The Dead Don’t Die

It’s become the Mother of All Clichés: “We’ve all seen this movie before.” Ever since the news became an adjunct to the entertainment industry, it has spun out realities shaped like movie plots. And the newsmakers, the shapers of our reality, have given up any pretense that they think in other terms. Yeah, we’ve all seen this “movie” before—whether it’s The Day After Tomorrow or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Handmaid’s Tale—and yet we can’t turn it off. It just keeps repeating, to our enervated dismay.

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie movie in 2019, which is to say, it is itself an undead specimen. That one young-ish character equates Jay Gatsby with Robert Redford rather than Leonardo DiCaprio is indication enough that the director precipitates this time warp only half-consciously. “This isn’t gonna end well” is Police Deputy Adam Driver’s mantra. It turns out that this isn’t a premonition—he cops to having read the script. If only it had reminded him that the fourth wall was already broken long ago, by such obscurities as Mel Brooks. Even if the dead don’t die, jokes can.

Truth be told, I’ve always had some affection for Jarmusch’s work, for his almost ascetic dedication to never going the extra mile. In a sense, he has been making zombie movies for his whole career. Driver notices a special plot for children in a cemetery and asks his superior, Bill Murray, why it’s there. “Some 19th-century thing,” he shrugs. That caliber of repartee—that commitment, on the writer-director’s part, to not consulting Siri for the correct answer—takes about as much effort as spelling “D.G.A.F.”

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Since I didn’t get you anything for Christmas, here are a few thoughts to shop around at holiday parties: mementos from another year biting the dust: one that’s been pretty good for movies, and I haven’t even gotten to some of the big-ticket items yet: Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk . . .

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and this is not special pleading, since I don’t meant to suggest that he has it worse than anyone else) is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. … Of the traditional attitudes there are only two—For and Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better than no change at all.

-James Baldwin, 1955

I had decided to bone up on Baldwin’s essays before seeing Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Beale Street, and found myself awed and ashamed: 63 years ago he’d stolen my thunder, articulated the thesis I wanted to make here.

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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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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 dance of midinettes, Phantom Thread; Get Out was a solid runner-up, and deserved its win for Best Original Screenplay. [Future Reference: I had yet to see Call Me by Your Name when I wrote this post, but it gave those two movies some stiff competition.] However, Water, like gender, is fluid, and 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 is by or about an underprivileged group.

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The Disaster Artist

The second best decision that James Franco made for The Disaster Artist was casting himself as Tommy Wiseau; his best decision was casting his younger brother, Dave, as Greg Sestero. More than an imitation, the elder Franco hints at this slum-rat showbiz Frankenstein’s motivations, which is remarkable considering that these actor-filmmakers—both Wiseau and Franco—spray mace in the eyes of anyone who peers into their souls.

Greg, however, is an open book. No doubt this wide-eyed quality, which is stuck on him like a sheet of paper that says “Kick me, I’m gullible,” is what turned these strangers in a San Francisco acting class into collaborators in Hollywood. Acting is a dream for Greg, by which I mean it is an aspiration but also a fantasy; someone like Tommy, whose performance style brings to mind a James Dean that was raised by orangutans, might look, to virgin eyes, like an unsung master. Greg skips college and moves to L.A. with his indeterminately older and inexplicably wealthy friend. I’m tempted to call this dude Tommy’s “straight man,” but that’s not altogether clear.

As a love letter to playacting for its own sake, featuring theater people who are older, and presumably hungrier, versions of Lady Bird’s dorky friends, The Disaster Artist is very pleasing. Los Angeles, ever its own most ruthless villain, isn’t the soul-crusher or ball-buster it gets pigeonholed as, nor is it only worth the trouble if you make it big—like the darling dreamers in La La Land. As Jacki Weaver puts it, portraying one of the community-theater stalwarts who lands a role in Tommy’s 2003 cult classic The Room, “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day in reality.” Issued from a working actress who’s no closer to the pearly gates of Beverly Hills than a kid growing up in Hell, Mich., it’s a touching sentiment.

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Blade Runner 2049

Of course, Blade Runner 2049 “bombed” in its first weekend. ($31.5 million can buy you a lot of explosive devices.) The original Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, was both a box-office and critical disappointment. It took almost a decade for Scott to recoup his reputation, and probably longer than that for the movie to achieve its present eminence.

But that’s all past, and I’d like to dwell on how futures change. We love to catch up on futurists’ predictions; it’s like a retrospective test on another moment’s imagination. In some ways, Scott’s vision has proven itself more ridiculous than that of Fritz Lang, who’d at least had the good sense to set Metropolis a century in the future. Scott only leapfrogged 37 years—to the almost-tangible 2019—and yet limned a City of Angels that’s overrun with gargoyles. He transformed the sine qua non of late-20th-century exurban sprawl into a plaque of scrap-metal trenches: a reverse biosphere belching exhaust and throttling anything organic. Structures that look like they’d have taken three decades to build seem to have been derelict for twice that long. To be fair, seven years after New York City teetered on bankruptcy, it would have been impossible to imagine the next generation coveting New Urbanism, or that dreams of public transit would supplant those of flying cars. Scott transferred gentrification “off-world” and off-screen.

Like Back to the Future II, however, for all that Blade Runner got wrong about the nuts-and-bolts of 2010s technology, it got a lot right intuitively, and this is expressed in visual terms. It’s difficult to make the experience of social media cinematic; to my knowledge, nobody but Spike Jonze has seriously tried. But Scott’s future is nonetheless evocative of our present, at least on a symbolic level. Prison-camp searchlights invade apartments like laser sights on rifles, anticipating the decay of privacy and personal space. Airborne neon billboards foghorn sales pitches from Atari, Pan American, and Coca Cola, anticipating ads that don’t intrude upon our homes as noise pollution, but which we invite in with our personal devices. Scott augured global warming by presenting L.A. as drenched in rain; it’s a painful irony to behold when much of California has been engulfed in flames.

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The Little Hours

The two best things in The Little Hours, among many, many good ones, are Aubrey Plaza’s provocations and Dave Franco’s reactions. The latter plays a peasant who flees his manor after being caught in a tryst with its horny chatelaine. He takes refuge at a convent, where he quenches the thirst of its repressed residents. Cloaked in her habit, Plaza has the enigmatic glare of a Madonnaseething at a distance. The second she’s wrested from a moment of reflection, she becomes fiercely present and goes medieval. If Franco resembles a work of art, it’s because he’s ripped like the cover of a paperback. He has the four-pack of a Fabio and eyes that are equal parts amused and bemused by the attention that endowment brings.

Taking off from a 14th-century farce by Boccaccio, Jeff Baena’s direction and Quyen Tran’s photography stick to the period, continuously refreshing the joke: the dialogue and performances are profanely contemporary. The director’s screenplay eschews slang and modern references, so the central anachronism is the premise itself: that nuns in a convent would have all the itches and urges of bunkmates at a summer camp, their superiors no closer to God than a counselor-in-training. Blasphemy is just an ancestor of teen angst; torture a detention; and fornication a broken curfew.

If the movie itself is blasphemous, it is because it assumes that those who were drawn to the monastic life weren’t all saints; many weren’t drawn at all, but pulled in like workers consigned to middle management. (Alison Brie plays a preppy nun who’s stranded in celibacy because her dadPaul Reiser in a nifty cameobribes the Church with donations. Later on, Fred Armisen shows up as the frazzled bureaucrat who accepts the kickbacks.) But that is the extent of the clerical satire. Mostly, it’s carnal mischiefthe kind of vibe that used to be called “naughty” by people who don’t get out muchwith a pace that rolls like the Tuscan pastures, and leisurely performances from comedic actors at the top of their game.

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