Movies watched recently, for relative 2020 value of recent:
One of my Film Club friends asked me if I wanted to have a virtual movie night back in late May, and I suggested the only thing I felt like watching at that particular juncture: 1999’s archeology action/adventure The Mummy, a movie I had never seen but knew was 1) dumb, 2) a Bisexual Heritage Film.
Here’s some facts:
– I had not watched a single feature film in the previous six weeks due to the Brain Fog
– for some reason I could not adjust the volume on my TV above “quiet”, so put the closed captioning on and got probably a third of my audio input through Kyle’s TV on the other end of the phone I was holding to my ear
– I was drinking some sort of Aperol & gin thing
– Kyle and I are chatty
For these reasons, I am supremely confident that I missed a significant amount of this movie. But we did not miss: how hot everyone was, how raucous everything was, and how every time the Increasingly Gay Hungarian reappeared his neckline was lower and his evilness higher. A real dumb fun evening! I’ll rewatch this some day.
Two weeks later, I decided to officially get back into movies, with the optimal pick for transitioning out of my pandemic lockdown regression rewatch of the first six seasons of the forensics procedural CSI: Michael Mann’s 1986 forensics art filme Manhunter, starring also William Petersen, but baby.
My friend Alex, Manhunter aficionado, had told me that since I’d seen Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series, I should be set up pretty well to follow the plot, which was reportedly rather disorienting to a lot of audiences when this came out. And ho boy yeah, I sure imagine it would be! Manhunter is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever watched, because the thing feels *exactly* like it’s the sequel to a movie that came before, only there wasn’t one. Mann just made Manhunter. This creates such a surreal, dream-like feel, replicating that sensation from dreams (or nightmares) where it’s like you’ve just been dropped into the middle of something that’s already happening and now must navigate it from here, vague understandings of context and other characters rising up at odd moments as you go through. Honestly I thought this was kind of perfect for the material, but of course I’m familiar with the greater ~Thomas Harris mythos~ in which the events of Manhunter are situated, so like: RIP to the 1980s audiences but I’m different.
Speaking of the ‘80s though, I would guess another reason people might have been thrown by this is that even though it’s a murder movie, technically even a cop movie, Manhunter has so little to do with action, and everything to do with #Aesthetic. The lights! the look! the SYNTHS. This almost drowsy, understated affect even while the content is all so sensational, and frequently occurring under the slow boom of like, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ (true facts). It’s a trip and an experience, a total mood poem bearing much, much more in common with Fuller’s Hannibal in that respect than to the later Harris Oscar-winner, Silence of the Lambs. Which makes a lot of sense given that Fuller reportedly told every new director on his show: “We are not making television, we are making a pretentious art film from the 80s.” This is that movie!
One final note: I knew that Will Graham’s incredible Miami pink short shorts he wears in this have made quite the impact on the Harris fandom, but what I did not know is that the costume designer for Manhunter was a young Colleen Atwood, meaning I’m only two degrees from The Manhunter Shorts. My mom grew up in the same tiny town as Colleen, and in high school was best friends with her little sister. One time they visited Colleen when she was living in Hawaii and my mom accidentally let her bird out of the house. Anyway now she’s very famous, and also I saw was tapped to do the costumes for Silence of the Lambs five years later, which I think is nice; keeping it in the family.
I was looking forward to seeing Josephine Decker’s new film, and supremely so once I learned it would star the genius Elizabeth Moss as horror author Shirley Jackson and the genius Michael Stuhlbarg as her horrible professor husband. HELLO TO THIS PAIRING, hello to this CONCEPT. Because I’ve been describing Shirley to people as being to Josephine Decker what The Favourite was to Yorgos Lanthimos: a highly idiosyncratic director applying their intense brand of artistry to someone else’s script this time, instead of doubling down on their own. In both cases, the resulting movie is still distinctly Them, but the meliorating influence of having another voice in there right from the ground level has rendered something a bit more accessible than their other work. I know ‘accessible’ can be a bad word in the art world, and of course it shouldn’t be taken to be synonymous with ‘better’, but I also think there is something to be said about the limitations of art that seems to take the description ‘challenging’ as a challenge.
And listen, Decker sure didn’t make a traditional biopic any more than Lanthimos did for Queen Anne. It’s still weird! That woozy, close camerawork in Madeline’s Madeline that made you feel like you were pressing right up against a character’s psyche is absolutely here in Shirley too, just not at that same ceaseless, seasick pitch. It’s feralness is moving within a more reserved structure, which honestly fits really well with this story. Sarah Gubbins’s screenplay is based on a novel, not a biography, in which lives a fictional Shirley Jackson—this is Shirley as she might have written herself if she were a character in one of her stories. So for instance, at the period in Shirley’s life when this movie takes place, she had four children. She has no children here. And that’s because this isn’t a story about Shirley as a mother, it’s about Shirley as an almost dangerously inspiring figure of female madness. The women in Shirley Jackson’s stories frequently become unhinged, and other women have always found them spookily intoxicating. “I read your story,” Rose compulsively tells Shirley when she meets her, after finishing ‘The Lottery’ on the train—“It made me feel…thrillingly horrible.”
Shirley is fantastic shut-in fare for the pandemic summer of 2020. Jackson’s later-life agoraphobia has been moved up a bit, and most of the movie is focused on unspooling a faintly disorienting portrait of Shirley & Rose’s relationship as they move in and around a big old house in Vermont. I haven’t read Hangsaman, the novel Jackson is writing in the film, but I thought a lot about the hated recluses of We Have Always Lived In the Castle watching it. Further appropriate to this summer, it always feels quite warm in this movie, and also so. Bennington. If Donna Tartt is your nemesis, this is your antidote to The Secret History. Even though this is set in 1950 and stylized to the nines, it’s still more accurate to the atmosphere of what these small prestigious colleges in small parochial New England towns are actually like. I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but I usually think of Shirley Jackson as the New England gothic reflection to Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, and that element they both have of something kind of insular and nasty is captured so well here. And in this case, when it’s set around a college, the gothic manifests into that particular kind of sordid intellectualism that is like the opposite of Donna Tartt’s version—designed not to glamorize, but to maim.
DO THE RIGHT THING
A lot of film people began talking about the continued relevance of 1989’s Do the Right Thing in the early days of the June uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I realized that was a Spike Lee movie I hadn’t seen yet. Then I realized that in fact, all Spike Lee movies were Spike Lee movies I hadn’t seen yet. Well that’s no good! I started here.
And it seems I started at the top with this one. Most of Do the Right Thing feels like one of those meandering, gently comedic/gently poignant slice-of-life movies that use a bunch of different little parallel story threads to weave together an impression of a community & time. But then as we near the end, and all the threads suddenly knot together and get yanked toward violence, oh man—“this is a MOVIE though,” I said aloud, and then started shaking. Really masterfully crafted. The whole time I’d been thinking it was good, sure, but when I finished it, it kept rising higher in my estimation. Even just design things—like how the opening credits play over Rosie Perez dancing on what is clearly a stage, a glossy floor with a backdrop of the kind of brownstones that line the street of Bed-Stuy, and then when the movie that follows takes place clearly outside on actual streets, the fact that you saw a version of this environment as a closed set at the start primes you to think of this neighborhood as a self-contained system as well, almost with the air of the setting of a kids’ show like Sesame Street, or John Mulaney’s recent little gem The Sack Lunch Bunch. And with that framework in place, then it’s so easy to see the events of Do the Right Thing as a lesson that’s being presented. We’re the kids at Spike Lee’s after-school center, and he’s telling us a morality tale.
And somehow this movie can do that, can literally even be called “Do the Right Thing”—no hang on, more than that: it can have a Beanie Feldstein-in-Lady Bird approved *titular line* where someone instructs the main character, Spike Lee himself!, to “Always do the right thing,” (“That’s it?” skinny young Spike responds. “That’s it.”)—and yet SOMEHOW, none of this philosophizing feels lame! I don’t know how you pull that off! It’s never lame, and it’s frequently cool, for all that the weather is h o t, hot hot. And then at the end, when it becomes a Big Ol’ Movie, it’s shattering. Do the Right Thing was released the year I was born. It feels like it was written this morning.