Above images courtesy the New York Times and City of Seattle.
"What I love about bus drivers is that we never talked about driving."
–Stokley Towles, as interviewed by Seattle Weekly
If you have any interest in this blog at all, you're going to love these two shows– both of which are about to close. Although Stokley Towles and Kehinde Wiley may be offering quite different work, they both articulate attitudes and outlooks which represent fundamental pillars upon which my blog is built. One man shares stories of life and work (in this case, the work of bus driving) with a loving attention to humor and detail; the other offers images which recontextualize African-American culture (specifically contemporary male youth culture) as a celebratory, non-confrontational, and much needed addition to the great lineage of Western art.
Towles understands the intrinsic appeal of unusual work environments and is able to tap into the human-interest element of something as specific as bus driving. I saw a performance of his once on wastewater treatment, and he made the subject riveting and hilarious. He takes a journalistic and anthropological focus to what he calls municipal systems– the networks which form the infrastructure of day-to-day civic life, and which often remain invisible to us, who rely on those structures constantly. He makes the world of bus driving relatable, funny, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming. Buy tickets here for Towles' remaining performances, which actually take place on a (stationary) Metro bus and are based on his own heavy research (some of which was conducted with yours truly!). My blog is the experience of only one operator; his lecture is an amalgamation of dozens.
He recognizes the universality of human experience and taps into what we're really all looking for– some form of connection, acknowledgment, affirmation of existence. The closing lines are a thing of beauty. As a performer, he manages to be precise and lively concurrently, without apparent detriment to either, organically flowing and yet meticulously rehearsed down to the motion: no placeholding "um"s or "uh"s here. The spoken word is an art, and Towles is a master. Here's an interview with the man about this project and his experiences researching it. The Stranger review here.
I should also add that his is the first artistic treatment of bus driving I've encountered given by a non-bus driver that I can call completely accurate.
Above photo courtesy Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.
Here on my blog, I often find myself particularly drawn to sharing stories of young black men behaving kindly or politely– right back to the very first interaction which started it all. Longtime readers will be nodding their heads. These actions are often pretty banal (the most recent one being literally nothing more than five men saying hello while paying fare), and on my bus, they happen all the time. For every story I share here, there are five more like it.
Why do I share them so?
I imagine for the same reason that Kehinde Wiley paints his paintings: to address a void. There is a reductive one-dimensionality to how young black men are portrayed– in history, by newsmedia, by film and television directors, and sometimes by themselves: life, to art, and back to life. It's absurd to imagine that all these men are hard, emotionless thugs all the time, and yet that's what we're asked to believe by a variety of sources. I wish to offer counterexamples of this, that a more dimensional picture might be realized.
The "banal" interactions I share here are interesting to me because they're not so much banal as underrepresented, and though they may be ordinary in the day-to-day swirl of contemporary life, there are not many opportunities to read or watch such moments. (here are two more: one involving chicken, the other the Dalai Lama). I hope this blog can function as a small corrective, a concrete reminder of the fully dimensional beauty of character present in folks of all stripes.
To quote the Seattle Art Museum materials: "[Wiley's] work posits street culture, black masculinity, and the aesthetics of hip hop as constructs that obscure the complexity and subjectivity of human identity [emphasis mine]."
Wiley himself writes, "the history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence."
Above: Colonel Platoff on His Charger. Left, by James Ward. Right, by Kehinde Wiley.
In his work Wiley both identifies a problem and presents a solution in the same breath, and does so not with anger, though that would be justified, but with humor, confidence, and a vast appreciation of art history. Portraiture was once the sole purview of royalty and aristocracy, and Wiley recasts paintings of King Philip II and Napoleon with gentlemen he's found on the street, reenacting paintings they've chosen with Wiley in poses of their choosing. It's comparable to the scandal Gustave Courbet caused in 1849 with his ridiculously, awe-inspiringly massive A Burial At Ornans, depicting not splendour but a peasant funeral, except here the issue is race rather than class.
To see Wiley offer his own take on Memling's Portrait of a Man With a Coin of Emperer Nero is a particular delight for me, having just seen the original at the very first Hans Memling* retrospective in Rome. Also interesting for me is the ideological takeaway of some reinterpretations of propaganda posters from the Chairman Mao era: we're accustomed to falsely negative stereotypes of black men being used to maintain a repressive status quo; Mao's propaganda relied on falsely positive stereotypes to do the same, in an even more brutal environment.
In all, Wiley's portraits are a valuable contribution, being refreshingly steeped in the context less of history than of art. He avoids sexualizing black bodies by leaving everyone clothed, and brings out the feminine with his intricate floral patterns and subversive choices of expression and pose (seriously, how often do you really see portraits of men lying down?). He has a clear passion for Western art history, and has something valuable to contribute; the attitude and intricacy with which he does is not just important, or admirable, but downright enjoyable.
Can I also say that both these guys have the best names ever?
Stokley Towles tickets & info here; ends May 7. UPDATE: All shows are now sold out for the rest of the run!
Kehinde Wiley tickets & info here; closes May 8.
*Memling was doing something vaguely similar himself, with those repetitive but oddly compelling portraits of the up-and-coming merchant class, who because of their lower status had never been painted before.
His name is the same name he gives me every time: Nefarious Peripheral, No Tunnel Vision. When he first saw me, years ago, he made fun of me for my age and what he called my "Harry Potter glasses." I think he thought I was younger than him. By the end of the ride, he'd experienced a change of heart and christened me "da coolest." One day I'll tell you how I talked him out of thrashing another passenger to a pulp, but then as a result had to listen to him talk about aliens for forty-five minutes, to stay on his good side.
Normally a Rainier Avenue denizen, tonight he boarded in the U District, under the influence of alcohol and who knows what else, settling in for my last trip into town. He hardly cared that I wasn't going to the Valley on this trip. "I'm just so tired," he breathed, in his gangster affectation, but with a tone I found touchingly wistful. A character at the end of a long play.
At the end of the line now, in Chinatown, I went to the back to wake his sleeping form. Speak in a normal voice, and clap loudly– two hard ones, hands firm and slightly cupped, close to their ears. No need for raised voices– sounds too confrontational for a disoriented, just-now-waking mind. How would you feel, after all? Ask if they can hear you okay. Just the loud claps, maybe bang on the chair if necessary (we're not allowed to touch them), and then back quickly away if they indeed do open their eyes; that way you're not crowding over them. People are often violent upon being woken, and you want to give them space to regroup. Mr. Peripheral, as it were, rubbed his eyes groggily and crawled through his drunken stupor back to wakefulness.
"I'm sorry, bro," he mumbled, gathering saliva with his lips. "I been goin' through some shit lately. Where we at? Is there a number 7 out there?"
"Yeah yeah, I think it's there behind the elevators, on the other side. I can't see for sure though."
"Hol' up, I'm gettin' out. Wait, where we at?"
He stumbled about as stanchions and chairs bumped into him. Late twenties, twenty-seven if I recall from a previous conversation, educated but highly unstable, quick to anger but also quick to be pleased, usually high and wearing a terrific smile along with his shoulder-length dreads, clean dreads, knit cap and multiple jackets. His sagging jeans artfully covered– well, his knees, while his boxers did the real heavy lifting in terms of maintaining decorum. He absent-mindedly bumped into another stanchion as he reached one hand into his underwear, addressing incommodious scrotal arrangements. He nearly fell as he stepped from the lip of the back doorway to the pavement outside. "Did you see that," he slurred, pointing at the ground, one shoulder knocking into the exterior of a bus window.
"Alright, have a good one," I called after him as he slunk away.
"Anytime!" I called his name out, just for fun. I like saying it. "Nefarious Peripheral!"
"No Tunnel Vision!" he called out, practically by reflex.
Then he turned, slowly. Somewhere, deep in his haze of drink and drugs and fatigue and troubles, in between drunken stupors and the rearranging of his balls, trying not to bump into things, behind his half-closed lids and faltering step, somewhere back there even still, there was a small part of his brain, some tiny little subsection, that was dedicated to knowing me. He leaned back on one leg, and it came to him. "Hey," he said, that rich smile of his spreading out, slow motion. "You're the photographer!"
He pronounced it with emphasis on the first syllable. PHOT-o-grapher.
"Thanks, man! Have a good one!"
We both grinned mightily to ourselves as we walked our separate ways.
"How's life," he asked. I appreciated the phrasing, which felt more genuine than other versions of the same query. It set a specific tone: world-weary but still intrigued in one's fellow man, despite differences. He was about my age, thirties, perhaps Eastern European, an educated air but a few days unshaven. Nondescript casual clothing tonight, tired, dressed down on a weekend evening.
"Life is good, yeah," I said, twice, reflecting. "A nice night, you know?"
He'd approached me a moment before with a bus question, and was leaving us in two stops. He stood up front for that short distance and had asked the question above in the manner people often do, except his voice was of the sort incapable of flippant nothings; here was a man who meant the things he said. We started at either end of the conversation, his interest growing in spite of himself.
"Saturday night," I was explaining. "Lots of friendly people, busy, which is nice because time goes by fast…."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Um, nine years."
"Yeah, I know it sounds crazy."
"How old are you, like twenty-two, you been doing this since you were–"
"Ten years old, exactly!" His laugh was rich and gristly, more awake than he was. "No, I just turned thirty," I added.
"What d'you drink, I need to–"
"I don't know! Water! Fruits and vege– I don't know, I just, I feel lucky."
"Yeah, it's fun job, yeah. I started it when I was going to school here and yeah, it's been good." A pause, and then– enough about me– "how 'bout you, how is life?"
"Good, I guess."
"I don't know," he replied. "I'm figuring it out." Again, world-weary, but a voice that hasn't yet given up on life. We were leaving small talk behind.
"That's a good answer."
The conversation moved at its own unforced pace. We sat out the red light, near the end of the route, unhurried, two minds expanding on a half-empty bus.
"Were you working today, or school…?"
"No, finished school at 9pm, I went for a couple of drinks at friend's house. I have Ph.D. at the U. Electrical engineering."
"Dude, life is good! That sounds excellent!"
"It's, it's okay,"
"Working, seeing your friends, Ph.D. program, that's outstanding!"
"Not bad," he deadpanned. We laughed.
"The basics! Engineering, you said?"
"What kind of engineering?"
"Electrical. I change the lamps when they break!"
"Oh, awesome!" Most people stop there, at the assertion of accomplishment, but I'm can't help my curiosity on what lies beneath: "d'you like it?"
"No. Not really."
"It's okay, I don't love it, but I like it, but it's okay. We'll see."
"Okay, yeah. Maybe it can lead to something else." I was trying to be hopeful, but could hear the stagnation in his words. We were way beyond pleasantries by this point. Neither of us verbalized what we both knew– that if you don't like the schooling for it, you won't like the job it results in. And jobs last lifetimes.
He reminded me of my Iranian friends, who so naturally dive into deep life discussion. This proclivity is obviously not limited to one people, but there are those among us whose conversations are not limited to intra-societal concerns, who very easily engage in questions of larger life, questioning how we live and why, why we act and think as we do. With real reflection he said,
"Maybe I can be… a bus driver, I think I would actually prefer that."
"Well you know, okay, so I got my degree here also, in photography,"
"Yeah, and it's, I do not regret it, it's a great experience, but–"
"This makes more money."
"It does, but also, I really like people. I get a lot of joy and energy out of being around people."
"And, this is much more satisfying to me than working in a lab, or working for wedding photography, you know? And so, I need to be happy!"
"Yeah, really important." Briefly, into the microphone: "okay guys, 45th and the Ave, University Way; next stop after this, is 45th and 11th." And right back in: "yeah, just, this makes me feel alive,"
"How long, how, what is your shift?"
"This is uh, swing shift, so, 5pm to 1am."
"Oh so you're just,"
"Yeah, back to downtown and,"
"One more thing, yeah."
"This the 49, right?"
"I've taken this bus, drunk, many times,"
"Oh, good! That's why I'm here! Happy to help!"
Charles Schulz once said that talking is what kids do. Conversation is when two adults come together and build a third thing, the result of their shared ideas, and when the two people part after that act of creation they each walk away slightly different than they were before.
We shook hands at the close of it, introducing each other by name. "Have a good rest of the weekend," I said. Something about him was happier now. A spring in his shoulders.
"You too, have a good rest of your shift, and your life!"
"Ha! You too!"
Don't tell me these guys aren't packing.
We're pulling in to the zone at Rainier and Othello northbound, where folks are still roaming about in the wee hours, like ants in the urban dusk. You may have heard of the intersection; I describe it here. Teenagers can be loud or willfully obnoxious, trying to stake their claim of identity in the bewildering world around them, trying so hard to appear like they don't care… but they're still children at heart, and the more they try to hide it, the less they're able to.
The men gathered about now are of an altogether different stripe. Older, harder, tougher round the caustic edges, masters of the face that feels nothing. Leroy once asked what the difference is between Rainier Valley and South Central Los Angeles. American ghettos share many superficial similarities, especially those two, but South Central* stands alone for several reasons you might find interesting.
For one, it's absolutely massive. The Jungle stretches a distance comparable to that between Downtown Seattle and Federal Way, and the Blue Line (the 7 of LA!), which bisects it, takes an hour from end to end.
Secondly, it's always warm there. We know crime spikes during the summers here, as folks stay out later than usual and roving packs of teens wander about unsupervised. In no Seattle neighborhood besides Rainier Beach do I hear the approaching summer spoken of with dread. Christopher Koch, in his 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously, wrote that people are crueler to each other in tropical climes, and summer nights on Rainier are a smaller version of that.
The thing about LA, though, is that it's always warm. It's always summertime. There is no wintry seasonal lull where sleepers appear and all other street folk mysteriously evaporate. South Central is never playing anything less than the fullest version of itself.
Thirdly and most crucially is the fact that South Central is the only American ghetto with a continuous high-profile media presence. Everyone's heard of it. Compton has a name recognition value comparable to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Place names like Watts, Crenshaw, Slauson, Inglewood… these words have histories upon them, lives and memories writ large.
South Central's vast tracts have spawned an entire musical genre, and the place boils over with racial tension, an exaggerated microcosm for the nation as a whole. Disenfranchised souls in neglected corners the world over mythologize the place, responding to the voice it gives their frustration.
Those of us who've spent extensive time in South Central know this reputation is both deserved but also manufactured. The first thing you'll notice, should you ride the Blue Line down to Compton or take the 111 to my hometown neighborhood of South Gate, is that 1) there are plenty of people over thirty-five, meaning we're not in war-torn Timor-Leste, and 2) not everyone is listening to rap music. They're listening to Earth Wind & Fire and Donny Hathaway. Or Beyonce. When a home at the intersection of Florence and Crenshaw still costs $500,000, you know you're not in Scampia or the favelas of Rio… but even so, you must leave before dark.
The fact stands: as far as 'hoods, South Central LA is it in the public consciousness, the top of the pyramid and the towering apex gangsters everywhere secretly aspire to.** They look up to it, standing aside in awe, in mingled fear and respect. South Central is the only 'hood that isn't trying to be like another 'hood, if you know what I mean. It doesn't take notes from other places. We in the Western world concern ourselves mightily with status, and in the business of status and 'hoods, the yardstick of measurement ends with South Central. The image of the place is what we're discussing here, the mental reality, and it is appropriate that South Central is in LA, that most image-obsessed of American metropoli.
All of which is to say, these five men at Othello personified what South Central represents for the world: the high end of the street cred bar. They, far away in another psychology, coiled and distant. They, humorless and towering as Easter Island statues, swaggering about the territory, theirs. Teens wish they could look this hard, squeeze themselves out of being what they consider as forever second-rate. Musical personalities pretend to have histories this flat, this pitiless. Sergio Leone would have loved their stony faces, these cowboys of the new age. "Realer than real-deal Holyfield," for better or worse, as Snoop Dogg once wrote.
But though they may do a bang-up job impersonating those Easter Island busts, you and I know they are as human as anyone else. How to bridge the gap?
Pretend to be confident.
That's what I told myself as a new 7 driver back in 2009. People can smell green from a mile off, and I did my best to affect total comfort and capability in my job. That I'd ridden the 7 many times certainly helped, coming from LA helped, but driving a trolley is overwhelming, and green is green. Over time the funniest thing happens: all that pretending turns into real confidence. Personally, I think this qualifies as magic. I don't know how it works, but it does.
Pretend to be confident. Not confrontational, you understand, just confident. Nothing will catch a certain type off guard like being fearless and friendly all at once.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey, how you doin'," one of the men replied. In their pursuit of fulfilling a type, they were all dressed similarly, dark colors, blues and blacks, oversized, skullcaps and unzipped hoodies, sweatshirts worn in layers, sagging low with deep pockets.
"Good doin' good. Thank you," I answered, as the first man paid his fare. The others were still outside the bus, largely motionless. "Hey guys, come on in."
A woman's voice in the middle distance, shrieking.
"How's it goin'," I continued. I've been driving the 7 at night, five nights a week, for the last two years straight. Most people on Rainier Avenue have at least seen me by now. This fellow hadn't. He replied with stolid silence, no eye contact, not quite sure what to do with me. An authority figure who levels with you?
I ignored his silence and kept right on talking. "Happy Sunday, 'ppreciate it." To the third man: "Hello."
"Dis th' right transfer?" Man Three asked, peeking out from a blue sweatshirt I could use as a sleeping bag. His transfer was a different color than today's preferred choice, orange.
"Here, lemme give you the right one. There you go." He nodded a thanks and continued walking past. To the fourth gent: "hey, how's it goin'."
"Alright. And you?"
"Doin' good, thanks for askin'."
"Hey, how you feelin'?"
Man Five: "Uggnh." It was neutral in tone.
"Right on. Here's some a this," I said, tearing off a transfer as he put in two bills. "'Ppreciate it, thank you.
I closed the doors and intoned into the mic, "Alright, here we go!"
At this point the second fellow, the only one who hadn't greeted me, returned, showing me a crumpled scrap of orange transfer.
"Thanks man, that's cool," I said, appreciating his gesture, especially given that I'd already let him aboard. It could only have been a gesture of respect at this point, and I wanted to offer something in return. "D''you wanna trade it out?"
"Yeah, let's trade it out. Fresh off the press right there, Night Owl for ya."
"God Bless," he said loudly as he walked to the back to join his friends.
"You too, man!"
"You didn't have to do that!"
"Thank you. My pleasure!"
I think we won another one over, I thought to myself.
What I love about this entire communication is that strictly in terms of words exchanged, we don't see thugs, wannabes, Leone cowboys, or non-emoting statues. We see five people, six including myself, performing a basic societal interaction with civility and kindness. Nothing about their behavior was oppositional. Bob Dowd, my trainer in part-time driving class, told us something I'll never forget: treat everyone with respect, especially the people who seem like they deserve it the least. Because those people may not be getting much in the way of respect from anyone, and your attitude may resonate.
They are not so coiled, nor so distant. They, rather, the people of the cluttered and chaotic now, you and me included, doing our best in uncertain times.
*Please don't ask me to call it "South LA," as City Hall implored everyone to do in 2003, in an attempt to de-stigmatize the place. As a former resident I just can't abide! They didn't change the name of Watts after the riots, now did they? Or rename Wendy's after the chili soup finger lawsuit? Also, ignore the Wikipedia article, which humorously tries to define the borders of SC as excluding Compton, Inglewood, Lynwood, Hawthorne, and Willowbrook. Um, no; we're discussing the beast itself, which in common parlance means everything south of the 10 on down to the Long Beach city limits.
**The irony here is that I'm from the place, and look and dress nothing like the expected type. To come upon a bunch of teens in Kirkland who for all intents and purposes are trying to emulate someone from South Central, and to stroll past them unbeknownst in my fitted t-shirt, dress shoes, and belted, hip-high jeans is a source of amusement!
Note: the image is the interior of the 210, northbound on Crenshaw Boulevard, one weekend afternoon circa 2006.
"She is not at all stupid, Miss Universe." (Image courtesy Fox Searchlight)
We wrap up our thoughts with the final five of what I think are the best pictures of 2015 (Part I here; Part II here). What sort of criteria are we using? I'd answer by saying a great film is one exceptional in both form and content, a skillfully executed piece of craftwork with something valuable to say about human nature.
As with all art, as with the bus, with daily interaction, with film I don't want to escape from reality so much as learn more about it, try to understand it. I'm one of those people who, if going through a breakup, wants to watch a bunch of films about breakups! Bring out the Bergman! Let me dive in, that I might learn something. In that spirit:
5. Son of Saul (Saul Fia)
"Are you a Rabbi?"
A Jewish death camp prisoner forced to burn corpses of other Jews searches for moral survival when confronted with his son's body. Directed by Lazlo Nemes. Trailer 2.
The phrase "style over substance" is often leveled as a criticism against films, but you'll notice it's almost always used by people who are not actually filmmakers. The style is the substance. Would you begrudge a painter for using oils or a canvas? In art, form is the means by which content is expressed, and this is done either poorly, well, or not at all.
The principal stylistic conceit of Son of Saul is a masterstroke: nearly the entire film is close-ups of the protagonist's head. The horrors of the camp he's prisoner in, where his job is to assist in killing fellow Jews, remain on the sidelines, blurry at the edges of the claustrophobic square frame. And yet those horrors are front and center on actor 's face, writ large in his reactions, which he of course must hide. This is a reinvention of film grammar comparable, if not as cataclysmic, as the moment Antonioni's L'Avventura premiered to a sea of boos at Cannes in 1960, before being hailed as one of the ten greatest films ever made less than two years later by Sight & Sound.
The Holocaust is correctly thought of as a massive event, but Son of Saul makes that massiveness intimate. The earth-shaking on view here is focused on a single person's soul. You've never seen anything like it.
"You seek resolutions because you are young."
A coming-of-age love story set in the late 1950s, from the point of view of a young department-store shopgirl. Directed by Todd Haynes, with Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett. International Trailer.
Loneliness, in my view, is the premier mental state of the human animal. Even the most busy and popular among us experience loneliness more than any other emotion, not least because existence is experienced singularly, unlike what society might like us to believe. The look on Rooney Mara's face expresses this and so much more. Her modulated performance reveals and conceals so much, and stands as a rapturous exercise in subtlety.
Coming-of-age narratives tend to fall into two types: a protagonist achieves hedonistic success and is bewildered there is yet more afterwards ("after that summer they would never be the same"), or the protagonist has a series of experiences, usually romantic ones, which reveal there are questions in life which don't have answers. The latter resonates more for me, and Rooney Mara's journey in this film is of the latter category. How do we name the sensations within ourselves, if we're experiencing them for the first time, and how do we trust them as authentic or know their origin?
Beyond all this, Carol is just a great fifties-era romance, period. Sumptuous is the word that comes to mind. The images, the emotions, the architecture of the narrative, all sumptuously rendered by Ed Lachman's 16mm cinematography, are a treat. He does things involving reflected light and negative space I haven't seen in films before. Not as imagistically showy as Revenant or Mad Max, but equally brilliant and instructive for us photographers. See the film on blu-ray, and drink in the rich texture of 16mm's thick grain, a patina of unpredictable organic beauty. Note also how a male starts off the picture, to no surprise on our part, but almost immediately "hands off" the narrative to two females who end up being the real protagonists. Ah, how refreshing....
"I am in blood, stepped in so far."
An adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard. UK Trailer.
This is a perfect film. Films, like people, are usually too complex to be described by that label, but Mr. Kurzel achieves here exactly what he sets out to do, and with aplomb. This is a very specific adaptation of the play that likely won't be the one you hold in your head, but is the one in Kurzel's head, and it's a cold and savage piece of beauty to behold.
Notice how he and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw often shoot below eye level; these people are giants, and they rove about with their existential problems like the gods in Greek tragedies of old. In Paris this picture was advertised as heavily as James Bond was– mega-sized posters and murals in public spaces everywhere, and I only wish it had been given the same level of attention stateside. It's quite the treat. Fassbender and Cotillard are titans here, laying waste in all directions with their formidable acting talent. Kurzel sets himself apart from all other Shakespeare adaptations in prizing not just wordplay but also silence. He covers significant mileage with images alone, giving space for the dialogue remaining to have stronger resonance. This is a visual and aural experience as much as a verbal one. His articulation of the opening battle as a visualization of Macbeth's mental state is a masterstroke of film direction. High marks to the music as well.
"Intellectuals have no taste."
A retired orchestra conductor, his daughter, film director best friend, and others spend time at a resort in the Swiss Alps ruminating on life, being, and time. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and others. Italian Teaser Trailer, & US Trailer 1.
You'll learn more about life, aging, multiplicity of perspective, and how we wrestle with time watching this impeccable film than any other motion picture released in the last two years. A deeply affecting experience with image after image of ravishing beauty. Two hours of perfectly exposed images that, as a photographer, leave me in a state of complete awe. I urge you to check out the trailers linked above; nothing looks quite like a Paolo Sorrentino movie. He also seems to view humanity with an all-encompassing (if world-weary) love and lack of judgment; no character is laughed at, and each of them, including those we might expect little from, have something to offer in terms of life perspective (I'm thinking of the Miss Universe's comments on irony, or Dano's quoting Novalis, one of many emotional high points for me). Click here for Katia Zorich's well-researched and illuminating essay on the film, the best writing on Youth there is online.
1. The Revenant
"They don't hear your voice! They just see the color of your face."
Dramatization of the the Hugh Glass narrative, in which real-life frontiersman Glass was left for dead after a bear mauling and survived with the intent of seeking revenge for the murder of his son. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with Leo DiCaprio & Tom Hardy. Teaser Trailer.
Hipsters will have a tough time with this, but I'm here to say face it, friends. There are times when something popular also happens to be great. Yes, I think it used to happen more often, but it still happens. This is just such an occasion. In the same way you don't want to short yourself by disliking ice cream simply because everyone else loves it, don't let the success of this utterly uncompromising artistic feat turn you away. There's nothing else like The Revenant. You want to see this.
Shot for an hour or two each day over many months (the on-set experience was more like theatre, with grueling rehearsal followed by a brief period of filming when the light was right), Birdman and regular Malick cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's wide-angle, natural light scope cinematography has to be seen to be believed. I want to see a documentary about the cameramen who pulled these feats off.
As I've written elsewhere, the unbroken take is one of the last hallmarks of truth-telling in cinema, because of its self-evident linearity, and how hard it is to fake. The Revenant is comprised of unbroken take after unbroken take, some of which truly stagger the mind– the dive over the cliff; the bear scene happening without cuts, and its use of silence; the camera shifting focus from tracking foot soldiers to horse-mounted men in the opening battle, with no apparent effort… all this, in addition to a rigorous adherence to Method (DiCaprio actually eating that raw meat, or sleeping in animal carcasses, not to mention emoting without resorting to dialogue) add up to create semblances of reality which more than any other picture this year convey the maximum possibility of what we hope for when going to the movies.
There are echoes of Malick here, in form but not content, though Inarritu makes the approach his own.* DiCaprio hardly speaks for the film's middle hour; this is not just an acting masterclass, but Pure Cinema (not Bazin's definition but Hitchcock's: the expression of ideas using images and sounds as only the film medium can) at a new contemporary height. Cinema, at its best, is not about story, but experience. Other mediums can convey stories brilliantly, but no art form locates the viewer in a situation as potently and specifically as moving images and sounds. Not every film takes advantage of this possibility. The Revenant doesn't miss any opportunities to throw you into an alternate universe, whereupon afterwards you'll never complain about the weather again.
The conclusion is for me what elevates the picture beyond classic status; I'm referring to Hardy's lines to DiCaprio, as well as the interaction involving Powaqa. My jaws were agape. A simple revenge narrative would be too prosaic for a picture of this technical pedigree, and these moments fulfilled my hope of such transcendence.
*Lubezki describes Inarritu and Malick as basically opposites, based on work ethic. Inarritu is ruthlessly rehearsed, a necessity given his proclivity for unbroken takes. Malick shoots intuitively, to the point he'll film actors surreptitiously in between takes. More of Lubezki's thoughts on the two here.
And now I'm headed back out to the street. I have a feeling I'll be back in a moment with a story under my arm....
"You will not survive here." (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)
Continuing from where we left off (here is the bottom third of this list), here are ten through six of my top seventeen films of the year– 2015 was far too good a year for a mere list of ten! I've attached the trailers for each film I think most accurately reflects the film, which is not always the final domestic trailer.
"Jules, this is so boring without drugs."
Archival footage of Amy Winehouse, focusing on the forces and people which contributed to her downfall. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Trailer 2 (US).
Kapadia, as is his wont, uses no talking heads in his documentaries. The entire film is primary footage– no recreations, reenactments, or sit-down interviews; just the blunt unvarnished images, which need no augment to impart the tragedy they contain. Nothing is manufactured here, and Kapadia does not assert himself other than to expertly organize thousands of hours of video into a comprehensible downward collapse that simply watches, withholding judgment on the causes for Amy's death, from the shocking lack of self-awareness of those closest to her to the ambivalent desires of the mobs who adored her without caring for her. Most potent is a comment which crystallizes why drug use is so appealing to celebrities: they offer an outlet for something no longer attainable– the ability to be alone. Amy transcends the bounds of documentary to register in the psyche as the great literary tragedies do.
9. Mad Max
"I live. I die. I live again!"
A woman searches for her homeland with the assistance of several escaped prisoners. Directed by George Miller, with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. Teaser Trailer.
This will rightly be celebrated as the great women's picture of 2015, galvanizing a conversation which has been taking place on the sidelines for most of the entire century-plus of cinema. Or maybe we should say gender-equal picture, for the film doesn't denigrate Hardy's character but correctly understands feminism not as the reactionary fight for superior rights for women, but as a fight for equal rights for women. We hope for the day when Dr. King's four little children will be judged by the content of their character, and we're excited when Max hands Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) his gun on the judgment of her abilities, ignoring gender as a consideration. A cinematic baton of sorts is being handed over in that moment.
The main character is female, isn't defined by her relationship to males or by romantic attraction to a man, doesn't exist to define or support male characters, has her own agenda, has motivations besides approval by or sex with males, and whose competence requires no explanation. All the better is that Miller did not write this with explicit political intent or conscious desire to make statements about women, the elderly, the deformed, enslaved, maimed, or otherwise marginalized; it's just that his worldview seeped through his writing of a story, and all those groups ended up being celebrated in this film in a way that (unfortunately) feels new. Miller is in his seventies, and a work of such vivacious energy coming from him defies the term "youthful" as the appropriate adjective. Note also how abysmal the gender relations were in Miller's original 1979 Mad Max, what with its laughably embarrassing damsel-in-helpless-distress narrative. One can't help but see this as a corrective of sorts.
Much has been written on this picture elsewhere, but I'd like to briefly note four things: Nicholas Hoult's character arc is as deeply encouraging to me as the presence of a strong female protagonist. His character is the only one with an arc in the film, and thus represents the arc of the film to a degree. We expect his transition from evil to good to be deceptive or self-motivated or both, but it isn't. The film believes in the capacity for growth toward good.
Additionally, aesthetic ground is being broken here. Max has many more cuts than most films do, with each shot lasting an average of 1.8 seconds, placing it firmly in Oliver Stone-Paul Greengrass territory. Whereas Greengrass' intent is usually to disorient, by placing movement directions in unexpected places in subsequent shots to keep the viewer off balance, Miller frames most of the action so the object of interest is always in the center of the frame. It goes down like water. Film scholar David Bordwell analyzes this approach with visual examples here.
Furthermore, visual effects ground is also being broken here. Most of the film's effects, aside from dust and tornado elements, are practical rather than computer-animated. The camera is picking up something tactile, and your eye knows the difference. I'd also like to comment on how well expository moments are kept to a minimum. We don't spend extraneous moments setting up why the evil warlord is evil, or what horrors the sex slaves have gone through, or what the milk is for, or what chrome is. Miller sketches quickly, and we get the basic ideas, which is all we need. The world is to be witnessed and considered by us rather than explained, and we are thus engaged, treated like adults. No wonder this is the only action film to premiere at Cannes Film Festival, of all places, in years!
8. Steve Jobs
"We will know soon enough if you're Leonardo da Vinci– or just think you are."
Behind-the-scenes moments before three product launches headed by Steve Jobs. Directed by Danny Boyle, with Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Trailer 2 (US).
People immediately lose interest when I tell them I've just seen this great movie called Steve Jobs. How do I fix this? What do I say? Do I say that the film is three long dialogue scenes, each set in a different decade? Do I say it's 180 industry-formatted pages (typically, 180 minutes) of dialogue spoken so quickly that the film's runtime is only 121 minutes? Do I say something about Michael Fassbender, how in less than a decade he's already comparable to Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn in terms of ferocious focus, range, and quality? That Sorkin has written possibly his best work and uses Jobs to make points about creativity far larger than the main character's dilemmas?
Or just that this film is extremely entertaining and will make you really dislike Steve Jobs while admiring him a little at the same time? I'm at a loss here. I've long considered Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross my favorite (not best) piece of screenwriting. Jobs threatens to surpass it. Each of the three scenes is a writerly orgy, an escalating action scene where the kinetic physicality is contained entirely in words exchanged. Unlike James Foley's staid and unadventurous interpretation of Mamet's text, Boyle pushes the writing out of this-should-just-be-a-play territory into the realm of exciting cinema with his trademark playfulness, using a variety of tricks when appropriate (including a bold but fitting moment of rear projection in an otherwise realist picture). Act 1 (set in the eighties) is filmed on 16mm; Act 2 (in the nineties) is in 35mm; and the final stretch, in the new millennium, is digital. A treat for many reasons, and a screenplay of such exhilarating involvement it has to be heard to be believed.
"Nothing will make sense to your American ears."
An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) finds herself in deep water while investigating cartel activity in Juarez. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, co-starring Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Trailer.
Brutal, beautiful, and expertly constructed in a way that rewards repeat viewings. Villeneuve considers it his best film. Click here for an essay of mine on the film, going into numbing (and I do mean numbing!) levels of specific detail on the film's visuals. You'll watch movies differently after reading it. This youtube video analyzing the film's use of color and other visual elements also has a lot to offer, going into even further detail on many things I hadn't even noticed.
6. About Elly (Darbareye Elly)
"A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness."
Friends on vacation at a beach house retreat notice one of their party has gone missing. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. US Trailer.
A shattering, universally human experience featuring a blistering lead performance by the radiant Golshifteh Farahani. You might think there's not much to relate to with this one, but you'd be pleasantly surprised. Some of the best films in the entire world being made right now are coming out of Iran. They tend to be probing dissections of human nature and relations, and because of how expertly the story has been constructed in this one, Farahani's moral dilemma at the end is completely understandable even though she doesn't speak a word. On the outside, it's just a young woman sitting alone at a table, but we know what's racing through her head....
My thoughts on the film and the circumstances surrounding its release here.
Final five coming soon!
It was the briefest of exchanges, but of the sort guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. We pulled into Rainier and Kenny, in Hillman City, one of several lower-profile but nevertheless thriving realms south of Columbia City.
The Kenny Street zone is famously dark, shrouded as it is in year-round conifers. A benevolent figure loomed in out of the shadows. "Hi," he said, a man of about thirty. "I lost my transfer. Could I get a ride downtown?"
"Yeah, man. Thanks for bein' honest." I handed him a new transfer. Which prompted the following:
"GOD BLESS! ONLY IN AMERICA! BRUCE LEE FOR PRESIDENT TWO THOUSAND TWENTY-SIX!"
Finally, an endorsement we can all get behind....