Nus Masculins

A 1954 film by François Reichenbach restored and presented by the Cinémathèque française that I found through a blog post by José Arroyo. I can’t find a way to make the embed video link from the original site work, so you can watch it hosted by the Cinématheque here.

J. A. Martin, Photographe

Set in the late 18th century in Quebec, a wife finds people to care for her children and sets out with her husband as he makes his yearly rounds to take portraits of local people. The wife loves her husband, desires him physically, and feels lost and alone in the daily work of housekeeping and childcare. The film records their rediscovery of their love for each other after fifteen years of marriage. 

This film, shot almost exclusively under overcast skies, is quiet and sombre. People rarely speak and most seem to live miserably. But the protagonist insists on forging some kind of happiness with the man she still loves and Monique Mercure finds genuine depth of feeling by inventing a strong personality that plays against crushing external constraints. 

The movie ends with the couple glad to be back home and surprised by how beautiful this ordinary place they had grown to resent looks. In the final shot, the two embrace in bed, and immediately the baby begins to cry from another room. They decide to ignore it in order to stay with each other, agreeing that it will fall to sleep soon.

Of note: over the course of a long sequence involving three different locations and at least a day of story time, the film shows miscarriage as it happens. We see it’s onset and development without knowing what it is, and then watch the mother suffer through the fausse couche. The sequence ends with the father taking the handful of remains, which have been wrapped up by his wife in some old cloth, and walking off with a shovel to bury them. Ironically, this miscarriage is the first sign we have confirming that the couple are now having sex.

The Goblet of Fire

I found this movie pretty boring, but again, there’s so much going on in the book that there’s barely time to hit the essential points. Nuance and color isn’t going to survive even a two and a half hour adaptation.

I will say this though: there is joy in the source novel stemming from Harry’s struggles and successes in the early stages of the tournament which make its tragic conclusion—Cedrick’s death—that much more devastating. Worse, learning that the Death Eater impersonating Mad-Eye Moody has been cheating for Harry, which suggests the early joy was a cheat as well, feels like betrayal. It’s a bitter discovery to add to the already devastating finale.

In the movie however, the tournament struggles to make any sense at all, and so, to hope that subtleties of character and situation will survive is foolishness through and through. But with these subtleties gone and the tournament reduced to three action set-pieces—they’re all race-or-chases— the early joy goes out the window too. The thing is that I see that joy as the last truly pure, truly childlike happiness Harry experiences in the books, and I missed it not being there.

All that said, I have two principal take-aways from the movie:

  1. Robert Pattinson is a Hufflepuff. This explains everything.
  2. The scene in book in which Harry deciphers the second clue by bringing the golden egg to the pool in the prefects’ bathroom seemed to me when I read it to be very much—and very awkwardly—about Harry’s nakedness. Watching the movie, I now know that I am not the only one to have understood this to be the case, and for the record, I’m relieved.

The Prisoner of Azkaban

Columbus’s first two films offer a realist portrait of a magical school. Cuarón’s film offers a magical portrait, both gothic and expressionistic, and that makes all the difference.

The cost of the elevation in style is paid in plot, which is here reduced to something like a sketch that’s so vague I wonder what someone who didn’t have the original novel in their head would make of the thing. But ultimately, the source novels are so densely plotted cuts were inevitable. At least here they are made in the service of something other than distribution constraints.

However beautiful this film, it marks the point in the series where my experience of the novels and their adaptations diverge. The choices this movie makes don’t coincide with my narrative interests. So I wound up slightly annoyed with what was and wasn’t shown and deeply annoyed with how this affects our sense of the characters and their relationships. (Lupin is better than this!)

This annoyance is a problem I’m certain is only going to get worse as I work through the remaining films.

Harry Potter: Stone & Secrets

So after finishing the books, I decided to watch the Harry Potter movies. They’re fine but not interesting enough for me to log one by one. If I tried, I’d just run out of things to say.

As far as the first two movies go, they do a great job of showing the stories and characters in live action, and the choices they make address limitations of space and the absence of discursive narration. They are also very much movies for children and are satisfied with capturing the most basic sense of the excitement of going to school to learn magic. (School would be awesome if we were learning magic!) All of this is fine, but I’ll never need to see either of them again.

One thing has been settled though: as I was reading the series I kept wondering how many of the movies I’d seen, and now I know I had only ever seen the first. All the images I had in my head of the others came from the trailers.

Grace à dieux

Ozon is a filmmaker I’ve followed consistently if not carefully for twenty years. So I was surprised to see him making a film about the sexual abuses of catholic priests. There’s so much opportunity for audiences to confuse homosexuality and pedophilia that I was surprised to see him wandering into the morass. And yet, he’s made his film, and I’ve seen it, and despite myself, I think it’s quite extraordinary.

Why does it work? Because he’s brought to bear every single aspect of his previous filmmaking in order to make it work. This is a film made by a melodramatist, who uses his sensitivity to form and to the moral implications of form to construct a non-melodramatic account of a group of victims’ discovery of the possibility of and their decision to pursue political-legal action. It is a film made by a sexually playful and campy gay man, who shows the temptation and the fall of a priest who could have loomed as a queer monster but who instead appears in his final scenes to be a disturbed man, an ill man who has a same-sex (rather than heterosex) object of desire. It is a film made by an actors’ director who is working with artists cast exactly into the correct roles.

The film is long. It is troubling. It is even difficult. But most of all, it is moving.

Aquaman

Unexpectedly, incredibly, this film has jumped to the top rungs of my informal list of favorite superhero movies. Visually and narratively, there’s no predicting what comes next. It’s insane. Also everyone is swimming all the time. And Aquaman talks to the fish. Patrick Wilson is present.

In short, this film is hitting a lot of buttons I didn’t realize I had but that, now that they’re activated and flashing green, I cannot deny.

I’ll be watching this one again.

Ruben Brandt, Collector

The Beav brought me to see this film as part of a birthday outing. I’d not heard of it and his only context for the choice was “I think we’ll each have something to like.” He was right.

This is an animated action heist movie about someone building a collection of paintings done in a style that is both reverential, referential and grotesque.

In the end, we both liked it and were both put off by it. So it made for a great movie to watch together.

Captain Marvel

This movie has me thinking about some of the danger points in Marvel’s multi-textual narrative strategy. The first is that the component movies must absolutely work individually until there are enough of them to make the over-narrative visible. Marvel surmounted this challenge with seeming ease. The early Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies were individual successes that elicited and encouraged attention to the narrative that wasn’t yet visible.

However, now that over-narrative has become primary. Individual movies are no longer viewed primarily as individual movies even if they are (and to Marvel’s credit they clearly are) made to be individual success. Instead, they are viewed—consumed actually—as steps on the way to the next episode of the over-narrative. And so in this later stage of the multi-textual enterprise, the second danger that emerges, is that these movies will be products of negative space, simply blocks filling in pieces, trifles.

Captain Marvel is a good movie. Brie Larson is great. I liked it a lot. I don’t really care about anything in it though, and very much feel like it exists to introduce me to and convince me to buy into the human god-figure who will fix the Infinity War problem. What I wonder is this: will I think differently and better of it after Endgame has come and gone and let it off the hook?

Two final thoughts. This movie reminds me of Green Lantern so much I looked up whether they shared cast or crew. (Despite the cultural consensus around that movie, this is, for me, a very good thing.) Also, the family here is lesbian. I take this as obvious, and yet, it is never stated or even really hinted in any direct way. This left me feeling a bit gay-baited by yet another not-gay gay film of the sort that seems to be very much the rage these days.

Edge of Tomorrow

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.

The Matrix

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.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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?

Isle of Dogs

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.

Green Book

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.

Free Solo

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.

Widows

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.

A Quiet Place

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.