Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

Like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (here we gooo), this is sweeping!, detailed!, scored!, shot!, interesting politically vis-à-vis imperialism! Long! A big grand old cinematic MO-VIE.

Yet the reason these films truly endure is because they are: romances. They are big grand old ROMANCES between the men at their center, whether you want to view the relationships erotically or platonically Romances is what they are, and it turns out that’s cinema, babey.

But let’s back up a moment.

Technically, the first Aubrey-Maturin narrative I experienced was this movie, released in November 2003, director Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Picnic At Hanging Rock). But I had seen none of those at the time, nor did I see this movie until some point in early 2004, which I know because the only reason I saw it was because I had seen Lord of the Rings, and my fellow obsessive & best friend and I rented this entirely for Billy Boyd. Unfortunately, we could barely spy wee Billy, as we watched it on her brother’s ancient boxy television set with a screen that was at most about the size of a hardcover edition of The Far Side of the World, closed. As you might imagine, this scale, not to mention this screen resolution, was not conducive to really appreciating or even passably following heavily peopled nautical action. 

So years and years later, when I began reading the first novel in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series, it really was for all intents and purposes my first meaningful experience with the material. Even though officially I’d “seen” the movie adaptation first, I hadn’t really seen anything. It would be the book forms I imprinted on, Master and Commander and later H.M.S. Surprise that impressed “Aubrey & Maturin” into my soul. 

Which is why I do dock a star from the film simply due to Jack also but especially Stephen Maturin just not being REMOTELY unhinged enough. 

Curiously, Paul Bettany, the actor who entered A Knight’s Tale stark naked, faintly irritated, and expounding on etymologies, could have absolutely played Book Stephen exactly as written. But it seems this project (script, Weir, etc) was after something different, because it sure was not a question of Bettany not having that energy setting. And as I recall Russell Crowe’s ‘The Art of Divorce’ auction, I think he too could have handedly played the Jack Aubrey who loves riches, can’t do math, and calls his particular friend Dr. Maturin “my plum.”

The Jack and Stephen of the movie aren’t entirely different creatures from their book selves, but come across as maybe just their calmer and more respectable reflections. These men are a bit salty, a bit quirky, but presentable to whomever you might want to present them to—Admirals, general movie audiences—and the same just cannot be said of the astonishing maniacs who grace O’Brian’s pages. It’s interesting, the sort of modern-friendly heroic polishing of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin in their early 2000s film form is actually more like what I might have expected Patrick O’Brian to have done when he was writing his early 1800s characters for his 1970s readership, only he did not. He wrote a deeply romantic, deeply hilarious, very…just non-contemporary free-wheeling buddy comedy slash chaotic emotional drama hidden in a scrupulously detailed historical series of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era. 

But while Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World could be called more subtle than its predecessors, maybe a bit more sophisticáte, oh it’s a still a high-key high seas romance, my friends. This is a ship battles movie, and such ship battles, such ships! and such storms! I have no idea how they filmed this but it was all so pitching and clashing and horribly tangible, made me so tense and anxious over injury, incredibly done action—but despite all of the ship dashing, the big Climactic Moment is 100% someone making a passionate decision about how much they value their best friend. The movie is genuinely hinged on this, anchored around this, pun intended! And it’s also a movie where so much of its considerable cinematic beauty is linked to said best friends playing duets together in the captain’s quarters. Gorgeous duets, I’ve listened to this so many times that YouTube was like here you might also enjoy these two clearly & adorably homaging the movie, and I did!

It’s also far from irrelevant that while Billy Boyd turns out to be in rather more of this than than my friend and I had managed to attend in 2004, and that he managed to get third billing, something that could have only happened in about a two year window in which this movie happened to fall, incredibly listed above who I’m about to mention: baby James D’Arcy is also in this! He plays Captain Aubrey’s first lieutenant and is quite sweet. Thank goodness I was watching this time on something larger than a dinner plate so could actually appreciate this—could finally, truly appreciate all this movie had to offer.

★★★★

Pig

Everyone kept saying Pig was actually so good. Actually: so good? That its poster and the premise “Someone has taken Nicolas Cage’s pig” actually doesn’t lead to the camp action porcine revenge thriller we thought we might have on our hands. 

Boldly, I recommended this movie to a friend without having seen it yet myself, and maybe even more boldly she went, and reported back: “a mix of First Cow and You Were Never Really Here” and “♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️,” and that’s it, that’s the mood exactly. Like First Cow it’s a quiet, mostly two-hander set in western Oregon partly about food and farm animals and what it looks like to make said food your purpose and income, and like You Were Never Really Here it is interested in trauma and violence only in the drawn-out aftermath of the initial injury—not the hit but the lingering bruise. And, like how I felt about both of those too: Five Hearts.

I ended up going myself with a new friend here in the city—Portland, a weather local eye from us and the maybe dozen other politely masked attendees. Rich laughter from our small crowd at the one-two punch Seattle joke. Beyond that I’m probably projecting, so will just say for myself that this is the best Portland movie I’ve seen since My Own Private Idaho. And it’s not just Nic Cage pronouncing Willamette like a local, or that of course Amir lives in the Pearl, but something in the tone of it. Something a little lost, something a little scuzzy, something a little noble. Long scenes sitting in one of the countless and varied restaurants just letting someone talk in the grey light coming in through the windows.

It’s a good Portland movie, and it’s a good food movie. Those things don’t have to come together, but it helps. I was so happy when I realized Pig’s narrative structure was resolving into a classic hero’s journey but through North Portland food truck pods and Downtown restaurant alleys on the way to a literal katabasis beneath an old hotel. I was so happy the whole time I was watching Pig, not necessarily from what was happening, it’s all very contemplative and largely about loss (and, very much, about taking), but so happy with how it was happening. The form is so so solid. Again, it’s downright classical, even unto the mythological name of the trendy restaurant they go to with the orbs of fir smoke. This movie is buttoned up, as the chef judges used to compliment the plating on the cooking show I used to work on. It’s the kind of story that just calmly builds a shape where it’s so simple and clear that both main characters are going to be required for the narrative resolution, and it just feels good and clean.

I also spent this movie just so happy for this young actor Alex Wolff. I hadn’t seen him in anything before, though I learned later he’s the Hereditary kid, for people tapped into the A24 horror scene. But for someone who is definitely not a household name at present, he had such a good yet not easy opportunity here, and he nailed it. His role in the film is to support Nicolas Cage, he’s supposed to let Nicolas Cage be the main note and provide the complementary notes as needed. This means he has to distinguish himself enough to be able to sound that complement, yet not draw too much focus from Cage, who needs space and attention to do the wonderfully grounded yet fragile thing he’s doing here.

And man, Alex Wolff just aces this balance. He does a beautiful job with not only with the snobby, wounded detail of his character but also this broader view of how his performance is supposed to function in the movie whole. Can’t wait to see him show up in future stuff and think aw yay it’s the boy from Pig, which was actually so good.

★★★★★

The Green Knight

Extensive spoilers ahead, all the way through the ending

In 14th-century Britain, someone wrote a long poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This movie is not that poem. It deviates in plot and character, and perhaps most significantly in what that poem seems to be About, as much as anyone has ever been able to pinpoint what that poem is concerned with anyway. The original verses are full of strange tensions and ambiguity, which is captivating—there’s a reason why the odd little Gawain story at oddly pagan Christmastime is everyone’s favorite of the form. It’s a wandering trial tale of morals and magic like so many chivalric romances of the period, but most animated by those tensions, by that ambiguity, and by the cold ax of death hanging over it. I feel what David Lowery has made in The Green Knight is not the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but ‘a Green Knight story’, a story in the manner of—a new odd work of tensions and ambiguity with a cold ax of death hanging over it. And it is a riveting affair.

I don’t know when I last experienced a piece of art that feels so contemporary while also so old, very old, old as balls. It’s a distinctly modern movie, far-flung modern even, but its galaxy-brained art design and pacing seems to have Moon-shot back around to being olden weird. Like you know when you’re looking at a lot of bizarre medieval illustrations, like REALLY looking? Like that. Or like being in Iceland, where you can practically feel beneath your boots how new the land is, hot stone still sizzling and crackling into the cold air, and somehow that also makes it feel like the most ancient place you’ve ever been. This movie is living in both 1350 and 2150. There’s a shot in this where the world turns upside down, and I felt like I was at the beginning and end of time, and it was always just about a figure trudging through a wilderness.

But when I say this movie is modern, I mean in aesthetic but also in scholarship. Lowery’s adaption approach here is like, thrillingly confrontational. It reminds me a bit of those experimental theatrical adaptations where a company will take an old, out-of-copyright work and say okay, what if we change this one single thing at the very premise, how will that ripple out through the rest of the text to follow and re-contextualize everything about the story we think we know. The Green Knight upends not just the idea of King Arthur’s young nephew Sir Gawain as the paragon of chivalric virtue, but the very concept of chivalric virtue itself, all started with the deceptively simple move of making its Gawain not actually a Sir yet. The classic questing tales were for ideology, grails and whatnot, but this modern quest is now, of course, for identity. It is a quest for a question—who are you? Who are you going to be? Do you matter? And will you find out before your death?

I find David Lowery to be a very peaceful filmmaker, because he seems so comfortable with the great unknowability of mortality. A Ghost Story was so much like that, and something of the meditative Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, too. But I’ve always found stories that deal so directly with the fact that we’ll all die soothing; since I was 18 my go-to comfort watch has been Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I think another part of why I so love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is that I’ve always found questions more meaningful than answers, and Lowery has filled his Green Knight with them. One of the ways he’s done this is to drain the cosmic surety that its particular variety of Christianity gave the original poem, where, for example, we get a whole passage explaining that as long as Sir Gawain keeps the icon of the Virgin Mary on the back of his shield where he can see it, he will always find the strength and virtue he needs to lead him through anything. In this Green Knight tale, Gawain’s Virgin Mary shield is snapped underfoot at his first stop on the road—there goes that. Which is not to say there’s nothing of God in this story, but it’s of a totally different kind of relationship, and we’ll get to it.

First though, we had to find the right not-knight. I hope you all know this by now, but just to remind you, David Lowery drew a picture of Dev Patel on a horse, because he knew this essential truth: [Frank Sinatra voice] it had to be yooou.

Lowery’s Gawain has to have a form that looks like he could be very regal, stern even with the right cast to his eyes, but his limbs and brow just haven’t quite etched into that firmness yet—Dev Patel can do that. This Gawain has to be somewhat sad (Dev can), but not a sadboy, because this Gawain is a fuckboy, and there is a distinct taxonomical difference. The fuckboy will repeatedly let you down, of course, they’re a fuckboy, but a key part of the fuckboy is that unlike their sadboy counterparts, there is something inherently more innocent about the ways in which they are an idiot. They just truly do not get it. When Gawain says he will take up the Green Knight’s challenge to trade blows one year hence, and this kind and spacey and pale with death King Arthur whispers to him to remember that it’s only a game, we have to look at Dev Patel’s little face looking at this sword and realize oh, honey, you’re not understanding. We have to want to call him honey. He has to be imperfect, he has to be imperfect, and we have to root for him (Dev!) despite of it, because of it, because we have to root for our own imperfect selves. 

At our post-show, one of my friends I saw The Green Knight with, a religion major, offered that the giants were the part of this movie that was most about God, and we were like Go On, and he said, like this: You yell out to God, help me!, and God is like, what? uh, and reaches out to you, tiny creature, but you don’t understand and yelp and cower in fear, and then you hear the voice of God, and it is…too vast to comprehend. And we were like…fuck!

And then I was trying to remember whether this was a full essay I saw or maybe just a single comment someone made that was so powerful it felt like a full essay, but years ago I was presented somewhere with this theological take on The Good Place, that the way Jason Mendoza is to us, is how we are to God. God’s just looking at us running around going ohhhh my sweet disastrous dumdum creation, what are you doing now beloved, WHY are you doing it, will you learn anything, as we’re just like “Molotov cocktail!” Anyway I thought of this with regard to the Dev Gawain, and I think this was when another friend first offered the line: “We are all fuckboys under God.”

Anyway as I was saying: you need a Dev Patel for all this. Someone who can play muddled human uncertainty like a clear stream. And, with a face so maddeningly beautiful every character in this film looks at it and credibly thinks mmm, gonna have to stroke that.

Hey let’s talk about HORSES for a sec. My bleary old grandfather’s favorite thing I ever told him was definitely the root of the word ‘chivalry’, which comes from the French cheval, for horse. Originally, it referred to a code of conduct specifically for people with a warhorse. Now it followed from there that this usually would be a gendered arrangement, but it was actually always more about class really, gender just being an aspect of class. Men with horses were expected to be chivalrous toward ladies, without horses, but also to other men who did not have horses. The idea was indeed rather honorable at its core: as someone on a big horse, you are quite literally in a more advantageous physical position, as well as material position, possessing this fine & valuable steed and likely other resources as well, and as such it is your duty to behave courteously and helpfully toward those without. A warhorse. (But as a synecdoche for everything else attendant.)

Now I will need to watch The Green Knight again (I will neeeed to watch The Green Knight again), as I have a strong feeling that there is even more going on with horse levels than this, but there is one particular paired moment I want to highlight. At the beginning of the film when the people of Camelot are headed to Christmas morning mass, Gawain reaches down from Gringolet toward his mistress Essel, smilingly inviting his lower lover up onto his horse with him, and she coyly demurs for a moment, then accepts his offer and swings up: +1 chivalry, Has Horse Can Pick People Up (literally and figuratively). Then in the latter part of the film, long after Gawain has been pulled from Gringolet and is now himself in the more vulnerable, horseless position, it is from atop a horse that the Lord reaches down in the forest, and takes a kiss from him. I think it’s notable that Gawain doesn’t pull away, he holds quite still, as if it is codified that he should, that he should accept this gesture from the nobleman on the horse. It’s only after the Lord pulls back that we see in the self-contained nerviness in Gawain’s face and his hand raising against the Lord’s arm how reluctantly he has gone along, but after all, the Lord had intimated that he is owed this from Gawain as per the rules of their exchange, and isn’t he?

I feel like this moment is a perfect illustration of how Lowery has been digging up the twisted roots of medieval chivalry throughout this whole adaptation. Because in the original poem there is famously a whole series of traded kisses between our hero and the courtly couple in the castle, but there, the drama is in how Sir Gawain will navigate the Lady’s advances within the chivalric code, and the text is clear that it is the young knight who reaches out and kisses the Lord each night to pass on the kiss he has received from his wife during the day. The poem’s Gawain maintains his power and agency in the situation, and so the chivalric drama of the kisses is just spicy and fun. But in Lowery’s Green Knight, Gawain has been stripped of all this, like his clothes sometime during his first night there. This Gawain, unhorsed, unknighted, is now in the disadvantaged position where he has to rely on the chivalric code for his safekeeping in these unknown climes, and finds that perhaps, he can’t. That dress it up in the language of honor all you like, it was aaalways about the people on the horses keeping the power. I mean what is the “game” of favors and obligation between this Lord & Lady and Gawain if not just an atonal echo of chivalry itself. Spicy and Not fun now, pervasively uneasy, like so much going on in that house.

But that’s that sense of teetering instability again that characterizes Green Knight stories. Medievalist writer Michel Pastoureau would be pleased from a color theory perspective. The color green has historically been very tricky to fix with dyes and pigments, and so it was seen as a shifting, fae color, all around us yet for centuries bafflingly resistant to being tamed in our fabrics and paints. A figure all in green from head to foot would seem to know something you don’t, even before he simply picks up his head from your foot, still green.

And I have been obsessed with the way this production has taken the unknowable enchantment of the color green and magicked it into hiding right before our eyes. Obsessed with those posters with their jangling Stroop effect thrill of this text emblazoning “THE GREEN KNIGHT,” and it’s just all this RED. I’d actually saved that first poster A24 released that morning to my phone and showed it to everyone I saw that day, alight over it. A very distinct red-orange vermillion actually, again obsessed with how I can now say the words “the Green Knight red,” and you will know what I mean! 

And then 15 months later when I would finally get to see the movie itself, I’d discover it’s still not marked by green, but ochre. I should have known: I’d pitched my friends to come with me to see quote “Dev Patel in goldenrod,” that hue already glowing from the trailers in cloaks and crowns and fox fur and a strange yellow fog. It’s a striking color scheme, unusual, there aren’t a lot of movies out there this shot through with rich shades of turmeric against greenish-brown and greenish-grey and greenish-blue and you see, you see how it’s working! The hidden green! How the green is being sapped away in the winter cold and the trees being felled for road and field, but green is still always creeping back into everything, given time. The waiting green that Alicia Vikander’s mysterious Lady speaks of in her unfurling, stone-cracking vine of a meditation, the green that is older than you and will outlive you, will take you back when you are dead.

I think a lot about Patrick McHale’s original story concept for Over the Garden Wall, and how even though they ultimately moved away from this overt framing, that close relationship to one’s death is still there in the bones of the series. Honestly, by my lights The Green Knight bears more in common narratively with fellow very old & very modern work Over the Garden Wall than it does the original Sir Gawain poem. The Green Knight and Over the Garden Wall are both structured as classic questing narratives, where our protagonist/s travel through the Unknown encountering strange and magic figures and tests, which will each teach them something they need to know to face what they ultimately need to face: the Beast at the end; their Death. Neither goes out of its way to lay out the workings of the world we’re traveling through, because they don’t need to: we know these types of stories. They proceed quite linearly, on literal paths a lot of the time. And along the way, each of us gets to find our own meanings in the unexplained symbols and questions encountered on the journey. The building quietly on fire in the opening tableau, what Saint Winifred tells him, Barry Keoghan’s Scavenger (all hail Spaghetti Boy! boffin of the off-putting!), the double casting, the upside-down portrait all in lichen-y greens, the blindfolds, the ending (THE ENDING).

My favorite kind of endings are ones that conclude on this hanging yet resonant note, open-ended yet reverberating. I have this habit where if a scene that could be this is happening and it feels like we might be nearing the runtime, I’m just quietly wishing, “Here, please, this is it, end it,” and when a film does, my joy knows no bounds—no matter the attitude of the body, the soul’s arms are flung straight up!

So when Gawain has sat all day silently waiting before the sleeping, changing face of his destiny, and is at last kneeling in the Green Chapel with the ax above his neck and his fingers digging into the moss and dirt and he doesn’t know and he doesn’t know and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, I was praying “PLEASE,” but then he runs, and it’s such a weird bummer? I love how everyone I know who has seen it was so let down by this, god narrative resolution really is more important than the hero living, huh! 

BUT THEN. IT KEEPS GOING. And going and going, sooooo long and all wordless, nearly 15 minutes I saw one review say, and you have to feel all that time, time enough to be bewitched by the unsparing playing out of this Bad End, all so cold and grim and Dev Patel’s whole body language is turning as graven and stony as the grey in his beard, and then when he at last pulls the green belt off and his *head falls off* onto the empty hall floor, god like he’s been dead since the chapel, just biding time and he knew it, FUCK. YOU DID IT! This is the only other ending I could love if it couldn’t have ended with the ax in the air! Fucking BOLD, HARROWING, Wrow.

BUT THEN. WE WENT BACK. Just like the swing of time when he was tied up in the woods, turning back the seasons like the wheel of the year in the puppet show they play in town. He ran and got everything: the horse, returned; the knighthood; the kingship—and it’s all hollow. It means nothing. We go back to young Gawain, his knees staining green, facing his fate. Does he take the first honorable act in his life, and by doing so, end it? How do you look at mortality with grace? Perhaps only by being truly willing to let the ax fall, to tear out your own liver and not expect to get it back, can you be purely alive—even if it’s just for that moment.

Gawain begs the Green Knight hold a third time, and takes off his ill-got belt of protection. He tells the Green Knight he’s ready now, as the bark-bound figure hums his approval: “Very good, brave little knight. Now, off with your head.” 

And it ended precisely on the hanging note my heart had wanted it too, but even fuller now. I love endings so much; I got two.

★★★★★

Zola

The Mica Levi score on this is phenomenal. I keep thinking about it. It’s not ambient the way Brian Eno is ambient, and yet there is something of Eno in it, I feel. She took the sounds of apps and basketballs, chirps and thumps and haptics, and composed this sparkling and spare and eerie ass soundscape from it. There’s no motif you’ll be humming later, even though the sound is kind of perpetual, this texture woven into the storytelling. This is a different movie without it, like Under the Skin is a different movie without her score for it. 

And you know what, I think they’re both horror movies! Possibly! One of my favorite questions to ask people is how they define horror, as everyone so far has told me something different. Zola does not traffic in gore or jump scares or other hallmarks of a slasher, nor does it involve supernatural elements like monsters or spells. It can be tense, surprising, gross, but lots of movies can be those things that no one would call horror films. 

What Zola does seem to have though, is an element that one of my friends named as his personal metric: for him, horror is about being hunted. Zola the character is not being stalked down by a killer or a beastie or her own ghosts, but she is quite literally just trying to make it through this weekend alive. The various dangers imperiling her are sometimes extremely overt, and other times insidious and shifty, but always present. That’s where dread lives, I feel, in that mystery of where exactly the threat lies. 

Of course, we know she does manage to traverse this seamy Florida horrorshow, as she lived to Tweet the tale. Everyone seems pretty comfortable calling this the first movie based on a Twitter thread, and I can’t think of what else would be, so looks like we’ve got history here, folks! The original Tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015 are funny and shocking and familiar, with a sort of musical cadence of someone telling a riotous story to some friends at a bar and soon they’re holding court over the whole room, playing bigger and badder to reach the back of their gathering audience. King has an executive producer credit on the film, although for licensing issues it is technically listed as an adaptation of a subsequent Rolling Stone article about what was being called simply #TheStory.

But director Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of #TheStory, cowritten by playwright Jeremy O. Harris of Broadway’s Slave Play fame, is something a bit different from the Tweets and article both. Even in the rollicking way the original Zola first told it, the events of this ill-fated Hoe Trip were always pretty uneasy and gruesome, with manipulation in seedy hotels on the mildest end to straight up sex trafficking at the roughest. In depicting the Story as it was actually happening to Zola in the moment, not her punchy retelling of it later, Bravo has made a movie largely about the experience of witnessing more so than the act of storytelling—and how going through much of anything as a Black woman is an experience of survival.

The fellow Black character of X may provide the bulk of the most salient menace, but it is the “white nightmare” of Stefani that is absolutely the most indelible bogeyman of the piece, reflected up on our movie screens in all her baby-haired, AAVE glory through Taylour Paige’s incredible emotive eyes, almost movie screens of their own. We see Stefani because Zola sees Stefani, and although Riley Keough pronounces her a demon, albeit a complicated one, forthright Zola never actually goes that far, landing on the honestly probably more trenchant judgement of, “This is messy—YOU are messy.” Because it’s hard to tell where Stefani comes from, how much of the way she is is simply her and how much is the product of her objectively shitty circumstances, our objectively shitty world. Still, like hell is Zola going to sacrifice her own safety for this unhinged white woman who has dragged her into this micro-world of madness, and nor should she! As Jordan Peele slapped on every poster, GET OUT.

I will say I think this movie’s choice (?) to have an oddly unsatisfying ending is not really a good one, given that King’s original Tweets had an ending right there with a) some of the best lines, and b) gave us exactly the kind of coda we wanted and needed, so, why not? What was going on here? And there were some other choices throughout that I also think were just not as successful as they could have been. But, I like that this movie exists, I like that the real Zola got so much credit, I like that Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris got to adapt it and that they tried shit, I like that score, and I like that A24 doesn’t give a fuck and WILL just keep making Elevated Florida movies for as long as they are to be had.

★★★★

Bo Burnham’s INSIDE

Netflix is placing this with their standup and comedy specials. Netflix doesn’t know what else to do, in their infinite algorithmic prediction never anticipated a poioumenonic one-man cabaret filmed alone through the slow-motion breakdown we’ve been calling the Pandemic. The form of the musical revue is a classic though; I think it’s not an accident that all the people I know who have seen Inside also happen to be of the flotsam & jetsam of professional theatre, and all so eager to talk with one another about what we just saw, spilling out still tentatively into the venue lobbies of each other’s kitchens with the newly rediscovered sensation of having Seen A Show. 

During my own solitary drama of the past year, at one point I ended up on Etymonline looking up the root of the word ‘humor’ to see if it had any connection to ‘humanity’ (no). But at the end of the entry, just like an aside, a tossed off P.S., as if this wasn’t going to change the way I thought about comedy forever, Etymonline offers a guide from a Mr. Henry W. Fowler in 1926, “for aid in distinguishing the various devices that tend to be grouped under ‘humor’.” There are eight sorts laid out: Humor, Wit, Satire, Sarcasm, Invective, Irony, Cynicism, and Sardonic, and for each Fowler has, with just a word or two, defined its Motive/Aim, its Province, its Method/Means, and its Audience. The conciseness of it is truly something to behold—it’s really hit at both of the kitchen tables I’ve read it aloud at in the past week, in the midst of us trying to figure out just what the hell is happening with comedy in Bo Burnham’s Inside

I have a theory that like any good personality matrix, a whole new realm of fun pops off when you start layering things. What I’m wondering is if this might be something like Satire approached though the lens of Irony, with the resulting combination feeling way more unprotected than either on their own through this sort of double-negative of deflection. Because it’s like any ironic distancing he’s using is toward the use of satirical mockery itself—haha we’re all in on knowing satire is humor for the self-satisfied—but in pointing this one type of deflective humor at another deflective humor also in the room, and it’s a small fucking room, he’s also catching himself being filmed from this whole other angle in the mirror behind him, and that I think is the strange and new quality to the way vulnerability is being accessed here.

Or you know, that’s just one theory about what’s happening here. Another could simply be that the young man who wrote and directed the astonishingly empathetic Eighth Grade happens to still be someone capable of astonishing empathy. The perfect sample case here of course would have to be ‘White Woman’s Instagram’. Maybe his number with the most production value, given just how many set-ups he did for his nearly Unseelie accurate montage mimicking a particular kind of Insta grid; certainly his number with the most Gender in it, which is so very fun. Sure it’s mean, if you want to get technical, but it’s mocking something deserving of being mocked, right, and like, it’s clueless white women, it’s fine.

Until the bridge comes in, and suddenly he is gently, devastatingly reminding us that every social media performance is in front of another real human person, with real feelings and often real loss in their lives. As one of my friends put it, it’s this incredible moment because he’s still calling out something ridiculous, now the wince-inducing experience of people putting their grief online, but at the same time asking, where else do we have to put it? All this trauma? And so then that’s like it’s own level of tragedy as well! Fuck, fuck, Bo. And then!—it’s so important to how this part works! that after the song ends we see him watching the playback of himself on his laptop in the dark. It’s like, throughout this whole show the usual vectors of who is being implicated in the joke are being thrown off from the either simply other- or simply self-deprecating angles we’re used to in social comedy, catching him & all of us in the disco ball refraction of this little room.

Part of the strength of this meta-project definitely comes from the long legs it has in the historical tradition of the musical revue, particularly the darkly satiric midcentury chansons of Tom Lehrer or Jacques Brel. But I don’t want to miss the particularly of-the-moment legs this work stands on either, and I mean mostly the long bare ones of Bo Burnham himself. Inside is a time capsule of the 2020 condition in many, many ways, but maybe most visibly, god has he captured the lint and horniness of self-presentation in lockdown. Grown-out hair, smudges on your shirt, and posing with no pants like a self-aware depressed pinup just for yourself alone in your house—whomst among us, etc.!

I thought a lot about whether I think the question of “reality” in autobiographical art isn’t missing something about the experience of both art and reality. I thought a lot, throughout, about how he took care to include that early shot, in the sort of visual overture of the piece, of him moving his light source around and tilting his head to see the way the shadows changed on his face, and how I did that too before important Zoom calls. I thought about how the audio & visual cues he had to hit live while filming were always the most fun or the most sad because you saw him do it, because the constraint of just these four walls and these four limbs was so important to capturing…it. I thought about surrealism as a kind of honesty and accentuation as a kind of signal flare for something you might miss in the dark. I thought the phrase, “‘millennial-trained Brechtian Vine skills’, is that anything?”

I thought about the Elaine Kahn bit that goes:

I understand myself
only insofar
as it is funny.

(Admittedly I think about that line all the time.)

I thought about my own lockdown isolation. Holy shit I thought about my own lockdown isolation. The wavering, prolonged mental episode of it. The projects, the fixations, the bitter lethargy, the sodium lamp burn of a brief weird joy. The Days of Crying turning into weeks of crying turning into somehow August, somehow a year. And how sometimes in an attempt to make my outside match my inside, I’d fall into a sort of theatrical heightening of the sad chaotic unwellness I was feeling, just to make it look a little more operatic, even though I didn’t even have anyone I was trying to communicate my distress to, trying to convey it to them. If I did, I think it could have looked a lot like this.

Excepting of course the one hugely essential thing that somehow, unbelievably, I haven’t even addressed until now: the songs are really good. Bo Burnham is a pretty fucking extraordinary songwriter, and music…it does something to a person. Whether it’s this preposterously catchy, absurd little riff that makes you laugh every time in a way you can’t explain, or this heavily filtered, drowning swoop of strange heartbreaking beauty that you also can’t quite define, music can access emotional registers that we still don’t really have words for, even when the words are part of it. It’s a medium that connects something from soul to soul, something of the human condition. And in a solo show made in this tiny space cut off from the world, suspended in drawn out fear and loneliness for it, the thwarted connection in every song arrives to us now feeling like finally grasping a reaching hand.

Maybe that’s the best explanation for it.

★★★★★

Promising Young Woman

Something I think worthwhile to say first & foremost, is that Promising Young Woman isn’t actually so much a ‘rape revenge thriller’ in the traditional meaning. What it is more so, and how filmmaker Emerald Fennell has presented it in interviews, is a look at that old chestnut ‘female rage,’ but specifically how grief and anger without an outlet to justice can calcify into a kind of self-destructive addiction cycle—perhaps indicting rape culture even more by showing how the damage from sexual assault can continue to eat like cold poison into the people nearby.

That said, and this is what is important to me to get across to any potential viewers: I don’t necessarily think this is a movie for survivors. I also think that’s okay, because I don’t think it intended to be, I think it intended to get some upsetting points across to other groups and it’s sure doing it. But what is much less okay is that there are people going into Promising Young Woman thinking it’s going to be a spikily cathartic bubblegum pink vengeance narrative, only to find that is spiky and it is bubblegum pink, but its thrills are frequently more queasy than empowering, and that pastel candy shell is (deliberately) coating something very bleak.

I am pro this movie ultimately, though I definitely had to sit with it for a few hours and examine all the thoughts and feelings it had churned up before I could tell! Which is why I cannot imagine writing further about my response to this one without ending up revealing mm, the whole plot. So now I’m going to—read on only if you don’t mind utter spoilers.

** spoiler line **

There are a lot of twists in Promising Young Woman. Some are early and quick, like the shot of a red drip on Cassie’s shin as she walks barefoot down the street to a perfectly deployed cover of ‘It’s Raining Men,’ before the camera pans up to reveal ketchup dripping off the hot dog she’s eating. These first little twists are to establish mood and intention, that this movie is going to be hopping genres and crossing expectations. The twists later on are much bigger and much more climactic—plot-based, bright-line turns that forcefully shape the closing action (we’ll get to these). But I think the twists that most affected my reaction to this movie were the ones that turned more gradually. The more slowly twisting stuff of the middle portion, less jarring but perhaps more unsteadying. Most fundamentally: that what Cassie was doing wasn’t good. 

At the start, it seems like it is. Not “good” as in like, angelic, but good as in Good For Her. In the very first scene of the movie, we see Cassie engaged in her nightly psychological warfare: a dead-drop reveal to the men who take her home from clubs thinking she’s too drunk to resist their advances that she’s actually stone cold sober and knows exactly what they were trying to do. But she doesn’t kill them or anything, nothing so Jennifer’s Body; perhaps the first genre-bending moment in Promising Young Woman is simply in revealing what kind of movie it isn’t. Instead Cassie merely leaves these men with their shame—or their fear maybe, as Al will describe it later: “every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that”—while she goes home to just record their name and a tally mark in her journal, though with enough force to carve. 

At first it’s all really quite fun, honestly. Especially visually, when Cassie wakes up the next morning in her parents’ ~sublime~ petal pink suburban rococo daymare of a house, and goes off to her listless job as a barista at a Laverne Cox’s neon & Jordan almonds-hued coffee shop—with her multi-colored manicure to match. The whole thing looks like Sofia Coppola’s Barbie Dreamhouse, complete with the attractively depressed woman in the center of it, and I am, historically, a sucker for that particular kind of, I don’t know, confrontationally feminine aesthetic? I feel like when you go that far into the girlish and pretty it starts to feel dangerous. It starts to feel like a trick. I think that’s so perfect here.

And not just because beautiful, (white), Brigitte Bardot-haired Carey Mulligan, like a chilled florist shop rose with the thorns still on, is tormenting men at night in revenge for her late friend Nina—but because things start to get sooo much stickier when tall affable Bo Burnham arrives, a former classmate of hers from before she dropped out of med school, and brings up some names from the past. Things start to twist, in my stomach, when Cassie (Cassandra, of course) begins to track down other women who hadn’t believed her best friend years ago about what was done to her at a party. Cassie uses the same type of weapon here she uses on the men: psychological warfare. But this time, it’s every woman’s worst nightmare: rape. None of them are actually physically hurt, but it’s like she sickens them with this crawling fear they can’t shake. She makes these women feel disempowered, as Nina did—not from being assaulted, but still intimately, horribly connected to that idea they or someone they care about could have been. Even though it didn’t happen, it’s clear they will never forget what that helpless fear felt like. That is dark, girl.

This was the mid section where I became really unsure where I was with this movie! Because she’s right, but is she in the right? I was entranced and alarmed. But then Cassie began to reach people from the past who did feel great remorse for what happened, and when this also didn’t make her feel any better, when she just continued to drift on after these encounters like a half ghost in her own life, that’s when I began to see shapes in the sickly cotton candy clouds. Mourning. Survivor’s guilt. I realized that while it’s not exactly clear if what Cassie’s doing is accomplishing good in the world, it’s certainly not good for her. Her vigilantism isn’t bringing her satisfaction or solace. And it isn’t bringing Nina back. We can’t know if Nina would even want her to be doing this.

Even though I hadn’t thought about what exactly might happen, I felt a sense of foreboding finality when she headed for the house where the bachelor party was happening. Somehow or other, this was going to end things. Maybe finally confronting Nina’s rapist would bring her closure, but it certainly must bring something. I didn’t feel shock when he killed her in dubious self-defense, I just felt sad. Watching the scenes of the men after, Al’s shaking relief and tearful thanks at being assured by his friend that he “did nothing wrong,” I suddenly remembered that explanation I’ve read somewhere (and we’re going to be speaking in generalizations for the next little bit) for why women tend to be better at writing men than the other way around. It’s this idea that women have to get good at thinking about men’s inner lives and what drives their feelings and behavior, because understanding them is key to our survival. The same explanation goes for portrayals of white people written by BIPOC—anywhere there’s a power imbalance, it’s the more at-risk group that learns to read the people that can hurt them. Anyway, this one moment here felt so simple and illuminating about so much male behavior: the idea that they could be at fault terrifies them. Meanwhile, women assume that everything is their fault. Really that’s the core of rape culture: she shouldn’t have put herself in that dangerous situation—no responsibility on him to not be that danger.

So, the very end, where Cassie does manage to fuck these men’s lives up a bit from beyond the grave: a win? I don’t think so, but that’s what I think works about it. I think the eye-rolling scene of the detective “interviewing” (reassuring) Ryan when Cassie is missing is a clear indication that we are to assume that just like in our own world, the system is absolutely going to give them all the benefit of the doubt, due not just to being white men but being white male doctors, no less. I think all she’s managed to do is mess up a wedding and put an unsightly blemish on their records. To me the bleakness of this slight victory was resoundingly underscored by the brightly bitter soundtrack: the Juice Newton version of ‘Angel of the Morning’ playing at almost crashingly loud volume. In the end, Cassie finally is angelic, in the sense that she is dead. Two women are dead and gone, her final winking emoticon to her complicit ex like a rictus grin. 

The vision Promising Young Woman presents of the lingering trauma of sexual assault is not strengthening or even hopeful, and while I am very glad not every piece of art dealing with rape is like this one, I do think that what it’s doing is powerful in its own way. This high femme fatale bonbon of a movie curdling over its runtime is something I find really fascinating, though I absolutely don’t begrudge anyone just getting a bad stomach ache from it.

★★★★

Minari

Minari (미나리) is an edible plant popular in Korea, somewhat akin to watercress or parsley in appearance and use. It is resilient; when planted on the shores of a wooded creek in rural Arkansas, it grows. This is the metaphor.

Minari the movie is by the Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, and is a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood years on a remote farm in the Ozarks. It is about the farm, but it is mostly about this family, their hopes and hurts and humor. It’s not really a slice-of-life, that doesn’t feel like the right term for something with so much of the softness and piercing poignancy of memory. Maybe like a more grounded Terrence Malick, if you’ll forgive the agriculture pun.

It’s dreamy in the fluid way it moves and in the lingering golden warmth of the light—a movie that warms you just looking at it, even if your heart didn’t feel it too, glowing from within. But it’s not dreamy in the sense of being all sweet weightlessness. Minari folds its delicate layers into something strong, something deep and resonant. It is a flowing drama of the struggles within the souls of these people, and between their souls and the other souls they live with on this land, and their struggles with the land itself—this field, this America.

I respond very feelingly to stories of complexity in ideas and emotions. Contradictory or inconstant notions of nationality and culture, of faith, of gender roles, of what it means to be a partner, a parent, a child, a grandparent—different understandings of all of these experiences and identities slide and glimmer through this movie like sunlight dappled through the trees over the little stream, multi-faceted and ever-shifting. I can’t talk directly about one of my favorite scenes without giving too much away, but I can say that I think part of the reason it rocked me so was the realization that Lee Isaac Chung’s script wasn’t flattening his story into one structural shape that every narrative thread would follow, but instead, like in life, different arcs were having their peaks and valleys on their own time. It means that nothing is one-note, the varied tones drifting in and out of discord and harmony.

Minari is beautiful. Beautiful to watch, beautiful to listen to as my rising fave Emile Mosseri’s score weaves among the lilting hum of insects on the warm air, and beautiful to feel, as the sometimes funny, sometimes bruised nuance of this family’s conflicts and love slips around you. And by the last act, a series of mounting events swept me into the biggest bout of cathartic weeping of any film I’ve seen yet from the 2020 season. I was, simply, bawling. And I think I really needed that right now. If you do too: Minari is finally available to stream in the U.S.

★★★★★

One Night in Miami

In the category ‘high-profile film adaptations of Black American plays released on streaming platforms this winter’, this one was far & away my favorite. Both still feel quite like the stage their stories originated on, but could be said to embrace that, a kind of purity in how they wear their theatrical hearts front and center—it’s going to be about the words and the performances, it says. After my tepid response to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I began to wonder if, taking its cue from the theatre it’s replicating, the director might have an outsized influence on these sorts of projects. If you take as a given that the bulk of your movie is going to be a handful of characters talking in a room, then it’s all going to come down to how they’re doing that talking. The pacing, the tone, the emotional texture among the actors.

Actor Regina King’s directorial debut was the other of these straight-forward play adaptations, and the living warmth she brings to this philosophical script is an achievement completely worthy of all the acclaim she’s been earning so far this season. One Night In Miami, first performed onstage in 2013, centers on a fictionalized account of what might have been talked about on a real night in 1964 spent between football star Jim Brown, musician Sam Cooke, civil rights leader Malcolm X, and newly minted world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, just on the cusp of joining Malcolm in the Nation of Islam, where he would take on the name Muhammad Ali. The conversation topics that night, as imagined by writer Kemp Powers: race, politics, economics, and religion, heavy hitters to match even The Greatest.

Powers, who adapted his own stage play for King to put on screen (and wonderfully without preciousness—the first lines from his original play don’t occur until a good 40 minutes in) has said he was using these dialogues to air out silent debates he’d been having with himself about what it meant for him to be a Black artist in mostly white spaces. The result is a wide-ranging dialogue with a bracing depth of complexity and contradiction. Each new point raised is often in conflict with the one prior, and yet it TOO is a good point! This narrative turns its whole audience into Geminis for the night, basically, though feeling out every thread this way, instead of tugging on just one, seems to slightly loosen the Gordian knot by the end, without ever being so foolhardy as to imply it’s been cut.

But while One Night in Miami offers a lot of rhetoric to chew over, where King’s film version really sings (besides the moments when Leslie Odom Jr literally does), is in the interpersonal dynamics of it all. There’s four of them, when we eventually settle into the hotel room where most of the story takes place, and they talk and bond and spar together in a group and in factions within that group, but we also get scenes with just two characters alone, in every combination at some point, where these differences bloom up in how they might behave with one friend but not another, different forms of vulnerability that come out in different arrangements. It’s an idea movie that’s been intertwined with such rich character studies, such a nuanced and tender portrayal of homosocial interaction, and—and this is far from nothing—all among historical luminaries of Black culture. The movie humanizes these larger-than-life figures, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is their fame itself, and the question of what they should be doing with it as Black men in America in the 1960s, that makes up the stuff of their fiercest arguments and most open wounds.

All the compassion and thought of a writer and a director still needs a standout cast to make these conversation plays really shine though, and by jove they got it here. The only actor I knew going in was Leslie Odom Jr, whose talents absolutely translated from Broadway to the screen. Just impeccable casting for Sam Cooke, because whenever they need him to get up onstage and musically command a crowd, it’s Leslie Odom Jr. Yeah, he can do that for you! No problem! Eli Goree, meanwhile, playing the cheerfully cocky young Cassius Clay, is probably the least known of the cast right now, but he did a very fine job in his important balancing role as the baby of the group. It was about a minute into Aldis Hodge’s first scene where something clicked in my brain and I asked, wait, is that handsome clock man? It is! He has a riveting presence. Out of the four, Jim Brown might be the lightest written role on the page, or perhaps just the quietest, but in Hodge’s hands you never forget that he’s in the room, and he absolutely commands his kind yet piercing half of the crown jewel of the two-hander scenes.

His scene partner there is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. At one point fairly early in this movie, I had to pause it for a moment to just silently process some feelings about Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Like a containment safety measure, like otherwise I was about to become overwhelmed. Like I needed to calibrate to his levels so I could make it through this. The reason I think I was feeling so much, is because Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is also feeling so much. I don’t know the last time I saw a character that felt more like a prophet, and what I mean is the awkwardness. The genius of this, god it’s perfect. He’s intense and sure and lonely and worried, and he might be going too far but also not far enough, because that’s the curse of a prophet, and damn I loved all the choices of this performance! And when it at last struck me like a physical blow that I knew how this ends for Malcolm, that he’s Malcolm X, all my containment measures fell apart.

But this story here (mostly) takes place on just one night, in Miami, in February 1964. And when it ends, it ends with a cinematic technique, a gesture of editing and close ups, yet the feeling of it is one I recognized from the theatre, these days usually achieved with lighting cues but which I think of as a curtain falling in your heart. And that right there, is a beautiful piece of play adaptation.

★★★★★

The Nest

The Nest tells the story of a family, a British businessman and his American wife, a horse trainer, who at his sudden & suspicious behest move with their two children from her native New York to his native England, where everything swiftly feels even more wrong, and then precedes to start falling apart.

It is in every way a throwback to those mid-budget psychological adult dramas of the later 20th-century, with an added soupçon of always maintaining this certain artistic edge where you’re thinking, this could still plausibly become a haunted house movie, there’s still time. While it never fully crosses over into horror or any of the other genres that sometimes slip along just under the surface, I still think this would be a good recommendation for people who liked last year’s Parasite, a movie so boldly, sharply crafted that it makes The Nest’s own financial spikiness seem understated by comparison, but they do contain a number of shared elements to enjoy: a narrative of social climbing & tension, a certain twistiness to the emotional landscape, a big rich house in a featured role, and just a lot of sterling direction and cinematography.

I loved this movie. “Yay,” I kept saying to myself happily. The interiors, the clothes, the particularly Reagan flavor of its 1980s, alongside a soundscape subtly but increasingly textured by the teenage daughter’s taste for the British new wave that’s coming in over the airwaves in Surrey. Loved her especially by the way, a great character for this talented young actor in a movie that definitely could have just been dominated by the adults. Though regarding them, I just continue to be so pleased by this career stage of Jude Law, Actor-slash-Producer, where so many of the roles he does now are ones where it’s like he’s having a complete ball expertly deploying his skillset and middle age to play a note-perfect commentary on a movie we associate with him from his twink younger years—here, The Talented Mr. Ripley absolutely. He even pulls out the same grimacing grabby-hands gesture he used as Dickie, and I was incandescent. 

Meanwhile, I had never seen Carrie Coon in anything before, and the impact she had on me here was probably most akin to my reaction to meeting Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread: oh, sorry to the Famous Man, who’s of course great as ever, but that’s why I’m all the more dazzled by YOU babe! This is YOUR movie and you’re killing it! Where have you been all my life! Apparently, in that HBO show The Leftovers. Man, Leftovers fans, you’ve been dining so well.

What else did I love about The Nest? God, so much. I love the nearly impossible to pinpoint yet undeniable way in which the grand wonderful manor house is actually horrible. I love movies where a bunch of adults have a party. I love a black horse, and I particularly love when characters look at a black horse and it seems to become symbolic of their own personal holy mysteries. And I loved, so much, the final scene, going out on something I’m going to call, a certain Joanna Hogg unspokenness. Oh do I love that!

Sound of Metal

The amount of consideration and invention that went into the sound engineering of this movie should, and I have to believe will, go down in film history. This is what it means to go right up to the edge of your medium and advance the line, transforming forever the idea of what can be done in your field.

In telling the story of a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, Sound of Metal took the approach of profound subjectivity, most immediately apparent in Nicolas Becker’s sound design, but the camera too is intimately associated with Ruben’s sensory perceptions of the space around him, and gracefully conveying to us the changes in those perceptions over time. In one of my favorite features of the cinematography, the camera position and editing subtly center characters’ signing more and more in the frame as the film goes on, a gradual shift from what initially feels more like a fluttering, disjointed movement of hands around the edges of our (and Ruben’s) perception, into what it truly is: a full and fluid language of gesture, conveying the intricacies of both mood and meaning. And god that’s remarkable filmmaking, to have taken the time and care to reflect on screen the way a character is learning to read the world differently, and to create a sense in your audience that they are sharing some portion of that increase in comprehension, all just through the framing!

I’ve wondered if there were Deaf technicians behind the scenes, in addition to all the Deaf actors onscreen. Because that part I do know: nearly all the Deaf characters were played by actors from the Deaf community, with the exception, obviously, of Riz Ahmed. But beyond how the production certainly would have gotten a bigger budget with a Name attached to the project (and that’s more hours you can spend literally inventing new microphones), I think it does make some artistic sense to cast a hearing actor in that role, as the movie is specifically about someone not previously deaf who is actively struggling to hang on to his hearing identity. 

Truly though, the cast assembled here is all terrific. It was in Paul Raci’s very first scene where I suddenly remembered that there was a supporting performance in this that critics have been talking about, and knew immediately it must be him. Olivia Cooke I had not seen since my beloved Thoroughbreds, and it was such a pleasure to get another movie with her in it. And Riz Ahmed in this, is just…god, what a captivating actor. He can act entire scenes with only his giant eyes and the way he holds his shoulders. His performance is as immersive as the technical design around it, living in every thread of a character flawed and fragile and driven—what he’s doing as Ruben would be remarkable even if it were just about him going back to rehab.

Sound of Metal is a movie about care, I think, ultimately. Different ways caring for someone can look, the different forms that can take, as well the journey of learning to take care of yourself. I thought the intersection between the long road of addiction recovery that Ruben has been on four years now, with this sudden new road of learning how to be Deaf, as Joe puts it to him, was such a smart choice, because man, life often IS multiple things at once, isn’t it. And the contrast between the worn smoothness of one road with the bumpy newness of the other was just so sensitively rendered. The wholeness of this story and this film project is something I keep coming back to, it just feels so whole, but also not too neatly buttoned up. It’s human, and being alive means continuing.

This is the kind of movie where the longer I sit with it, the more enamored of it I am. I love it, in a lasting way. The final shot is going to be in my heart forever. When things in your life are lost, when they change, when you’re coping, this is a movie to draw solace from, and I feel I will my whole life.

★★★★★