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The Sight and Sound Poll, 2022

December 4, 2022


Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has published a list of ten “greatest films of all time.” The polls are answered traditionally by movie critics (not me), and since 1992 a group of film directors has also been asked to join in. For a long time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane topped the list — the directors’ list, too — and the rest of the entries were the usual (albeit usually great) suspects: directed by males, often white, often Baby Boomer-designated masterpieces. This year, though, there were some big changes, sending many commentators to their fainting couches. The poll is dead! The young and “woke” have risen up in their throngs and killed it!

What sparked all the fuss is that for the first time, a woman — a lesbian, to boot — took the top spot. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is three hours and twenty-one minutes long, is in French, and focuses on the daily chores and activities of a Belgian woman (Delphine Seyrig), sounds almost like a parody of an egghead film-snob darling. (I haven’t yet seen it, but I want to, if only to spite the growling dudes who take its ascension so poorly.) Some rational objectors did say things like “I like Akerman, but this isn’t her best work,” and some of them may even have been sincere. (The extent to which I took gripes about the list seriously depended on the speed with which the griper reached for “woke” as a cudgel to hit the young’uns with. Also, some of the demurrals had the same month-old-Fruit-Stripe flavor as the 2016-era “I’ll vote for a woman for president, just not Hillary.”) The weird thing is, the film gives you what movies are supposed to give. It gives you a story, it gives you (eventually) sex, and it gives you (very eventually) violence. It just does it on a different timetable than usual.

I’m not saying you should see the film; I don’t want death threats. This isn’t about Jeanne Dielman, it’s about the poll and what it tells us about where we are now. For some, it’s an omen of the cultural takeover of the sinister “wokesters” who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like and who, for the most part, exist only in the febrile imaginations of Fox News talking heads and their ilk. These whippersnappers, the logic goes, are guilty of bad faith in elevating a tedious work by a gay woman because it’s politically correct to do so. For others, it signals a shift in priorities and sensibility, and not necessarily in a bad way. It may also mean nothing more troubling than that, until 2010, when Criterion put it out on DVD, a good many people outside Europe had never had a chance to see it at all. (It wasn’t screened in American theaters until 1983.) Now that it’s also streaming (HBO Max has it, as well as Criterion’s on-demand app), it’s easier than ever to access — though maybe not to sit through.

As far as I could see, none of the grumpy anti-wokesters (asleepsters?) at least cleared their throats, shook off the two-minute hate, and allowed that some stuff on the new list furnished us all anew with the will to live. Nope, nothing but ashes and sackcloths over in Asleepster Village. Me, I’m tickled as hell that David Lynch is in the top ten (Mulholland Drive, #8). Kubrick’s still on there; Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu too. I also don’t believe lists should exist to gatekeep. Since when is there a boss of culture, demanding that no film can ever be greater than Citizen Kane, no album better than Sgt. Pepper, ad nauseum? This list in particular gives us some stuff to chew on, some gaps to fill. A long-gone co-worker and friend used to say “Oh, you have a treat in store” if you said you hadn’t yet read or seen something. The list this time offers some potential treats aside from the usual stale Necco wafers of Film 101 vintage. (The directors’ list puts Akerman in fourth place, tied with Tokyo Story.)

Also as far as I can see, Citizen Kane hasn’t been eradicated by the state or vanished from everyone’s shelf. It’s still there. So are all the earlier lists where it’s #1 or #2. (For the record, it didn’t make the first Sight and Sound list in 1952. The king then was Bicycle Thieves.) Jeanne Dielman may only top the list this one time, and be supplanted in 2032 by, I don’t know, Caddyshack or something. And then the usual complainers will complain, and some will say “Hmm. That certainly is a list,” and look into whatever new top-tenners sound interesting. I’ll probably stream Jeanne Dielman somewhere down the line, but I wish it were shorter. If they wanted to pick an arrogantly static French art film directed by a woman, couldn’t they have gone with Marguerite Duras’ The Truck? It’s peak French art-film — a conversation about a nonexistent movie — but it’s only 80 minutes long. The length, mentioned by every review good or bad, is what makes Jeanne Dielman seem like a Mount Everest to be scaled and mastered, not simply to watch and listen to. Maybe people should just pretend they’re binging a three-episode Netflix series.

I Didn’t See You There

October 30, 2022


Reid Davenport is a filmmaker based in Oakland, California. He has made several short films (a few of which can be watched on the library-affiliated streamer Kanopy) about disability; his feature-length debut, I Didn’t See You There, turns the camera around to the world around him. As someone with cerebral palsy who requires a wheelchair to get around, Davenport is unhappily accustomed to being, as he says here, looked at but not seen. Disabled people, Davenport knows all too well, are often objects and seldom subjects (the moment here when he politely but firmly asks wannabe-helpful abled people “Please don’t touch me” will ring a sharp bell for many disabled viewers).

When a circus tent goes up near Davenport’s apartment building — making it well-nigh impossible to avoid the tent in many scenes he films near his home — he folds it neatly into the movie he’s making and the point he’s making with it. Davenport grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, hometown of P.T. Barnum. For a mordant disabled artist like Davenport, this is a happenstance almost too sweet to ignore; he reminds us that Barnum popularized the “freak show,” which pressed the often severely disabled into service to be gawked at in a context of horror. The circus tent is a constant reason for Davenport to muse on his town’s most famous son and how Barnum might have found employment for Davenport.

But largely this is a first-person account, literally, the audience seeing what Davenport sees. The camera, turned away from its wielder, looks at abled people the way they look at disabled people. Sometimes they’re oblivious to Davenport; sometimes they’re solicitous, whether genuinely or merely performatively it’s hard to tell. For a stretch or two, the movie successfully depicts a day in the life of a disabled person as a constant mosquito-hum of microaggressions (sometimes not so micro). People leave power cords dangling across an accessibility ramp, not out of ableist evil but because, unlike disabled people, they don’t have to devote a big chunk of their everyday time to thinking about the realities of disability.

It’s enough to make someone do what Davenport does at one point: get home and loudly drop an F-bomb. But it’s not enough for Davenport to turn his camera into an empathy machine, to put abled viewers in his position of literally being looked down on all the time. He also records the sidewalk under his wheels and the walls that blur past as he rolls, turning them into abstract visuals that go on a bit (impatient viewers may have to recalibrate accordingly). I found those bits sometimes lulling, sometimes bleak, never just empty pictorial poetry. When Davenport goes back home to Bethel to visit his family, the neighborhoods are very nice and full of flowers and spacious back yards. What they aren’t is accessible. It’s easier for someone like Davenport to get around in a big city, which despite a rep for crime also has good public transportation and long stretches of sidewalks, than in the suburbs, which are designed more for walkers and car owners — the affluent and abled.

Davenport has an eye — the movie isn’t visual broccoli, the camera locates beauty and stillness amid the urban bustle and the bumps in the sidewalk. He’s also quick to advocate for himself, again politely but firmly. He’s witty enough to win over abled viewers as well as the perhaps tougher audience of skeptical disabled viewers. Possibly what works most in his favor is that he speaks only for himself; he doesn’t position himself as inspiration or as a voice for every disabled person everywhere. He just shows us what he sees. That makes the film closer to subjective art than to a “documentary.” It uses the leveling power of cinema to put us in Davenport’s chair and let us experience the insults and indifference he faces. That may sound like a bummer, but I’m happy we have the film.

Licorice Pizza

March 6, 2022


When you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may have been one of many who asked, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ‘70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ‘70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem. 

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie. 

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe playpen for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.


October 31, 2021


Olivia Munn has been on my radar since 2006, when she started as one of the hosts of G4’s goofball gamers-and-geeks program Attack of the Show. Even then, when the show had her jumping into a giant chocolate pie wearing a French maid outfit, Munn had a certain spark and wit, and perhaps an aptitude for things beyond farce. All she needed, I thought, was for someone to notice. In the years since, Munn has appeared in this and that, as a lead or as support, but it took the former actress Justine Bateman — maybe not coincidentally also underestimated — to bring the best out of Munn. 

Violet, which Bateman wrote and directed, is a highly interiorized psychodrama in which Munn, as the eponymous movie-production exec, deals with intrusive sounds, images, and an inner male voice, all telling her she’s not good enough. Using editing tricks as well as an effective technique of slowly turning the screen red to suggest Violet’s growing anger, Bateman puts us inside Violet’s head, feelings, wants and needs and fears. She makes it look easy, and some viewers may shrug and say “Is that all there is?” — the film is not plot-bound — but I’d like to point out how rare it is these days for a filmmaker to make time to get to know a woman. It’s a true feminist work, and it doesn’t pretend the usual suspects (men, work, family, friends) will fix what’s wrong with Violet.

And what is wrong? Violet has a flashback to her unpleasant mother chastising her as a little girl for backing out of helping a friend. We gather that Violet learned to tamp her emotions down and keep everyone else happy while ignoring her own happiness. She developed an inner critic (voiced by Justin Theroux) that keeps telling her things like “Be nice” or “You’re a baby.” Violet’s genuine thoughts and wants are written on the screen as she interacts with people who don’t really care what she wants. Since the inner voice once advised her to leave candles burning in an apartment she shared with a boyfriend, you’d think she’d stop listening to it, but such things are much easier said than done.

Charismatic and convincingly torn up inside, Munn is pretty much front and center throughout. She takes inspiration from the screen-written thoughts about feeling uncomfortable in her own skin; about the only person Violet might feel okay talking to is her lifelong friend Red (Luke Bracey), a screenwriter. If we ask why Violet’s milieu is Hollywood, the answer might be that Bateman is writing what she knows. It also allows for conflicts involving what Violet wants to produce; her pet project is a poetic indie script called Fox Run, though her boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) knows it has a slim chance of getting financed. At first, the boss seems to drop his mask and show his true misogynist colors a bit quickly, but Bateman is saying that this is what happens when a powerful man’s ego is pinpricked, his privilege challenged. We remember that insecure men are generally the ones who determine which, and whose, stories we are told in movies. Bateman’s two male co-producers must be secure indeed.

Violet is not man-bashing, though. A few women also annoy or disrespect Violet, and the root of her self-loathing appears to be her mother. Bateman’s own leanings are apparent in the casting, which brings back women who haven’t been in movies much of late — Laura San Giacomo, Bonnie Bedelia, Anne Ramsay, Colleen Camp. The crew, though, is gender-mixed, as we see in a post-credits montage of various technicians, ending with Bateman herself, passing by the camera and pausing for a smile, a pose, a peace gesture. Their efforts have given us a supple and empathetic story of a woman who needs to start listening to herself, if her self is still in there somewhere.


August 8, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-08-08 at 10.43.16 AM

Frustrated viewers may pick apart Pig until there’s nothing left. Pig is one of those quietly opaque art-house wonders, in which volumes of meaning are meant to be expressed by what’s not said. But more often than not it just comes across as muffled and boring, despite Nicolas Cage’s implosive restraint in the lead. Cage plays Robin Feld, who lives off the grid in the Oregon woods with his beloved pig. The pig is great at sniffing out truffles, and Robin sells them to a Portland food supplier (Alex Wolff), whose business is in competition with his rich, shady father (Adam Arkin). Late at night, a couple of meth-heads break into Robin’s shack and steal the pig. Robin spends the rest of the film trying to get her back.

Pig takes the form of a mystery wherein Robin goes from place to place in the big bad city, questioning various people. The subtext here is that Robin, who suffered a grave loss that pushed him into solitude, is taking a tour through his past … which turns out to be the seamy, violent underworld of … the Portland gourmet-restaurant scene. If you think about that for a minute it sounds richly ridiculous, and since the movie itself is so dolorous and glacially paced, we may not feel generous enough to supply metaphorical analysis to it. The movie is decidedly not for the sort of moviegoers who stand out in the parking lot afterwards saying things like “Why did he do that?” and “Who were all those people?”

All those people are from Robin’s past life; they also represent something or another. They would have to, because the first-time writer-director Michael Sarnoski doesn’t seem to care about them as people. One scene between Robin and a baker is filmed entirely in long shot; we never even see what the baker looks like. This sort of pompously minimalist filmmaking makes me itchy. Pig, I think, is using its obscure milieu to represent the larger capitalist society that grinds up good people, sends them grieving into the woods, and steals their pigs. But the tone is dreary and sometimes off-putting, and the camera isn’t where it needs to be half the time. We can see what Sarnoski is going for, but the drab conception trips him up. It’s depressive and logy and, even at only 92 minutes, a tough sit.

Cage often does manic jazz riffs, but this time he limits the number of notes he allows himself. It allows Cage to focus, bear down. The pain radiates from Robin in muted waves; two beatings early in the movie leave his face smeared with blood, which he never bothers to wash off. We empathize even though the specifics of Robin’s inner anguish are only supplied to us piecemeal. I imagine Cage reading the artfully fill-in-the-blanks script and saying “I can do something with this.” What he does with it is probably worth seeing, though honestly he’s been far better, and the movie leans too heavily on him to hold itself together. A key moment near the end — even here, Sarnoski pretentiously cuts the sound — provides the catharsis for the whole creaky contraption, and with anyone but Cage it’d be a bad joke.

Some will succumb to the taciturn literariness of Pig, and others, like me, will grow restless. The narrative arrow couldn’t be straighter — Robin wants his pig back — but the filmmaking lacks urgency. I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t buying it. It happens. I’m perfectly willing to concede that Pig is a work of art that just bounces off me for whatever reason. It’s certainly not the work of the usual anonymous shmoes. Sarnoski clearly cares about this story; I don’t at all doubt his sincerity. But the connection between art and us can be so delicate, so easily broken — or stronger than a steel cable — all depending on us. Ultimately, I think, the technique — recall that long shot of Robin and the baker — kept me at arm’s length, kept me from wanting to engage it as the sort of art that requires us to finish it. Some will finish it and come away with a compelling meditation on life. I came away with fragmented memories of Cage whenever the director got out of his way.

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

July 25, 2021


They keep dredging up Hunter S. Thompson’s bones, even as the passage of time pegs him as a cautionary tale, an Icarus who flew too close to his own inner sun. This time his skeleton is being made to speak for a good cause, I guess — the importance of voting. Fear and Loathing in Aspen is a largely fictionalized and aimless account of Thompson’s run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970. The story has been told before, in Thompson’s own “The Battle of Aspen” — his first Rolling Stone piece — and in last year’s documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb. This microbudget docudrama can’t afford the star power or psychedelic imagery of previous HST cinema (Where the Buffalo Roam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary), though it does one thing right; its mildly fuzzy-grainy look makes Aspen out as a homey idyll worth fighting for. (It was shot in Silverton, about four hours south of Aspen.)

Primarily a writer/director, the lead actor Jay Bulger bravely steps into Thompson’s Converse shoes, competing not only with those who went before (Depp, Murray) but with copious recordings of HST himself. Bulger does look the part, and he sets his body or jaw at querulous angles while his voice dips into Thompson’s gruff, rounded tones. It’s just that he isn’t tasked to move much beyond impersonation, and whatever Thompson feels about his quixotic run at the system — fear, loathing, hope, anything — remains a blank to us. His supporters seem to care more about whether he wins or loses than he does, and that puts a real damper on how much we care, especially if we remember the actual outcome. If there’s a larger story here, writer/director Bobby Kennedy III (yes, RFK’s grandson) doesn’t locate it.

The film is edited at a clip (it’s only an hour and twenty minutes plus end credits) but never really comes to rest. Too much of the narrative flips by as montage — Thompson gladhanding potential voters, the powers that be trying to squelch him — and only briefly settles down to spend time with Thompson or his family or his campaign manager (Amaryllis Fox, who is Kennedy’s wife). So the film leaves the impression that the events, which blur past, were more significant than the people involved. Thompson is always spouting rural, isolationist rhetoric (being able to drop a dookie in his own back yard seems important to him), but we don’t get a sense of what the place means to him. At some points he seems to be running just to spite the clownish cops. (Are there only two? What, if anything, do the other cops make of Thompson?) There doesn’t seem to be much at stake. A certain lack of focus is probably baked into any Hunter Thompson story, but in that case we need more than a tepidly reanimated Raoul Duke to hold our attention.

Fear and Loathing in Aspen isn’t terrible — in some ways it’s preferable to the SNL-level tomfoolery of Where the Buffalo Roam insofar as it tries to ground itself in some semblance of the real world — but it’s tough to recommend when Thompson’s own account is right there (it’s in his essential collection The Great Shark Hunt). The definitive aesthetic action painting of Thompson’s chaotic realm will likely remain Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which at least offered a surplus of bad trips (not all narcotic) for Gilliam to illustrate. This film doesn’t add to the HST tapestry of representation; Bulger tries, but lacks the inner wildness that Depp and Murray had. (Those two also had the advantage of hanging out with the real deal, something sadly denied future interpreters of Gonzo since 2005.) 

The final shots leave us with an image of Thompson outdoors grinning manically up at the clean sky, the savage beast restored to nature and soothed. This beast, this giant, is too untamed and pure for politics or society. Rejected by a majority of his fellow townspeople, he retreats into solitude, and from there, in real life, a prolonged slide into solipsism and self-parody. The family of man is decadent and depraved, Thompson seemed to conclude, and he withdrew in disgust (which, as Richard Linklater told us, is not the same as apathy). Meanwhile, as the movie has it, the corrupt sheriff stays in power and things, presumably, do not improve. There’s something sour and sad behind those last shots. The movie carries the inadvertent toxic message that voting doesn’t change anything, running for office doesn’t change anything, so you might as well get blitzed and shoot at things on your back acre for all the good anything’s going to do. Well, thanks.


July 3, 2021

The opening salvo of Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War is “They murdered him.” Though the “murder” is a figure of speech, it resonates throughout the book — and also its belated sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.

Cormier, who died in 2000, started as a journalist and columnist, then branched out into novels for adults (Now and At the Hour, 1960; A Little Raw on Monday Mornings, 1963; Take Me Where the Good Times Are, 1965). In 1974 he published The Chocolate War, which like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was about teenagers but was dark and complex enough to reach adults. In the end, millions of teenage readers embraced the book despite its harshness and its depressive ending — or probably because of those things. They responded to what Cormier had to offer, the one thing a cynical teenager can respect — honesty. Life often sucks, Cormier and his book said, and good doesn’t always win; indeed, through sheer force of will, or friends in high places, evil frequently triumphs.

Both books are set at Trinity, an all-boys Catholic school. Trinity is run by a secret society of students called The Vigils, who meet in darkness and come up with “assignments” devised by their sociopathic leader, Archie Costello. Another boy, the tough jock Carter, is The Vigils’ president, but everyone knows the smart and manipulative Archie is really in charge. The “assignments” are pranks carried out by hapless underclassmen, selected by Archie with the help of his conflicted right-hand man Obie. Nobody really likes Archie, and Archie doesn’t like anyone either. Nor does he hate anyone. To Archie, a person is only a collection of flaws and passions to be exploited.

We never see Archie’s home life or meet his parents; in general, parents don’t exist in these books. They are tired, compromised grown-ups shuffling through the drudgery of their days. They are glimpsed by us, and pitied by their sons. (Yes, sons. The Chocolate War books, unfolding as they do in an all-boys school, are sausage-fests that only occasionally bring in girls for boys’ sexual pleasure or pain; born in 1925, Cormier, while not what I’d call a virulent sexist nor certainly a misogynist, perhaps felt it best to stay in his lane and not attempt to tell stories too far outside his own experience as a male. This is a gentle way of saying that significant female characters in Cormier’s work, though not altogether absent, are in the minority.)

Trinity’s chocolate sale is coming up — a big deal for the school, traditionally. The stakes are more urgent this year, because the wormy Brother Leon, a sadistic and corrupt teacher grooming himself to take over as Trinity’s headmaster, has gotten himself $20,000 in debt to the school and needs the student body to sell twice as many boxes of chocolate as they did last year, at twice the price. Leon approaches Archie to ask for The Vigils’ aid in this matter — the secret group is seen by the school’s authorities as potentially useful, to be tolerated or ignored as long as they keep order in the school.

Archie agrees, but privately he and Obie work against Leon. They select a freshman, Jerry Renault — the closest thing the first book has to a hero —and instruct him to refuse to sell the chocolates, at least for ten days. When the ten days are up — after which he’s supposed to agree to sell — Jerry, inspired by the poster in his locker reading “Do I dare disturb the universe?,” goes on refusing to sell the chocolates, rebelling not only against Leon but against Archie and The Vigils.

Archie (Wallace Langham) and Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) in the 1988 film version.

The legend on Jerry’s locker poster, of course, comes from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the next lines in the poem are “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” It only takes a minute for something, usually bad, to happen and change everything. And if there’s anything the 1985 sequel tells us, it’s that, as bad as things seem now, they can always get worse. And probably will.

The consequences of Jerry’s sitting out the chocolate sale radiate out and mutate almost everyone involved. In Beyond the Chocolate War, a traumatized Jerry doesn’t show up until about page 50. The new protagonist would seem to be Obie. A new character is introduced in the sequel’s first sentence — Ray Bannister, a new kid at Trinity, who brings with him a talent potentially useful to The Vigils. Ray aspires to be a magician, and is building a trick guillotine. This time, though, it’s not Archie who’s most enthused about Ray’s magic — it’s Obie. Archie is graduating out of his position as “the Assigner,” and The Vigils, including Obie and Carter, have grown sick of him.

What is Jerry’s role in the sequel? Not much. Cormier said at the time that he didn’t want to pit Jerry against Archie again — that would just have been a rerun. Though published eleven years later — and written to satisfy young readers’ questions to Cormier about what became of various characters — Beyond picks up only a few months after the first book left off. (In both books, Cormier mostly avoids signifiers that would tie the story down to a specific time. The first book has references to hippies, and the sequel mentions disco music, but for the most part — aside from the notable absence of technology — the story could unfold anytime; in some indeterminate past, maybe.)

By 1985, Cormier had moved on, writing the equally stinging and popular I Am the Cheese (not my favorite of his, but a noble effort to pursue other themes within Cormier’s paranoid wheelhouse), After the First Death, and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. But he revisited Trinity in good faith, refusing to rehash what he’d done before, and in fact raising the stakes. The first book gets awfully dark and violent, but we trust that nobody will actually get killed. With the sequel, we’re genuinely not sure. It’s not Archie (who professes to disdain violence — it’s not as subtle as his mind games) or the jock Carter or even the “animal” Emile Janza (who does some of The Vigils’ dirty work of physical enforcement) who we suspect of potential murder. It’s the student with whom we have been pulled into unwilling but strong complicity.

You may have noticed I’m bending over backward not to spoil various plot incidents. That’s because Cormier is a two-tiered master: he excels at drawing us into a given kid’s emotions and thoughts, and he works up plots that are complex but not complicated. A reader doesn’t need to flip back a few pages to be sure of what’s happening. But the plot twists emerge organically out of the characters. We never doubt their actions, because we’ve been privy to their dreams and nightmares.

As scholar Patty Campbell points out in her essential study Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe (2006), the only one with significant face time in either novel who never gets an interior monologue is Brother Leon, whose corrupt desperation animates the first book’s conflict, and who hangs around in the sequel mainly as a figure of impotence. By the second book, Leon has become the school’s headmaster, and swans around (“mincing” is a word Cormier uses for Leon more than once) wearing a fancy cross, as if showing off his piety and daring anyone to question it. But he’s not the big bad in Beyond; hell, he’s barely the head villain in the first book.

In these books, as in much of Cormier, there is a nasty and tainted system within the larger oppressive system, sustained and tacitly indulged by that larger system but operating under its own power. Brother Leon supposedly wields power over all he surveys, and behaves accordingly in the classroom, where he casually, sadistically lords it over the students. But even he must come to The Vigils, figurative hat in hand, for their help. After all, without The Vigils, the school would fall to anarchy, or so tradition insists. The more thought we give to these books, the less they seem like little fables for teenagers and the more they take their rightful place as commentary on the American apparatus.

John Glover (left), perfectly cast as Brother Leon in Keith Gordon’s 1988 film version.

There is a movie adaptation of the original book. The first thing a reader needs to know is that the painful ending of the book has been altered. Purists abominated the very idea, but hold on. The film’s writer-director Keith Gordon — best known perhaps for his stellar performance as the nerd turned vengeful supernatural cat’s-paw Arnie Cunningham in Christine — has acknowledged that his ending may look sunnier at first glance, but it really isn’t; in Gordon’s words, it’s “unsettling in a different way.” In a way, Gordon does in his movie what Cormier’s sequel did —Gordon emphasizes that there isn’t just one evil person for us to point at and to feel relieved when that person is (temporarily?) defeated. Not that there would have been a movie based on Beyond the Chocolate War anyway, since Gordon’s film cost $500,000 and didn’t even make back that much. But Gordon’s ending more or less squelches any idea of Jerry or Archie or Obie coming back on film the way they do in Cormier’s sequel.

Perhaps the books can be tackled on a streaming service as a four- or five-hour adaptation, divvied up into parts. But as much as I value what Gordon did with the first book — and it ain’t half bad for a first feature by a 27-year-old, and certainly I can imagine some coarse, crass director coming along and doing a lot worse — the characters really only come to full bloom in Cormier’s deceptively plain prose. We hear what they think; we feel what they feel. Past a certain point, cinema can only do so much to suggest a person’s inner workings on the level that even a merely decent novel does. The first book opens with Jerry getting creamed during football practice; even those of us completely ignorant of football can relate to Jerry’s emotions, dominated by physical pain and emotional shame. His mother has recently died; his father, a pharmacist, is adrift. Jerry has no rudder at home. He has a good friend, Roland “The Goober” Goubert, who deals with his own grief and guilt, mostly from being a flawed kid who just isn’t there for Jerry when it counts. So in this universe, you can have a friend and still be, ultimately, alone.

This is the universe that Jerry dares to disturb — a cold universe that preys on weakness. The Chocolate War has been challenged in schools and libraries for decades, ostensibly because of its darkness, brutality, and candor about teenage boys’ sexuality. I wonder, though, if part of the problem is that, as Keith Gordon opined, Cormier’s vision here can be seen as nihilistic. All you get for your rebellion is a beating. In the sequel, though, taking a beating is shown as a way of winning against a foe who can only defeat you through violence. Non-violent resistance, then. But will that work? Not always.

At the end of our journey through Trinity, though, the legacy of The Vigils is left in the hands of fools and brutes, mainly out of spite. Without sharp leadership or a clever “assigner,” we may assume The Vigils’ days as a true force are numbered, especially if they fail to deliver on the promise of keeping the students in line. But, as Patty Campbell suggests, in a chilling sentence given its own paragraph, the school may be better off without Archie Costello, but now he’s out there among us. Will he prosper in the larger world, or will it turn out that he peaked at Trinity — the perfect place for his sociopathic imagination to take wing, but not easily replicable elsewhere? Cormier doesn’t tell us. He leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. The lifelong journalist was all for afflicting the comfortable, but not so much on comforting the afflicted.

News of the World

January 10, 2021

news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. One hopes it will come to be valued again.

News of the World is decidedly a change of (literal) pace for director Paul Greengrass, famous for his herky-jerky Bourne movies and his stylistically fitful studies of modern historical chaos (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips). Here, Captain Kidd covers the miles on horseback or coach or foot, and Greengrass eases up accordingly; you’d have to go back to his 1998 romantic drama The Theory of Flight to find him this becalmed, this steady of brushstroke. Tom Hanks obliges Greengrass with a contemplative turn, tight with grief and guilt, but open to the warmth of company. On his way from one Texas dustpile to another, Captain Kidd encounters a felled coach, a lynched Black man hanging from a nearby tree, and a girl (Helena Zengel) who speaks no English — just a smattering of German, from her original family, and Kiowa, from the tribe that took her in as one of their own. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself (after several false starts) to bring her “home” to her aunt and uncle.

With the astringent Greengrass in charge and the increasingly no-nonsense Hanks in the saddle, the story is approached with minimal cuteness; a certain level of manipulation is built into the material (from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles), but mainly the film steers around it or tamps it down. If not for a dusting of PG-13 epithets and a stretch of ugliness involving an owlhoot who seeks to buy the girl, and then comes after Captain Kidd with two other men, this could be a family Western, sharing some traits with True Grit (either version), but with the dark undertone of The Searchers. The resulting shootout between Captain Kidd and the men, bolstered by the girl’s quick thinking, is a deft piece of suspense. Even there, Greengrass doesn’t revert to his old habits of jittery handheld camera or Cuisinart editing. Post-Civil War, even gunfights take a long time. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski pause and gaze upon the luxurious, unspoiled expanse of New Mexico (doubling for Texas).

Given that we just watched dirtbags shuffling through the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate flag, it may strike some as an iffy prospect to be asked to feel for a man who fought for that side, even if he is played by Tom Hanks. But Hanks imbues Captain Kidd with an intelligence that tells us the captain was most likely conscripted into defense of his birthplace, and was not acting out of any particular fidelity to the traditions of slavery. Still, we gather Captain Kidd sent his share of Union soldiers to Valhalla, regretfully, which makes him a complicated hero. (In the book, Kidd fought in the other, less divisive but equally noxious War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.) As we saw in Saving Private Ryan and Greyhound, Hanks is a natural at painting men skilled at war who take no pleasure in it. That prior experience with Hanks does a lot of the movie’s work.

I don’t think News of the World was consciously made as “the movie we need right now” (how many films in the past year have been thus described?) — it’s a leisurely tale as much about storytelling as about anything else. One nice thing Hanks does is to refrain from making Captain Kidd any kind of great raconteur or proto-anchorman. Standing before his dusty crowds, Kidd squints through spectacles, bending almost in half over the newspaper he’s reading from. He seems to be doing this simply because it’s something he can do, not because he has any passion for it. By the end, though, the pleasures of story have brought animation to Kidd’s reading and wit to his telling. And we appreciate the happy ending because don’t we all deserve one? These are, after all, difficult times.

The Year in Review

December 21, 2020


So, how’s your year been?

If anything can be universally agreed-upon these days, it’s that 2020 has been the crappiest year in living memory (and as I write this, it still has ten days left to mess with us). Particularly battered this holiday season are those who make, distribute and exhibit movies. Now, I know it’s hard for most of us to feel sorry for stars and executives who command and get seven- or eight-figure salaries. But the working folks, from the assistant focus puller to the stand-in to the ticket-takers at the local mall, are suffering. There are a lot of folks who never get mentioned on Oscar night who are the underpaid glue that holds the entire Hollywood contraption together. They’re hurting a lot more than Christopher Nolan is.

Nolan, of course, earned his envied position as the artistic rainmaker at Warner Brothers by delivering three insanely lucrative Batman movies, as well as a number of non-Batman movies that also made money. His latest film Tenet, now available on streaming and physical home media, was the first major motion picture to open in theaters exclusively during the pandemic and its attendant shutdowns. Nolan was very adamant about Tenet being the movie that would bring people back to theaters. Result: the movie ended up as #11 on 2020’s top box-office list, behind ten movies that came out pre-pandemic  — and, in some cases, were leftovers from December 2019. The latter explains why 1917, a 2019 latecomer that didn’t get a wide U.S. release until January 2020, wound up #2 on the list.

As it stands now, Warner announced it’s going to release its 2021 movie slate on streaming (HBO Max) as well as in theaters, and Nolan and other Warner directors responded with much finger-shaking disapproval. They don’t quite get that the experience of watching a movie has changed, is not going back any time soon, and was already headed for that change even before the pandemic. COVID just hastened the exit of the genie from that bottle. But I’ve written about the logistical aspect of this before. What about artistically? What will it do to movies as an art form?

The short answer is that movies that share the sort of virtues that we associate with classic or at least top-quality cinema are increasingly moving to streaming, leaving the theaters to the tried-and-true blockbusters. It was getting increasingly hard to find a year-end box-office top-ten list that had a single film not based on existing media or a sequel or aimed at kids. Last year’s top-ten list had Disney in seven of the top eight slots. Serious drama and top-rank comedy has largely gone to TV — cable, streaming, even network TV. You’re going to find the 2020s equivalent of The Godfather Part II as a limited-series event on HBO or Hulu or Prime before you’ll find it at the multiplex. (Wanna feel really bad? In 1974, Godfather II made $57 million. That’s $313 million in 2020 money, which would have placed it at #10 on last year’s list had it been released then. But of course it wouldn’t have made that much in 2019. But it did 45 years earlier. Were movies better then, or were we?)

But then look at this year’s top ten, and Disney only appears once, for a movie it released in 2019. Let’s not get optimistic: the number-one movie of the year is still a very-belated Bad Boys sequel, which would not have happened in a year that was supposed to bring us a new Bond and two new Marvels. And you know it’s been a scrawny year for box office when the notorious flop Dolittle still made it to #7 on the list. But Dolittle came in just ahead of Little Women, with its respectable $70 million gross. The Call of the Wild is also on there, and whether or not you felt it was a decent representation of the book, what was the last year-end list where you saw Jack London and Louisa May Alcott adaptations?

I think the saddest story in 2020’s top ten belongs to The Invisible Man, which did well but could have done gangbusters. It should’ve been a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller. And indeed it covered its small budget four times over on its opening weekend. But then COVID happened, and it was whisked from theaters and onto streaming. A movie like this really loses something when you watch it at home alone (though I still found it gripping) and not in a packed theater with the usual screamers and laughers around you making it a shared experience of dread and shock. That’s the kind of experience old-timers like me mourn about the old way of seeing movies. It might come back. But will we recognize it if it does?

Psychomagic, a Healing Art

August 9, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.45.03 PM It has been odd, of late, to see the provocateur extraordinaire Alejandro Jodorowsky ripen from an assaultive artist to a kindly, avuncular guru who lays hands on the psychologically pained and “heals” them — or at least makes them feel heard, validated, worth something. Jodorowsky spent roughly the first half of his career spelunking in his own imagistic caves, photographing his findings (Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Perhaps his most famous film was one he never got to make; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told all about it. In recent years, Jodorowsky has pivoted to autobiographical psychodramas (The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry) in which he often appears, drifting through re-enactments of his life carried out by his own sons.

Now there is Psychomagic, a Healing Art, in which the notorious auteur receives “patients,” if you will — people made miserable by past traumas, mostly having to do with inattentive parents — and, in effect, turns them into colorful performers in another of Jodorowsky’s cinematic journeys. His clients are asked to strip naked and be massaged by male and female therapists; they are encouraged to indulge their neglected inner child; they are directed to walk about in public dragging chains behind them or wearing their father’s jacket or covered head to toe in gold paint. They all seem, or claim, to feel better after the Jodorowsky therapy. I am rather more skeptical than they are, but who am I to judge? If they say Jodorowsky helped them, then he helped them.

It’s when Jodorowsky brings a cancer patient onstage and directs the audience to aim their healing energy at her throat that I feel less live-and-let-live about what Jodorowsky is selling. (There is no talk of fees in the movie, but I presume Jodorowsky doesn’t just work his magic on people in exchange for a warm feeling of accomplishment.) Jodorowsky offers to try to help this woman “without promising anything” — well, at least there’s that. Ten years later, the woman is still alive, and feels that Jodorowsky has something to do with that. I’m aware of the placebo effect, and it could be said that Jodorowsky guides his clients into a mental state that triggers … something that we don’t understand. It’s one thing when Jodorowsky’s technique shocks someone into a fresher way of looking at their pain; it’s another when a movie more or less implies that the man can cure cancer.

Most of Psychomagic, though, deals with the myths and archetypes that must be unlearned or learned in order to move past anxiety and depression. On this point, I’m prepared to give Jodorowsky the benefit of the doubt and say his method is about as valid as anyone else’s. He draws on lots of ancient tribal knowledge, role-playing, scenarios designed to push someone out of guilt, shame, self-loathing. Jodorowsky is a multifaceted artist, and it’s significant that he calls his way a healing art and not a science. Once or twice I caught myself seduced into going along with Jodorowsky, with his beatific smile and white guru beard; I reflected that perhaps we’re not ready to marry art and science as Jodorowsky has. It could be something only a small subset of people have access to.

But then the skeptic in me kicks in and I can’t help noticing that everyone in the movie is a success story, that nobody reverts to despondency after a while. Not that we hear about, anyway. The couple who go to Jodorowsky with individual bugaboos blocking their relationship are handled rather ambiguously; we don’t know if they stay together or if part of their revelation is that they don’t belong together after all. Some of Jodorowsky’s therapy seems to boil down to people with trust issues being touched intimately but nonsexually; this seems to give them back ownership of their bodies. How, then, given their issues, do they come to trust Jodorowsky and his assistants enough to let them cup their breasts or testicles in their hands? We don’t find out. After a while I wished Psychomagic were more of a fictionalized narrative in which the hero does what we see Jodorowsky doing — going around performing psychic miracles, something like his Alchemist in The Holy Mountain — but we’re free to interpret or question it because it’s art. Psychomagic, sadly, isn’t art; it’s advertising.