WRB—Sept. 2023 Film Supplement
R.I.P. the octopus
The Washington Review of Books is both a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend, and your lover.
[No octopuses were harmed in the writing of this WRB Film Supplement. However, we do have a conversation, edited for publication, that Chris and I had while I was in the District about Oldboy (2003), prompted by the re-release for its 20th anniversary. We hope you enjoy that, as well as the rest of this Film Supplement. If nothing else, it will give you something to read if you end up at an uninteresting Labor Day cookout. —Steve]
Two on movies directed by Wong Kar-wai:
In The New Yorker, Kyle Chayka with an interactive “Touchstones” column on his In the Mood for Love (2000):
At first, I would rewatch In the Mood for Love just to luxuriate in its ambience: the vibe is compelling enough. But my reading of the film’s details changed as I got older. I returned to it in the giddy swing of crushes and then in the hungover aftermath of breakups—it serves equally well for both—including an almost-relationship that bore some resemblance to Wong’s story. With experience, an edge of irony crept into my interpretation. It is the belief of a teen-ager that love is wholly grand and tragic, that the barrier to happiness is the circumstance keeping fated lovers apart. If only Chow and Su could meet outside their deceitful partners and watchful neighbors! But we have a tendency to cause our own problems in love, sometimes by accident and sometimes out of a subconscious desire for the problem itself. In the course of the film, Chow and Su chase and miss each other so frequently that the pursuit becomes an existential joke. Su declines to flee with Chow to Singapore, then appears there, steals into his apartment (a Wong Kar Wai trope), and calls him at his office, only to hang up without a word. Chow returns to the building where they met but doesn’t inquire deeply enough to learn that Su has moved back in. Rather than seeking to dispel ambiguity, they embrace it.
In any other film, 223’s story would be a tragedy—and it is tragic, don’t get me wrong—but director Wong Kar-wai defangs the sadness by playing it all tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw Chungking Express was in Chicago at a sold-out Wong Kar-wai retro in the spring of 2022. In that distance between us and the screen, heartbreak and its sappiness takes on all the trappings of melodrama. When 223 checks his pager and says his password is “love you for ten thousand years,” it’s just so absurd as to be funny, never mind that 223 says it with complete sincerity. The lover and his system speak in a personal vernacular that remains ineffable to spoken language. 223 creates a universe of objects and sayings that means so much to him but through translation—to the language of speech, to the language of cinema, finally to English—it becomes impotently sentimental.
In Current, Geoffrey O’Brien on Roger Corman’s series of movies loosely derived from the work of Edgar Allan Poe:
Behind Poe—and Lovecraft, and Buñuel—another ancestral figure looms: Sigmund Freud. When Corman has spoken about Poe, he has characterized him chiefly as a pioneering explorer of the unconscious, a nineteenth-century forerunner of Freud, and indeed acknowledges trying “to use some of Freud’s concepts of symbolism and dream theory in the Poe pictures.” Certainly there is no shortage of dreams, hallucinations, and haunted flashbacks—ancestral portraits coming to menacing life, a child witnessing his mother’s murder at the hands of his father, a man waking inside his own coffin—registered with tricks of distortion and abstraction that were novel for American International but familiar from half a century of experimental filmmaking. The shadowy presence of Freud also lets loose the specters of incest (House of Usher), marital rape (The Haunted Palace), pedophilia (The Masque of the Red Death), pervasive suggestions of sexual perversity and aggression held just enough in check to avoid scandal.
To be fair, Coppola was looking at her current moment, or just a few years prior to it, with an unusual clarity of a much greater distance. Few movies have made contemporary fashion look as dated as it would come to fifteen-twenty years later. But more importantly Coppola understands that to tell a story of the internet era you can’t be bound by the twentieth century conventions of great art. An incisive backstory or some great psychological motivation would only obscure the genuine emptiness of this (and our) time. There is a hole at the center of this true story, and Coppola is brave enough to retain it.
The heists, if you want to call them that, play out without tension because they carry so little weight or meaning to these kids; they treat them just the same as a house party while their parents are away. In a lot of ways they’re just normal teenagers. They have a feeling of immortality—and no consequences—that their death drive constantly pushes up against. When Marc (Israel Broussard) and Chloe (Claire Julien) are speeding down the street singing “live fast, die young” they seem, on some level, to be willing the oncoming car crash.
Two on William Friedkin, who died on August 7. R.I.P.
In The Bulwark, an obituary by Bill Ryan:
Along with being a master filmmaker with a fascinating, if occasionally cautionary, career (he sure didn’t let past controversies affect his current decisions), Friedkin was known as a real Personality. He was once, by his own admission, an unpleasant man, quick to anger, and insulting to others. Though he appeared to have reformed that side of himself, he was still acerbically opinionated, to the extent that at least two documentaries were made about him in the last few years. One of them is called Friedkin Uncut, and he was one of the few directors for whom the “uncut” warning actually meant something. An offshoot of this is that he clearly never gave a damn what people thought of the movies he made, especially later in life.
Father Karras’s reluctance to accept the possibility of supernatural evil is intimately bound up in his inability to see God in the face of the poor. It is only by finally acknowledging the reality of supernatural evil — and the all-pervading goodness of God, of which evil is merely a privation — that Father Karras is ultimately able to sacrifice his own life to save the girl.
In The Exorcist, neither the plot nor the characters can be understood from a nonreligious vantage point. That is not true of beloved costume dramas such as Becket (1964) and A Man for All Seasons (1966), whose Catholic heroes exhibit virtues that can be easily understood in secular terms—courage in the face of tyranny, love of country, devotion to conscience. Nor it is true of more experimental films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and The Seventh Seal (1957), which reduce Christianity to a kind of existentialism, an abstract reckoning with the meaning of human life.
- reviews Passages (2023):
Tomas is one of the best—the most interesting, the most magnetic—characters I’ve seen in a recent film, and much of what’s interesting is how bad Sachs lets him be. Franz Rogowski is extraordinary in the role, unbelievably charismatic, devastatingly sexy. Even as he’s treating the other characters terribly, disregarding their needs, he never becomes unlovable, or at least I never stopped loving him; I never doubted his hold on the other characters. Rogowski brings a lot of playfulness to the role, but also a molten intensity; it’s easy to imagine how intoxicating it must be to bathe in the light he casts, in the light of his looking at you. There’s a beautiful scene, maybe a third of the way through the film, where Agathe and Tomas sing to each other. (The film’s use of music throughout is wonderful, and put me in mind, as the film did in other ways, too, of Éric Rohmer’s sublime Summer’s Tale.) Tomas starts it off, putting on a record of Janet Penfold singing “Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender.” This is a good example of the film’s patience: Sachs lingers over the image of the disc being placed on the turntable, the needle coming down. Then we see Agathe, sitting up in bed with her head resting on the wall. For fifteen seconds we see her listening, maybe puzzling out the English lyrics, looking away from Tomas, then toward him—she starts just briefly to smile—then away again.
So too, in Past Lives, a bridge is never just a bridge, nor is a carousel simply a carousel. These are vital pieces in Song’s melodrama, all of which build to a truly heartbreaking ending, which is also the film’s opening: Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur sitting together at a bar. Arthur looks as deflated as a dog in a shower, as Nora and Hae Sung speak in Korean, a language he cannot understand, with a passion he cannot fathom. Nora and Hae Sung have a connection that Arthur and Nora will never share, a history Nora’s husband acknowledges would make for a fine story and that, in a different telling, would require him to play the villain. Rather than harp on this meta-comment, Song’s camera zooms past Arthur, literally pushing him out of the frame.
Movies aren’t just images or stories, they’re journeys. It’s a temporal medium that asks the viewer to sit still, at least for a little while. That’s why things like human faces gain such importance. A visual strategy that wipes out any and all detail or nuance or humanity has to find something else for us to latch onto. (In Trash Humpers, what kept us watching was the humor, as well as a queasy sense that the whole thing was ultimately an exploration of looming parental anxiety, a la Eraserhead.) And Aggro Dr1ft quite frankly doesn’t find the thing it needs to keep us watching. It doesn’t try to. I suspect it doesn’t even know what that is. Like a music video, or an art installation, two realms in which Korine has worked quite a bit, it looks cool for a few minutes. That’s about it. Eventually, the oppressive sameness of everything becomes stultifying — which to me feels like a death blow for something so self-consciously experimental and wannabe visionary.
More than its structure and spectacle, what elevates Oppenheimer as a historical epic is how Murphy and Downey, Jr. inhabit their respective characters. Oppenheimer and Strauss are both said to have done their duty, though their psychological dispositions lead them to do so for very different reasons. Downey, Jr. is perfect as a jittery man of paper skin, defined by superficial accomplishments and high stature, the aspired ends of his public service. While Nolan’s close-ups of Oppenheimer draw us in, the shots of Strauss point outward: when we see him leave the Senate chamber in defeat, he is looking away from us and offering a phony bullshit smile to the press cameras, after which he will be relegated to a historical dumpster (from which only moviedom can resurrect him, some seventy years later). Murphy’s Oppenheimer, by contrast, is absolutely and wholly himself through every gesture and glance, though he understands how our quiddity resists the stamp of certainty. Some critics have reduced Nolan’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to little more than a conflicted conscience, but I think what makes this characterization memorable is its capaciousness. Oppenheimer is a man reconciled to the mystery of what we are as human beings. With his measured directness in movement and a watchfulness so acute that we feel how perception is itself action, Murphy comes to manifest what Oppenheimer told Edward R. Murrow in his 1955 CBS interview: “There aren’t secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.”
Taylor Swift is going to help save America’s movie theaters by having a concert film play in theaters this fall. [I still refuse to retract anything I have said about her decision to collaborate with Jack Antonoff. —Steve]
ESPN will be showing some college football games in theaters this fall as well. [It feels great to be pandered to like this. —Steve]
Ridley Scott apparently has a cut of his upcoming Napoleon (2023) that runs 270 minutes. [I’m not sure I’ve ever loved anything as much as Ridley Scott loves releasing director’s cuts, and when this comes out I will be all over it. —Steve]
“Letterboxd User Catches Boyfriend Cheating After He Logs Same Movie as Her Best Friend”
It was Noah Baumbauch’s birthday yesterday. Happy birthday to him.
Barbie (2023) is causing some women to break up with their boyfriends. [If you broke up with your boyfriend after seeing Barbie, please send your story to the Managing Editors at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Steve]
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 go see. —Steve]
Bottoms (dir. Emma Seligman, August 25):
[If you had great expectations for “lesbian incel Fight Club (1999)” you and I are built very differently. And yet this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. —Steve]
Matthew Zeitlin is correct to see this as a fantasy in the mind of someone who has not actually experienced an American high school but has watched lots of movies set there. It also has the feeling of high school as recalled by someone in their late 20s, heightened by the fact that most of the actors look like they’re in their late 20s. It’s not quite at the level of Grease (1978) but it’s close. And this is good, because it would be creepy to be laughing at teenagers doing the things done in this movie. When people in their late 20s do them, they’re just funny.
It’s ludicrous and absurd, but it never winks in its vision of a high school where the football players are always in pads and the principal pages “the ugly, untalented gays” to his office. And that’s good, since if it winked it would be fatal. Only against this background, taken completely seriously, can a vision of said ugly, untalented gays (Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri) starting a self-defense club in order to have sex with cheerleaders function, and function it does. (Sennott turns in an unbelievable performance as both the brains and the muscle of this operation.) Does it have anything to say? Not really, beyond making a movie where lesbians get to do the things straight men and women have done in a million other movies. And this one is funnier than most of those, and not just because of the hilarious subversion and send-up of the big high school football game against the rival school at the end. It’s just quite difficult to produce 90 minutes of funny jokes in a row. And this does.
Golda (dir. Guy Nattiv, August 25):
The one-sentence summary is “we have Oppenheimer at home”. It has a similar framing: Golda Meir (Helen Mirren, unrecognizable under the excellent prosthetic work) is before the Agranat Commission, investigating why Israel was so unprepared for the Yom Kippur War, to explain her actions before and during it and is forced to recall, in between all the meetings, some deeply unpleasant memories.
The exposition-heavy meetings leave a lot to be desired, and are carried mostly by Meir’s chain smoking under all the stress, both of the war and her treatment for lymphoma. (No other recent movie has this much cigarette smoking in it.) And, despite all the explanations of military maneuvers, the movie almost solely showing Meir’s perspective limits an understanding of them. The best moment in the war room is the one where the battle is actually shown through aerial footage: Meir watches some Egyptian tanks drive right into an Israeli ambush, and as the men in the field report continually climbing numbers of tanks hit and disabled Meir becomes increasingly nauseous thinking about the dead.
Even bleaker are her negotiations with Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber) in which, despite her unwillingness to have the surrounded Egyptian Third Army die of dehydration, she wants to appear as if she might to obtain more leverage as Kissinger attempts to negotiate a cease-fire. After she suggests to Kissinger that she would be willing to let the Third Army die, she leaves, goes to the bathroom, and vomits blood.
And yet all of this is more or less detached from its context. There is nothing about the Palestinians, as might be expected. But there is also basically nothing about the Israelis. The only indication of what sort of society this is, and who its inhabitants are, comes in the negotiations with Kissinger. Meir relates a story about pogroms from her childhood in the Russian Empire and tells Kissinger that he needs to eat the borscht her housekeeper made because her housekeeper is a Holocaust survivor. As the one American in the movie, Kissinger is a surrogate for American audiences, and it is clear that they are intended to perceive this as a defense of Israel. And maybe that requires invocations of the Holocaust as a part of the gamesmanship of diplomacy. But they are still invocations of the Holocaust as gamesmanship.
The Pod Generation (dir. Sophie Barthes, August 11):
This movie thinks it is interested in ideas. It is actually interested in showing a vision of the future where every product looks like it was made by Apple. Nothing goes any deeper than “increasing alienation from the natural world could be bad”. And yet Emilia Clarke salvages the movie with her portrayal of a woman whose face becomes increasingly clouded by unease and worry as the movie progresses. [This art form lends itself to great actors being able to make chicken salad, and you see their greatness as much there as in great movies. —Steve]
Jules (dir. Marc Turtletaub, August 11):
[I’m fed up with aliens—more on that later—but here the alien is more or less Jake Singer from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Like Jake, he doesn’t speak. The old people who confide in him and make meaning out of him are all mere collections of common stereotypes. Their kids have moved away and they’re lonely. Their minds are beginning to go. They don’t understand younger generations. And so on. —Steve]
Strays (dir. Josh Greenbaum, August 18):
Will Ferrell’s naïf routine is unbearable. In this case, where the naïf is an abused dog who is unable to tell that what he endures at the hands of his owner is abuse, it’s distasteful. At least there are a couple good gags. The best one is the unintentional Dionysian bacchanal.
Gran Turismo (dir. Neill Blomkamp, August 25):
An uncreative sports movie that reveals nothing about the sport or the people who participate in it.
Back on the Strip (dir. Chris Spencer, August 18):
The bluster and grievances of washed-up middle-aged men who haven’t seen each other in years are excellent. Guys are exactly like this, needing to convince themselves and each other that they are who they used to be, and, if they’re not, needing to convince themselves and each other that the changes were for the better. But this is a small part of the movie. Bigger parts include an Idiot Plot romance and a mother sending her son down a path that will lead to him becoming a male stripper, a career she believes he will be successful in because his genitals are very large.
Retribution (dir. Nimród Antal, August 25):
Liam Neeson should go home.
Landscape with Invisible Hand (dir. Cory Finley, August 18):
[This is the kind of alien stuff I have completely lost patience with. It’s Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” but in a work of art you can make the barbarians show up. —Steve]
[I have nothing to add to the discussion of the recent piece in the Times on TikTok movie reviewers, but I will second that what the TikTokers are doing is not criticism and the comparison the piece makes to Cahiers is baffling and insulting. My real question is: what in the world does “when you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it” mean? —Steve]
Meanwhile, somewhere in the background of this whole noisy paradigm shift, an entire cycle of American movies has come and gone without anybody really noticing. They’re less a victim of Barbenheimer hijacking the collective consciousness—which absolutely is a factor—than of their own strange, hapless ephemerality. For the most part, they’re the cinematic equivalent of trees falling in some empty, faraway forest. Or maybe a Haunted Mansion: You could be forgiven for thinking that Justin Simien’s $150 million (!) family comedy—with its theme park IP and cast picked seemingly out of a hat—was some kind of Disney deepfake.
But if we want movie theaters to survive, that will mean building the moviegoing habit in children, which means giving them an experience, beyond the candy counter, that keeps them coming back. A third Trolls movie may not offer that. Instead studios will need to get comfortable with some risk and some trust, making movies for children that don’t talk down to them.
[You would think that the makers of children’s movies, knowing that nothing will kill a movie as quickly as patronizing its audience, would not make movies that patronize kids. You would be wrong. —Steve]
In the LARB, an excerpt from Chris Yogerst’s upcoming joint biography of the Warner brothers (The Warner Brothers, September 5) addressing the strikes of 1945 and 1946:
Labor strikes continued at many studios in 1946. Someone was stabbed during a protest at Universal, fights regularly broke out at MGM, and pickets were mainstays at 20th Century–Fox, RKO, Paramount, and Columbia. Sorrell led hundreds of picketers back to the Warner Bros. lot in September 1946. Speaking through a megaphone, he announced, “There may be men hurt, there may be men killed before this is over, but we’re in no mood to be pushed around anymore!” The Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of pickets were preventing employees from entering the Warner lot. Having learned a lesson from the previous year’s strikes, Warner Bros. was not about to let the spectacle continue. When Sorrell’s group arrived shortly after 4:00 a.m., strikebreakers were ready with “chains, bolts, hammers, six-inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets, and battery cables.” Blayney Matthews, known as the “head of Warner Bros. private gestapo,” brought in county officers to help break the strike. The picketers were ready, though, donning the white air-raid helmets that had been so prominent during the war. The strikebreakers drove cars into the crowd, while the strikers tried to stop vehicles from getting onto the lot. Overturned automobiles eventually prevented workers from gaining access. Fire hoses and tear gas were used, once again, to disperse the crowd. Sorrell described the scene as “slaughter.”