Blog about a list of films included in Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen”

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Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” is collected in Writers, a book available in English translation by Katina Rogers from Dalkey Archive Press.

Writers is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years: unsettling, bizarre, satirical, and savage, its stories focus on writers who are more than writers: they are would-be revolutionaries and assassins, revolting humans revolting against the forces of late capitalism.

Writers (which I wrote about here) functions a bit like a discontinuous novel that spins its own web of self-references to produce a small large gray electric universe—the Volodineverse, I guess—which we can also see in post-exotic “novels” like Minor Angels and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. 

Volodine’s post-exotic project refers obliquely to the ways in which the late 20th century damns the emerging 21st century. And yet the trick of it all is that the stories and sketches and vignettes seem ultimately to refer only to themselves, or to each other—the world-building is from the interior. This native interiority is mirrored by the fact that many of his writer-heroes are prisoners communicating from their cells, often to interrogators, but just as often to an unresponsive void.

“The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” takes place in such a void, a kind of limbo into which the (anti-)hero Maria Three-Thirteen speaks herself into existence. It’s an utterly abject existence; Maria Three-Thirteen crouches naked like “a madwoman stopped before the unknown, before strangers and nothingness, and her mouth and her orifices unsealed after death…all that remains for her is to speak.” She speaks to a semi-human tribunal, a horrorshow, creatures “without self-knowledge.” After several paragraphs of floating abject abstraction, Maria eventually illustrates her thesis—an evocation of speech without language, speech in a deaf natural voice–to this audience.

Her illustration is a list of scenes from 20th-century films.

I found this moment of the story initially baffling—it seemed, upon first reading, an utter surrender to exterior referentiality on Volodine’s part, a move inconsistent with the general interiority of Writers. Even though the filmmakers alluded to made and make oblique, slow, often silent, often challenging (and always beautiful) films, films aesthetically similar to Volodine’s own project, I found Volodine’s gesture too on-the-nose: Of course he’s beholden to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr!

Rereading the story, and rereading it in the context of having read more of Volodine’s work, I take this gesture as the author’s recognition of his aesthetic progenitors. Volodine here signals that the late 20th-century narrative that most informs his work is cinema—a very specific kind of cinema—and not per se literature.

This reading might be a misreading on my part though. Maybe Volodine simply might have wanted to make a list of some of his favorite scenes from some of his favorite films, and maybe Volodine might have wanted to insert that list into a story. And it’s a great list. I mean, I like the list. I like it enough to include it below. I have embedded the scenes alluded to where possible, and in a few places made what I take to be worthy substitutions.

Here is Volodine; here is Volodine’s Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking the loud deaf voice—

And now, she begins again, to illustrate, I will cite a few images without words or almost without words, several images that make their deaf voice heard. You know them, you have certainly attended cinema showings during which they’ve been projected before you. These are not immobile images, but they are fundamentally silent, and they make their deaf voice heard very strongly.

The chess match with death in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, with, in the background, a procession of silhouettes that undertake the arduous a scent of a hill.

The man on all fours who barks in the mud facing a dog in Damnation by Bela Tarr.

The baby that cries in a sordid and windowless apartment in Eraserhead by David Lynch.

The bare facade of an abandoned apartment building, with Nosferatu’s head in a window, in Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau.

The boat that moves away from across an empty sea, overflowing with cadavers, at the end of Shame by Ingmar Bergman.

The desert landscape, half hidden by a curtain that the wind lifts in Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai.

The early morning travel by handcar, with the regular sound of wheels, in Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The old man with cancer who sings on a swing in Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa.

The blind dwarfs with their enormous motorcycle glasses who hit each other with canes in Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog.

The train station where three bandits wait at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone.

The flares above the river in Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The prairie traveled over by a gust of wind in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.

She is quiet for a moment.

There are many others she thinks. They all speak. They all speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.

 

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Joachim Trier on Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now

Blog about not seeing Darren Aronofsky’s seventh film Mother! in the theater

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I did not see Darren Aronofsky’s seventh feature film Mother! in the theater.

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I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi at the Reitz Union theater at the University of Florida in the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. In my four years attending the University of Florida, I always made a point to go watch the free films the Union’s theater screened. I saw The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas there. I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Memento there, and Harmony Korine’s follow-up to Gummo, the unfortunate Julien Donkey-Boy (Chloe Sevigny ice-skating to Oval’s skittering soundtrack left a permanent mark on my memory). I saw Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me there. I saw a hypnotist there, also. (It was all free, in the sense that no money was required). And, like I said, I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi there.

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I saw Pi with my girlfriend and her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend, who I was starting to be friends with. We—by which I mean my girlfriend and I—loved it; roommate and roommate’s boyfriend hated it. We found this out minutes after leaving the theater. I might have argued for it, using terms like claustrophobia and paranoia and German expressionism; I am the kind of asshole who might have brought up, like, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at this point of my life. The roommate’s boyfriend—who turned out to be and remains to this day one of the greatest friends I’ve ever made—pointed out that the film was silly–self-important, muddled, vague. He may or may not have used the word histrionic.

(He could be entirely right. I’ve never rewatched Pi).

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(I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

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The same roommate’s boyfriend, at this point broken up with the roommate (also no longer the roommate) would have been present at the small-screen screening of Requiem for a Dream held in The House Where We Always Drank Excessively some time in the fall of 2000. We–the ten or maybe twelve of us—did not Drink Excessively during the film, leaving bottles and bongs and etc. largely untouched after the first half hour, our horror slowly growing. This was No Fun. We didn’t talk after, slinking off in the humid Gainesville night. We tacitly agreed not to see each other for at least a week or two.

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Aronofsky’s film The Fountain arrived in the mail on DVD via the mail-DVD service Netflix some time at my house in 2007. The film had a certain mystique to it—it was a boondoggle, an interesting failure, a trial balloon that popped. I recall liking it quite a bit, as I told my wife after she woke up after having fallen asleep thirty minutes into the film.

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(I might have actually watched The Fountain a few times).

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My daughter was an infant when The Wrestler was in theaters. I watched it too via a mail-ordered DVD from Netflix, and thought it was Pretty Good, but no My Cousin Vinny or By the Time the Devil Knows You’re Dead. (Marisa Tomei Forever).

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My son was an infant when Black Swan was in theaters. So again: Netflix DVD, no big screen. My wife liked this one—we both laughed and laughed. At some point, maybe, one of us, getting up to pee or pour another glass of wine or check that a child was tidily asleep—well, I guess we took to it as a kind of histrionic comedy, a comedy-horror. This could be an entirely wrong take, but I don’t know. (I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

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By the time I watched Aronofsky’s sixth film Noah, I had essentially given up on him: I found his films a remarkable mix of camp, melodrama, and repulsion—hard to read, searingly original, visually compelling areas I couldn’t wait to leave. I reviewed Noah on this blog, writing,

Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

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When Mother! (or mother!, as it is sometimes stylized) came out last year I was intrigued, first by the film’s marvelous posters (by James Jean), and then by the advance word on it. Mother! sounded Rosemary’s Baby, but also something like Salo or Irreversible or even Ichi the Killer—something scary and a bit psychotic and divisive and depraved. Something that some folks would certainly hate. But two kids and a job and etc. make a movie hard to grab on the go, and we wanted to see PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread, of course, which is what I think we ended up seeing instead of Mother! Maybe a week or two later at a party, a friend immediately asked me if I had seen Mother! yet. She wanted to talk about it very much. She told me to go see it.

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Mother!: I should have gone to the theater to see Mother!

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We watched Mother! via a streaming service in a very dark room on the largest TV we have ever owned, and I’m sure that this is not even close to what it was like to see the film in the theater. It was great. Great! I should have gone to see Mother! in the theater.

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This blog began with the bestest of best intentions. I was going to write a proper review of Mother!, or not a review so much as a riff, or not so much a riff, really, but rather an appreciation, a take on the feeling of watching Mother!—but when I started writing I realized that I had these other thousand words to write first. And now that I’ve written them, I hate to just delete them—and anyway, it’s only blog. But I mostly see that I’d like to  watch Mother! again before I write about it again.

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Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, etc., June and July 2018 (and an unrelated griffin)

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Grifo de California, 2017 by Walton Ford (b. 1960)

Links to reviews, riffs, etc. I wrote in June and July of 2018–

I continued and then apparently abandoned the silly project of trying to write reviews on every film I watched or rewatched this summer:

I hated both Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist, which I made a bad double feature out of.

I loved Lady Bird though.

I took my son to see Pom Poko in the theater as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 program.

I finally watched David Cronenberg’s film Map to the Stars and was not especially impressed.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 a second time and annotated my original review.

And I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man for the first time in ages and boy is it really really good.

Trying to write about every film I watched what was exhausting and I’m not really sure what I got out of it, if anything. Here are the other films that I remember watching and not writing about:

All eight of the Star Wars films, again, sort of, with my kids.

Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)—bought a new TV for the first time in eleven years and used this film to test the screen. Ended up watching it twice.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)—another one I watched with the kids, although I’m not sure it was for them. It wasn’t for me. A lot of wasted potential in this one.

The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)—I think this one holds up well. I remember renting it for 99 cents from the Hollywood Video next to my apartment in Gainesville, FL in 1997 and thinking it was a work of genius.

Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazkai, 1997)—in the theater for the first time, again as part of Ghibli Fest 2018. I wrote about the film here a few years ago.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014). Watched it again last night on Netflix. I wrote about it here. I like a film that is basically a mood.

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I finally read George Eliot’s longass wonderfulass novel Middlemarch  this summer. I wrote about wanting to reread it from about halfway through 

I also wrote about finishing Middlemarch, but edited out a few paragraphs about how much the last paragraphs of Eliot’s novel reminded me of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

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In what is either strange felicity or my need to connect everything to Whitman, I did connect the end of Song to one of Denis Johnson’s posthumous stories, the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. 

Writing about “Largesse” was the first of an intended five part series on each of the stories in Johnson’s last book; I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here and “Strangler Bob” here. (Links to the full texts of those stories are in each of those pieces, by the way).

I recycled a review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile after I saw its new cover in a Charleston bookstore.

I also wrote about how weak and ineffectual I think George Saunders’ “satire” of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is. I see Saunders’ piece as part of an obsolete postmodernist mode that cannot viscerally engage the emerging zeitgeist. I wrote,

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

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The Elephant Man (Summer Film Log)

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I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) last night for the first time in at least a decade (likely more than a decade). The Elephant Man is not my favorite Lynch film to rewatch, perhaps because it is his most realistic film despite its fantastic touches.

The Elephant Man is emotionally devastating, propelled by naturalistic performances unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre. Lynch teases the titular elephant man’s hideous countenance for the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, but when we finally see John Merrick (played by an unrecognizable John Hurt), we feel only pity for his circumstance and contempt for a world that can’t accept him.

Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) shares that mix of pity and contempt. Treves is the surgeon who moves Merrick from his freakshow prison to a respectable London hospital, where the young man can finally find some measure of comfort in his own skin. Away from his former handler, the sadistic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), young Merrick quickly becomes an aesthete, the toast of London society.

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Merrick’s hospital suite becomes an artiste’s garret, where he builds a model of a nearby cathedral and takes tea with a famous actress. However, a cruel night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) intrudes into this peace, selling tipsy gawkers tickets to see the elephant man in his new minor paradise. While Jim’s invasions are horrifying, more subtly terrible is the notion that Dr. Treves himself is simply recapitulating the freakshow, only this time to a “higher society” — a sin that Ms. Mothershead, the ward’s head nurse, warns Treves against. She serves as the moral anchor of the film, proclaiming that care and attention—bathing, feeding, cleaning—are the truest forms of “love.”

Despite its subject matter, The Elephant Man is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward, even traditional film (this estimation includes The Straight Story (1999)). The plot is ultimately a character study of a lonely man who craves not wholesale acceptance or dramatic love but simple friendship. The emotional crux of The Elephant Man rests in Treves’ reticence to truly befriend his patient, a reticence Lynch refuses to resolve.

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We feel pity for Merrick, but as his social status swells into a surreal ironic infamy, we feel a second pity—the fame goes to his head. Hurt portrays these strange emotional swings through thick layers of makeup, aided by Lynch’s impeccable framing and Freddie Francis’ dreamy black and white cinematography. (Francis served as cinematographer on Lynch’s next film, 1984’s Dune, as well as the aforementioned The Straight Story). Lynch’s sound design is haunting, but not as proficient as later efforts—too reliant on flange and echo, the sound design often subtracts through addition.

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Visually, The Elephant Man plants seeds for any number of Lynchian set pieces to come. The nightworld Lynch creates for poor Merrick to endure repeats throughout his oeuvre, notably in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-2017). Michael Elphick’s night porter Jim is particularly sinister, a proto-Frank Booth. Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes is a loathsome first copy of Baron Harkonnen from Dune. It’s all quite horrifying.

Lynch always tempers the dark with the light. The subtle supernatural touches in The Elephant Man—halos and orbs, night spectacles, bewitched paintings—are motifs that repeat throughout his work. So much of The Elephant Man’s DNA is in Twin Peaks, and perhaps my favorite thing about watching it—aside from the rich blacks and grays and lights—was how much it evoked for me Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return—the best thing I saw on a screen last year.

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Lynch finds light in life’s grotesque pageant, and this strange light is what colors The Elephant Man as such an intensely meaningful film. Merrick is more than a freak, but also more than a human—Lynch refuses to show his title character’s humanity as a series of banal platitudes. Such a representation would not be true to human nature. And in the end, The Elephant Man is about human nature, or, more importantly, one real fantastic unreal human.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, very late at night. I am indebted to the archive Film Grab as the source of the images used in this post.

19 annotations on an old review of Blade Runner 2049 (Summer Film Log)

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I recently rewatched Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) on a large television screen via a streaming service, breaking the viewing of this nearly three-hour long film into two nights.

I wrote a lengthy review of Blade Runner 2049 when it came out last year. The review ran over 3,000 words. I won’t repost all of them here, but instead quote from the review and add a few notes on the experience of a second viewing. The bits from the original review are indented, like this—

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. 1

1 A second viewing reconfirms this thesis for me. The film’s final moments are ambiguous for the audience—does K live or not? How does Ana Stelline receive Deckard? The film consoles the anxiety of this ambiguity by giving us an image of K in pain but also in peace. K is reconciled to not knowing.

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…K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb).2

2 I get what Leto was doing more on a second viewing. His highly-artificial yet often over-dramatic style is in sharp contrast to the various replicants in the film—Ryan Gosling’s K is particularly naturalistic in comparison. Leto’s Wallace is “real,” but presents as artificial. The performance worked more for me on a second viewing.

Like its prequel, Blade Runner 2049 is detective noir, and also like the original, it often doesn’t bother to clearly spell out any plot connections between cause and effect. Hell, the film employs a symbol in the form of a (literal) shaggy dog. And while BR ’49 never feels shaggy, its expansiveness, its slowness, often drag us away from the urgency of its core plot. K’s quest moves via the film’s own aesthetic energy, and the film is at its best when it lets this aesthetic energy drive its logic.3

3 The film seemed much faster-paced on a second viewing, but that is because the first viewing taught me how to view it. The greatest reward for “knowing” the contours of the plot is that one can attend better to BR ’49’s wonderful aesthetic logic.

The first two hours of BR ’49’s nearly-three-hour run glide on the film’s own aesthetic logic, which wonderfully lays out a series of aesthetic paradoxes: Blade Runner 2049 is both vast but compressed, open but confined, bright white and neon but gray black and dull. It is bustling and cramped, brimming with a cacophony of babble and deafening noise but also simultaneously empty and isolated and mute. It is somehow both slow and fast, personal and impersonal, an art film stretched a bit awkwardly over the frame of a Hollywood blockbuster.4

4 I still agree with most of this, aside from the claim that only the first two hours “glide.” The end is much stronger than I initially gave it credit for. To wit—

The commercial blockbuster touches that BR ’49 winks at early in its plot creep up in its third act. Frankly, the film doesn’t stick its ending.5

5 I was wrong. BR ’49 totally sticks the ending.

The final hour seems driven by a logic external to the aesthetic energies that drive its first two hours—a logic that belongs to the Hollywood marketplace, a market that demands resolution, backstory—more sequels! The film’s initial expansiveness and pacing condenses, culminating in a claustrophobic climax that feels forced. A few late scenes even threaten to push the plot in an entirely different direction. For example, very late in the film we’re introduced to a revolutionary resistance movement that plans to overthrow the Fascist-Police-Corporate-Dystopian-Grubs-for-Food-Farmed-by-Slaves-and-Holy-Hell-It’s-Bad-Etc.-State. The burgeoning resistance scene feels shoehorned in by some film executive who thought The Matrix sequels were a good idea. Sure, the scene does convey a crucial piece of plot information, but reader, there are other ways to achieve such ends. 6

6 While I still feel that the resistance plot is not included as gracefully as it might be, the film is already pushing towards three hours. Furthermore, the film is not about resistance—it is about K and K’s not knowing. I also no longer believe that the “claustrophobic climax” — a truly horrifying fight that takes place under threat of drowning — is forced. (Should I also admit that I had finished my second tallboy and had a terrible need to piss, which made the water-fight all the more excruciating?)

The climactic fight simply wasn’t what I was expecting. A second viewing reveals that I totally missed BR ’49’s water motif, a kind of elemental doubling of the film’s other motif of abject tears.

One prominent clue is Vladmir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire…One string of words that K must repeat as part of his baseline test is also key to Nabokov’s novel: “A tall white fountain.” In Pale Fire, these words are of critical importance. When the poet John Shade has a transcendent near-death experience, he sees “dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain.” Later, via a newspaper story, he learns about a woman who not only has a similar near-death experience, but who also glimpses the afterlife in the same way, seeing too a “tall white fountain.” However, when Shade contacts the reporter who wrote the story, he learns that “fountain” is a misprint; the woman’s original word was mountain. The difference in a single sliding phoneme, to M, is of enormous importance to Shade. …Let’s just say that the phonemic slip from to M conveys not only a symbolic connotation, but also a key plot clue.7

7  I don’t know how prominent Pale Fire is in retrospect, but it is visible. I also have no idea if Villeneuve is intentionally playing the F-M shift in the novel against the revelation of two lost children–female and male–that becomes central to K’s understanding of (not understanding) himself.

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Beyond Pale Fire, there are other literary allusions in BR ’49 worth noting… 8

8 Milton, Blake, e.e. cummingsPinocchio, and Kafka. I didn’t really spot any more on a second viewing, but I also wasn’t especially looking for any. I’m sure there are more.

In addition to its literary allusions, Blade Runner 2049 also incorporates a great number of tropes from the sci-fi films that came before it. For all its visual originality, there is very little in the film that we haven’t seen in some earlier form in another film. [However] when BR ’49 replicates old tropes it breathes new life into them, making scenes we’ve seen before look and sound wholly original.9

9 This is pretty much true.

One of the more remarkable scenes in BR ’49 is a three-way sex scene between the A.I. program-hologram Joi, her boyfriend K, and the replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). Watching the scene, it hit me that Like, hey, this isn’t even the first “three-way sex scene with A.I.” that I’ve seen. Jonze’s Her [2014] offers a far more awkward version of this scene, and (I know, arguably), Ex Machina [dir. Alex Garland, 2015] is basically one long implicit three way between its three primary characters. We seem to have birthed a new sci-fi trope, folks.10

10 I’m still not sure how to process the three-way in BR ’49, which makes it one of the most interesting scenes in the film. In a way, it doesn’t haven’t to be there for the film’s plot to make sense. And yet it points towards the kind of miracle that the replicants in the film’s backstory promise.

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The inclusion of an inorganic and bodiless A.I. also points BR ’49 into new and different territory, into realms beyond its parent film’s imagination.11

11 Villeneuve makes a number of aesthetic breaks from Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but the A.I. is perhaps the biggest pushback against any anxiety of influence. It’s an ingenious inclusion.

Joi’s relationship with K is heartbreaking and tender. As the emotional core of this bleak film, the connection between Joi and K is devastating (not to mention devastated by the Kafkaesque powers haunting the story). A simulacrum of “real” emotion is thus the most authentic emotional synapse in Blade Runner 2049. An epiphanic scene of Joi crying in the rain fairly early in the film telegraphs Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable death monologue from the parent film in a way that is simultaneously ironic, earnest, painful, and profound. The transcendent moment freezes and then shatters with one of the darker punchlines I’ve seen in a film in years—a voicemail. Someone’s always calling us out from our reveries into the real world12

12 I don’t really have an annotation here. I just wanted to include an image of the scene in this riff:

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[Blade Runner 2049] caters to the male gaze in an ambiguous and unsettling way. Giant naked holograms waltz across the screen, purring solid sexuality, and if their neon forms distract our boy K from the grim grey disaster of apocalyptic LA, they are also likely to captivate certain audience members’ gazes as well.13

13 I read a bunch of takes that claim that the film is sexist and I don’t really see that, but perhaps one of the constituting conditions of sexism is an inability for a consciousness to perceive its own sexism. I don’t know though.

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These spectacular but hollow holograms divert attention away from a cruel dystopian reality; they lead the male gaze away from the real story. In another surreal sequence, Villeneuve fills the screen with enormous naked female statues—naked except for their high heels, which dwarf our boy K. In BR ’49, giant naked women loom over the central protagonist, a lonely, alienated male whose authentic emotional interactions are limited to his computer.14

14 I somehow missed these giant feet on first viewing:

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In time, our male protagonist finds out that he isn’t nearly as special as he hoped he might be. His attempts at an authentic life are repeatedly thwarted by the dystopian world he lives in. Hell, he can’t even get a father figure out of this whole deal. If BR ’49 critiques the male gaze, it also simultaneously engenders and perhaps ultimately privileges it in a queasy, uncanny way.15 

15 I stand by this.

I’ve failed to remark on the many wonderful set pieces in this film—an apiary in a wasteland,16

16  What an unbeelievable scene! (I’m here all night folks).

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…a bizarre fight in a casino soundtracked by 20th-century pop holograms. The film has a weird energy, narcotic but propulsive, gritty but also informed by sleek Pop Art touches.17

17 The whole Las Vegas section of BR ’49 is utterly fantastic, its aesthetic logic doubling the film’s themes of artificiality and reality.

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Blade Runner 2049, like its parent Blade Runner, is a film about not knowing. It proffers clues, scuttles them, and casts the very notion of knowing into doubt. It’s not just the problems of knowing reality from fiction that BR ’49 addresses. No, the film points out that to know requires a consciousness that can know, and that this consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Hence, to live authentically, as real boys and girls, also requires that we live under a kind of radical self-doubt. The whole point of a miracle is that it suspends radical doubt and eliminates the state of radical faith that anyone believing in (even the the belief of believing in) miracles would have to have to keep believing in (even the belief of believing in) miracles. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a program of radical doubt|faith, a narrative that repeatedly defers the miracle it promises. This deferral points to a future, but not an endpoint, not a direct salvation. Instead we are left with our real boy K—who, yes, am I spoiling? Damn it then I spoil!—our real boy K who becomes real the moment he reconciles himself to his own ambiguous nature: to a nature of not knowing.18

18 I think all of this holds up even more on a second viewing. One thing I noticed that I didn’t catch the first time is that Blade Runner has no opening credits or title sequence—it reserves them until after the final shot.

Do watch Blade Runner 2049 in a theater on a very big screen if you can.19

19 While I’m guessing that Blade Runner 2049’s theatrical run is done for awhile, it’s the kind of film that will likely get played on the big screen again in the future. Highly recommended.

Maps to the Stars (Summer Film Log)

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Surreal and often grotesque, David Cronenberg’s film Maps to the Stars (2014) attempts to merge a satire of the film industry with a riff on haunted Hollywood. The title, with its double meaning, suggests a cartography that might pinpoint the connections between larger-than-life screen avatars and the mythological figuration our culture has lent to them.

Maps to the Stars presents a large stage then for its host of strange characters to play upon. Center stage is the (ironically-named) Weiss family. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a TV psychologist who manipulates his celebrity patients with psychobabble quackery. He’s emotionally-estranged from his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), who plays stage-mother to their son Benjie (Evan Bird), an improbably gangly teen heartthrob trying to get his film career back on track after a stint in drug rehab. The Weiss family finds their not-so-blissful life terribly disrupted when daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) shows up again after years in a mental hospital. She’s a schizophrenic with pyromaniac tendencies. Meanwhile, aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) pines for a role playing her own mother’s role in a remake of a film called Stolen Waters. Segrand resents that her mother’s fame exceeds her own. Alleging that she was sexually abused by her mother as a child, Segrand receives treatment (in her lingerie) from Dr. Weiss. Agatha eventually takes a job as Segrand’s “chore whore,” more firmly linking the two plots. There’s also a limo driver named Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison), who wants to both write and act in Hollywood. Oh, and a bunch of ghosts.

The various plot points double and triple each other: actors hope to gain coveted roles, family members hope to convert their pain into love and forgiveness, people try to escape their past. The film kneads themes of child predation, infanticide, ageism, Hollywood-as-vampirism, and incest into the plot, along with fire and water motifs. Throughout, characters repeat lines from Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem Liberté, as if the mantra’s force might grant them liberty from all these evils.

Cronenberg’s keen visual sensibilities are a highlight of Maps to the Stars. The film sparkles with a glossy Pop Art appeal which Cronenberg delights in griming up with occasional Cronenbergian touches. Still, Maps to the Stars, while thoroughly thematically abject, is not Cronenberg’s most visually Cronenbergian film.

The performances are very Cronenbergian though—stylized, affected, warped, weird. Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore are particularly good, and John Cusack leans into his role with unexpected menace. As surreal as these characters are though, there’s a ballast of reality underneath—sometimes and ultra-real reality, as when Carrie Fisher, daughter of a famous actress, plays her self in a bit role. The whole affect is unnerving.

Maps to the Star’s unnerving tone generates in part from its divergent trajectories. The film strives to be both a biting satire of Hollywood and a familial drama with mythological undertones. There’s no reason that these trajectories might intertwine successfully, but they don’t in Maps to the Stars. The tonal elements never fully cohere, and the plot careens to its climax with a pace that upsets the film’s earlier mood of slow-burning menace. The rushed ending is probably the worst part about Maps to the Stars. There’s plenty of promise in its first hour that the last 45 minutes fails to deliver. The film might have made a better limited series, even, giving Cronenberg more time to weave the threads together.

Bruce Wagner, who wrote Maps to the Stars‘ screenplay, found more room to expand in his 2012 novel Dead Stars, which ran just over 650 pages in paperback. Wagner’s novel predates the film, and is based at least in part on an earlier version of the screenplay for Maps to the Stars. (This is all a bit confusing, I know). In interviews, Wagner has rejected critics’ characterization of Maps to the Stars as a satire, declaring it rather an elegiac family melodrama. (Cronenberg himself didn’t outright reject the idea that the film was satirical though). While it’s unlikely that Wagner is being disingenuous when he claims Maps to the Stars isn’t satirical, he and Cronenberg have nevertheless produced a satire—yet one that strives to be an elegiac family melodrama, and also a take on the old haunted Hollywood stuff. And yet all this material feels pretty hollow.

The specters and doppelgangers haunting the background of Maps to the Stars remain disappointingly underexplored by the film’s end. Worse, the film suffers from a comparison to David Lynch’s far superior Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s film is richer and more expansive, evoking more with far less.

Maps to the Stars also suffers from comparison to Cronenberg’s earlier work, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1985), and Dead Ringers (1988). In the 2000s, Cronenberg delivered a particularly strong one-two punch with a pair of his most perfect films, both starring Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). The magic with Mortensen seemed to wear off in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg’s next film Cosmopolis (a 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel) was, in my estimation, unwatchable. While I think Maps to the Stars is stronger than the last two efforts, it does seem to point to a late-career slump. Here’s to hoping the next Cronenberg joint is a better deal, like the far-superior satire eXistenZ (1999) which he wrote himself. Maybe he should write the next one himself too.


How I watched it: I put it on a few nights ago on a big TV via a streaming service, late at night after a few tumblers of scotch, thinking, “Oh hey, I never watched this” but that turned out to be a false start. Rewatched on an iPad in bed with headphones in two sittings, very late at night. 

Lady Bird (Summer Film Log)

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In her essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty wrote that “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress.”

Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird (2017) is not a novel, nor is it a portrait of a city—but what it does do very successfully, credibly, and experientially, is illustrate the ways in which place—setting, context, community, family, home—shapes character and desire. Place in the film is ultimately the territory that we mentally and aesthetically attend—and in this sense love, to borrow the film’s thesis. Gerwig’s film makes us attend.

The primary place in Lady Bird (2017) is Sacramento, California. Titular character Lady Bird’s feelings about her hometown are neatly summed up in the film’s epigraph, a quote from Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Like Didion, Gerwig is a native of Sacramento, and a sense of that place radiates throughout Lady Bird.

Lady Bird chronicles its heroine’s senior year of high school. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has rechristened herself “Lady Bird,” an eccentricity she seems to perceive as at odds with the tenor of the staid Catholic school she attends. Her central aim is to attend an elite East Coast college, preferably in a town buzzing with what she thinks she will recognize as “culture.” In her senior year, Lady Bird has a number of misadventures—tragic, comic, tragicomic, all very real—and grows a bit. Or doesn’t grow. Lady Bird is the memoir of a mature artist looking back on her youth. Gerwig shows that “coming of age” is something we do well after the fact, later in life when we visit the place called the past.

Lady Bird’s nascent adulthood is captured not only in the class-divides of beautiful boring Sacramento, but also in the time period the film traverses. Lady Bird is a period piece. Set in the Fall-Spring of 2002-2003, with America’s new weird wars either underway or just beginning, Lady Bird grounds itself in a cultural realism that makes it all the more relatable, even if your own senior year of high school was, say, in 1996-1997. Lady Bird must “come of age” in a fucked up world, but her experiences aren’t that different from our own, even if the ages and places aren’t the same. The exacting nature of Gerwig’s presentation of place and time—her “gathering spot of all that has been felt,” to misappropriate Welty again, reminds us of the bigger truths about how fucked up growing up is.

Gerwig gets at these truths through fiction’s regular distortions—comedic, dramatic, hyperbolic. Describing Lady Bird’s plot would make it sound like a number of teen angst films you’ve seen before. And yet Lady Bird twists its tropes repeatedly. Our heroine is the solipsistic center of her own life, but she occasionally looks a bit closer at those on its apparent margins—a gay ex-boyfriend, a bestie she deserts, a Cool Guy whose rich dad is dying of cancer. Gerwig populates her place with real people, not grotesque caricatures. It’s all quite moving if you let it be.

Lady Bird is at its most moving when portraying its central conflict between Lady Bird and her mother, (Laurie Metcalf) who implores her  not to leave home to attend a fancy East Coast school. Ronan and Metcalf are amazing in the film, and much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s screenplay and direction (Jon Brion’s score doesn’t hurt either). Gerwig never has the pair say or do anything towards each other that does not seem utterly true. Lady Bird’s father is played by Tracy Letts, whose performance anchors the conflict between mother and daughter with sweet sad realism.

Perhaps Gerwig’s greatest success in her film-memoir is that she neatly ties the narrative’s loose ends while at the same time leaving them frayed. The chaos of young adult life is simultaneously represented and reconciled through a more mature aesthetic revelation. I won’t spoil the film’s conclusion, but it is somehow devastating and happy and very real. Life is fucked up and messy.

We leave Sacramento with Lady Bird and head to a new place—named, yes, identified, possibly, but not yet fully concrete, or exact—at least not yet for our heroine. And yet from everything we’ve seen—and everything we know about our own experiences in so-called “coming of age”—we might feel some surety in that Lady Bird has found a new place, a new “gathering spot” to feel, experience, and progress within.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service with my wife, who liked it more than I did (I liked it very much!) and cried quite a bit.

Terrible Saturday Night Double Feature: Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist (Summer Film Log)

It is possible that there is a good film hiding somewhere in the patched-together mess that is Ant-Man (2015), but I doubt it. The film had a troubled production, with original director (and producer/writer) Edgar Wright dropping out because he could see that Marvel Studios would not let him make the film he wanted to make.

I haven’t liked anything Wright has done since Shaun of the Dead (2004), and his last film Baby Driver (2017) looked so insufferable that I’ll likely never sit through it. Still: Wright’s films are his films, marked by his style, his idea of “cool,” and his idea of “humor.” I don’t think his films are particularly good, but they are nevertheless original. The version of Ant-Man that Marvel Studios gave its loyal fandom bears traces of Wright’s vision—“traces” is not the right word; it is too subtle–maybe “chunks” is the word I want: Big “chunks” of the film Wright likely intended are in Ant-Man, delivered mainly via Paul Rudd’s glib charm. And yet the chunks aren’t particularly well-integrated—or maybe it’s unclear what they are to be integrated intoAnt-Man tries to do too many things and ends up not delivering on them; or, rather, it delivers them with slick emptiness that points to the film’s utter inconsequentiality. There are plenty of examples, but none so glaring as when Michael Douglas (playing the original Ant-Man Hank Pym) reconciles a relationship with his emotionally-estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly who will become the Wasp in the upcoming and inevitable sequel), only to have the moment punctured by Paul Rudd. The breeziness doesn’t feel comedic, but rather a bit nihilistic.

Nothing matters in Ant-Man except setting up the next Marvel Cinematic Universe film. So why not shoehorn in a scene with a flying Avenger? The film sometimes delivers aesthetically—I mean, this is a movie about a guy who shrinks, right? there should be plenty of cool imagery here—but for all its charms à la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Ant-Man is ultimately uninterested in tapping the massive potential of a microscopic world. Even worse, the film has no interest at all in exploring the deeper philosophical implications of what it might mean for a consciousness to find its bearings in time/space fundamentally transformed. Ant-Man feels more like a product assembled by committee than an actual film, which is a shame, given all the potential in its basic story.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, with my wife and my children, who selected it for our viewing entertainment.


The Disaster Artist (2017) is a bad movie about a bad movie. I’ll admit that the charms of The Room (2003) will forever be lost on me. That film is bad, yes, but worse, it’s boring. (I like my bad films to be not boring).

The Disaster Artist is based on a book of the same name by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. The book chronicles Sestero’s relationship with Tommy Wiseau, the auteur behind The Room (Wiseau and Sestero star in The Room). Director James Franco plays Wiseau and his little brother Dave Franco plays Sestero. James Franco portrays Wiseau as kind of deranged Dracula; Dave Franco plays Sestero as an earnest, empathetic, friendly hero. The Disaster Artist never questions Sestero’s account making The Room. He’s simply the Good Guy.

The Francos are not nearly as compelling as the cast around them, which is larded with ringers like Alison Brie, Sharon Stone, Nathan Fielder, Hannibal Buress, Bryan Cranston, and Seth Rogen. (Rogen’s performance as a script supervisor who ends up essentially directing The Room is probably the highlight of The Disaster Artist).

A good cast is not enough to cover over James Franco’s pedestrian direction though. He takes every possible shortcut, slathering scene after scene with cheap music, staging scenes in the most formulaic way possible, and telegraphing almost every plot point in unnecessary exposition. Franco directs the film as if he is worried your baby boomer uncle might not get what’s going on, squandering much of the weird potential that rests in a character as unique as Tommy Wiseau.

To make sure that all viewers “get it” — or at least get the idea of “getting it” — Franco frontloads the film with talking head celebrities (including Adam Scott, Kristen Bell, and Danny McBride) pretending to improvise their enthusiasm for the ironic charms of The Room.

The Disaster Artist culminates in the premiere of The Room. In Franco’s portrayal, The Room’s premiere audience attunes quickly to the absurdity of Wiseau’s wreck, adopting an ironic vision that allows them to take deep joy in watching a bad film. Franco pours sweetened laughter over the scene. The whole effect is like having someone explain an absurd joke. Who wants to have an absurd joke explained to them?

What the film never does—never even really tries to do—is get into Wiseau’s weird mind. There’s a strange and fascinating story in there, but The Disaster Artist can’t get to it, offering instead contours with no real substance. Indeed, The Disaster Artist seems a bit afraid of whatever’s going on inside Wiseau, and so instead retreats into platitudes about How Great Film Is and How Great It Is To Make Movies and etc.  The Disaster Artist is boringly competent. The Room is a bad film, but at least it’s original.


How I watched it: On an iPad with earphones, lying in bed, trying to follow up Ant-Man with something better, and ultimately finding no success.

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, and interviews of Jan 2018-May 2018 (and an unrelated fruit bat)

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These are links to some of the longer pieces I’ve written so far this year. The painting of the great Indian fruit bat (c. 1777-1782) is attributed to Bhawani Das or one of his followers.

The Last Jedi and the anxiety of influence

A review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread

A review of Paul Kirchner’s underground comix collection Awaiting the Collapse (at The Comics Journal)

A review of The Paris Review’s overproduced podcast

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s collection Narcotics

A few paragraphs on beginning Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a compelling Stephen Crane character

A review of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

On a particular Gordon Lish sentence

On rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

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On Goya’s painting The Straw Man

On Don DeLillo’s novel The Names

On the radical postmodernism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” 

Polygamy as a metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

On Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “silvery veil” — and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis

An analysis of William Carlos Williams’s ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

A close reading of Lydia Davis’s very short story “Happiest Moment”

On a passage from Gerald Murnane’s short story “Stream System”

Something on a scene from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

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On John Berryman’s Dream Song 265

On making a literary cocktail, the sherry cobbler

On Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

On Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-Fry”

On Balthus’s portraits of young girls reading 

On the postmodern comedy-horror axis of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy

An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

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Antoine Volodine’s Writers blows me away

A review of Dave Cooper’s queasy abject comic Mudbite (at The Comics Journal)

On Michael Radford’s film adaptation of 1984

Is The Running Man a good film?

On William Friedkin’s paranoid, claustrophobic horror flick Bug

Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a love letter to Studio Ghibli from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi

On Hayao Miyazaki’s film Porco Rosso

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

A review of Lady Macbeth

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Lady Macbeth (Summer Film Log)

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Spare, dark, cruel, and unflinching, Lady Macbeth (2016) uncoils with an austere beauty that belies its dark core. Set in rural England in 1865, the film is the story of Katherine, a young wife essentially imprisoned by her cruel father-in-law and warped husband who try to confine her inside their drafty country estate.

Katherine would rather take her freedom in the fresh chilly air of the heath, but father-in-law Boris wants her inside, preferably laboring at creating a male heir, a task made nearly impossible by her older husband Alexander’s apparent impotence. Boris and Alexander use a housemaid named Anna to monitor Katherine, and when the father and son have to depart on separate business matters, Anna is left to watch over the bored young bride.

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Katherine’s situation becomes much less boring when, only a day or two after the departure of Boris and Alexander, she discovers Anna naked in a sack suspended from the ceiling of a kennel, surrounded by jeering men. Katherine frees the maid and asserts her dominance as lady of the house, even as she has to tussle with one of the men, Sebastian. The scene is utterly Sadean, a strange mix of sexuality, violence, and the thin veneer of social mores that glosses over the id writhing under the surface. The veneer cracks. Our Lady takes up a poorly-hidden (and then not-really-hidden-at-all) affair with Sebastian. To reveal more could spoil the story, but, like, you know some of the stuff that happens in Macbeth, right? Murders and stuff?

While Lady Macbeth recalls Shakespeare’s tragedy at times, it’s actually an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. (I read and enjoyed an English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky a few years back). Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch offer a fairly faithful adaptation of Leskov’s story, although the film’s tone is much darker and devoid of Leskov’s black humor. The film’s conclusion is also darker and more concise than Leskov’s novella’s last chapters (and better, I’d argue). Lady Macbeth’s final moments offer a chilling indictment of Victorian morality (a moral vision that continues to persist in many ways today) without the slightest concession to a mainstream audience’s desire for, say, justice. The film begins dark and strange and ends darker, stranger. Watching Lady Macbeth is a bit like having one’s stomach squeezed from the inside out.

The film’s disturbing tension is not for everyone, but those folks would miss a fantastic performance by Florence Pugh, who plays Katherine with a sensitivity that is both captivating and menacing. One of the great successes of Lady Macbeth is watching Pugh perform a character who moves from emotion to impulse to action–or in some cases radical inaction—in a thoroughly naturalistic way. Oldroyd’s direction is key here; perhaps the most terrifying thing about Lady Macbeth is how natural the film feels. Cinematographer Ari Wegner seems to shoot the film almost-entirely with natural light (and occasionally gaslight), an effect that is simultaneously gorgeous and starkly unsettling. Lady Macbeth would make a perfect double feature with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017). The film’s repetitions of interiors—often with Katherine staring out—readily recall Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi’s work.

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Lady Macbeth creates its own visual grammar to tell its story, deploying dialogue between characters with a spare efficiency that helps build the film’s anxious mood. Extradiagetic sound is virtually nonexistent in the film, too. A slow ominous rumbling swells up exactly three times in Lady Macbeth, matching and then intensifying the viewer’s nervous dread. The final credits play out over the sounds of birds chattily chirping. It’s all very disconcerting.

As I’ve noted (and which I hope is clear from this write-up), Lady Macbeth’s mix of strange Sadean sex and violence isn’t for everyone. It’s the kind of film that will likely disappoint or even upset many viewers—those looking for a Victorian-period romance should look elsewhere, and fans of straightforward horror might not get the tropes they crave. But folks interested in an unnerving but compelling story told on its own aesthetic terms should check this one out.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, somewhat late at night, at least for my wife and me. My wife loved it, by the way, and best of all, she loved it despite her usual rubric—she says she doesn’t like films where “nothing good happens.” Maybe something good happens in Lady Macbeth, but the good is so wrapped up in the bad that the two are impossible to parse.

Porco Rosso (Summer Film Log)

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (1992) is one of my favorite films, and I was able to see it last night for the first time on the big screen thanks to Studio Ghibli Fest 2018. Although I’ve seen Porco Rosso maybe a dozen times, seeing its rich, deep, bold animation on an enormous screen felt like seeing it for the first time (I also hadn’t watched the subtitled version in a while).

Porco Rosso takes place in and around various islands in the Adriatic Sea during the thin slice of years between the First and Second World Wars. Italy, like much of the world, is in the midst of a severe economic depression, and is slowly sliding into fascism. World War II is clearly on the horizon. Miyazaki pushes these problems to the margins of his film, conjuring instead a romanticized Mediterranean. However, this romantic space is always under the pressure of a coming disaster—fascism and a new war.

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The hero of Porco Rosso is Marco Pagot (called Marco Rossolini in the American dub). Marco is an ex-military pilot, an aviation ace who fought with honor for the Italian air force in the Great War. He now spends his days drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes on a beautiful deserted island, occasionally taking jobs as a bounty hunter, retrieving hostages and other stolen goods from the nefarious and unwashed air pirates who plunder the ships of the Adriatic. He makes occasional concessions to civilization by taking a meal at the Hotel Adriano, a charming resort run by Marco’s oldest friend Gina. Gina is love with Marco and we come to realize Marco is in love with Gina, but he cannot come out and say this. Marco is a pig.

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Marco is, literally, a pig. He is the victim of a curse that the film never explicitly names or addresses, although a scene late in the film in which Marco essentially survives an attack that should have killed him—an event that gives him a dramatic glimpse of a heaven of pilots—may be a clue to the origins of Marco’s porcine curse. In any case, Marco’s pigman existence is the film’s only concession to the kind of mythical and magical fantasy that otherwise permeates Miyazaki’s canon (with the notable exception of The Wind Rises (2013), which in some ways is a sequel to Porco Rosso).

This isn’t to say that Porco Rosso isn’t a fantasy though. Miyazaki’s world of air pirates and bounty hunters, attractive hoteliers and hotshot engineers, and seaplanes dueling in a radiant sky, brims with an effervescent energy that counterbalances the grim specter of the Great War that preceded the film’s narrative action and the Second World War—and a Fascist Italy—that the narrative’s “real” time must eventually intersect. Ever the lone pig, Marco seeks to fly away from the social and historical forces that would constrain him.

Unfortunately for Marco, luxurious isolation remains an impossibility. The air pirates hire a hotshot American to take out the damned Crimson Pig once and for all. Donald Curtis (hailing from Alabama in the Japanese version and Texas in the American) exemplifies American cockiness. His enormous jaw precedes the rest of his swaggering body, he falls in love at first sight with any beautiful woman he sees, and he’s brash and impetuous. He wants to transition to Hollywood and eventually become the President of the United States! Curtis shoots up Marco’s plane early in the film, but our porcine hero escapes to Milan, where he rebuilds his plane with the help of a whiskered mechanic named Piccolo and his charming granddaughter Fio. Fio redesigns the plane and eventually becomes Marco’s sidekick, traveling with him back to the Adriatic and helping him face Curtis and the air pirates.

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Fio, whose character design recalls Nausicaa of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is another of Miyazaki’s prominent female protagonists. In some ways she is the secret hero of the film; she takes over the narration at the end, implicitly assuming Porco Rosso’s mantle. Fio has earned Marco’s trust after he is initially dubious of her ability because of her age and his sexism. Fio leads an all-female team of builders and engineers to recreate a superior version of Marco’s plane. This workshop sequence is one of the film’s finest. Miyazaki often foregrounds labor in his films, but Porco Rosso explicitly shows how a complex work—whether it’s a plane, or, y’know, a film—is never the singular work of a gifted genius, but rather the concentrated effort of a team. Miyazaki underscores the connection between the creative process of plane-building and film-making, stamping his studio’s name on Marco’s new engine. (Studio Ghibli was named after an Italian war plane, the Caproni Ca.309, which was nicknamed Ghibli—“Desert Wind”).

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While in Milan, Marco realizes that the fascist secret police are after him. The Fascists in Porco Rosso (who want to conscript Marco—or take his plane) are far more ominous than Curtis. Curtis serves as an actual antagonist for Marco to face, and the fight between the two at the end of Porco Rosso, although violent, plays with a light comic touch. Miyazaki references the “gentlemen pilots” of World War I here. The Fascists, in contrast, are a spectral force lurking behind the narrative, threatening Marco’s individuality and autonomy. The film affirms itself as a comedy that resists encroaching fascism in a conclusion that sees Marco, Fio, Gina Curtis, the air pirates, and every other member of this strange Adriatic paradise working together to escape their approaching air force.

The film’s denouement is a retreat into the romantic Adriatic community, a kind of gauzy, rosy vision of an isolated paradise untouched by war or fascism. The fantasy reminds one of an island from some lost book of The Odyssey, a tranquil paradise unbothered by Trojans or Greeks. Marco—Porco—too feels like a figure from the margins of The Odyssey, a hero transfigured into a pig. The end of Porco Rosso refuses to give us a direct answer as to what happens to Porco. Does he regain his human form? Or, perhaps more importantly, is there a happy ending for Porco and Gina? The film offers a number of clues, some explicit and some implicit, but a first viewing may feel ambiguous for many viewers. However, subsequent viewings reveal a clearer picture as to what happens to Gina and Marco. Why the ambiguity then? Porco Rosso is (apart from The Wind Rises) the Miyazaki film with the strongest historicity. The historical reality of a looming World War II threatens to devour the romance of Gina and Porco—so Miyazaki and the inhabitants of his secret Adriatic world conspire to hide it. Lovely stuff.


How I watched itLast night with subtitles at my local indie cinema with full attention—and then again this afternoon, dubbed, on a large TV (via a USB drive with an .mkv file), with minor attention (I wrote this as I watched) with my daughter, who is home from school (poor dear has strep throat), and who was upset because we (that is, my family of four) were unable to watch the film as a family on Sunday afternoon, as it had sold out, and thus requested we watch it together, just now, which we did. Porco Rosso plays in select theaters one more time, by the way–on May 23rd, 2018.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Summer Film Log)

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) tells the story of Mary Smith, a little girl whiling away her time in the English countryside home of her great aunt before school starts. Poor Mary is awfully bored—until she finds a rare flower called the “fly-by-night.” The fly-by-nights, which only bloom once every seven years, bestow magical properties on their user. Mary’s boredom is quickly cured when a flying broomstick whisks her away (black cat in tow) to a magical world above the clouds. She finds herself at the Endor College of Witches, where she’s taken on as a star pupil by the ominous headmistress Miss Mumblechook and her strange partner in scientific magic, Dr. Dee. They take Mary on a tour of Endor College, a visual highlight of a gorgeous film. The tour culminates in Miss Mumblechook’s office, which doubles as a museum of magical artifacts. Here, Mary—somewhat accidentally, but hey—becomes a biblioklept, stealing the headmistress’s book of master spells. Mary then reveals that her power comes from the fly-by-night flower. The film’s plot kicks into a higher gear here, as it becomes clear that Mumblechook and Dee will stop at nothing to get their clutches on the magical flowers.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first film from Studio Ponoc, a production company founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who previously worked as a producer for Studio Ghibli. Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is another Studio Ghibli alum; he worked as a key animator on films like Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008), before directing his own films for the studio—Arrietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014).

Arrietty, while charming, felt like Miyazaki-lite—a small-scale exercise pulled off with aesthetic precision that ultimately lacked the grand emotion that underwrites all the master’s greatest films. In contrast, Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t so much Miyazaki-lite as Miyazaki-mega, a love letter composed under heavy anxiety of influence. The film teems with references to Miyazaki’s oeuvre, and Yonebayashi’s visual style is an homage on par with (if not surpassing) the master.

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The most immediate comparison viewers might make here is to Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), which Yonebayashi’s film clearly echoes visually with its flying broomsticks and its prominent black cat. However, Mary and the Witch’s Flower has more in common (both in its plot, themes, tone, and visuals) with later Miyazaki films like PonyoHowl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away. I’m tempted to produce a laundry list here of specific comparisons, but there are simply too many—Yonebayashi delights in larding his film with characters and images that visually resemble Ghibli characters and images, painted in the bright shimmering colors of Miyazaki’s late period. There isn’t a shot in the film that doesn’t crib, even obliquely, from an earlier Ghibli film. (Hell, even composer Takatsugu Muramatsu’s soundtrack sounds like an homage to Joe Hisaishi’s work for Studio Ghibli).

These Easter eggs are most fun to find when Yonebayashi goes beyond the core films that his pastiche derives from, like when we get a shot of a city in the clouds that echoes Castle in the Sky (1986), or when a gray cat is transmuted into a creature resembling something like the gentle creatures from Totoro (1988), or when Yonebayashi’s frame lingers just a second too-long on a pigman chef who bears more than a passing resemblance to the titular hero of Porco Rosso (1992).

Yonebayashi’s melange of Miyazaki is hardly a patchwork of references though. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is rather a loving synthesis of the master’s greatest tendencies. Calling Yonebayashi a copycat simply will not do—he was a key artisan in Miyazaki’s workshop after all, and we see here the same level of technical craftsmanship that made the Ghibli films so special.

What’s missing from the film though is something harder to define. An auteur relies on a company, a workshop, a cohort of skilled artisans to help the auteur realize his or her vision. All auteurs borrow or outright steal from the artists that come before them, but the great artists conjure those ingredients into something new. They overcome their anxiety of influence and synthesize the masterworks that preceded them with their own visions, inspiriting the material with their own sense of soul. Yonebayashi’s film, as I wrote above, is a loving synthesis of Miyazaki’s most magical moments, but what’s missing is Yonebayashi’s own magic, his own vision.

And yet there’s so much promise in the young artist. Yonebayashi is only 44; Miyazaki was around the same age when he made Castle in the Sky, the first Ghibli film, and frankly one of his weakest. Castle in the Sky is best enjoyed now as a work in retrospect, after having traced the auteur’s major themes in grander works like Spirited Away or The Wind Rises (2013). With Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Yonebayashi composed a love letter to the workshop where he honed his craft, and the film will probably be most remembered (and enjoyed) as an homage to all things Ghibli. Let’s hope that Yonebayashi’s next effort sees the young director break free from the anxiety of influence to offer us his own original vision.


How I watched it: On a big TV, rented from iTunes, with full attention, with my family. My daughter gave it a B+; my son gave it a B-.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Summer Film Log)

John Wick crashes his black SS Dodge Charger into a motorcyclist.

John Wick infiltrates a Russian mob base.

John Wick is the subject of much worried discussion about John Wick’s legendary prowess as a killer of men, as well as concern for what motivates John Wick to violent action.

John Wick garrottes a Russian mobster.

John Wick places a phone call.

John Wick retrieves his favorite car, a black 1969 Ford Mustang.

John Wick uses his favorite car to assault Russian mobsters.

John Wick’s favorite car is under assault by Russian mobsters.

John Wick sacrifices the driver-side door of his favorite car to assault a motorcyclist.

John Wick continues to use his car to assault Russian mobsters.

John Wick exits his car to enter into hand-to-hand combat with Russian mobsters.

John Wick is assaulted by a yellow taxi cab.

John Wick kicks a Russian mobster’s shins.

John Wick dodges a yellow taxi cab.

John Wick shoots a Russian mobster’s shins.

John Wick pours two neat vodkas, one for himself and one for the Russian mobster boss.

John Wick makes a toast to “Peace.”

John Wick leaves the Russian mob base in his favorite car.

John Wick parks his favorite car in the driveway of his beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick reads a birthday card.

John Wick lovingly recalls his beautiful dead wife.

John Wick greets his dog.

John Wick slumps in pain.

John Wick divests himself of weapons.

John Wick showers.

John Wick feels terrible emotional pain.

John Wick goes to sleep with his dog.

John Wick discusses the condition of his beloved favorite car with a mechanic who assures John Wick that he can repair the badly-damaged vehicle.

John Wick visits his secret stash of gold and weapons.

John Wick hides his secret stash of gold and weapons under fresh concrete.

John Wick receives an unexpected and well-dressed night time visitor.

John Wick offers his visitor coffee.

John Wick enters his beautiful kitchen.

John Wick receives polite condolences about the death of his beautiful wife.

John Wick attests that his dog has no name.

John Wick asks his guest not to give him a medallion.

John Wick receives a medallion from his guest.

John Wick regards his own blood on the medallion.

John Wick is warned of dire consequences.

John Wick sees his guest to the front door of his beautiful home.

John Wick gazes longingly at a photograph of his dead beautiful wife.

John Wick is attacked by his well-dressed night time visitor, who uses explosives to destroy John Wick’s beautiful home.

John Wick and his unnamed dog watch his beautiful home burn down.

John Wick sits on the back of a parked firetruck.

John Wick chats with a fireman whom he knows by first name.

John Wick and his unnamed dog walk from New Jersey to New York.

John Wick and his unnamed dog cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

John Wick goes to a hotel for assassins.

John Wick’s presence is announced.

John Wick interrupts a rooftop discussion.

John Wick is reminded of two important rules as well as the the consequences of not honoring the contract explicated in the medallion with his blood on it.

John Wick inquires about boarding his unnamed dog.

John Wick enters a fine arts museum.

John Wick walks through a gallery of marble statues, neglecting to pause and enjoy their beauty.

John Wick is instructed to halt by a mute henchwoman who works for John Wick’s well-dressed visitor of the previous night (the visitor who blew up John Wick’s beautiful home and to whom John Wick owes a work debt).

John Wick is groped by the mute henchwoman.

John Wick meets with his visitor of the previous night and sits with him to look at a large oil painting depicting a battle.

John Wick asserts that if he were to kill his visitor of the previous night, he would do so with his bare hands.

John Wick’s visitor of the previous night declares that he wishes for John Wick to kill his (the visitor of the previous night’s) sister.

John Wick’s visitor of the previous night expresses his desire to lead the Camorra mafia syndicate.

John Wick departs.

John Wick visits an especially secret safety deposit box.

John Wick opens his cache of items related to assassination, including a black suit, a black turtleneck, a pistol, a passport, and gold coins.

John Wick screams in anguish.

John Wick dons his black attire.

John Wick is now in Rome.

John Wick goes to a hotel for assassins.

John Wick rents a room.

John Wick is greeted by an old man who asks if John Wick plans to assassinate the Pope.

John Wick attests that he is not in Rome to kill the Pope.

Jon Wick enters a bookshop.

John Wick enters a secret passageway.

John Wick enters a sweat shop.

John Wick meets with the hotel’s sommelier.

John Wick is fitted for a new suit.

John Wick receives recommendations on gun purchases.

John Wick pores over maps of Rome, both old and new.

John Wick dons his new suit and arms himself with various and sundry weapons.

John Wick enters the catacombs beneath Rome.

John Wick is tailed by his former visitor’s mute henchwoman.

John Wick’s target, the sister of his former visitor who wishes to rule the Camorra mafia syndicate, attends a gala in the catacombs.

John Wick’s target adjusts her makeup in private in a luxurious underground bathroom.

John Wick confronts his target.

John Wick avers that he still considers himself to be friends with his target.

John Wick says the name of his dead wife.

John Wick’s target disrobes.

John Wick’s target enters a luxurious bath and slits her wrists.

John Wick grimaces.

John Wick questions suicide.

John Wick declares that he fears damnation.

John Wick holds his target’s hand.

John Wick shoots his target in the head.

John Wick and his former-target’s former-bodyguard shoot each other repeatedly.

John Wick bum rushes the stage at an underground rave.

John Wick shoots about a dozen security personnel in their faces and heads.

John Wick enters a crevice.

John Wick is attacked and pursued by the henchpeople of his former night visitor, the one who exploded his house and insisted that he (John Wick) kill his (the former night visitor’s) sister.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with an assault rifle.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with a rife.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with a handgun.

John Wick exits the catacombs.

John Wick is hit by a car.

John Wick is attacked by his former-target’s former-bodyguard.

John Wick tumbles down stone steps.

John Wick is stabbed.

John Wick makes small noises from his mouth and nose while he fights.

John Wick arrives at his hotel, where management insists he and his former-target’s former-bodyguard stop fighting.

John Wick drinks a bourbon, neat.

John Wick reveals various plot details to the former-target’s former-bodyguard, who drinks gin on ice with lemon and soda water.

John Wick makes several threats and declarations.

John Wick receives a phone call on a rotary phone.

John Wick makes a phone call on a rotary phone.

John Wick checks out of his hotel for assassins in Rome.

John Wick’s former-visitor, who is now John Wick’s new target, puts a seven million dollar contract on John Wick’s life.

John Wick is now in New York City.

John Wick is the subject of dozens of text messages sent to various and sundry assassins across the world, text messages informing said assassins of the seven million dollar contract on John Wick’s life.

John Wick’s new target puts blood on a medallion.

John Wick is the subject of foreboding discussion about John Wick’s legendary prowess as a killer of men, as well as John Wick’s compelling motivations for violent retaliation.

John Wick is shot in the back by a violinist.

John Wick is attacked by a large man.

John Wick kills a man with a pencil.

John Wick kills another man with a pencil.

John Wick shoots a pistol at a fountain.

John Wick and the former-target’s former-bodyguard casually shoot at each other with silenced pistols in a crowded subway station.

John Wick kills two men on a train platform.

John Wick boards a crowded subway train.

John Wick is stabbed.

John Wick makes small noises with his mouth and nose.

John Wick stabs the former-target’s former-bodyguard.

John Wick deboards a subway train.

John Wick flees sanitation workers.

John Wick hides under a blanket.

John Wick receives medical attention in an underground tunnel.

John Wick visits a carrier pigeon coop.

John Wick makes a man laugh.

John Wick is given a gun.

John Wick laments that he only has seven bullets.

John Wick pops out of a hatch in the floor of the museum he was in earlier in the film.

John Wick makes eye contact with his target.

John Wick shoots all seven of his bullets.

John Wick secures a new gun.

John Wick shoot various and sundry henchpeople in their faces and heads.

John Wick tumbles down stairs.

John Wick fails to admire the beauty of the marble statues around him.

John Wick throws a gun at a man’s head.

John Wick continues to shoot henchpeople, mostly in their faces and heads, but in other parts of their body too.

John Wick visits the museum’s special exhibition “Reflections of the Soul,” which features “the interplay of lights and the nature of self-images” and lots of mirrors.

John Wick and his target and his target’s henchpeople badly damage the museum’s special exhibition, “Reflections of the Soul.”

John Wick stabs the mute henchwoman who had previously groped him.

John Wick exits the museum’s special exhibition, “Reflections of the Soul.”

John Wick returns to the hotel for assassins, where his target is enjoying a glass of red wine with a steak dinner.

John Wick shoots his target in the forehead.

John Wick retrieves his dog, and learns that his dog has been a good dog in his absence.

John Wick walks back to the charred remains of his once-beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick feels despair.

John Wick finds a piece of his beloved dead wife’s jewelry in the rubble of the charred remains of his once-beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick is summoned by an employee of the hotel for assassins.

John Wick is transported by car, along with his unnamed good dog, to Central Park in New York City.

John Wick learns that he has been excommunicated from the services of the hotel for assassins.

John Wick promises to kill everyone.

John Wick and his unnamed good dog run through Central Park.


How I watched it: On a big television via a streaming service, with something approximating near-full attention, and with several paused interruptions.

Bug (Summer Film Log)

I’ve been meaning to watch William Friedkin’s 2006 film Bug for years but always found an excuse not to until earlier today, when the sky outside was grey and rainy enough for some psychological horror.

Bug’s horror is initially understated, fueled more by queasy tension and psychological drama than gore. Ashley Judd plays the lead, Agnes, who is slowly unraveling. She spends most of her time in a shitty rent-a-room at the Rustic Motel, where she takes drugs and alcohol to cover over the pain of losing her child. The crumpled dollar bills and jar of change we see early on, tips from her waitress job at a lesbian bar, are clearly running low. She can’t afford her cocaine habit. Slovenly and sweaty, her character’s depressed anxiety is neatly summed up in the two seconds she takes to “wash” a dirty plate by running it under the faucet and rubbing it with her naked hand. She then wipes her hand off on her shirt before cracking open a bottle of cheap wine.

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She uses the alcohol not only to tamp down her pain, but also to numb herself against the incessant phone calls she gets from what she believes is her violent husband, an ex-con played by Harry Connick Jr. No one ever responds when she answers the phone.

That phone rings throughout the film, and in some ways it’s an organizing principle. It’s the first sound we here in the film—and the last, if we stick around through the credits (I have a theory about that if anyone’s interested).

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The ringing phone immediately follows the film’s strange opening shot, a tableaux that doesn’t give the viewer any time get his bearings—it’s a strange neon room with a prone body in it. We eventually get there—and the shot repeats after the film’s credits. After that opening shot, Friedkin gives us a long, slow, gorgeous night time zoom in of the film’s primary setting, the Rustic Motel (in rural Oklahoma). The shot—the most open and free the viewer will be allowed to feel for the rest of Bug’s 100 minutes—parachutes us in gracefully to a weird, paranoid narrative.

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Judd’s Agnes finds a partner in paranoid loneliness in Peter, a strange stranger played by Michael Shannon. Agnes’s friend RC introduces her to Peter, who watches the pair party while generally abstaining from drugs and alcohol and conversation. He does however mutter that he’s not a psycho. Shannon initially inhabits his role with a gentle oddity that recalls Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, but his character’s paranoid potential for violence escalates when Agnes’s abusive ex tries to reenter her life. Oh, and the bugs. The bugs make everything worse.

Based on a play by Tracy Betts (who also wrote the screenplay), Bug’s greatest strength is its smallness. After its expansive sky-born opening shot, the film simply contracts into a claustrophobic small hell. There are only four main players, and most of the action is limited to Agnes’s room in the Rustic Motel, which Peter remodels, slowly transforming the room into a neon hell. Friedkin films Bug in lurid neon noir. The film feels of a piece with Denis Johnson’s novel Angels or Yuri Herrera’s recent mythological crime novels, and it undoubtedly found an admirer in Nicolas Winding Refn. His loose neon trilogy of DriveOnly God Forgives, and The Neon Demon share the same dark but vivid color palette that Friedkin conjures in Bug.

The first third of the film is arguably its strongest. Friedkin lets the plot come to slow boil. The narrative tangles into itself with a lugubrious, nervous energy that eventually boils over in a third act that relies heavily on the strength of maniac performances from Judd and Shannon, as well as Friedkin’s claustrophobic shots and wild lighting. How much a viewer likes Bug depends on how much that viewer allows himself to be entangled into the insanity at its end.

I’m glad I finally got around to Bug, but unlike Friedkin’s early films The French Connection and The Exorcist, I doubt I’ll watch it again. (And none of these are in the pantheon of his 1977 masterpiece Sorcerer, which I have literally made house guests watch with me on at least two occasions). It does remind me that I’ve yet to watch his films To Live and Die in L.A. and Killer Joe, which I will make a point of getting to this summer.


How I watched it: At first on an iPad via streaming service with earbuds very late at night, and incompletely (fell asleep or passed out 30 minutes in). Then, full rewatch via streaming service on a large television, with full attention. 

The Running Man (Summer Film Log)

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Is The Running Man a good film?

I have no idea, but I’ve watched it at least a dozen times in the past 20 years, and I’ll watch it again. The 1987 film is certainly not the singular artistic vision of a supremely gifted auteur; it is not well-acted; the set design is imitative at best and terribly cheesy at worst; the costumes are silly; the music sucks. But The Running Man is zany fun, not least of all because its clumsy satire of a society clamoring to be entertained at any cost is as relevant as ever.  Ironically though, The Running Man’s satire inevitably reproduces the exact thing it aims to critique: a loud, violent, silly distracting entertainment.

The Running Man foreground’s its plot in a (now retro-)futuristic font scroll at the film’s outset:

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Those “high-tech gladiators” (dressed in ridiculous outfits and bearing ridiculous names like “Subzero” and “Captain Freedom”) stalk “contestants on a TV show called The Running Man. The show is hosted by Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson (who you may know from reruns of Family Feud). Dawson fits into the film better than any other player—indeed his loose, improvisational, menacing charm is part and parcel of an entertainment empire built on attractive deception. He’s the consummate Master of Ceremonies, presiding over every aspect of his media empire. Dawson’s nemesis is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Ben Richards, a former cop framed for a massacre. There’s a lot of fake news in Running Man, including an extended sequence of digital editing where faces are mapped onto body doubles. Schwarzenegger winds up on The Running Man, kills a bunch of stalkers, clears his name, and becomes a figurehead of the resistance.

Director Paul Michael Glasser (who played Starsky on Starsky and Hutch and later directed the Shaq-vehicle Kazaam) brings a workman-like approach to the film. His shots are often clumsy, and moments that should telegraph horror often come off as funny or just silly, as early in the film when a prisoner’s head explodes when he tries to escape a labor camp. Glasser makes no attempt to rein in Schwarzenegger’s ham. We get scenes where Schwarzenegger tries to imbue his character with a small measure of realism or pathos, and yet his mugging one-liners undercut any character building. He’s a cartoon of a cartoon, which is as it should be.

Schwarzenegger’s campy performance is balanced by María Conchita Alonso, who invests her foil Amber with a soul that belies the cheesy lines she’s forced to deliver.  Alonso has the closest thing to a character arc in The Running Man, and arguably, she anchors the film—she’s a stand-in for the film’s viewer, a normal person who gets swept up into adventure. Yaphet Kotto also stars in The Running Man, but he’s woefully underused, perhaps because his acting is simply too good; his naturalism doesn’t mesh in the film’s campy tone. Other bit players work wonderfully though. Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa try to play it cool as resistance fighters, but the effect on screen is endearingly goofy. Mick Fleetwood would have been about 40 when the film came out, but he looks like he’s about 70…which is how old he is now. (There is a fan theory about this, of course). Dweezil wears a goddamn beret. The stalkers include professional wrestlers Professor Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, professional wrestler and opera singer Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, and NFL great Jim Brown. Ventura apparently could not be restrained from eating the scenery around him. He twitches and snarls, and delivers his lines as if he were speaking to Mean Gene Okerlund. It seems if director Glasser simply let his actors play versions of themselves. This is reality TV, after all.

The real success of Glasser’s direction is, ironically, the limitations of his aesthetic vision. The film looks like a TV show, and indeed, the strongest shots approximate TV shows and their live audiences. The Running Man is at its best when blending its satire of cheap Hollywood elements into the film proper, as in the ludicrous reality TV clips interspersed throughout (like Climbing for Dollars), or in the repeated montages set to cheesy wailing keytar jams, featuring a troupe of sassy flash dancers, the camera ogling their buns of steel. Ironically too, the fight scenes between the stalkers and Schwarzenegger’s team are actually the dullest element of the film—they look like bad TV (which is basically what they are). The Running Man wants to satirize the way cheap entertainments distract a populace and cheapen human worth, but it uses the same tools as the cheap entertainments it wants to skewer.

The Running Man is about spectacle culture, and is hence larded with shots of crowds reacting to what they see on screens. The film’s viewer can see the silly crowds cheering the stalkers or booing Schwarzenegger or enjoying Dawson’s charms, but the viewer is also a spectator himself. In the words of Dawson’s Killian, the film strives to “give the people what they want” — which here means an uplifting ending—Viva La Resistance!—a zany horrific comedy that simultaneously critiques and condones our worst impulses And yet the resistance uses the same tools to defeat the oppressive entertainment empire—video editing designed for mass consumption by a spectacle society. It’s Pop Art without the “Art.”

The Running Man is slightly stupid, which is a great part of its enduring charm. Its greatest stupidity is in its attempts to be clever—but again, there’s the charm of it. It’s a film about Bad TV that actually looks and feels like Bad TV. The film is like the less-talented but affable little cousin of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, which came out the same year. Both films satirize an emerging media-driven dystopian culture, but Robocop is actually a good film. The Running Man winks a bit too much (in contrast to, say, 1989’s Road House, probably the best film I can think of that plays its satire so straight that it potentially confounds its viewers).

And yet for all its silly weaknesses and bad hyperbole, The Running Man’s prognosis of American culture is painfully accurate. Fake news, bad actors, a TV president, lives thoroughly mediated by media, degradation of the human condition as entertainment—the Omnipresent Screen as the Ultimate Authority. The Running Man‘s 1987 vision of the future seems more accurate than the future posited in the film I watched yesterday, 1984And yet 1984 captures an emotional truth that The Running Man sets out to crush or gloss over or convert into something artificial, the idea or representation of a feeling, but not the feeling itself. That’s what entertainment does.

How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with semi-full attention.

1984 (Summer Film Log)

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Grim grey double plus unfun, Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1948 novel 1984 is painful to watch. I think I first saw the film when I was in high school, in the mid-nineties, probably after I read the book, and I never bothered to watch it again until this morning. (It’s probably not a morning film). I might wait another 20 years to watch it again.

1984 is about as faithful to its source novel as it could be, capturing Orwell’s grim vision in relentlessly bleak (and occasionally gorgeous) shots of a dystopian post-war London.  The film’s initial “worldbuilding” scenes are some of its most intriguing, including scenes of Winston Smith not fully participating in the Two Minutes Hate, looking for black market razors, prowling among the proles, and generally not fitting in among his peers. John Hurt is perfect as Winston Smith. His eyes convey an intelligent soul in despair, a soul slowly pulsing under a stoic mask that Winston has to wear to survive. Surviving isn’t enough though, and Winston finds his soul ignited by Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). The pair’s illicit love affair is doomed, and the great tragedy of 1984 is their ultimate betrayals of each other and themselves.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is a highlight of 1984, particularly in the rare scenes in which gray gives way to green. The Eurythmics soundtrack is hardly intrusive, and the music they made was quite good, but the film would have done better to dispense with extra-diegetic music altogether. Radford’s direction is remarkably understated; drama evolves from setting and vibe. And even in more direct moments, Radford is subtle, as when Winston scratches out his own thoughts (thoughtcrimes!) on paper. Some directors might feel compelled to underline such moments, drive the thesis in—but Radford shows us Winston in the process of discovering his own thoughts and feelings.

Faithful to its source material, 1984 is in no way a fun film, but it conveys the book’s central message and core humanity admirably. I’ve always preferred Brave New World to 1984—not that the two need to be in a contest—but Huxley’s book, with its zany details and wild contours is simply more engaging. There’s more complexity to its flavors (if not its argument). Sure, 1984 has its strong flavors too, but a big bitter bite with sour notes is not something one returns to again and again.

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How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with full attention.