“Being in the neighborhood the other day, with nothing particular to do, I decided to call round to the New Yorker office to see if anything was up,” Terry Southern wrote in the 1950’s. He described the forced casual ambiance of that office that set him “all a-pique and impulsive,” so that he asked to have the writer White fetched. When E.B. White appeared, Southern said simply, “J’accuse!” and then turned around to leave the building.
My meeting with New Yorker film editor and film listings writer Richard Brody involved no finger pointing. But Brody is the anomaly of current New Yorker film writing, which is, for the most part, more about the words used to describe the films than about the films themselves. Richard Brody writes, on the other hand, in service to cinema; his exciting writing style is a transcription of surrendering to the movie-going experience. In his succinct film summaries, he uses language emotionally to describe the experience of the film, not just how it looks when who does what where. “Rarely have love and madness seemed so fruitfully allied,” he wrote of Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon (setting off a domino-effect of reconsideration for that film in New York). I told him that I don’t even know what that phrase means, exactly, but somehow it’s exactly descriptive of that film’s intensity. (I’m not sure I know either!” said Brody.)
But while personal flourishes shape his film listings, Brody’s first book, a biography of Jean-Luc Godard called Everything Is Cinema, is remarkable for its rhythmic and organized structure. (The book also differs notably from his listings in size: an epic 700 pages versus 200 word perfect summaries.) The biography seamlessly weaves a description of each of Godard’s films into a description of the technical and collaborative process of making it, and then also reveals the personal and artistic inspirations behind its development. It reads like a novel, a tragic love story. And, while the tone of Brody’s book is more anonymous than his listings, more objective, it is distinctly personal, the kind of book that only someone with a deep and complicated relationship with cinema could write.
As the last few days of the encore screenings of Made in the U.S.A and Two or Three Things I Know About Her at Film Forum mark the end of that theater’s celebration of Sixties Godard, in what was The Year of Godard in New York, I looked back at my conversation with Richard Brody to look at what we can still learn from Godard’s work of the 1960’s.
Since the book is so much about Godard’s personal relationship with film, could you tell me a little bit about your personal relationship with Godard’s films? How you came to do this project?
Godard’s films were how I became interested in film in the first place. I grew up without much interest in the cinema, although I certainly liked going to the to the movies on Saturday night to see whatever was new by Mel Brooks, or to see Rollerball or whatever was out there. And, in college, someone suggested that I see Breathless. Seeing it was like a religious conversion experience. I discovered, through Breathless, that movies could be simultaneously like jazz and like philosophy, and that could bring me the same intensity of intellectual and emotional experience that music, philosophy, and literature had given me up until that point.
For me, personally, I got into his films as a teenager, and they ended up helping to form a worldview in some ways, not just a view of cinema. But the more that I return back to the same Godard films, having discovered new films and also the films that influenced his films, the more that relationship to that worldview changes. I’m interested in how your relationship to that initial discovery might have changed.
Because I didn’t know much about the movies altogether, when I saw Breathless I pretty much didn’t know the American film noir on which it borrowed its conventions. By pure coincidence of me being a newly minted fanatic of Godard’s films, I had the good fortune to find the book Godard on Godard, assuming that I would be reading his discussions of his own films, but what I, in fact, discovered was something even more useful, namely, the criticism from the 1950s, when he was writing for Cahiers du Cinéma and other publications, where he discussed the films that were his formative experiences before he ever became a filmmaker. So I simply used his book as a guide for movie-watching, and went to see the classic cinema that inspired him. And then, having gotten something of a background in the cinema, then suddenly his films became an even richer experience.
At this point, with your extensive film knowledge, is it almost an act of translating another language? Decoding all the film references? Do you find that distracting from the films themselves in any way?
Well, watching a film by Godard is more or less like any other aesthetic experience, in that you’re able to go back and forth, inside and outside, at the same time—watching/ thinking, thinking/watching. No, I don’t really find it a distraction.
If you look at the history of the reception of Godard’s films here, it wasn’t until the mid-1960’s, when American audiences began to appreciate classic American movies, in other words when the politique des auteurs began to take root among American intellectuals—through Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich as well as a few other people—that Godard’s films were really fully appreciated. I don’t think you need to watch them with footnotes in mind. I know that when an edition of Histoire(s) du Cinema, his video series from the eighties and nineties, was being put out along with a collection of references that he had taken clips from, he didn’t think it was really necessary. He thought you should be able to sit down and watch it from beginning to end, without worrying about scurrying for the references you didn’t know. And I think that, with these films, there are things you don’t necessarily get unless you’ve got the lenses he provides for you through his web of references.
How does he provide them? With the films themselves or with the outside materials, as well?
I think with the outside materials as well. I think he’s used some interviews over the years as a parallel screen of creation. From the very beginning of his career, he’s always been a brilliant talker. He’s made the reading of, or the watching of, or the listening to his interviews a noteworthy artistic experience. He makes them so rich that you can’t help but take notice of what he’s saying. And much of what he’s saying is giving hints and clues and suggestions as to what he’s trying to get at in his films. Not so much what he’s trying to get at, but what his range of references is—almost mathematically—what’s being projected in these films.
So his interviews are very entertaining as well. He’s very aware of a “putting on a show” in these interviews?
It’s an interesting question because I think he’s simultaneously being quite natural, and he’s being quite ingenuous and quite disingenuous. On the one hand, he was always well aware of the role of celebrity in the development of the persona of an artist, the role of the personal of the artist in the development of the art. I think you have plenty of examples of this; maybe one of the most prominent is Jean-Paul Sartre, who in post-war Paris managed to put his philosophy over through his personal celebrity, and who became, at the same time, a philosopher and a public speaker. And I think that Godard conceived of his own role as a filmmaker in the same way; I think he understood the need to generate a persona as well as a body of work.
But at the same time I don’t think he was a mere publicity hound, anything like it. He is a brilliant verbal creator. He’s a superb writer. He’s a very eloquent, playful, poetic speaker and writer. So I think when he provided the interviews that people found absolutely irresistible, it’s not a show; he’s being absolutely himself. But I do think he was quite aware that essentially he needed to create a critical viewpoint in his viewers; he needed to create a critical viewpoint with which they would then watch his films. So that when people would say that his films were simultaneously films and criticism of film, I think that’s true, but I think that his films are first and foremost criticism of his own films. In other words, his own films provide the lens with which to watch them.
I’d like to bring up three myths of Godard, that I neither quite agree nor disagree with (or that I don’t think are necessarily quite positive or negative: 1) His adolescent obsession, 2) His sexism. And the third, which I don’t agree with at all, is that he’s pretentious. But that’s complicated. So let’s focus on the first two.
By adolescent obsession you mean his relationships with young women? In his later film he’s, of course, very open about it. The relationship between older men and younger women is the subject of most of his later films. Back in the 1960’s it was a different story.
His relationship with Anna Karina is a personal relationship as well as an artistic relationship. He explained subsequently that he thought of the director/actor relationship as a primal trope in the classic cinema: Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Jean Renoir and Catherine Hessling…. And he thought maybe he would reproduce a similar personal and artistic collaboration in his relationship with Anna Karina. There was an age difference: Godard is ten years older than Anna Karina. But there was also a significant difference in interests. Godard was and is an intellectual. Anna Karina was not and is not an intellectual. He always said in interviews that one of the difficulties he had in their relationship is that he couldn’t necessarily talk to her about movies the way he wished she could and would do. He also said that for her he felt the problem was that she wanted to go to Hollywood, and these kind of films weren’t going to get her to Hollywood. That she had a more traditional view of what it is to be a movie star and an actress, but mainly a movie star.
Hmmmm, actually by adolescent obsession I meant not so much being attracted to younger women, but that his own perspective seems to be one of constant renewal of an adolescent point-of-view. You get into that in your book as a sort of obsession with reliving his early days in Paris [much of which was spent at the Cinematheque with Truffaut and others who would become part of the New Wave.] Which is kind of fascinating because his films give you those adolescent eyes, that sense of discovering and understanding the world that happens in that transition from adolescence to adulthood.
That brings up a very interesting question, mainly his relationship to his own past, to memory. The autobiographical impulse is one that most artists tend to yield to in one way or another. Artists tend to think about their lives and put the material of their lives into their work. But Godard has always taken a special and fascinating point of view on how to approach the past in cinema. When François Truffaut made The 400 Blows he was telling stories about his own childhood, by and large. He was telling stories that took place in the 1940’s, but he set them in the day that he filmed them, late 1958 and early 1959. He updated the events, and transmuted the events, and turned them into a fiction being lived by characters other than himself; the character does not bear his name. When Godard works on history—and this is as true of his own personal history as it is of political history—when Godard works on the past in film, he does it from the point of view of the present day. So, when he makes a film that’s autobiographical, when he wants to talk about his childhood, he doesn’t film a character who looks like himself as a kid, doing the kinds of things that he did as a kid but doing it in contemporary Paris or Switzerland. And he doesn’t set it in the 1930’s or 1940’s. Instead he films his own situation in a certain way, from his present day standpoint and his present day place, and he archaeologically excavates—by means of cinema—the elements of the past. In other words, he’s always filming the ambiance of the past, the presence of the past, the latency of the past, the persistence of the past in the present.
Explicitly a memory and not a flashback.
Exactly right. And in the sixties it’s a little less explicit and in his later films that’s quite explicit.
I think in the 1960’s he was making films about his own relationships … with women, with Anna Karina, with Anne-Marie Miéville, with other women with whom he had interest with, with Marina Vlady of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, whom he had asked to marry him. And he airs out his problems, his difficulties and his complaints in these films. I think he’s pretty up-front about the films being made from his point-of-view. I think that there’s a certain element of self-pity, but the man doesn’t always come out as the good guy. For as many flaws as Godard’s female characters have, the male characters have plenty of their own. I don’t think that they’re in any way feminist. Although his later films, though, certainly do suggest that he was interested in feminism, but I think he never escaped his own point-of-view. He never escaped his point-of-view as a heterosexual male who is passionate about women but who is open about his needs, his demands, his desires, who expressed his frustration when these were not being satisfied.
What are your favorites, if that question is possible, at this point, for you?
Well, there are a few later films that are among my favorites, King Lear, Éloge de l’amour. Of the sixties films, well, I think for sentimental reasons, Masculine Feminine. I think that Vivre sa vie is a real high point in his work. A Married Woman is a favorite, partly because of its rarity but also partly because of its place in his work. Pierrot le Fou, because it’s a film of rare agony. And then I keep going back to Breathless, which at first is a shock, and which then seems familiar, and then the more you go back to it begins to seem strange all over again.
A Married Woman is interesting emotionally, specifically because of the placement of the eroticism in the film? There’s something very anguished about that. So many of Godard’s films feel like they’re about his relationship with the world rather than with other people, but the relationship in that film feels very fated and sad, with the placement of the eroticism, in relationship to the signs and the laughtrack…. Do you think so?
Mmmmm, but since you asked about sexism, here at the very least, you see that he’s trying to situate his complaint sociologically. Which is to say that, whatever he complains about, about women, in A Married Woman what he’s attempting to do is to show how Women, as he knows them, are in fact the brainwashed victims of advertising, of the mass media. He’s absolving them; he’s essentially saying it’s the fault of men who are programming women to be what they want them to be.
(deep inhale) But I find that more problematic, to say that women are the “brainwashed victims”? There’s no sense of personality, or self, in the women; there’s no sense of choice. There is in some of his movies, but that particular attitude that you’re referring to I think comes out most in Masculin Féminin. As a woman viewer, there’s no place for me—and I think this comes from the fact that it’s so extremely from his point-of-view—that there’s no room for identifying with the women in his films.
I see exactly what you mean. For instance, this woman from Masculin Féminin is a very interesting character, Catherine; she’s the one female intellectual in Godard’s early films. She’s a university student who is full of her books, and can’t connect with the young worker, Robert, who is in love with her. She’s in love with Paul, the young intellectual who is not in love with her but who is rather in love with the young pop singer. Look, Godard’s telling us his difficult situation: Paul and Catherine are a natural pair, just as in real life Anne-Marie Miéville is an intellectual and they’ve been together for many, many years for good reason. They certainly have a lot to talk about. [But in Masculin Féminin] in effect, what he’s telling is that for some reason he’s not, in fact, attracted to the women who interest him.
I also think that’s a problem, of making women into these roles, these stereotypes on opposite poles, instead of having any shades of overlapping identities.
The funny thing is that one of the things he said is that he knew nothing about life, that everything he knew about life as a young man, he said, he got from the movies. I think it’s slightly rhetorical. Of course he had to know something about life. But he did spend so many hours in the cinema in the late 40s and 1950s, that he did center his worldview around the films he saw, many of which were classic Hollywood films, that it seems to make sense that his view of women would be patterned on the dichotomies that were represented in the classic Hollywood cinema. That he would have a far more traditional view of women’s roles based on the viewing of Hollywood movies than could actually be found in real life in Paris in the 1960’s. And that his own personal relations with women were conditioned by the view of women that he could identify in classical film.
That’s absolutely true. And I think that on some level he seems to be agonizing and aware about that in all his films. And that seems like the sub-theme of your book: repenting for the sins of the cinephile. That is who he is he, but he’s also aware of his limitations because of that. The constant momentum of self-criticism in his work seems to come from that.
I think that’s absolutely right and I think in the later years that’s even more explicit. I think Histoire(s) du Cinema is almost depicting itself out of the crisis of the cinema, [and he is depicting himself] as the person who’s taken on the sins of the cinema, the sins of the cinephile.
Miriam Bale is a writer and filmmaker with interests in feminism and ephemera.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife