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’, like 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, how old? old as balls. It’s a distinctly modern movie, like 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 stirring 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 it 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, 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 the 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 to my phone that morning 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 reach 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. They’re 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,” and when a film does it, 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 like “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 truly 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.

★★★★