Archive for February 2021

Nomadland

February 28, 2021

nomadlandThere’s a Facebook group called “Capitalist Dystopia Stories Rebranded as Heartwarming Bullshit.” It provides links to news bits like the recent one in which a seven-year-old girl is selling lemonade to help pay for her brain surgery. I don’t know how we got to be a society that isn’t horrified by this. Anyway, stuff like that may help explain why the more I think about Nomadland the angrier I get. The movie is beautifully made (though not “poetic,” as many will tag it, so much as pictorial). It’s also heartwarming bullshit. Taking off from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland gives us a community of good earthy folk who live in vans and RVs, roaming the country, taking temp work. This is the nicest movie about homelessness, financial despair and human frailty you’ll ever see.

Frances McDormand anchors the plotless, anecdotal film, but her role has been shaped by writer-director Chloé Zhao to make her the anchor — it’s an actor’s delight, a silently strong hero who stoically suffers. Zhao is known for filling her movies (previously, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) with nonactors “playing” themselves, and with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn as Dave, a quietly unstable fellow nomad, that’s how Nomadland is cast. McDormand plays a woman named Fern — the name isn’t far off from “Fran” — and her last name starts with “McD.” So is McDormand also playing herself? Let’s say she seems to be behaving as Fern, just inhabiting Fern with as few frills as possible. After a while it seems to be an exercise in how much of herself she can suppress.

I’m as hooked into Amazon as anyone, but the movie’s wishy-washy depiction of Amazon warehouses as places that give our kind nomads a nice paycheck or two stuck in my craw. See, the film unavoidably says, Amazon doesn’t exploit desperate Americans — it helps them. Thank God for the largesse of our corporate overlords! Will you be requiring anything else, sirs? The people in Nomadland, though, aren’t defined by the work they do. They all seem to have opted out of the rat race. Many are out there in their vans because the economy cast them off, but we hear a lot more often from the nomads who just can’t get used to sleeping under a roof, in a soft bed. They want to live under the stars with others of their tribe. So the movie really has no political or economic consciousness at all. Taken to its logical conclusion, Nomadland could be saying that all homeless are homeless by choice; they’re just not built for house living or careers.

Fern sits and talks with real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. Two examples of this are of monumental tastelessness. One woman, Charlene Swankie (named only as “Swankie” in the film), plays a scene in which she has a headache and confides that she has cancer and hasn’t been given long to live. The actual Swankie is healthy, and the movie mixes fact and fiction in this sort of strange way, asking a nonactor to pretend she has a mortal illness. The other example finds nomadic guru Bob Wells getting choked up as he tells Fern about his son, who committed suicide. As it happens, that tragedy did in fact befall Wells. But it takes us out of the movie (is his story real or scripted? we wonder), as Swankie’s feigned illness also does.

Chloé Zhao has no anger in her about how the country has failed these nomads, how it uses them up and denies they exist. She’d rather just groove on the serene vibe of a group of outcasts sitting together around a fire, being each other’s family. As drama, Nomadland is pretty null; the emotional crescendo comes when we gasp at Dave accidentally dropping some of Fern’s cherished dishes. Yet Fern’s anger at Dave gets the movie to snap into focus for a moment — suddenly, McDormand has a professional actor to play off of, and she lunges at the opportunity while scrupulously staying within the cramped bounds she sets for Fern. But as far as we can see, there isn’t anyone scary out in Nomadland or violent or mean. Nobody ever seems in trouble. Everyone looks after each other. It all seems very nice. If the film gets any award traction it’ll be due to the current moment’s collective yearning for community. But let’s not be numbed to the cold realities of being nomads, or the larger society that has, through economic or social pressure, ejected them. Nomadland comes close to saying whatever happens to drifters and vandwellers is okay, because they have each other.

The Stylist

February 21, 2021

stylist

Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a hair stylist, and a good one. A loner who lives with a limping little dog, her attempts at small talk with her clients are a bit awkward, but she’s trusted enough to get a wedding-hairdo gig for Olivia (Brea Grant), a hard-charging magazine editor. What Olivia doesn’t know is that Claire is lonely to the point of psychosis. In her basement, Claire keeps an assortment of pretty scalps on glass mannequin heads; she tries on each one and pretends to be the woman she scalped. The Stylist, cowritten and directed by Jill Gevargizian, is an expansion of her 2016 short film (you can watch the short on YouTube). Here and there the burn is slow, but the feature doesn’t feel padded. Claire is part Leatherface and part Frank from the gory cult horror film Maniac, and almost every frame is devoted to her.

The difference between Gevargizian’s film and the recent Saint Maud, which also concerns a deeply troubled young woman and her thorny relation to the outside world, is that Gevargizian is simply a better filmmaker who knows when to sprinkle some humor, some humanity, some suspense. The Stylist is far-fetched but emotionally readable. It’s not going to show us the nuts and bolts of how exactly Claire has been getting away with her hobby; that part isn’t very important to Gevargizian, the disposal of bodies and so forth, not to mention how Claire poisons or drugs her victims so that she can scalp in peace. We wait uneasily for one of the unwilling hair donors to blink awake. More than once, Claire finds herself somewhere she shouldn’t be, and manages to hide or flee smoothly enough that we may wonder how much of her nocturnal activity is real.

A lot of this will crumble apart if subjected to too much literal scrutiny, so let’s not. Gevargizian intends The Stylist as a bloody, wincing metaphor for yearning for someone else’s life. A hair stylist herself, Gevargizian knows how well-heeled women talk to those they consider their servants, even if they fancy themselves too liberal to use that word for people who, in fact, serve them. Women frequently complain to Claire about their cushy but dull lives, not knowing they’re talking to someone who would gladly take over those lives. Claire never really does, though. She doesn’t go out on the town with her new identity as a blonde or a brunette; she sits in front of a mirror in her basement lair and talks to herself, echoing her victims’ dialogue. Even her insane method of self-actualization is smothered in secrecy — and isolation.

Claire’s ultimate project would appear to be Olivia, though it’s by no means clear that Claire would know what to do with Olivia’s life if she had it. As the movie approaches Olivia’s wedding, we wonder how it will play out; will Claire snap out of it and give up her extracurriculars, or will Gevargizian jump into the deep end along with Claire? That’s the source of most of the suspense and dread in The Stylist. Unlike the critically lionized Saint Maud, this film is actually about something besides the degraded mood of watching a sad woman deteriorate beyond help. It seems concerned with different strains of resentment — between women, and between socioeconomic classes. It follows a cracked protagonist without making the mistake of excusing her — or condemning her. It’s also one hell of a gnarly horror film, and one that has no shame whatsoever about that.

Saint Maud

February 14, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-14 at 6.53.03 PMEvery couple of years, a little oddity emerges from the indie-cinema beat and gets lionized as the next great thing to happen to horror. Generally these films are scrupulously calibrated and express the drive and obsession that a young filmmaker — in this case, Rose Glass, a British writer-director about thirty — feels about a story or a theme. What they don’t express is true fear. Glass’s feature debut, Saint Maud, meditates on a lonely young woman burning in shame. Once known as Katie, a bit of a wildcat, she has changed her name to Maud, shifted her nursing emphasis from hospital to hospice, and given herself over to God. At this point, I’ve seen so many somber art films about the rigors and torments of faith that a movie just amiable and matter-of-fact about Christianity (and no, not one of those awful belches of propaganda that usually star Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron, either) would be genuinely radical and unique.

Saint Maud follows its lead (Morfydd Clark in a tremulous, detailed performance) as she tries to take care of her client, former dancer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), struck down by lymphoma and approaching the end. Maud tries to get Amanda to hand it over to God, but Amanda isn’t biting. She fears the void but is reasonably sure there’s nothing else for her. Amanda’s doubts make Maud’s own misgivings flare up. Aside from a few people who seem to exist only to anger Maud, the movie really only has these two characters, and once Maud cuts herself out of Amanda’s orbit, it’s just Maud, and Jennifer Ehle’s serenely mordant vibe is badly missed.

Clark performs heroically, free of self-consciousness, worrying at her flesh or kneeling on popcorn kernels (ouch, but using Legos might’ve been funnier). For her part, Rose Glass takes the dread and anguish with the utmost seriousness, as if afraid to be unworthy of Maud’s stations of the cross. Glass creates a dour, foreboding mood that nobody is really allowed to tease — not even Ehle, handed this potentially juicy role but then finding most of the juice has dried up. In Saint Maud, I can tell what I’m supposed to be responding to, but it feels tepid and frequently-told one way or another. As Maud’s visions get weirder, the quiet material takes a Nestea plunge into loud horror; the film was distributed by A24, which also gave us the work of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, and A24 would probably like you to think of Saint Maud as the next Hereditary or The Witch. The film has already inspired comparably caffeinated songs of critical praise; I wish I’d seen the same film they did, but the one I saw, frankly, feels twice as long as it is, and it’s only 84 minutes long. The one I saw is almost punitively dreary and grim; even an anecdote of casual sex, which should be an occasion to get some fresh air and acknowledge the power of pleasure, just ends in casual rape.

Rose Glass brings some verve and emotional vividness to the narrative. It’s not a bad movie, just glum and unengaging. Maud’s story just feels too familiar; it spends a lot of time competing with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (another A24 film) for the championship in tragically repressive religiosity, and then towards the end it’s as though First Reformed turned into The Exorcist. Yes, it’s likely imaginary, but the tonal damage is done. The true horror lies in watching a miserable loner spiral into madness, which is well-covered ground by now anyway, but the lapse into the often-tacky visual vocabulary of genre horror just shatters the spell.

Glass has talent and sensitivity, but a lot of potential drama in the material just slips through her fingers. And we get back to my earlier point: where’s the fear? Is there anything in Saint Maud that truly scares Glass? Sometimes, at good and bad horror movies, you might get one scene that truly feels sweated over, something that emerged from a genuine nightmare. But Glass doesn’t seem disturbed by her subject; she doesn’t seem to feel one way or the other about it. The story is just an excuse for slow-burn scenes with Maud trudging through her lightless existence until she finally goes completely around the bend. Does Glass feel anything at all about Maud? I didn’t.

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez

February 12, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-07 at 5.49.08 PMOn a lot of levels, Les Daniels’ 1971 book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America tweaked my ideas of what comics could be. Spain Rodriguez’ anti-bourgeois underground comix hero Trashman was a particularly sharp tweak. Here, relatively early in my experience of superheroes, was an artist with the heart of a biker and the soul of a revolutionary who created an anti-hero, nonwhite to boot, that didn’t care whether larger society approved of him. Down these mean streets a man must go, who is himself quite mean and tarnished but not afraid. Spain may not have been mean — one of his comics stories shows him hesitant to kick a biker adversary when he was down — but he was often the first to admit he was tarnished.

Directed by Spain’s widow Susan Stern, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is a portrait of a man who didn’t take well to being told what to do from the right or the left. Neither did most of Spain’s contemporaries in the pages of the seminal Zap comic, such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, or the recently departed S. Clay Wilson. Many of the male underground artists weathered pointed criticism by feminist comix creators and/or historians (Trina Robbins, who is both, is interviewed here); of them all, Wilson, with his fixation on filthy outcasts and pirates hacking off limbs and genitals, was perhaps the most glaringly “problematic.” So why did Rodriguez, whose depictions of women were relatively benign, take such heat? An unhappy reason begins to fade in: Rodriguez was the nonwhite guy in a collective of pale guys, and his work had a political consciousness that afflicted the comfortable without much bothering to comfort the afflicted.

Stern’s film is about as neutral as it can be, spiced up with archival footage and copious examples of its subject’s art. It doesn’t come near Terry Zwigoff’s masterpiece Crumb, though maybe only because Spain’s life doesn’t offer as much baroque family stuff to work with. In Crumb, you can see for yourself what skewed young Crumb’s perception and drove him to get out. Bad Attitude gives us an artist who seems to have arrived fully formed. Like many of his generation, Spain grew up on the grotesque EC line of horror and crime comics in the ‘50s, and those fed his warts-and-all aesthetic as much as anything. Spain’s comix are highly entertaining, especially his autobiographical biker stories, though I’m partial to his street scenes, masses of humanity moving through boxes of lights and buildings. It’s hard to envision a Spain comic that doesn’t have streets in it, usually littered with junk and billboarded with actual ad art snipped out of magazines. The underground artists were all about drawing stuff you’d never seen in comics before, and that could mean perverse sex and it could also mean just the usual detritus you kick out of your way walking through the city, stuff you wouldn’t see in Superman or Fantastic Four.

Either way, the underground artist was after a more authentic way of representing the world as he or she lived it, and that was certainly Spain’s M.O. (Cancer finally took him in 2012 at age 72.) Spain may not have “gotten” feminism (but struggled to understand it and its evolution all his life), but the ladies all seemed to dig him. (A few, including Stern, pose holding a Spain drawing of their younger, more zaftig selves.) The movie assures us that Spain may not have been 100% enlightened on every progressive topic, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn. His man-eating heroines like Big Bitch are essentially Wonder Woman filtered through Spain’s wish-fulfillment of women as powerful, sexy icons.

Seeing your subject as more than human is, sadly, a kinder way of dehumanizing than seeing your subject as less than human. In both cases the subject isn’t quite human. It’s a common thread in art, but not, I would guess, out of any conscious hatred or need to deny humanity; the artist just naturally has a different take on what humanity is. The highlight of Bad Attitude focuses on one of Spain’s slice-of-life anecdotes about the time he and some buddies encounter a gay guy in the park (who pleasures at least one of them) and then beat him up and “roll” him for his dough. Spain just presents the story without comment — “This is what happened.” In the story, titled “Dessert” and collected in the Fantagraphics Spain volume My True Story, Spain mostly stands apart from the abuse and witnesses it. Should he have intervened? Sure, but he didn’t. He recounts it for us but doesn’t tell us how to feel about it or about him. The last panel of the comic, though, shows the bloodied but unbowed gay guy saying “I can’t wait to come back again next week.” So the joke is on his abusers, who only got what was in his wallet but didn’t take anything important, didn’t stop him from further pursuit of illicit fun. That Spain not only gave the gay guy the last word but imagined a sympathetic way for him to flip the script makes Spain, I think, a great artist who was honest about the failings of humans but not nihilistic. Neither a good nor bad attitude, then — just realistic.