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 (forbids her, even) 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.

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25 21st-century films missing from that New York Times list

Have you seen that New York Times list of “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century” that Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott put together? I haven’t seen about half of the films on the list, but there are definitely some good ones on there. (But damn, like, Million Dollar Baby? Really? And I’ll never get why people think Munich is a good film).

Anyway, here’s a list I put together in about five minutes of 25 films missing from their list. I did limit myself to one entry by a director for some silly reason–otherwise I’d end up with a bunch of films by three people on here. I’m sure I missed hundreds of other films. But, hey, it’s all in the name of stupid fun.

  1. Mulholland Drive
  2. Ponyo
  3. Hard to Be a God
  4. In the Mood for Love
  5. Upstream Color
  6. WALL-E
  7. The Hateful Eight
  8. Holy Motors
  9. Drive
  10. No Country for Old Men
  11. The Master
  12. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  13. Bright Star
  14. Children of Men
  15. The Tree of Life
  16. Russian Ark
  17. Only Lovers Left Alive
  18. Dredd
  19. Talk to Her
  20. Adaptation
  21. A History of Violence
  22.  Pan’s Labyrinth
  23.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  24. Gomorrah 
  25. Synecdoche, New York

 

In the Cinema — Malcolm Drummond

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Totoro Jack O’ Lantern Stencil


Do you still need an idea for a jack o’ lantern? Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki films? Even the really sweet and gentle ones, like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro? And, are you, like, totally skilled at carving pumpkins? If so, have at it with this cool stencil by Flickr user PlayWithFire:

You can see variations on Totoro jack o’ lanterns–and other cool Miyazaki-inspired pumpkins here. From that set, here’s Flickr user C. Lambert’s Totoro pumpkin–

“On that same evening I left Germany and never returned” | Fritz Lang on meeting Joseph Goebbels

David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis in a 1982 Roundtable Discussion

RIP Gordon Willis

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RIP Gordon Willis, 1931-2014

RIP Harold Ramis

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RIP Harold Ramis, 1944-2014

GhostbustersBack to SchoolStripes, Groundhog DayMeatballsSCTV—I’m one of the few people that actually really digs Multiplicity. Hell, I even saw Year One in the theater (it was awful, but dude has a lifetime pass that extends now past his lifetime, to be clear). Ramis undoubtedly colored the careers of all the people he worked with—he wrote their lines, made the lines fit into comedies that were smart and dumb and goofy and perceptive all at the same time. RIP.

Truffaut on the Auteur Theory

Film Posters by Polish Artist Leszek Żebrowski

(More at Żebrowski’s site)

Noah Baumbach and Peter Bogdanovich on Shooting Frances Ha in Black and White

Best/Worst Movie Titles of 2013

A brief disclaimer: I’ve never worked in feature film marketing, nor do I plan to. I don’t pretend to speak from any expertise here. I experience a gut-level reaction to words, an almost physical sensation. The reaction is especially strong to words or phrases spoken out loud, and is at times so severe I’ve wondered if I suffer from a minor form of synesthesia.

I’m constantly making mental note of the film titles that compel or repel me, and this year I’ve decided to type up a list. I’ll reiterate here and throughout the list that I do not intend to comment on the quality of the films themselves. This list is an attempt to comment on the titles on an aesthetic level alone.

Best titles:

blue_caprice_ver2Blue Caprice – I heard this title long before I ever knew what the film was and the two words were instantly drilled into my head. It’s a title vague and evocative enough to fire my imagination, but specific enough to make me wonder what the title refers to. Add to that the pleasure of the sound it makes: “Blue Caprice” is just a phrase that feels good when you say it or hear it. (as a side note: the title does in fact refer to the color and model of a notorious car driven by the beltway sniper. It’s worth pointing out that a very competent team of marketing people at Chevrolet probably spent weeks deciding on the name “Caprice” for its 1965 début; the Caprice went on to become one of the most popular cars in America. So it would be impossible to not count its success as a car title when considering its success as a film title in 2013).

Elysium – This is exactly the title studios should want for a big tent pole movie. It’s simple, one word, you can print it big on a poster/billboard/bus-wrap and it looks cool. Mention it to yr friends and they will know what yr talking about. It’s a brilliant single word title, sounds pleasing to the ear and feels good coming out of yr mouth.

In a World – What’s brilliant about this is that people who catch the reference immediately will know what they’re in for with the film, and people who don’t will still feel a sense of familiarity on an unconscious level, since they’ve undoubtedly heard these three words at the start of countless movie trailers.

The Conjuring – Great title for a horror movie. Doesn’t tell you anything about the plot but sounds definitively creepy and evocative.

Upstream Color – I’ve seen this film four times and I still have no idea what the title means. In all likelihood it’s a reference I’m not smart enough to catch, but it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever the case, it certainly sounds like it means something and upon hearing it I was instantly intrigued.

Simon Killer – Two words, each fairly innocuous. Call the movie Simon and it’s a yawn. Call it Killer and we’ve all heard it a thousand times in every language. But putting them together sparks something appealing.

Gravity – Another one word title, this time it’s a word we’ve all used before. Its use here as a title conveys the scope and importance of the film, but also its simplicity and relatability. The concept of gravity as a physical force affects every human on earth. And while the film offers a singular experience, the title suggests that it’s also one we can all understand.

The Iceman – Just sounds cool.

No One Lives – I cannot verify whether anyone in this movie actually does or does not live. Regardless, it’s a bold and eye-catching claim.

Only God Forgives – How this is not already the name of a successful Wu-Tang Clan solo record I’ll never know. It also should have already been the name of some pulpy novel by Jim Thompson or John D. MacDonald. I love the idea that Nicolas Winding-Refn thinks in such a perfect Venn diagrams of American pop-culture.

Worst titles:

Short Term 12 – I don’t want to bash on indies that don’t have dozens of high-paid marketing execs to design their titles and ad-campaigns. I’ve been told by many trusted friends that this movie is one of the best things that happened in 2013. But the title Short Term 12 is atrocious. I’d say it’s this year’s Margin Call. What the hell is a short term 12? I still haven’t seen it so I can’t tell you for sure. I could guess but nothing I can come up with makes the movie sound appealing. I can’t understand such a cold, institutional title for what was apparently a life-affirming character drama.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler – I don’t need to add to the pile here. And it’s not Lee’s fault that his last name ends with an S, but that’s just the cherry on top of everything that makes this title suck so bad.

The Way Way Back – I’ve had a hard time articulating why I hate this so much. It’s one of those titles that makes me feel like I just threw up in my mouth. Or makes me think of a 43-year-old white guy wearing a Run-DMC t-shirt. Neither makes me want to pay 15 dollars.

Girl Most Likely – To do what? What is likely about her? Why is this the title of anything? Is the entire movie a question about what she is likely to do? This tells me nothing and offers only confusion.

stoker_xlgFruitvale Station – I understand there is a real train station called Fruitvale and that this film is the story of something very tragic that happened there. It’s clear why they chose this title but it doesn’t make me not hate it. Back in the festival circuit it was called simply Fruitvale. But Fruitvale sounds like the name of a cheap online game, like Candycrush or Farmville. Adding the word Station helps a little but not nearly enough. One way to solve the problem would have been an overlong title like The Shooting at Fruitvale Station,  because at least then the title offers some reason to see the movie at all. It’s about a shooting, not a fun, fruity, train station. I think what they were going for here is actually the same effect that I mentioned earlier with regards to Blue Caprice or the same title method going back to something like United 93. The problem is those two true stories just happen to sound good and the word Fruitvale just plain sucks.

Stoker – I loved this movie but I didn’t know going in whether it was a horror movie or not. Are there vampires in it? Why is it called Stoker? This is a huge problem because these are questions most people just weren’t curious about answering and subsequently no one saw this movie. Stoker may be a great sounding word but it apparently wasn’t enough to catch anyone’s attention.

Berberian Sound Studio – Awesome movie. Total mess of a title. No one knows how to say it, and even if you do get it right, it still sounds dumb.

Cutie and the Boxer – I hate everything about this. The word Cutie is instantly cloying and just kills me. Beyond that, it sounds like a comic strip from the 1950s. Everything about it repels me.

Drug War – Was Crime Movie already taken or something? I doubt you could program a computer to come up with a more generic title.

Here Comes the Devil – I’ll file this under the Let the Right One In category of “Titles That Sound Like Game Shows.” I can just see the studio audience shouting in unison “HERE… COMES.. THE… DEVILLLLL!” Not really the best vibe for an apparently gnarly horror movie.

Charlie Countryman – Used to be called The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which goes along with my least favorite title equation, The [Life/Death] of [Character I Don’t Know at All Yet]. It’s their own bad luck that Charlie Countryman is a horrible phrase. There was no saving this at all.

Labor Day – When I first heard it I assumed this was the third in the New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day trilogy of Hollywood bullshit. Apparently it’s some kind of serious, touching, coming of age story. But how would this bland bullshit title tell me that at all?

Oldboy – To be clear: I am not ganging up on the flop of the year here. I’m talking about the remake of the cult classic Korean revenge thriller, both based on a Japanese manga and all three titled Oldboy. What I mean here is, analytically, why is this action/thriller starring Josh Brolin, directed by Spike Lee called Oldboy? Obviously they are hoping to appeal to a broader audience than simply manga readers or Korean film experts. So I see no reason to adhere to the source material as far as the title is concerned. The word Oldboy is almost devoid of any connotative meaning which would actually make people interested in this as a film experience. In a vacuum, the word Oldboy means almost nothing–this guy is an old friend or a rascal of some sort I guess. This would be like titling the Great Gatsby movie Old Sport. I can’t imagine anyone paying to see a massive summer tentpole starring Leonardo DiCaprio called Old Sport, and by that logic, the failure of Oldboy doesn’t seem surprising at all.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – I don’t know for sure, but the story this film is based on may be the originator of this awful title equation [ed. note—it is]. But being the first doesn’t get you off the hook. Of course I take particular issue with the designation of this being about Mr. Mitty’s “secret life”. Of course what it implies is that this guy’s actual life is very boring, otherwise we wouldn’t need to hear about his “secret” life. I recognize that this is the part of the story, but all I can see are giant billboards with Ben Stiller’s face and the words Boring Guy underneath.

Benjamin Davis Collins is a screenwriter. You can read the titles of some of his screenplays here; he rounded up good/bad movie titles at Biblioklept in 2011. Check out a short film he wrote called This Must Be the Only Fantasy.

See Wise Blood, John Houston’s Adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Novel

Watch Salesman, a 1969 Documentary About Traveling Bible Salesmen by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin

Faust — F.W. Murnau (Full Film)

I had no idea Luis Buñuel directed the 1954 film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe

…the weird thing is that I actually saw this as a kid. A few years later I saw Belle du jour (thanks to my uncle!) and then of course Un chien andalou and L’age d’or in college…

Werner Herzog Talks About His Film Nosferatu

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Watch the full version of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (with English subtitles).