WRB—Nov. 2023 Film Supplement
the last great American dynasty
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Managing Editor of the Washington Review of Books. To me, being a Managing Editor of the Washington Review of Books was better than being president of the United States.
Since much of this newsletter will be devoted to a 206-minute movie, let’s start at the other end withhoping that Wes Anderson’s short films for Netflix will lead to an audience for short films on streaming in Vox:
There’s something uniquely pleasurable about watching a tight, elegant short that’s exactly the length it needs to be, not inflated to an arbitrary length. Topics that would be brutal at full length (palliative care, for instance, as in the 2019 Oscar-nominated End Game) are not just bearable but moving at 40 minutes. Jokes and punchlines land perfectly in shorts, without requiring a lot of exposition or character development. (Those of us raised on Pixar shorts know this well.) Short films give filmmakers permission to take risks and play, in part because the audience might tolerate experimentation or frustration better if they know it won’t take up their whole afternoon.
Two on Robert Bresson:
Greg Gerke in The Smart Set:
The ending of the final three films each says: “Think about what has just happened.” They don’t encourage judgment, just present the evidence, freeing the viewer to take what she will—this kind of emboldening and ennobling (Bresson’s “presence of God”) may stymie the viewer and produce a foreign, not necessarily redacted, experience, something so far afield from how most filmmakers move in didactic, even if they feel they aren’t. This is a tragedy without the usual ungainly recourses to spectator involvement—in Bresson, the spectator’s neck is at knifepoint the whole while, their process of weighing the images of death and suicide in the films will say more about themselves than Bresson certainly could.
Robert B. Pippin in Liberties:
The cinematic technique expresses a philosophical commitment: a depiction of ordinary life which is characterized by a kind of self-forgetfulness, self-opacity, hierarchies of mattering that are not driven by reflective attitudes about what ought to matter, or even what actually does matters to one, but which rather seem to be inheritances of a common world that narrowly limits what could matter, even if that possibility is foreclosed, failed. Instead of appealing to expressivity, whether in language or even in intonation, facial expressions, and so forth, Bresson portrays what would normally be considered the attitudes and the desires of characters in an “external” way, as if those supposed “inner” states are actual only externally, in the public world that we see. “Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.) The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” Most often this is available only in what they do, although any access, for them and for the viewer, to why they do what they do, to their intentions, seems often, especially in critical, life-altering situations, unavailable.
As a kind of connection of the Bresson above to the Scorsese roundup below, Robert Rubsam on Paul Schrader’s preoccupations in The Baffler:
Schrader has always shown an interest in occupations—an interest he shares with Bresson, that master of close-up handiwork. His characters act out philosophical problems via their professions, as if they might resolve the question of who they are through what they do. American Gigolo’s (1980) Julian Kaye believes his ability to give women pleasure exceeds the bounds of the law. In Raging Bull (1980), Jake LaMotta tries to bludgeon life into submission, or at least to withstand the blows. In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Yukio Mishima attempts to resolve his debilities, his sexuality, his patriotism through his art, iterating a series of self-reinventions that fuse in the figure of the warrior. Many of Schrader’s men are insomniacs, driving all night to deliver people and drugs. These are people who know that they are not good, and only sometimes realize that they have to try.
Martin Scorsese roundup: Killers of the Flower Moon (October 20):
- , The Bulwark:
Ty Mitchell, Tommy Schultz, and Louis Cancelmi all play guys who get wrapped up in Hale’s schemes, and their characters really embody the film’s Idiot Crime Epic aesthetic. Between Schultz’s dull-eyed Blackie Thompson arguing with Ernest over whether Ernest gave him twenty bucks or a buck fifty for stealing his car in furtherance of insurance fraud or Cancelmi’s wide-eyed Kelsie Morrison asking a lawyer if he would get his adopted Osage children’s oil rights should they die—prompting the lawyer to tell him to his face that he suspects Morrison of planning their murder, only to have Morrison assure the lawyer that he won’t go through with it if there’s no money in it—their laugh-out-loud stupidity really drives home the picture’s point.
David Klion, TNR:
There’s no vanity in De Niro’s or DiCaprio’s performance; they are loathsome, petty, and thoroughly unworthy of the people whose trust they are betraying. A memorable and morbidly funny scene in a Masonic lodge has De Niro punishing DiCaprio for an ill-considered insurance scam by bending him over an altar and brutally spanking him with a wooden plank. It’s simultaneously abusive and undignified. Men like this, Scorsese seems to be saying, created the paved-over and petit-bourgeois country we now live in.
Jorge Cotte, The Nation:
Inhumanity is everywhere else in Killers of the Flower Moon. Bodies accumulate; the loss of life begins to feel unstoppable. Corpses are arranged for funerary services and shot with Petzval lenses, blurring dramatically at the edges, as if they are already entered into the history books. Time starts to blur too. How much time passes from one death to the next? In one scene, we see Hale accost a man who sports a black eye. The man who imparted the black eye is long dead at that point, so we are left wondering when was that assault and when was the assassination? The violence muddles the chronology as more death and panic prevail.
Adam Nayman, The Ringer:
There’s a wrenching scene in which Ernest tries, with his limited powers of articulation and intellect, to embed a lie in something true—to convince Mollie that the medicine he’s giving her is the only thing that will save her life, without, of course, mentioning the poison he’s been adding to the dosage to keep her docile en route to her inevitable dispatching. It’s a pulse-pounding gaslighting scenario right out of Hitchcock—specifically, 1946’s Notorious—and yet instead of playing it for pastiche, Scorsese opts for an agonizing realism that does not preclude two terrible possibilities. One, that Ernest truly loves his wife, though not enough to stop hurting her; and two, that Mollie understands what’s happening to her and is too heartbroken to fight back.
Joseph Joyce, Angelus:
The scene offers a glimmer of hope that, through some miracle, she’s willing to forgive him. But when his eyes avert and he denies poisoning her insulin, she leaves at once and never looks back. The only sin that can’t be forgiven is the one you don’t confess, and Burkhart damns himself by denying his own responsibility one last time.
- , Vox:
Killers of the Flower Moon, he’s said in interviews, is “a story of complicity, silent complicity in certain cases, sin by omission.” Read that backward over his late career and you start to see what he’s getting at: Where have I been complicit, even silently? Where have I sinned by omission? And in an imperfect world, where is there forgiveness to be sought? That it’s conveyed in masterpieces of cinema, made by a genius, makes it easy to forget the point: These are questions for us to ask, too.
Martin Scorsese roundup: other films:
- reviews Kundun (1997) in The Ringer:
Kundun plays to Scorsese’s strengths in other ways as well, particularly his ability to depict worlds with distinct moral codes—a trait shared by Catholicism, the mob, Tibetan Buddhism, pool sharks, and 19th-century high-society New York—and the ways one era gives way to the next. Only a little over two decades pass between the beginning of Kundun and its final scene, but it conveys a sense of modernity creeping into the mountain nation even before its annexation by China. The shifting times that Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) capture via pop songs, Kundun conveys with the introduction of new technology and mass media that brought world events to Tibet’s remote doorstep. A memorable late-film shot of the Dalai Lama with the piercing light of a film projector at his back is both beautiful and ominous. This is the world he’ll have to learn to navigate if he and his people are going to survive.
- reviews Mean Streets (1973) in The Guardian:
Fusing his own experiences with influences like I Vitelloni (1953) or Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Scorsese imagines Mean Streets like it were the road not taken, as if he was another twentysomething nobody drifting through the seedier corners of the neighborhood. Charlie loves to look good and strut around in a tailored suit, but he and his buddies are screw-ups and dopes, imaginary tough guys who are low-level hoodlums for a reason. Michael whines about Johnny Boy not giving him respect, but who can respect a guy who tries to pass off pilfered Japanese adapters for high-end German camera lenses? And what’s their other pal doing with a pair of black market tigers prowling in cages in the back of the bar? These are ridiculous people that Scorsese can’t help but consider with a certain fondness.
It is of course Charlie to whom Scorsese (and co-writer Mardik Martin) give the now legendary opening voiceover monologue about sin: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit …” Another viewing of this movie reveals afresh what he means: sin is analogous to debt, and all around this film is the ethos of debt and the self-fulfilling prophecy of debt unpayment. The unforgiven sin is the unpaid debt and both lead only one way: death.
Two reviews of WRB favorite The Green Ray (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1986):
Alena Graedon, The Paris Review:
But there’s a chance something different will happen. The green ray of the title—and of an eponymous Jules Verne novel that served as Rohmer’s inspiration—refers to an almost mystically elusive optical phenomenon. Under certain atmospheric conditions, in the last moments before it dips below the horizon, the setting sun can flash green. On one of her trips, Delphine overhears some older people discussing the plot of Verne’s book. Its heroine never sees the green ray, but she “manages to understand her own feelings.” Throughout the film, Delphine claims to know her feelings. She may believe that she’s being vulnerable; she even cries in front of other people. But her self-pity prevents her from accessing true vulnerability. It’s not until the very end of the film that she risks sharing her real feelings with another person.
Emma Kantor, The Millions:
Rohmer offers a diaristic character study of Delphine (played by frequent Rohmer collaborator Marie Rivière), a secretary living alone in Paris. Each vignette opens with a close-up of the date in green handwriting, presumably Delphine’s. As I predicted, the story meanders along at a measured pace, the better to conjure a sense of quotidian ennui. Delphine could be the poster child of what’s now commonly known as Sad Girl Summer, a trend enshrined by artists like Sally Rooney and Lana Del Rey. She is beautiful but unaware of her beauty, with wavy brown hair, soulful eyes that well up at the slightest sorrow, and an outlook that oscillates between dreamy and dreary. At first glance, she appears closed off, but her brittle exterior is a form of self-protection. We learn, through conversations with friends (also Rooney-like), that her heart is fragile after a romance with a careless man led nowhere. “I need a real vacation,” she cries.
[Don’t we all. —Chris]
Rousing Daniel from sleep one night, Sandra tells her son—an exceptionally sensitive child and a key witness—that his father was her “soulmate,” an avowal that he, and we in the audience, has to take on faith (a montage of photos, flashing during the opening credits, of the couple in much happier times helps bolster her claim). It cannot be proved, particularly when pulled apart and dissected in a court of law. Asked to comment after the verdict has been handed down, Sandra responds, “There were too many words in this trial. I have nothing to say.” Those words have disclosed, concealed, repudiated, and persuaded. Yet what have they confirmed? Veracity remains elusive; we are no closer to understanding Sandra and her marriage by the film’s conclusion. The case may be closed, but those mysteries are open-ended.
Once it’s all over, and the movie has reminded you of Dead Poets Society (1989) or maybe half a dozen films from the 1970s, like The Paper Chase (1973), you might also feel what I did: like you’ve seen an inversion of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), which opened 25 years ago. Payne and Anderson arrived at roughly the same moment in the mid-1990s. Only, Payne’s milieu is world-weary, harsh, slouched, bluer-collared, grayer. I saw Rushmore when I was loosely older than Max Fischer, the movie’s go-getting, adolescent old-soul protagonist. Anderson’s declarative archness and rigorous eye rocked my world. A geek had gotten his revenge, opening a nerdcore floodgate. But, more important, his romanticism felt true. Cruelly, my peer is now Paul Hunham, a figure humbled by principle, hampered by pride and, by the end of The Holdovers, humbled some more; he’s Max Fischer, slumped.
A24 will be producing “more commercial” films.
Barnes & Noble’s 50% off sale on Criterion Collection discs is running through December 4.
R.I.P. the DVD menu.
Martin Scorsese’s cameo appearances.
Horror films tend to be profitable.
But they have fewer jump scares than they used to.
Currently in theaters:
[Since every WRB Film Supplement is someone’s first: the movies are listed in approximate order of how good I think they are. Steve’s larks are the ones I recommend you see. —Steve]
Killers of the Flower Moon (dir. Martin Scorsese, October 20):
[To the review roundup above I want to add one thing: the conspirators only face scrutiny, let alone consequences, before the feds show up when they commit insurance fraud as well as murder. It’s a bleakness similar to that of Double Indemnity (1944): “In the United States of America you can get away with murder. You absolutely cannot get away with insurance fraud. Insurance fraud costs people money.” —Steve]
Priscilla (dir. Sofia Coppola, November 3):
Another installment of Sofia Coppola depicting young women in (gilded) cages. The obvious point of comparison is Marie Antoinette (2006), but it also acts as a kind of reframing of The Virgin Suicides (1999), with Elvis (Jacob Elordi) seeing Priscilla (Cailee Spaneny) more as a symbol than a person, but without the male narration interpreting everything for the viewer. Such narration would be impossible here—the former teenage boys there understand themselves if not women, and Elvis understands neither. His behavior is left to speak for itself. Obligatory hints at the Madonna-whore complex aside, he seems to have no desires other than for constant affirmation and acceptance, which colors his relationships with his male friends and cronies as well as with Priscilla but produces something more toxic when combined with his attitudes towards women. (In one scene, Elvis says his new record is bad, but when Priscilla agrees he throws a chair at her.) And Priscilla, bound up in both the remembrance of first love and the perks of being Elvis’s girl, finds herself without any resources to resist until the very end.
She Came to Me (dir. Rebecca Miller, October 6):
What if a woman made a Woody Allen movie? It would probably understand women better. It would also probably understand men—well, a certain type of neurotic and insecure man who tries to turn his psychological problems into a means by which he can control other people—worse. [There is a scene in here in which Anne Hathaway tells a story about a Jewish child who is scared of a kind of pastry and whose mother goes to the rabbi for advice. I will not spoil the twist. It is the funniest scene of the year so far. —Steve]
The Killer (dir. David Fincher, October 27):
The titular hitman (Michael Fassbender) is a man who lives by a code. Unfortunately for him, his code is bad, and he is bad at following it. He repeatedly says things to himself like “stick to your plan” and “fight only the battle you’re paid to fight” before immediately violating his commandments—the whole movie is him fighting a battle he is not paid to fight after botching an assassination because he got distracted and did not stick to his plan. There’s a very dry humor in watching him repeatedly bungle things because he is not the pseudo-Nietzschean he tells himself he is. And in the movie’s best scene, another assassin (Tilda Swinton) whom he has met at a restaurant to kill throws it all back in his face. Does he learn anything? Well, some people just can’t be taught.
[I do not think David Fincher cares at all about misreadings of Fight Club (1999), but, if he did, he might make this as a response. —Steve]
Anatomy of a Fall (dir. Justine Trier, October 13):
There are twin focuses here: the give and take of relationships, and the difficulty (impossibility?) of knowing the truth. These focuses blend at a murder trial, which hinges on whether Sandra (Sandra Hüller) pushed her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) out an attic window to his death or whether he committed suicide. After the forensic evidence about the fall ends up being inconclusive, the trial becomes about Samuel’s psychological state: did he seem like he would have taken his own life? And how could that be known? In the end, the guidance the movie gives comes, interestingly, from people involved with the court. Sandra’s lawyer (Swann Arlaud) tells her “you need to start seeing yourself the way others are going to perceive you.” And the court-appointed minder (Jehnny Beth) for Sandra and Samuel’s son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) to ensure that his mother does not influence his testimony tells him to believe something he can live with.
[It’s incredible how stereotypically French this movie is. It gives us “one of the worst pop songs anyone’s ever heard,” “lawyers fighting in court about the proper methods of interpreting a novelist’s work in relation to her life,” and “a German who may or may not have committed murder, and it’s impossible to know.” Amazing. —Steve]
The Royal Hotel (dir. Kitty Green, October 6):
The location for most of this movie, a bar in a small mining town in the Outback, is one of those male-dominated spaces that women have to navigate carefully. Boys goofing off can become menacing in an instant, and more or less harmless flirting can become threats of sexual violence in an instant. This movie knows those instants, and it sees how men can use the ambiguity created by situations flipping back and forth to their advantage in keeping women on edge. The relationship between the central characters, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), two backpackers who have run out of money and find themselves working at the bar, is much less convincing. These women have nothing in common, and since it is not clear why they are friends in the first place—much less why Hanna kept giving Liv her money to spend to get them stuck in the situation—the female friendship that helps them resist suffers.
Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (dir. Sam Wrench, October 13):
More on this in Movies across the decades below.
The Persian Version (dir. Maryam Keshavarz, October 20):
The Persian version of a second-generation immigrant narrative that exists in a thousand places and whose main focus is a culture clash between the immigrant parents and the Americanized child. Keshavarz absolutely adores this material. It comes across in every shot. And that affection, as well as a great performance from Layla Mohammadi as Leila, the child and narrator breaking the fourth wall, helps carry the weaker moments. But there’s a lot of weaker moments. At 107 minutes this is either twenty minutes too long or forty too short—the dynamics between her and her parents are there, but for a movie about a family we get very little about the relationships between her and her eight brothers.
Strange Way of Life (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, October 6):
An interesting short film that introduces a past gay relationship into a story of two old gunmen (Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal) who meet up again after decades that could have been made at any point in the history of the Western. The dialogue is so laconic that it cannot hold the weight of what the film needs it to do—it barely hints at anything beyond a sounding-out, a negotiation between the two men. The flashback to their initial relationship has little in common with the rest of the movie, and, freed from the self-conscious spareness, calls up the hazy but intoxicating joy of pleasant memories.
[The theater I went to showed this followed by another, better, Almodóvar short, The Human Voice (2020), in which Tilda Swinton is excellent. —Steve]
What Happens Later (dir. Meg Ryan, November 3):
Two exes (Meg Ryan, David Duchovny) run into each other in an airport 25 years later. This is fine as a premise for a romcom with older actors. But the movie is too cute, first because it is too twee. The PA system does not engage in conversation with passengers in an airport, among other things. [The poster for a movie RomCom, tagline “Fall in love with love again,” is funny though. —Steve] More importantly, it is too cute because it wants to be about the forms of loss and regret peculiar to aging, but it isn’t. The regret is sentimentalized, and the main engagement with aging is jokes about how the world used to be different and the characters used to be cooler. At one point, Ryan and Duchovny repeatedly yell “Internet!” at each other during a discussion about whether technology has made the world better or worse.
Freelance (dir. Pierre Morel, October 27):
Alison Brie is trying really hard to salvage this, but the movie is so lazy and uninterested in itself, even by the standards of bad action movies. To take the most obvious example, what is up with the politics of the South American dictatorship (that happens to have the exact same borders as Paraguay, probably because drawing a fictional map would have required effort) where most of the movie takes place? The politics are central to the plot of the movie, in which a South American dictator (Juan Pablo Raba) attempts to resist a coup attempt with the help of a journalist granted an interview (Brie) and her bodyguard (John Cena). Not being a serious engagement with the nature of South American dictatorships is one thing—not making any sense on its own terms is another. And this doesn’t make any sense on any terms.
Dicks: The Musical (dir. Larry Charles, October 6):
A few very funny lines, which cannot be printed in this family publication, in more or less musically acceptable songs keep this from being completely a wash, but not by much. Just dire. Shock value doesn’t get you very far.
A. O. Scott, back on movies:
This minor alteration of consumer habit has turned out to be a major cultural disaster—not the death of movies so much as the eclipse of their shared meaning. Just as streaming isolates and aggregates its users, so it dissolves movies into content. They don’t appear on the platforms so much as disappear into them, flickering in a silent space beyond the reach of conversation. We can watch them whenever we want. We can watch something else. It doesn’t matter.
- on Anna Biller’s novel (Bluebeard’s Castle, October):
Part of what makes Biller’s movies interesting to me is their strong aesthetic sense, but she hasn’t found her writing voice in quite the same way. Where her visuals are ornate, her prose is simple. Throughout Bluebeard, all of Biller’s interest in old Hollywood aesthetics (many, many things are described in these terms) and her sense of eroticism gets mashed up with a very online kind of feminism where people say things like “love bombing,” and accuse others of kink-shaming and whorephobia.
Two from Nathan Israel Smolin:
In perhaps the most nightmarish single scene in the film, she expresses in a nutshell the true heart of American professional identity. When she argues that God in fact put him here, that God is thus the source of his professional identity just as he is of his family's Jewish identity, Jack agrees and smiles, affirming that his career really is the most important thing to him in the whole world. What religious Judaism, its religious rituals and practices and identity, is to his parents, a career as a blackface singer is to Jack. As if in challenge, his girlfriend demands to know if his career is more important to him even than her: and when Jack affirms that yes, his career is more important to him even than her, even than their mingled professional acquaintance and alliance and personal romantic relationship (cut off, as the film reminds us, from the possibility of marriage and family by the fact of her non-Jewish-ness), she breaks unexpectedly into rapturous smiles. He has passed the test. He is a professional; he is an American.
For after all, as the film's very existence as a blockbuster hit reminds us, aren't the Bomb and the Screen (and the accompanying development and finessing of techniques of filmic power) simply the two defining things of post-WW2 America, the greatest society and Empire and blockbuster franchise in the history of the human race? And if the American Empire, if everything American after 1945, has depended on the power of the Bomb and the Screen and (as the film nods to pseudo-cleverly in a scene where Oppenheimer wryly asserts that “birth control isn't my department”) the Pill, aren't these things all more or less the same thing? Or at least inspired by the same spirit, in service to the same ultimate end?
[“God is an American / God is an American.” —Steve]
Movies across the decades:
Stop Making Sense (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1984), Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (dir. Sam Wrench, 2023)
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