Category Archives: Film

Better Living Through Criticism

better-livingI’ve been a fan of A.O. Scott since his too-short time co-hosting At the Movies with Michael Phillips, which was my favorite post-Ebert iteration of the show. Their tenure was a salve after the brief and forgettable stint of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Phillips and Scott brought a benevolent wonkiness to the show I greatly enjoyed and mourned when it was axed.

So I was quite pleased to read A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, which is not as self-helpy as it sounds, mercifully. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite of self-help, a genre hell-bent on offering surefire prescriptions for every psychological impediment blocking our true greatness within. Scott is far less strident. He avoids making grand declarations about The Purpose of Criticism, much to the chagrin of grand declarers. All the better. To me, criticism is not about conquering artistic foes or achieving certainty, but about making sense of what goes on inside our heads and hearts when we encounter something beautiful, pleasurable, or truthful — or all (or none) of the above.

The book ambles towards answers to the pointed questions I’m sure Scott receives often: What are critics for? Are critics relevant anymore? One purpose for critics he lands on is to be people “whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” This is absolutely true, as is its inverse of steering others away. Many movies that I expected to be worthwhile ended up being duds, and the critical consensus that bubbled up before their opening weekends helped convince me to wait for the Redbox or to avoid them altogether.

Conversely, without Bilge Ebiri’s incessant cheerleading for The Lego Movie before it came out in early 2014, I would have assumed it was another cheap kids movie and not a hilarious and surprisingly profound meditation on creativity and identity. Ditto Brooklyn, which I expected to be another overwrought, Oscar-baity period drama but in fact nearly brought this non-crier-at-movies to tearsCritics matter, even when I disagree with them (cough Carol cough).

Scott also feels duty-bound as a critic “to redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In either instance, though, whether we’re cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment.” The calling attention to is big: a recent example is last year’s Tangerine, a tiny indie I wouldn’t have given a chance without wide and persistent acclaim from the bevy of critics I admire and follow just so I can get scoops like that.

“Redirecting enthusiasm” might also be considered a challenge to “swim upstream”: to seek out the earlier, influential works that laid the groundwork for whatever we’re watching, listening to, reading now. American culture’s on-demand, presentist bias deprives us of decades of good art, whose only crime is not being made right this live-tweetable second. The critic who compares a new film to an older one, favorably or otherwise, provides context for readers but also a tacit clue that checking out that older film might be worthwhile. The upside of our appified age is that finding those forgotten gems has never been easier: getting upstream is as easy as visiting your local library, Amazon, or streaming service.

But what I consider the most compelling reason for the critic’s job might be their most self-interested one. Scott quotes the ever-quotable critic H.L. Mencken, who wrote the motive of the critic who is really worth reading is “no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.”

The process of making an articulate noise about something is the point, I think. It’s where a writer lives most of the time, engaging in a back-and-forth with the work and with himself until he lands on something approximating the truth of his experience. To that end, Scott writes, the history of criticism is the history of struggle. This book embodies that struggle literally: Scott engages in four interstitial dialogues, wherein he banters with an unnamed interlocutor (or inner critic?) who could also stand in as the aggrieved audience, demanding that Scott justify his existence.

I know this combat comes with the job, but the hostility critics in general receive baffles me. There’s way too much out there to see, read, and hear for one person to sort through. “This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism,” he writes, “which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper to our beiseged sensoria.” Having professional curators with unique, informed, and enthusiastic taste is a good thing, not something to scoff at or claim is irrelevant in the age of Rotten Tomatoes.

But if you think a critic is wrong and want to tell him why, congratulations! You’re now a critic and are obligated to say more.

Anyway, good on Scott for driving this conversation, and for holding his ground against Samuel L. Jackson.

Adventures in Logbooking

Looking at my logbook, I noticed that I recently had a string of four starred books or movies in a row, the longest streak yet. (It would have been five in a row had I seen Brooklyn before Love & Mercy, which I liked a lot but not star-liked.)

749 Typewriter Revolution, The Richard Polt book 2015 2015 Dec
748 Tangerine Sean S. Baker film 2015 2015 Dec
747 Creed Ryan Coogler film 2015 2015 Dec
746 Winter: Notes from Montana Rick Bass book 1991 2015 Dec

That’s only the second time that’s happened since I started keeping track in 2010. The other was in December 2010:

208 Social Network, The David Fincher film 2010 2010 Dec
207 True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen film 2010 2010 Dec
206 Fighter, The David O. Russell film 2010 2010 Dec
205 Black Swan Darren Aronofsky film 2010 2010 Dec

All four of those films from 2010 made my best-of list that year, and yet I haven’t rewatched any of them besides The Social Network, so I couldn’t say whether they would still remain on my Best of 2010 list if I were to make a new one these five years later. Likewise, Creed and The Typewriter Revolution will make my 2015 lists (with Tangerine just missing the cut), but time will tell if they’ll stay there.

My criteria for earning a star are as diverse as the logbook itself, but my basic interpretation is whether that book or film could end up on my best-of list from whichever year it was made. So both of these streaks could be considered flukes given the inherent subjectivity of star-giving. On the other hand, that both occurred in December makes sense given the abundance of higher quality films in the thick of Oscar season.

With its mix of books and movies, old and new, the 2015 streak seems more unlikely—a conglomeration of providence and serendipity. I’m sure if I were to reread and rematch every movie and book on my list some would lose stars and some would gain them, so I won’t put too much stock in what’s essentially an anomaly. But that’s why I’m glad I started this logging practice: to document a fairly large part of my life, and to catch my first impressions and see how they fare in retrospect.

Still, I found it interesting enough to write a post about, so I have that going for me, which is nice.

Favorite Films, Books, and Albums of 2015

Resurrecting my 2013 choice to include all my best-ofs into one omnilist, here are 15 films, books, and albums I loved from 2015.

Film

1. Brooklyn
There’s a scene about five minutes into Brooklyn that setup the whole film for me. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home. Saoirse Ronan carried this film, and me with it.

2. Spotlight

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (if only for this shot)

4. Creed

5. Slow West (review)

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Books

1. The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (review)
I’m a sucker for concisely written popular histories that uncover forgotten pockets of history and render them understandable and entertaining to the general public. This book does just that. Having read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein last year I was a little better equipped than I otherwise would be when reading about Einstein’s role in this narrative, yet I found Levenson’s distillation of the theories revolving around the Vulcan episode even more accessible than others. I’ve been pimping this one at the library with hopes more people will enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

3. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (review)

4. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (review)

5. The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt (review)

Albums

1. Psalms by Sandra McCracken
“All Ye Refugees” was quite timely this year, given the animus surrounding immigration. It’s heartening to remember public policy need not and should not be influenced solely by politico and demagogues. Though this album is explicitly based on the Psalms, like her previous albums The Builder and the Architect and In Feast or Fallow its blend of modern and ancient style lends it a timeless sound even the irreligious can appreciate.

2. Didn’t He Ramble by Glen Hansard

3. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

4. Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange

5. Strange Trails by Lord Huron

From Chicago, A Brooklyn Homage

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It was a pleasure and an honor to attend Filmspotting’s 2015 Wrap Party at the Mayne Stage on January 9. I’ve been an avid listener for a few years, and finally became a regular donor last year, so with that evening off I jumped at the chance to go to a live show.

A few days before the show they emailed attendees to solicit listener picks for Scene of the Year for possible inclusion in the show. I knew there was a chance they’d read my email or put it on the big screen, but didn’t think much of it. Then suddenly, surprisingly, during the Listeners Picks portion of the show Josh called out my name. Oh shit, I thought. Tyler Greene of WBEZ was sprinting upstairs to where I was in the balcony to hand me the mic, and at once my voice was booming out to the sellout crowd.

With no time to formulate my thoughts, I scrambled to remain articulate about my submission, which was from Brooklyn. My answer is at 1:35:00 in episode #569  (though you should listen to the whole thing and subscribe while you’re at it). I got through it well enough, but I wish I’d recalled more of what I’d submitted in writing:

My scene of the year takes place in a small-town Irish dance hall, not five minutes into the exceptional film Brooklyn. Eilis, soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home.

Anyway, it was a fun night all around. I went alone, but ended up sitting next to two guys with whom I chatted about the year in film. Thanks to the Filmspotting crew and WBEZ for putting on the event, and for manufacturing a podcast that is intelligent, well-rounded, and edited. (Seriously, I can’t overemphasize how wonderful it is that the show is thoughtfully edited and not just a stream of talking.) See you in my iTunes feed.

The Big Short

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The scene in The Big Short that encapsulates the entire sad, tragic, enraging economic failure it covers is a short one. After Lehman Brothers collapses, the dejected horde of laid-off employees are shown streaming out of the building, bewildered and holding their bankers boxes of personal items, as an executive (which in the script is described as “diminutive”) shouts robotically:

“Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press! Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press!”

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but it sure sounds like it could have. The Move along, nothing to see here attitude pretty much sums up the events in the film, and the Great Recession in general. Malfeasant banks, obeisant credit agencies and watchdogs, reckless homebuyers, deceitful executives all agreed there was nothing wrong, that bad things are only done by bad people and not Good Americans just doing their jobs.

I was a junior in college when the crash hit in September 2008, so I was largely (and luckily) isolated from its worst effects. By the time I was looking for a “real” job, after a gap year and two years in grad school, it was 2013 and economic conditions were much more favorable. Still, I remember that time very well: GOP presidential nominee John “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” McCain, the bailout, the bonuses, Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer.

People my age have witnessed many events over the last decade and a half that I think will remain deeply instructive for our foundational understanding of the world: 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church sex abuse, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Trayvon Martin, and the NSA a few among them. Controversies like these often reveal the partisan fault lines that determine what you ought to believe about them, depending on whether your county is red or blue. But to me they all proved, just as The Big Short proves, that the game is rigged, that the truth is not as it is reported to be.

Move along, nothing to see here.

This is a lamentable conclusion. The film dresses it up with good actors delivering savvy exposition at a caper’s pace, but it is there nevertheless. At the heart of this film are farsighted money-men trying to profit off the greed of shortsighted money-men. This makes them no better than Captain Renault in Casablanca, and yet we root for them because they’re not Major Strasser.

I wasn’t planning on getting so down while writing about this film, but the underlying melancholy that pervades it stuck with me, and ought to. Perhaps that’s why I responded to this much more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which treads similar territory yet repulsed me. (I get that Scorsese was trying to do that: congrats, I feel disgusted by Belfort and his life; now I will never watch it again.) The Big Short made me understand and made me give a damn; The Wolf of Wall Street spat in my face. Who would have thought Adam McKay would create a more well-rounded take on American avarice than Martin Scorsese?

Love & Mercy

As biopics go, Love & Mercy is more interesting than most. I liked how the two arcs and time periods of Brian Wilson’s life start off on their own but then slowly merge like converging highways. Having ’90s Brian in our heads as we watch ’60s Brian slowly devolve personally and psychologically, even as he peaks musically and famously, lends more dramatic irony to the film. Most Beach Boys fans probably already knew Wilson recovered and returned to music, but the film doesn’t let on until the credits (and fanboy postscript).

As for the Pet Sounds sessions, at times the process of inspiration to execution took on the feel of the movie version of Jersey Boys, where someone would say offhand “Big girls don’t cry…” and then we’d see the proverbial lightbulb over Valli’s head, and then cut to the band singing the fully formed “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I suppose it’s just an efficient way to signify the creative process, but it’s also a bit disingenuous. Lightbulb moments do happen, but shotgun songwriting in my experience tends to be the exception and not the rule.

The movie luckily doesn’t overuse that trope; indeed, it dedicates good time to watching Wilson “compose” the album via the many studio musicians and strange new sounds. And the subsequent self-doubt and uneasiness about the album’s prospects for success will ring true to any musician or artist venturing into unorthodox grounds.

I’m grateful, above all, that it didn’t go full-bio. We learn just enough about Wilson’s upbringing to provide context for the story; and we see just enough of Older Brian to get a sense of his nadir. Put those two halves together and you’ve got a story that says more than if they were to actually include more.

More of that, please.

Sidenote: Paul Giamatti is a national treasure. He can be likably flawed (John Adams, Win Win), a colorful character actor (Saving Private Ryan, Parkland), and total sleezeball or straight-up villain, as he is in Love & Mercy and 12 Years A Slave. (Also, his middle names are Edward and Valentine, apparently. If he were around in the 1930s and ’40s he could have gone by Eddie Valentine and been a badass Edward G. Robinson doppelgänger. Come to think of it, he is today’s Edward G. Robinson.)

The Hunt for Vulcan

I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.

“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.

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Citizenfour

The hotel’s fire alarm testing in Citizenfour = the nighttime controlled explosions in Force Majeure.

I wonder how well this documentary would work with someone who knew nothing of Edward Snowden, who wasn’t aware of the NSA leak when it happened and its subsequent firestorm. Without knowing that context ahead of time and carrying it through the viewing, I doubt the scenes of Snowden in the hotel room breaking down his documents and sharing his (quite poised) reasons for whistleblowing would carry the same weight.

The flipside of that is, remembering that time very clearly and still harboring animosity for the skullduggery Snowden revealed, I thought it was gripping. Poitras’s footage allows us to be present at the epicenter of the hurricane, before and after the public learned of “Ed” Snowden and his very deliberate actions. It’s like a zoomed-in photo negative. Recommended.

Closing the Almanac

Marty_almanac-1955

On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future

The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over [1]. There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:

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