We are still in the era of virtual events. Here's another, now passed but recorded for your pleasure– wherein I discuss all things transit, COVID, writing, kindness, and the condition of the street. Like all Zoom videos it's not up to snuff in terms of the cinematography and image quality that we might prefer, but hopefully the content is enough to maintain interest. Huge, huge gratitude to Brock Howell and everyone at SnoTrac for putting this together and hosting me. It was an honor and a treat to meet you all!
For more speeches and talks of mine click here.
I get as many, if not more comments about my book now than I did when it was a bestseller four years ago, back during those long-lost pre-COVID days. We see differently now, and know to value certain things which we previously took for granted. With the advent of certain social justice movements there are obvious ways in which the book has become more topical, but there are also other things the book celebrates, which feel rarer now and thusly more precious, more worth cherishing. It isn't just institutional competence which has faded from view. There are actions we can take as individuals, ways of choosing to see, which feel deeply valuable in this new time. It is lonelier to realize them, and sometimes feels more hopeless, but it is worth it. It is worth it for the occasional burst of joyful light. It is worth it because like attracts like. We find each other by being our best selves.
And it is worth it because you don't change the world by trying to change the world. You do it by changing the person next to you. And how do you do that? Not by trying to change them (you can't), but by being your best self. Leading by example. Motivating the people around you to observe, reflect on, consider how you choose to live life. You can be the light. I know that's harder to do now, but it's in exactly these sorts of times when it's most needed, valuable, and inspiring. Thank you to the people around me who glow, who inspire me every day and night, from my closest friends to my colleagues down to the faces on the street which beam out gratitude and present verve.
Please enjoy the video above, which is two stories from my book, along with an introduction situating how the book plays in today's landscape. Many thanks to the fine folks at Chin Music and AWP at large for hosting me.
I post new material here at the beginning of every month. Check back every 1st!
“Researchers detected methamphetamine in 98% of surface samples and 100% of air samples, while fentanyl was detected in 46% of surface and 25% of air samples. One air sample exceeded federal recommendations for airborne fentanyl exposure at work established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
These facts, and a host of others included in UW’s excellent new study, will surprise only those who don’t use transit. For the rest of us they confirm, finally, in concrete terms for all to see, a sense of what it is to work with the public on street level in post-COVID Seattle. I encourage reviewing the report itself, not just the press release or even the executive summary. There's a lot in there, and it can't be summed up in a word, other than to say that Marissa Baker, PhD, and team’s study is the first of its kind. No entity has studied the presence of airborne drug fumes in public spaces before, and Seattle is the ideal metropolis to start with: a city where non-users are forced to inhale fumes of the deadliest street drugs in existence, day after day. Some of the findings are comforting; some of them aren't.
We will continue to hear compelling pieces of political rhetoric, well-crafted speeches and declarations. We even have a brand new law allowing prosecution of public drug use (though no plan for how an overburdened judicial system would accommodate those arrests). It can all sound so promising on paper.
But then you walk outside.
What defines an activity as legal, or illegal? While a piece of legislation may declare a given activity unlawful, what matters is what the real-world consequences are. Needles, fumes, torches, foil, straw, brain damage, overdose– it is all 'legal,' practically speaking, because it is tolerated in broad daylight without consequences. My first experience with fentanyl was returning to the E Line after ten years away from driving Aurora Avenue. A young mother came forward to apologize for her toddler son, who'd vomited on the bus floor due to fumes coming from the teens smoking right next to them. Neither she nor I knew what fentanyl was back then. The mom escorted her sick child off the bus in bewildered confusion. An off-duty security guard riding homeward had to explain to me what just happened. This was the new status quo.
Third Avenue is populated primarily by commuters; the unhoused; street people; first responders; police; cleaning crews; and bus operators. These are the individuals most qualified to have an opinion on the state of the street. They extend over all political backgrounds, but there’s one thing they all agree on: Downtown Seattle is in terrible shape, and has seen no meaningful improvement in over three years.* If anyone’s telling you Third is now safe enough to take your kids or your grandmother, they’re not spending enough time outside. I’m waiting for change I can discern outside of a newspaper.
Studies like UW's are at their most valuable when they reveal ongoing institutional incompetence. There is more research to be conducted, and we should keep asking questions. But we know enough to know things need to change. What action besides words will we see? After the dutifully fervent press releases and concerned memos have aired, what then? Will my colleagues still have to call off sick on the road because of the resultant lightheadedness fentanyl causes? Will they, many of them new parents, see their long-term health impacted? Some have failed drug tests as a result of the work environment (which, now that we have the above data, should no longer be shocking). Will they have to face consequences they don't deserve? And all the while, my friends on the street. Will they still tell me of their companions overdosing? Will I continue to have conversations with parents where there is more silence than words, where what is communicated is too devastating to speak out loud?
We were the city of the future. What no one in our past could have anticipated was a world wherein a public crisis is met by leaders not with outrage, not sophistication, not solutions…
Hand-wringing, squabbling, and lip service– that is, the appearance of action– has taken the place of action. When the only entities with the power to exert widespread change are structured like corporate bureaucracies, you know you’re in trouble because no organizational structure is better suited for abdicating responsibility.** Top-heavy managerial hierarchies seem designed for such abdication. It’s always the fault of some other department. They’re looking into it. We’re so sorry.
Let me redirect your call.
Pardon my scathing tone. I do not wish to offend, but to awaken, like a parent who knows she must use a firm voice, who does so because she wishes to impress upon her child the gravity of what’s at stake. By now it should be obvious that the powers that be (I’m not pointing fingers at Metro but at a far larger and more directly responsible municipal government power structure) do not care about their constituents. In this approach they benefit themselves in the short term… but not in the long term. Street people vote. People who are afraid to go out also vote. People concerned for the welfare of their fellow citizens, for the health and safety of themselves and their children… all vote. If a politician’s primary goal is to get reelected, they would do well to remember this. You need people to believe that you care. One way to start is by effecting discernible change.
Metro made its name on addressing a public health issue. James R. Ellis and others tackled a problem in 1960– wastewater treatment– and handled it so well the newly-formed group was given 100 days to put together a transit system. They succeeded mightily, starting a tradition of “failing forward” with innovative, concrete action and demonstrable results.
Metro is now faced with another public health crisis. I believe if it had the autonomy to solve the situation itself, as it once did, it would by now have done so. But it no longer has that freedom. Metro is more or less run by the King County Council, who is itself beholden to abide by state laws governing what can and can’t be done, and for how much money.
As ever, the ultimate decisions will be made by people who don’t ride buses. By politicians who never set foot on Third Avenue. They don’t know the state of things out here. They don’t know our faces, lives, troubles. They haven’t lived the risk, felt the exposure, the wounds of mental and physical pain. If they did, things would've been fixed long ago. Most humans empathize with only the people they see in real life.*** And these powerful, well-meaning, and probably genuinely concerned folks aren’t coming out to see us in real life. If only they had the requisite courage and brass nerve to come down here and see. How will Downtown Seattle look and feel one, five, ten years from now? Time will tell. Since my long term health– that is, my life– quite literally hangs in the balance, I'm as curious as the rest of us.
What are we individuals to do, besides vote? What am I doing, out here in the maelstrom? What I can. My arms reach a few feet on either side of me. That is where I can effect change. I greet the passengers at 12th and Jackson as the fellow humans they are. (Remember, fentanyl users aren’t dangerous. They’re generally catatonic. People with schizophrenic disorders, on the other hand….) I treat the people around me as if they’re already my friends, and it works wonders like you wouldn’t believe. I do it because it makes me feel good. Interacting with strangers has been scientifically shown to improve one’s well-being, sense of belonging, and overall happiness. I give, and give, and give respect, love, acknowledgment, and on a long enough timeline it comes back around in spades. It rejuvenates me.
This beautiful cycle does not require a functioning government, nor a city with its municipal affairs in order.
*Further reflections (and nuance) in my deep dive on all things drugs and Seattle, here.
**Anna Patrick at The Seattle Times reveals which promises made on homelessness were broken, and how, in these two excellent breakdowns from 2022 and 2023.
***If you’ve been wondering why empathy’s been on the decline, this may be a factor. People spend less time with others in real life (or IRL, as the kids say) than they ever have. This is also why depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are higher among young people than they’ve ever been. More here and here. Lecture by me on this subject, with works cited and further reflections, here.
"Mr. President, I feel that I have blood on my hands."
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Synopsis: An exploration of J. Robert Oppenheimer's evolving feelings on atomic energy.
I had to go and see it again, a third time, a final time, surrender once again to its hypnotic rhythms of music and dialogue. It is a thing you do alone, not obsessively but passionately, like a warmer version of the museum patron described at the beginning of Delillo’s Point Omega.
1. About Everything
Other people will write about the film's topical relevance, how good the acting is, or the stupendous construction of that sequence. But none of those are why I had to go three times.
Oppenheimer begins and ends with a man, at two different points in his life, watching raindrops fall into water. In between those two moments it somehow manages, despite being almost exclusively a series of scenes of mostly men in suits talking, during a distinct time period, following an exact narrative… to be a film about everything. In its specificity it becomes universal.
What does it mean to live with ourselves, in this world?
Following a prologue hinting at the consequences to come, we begin with the subjective interior. The intoxicating rhythms of new possibilities, discovery, the excitement of innovation and youth in the 1920s. This leads to collaboration, competition; ideas, and degrees of allegiance to those ideas; to science, invention for its own sake, and the dangers and joys of such invention. To the horror of humans' capacity to commit evil when it's disguised as good. Love, friendship, ethics, theory– all are realized as the irresolvable, contradictory worlds they are. Victory. Hubris. Guilt. Regret. Self-flagellation as a gesture of recognition, a yearning for closure. The soul's unquenchable thirst for resolution, within oneself, between oneself and the world.
I am deeply attracted to stories of guilt and regret because these emotions are almost always genuine. They weigh us down impossibly, and the suffering they cause within has the potential to make us realize our best selves like nothing else. A person without regret has not had to take stock of themselves. Who in our country’s history could feel more guilt, and yet be living in a time and political place when it could be less freely expressed, than J. Robert Oppenheimer?
Nolan understands that the moral quandaries facing his protagonist are altogether more dramatically compelling than the Trinity explosion itself. What other director would dare make a film wherein the atomic bomb explosion is not the climax of the narrative? Oppenheimer is three hours of people reflecting on past and future deeds, awash in a mood that is somehow both melancholic and propulsive without compromise to either; it admits the complexity of existence, and the soul’s capacity to change its views over time. Not every film allows its characters to live long enough to suffer the consequences of their actions.
Nolan constructs the film around two confirmation hearings of two very different men– one a conniving career politician hoping for a Cabinet position; the other a scientist with newly pacifist views hoping for security clearance. The two hearings are linked in ways that only become clear much later, and both have the same outcome, revealing just how diametrically contrasted the two applicants are. One seeks to destroy what he believes the other has, and wishes desperately to have himself; his aims are selfish. The other man wishes to correct a collision course he created. His aims are more than selfless; they represent those of a mind which has begun to think on a larger, longer scale.
A line midway through reminds us that “genius is no guarantee of wisdom.” I think that in between the opening and closing moments, the man watching the raindrops has finally, somberly, tragically, transcended the former and acquired the latter. It has happened against his will. But he is better for it. I cannot express how compelling it is to watch this journey, how thought-provoking.
Like last year's masterful TÁR, Oppenheimer withholds an opinion on its subject. We instead learn something about ourselves by considering what we conclude, and how it changes with each viewing. The film becomes a mirror, makes us question ourselves and our values, our beliefs and direction in this life. Art can hardly achieve more. For this and for its intricate, somber grandeur, for the intellectual and philosophical demands it makes on its audience, and for its unsurpassable execution, this is the best and most significant American studio picture since Schindler's List. I am aware of the ridiculousness such pronouncements, but after three viewings I still can't help myself. Forgive me! Large-scale films for adults have been anomalies for a while now, and that makes Oppenheimer is a rare bird indeed, one worth cherishing.
2. On Film and Form
Do you know what it is to look upon an original?
We do it in museums all the time, at galleries and plays and concerts. But in cinema, you are almost always looking at a digital projection, at a film that was shot digitally, or a film that was, even if photographed on film, transferred to digital to be color-corrected. And as you know, everything digital is in fact a collection of ones and zeroes. Digital can never capture light, or color; it can only translate it. A digital image can only be reproduced, never produced. It is always and ever a facsimile.
Film emulsion, on the other hand, captures the actual photons of a moment, sealing them forever, as they transform the chemical composition of the silver halide crystals they land on; as you've heard me say elsewhere, film is in this manner closer to sculpture than digital photography. Only film contains the physicality of a moment. There is no need to translate reality into colored squares.
There’s also the fact that, after twenty years of digital experimentation, there can be no argument that film simply yields a better image. Although a digital picture plane can contain millions of pixels, its range of color is limited to the thousands. Film conversely has millions of colors. Only film can successfully capture the infinitude of color that flesh tones contain, or clouds; only cross-processed stock can even generate the colors I like to use, the greens and cyans which exist well outside the dSLR color gamut.
For these reasons and others, many filmmakers* continue to shoot exclusively on film– Alice Rohrwacher, Sofia Coppola, and Mia Hansen-Løve being a few examples of directors for whom the format is never in question.
But at this point, the only new work that is consistently analogue from start to finish, with no digital intermediate, no ones and zeroes whatsoever, are the films of Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino. These are the only remaining directors who as a matter of course not only shoot analogue, but do film-out edits** and color-time their pictures photochemically.***
Nolan goes furthest in many ways, both artistically and technically: though all three are single-camera**** directors, eschewing the technique (epitomized by Ridley Scott, who’s done so since 2007) of overshooting a scene with many digital cameras and “figuring it out later,” only Nolan’s films have no deleted scenes. He shoots exactly what he writes. The intricate scripts are worked out to the last detail, and somehow he knows it will work.***** As a writer-director myself I’m flabbergasted by this. How does he do it?
Also, Nolan consistently shoots on large-format****** film, not just 35mm. For a visual breakdown, check out the nifty chart here. Note the difference between the 70mm formats and regular digital projection. But IMAX 70mm isn’t just the highest resolution of any movie format ever invented (its digital equivalent would be an impossible 18k); it also has an unparalleled tonal (color, hue) range. This matters more than resolution in the impact of an image. Large-format film also differs from 35mm in being a uniquely grain-free visual space; the filmstrip is simply too big for you to see the grain we all know from 35. There’s nothing quite like it.
Why does any of this matter?
It isn’t only in technicalities that film has the edge. On the one hand, director Lea Mysius says, film “has this aesthetic and tactile component, that the colors are deeper and more contrasty and stronger, and so on and so forth.” But, she adds, “What matters most to me is the poetic component of it. 35mm is so intrinsically loaded with poetry, and there’s mystery in 35. I think it’s because it is a material thing… Philosopher Gaston Bachelard [talks] about how we can have imagination flower out of materiality. And I see film that way. What I mean is that light puts an impression on film, and thanks to this chemical reaction that we can see, all of a sudden, we find that magical and beautiful sensation... 35mm work penetrates because it has an impression on us, the way that light has an impression on film. This is something that, in digital, you don’t have. It’s a lot more straightforward and flat.”
I call it the magic of the tactile. We are organic, not synthetic creatures, and we respond to that which is also organic. The handmade quality of film, the discipline it requires to create, the one-off nature of its physicality, its imperfections, the romance of the flickering filmstrip in the dark… you cannot surpass the real.******* And, because film was the only image capture medium for over a century, we are deeply accustomed its interpretation of light. It is the visual basis for our global cultural memory. Maybe this is why most great-looking digital films, especially historical pictures, attempt to emulate film stock.
Only thirty prints of Oppenheimer were made at its full, IMAX 70mm 1.43:1 ratio. That version of the film weighs 600 pounds and is eleven miles long. Just 113 prints of the “smaller” but still stupendous 70mm 5-perf 2.39:1 ratio were made worldwide (again, refer to the chart above to get an idea of how different this is from digital projection), as well as about 80 35mm prints, one of which played in Seattle’s Uptown Theatre. I saw a digital scan of the full IMAX 1.43:1 positive and was suitably blown away by all it had to offer, but it was the magic of seeing one of those 113 70mm prints unspool at Seattle’s Pacific Place, once at the beginning of the film’s theatrical run and again near the end, that I want to dwell on here.
See it on film if you can. If you can't, you're still seeing something that originated on that beautiful medium, that was color-corrected photochemically, and that, incredibly for our times, doesn't feature CGI. Speaking of which:
3. A Few Notes on Style
i. Immersion in reality
You can read elsewhere about how the explosion was created using practical effects, how those visualizations of particles were achieved, and more, but I’m interested in what avoiding computer graphics achieves on a philosophical level.
Remember the sensation of watching "old" (I’m thinking pre-1990) films, when you could inherently "Trust the Image?" We can’t do that anymore. Now that anything is possible via CGI, nothing is surprising. Consider the third act of any superhero picture. You’re looking at masses of pixels bombarding each other, and you know it. The viewer’s investment (or at least mine) declines. The image has stopped being what it’s always been– a documentation of something that was in front of a camera lens, whether a person, landscape, miniature model, or painting.
Special effects, in industry parlance, are effects achieved on set. Visual effects are created afterwards with a computer. We watch what we know are special effects in Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey with a greater sense of awe than any modern space movie, because we know we’re looking at something real. We can sense it. This is why horror films almost never use CGI– because no matter how good it is, you can detect its fakeness, and it ceases to be scary. We are organic creatures, and we respond to the same. The synthetic can only go so far.
Oppenheimer returns us to that environment of being able to trust the image. Everything you’re seeing is real, and quite frankly: you can tell. Friends have shared that the experience of watching this one feels different– the artifice of knowing you’re watching actors somehow falls away, and the sensation of observing real characters begins to take over. I have to believe this is because we’re able to trust the image in this film, and also for another reason: Nolan doesn’t subscribe to the usual rules of character development. We don’t learn about backstories and motivations. From his main down to the smallest supporting characters, we instead watch people behave in the present. “I’ve always actually favored the medieval, Middle English approach to characterization to the more modern, psychological, novelistic approach to characterization in film,” Nolan says, “because in film, character defined through action has always been the strongest, because it’s visual, and it’s narrative-based.”
Viewer immersion is further achieved by the decision to have no composite characters (astonishing for a historical piece), and to use real names for all individuals depicted. We don’t get text onscreen labeling who’s who. Jargon isn’t explained; yes, things fly over our heads. But isn't that what you'd hope for in a realistic film about theoretical physics? What's more exciting than a picture that demands your full attention, that doesn’t pander and re-explain plot points every twenty minutes, to make sure the kiddos can keep up? We rise to the challenge, becoming better viewers. We pick up what we can and move forward. You’ll get it on the next pass.
ii. Sound and feeling
There's a corollary to be found in Nolan's approach to sound, which contemporary cinema doesn't often experiment with. Friends tell me the sound mix is either their favorite or least favorite aspect of the picture. Nolan will sometimes use dialogue as sound– you don’t know what they’re saying exactly. But, like the aforementioned jargon, I'm not sure we need to. You figure it out from their tone, their expression. It’s about the texture of the moment, and Ludwig Göransson’s overpowering and deeply beautiful score does more to immerse us emotionally than any line of dialogue could. As Clémence Poésy’s scientist says in Tenet, when she utters a line that (un)intentionally serves as a dictum for how to read all Nolan’s films: “Don’t try to understand. Feel it.”
I'm aware this is an acquired taste, but I must admit a fondness for art that tries things, and I aspire to evaluate films not on how closely they hew to expected norms, but rather on how they accord with their maker’s intentions. What is the director trying to do? What does this choice accomplish? Ambitious failures excite me more than mediocre successes. The scene of the victory speech given to the Los Alamos staff seated in the auditorium will be taught in film schools. Witness the separation of meaning between sound and image, how the visuals finally give way to the overpowering divide of birthing conscience, a heart breaking before our eyes.
I don’t know if everyone has an emotional response to dynamic camerawork or lighting, or film form generally, but I do. As a photographer I would attempt to increase my skills by shooting obviously ugly things (piles of garbage, mostly) in beautiful ways, learning how to search for the light, to work with it as a scene partner in capturing a moment. Oppenheimer feels similar– an achingly beautiful and sumptuously photographed series of scenes of… scientists and politicians talking for three hours, often in wildly unglamorous institutional spaces.
iii. On the editing
This has to be Nolan’s fastest-paced picture, despite being primarily dialogue. The dense tightness of the editing recalls Stone’s JFK and Scorsese at his best. Notice how we think we see Oppenheimer throwing a glass in the corner three times while listening to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but we actually see him complete that action only once. Observe the shots of Oppenheimer’s attorney Lloyd Garrison silently expressing his enthusiasm as Emily Blunt’s Kitty more than holds her own against Roger Robb; they’re such brief shots, but seeing Garrison's face gives the moment further heft, a greater sense of triumph. The couple crying under the rafters in the auditorium scene is onscreen for barely longer than a second, but once you see them, you feel something that lasts longer. I was unprepared for the subjectivity of the editing, especially in act one; the elliptical cutaways evoke a sort of tapestry of psychological interiors, conveying through flash cuts the mind's ability to transcend time and space, to draw disparate connections linked by mood. The use of silence, especially when least expected; the visions and fantasies, potent in their understatement.
Or the intercutting of the Colonel Pash sequence, how that information is relayed to the audience across multiple spans of time within minutes. The intricate layering and revisiting (“...but more useful than a sandwich!”) of a moment, sometimes many scenes later. The labyrinthine script may allude to an event before we see it happen (the Chevalier incident), or present slices of a moment that is only revealed later (the possible assassination of a key character, or, of course, the ending). It doesn’t simply use the security clearance confirmation hearing as a framing device, but leaves it for long sections as the past overwhelms the present (as in the development and testing of the bomb itself), or allows future events to intrude (the final montage involving awards receptions) and slip-slide together with the past. As the black-and-white scenes are filmed on true black-and-white stock,******** not color that’s converted afterwards, the decision to film on which stock was decided beforehand, which represents a degree of foresight I find mind-boggling (especially in scenes that feature both stocks/perspectives, as the AEC meeting where the flowers on the table get moved– itself a clever device to visually confirm we've seen this meeting before).
I had to watch it unspool a final time. For me it was something about living once more in those midcentury rooms, the bare walls and beaming natural light, the light that caresses fabric and faces into the quicksand halls of memory. Communing with technique and reflection. If you require your films to tell you how to think about their characters, or if you need characters you can identify with, rather than merely observe, this may be a frustrating experience. But cinema is built for more than prescriptive storytelling.
Give it a try!
Notes and Further Reading
The Hollywood Reporter. “This Can’t Be Safe. It’s Got to Have Bite”: Christopher Nolan and Cast Unleash ‘Oppenheimer.' Feature interviewing director and cast about the working process.
Vulture. "An Action Movie About Scientists Talking." In-depth piece by Bilge Ibiri, interviewing Nolan et al on numerous aspects of the film.
The AP. "Christopher Nolan breaks down the best ways to watch a movie, ahead of his ‘Oppenheimer’ release." On where to sit, why B&W, difference between 65 and 70, and why not every scene is shot on IMAX.
Polygon. "So what happens to Oppenheimer’s 11-mile-long IMAX prints after it leaves theaters?"
*Others include Joanna Hogg, Marie Kreutzer, Catarina Vasconcelos, Hlynur Pálmason, Wes Anderson, Sean Baker, Noah Baumbach, Damien Chazelle, Robert Eggers, Luca Guagdanino, Pablo Larrain, Mélanie Laurent, Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Lea Mysius, László Nemes, the Safdies, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Joachim Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Edgar Wright and of all people, Judd Apatow; as well as directors who often use 35mm, if not all the time, like Lili Horváth, Kelly Reichhardt, and Greta Gerwig. Franchise pictures that shoot on film also help keep Kodak in business, such as F9, No Time to Die, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars.
**How is analogue film edited nowadays? Here’s Fred Raskin on his working process with Quentin Tarantino: “The negative was developed and printed so that we could screen dailies on 35mm. It was also scanned at 4K. Those 4K scans were down-converted to Avid DNX 115 HD files. That’s what I’d edit with in the Avid. Once production ended Quentin would spend his whole workday in the cutting room with me. When we completed a scene, my Avid assistant would take the cut from me and would generate lists that would go to the film team, who would then conform the film print to match the Avid edit. In that way, we were able to screen the scenes projected on film. Just seeing it that way added to the authenticity of the material.”
Here’s Andy Jurgensen on the workflow for PTA’s Licorice Pizza: “We’re still cutting digitally obviously, but during the shoot, we’re watching film dailies, so we do have to prep that. Then, once we get to a certain point, we do conform workprint. And when we lock, we make lists and cut negative for the photochemical version of the movie… Usually, we get the film first even before we’re getting it digitally because that’s just the way that everything gets processed with the scanning. The pipeline is so unique. So, the first time we’re seeing it is on print. We can just judge so many things when watching it big on film. Not only the performance, but the lighting, and the lenses and focus.” William Fletcher is a film assistant who works on all three directors’ films.
***Nolan on color-timing (and much more in this essential DGA interview): “I've never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I've just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven't seen that reason yet.”
On working without a second unit (from the same interview): “Let me put it this way: If I don’t need to be directing the shots that go in the movie, why do I need to be there at all? The screen is the same size for every shot. The little shot of, say, a watch on someone’s wrist, will occupy the same screen size as the shot of a thousand people running down the street. Everything is equally weighted and needs to be considered with equal care, I really do believe that. I don’t understand the criteria for parceling things off. Many action films embrace a second unit taking on all of the action. For me, that’s odd because then why did you want to do an action film? Having said that, there are fantastic filmmakers who use second and third units successfully. So it all comes back to the question of defining what a director does. Each of us works in different ways. It’s really helped me keep more of my personality in these big films. There’s a danger with big-action fare that the presence of the filmmaker is watered down, it can become very neutral, so I’ve tried to keep my point of view in every aspect of these films.”
****On shooting with a single camera: “I use multi-camera for stunts; for all the dramatic action, I use single-camera. Shooting single-camera means I've already seen every frame as it’s gone through the gate because my attention isn't divided to multi-cameras. So I see it all and I watch dailies every night. If you’re always shooting multi-camera, you shoot an enormous amount of footage, and then you have to go in and start from scratch, which is tricky time-wise.”
Again, click for the full DGA interview, which covers Nolan’s preference for avoiding overshooting, the value of watching dailies to memorize footage, letting actors act, working quickly, visual constants in his films, guild membership vis-a-vis director's cuts, opinions on 3-D, CGI– and why he wears a suit to work!
*****Editor Jennifer Lame and her team on cutting the picture. Lots of details, including a further reason Nolan avoids overshooting: the IMAX magazines (film reels) are only three minutes long! Tom Foligno discusses Nolan’s single-camera approach about halfway through.
******More explanations on the different format types in the list here. In still photography, 70mm would be on the smaller end of 'medium format' (which goes up to 4" x 5”), as 'large format' in the stills world is an 8" x 10” negative. But in motion picture, 70mm is large-format. Moving images traditionally have lower resolutions than still images.
*******DP Hoyte van Hoytema, in a detailed interview with Kodak: "Although I shoot a lot of commercials using digital cameras, I still believe film is more engaging to watch and is much closer to the human visual experience," remarks van Hoytema. “[E]ven though the larger surface area of the emulsion means the grain is finer – especially in IMAX – they still had enough texture for me. There's still nothing that beats the resolution, depth, color and roundness of the analog image, nor in the feeling overall that film conveys.”
********Kodak had never manufactured black and white IMAX 70mm before, but they did so here at Nolan's request. You're seeing true black and white film at a size, tonal range and resolution never before seen. Says Hoytema: “[I]t was uncertain as to whether they would or could achieve it in time for this production. But they stepped up to the plate and supplied a freshly manufactured prototype DOUBLE-X 5222 65mm filmstock, delivered in cans with handwritten labels on the outside. However, as that filmstock was unfamiliar to everyone, had never been run though IMAX or System 65 cameras, and required the reconfiguration of a 65mm film processor at the lab, making the DOUBLE-X 5222 a feasible proposition involved a great deal of collaboration with Kodak, IMAX, Panavision and Fotokem. It became quite a complex engineering process– encompassing things like the thickness of the backing for the film emulsion, and making new gates and pressure plates in the cameras so as to avoid scratches.”
Says Nolan: “Of course, there were several methods I could have used to create a B&W image, but you never get the same feeling as when using real B&W analog film. And shooting B&W also took me right back to my student days at the Polish National Film, Television & Theatre School in Łódź, where understanding the greyscale, using your spot and incident light meters, and making your own personal judgement were critical in making the final image."
For my photographer friends! On aperture and focal length choices, also from the above article:
Hoytema: “Through the years we have discovered that the sweet spots with IMAX are 50mm and 80mm. Anything beyond those focal lengths and you start to diminish the immersive quality of the image. If you go too long the image appears compressed and more graphic, as if you're looking at a sort of flat screen. Anything too wide becomes more like a fishbowl, where the edges start to fall off too fast. So, the 50mm has become our wide lens, the 80mm our tighter lens. On close-ups they give you the right proximity and wideness, and everything around starts to function like the peripheral vision of your eyes. But when shooting our close-ups, we didn't want the camera to be six feet away from our subject. We wanted to be much tighter, so that you really feel the perspective and the intimacy. Also, I knew we would be filming in low-light situations and would need to shoot at T1.4 rather than a T4."
[Hello, new blog readers! I post at the beginning of every month. Click here for an index of recent notable posts.]
A few years ago Roxanne Ray at the IE interviewed me about my bus driving work, the results of which you can read here, and I wrote an essay (here) at the time about being Asian-American, which I tend not to write about.
The Examiner's Kevin Phan now interviews me about photography and image-making. As much as I love talking about bus stuff, and as rewarding as it was to share a word on racial identity, I'm especially grateful for the opportunity to speak in depth about art. Thank you Kevin for your thoughtful questions, and for everyone involved (Alan, Angela, and more!) for putting this together!
Read the interview here.
The above picture (by Larry Huang) is me in 2008, with a Pentax ZX-7 film camera that I still use today!
Reposting this 2019 breakdown of the story behind the making of the photograph above, by popular request! Enjoy!
This is my favorite photograph I've taken of the Notre Dame. I stood in front of it for a long time before making it. I pride myself in creating images without electronics, that are difficult to replicate, and more importantly, try to capture something of the feeling of the place. The emotion. What did it mean, to stand there, in the days after the murders?
I'd gone there in the weeks prior, more than once, usually in the mornings, searching for the right frame– of mind, of light, of mise-en-scene. Everybody with a camera who comes upon that great facade for the first time does this:
You just have to. If photography is an act of prayer, this is a gesture of respect toward sheer stupefaction of craftsmanship, the impressive iron stand of art outlasting time. Everyone takes this picture. It accomplishes nothing in terms of actually capturing the mind-boggling sensation of standing beneath all that carved stone, but nevermind. We humans are all living life for the very first time, and you have to cut us some slack for trying. I shot on Ektachrome slide film that I processed in chemicals intended for negative stock ("cross-processing"), the better to get those greens and high contrast; cross-processed film looks great but needs to be delicately exposed. Here I overexposed, as I like to do with color negative, and it just doesn't land. Compositionally, there's depth, sure, but it's missing something. You know it’s missing something because it’s got nothing on actually standing there.
Again, no dice. Not really. I'd put the blue filter on the lens in an effort to do something, anything, to get me out of the highly unnacceptable rut of turning architectural treasures into banalities. I was excited by how much happened with the subtle shift in angle; we were moving now. I imagined a slow tracking shot, gliding up the wall. And I'm in love with this lens, a Tamron 28mm, which is slightly too small for my (35mm) Pentax PZ1-P, thus creating the vignettes in the corners. But still. I could do more.
I abandoned strong lines and colors and went for a subtler take, involving the surroundings; first the clouds,
then the tourists.
These are the pictures where you look over them and say, "okay. Fine." Not bad. But not good, either. Abandoning depth, the most important compositional element in the two-dimensional format that is photography, needs to be for a killer reason, and these weren't it. I didn't know how to photograph the Notre Dame because I didn't know what it meant to me. Yet.
It was in the days after the massacre that the great facade and its plaza would gain new meaning for me. All of Paris was in shock. As I wrote in the days following November 13, 2015:
The tones are hushed, raw, somber, torn. Laughter has been replaced with silence. These are grown men now, with red eyes, ugly from crying but who cares, tears running down their stubble as they point at blood on the ground. You hear the question in every heaving sigh: when did the world stop making sense?
We stood there in the hours after. We stood there during the day, and we came back at night. Dumbfounded. That's sawdust in the lower left, absorbing the blood.
We stood by, paralyzed.
We stopped, those of us who never stop. Those circles on the wall identify where stray bullets are lodged.
And those of us who never cry, cried. We cried alone, heaving wet and sticky, broken in broad daylight.
Do you know about being alone in the world, like she is there? Or him, defined now not by what is there, but what isn't there, what is forever lost?
Everything was different now. Time moved differently; shadows became longer. Even in a crowd, silences were louder than noise:
This post is not about Notre Dame. It's about what we were thinking about when we thought the fire would ruin everything. Before we learned they preserved the essentials, that the structure still stands, that no one perished. It's about what the parents of those kids in Las Vegas still think about every night and every day, after the world has moved on and somehow managed to forget about 851 killed or injured, an event that remains low profile because it has no political, religious or otherwise easily blameable motivation. It's about what I think about when I think about Paris.
If I had walked the regular way home on November 13, 2015, this would have been the last known photograph:
As an image it is not remarkable. Last known photographs never are. Here is the second-to-last:
A more aesthetically accomplished composition, but I'm drawn instead to the last one. What does it show? What does it have in common with this man by the Seine, alone with his thoughts on the second day after?
Or this girl, also that week, who paused inexplicably in the midst of roundabout traffic, struck into stillness by a thought we’ll never know.
Do we only ever really have one thought, at the end of the long day, throughout the turning years? All the myriad inclinations and ponderings, suspicions and reflections unvoiced, as ever pulled back to the original human question:
Those two figures are living in the After, whereas my self-portrait snaps were taken before the event. But the mysteries that call to us are the same. This is what we were thinking:
Who writes the names of all the days, setting down the joy and the horror we don't yet know we will live? Is there really a wispy figure up there, long on years and maddeningly patient? Or is it the cynic's favorite explanation, a meaningless collision of atoms determining all that is ecstatic and all that is wisdom, a theory as ludicrous as its deterministic opposite? How human of us to guess, to presume we can even comprehend. Might it be something in between? What I know is that I don't know, and the fact of the universe being so much more than what we can grasp... that I find a comfort. Wouldn’t it be depressing, limiting, to know everything? I have seen miracles big and small, alignments and intersections far too sublime to insult by calling mere chance. There's something lurking in the light before memory, that lived in the dawn of our time, that lives within us still, even now.
I went back to the Notre Dame. I took comfort in its size, its art, its simultaneous resilience against and embodiment of time.
I took note of the surroundings in a way I hadn't before. The quiet reflection of the city was especially potent now, in spaces normally packed but now empty.
The absence of tourists made me think back on them. There was an East Asian family I remembered from a week earlier (visible in the "okay fine" photos above), in the plaza, taking photos of each other and the grand facade, skipping about and laughing in a manner both silly and reverent. They would pause, and a moment later the daughter would do a cartwheel. You can sense their happy-go-lucky sensibility in their gestures above.
Without succumbing to the myth that tragedy makes people wise (that only happens sometimes), I want to voice the possibility that terrible experiences can open your eyes to goodness in ways you only thought you knew before. You learn the value of things.
I now saw how much that family was onto something. You have to laugh your way through this life as much as anything else. I am most impressed by those who conflate lightness and wisdom, playfulness and thoughtfulness in the same breath of their lives, without compromise to either. If there is a hidden presence linking all things, don't you imagine it would approve equally of the Notre Dame's intricate artistic virtuosity... and the giggle in a preteen cartwheel? That there might be as valuable of an answer in her spirited and innocent verve, equally deserving of echoing through the centuries?
I like to think so. It was with that in mind that I picked the camera up again, and exposed three times on the same negative. The girl was gone, of course, but I wanted to impose her joie de vivre onto the great cathedral in a way that would let the best things about both attitudes live. It cannot all be somber. There must be movement, energy, and sometimes it won't be sitting there waiting for us to pick up. We have to create it from within ourselves.
That was what I could see now, that I couldn't see before.
If some of the above images are too small to view– here they all are, plus a few extra, in a slideshow:
The most lasting advice I received in Art School was to "think about how I think." To question why I respond this or that way, and to remember that the response is always a choice. Now that people talk to each other less on the bus, there's a lot more time for me to think while driving– and much tougher things to think about. We who step out into the streets of Seattle are faced daily with a proposition: what are we to make of all this? Will it ever change? We live on the precipice of despair. How do we keep from falling in? Read on (and pardon the length– this is a month's worth of blog posts all at once! Bookmark it and enjoy!)!
1. Of Laughter and Forgetting
I walked into the base after another rewarding evening on the mighty 7/49. Operator (we'll call him) Jim was there. I like Jim. I don't need people to be like me in order for me to enjoy their company, but he and I have a fair amount in common anyway.
"How was your night?"
“Mellow," Jim replied. "Except kids on my last trip through Union southbound, the trip before I see you, that's when they always wanna get on and smoke that shit. I went back there and told em, hey–"
"You went back there?”
“What, we're not supposed to?”
“Well,” I said, “I'm not gonna tell you how to drive, but shoot man, I admire your courage.”
“Sometimes you got to! These clowns–"
"Jim, here's– okay here's what I worry about. I think to myself what if he has a weapon. What if that's his friend across the aisle. What if he has five brothers and you're gonna see him again in an hour.”
“True. Okay. True.”
“But I understand wanting to do something about this stuff.”
“I can't stand it! I can take everything else. I don't mind all the other stuff." He paused, then spoke again. "You know what gets me about it? Is these youngsters don't care if there's kids on the bus, or elderly, they don't care about anyone else–"
"Exactly," I said. "Exactly! These new kids, 'cause not one of them is from Seattle, and–" he was nodding vigorously– “you know how beforehand, the whole concept of the street was, the ultimate currency of the street is respect? These kids don't get that!"
"Yeah! They don't understand!”
“The street has always been about respect. It's the whole point of how everything works out here. And now we have all these new people who–”
“You know, I watch 'em. At Pike. I wanna see how this shit works. Have you seen those puffs of smoke they get? I seen this lady had a piece of foil this big, with a huuuge–”
“No way! She's gonna overdose in no time!”
“Yeah! I thought the whole idea they smoke on buses is to get outta the wind and get the biggest hit a smoke they can, but they're gettin' it out there too! Just a mountain of fumes. You shoulda seen this lady. Like this.”
“She's gonna be dead in a week!”
2. The Lament
Yes, we were laughing. I dare you to call us insensitive. We, who in the early days of this drug melee saw the rows of dead bodies every pre-dawn morning, laid out on Third between Pike and Union, getting wrapped in body bags and tarp so they could quickly be removed from view before the day's commuters arrived. We, who are forced to inhale opiates against our will. Who are faced with impossible decisions. Some of us have failed drug tests as a result of being too close to offenders.
We, who witness crimes we can't stop, because no one will intervene, no one can stop this. My first experience with fentanyl was a young mother coming up to apologize for her toddler son, who'd vomited on the bus floor due to the fumes coming from the teens smoking right next to them.
We, who spent a lifetime making sure we didn't expose our bodies to this garbage, because we wanted to live long and healthy lives with our loved ones. That care, those decisions– are being taken away from us and every passenger who's done the same. Secondhand smoke of all kinds has lasting effects. Additionally, today's opiates are the sort which can cause addictive behaviors from a single use, permanent brain damage from a single exposure. Even if some fears are overblown, you have to admit this isn't kid stuff. Shouldn't consent be a necessary component of drug abuse? Especially indoors?
We watch as those with real power to change things remain distant, vocal but unmoving. We read with amazement statements from officials which reveal they don't know the first thing about what goes on out here, in the deep hours of the night (I'm not talking about Metro officials, where there have finally been some positive personnel changes). No, it is not us who are insensitive. It's the system. The system is a monster, unstoppable and insatiable.
The pattern was first revealed to the public in 2017: "vagrants" from small and mid-sized cities in the rural Midwest and South are given one-way Greyhound tickets to major West Coast cities. They get dumped in Seattle, where possessing, using and distributing drugs not only won't land you in any legal trouble, but the goods can be had for dirt cheap. Where ordinances are not enforced, shoplifting and breaking and entering are not prosecuted crimes, and no arrests will be made that don't involve physical assault. These are mandates I’ve learned about on the street from those with rueful personal experience. Basically: it's Disneyland. This is the kind of once-a-century lawbreaker's heaven you'd think would result in the happiest of delinquents.
The fact that street people are so uniformly miserable (which wasn't true pre-pandemic, but is now) is a testament to their humanity. They are not enjoying this melee. It is not fun for them.
They are hurting.
They are, like most of us, abandoned by those who profess to look out for them. They are waiting for someone to ask them what they need. Can you believe it has occurred to no elected official to do so? When will those in power learn that solutions are immeasurably better if those affected are involved in the decision-making process? Though it is true that kindness doesn't always mean giving people what they want, it is usually worthwhile to collaborate, to co-create.
Of course, Seattle's problems are well beyond the purview of Metro's responsibility. Metro is merely the setting, the whipping boy and scapegoat who takes on the frankly heroic role of the unwilling venue, while we– operators, commuters, passengers, residents– wait (im)patiently for a solution. Something needs to be done about the practice of shipping les miserables in from places that don't want them, and dumping them in cities unprepared to respond. It is not the way to take care of people.
4. Picture Yourself in Other Shoes
You've just been relocated to a new city, Seattle. Bigger than anywhere you've been. You have no contacts. You don't know about the Real Change Directory because why would you, you don't know where anything is, and it's obvious the streets are dangerous. You're out of your element and you know it. They said it would be Amazon and Starbucks. You don't need a latte; you need a weapon. And you need to figure a lot of stuff out. Where to get meds, where to get a state ID and how, learning what you can and can't achieve in Seattle based on your past, finding lists for housing, looking up shelters, food, clothes for living, clothes for interviews, a phone, where's a shower, a dentist for this toothache that's killing me, how to get insurance, a job, a job, a house, a job, my education records, a prescription renewal, internet, a library card, an address, more food, painkillers maybe, something for this headache, maybe a drink so I don't feel the cold…
And then, of course, you learn about the drugs. You learn they have that thing they had back home; not as much of it (Seattle isn't even in the top 20 cities for fentanyl, if you can believe it– see below), but still dirt cheap. And they can't arrest you over it?
Here's a description from a former user:
"Think of it this way….think about the most sick you’ve ever been in your life. Think about the cold sweat and chills running down your spine and the dreaded stomach cramps where you know you need to find a bathroom NOW. Now add on being nauseated. Now add on your whole body being sore and achey as if you worked out for 6 hours without stretching. Now add on your skin feeling like it’s going to explode. Now add on some yawning, eye tearing, HIGHLY bad anxiety, restless legs and the knowledge that this is going to last an entire week… or you could just get some Fentanyl and when you do it, allllll the sickness goes away INSTANTLY. It’s an amazing feeling if you’ve ever experienced it. And not only does it go away, your anxiety goes away and is replaced with good feelings. If you could live like that all the time with no consequences, why wouldn’t you? A lot of addicts think it’s worth the risk. I know I did while I was using. Addicts will literally seek it out not caring about whether it’s deadly or not because they need it to survive their day. They need it to not be sick, to stop the withdrawal and to get the high so they can function."
Why fix your problems when you can just forget them? Why bother with struggling to live when you can die instead? All deaths are suicides, someone once wrote. I disagree, but these deaths make you wonder. The new generation, this rural Gen Z influx, doesn't currently have the ability to take care of itself. That much is obvious. Seattle has the ability to take care of them, but isn't.
If you can't stop a generation from killing itself, you could at least create a safe space where they can do so while you figure out next steps. For nearly a century the city's most extreme cases to resided in the Jungle. With that enormous and largely autonomous facility closed, what was once hidden plays out in broad daylight. What are we to make of a society that allows such behavior? I hear conspiracy theories everyday. Similar to the dog days of 2003, when everyone had a solution to the Iraq war, now everyone has an opinion on what would fix everything, what's really going on, and why no one's taking action.
"I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” Einstein wrote. What weapons indeed, you ask. How about these: drugs? The Internet? Manipulation of information? Taking advantage of a country's most vulnerable people?
This is a picture of the mind racing.
5. The State of Things
"You can get a contact high from fentanyl, you'll black out," I was saying to Jim. "I've talked with passengers who've had that happen to them, just last night this mom from Texas. She didn't know what hit her. Woke up on the other side of town, had to walk all the way back."
“It's sad,” Jim said, in a tone representing both defeat and discovery.
“They're all new. These kids.”
“Yeah," he added. "And they don't hang out with the old guys. Have you ever noticed the guys who drink, and the guys who smoke that shit… never mix?”
“Never! In fact if someone cracks open a beer, I'm honestly relieved because I know for sure, that that guy's not gonna smoke any fentanyl!" Jim howled in recognition as I continued. "And you know what else? I kinda like having people who smell bad now, because they'll clear out a coach!"
Jim could barely keep his composure. In between guffaws he said, “You know that, you know that guy who shuffles?”
“I know exactly who you're talking about!"
"He's my magic, my little good luck charm!"
"All you have to do is get him on–”
“–and you can ask him to go sit in the back, he doesn't even get mad, just says okay, and starts going back there, and then– and then–"
“They can't handle it!”
“They can't take it!”
No, we are not being insensitive. We laugh because laughter is the only tool we have left. When all power has been taken away, there is nothing left to do but make music. Our lives are short, and while civilization crumbles around us– if indeed it is crumbling– I will laugh, smile, share joy, including with those individuals alluded to above, they who are most scorned and feared.
We can remember that people have different starting points in the game of life, some with less resources than others, and this isn't their fault. Everyone makes stupid decisions; only some of us have to live out giant chunks of their lives defined by our worst moments. Can you blame them for their hopelessness? Can you blame them for not caring about the rules of a society they feel has rejected them? For flaunting their disregard, the way a child does who feels humiliated, wronged? These are the grapes of wrath. "Kill me please, or else I will," reads a scrawled plea on a light rail seat.
This is the state of things.
6. How I Live Now
I greet the new boys and girls on the block with the same gusto as ever, and they respond with ignorance or confusion. They're on edge because they're on foreign turf, a new city with boundaries and histories they know they're clueless about. Survival mode. They're not expecting anything approaching kindness, but I give it to them anyway, without expecting a response… and then it starts to happen.
There is one, then maybe another, not as much as pre-COVID but even still, in these conditions, there are glimmers. You can't stop humanity, can't curtail its hunger for connection. "This guy's cool," I'll hear them say. "He actually talks. Actually likes his job, gives a shit about the people." Eventually they begin to understand you're not looking down on them. Building relationships with some of the crew at 12th and Jackson has been one of my great post-pandemic joys.
A young man running out from his hangout spot behind a bus shelter, stepping away from his friends for a moment to pump his first in the air toward me with gratitude, pounding his solar plexus and nodding with a mighty grin, returning my bow and salute. These are the moments I was made for.
A lovely conversation with two young men that ends with one sheepishly telling me, "I'm sorry if you ever see me, uh you know, passed out on the street or acting out. I'm kinda hooked on that stuff."
"We all have phases, right?"
He beamed with appreciation. "Exactly."
Or another, chatting it up with a young man in recovery. He's on methadone now, and employed, reveling in the de-stressed headspace of clean living. Look at the kindness in his eyes. I know that face. I've seen it on others. It is my own face, the child who lives inside the man, still somehow hoping for goodness, sometimes hesitant to believe. Here it is again in a prematurely aged man, likely a veteran of time behind bars, miraculously still in possession of a certain recognizable softness in the eyes. I want to give him a hug.
You realize there are degrees. It isn't the same level of unstable, or type of usage. Some street people are scared of other street people.
"Sorry 'bout that," a woman said after her screaming partner stormed off the coach. "I ain't even with him."
"Well, I'd rather have you on the bus than him!"
"Ha! Yeah, he's got his own, uh, problems."
"Don't we all. 'Specially these days."
"Right. These days is crazy, with them blues…" Blues means fentanyl. "They still overdose every night! Addicts! Dumbasses! I'm a drug addict, but shit…"
"Right. I don't smoke that shit. You'd hafta be crazy to go near that stuff."
"Totally. Too much… death!"
"Right, all you do is overdose on that bullshit. You take it, then ya die. Simple. People thought heroin was something, pssshhhh, heroin ain't got nothin' on this."
A man behind me, speaking to his ladyfriend as they watch another panoply of incomprehensible behaviors at a bus stop; a fellow outside had desperately yelled for me to wait for him, only to lose interest and start doing handstands. "Man, shit like that is why we get left." Referring to how often buses pass up zones now. "No wonder!"
7. New Frontiers
I realize it's the same game as before, just under harsher circumstances. Street people used to be from Seattle, and they weren't all on drugs. Now they're strangers in a strange land, further ostracized by pandemic fears, surrounded by cheap temptation and money they can't have. But we can still push toward connection. Society's given up on them, they seem to have given up on themselves, and yet…
Seattle has always been a frontier town. This is a place of beginnings. The recent corporate takeovers have tried their best to conceal it, but no amount of homogenized, artless extravagance can suppress the city's grit-grime texture, its envelope-pushing origins, the cluttered vibrance and dirty beauty of its enterprising spirit. Cities are living things, with forces of gravity that extend beyond the control of leaders and interests. Frontiers are born in rebellion. They involve strife, violence, unorganized angst that dreams of something greater. These are the ingredients humans have for rebirth. We are failing forward, stumbling together in the night, and it is all pointing in a direction, no more visible to us than to our forbears who lived through worse hardship. Suffering is when we grow, learn, bind ourselves to something higher, and Seattle is currently in labor.
Am I afraid? Sometimes, yes. Am I saddened and frustrated? Sometimes, yes. I'm saddened when street people assume I hate them, because others do, and act accordingly. I'm frustrated when they default to believing they are unloved, that the world's against them. They, like the rest of us, see only what they're looking for, and they accordingly fail to see my smile, fail to hear my words and tone. They were respected and acknowledged for a moment in the night, appreciated by a stranger for their common humanity, and they didn't have a clue.
It's their loss.
I keep on. I do my part. They don't have to respond. I do this for myself. I do it for the greater good.
It is a part of me I wish to keep alive.
Sources and further reading:
Importing unhoused people:
The Guardian US, 2018: “Bussed Out: How America Moves Its Homeless.” Online Journalism Awards.
Seattle's problems less severe than other cities:
American Addiction Centers, 2023: "Highest Drug Use by City." Primarily midwest cities; breakdowns by drug type.
American Addiction Centers, 2023: "Top 10 US States with Drug Overdose Deaths." West Virginia sits at #1. Data and context for each state.
Monarch Shores Recovery: "10 Cities with Worst Drug Problems." With info for each city.
Families Against Fentanyl: "Fentanyl By State: Report." A data compilation primarily using 2021 CDC data.
CDC: "Drug Overdose Mortality by State."
ChangingTheNarrative, 2023. "The Tired Narratives of Drug Policy." Clarification of stigmatizing/reductive language regarding addiction and policing issues; however, not Seattle-specific (in practical terms, dealing and possessing are not illegal here).
ChangeWA, 2020: "A Loophole that Effectively Legalizes Most Crime in Seattle." Analysis of Seattle city council action to excuse and dismiss most misdemeanor crimes.
Seattle City Attorney: "Seattle Isn't Dying."Alternate opinion to above.
KUOW, 2022: "Why is Seattle dropping 2,000 misdemeanor cases?" Explanation of the backlog and choice.
Drug impacts on the body:
CDC: "Health Problems Caused by Secondhand Smoke."
Johns Hopkins University, 2023. "Opioid Use Disorder." On addictive behaviors and impacts.
American Addiction Centers, 2022: "Opiates, Overdose and Permanent Brain Damage." Brief explanation of hypoxic brain damage.
NIH, 2020: "Fentanyl panic goes viral: The spread of misinformation about overdose risk from casual contact with fentanyl in mainstream and social media." Analysis of various comments, their impacts, and degree of foundation in fact.
WhiteHouse.gov: "Fentanyl: Safety Recommendations for First Responders" (PDF). Unlike operators, first responders primarily encounter fentanyl in solid form.
The international perspective
DEA, 2020: "Fentanyl Flow to the United States." Executive Summary, Unclassified Document (PDF).
The Guardian, 2023: "The China-Mexico fentanyl pipeline: increasingly sophisticated and deadly." Brief overview of business models.
The Urbanist's Ray Dubicki chats it up with Nathan. We talk about buses, photography, the changing face of Seattle, its evolving crises, the need for creativity and ways of harnessing it, and so much more.
Listen and read all about it here!
Lots of insider tech-talk on this one, but isn't that kind of fun? Read on to get the scoop on how working the streets looks from the driver's seat!
The shakeup has just begun. You’re new to Third Ave Operations, and you’re feeling overwhelmed. This post is for you. OR, you’ve been around the block, and you think you know what you’re doing. This post is also for you. Why?
Because like motorcyclists, bus accidents happen most often not with newbies or veterans, but with folks who are neither, who are in between, who’ve been operating about 5-10 years. That’s right. Drivers who think they know what they’re doing, but don’t realize they haven’t quite caught up to their confidence level. Humble yourself, my friend, and remind yourself of the following. Give your brain a refresher. Pass it on to your newer colleagues without looking down on them. They need our help, not our attitude. It’s an overwhelming job. Remember when you were new?
A few reminders about operating downtown:
Third Avenue is the street which has the most bus traffic per hour, per day, in the world. It requires focus and skill to make this work, and you have focus and skill. Take pride in what you do. Do the Weave. What is the Weave? It’s explained fully in the Book (now called the Manual, under "Third Ave Operations"), but for now, you can condense it all into three easy tips:
Speaking of trolleys:
Hello, operators new to trolley! A few reminders:
Generally (diesels and trolleys):
Further reading, including passenger stuff:
-What I've Learned From Other Bus Drivers (half of everything I know comes from my awesome colleagues. Tone of hot tips here)
-A Love Letter for My Colleagues: Exercises and Stretches for Operators (half the battle of a happy mental state is taking care of your body. Those lil' aches and pains you're having may be impacting your view of the job more than you think!)
-For New Bus Drivers: Thoughts, Tips, and Stories
-Skip-stopping and Newbies (explanation of the Weave vs skip-stopping outside the CBD)
-How to Drive the 7: The Complete Care Package (everything from stop-by-stop directions to tips on fights and sleepers!)
-I Don't Know What a Trolley is, Part I
-I Don't Know What a Trolley is, Part II
Click here for some background plus the bottom half of this list. Without further ado, here's the top half plus runners up:
7. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse)
"I think we should stick together as a class."
Dir. Maria Speth
Synopsis: Document of a middle-school teacher teaching his final class using an unorthodox approach.
I tend not to think of documentaries as being cinema; they’re a different medium, doing their own thing with different standards of expectation. As Frederick Wiseman says about his own films, though, and as he would undoubtedly say about this very Wiseman-eqsue piece, this isn’t a documentary. It isn’t seeking to impose an opinion on reality. It just is. Due to the necessity of editing, of what’s kept in the frame and what’s kept out, no film can escape subjectivity; but this is as close as we can get to a true fly-on-the-wall experience. Herr Bachmann is 217 minutes spent in the classroom and with the lives of these very real people, and this very real, deeply inspiring beacon of a teacher, bringing souls and minds together in that unique and somewhat rare anachronism: a small town that (due to certain historical specificities) is ethnically diverse. The film is a microcosm of many things, and a reminder of how we can behave.
Most of the films on this list, and great films generally since 1960-70, are depictions of what not to do, presented for the edification of the audience. Cinema is often afraid of being sincere. Sincerity is delicate, sometimes very nearly too beautiful to handle. In the wrong hands it loses its spark and tips into schmaltz. But director Speth modulates her depiction of life with great, subtle finesse, and offers us that rarest of things– an inspirational and entirely rejuvenating example of what's still possible. A model for living, and a hope for our future.
6. All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)
""In the name of humanity, I ask you to agree to a ceasefire."
Dir. Edward Berger.
Synopsis: A German soldier in World War I loses everything.
You are wondering what another war film could possibly bring to the cinematic conversation. There are already excellent war films. You have your favorites. But this one is different. The landmark German novel was famously adapted in 1930 into a decades-ahead-of-its-time version as successful as Saving Private Ryan in shocking audiences into the realities of war, and ended on a punishingly sudden note that still horrifies to this day. Edward Berger’s new version is the first German adaptation of the novel, which itself continues to grab people because of passages like this:
“But the bayonet has practically lost its importance. It is usually the fashion now to charge with bombs and spades only. The sharpened spade is a more handy and many-sided weapon; not only can it be used for jabbing a man under the chin, but it is much better for striking with because of its greater weight; and if one hits between the neck and shoulder it easily cleaves as far down as the chest. The bayonet frequently jams on the thrust and then a man has to kick hard on the other fellow's belly to pull it out again; and in the interval he may easily get one himself. And what's more the blade often gets broken off. "
You’ve never seen that in a film. You won’t see it here either, but you’ll feel it: the freshness of unvarnished perspective. The novel and its story pull back layers of enculturation, socialization, misguided beliefs. It emphasizes the reality of war not only on the ground (as many films do) but also ideologically (which most films avoid): that it’s nothing more than rich men hiding in rooms, sending poor people to do their fighting for them, and considering those poor lives completely expendable. Says director Berger, “Normally, the moment I bring up my next project, my kids disappear. They think, ‘Oh, it’s so boring.’ But this time, my daughter heard the title and she whipped around and said, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front? You absolutely have to do it. It’s the book that’s touched me most. I cried three times. I just read it in school.’ She was 17 at the time. She’s now 20. I thought, ‘If a book still has such an impact on a 17-year-old girl something like 90 years after its publication…’ — and it’s a war novel, it’s not really meant to entertain a 17-year-old girl— there must be some relevance left to it.”
And so there is. This adaptation belongs in the conversation of the best three or four war films ever made. Why?
It remains faithful to Erich Maria Remarque’s famous lines: “death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it.” It understands that courage, bravery, morality, ethics, accountability, and respect do not exist on the battlefield, and if ever they do, they are the exception proving the rule.
It understands that men are never tough; they only pretend to be. All men are children, and the toughest of them are merely convincing actors. Casting the distinctly 'unmanly' theatre actor Felix Kammerer in the lead was a wise coup, and emphasizes the fragility of humans in inhuman spaces.
It reminds us of the overstepping humiliation of the November armistice and Treaty of Versailles, without which WWII might have been avoided. World War I more specifically encapsulates the regular problem of war being the result of territorial or ideological squabbles and leaders hungry for power and recognition. All violence is an attempt to restore pride. All violence is an attempt to eliminate shame. In this case, the wounded pride of a few child-men who happen to be leaders.
Its spectacular photography. Consider the painterly frames in the trailers above, and their rich, saturated blues, teals and oranges. Note the depth in the compositions. The awareness of texture (especially mud) and deployment of it as a motif. Berger and lenser James Friend take a page from Deakins’ work on 1917, particularly in Deakins’ use of color and shadow, but they put all their camera movements and cutting in service of the narrative and its ideas, rather than as an (impressive) showcase of technical virtuosity. Berger also pushes much further in tackling the ramifications of what he’s depicting than 1917 does.
And most successfully, it manages to avoid the trap Ursula K. Le Guin warned us about:
That the treason of the artist is to make evil interesting. To conceal “the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
5. The Blue Caftan (Le bleu du caftan)
"No wants to learn the craft anymore, Halim."
Dir. Maryam Touzani
Synopsis: A middle-aged tailor and his wife find their relationship turned upside down by the arrival of a handsome new apprentice.
Perhaps I found the pace glacial because the chairs in the theatre were massively uncomfortable. Did that affect the film? Did it, perhaps, help the film? Sometimes a slow pace is a good thing. It encourages us to think. It invites further reflection, thoughts we wouldn’t have had otherwise, like standing before a painting for a long rather than a short time. I found myself incomparably moved by the enormous decency these characters have. What deeply embedded goodness. That alone makes the film worth seeing. It keeps authentically to the gentle pace of their lives, during a period of simultaneous decline and rebirth. Are all of our days perhaps the same? Can we fashion our lives to include beginnings, and not only endings? If we were judging films by their conclusions, this would be my pick for the year.
"It's a disease."
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Synopsis: During Hollywood's transition to sound, a production assistant witnesses the declining fortunes of those around him and tries not to get lost himself.
Okay. Let's talk about this.
I. Context and a warning
Firstly: Babylon is a victim of the laziest marketing campaign I can recall, which managed not to convey the simplest facts of the film’s story (the effects of a changing industry on three characters), time period (Hollywood at the inception of sound and censorship), who its main characters are (an inexperienced PA with a talent for improvisation; a breakout female star; a popular male actor in decline), the fact that its director previously made the critical and commercial smash hits La La Land and Whiplash, nor its main theme (the monstrous and inviolably destructive impact of celebrity). Paramount underwent a regime change between the greenlighting and release of this film, but even so you’d imagine the marketing department could have done better, considering the gold they were given to work with.
But in time we'll forget all that. Only the film will remain, and the film is magnificent. But should come with a warning: you will not be prepared for the level of depravity in this film. It puts The Wolf of Wall Street, Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge and others to shame. I was surprised to learn how much of it is accurate. The film’s most outrageous moments have inspirations from life, and the title is, in every way, spot-on (even Mr. Maguire’s underground nightclub has antecedents in life; such a place existed in 1920s Paris). We easily forget the incredible difference between the '20s and the period lasting from about 1930 to 1960. Los Angeles in the '20s was a town, not a city, a desert town with dirt roads, and it seemed highly improbable that the place would ever become bigger. It was an unregulated space. What were these people doing out there in the desert, and who were they?
II. Desperation and its clutches
The medium of film was still new, and the system for making them in Hollywood hadn’t been codified. Overseers were few. There were more women directors. People of color could make moves they couldn’t later on. Money was flowing. Drugs, parties, overdoses and suicides were aplenty. People were coming out of a world war and a worldwide pandemic, and there was desperation in the air. New drugs were overrunning the place. (Sound familiar?) People were coming in from small towns all over the country, totally unprepared for the worlds they were making, falling in with, working in a medium that people weren’t even sure was art yet, a medium that stumbled behind the innovative spirit that was pulsing through 1920s painting, music, literature, and architecture. It was on the verge of joining them, of peaking, in the wild fever of silent film, the most creatively fertile period in the history of the movies… when the nearly simultaneous twin introduction of sound films and conservative morals came along and, incredibly, made things worse than they already were.
Chazelle’s new film is only partly a hate letter to Hollywood, following the love letter that is his 2016 La La Land. He reinforces the idea of this being a companion piece in reworking a musical motif from the previous film. But in a vein closer to Scorsese’s famous penchant for not telling the audience what to think about his characters, Chazelle here asks us questions while rigorously withholding answers.
The outrageous nature of the behavior shown in the parties and elsewhere in the film belies a certain desperation. People act out when they’re desperate. They hide when they’re desperate, through escape, distraction, excess. What are they hiding from? What is the logical extension of such excessive behavior? What lies at the end of running, and running, and running away? That’s the elephant in the room in the opening party scene, not the four-legged behemoth which crashes into the space. Notice how joy progressively seeps out of the parties until all that remains is a nightmare. Some things are not sustainable, and 1920s Hollywood was one of them. The town was then, as it is today, a place that destroys people, and Chazelle’s canvas conveys the all-inclusive power of the death drive we call celebrity. Only the meek, the wise, the untainted, stand a chance of getting out.
Formally, you won’t find a more intoxicating experience. Shot in 35mm and readily detectable as such, the image positively oozes life with its swimming grain, deep, rich tone curves, inky blacks and use of anamorphic period lenses barely able to hold focus in close-ups. Observe the wild enthusiasm of the tracking shots following Margot Robbie through the outdoor set and elsewhere; the deft precision of the montages, most notably in the ‘first sound take’ scene and its escalating tension through repetition; and the astonishing first hour, which is two huge sequences you won’t soon forget.
III. That Ending
Like TÁR but less so, Babylon presents its ending as a Rorschach test, letting us interpret as we wish. [SPOILERS] I don’t see the final montage as an homage to cinema, as many have written. In the same way that I don't think Brad Pitt's monologues extolling popularity are to be taken literally (witness his inability to recognize the gift he later receives): a depiction is not automatically an endorsement.
I see Manny Torres as a man who’s been smart enough to get out of the game, and who remembers with conflicted feelings the world he left behind. Yes, he and especially his actor friends achieved a sort of immortality… but at what price?
All his friends are dead, and they’ve been turned into punchlines.
The film he’s watching has no idea what those battlefields were like. What losses and joys were sustained, what hardship and suffering and vitality. He sees that the film image cannot compete with the complexity of life. Existence is eternally unresolvable, and cinema can only reflect it, never solve it. Cinema is a mere shadow... oh, but what a shadow! What a hypnotic mix of creation, as filled with garbage as gold! Chazelle is keen to include not just obviously great films, but mediocre ones too, as well as pictures as awful as some of the duds Manny and his friends sweated their hearts out making.
Is Babylon itself aware that it may be the last film of its kind? A large-scale, big-budget dramatic picture for adults only? Something about the conclusive finality of this montage hints at that for me. We are at the end of the road, and this audacious picture, in its last sequence, seeks the impossible– to contain all the madness which came before. The montage is imperfect; all montages of the entire history of cinema are. But you have to admire the audacity of it. The images turn to shots of processing emulsion and finally to pure washes of color, reduced to the elemental. All things come to an end. It’s 1952 in America, and like today, everyone is spelling the end of cinema, at long last destroyed due to television, declining attendance, declining quality. It is on its last legs. It is dying. It is dead. But that’s okay.
When it was alive, he was there.
3. Happening (L'événement)
Dir. Audrey Diwan
Synopsis: A pregnant high-schooler in 1960s France wishes to continue her schooling, but finds herself pregnant.
How solitary is lived experience, and how especially so when our trials must be kept private? Those of you who've had to live with traumas that can't be shared, or feel like they can't be shared, will relate. Perfect films are rare. This is one.
Director Audrey Diwan’s degree of formal rigor in this, only her second film, astounds. The 1.33:1 frame is an appropriate choice for the claustrophobic storyline and its singular focus on its protagonist, a high schooler who seeks desperately to get an abortion at a time when it was still illegal in France to do so. Diwan’s precise compositions recall Andrea Arnold’s assertion that the 1.33 ratio is a portrait frame, and implicitly respects a figure who’s centrally placed in it. The world may not respect the girl’s livelihood, goals, and needs (the material is based on novelist’s Annie Ernaux’s own harrowing trials as a teen), but the mise-en-scene does. Diwan’s careful decisions in sound, and especially silence, are best experienced in a theatre. Winner of the Golden Lion (Best Film) at Venice.
2. The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin)
"You don't have to say anything."
Dir. Colm Bairéad
Synopsis: 1981, rural Ireland. A neglected girl spends a summer with foster parents.
Gentle kindness can be rare. Are we so callous that we don’t afford it the same wonder we reserve for more obviously shocking things? Can we summon up enough of our best selves to celebrate it, foster it within ourselves and appreciate its quiet grace? It is a perfect film. Kind and small, every note containing volumes, with an attentive and sensitive camera registering the smallest details as the important moments they are. Note the narrow depth of field, the limited color palette, deft interweaving and elongation of time and space.
"Don't be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity. "
Dir. Todd Field
Synopsis: An exploration of the intersection between the impulse toward creativity and the impulse toward power.
I’ll reuse Rivette’s famous comment on Journey to Italy as the best way to sum up this film: with the arrival of TÁR, all other films have instantly aged ten years.
Films usually lag behind social movements because they take so long to make. This is the film, finally, that comprehends the modern age. It sees, and pierces, and elevates us with its forceful, prodigious being. With more rigor than any film I’ve recently seen, TÁR withholds its opinion on what it’s showing us. Director Field does not ever tell us what to think of his remarkable main character, the things she does (or perhaps doesn’t do), and the things that happen to her. Does the final scene represent a downfall? Or an awakening?
The film can be seen as a portrait of power and its corrupting influence, but without denying the truth of that, I think that’s the easy interpretation. It is as easily a film about how power structures stand exhaustingly in the way of making great art rather than facilitating it. It can be seen as a culture closing in, a death of the possibility of art; a portrait of a world where creativity can no longer blossom. Or as the great critic Justin Chang says, of “a world where everyone wears masks, and the power of the sublime no longer holds sway.”
It is a film which rejects the either/or dichotomies we so readily embrace now. It encourages us to consider how these characters got to the point in which we see them. Certainly Lydia Tár and Sharon had a healthy relationship beforehand; what happened? When did Lydia’s priorities begin to shift, probably without her realizing? Unlike many films this one acknowledges the reality of the COVID pandemic and depicts people, like us, coming out of it, and also like us, with psyches damaged by its constraints and not fully aware of the impacts.
There are truths to be found in Field’s Kubrickian control of the camera. His precise compositions and remarkable use of silence and sound. The impressionistic intercutting of fears, visions, memories all as one, the incorporation of how Lydia hears the world around her, how her predilections result in constant paranoia… this is all conveyed through form, not dialogue. Second viewings will reveal figures in the distance. Patterns that shouldn't be there. Field’s insistence on shooting all exteriors and window-facing interiors during a specific three-week period in Berlin’s November, because there’s a quality of light then that he found important, is only one example of the endless detail this slippery picture possesses. Even more than Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (essay of mine on that one here), I can’t think of another modern picture which respects its audience to this degree. It gives you no instruction on how to decode its protagonist, no decree on how to judge her. The film is instead a Rorschach test which tells you about yourself (and changes on different viewings).
The finale can be seen (SPOILERS) as her final and deserved humiliation; as her finally stripped of her power, with only skill left behind. The film is slippery. It can be seen as an indictment of a system that feeds the worst behaviors, condemning them while also, hypocritically, demanding the hunger for power that fosters them. It’s also a magic trick, pulling our attention away from what’s in plain sight. We wonder whether she’s preyed on the student(s) or not, but that’s a distraction from the undeniable crime right in front of our faces: the monstrously selfish and transactional nature of her interactions with all the people she comes into contact with. It’s the mundane, unconcealed, quotidian interactions which tell you the truth about a person. The film trusts us, enormously, to have the intelligence to come up with our own conclusions, our own interpretations.
I see the ending (still SPOILERS!) as her having, at long last, transcended her pride. She has finally, and not by her choice, had to put behind herself her transactional lust for control, for the limelight, and let what was always there take precedence: her passion for creating. Power is addictive. Who are you when it’s easily available? Who are you when it’s taken away from you? Art demands risk-taking. Here she is stripped clean. She takes the work, ridiculous and lowbrow as it is, seriously. On her terms. It was always the artmaking that was her passion, and here she can do it, finally, without having to chase power. How many films are aware the how matters more than the what?
TÁR is a film of questions, answered with more questions. It will outlast all the titles on this list.
The titles below are included because I saw them only once and they were too overwhelming to process on a single viewing and I don’t know how to rate them, despite getting much out of them. I had to see TÁR and Babylon twice to appreciate their effect. Maybe these titles are similarly masterful, or not; but either way they didn't reveal themselves fully on first viewing, and this is to their credit.
"Will you ever come back home?"
Dir. Lukas Dhont
Synopsis: A boy learns a crucial fact about himself, too late.
A boy who doesn’t know a crucial fact about himself. When does it come to him? There is no exact moment. Or is there? How are insights born? There are epiphanies we have which feel more like afterthoughts; a surprise at something our body already knew, which we are only now coming round to consciously grasping. The less said about this extraordinary film, the better. Relinquish yourself to its sensitivities. Notice its remarkable natural light cinematography.
“Stay away from wild animals when you’re unarmed.”
Dir. Cristian Mungiu
Official synopsis: A non-judgmental analysis of the driving forces of human behavior when confronted with the unknown, of the way we perceive the other and on how we relate to an unsettling future.
Everything in this film, like the line above, has a double meaning. his respect for the audience approaches that of Field’s TÁR– how about that ending, which could be interpreted at least four different ways, all of them legitimate. It’s a puzzle box, and it makes us ask ourselves how we think, what we believe. RMN as a title suggests “Romania,” where the film takes place, but it also means “MRI,” and it lives up to that title in being a thorough dissection of the country’s cultural attitudes. What’s to be done in the face of such awful racism? The ending, in combination with Mingiu’s other pictures, hints at a solution, and it’s neither belligerent nor optimistic.
As for style– Mingiu is the 21st-century formalist par excellence. Notice how he only moves the camera when a character moves in such a way as to motivate the movement. He composes in a manner that recalls both the tableau and the deep-focus composition. Note his 17-minute shot of the town hall meeting– the careful overlaps of dialogue, the cramming of detail into the frame and skillful drawing of our eye from this area to that with speech, head turns, and other movement (click here for an interview with Mingiu about the construction of that scene).
C. Hold Me Tight (Serre moi fort)
"She won't come back."
Dir. Mathieu Almaric
Synopsis: A woman one day simply walks out on her family. Or does she?
Reknowned actor Almaric serves here as director, and like his previous La chambre bleue, makes demands of the audience hardly any American film would dare. I had to struggle to keep up– not because things were convoluted, but because I was being asked to think differently. To step up and use as much of my brain, memory, knowledge of people and life– as possible. Don't you love that feeling? When you rise to your fullest self? How often is any form of that asked of us? I was reminded of reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and needing to draw charts to figure out what was going on. This is cinema at its most sophisticated... and its most emotionally searing. The beguiling structure doesn't confuse, but somehow rather instead pulls us in, asks us to engage and grapple, and we feel involved, experientially, in a way most films don't realize they can attempt. Hold Me Tight goes there. I'm glad I took the journey.
It's been a year of challenging cinema, and beautifully photographed cinema. As with Close, note the absolutely gorgeous natural light cinematography, and the tendency toward evocative shallow focus.
D. Armageddon Time
Dir. James Gray
Synopsis: Based on an incident Gray lived through as an eleven-year old when he transitioned from public to private school in 1980s New York City.
No filmmaker since Bresson so knows himself, and can speak about his work with such accuracy, as James Gray. His numerous press appearances are treasure troves for students of film and life. Here, taking the memoir format a la The Fabelmans, he spares his child-self character no mercies of depiction, aiming for the truthful jugular at all times. He expects us to pay attention (for example, not spelling out that that red-haired racist classmate is a future US president). And Gray refrains from pointing fingers, not letting himself off the hook over an admittedly minor culminating incident, but lets us decide how to feel. Unlike so much contemporary discourse we're not asked to take sides, and more than that Gray doesn't tell us which ideas are the film's; in interviews he points out Hopkins' eloquent advice is a contradiction to his own past behavior, and that Strong's well-meaning suggestion to his son is given with blinders the speaker doesn't know he has on. Life is complicated. The oppressor can also be oppressed. An outstanding film I feel I need to see twice in order to say I’ve seen it once.
He has the nerve [SPOILERS] to end on a note of complete limbo, resisting all impulses to deviate from the maxim we know is true: peace is found not in answers, not in understanding, but in relinquishing the need for them. Life is merely to be experienced, and we do the best we can, improving as we go along.
E. The Radiant Girl (Une jeune fille qui va bien)
"I pretended not to see."
Dir. Sandrine Kiberlain
Official Synopsis: “Paris, summer 1942. Irene is Jewish and French. She is 19 and living a life of passions - Her friendships, her new love, her desire to be an actress - Nothing suggests that Irene's time is running out.”
The synopsis says it all. That, and the original title, which translates more closely as “A young girl who is well.” We know with historical hindsight that humiliation, suffering and death await her and all her Jewish friends and family. But she doesn’t know any of that. What don’t we know about our own futures, now? And does it matter? What else can you do but go forth as well as you can, as radiantly as you can, with your best and most joyful foot forward? To be happy as fully and richly as possible, right up until the moment you can't?
F. The Whale
"Think about the truth of your argument."
Dir. Darren Aranofsky
Synopsis: An obese English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.
It’s so nice to see kindness enacted onscreen. Empathy, forgiveness. As mentioned earlier, many of these titles enlighten us by illuminating the harsh realities of bad decisions. It’s been said that a Tragedy is a story wherein a character experiences the consequences of their actions, and a Comedy is a story wherein the character doesn’t experience the consequences of their actions (which is why 2019’s Joker is, as its main character correctly notes, a Comedy, though my main beef with that film is that the character evolves into an abstraction). If that is true than The Whale is a Tragedy, but it doesn’t feel like one, because the protagonist’s actions lean toward the good. Kindness is the goal. Samuel Hunter's screenplay believes not the cynic's gospel about how positivity covers up harsher truths, but rather the opposite: badness is superficial, and beneath the layers of protection, posturing, and hate is a wounded animal who is hurting, who would like to be loved. And doesn't know how to ask for it.
What enormous impact we have on others when we learn to love ourselves.
Thanks for reading!!