I hate hotshots. According to the movies I got out to see, 2010 was yet another parade of hotshots behind the camera, emboldened by mastery of new, completely superfluous technologies (I don’t give a damn what camera you shot on—not if the mechanical, pre-determined results might as well have been captured on an old Mitchell 35mm camera) and agitated by market demands into ever more efficient, bottom-line modes of production (prediction: new Academy Award categories for Best Workflow and Fastest Turnaround). Many critics love hotshots. Hotshots appear to have their shit together. They may not tell stories in any truly memorable or honest way, but their speed, Tinkertoy complexity and relentlessness almost look like grace and agility when you’re desperate for a thrill. I love slobs. Movies with their greasy shirttail sticking out. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, not Kanye West. We have to stop rewarding slickness and boldness for their own sake. We have to re-learn the visual language and emotional acuity that all these hotshots are too business-adroit to be bothered with. Or else we’re doomed. Okay, this rundown of 2010 flicks emphasizes what I suspect the directors were up to. It’s still a director’s medium, you know, despite the growing sensation that “director” now means “savvy producer type with sparkling credit and advanced software skills.”
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was the most interesting mainstream American release for many reasons, but mainly because 1. director Oliver Stone adopted the tabloid style that made movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers overbearing but here works like a soaring op-ed piece, just as it made Any Given Sunday a rousing sports column. 2. As a study of a weirdly sentimental sociopath (Michael Douglas) on a tear, it is as mesmerizing as Sam Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona and Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street—and it has as much to sing about American graft and self-delusion as did those films. 3. Shia LaBeouf’s performance as a young finance hotshot in way over his head is quite accurate to the Maxim-subscribing boiler room types I’ve encountered, including the moment his whole world crumbles, and we see that he’s really just a (stop me, somebody) scared little boy. Sounds terrible, I know, but this flick actually has heart and purpose. Best editorial cartoon of the year.
Enter the Void: That folks have been comparing this hipster visual tantrum to 2001: A Space Odyssey says a whole hell of a lot about where film culture is right now. It doesn’t help that Gaspar Noé chose to shoot in nocturnal Tokyo, where any random pink eiga director could have made a trippier, less obnoxious tour of drug dens, sex clubs, love hotels and the afterlife—for a fraction of the cost.
Winter’s Bone: A pretty good TV show, the kind they show on HBO all the time to great acclaim, but, like Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, essentially critic/sucker bait for those who respond in Pavlovian fashion to narrative slackness and grim posturing posing as contemplation. Excellent performances, lovely color-corrected rust colors, peeling shanties and frosted highlights, but I didn’t believe any of it.
Somewhere: Sofia Coppola is more of a natural-born filmmaker than her Dad. Francis Coppola has created a lot of astonishing scenes, but he has never turned something so simple and ordinary as a girl cooking up some eggs into a wondrous event. Daddy’s little auteur sees and hears so much. Anybody who fawns over arty colonialist Claire Denis but disses silver-spoon Sofia isn’t playing fair.
Inception: To paraphrase the Red Letter Media guy dissing Avatar: advancing cinema further in the wrong direction. A gargantuan, empty experience, like an abandoned Learjet hangar.
Wild Grass: A great old director at play out in the world. It’s like watching him take off on roller skates and bust moves you’d expect from a brilliant kid.
I Am Love: Tilda Swinton, with her ghostly pale skin and razor-thin lips, becomes, in dramatic context, as mesmerizing a sexual/emotional creature as Juliet Binoche sprawled across the bed in Certfied Copy (a masterpiece I saw at 2010 NYFF but which hasn’t been released in the U.S. yet). This is one keen and wild piece of celluloid, hotshot in the best sense.
Secret Sunshine: I loved it when it played at the New York Film Festival three years ago. This brutal, tearful maternal tragedy hit the IFC Center last year just in time for Christmas. Still playing as of January 7.
Black Swan: Still haven’t seen it, but I am preparing myself by forgetting that Isabelle Adjani in one scene from Possession preemptively eradicates any other crazy-bitch-in-leotards movie, especially one made by a transparent hotshot like Darren Aronofsky. (Like Christopher Nolan on Inception, he’s another live action director overshadowed by animator Satoshi Kon (R.I.P., 1963-2010): In terms of vigorous mindfucking, Kon’s Perfect Blue is to Requiem for a Dream what Paprika is to Inception).
Mother and Child: Nowhere near as good as Armond White made it out to be, but it does fill a void for mainstream movies that deal thoughtfully with the legacy of broken homes. It even makes a lovely suggestion about how to improvise a family with strangers, if one has the heart for it.
Another Year: Folks (like Karina Longworth) naïvely assume Mike Leigh is parading a bunch of grotesques for our amusement and/or consternation, but that says more about their cynicism than it does about Leigh’s vision. The understanding he shows this film’s most “pathetic” characters is towering. The only way you’ll miss it is if you greet their explanations of why they’re so needy and lost with the kind of condescension his two leads shower upon them. Everybody plays the fool, sometimes.
A Prophet: The world didn’t need another one of these grim, shank-up-the-ass prison flicks, but at least this one grooves and arrives at an understanding. Any film in which a lackey character eats shit for years and later emerges triumphant would have to be pretty shoddy to lose my vote. This one is as meticulous as a Jean-Pierre Melville crime thriller. With bodily fluids.
The Fighter: This movie wants to be a jazzy improv, but it’s stuck with an opportunistic ’hood movie scenario and a director who apparently was just trying to get through it in one piece. Nothing wrong with the script that couldn’t have been fixed by letting a barefooted filmmaker like Harmony Korine or Ken Loach muss its hair. Still, Amy Adams does something no other dainty white actress in the history of cinema has managed to do: She becomes an around-the-way girl without a trace of effort.
The Ghost Writer: Still haven’t seen it yet, but Polanski can do no wrong. Not behind the camera, anyway. Well, not behind a movie camera, at least.
Old Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010 That Put Nearly All of the Above to Shame
Love Streams (1985): John Cassavetes makes a dream-film about unrequited love as if he had only days to live. And as far as he knew, he did: He got the terminal cirrhosis diagnosis early on in the production. He doesn’t hold back anything here, blending his improvisational jones and stylistic instincts (the latter his best kept secret) more harmoniously than ever. Deliriously beautiful call and response between crafts: The camera serenades, the acting swoons—and vice versa.
The Long Day Closes (1992): Terence Davies makes his nostalgia yours, gliding over the ghosts of his early 1950s Liverpool childhood the way Enter the Void’s camera hovers leeringly over sordid business. But even at eye level, Davies is at a spiritual height that would make Gaspar Noé (a pimp posing as priest, really) faint dead away.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): Sam Peckinpah should have directed early-‘80s Saturday morning cartoons. This lovely, clunky, corny hymn to the common scoundrel would have gotten him the job. Take out all the sex and killing jokes, and you’ve got a comic Western as sweet and lyrical as the animated Charlotte’s Web.
In Vanda’s Room (2000): Even a decade later, Pedro Costa’s series of static compositions in and around a crumbling Portugese tenement is the future of cinema. There is nothing wrong with Winter’s Bone, Mother and Child, or Inception that Costa’s purifying methods couldn’t have fixed.
Unreleased Film of the Year
Tape: This epic documentary about an outlandish Chinese performance artist struggling to keep his troupe in business in the face of economic realities is for anybody in the world not born rich who is trying to create something new and eat at the same time.
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 Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s 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. “I 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,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative 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 cinema—and 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 “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s 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 lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem 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 arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout 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 Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s 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 stage—or 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 we’ve 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 man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s 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 retrospect—and 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 revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” 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 won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t 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 novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s 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. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by 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 there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s 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 he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and 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. … 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 we’ve 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 notice—all we remember—is 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, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s 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-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s 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 “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ 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 (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s 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 Anne’s 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 it’s 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 teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t 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 Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s 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 one’s 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 Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d 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 we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” 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, we’ve 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 film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man