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.

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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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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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The Shape of Water

Although set in Baltimore, in 1962, The Shape of Water has a Continental feel. It has that specifically French sensibility that Up had, embracing the absurd with a spring in its step, savoring the abyss like a nice pâté. In my opinion, the director, Guillermo del Toro, spreads it on a little thick; some of the elements don’t mix well. But, by and large, it’s engrossing. The film rides out its flaws on a wave of whimsy. It runs on the goofball charm that only a kid who grew up shipping Fay Wray from the original King Kong with the creature from the black lagoon would ever dare to muster.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) gets by in a demimonde of lost souls, a menagerie of otherness that consists of Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay artist neighbor; Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her protective and opinionated black co-worker at a research institute, where they work the night shift as housekeepers; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy. As an infant, Elisa’s voice box was torn out in an act of abuse; she acquires outcast status by being a mute. They’re all repressed, but only in the outside world: Elisa includes in her daily routine a little “self-care” in the tub. (As a period piece, Shape isn’t too credible, as this omen of sexual liberation adduces.) When the outside world barges in, it’s in the person of Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon). He delivers a captive to the institute: a merman played by Doug Jones.

Intellectually, it’s a clever idea to merge monster movies with fairy tales. In a sense, it was there all along: as early as King Kong’s obituary. But I think del Toro is juking social commentary out of drive-in pictures from the Nuclear Age, movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). (These films channeled anxieties so bluntly that it was less like subtext and more like propaganda.) It doesn’t take any media-studies courses to glean that del Toro’s intention is to show that Strickland is the real monster, and the baddest monster of them all is America’s obsession with conformism and upward mobility. This, more than the film’s influences or poetic distance, justifies the retrograde timeframe: upward mobility, identity, and income inequality are rather sore subjects in the America of 2018.

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Moonlight

This one’s a stretch. It’s been a year since I saw Moonlight, so this is less a review than a remembrance. And yet its impressions flooded back to me this morning, clear as the moon’s pull on the tides. In overarching terms, I think it’s slightly less consistent than my other favorite movie from 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s film was wrong for the political moment—far enough removed from contention that even Warren Beatty’s interns wouldn’t have slipped its name in the envelope. Honestly, though, the comparison is unfair: Manchester is a work of naturalism, operating under the established rules of tragedy; Moonlight is a tone poem. While the former sustains a mood, the latter resonates in an array of chords.

Let me first dispense with my criticisms. The arc of the screenplay, written by the director, Barry Jenkins, but originating from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical material—both artists are black and openly gay—rests a little heavily on certain liberal assumptions. We are shown Chiron through three successive phases of his young life. In each he’s played by a different actor (who was not given access to his colleagues’ performances).

What’s missing is the transition between Act II, when the tender teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) gets betrayed and takes vengeance on his bullies, and Act III, where he’s a thug (Trevante Rhodes) packing heat in Hotlanta. This is normally the connective tissue that tragedies serve as the meat: the space between Michael Corleone bumping off Sollozzo and decapitating all of his rivals. While it may not have been the filmmakers’ intention for us to view this rupture as a lacuna, it takes too long to locate the scrawny kid tucked between Rhodes’s triceps. Maybe the reference points I’m missing are meant to be filled in by black experience—by a logic I’m not privy to. That would be artistically questionable, if politically ambitious.

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