What We Talk About When We Talk About Female Filmmaking

 

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1. Logical Glances

I dislike “left brain” film watching for three reasons.

The first reason is because it really isn’t how movies are meant to be absorbed. At all. Narratives are emotional experiences and as such, they are constructed to elicit just that. They are meant to make you feel things at the precise intended moment: scared, elated, adoring, or tickled with laughter, etc. And then they’re supposed to take those emotions and connect them to a deeper thematic point that actually means something to your life. But the thing about left-brain movie watching is that it looks at a film’s “construction” with the opposite intent: it tackles plotting in inane terms like “would have made more sense for the character to do” (which often ignores the idea that a character is not only supposed to make mistakes, it results in a more boring movie). It misunderstand the very function of drama. And thus it hilariously pursues the things that actually disconnect you from the emotional moment, all so the left-brain can check a box and tell you that something is logical. Which is why left-brain thinking gets people bent out of shape about plot holes (which often aren’t even plot-holes). So engaging in movies this way is, quite frankly, absurd. It would be akin to me looking at some math equations and asking, “but what does this quadratic formula make you feel?” And I guess it might be able to make you feel something, the same way you could go about analyzing a movie in a left brain way…

It’s just not the point.

Because of that, the second reason I dislike left-brain movie watching is because I don’t like the discussion that comes out of that mindset. Rather than gettin into the matter of interpretation, it becomes all about “answering” the “questions.” Interpretations therefore become “explanations,” and it creates a kind of black-and-white approach to trying to understand a storyteller’s logical intent over their emotional intent. Again, sometimes left-brain analysis is innocuous. If you wanna fall down the JJ Abram’s rabbit holes of easter eggs then go nuts and post on forums to your heart’s content. My problem is when that activity is not viewed as the fun “side thing” and instead is thought of as the purpose of the narrative. And that’s never the intent of a narrative (at least in like 98% of cases). Even much ballyhooed “hard sci-fi” writers like Phillip K. Dick were enormously emotional and dealt in heavy abstraction. So when we go down the rabbit hole of left-brain logic, we misunderstand what we’re really after. Especially with the Abram’s mystery box approach, because it is actually a con game of mystery with no real answer (which he’s made clear over and over and over again). So the real reason not to watch movies in a left brain way?

It’s because you will never, ever get what you actually want.

And the third and secretly-most-devastating reason I don’t like it, is because the left-brain narrative approach almost always ties into a lot of sexist crap. I’m not kidding. There’s a reason the tech industry deals with a lot of systemic sexism, especially when people just think they’re being logical (and obviously Hollywood is problematic in a whole different predatory way, as is everywhere, but we’ll get to those later). With left brain thinking, the rationale of the sexism is best summed up with the infamous Google memo, where a person saw attempts to fix the lack of diversity within the company as a threat and didn’t realize his response basically amounted to: “here let me logically explain to you why women are bad being emotionless AND bad at tech.” Seriously, if you’ve never actually read the memo, it is way worse than you think. And, of course, it’s filled with all these logical approximations and givens which give this toxicity the air of “intelligence.” But also-of-course, this habit is not limited to tech. In the larger film discussion, I see a bunch of people talk about female filmmaking and not realize they sound exactly like Google Memo Dude (or worse, they may even want to sound like him).

The problem with engaging the subject of logic is that it tends to elicit a knee-jerk response from those who worship logic. For any attempts to curtail such worship are often met with the assumption that we are saying “logic is bad” (which is absurd, or dare I say illogical). Because of course logic is fucking important. It’s intrinsic to our daily thought. There is literally nothing coherent in our minds without it. Not even this sentence. The clear problem is with those who go to the extreme end of the spectrum. Because then logic becomes the armor of those who do not actually understand their emotions. More importantly, the do not see the way their emotions are currently effecting them. You read the google memo and it’s not hard to see how much of is loaded with fear and disdain. Why is that when he insists the opposite is true? Because every human being is an emotional being. To the point that our emotional intentions are often nakedly obvious. And it is especially true when we cannot connect and process our emotions, for they still guide and orchestrate our behaviors in ways we cannot understand (which is exactly why therapy and emotional growth are so critical). And to bring it all back to story absorption, if you go down the left-brain rabbit hole of film-watching, you are probably not seeing the way the film is emotionally working on you. And if you’re not seeing that, then you’re not seeing what’s really going on with your reaction at all. Which means you will not only miss the ways you’re not being logical, you will probably end up emotionally hurting someone else in the process.

And big surprise, this all comes out in our discussion of female filmmakers.

Which brings us to an article I read last week by Lili Loofbourow called “The Male Glance.” It is, quite simply, stellar. A perfect articulation of the ways that men will only give female art a cursory glance, make assumptions, and will be altogether blind to “female intentionality.” It characterizes so many incredible things about the ways that men don’t recognize when women are making jokes, along with the ways we “other” women and refuse to connect with them in the same self-examination that we do with male characters. But one of the things that struck me deeply about the article was the discussion of the toxic dialogue around Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love which just so happens to be the subject of the first essay of “criticism” I wrote under this persona. Looking back, what I wrote is fucking garbage. Really. It’s not only full of sexism-in-the-name-of-being-anti-sexist, it’s also so judgmental of a complex adulthood I didn’t even understand yet. The lesson of which is not to look back and go: “oh my, how far I’ve come!” Nor is it simply to own the ways you mess up. It’s to realize that this is a constant process, even now, and especially going forward. For the article still directly calls out a vast number of ways I look across the spectrum of art and still “glance” at it. And so the only response is to constantly listen, and learn, and undo the self in awe of understanding the subject before you.

Not-so-coincidentally, this is what I try to do every time I watch a movie. Put simply, I try to abandon preconceived notions. Not just in terms of watching trailers, but assuming X about filmmaker Y. Because every time I’m trying to “learn the movie,” I’m trying to understand what it’s after. I am trying to understand how it’s after it. For the movie itself is worth infinitely more than myself. It takes infinitely more thought to make the film then it does for me to go to a theater, watch it, and write something catty. No, the job of criticism is to meet it. To reflect it. And to never once look down on it. And then the job is to help you diagnose how you felt watching it and why. And when I am going to take a piece of art to task? Especially on morality? Especially when it might feed into my own prejudices like it did with Gilbert’s work? It cannot just be a logical glance. I am going to be damn sure I do my homework, work out the argument, and play fair… Because it all feeds into the nexus of not just filmmaking but our preconceptions about gender.

Especially our own.

2. Lady Bird & Nancy

Within criticism, I spend a lot of time talking about film and story craft. I do this because I love it. I do this because it is the particular altar that I worship at. I believe that understanding story craft helps a story transcend boundaries. I believe it helps make an audience member feel a thing in a way they might not have otherwise. It believe it elevates thematic messaging. The craft of story is everything I have committed myself to, studied, and care about. To put it simply, it is my life’s work and focus. But that makes sense because it’s also a complex, evolving thing with a lot of nuance. That should be obvious when looking at at the end of the year awards season, and we see all the ways some people subconsciously understand the effect of craft and yet cannot recognize the coherence and tact of certain craft choices, even when they are right in front of them.

For instance, I bring up the old adage every Oscar season that it’s not “best” it’s “most.” It’s most editing, most costume design, most sound design, etc. What we’re really talking about is tangible details that we can latch onto and signify something clear to us. And since people assume they need ways of measuring if they are going to pick one over the other to give an award, they subconsciously gravitate toward “most.” So it’s easy to look at Phantom Thread and go, “my word, the costumes!” Just as it’s easy to look at the cinematography of something like Blade Runner 2049, with it’s immaculate, pristine framing of otherworldly production design and find it super impressive (and within Oscar voting, the fact that’s it’s shot by Roger Deakins, a white guy who is both a real-deal legend and has never won an Oscar before, certainly helps). But yeah, the real thing about Blade Runner 2049‘s cinematography is that it is tangibly impressive. But equally impressive in terms of cinematography, editing, and construction?

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

It just happens to err on the side of naturalism, which makes sense given that it’s a realistic coming of age story about a high school senior trying to find her place in the world. Thus, it is trying to echo that realism and make us feel a sense of intimacy with it. It needs to feel like life, not a “movie movie.” But there is no less craft in achieving that. Believe me, naturalism is insanely difficult to achieve. Quoting Daniel Day Lewis: “There is nothing more beautiful in all the arts than something that appears simple. And if you try to do any goddamn thing in your life, you know how impossible it is to achieve that effortless simplicity.” And we’ve all seen films that mistake “naturalism” for “what is the easiest / most natural to do on set” which is just put a camera on someone’s shoulder and film the actors haphazardly as they move in space. And not only is “docu-like” often lazy (and equally hard to do well), it’s counterproductive because it actually puts up another distracting layer away from your characters where the audience sees the movement and just feels the tonal unease. In fact, it often wholly eschews the point of cinematic language in favor of just draping one ongoing “tone.” But remember cinema is a language that is just meant to help you tell your story at every single moment. And Lady Bird takes up this charge of naturalism-yet-communicating-with-cinema and it fucking shines.

Yet as much as I talk about this, people still think I’m simply being generous to the film (which is some glance-y bullshit). So I’m going to go dive into a bunch of examples of how great it is. Of how the camera placement is endlessly intentional and communicative, especially when you look at it in terms of one of my favorite modus operandis which is: “face within space.” To wit:

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I get this shot might seem like an obligatory two shot, but it’s just a really good example “Function 101.” Especially because everything about their blocking in this sequence is dead on. They both look in opposite directions, they’re clearly trying to get away from each other, their bodies on the edge of the frame, but they’re both trapped in this metal moving box together (which makes Lady Bird’s upcoming escape all the more funny). What makes the shot smart is that the thing that takes up the most space in the shot is the space between them. Pure character commentary.

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Here’s something a little more noticeable. Ladybird, now smitten with her first love and getting swept off to a family party that just so happens to take place in the perfect house she’s always dreamt of. First off, it’s a good functional 3/4 shot (which is hard to do), but the intent is so clear: framing them ideally with the house behind them as they hold flowers and hands in her little American dream. But it’s not too overt. Meaning the shot not locked off or using single point perspective. It’s not creepy or overly composed. You just notice those details, while the most important human subjects remain the focus. They still feel realistic within the space while the rest of the space within the shot still 100% communicating the additional idea / intended emotion that it wants.

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Here’s a another great 3/4 shot (the movie is full of lots of them). We get the out of focus suburbia behind, their drab school uniforms, but notice how much I’m talking about the actor’s blocking within these shots. It’s crucial here because the aim of the shot is to show their slumped shoulders and arms draped forward, all as they approach school with disdain and boredom. It communicates the feeling of mundane daily dread perfectly.

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I love this shot. It’s not just the glow of the warm, soft light on their faces, it’s all the perfect subject emphasis of “face within space.” Lady Bird looks with adoration at her new crush on stage, all as her friend Julia has been relegated to the bottom of the frame, almost out of the picture. A complete foreshadowing to what’s going to happen in their relationship as she keeps her eyes on her new crush. But again, it doesn’t pan in or do anything too obvious. It doesn’t want you to notice the filmmaking. It says it all within the language of naturalism.

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I love this one too. Again, she’s looking at her new crush subject with adoration, but this time she’s looking down on him. Which fits the way way she is effectively lowering herself in the conversation and feigning interest in his pretentious conversation, just as he doesn’t “raise himself” to her level. And then there’s the obvious communication of her chest being eye-level with him. Ha.

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Another great shot. Not just texturally in terms of the soft lighting from the closed blinds, nor even the blocking of how she looks away from him as he pierces her with a sneer. It’s that it literally communicates the entire emotion of the scene and what is happening between the two characters. Both in terms of his callousness and her smoldering rage at how little he cares( and yet shrinking herself down to the corner). And at the same time, he’s putting himself selfishly at the center of everything. So, he is literally at the center of the frame.

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And there’s even a great little blink and you’ll miss it moment in this scene. No it’s not the great detail of her tag sticking out the front of the dress. It’s in the emotional language of the two-shot composition where we understand what’s under their feelings, even though the two characters are at each other’s throats. This moment is showing what they’re actually saying underneath that. Because if you look at this shot and just see their body language? It looks like comforting and commiseration and crossing the line between them. It’s a perfect expression of what’s under their incredibly complex relationship. Notice how all these shots are the perfect expression of naturalism: it doesn’t want the care of the overt placement of the camera language to be what you notice. It wants the emotion of the actor to be front and center, and for the camera placement to simply help articulate their relationships. Their “faces with space.”

The alternative?

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Guess what Blade Runner 2049 is communicating about a sexually rampant culture here along with our tiny place within it? The truth is people eat this stuff because 1) it’s glaringly clear and 2) it’s hard to construct on a pure production level. You need a bunch of money, massive props, rigorous camera testing, finding hues, and ultimately you are producing something that screams “Looooook at this framing!” Which is fine when you want to put a austere sense of distance between viewer and this film (and also be willing to suffer the setbacks of doing so). But it is no “better” than naturalism on any level (and in certain ways it’s easier). But note the symbolism of what is being communicated here is no more or less important than what is communicated with the subjects in Lady Bird (and in my argumentation, it adds up to something more coherent, too). Especially when you compare the “simple” language of the first scene of her in the car and then look at this shot from near the end…

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Now in the car, the whole family sending her off to college, all looking toward the sun in same direction this time, all glaring soberly at the morning light of the new day. Each of the expressions telling a whole story of how they feel about this threshold moment: Lady Bird’s head up, eager to start. The mom, trepidatious, concerned. And the father, solemn, but unblinking and accepting. It’s everything they are in that moment.

And I can ask of nothing more from cinematography.

Which is only part of why Ladybird is an incredible film. I haven’t even mentioned how it’s best use of technical craft (outside of coming together for airtight story construction) is the editing. Every jump cut plays perfectly. Every scene ends right on beat and throws us into understanding the next scene by following her emotional arc. It’s all part of how we are so able to so richly go into the mind of a young girl who is both enthralled and terrified by the adult world that lays before her. It’s in how she idolizes the posturing ideas of what it means to be a cool adult. But it’s also in how she silently cannot grapple with the terrifying reality of the depression of the adults around her (the film would not bring it up twice, both with her drama teacher and her father, if it were not so important to understand what’s ahead of her). And it’s a film that understands the way they can come together in brutal nexus of teenager’s lack of sensitivity (the scene where you subtly reveal Tracy Letts playing solitaire in the background of their argument is just incredible).  This is truly great stuff and should be recognized as so. And if you will allow me to be blunt, when I talk to DPs, they recognize this stuff instantly because it is the language of their occupation. And when you, as armchair movie opinion haver, cast aside films like Lady Bird as being not all that special in comparison to the overt language of the Blade Runners of the world, you may think you are innocently articulating what is a clear difference to you, but really you are just showing off your own ignorance.

Because this is all intentional.

And more importantly, everyone actually gets the effect of the incredible work in Lady Bird quite clearly. There’s a reason Gerwig’s debut had the highest Rotten Tomatoes highest critic score. It’s because it fucking works. And it makes deep, impactful statements that resonated with so many people in the audience. But we’ll miss the craft that got people there because it’s natural and “seems simple.” And so, the hilarious dance of only recognizing “most” goes on. And it’s why we will continue to fail to recognize the incredible craft behind the recent masterpieces of naturalism like Margaret, Once, Call Me By Your Name, Sing Street, Toni Erdman, 20th Century Women, Carol,  Brooklyn, Short Term 12, Frances Ha, A Separation, Win Win, Winters Bone, and literally the entire oeuvre of Mike Leigh (who I think might be the greatest filmmaker alive). We don’t see the craft of these films when compared to those who shove it in front of our eyes in a glaring way.

And we double don’t see it when women are at the helm.

Even in the examples above, note how many of them are female-focused, emotionally focused, about complex two-hander relationships, or about LGBT subject matter. And when it comes time to actually talk about the craft in a lot of indie films we’ll throw facts like “it was shot on an iphone!” and it’s like “Fuck do I care? You wouldn’t even know what to do with an Arri 65 if you had one.” I just care about the quality of the choices. And we’re so badly missing the films that know how to uphold the basics of cinematic language. But with Ladybird, Greta Gerwig and Sam Levy nail it in such a perfect way (and before you just give him all the credit, this film is actually shot better than his Baumbach films, so freaking credit her too for pete’s sake. She’s the damn director). And when I look at it, it actually reminded me of one of my favorite films that uses the “face within space” approach brilliantly…

Alex Cox! But wait, who shot this film? Yup. A young Roger Deakins. And to that point, it doesn’t matter what the canvas you use, the paints, or the budget, there’s those who know how to use the ABC’s of the craft of cinematic language and those who try to fake their way through it. And Ladybird knows it’s fucking ABCs.

So there! I made the big argument that craft matters! Especially in the kinds of naturalist films where such craft is invisible! So I MUST be arguing that if all films did this, then we’d have a plethora of female-directed films that are worthy of acknowledgement! Or I MUST be arguing that these kinds of films shouldn’t go home empty handed! Well, no that’s not really the point I’m after here… Because I’m going to tell you a dirty little secret… My life’s work? The altar I worship at? Everything I care about?

It’s not that important.

3. Wrinkles

I have not seen Ava Duvernay’s Wrinkle In Time yet, but it’s one of my favorite children’s books (and comic, if you’ve never read Hope Larson’s adaptation) and I plan to see it soon. But I actually think the following argument works better if I haven’t seen it and can just make some observations about the dialogue surrounding the film. Why is that?

Because there’s a lot of white film bros who hate Ava Duvernay.

Did you know this? Boy howdy do they hate on Ava. And they won’t stop popping up in my damn feed (and always creating new accounts! Which is always a sign of being a well-balanced individual) to make “logical” points about how everyone’s just treating her nice because we surely must be afraid of backlash! And by not tearing her apart and by “pulling punches,” we must be doing this because we’re afraid to upset the critical status quo and call the movie bad, etc… I’m not kidding. I’m getting this all the fucking time. But it goes beyond the insidious than the overt RT score bombing for Black Panther and with Wrinkle it brings us to the obvious intersection with sexism. Which not strikes at the nonsense of gatekeeper thinking, but everything becomes this noxious up-is-down thinking as they try again and again make her prove why she belongs. They use her public relations background and the fact that she’s a strong promoter against her to explain why she’s not a real filmmaker. And yeah, it sooooooo reeks of Google memo thinking to be sure.

But let’s do a thought experiment. Pretend this doesn’t have to do with race and their fragile inner emotions (spoiler: it does. I mean, it wouldn’t literally bother them so much if it didn’t), and instead a gatekeeper-y conversation about how important “craft” is when it comes to the public discussion of films. See, a lot of people do not seem to know what to do with the simple fact that Wrinkle In Time is getting mixed reviews. Again, I have not seen it, I may adore it, I may dislike it, but having talked to a wide swath of people at this point, the arguments are with elements of the story craft, narrative propulsion, tonal control, and things I am quick to identify and talk about in these columns. Because yup, these are important things in direction, especially in big popcorn filmmaking. And talk about them I probably would. But since I have seen Duvernay’s last two films, that means I know some other things, too. I know that The 13th is as explosive, propulsive, and soul-rupturing an experience as you can have with a documentary. And I know that if I dig into Selma, sure, I might be able to pick apart a story choice here or there, but I was likewise blown away by the a litany of other choices that handle the complexity of its subject matter beautifully. Put simply, Ava’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is that she understands the power of her subject matter. She understands what to say about that subject matter and how to focus appropriately on that. And most of all, she understands the power that subject matter has on an audience.

Which brings us to the next obvious question: how important is “craft” in comparison? After all, I just made all these ongoing arguments about how it transcends boundaries, but it can be hard especially when people can’t see how good a film like Lady Bird really is… But either way it brings us to the cold hard truth…

You transcend more boundaries through subject matter than craft.

Because of course you fucking do. Subject is, and has always been, the anchor for the vast majority of filmgoers. To wit, it’s the reason Black Panther was a damn event. The clamoring of an entire population of Americans who had been waiting for Hollywood to “get around to this” for decades. As white people, we barely notice this because we have a litany of personal choices before us, but it’s almost always why we see a certain movie in the first place. Even with Blade Runner 2049, why did a lot of guys adore it? Because for as much lip service as it gives other issues of identity, the film uses overt stylistic filmmaking conventions to tap directly into traditional masculine posturing and lone wolf independence, while simultaneously getting to just the “right amount” of unspoken sentimentality, all while “poetically exploring” a bunch of very hot women getting naked and getting used as props. Which all means Google memo dude probably would have loved it. But hey, I can name a million popular dude movies like that. It’s subject matter that, however we dress up with craft, we can always fall into indulgently. Likewise, we have to account for the bevy of female critical reactions to Blade Runner 2049 who recognized the craft, but were so off-put by the film’s handling of their subject. Even today, I spoke with a casual movie-goer that said watching it “felt humiliating.” This stuff is real. And it’s what happens at the nexus of ignoring subject and effect of these films.

For example, I look at the subject of Phantom Thread, which I argue again and again is a horror movie in the vein of There Will Be Blood, where we are meant to watch in terror as these two fall into a toxic co-dependent relationship. I think the film is absolutely aware of this. I think it plays the beauty of the romance ironically (the same way all Paul Thomas Anderson’s later work has). I think it’s a masterpiece that inspires self examination (like all the times I didn’t want to get in an argument because I had an important meeting or some shit and then I see that on screen and realize “Holy fuck, I was being so callous.”). But I also see so many dudes shake their head and be like “oh, it’s just what relationships are like, isn’t it funny?” while I’ve had endless women say things akin to  “watching it was erupting the PTSD of my worst relationships.” … The subject just matters.

Which is what we have to recognize (and not dismiss as “less than”) when we talk about Ava Duvernay, because her mission of subject matter is truly more important than whatever you might make of the execution. I immediately think of Tessa Thompson’s comment, “For days after seeing I thought about how powerful it was to see a biracial character in a big studio movie. beautifully normalized what so many families look like. I wish my younger self could have seen this. That she could have been seen like this.” and @AlannaBennett chimed in, “I maintain that if my younger self had seen it it would have been a game changer.” And now, I have a very important and blunt message to anyone who doubts the veracity and power of these statements:

Fuck off.

Seriously. For it would take the least gracious among us not to listen to someone telling you how meaningful something is to them. To tell you what it’s like to always look up on a screen and never see yourself. Especially if that truth is one you can never know, or understand, because you’ve never had to do it. Because you’ve never been rendered invisible in your own culture. Being able to ignore that would take having an omnipresence of cultural riches so innate to your own experience, that the sheer idea of “not understanding what it feels like to be unrepresented” would be completely foreign to you. Because you always see yourself. Everywhere. And thus, you have no damn idea how important a movie could be for the 12 year old girls who don’t get to see themselves. Who don’t get to see themselves be interested in STEM, or get to be the travelers through the universe. And so for the most callous thinkers who still come to accept this, it brings up an equally-callous question…

“So is it as simple as putting women / POC in leads they are often not afforded? And giving women / POC the opportunities to tell those stories?”

Well, when that hasn’t happened before? Fuck yes it is. Because as much as I worship at the altar of craft, the subjects will always matter so much more. And we must strive to enrich the breadth of our cultural landscape and subject matter with the same exact fervor that we strive to enrich our understanding of cinematic craft. For they are one in the same. But the reason we do not equate these two, nor strive to embrace this progression is simple…

There’s a lot of people not ready to let go.

4. The Dying Cowboy

Before I get into it, I want to be clear: Wind River is an incredibly well-made movie.

It’s taut, harrowing, and gorgeously shot. It alternates between ponderous expanse and kinetic energy with rapturous glee. Both Renner and Olsen give stoic, heartbreaking, and sensitive performances. Heck, the film even knows how to use a real-deal story-purpose-laden flashback. And in terms of subject matter, Wind River is often quite respectful of the Native American culture it portrays, whether in terms of the pride, plight, or harrowing realities they face. It’s also the kind of great, self-contained revenge movie people aren’t making all that much any more (at least not above the micro-budget level). But as much as I enjoyed the craft of the film, it couldn’t help but raise a lot of questions in me about the future of these kinds of movies. And it’s starts with one simple fact:

It is a movie about the victimization of Native American culture.

And it is starring two white leads taking up that charge.

Again, there is nothing about their portrayal that is surface-level offensive. This isn’t a Last Samurai scenario and Jeremy Renner does not dress as a Native American, nor does he try to be “the best” at Native American things. In fact, the film shows constant awareness of the ways he should not try to usurp their culture, just understand and show deference to it. He understands the differences between them. He understands he is a cowboy and that he simply married into this world and respects it. In most other portrayals of the past, it would ostensibly be about the white indulgence of “going native” a la Dances With Wolves or something, but Wind River knows enough to avoid those pitfalls and at least say the right things. The problem is, still, the issue of identity and subject. Because this is not a movie about being an outsider coming into a culture. This is a cultural revenge movie. Which just means that under the lip service and deference, this is still the kind of movie where the white character carries the weight of that revenge, and the Native American characters become props for that revenge. This is the simple reality of subject. Which brings me to the core question.

Why isn’t Gil Birmingham the star of this?

He’s an incredible actor. He’s probably the most popular Native American actor working today. And his performance as the aggrieved father in Wind River and his haunting final scene is pretty much the first thing anyone talks about. He’s even been in blockbuster films before, so you can give me all the lectures you want about which actors move the needle, but I work in this fucking industry. I know it’s all bullshit based on false associations and prognostications of international playability that have already changed. Besides, we are now living in the post-Moonlight world where that film makes 25 million more than films like Wind River. Identity and subject matter is what matters to an increasingly diverse audience that wants diverse films. And yet, we see the idea of our biggest Native American star starring in a Native American revenge movie as an impossibility. And the results are telling, as Gil apparently wanted to take Graham Greene’s role because it had more screen-time (oof). But if we cant let Native Americans star in their own god damn stories, how can they ever get someone in the position to be a star in the first place?

The ugly truth stares us in the face: we want to use Native Americanism for our own purpose. It’s really not unlike the core messaging of Get Out. We will use them as props and things that make us better, before we see them as their whole selves with a right to the same kind of whole personhood as ourselves. Which all just highlights the obvious: that as much as has changed with a diverse audience, it’s still a Hollywood where Wes Studi gets to give a speech at the Oscars, but he still got more diverse roles in the late 90’s then he does now… and we have to keep clamoring that we don’t want this to happen.

We want the subject to be the subject.

So when does inherent-white-lead-ism finally die? Well, it will happen when Hollywood finally stops making excuses, finds some courage, and trusts when people say they want what they want (but we’ll get to more of this in a second). But for now, while we’re talking about Wind River I want to talk about its intersection with the politics of gender, wherein the film more reveals its not-so-subtle conservative streak. Because, make no mistake, this film is about protecting the sexuality of beautiful young Native women. Renner even delivers a line about not letting your guard down for one second (because then your beautiful daughter will get raped and die). And yes, there are enough signifiers within the film to give the daughter a life and soul beyond that notion. But, in the end, the film expressly states that her value as a person, and especially as a woman, is in how far she ran in the freezing cold to get away from her rapists. That is what gives her value. And it never asks or even contemplates the other courage to survive the ordeal by not running. But of course that would never factor in, because that result is still the worst thought to the conservative male mind (cue the litany of dad’s who never understand why their daughters would “stop fighting” sexual assault at a certain point and the shame that come with it). Let’s not pretend this is anything new. These kinds of rape-purity stories have been around in Hollywood forever precisely because they dive deep into the fears of the conservative male mind (and I use that word conservative because that’s exactly what it, no matter how many liberal thinkers are guilty of the same thinking. So you have to call a duck a duck). And this fixation reveals yet another deeper, uglier thing… It is fascinated by the same sexuality it seeks to protect.

There’s even a shot choice that tells us everything about it.

During the autopsy scene of Wind River, the daughter lies dead, naked on a slab, having just been autopsied. Revenge movies love these kinds of scenes. They’re seen as motivational. The actual screenwriting term for the motivation that comes out of a dead loved one is actually “fridge stuffing” and so autopsy scenes supposedly ram home the death and carnage. And yet, there’s also a lot of highly sexualized death imagery in these scenes and the problems with them have been talked about endlessly (simply put, it’s exactly what some men want). At first, Wind River seems aware of this. You can see a bit of her body just out of the bottom of the frame. You see her face, some edge of gore of the open cavity. But it cuts around her as the characters point things out and mostly argue about cause of death. But then it cuts to a shot of her hand… and there on the far, far left side of the frame, and only slightly and cut-off… is her vagina. Make no mistake: this is an overt choice. You do not frame a shot like this by accident. And so my immediate thought for the filmmaker, which I will put as bluntly as possible was this: “do want to show me her dead vagina or not?”

I say it bluntly because the subject matter is: blunt. There is no tasteful way to show me the dead vagina of the young girl whose sexuality you were so keen to protect in this film. And trying to ascribe a tasteful shot over it, means you understand the problematic nature of that which you are actually showing me, and instead of owning that, you are trying to skirt around it while still doing it. And I can’t tell you how many dead bodies of women we’ve seen shot “tastefully” and still fail to recognize the inherent duplicitous problems that come with it. As an obvious counterpoint, the reason the autopsy scene in Silence of the Lambs works so damn well is because it’s actually fucking terrifying. Not just in the build-up and the characters reacting to the noxious smell, but the way it even deals with the character arcs of them facing their fears. There’s a point to it. And there’s nothing sexualized to the scene it all. Every bit of it is directed toward the sensation of the audience’s fear.  The scene works because the way they shoot it ACTUALLY IS scary and horrifying.

So you can tell me all you want that your autopsy scene is supposed to be raw or scary, but if you just want to dabble with your “tasteful” naked girl on a slab, you’re trying to have it both ways. Which actually brings us full circle right back to the male glance. Lili writes: “The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick.” Note the way her description for both of the terms is 100% characteristic of the way this scene is shot. Meaning it is both the glance and the gaze. And it is this way for much of the movie, which brings us to the constant contradiction of Wind River, whether camera work, sexuality, or even race: it is trying to have it both ways.

Which really means you’re just trying to have it all.

And so for this story about beautiful Native American women being abused and lost, it doesn’t matter how much the reality of that final title card stings. Because it doesn’t matter if Native American Women are the only group of missing people who are not kept track of when story doesn’t honor the personhood of what is lost and instead helplessly falls into the glaring contradictions of whether their sexuality is protected and whether or not we admire their moxie. Sure, it cares about Native American women, but not enough for it to ever be their story. And in the thematic world of subjects and meaning, the harsh reality is actually the equivalent of even the Google memo… A movie that is not talking about what it’s really talking about.

And that’s the real reason why the mythical “Cowboy” trope is dying: the rest of the world is tired of being the side character in their own stories. When they’re tired of being the prop, the subject of glance and gaze, then there is no one left for the cowboy to save. But the truth is the Cowboy has always been romanticized, just as he’s always been dying. After all, it’s the reason we say all great westerns are “about the end of things.” For it just gets at the white male instinct to converse, to hold onto, to protect, and the inability to reckon with a world which is changing. Sometimes they let go. Sometimes they fade away… And sometimes they hold on for dear life until they become the bad guy for that very act of trying to hold on. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? In order to include and evolve…

We have to give something up.

5. The Power Game

Allow me to take all this and finally get to the damn point…

This is all about power.

When it comes to filmmaking, I (and many white dudes like me) grew up dreaming of making movies. And the thing is, I was always told I could do this. My parents, who I am sure would have loved it if I stuck with practical STEM aims, always supported it. Hell, everyone in my town knew I wanted to work in the movies. They would celebrate this. They would tell me “invite me to your premieres!” Even all my non-STEM teachers supported it. Everyone told me I could do it. And in the end, they did this because I fit the proverbial mold. I did good in school. I followed movies with passion and fervor. I was a precocious little scamp. And I was a white dude. So I took this path because there was no reason I believed I couldn’t. I didn’t come from money. I knew it would be hard. But it was still what I was “supposed to” do. And so I, and many white dudes just like me, pursued it.

But, of course, the path of getting into entertainment is insanely competitive. All us white dudes show up to the same place for the same limited jobs and paths. And getting through it takes all kinds of luck. It takes working insanely hard. It takes constant courage. It takes pressing through self-doubt. It takes endless failure. And I don’t say this to imply I’ve succeeded in these things. I will readily admit all the times I turtled. And more troubling, all the the times I outright manipulated out of fear and cowardice, all in an effort to keep pursuing what I wanted. Which is beyond shitty and something you have to learn to never, ever do. But ultimately, I’ve just tried to do my best, own my worst, and keep surviving and doing even better. But the troubling thing about this whole path should be obvious…

This kind of experience is what breeds conservatism.

When you grow up believing you have a proverbial “spot,” even if you have to work your ass off for it, it breeds fear you will not get your spot. And it breeds fear you will lose your spot once you have it. It breeds the fear you might not be destined for the thing you were told (and believed) you could do your whole life. It breeds jealousy. It breeds resentment of those who you believe do not get their spot “for the right reasons.” Especially because they’re not as smart or good as you. And to be clear, that’s all fucking garbage. Not only are there no “spots” in this way, it’s completely wrong way to open and close your brain up. Because you actually do want to be myopic in the sense that you don’t worry what’s going on with others, there is only your path. There is only working hard and trying to do right. You can’t worry about the other person. And when you do look externally? You want to realize you work in an industry built around a communal, collaborative art form. It is an industry where “a rising tide lifts all boats” and you can help one another. Thus, to be fearful and think in terms of “conservation,” really only hurts you.

And most of all, you cannot imagine how much harder it’s been for people who haven’t been told “they can do it” all their lives.

It is so much more difficult for those who don’t fit the white dude movie lover mold. It’s downright systematic. You have to watch as female filmmakers from your classes slowly get railroaded into being producers, editors, and working in public relations instead or storytellers, all because “thats where they fit.” Just as you have no idea what it’s like to be a minority and get constantly used as a prop of collaboration and not get to be the engine of it. So you have to understand that something that has been so hard for you, has actually been 1000% harder for someone else. And sure, you can be sensitive to that idea all your want. You can say it’s unjust. You can say you want more female and minority filmmakers. But when you put forth the perfectly-sane and not -radical idea that “50% of studio films should be directed by women and 40% should be directed by minorities,” people lose their god damn minds.

Seriously. I’ve been having this exact conversation for, like, a fucking decade. Sometimes with insanely talented and amazing people. But they all fear it because they assume it automatically means they wont get to make their movie (never mind the kind of fear they would experience if people like them were only allowed to be 7% of directors). And I’ve had so many loving, kind supportive geniuses tell me that quotas just don’t belong in the arts (which is exactly how 88% of directors end up being white males). But it’s all because of the deep, conservative fear: they don’t want to give it up available “spots.” Which means the dark truth is that no one wants to give up on a world where movies look like Wind River because no one wants to give up their place in the center of the story because it means giving up your place as the center of the universe. And out of this deep fear, we subconsciously create a system of rules that breed forgiveness and leniency for ourselves, while we subconsciously punish what we fear…  But the results of this aren’t subconscious at all.

It actually creates the “controlling double standard.”

It’s a constant facet of intersectionality and society. For example, when you look at institutional prison bias, “ wrote beautifully, “whites shifted burden of proof to women smoking crack to prove their own humanness, but because their use of crack ‘showed these women were animals’ in white folks’ eyes, for the ‘safety and continued contentment’ of the 1980s’ white coke user, black women were caged for life…” It’s a devastating systematic reality. By the way, I’m not floating back and forth between discussions of race and sexism to directly equate them, nor would ever do that. The whole point of intersectionality is to understand the similarities and especially the differences. And if you constantly have to prove a black woman’s right to be an artist, while working on the assumption that the movie-loving-white-dude like me has an inherent right to it, then you control all the power of who gets to do it (along with what subjects are chose). There’s a reason all these conversations about Ava Duvernay become so toxic. And the result is a system where relative power is kept in check.

For instance, quick, name 5 black female filmmakers…

Off the top of my head? I shamefully only get to four. But this comes from a system where we can only see our own struggle, which really means we have the completely inability to recognize when we have everything. It’s a notion captured amazingly when @mrfeelswildride tweeted “This single worst sentence I’ve ever read” about the following statement: “Geeks should rejoice in Ready Player One. This is their Black Panther.” Which is flabbergasting for lots of reasons. The first is automatic implication of exclusion of black people from being part of the white geek circle. The second is the audacity to even make that fucking comparison. And the third is the laughable idea that white geeks haven’t been already been enjoying a bacchanalian indulgence of white geek movies for the last 18 years. And that merely letting Black Panther exist, inspires a thought of “now it’s our turn!” It’s like… what the fuck? But that’s what happens with selfish myopia. You go down the rabbit hole of wanting more, more, more for yourself.

Which is literally the non-ironic subject of Ready Player One.

Which brings it all together as a comparison point for the interesting way the conversation revolves around Steven Spielberg. To be clear: I think he’s the greatest living American filmmaker. I think his mastery of the craft and cinematic language is everything I hold dear. I could do endless cinematography classes just with his movies. There’s a reason he’s made countless masterpieces both in terms of high-brow and popcorn fare. But if you think that makes him bulletproof, or deserving of anything more than he’s already gotten, that’s not how it goes. For there’s a whole generation of people who really just don’t care about his subject matter. You have to realize he’s rarely has female leads. And his art about the minority experience might have been brave once upon a time, but the audience has evolved beyond it. Now, there’s a streak of dying cowboy-ism that comes in the form of the geek apocalypse porn that is Ready Player One, which is even downright self-referential. And there’s a reason that this subject rankles people beyond mere nostalgia. And it’s subject and inclusion. Which brings us back to the ongoing point.

I can argue about craft all I damn want, but if white men have the monopoly on what constitutes “good craft,” then craft is fucking worthless.

Because that discussion matters only in a perfectly fair system (and we’ve seen how fucked up and toxic Hollywood can be this year when it comes to male abuse). Even the discussion around it is messed up. I mean, I get to write these essays where I basically just piggyback and contextualize the thoughts of brilliant women and minorities and I get pats on the back for merely recognizing it and doing the bare minimum. Everyone else has to live it. And everyone in my position loves to believe they do the right things to fix that system, but that’s bullshit. I remember being in a situation where everyone wanted to do the right thing and hire a female director for a certain episode. We pursued endless options we loved that simply couldn’t do it, and kept getting an embarrassment of great male candidates. And when time came to vote, I had to choose between the safe genius of established talent vs. a unestablished female director who wanted to make tonal changes and I believed was fundamentally wrong for the episode. So I voted safe. I did it out of the belief this “had” to be good because of everything being risked, etc. It’s really just another kind of cowardice. But it’s also not even about the logic of the choice in that moment. Because there’s a whole system that led to that moment and the perceived “lack of options,” and it’s the same one that leads to a world where everyone wants to choose that perceived safety. And that’s how it stays 88% white male. Which means the onus has to be on the larger system that needs to be fixed. Both in terms of how we talk about that system and the policy we create.

To wit, we cannot get obsessed with being the arbitrators of which female filmmakers are good and which are bad. The only real truth is we need way more of them. We need ones that understand subjects. We need ones that are masters of craft. We need every kind of female filmmaker. And in turn, we need to get better at recognizing female intentionality and their craft. Just as we need to stop being so freaking lenient on white male filmmakers who don’t measure up in the same way. We need to be more vocal against people who see the mere presence of a lesbian character in the thing that they like as an “invasion of their space.” We need to stop being “logical” about all this. We need to stop Google Memo-ing this. So that means yes, we need to embrace a call for quota thinking industry wide. It goes beyond the inclusion rider. We need to agree that 50% of studio films should be directed by women and 40% by minorities (in short, stay in line with population, just like many other industries have to do to show fair hiring practice). We have been fucking this up and controlling it for too long. We need to agree that a range of subjects matter to a world made up of many more subjects.. We need to agree that people should get to direct their own stories about their own worlds. And we need to take it out of people’s hands and put it into the realm of systemic solution. Because it’s a truth so simple as to be forehead-slapping-ly simple:

It’s time to make movies look like the world they actually inhabit.

Fear it not.

❤ HULK

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Hulk’s Favorite Movies of 2017

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And now… The top-ten-ish or whatever list!!! Just in time for me to yell at the Oscars before they go up.

Films I didn’t see: T2, Faces Places, The Lost City of Z, Your Name, Coco, Good Time, City of Ghosts, I Tonya, A Fantastic Woman, It Comes At Night, Loveless, The Work, Mudbound, Wind River, and a bunch of others I can’t remember.

Note: Some years I don’t know anyone who had anything to do with the movies on the best of list, some years I happen to know a few. This year had a weird amount of friends kicking butt. So like always, anytime you see an “*” that means I knew one / some of the creative involved. But to omit them feels somehow weirder and more dishonest, so consider those entries biased as fuck or whatever. Take all the salted grains you like.

 

THE ODD DUCKS

Films so vivid or strange or fascinating that they cannot be denied.

Blade Runner 2049

Yes, I had a tepid reaction to this film. Still do, honestly. And while I’m actually still planing to write about it, the chief culprits of negativity are both thematic coherency and the dramatic coherency. But we’ll get to the nuances of all that some other time. For here and now, it would still take the least gracious among us not to respect the audacity of Blade Runner 2049‘s design. It’s a film where the professionalism comes through in spades to the create the kinds of vivid images and haunting space that still occupies the eyeballs lucky enough to take them in. Still, it feels strange to call this film “an odd duck,” but it’s a simple way of conveying the idea that no such film of this professionalism should ever count as a miss.

Alien: Covenant

I think I might adore Alien: Covenant more than most because it’s the one that finally got my ongoing feelings about Sir Ridley to click into place. I wrote all about it here, but it’s where you finally get the in-text portrayal of Ridley being the ultimate detached, uncaring “designer” of his films. It’s where you see the way he approaches his own work of creation much like the character David, the tinkering menace of this second trilogy of films. It’s not hard to see the parallels with Scott, who famous sketches out endless permutations of his monster just like the character does. But to it’s larger effectiveness, I’ll be blunt: buying into this film is largely about buying into that character’s fascinating portrayal. You really have to forget all the hysterics of Alien nostalgia and embrace this new creation for what it is: horrifying in a much, much different way.

*Colossal

Speaking of weirdos, enter Nacho Vigolando. Of course, I call him this with endless love, but Colossal is a remarkable movie that takes a left-field approach, both narratively and conceptually, to its exploration of a slew abusive-relationships, whether with boyfriends, with drinking, and with our selves. But it does so with both a remarkable affinity for its lead character and a wayward sadness, all en route to it’s total evisceration of the “nice guy” instinct and the ways men hate and control women, often to get them to blame themselves in the process. And with one cathartic throw, we can become ourselves again… And oh yes, all of this is all also expressed through Kaiju… I know.

THE CROWD PLEASERS

Making a great comedy / epic / popcorn film is one of the most difficult things in the world. These films did it in a variety of amazing ways.

Logan

I actually wrote a little about my interesting feelings in comparing this one to its predecessor Wolverine, but there is absolutely no doubting what this film does well. For it features a kind of depth and genuine “adult-mindness” that goes far beyond the blood and booze of R rated fare and right into something far more devastating. One perhaps best expressed in the heart-breaking final arc of Professor X, a benevolent man whose endless power has only been undone by raving of age. But perhaps that’s apt for the world of this film is similarly ravaged by age, where the echoes of x-men and mutant-hood are undone in the same breath. But like every ending, it’s all about what we leave for the new beginning. And the big moments of Logan shine.

Thor: Ragnorok

Sometimes I’m dumb. For awhile I had heard Hunt for the Wilderpeople was good, but I made some dumb assumptions that it might err on the side of too quirky-aiming (not that there’s anything wrong with quirk, just only if it’s in place of function), and boy am I an idiot. I should have known the guy who did What We Do In The Shadows would actually have crafted a beautiful, heart-felt movie that might be one of the best-written comedies in years. I fell in love with it so had and then found myself suddenly very excited about the new Thor movie. Such excitement was well-founded. Not just because of the wall-to-wall jokes and playful ingenuity, but in the sheer audacity to sneak a genuine parable about the horrors of colonialism into a gosh dang Marvel movie (this was before Black Panther would break the door down). But every little thing about the movie feels refined, from a handful of renaissance shots, to Hemsworth’s incredible comic timing, to the series finally understanding how not to indulge in Loki. Plus, with one amazing entrance it brought us Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie into our world and we’ll never be the same. #taika4ever

Wonder Woman

I argue that the best superhero films don’t make us just want to be “better “versions of ourselves (read: cooler, more powerful), but genuinely make us want to be better to one another. And it’s hard to think of a film that understands purity of heart quite like this one. But my favorite thing about Diana is how she’s more than that. Sure, she’s kind, but she’s forthright, she’s inspired, she’s stubborn, she’s sardonic, and she finds babies appropriately adorable. She has so many shades to her characterization and it all comes to a beautiful embrace of a character that simply needed to come to life before us. And when she jumps into that horizon, I believe in her.

*Baby Driver

Few films are as lovingly-directed and infectious as Baby Driver. The film itself plays one-part caper hijinks, one-part heightened fairy tale, one-part night at the jukebox, all before giving way to the unwieldy nightmares that come with the actual life of crime. And it’s impossible not to delight in the execution, little beats and touches that add up to something so much more. But for now I’m just thankful for this  full brunt diegetic musical… I still feel like I’m tapping my foot to it.

*The Big Sick

It would be too easy to accredit this aspect to the “true story” element, but what I adore most about the The Big Sick is how they are no easy steps. Every time there’s a chance to sit back and play the story conventionally or use stock conflicts, it instead takes pulls back and aim at a more nuanced, human issue within the endless roadblocks of love. From family-pleasing, to dishonesty, to the titular ravages of disease, it offers no easy answers along the way. But, like all things, it understands that all wounds are best when dealt with head on, understood, and given time to heal.  

Dunkirk

This is Nolan’s most humane film. Because within the claustrophobic ticking-clock and suffocating action of a war film that aims to show what it’s like to be a fish in a barrel, there is a surprising sensitivity to notions of cowardice and repression. Especially those most ridiculed in the “stiff upper lip” of the old British way. An attitude that Nolan falsely gets accused of having too much (even his family jokingly referred to him as Woodcock after seeing Phantom Thread). But there’s a young soul at the center of that, with empathy for anyone thrust into the unthinkable. And as the young soldier is told, sometimes, survival is enough. 

*The Last Jedi

I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d love a Star Wars film quite like this again. As I argued previously, The Last Jedi is as beautiful a repurposing of the mythos as I can imagine. And I was fully on board with every bit of caution that was thrown-to-the-wind. Not just in terms of the playful construction, but the ethos: For it was the only way to undo the long reach of Skywalker hero entitlement, along with dealing with nonsense lingering questions that never had answer to begin with. And instead, the film aims to bring us into ourselves… For the force belongs to us.

THE NOT-MOVIE MOVIES

Any one of these could be take my “best of the year” spot, but since they’re not technically movies, they get their own special place here.

Finding Frances

Make no mistake, the season finale of Nathan For You is not only a remarkable documentary in its own right, it’s one of the most audacious pieces of outsider art this year. For as we slowly curl up inside the old showboating Bill Heath to discover a life of lies, pain, and regret, we also get a meta-journey is reflected in “Nathan” in turn. And as we push these two “stories” forward, the aching reality between them comes to the edge. And ultimately, we find out this is a “prank” show where the prank dissolves, only to show the deeper truth about all figures involved… There’s a reason Errol Morris went nuts for it. It is incredible, must-see stuff.

Twin Peaks “The Return” & Episode 8

Few events had more water cooler effect with my friends than the return of Twin Peaks. Every episode, we talked, we tweeted, and we watched in incredible fascination as David Lynch slowly unspooled a new bizarre version of something we already loved. And just when we got the rhythm of this new season, just when everything came together in a lovely moment of final catharsis, it was all slammed to the ground in a way that only Lynch really can. But during the run, it’s impossible not to single out the merits of Episode 8, which starts with a tense stand-off sequence, takes a quick detour to watch Nine Inch Nails, all before going on 40 minute abstract journey into not just the deep iconography and lore of the show, but the very heart of violence and love. In the end, it may be the single most hypnotic episode of television I’ve ever seen.

The Adventure Zone: Balance

For nearly three years, the McElroy Brothers had played D&D with their dad. What started almost as a lark, slowly picked up steam as the four jokesters learned how to make the show fun. But right around “Mystery Aboard the Rockport Limited,” it became clear there was the story element was going to fire on all cylinders. And along the way, I fell more and more in love with the brazen adventure of Taako, Magnus, and Merle, as they navigated a world whose very essence defies categorization. As they amassed hilarious side characters like Angus McDonald Boy Detective, Garfield The Deals-Wizard and the wise-cracking Lup.And as each mini-arc piled up, with narrative conventions and right turns that could only work in this oddly meta presentation: The Eleventh Hour is my favorite, but The Stolen Century is downright daring and incredible, and at one point it has no lie one of my favorite story reveals of all0time. By the end, I realized I was in love with the oddest, least-definable saga since… well, Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga. And when the saga of “Balance” finally came to an end this year, I realized just how much it had become one of my favorite stories of all time. But while this story has finished, there will be something new instead. So Here’s to the next one.

THE 11 FAVORITES

The Post

I have this weird thing where I keep having to defend Steven Spielberg in these lists, which feels kind of absurd. The Post marks his third entry in his late-period “capra-esque” run of american morality tales and while I admittedly like both Lincoln and Bridge of Spies a bit more, there is no doubting that incredible work on display here. Basically everything outside the weird bookends (which I have no understanding of why they not only went with them, but portrayed them as they did) is pure gold. And it’s so amazing that in a movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, it’s actually Bob Odenkirk who walks away with the movie (maybe it’s that he most understands the movie he’s in?). But again, people don’t know what to do with Speilberg’s elegant professional perfection. If this was some hotshot kid had directed that phone call sequence we wouldn’t be shutting up about them.

*Brigsby Bear

This film was the surprise of the year. I walked in not knowing a damn thing and walked out with my jaw on the floor, unsure how they just pulled off such an astute piece of commentary. I saw someone mention that the film would make a great double bill with The Last Jedi and I fully agree. Not just because they both feature great Mark Hamill performances, but both seem to get at the links between fandom, toxicity, and trauma. It’s the linking of that one that’s really something special, though as it it taps into our understanding of why we really need art and how we need to project it back with our new understanding of life. It’s a film with a hell of a lot on its mind, and a character somehow brought to life with a vivid sincerity that I’m sure only Kyle Mooney could have pulled off. Loved it.

Girl’s Trip

Yup. Girl’s Trip. People have no idea how hard it is to write these kinds of broad comedies, let alone turn them into something resonant. Yes, there’s a reason Tiffany Haddish walks away with the movie and endless accolades (it’s because she’s incredible), but literally everyone is good in it. Especially Jada Pinkett-Smith. But the reason the movie works the way it does is all script level and solid arcs. It’s the way it knows the way you make Tiffany Haddish’s character really come to life is with that prayer scene and her understanding of how the other characters feel about her. And at the center of it all, self-respect, all culminating in a speech that needs to be celebrated just as much as we celebrate Haddish’s comedic talent.

Phantom Thread

A bitter, controlling “genius” and an emotionally-abused woman looking to carve out her little bit of space and power within it… I keep telling everyone Phantom Thread is a horror movie because… it is. It just happens to be about the horror of both sides buying into a toxic co-dependent relationship. And as much as their story is brought to life with a whirling, sumptuous love, there is no hiding that horror. But what is perhaps most interesting is the way the film ends up being a bellwether for how we see such horror. Cause I’ll admit, I’m seeing a lot of dude critics lavish praise say it is about the “equality” of relationships, and a lot of female critics say “uhhh, this straight up plays into my horrible relationship PTSD, no thank you.” Which should be pretty telling. 

Okja

There are few minds I’m more thankful for that of Bong-Joon Ho. He’s my favorite bizarre weirdo filmmaker precisely because he also knows how to deliver heart and thematic coherence in equal measure. With Okja, what could be viewed as a simple animal rights parable is instead something much more grand, thoughtful, and, yes, strange. For it takes on the bombastic nature of consumption / production culture, but I sort of feel like even trying to describe it is folly, for those things take on a life of their own. So all I want to do instead is single out the work of Seo-Hyun Ahn and mention this also my favorite Paul Dano performance. Just good things all around.

*A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s haunting, ethereal film about a ghost walking around the ruins of their former life rattled me in a way I cannot even describe. So I won’t. Just see it.

Lady Bird

I want to talk about filmmaking and go back to the old “tangible details” theory. Because it’s easy to look at a hyper-stylized movie like Blade Runner 2049 and heap praise on the construction, but the simple fact is that a film like Ladybird is every much its professional equal. I’m in awe of every perfectly-timed cut. Every little bit of focus on an informative character detail (the Dad playing solitaire as the mom rants about his depression). I’m in awe of a story that feels loose as it’s in front of you, but the story actually comes together like a swiss clock. There’s barely a bit of wasted fat. But these are the things that feel “normal” so most people don’t notice the construction. But they sure know the feeling when they leave, in the way it gives us one of the best coming of age movies in years and there’s a reason collective critic scores were in the stratosphere. It’s because it’s well-made as hell. So by all means call it “too simple” or something just means you’re falling for the texture. And as the counter-point, I’ll leave it to Daniel Day Lewis to explain: “There is nothing more beautiful in all the arts than something that appears simple. And if you try to do any goddamn thing in your life, you know how impossible it is to achieve that effortless simplicity.”

Call Me By Your Name

After watching I Am Love a few times I came to the conclusion that Luca is a wonderful mad man who hits incredible heights along the way of his near-drunk style of filmmaking. Perhaps in adapting this book he was more motivated to be on his best behavior with the cinematography, but there is just so much great work here, particularly in the way Timothee Chalamet carries the entire film with his damn eyes. But there are, of course, the incredible Luca-brand highs of beautiful details: Armie Hammer dancing. The peach. The mattress. And of course, the unforgettable Stuhlbarg speech. One that I even knew was coming, but it didn’t matter against the profundity of the words themselves. For what I’m left with is the feeling of them. Not just in the personal touchstones of not understanding as your sexuality and the way that bounces around your soul. No, it’s in the fatherly words that echo. The way that hearts get used up. The things that become lost and gone. And things had for only the briefest moments. And in the end, it is the happiest saddest feeling there is or could ever be.

The Shape of Water

The fact that the three best movies of the year are horror movies should not be surprising. It is, after all, a year full of horrors. But with the many shapes of GDT’s The Shape of Water, lies a film as perfectly designed and shot as I can think of. Everything about his aesthetics just hits me in the right spot within my brain. But it’s the story that is most transcendent here: a beautiful adult fairy tale about monsters, and voices, and sexuality, and art, and love, and boundaries, and many of the things we forget about life along the way. And at it’s heart, and understanding of trauma and transformation. 

Raw

I’ve been obsessed with Julia Decournou’s debut opus since I saw it two fantastic fests ago, but I’m still thinking about it. It actually makes for a fascinating combo with Ladybird, as it’s another vivid coming of age film, just with a tasteful amount of cannibalism (that’s not a joke, and it’s more unnerving and tense than it is gross). But really it’s all a metaphor the horrors and baser delights of college, where we struggle with the desire to fit in and the desire to be left alone in equal measure. But for most of all, it’s about the ugliest bonds of family and the things we can’t help but take with us.

Get Out

The word zeitgeist.

I could go on for hours about the way people dismiss genre and horror without understanding how much better you have to be at your craft than in constructing some loose-feeling, rambling “important” drama, but what Get Out is able to capture goes beyond cinema and straight into the modern conversation. It’s not only terrifically entertaining, it breaks the door wide open on a new kind of social filmmaking that Hollywood didn’t understand was not only possible, but their audience was hungry for. It gives voice and power and success to an artist and those who will follow in his footsteps. And like all great movies, it communicates identity and experience through story. Starting from the simple premise of “this is what it feels like to come to the white suburbs,” Peele said he just followed the truth. And in that following, the film gives us a new lexicon for understanding modern racial contexts. It let’s understand the “the sunken place” and what it feels like being projected with other-ism at every point of your life. And best of all, it confronts our behaviors dead on, understanding complicity in a way that goes beyond base assumption. Which is perhaps why a bunch of cantankerous Oscar voters are so put off by it. No, it’s not another Hollywood movie that’s secretly designed to make white people feel like they’ve overcome racism, it’s actually confronting them with the ugly truth. Which is what makes it so damn powerful. But it’s also joyful, and brutal, and despair-inducing, and ultimately cathartic. I am still in awe of Get Out.  Because it is the movie of the moment. The movie of the year.

The movie of the decade.

❤ HULK

Annihilation & The Horrors of Change

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1. REFLECTION

Movies are not puzzles.

I feel like I argue this all the time, but it sure doesn’t stop people from the pursuit. And it seemed like within mere hours people were arguing furiously about the ending / meaning of Annihilation as if there was some clear answer, one laid out in plain english for all to see. Do no misunderstand, I adore semiotic interpretation and symbology, along with they way they combine into dramatized thematic meaning (and I will be doing a ton of it in this essay). No, my complaint is more for the kind of hyper left-brain movie analysis that looks it like an rigid answer sheet to decode with certainty. I know this seems like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s actually super important. Because it is folly to see art like it is something to hack, that looks for logical explanation in place of reflecting on some kind of inner movement. For there is nothing to hack. There is nothing to outsmart. It’s a movie, which means it’s all about embracing right-brain abstraction. And often, the way forward in “understanding” a complex piece of art is largely to sit back and just listen to / absorb what it’s actually telling you and reflecting in it.

And Annihilation is one complex piece of art.

An impeccably made one at that. Alex Garland and his team has crafted a hypnotic, powerful sci-fi horror film that I’m still reeling from, to be quite honest. As such, I sometimes I feel bad that I don’t spend a lot of time in these essays lavishing praise on the craftspeople and performances at the heart of a great work. But nor am I really all that interested in meta-arguments of relative esteem, like how I could happily declare this film another miraculous entry into the sci-fi canon. Nor am I all that interested in comparing it a book I’ve never read. I’m not interested in any of these, because I view the job of criticism as rather simple: to reflect what the film “is” with mere words.

And this film is a haunting reflection on the horrors of change.

2. MEDICATION

Somewhere not too far there sits a person with cancer cells attacking their body.

And I love them. So I hate this reality with everything I have. But meanwhile, I sit here. Helpless. Writing words into this essay. Offering nothing of real value that does anything about it. Within that simple construct, I languish. Especially as I have no words of wisdom about cancer itself. No insight. No power. So I am left only to reflect on the lives already within that cancer. A life of regrets, tears, horrors, and joys, all adding up to a kind of love that is mostly incomprehensible to anyone else. But this is precisely what gets reflected in the haunting specter of disease. We reflect on life and guilt and what could have been different precisely because we are terrified. And we are terrified because a disease does not care about our narrative. It does not care about your toughness. It does not care about bad timing. It simply does not care because it is incapable of care, nor hate, nor even acknowledging our humanity. Which is also the reason there’s nothing inspirational to say about cancer. It is a machine. It just hurts. It just takes. With no rhyme or reason. Even on a biological level, it is “just” cellular change. A mutation. An existential horror that evolves against us.

To say that the language of cancer is written into the DNA of Annihilation is an understatement. Not just with Dr. Ventress, who literally has the disease and pursues a battle / non-battle with it to her own ends. But cancer even comes up right in the first (chronological) scene, where Lena (Natalie Portman) describes the process of cellular division and generation and how the goal of their work is nothing short of curing cancer. This detail is not accident. She is about the path of medication. And we can all understand the medical instinct to cure. To heal. To mend. To make well again and regain our former self. And how so much of that urge comes from the deep understanding of the terrifying possibility that you may not be able to cure it at all.

But soon Lena will come face to face with a “cancer” beyond her comprehension. Within The Shimmer, she faces a world her deepest fears and most morbid biological curiosity: a world where cancerous mutation and refraction run rampant. Animals become dangerous hybrids of another, alligators with rows of sharks teeth, even plant life spilling into man and vice versa. It is life out of control, and unchecked by that which we consider “the natural order” (again, like the effect of cancer upon the body). It’s all at once beautiful and hideous – true transfixing horror. So yes, for once I’ll take a proper second to again commend Garland and his team for this, because this film has some of the most intense and haunting imagery that I can remember in recent film. Not just in the body horror, or the floral unmaking of human beings, but also the damn tension. For not one person in my theater even dared move during the bear “screaming” sequence. But what is perhaps most interesting to reflect on is that for all the otherworldly imagery, that technically speaking, the life within The Shimmer is perhaps no dangerous than traversing the dangers of the Congo. So no, what makes this journey so terrifying is constant, evolving instability of what we consider safe. What we consider “the rules.” And the fear that you are unmade within it. Which means things that the deeper things that can annihilate us go beyond disease. After all, there are many different kinds of “cancer.” And often more terrifying…

Are the ones from the inside the mind.

3. REMEDIATION

I consider society’s willingness to start grappling with the reality of mental illness to be perhaps the most important medical breakthrough of the second half of the century (do not forget, Titicut Follies was only 1967). And as much as it changes, we still live in a world that largely ignores the basic realities of mental illness and how it impacts us in our day to day. Even just yesterday I saw an amazing Donald Glover quote about why so many black people self-medicate with marijuana because “all black people have PTSD” from having to live through the basic day-to-day horrors of racism. It’s something so jaw-droppingly obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t heard someone say it out loud before (they may indeed have, I just hadn’t heard it). But that’s the thing about mental illness. We still don’t know how to engage it because we still don’t understand how to talk about it. We still don’t know how events impact us on a deeper level and thus drive us to have impulses. We don’t know how to transcend toxic masculinity. We don’t know how to talk about perceived “weakness” in ourselves and others. We don’t know how to create true empathy because we both fear it and dismiss it. Which is exactly why de-stigmatizing of mental health continues to be of such stunning importance.

Take it from a guy who always had sympathy for that notion, but could not directly relate to the urgency of it. For I was a guy who thought he was all good, ignoring what was deeply wrong about his own system. Then in coming face to face with it, I learned I was deeply unprepared for the horrors of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts that come with facing it. Simply put, it shook me to my fucking core. And it still does. But at center of this is not some lesson about the mere gravity of mental health, but more the painful understanding of collective human behavior. Because right now, within your own system, you are on path toward your deepest mental health battles (and thereby self-destruction) without even realizing it. You will have to face the thing you are most afraid of. We all will. That’s the whole point.

We all have a potential annhilation to face.

As such, each of the characters of this film go into The Shimmer with their own unique trauma. Yes, some of this is just accounting for the basic logic about who would volunteer to run into a dangerous alien blob thing where no one comes out. But really, it’s more the thematic exploration of those who have had their lives already “annihilated” and therefore have nothing to lose in losing their bodies. For the psychologist Dr. Ventress, that’s literal in the case of her disease. For others it’s clear signs of cutting, or thrill-seeking, or life-saving, or pick your trauma-signifier. But perhaps the most telling is Cass, who admits that what brought her was the death of daughter, wherein she realized she had to grieve twice. Once for her little girl and then once for her old life (this doubling with the “old self” will end up being very important).

For Lena’s journey, it’s a bit more complicated. Because the truth about mental health and self-destruction is that for most of us it is not some deep perceptible trauma, but the fate of hard-wiring and conditioning that comes from little everyday realities. Whether feeling unloved or unsafe or even misunderstood, these situations tend to add up to the kinds of pathologies, behaviors, secrets, and choices that make up the conflict and pain within humanity. In short, these realities create internal systems that drive us forward in lovely productive ways, but also in ways that can undo us. For Lena, she’s literally learned to put all her value in the pursuit of honor and decency. Hell, she’s a former soldier who is literally fighting to cure cancer. That’s quite the two-fer. And yet, she feels like a cancer. That’s because of guilt and consequence, and how they tie into her husband’s disappearance. She had a duplicitous affair that pushed her husband away. Or was he already pushing away and this was a reaction to that? Or was he incapable of accessing his emotions as a soldier figure in deep toxic masculinity? Or was it all just twisted up and tied together like the same devastating fractal of self-damage? It doesn’t actually matter, because she’s filled with guilt and regret anyway. And in her trying to “cure” it, by bringing her husband back to the way he was, by going into The Shimmer, she words the reason very specifically “I owe it to him.”

And yet, this guilt, this “owing” him is just another step in our her own journey toward self-destruction. At every step she should go a different way to heal it properly, to accept and own, but her system doesn’t know how to do that. She wants to “cure” it, but really she’s trapped in her cycle of self-torture and self-abuse. But she thinks there is the way out in fighting it. There’s a reason they are all headed to the proverbial and literal lighthouse, yet all headed to self-destruction. Dr. Ventress literally says as much as says it in the film. And the problem with self-destructive cycles, is that for all the times along the way you “win out” and do not face consequences, all the times you get closer to what you want, you just end up doubling down, deeper and deeper into your own battle within The Shimmer…

Until it all finally blows up.

4. IMMOLATION

Lena reaches the lighthouse. The end point. The place of sought answers. Of hopeful curing. A place where everything can, somehow, someway, go back to how it was before. There she finds a camcorder. She turns it on and discovers a recording made by her husband, Kane. This is a man who was already volunteering for suicide missions, remember. Now at his lighthouse, he talks about not knowing who is anymore, someone driven mad by mental instability, the fear, the panic, and the confusion. But it’s all centered around the want of escape from the pain of this, and wishing directly to whoever is operating the camera, that they will take care of things after he is gone. The person behind the camera say yes. Simply put, this is the exact expression of the yearning for suicide. And so, Kane sits down, just as a buddhist monk would for immolation, and sets off a phosphorous grenade in his hands, killing himself instantly (and horribly). Then, his alien doppelgänger, comes forward in front of the camera. Lena covers her mouth in horror. The man who came home to her is not her husband. He is something else. Something new.

There’s a longer tradition, but Self-Immolation was largely popularized by the aforementioned buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam war. They would douse themselves in gasoline, sit in the Buddhas pose, and light a match. Thus ending their life for the martyrdom of a greater cause and the highest attainment of sacrifice. And look, I’m not here to parse out the religious nature of this act, but I am here to talk about how it plays into Kane’s behavior and the suicidal instinct in general. Because the truth is that suicide is a remarkably complicated act. For me, at the height of my suicidal thoughts I would constantly think about doing something productive out of such action. Whether donating my body for science, sacrificing it in some act of heroic good, or even just finding a way to let those who would affected know that their love meant so much and not to carry around one ounce of guilt in their hearts. For some others, there is an incredible fear of the doing the act. And if they’ve learned to deal with the world in pain and lashing out, then the murder-suicide route is largely about enacting revenge for making them feel suicidal and the immense cowardice of not wanting to go out alone. But at the center of most motives within the spectrum of suicide is the basic inability to face what is on the other side. No, not the other side being “death,” but simply choosing not to commit suicide and thus facing “more life.” That’s the other side we really fear. For we are sure that it will be one full of pain, loneliness, regret, and dire consequence. And it is at the center of this, we finally unlock the idea at the heart of the entire film..

Change is so scary because on of the hardest things to do in the world is actually change.

We all know this to be true and yet we ignore this basic reality all the time. We’ve all become hardwired with certain behaviors and yet we act like we can make all these surface level changes and that will fix it. But no, to face them is to face the deepest levels of self. We have to face our worst behaviors and admit that which we do wrong. That’s why Lena has such immense difficulty with her guilt. There is no mitigation allowed. No magic cure. Just the day to day maintenance of change. Just doing “the work.” Hence the incredible difficulty of 12 step programs, therapy, and learning to outgrow our most damaged selves. There’s seriously a reason immolation is preferable to some. But I don’t mean that comment to be all that flippant, because immolation isn’t always about actual suicide. A lot of times, it’s more insidious and invisible. To wit, when you think about Kane’s choice, specifically his words and the emotional plea of the scene. Symbolically, he is “dying” and sending his lifeless husk out into the world for the rest us.

Yup. Sometimes, immolation is the mere act of giving up.

5. ANNHILATION

It is easy to view the the word annihilation through the classic definition of “complete destruction or obliteration,” but there’s actually a more pointed definition in physics, which is: “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.”

It’s the sort of thing you read then slap your forehead it’s so damn clear to the purpose of the film. Not just in the iconography of the terrible imagery, the dueling particles and anti-particles, nor even the notion of contaminating radiation. It’s that the horror of annihilation isn’t really the horror of facing nothingness, but the horror of facing deep change, especially existential ones that mutate us into something else. Note the way characters fear their voice becoming like a death rattle. Or the way some part of them will be wiped out. Note how the birth / death imagery is freaking everywhere in the film. Bodies and fungus seeding out like walls in horrendous birth, the fear of otherworldly life growing out from the very inside of you. Likewise, Lena’s journey to the alien core is as clear a birth canal motif as I’ve seen in a recent film. But you’ll note that these threshold changes are not… pretty. Some art treats birth / death metaphors as a gentle, glowing white fades, like a nice pleasant hug as you transition from one life to the next. But no, Garland’s is much less comforting because he’s not trying to lie to you. And thus, it reflects the notion of change as it really is: wild and terrifying.

All because the thought of becoming someone new (even if better) is terrifying. Sure, we all give benevolent change plenty of nice lip service. But in actuality, we rarely can actualize deep change because doing that means we have to experience a “death” of our old selves. And we don’t want who are to die because it will feel like *we* will really die. Because in order to real change, we have to let go of real behaviors that feel safe, correct, and “right” to us because we learn they are destructive. Because we have no idea what it really means to create new hardwiring, let alone live within it. And thus, we have to put the kinds of effort and trust it takes to make our brains accept that new reality as “true.” And more so, get a world we have damaged to accept our change, by being sure we rooted in the deepest honesty and ownership of our old and new selves. Which means you not only have to truly know and understand yourself, but be willing to say goodbye to everything that you are.

Yes, the true horror of annihilation is that it is a mirror.

There’s a reason Lena uses that exact verbiage in describing her fight with her double within the lighthouse. Even moments earlier, when Dr. Ventress reaches the core tells us with terrifying clarity that there’s nothing “it” wants. Sure she’s talking about the alien, but it’s doubling for her cancerous disease. An answer she likely knew, but had to forge ahead anyway, unable to come to grips with the idea there is no “why” behind the actions of her annihilation. And as for Lena, it’s at the heart of that amazing final sequence. Her battle with her cancerous doppleganger self, it mimics her movements, except when she tries to leave and flee. Then it suffocates her against a door, anxiety rampant. It is every part of her bloodied old self (literally made from her blood), and it is hell bent on their mutual, cancerous annihilation because that’s what it thinks progress is. This highlights the horrible truth: we pursue self-destruction because we think we think it is the cure, because we think we can beat it, because we think we can transcend it. But really there is only ourselves, and we have to let it all go. We have to leave the grenade in the hands of our most toxic mirror selves, the once born from cancerous inheritance, and burn it to the ground. Burn it all down, like chemotherapy burns away our cancer cells but also our healthy cells. We have to expunge, irradiate, and ultimately, we have to barely survive it.

As the final burning images spurred out in the film, I was shaking. Some people say Annihilation is an intense movie, but still a “cold” movie. And yeah, I supposed you could take all this same messaging and ground it some heartbreaking story of love and yearning, but it’s not interested in that game. This is about something in humanity more somber, broken, and honest. And it’s aiming to unnerve and undo that part of us on the deepest, most visceral levels instead. Say what you will, I spent the car ride afterward sobbing uncontrollably. But maybe the problem of existential horror is that you have to life a lifetime to experience that amass that kind of pain, guilt, and regret. For all the topics of toxic change in this film are not mere concepts or things I hope I never do. They are not warnings. They’ve already happened. So they’re as real to me and as relatable as coming of age films are to many others. And the metaphor of who we really are when going through the fires of annihilation, curl into my guts, twisting and turning like some otherworldly, alien eel. For the film confronts the parts of myself that lied, that feared, that brought me to the heart of my own personal battle with annihilation. And ultimately left me wondering whether or not I’ve “won.”

Which brings us to the very ending of the film, one we could get lost in some kind of argument over if we still thought movies were puzzles: is her story a lie? Was her alien doppelgänger the one who really get out? Is it just trying to give us a nonsensical horror scare? Yeah, those questions don’t matter because Garland isn’t playing a game, creating a puzzle, or trying to jerk you around. The answer lies in what happens when you merely accept what’s been given and follow the damn metaphor: having gone through the fires of annihilation, whether you are someone who has given in and immolated and left the husk of yourself behind (like Kane), or burned your worst bloody self in the name of finally expunging (like Lena)… the truth is we’re never really sure if we’ve grown or transcended those boundaries. Just as we’re never sure how much of the old us in still inside. Because the truly haunting thing about our grappling with disease, mental illness, or that which annihilates us, is that it’s never really gone. The pain and trauma of it is dyed into our bodies, and we must carry it with us into new lives no matter what. Like the final image reels, you can see the pain in our eyes, like singed ashes, burning radiant and wild, eating us still… We may be through the fire.

But we are not the same.

❤ HULK

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

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…

* * *

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

Star-Wars-Last-Jedi-Finn-Rey-Rose

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