First of all. What’s a theme of life? What does that even mean? What I mean is, life untethered from plot. Most films only care to spend time with their characters as long as they’re involved in a conflict; the minute things are resolved, the curtain drops. I have a fondness for pictures that go beyond, and many of the films in these writeups do just that. But these three seem especially apt as portraits in the European (and especially French) cinematic tradition, where the sheer ordinaryness of existence is itself interesting enough to commit to celluloid. (Curiously, each of these three films is exactly the same number of minutes long. Go figure.)
1. Little Women
"I'm so sick of it! But—I am so lonely."
Synopsis: The March sisters live and grow in mid-19th century America. Trailer.
dir. Greta Gerwig. 135m; 1.85:1.
Roger Ebert called them “hangout movies.” You know the kind; where the plot took a backseat to simply, well, ‘hanging out’ with the characters. Spending time with them. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a hangout movie. So is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I can’t recall a hangout movie made at this craft level that had female main characters, let alone within a period piece, and the effect is hugely refreshing. Yes, there’s a story, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because life is happening, and watching these characters negotiate their paths through it is just plain absorbing.
In a masterstroke, Gerwig both includes the second half of the book (where the characters are adults) and imposes a non-linear interleaving of the two time periods. She neatly contrasts growths of character, and elsewhere juxtpoases moments of joy and sorrow happening in the same space but years apart.
It's a vital update to Gillian Armstrong’s admirable "best-so-far" and still worthwhile 1994 effort, which was itself a challenge to make: according to scriptwriter Robin Swicord, that picture was “plagued by a low budget, productions days cut half-way through filming and a one-person art department,” as well as an all-male team of execs who underestimated the film’s appeal at every turn. Sigh. Gerwig, by contrast, was given final cut, and the license to do as she wished is a treat for us all. This is how great art gets made, and its considerable financial and critical success spells hope for more of the same.
But for now there’s this, a magical and significant piece that’s both light on its feet and supremely affecting, as well as being tighter in pace than the expected historical heritage drama, with breathless exchanges and swirling music and inspired Altmanesque dialogue overlaps.
Says Gerwig to Sight and Sound, “that’s my preferred pace. Some of the lines in the book are so famous– so embroidered on pillows– that I knew I wanted the actors to rush through them at the speed of light. I wanted it to be loud and falling all over each other. Sometimes there’s as many as eight characters taling at once. But it’s all very specifically written, so that they overlap each other at precise moments. I didn’t want it to be messy. I wanted it to be a cocophony, but a controlled cacophany. Everyone was terrified the movie was going to be five hours because the script was so long. I said, ‘Just wait. Just wait until you hear how fast they talk. it’s going to be fine.’”
A cinematic assault overload of material for the viewer to process, to struggle to keep up with, necessitating repeat viewings? Sign me up! I couldn't ask for more. Thank you, Greta.
2. Marriage Story
"Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst."
Synopsis: The story of a divorce and the impact on all around the couple– children, parents, attorneys, and friends. Trailer.
dir. Noah Baumbach. 137m; 1.66:1.
Briefly, because I've only seen this once and though it has straightforwardly observable qualities I get the sense there's more there–
Andrea Arnold’s regular DP Robbie Ryan’s participation here takes Baumbach to new places visually. His frame has never been so rich in color. As for content, he’s grown over the years but here leaps forward exponentially, with a warmth of humanism, mix of humor and scalding pathos, and adroit handling of shifting sympathies.
The pain of transforming the personal to the political, as divorce necessitates, is lacerating, and Baumbach includes that without stripping away the unavoidable color and humor of life, even in its most trying moments. Here he articulates reasons behind many decisions– choice of angle, aspect ratio, and even specific cuts. His inspired cutting ‘from the judge to the judge’ at the eend of the video comes from his watching Scorsese’s Silence, where Marty does a similar thing at Ciaran Hinds’ character. Baumbach stands this domestic drama out by going with the underused 1.66:1 ratio, which he prefers for its portrait-like quality; shooting on 35mm and letting color play a role; and oh, the writing.
It's a story told from wounds, not scars, and feels too empathetic of all its characters to be sourced from only his experience. Like Gerwig, Baumbach writes the interruptions of his lines into his scripts, and there's some real intricate and specific work by the actors here. The living room argument borders on unwatchable in its pain, making use as it does of so many earlier moments the characters now use to hurt each other. A generous, moving, at times hard-to-watch picture that plays all the registers of life.
3. Uncut Gems
"Everything I do, it’s not going right. And I don’t know what to do!"
Synopsis: A New York City jeweler makes a series of high-stakes bets that cause his life to unravel. Trailer.
dir. Safdie Brothers. 135m; 2.39:1.
Wow. Why did I appreciate this movie so? How did I appreciate it so, what with its record-setting profanity, intensely ugly milieu, continuously hollered dialogue, endlessly rising stakes, and the fact that it’s reasonable to describe it as the two-hour equivalent of a panic attack?
Because it knows its subject so well, with such authenticity, and the go-for-broke audacity of its protagonist is matched by the unparalleled energy of its aesthetic. The specificity of form here is incontrovertibly auteur status. You don’t need to see more than five seconds of that long-lens chaos to know this could only be by the directors of Good Time.
If Howard Hawks' famous definition of good direction holds (“when you can tell who the devil made it”), than this latest Safdie Brothers efffort more than qualifies (for an idea, watch this trailer for Good Time). It’s also their most cohesive and artistically successful effort by a significant margin. The efficacy of its sophistication creates that oh-so-pleasing conflation of intensely highbrow treatment of inarguably lowbrow material, a clash I find inclusive and eye-opening.
Only by shooting on film and creating such a stylized and specific visual vernacular could such an utterly unsightly environment as 47th Street’s Diamond District be remotely palatable onscreen. Sandler’s craft as an actor hasn’t been displayed at this level before, and basketball player Kevin Garnett holds his own alongside such talent, giving a magnetic performance.
I took pleasure in hearing the rhythms of urban American speech I know so well portrayed on film with a truthfulness I rarely find in movies– too often in the pictures you can actually understand what people are saying, and the phrase choices are all wrong, forced, only one word spoken where three would be in life. The speech here has the ring of authenticity.
I find the ending jubilant. What is the most optimistic logical conclusion of Howard Ratner’s way of living? Exactly what happens to him: to die in a high-stakes moment of complete and absurd triumph. His life is complete.
Julia gets away clean because she’s a good person (a la Knives Out), she cares, she can read people, and she knows just what to say. Her strength of character is that her joy isn’t defined by winning like Ratner’s is– she’s happy at the end, sure, but because that’s who she is, not because of those duffel bags. And she’s doubtless bound for better relationships.
The goons finally get to rob the jewelry store and collect their debts; LaKeith Stanfield’s character is excited for his friend Kevin, who is himself elated at having the stone and winning the game; Ratner’s wife is freed from the mess of divorce. It’s a win for every last adult character, though those children of his are in for some hard processing.
A portrait of life lived as mania, as authentically as I’ve ever seen. What does it mean? I have no idea. Maybe I can relate to the juggled chaos of my own schedule on some oblique level, recognize the danger of it. There’s something there, in all that madness onscreen, something that reveals itself in the comittment to an accurate representation of how things go sometimes. I thirst to learn the mechanics of this life, and in watching this I heard an echo that was truthful.
Nathan's Films of 2019 Index here.