You have some old photos in a box someplace. Take them out and look at them. If they're more than ten years old, they're probably chromogenic prints made in a wet lab– that is to say, sheets of light-sensitive paper coated with a layer of silver halide crystals, which, upon exposure to light (through the negative of the picture in question), were burned, changing their color. This crystal-coated paper was then fed through a series of chemical baths, developing, fixing and sealing those crystals so they maintained their newly changed appearance.
Basically, when you're looking at a wet lab print, whether it was made in a darkroom by your mom when she was a teenager, or by the kinda-cute Walgreens photo person, back when every drugstore had those big wet lab machines (that automated the darkroom process but ultimately accomplished the same thing using light and light-sensitive paper)... you're looking at something special. You're seeing silver halide crystals that have been burned by light. The areas of the picture that are black have been burned the most, and you can tell there's some sort of organic process at work here. Look at how deep that black is.
You're looking at an original.
Now, the cute Walgreens person isn't there anymore. If only that were the biggest loss. (S)he's been replaced by a friendly machine. You put your memory card in the slot, and minutes later you get your prints. It's quick, cheap and easy. Great.
Go home and compare them to the old family photos. The easiest place to tell the difference between a wet lab print and an inkjet print is in the blacks. Remember those silver halide crystals burned by exposure to light, causing them to turn into the most impossible, deepest shade of black? Well. All the inkjet print has to compete with that is– black ink. That's just ink. It's an approximation of black. It's not a bunch of crystals burned by light. It's got nothing on the wet lab stuff.
The other place you'll see a noticeable difference is in the flesh tones. This is more noticeable in larger prints (or on a movie theatre screen). Flesh, especially in natural light, is made up of many different color tones. Film surpasses digital in many ways, but most obviously in tonal range. Most digital cameras can delineate thousands of colors. That sounds like a lot, until you remember even the cheapest 35mm film camera can record millions of colors.
Also, you know that a digital picture is made up of a bunch of smaller units called pixels, each of which has only one color value. You're basically looking at a bunch of squares. The number of pixels is how we determine resolution. Film, on the other hand, has no resolution equivalent. It doesn't break down into smaller units. It just is. It's an image. It's not a bunch of squares. The silver crystals on the emulsion are visible as grain, but because they're organic and thus unpredictable, they offer a living texture that adds to the picture something tactile, rather than detracting from it. This is most visible in motion picture film. Nobody can tell you digital pixelation adds something to a picture.
You might ask what all the point of this is. That's your left brain talking. Listen to the other side of yourself. Let your intuitive response to the images breathe.
There's a difference between looking at a replica and an original. There's a difference between thousands of colors and millions of them, a difference in the deepness of those blacks and the richness of the blue in that sky. There's something like us in the organic nature of film grain. You feel it. On some level you know it, that sensation of the familiar, authentic, natural, the details, the imperfections....
Quite simply, it's real, and it belongs, as you do. You are not clinical, dust-free, or mass produced; your lifeblood and the things that matter to you are not quick or easy. Why then should art, described by Viola Davis as "the only profession to celebrate the act of what it means to live a life," not be the same?
Given the short amount of time I've been around, there's a conversation I've had a few too many times. I'll be standing at the counter of a business that's closing, talking with the owner. People just don't want this service anymore, they'll explain, as the afternoon light fades. It's quantifiably better in quality, but it costs too much to maintain. We can't keep up. We're throwing in the towel. We'll sigh together, they and I, searching for something positive in the face of this loss.
In ways difficult to pinpoint, there has been a widespread acceptance of lower quality in many areas of life. I've had this conversation with regard not just to darkrooms, film, wet labs, and chromogenic prints, but also books, shoe repair, politeness, electronics, clothing, non-electronic interaction, children's toys, washing machines, and cars. Nylon is now deliberately made weaker to stimulate continuous revenue. Its original use was for parachuting out of planes in WWII. That's how strong it used to be (don't try that with your leggings...)!
Adapt or die, I know. Take life as it comes, and make the best of it. I really do believe in these mottos, and I have to, or else I'm headed straight for curmudgeon-land. It's all a matter of perspective. Everyone probably thinks they were born twenty years too late, as I often do, forgetting that the core of life remains almost exactly the same, and forgetting the great progress in other parts of contemporary life; we get accustomed to how things were when we were children, when we did the hard work of adapting to the world around us, perhaps assuming it would stop changing so much once we reached adulthood.
Many of the things I love were bigger presences in earlier times. Film is an example– but the world still contains film, thank goodness, and I'll keep using it until the last lab shuts down.
"Original Hits by Original Artists," the inaugural show in the new Good Arts Building downtown, interfaces with the above issues in a number of ways I'll leave you to discover. It's a show of thirty-three "totally fake" album covers, each by a different artist, and one of which is mine. My piece was printed on Fujiflex Pearl photo paper, identifiable by a faint metallic tint in the whites.
It was the last print on that paper type made in a wet lab in Washington State.
That's a big thanks to Carl at Color 1 Photo, who closed down his stellar wet lab last week after decades in the business (I was able to get 22 enormous matte prints in at the last minute, which I hope to get the chance to show you someday...). I signed up for this show because it sounded fun, and is being put on by friends who were kind enough to invite me. But it grew into something much bigger for me, more personal.
We struggle our whole lives with change; it's usually hardest when it presents itself to us as loss. That's what my piece is about, and I suppose it's fitting it's the last of its kind. If you happen to be downtown, take a minute to stop in for a snack and reflect. I will not be able to attend the show opening, except in its very last minutes.
Original Hits by Original Artists: Fake LP Album Covers for Imaginary Bands by Real Artists!
Good Arts Building
700 1st Avenue (at Cherry St)
"Record" Release Party (opening night reception): May 4, 6p-9
On view May 4-31, as explained by the 57 Biscayne website:
"A Release Party and reception for the artists will be held First Thursday, May 4, 6:00- 9:00 p.m. followed by the Upstream Music Fest, May 11-13, when there will be actual live (if unrelated) music on site, programmed by Upstream during the run of the festival. One of a handful of free venues in the neighborhood, it will be open from 4-10PM on May 11 & 12; and 11AM-11PM on May 13. The exhibit will also be open on the last two Fridays and Saturdays in May, from 1-6PM and by appointment."
"You don't want love. You want a love experience."
Here we are at the final five. If you're wondering why there's film reviews on a bus driving blog (!)– I worked as a film critic once, in my former life living in Hollywood. Somewhere online you can probably still find articles of me bashing 300– but we don't read about that one, especially with all these lovelies to pore over....
This is the fourth & final post in this series. For those of us late to the party: Part 3 (films 6-10), Part 2 (films 11-15), & Part 1 (Nathan weirdly justifying that it's a good idea to watch Deepwater Horizon, among other honorable mentions). Without further ado!
Image courtesy A24.
5. American Honey
"Do you have any dreams?"
Directed by Andrea Arnold. With Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, et al.
Synopsis: A wayward teen girl joins a band of misfit youths as they travel the midwest selling magazine subscriptions. Theatrical Trailer 1.
Sometimes a film explores a topic so definitively, with such magisterial scope and detail, that all other films on the same subject are forced to stand in its shadow. Think Schindler's List for the Holocaust, or JFK for the Kennedy assassination. Saving Private Ryan for WWII European theatre. Other films may be made on these subjects, but they are forever doomed to be subsidiary in some sense, and they need to be specific to hold their ground (Son of Saul stands as a worthy Holocaust picture in its unique approach and minutely focused subject matter, for example).
American Honey is one of the giant pillars. It will forever stand as the end-all, be-all portrait of what it means to be young, white, poor and uneducated in the American midwest. Since the majority of America's poverty is by far rural white poverty, and the midwest is the topographic majority of America's land mass, American Honey in some ways can considered to encompass certain dominant aspects of the American condition at large.
It is monolithic in scope and simultaneously very intimate; is almost three hours; throbs with life and color and music; is more interested in watching its characters live than teaching them lessons; doesn't have a three act structure, doesn't have much of an ending, and is as rambling and directionless as its characters' lives are… if these elements intrigue you instead of turning you away, you're in for a treat. Read (way) more of my thoughts on the film here.
Image courtesy Shout! Factory.
4. Tale of Tales (Il Racconto dei Racconti)
"Every new life calls for a life to be lost."
Adaptations of stories in the Pentamerone (1636), the first written anthology of fairy tales. Theatrical Trailer (US).
Based on the oldest recorded collection of solely ofl fairy tales, Matteo Garrone's latest is a departure from the bleak masterpiece Gomorrah and its underrated follow-up, Reality. Here is a visually resplendent, fully realized world, a film of scope and richness we associate with big-budget historical studio spectaculars– except here, incredibly, no concessions to demographic pandering are made.
The best art pieces nudge us beyond our comfort zone– how else, after all, are we to expand our perception? Garrone guides us through the baroque and grotesque with sure-handed delight, involving the viewer in a series of timeworn, universal dilemmas involving kings, creatures, princesses, promises, desires, and bonds of several kinds. The stories may be dark, but possess that invigorating sense of rapture we feel when reading fairy tales. On the strength of its craft, depth and structure, this is absolutely and incontrovertibly the best serious fantasy/fairy-tale picture yet made.
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.
"No man should interfere with another man's spirit."
Directed by Martin Scorsese. With Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds.
Synopsis: A Jesuit missionary struggles with the meaning and purpose of faith during the 17th century purging of Christianity in Japan. Theatrical Trailer.
Thoughts to ponder while taking in Martin Scorsese's latest, wildly underseen new masterpiece, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel (the film wasn't completed until the last minute, and despite excellent reviews never found an audience nor an Oscar presence, mostly due to the lack of time needed to mount an effective marketing campaign. If you're looking for a gem that fell through the cracks, this is it):
Image courtesy A24.
"Who is you, Chiron?"
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Synopsis: A quiet, introverted young man struggles with expressing himself and his sexuality in the hostile environment of Liberty City, Miami. Theatrical Trailer.
Much has already been written on this delicate, sensitive gem elsewhere. I'll be brief. One of the year's most formally sophisticated entries, it deftly uses old film lenses, narrow depth of field, unusual color correction, and refreshingly unexpected musical choices (Face it. You've never heard a major cello octet in a movie about Miami ghettos) in order to convey the experience of a largely inarticulate young man as he struggles with how to express himself and his passions.
Films about introverts are harder to make, and lives like Chiron's have so rarely had a place in cinema before. The Best Picture win is a watershed miracle for this reason alone, on top of overcoming concerns that it's "too black," "too gay," "too small," doesn't have stars, and more; at a $1.5m budget, it's the cheapest film ever to win the top award.
The last two scenes (diner, apartment) destroy me. The care and love as Kevin prepares the meal, his unwillingness to give up on his belief in Chiron's suppressed but beautiful character; the honest self-awareness and double meaning of Chiron's last line. If film is the great empathy-building machine of our time, this is required viewing for all Americans.
Image courtesy Broad Green Pictures.
1. Knight of Cups
"[B]ecause I stumbled down the road like a drunk... that doesn't mean it's the wrong one."
Directed by Terrence Malick. With Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, et al.
Synopsis: A well-heeled Hollywood screenwriter searches for direction after realizing achieving his ambitions isn't the answer to happiness. Theatrical Trailer.
The ultimate extension of cinema lies beyond narrative. Film is a great medium for telling stories, but it can do much more. Actors performing well-written lines is the province of theatre. Cinema has the ability, with its preponderance of image and sound, to be far more potent. It has no need to reduce experiences to words, no burden to simplify life into discrete units. From day one it held the promise of something bigger, deeper, larger.
The earliest films reveled in the power not of the word, of course, but of the image. Take a look at Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, the legendary 1929 film from which it's been said the origins of all stylistic innovations in cinema can be found, but which more importantly captures the vitality of life experience without the need for a plot. You don't need story. You have life, and isn't life, after all, what happens in between?
Let Knight of Cups wash over you. Don't try to figure it all out. It's bigger than that, designed to reach you on a level beyond the intellectual. The cavalcade of stunning, entirely natural light-lit images gradually cohere into something whole: a successful Hollywood screenwriter (Bale) slowly realizing that the status of material success, long his aim, has not answered his search for fulfillment. We set goals, convinced achieving them will bring the fulfillment we dream of. What do you do when you get there and discover they don't? There's something more. It was always nearby.
That delicate something is what this film is about.
Bale wanders through L.A., as we do through life, contemplative and observant. The camera matches his ruminative inquisitiveness, careening around people and drifting through rooms and highways, seeing beauty everywhere, photographing light as a character, as though there was a silent, benevolent presence in our lives, always just around the corner, waiting. Bale's journey toward substance and purpose, and the pearls of wisdom he gains from each of his relationships, profoundly move to me, not least because the film uncannily mirrors journeys of my own in L.A.
Also particularly gratifying to me are how Malick, in previous films largely a purveyor of beauty in the natural world, shoots L.A. with just as much verve and celebration, as though its concrete expanses were no less ravishing than the quiet hills surrounding. It's all about our perspective. His L.A. is no den of purgatory, but as ever a place where beauty is visible by those with eyes to see it, where a thoughtful calm can read the signposts all around, guides toward a higher plane of being. What other filmmaker would cut from le Jardin de Luxembourg to a drive-in burger stand in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with no apparent judgment? Who would see the same beautiful light in both places? You can understand why I like this guy.
As well, the same generosity of perspective is applied to his characters. It isn't only Blanchett's doctor or Portman's affluent wife who are the arbiters of wisdom in this picture, though they might have the more apparent intellectual capacity. Look at Teresa Palmer's stripper, whose grasp of the ephemerality of substance in Hollywood is grounded and acute ("real life is so hard to find"), or Imogen Poots' aspiring starlet, who has no status or material accomplishment to her name, yet in a sentence recapitulates Bale's entire philosophical struggle. The film may take place in Hollywood, but it is not of it.
Most complaints about late-period Malick involve critics wishing the films were more comprehensible, more digestible, plot-driven… basically, more ordinary. I say revel in the differences. It's too unlike other films to be judged by their standards. You've never seen photography this dazzling, a camera this sensitive, this untethered, interior monologue this private. It's a film about the issues we all think about, but rarely speak aloud.
That's that! Thanks for reading!
-Some of this may sound familiar: I recently raved uncontrollably about Malick's latest, Song to Song, which is the third in an informal trilogy of films, following Cups.
-Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” Challenges Hollywood to Do Better: Richard Brody eloquently expounds on Knight of Cups, something of a lone wolf in the face of the generally dismissive reviews it received.
-8 Reasons Why “Knight of Cups” Is Terrence Malick’s Best Film So Far
Once again (as with Part I, here, and Part II, here– each a different operator), I was sprawled out on the late night bus headed home, exhausted but content, chatting it up with my friend the driver.
"How was your day?"
I sighed happily. I love when people ask me this question with genuine interest. "You know," I replied, "I think I'm going to try something new."
"I think I'm going to, instead of going through the whole thing of waking up sleepers at the end of every terminal, I think I'm going to try do that, but if I can't, just let 'em hang out. I'll check up on 'em, try to wake 'em up, sure, but sometimes it's just too much trouble. Especially if there's no other bus to put 'em on. I just feel like I don't need to get 'em all up outta there, and them pick 'em all up again in fifteen minutes. I try to wake up everybody. But I don't want to stress about it if I can't."
He thought about it for a moment. "Well, its' good to establish some ground rules."
"I had an arrangement with this guy once when I was doing the 124," he continued. "He asked if he could sleep on the bus and I said yes, and he would get on and go find somewhere to crash, not where everyone wanted to sit, and he would sleep the whole night through. And we did that for about nine months."
"Oh. Okay. Long time."
"And after ten months, he came back and said, 'thank you.' and I said, 'for what?' and he said, 'well, because you let me sleep, I was able to hold down a job that whole time, and now I finally have an apartment.'"
"Wow. That is awesome."
"'Cause sleep is so important. You have to be able to sleep, get good sleep, if you're gonna keep a job! And these guys out here, they can't really,"
"You can't sleep out here,"
"They can't really sleep out here. It's too dangerous."
"It's a friggin' zoo,"
"They have to keep one eye open, or move around," he said. "Some of these guys… now if they're drinking, or whatever, no, no, no. I can't help. It's not that I won't help. I can't. If they can't help them, I can't help them. But if you can develop a relationship. When he came back to say thank you, it hit me how much a difference it makes that he got to sleep. And it's because he got sleep that any of this was possible. Yeah, and he told me he played music, so he'd go down to Pike Place on his days off and try to make a little extra money playing."
"Wow, he stayed busy! All things considered."
"Well, you can't be too busy when you're homeless."
I take great comfort in stories like this. I need to be reminded of the successes. It takes will power to not get bogged down by certain behavioral patterns I see on the street. I have to tell myself not to analyze things too much sometimes– I don't have the context to do so, and it's an easy trap to assume the worst in people we don't know.
That car cutting in front of you– have you noticed how easy it is to assassinate his character… until you pull up and recognize him as a friend of yours? Watch how quickly your brain then backtracks, coming up with explanations for why he's in a hurry. It's kind of amazing. They're all just humans, sometimes motivated, sometimes lazy, sometimes tired, imperfectly working toward about the same goals we all have, using whatever limited means they possess. Be unreasonably kind, and trust the universe to sort it out later.
As for folks not helping themselves, or behaving poorly, I couldn't help but think on how I have difficulty functioning if I miss a single meal, or sleep badly for a night. Boo-hoo. What about entire days without eating, and weeks or months of interrupted, inadequate rest? Add to that the complication of searching for jobs and housing– try getting one without already having the other– and the hurdles of things like birth certificates and social security cards. That stuff is complicated and annoying for us, who have easy access to resources! Should I really expect these guys to be civil, or remain pillars of unswayable conscience when faced with easy access to the distractions of drugs and alcohol? I seek not to excuse, but to explain.
"So many drivers, it's just, get the bums off, get the bums off. But if you see someone who's trying to do something,"
"Man, thanks for sharing that story," I said. "That helps me."
He smirked. "So when you're homeless, just let me know, and I'll be happy to let you sleep on the bus!"
"Ha, it's a deal! You're very kind! That's great!"
"The people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."
I make this list so you don't succumb to the strange but powerful desire to rewatch Scary Movie 5. Your life is important, and so is your time. I'm doing this out of love. Friends let friends know there's films besides Children of the Corn IV and the Ghost Rider franchise which might resonate. You read the previous post, which began a list of counting down from fifteen. This is films ten through six. Don't take the numbering seriously; I can hardly bring myself to order these things. I got so excited writing about Jackie that I almost bumped it halfway up the list; then I got even more excited about 20th Century Women, as you'll tell from my wildly rhapsodic evaluation below, in disbelief that I had it at a mere #8 instead of a more appropriate #1… before realizing I just really love films, and this year was a lil' too good to be true.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight.
"I lost track somewhere, what was real, what was performance."
Directed by Pablo Larraín. With Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt.
Synopsis: Jackie Kennedy struggles with how to conceive of death, life, identity and loss in the days following her husband's assassination. Teaser Trailer.
Let's start with what the movie isn't. It's not a biopic covering a "greatest hits" parade in Jackie Kennedy's life. Nor is it a linear depiction of the assassination from Mrs. Kennedy's point of view. We know the events of her life, and we know the assassination. This is an interior portrait. It's abstract. In times of grief, we struggle to get a handle on things, and similarly here, we watch not a story but a collection of felt moments. Depth of emotion is what links the thread from scene to scene. It's why it makes sense to cut from a Life Magazine interview to Dealey Plaza to an airplane bathroom. We don't think in order, after all. When we grieve, we're not grounded in reality; we face instead a ghost, the haunting mass of an absence which pushes everything else into an elliptical periphery.
Larraín's film seeks that elliptical realm. It's a deliciously challenging watch. The Oscar-nominated score is a boldly imposing modernist classical, half dirge, half Jonny Greenwood, a stark contrast to the heavily featured Camelot musical tune; Larraín's use of the rare Swedish 1.66:1 aspect ratio and choice of 16mm film takes us outside of the normal "biopic"/period cinema environment. The editing reaches an apotheosis at a point when four time periods are simultaneously intercut, and we're able to follow the emotional trajectories in each situation and appreciate how they reflect against each other. It's heady stuff. I loved it.
In a daring move, Larraín takes us inside the car during the moment of the assassination; through cinema history, all movies on the subject have always stayed outside the car, never venturing closer than the Zapruder film does. Here, the immediate and ugly banality of death is shocking all over again, though it is a death we have seen before, but now we're alongside her in the seat, and more than ever we understand this loss was most of all, for her, a violation. The American visual lexicon of that hyper-studied moment has been expanded here.
This isn't the only film about loss on my list, but it was probably the most impacting. I've been thinking a lot about grief, and Jackie is instructive in its appreciation of the value of creating narratives to understand the losses we sustain. An exchange like this could only have been written by someone with a too-close understanding of lamentation:
"Take comfort in those memories."
Stories help us understand, allow us to live with ourselves and move forward. Jackie's courage in developing a narrative, alone, is rightly the focus here. There is so much to learn about loss and selfhood by watching this picture, aside from the already fascinating explorations of Jackie's preoccupation with legacy and determination to assert herself as more than shallow. Of indescribable value to me are John Hurt's words on how we carry forward– too delicately powerful to state here out of context. Just go see the film!
Worth noting as well is the speech and manner of the characters. These are people who came of age in the forties, and their diction, air, and politeness are not of our time. People thought differently back then, and for all the great progress being made today, there are great things to be learned here too.
Image courtesy Vitagraph Films.
"So when you like it, it's vintage; when you don't like it, it's old. Is that right? You guys don't know what it's like to feel crazy without being crazy and that the madness is out there, don't you?"
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. With Sonia Braga.
Synopsis: A vibrant, strong-willed older woman fights to keep her apartment. UK Trailer.
The most exciting thing about Aquarius, and there are many, is that the film at large convincingly posits the idea that the high point of dynamic, pulsing vitality in your life can be in your mid-sixties. And not just your mid-sixties, but your mid-sixties as a widow, living alone, and on the verge of losing your home. I'm reminded of the line at the end of Herzog's Stroszek:
"So. your car's kaput. And your girlfriend is gone, and thine house they have sold. [pause] I wouldn't worry about it."
Clara, Sonia Braga's character, isn't nearly as happy-go-lucky, nor does she face as much tragedy, but she's filled with an energy to act that must come from somewhere, and the urge toward action is a creative urge, and therefore ultimately a positive one. She's a fighter. Winning is interesting to her, but it's not as interesting as just fighting, and fight she does, for all 146 minutes of this gigantic, hugely enjoyable portrait of a movie.
Sonia Braga was a sort of "Sophia Loren of Brazil" in the 60s, and she manages to look as radiant here as she ever did, decades later. Her character understands that the aging of the spirit has little to do with the body. We grow wooden when we stop being curious, humble, open to new ideas; when we lose our sense of wonder. The prologue shows Clara as a young woman attending the birthday party of an elderly female family friend, and we assume it's from here she learns how vitality doesn't need to decline nearly as quickly as our vessels do.
I feel a sense of deep, profound optimism watching this picture. UCLA professor and cultural anthropologist Jared Diamond wrote in his excellent The World Until Yesterday that he believes his late seventies are the high point of his life so far. Clara might say the same about her sixties, if she weren't so busy partying with her friends and sabotaging the sabotagers of her apartment. This one's a gem, and despite its acclaim elsewhere you won't hear it being talked about much. Seek it out, and spread the word!
Image courtesy A24.
8. 20th Century Women
"Look. Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed."
Directed by Mike Mills. With Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig.
Synopsis: An adolescent boy growing up in 1979 Santa Barbara is shaped by the women around him. Theatrical Trailer 1.
Some films feel like they contain the totality of life experience in a certain place and time. In its intimate specificity, this film feels universal. My first years on this earth were in Southern California, and in the mid-eighties the visual vernacular of the previous decade was still very much in evidence. Orange and brown, pencil sharpeners in the corner, waiting by the phone. The world hadn't been digitized yet. You had to be a little more proactive, a little more skilled, and a lot more patient. Life in the Twentieth century, more than now, was something you could touch.
As adults we forget how miserable much of growing up is. Yes, children are exceptional at being happy, but the notion that they always are is a myth we oldsters have made from our fondest memories, which thankfully loom larger than the others. Recall that an enormous amount of youth is spent feeling intense longing, loneliness, and frustration. But there is such color, too, such immediacy. We hadn't distracted ourselves out of the present yet, and we knew how to feel, how look out at the world with wonder.
Bening is a force of nature here. Her mother character, at once too young and too old for the shifting social mores around her, is elusive. We never fully know our parents, and in like fashion, Bening is right there, and though she's fully drawn, she's always just beyond our complete understanding. Elle Fanning is another highlight in the already stellar cast, and Mills advances the "mixed-media" approach he began in Beginners, this time incorporating not just stock footage and stills but text in a very pleasing way.
20th Century Women feels like a certain place, a time I somehow feel I know well. Maybe in its carefully observed humanity every viewer will find something similar, but with my circumstances I feel especially close to the picture. It unfolds as life does– a story only in the most general sense, more a slowly coalescing accumulation of moments, the most offhand and the most pivotal, the makings of memories we didn't know would become formative.
Like Mills' previous film Beginners, there is such wisdom in the lines here, but this times the lessons are deeper, more richly filled in. It is so far beyond your average coming of age movie ("after that summer, they would never be the same," etc etc). You walk out of this trying to remember certain lines, without the wisdom of which you would feel bereft of something.
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.
"If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?"
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.
Synopsis: A linguist (Amy Adams) is asked to help translate communications from alien life forms. Teaser Trailer.
Arrival has the nerve to start off being about an alien invasion and then end up focusing instead on human emotions, motherhood, and loss. The picture is something of a miracle, developed largely outside the studio system (it was turned down by several majors who insisted the main character be turned into a man), as engaging cerebrally as emotionally.
Most large-scale films, due to their high costs, have to appeal to a broad demographic at the box office to recoup their expenses. This one is refreshing in its refusal to do so. If you give audiences dumb movies, they'll lower their intellect to match, and if you give them heady material, they'll rise to the occasion. Which is more interesting and pertinent, after all? Imaginary alien invasions, or how language shapes the way we think and understand time? What we would make of our lives if we could see them in totality? Isn't memory something like this, as concerning our journeys thus far? The answers Arrival comes up with I find deeply comforting.
Also worth noting is Villeneuve's customarily precise use of the camera. Like Fincher, he avoids handheld at all costs, instead favoring highly controlled, exacting compositions.* The use of narrow lenses for the non-linear moments, as well as the clarity of editing in the film's climax, making comprehensible some truly mind-blowing conceptual material, is impressive. Jóhann Jóhannsson's tonal score buoys the emotions without telegraphing them.
*Read here for my thoughts and breakdown on use of visuals in Villeneuve's previous film, Sicario.
Image courtesy Amazon Studios.
6. Manchester by the Sea
"I can't beat it. I can't beat it. I'm sorry."
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. With Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams. Winner Best Actor, Screenplay (Oscars).
Synopsis: A man attempts to keep life going while besieged by family losses both past and present. Theatrical Trailer.
It makes sense that Lonergan and Martin Scorsese are friends. Both directors make films about people who don't change. Think for a second how rare that is in movies… and how common it is in life. Do people, at their core, ever actually change? Only from the fifties onwards did "character arcs" become prevalent in film. Now we think they're normal, even necessary. The works of these two are refreshing in many ways, but fundamentally in a manner we often can't quite nail down; this is what that elusive spark is, that feels so much more lifelike. Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort haven't learned anything by the end of their respective narratives (Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street*)… but we have, watching them. In a way it's more powerful this way. To explain (SPOILERS):
I think the great tragedy is that throughout Manchester, every single character who's close to Affleck gets to a point where they can forgive him– everyone, that is, except himself. For me this sends a message about the need to forgive ourselves which is stronger than if he actually did forgive himself within the film.
The audience completes the film by adding its missing component in our real lives– the underlined thought that we must forgive ourselves at some point, or else life is just too heavy, as it is for him. It's a risky move as a filmmaker, but who knows, it could motivate someone in the audience to change how they think in a more powerful way than if the film provided the solution for them. Here they have to come up with it by noticing its absence. That's what's uplifting– the takeaway.
*My thoughts on Wolf, which similarly takes the tack of exposing an idea through its absence to breaking point– and then, rather than the comfortable comeuppance of other rise-and-fall pictures, indemnifies in its final shot an entity we're definitely not expecting. It's less a comedy than a lament.
Click here for the final five!
"Save what you can of your life. Don't lose it all just because you've lost a part."
Films have the power to touch us deeply, but not just with their words. In my opinion, movies should have more than just compelling content. They should also look great. They should compel us visually in a way that enhances the material, deepens the experience. The above line means something more when paired with that image. We expect musicians to play or sing well in addition to having good ideas, and painters, beyond choosing compelling subjects to begin with, to paint those subjects in interesting ways. I'd say the same goes for films. You want an artistically stimulating whole.
All the films below are stimulating wholes. As a photographer, I obsess particularly over visuals and how they can communicate beyond the written word. Everything on this list either looks incredible (American Honey, Tale of Tales), does subtle but complicated things with blocking and staging (The Salesman, Manchester by the Sea) or achieves strange but extreme cinematographic sophistication (Jackie, Moonlight). Friends listen to me with varying degrees of patience after we get out of a film while I rhapsodically praise and analyze a film's photography, reaching uncontrollable new levels of ecstatic art-appreciation pleasure. The density of the film medium, like the mental overload of bus driving, is one of the nervy places I like to live.
Here are fifteen films from the past year which moved me, presented in reverse order. Each has something to say about human nature and how we treat each other that I find valuable. You know that films often have multiple trailers advertising them; the trailers I've chosen to link here are the ones I feel most accurately convey the true nature of the films, or what I liked about them. Without further ado (the ado mainly being in this previous post setting it all up):
Image courtesy Focus Features
"I know we have some enemies. But we have some friends, too."
Directed by Jeff Nichols. With Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.
Synopsis: An intimate portrait of the first legally married interracial couple in the US. Theatrical trailer.
It's a quiet picture, but a deeply involving one. Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, negotiating it all with dignity and human grace. The picture maximizes its use of silence (with a killer opening shot and line which has us in suspense from frame one), and manages to feel very much of its time and more specifically, place, in sensibility– no postmodern irony or hipness here. Ruth Negga's performance is revelatory. Director Nichols has the sheer nerve to take it slow, leisurely, pacing the proceedings to the key of life these two folks lived, way out there in the hinterlands.
Image courtesy The Weinstein Comapany.
"She carried rocks."
Directed by Garth Davis. With Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham.
Synopsis: The true story of an adopted Indian boy searching for his biological mother. Theatrical trailer.
I didn't need the moment on digital video at the very, very end, after the film proper is over. That was not necessary for me. It diluted the impact of the scene I'd seen five minutes prior, featuring almost exactly the same material, and which I found profoundly moving.
Aside from that, however– wow. Director Davis' willingness to let the first act (where the boy Saroo is lost in Calcutta) be as long as it is, rather than merely a prologue, is a masterstroke. This is no "Hollywood grittiness," but rather the dank and festering nightmare of really being there, lost, in a huge metropolis of strangers who don't speak your language, with no safe direction to take. Rooney Mara makes the most of an underwritten role, giving it real heft. Note Davis' use of backlighting, and narrow depth of field on closeups. Powerful, tactile use of the camera, and deserving of its unexpected directing and cinematography guild nominations.
Loss is what we're continually confronted with, more and more, as we grow; I'm particularly fascinated with films that confront it, as we must.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight.
13. A Bigger Splash
"She's the woman of the century, and I'm talking about her soul now."
Directed by Luca Guadagnino. With Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson.
Synopsis: A rock star and filmmaker on vacation are unexpectedly interrupted by a former lover and his daughter. Theatrical trailer.
Back when this film came out, director Luca Guadagnino was talking about how there's no longer any excuse for films to look bad photographically, and I agree. To quote Roger Ebert's review of the abysmal Punisher II: War Zone: "bad movies used to look bad. Now they look great."
There was never an excuse for flat lighting or over-relying on medium closeups (a la television), but more than ever there's no excuse for murky, bland, uninspired cinematography. Not everything needs to be underlit mumblecore. Technology has improved to the point where a budget isn't necessary to create ravishing visuals, and Guadagnino in particular was referring to independent films. He lives up to his words here, with a colorful, buoyant, carefree, aesthetically resplendent piece about relationships from all sides– their beginnings and ends, and the necessary challenge of transforming some of them into friendships. Exciting, thought-provoking, nervy filmmaking, wrought with primary colors and emblazoned with music of all genres.
Image courtesy Lionsgate.
12. La La Land
"I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope."
Directed by Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Winner Best Director (Oscars), et al.
Synopsis: a romance about the conflict between sustaining a relationship and following one's dreams. Theatrical Teaser.
Watch the teaser linked above. Just do it. Remind yourself of everything about this magical film that is truly great and affecting, which you may have lost sight of during the awards campaign, where its status as frontrunner unfairly clouded our view of its excellence. The film will ultimately gain more from losing Best Picture than it would have from winning, in that it prevents the film from being considered overrated. Moonlight deserves the spotlight in being superior and more timely, but this one's no slouch. You can have more than one masterpiece wandering around at the same time. We can all share in the glory here.
The film is meaningful to me for its unusual corollary to events in my personal life, its taking place in my hometown of L.A., its unabashed enthusiasm for life, its prodigious filmmaking technique, and its brazen willingness to appreciate important connections in our life even if they're finite. It's all finite. We have to face that in order to be happy. More of my thoughts on the film, Los Angeles, and why they resonate for me personally here.
Image courtesy Amazon Studios.
11. The Salesman
"You're taking revenge."
Directed by Asghar Farhadi. With Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini.
Winner, Best Foreign Film (Oscars), Best Actor (Cannes), Best Screenplay (Cannes).
Synopsis: A man performing the Willy Loman role in Death of a Salesman is faced with a real-life situation which also requires his empathy. Theatrical trailer.
Asghar Farhadi does it again. These guys. If we remember the fact that Terrence Malick is half-Persian, it's no stretch to say the best films in the world are coming from that culture and part of the world right now. As for Farhadi, his unique approach, best described as a seemingly impossible blend of family dynamics grafted onto a thriller structure, resulting in what I call "edge-of-your-seat domestic drama," is found nowhere else.
This one involves a woman who suffers an incident (never specified) at the hands of stranger, and the fallout afterwards– differing ideas on who to blame and why, the value and purpose of vengeful behavior, and the drawbacks and benefits to exercising justice in the sense of identifying wrongdoers and punishing them– versus finding ways to move on together and get along. Farhadi once said that stories used to be about the conflict between good and evil; now, they're about the conflict between the good and the good. We see all sides here.
In details and specifics from the other side of the world, Farhadi finds the universals. In perhaps no other filmmaker's work am I more potently reminded that only the faintest slivers of language and culture separate us. The concerns here are our own concerns, and you'll be chewing over the thematics and their ramifications for days afterwards. For one of the all-time Q&A's (where did they find an audience who asks such intelligent questions?!), click here for an hour with Farhadi at UCLA, following a Salesman screening. His easygoing wisdom is something else.
Note also Farhadi's subtle dexterity in blocking, as evidenced by this short video analysis of the same in his About Elly (2009). My thoughts on that film and the interesting history of how it came to be released in the US six years after it was made here.
Click here for Films 6-10!
Above image courtesy 20th Century Fox.
People sometimes tell me the blog needs to focus more on me. That I write too much about everyone else, and what about the recurring bus driver in ever single one of the stories? What's he like?
The thing is, I'm not all that interested in writing about myself. Maybe I'm just barely too old. I grew up before the internet. I don't take selfies. I don't take pictures of everything I eat. Living life is more interesting to me than documenting it– but that's another can of worms. Navel-gazing has reached new heights in the age of social media, and in the way "nerd" and "geek" have (thankfully) lost most of their traction as hurtful labels with the advent of widespread digital technology, so too has "narcissism" started to be, if not a positive, too pervasive to be much of a put-down. But it will (thankfully) never be a completely good thing.
While accusations of nerddom had more to do with unkindly accusing someone because of their interests, the label of narcissism is different. It's less about interests or even interest with oneself than a critique of lack of interest in others. The behavioral extension of that, selfishness, remains as uncelebrated in day-to-day interactions as it ever was.
For myself, I write about others because I'm more intrigued by them. It's their actions which move me, not my own. I'm grateful though, when readers take an interest in the posts which do focus more on me (such as the recent "Nathan Takes a Day Off" series), and I completely understand the need for character development. Who is this guy, after all, who shows up in every post, and what's he like? We don't care about characters in films or books unless we know something about them, and this desire makes sense to me.
I learn about people most enjoyably when listening to them talk about things they love. Hopefully my thoughts on why these films resonate with me offers the same, and more importantly, functions as a list of recommendations for those nights when you're trolling Netflix, unsure of where to click next!
This is supposed to be a list of overlooked 2016 films. I realize we're well into 2017, but I had to wait to see a few key films before I compile in good conscience. Also, there's a drawback to throwing together a top ten right at the end of Oscar season, as everyone does; you're too prone to overrate whatever films you most recently saw. There's a review of mine online somewhere (which we're definitely not going to link to!), where I gave way too many stars to a certain Ashton Kutcher-Kevin Costner water rescue flop… I think mostly because in those days I had to submit reviews within 24 hours, and my natural enjoyment of the act of film-watching just gets in the way.
So. This is a list where I've let things stew a while, and hopefully that makes it more useful as a resource for you. Personally, I think 2016 was a banner year. It wasn't quite up there with the cornucopias we got in 1999, 1969 or 1939 (why is it always the -9's?), but it was bountiful. I'm calling it an "overlooked" list because I want to focus on some of the stuff that might slip through the cracks, as well as the obviously great stuff. I'll start the actual list in the next post; for an appetizer, here are four films which I'll stop short of calling great, but which moved me for different reasons.
Image courtesy Lionsgate.
“Hope ain’t a tactic.”
Synopsis: A dramatization of the 2010 oil rig explosion. Theatrical trailer.
I know. You didn't think this was going to be here. I'll start talking about obscure Brazilian movies in a second, but first let's appreciate this entirely worthwhile Mark Wahlberg action vehicle.
I like films which explore the potential for truth-telling in realms about which I know little, and offshore drilling is a realm in which I have minimal (read: zilch) real-world experience. Peter Berg's film (he and Wahlberg have struck up a working relationship of sorts, and including this have made three pictures about real-life unsung working class heroes) spends an unreasonable time on the details of how oil rigs actually work.
Berg focuses on things like how fuel injector hoses attach to a vessel, or step-by-step breakdowns of evaluating the integrity of cement work in a wellbore. Characters talk using jargon they don't explain, because every one of them would already know what the other is talking about, and we lean forward to piece it all together. The texture of life on a rig and how those enormous machines work, as well as a glimpse into the lives of the salt-of-the-earth folk who work them, hugely compels me. It's comparable to my fascination with the first act of United 93 (trailer), before anything goes wrong, where we're given unapologetically detailed views into the complexities of air-traffic control. I would have been fine with either of these films being about nothing more than that, rather than the disasters they eventually both end up focusing on. Isn't it all so interesting, what life looks like in all its many iterations?
Image courtesy IFC Films
"It'd be so lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say okay. That would be so restful."
Synopsis: Four women– a teacher, lawyer, wife and ranch hand– strive to follow their own paths in the American northwest. Theatrical trailer.
In his 2003 book Mortals, Norman Rush writes about how most every society through history has subjugated about half its population. Men never have to wonder what it'd be like to follow a list of rules the other gender came up with; women have to do that all the time. To find peace being forever relegated to a supporting role– in society, in relevance, in perceived ability– has for too long been a sadly necessary feat of accomplishment, and one which goes unsung daily.
Kelly Reichardt's wonderful new 16mm picture is an exploration into three such unsung lives. What is the wife thinking, when her husband steps in during a land purchase, on the unspoken assumption she's incompetent at explaining herself? What's it like to be an underpaid teacher given a job in the middle of nowhere? The film isn't angry, but calm; not polemic, but observant. It's a window into the minds of what would normally be underdeveloped supporting characters, and a reminder of the complexity of lives outside the spotlight.
Worth noting are all the performances (especially Michelle Williams), but I have to single out Kristen Stewart. You may know she was the first American actor in history to win a César (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her performance in Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria, and I say she deserved it. Nick Davis in Film Comment writes:
"[H]er commitment to a low-fuss, conversational directness is rare among modern film performers, particularly in roles that accommodate flashier approaches…. She has persuaded the film community to meet her where she lives– in a laconic, minutely expressive, barely laminated register of acting that's confusable with 'just being.' …The sheer ordinariness of [her] gestures [Davis notes: "a redoubtable poker face, hunching, biting or curling her lip, rolling her eyes amid unvoiced thoughts, looking down, looking far away while cupping her head of her hair"], collapsing any border between acting and behavior, suggests something familiar, something ubiquitous: less the icon of an agitated generation than one of its many median exemplars, the needle but also the haystack. While seeming to 'do' little onscreen, Stewart paradoxically renders transparency and impenetrability, rarity as well as its opposite."
I see Stewart in the position Leo DiCaprio was in the years following Titanic; a talented actor struggling to improve his craft, be taken seriously, and climb out from under the shadow of a blockbuster which threatened to define him without requiring his skills. Her performance here is hugely exciting in its subtleties, and her collaborations with Assayas, in the aforementioned Clouds (trailer) and this year's Personal Shopper (trailer) are, without exaggeration, acting masterclasses.
Image courtesy The Orchard
Demolition & Louder Than Bombs
"Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, examine everything, then you can put it all back together."
Synopses. Demolition (trailer): An investment banker (Jake Gyllenhaal), following the death of his wife, finds solace in demolishing his former life. Bombs (trailer): A family has differing perspectives on the death of their mother/wife (Isabelle Huppert).
Nobody liked these movies. Except me. Panned by critics and ignored by audiences worldwide, I nevertheless gobbled them up, and I imagine a few other solitary souls out there did too. I've been thinking a lot about grief, and grief is the subject of these two pictures. Demolition, by the Québécois Jean Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), follows Jake Gyllenhaal after his wife dies in a freak car accident; Joachim Trier's English-language debut, Louder Than Bombs, follows the family of a war photographer (Isabelle Huppert) after she dies in her own car accident.
Demolition is about the problem of numbness in modern life, and how it relates to grief. How do you miss someone you never knew? How do you touch emotions, break through the fog of a society which disencourages truthful, raw, honest communication?
Louder Than Bombs revolves around the impossibility of belonging in a family when you're away for long periods. When you miss years of the in-between moments, washing dishes and loading the car, you end up becoming a stranger. You find that those were the meat of it all. You try to learn what your children are interested in, what their concerns are, but the next time you're back that's ancient history, and you've got to relearn it all over.
It doesn't often get mentioned in our culture that after a certain age, people you love will start dying. Their health will decline, and with enough time it won't get better, but gradually (or suddenly) worse until it's over. Nobody gets out of this game alive. What to do? You know the answer. You always knew. Live in the present. You can't be happy otherwise. It's what kids know how to do so well, a skill we don't have to forget.
I went to an Emily Wells concert in 2012. She told us then, "we're going to lose everything we love in this life." I've spent the last five years thinking about that line. I saw her again a few weeks ago. This time she said, "everything I've lost, I've learned to quit." A different mental hurdle, but equally important. The 2012 line was about preparing for something; the 2017 line is about dealing with the aftermath. The best and worst of us will all address these two issues, imperfectly, but that's okay.
We do what we can.
Above: Del Amo Station, South Central LA, facing north.
I'll confess to being annoyed with the man on first blush. I wasn't infatuated with the guy. Why?
He was the sort Walker Evans would've photographed were he alive today, the marginalized lot Manet would've included in his beggar-philosopher series, dressed in the tousled and bedraggled grunge which stands outside of the vagaries of fashion, a look that doesn't age.
You know I normally love these guys.
It was his attitude of entitlement which I let rub me wrongly. When I first met him, I hadn't heard a line a colleague would later tell me, a throwaway sentence which would stick in ways he likely never intended and would prove so useful in so many instances for me.
"They act entitled because they're not."
Many mantras of self-talk I repeat to myself have similarly inauspicious beginnings. Of course. Marcus walked in and demanded the heater be turned on in a way I found frustrating. Some folks never learn the variations of power they can exert by how they phrase things, and go through life demanding, with no idea that politely asking usually gets you more. Intellectually, I could see that pleasantries are probably not high on your mind if you're stuck outside sleeping on buses that are uncomfortable and cold. You're likely also working on a whole host of other issues. I appreciated that intellectually, but not emotionally. I had to bite the urge to be passive-aggressive about it.
I reminded myself I had nothing against turning the heat on, and did so. He was the same the next few times I saw him– demanding in a way that hid his reasonableness, with a particular interest in heat. I wouldn't know his name until more than two years later, when out of the blue Marcus showed up again, dressed in similar garb and limping, one leg in a cast. I couldn't remember if he'd always had glasses.
By this time my colleague friend had unwittingly contextualized entitlement among the homeless for me in a way I found helpful in its understanding perspective, and I'd grown to realize that people have different intentions when they say the same lines. A person who's never learned delicate phrasing ("if isn't too terribly imposing, I was wondering if I could inquire about the status of the heater?") may not be trying to be rude when they express their needs ("HEAT!") in the clearest way they know how. It may also be that they have more pressing concerns.
It was easier to take Marcus' tone in stride. Should we really expect people to be at their best when they're trying- and usually failing- to get good sleep by riding buses around all night? Over time, my kindness wore him down. He asked one night if I had anything sweet. "I got diabetes," he explained. "You got an orange or something? I know you got an orange."
"How'd you know I had an orange? Yeah, this one's got your name on it."
After that I'd periodically check up on him. Did he need a granola bar? Did he want these Skittles I definitely wasn't going to eat? We'd talk about the wavering status of his leg. Never long conversations, but companionable. Or he'd listen silently as I chatted it up with someone else.
One day, upon reaching the end of the line, as I walked back there to where he and a few other sleeping forms reposed, he called out to me.
"Mister Marcus, hey."
"I got something for you."
"For me, no way!"
"Yeah, man." He fiddled with his overstuffed backpack. "You like salads?"
"I love salads!"
"Yeah, I got these salads for you." He'd been carrying them around in anticipation of seeing me. I was struck by the absurdity of someone in his position giving someone in my position food, and said so.
"Now hang on, Marcus, you sure you don't need these yourself? Stuff is good for ya, man, spinach makes you big and strong...."
"Dude. I don't eat that stuff, man,"
"It's for you!"
"You sure, bro? Thank you! Thank you so much! Man, Marcus!"
When you learn a lot in the space of a few seconds, the effect is profoundly humbling. He has every reason to keep the food he comes upon for himself. Every reason. But here he is, feeling it was important enough as a gesture to give me, the reasonably well-heeled bus driver artist, two spinach and feta salads? What? He did not need to do that. It was not necessary for his survival, benefited him nothing, and cost him valuable space in his pack lugging it around looking for me. But it wasn't about any of that. This was his way of expressing gratitude. Not flowering Victorian requests for the heater, but the gift of food.
Which, let's be honest, is what I would prefer anyway!
Only recently did I learn, from an offhand mumble, that Marcus has a job. He works janitorial duty during the day… and does this at night? Roll around catnapping while continuously getting interrupted? Wow. How does he do it? "You're friggin' Superman," I decreed. No wonder he's abrupt sometimes, my goodness. I certainly wouldn't be at my best in such circumstances. Talk about being one of the enterprising ones.