A while back I started keeping a list of things I’ve learned from movies. Not grand philosophical lessons about life and love and all that, but practical, everyday stuff. Stuff I’ve integrated into my life specifically because I saw it in a movie. When I saw this tweet recently along the same lines, I thought I should share what I’ve accumulated thus far, assuming that I will continue adding to it.
Julianne Moore’s character continues: “That ‘eeeeeeeeee’? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.” Now every time I hear that eeeeeeeeee, I give a silent goodbye to that particular note.
Since becoming a patron of Filmspotting on Patreon, I’ve really enjoyed getting ad-free episodes and participating in the production-related chatter.
Recently they were looking for a clever title for a new segment that would be a chronological retrospective of a filmmaker’s work, in anticipation of revisiting Christopher Nolan’s work before Tenet debuts in July. (Assuming, I guess, that we all won’t still be quarantined.)
A few suggestions popped up: Filmography-spotting, Grand Tour, Box Set. Then I added my own: The Oeuvre-view.
I thought that name would have several merits: it’d be fun to listen to Adam and Josh try to pronounce it each time, ‘view’ is related to ‘spotting’, and its double entendre covers the purpose of the project, which is to provide an overview of a filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Cut to yesterday as I listened to the latest episode and heard my name mentioned, along with the fact that Oeuvre-view was the chosen one!
Adam wondered if the title was meant as a joke, but let me reassure you that I consider thinking up punny titles for things my solemn duty. Regardless, I’m honored it was selected and excited for the segment in general.
If you don’t already listen to Filmspotting, get on that. It’s great for both hardcore cinephiles and casual viewers looking for a deeper appreciation of movies old and new.
My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)
There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.
Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.
At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.
That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.
This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.
Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)
That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.
Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.
10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.
8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?
7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.
6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.
5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.
4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.
2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.
1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.
Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The Farewell, Us, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird
Favorite non-2019 films:
The Big Country Hard Eight Jackie Brown Minding the Gap A Clockwork Orange Saturday Night Fever Swingers Cold War The Talented Mr. Ripley The Wages of Fear
Every other activity included in the survey—including movies, sporting events, zoos, national parks, and museums—charges admission fees. If all of them were free to access, would there be a different #1?
Maybe not, because another asset for libraries in this regard is their multitude of offerings for every conceivable demographic and interest. Libraries are for everyone, and “everyone” has a different reason for going to the library.
Libraries and movie theaters are both competing with streaming services and other entertainment sources for people’s attention, but theaters don’t provide internet access or storytimes or computer classes or study rooms, etc. etc. (And I say that as a cinephile and librarian, whose ideal day would be comprised exclusively of eating, visiting a library, and going to the movies.)
I’m not sure how the disparity in library use between men and women bears out in my own library, but my sense is the difference isn’t as large as the survey indicates.
Based on my son’s enjoyment of our library’s storytime, I know which activity he’d pick:
William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.
But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.
This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.
But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.
It doesn’t work. Says McKay:
You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.
He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.
He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.
We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.
They finally wear each other out. McKay:
Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?
This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.
There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.
Booksmart, the directorial debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, was charming as hell.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, two friends and straight-A students on the eve of high school graduation who realize their academic drive kept them from enjoying the more party-heavy pursuits of their peers. They seek to remedy this in one night, pursuing their crushes along the way.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
If you’ve heard of this movie, you’ve probably heard it compared to 2007’s Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (Feldstein’s real-life older brother). The two movies do share a setting, concept, and R-rated comedic sensibility. But there’s more to Booksmart than hijinks.
Wilde’s script, in conjunction with the natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, brings the film to depths of character, understanding, and humor that’s rare in debut features and in movies about teens. When we meet them, Molly and Amy share a goofy and loving rapport. But as their one wild night progresses with mounting setbacks, detours, and stresses, cracks appear in their relationship. This culminates in a fierce and painfully public confrontation, which is stunningly captured by Wilde’s enveloping camerawork and adept use of the soundtrack.
Still, it is a comedy, and an often absurd one as a fish-out-of-water story with razor-sharp leads.Similarities to Superbad aside, I find it more akin to 2017’s Lady Bird in its depiction of the experience of young women striving against strictures—imposed by themselves or others—and arriving at a hard-won honesty. Not always with grace, but definitely with admirable wherewithal and wit.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my own high school experience while watching this film. Though I wasn’t bound for the Ivy League like the girls of Booksmart, I never attended or got invited to the kinds of parties I so often see on screen. (Thus I don’t know if they’re even accurate. Are unsupervised, red Solo cup ragers at nice houses actually a thing?) As an introverted and mostly well-behaved Christian boy, I considered sex, drugs, and drinking taboo, which is how I usually found myself hanging out with my church youth group friends on Friday nights.
It was a lot more fun than it sounds. We goofed off, played games, pranked each other. Though my horizons broadened in college and beyond, I’m grateful for that experience throughout high school. It kept me out of trouble and showed me you don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.
Booksmart shows this too. Though focused on their maniacal pursuit of what they imagine will be a fulfilling rite of passage, the film takes care to show Molly and Amy before the plot ensues loving their cloistered friendship. The subsequent developments they experience together only strengthen their existing bond, which will be helpful as they transition into adulthood.
High school friendships don’t often make that transition, but the film is hopeful about this one. And I’m hopeful whatever comes next for Wilde as a filmmaker and Feldstein and Dever as performers will match what they’ve done with Booksmart.
I’ve mentioned the podcast This Movie Changed Me before. In its new season, Naomi Alderman talks about how the transformation of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day inspired her to look at the world differently. Once in a while she’ll experience what she calls a “benediction”:
I will suddenly become aware of the incredible beauty and richness of everything around me. So I would look at a brick wall and suddenly be completely struck by the difference and the there-ness, the this-ness, of every single brick in that wall and how much has gone into just even creating that single wall, and then, look — someone’s put windows in there. And look at the plants — there’s a little bee that just buzzed past me. And when you look at the world that way, when you look at the world with Phil Connors’s eyes, when you go right through the sense of ennui, through the despair, right through to the other side, and all you can see is how amazing it is to just be allowed to be alive right now.
As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.
Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:
I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.
(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)
My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.
I can certainly sympathize with the people driven away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.
For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.
The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”
A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.