I should preface this by saying that I had never heard of film critics Nika Bohinc or Alexis Tioseco before today. And yet it seems only right to make note of their passing, in no small part because of the tributes from Gabe Klinger at the Auteurs Notebook, Kim Voynar at Voynaristic and Jonathan Rosenbaum at his personal site. (UPDATE: Noel Vera has also posted a piece at Critic After Dark.) The details of their deaths are horrible: The two of them interrupted some burglars in their Manila home and were shot multiple times. In life, so I now glean, they were colleagues and fellow cinema advocates, and Iâm saddened that weâll never have the chance to meet. One of my deep-held beliefs is the importance of building communityâI think this is one way the respective art forms we practice, however beleaguered at times, will perpetuate and thrive. To Nika and Alexis: I did not know either of you here, but I hope our contributors, our readers and I can help to honor your memories. Good places to start are the remembrances above, as well as Criticine, a site that Alexis founded. More recommendations and recollections are welcome in the comments section.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahanâs witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant whoâs just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. âI was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,â Bobby declares to the reader in the novelâs opening, and so begins a provocativeâand conspicuously wine-drenchedânarrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinemaâand for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up âas a kind of virgin sacrifice.â Throughout, Callahanâs frank descriptions of Bobbyâs early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our livesâthe moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been beforeâseem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at armâs lengthâsexually and otherwiseâthroughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobbyâs ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Benâs budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stageâor on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people weâve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young manâs obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahanâs previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the authorâs talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospectâand even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelersâwearing only their underwear, at Monikaâs commandâall together âstreamed out into the night and ran like crazyâ through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it wonât ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesnât care, most of the time. And if you arenât world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novelâs back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as âThe Great Gatsby on poppers,â and thereâs definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahanâs novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clefâas well as the literary New York novelâby mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But thereâs still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novelâs brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then heâs suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virginâand back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. âŠ Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson weâve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we noticeâall we rememberâis whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, âYou know, youâre downhearted, and you think, âWhatâs the use?â and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly youâre back in business again!â And the film theyâve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahanâs That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurysâs poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of oneâs youth.
Diane Kurysâs Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girlâs diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-â64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurysâs debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister âwho has still hasnât returned my orange sweater,â Peppermint Sodaâs authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its charactersâ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (ElĂ©onore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, FrĂ©dĂ©rique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anneâs concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anneâs art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that itâs how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacherâs overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isnât all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anneâs friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boyâs hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Sodaâs latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward FrĂ©dĂ©rique, broadening the filmâs scope as current events begin to shape the elder sisterâs political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedyâs assassination to a classmateâs terrifying firsthand account of the policeâs violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead FrĂ©dĂ©rique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as FrĂ©dĂ©rique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in schoolâand much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacherâsheâs still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
Itâs through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of oneâs youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Placeâs Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Placeâs Emily Blunt, because weâd much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as weâve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended âjust kidding,â it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, weâve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that filmâs soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Manâs real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man