Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, and won seven of them. It deserves every one of those, and I can’t figure out how it got them. I cannot figure this movie in any way, it is so fascinating and gorgeous and homosexual and deranged. It’s approaching four hours long, with an intermission card and a fucking overture for the first five minutes like you’re about to watch a light opera and need to know all the musical motifs, and honestly sure that’s not invalid, but that’s such an ask, baby, (David Lean is “baby” in this scenario), who said yes? I obviously did, said yes yes yes, but even I can’t always be relied on to do so! Because I had actually watched this once before, over ten yeas ago, and that time had just emerged with the takeaway “long character study in the desert!” and not much more than that.

This time, I spent the two nights I was watching Lawrence of Arabia absolutely hype on CINEMA. Everything made happy. Every shot made me want to say something like “Aauh!” Every choice was like a new crazy gemstone tossed into my hands. “What do I do with this!” I cried at Lawrence of Arabia, and in response it would just dump another handful on me.

Let’s go over some of these!

Lawrence of Arabia is loosely based on significant events in the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence, who was indeed a rather larger-than-life figure in the real world, but has here been transmogrified into a deeply cinematic creation that exists somewhere beyond and askew from his namesake, a blonde English cryptic birthed like Venus from the turbulent suds of culture and empire. Lawrence of Arabia was played by unknown 29-year-old Peter O’Toole in only his second film role, a fact I cannot deal with so we’re moving on. The whole time I was watching him there was some other performance occasionally niggling in the corner of my mind, but I just couldn’t figure out who it was. Until literally as the closing credits were rolling, I finally got it: I think the only possible comparison to Peter O’Toole here would have to be Jude Law in The Young Pope.

But here it’s 1916 (or so) in the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War, and as none of the British staff in Cairo knows what to do with this lanky blue-eyed madlad who quotes obscure stuff at them, Lieutenant Lawrence is sent into the Arabian Peninsula on a vague mission to simply go say hello to a certain Prince Faisal, an Arab leader the British are trying to collaborate with to oust the Ottomans from the area. Over the course of the film, Prince Faisal, at one time as real a person as T.E. Lawrence, will be presented as the only good politician in this whole mess, significantly more moral and likable than Lawrence’s fellow British officers, who are roundly portrayed as condescending, lying vipers who will and do betray him. However, wrinkle: Faisal is played by British actor Alec Guinness in brownface. This is just one SAMPLE of the variety of ways in which this movie refuses to ever let you orient yourself (pun intended!) in what seems to be, at once, a whitewashed colonialist fetish object engaged in a harrowing indictment of the ‘white savior’ narrative. Lawrence of Arabia, what do I do with this!

Personally, I’ve come to the decision that this movie’s political mayhem is just part of the spice of it all, just another thing that kept me riveted with wonder at what was going on here. I mean, this is, technically, a sweeping war epic, in which the battles given by far the most time and emotional oxygen are between men and stretches of desert. This is a sweeping war epic except it isn’t even, really, it’s an epic of psyche and landscape set against strife. And even then, if you wanted to you could ignore all the history and half the plot and watch this movie wholly as an exercise in cinematography and editing, which are breathtaking at every turn, rightfully legendary. You could watch Lawrence of Arabia merely as a costume study and still lose your mind simply at how much story is being told in the fit of fabric on bodies. 

And, there is also that David Lean, director of Brief Encounter, decided to be, quote, “very daring at the time,” and go, as my friend Lily put it, FULL ROMO on a dynamic love story between Lawrence and Sherif Ali, a composite character invented for the film, but this time actually played by an Arab actor: the lovely Omar Sharif in his first English-language role. I wish I could say something intelligent about Omar Sharif in this, but honestly I spent such a considerable portion of this film’s very long runtime just weakly sobbing “your EYES!”—his eyes. His eyes?? And while it’s certainly not that this movie needed saving or something when Ali literally gallops into it out of the desert haze, dramatically draped in black and intrigue, but when he does so, ho boy he immediately fires up the interpersonals in a new direction. A brief summary of ‘Aurens’ and Ali’s first interaction:

Lawrence: “Fuck you. Strong letter to follow.”
Ali: “Yeah how about I steal your compass about it, prettyboy”
Me: “Oh yay”

Beginning in antagonism is a classic of the romance genre for a reason, because it gives you such a long ramp of developments for a relationship to build into, and this one goes so many places you want as well as several I guarantee any LOA-newbies haven’t even fathomed right now. I think one of my favorite permeations of their love story is a later period I’m going to describe as having kind of a Hamlet & Horatio quality. It’s all just TREMENDOUS, baby, thank you! (David Lean is still “baby” here)

In conclusion. There is so much…going on, in Lawrence of Arabia, that I fully understand why audiences keep coming back to it time and again, earning it that vaunted Classic status not in spite of, but because it is so fascinating, and gorgeous, and homosexual, and deranged.

First Cow

It was somewhere in the fall festivals of last year when I first saw an image of a soft-eyed man with a soft brown cow, and knew without having to know anything else about it that this movie was going to heal my soul.

I could not have known then how true and necessary that would be by the time I would finally watch it! Four months after its March theatrical release was curtailed almost as soon as it began by the pandemic that still grips the country, A24 decided that something they could do for a strained and weary populace was to give us all a little First Cow, as a treat. Following director Kelly Reichardt’s suggestions, I bought it in SD, for softness, scooped myself a little bowl of Talenti’s oak-aged vanilla (a mellow toasted dream), and let myself be carried away, to…well exactly where I am now actually, but 200 years earlier.  

First Cow takes place in western Oregon Territory in the 1820s, and tells the story of two frontier outsiders who invented male domesticity and also dairy fraud. One of them is Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz, a talented baker and the gentlest man in the world. The other is King-Lu, a bright, lifelong traveler who loves two things: business enterprise, and Cookie Figowitz. There is also a cow, the First Cow (in the territory), who is introduced being ferried serenely up the river so that the foolish but wealthy English trader who has built a house near the fort can have milk in his tea. Cookie spies a precious baking ingredient, King-Lu spies an even more precious Opportunity—a chance to make their American fortune here in the American west. (That the only way it is possible for the poor to get started on the road to capitalist success is through stealing from those hoarding the resources, is of course the point.) With their secretly-gotten milk, the two of them begin selling Cookie’s perfectly tender ‘oily cakes’, befitting this PERFECT, TENDER MOVIE. O the Tenderness! The companionship, the care, the cow! Just the sweet, feeling way John Magaro speaks to her? When I tell you that I clutched my hand over my heart—! 

Kelly Reichardt movies are always unhurried yet precise, and what that means in her latest and loveliest landscape film is that each low-tempo joke or act of friendship or moment of discovery just unfolds on you, with this easy, comfortable pace like the hooting of an owl in a tree. It sweeps you up and takes care of you. Kelly Reichardt understands that what I want to watch in a movie is a steady, quiet view of a man washing his chest though the open slats of his rustic tiny-home while his soft-spoken partner bakes them donuts with a whisk he fashioned out of twigs. Kelly Reichardt understands that what the topaz-edged early autumn days in the Pacific Northwest need are mist and cool mud and also peaceful guitar melodies. Kelly Reichardt understands the inherent drama of a clafoutis.

She also understands the appeal of: Alia Shawkat, René Auberjonois as a disgruntled old man with a pet raven (!), my favorite British character actor Toby Jones, Cardinal Dussolier from The Young Pope, LILY GLADSTONE, and otherwise attentively ensuring that this naturalist world she is filming is full of Chinook and Multnomah people just living their various lives along the encroaching shoreline of capitalist American history.

In a graceful historian’s choice for a period piece, Alia Shawkat’s nearly wordless opening scene with her dog in the present day introduces our story’s eventual endpoint at the beginning, providing a poignant frame for all that is to come. But even before that, First Cow‘s emotional contextualizing begins foremost with an epigraph from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” And I would like to add another, from Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread.”

★★★★★

The Vast of Night

I watched The Vast of Night in the strange, crackling dark of the 4th of July. I thought it would be a good Americana watch for that night—a small town, 1950s, New Mexico, something in the sky. Just from that, you know what this movie is going to be. But what is so entrancing about The Vast of Night is how unusual its retro feels. It’s a movie with an assured artistic point of view, something that comes out of the look and the score and the pacing that I don’t really know else how to describe besides just with: vibes.

The Vast of Night is small and quiet, warm while still genuinely a little eerie and dark. It’s also dark in the sense that it all happens on one night, which is part of what feels different about this old-style sci-fi. The movie takes place in real-time over 85 minutes, the conceit that it’s bound by the length of the highly-attended first home basketball game of the season, which has left just a small number of people still out and about. Namely our two leads, who are both working tonight: Fay, a teenage switchboard operator, and her somewhat older friend Everett, the town’s young nighttime radio host. 

That at times it feels like Fay and Everett might be the only two people in this hushed desert town is just one of the ways first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson spun atmosphere out the constraints of his micro $700,000 budget. A lot of which he clearly earmarked for good photography, in order to build much of the movie out of these hypnotic ground-level tracking shots (ground-level! again, unusual). If you’ve heard anything about this recent Amazon sleeper release, it’s probably about the one-take where the camera zips off on its own to wind across the empty town, linking the locations of our two main characters in geography and time. But I think my own favorite tracking shot is actually the long sequence that the pleasantly bewildering, quick-tumbling dialogue of the opening scene eventually settles into, where after they split off from the crowd gathering at the gymnasium, we smoothly follow along behind Fay and Everett at about knee height as they walk through the dark to her job at the switchboard, Everett casually teaching her how to conduct an on-the-fly interview on her new tape recorder he carries between them. 

These sorts of visuals are integral to the spell of this movie, but the fact that it frequently *feels* like it could have had life as an audio-only radio drama just speaks to how deeply The Vast of Night understands the matter of its story. The characters really speak like they’re in the ‘50s—or at least I presume, as most of this slang has gone completely out of circulation by 2020—and the naturalistic delivery of this midcentury dialogue is fun & curious to listen to. But the steady, floating movement of the camera in those chattering dialogue scenes also stills into these long moments where we will stay for minutes on end simply watching someone’s face in three-quarter view as they, too, quietly listen to something on the other end of the line. The first of these is over nine minutes long, just Fay alone at her switchboard trying to find an answer for a sound she can’t place, and was also the first time I told this movie aloud: “I like this so much.”

I like that this movie knows I find it wonderful to watch people do technical things with analogue equipment. I like that both leads are wearing these huge glasses that obscure half their face. I like that it’s a period piece that keeps its contemporary outlook in the framing, not the characters’ realities—let the movie be the one to think about quite literally giving a platform to historically marginalized voices, while its historical characters remain most concerned about McCarthyism.

And I really, really like this central relationship. It’s clear from the beginning that while Everett is still very young, he’s older than Fay in a way that has social significance. He has an adult know-how, he’s a young professional, and she’s a high schooler who’s not allowed to let anyone else carry her instrument as it’s on loan from the music teacher. Yet it’s also clear that despite their somewhat different ages, they’re friends, in that way that happens in small communities where social spheres Venn diagram a bit more. And all this means that what sounds on paper like it would be so traditional—a guy and girl who are experiencing a Strange Incident that brings them closer together—is playing on a different sort of register here, one that I found endlessly captivating. Profoundly into these two, just really really taken by them.

Things I was less into were only a few, and I think they’re related, and will be increasingly vague about it for those who haven’t seen this yet: the metafilmic framing device used at the beginning and then a few more times throughout is a good-natured apology for being genre that this film absolutely doesn’t need, and I believe that Twilight Zone-esque promise it made led to a certain overreaching in the specificity of a couple things later. 

In closing, there are only two movies I can recall where I just turned it on to watch again in less than 72 hours, and the other one was also a small 85-minute real-time piece set at night, so I guess that’s something about me.

★★★★½

June(ish) Movie Diary

Movies watched recently, for relative 2020 value of recent:

THE MUMMY

One of my Film Club friends asked me if I wanted to have a virtual movie night back in late May, and I suggested the only thing I felt like watching at that particular juncture: 1999’s archeology action/adventure The Mummy, a movie I had never seen but knew was 1) dumb, 2) a Bisexual Heritage Film.

Here’s some facts:
– I had not watched a single feature film in the previous six weeks due to the Brain Fog
– for some reason I could not adjust the volume on my TV above “quiet”, so put the closed captioning on and got probably a third of my audio input through Kyle’s TV on the other end of the phone I was holding to my ear
– I was drinking some sort of Aperol & gin thing
– Kyle and I are chatty

For these reasons, I am supremely confident that I missed a significant amount of this movie. But we did not miss: how hot everyone was, how raucous everything was, and how every time the Increasingly Gay Hungarian reappeared his neckline was lower and his evilness higher. A real dumb fun evening! I’ll rewatch this some day.

★★★


MANHUNTER

Two weeks later, I decided to officially get back into movies, with the optimal pick for transitioning out of my pandemic lockdown regression rewatch of the first six seasons of the forensics procedural CSI: Michael Mann’s 1986 forensics art filme Manhunter, starring also William Petersen, but baby.

My friend Alex, Manhunter aficionado, had told me that since I’d seen Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series, I should be set up pretty well to follow the plot, which was reportedly rather disorienting to a lot of audiences when this came out. And ho boy yeah, I sure imagine it would be! Manhunter is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever watched, because the thing feels *exactly* like it’s the sequel to a movie that came before, only there wasn’t one. Mann just made Manhunter. This creates such a surreal, dream-like feel, replicating that sensation from dreams (or nightmares) where it’s like you’ve just been dropped into the middle of something that’s already happening and now must navigate it from here, vague understandings of context and other characters rising up at odd moments as you go through. Honestly I thought this was kind of perfect for the material, but of course I’m familiar with the greater ~Thomas Harris mythos~ in which the events of Manhunter are situated, so like: RIP to the 1980s audiences but I’m different.

Speaking of the ‘80s though, I would guess another reason people might have been thrown by this is that even though it’s a murder movie, technically even a cop movie, Manhunter has so little to do with action, and everything to do with #Aesthetic. The lights! the look! the SYNTHS. This almost drowsy, understated affect even while the content is all so sensational, and frequently occurring under the slow boom of like, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ (true facts). It’s a trip and an experience, a total mood poem bearing much, much more in common with Fuller’s Hannibal in that respect than to the later Harris Oscar-winner, Silence of the Lambs. Which makes a lot of sense given that Fuller reportedly told every new director on his show: “We are not making television, we are making a pretentious art film from the 80s.” This is that movie!

One final note: I knew that Will Graham’s incredible Miami pink short shorts he wears in this have made quite the impact on the Harris fandom, but what I did not know is that the costume designer for Manhunter was a young Colleen Atwood, meaning I’m only two degrees from The Manhunter Shorts. My mom grew up in the same tiny town as Colleen, and in high school was best friends with her little sister. One time they visited Colleen when she was living in Hawaii and my mom accidentally let her bird out of the house. Anyway now she’s very famous, and also I saw was tapped to do the costumes for Silence of the Lambs five years later, which I think is nice; keeping it in the family.

★★★★


SHIRLEY

I was looking forward to seeing Josephine Decker’s new film, and supremely so once I learned it would star the genius Elizabeth Moss as horror author Shirley Jackson and the genius Michael Stuhlbarg as her horrible professor husband. HELLO TO THIS PAIRING, hello to this CONCEPT. Because I’ve been describing Shirley to people as being to Josephine Decker what The Favourite was to Yorgos Lanthimos: a highly idiosyncratic director applying their intense brand of artistry to someone else’s script this time, instead of doubling down on their own. In both cases, the resulting movie is still distinctly Them, but the meliorating influence of having another voice in there right from the ground level has rendered something a bit more accessible than their other work. I know ‘accessible’ can be a bad word in the art world, and of course it shouldn’t be taken to be synonymous with ‘better’, but I also think there is something to be said about the limitations of art that seems to take the description ‘challenging’ as a challenge.

And listen, Decker sure didn’t make a traditional biopic any more than Lanthimos did for Queen Anne. It’s still weird! That woozy, close camerawork in Madeline’s Madeline that made you feel like you were pressing right up against a character’s psyche is absolutely here in Shirley too, just not at that same ceaseless, seasick pitch. It’s feralness is moving within a more reserved structure, which honestly fits really well with this story. Sarah Gubbins’s screenplay is based on a novel, not a biography, in which lives a fictional Shirley Jackson—this is Shirley as she might have written herself if she were a character in one of her stories. So for instance, at the period in Shirley’s life when this movie takes place, she had four children. She has no children here. And that’s because this isn’t a story about Shirley as a mother, it’s about Shirley as an almost dangerously inspiring figure of female madness. The women in Shirley Jackson’s stories frequently become unhinged, and other women have always found them spookily intoxicating. “I read your story,” Rose compulsively tells Shirley when she meets her, after finishing ‘The Lottery’ on the train—“It made me feel…thrillingly horrible.”

Shirley is fantastic shut-in fare for the pandemic summer of 2020. Jackson’s later-life agoraphobia has been moved up a bit, and most of the movie is focused on unspooling a faintly disorienting portrait of Shirley & Rose’s relationship as they move in and around a big old house in Vermont. I haven’t read Hangsaman, the novel Jackson is writing in the film, but I thought a lot about the hated recluses of We Have Always Lived In the Castle watching it. Further appropriate to this summer, it always feels quite warm in this movie, and also so. Bennington. If Donna Tartt is your nemesis, this is your antidote to The Secret History. Even though this is set in 1950 and stylized to the nines, it’s still more accurate to the atmosphere of what these small prestigious colleges in small parochial New England towns are actually like. I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but I usually think of Shirley Jackson as the New England gothic reflection to Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, and that element they both have of something kind of insular and nasty is captured so well here. And in this case, when it’s set around a college, the gothic manifests into that particular kind of sordid intellectualism that is like the opposite of Donna Tartt’s version—designed not to glamorize, but to maim.

★★★★


DO THE RIGHT THING

A lot of film people began talking about the continued relevance of 1989’s Do the Right Thing in the early days of the June uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I realized that was a Spike Lee movie I hadn’t seen yet. Then I realized that in fact, all Spike Lee movies were Spike Lee movies I hadn’t seen yet. Well that’s no good! I started here.

And it seems I started at the top with this one. Most of Do the Right Thing feels like one of those meandering, gently comedic/gently poignant slice-of-life movies that use a bunch of different little parallel story threads to weave together an impression of a community & time. But then as we near the end, and all the threads suddenly knot together and get yanked toward violence, oh man—“this is a MOVIE though,” I said aloud, and then started shaking. Really masterfully crafted. The whole time I’d been thinking it was good, sure, but when I finished it, it kept rising higher in my estimation. Even just design things—like how the opening credits play over Rosie Perez dancing on what is clearly a stage, a glossy floor with a backdrop of the kind of brownstones that line the street of Bed-Stuy, and then when the movie that follows takes place clearly outside on actual streets, the fact that you saw a version of this environment as a closed set at the start primes you to think of this neighborhood as a self-contained system as well, almost with the air of the setting of a kids’ show like Sesame Street, or John Mulaney’s recent little gem The Sack Lunch Bunch. And with that framework in place, then it’s so easy to see the events of Do the Right Thing as a lesson that’s being presented. We’re the kids at Spike Lee’s after-school center, and he’s telling us a morality tale.

And somehow this movie can do that, can literally even be called “Do the Right Thing”—no hang on, more than that: it can have a Beanie Feldstein-in-Lady Bird approved *titular line* where someone instructs the main character, Spike Lee himself!, to “Always do the right thing,” (“That’s it?” skinny young Spike responds. “That’s it.”)—and yet SOMEHOW, none of this philosophizing feels lame! I don’t know how you pull that off! It’s never lame, and it’s frequently cool, for all that the weather is h o t, hot hot. And then at the end, when it becomes a Big Ol’ Movie, it’s shattering. Do the Right Thing was released the year I was born. It feels like it was written this morning. 

★★

Rashomon / Rashomama

A fact of my biography it occasionally surprises me to remember, is that I spent a good amount of my high school career doing my homework in front of reruns of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on Spike TV (R.I.P.). Just the original Las Vegas version—the only time I touched another CSI property was the CSI: Miami backdoor pilot where Catherine and Warrick appeared in a cross-over special. My favorite thing I learned about while watching CSI was the hemoglobin deficiency known as porphyria. My favorite joke I saw on CSI was when Grissom casually established a metric of measurement at a crime scene based on units of Greg, the young lab tech recently graduated to field work, and a personal favorite of me and my best friend. And one of my favorite episodes of CSI was the jokey concept piece in Season 6 where four of the characters each recalled their investigation of a crime scene after Nick’s car was stolen with all the evidence in it.

The episode was called ‘Rashomama’, a reference to the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, I would learn later, and I adored everything about it. The conceit of repeatedly revisiting the same scenario though different characters’ perspectives was like catnip for me. You not only learned something more about the case each time, you also learned more about that character through how they saw the scene and their role within it. There were marked differences in the scoring and color correction for each run-through, ranging from adjustments in the saturation and tint to one rendition in full film noir black & white (Greg, obviously). This ability to swap between whole different genres within one work, as part of the overall story you’re telling, their distinct aesthetics serving as the tools for how you are telling it, while also creating the opportunity for beaucoup ~comedy moments~, was one of the most artistically exciting concepts my baby mind had ever been presented with.

And that would be my primary reference for “Rashomon”-style storytelling for the next 14 years. And one of my last references for CSI, too—like most of my high school shows, I dropped it after the next season when I went off to college.

But this week, in the spring of 2020, I decided it was high time I finally watch the original Japanese film that had inspired that episode. And that it was also time to rewatch a bit of CSI for the first time in over a decade.

Rashomon (1950) is also the story of one crime told through four different perspectives. This is the first and most fundamental way in which that old episode of a CBS murder show turns out to have made a pretty solid creative choice. In the movie though, all of the characters were primary actors or witnesses to the event, which left a woman raped and her husband dead. The characters recount what happened to an unseen judge at an open-air court trial in 8th century Japan, each testimony interwoven with a new flashback of what happened in the grove three days before. Interestingly though, the larger framing device means that all of these stories are coming to us through just two of the witnesses, as they repeat what was said at the hearing to another man sheltering with them from a rainstorm. The last memory we see is that of the woodcutter, the primary witness, who is ultimately the only one to speak to us first-hand (the dead man’s story actually even coming to us from two steps removed, initially through the medium claiming to be channelling his spirit). Perhaps appropriately then, the woodcutter’s is the one version that is distinct in any significant formal way: unlike the first three, there is no musical score in his. This effect of sudden unadorned quietness absolutely works to make his tale seem more credible than the others, though the film is still deliberately constructed to keep us uncertain.

Overall, my response to Rashomon was similar to my response to recently watching The Seventh Seal for the first time. I see why this movie, which even 70 years later still does carry some of that air of novelty it had upon its release, was so influential on filmmaking to come, but unlike other black & white movies from the 1950s that I’ve super loved, I was just not that into either of these. Both have plenty that people can write serious essays about, given the films’ engagements with such big ticket topics as God and Truth, so maybe that’s partly why their legacies endure. I would hope it’s not for their poor treatment of women, which was once again a real drag to watch here!

The ‘Rashomama’ episode of CSI also features a number of unflattering female stereotypes, and a woman’s murder. Though she is confirmed by all who knew her to be a cruel and conniving piece of work, which is what allows this to be one of the show’s occasional lighthearted episodes only possible when the victim is a villain in their own right. Anyway, was rewatching this thing ever a full-body astral projection into the past. The number of times I discovered that the way an actor had delivered a line was still lodged in my brain somewhere was, frankly, more horrifying than any of the network-cleared gore. At the same time, boy I had forgotten a lot! The roster of guest stars in this episode was its own trip that I was entirely not expecting. Ray Wise is in this. He’s introduced lurking through a window with a creepy grin and I said aloud “SURELY NOT.” But oh yes, it was Leland Palmer, little as I would have known that back in 2006. Continuing in the Lynchverse, Amanda Seyfried’s appearance a scene or two later I actually accepted quickly, as I think one of my first memories of her was an appearance on House, another of my high school faves.

But the guest actor that really threw me, the one I believe no one anticipated transforming into the outright jump scare it is today, was when, into a faintly fishbowl close-up shot, Chris Hardwick’s face suddenly swung into view. My blood fully ran cold for a moment as my brain’s gears screeched in shock and dismay. Truly chillingly, he’s even playing a “Nice Guy.” Wow no thank you, The Past!

Besides that part though, this episode was still the somewhat ghoulish but fun-having romp that I remembered (it’s CSI, it’s always kinda ghoulish). The CSIs are given time to just joke around with each other with that comfortable, broken-in familiarity you get from actors in a long-running program. The gradual reveal of the [spoilers] ad hoc nature of the crime diffuses homicidal responsibility among a number of people, with the added bonus of lending the story a dash of that getting-the-team-together collaborative spirit of a heist movie. And of course, there’s that distinct Rashomon story structure lighting the whole thing up.

In writer Sarah Goldfinger’s version for CSI, the different perspectives we see don’t fundamentally contradict one another as they do in Kurosawa’s, where the manner of the death and the person left holding the weapon changes from tale to tale. Interestingly, Goldfinger’s is deployed with the opposite intent: where in the original Rashomon each character’s version of events further confounds what happened, in ‘Rashomama’ each telling actually brings us closer to the truth. Meanwhile, the stylistic differences between the memories has been greatly amplified from the movie’s more subtle framing, even moving fully into genre by the time we hit the noir, which is a direction for this four-part recollection format that I support with my whole heart. Like, every single one of the investigators remembers the flowers of the archway differently, and that is that kind of surreal thrill of a detail that I love.

So at the end of the day, CSI may be still be a simple, schlocky little episodic slice of murder sensationalism, but its sixth season Rashomon episode really did do some great things with the concept.

Bacurau

Review contains spoilers

Bacurau is a Brazilian Weird Western with lots of bullets and blood, and not, as I had originally thought, mostly about a Google Maps dystopia erasing indigenous communities. It’s still about the erasing of indigenous communities, in a big way, but that erasure is not merely surreally technological, but very straight up literal through a group of white people who have rolled up upon Bacurau to carry out their own personal Most Dangerous Game.

And that’s where this movie started to kinda shake apart for me. Just because they’d done such a good job endearing me toward this little town through an unhurried, nuanced, funny and beautiful opening. These characters and their relationships to one another were all so rich and layered, and then after about 45 minutes or so, these racist cartoons showed up. I mean, it’s a whole conversation whether it’s more artistically moral to depict bigoted characters as just flat evil and irredeemable or more complicated and humanized, and my answer would be: each has their place in different kinds of works! I have no problem with deranged trigger-happy white supremacists as a genre concept, my issue is just that they’re so one-note that when they started taking time away from the real characters, I think the movie suffered. Sure it’s definitely The Point that the people of Bacurau feel alive and human and interesting and the hunters do not, but it’s just a fact of simplistic characters that they’re less engaging to watch. My solution would be really simple: just cut down a whole lot of their screen time. We don’t actually need it, we can put together what’s happening as the people of Bacurau do, alongside them. I think that would have been a better balance just from an entertainment perspective, maybe also an artistic one for that matter, without losing the central conceit of what this movie is trying to do as an anti-imperialist revenge fantasy.

I do think Bacurau is ultimately successful, I just found it noticeably not as strong as it could have been, in that latter part. Again, part of it comes from how much I really enjoyed the beginning portion. Things like the couple on the outskirts of town radioing over to I think everyone’s cell phones to let them know someone’s driving up, all like “you’ve got two minutes until that asshole mayoral candidate shows up, two minutes,” is such a fantastic way to illustrate community, something deep in my human soul just thrilled to that. And it’s visually fun and pretty too, with some psychedelic little bits of editing that had my quietly cheering, just sitting alone on my couch. And there was a part about the town disappearing from maps for me to enjoy.

The Seventh Seal

The only image I recalled ever seeing from The Seventh Seal was of Max von Sydow playing chess with Death alone before a sea, and I actually had the idea that it was just an hour thirty of exactly that. For this reason I thought I would really enjoy this movie. Turns out it is not that! It is about a fairly large group of people trying to avoid the Black Plague in medieval Sweden. It’s still as allegorical as that famous shot indicates, but actually more about the absence of God than the concept of Death, I’d say. The characters sort of vaguely move from incident to incident—that the Knight has a castle they can head to and try to shelter from the contagion is introduced surprisingly late, for instance, for a primary action motivator—and overall I honestly found it a little rough as a film, though I can’t say that detracts from what it’s trying to do. It’s one of those movies that seems more interested in using art to explore a grand thought than it is in making a grand piece of art that is itself thoughtful.

As often happens with classic movies, my experience of watching this was maybe overly informed by my dawning recognition of what later works I’ve seen were referencing this one. Most striking to me was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which also contains a metafilmic scene of a character having a conversation about faith & suffering & God and artistic depictions of same with an artist painting murals on a church wall. Also, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

The Seventh Seal was made in the 1950s and set in the Middle Ages and it is definitely thinking about gender politics, I’ll give it that, but at the same time, boy a lot of this movie sucks to watch! Oh I don’t know, I’m just tired of having to talk about sexist female archetypes—they’re all here, basically. I mean I’ll admit I did get mildly invested in the health & well-being of the cute little acrobat family who loved each other, but I am unsurprised, for all the reasons mentioned so far, that my favorite part was easily the opening scene, when it WAS just Max von Sydow and Death on a rocky beach in high contrast black & white.

★★★

Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) tells the story of a young parolee with startling eyes getting out of juvie and winding up posing as a priest in a small lumber town, but here’s the trick: he’s genuinely devout and really good at his job, unconventional but with this very intent inspiration to heal, despite the brutality that still follows him, even within himself. And ultimately, the movie might mostly be about a community trying to process their collective grief over a deadly accident that occurred the year before.

This marks the third Polish film I’ve seen, as well as the third Polish film I’ve loved—the cinema of Poland is truly batting a thousand here!

The others I’ve watched were both Paweł Pawlikowskis, shot by his masterful cinematographer Łukasz Żal in beautiful boxy black & white. Corpus Christi, meanwhile, is green—green trees and fields around this little town, green vestments on ‘Father Tomasz’ at mass, and this green quality to the very light itself, seeping in cool like a stream through curtained windows. It’s not a Guillermo Del Toro green or a Park Chan-Wook green, it’s lighter and waterier than that. It’s pretty. “This is a pretty movie,” I remarked quietly. Which isn’t to say it’s soft. What I mean is: in the very first shot, the gaunt, watchful face of our protagonist suddenly fills the frame, starkly lit in the daylight coming through a window, while something violent happens out of focus behind him.

He’s incredible by the way, this young actor. He has an absolutely astonishing ability to go still, ringing like a single held note. Two different times watching him I momentarily wondered if my video had paused, but before I could tear my eyes away to check, he moved again.

There was one plot line that I don’t think really served anything or anyone by following its traditional path, and it would certainly have been a more interesting work if that part had been remained more unexpected, as it seemed it might. There was another moment where I felt as if the script suddenly doubted its ability to write the right speech—admittedly maybe a bit of a Two Towers situation where they realized they’d written themselves into a corner—and sure it’s easy for me to sit here and say ey you should have just gone for it!, because not everyone’s gonna end up with Sam Gamgee’s “It’s like the great stories” speech, but up until that point there had been so much clear yet compellingly enigmatic shit they’d written for that kid that he just sold the heck out of, that I think any words would have been more powerful than their choice to go with none there, just gesture. As powerful as gesture can sometimes be as well. And ultimately this is backhanded compliment because what I’m really saying is I wished every moment could have been as strong as most of them are.

Because maybe we’re in a golden age of priest fictions right now with works like First Reformed and Fleabag and Paolo Sorrentino’s Pope shows all coming out in recent years, but what I was so into with Corpus Christi was that it’s not that filmmaker Jan Komasa just picked “priest” out of a hat as Daniel’s fake profession, a backdrop to the real story he wanted to tell. This movie is fundamentally about concepts of forgiveness and atonement, as they interrelate across criminality, church, and community, and there is a complexity in what is emotionally resolved in the narrative and what is left quite jarringly inconclusive.

★★★★

Reichardt Watch: Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff

Since I couldn’t watch my beautiful cow this March as I had been so looking forward to (I will see you when the theaters reopen, First Cow!), decided to just catch up on all the Kelly Reichardt films on Kanopy. I’ve now seen Certain Women, Wendy & Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff, and have liked each more than the last, as it turns out!

I had enjoyed her Montana triptych Certain Women, but I always have this faint problem with anthology movies, ones that tell several short stories that are sort of in tonal conversation each other but rarely contain any of the same characters and do not have an overarching plot that links them (Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes, would be another). I tend to skim along the surface of these, waiting to compare each section to the others instead of settling into the movie be a thing as a whole, which is not an ideal way for me personally to watch a movie.

Wendy & Lucy is quiet and localized and mostly just follows a woman around as she deals with things, which could also describe any of the stories in Certain Women, but this time it was the only story, the whole movie, and this worked on me so much better! I was gratified that as I expected, it was indeed that particular chapter structure, not Reichardt’s distinct style, that I hadn’t fully connected with earlier. And brunette Michelle Williams is so good here, my god. The ending didn’t occur to me until I saw it occur to Wendy, and then I just broke down. That’s some effective emotional storytelling!!

★★

A few weeks later, in a new world, I sat down with Meek’s Cutoff, distantly glad I’d watched the one about a person without a financial or social safety net tumbling to the ground before a global pandemic shut down the economy. I was unconcerned about immersing myself in a bleak Oregon Trail story though, I guess because it was bleakness at an historical distance? There’s a sort of otherworldly quality to this particular movie as well. The characters feel human, old-timey naturalism not quite at Robert Eggers’ The Witch levels, but on the way there. But the setting they’re in is strange and extreme: an empty high plains desert, with all the stakes steadily narrowing to one specific focus: finding water.

I really dug Meek’s Cutoff. It’s the first Kelly Reichardt movie to have compelled me to remark appreciably “Oh fuck yeah”, at things like just an early establishing shot of Paul Dano carving something into a tree trunk. It still has that quality of meditative observation, most strongly felt in the way Reichardt films people carrying out tasks, but, on a relative scale, this one is noticeably more cinematic than her other movies I’ve seen. For instance, Meek’s Cutoff actually has a score. Suited to her work though, spare in a lingering, unresolved way.

★★★

And Then We Danced

Contains general reference to the complete plot arc of the film, and similar discussion of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Call Me By Your Name as well

In a recent interview, Céline Sciamma described true love stories not as stories of love without end, but love as an emancipation. Her gorgeous and thoughtful Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story in that sense, a movie where although these two end up apart, their passion remains in something else: it grows and transforms their relationship to painting and music, and their own artistic expression. To borrow Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s phrasing in Fleabag, this is portrayed as a worthy place to put it, this love they have for one another. Their enriched sense of self goes into their creative work, and that is what lasts, what will carry forward from and beyond their slowly changing memory of each other. This is a love affair as an artistic manifesto.

Earlier I wrote of some formal similarities I feel Portrait of a Lady on Fire shares with Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 Call Me By Your Name, in that they are both gay romances with a pre-set time limit. Lushly filmed and designed, they immerse you in this warm magic spell of a world, creating a brief time-outside-of-time where the lovers can come together during their semi-isolated stay in a big grand European country home, before the calendar runs out and they are pulled back apart, ending with a long unbroken take close on a character’s face. And now along comes something different, and yet similar again: Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced (და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ). Technically a 2019 film along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for most U.S. markets both are only starting to arrive in theaters as of late February. You could watch them back to back right now at one of the art house cinemas in my city if you liked, and I imagine walk out feeling quite emotional about queer identity and art. For where Portrait of a Lady on Fire shares structural elements with Call Me By Your Name, it shares Sciamma’s ethos of emancipation through love with And Then We Danced.

A movie which in turn, following in the tradition of queer cinema being like a sprawling found family, has its own Elio in the young Georgian dancer Merab, another besotted stripling whose every embarrassing emotion crosses his face like a reflection in a clear pond. While not his wealth and ease, hardworking Merab also shares Elio’s hopelessly endearing kinetic freshness, dancey and nuzzley with shirts and backpacks forever sliding off his shoulders. To see Merab is to love him, and Irakli, the handsome, dark-eyed newcomer to the national dance academy, sure sees him. Fairly early on, after Merab’s fellow dancer brother totters in late to their shared bedroom with Irakli stumbling behind him, Irakli remarks in the morning that one of the posters above Merab’s bed matches his tattoo, and I about clambered onto my friend next to me in excitement. Because Merab’s tattoo is low on his ribs, under where his arm would fall—Irakli had been looking at him, too. God I love when crushes inadvertently reveal themselves!

That’s rather the tenor of much of this movie, a bunch of beautiful Georgians being delightful. From the look of it this must be a country composed entirely of beauties, every last one a babe. And it’s not coming from dressing elegantly or anything, no one has that kind of money—Akin unobtrusively conveys to an international audience that decades of territory struggles with Russia has left small, modern Georgia a little rundown, with buildings fallen into shabbiness and a luxury like British cigarettes to be doled out like treats, even beyond their actual number (I laughed at this punchline so much, Mary is so great). But we’re also shown what a pretty country this is, rich with green mountains and golden leaves rustling gently on grape vines twining up the balconies of an apartment building. You can tell they shot it all very quickly just by the consistent (and lovely) amber & mist look of autumn.

The short production window was a necessity, as it turns out, as the subject matter had strictly conservative, Christian Georgia balking at letting at them shoot there, so Akin resorted to a semi-guerrilla filming style to make his gay movie anyway. And the risk paid off with a film that feels vibrant and sincere, with an engaging energy that I didn’t find either rushed or dragged, despite the limited amount of footage they had in the edit. Even the balance of dancing scenes is there, with the right amount to make it truly feel about Georgian dance, and the characters’ relationships to it, while still leaving space to be about more than that too. Like Portrait it is largely score-less, most if not all of the music diegetic, but for every live drum beat in dance practice there’s a pop song on a porch, and god bless Georgian-Swedish Levan Akin for being like, let’s put ABBA in here. Let’s put Robyn.

Though the joy and sweetness of this movie does not come without pain as well. The rigidity of the Georgian dance form, seen as a reflection of the strength and purity of Georgian culture, has no room, as Merab is barked at by his teacher, for softness. He is a beautiful dancer, but with a fluidity that strikes the instructors as flouting the ‘masculinity’ that the dance is about. Irakli, by contrast, embodies this sturdier form with an easy grace, and so there is a complex poignancy to the way Merab is drawn to him. And even though Irakli is drawn to him as well, the dangerous homophobia of their community is ever nearby. The first time they touch each other, we can still hear the deep voices of the family patriarchs in the background, holding court around the fire just up the hill. We know and they know that they won’t be allowed to be together here, and especially not in the highly regimented world of Georgian dance, where both are striving to make a career and support their families. In real life, the film’s choreographer is still credited anonymously out of certainty he’d lose his job. But even though this movie honestly represents the heartbreaking reality of the situation, the sadness is not overbearing. There are lights of love and acceptance around Merab too, one of them surprising me and then delivering one of the most tender scenes in the movie.

And I was so proud of how And Then We Danced ended this story. Like Portrait, like CMBYN, it’s not the “happy” ending, but again like Portrait, feeling love can free you all the same. The work of making art is a combination of inspiration and sweat, lit by passion. Merab understands where his is rooted now, and in his final statement, he takes this traditional art form he has devoted himself to for a decade, and gives it a point of view, a breathing life. This is the way forward, and he walks on, out the door into the future.

★★★★½