Mar 162019
 

Still on the couch, still not feeling well, and still watching movies, I followed up The Matrix with the film that’s (officially? unofficially?) been retitled Live. Die. Repeat. Whatever it’s called now, it remains one of the best sci-fi action films of recent memory.

Watching, something new caught my attention about how many times Cruise’s character relives the same 24 hour period. There’s no way to count how many times he does, not exactly, but enough references are dropped to realize that we are talking about hundreds of “tries” for each “level” of the fight which together add up to thousands of days. What completely changed how I experienced Cruise’s predicament was realizing that his time can be clumped into years of 365 days.

I know what a year feels like and it sounds like Cruise lived a year or two trying to get off the beach, maybe more. Once he does, how many years did it take to get to the car park? To the farm house? To learn to fly the helicopter without a teacher? When he finally walked into the German dam complex and discovers he’s been lured into a trap and that he has no idea where the Omega alien lives, how many years had he been struggling to get to that point? He gets to London and talks to the general in the hopes of getting the device from his safe that can help him track the Omega for real. We see him do it after he’s already done it so many times that he can count steps and predict the content of phone calls. How does he know about the General’s personal life? Obviously he’s spent days elsewhere discovering information that could be used inside the office when he goes back to make another try. How many tries did finding that info take?

In short, the film keeps reminding us that what we are watching is the nth iteration of Cruise’s experience of this day—this is obvious and comic and cool—but when you start adding up the time involved in these iterations, you realize that even though he has not aged a day, Cruise has lived years, probably decades with Blunt and the others on this base and on this stretch of beach. The place has become his home and these relationships have become real. How could they not? Yet these relationships are not and cannot ever become mutual or deep. Cruise captures the tragedy of this predicament perfectly, becoming not only stronger and more skilled, but also older, quieter and increasingly more lonely as he racks up years of living without aging a day.

The scene that stood out for me this time around, was of Cruise skipping the battle, traveling to London and having a beer. This scene had never before seemed much more than a bit of “stick-to-your-guns, don’t give up or be a coward” claptrap delivered up before the final push to the story’s end. It’s generic and empty really. Yet this time I realized that it’s not. Cruise is trapped and alone in a life that’s gone on for years with no end in sight. He’s taking a break to collect himself and to think and to pull himself back together without any help from anybody because he doesn’t have anybody. And although the film doesn’t say so, we’re likely watching him do that for the nth-time.

Mar 162019
 

This is a movie whose influence on me is difficult to exaggerate, and I couldn’t say how many times I’ve seen it, even if it’s been out of mind and sight for awhile now. Then yesterday, not feeling well and spending the afternoon playing slug on the couch with the remote, I found myself watching it.

Three things stood out for me. First, the movie is nearly perfectly made. Its success was an achievement not a fluke, and that achievement holds up. Second, Keanu Reeves is so young. The film’s twenty years old now, and the handsome older brother I had watched become “The One” now seems so delicate, inexperienced and fragile that I found myself worrying for him in a way I never had before as the danger grew. I’m getting old.

Finally, I could see in a way I hadn’t before the roughness of these early digitally worked images. The breaks in the illusion were usually subtle, but still, the color work and digital avatars kept standing out as … primitive or drawn. Seeing this film so soon after Dracula I wondered how much my attention to the distinction between collage and illusion there had been rooted in the experience of encountering a historical object rather than a different medium.

Mar 162019
 

I hadn’t seen this film since the early 90s and so, despite some pretty clear memories of scenes and shots, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be seeing. Interestingly, the things I remembered were there as I remembered them, which surprised me, because memory is a tricky thing.

What I wasn’t expecting though were all the superimpositions and overt analogue collage aimed at creating in-frame montage. These don’t exist in today’s cinema, and when they do—meaning, when images read as “assembled”—I can’t think of a case in which they aren’t read as failures of continuity or polish. Here though, they read as discursive and meaningful. Watching the film was a different and deeply satisfying experience for this reason alone.

A quick note for later: the photo-chemical image provides a basis for collage. Does the digital? Or, as an image more closely related to animation—i.e. an iconic signifier—or even perhaps writing—i.e. a symbolic signifier—is the digital image, that string of stored 1s and 0s, however disparate it’s referent’s part, always itself, fundamentally “unified” making the notion of non-illusion or collage non-functional?

Mar 102019
 

After a hundred pages with the Muggles and at the Quidditch World Cup, we’re back at Hogwarts learning about the Triwizard Tournament. Although too young to compete as one of the three school champions, Harry’s name is selected by the Goblet of Fire as a fourth champion which obliges him to participate. School goes on, and the fourth year students are learning real magic now. Still, although we see them in class, their drama is no longer about being in school or being budding wizards. Instead, it’s clear that the school is a part of a larger world with its own larger dramas, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron are finding their way onto that larger stage. (The libelous tabloid reporter dramatizes their entry into this larger world by publishing stories about them. They enact it themselves by researching and practicing charms and hexes for the Tournament on their own.)

By book’s end, Harry—thanks to help from his friends but also through his own skills, resourcefulness and basic goodness—winds up standing with his schoolmate, Cedric (a Hufflepuff), at the end of the final Tournament challenge, agreeing to win together. They grab the cup simultaneously, and then, disaster.

Magically transported to a faraway graveyard, Cedric is brutally killed and Voldemort is reborn using Harry’s blood. Surrounded by Death Eaters, Harry and Voldemort duel, but Harry survives—through luck, yes, but also and perhaps most importantly through courage, resourcefulness and love—and at the last possible moment escapes to Hogwarts, bringing Cedric’s body back with him as he does.

The series has turned dark but, importantly, the darkness isn’t rot and it isn’t a darkness within the principal characters or situations. Instead it is a darkness resident in and arising from the difficulties of an adult world that the children of the school are inevitably discovering as they study, explore and grow up. This is a fantasy novel, so the darkness is incarnate, but this doesn’t change the basic structure or philosophical stance of the narrative.

At the end of this book, I’m genuinely interested in what the school will become and what role it is imagined to play in the unfolding drama. As it stands here and now, it seems very much like a bastion of admirable values and clear thinking where the best of people prepare (and help!) the young to step into their lives as good people. It’s a noble image and I wonder how it will hold up.

Mar 062019
 

I am and always have been a cat person. So after watching this movie, I think I understand what it must be like to read Harry Potter and know you’re a Slytherin.

Feline sympathies aside, I loved this movie. Andersen creates a universe and this one—like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom—is wonderful enough to wish it could last longer than it did.

Mar 062019
 

An Italian tough guy takes a job driving a gay, African-american artist through the pre-Civil Rights Act Deep South. By the end of the movie, the driver has realized that his boss is a person too. Meanwhile, the musician has learned to be a black man and to play black music and has even decided to come down off his high-and-mighty African throne, to leave his lonely gay castle, and to hang out with the driver’s family who are ready to accept him as if he were just a regular normal person. Ugh.

Formally, there’s nothing going on here. This is a well made conventional movie that is as by-the-book as they come. Drop the production value and cast some B- or C-tier stars and the film could be made for television. It is easy to look at, easy to watch, and easy to like without ever thinking about anything other than how great these guys are and how lucky they are to have each other in this bad, bad world that makes them both suffer. It is a near-perfect example of what Milan Kundera called kitsch: an object that allows us the opportunity to be pleased with our ability to shed tears.

Story-wise, I find this movie shocking. A story is a thought about the world, and this film’s thinking is as backwards and as out-of-touch as its most vociferous critics claim. It doesn’t deserve the work Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen put into it, and without their efforts, this movie likely would have bombed. But here’s the problem: focus on how these two weave their performances together and it’s easy to forget to notice (and definitely to wonder why) this movie is about the experiences of the guy who doesn’t think or reflect and who barely changes at all and not about the man who’s life provides the film with its conflict, who has chosen to embark on a personal, political quest and yet who remains in the end an enigma.

I think Ali earns his Oscar by constructing a performance to highlight the film’s blindness to his character’s life. (Think of the smile he flashes at the end of every musical number.) The film as a whole though neither earns nor deserves its Oscar. That the Academy voters would choose this film as the Best Picture of 2018 is an embarrassment and is depressing.

Mar 062019
 

A document from another world that I loved in part because it touched on aspects of my past in ways that made it possible to see how a life is a responsive rather than a fixed thing. A different choice here or some bad luck there and my own could have become something so different from what it is now as to be unrecognizable to me.

Which isn’t to say I would have been a free solo climber! I wouldn’t have been. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the starkness of Alex Honnold’s choices make my own less extreme and, therefore, less visible choices more obvious and more available for examination.

Stated differently, without being a philosophical figure and without being a philosophical film, Alex and Free Solo inhabit and illuminate a philosophical situation that provokes philosophical reflection. In this way—but also in its subject matter—it’s a nice companion piece to Into the Wild. Maybe The Snow Leopard as well.

Mar 042019
 

A heist goes bad in the middle of a contested municipal election and all the thieves are killed. The ringleader’s wife discovers the money involved belonged to one of the candidates when he comes to threaten her with the standard, “Get me my money back in a month or else.” Using a notebook her husband left behind, she teams up with the other widows to steal the money they need to get back on their feet. What follows involves twists and turns: this is after all a heist film. But in the end, the widows get the money, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

What stands out about the film is that it is a woman’s heist film that shows actual women pulling off the heist. They are not women doing action-star drag. Neither are they playing (romance) comedy wrapped up in a heist narrative. Instead, the film asks, what would a burglary involving all the familiar generic obstacles and stakes but planned and executed by these women look like? How would they do it? What would they bring to the table to make it possible? How would the thing itself—the sneaking, the dealing with alarms, the flight and the chase—play out? It’s interesting to watch and opens up new aspects of the genre. I like this a lot.

What I like less—and this is hard for me to admit—is watching Viola Davis’s performance. She’s always created emotional depth and vibrancy in her characters and then presented these through a quiet, stoic exterior that reads as strength, goodness or nobility. Here though, her character has such a hard and abrasive exterior—at times her character seems purposefully mean-spirited—that it feels less like a layer complicating an emotional life than like a wall is separating me from it completely. Maybe I’m overreacting from seeing her play beside a post-Taken Liam Neeson or maybe it’s because of memories of How to Get Away with Murder, a show I tried to watch but could not and which reminds me of her character here. Whatever the case, my experience of her performance of this character was at odds with what I felt the film was pushing me to feel vis-à-vis the “good guy-tough guy” role she was playing within the narrative. Tough resonated. Good, not so much.

Mar 012019
 

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Feb 282019
 

A really great monster movie that’s focused, brief and doesn’t bog down with world building. More importantly, it avoids cliché apocalyptic tropes. Think for too long and there’s a lot we don’t know about this situation. But none of it matters. We care about the family and we follow their story through to the movie’s efficient and early end. Great work.