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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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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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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Movie Monster So White

The greatest threat to movies has always been real life. I’m not talking about cultural trends for once, I’m speaking of my own personal calendar. My tendency is to read at internet pace, but not write at it. And, though some of the clickbait and bias-greasing gallimaufry I read can make that feel smugly like a badge of honor, the tendency can be a tragic flaw, or at least a private shame, when the nominees have not only been good material to write about, but have been—well—good movies.

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I’m going to drop a bombshell here. Of the seven Best Picture contenders I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a single one I didn’t like. I missed Brooklyn, but it was by no means a conscientious objection; at a time when Hollywood is working so hard to use old schmaltz to tug new heartstrings—e.g., L.G.B.T., handicapped, wolf-boy, etc.—it’s almost refreshing to see a “prestige” love story in which the wedge between lovers is that one’s Italian-American and the other Irish. Faith and begorra, they’re both good Catholics!

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A close encounter with some vintage Spielberg, back when he warmed the cockles of my heart rather than compelled my hand to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus a stab at how he and Lucas took over the industry with an alien invasion. Courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

Both Lucas and Spielberg are drawing on different expressions of faith . . . But evangelizing to audiences whose self-image was pulverized by collective failures to do good in this world (whether those failures were wars to contain communism or social movements to promote equality), which in turn translated into serious doubts about rewards in the next, isn’t exactly preaching to the choir. This is where Pop Art kicks in . . .

You can read the full piece here.

H/T to Comfortably Smug.