Summer Medley

Trying to pack in a few thoughts, like cans in a cooler. You can stack them only so delicately, as they sweat through your palms; they are in a hurry to get to the beach, and so are you. Unless you are of a spiritual bent, beaches, like moribund movie houses, are among the few places left to us in which time dilates, either oversaturated by sun or untouched by it. You can’t even get New York Times push alerts in these dwindling temples against time.


Bless the summer, but it isn’t a refuge. I stumbled upon a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture, the weekend after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. In an open society, the Peruvian writer maintains, “culture should exert an influence over political life, submitting it to a continual critical evaluation and inculcating it with values to prevent it from becoming degraded.”

It’s been pablum for decades that the American left wins at culture and the right wins at politics. But what may have once looked like a stalemate now seems a divorce, with the right not accepting the alimony the left insists on paying. The left, operating out in the open because it has a product that can sell—in terms of its vision and policies—is disadvantaged by the right, which prefers to do its work in the shadows, shoring up its power outside the electoral process, and seeing to it that one’s vote counts less and less as those who’d vote against it account for a larger share of the electorate.

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Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet is a name the mouth pulls on, like the sweet edge of a lollipop. In Call Me by Your Name, he is the beautifying mirror that reflects, in embarrassing detail, the savorings of everyone’s first lust. That first bite of the apple consumes him in a way that seems almost invisible to most of the adults; it visits him like an imaginary friend. But Elio has that luxury of youth: to be blinkered. Summer is in his eyes, and that is all he sees.

Luca Guadagnino, the director, coaxes us onto the chaise, and feeds us this summer the way a Roman sybarite was fed grapes. Though set in Northern Italy, in 1983, the film uses the recent past as a cover for timelessness. The neon era is honeyed, synthetic fashions brought back to earth. Guadagnino and the cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, treat us to a rhapsody in green—a proscenium arch framing ancient passions. Through Elio, we are enticed to bask in the remote sunlight of our memories: The moisture in his eyes is reflective like morning dew. But I think his yearning is also a fig leaf over something these filmmakers value over experience.

The 17-year-old Elio is the wundertwink of Franco-Italo-American-Jewish polyglot polymaths; his father (Michael Stuhlbarg, never given a name to be called by other than Mr. Perlman) seems to be a professor of antiquities who works from home in their villa. Into this academic hen house struts a magnificent rooster, a graduate student whose own origins are similarly ethereal: Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Jewish WASP jock intellectual.

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Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day is prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy about the persistence of nature, no matter how much we industrialize. In the end, with a cackle of thunder, nature comes down in torrents—soaking a bag of money and the corpses of grifters who’d spent the movie failing to launder it. What I liked most about this Chinese animation is that it’s shrouded in night the way that South Park is always covered in snow. The filmmaker, Liu Jian, crawls through that night like that lizard crosses the train tracks. His style bypasses implausibility; the whole vibe is permissively absurd.

Sometimes, it’s a little too casual. As in a Mike Judge cartoon, the only element moving inside any given frame is usually the mouth of whoever is talking—which is to say, droning on in a cynical deadpan. This, plus the strain of keeping track of sometimes crudely drawn figures—the female characters more so than the men—can be disorienting in a way that does not seem intentional. They leap in and out of the plot like dolphins doing flips. To be fair, the bricolage is a pretense for commentary: a kidnapped painter who spends most of the film in the big boss’s trunk doesn’t affect the story, but provides an excuse to bring up Fauvism. Moreover, he shows that even the loftiest professions are snared in the ambience of crime.

Everything seems to be part of the black market here; there’s a bleakness that’s familiar from movies imported from other communist (or formerly communist) regimes: films such as My Joy or Ida. For each of its various thieves, the stolen loot is seen as seed money to mend broken dreams: an escape from industrial ennui. As Jian sees it, Western-style progress only gets us so far. His exteriors have a geometric precision, but the frames pass by languidly enough that one can get lost in the cross-stitched decay.

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Black Panther

Superheroes are a salve for children—traditionally boys—who struggle to integrate into their childhood societies. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that superhero movies have become increasingly central to the plastic cathedral of American pop culture during the same years that American boyhood has consumed much of what was once, by the lights of biology, considered to be manhood. Nor does it seem a coincidence that, in those same years, men’s feeling of enfranchisement in adult society has decayed.

Disenfranchisement is, of course, a wound of literal rather than figurative consequence in this country for women, black people, and both. The appeal of Black Panther is in watching the metronome ticking between revolution and inclusion rustle the wrappers of a Happy Meal. It asks questions at the bottom of political distinctions through the sleek music of African accents, which dignify the stiff lines only half as well as Daniel Kaluuya withdraws the wings of his devotion. His eyelashes, like stage-curtain tassels, brush Chadwick Boseman aside. Boseman wears his pride in his bones.

On occasion, Ryan Coogler finds set pieces that live up to the power of his ideas: Michael B. Jordan, as the warrior-king Killmonger, returning to his childhood home in an Oakland project, at the exact moment his younger self discovered his father dead, has a doleful magic. There’s an essential unprofanity to Jordan which makes him impossible to not take seriously, even if Killmonger’s grievances are too notional. Boseman, the superhero king, on his own vision quest, pieces together the tragedy on Killmonger’s behalf; his outrage over a displaced father figure abandoning a son seems pointed. The Black Panther himself is probably the only one whose motives aren’t telegraphed. In a Marvel movie, profundity is only cape-deep.

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Oscar Hangover: 2018

As the Motion Picture Academy’s pick for Best Picture of 2017, The Shape of Water is a perfect compromise: it’s a movie by a prominent Latin American director about the liberation of characters of all backgrounds—from gay to invertebrate. My own favorite nominee was that perverted Pygmalion and ballet of midinettes, Phantom Thread; Get Out was a solid runner-up, and deserved its win for Best Original Screenplay. However, Water being fluid, it was naturally the most intersectional choice: watching Guillermo del Toro brandish his trophy was even a triumph for nerds and weirdos.

Winners and losers notwithstanding, permit me to leak a few thoughts.

As a human being, I strongly support equality of opportunity. As a critic, I do not—and should not—support equality of outcome. And I use “critic” in place of a mindset, not to mean someone who diddles about movies on the Antarctica of the Internet. I’m not persuaded that any work of art is good simply on the grounds that it was made by or about a minority group.

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Academy Rewards: 2018

The Academy Awards have always straddled the awkward space between creativity and competition. When the institution was formed, 90 years ago, the “creatives” were basically race horses; it was their breeders—the studio heads—who coveted the trophies. Even as the studio system crumbled, and talent found empowerment through agents and became managers of their personal brands, the breeders’ vision won out: the thoroughbreds crave the carrots, but those who feed them now crave—and covet—their respect.

There’s a lot riding on those carrots. To some degree, the left carps about the legitimacy of the Oscars until those statues reflect their agenda in the same way that Donald Trump gloats about his role in the booming market until stock prices go bust. But his office serves to illustrate the grim reality of our moment: the entertainment industry represents American thought more accurately than our elected officials do. Just as the state of California is a bellwether for political trends, Hollywood is the driver of our culture.

It’s a peculiarly American tragicomedy that the places where our laws get written lag far behind the city where our screenplays do. But I hesitate to escalate that condition to tragic because many of the people writing those screenplays regard this as a problem, too. There are exceptions, of course. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies rewrite the past for the sake of enacting his fantasies in the same way that cable news and the Web warp the present. Winking at alternative facts is a complacency that becomes a black eye in light of the challenges that liberal democracies are now facing.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It was a luxury to have ever believed in heightening the contradictions. For some fraction of the population, which skews neither evil nor good, but is large enough to punch above its weight, the unconscious objective of life is to wash its hands of any guilt or responsibility, whether they are soiled or not. This strikes me as a weakness, even if it bolsters their strength.

There’s a special place in hell for those on one end of this spectrum: the Wayne LaPierres who whip up resentment to burnish the sales of guns or the Dinesh D’Souzas and Alex Joneses who blind themselves to the actual, provable, visceral suffering of others, like the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, who have been heroically vocal about their losses and their proximate cause: guns. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, an emergency-responder acquaintance of mine who resides in the rural South, and believes the line that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a firearm brandished by himself. I trust his good intentions, and so does he, and my point isn’t that we’re allergic to reasoning. But a million invidious arguments will land on him before I’m allowed a word in edgewise. You can chose your culture, but not pick your society.

It would be missing the point of Star Wars: The Last Jedi to preface a review with hopelessness. If anything, it proves the same point the Parkland, Fla., students do: that the kids are all right. And yet it seemed significant, in a way that was difficult to articulate then, that its long-awaited prequel, The Force Awakens, had arrived at the ramp-up to the 2016 election.

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