Black Panther’s Right Thing

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1. TRASH

In the pantheon of great American films, I put Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing right at the very top of the list. I’ve talked about why in detail before. It is a towering document of both the humanity and rage of the collective black experience in America. It is about film about the tapestry of views, the aching pain within damaged souls, and the troubling duality of what it means to be young, black, and aware of the world around them. It’s the duality of Radio Raheem’s “LOVE” and “HATE,” writ large. It’s duality of instinct in the better angels of one’s nature and necessary disgust with needless death. It’s a duality expressed in the notion that we live in a world where white America still lauds Martin Luther King (while erasing the complexity of his message) and still demonizes Malcolm X (while erasing the humanity of his message). It posits that to be black, means to inherently carry both figures as instincts inside of the heart. And to feel the constant struggle between them as one goes about navigating life from breath to (hopeful next) breath. And while this “duality of the soul” is something recognized as being true for every human being on earth, we still don’t “allow” it to be true in meaningful ways for black people. We condemn them for not protesting peacefully. And when they do, we then condemn them for that anyway. We condemn them for throwing trash cans. Because the point of any mixed message is control, for we want to be able to tell Black America that they are wrong no matter what they do.

While it is impossible to say any given interpretation is ever “correct” when it comes to a film, if you will please allow me the one moment where I express pride for something I wrote, for Spike Lee said of that essay: “Heartfelt Shout Out To The HULK. This Is The Best Essay Ever Written That Digs Deep Into What I Attempt To Do And What DO THE RIGHT THING Is Really About. I Thank You. Great Job. YA-DIG? SHO-NUFF.” I say this for two reasons 1. the second that was written I could die happy. I’m not kidding. All of this. ALL OF THIS is the proverbial icing on the cake. And 2. It also doesn’t matter whatsoever. Because the point of the essay was that it was not a product of insight. It was a product of listening. It was a product of getting out of the damn way. Even now, what I’m hopefully trying to put forth in this essay is not a product of some white guy explaining how racism works to people who have far more personal understanding, but just a reflection that same listening. And the willingness to be wrong within this conversation about literally everything I’m putting forth. And to listen whole-heartedly to the response as the conversation continues to evolve. All I know is I can argue for nothing more critical, because the thing that is most disheartening about Do The Right Thing is not only how few white people ever seemed to grasp what it was really after, but also how few Hollywood films seemed to take its lessons and carry them forward.

Then again, what else can we expect from a society where Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for awards in it’s place? Far too many people found Spike Lee’s (and still find) opus of Americana too confrontational and incendiary. They even mistakenly thought it a call to radicalization. So perhaps it’s no accident that Hollywood has since instead bankrolled film after endless film where black characters are either lionized for their christ-like suffering and praised for their dignity through pure “respectability politics.” Perhaps it’s no accident they’ve only seemed green-lit stories that secretly make white people feel better about racism (for example, when white people watch racist movies set in the past, they never identify with the villain, but the do-gooder. So it makes them feel like they’e already transcended something). The point is there’s nothing actually being confronted in the audience these films, just put behind us. To paraphrase what Spike Lee always said of this dynamic, “black people never ask why Mookie threw the trash can.”

It’s just a trash can, it’s just a window, and yet it’s so much more. Because there’s a bigger reflexivity to all this which brings us to the current subject, which is Black Panther and why it exists. To which, I have a fuzzy memory that I’m perhaps romanticizing, but want to share none the less… It was a conversation that took place in film school years and years ago between a young black writing student and a white teacher in the program. This teacher fancied themselves pretty progressive, literate in this history of African-American film and all that. And I guess that’s true in a way, but he was still not so subtly trying to get this student to write indie-style confrontational films about the subject of race, “because that’s what the world needs from young black artists!” Of course, the student was interested in coming at it a whole different way. He just laughed at the teacher and said, “Dude, I want to make the next Spider-man.” The disgusted look of  the teacher’s face was incredible. He could only respond in sputtering words, “Why do you want to make that trash?” The student replied in a way I will never forget…

“Because you think it’s trash.”

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2. GHOST IN THE MACHINE

Regarding such trash, I remember when a lot of people expressed sadness and regret at the idea that Ryan Coogler was going to do “a Marvel movie.”

I mostly bit my tongue for obvious reasons, but perhaps it was a fair observation in some ways because of the way The Marvel Machine, and studio filmmaking in general, is known to chew up filmmakers and spit them out. And the arc of the way Marvel has made movies has been interesting to say the least, particularly in their relationship with directors and thematic storytelling. In phase one, Marvel was still figuring out their modus operandi, but they were taking chances on fun directors and knew enough to ground their entire empire in fun, charismatic characters. I know people always bemoan “origin stories,” but the truth is they’re really good vehicles for both character arcs and establishing what that character is “really about.” And yes, those phase one movies were shaggier no doubt, but they were also genuine and committed to telling different kinds of stories. I genuinely loved them for that. And still do.

But like any successful goliath, the Marvel Machine became too set and rigid in its new M.O. To the point that they were not so secretly convinced they had effectively “hacked” storytelling and thought it was the only right way to engage their audience. They created a uniformed washed-up grey look for their films. They rounded edges. And things that were possible for characters early on were now verboten. It all got to the point that that they pretty severely damaged relationships with a number of directors and storytellers they didn’t think were falling into line (to be fair, the disney acquisition added problems to this). The result of all this was a weird stretch of films that reflected “perfectly polished” inoffensive entertainment that still really didn’t mean much of anything, really. Genre became mere texture while lessons became mere lip service. Overall plots went into wheel-spinning mode. No one ever faced a real fucking consequence for much of anything. They just didn’t want to stop the fun train. And it’s all part and parcel of the reasons they kept the longer slew of more smart-alec white guys while they avoiding those “un-relatable” stories of characters who were things like, you know, “minorities” or “women.” But eventually they caved to the need to do so, mostly because they exhausted their line-up, and insisted it was always part of the phase 3 plan (insider baseball: it wasn’t. They didn’t think the films would do well and were afraid to hurt their streak, so they put it off as long as possible. Fucking own it, guys). But I’m not really here to chastise, as it hopefully turns out this has been the year of Marvel learning a big lesson for the future.

Not just on the story level, like the way James Gunn made a successful movie that actually pulled back to more an intimate scale about family, all with a strong central metaphor. But more with how Taika Waititi essentially tricked them into building a raucously funny ode to the horrors of colonialism. It is the lesson learning how to trust bold choices when made for purposeful, thematic reasons. Which brings us to Black Panther. The truth is that they didn’t dare put the same kinds of handcuffs they did in the past on Coogler. They trusted him largely because they had to trust him. The optics of doing the alternative were too risky. And that was terrifying to them, but they still gave up control and were prepared to take the loss, never expecting in a million years that this film would be the mega-success they’re seeing now (hopefully Hollywood is finally picking up how their modern audience actually works). With all of these, Marvel has seemed to finally learn a big lesson. And maybe it’s one that many audiences, and maybe that old teacher I mentioned gets to learn too: You can put a truly important film about societal divides into something, no matter what the scale.

 

Because it turns out that Ryan Coolger finally gave us a film with emotional the same complexity and duality of Do The Right Thing and he just so happened to do it on the largest canvas possible: an accessible studio tent-pole.

I can think of no higher compliment.

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3. THE BIG IT

I briefly talked to a young someone who was sympathetic, but didn’t understand the lavish praise that was being heaped on Black Panther. Why? Because it just didn’t work for him! It just wasn’t that good! Sure, he could connect to all the logistical reasons people might connect to it. Sure, he could see how it’s “good” to see black heroes in action. But the effect just wasn’t up on screen for him! Meaning people must just be liking the movie for ulterior X or Y reasons!

*sigh*

Look, I see a certain kind of white movie fan talking a lot like this these days. No, it’s not just because it because they lack certain life experiences that prevent them from having empathy for another’s experience. It’s how that gulf of experience directly interacts with this unfortunate left-brain logic where they see movies like a check-list and thus don’t even understand what makes movies meaningful to people in the long run. And not only is this a failure to understand how a movie can transcend small parts that don’t work, but a failure to recognize when they do the same exact thing with movies that are built for them. To wit, even I can admit that certain beats of Black Panther fall a little flat. That it also has to hit some paint-by-numbers beats in the course of executing a giant Marvel blockbuster. Or how, duh, I too have seen better shot action in X or Y movie. But if there’s anything the popular response to Wonder Woman has taught us, it’s how little those kinds of minimal, surface-level complaints actually matter.

Not next to the heights of what it has to offer.

Not next to the sincerity lying under those same beats. Not next to the innumerable scenes full of life and joy and hilarity. Not next to those cool as hell action beats I’ve never seen before (The spear through the windshield, then stopping the car! The fun hilarity of rhino armor!). Not next to the incalculable value of the aforementioned representation, like the fact that the smartest tech whiz in the world is a young African princess who quotes vines and could probably run laps around Tony Stark. Not next to the range of characters and motives and perspectives rarely seen in any films, let alone within a cast of ten (TEN!) amazing black actors who are getting to headline a major studio superhero film. Not next to the gorgeous and loving expression of African culture and afrofuturism. Not next to the sheer litany of little brilliant details of characterization that make the film sing in every nook and cranny (notice how much Klaue usurps not just Black resources, but Black culture). Not next to the sheer competence of storytelling where my concern for the layers of informational prologues ended up mattering so damn much to the emotional pay-offs. So no, those surface complaints don’t matter much not next to all of that.

Especially because the movie goes deeper than that. Especially because the film nails the soul and meaning within itself, which matters more than anything else. So luckily for us, this is a movie that gets the big “it.”

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4. REFLEXIVITY

I don’t care when people talk during the movies.

I really don’t. I grew up in a city. Maybe I just gotten used to it. I don’t know. I’ve just never cared. Besides, few people realize that most of the time people are just talking “with” a movie, it’s not like they’re rambling about their day or something. I honestly have a much bigger problem with bored white teens and people who check their phones, for a shining white light is way more distracting than someone cracking jokes in the spirit of the movie. I mention all this because of another anecdote: At my screening last night, a couple of guys talking were making jokes and at one point they got shushed by someone. And one of them replied in a kind of indignant fashion, “are you really telling me to shut up during Black Panther?” People laughed. I smiled. It felt like this weird zeitgeisty moment of cultural ownership, where a movie was coming out in support of theater camaraderie and its audience. But there was a rather telling moment just a few minutes later when characters on screen were speaking in Korean, and those same two jokesters started going “ohhh ching chong ching chong.”

*sigh*

This also isn’t new. There’s a complicated reflexivity in the relationship between the Black community and the Asian-American community and it has been going on a long time (as well as latino culture, but for now, let’s talk about these two). While the narrative of the black experience in American has largely been talked about in popular culture (if problematically) with regards to slavery, civil rights, and the horrific modern climate of racism, the story of racism against asian culture has been one mostly of ignorance and relative silence. Not just in the ugly history of how they built the railroads, or the inhumanity of Japanese internment. It’s in the way people don’t even see Asian people today, unless to fetishize them or crack jokes. Hell, at the Oscars just two years go, right at the height of the socially conscious of the “oscars so white” era, that very same broadcast they make no less than three tired-as-fucking-hell asian jokes, literally about them being good at math / small dicks / etc. Yes. That happened at the oscars (I”m looking at you Chris Rock and Sasha Baron Cohen). The fact that we keep finding this sort of stuff innocuous is fucking absurd to me. This erasure matters. And yes, I could get into the intensely important discussion of how class economics play into the relationship between these two groups (for instance, most don’t realize Asian americans by far have the highest mean income of any ethnic group in america, and that includes white people), but it all brings us right into the reason I bring all this up in the first place: the crux of reflexivity.

Because it’s at the heart of all this. Reflexivity is about how we look at each other and see each other’s commonalities to build empathy, but also how much we see the differences of what we’ve been through. We have to ask, how much of our experience is our own? How much of it is shared? What do we owe each other? What do we not owe to anyone? why? And of course Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing brilliantly accounts for this too, for the relationship with the Korean store owners that is brought in the climax. Same with the way the film portrays white america, both within Sal’s decency and wrath, his lust and resentment, his pride and shame. And most of all, his need for control. And when looking at such questions from our white experience, there is no possible way to ignore the most startling reality: we’ve held so much power and caused so much damage. And thus, the sense of responsibility must take precedence. To the point where the main job is to empower others, get out of the way, and listen.

But of course that scares the shit out of white people because they don’t understand what that really means. They falsely see it as erasure, when really it is not wanting to give up the comfort of power. You’ll see the far right fringe groups echo the phrase “it’s okay to be white!” which I find a laughable weaponization of something that should be obvious. Of course it’s okay to be white. That’s not the issue. The whole point is we are born however we are born, just as minorities are. It’s all just a question of how we take responsibility for the varying levels of advantages that we are born with. And how take that responsibility and extend outward to the communities all around us who are not as lucky. Nothing could be more true for white america, but it’s just as is true within the reflexivity of minority communities. It is the understanding of both shared and different experiences must be expressed with an open understanding and open ears. And as Do The Right Thing also tells us, it is true even within the black community itself. From Mookie, to the Mayor, to Buggin’ Out – they’re all shades of a collective experience, all instincts within the soul, all shades of the same face, and all in need of each other.

And this has everything to do with the very idea of “Wakanda” itself.

In sad truth, the fictional kingdom of Wakanda largely exists to explain why its hero can be possible, which also feels a bit unfair. But it also posits a radical, brilliant notion: that an Africa untouched by colonialism is not the African as many a European would imagine (one relegated to tribal savagery), but a place of progressive modernity and advancement beyond comprehension. Wakanda’s very existence posits that what actually stopped Africa’s development was the theft of Africa itself. From the theft of resources, to the theft of their bodies, to the theft of their very personhood. And metaphorically, Wakanda reflects the “hidden” heart of black pride, capability, and brilliance – all invisible to white america. It is as apt a metaphor as you can imagine. And just as problematic in other ways, for in that creation, a duality was born: for Wakanda to exist, it must be hidden, it must be secret, it must be safe. In other words, it must be conserved. And there are few things more complex than the notion of conservatism within the black community.

Just as there are few things more complex than African politics. Just are there are few things as complicated as black-on-black violence. Just as there are few thing as compli- okay okay you get the idea. But what makes Coogler’s handling of these complex issues so brilliant is not how he refuses to get lost in the weeds of each issue, and instead takes each of them and ingrains them into a simpler overall dynamic: for at the heart of each of those issues is the basic human push-pull between generosity and conservatism, anger and peace, mitigation and power. And, as a true storyteller does, Coogler takes all that and grounds it right into the main character.

It’s just not the one you think.

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5. MIRRORS

I know the exact moment I fell in love with Black Panther.

Early in the film, we see T’Challa visit a spirit realm where his ancestors reside and he speaks to his recently deceased father. It’s set in a beautiful african savanna landscape, with this purple otherworldly sky that glows and radiates. They share a tender moment and a promise. It really is a beautiful scene. But this isn’t the moment I’m talking about. No, the moment came later when Killmonger takes his place as the king and does the same exact thing: but instead of visiting that ancestral landscape, he returns to his small childhood apartment in Oakland, not unlike where many young black americans grew up. The otherworldly purple sky still glows outside, but he’s still within the only concrete wilds his young heart ever knew. And he too is brought back to the moment of the death of his father, and he too gets to talk to the man who was lost. But instantly, Killmonger reverts to the little boy he was back then. The father looks at the young boy with sorrow and love, kindly asking him why no tears for his fallen dad? And we see the young boy steel himself, unable to connect to the endless depth of what he’s really feeling. His father expresses regret and goes on to tell him a beautiful story of the glorious heart of Wakanda and all that he really should have gotten to have in his life… we subtly cut back to Killmonger, now listening as an adult, tears pouring down his eyes.

That was the moment. For a scene so loaded with meaning, it is the pitch-perfect dramatization of the way traumas from childhood drive us, but also catch up with us we age. The loss, the fury, the lack of recognition for his pain strikes Killmonger so deep in his heart, but he never learned how to express it. What’s weird is I had a twitter rant just yesterday about this subject, but Killmonger never stopped putting the iron walls around his younger self. Even as he awakes from this deeply emotional dream beneath the sands, he is not crying but screaming in rage. The outward shell knows only how to express anger, murder, and death. But inside, he’s still the young boy, crying wildly, but still trying to be strong for his father, still looking up into the night sky, wondering when it will be his turn to fly through the sky…

To say that Killmonger is the greatest villain in the marvel oeuvre is a disservice to the elegance of what is on display here. In truth, I think it’s one of the best villains I’ve seen in the last 30 years. This is not just because of Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant performance, but because Coogler takes the age old lesson of “make us believe your villain and understand him” and turns it up to 11. Hell, with slight tweaks, Killmonger could just as easily be the hero of the story. And this kinship is not just because of Ryan Coogler’s obvious overlaps in background (there’s a reason it’s 1992 Oakland and he would be that exact age), but from the sheer love and understanding of the character. The film so clearly empathizes and understands the anger and loss within him. And the realization that Killmonger is the character whose experience he directly relates to, for it is the trauma of the black American experience writ large. He is the character that overwhelming majority of black Americans will relate to as well.

And that’s when you realize the unimaginable thing for a film like this: the titular Black Panther is not actually Ryan Coogler’s hero. But neither is Killmonger. For he may understand and empathize with the motives, but the rage is too far gone. So in the end, you realize there are no heroes in this story, just two instincts within the single human. Like Spike Lee conveyed all those years ago, it is the inner MLK and Malcom X: the dueling expressions of nobility and passion, conservation and sacrifice, the proverbial give and take of the human heart. That’s whole point of seeing two mirror images clash with Black Panther suits. But it’s so far from the lazy idea of  the hero fighting “himself” – No it is the exact expression of the duality within Coogler and Black america. Just as there was more Malcolm X in MLK and vice versa then we like to admit in our broad strokes paint job of revisionist history.

And the result is so powerful that I’ve seen a lot of people go around posting the idea “Killmonger was right,” and yeah, sure, he’s right – but that’s also a gross reduction of what it actually means to be “right.” Plenty of people are “right” about whatever they’re justifiably angry over – but that’s without the understanding the deeper complication of what that means to put such justice into action. That’s the rub or righteousness. That’s always the rub. As his father tells T’challa. “It is tough for a good man to be king.” And it is equally tough for a righteous man to be fair. And in that understanding, T’Challa, like Mookie, learns the enormous, costly difficulty of what “doing the right thing” can even mean. Especially considering they live in a mixed-message world where people will them they are wrong no matter what they do.

But therein lies the very transcendence. For it results in a superhero story whose “villain” is the one who actually creates the critical understanding within the superhero, all cresting not into a moment of triumph, but a story that literally ends with a heartfelt mea culpa. An apology. An atonement. My jaw was on the floor. It is a film that took the lore of a popular superhero, saw it for what it was, and reformed it into what it truly needed to say for its time and place. As such, Black Panther unspools with a complexity I have not seen talked about with regards to race since, yes, perhaps Do The Right Thing itself. And it has done so in the shape of a blockbuster tent pole that will be an unparalleled financial success. I want to go back in time and declare: “no professor, it’s not trash.”

It is, in short, a miracle.

But everyone says that about things they don’t realize are obvious. The truth is this movie has been sitting around, waiting to be made for decades. For in a world where the Marvel Machine got caught up telling indulgent stories about smart-alecky white uber-boys in the name of create nakedly-vacant power fantasies about fuck all, Black Panther is about the farthest thing from an indulgence that I can imagine. Instead, Coogler has turned superheroism into a desperate plea to the people of the world who are supposed to be his heroes. It is a plea from the depths of the sea, where Killmonger’s haunting final line still rings in my ears as it draws a straight line from slavery to modern incarceration. It is a plea for the voices of those ghosts to be heard. It is a plea from all the kids of America left behind on basketball courts to have their day in the skies. It is a plea to all the deaf ears of not just the world outside the see beating heart of Black & African pride, but even a plea to black conservatism itself. A plea for them to help bridge the divides of class. For Black Panther is a plea, a pledge, a petition, a poem. And it will not be denied.

For it is what he expects from a better world.

And from us.

❤ HULK

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Phantom Thread & The Toxic Buy-In

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A litany of women enter a house of their daily shift: they sew, they tailor, they do all the work of making immaculate, impossible dresses. They do this as man sits at a breakfast table above, conducting via sketch, demanding utter silence around him. The man, Reynolds Woodcock (clearly named for the intentional snicker), cannot even suffer a single word from his live-in girlfriend, let alone a confrontational one. But luckily, his sister will promptly dump her for him. And with this opening scene, we get the peek of a whole system that props up this “man of genius.”

It’s 1950’s London fashion industry, but is might as well be Hollywood 2018.

For as we uproot the tree of sexual assault in this industry, there’s been much discussion of how much we advocate systems of silence, but it all goes to the deeper DNA is how much we advocate arbitrary and toxic systems of genius, stardom, and influence. For it is in the creative worlds where genius is directly equated with power. So it’s no wonder Reynolds keeps pushing himself into the work itself. Does he have a love of his art? Sure. But the obsession with work is really about the power and control that comes with it. It is the emotional reinforcement that comes adoration, part of the desire to be coddled by society itself. And all the external things that can make us feel valued, if only for a moment. But when the entire world bends to your genius? There is nothing more insufferable then a moment where you are actually confronted with non-adoration. And there’s no doubt that this ideas are very much on the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a transfixing, darkly comic, and often agonizing film about what happens when we all buy into that system.

The central “buy in” of this story comes from Alma Elso (Victoria Krieps), who enters his life as a klutzy waitress, and gets charmed by the laser-eyed attention of this opulent “hungry boy.” Her yearning is simple: he’s new, exciting, and can whisk her away into a larger world. But we watch with worried nerves as her face begins to sour as she immediately gets contorted, fussed about, assessed. Please understand, there is nothing about Alma that is inherently prone to this. She’s practically a goofball at the start and has that quality masculine men seem to adore where she can “give as good as she takes.” And even as Reynolds system of control closes in on her, she tries fights for herself, trying to make personal space within the suffocating house. But that’s the thing about suffocating systems: they’re a rigged game that will make you fight for the most meager of victories, the tiniest slivers of personhood and intimacy. And when raising yourself up to someone’s level is impossible, the only way to upend the toxicity of power-imbalance is to tear down the other person to be lower than you. In the case of Phantom Thread, that tearing down comes in the form of literal poisoning, putting this patriarch on his back, weak and in need of her care and her care alone.

Make no mistake, this is a horror film.

Not in the sense that it will make you jump or subject you to grueling of physical abuses. No, this is the horror of daily emotional abuse, some of which are so mundane as to be instantly recognizable. And we can only watch in horror as Alma, who is given every excuse to run, to escape from this rigged game, chooses to fight for her space and opt back in. Not realizing that in the end, this game can can only whittle you down. Because even as you fight more and more, you don’t realize that what you’re really giving into is self-erasure. In trying to fill the hole inside, the hole becomes bigger and bigger until there is only the hole. Your own invisibility. Your own agency. There is only element of you that belongs to the other person and what you can do for them. Even as Alma regales us with her tale of love, she lays it all out to us, smiling as she brags that she has given Reynolds “every piece” of her.

But as much as this plight can go down, down, and down, the film’s piece de resistance comes in the form of a damn omelet, where the two finally buy into their “game” of their mutual abuse. I’ve seen hot takes that interpret this as the language of dom and sub sexuality, but this readily goes beyond bedroom play and into a much darker agreement of life itself. For it is the acceptance of outright dysfunction, the love language of abuse and keeping ourselves in systems of abuse. As Reynold’s exclaims “kiss me woman, before I’m sick!” we audibly guffaw at the incredulity of their damn happiness within it. But their loving embrace is what makes it all the more horrifying. They’re choosing the abuse that people choose every day. And thus, it is one of the most acute and terrifying portraits of co-dependent toxicity that I’ve ever seen.

One that I hope masculinity has an ability to recognize in ourselves.

For there is no grand secret behind Reynold’s ire. No dark abuse or lingering secret. Just the aching reality of a man plainly in grief of his mother, and with no real way to process it. Even as her haunting, ethereal form visits, there is no fear, no malice. Just the quiet and humble words of a man sweetly declaring “I just miss you” to her ghostly visage. And while it’s clearly grief, it may as well be the way any older man misses the mothering of youth. And for a man of genius, who gets to abuse every measure of power and control in their possess, the mothered boy under their fragile exterior will impatiently demand the world mothers them in turn.

But he, like Alma, is just trying to fill a hole. A hole of longing. A hole of absence. A hole of powerlessness. But that brings us to the lesson Reynolds and Alma never learn: that the deeper we go into broken systems, trying to fill the holes inside of us, the more we just fill ourselves with dysfunctional answers. And we tell ourselves “this is the only way” to feel weak and strong in equal measure. But this notion is the biggest toxic buy-in of all.

Because they’re not holes. They’re wounds. The gushing, bloody marks of the loss, and yearning, and happiness itself. And in trying to fill them up with things, we only poke and prod these festering gaps and get them infected. Then we learn to live with a disease and even take pride in the way we further mangle these wounds and call it helping. For the horror of Reynolds and Alma is they believe they’re cured. But the truth, whether literal, emotional, or societal, is that wounds do not need to be filled…

They need to be healed.

❤ HULK

The Six Shapes of “The Shape Of Water”

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I saw The Shape of Water and it is safe to say that I was quite taken with it. To the point of being in rapturous, ardent love with it. As such, you better believe I had some thoughts about the many shapes within the film itself…

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The Shape of Sight

The hardest thing for me to talk about is aesthetics.

If only because, yes, in the end it all comes down to druthers and personal taste. But I know my own druthers and dagnammit, the artistry of Del Toro has always been defined by his remarkable, nigh uncanny sense for aesthetics. On one level, there’s the sheer audacity of the design itself. Otherworldly creatures, from terrifying skin sacks with eyes on their hands, to jaw-unhinging vampires, to a doe-eyed fish-man with a beating heart. But there’s even a sense of scale and impact to his use of CGI, not merely meant to be purtty pittchurs, but dripping in visceral weight and connectivity. But it’s in his sets, too, from his cavernous, steamy halls to the most intricate of personal apartments. All defined by nearly perfect shapes and contours that never once read as sterile or cold, but organic, lived-in, and wild.

And somehow, that design is all captured with a perfect sense of cinematic language. Del Toro’s never once struck me as someone interested in ornate Kubrickian perpendicularity with those dead-on centers. And you’ll never catch him falling for the stilted posturing of sterile frames that you could find in Blade Runner 2049 or the like. And good granola this is NOT a shot at the immaculate Roger Deakins, it’s just that there’s something far more sumptuous and romantic to Del Toro’s sense of framing. Not just in the way that he often opts for the traditional standard 1.85:1, but the way he has this ability to capture everyone perfectly in the depths of their space. As a result, his frames end up feeling felt, not composed.

Especially as the camera glides about with assured footing, never out of place, never wandering, never too investigative, but purely within the practical constraints of his subjects. We all call this motivated camera movement and it’s the same thing that makes Spielberg such an effortless master. And the lighting, my god the lighting, which is perhaps Del Toro’s best technical skill. For he’s a man never afraid to make those blacks look black and crash them into the warmth of silky yellows, the glowing sickly greens, the soothing blues, and the inspired reds and fluorescents of a a vivid fever dream. And with The Shape of Water, Del Toro has taken all these gifts and somehow crafted his most beautiful film yet!

*silence after long rant*

Uh, aesthetics, I’m saying I like his aesthetics.

And I don’t think there’s anything so wrong with that. There’s a kind of cinema-goer that simply has the same druthers and there’s a reason we all go so nuts over his work. You don’t have to like it or see it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. For it’s not tangible in the same way that Deakins or Kubricks or whoevers work is. But whenever I see a Del Toro film, I know I’m going to get to eat up this lovely aesthetic dinner that hits me right in my tum tum. And if I’m lucky, I’m going to get a little bit more…

The Shape of Sound

Just mere seconds into this film, the beautiful theme comes into ear and I found myself smiling like a toddler who is easily delighted by a new toy. Holy crap, This film is going to have a score! A real flesh and blood score! With actual character themes!

That may sound like an underwhelming reason to be enamored with the first few seconds of a movie, but we live in underwhelming times when it comes to scoring. I don’t put this at the feet of composers, mind you, but with studios and audiences. In the modern Marvelized-climate we seem to agree that anything to “distracting” is put on the back-burner (Ragnorok‘s score was good tho). Unless it’s the pulse-pounded ticking clock of a Zimmer score, of course. And don’t get me started on the largely atmospheric four note alterations of those who aren’t fit to hold Cliff Martinez’s synthesizer case. But The Shape of Water has a remarkable score by Alexandre Desplat, a prolific composer whose also one of our most underrated (his Wes Anderson work in particular). And he’s filled this one with a distinctly-french sumptuousness that wouldn’t be out of place in Ratoutouille or Amelie, while harkening back to the pulp of Hermann and Hitchcock. As such, It’s probably my favorite score of the year, hands down.

But the thing I love about Del Toro is how aware he is of sound in general. Not just in it’s willingness to evoke strange and other-worldly noises from a creature, but it’s visceral impact with kinetic filmmaking. There’s no endless noise or gun-fire. There’s quiet bubbling, tapping of feet, communication in clangs, diegetic music and so much more. And when we do have gunshots? They’re loud, singular, and shocking instead of repetitive and meaningless. It’s a total soundscape that uniquely understands the “quality of edge” and so much more… Ha. At this point, I could go on and on. But at the end of the day, so much of this stuff is simply technical. And the technical things are nice, but they are not what make a resonant film, nor what speaks to us deep down…

The Shape of Story

“How the fuck did this get made?”

I found myself asking this constantly while watching the The Shape of Water. The sheer audacity and R-Rated bravery of making a film this tonally genre-bending takes the faith of a lot of studio people who honestly just had to believe in the fucker. Right? I very rarely find myself caring about budgets, but Del Toro ability to get bang for his buck always makes me freaking curious (FWIW, the budget is 19.5 million… It looks like it’s 120 million). But all the real credit perhaps goes to co-writer Vanessa Taylor, who really seems to have brought out all the best in Del Toro’s sensibilities resulting in an impossible film. Afterwards I joked to a friend, “oh, yeah just a simple pitch: it’s Amelie meets Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Oceans 11 meets Cinema Paradiso meets Sex and Lucia.” Just a simple mash-up! You know, the kind of movie with busby berkley musical numbers and freshly-decapitated cats. But it all truly works thanks to the fact that all these different inclinations come from the fundamental story work.

Keep in mind, I am not a Del Toro apologist. I clearly love his style, but will happily admit that the biggest missteps of his career come on the story level. There’s a sliding scale of course, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are pretty much masterpieces, but he’s always had this odd sense of rhythm. He’ll forgo momentum for the sake of, well, a moment. He’ll get lost in a detail. He’ll be fully content to string scene after scene together that are full of “demonstration” without any real conflict being played. I honestly even think we’ve had a bit of an oversight when it comes to his ear for english language dialogue. But more often than not, he knows how to nail the story moments that matter the most. And it all sticks together through the sheer audacity of his cinematic ability, deep empathy for all his characters, and his clear love for the material he selects. But yes, there’s no denying his work is at it’s best when the script is at it’s best.

Luckily, The Shape of Water is probably his best.

Not just in the way it moves with clear therefore / buts and well-articulated drama in nearly every scene, but in how it handles the earning the most important moments, specially with regard to teh audience’s experience. To wit, there’s a moment that comes about 1/3 of the way into the film where she makes a plea to her best friend, Richard Jenkins (and holy shit, how good is he and everyone else in this film?), where she needs his help in getting the creature to escape. It is of course insane to him, but she wants to convince him. Now, I have a pretty good sense for what moments have to come when and immediately I had a sense of dread with this moment, “Oh no, I think. It’s too early! They haven’t built up their relationships enough! They’re assuming our empathy for the two of them!” And then…

Sally Hawkins gives the most perfect and emotive “speech” imaginable. One where she lets us into her soul, let’s us into the things we have not seen. And let us understand why this “creature” means so damn much to her. And it’s right then that I realized why Jenkins is our humble narrator, and that’s because it’s how we’ve been viewing this story in a way. But it’s all too dangerous and impossible. He says no and breaks her heart, then goes off to deal with his own needs, his own wants, his own life. But when that comes crashing down, he returns to her. She is all that is in his life. And he says that he does not understand, but if it’s important to her, then it’s important to him. And it is the most clear understanding of not only where the audience is, but how we see them, and what empathy really means beyond that. And of course, the moment Jenkins meets this creature he comes to understand and see him as she does. And it is in these safe, trusted hands that we see the love blossom between Sally and this “creature.” It is here we are let into her deepest frailties and stregnth. It is here we are grasped by the touching, expansive musical number that only exists within her heart of hearts.

I cried constantly on this journey. And I was not crying because I empathized with mere texture, or clever filmmaking… I cried because I understood the story that was unfolding in our two hearts, as one.

The Shape of Sex

The film makes an incredibly important decision right up front.

And it is that we see Sally Hawkins, naked in her tub, masturbating. I was struck immediately by a few things. The first is that wow, it’s certainly sexual, even alluring, but there’s nothing distinctly pornographic about the way it is treated. Because it largely seems for her. It is just plain, true, and normal. But it turns out it’s the single most important thematic decision in the film. Because while a lot of people like to joke “this fish fucks!” (and I mean, yeah, he fucks), it is after something much more profound. Because the creature is not awakening some repressed urge in her. No, she’s been sexual, whole, and multi-faceted from the very beginning. The point, and the whole point, is that now she simply has someone to share it with who sees her as an equal. Not someone repressed. Not someone in need of a man. Not a charity case. Heck, I was even amazed that the film took the trope of men wanting “the little mermaid” perfect silent girl and understood exactly how to invert it, especially given Shannon’s creepy desire for that silence (I honestly think Del Toro and Taylor hate the trope as much as I do).

The end result of all of this is probably sex positive mainstream film i can think of in recent years? Sure, you got your Magic Mike XXLs and the like, but this is 1. downright extraordinary and 2. desperately needed. As I recently lamented in a column, I can’t tell you how much sex feels like it’s been washed out of popular movie-going all together, forget healthy sex. And when it does show up it’s all either the tsk tsk brooding of something like Shame, or the weird sensibility of edgelord provocateurs, or simply milquetoast fantasizing of regressive norms… So where are the consenting adults just really happy to be getting it on?

Turns out, they’re in this movie. And yeah, one of them is a fish-man.

But it’s, like, a metaphor, y’all.

The Shape of Sin

I also love how much this movie had no intention of glossing over the sins of the 50s. From the ardent racism of even the good characters, to the oppressive homophobia, to the blatant, suffocating sexism. Heck, it even has room for the complicated reflexivism of cold-war politics and the Russians. But what’s more is that it has no qualms about making it known how little has changed with tehse “isms,”especially with Jenkins biting “born too early or too late” comment. But the film’s most brilliant commentary comes in the form of a glaring takedown of toxic masculinity.

It’s a weird thing to say that I am not a “Michael Shannon guy,” but I’m not the same way a lot of others seem to be. This is not a knock on Shannon or anyone who loves him. I just happen to think he’s an actor who has one particular setting and he does that setting remarkably well, especially when he has material suited for it. And sometimes it’s just not that suited and I feel like I’m getting the wrong thing. But holy heck, is this suited to him, resulting in my favorite Shannon performance of all time. For it is one that finds endless dexterity in his ugly, virulent intensity. He’s a character who is smarmy to the bone, but only in that casual way where he’d never even think about it. He’s similarly obsessed with power, control, and dominance, but only in the way where he’d never think about it either. There is only his will to do his duty, always being strong and virile. To never disappoint the general or else he is nothing  (and even he wants out of this crooked system). But in reality, he is literally rotting. And ugly man of oozing puss and posture, who will cover his wife’s mouth with his bleeding hand, and show that he has not a single courageous bone in his body. It’s Trumpism. And t’s everything masculinity in 2017 most fears about itself.

And it’s dead on the fucking money.

The Shape of Soul

I’ve often made the argument that “movies have souls.”

And it’s true. Movies, in the end, are made by people and they are about people. So they always end up just feeling like people. Meaning they have personalities and thoughts and vivid wants and needs all to their own. I think we absorb this when we watch movies more than anything else. Sure, I could talk a lot about the technical filmmaking of Dunkirk, but in the end I have the most affinity for it because it’s what finally got me to clearly see an aching and repressed humanity within Nolan. Same goes for the remarkable humane touches of Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, which is full of empathy for every single human who steps into frame, even the miraculous dingbats… So why do I like Del Toro?

Because I feel his soul in every frame.

I really do. He’s a deeply passionate person and don’t just see it in his unfiltered interviews, I see it in his work and thematic approach. He’s a man who loves sincere progressive thought as much as he loves monsters and making mistakes. As such, I have empathy and reverence for it. And I especially see it in the humanity of what is he is ultimately trying to say in this film. And look, I get it. I’ve already seen jaded folks talk about the film with the cynical view, projecting the idea of “Oh yeah, it’s a filmmaker imagining some perfect not existent person who would fuck a monster!” Like it’s all a piped-up self-fulfilling fairy tale if they ever heard one!

Well, let’s talk about monsters.

Because those would be the words of someone whose never allowed themselves to feel like a monster. Who never realized they are probably a monster. Who never had people make them feel like a monster. People who do not see their deep, inexorable scars and like to pretend they are not there. People who never realized that with the right circumstances, it’s quite easy to edge oneself into a place where they feel toxic, a being deserving of being tarred and feathered. Someone deserving of nothing. Someone sho really deserves to drown at the bottom of an ocean, if only to simply be away from the world that rejects them, and free. And if you’ve had that feeling, suddenly it all doesn’t feel so much like a monstrous fairy tale, but a continued, waking dream that always comes just before a dreaded alarm clock.

So for all the beautiful points made in this stunningly beautiful film, there is the one that most reveals it’s soul. And it is this: when you are underwater, perhaps there is nothing to truly fear. Perhaps it is not a death sentence. And perhaps you are not alone. Because when you have truly remarkable people in your life, they will look at your scars, and help you realize that maybe, just maybe…

They can be gills.

❤ HULK

The Force Belongs To Us: THE LAST JEDI’s Beautiful Refocusing of Star Wars

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1.

Okay. I wasn’t going to write anything for one simple reason: I know way too many of the Johnson clan at this point for this to be anything but biased blatherings. So there it is. I have no idea what to do with this hope-diamond-sized-grain of salt. Feel free to literally disagree with all I say and proclaim my bias for all to see. It’s deserving. All I can say is I knew literally nothing about THE LAST JEDI going in. And if I didn’t like it, I probably would have been very quiet about it. But then a thing happened that only happens when your brain is caught on fire by a lovely movie… I couldn’t stop talking about it. And suddenly I was talking with people who had some different reactions, but also complex ones. And in those discussions I found that there was nothing less at stake then the entire meaning of STAR WARS all together… So let’s get spoilery and into this shit, shall we?

2.

I’ve made my feelings about The Force Awakens quite clear before. To sum them up, I think J.J. has always been a talented filmmaker with an incredible casting eye, quite adept at imbuing a given moment with energy and emotion, but it’s always just that: a moment. There’s never a larger context. Carol Markus will scream as her father dies then the entire movie will go on as if it never happened. It’s all bits of affectation that excite and delight, and as far as meaning goes, it’s all promise and deep questions and lingering intrigue that pull you in deep, deep, deep… but, you know, never amount to anything. And it’s not that the “answers” are bad, it’s just that they were never set up to be meaningfully answered in the first place. That’s the mystery box. That’s literally the design. He doesn’t think it matters what’s inside as long as he makes you think it’s important. He’s literally said this. And that’s what it’s always been. It’s a grift. A con. A charming way of storytelling that whispers sweet nothings in your ear and is out the window before you wake up. And in making a Episode 7, I was hoping he’d cast it aside, and in some ways he did, and in some ways doubled down on some of his worst story habits of “momentary effect” over building to a coherent point. And the lack of that point is all symbolized in that final moment, Rey standing there to hand a lightsaber to Luke. It’s not a story beat. It’s not really anything. Just someone waiting to hand a baton to someone who can figure out a way to have any of this make a lick of sense.

There’s a reason this movie begins with Luke throwing it off a cliff.

In fact there’s a number of moments in the film that seem like direct refutations to the mystery box questions that were vaguely teased as maybe kinda sorta being deeply important. Why did we think they were? Because destiny! Because Skywalkers! Because Luke I am your father! Because mysteries and answers! And so for two years the internet does what they always do with J.J. and trying to solve the unsolvable questions that were never meant to be answered in the first place. So for two years they’ve been speculating about Rey’s parentage, or Snoke’s origins, or the Knights of Ren, etc. And what does the film do in response? It definitively takes those mystery box questions and throws them off the literal and proverbial cliff. Sometimes it’s done in a funny way, sometimes in an incredulous way, but it’s always in purposeful way. Because in the end, The Last Jedi is actually about something really, really important.

And it’s going to lay the groundwork to get us there…

3.

I was having a conversation after the film and it was largely about the methodology of filmmaking. One person was talking about how they don’t like seeing the strings or feeling the manipulation of a film, which I get, and it’s often a popular criticism of filmmakers like Spielberg. But to me, andI probably expressed this a little too flippantly, I said “But that’s filmmaking.”

Filmmaking is always a construction. And what we feel or don’t feel in terms of that construction is purely the virtue of what we can actually sense as an individual. So for something to be “invisible” and for you to be “in it” is not necessarily a virtue of any filmmakers ability or the lack, but largely what we bring in our own way of seeing. In fact, it gets at the Catch 22 of movie-watching the more you can see of the construction, the less you can feel. Unless, you just learn to be cool with idea and get a sense of fluency. To that, when I say “the best cuts are invisible” I’m not arguing that I don’t actually see them and that that’s the only way I can experience the purity of movie watching (although sometimes it is). But that’s because my own vacant lack of awareness is not my end goal. I’m saying that it will largely be “invisible” for a popular audience (as are most filmmaking techniques), which is the very reason I tend to celebrate traditional functionalists because they’re the best at tapping into what a general audience brings to a movie. After all, there’s a reason Spielberg is also considered the best american filmmaker: he’s great at making you feel the thing he wants you to feel.  Which is why a lot of young movie goers go through a phase of disliking him. They don’t want to be manipulated… but that’s what filmmaking always is… so you can see the complexity of all this, no?

Anyway, the point is actually that beyond the artifice, it is actually the pure story level that makes things meaningful and last. For all his kinetic stylization, I still think Johnson’s just a traditional formalist under all of it (I wrote extensively about his work years and years ago and it’s mostly in there). And in this movie I felt so much of the rigorous work. It’s all set-ups and pay-offs. The opening bomber sequence is stacked with clarity, geography, and pure function. Same go for the army of slowly creeping dread sequences that follow. All of which are build on direct storytelling function. Poe’s arc vs. Laura Dern’s characterization is a prime example. The way the film plays with audience expectations with her is never a “ta-da! surprised you, didn’t I!?” It’s what most good turns do in that they make you slap your forehead and go “of course!” Poe’s mutiny was always misguided, him repeating the mistakes of the past. And so the narrative turn played right into his arc beautifully. And holy hell, does she get a triumphant moment as a result… the silent cut.

But perhaps there is no functional moment quite like the ending show-stopper with Luke. And as a quick aside, we finally got the Mark Hamill performance that HE always deserved to get to show US. I have no eloquent words for it. His version of Luke in this film is just incredible. A culmination of humor and love and friendship and so much more that went beyond the pale of mere posturing. But it’s all built off grounded story function. Because it has to earn so much of the real biggest mystery presented in the last film and that’s WHY, why would Luke ever do this and run away? The answer, and then the films answer to that answer, is one of the most brilliant last lessons that the Star Wars universe has yet to give: and that is the acceptance of / and learning from failure. And it’s all built up into a crystalline moment of teaching both from an old friend in Yoda, and then what he has to give forward. My audience was practically hovering three feet above their chairs for “see around kid.” But at the core of Luke’s arc, at the core of everything in this movie, is the most important message of all…

4.

“Fuck Skywalkers.”

My friend said this in a conversation a long time ago. And he didn’t mean it about the characters themselves, nor what they meant to him. He meant it in the sense of the Star Wars series’ focus on lineage and the way some all powerful family who are the most powerful force users who basically controlled the fate of galaxy was… super gross. And he’s right, quite frankly. Because it’s everything I hate about the notion of ‘destiny” and “why I’m destined to be a hero!” bullshit. That psychology only leads you to the kind of place where you are the asshole kid screaming DO YOU KNOW WHO MY FATHER IS!?!?! at night clubs. And as this series has gone on and on, it has fed more and more into that thinking. So it would always this deep fear in me that in the return to the galaxy far far away, the new trilogy would get sucked back into that thematic toxicity.

But in TFA, we actually got a nice self-aware version of that with Kylo where it saw the juvenile villainy in such bloodline thinking (he is absolutely my favorite part of that film, btw). But I still always dreaded it with Rey parentage angle and fan theorying, etc: “Is she secretly Luke’s kid, etc!?!?” Is this just going to be more stories about Skywalkers and the children of all-powerful Jedi and Sith and how they’re the only ones that matter? And so in the moments of The Last Jedi that led up to the confrontation with Snoke, I’ll admit it… I fell for the feint. I thought there was going to be Lord Snoke “I am your father” moment. Why? Well, because that’s the what gets nicely set up in the scene before with Kylo’s feint of “I know who you parents are”… but nope, the lightsaber literally goes sideways and it’s another “OF COURSE!!!” reaction that rings out in my brain, because it all says it so clearly. Especially in their scene after: Kylo just wants to burn it all down with him atop the totem pole. And Rey, she’s just a kid whose parents sold her away for nothing… a meaningless child who therefore needs to share her place among those destined to be great, in order to be great… That kinda gross regal thinking sound familiar?

But Rey won’t do it. She would never. I actually ended up arguing with some folks about the “disappointing” nature of this reveal, but to me it was the only reveal that could actually mean anything in this story. Because she’s not “just” anything. Which is actually everything. For she and Rose and so many others are everything important about this movie. They are people who aren’t the sons of daughters of legends. People who have their own lives and wants, but they are people who have been discarded and stepped on and put under a system of unbearable weight. But from those leanings, there’s nothing that makes them any less capable of the force, any less a jedi, any less powerful…

And anything less than a Skywalker.

 

5.

You can argue the one “dalliance” of the film is the action on what I’ll be too lazy to google and just call “Monte Carlo planet.” But it’s also the most thematically important because it’s where the entire Skywalker point made above comes into focus. No, not just in the clear criticism of high society and war profiteering, but deeper within the sights of nameless young children who are put under the thumb of the world. And who, within them so innately carry the understanding of the horrors of that world, and thus so tangibly know the simple, inescapable ways for it to be better. And so, within that simple, final speech about what really matters in this big old universe that we share, it’s not about Skywalkers or whose bloodline is most powerful or whose dad can beat up your dad… it’s about that equally simple, final image.

A young child cleaning a stable.

Who dreams of being more.

The force belongs to them, too.

And so it belongs to us.

❤ HULK

 

The Aching Reality of Nathan For You

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1. BUT WHAT IS IT?

I think Nathan For You is as good as The Wire.

I mean that. We live in a world full of hyperbole, but it’s hard to imagine someone doing this show with any better possible execution. So I don’t know what other yardstick we could go by. Sure, most folks agree it’s scathingly funny. Just as many agree that Nathan Fielder is some kind of left-field, deadpan comedy savant. But the thing that fascinates me has to do with the deeper purpose of the show itself, which not only has far more complex layers of construction than people give credit for, but whose very “core identity” is not likely what we assume. This subject is practically an obsession among my friends, just I can’t tell you how many filmmakers and ‘creative types” are similarly obsessed with the show in general. There is a damn reason for this. And yet so many people gloss over the the simplest question at the heart of Nathan For You, which happens to be the one I find the most fascinating:

“What is it?”

Seriously, what is this show? On paper, the premise is simple: “Nathan tries to help struggling businesses boost their sales.” Which makes room for completely gonzo business ideas, wherein Nathan’s straight-faced, unassuming Canadian demeanor slowly eggs people into the ludicrous, just as his deadpan reactions always highlight the joke of the given moment. But let’s not be coy, this show’s M.O. is basically just ballsy manipulation, one that gets people to cooperate with the silliest and most absurd possible life choices. But Nathan throws himself into the most socially anxious situations imaginable, ones that are beyond mere human’s ordinary capabilities. But to be fair, it’s also a far cry from the edge lord dare-based approach of Sasha Baron Cohen, opting instead to ride an incredibly fine line of morality. But still, is it a prank show? Is it man on the street comedy? Is it really just a provoking documentary? How much of this show is constructed, anyway? But the driving questions even go beyond that. Like how is the show is somehow mostly mean, but also doesn’t actually feel like it? Is it because Nathan is very rarely mean himself? Is it because the “character” of Nathan has become finely honed into a perfect sad-sack loser along for the ride, similarly looking for friendship and kinship in a world full of lost souls? Because within that, we create this weird love and bond for the weirdo characters that populate the show. And so every episode, I feel like we watch Nathan and someone else fall down the rabbit hole of bad idea after bad idea, always revealing a new “therefore, therefore, therefore,” but really, he’s revealing something else entirely…

And it all reaches a spectacular apex and the fourth season finale, “Finding Frances.”

2. BILL

The episode centers around a man named Bill Heath, who first appeared on the show a few seasons ago as a Bill Gates “impersonator”and he made quite the impression on Nathan. Well, he made quite the impression on everyone, really. Not only was he a uniquely terrible Gates impersonator, he was just this weird, goofy dude that you couldn’t even begin to describe. But as the opening of the finale tells us, he participated in a chaotic recording of his episode’s audio commentary, during which he couldn’t stop mentioning a lost love. And then, he kept coming by the production office, leaving gifts, hanging out, and participating in his favorite topics of conversation: the Arkansas Razorbacks and, of course, his lost love Frances. After seeming months of this, Nathan decided to use the show’s resources to try and help him do just that. As Nathan will hilariously deadpan later in the episode, “after all, no one wants to be old and filled with regret.” But as you watch the opening you can’t help but think…

Wait, this Bill guy for real?

Oh, he’s for real. I know this because my friend Spence once hired him as a Bill Gates impersonator for my friend Andrew’s Birthday party a few years ago (again, this show has superfans and then some). Andrew recalls, “he came and sat with me. He had downloaded Bill Gates wikipedia page and then read facts to me about Bill Gates.” Spence: “Seriously, he printed out a binder’s worth of material on the xbox kinect, but it was about last year’s model.” Andrew: “But he figured out halfway through I wasn’t a Bill Gates fan.” Spence: “I think thats when he decided to stay longer. Cause he realized HE had fans.” He apparently loved taking pictures with everyone and “definitely talked about the razorbacks a lot… And trump.” And then Andrew let it fly: “I swear he mentioned Frances at some point.”

Years later, I’m watching this man’s life all unfold in in the finale and you can see the way plays to Nathan’s documentarian sensibility. It’s the old adage “you just follow the story,” which really means you just follow the people. But what unfolds goes beyond the mere operatics of the insane schemes that define the show (though there are certainly plenty of those). It instead reveals entire layers of “Bill” himself. You get to see so much of this odd duck is so lacking in the “ball feel” of understanding how and what to say to people. He’s an actor, but you get the sense he’s learned all the wrong lines. Still, underneath the layers of armor and oddity, you connect so much to his hidden emotion, his seemingly deep pains of regret that he keeps tucked away from the audience. As their “boys road trip” presses on, Nathan keeps trying to lean into it. But all the mechanics of the episode’s first genuine heist pay off with fireworks. A simple shot in the car of him seeing her yearbook as his eyes water and he can barely speak… It’s real. The nugget, the yearning at the heart of this story. It’s all so real… But so is all of it.

And that’s how you realize what makes this show so good.

3. BREAKING

It’s not the mere fact that there are “real” moments on Nathan For You. No, the most important factor is the base-line reality of the show itself. It never breaks. Just as Nathan never breaks. Because it understands that for an audience to truly believe a story, you have to believe every part of it. No, I’m not saying the audience has to be %100 duped or something like that. After all, we know Nathan is a guy who is largely orchestrating events as a “character.” But the point is that the show acts has to act as if it’s all real anyway. I am telling you, this is actually critical to all storytelling. Because if you have a moment where you let the air out? Where you let the audience see the seams? Well, then you broke the audience’s suspension of disbelief. I mean, there a reason most reality breaking fuck-it moments come at the end of a story and not the middle. But within these kinds of “comic realities,” there’s all sorts of mini ways to mess up “reality” without even thinking about it.

Because honestly, I feel like see a lot of other comedy shows mess this up all the time, particularly ones coming from a sketch sensibility. We’ll get one scene where a character is looking his nose down in at people and then a few scenes later he’s wanting someone’s approval, and it’s not based on any psychology of the character. There’s no real motivation or consistency. You see they were just going for the better conflict or better joke and not thinking about it. Just as you’ll see act of terrifying consequences and then the show never referencing them again. There’s no base-line reality, so what you are really seeing is a lack of impact, which is a lack of narrative meaning. But again, whatever is on screen, all of it, all of it has to be real.

After all, there’s a reason Lorne Michaels hates it when characters break on SNL, just as he knows the dangers of why people love it so much when they do. He knows that you need a baseline for the show to work, but the live element mixed with the “tradition” of breaking is often so funny precisely because it creates a different level of audience understanding when it happens. It feels “fun” and a way to get behind the scenes of something whose reality probably wasn’t all that interesting or “believed” to begin with. But again, Lorne knows you can’t milk it. Because what is SNL if they break every single sketch? There is, of course, a flip-side to this where if you show the seams, we have to see ALL the seams. For instance, one of my favorite moments of the recent My Brother My Brother and Me show on Seeso (RIP) was the behind the scenes moments when these three goofy, inept brothers were trying to make simple adult phone calls to try and book famous talent and couldn’t do it without getting scared and laughing. But that breaking? That’s actually our baseline. It’s reversed, and the biggest problems actually come when they try to put a sheen on a show that’s made instead of them trying to make the show.

And so it’s important to see the critical difference in the moment of Nathan For You. It’s all the sheen. Even the one moment where Nathan “breaks” in the finale when Bill makes a sexually crude comment and Nathan has to squeak out a “Jesus, Bill!” reaction to it. But just because it’s not his usual deadpan egging-on, doesn’t mean it’s out of character. Because at this point, we’ve established enough of their reality of their relationship for that reaction to make sense. We always have the stakes and we know what’s real.

… Sort of.

4. MACI

This whole subject becomes doubly fascinating with the episode’s B-plot of the Maci, the escort that Nathan hires to do a test date with Bill. But when Bill doesn’t want to be with an escort (and makes the aforementioned sexual comment), Nathan ends up spending time with her instead to “get in the mind of a older man.” But the meeting is, of course, just about the fact that Nathan’s character is desperately lonely. But within that is the reality being presented within the episode. He evokes the mantra, “prioritize your career you become desperate for any human connection.” And so begins a cycle of Nathan paying Maci for dates as he keeps putting his fragile, boy-like persona on display.

But the most fascinating part of this is the way he lets her into the larger reality of the show itself. He even shows her episodes and she’s able to directly call out the larger identity of the show. She laughs but calls him out for mean, even saying “you lied to every last one of them.” Her basic sense of decency and being able to the see the fabric of the show’s ugly construction is fascinating, but she also keeps being kind to Nathan (who, after all, is paying her). From there the questions keep bleeding together, what does she really understand about the cameras and the dates that are happening? Because she she’s there and being genuine throughout the whole thing, but she’s also constantly pointing out how this is weird and he’s weird for doing it.

The questions reach a fever pitch when she prompts him to go to a place that’s a little more quiet and they end up kissing on the hotel bed. Holy shit is this happening? I mean, this show’s never gone that far and yet they both seem so genuine. It’s so strange that at the exact point  I tweeted that I was writing about the show someone asked, “@jmittell But does Hulk think Maci is real or not?” I feel like we end up asking these kinds of questions with the show constantly: How much of the show is orchestrated? How much do the people on it know and understand? How does this all even happen?

5. THE DISSOLVE

But at the heart of the quest was Bill, a man with a lonely heart. So powerful this motivation, that it guides us through a movie-length search that is the finale. But the search for Frances was spiraling out until a much needed break in the case. One that come together with a good bit of detection work. Seems Bill and Nathan were able to piece together her new married name and town of residence from her parent’s obituary. They then go to the library and lo and behold, she’s on Facebook. The moment he sees her, staring back from the scene, he can’t believe it. It’s a weirdly euphoric moment to see that Frances is so real. But of course, Bill then sees she’s married and it suddenly it turns. For all the ways he deferred and said he didn’t know what he wanted out of this, it becomes clear: he’s angry. He’s clearly pinned so much of his hopes on this. He begins his weird obsession with her wording about how she would take “her love to the grave” and he’s practically acting as if it was a binding contract. He rails against her “overweight” new husband… Yeah, it gets fucking weird and possessive, the dark side of a life time’s worth of regret.

Even in character, Nathan seems hesitant to keep endorsing this. But he wants to help him get over this initial disappointment, so he goes back to his amazing use of role-playing, which gets at the old-adage of “the play’s the thing wherein i’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Yup, it’s right out of the playbook of famed documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing. Nathan hires an actress to play Frances, but Bill is laying it on thick and (also laying his attraction onto the actress too thick and keeps talking about her teeth!?). He’s using the scenario for all his darkest and most unhinged impulses of what to say and not to say to the woman he’s thought about for fifty years. So Nathan switches it up and has him play Frances’s role, and suddenly it all changes dramatically. You hear all this anger and him finally admitting “you cheated!” and you realize it’s every single thing he’s been yelling at himself for years. Yup, the role reversal actually works. And so Bill the actor finally calms down, goes back to his old role, and seems to genuinely understand that he has to be accepting of both where she is in life, her new situation, and also what he did to her all those years ago.

From there, we finally go to Michigan, where there are so many incredible moments of build-up. From the “it’s going to be okay” hug with his niece, to the hilarious, haunting aside where he, a Trump fan, calls his win in the election. To even Nathan’s genuine observation of their nervous, silent car ride to Frances’s house where he says   “the more you get to know somebody, the less you feel the need to fill the silence with talk.” Then it all comes down to the final moment, and they laugh, fully understanding the arc of what transpired… But Bill can’t go in. He keeps saying he wants the cameras to come with him to the front door. Nathan points out it’s a personal moment, he’s genuinely invested, but it crosses a line. But Bill says he wants “all the PR,” which makes it so damn clear: he thinks of the camera as his armor, his good spin, his legitimacy. It’s such a failure to see what everything really is… and so… Bill has to call first.

Bill calls from outside her house. Of course, his “ball-feel” all wrong. He won’t say who he is and keeps with “I want you to guess!” But really he’s asking to be loved and remembered. You see it. You see the anguish of what he can’t say, the horror of facing a lifetime of regret that can go up in smoke. Meanwhile, Nathan is squirming in a completely different kind of anguish as it goes on forever and he keeps telling him to say who he is… Finally, Bill says says who he is, and it all comes out as the heartbreaking moment of what is unsaid. There’s Frances’ pain, clearly confronted by the ghost of a man who hurt her so so long ago. But Bill keeps going, saying every wrong thing in the wrong way, putting a big “I’m fine!” smile over everything. And it’s just so clear he wants to be wanted. Frances talks about her lovely life and her nine grandchildren. And then it slowly peters out into a goodbye…

Nathan asks him, “was it hard?” but Bill is so wrapped in denial, thinking the nervousness was clearly on Nathan’s part. Bill’s so clearly unravelled by all of it, but he only knows how to put the actor sheen on it. Still, he says the most inadvertently poetic thing I’ve ever heard, “she sounded like it was just memories.” Which was to her. But to him, it was every day. It was all that consumed him. But from all we’ve seen, we know it wouldn’t have been right anyway. We know who Bill is and he’s really not even the best guy. We know he has this displacing inability to be a complete, loving person. Mostly because he thinks love is regretting a single choice. But if he married her, he likely would not have fixed his life or behavior, most likely. No, regret is about a lifetime of choices that bring you to the place where you got the thing you wanted, but not the thing you needed. But there’s nothing left for Bill to do. He go the proof he needed that she wasn’t interested in rekindling, and so he suffers the ongoing outrageous pain of the coward.

“You want to go home?” Nathan asks.

With that, they leave. And in the come down we get the most spectacularly telling moments. Bill trying to kill a bee in the hotel room that plays out just like Breaking Bad‘s Fly episode. It’s just more displacement. As is his gesture of swinging by the production office again and gifting Nathan a serving tray from Neiman Marcus. But of course, he has an ulterior motive. And that’s when he asks for it… the phone number of June, the actress who played Frances in their scene. I practically feel over laughing. It’s her literal stand in. A part he knows she can play, a role. And another clear mark of not very good person, who probably means better than he can conjure. But at least she’s not a memory. And the call-back moment where she’s able to guess “is this bill?” could not be more amazing. Their final date is weird, uncanny, just another put on. But we already know how it really is and what it will really be, because we know who Bill really is. But in the end, they just want people to play roles and Nathan is no different.

So of course it comes back to his own final date with Maci at the episode’s finale. But she’s sitting there, happy to take the money, finding him nice, but still scoffing at the whole thing. It is there she says most scathingly brilliant thing I’ve ever heard someone say about the show…

Maci: “Do you want to turn the camera’s off? Or does that defeat the purpose?”

Nathan: “Why? What’s the purpose?”

The moment is everything. She knows that she’s playing some role on a show. She knows that she doesn’t know if Nathan is genuine or if this is some gag. But her question is genuine, and so perfectly gets at the layers of everything I find so compelling and brilliant about this show. What is real? It’s not the actual question. It’s the one I asked at the beginning: “what’s the purpose?” And the point of the final scene is that “Nathan” can’t actually deal with life when he cameras are off. Just as Bill can’t go up to a front door without the armor. They’re the same in that way. So instead of turning them off, they’re just going to get this really sick drone shot instead. There could not be a more perfect “comedic reality” moment for the show to end on. And it absolutely reminded of something Patton Oswalt said when I asked him a question: “Beyond the push-pull of creator vs. critic, there is a further zenith for every comedian, and it’s often achieved by accident: Unveil an actuality.”

So what is the actuality of Nathan For You?

It’s a prank show where the prank dissolves and life itself becomes the joke. For when you make the absurd possible, people let out their absurdity in turn. They’ll even feel free to start talking about how they drink their grandson’s pee. But that absurdity is where our naked id and woozy spirit most resides. It’s where we open up and become our most whole aching selves, often telling our story not in our expressions of want, but in what we most deflect. It’s true of Bill, just as it is for Ghost Realtors and Nathan’s “character.” So under the veneer of the show’s artifice, under the inherent meanness of the act itself (that is the act of filming all this), there is still something weirdly empathetic about a show that will take its time and spend weeks trying to help a lonely man find a love from his past. Should they be? Are they using him? I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. But that’s because it’s a show that will capitalize on your delusion, but then maybe let you transcend past it. Or maybe fall. But it gives you that choice. It all really depends if we’re the kind of person who will go up to the house or call from outside. So whatever the show “is,” the actuality is all there, unveiling that which only rests in the desperate pain of our most absurd selves.

I can think of nothing more human.

<3HULK

HULK WROTE A BOOK! “SCREENWRITING 101” AVAILABLE NOW!

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HELLO FRIENDS!

SO LONG AGO HULK PROMISED YOU A BOOK VERSION OF “SCREENWRITING 101”

AND HERE IT IS!

IT’S AVAILABLE ON AMAZON RIGHT NOW http://www.amazon.com/Screenwriting-101-Film-Crit-Hulk-ebook/dp/B00H0NQE7S/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top (IBOOK VERSIONS COMING NEXT WEEK)

FOR ANY CURIOUSITIES OR QUESTIONS ON WHY HULK WROTE THE BOOK CHECK THIS OUT HERE: http://badassdigest.com/2013/12/05/why-hulk-wrote-a-book-on-screenwriting/

FOR DETAILS ON HOW TO READ THIS BOOK WITHOUT A KINDLE CLICK HERE! http://badassdigest.com/2013/12/05/you-dont-need-a-kindle-to-read-film-crit-hulks-book/

AND FROM THE BOTTOM OF HULK’S HEART, HULK THANKS YOU ALL FOR YOUR SUPPORT. YOUR INTELLIGENCE. AND YOUR KINDNESS. IT REALLY MEANS THE WORLD.

❤ HULK

PS – ENDLESS THANKS TO THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM THIS BOOK WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE: TO MEREDITH BORDERS FOR EDITING AND COLLABORATING ON IT. TO DEVIN FARACI FOR FOSTERING IT. TO TIM LEAGUE AND THE ENTIRE ALAMO GANG FOR BELIEVING IN IT. TO LINDSAY MAHER FOR COPY EDITING. TO ROGER TINCH FOR FORMATTING IT FOR PUBLICATION. TO YANNICK BELZIL FOR HIS AMAZING ILLUSTRATED COVER (PICTURED ABOVE!). TO EDGAR WRIGHT FOR HIS LOVELY AND FUNNY INTRODUCTION. AND MOST OF ALL, TO BETTY AND THE HULK FAMILY UNIT FOR THEIR INCREDIBLE LOVE AND SUPPORT.