
It’s The Breakfast Club (1985) but they blow up a pipeline. The attempts at bringing the characters to life are hit or miss, frequently confusing giving its characters political journeys or reasons to be mad at the oil industry—or just stereotypes—with giving them personalities. To be fair, it does well enough that it avoids the feeling that various races, socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds, &c. are merely being checked off. They feel like people, just very thinly sketched out ones. It is possible to care about them on account of their suffering, but not because the movie does a particularly good job binding viewers to them on any other grounds. The scene that gives the most insight into them as people and in which their personalities come through most has them debating after a few drinks whether what they are doing constitutes terrorism: but this is explicitly about how the characters see themselves politically. As a heist movie, concerned with the work of the team to make, place, and detonate the bombs while evading the authorities, it works much better, since it lets the story and the stakes speak for themselves.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig, April 28):
[I have never read the book on which this is based. The women in my life will tell you better than I can that I have missed several classics of literature for girls and women. And I have never been a part of the target demographic.
All that to say that bust size and menarche, while big parts of this movie, were not big parts of my childhood. The general vibe of wanting to be adult and mature while being very bad at it does resonate, though. (Even if the movie somewhat undermines this by getting much better performances from the child actors than the adult actors.) If the book is anything like the movie I can see why this is a cultural touchstone.
Because work on this month’s Movies across the decades has poisoned my brain I want to call this Stillmanesque, only mostly as a joke. It is a love letter to a time and place that no longer exists that takes special care with the ephemera, luxuriating in somewhere around 1970 and its music (great), its fashion (sure), and its interior design (questionable). It is incredibly funny and derives most of its humor from silly attempts of young people to try to be something they’re not. And underpinning it all is a confident form of mid-century liberalism that no longer exists—we learn no one religion has a total monopoly on God, but God is definitely out there. In any case, this is very charming and very fun even if you’re not a teenage girl, and, if you are, maybe it will mean more to you than it does me. Watch this one. —Steve]
Sisu (dir. Jalmari Helander, April 28):
Incredibly simple. A man finds gold. Some Nazis want to take it from him. He John Wicks them, and in gruesome ways. (The action work is, even if not quite up to the standards of that franchise, good and bloody and visceral, not just in the ways the Nazis get killed but in the physical punishment the hero takes and the pain he endures while bandaging himself up.) Like Wick’s, his suffering becomes increasingly brutal as the movie goes on, and one of the first things the Nazis do is shoot his dog, which has to be homage to that franchise. Everything you could ever want in an action movie.
The one false note comes from the Nazis’ comfort women. Letting them get in on the killing spree is great: giving one of them a monologue explaining the concept of sisu, a Finnish word meaning something like stoic determination, that drives the hero and informing the Nazis that they are all going to die is not. The audience already knows these things, since at that point they have seen two-thirds of the movie, full of sisu and Nazis dying. (Sisu was also explained at the beginning with a card, so there was really no need to explain it again.) But that’s a quibble. Watch this one.
Polite Society (dir. Nida Manzoor, April 28):
It feels like Manzoor, who was also the writer, got the chance to make her first feature film and threw every idea she’s ever had for a movie into it, and in Priya Kansara she has a Movie Star as protagonist to make it happen. And one who did a lot of her own stunts—Manzoor called her “the next Tom Cruise”. At various points this is British school, James Bond, wire-fu, Bollywood, Monty Python, Tarantino, Jane Austen adaptation, Busby Berkeley, science fiction, horror, whatever genre gave us Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and a few other things besides. It never quite comes together, but it also never feels forced, and each individual piece works on its own terms—that long list above is a list of things Manzoor clearly likes and that have influenced her. These are influences she is drawing on, not objects to be lazily referenced so the audience can enjoy recognizing something.
In other words, despite also being about an Asian (Pakistani, in this case) family in the West, this is not at all Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). The story at its heart, about a girl trying to save her older sister from entering into a bad marriage to the bafflement and horror of her family, would work even without all the genre trappings. The commentary on this and on the insular world of upper middle class to fabulously wealthy Pakistanis in London it depicts (a stunning number of ideas are introduced in just 104 minutes) is uneven. The older sister being an art school dropout goes nowhere, as does the protagonist’s desire to be a stuntwoman beyond explaining why she can do what she does in the fight scenes. Some of the more minor ideas, such as parental expectations, the incredible influence of his mother over the prospective bridegroom, and a truly hilarious scene in which the protagonist’s father describes the advantages of arranged marriage exclusively in the terms of business and finance, work much better. But basically everything happening on screen is a lot of fun, whatever its other merits. Watch this one.
[At the showing of this I went to, the theater didn’t turn down the lights until someone went out to tell them to. AMC, look, I am out here trying to promote seeing movies in theaters—stop making me look bad. —Steve]
If I were to submit an article for inclusion in the next inevitable book on philosophy in The Big Lebowski, and the article’s title was “Aesthetic Freedom in Adorno and The Big Lebowski,” the editor, seeing the title, would surely start thinking of the Dude: “Yes… the Dude …aesthetic freedom…nice.” But it wasn’t the Dude who made me think those excited thoughts when I saw The Big Lebowski in 1998. It was Walter. Walter was negating narrative time in the detective plot with his prolonged and senseless yelling. Walter was carving out autonomous zones in the movie’s logic, where an alternative logic applied. And, once the thrill of philosophical recognition cleared away, my response to these moments of aesthetic freedom was the same as the Dude’s when Walter chides him about his “negative energy” at the bowling alley: “Fuck you, Walter.”
[I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this piece because, like everyone who has ever watched The Big Lebowski as a 17-year-old boy, I have a great love for the movie. And the portions of this essay on the movie as Lynchian vision where a character is drawn into a world where nothing makes any sense after being confused with a man who shares his name are excellent. Things do go off the rails from there, though. I will note, first, that exposure to aging hippies (or ex-hippies) would have informed the writer that they are all like the Dude in claiming to abide, or take it easy, or words to that effect, while doing the exact opposite most of the time.
I will also note, more importantly, that, although I agree that Walter Sobchak would not be particularly pleasant to be around in real life, we are watching a movie, and he is very funny in the context of the movie. Even if we suppose instead that he is not funny but annoying, jumping from saying a character is unpleasant as a person (not that the character is somehow flawed as a character, i.e. poorly written, acted, and so on) to saying that the movie is therefore flawed is somewhere between very difficult and impossible to justify as criticism.
And in what world do detective movies move neatly, cleanly, and logically? —Steve]
In Ran, Kurosawa helps Japan understand itself, using the universal truths of King Lear to shed light on the particular qualities of Japanese culture. Ran’s conclusion—depicting the destruction that results when Japan abandons its traditional virtues—is bleak. Everything lies in ruins, our heroes either dead or despairing. Good and bad alike have been abandoned by the gods. Yet the positive qualities of a nation’s character can shine light on the path to a better future, as the code of the samurai did during Japan’s Sengoku Jidai. Perhaps Japan will overcome its recent pathologies by an even deeper embrace of giri [a set of duties and social obligations woven into Japanese culture] that expands the scope of duty beyond family and clan to the nation itself.
[There is at best an infelicitous phrase in the first sentence I quote, and at worst a confusion inherent in suggesting that King Lear has a universality which Ran needs to adapt to the culture of Japan. King Lear, while universal in the way that all great works of art are universal, is still particularly English, and even more particularly addresses questions of kingship and government that were relevant in the time and place the play was first performed. Because Japan is in some senses very Western and in other senses not at all, it frequently plays the role of a kind of philosophical experiment, a place invented to make a point, discussion of which aims not so much to understand it on its own terms but to use it as a mirror. Sentences like “But the continuity of culture has also helped Japan adapt its traditional values to a dynamic, capitalist economy. A nation that understands itself—especially its virtues—can adapt without losing its distinctiveness.” contain an implicit comparison to the West and a suggested course of action for it. It is perfectly reasonable to do this, but that it is being done should be acknowledged. You might as well talk about Atlantis, which, I have been informed, is a powerful island country that once fought a war against the place in which we are having this discussion. I wonder what the Atlantean King Lear would have to say to us. —Steve]
Armond White claims that Bruce Springsteen’s “former working-class empathy and folksy/Oakie affectations turned into elitist condescension”.
[As if Springsteen’s music having politics is something new. It’s a shame that the mask of the right-wing pro wrestling character (Nic gave me this phrase) he now plays has completely eaten his face. I’ve read a lot of sentences in my life, and “Her fluttering ‘woahs’ sound pathetic, whispering like Biden when he attempts to convince listeners of his stealth” is one of the worst. His film criticism from a while ago still holds up—even if he was being willfully perverse much of the time, he had interesting things to say to justify it. That’s all gone now. It’s sad. —Steve]
Movies across the decades:
Whit Stillman (“Doomed Bourgeois in Love” Trilogy)
Éric Rohmer (Tales of the Four Seasons, Six Moral Tales)
[To spare me from having to write another 5,000-word essay, we instead have for you a series of capsule reviews written by me, your film supplement editor, followed by discussion with me and our Managing Editors about each movie. We hope you enjoy. —Steve]
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