The History Boys

The following contains spoilers for the plot of ‘The History Boys’


I was texting a friend the recipe I’d used for some batter and told her “1/2 tsp baking Posner,” and that’s how she learned I’d just rewatched The History Boys. “Did it hold up?” she asked, mild, instigating, and I just yelled. Did it hold up! Did it hold up in 2006!?

The thing is, you can hardly bring up The History Boys without having to acknowledge, you know, the pederasty of it all. Or so one might think! Amazingly, I once did write about The History Boys without ever really getting into that, in fact got published for the first time doing that. I’m stewing that it’s impossible to tell you this without you now also knowing this old piece of writing exists, but to elide this detail about my history with the Boys of same would be about as un-Gricean as, well, what could be a good example.

And here’s my do-over, anyway. Really it’s not a punishment, it’s an indulgence.

It’s probably fitting actually that I rewatched this right in the thick of all the Abrahamic religions going through their annual spring parabolas of asceticism and decadence, that seems right for this. The kind of denial and sacrifice of “Do Jews have monks?” “Yes. I’m one now,” or “The things I do for Jesus,*” on one hand, and then on the other hand, moments that make you feel like you’re committing some unfathomable sin. The scene where Dakin propositions Mr. Irwin—sorry!! we’re just getting right into it!—must give off the most erotic danger I’ve ever seen captured on film. The energy of that scene, it just takes a room in hand, the screen practically seems to widen as everyone’s breath suddenly holds, nerves humming. I know because I’ve been in many of those rooms.

I talked before about bringing this movie to people, linked it to a bent for sharing art grown out of my own experience in a close-knit high school class with a remarkable amount of parallels to the one in this story (NOT some parts through, to be very clear!). But I think I see further now that it was also to create another kind of company, a sort of community in…trauma is too strong, tumult? Just, others who too have traversed the perilous sexual landscape of The History Boys (2006).

It’s one of those fascinating British artifacts, in the manner of Withnail & I—that 20 year period where Britain was making movies where whether they were initially or not, are now entirely queer movies for queers, while also reading like a fear-mongering pamphlet on perhaps the ultimate homophobic bogeyman: a sad, effete, overtly predatory older gay man, somehow always played by Richard Griffiths? Cursed Letterboxd list.

The History Boys seems in some ways to just double down on what Withnail & I was doing, in both aspects at once, which is a wild experience. Our pretty young man possibly in love with his male friend and being threatened with molestation by a character played by Richard Griffiths, is now multiple even younger schoolboys absolutely in love with their male friends and actually being molested by a character played by Richard Griffiths. Unlike Withnail & I however, The History Boys was written by a bisexual playwright and directed by a gay filmmaker. Does that change things?? I think so??

Because for all of the movie’s seemingly undeniable homophobia in its supposition that as often as not, being an academic gay can doom you to a lonely and stilted life where you either may or merely be tempted to touch the students you’re entrusted with teaching—three generations depicted, baby!—there’s also the beguiling ways in which this movie feels positively anti-homophobic. No one (besides the antagonistic headmaster I guess, who dislikes everything) reacts with any ill-will at Posner’s open crush on Dakin, with any shock at Hector and Irwin’s open secrets, or with anything but jealousy at Dakin’s developing crush on Irwin.

There is teasing and scandal and hurts among them, but it’s all exactly as it would be if these were heterosexual passions crisscrossing friends and student/teacher lines. As it is, the story practically seems to take place in a homo-normative environment, in Yorkshire in the 1980s. I have a feeling this feature is part of what lends this movie a kind of fantasy/comfort film position among some queer audiences. It also helps that for all that Hector’s bike rides should be damaging them, the boys seem remarkably…fine? Bolstered primarily by their fellowship with each other (queer fantasies, again!), they treat with wry lightness the “fumblings” they take in turn, from a complexly but truly loved man who seems no monster to them, but just, as Hector himself tells Irwin they think of him, an old fool.

The boys seeming okay is not though to say what is happening is okay! It is not! I actually think it’s quite well done that Hector is afforded space to do essentially what I kind of just did, attempt to soft-pedal what he is doing, to intellectualize it as something not wholly abusive, really, only for Tottie to firmly and clearly remind with a line that functions as exactly the final word on that as you would want a line that good to: “Hector darling love you as I do, that is the most colossal balls. A grope is a grope, it is not the Annunciation.”

Really The History Boys is what the internet’s ‘dark academia’ should be (fantasies, fantasies!), if that largely aesthetic genre weren’t so enamored of those old stones Hector nearly mistook for learning. You know I neglected to mention last time, that when we too were reciting quotations by heart and carrying out skits to mock our vice-principal if he wandered into our classroom, we were also doing so in a more culturally remote, working class community, at a school that was not in the habit of sending students to elite colleges. Perhaps it’s my personal bias talking, but I think the geographic and economic setting is essential to the way this story carries out. There’s something about the wit and resilience of these boys that feels specifically…northern. Just speaking from one north to another.

Anyway. Filmcraft—as a movie itself, do I think it’s that good? It’s hard to say honestly. There are parts that really feel like the play they came from, and not necessarily in a good way, although I often find that charming myself, just as who I am. There are some overly pat moments and clunky transitions. I had somehow forgotten the way it fucking ends, unreal! Did that ever work?! There is also though a scene that I think is one of my favorite scenes in a movie. End of sentence.

When I think about the Brief Encounter scene, it feels like everything this film wants to do, everything it is saying, in a sudden perfect prism that refracts its light across everything around it. The rhythm: perfect. The content: perfect. Even more than the “The best moments in reading” scene; no, this one is the thesis. It captures everything about that particular arresting joy that can only be felt in learning something. Knowing a work, doing the work. Memorization, art and scholarship in equal measure. And a fellow community rooted in recognition of it. When they all shush Irwin…! It’s their favorite part…. This scene is it. And it’s also kind of my thesis on theater as well, natch—that sometimes it’s only through heightened, “stagey” theatricality of presentation that the truest tenderness can be felt and expressed between performers and audiences. Again: doing the work, and recognition of the work.

That’s where this movie is best of course: the performances. I mean to take it back to that Dakin/Irwin scene, that is just a blandly lit classroom, nothing going on in art direction, camera set-ups, score, any of it, it’s ALL simply in these actors performing these lines. It’s a play! And it’s theirs. They’re all indelible, but god, if I can play for keeps for a second, every line delivery Jamie Parker goes with in this is my favorite, and some of them don’t even have words. Honestly I don’t think what we’re watching here is even all that concerned with being a movie really, it’s just filming a good recording of these actors in the roles they originated on stage. It feels special, because of that.

And because it allows itself to be so, so fucked up and complicated. Something about this messy, yearning, sweet, worrisome depiction of a life of the mind and both gay longings and gay abuse, some scenes so very troubling, others all over horny and enlivening, and yet others both at once—it’s just some kind of feeling! One that, for better or worse, stays with you.

Did it hold up? It lasts.

“Are we scarred for life, d’you think?”
“We must hope so…”

★★★★

* did you also immediately know this line as a pun on Jesus College, Oxford, or are you normal

Drive My Car

The day after a friend and I saw Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー), we texted each other something we were still thinking about at the exact same time, our messages crossing in the air. Mine I’ll save for later, but Emily’s I think is the introduction: she said it felt like what she loves about reading fiction, and making theater, and watching a movie, all at once. Something she’d ordinarily think impossible.

This is what I then carried on to other friends, with the further unusual praise that it’s a movie about putting on a play that doesn’t feel too precious about it. The material of rehearsals is inseparable from the material of the story, yet it doesn’t suffer from any of that stage-bound myopia where a piece of meta-theater can’t seem to see beyond its own…theateriness. Drive My Car’s vision simply takes in the performance space with the same attention and authenticity with which it treats all its spaces, from the disrupted sanctuary of a downtown apartment to the tiny interior world the inside of a red Saab carries down a road.

For this is, too, a driving movie. The driving is very good. Those who like the driving in Locke will like the driving here. They both translate that gliding, hypnotic quality traveling down a road can have, either in silence or in conversation, a soft liminal trance rising and falling like the hum of the wheels. 

This is a gentle movie, an unspooling movie. A movie that maintains in adaptation the calm, rich pace of literary fiction, which has time. An introspective movie, that still leaves you with a sensation of lives woven together. An ensemble, if even briefly, a fabric that even with threads cut or tugged out can still warm your shoulders against the individual nights we live through together.

I haven’t read Haruki Murakami before, and did not much like the other recent film of one of his stories. What I am gathering from Emily and some other critics though is that Murakami’s original work, largely disinterested in the interior lives of women, has here met a director, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who very much is. The original structure mostly remains: the central character is a stage actor & director grieving his beloved, unfaithful wife, who finds a kind of healing peace with the quiet young woman assigned to drive him to rehearsals. This narrative could go poorly, you might imagine! And yet it doesn’t even come close to rendering these women merely figural. Oto is given so much texture in her early scenes, and her complexity as a person and an artist continues to be approached with such empathy by the script and framing after her death. Meanwhile Misaki’s reserve is simply who she is, professional and awkward and yet possessing a talent for creating calm spaces, learned in a painful childhood. Instead of feeling like an enigma or simply a vessel for his own pain, when Yûsuke bumps into her it’s as a person bumping into another person, their two different scarred melodies gradually finding a shared harmony as they learn more about each other.

It’s a trusting movie. We are trusted to not fret over whether we’re supposed to have mapped out every metaphor, found perfect overlays of textual theme in lampreys and 19th-century Russians, because we aren’t, they don’t, that’s not how life or this story works. As we know, and as Drive My Car knows, one of the beauties of art is how it can help us understand ourselves even when it’s about someone living a life unlike our own, somewhere we’ve never been. We are trusted to listen, to let characters spend long minutes telling us stories, and to simply hold what they tell us. We are trusted to just feel the unspoken/spoken nuances of Japanese, of Mandarin, of Korean sign language, of Chekhov, of quiet. 

And like Kafuku-san, we also find ourselves gently giving over to just letting the movie drive, trusting it, too, to get us there, whichever route it wants to take. Trust it to drive us all night, sleep on the ferry, and awake in white snow. I mentioned after, absurdly, that this is what I wanted more of from Dune. There’s no need to be self-conscious about your length and pace, to try to dissemble about how far we’ll be going—just ask me for my time up front. Give me a reason to trust you. Drop your opening credits 40 minutes in. (Emily: “You loved that!” Me: “I loved that.”)

Where we end up, is where this review started: what I was still thinking about the next day. The Uncle Vanya performance, where Yûsuke is watching Yoon-a’s hands with his eyelids fluttering over tears, and she’s signing across his chest to make her lines we, us, through these two performers a text spilling beyond its words to accommodate the human souls speaking and attending them, and god—this is why we read novels, and make theater, and watch movies. 

★★★★★

The Matrix Resurrections (et al.)

In an absurd accidental feat of elision, there are no spoilers for any installment of the Matrix series in this. Not a one. I also don’t know how I did that.


It’s time to shatter the glass on my last few weeks plugged into the Matrix: write about it.

A lot of people will write you something about how they saw The Matrix and it was momentous, how it changed everything, awoke them to cinema, they wore out their DVD (it’s still one of the highest selling DVDs of all time). But I’m not. I saw The Matrix when I was 20, ten years after it had come out, thought, ‘that was pretty green’, and moved on. 

Three years later I would be sitting in a theater just minutes into the opening of a story I knew nothing about with goosebumps running down my arms and legs, and while I don’t know if it changed everything, I was awaking to something. ‘This is…! This is…?’, I thought, and then reasoning just kind of fell out of my mind. 

It was 2012, and the Wachowskis had just released Cloud Atlas with their new collaborator Tom Tykwer, a movie that today I see not as a turning point for them so much as just a key mile marker in their long, pronounced bend from gritty cyberpunk disillusionment toward sunlit kaleidoscopic dorky-pure DJ sets about the transcendent horny power of human connection, or in its purest form to date: Sense8 (2015-18). 

In the years since I was reintroduced to the siblings who had created The Matrix as the people who were now making, say, Jupiter Ascending (UNDYING), I always struggled to…hold that all together in my mind, you know? I honestly think I would simply forget most of the time that those were the same Wachowskis. When the news broke that Lana Wachowski was returning with another Matrix movie, I don’t know if I even caught it, it might have just slipped into that disconnected space in my mind between the Wachowskis of 1999 and the Wachowskis of 2019. The Matrix? I don’t think I know her.

I’m sorry to do this for the second review in a row, but this is the point where I tell you that a trailer came out and I was besotted. It was The Matrix, but it looked like Sense8. It was all golden hour San Francisco and Keanu Reeves looking crushingly dear and someone with queer blue hair and Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ soaring vividly, merrily on-the-nose in the background, and it all looked so sincere and big and uncool and romantic and I wanted it, I wanted it so badly. It looked like the Lana Wachowski that I know, that I love, returning to her origin story and making it over as the filmmaker she has become today.

And it is, it is exactly that.

But the only way we can get there, is by first going back. (“—back to the Matrix!”)

I rewatched The Matrix for the first time last month. In some ways it was the same (green), in others, I am a different person now (who can relate)! That is a heck of a script—a heck of a storyboard, more expansively. It looks terrific. It runs terrific. It’s full of gizmos and notions. These amazing Gen X scenesters show up at Neo’s door to pick up a floppy disc from him or what incredibly ever and are like hey since we’re here wanna come out with us to The Night Club?, and you gotta say yes. Then when we finally emerge in the real world everyone is dressed like a Borrower or something, they’re all in these threadbare layered sweaters that have ALL frayed into boat necks (a gorgeous look on anyone, wear more boat necks memo @all), and that’s really the secret sauce of this dystopia: it contains both drag culture and drab culture and you get to see everyone in both. The costume transitions into the Matrix are what dreams are made of. Suddenly Trench. Suddenly Pleather. Then we go back and everyone’s all wan and shadowed—fantastic.

Anyway I liked but did not love this movie. I know! Or rather I don’t know! I’m trying to figure it out. Live—I’ve been at this review for a while. Ultimately all I can figure is that for once in my damn life, it actually matters to me what I took this series to be About. That’s the best way I can explain why the further this movie and its two follow-up sequels got from the studiously storyboarded office-drone resentment anime awakening origin, to a much more messy and amorphous exploration of love and choice and myth-making as a kind of programming, the more I was keyed up on this as a piece of art & entertainment.

Now I can only take others’ words for it, but it seems from my scholarship (eight and a half hours of Blank Check podcasts and a stack of Emily VanDerWerff pieces) that the initial response to Reloaded and Revolutions had been sort of the opposite of what I’ve been up to. And in watching these from my vantage point of the 2020s, with the privilege of knowing the works the Wachowskis would go on to make after these, it does seem like the continuing series has essentially treated that first Matrix as a place-setting from which to develop a different kind of narrative just interested in different things. I completely understand why fans of the original might find this disappointing and frustrating! It’s just my luck it seems that I was more interested in the things the Wachowskis were becoming more interested in as well.

The way I conceptualize it, is that it’s almost like they accidentally fell a bit in love with their own doomsday creation. It’s been deliberate that some of the words I’ve been using around the original Matrix have been ‘disillusionment’ and ‘resentment’, and I’ll add ‘alienation’, too—those feelings are definitely present in that movie, and clearly (and understandably) very meaningful to many who saw it. But what would become steadily more apparent, is that that ethos just didn’t stick for the Wachowskis. The story of someone discovering that he was right, he is better than all this, was beginning to fall away even in that first film, revealing filmmakers actually far (far) more drawn to collectivism than individualism, and taken with a kind of kooky, speculative curiosity in this cyber netherworld they’d made. 

Basically, as soon as they realized that sentient AI meant you could talk with computer programs like a person and they’d be weird, they wanted to do that, and so did I. The Wachowskis have never underestimated my desire to talk to a weird little guy. Their stuff is full of them, and what’s more, full of the mechanics to enable weird little guys to literally just pop up while you’re trying to do things, sending me into paroxysms of joy. I’m not saying the whole reason we have Jonas Maliki is because of Agent Smith but like, Hugo Weaving is in that sourdough starter and I don’t think that’s overstating anything.

In the sequels the Wachowskis just got really interested in the idea of computer programs bopping around being a tool or an obstacle depending, and ohhhh I get the appeal of this, oh boy do I: it’s just the mechanics of narrative made manifest. IT’S SO NEAT. This is one of the reasons why even when the filmmaking gets more all over the place as we move into Reloaded, I just like what it’s doing more. Listen, objectively not good things happen in the sequels, and some of these action set piece are just, oof, too long by my watch, but also: The Architect. The train station. The blindfolded messiah. By the time we get to Revolutions I’m the happiest I’ve been yet in this series. Everything’s about storytelling interfacing with computer programming (computers of course we originally built!), and also what if you made a butch friend with a rocket launcher. Keanu Reeves is going completely fey, Hugo Weaving is figuratively and literally climbing up the scenery, Jada Pinkett Smith is stripping her sweater off because she’s getting too hot danger-piloting a hovership through some sort of underworld duct, and I get my second instance in media after Babylon Berlin (Tom Tykwer I see you buddy) of a character who has been going through hell for a long time and also immediately prior suddenly looking into the dazzling sunlit peace above the clouds, turning their open, awe-struck face briefly to crystal and gold, and my own heart breaking in wonder with them. In short, the original Matrix‘s Wake Up, Sheeple attitude is so far in the background that you’d be forgiven for missing it waving in the rearview mirror as we continue to loop-de-loop ahead into this strange techno-philosophical love story that is both not at all and also maybe exactly where we should have expected we might go after Neo saw a rabbit tattooed on someone’s shoulder and they asked him to step through the looking glass.

Which brings us to: the hero’s shoulders. (Had to complete it.) It’s 2021 2022 and Lana Wachowski has re-entered the Matrix without her sister this time, but with two people who have been with her since the beginning: Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves. And basically the three of them are turning from the bathroom mirror daubing blood from their nose after fighting a bunch of Agents and saying: “This is a love story. 🙂 It always has been. One of the things I love about Resurrections is that its golden light is also thrown back in time, catching things in the first three movies and illuminating them anew. The way Carrie-Anne Moss plays Trinity here…it doesn’t recontextualize the Trinity of 20 years ago as just brings her to a platinum glow. Her surety. Her bravery. Her strength that can get misconstrued as coldness when it’s actually this banked warmth. You understand why Neo would try to rend the very fabric of the world to keep her from harm—again. They had such chemistry at 30, but somehow watching the two of them together today, both in their 50s and on some deep resonance possibly more attractive than ever, turned me into a bell—don’t knock into me or I will just start clanging love, love, love ! 

And Keanu Reeves’s new Neo…a dark-eyed miracle of vulnerability. A shaggy noble raven trembling to unfurl his creaking, magnificent wings. This aching sweetness and confusion radiating out of him, an earnest desire to please struggling against a clutching hand of anxiety, a clouded weight of depression. There’s a shot of him in this, it’s in the trailer too, on his knees soaking wet and looking up at someone with a gun trained on his forehead, and Keanu, always such an attuned physical actor, makes this little movement like his entire body is being tugged with the hurt, startled eyebrows on his tired, still so beautiful face. It’s no wonder this performance is resonating so much with people who’ve had a real hard go of it during these last two intangible, endless years of worry and isolation. We can see ourselves in this Neo, trapped and sad and just trying to put on a brave face, trying to ground ourselves, perhaps even trying to somehow still make things to share with others, to connect. And then feeling a little overwhelmed by being suddenly surrounded by a bunch of hotties again. 

Because there are some other people Lana has also brought along with her to Resurrections. If you (me) watched The Matrix Reloaded and felt a tell-tale Wachowski tingle in the air a second before we slid into a subliminal dance orgy in Zion, then you (me) will be set up for total personal disaster looking at Neo surrounded by half the cast of Sense8. There are 10 ten of them in this, and maybe it’s the sheer numbers? (though Wes Anderson surely has hit this mark before), maybe it’s how I haven’t seen most of them in anything else? (this seems possible), but at times the sensation was very much like I was watching a secret Sense8 Season 4. Really it’s a wonder I’ve been able to type any of this given how often I was abstractedly trying to gnaw my wrist off because Will Gorski was wearing a choker. APPROVED, as a feeling!

Listen! This movie is already so meta anyway! The first moment where I said “Lana I can’t believe you’re doing this” was not Trinity ordering a cortado from Bug (Resurrections is a Neo/Trinity Sense8xMatrix fusion coffeeshop AU, which is actually my most supported take in the text and why I’m burying this in a parenthetical), but when Smith informs Neo that their game developer’s parent company, “Warner Brothers,” is going to make a sequel to their Matrix trilogy with or without them. I just laughed brightly. Naturally these bits are going over poorly with some viewers, but like, so too do the Wachowski dance orgies. And in both cases, the people who dislike them are wrong, so it’s pretty simple. Naw I’m jesting of course—the lasting truth of the Matrix series is that it can have SO many different interpretations. Sure there’s one in particular where I’m like, oh god no, but when you rewatch the original movie, you can see where the malcontented online creeps’ Red Pill stuff could come from just as much and even while the film’s trans themes are also emerging. So for me, having a sequence in Resurrections where a roomful of game devs are tossing around a bunch of blithe takes on what the Matrix series was even saying is kind of cathartic and crunchy. I enjoy getting to see an artist chew on their own work like that, woven within a new work. I like stories about stories. 

(Also I loved how the questions being asked were compleeetely different with the Neologians within Neo’s own world, I thought this was very cool. The programs in the Matrix discussing the “game” are approaching it as, naturally, a work, from the outside. They’re questioning what drew people to it, and, as befits a program (or a developer): how you could recreate it. But for the people in the real world, for whom the events of the story are part of their history, their salvation, what they’re grappling with are more internal, almost theological questions of like, what exactly Neo and Smith are to each other. This rules. This is such a great 60-years-on development for the initial trilogy’s upended messiah story. Stories about stories!)

Self-reflexiveness can go too far sometimes, though. The quick cutting to a shot of something in the earlier movies is one thing about The Matrix Resurrections that doesn’t work for me that well. I do really, really love Neo walking through a torn movie screen that’s playing a projection of his first meeting with Morpheus, that part stays, that’s so fucking metatextual, but I think if it’s me I lose really all the rest of the edited in flashes of the original footage. I get that they’re like intrusive thoughts, I like it in theory, but in execution I just found it a bit much. And I think you can really do what you need through just exactly mirroring shot composition, sound cues, etc for those certain key moments. The actors are already doing such a good job echoing the original roles, I trust in the talent of this team to create really rather uncanny moments of repetition without any literal clips, just playing on our memories.

Our relationship to art from our past is quite a theme and study of this movie in fact. I don’t think there’s a clear thesis here, and I think that’s basically the point of so much of this: it’s not black and white, one or the other. In the very first scene, Jessica Henwick’s precious new character Bugs (“as in Bunny,” bless) effortlessly casts down the idea that everything’s binary, liberating herself and her series from being tied to that framework anymore. So there’s dialogue in this movie about the insipidness of reboot culture, there’s a character intoning “nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” there’s whatever irate French invectives the Merovingian was managing to get out under all that castaway hair*, and there’s that Lana has said that where the heart of this movie came from was that she was grieving the death of her parents and it consoled her to spend time with Neo and Trinity again. 

*Sidebar, and for the life of me I cannot find who it was I saw make this comment, but I wholly agree and love it that perhaps nothing better encapsulates early-stage to late-stage Wachowski like a character who goes from being called The Merovingian to allusively ‘the Frenchman’ to finally Jonathan Groff just going “that’s the Merv.” 

So where are we, at the end of The Matrix Resurrections, and ostensibly, at last, the Matrix series? Richer, I think, for getting the dish that is this last chapter. Something a little upset but a lot playful, something empathetic, wry, transformative, about itself but also moving beyond anything it had done before, not always perfectly successful, but always bold, loving, boldly loving. For the one thing we really can say this Matrix is absolutely About, is that Neo & Trinity are so hot and so in love. And maybe that’s what’s going to save us all—the power of love. 

Like we’ve been saying: it’s a Wachowski movie.

★★★★½

The Power of the Dog

Total and utter spoilers ahead


Things really took off when Emily asked if she could make a bold assertion, and then announced to our table: “I don’t think this is really a western.” 

From the moment I first heard about The Power of the Dog, to the moment I sat down with two pals and a very full house of Portland freaks (Freaks 4 Campion), I knew only a very few tantalizing things about it, but that it was a western had seemed a given. Jane Campion Adapts a Western. The New Jane Campion Western. Benedict Cumberbatch IS: In a Western? New Zealand Doubles For the American Mountain West In Actually the Second Time That’s Happened In a Western Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Which Is Just Weird That’s Happened Twice.

But I spend every autumn asking my friends what their personal definition of horror is, and talking about movies where we’ll say things like actually it’s really a horror film, or, actually it’s not really a horror per se, it’s just using some horror elements. Why not westerns too? What is my personal definition of the western genre? What would make something Actually A Western, or Actually Not?

I immediately agreed: I also didn’t think The Power of the Dog was a western, but I didn’t know why yet. Jody too agreed, and she did know why. Years ago she had read some lit crit that proposed there are two types of westerns: Cowboy Westerns, and Town Westerns. She has a marked preference for Town Westerns; she likes the interpersonal dynamics of a small community on the outskirts. A classic Town Western: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A Cowboy Western: Star Trek: The Original Series. Us: Oh shit! Of course. In fact Gene Roddenberry had clearly named westerns as one of his inspirations for the Star Trek series. Space, the Final Frontier.

But another friend, chiming in the next day, was not swayed from the western camp, as she thinks The Power of the Dog fits a third type of western not covered by Cowboy or Town: the family or clan against an Interloper, or some sort of threat to the Homestead. What’s interesting about this particular classification is that unlike the other two it hinges on something more situational than demographic. Perception, too, of who is the threatener and who is the threatened. One of the things I’ve been mulling over in trying to come up with my definition of horror is how tied it might be to who you think the protagonist is, and when that’s not all that clear, neither is the work’s classification as horror. (A case study: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story.) When Alex proposed the Interloper to the Homestead Western, I started to wonder if The Power of the Dog could be a western for Phil, defending his ranch & way of life against these outsiders, but for Peter more a dark psychosexual drama à la Park Chan Wook, and honestly maybe just a horror for poor Rose, being driven to madness. Then Alex revealed she was actually thinking it was Peter who was in the western! “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”

I think setting is going to be very relevant to whatever my western definition is, something I can’t say at all for horror actually (which is interesting). For me the western genre certainly applies far beyond stories set specifically in the American West, because the operative factor isn’t particular physical features of the landscape, but the juxtaposition of the culture held by the protagonists with this perceived wilderness outside of it [insert image of Captain Picard drinking earl grey in space here]. Maybe there’s a sort of overlapping Venn diagram genre that we could call the Frontier story. As Alex summarized it: “expansive landscapes, usually white people fighting against inhospitable elements, also the undercurrent of the indigenous people being pushed out.” Lots of things set in Australia and New Zealand would seem to fall into this, perhaps even Jane Campion’s legacy-creating The Piano, and ALSO: polar stories (we got very excited about this). I’d wager maybe all westerns would also be frontier stories, but not all frontier stories are westerns. I mean, I do not think AMC’s The Terror is a western. Definitely most days I don’t. However, my own bold claim I did offer to the table soon after Emily’s: Lawrence of Arabia is a western.

Lawrence would actually seem to fit Emily’s personal definition of western she has been refining since dinner. As she puts it, “the main requirement for me is that it must be about a struggle to bring law to an otherwise lawless place, by any means necessary (especially violence), and that the ultimate cost of that struggle is a loss of humanity.” The lawlessness can be anything from Untamed Nature (native populations usually falling within this from the white perspective) to the rapaciousness of other settler-colonizers (outlaws & racketeers &c), but in the effort to combat this lawlessness you pretty much always end up with “isolated, battle-worn loners.” She acknowledges that she has also basically just defined the wandering samurai genre again. But the fascinating cultural interplay between cowboys and samurai is a whole other essay we do not have time for right now.

Because I do know now what genre I think The Power of the Dog is. I got it directly from a New Yorker essay actually: I think it’s a gothic. A western gothic, of the Flannery O’Connor school of southern gothic. There’s more elements of horror here actually, more unease, more twisted roots. A western can be dark; a gothic is dark. There are no blunt, open shoot-outs in The Power of the Dog, instead the violence is all coldly slipped under your skin. The subtle cruelty of psychological torment. The sinuous brutality of poisoning. These are the methods of a gothic.

It’s a movie constructed of vague dread, just profound cinema of dread. I didn’t know WHAT was going to happen, but I knew something was going to. Tension like Phil pulling on the braided rope, taught with nervy curious uncertainty. At dinner when Phil plucked up one of Peter’s paper flowers and began flattening the petals, questing into the center of it with his finger, I felt like I was going to scream. That Peter was going to be revealed an ~ultimate~ murder twink and I’d end the film screaming in that way is something I was not at all prepared for, despite that this movie was a real “Mister Police, I gave you all the clues,” in retrospect. Cinema of sleight of hand! Cinema of gay-on-gay crime.

Peter is the fulcrum on which this movie turns. It’s real good in the first section when it’s mostly a dance between Phil and Rose, and occasional odd endearing little steps by Jesse Plemons besotted with his real life wife (them!), but when Peter comes home on break from medical school, the whole thing starts to turn around him instead, and that’s where this movie takes shape.

It’s like every character in this is variably trapped in, adhering to, or striving to maintain a certain kind of role/path, almost like planetary orbits, and the stuff of the drama comes from when they swing near each other on their arcs and their various gravitational pulls start fucking with each other’s tides. Except, crucially, for Peter—until, thrillingly, Peter, who is like this icy little rogue meteor just cruising through independent of any of these set loops. A sort of chaos vector coming in at his own angles, and, unbounded, the only one whose journey will just continue on out of this star system—out of the Western, we might have it. 

One way you could read this movie is as a conflict between different eras of historic queerness as represented by Peter and Phil. It’s fascinating considering that Phil, a fine-boned Harvard educated classicist & rich kid, early 20th century America’s analogue of, well, Benedict Cumberbatch, is only able to achieve the finessed level of aggro masculine charisma he does in playing his adopted role of rough & ruthless rancher, because of how adept he has had to become at navigating a world of people like this as a closeted gay man. The reason Cumberbatch works so well for me here is that it’s good that you should always feel, just a little bit, that he’s trying to fit a character. He should be very credible in it, but there should always be that slight rigidity of effort. 

That ramrod-straight swagger and defensively flint-sharp eye of Phil Burbank has made him virtually indestructible, unassailable—until Peter wanders in not following his known laws of physics. And this is not just a joke about the non-Euclidean geometry of Kodi Smit-McPhee. But that’s the thing actually, that’s something I kept thinking about: that Peter looks like that. He just looks like that. He was born with this form that makes it impossible for him to just exist neutrally in a space, because, as Emily put it, he looks like an Edward Gorey drawing. There’s no dissembling his vibe, he’s simply going to appear as he appears in 1920s Montana, spindly and effete and bone white, and either through strategic bravery or sheer sociopathy he doesn’t particularly seem to care, and this fucks up Phil’s whole mode. 

We weren’t prepared for Peter; Phil super wasn’t prepared for Peter. He’s not queer in any of the ways Phil has known. Jody shared with us the incredible tidbit that Bronco Henry’s bodybuilding magazines are real historic objects, the man on the covers a famous man who basically invented bodybuilding culture in America around the turn of the 20th century. So Phil inheriting & treasuring this stash of Physical Culture mags that are now several decades out of date is just another neat way of capturing how he has essentially been living in stasis, building up a cult of nostalgia among the ranch hands centered around his own worship of Bronco Henry, a man whose time has since passed. Bronco Henry was of the old west, and Peter is of the new, and caught in between and as vicious as a trapped animal, is Phil.

But if Peter represents a more modern queerness to Phil’s, it’s once again so fascinating that, cue joke, his queerness is in its murder era. The combination of calculated planning and fluid adaptability that has set him up so well for survival also sets him up to be so so deadly. His thin hands are just as skilled at constructing layered paper flowers as they are dissecting a rabbit he’s snared. He is characterized by a certain delicacy, but to twist the Siken, delicacy that comes not from the absence of violence, but in the execution of it. For instance, something Jody pointed out later that caught me by the throat: Peter putting the cigarette to Phil’s lips in the barn was for distraction of course, but also because he can’t touch anything Phil touches as soon as he puts his hands on the poisoned rawhide. Which also means that whole night Peter has to play a seduction where he can’t ever let Phil touch his own skin, or he’s dead too. THAT kind of delicacy.

And what makes The Power of the Dog such a masterwork, is that all the elements of the filmcraft is operating at this same level. I have become such a fan of cinematographer Ari Wegner, who also shot this year’s seamy Twitter noir Zola (at this point I’m just tossing genres down on the table like cards), and the beautifully chilly & strange Florence Pugh break-out Lady Macbeth, where she would set up her camera framing a static shot in a room and the characters would then just move within it in the scene—except for when Pugh would escape onto the cold brown coastal hills of Northumberland, and then Wegner’s camera would break loose to move with her in the wind. She is a fantastic collaborator for Jane Campion, is what this all means, who also loves a frame and a landscape, and adorably seems to have set out to find a DP bestie and found one in Ari Wegner, who was delighted to come along with her on a whole year of location scouting and prep. The mountain shots they’ve come up with simply…whip ass. Shadows moving over the rippled hillsides with some unplaceable menace. Tawny slopes framed through blowing curtains in an open window evoking American painter Andrew Wyeth, my beloved, which in turn evokes the legendary Roger Deakins’ cinematography on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where he named Wyeth as a key influence.

And on the score, Jonny Greenwood, back for his second this year; our luck! And not least because new Jonny Greenwood scores mean new disarmingly endearing Jonny Greenwood interviews. When he cited as one of his own key influences the original Star Trek’s use of brass in alien landscapes, I about fell over. I promise we’d begun the Trek As Western conversation well before then! But actually the parts of his score that I was most captured by weren’t the “pent up masculinity” of the French horns, but that unusual plucking cello, and a melody for piano or strings that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I recognized. It is not, I have checked, but my heart kept asking if it was some part of the Days Of Heaven score outside of that Camille Saint-Saëns piece. I think what’s probably really going on is that in Greenwood’s efforts to pare back his usual instinct (“for all that it should embarrass me”) for lush romanticism, he’s ended up with a sort of elusive distillation of romantic westerns of the past. Something spare and kind of searching, like a cold wind coming down over the hills, tugging at your clothes and your memory. It feels right that one of the tracks is named ‘West Alone’.

But bringing all of these pieces of mystery and sublimity together: Jane Campion, simply one of our best living directors. She has an incredibly fine eye for people and environments, and people in environments, and an incredibly fine hand in crafting moments in them of such pure unsettling surprise. She is a master at building out just these indelible little weirdos, who will do the most atonal, human things that will stick with you the rest of your life. Her works are so unexpected, and yet…I don’t even know what the word is. It’s like the more her characters veer strangely off paths the more they reveal some sort of raw ore of humanity within them, burnished from long holding by cupped hands and rib bones. Her characters have secrets. In fact sometimes her actors have secrets even from her, like Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst sidling onto set with their conspiratorial little secret headcanon about what Peter and Rose could be keeping secret themselves. You two….I absolutely love this as an acting method.

Which of course brings us to maybe the main takeaway: HUGE year for hot stressed moms & their tall skinny uncanny sons against the world. Do not mess with this year’s mom & son duos, they will see your ass in pieces against a staggering natural backdrop or this isn’t a 2021 film adaptation. GREAT THEME.

★★★★★

The Souvenir: Part II

If you have access to the 2019 Joanna Hogg film The Souvenir (for Americans with public library cards it’s completely free on Kanopy, as well as streaming on [throws salt] Prime), and a theater near you is currently showing this year’s follow-up, The Souvenir: Part II, what I have just experienced at the one weirdly arty Regal downtown is genuinely singular in my cinematic life.

It’s rare enough that a semi-fictional art house self-portrait, that was acclaimed but far from popular, would get a theatrically released sequel. It’s rare beyond comprehension that said sequel would continue the story while actively transforming your conception of the original, a “deconstruction of a reconstruction” that creates a meta-filmic two act about like…what it means to carry something with you. About art, how it changes us, and how we change it. And about the embarrassing, acute, hilarious things people say when they try to talk about any of it.

Warmer than the first, funnier than the first, which I already thought was a probably a masterpiece—this one surely is. There’s Themes and Resonance, shots of Tilda Swinton simply smoking in a garden that caused one of my four new Hogg besties to just chuckle appreciably two rows behind me, 150% more ~*incandescent*~ Richard Ayoade scenes, and a needle drop to Erasure. I spent the denouement choked up over I have no idea what, and came out of feeling like I could do 50 backflips. And not just because I had a bag of peanut M&Ms for lunch! JOANNA HOGG ! 

Something I was completely not prepared for at The Souvenir: Part II was well first my little found community of the handful of other weirdos who went out to see the Joanna Hogg movie at 1:15pm on a Sunday on its opening weekend in the city, where we all laughed together at I swear to you, every. single. one. of Richard Ayoade’s lines. I love you all! Masked kisses! I bet I’ve been in the same room with you before at the sold-out 35mm screening of Phantom Thread in January 2020—that’s our vibe!

But also what I was not prepared for, was what it would feel like to see sets and characters on a big theatrical projection that I’d only seen before in my living room. I’d watched The Souvenir (part one) the film “year” it was released but on streaming at home, having missed its brief cinema run. Then I’d rewatched it a few days before seeing Part II, on a much larger TV now but still just on my couch, having some tea. Now seeing Julie’s flat again, and not just the same images repeated like a rep screening, but new things happening in this place I knew, it rocked me in a way I hadn’t anticipated at all. Me, in my folding theater seat, heart catching: oh my god that’s her door! Theoretically I’ve experienced something sort of like this before, when TV shows return for new seasons, but this felt completely different. It felt like something that had been on a personal scale was now being presented as cinematic. But not as in more glossy or expensive, or im-personal—like, the respect of cinema. The love and attention of cinema. I felt so tender and thrilled seeing Honor Swinton Byrne, huge. And all that feels deeply perfect actually for how The Souvenir: Part II negotiates (its own) movie making, and the momentousness a movie can give the lives it depicts. The love and attention of it. “Make him a memorial,” Patrick advises Julie, tossed in departure as he literally backs away out of this conversation he doesn’t want to have, but nonetheless setting off the whole movie (and movie) to come (oh my god that’s her door!), and I love how this comes from him, the Joke, the Outrageous, the aloofly cutting capital C Character, because ain’t that just the way sometimes in art spaces!

I’m trying to figure out why The Souvenir movies and one of this year’s other slip-slidey meta-memoirs about filmmaking, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, don’t come across as insurmountably self-involved and unrelatable as they by all rights should seem to, given their transparently personal subject matter and the by extension very affluent position of the main characters. Vicky Krieps just off-the-cuff buys, what are they, €500 sunglasses in the Bergman gift shop? And I did describe the first Souvenir as being about “terrible posh people having a bad time,” and I stand by that. But Bergman Island and The Souvenir both really moved me as well, and Part II even more.

I think it’s that these women have made movies that manage to be self-reflective without being self-indulgent, and they’ve done it by focusing on that element: real, proper, disorienting reflections. In Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve has made a movie about a version of herself, who in it is imagining another movie with another version of herself, and that most nested Mia is played by an actor who shares her own first name, and the framing Mia is played by another actor with the same name as her real life daughter. But in the movie, they are called Chris and Amy; this is just part of the texture of the movie as we encounter it in our own world. Meanwhile in the Souvenirs, Hogg has cast Honor Swinton Byrne as a film student in the 1980s with her same initials, and cast the young actor’s real life mother Tilda Swinton to play her on-screen mother as well—the same Tilda Swinton that Joanna herself went to film school with in the 1980s, and who starred in her own real life grad film. The layers and layers! Recursive and reflecting! It gives these movies a mirrored, prism quality, the very shape of them is fascinating to me as a piece of art, and I think these slightly ajar reflections allow a different kind of creator vulnerability to come through as well. Maybe something like the greater emotional disclosure some performers can find when doing mask work.

But maybe what it also is, is that what I just did was mostly list a bunch of other women they were working with. For all that these movies are portraits of their directors, they are profoundly collaborative works. They exist only in this layering of filmmaker and actors, perhaps in a very tangibly realized idea of a shared experience. Something that could be so inward-looking becomes generative, that prism again casting out into all these different hues of what is True. And particularly in Joanna Hogg’s Souvenirs, as her distinct filmmaking style is the first thing a friend of mine told me about her when we were watching Part I, as she has a friend from London who has a small role in these. What Julie is depicted doing in her school program is the nascent stage of Hogg’s working method today, where she writes these very free-flowing scripts of images and ideas and then just feels out the scenes with the actors as they shoot, no dialogue set exactly, creating—finding—the movie together, and capturing all this real hesitancy and spontaneity in the process. 

There’s something incredibly human and touching about hesitancy. Her method brings unique tentativeness to the performances in Joanna Hogg films, but it’s not the kind of hesitancy or tentativeness that comes from being guarded, the opposite, the kind that feels wildly un-guarded. There’s a dangerousness to all of her scenes, a palpable sense that anyone might say either just the right thing or exactly the wrong one. It’s what makes me call Hogg films my tea kettle thrillers.

That’s where The Souvenir: Part II does diverge some though, in that it’s not building to these big ruptures like in the first Part, or in something like Archipelago (I love Archipelago too—an essential pre-fame Tom Hiddleston text). Where Part II differs is that here everything is building to an artistic actualization, aannnd I will say no more about that! I think that’s best saved. (But I loved the choice.)

God I haven’t even talked about the 1980s of it all. We’re all tired of the ‘80s renaissance but NOT Joanna Hogg’s ‘80s, those are still so fucking fresh. Is it the London of it all? Is it the style of her specific milieu, part rich people part scroungey film students all blazers? Is it that there’s no neon, no malls, but a lot of bleached overcast greys like the film itself is lightwashed? It is surely, I think, the music. And the photographs, ahh her old photographs she blew up for backdrops outside the windows still get me feeling some kind of way! When I rewatched The Souvenir knowing this I could see it clearly now, feel a new cozily classic sensation like a Hitchcock soundstage. And it improves it.

The Souvenir: Part II: an actual magic ring of a movie.

★★★★★

Spencer

Oh I seeee! I think I’m picking up Pablo Larraín’s deal now, and I think I really like it. Jackie and now Spencer too sit in this odd space between these very directly stated, here-is-the-message scripts (that somehow were not both written by Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight, an exemplar of this mode) and Larraín’s tonally unusual, dreamy/nightmarish, memory dilated direction, so that people come out of these movies not wanting to call them biopics, really, but like, fantasias on biopic themes. “A fable based on a true tragedy,” as Spencer opens. Fable is so right! I don’t think his latest is ‘too obvious’–if this is, Jackie certainly is as well, which has dialogue just the same–because I think I experience obviousness as a function of genre. Fable tells you just what the lesson is. The mystery and enchantment of fable isn’t in the themes of the story, it’s in why the story lasts, why we keep wanting to tell it over and over.

It’s in that shimmering in-between world of repetition that Jackie and Spencer live. Larraín hires the right designers to make sure the hair and costumes are so perfectly evocative of the looks that made these women icons even before their tragedies sealed them into images, and then sets them loose to waver through an at times literal dream ballet, a subtly and occasionally overtly surreal phantasm of history. He hires actors who will commit with every fiber of their being to embody the voice and manner of this woman, and then places their almost uncanny performance into what feels more like a mood piece than a historical drama. He hires the cinematographers and color graders who can build a hazy archival photo echo of an era in every frame, and composers who will score it like an avant-garde chamber piece, all atmosphere and plinking threads of horror.

Maybe I just get amped about a movie where it has rendered the usual conversation on “what it’s about” basically a non-starter. There’s no need, we’re already told exactly what it’s about. So we get to skip that entirely and talk instead about the big F’s: Filmmaking and Feelings. My favorites!! How much did you lose it during the soup scene when Claire Mathon’s camera pulled back to reveal a string quartet playing Jonny Greenwood’s score diegetic, because I sure lost it a lot! This is what I’m talking about, this is what I love about cinéma, show me art show me choices.

And I loved Kristen Stewart in this too, so much. She’s entrancing, beautiful and sad and difficult and loving, from the lay of her shoulders to the movement of her fingers. I think I liked Spencer more than Jackie largely because it’s her. Kristen Stewart playing Princess Diana, wincing in front of paparazzi, is also something this movie is about. An aspect that this time no characters says aloud, but is there in every scene, because she is. Truly come to think of it, she might be in every scene once she first appears…a lead performance in the most classic sense.

Spencer is less camp than Jackie but that’s alright, I’ll have House of Gucci later. Or maybe it is still camp but I’m further from the British royal family than the American so didn’t pick it up as much. I know I was crying at one point because it was pop, because I found it very sad the way pop songs sometimes make me feel, hopeful and hopeless all at one bright once. 

★★★★½

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 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 underneath it. In both there’s these 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 one of the old hotels. 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 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.

★★★½

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.

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 adaptation 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 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 sent Dev Patel a picture he drew of him 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 ever 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 is he not?

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 always 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 watching her. 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.

★★★½