News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

News From Home

When we finally moved out of a trailer park lot and into a small house that made us neighbours with our grandparents it felt like we were going to be a normal family.  Wasn’t long after we moved in that the men in my family started laying down gravel so all of us could park or drive out to work easier. It always kicked up such awful dust clouds that obscured vehicles on the way out. It was almost cinematic to watch things fade off into the distance. They never figured out why it kicked up so much debris, but it became a character trait of where we lived. I always liked it. I felt like it gave our mundane tasks something more. I was obsessed with Westerns at the time we moved in so I always liked to think of it like the end of all those classic movies where cowboys would ride off into the sunset. The last my mom ever saw of me was probably that same dirt cloud when I drove my truck away from home in 2014. I was finally free of the burdens of Kentucky. Of masculinity. Of my abusive father. It was one of the best days of my life. It was one of the worst for my mom.  

I have you on my heart this morning. I miss you more than you know. I wish you could come home, if only for a little while”.

-my mom

In Chantal Akerman’s, News From Home (1977) she stitches together in voice over, letters from her mother, and images of New York City. Her images are often mundane, stretched out for an extreme amount of time, as people go about their daily jobs/habits/hobbies. Akerman is a rigorous filmmaker who believes that time must be felt when telling a story, and she usually manages this by forcing viewers to really sit with an image so they consider everything in her frames. During the 1970s she moved to New York City and made a few films that would help cement her as one of the most important filmmakers of her generation. News From Home is likely the most significant of these, and may very well be the best film she’s ever made. In these images of New York City she isolates everyone and everything by merely showing what others do in their day to day lives. Here’s this city, a total hub for art and life, at least that’s what they tell you, and everyone is cornered off in their own little world. This has the effect of tinging her version of New York City with a melancholy that is then amplified through the voice over of the director who is reading letters from her mother about what is going on back home. Akerman’s mother aches for her child and is in grief for the loss of having access to her daughter, the fracturing of her family unit and her normal. Chantal, on the other hand, is considering what she had to give up to follow her artistic impulses, and the images of New York are used as a fulcrum for her negotiation of how individuality and family can be in conflict with one another. But individuality is always a lonely road. Chantal Akerman had to move to New York, but breaking the heart of her mother was the cost.

Chantal Akerman has always been interested in the ways subjectivity can be made artistic. All of her movies intertwine elements of memoir, narrative and experimentation, and one of the biggest over-arching themes of her work is that her mother is her home. In her very last film, No Home Movie (2015) she skypes with her mother, and asks her questions about her life, her family, and her upbringing. It’s a final gift to her mother whose words in News From Home are now made physical into an image. Her mother was sick at the time, but she was still passionate about her daughter’s interests; always probing as mothers tend to do. In long sequences of conversation the distance between Chantal and her mother seems completely non-existent. They’re attached, like all mothers and daughters. They converse in a rhythm and language that only belongs to them. Chantal’s mother lives in her movies, and there is an immortality that came with that instinct that means it’s impossible to think of the work of Chantal Akerman without considering her mother Natalia. Akerman’s dedication to chronicling her relationship with her mother as it evolved through the years is a defining quality of her work. They are these brief glimpses of beauty across decades and they told us everything about her mother and herself.  

Sometimes Akerman’s titles will tell us everything we need to know about the movie. In the closing moments of No Home Movie, after Natalia Akerman has passed away, Chantal ties her shoes, pulls a curtain closed, pushes her hair back, out of her eyes, and walks out of frame in silhouette. There is then a cut to an empty room, adorned meticulously in familial symmetry and the film ends. It’s a fitting final image to the career of a pioneer: a woman known for asking audiences to observe women in spaces now showing audiences an empty one—one without Chantal, one without Natalia Akerman. An image to tear a hole in the fabric of cinema like she did with her entire career. A hole that will never be filled by another director. In one last gift to the world, Chantal Akerman gave us a portrait of her mother—a woman she loved, a woman who was home for a director who often felt like she didn’t have one.

There’s context in these titles: News From Home. No Home Movie. They’re the Genesis and Revelations of Akerman’s work and form a complete picture of the relationship that she had with her mother. In News From Home she juxtaposes these aching stories of summer, in the deep romance of family with these images of a hollowed-out, lonely, New York City. It’s a filmmaking decision that still floors me to this day. There are two stories happening side-by-side in News From Home, and they are both illuminated through Akerman’s dedicated experimentation. As the film goes along we hear from less from Natalia, and she fades while these images of New York become more stark and take on a dominant effect. New York becomes over-powering and it only amplifies the restless displacement of Akerman’s form. Akerman’s mother begins to transform into memory, and distance becomes the defining factor in their relationship.

My mom sends me letters about once a week in the form of a prayer card with slogans like “a home is hope and joy” printed across the front. Over the years I’ve received hundreds of these cards, and before I open them I know what they’re going to say, because they always say the same thing. She misses me. She’s praying for me. She wants me to come home. My mom knows I have to live my own life, but she’s never gotten used to the idea that she’d have to live without me and my brother. It’s severe empty-nest syndrome and I should have probably seen this coming when I was a child. She was never happier than when she was telling me of her experiences during pregnancy, which I was always eager to absorb. She used to always say things like giving birth to me was the best day of her life. She put all of her stock into being a mother. It’s all she ever wanted to be, and now that she’s left to her own devices she is lost. The urge for motherhood is something she passed this down to me in some ways. And as I get older I begin to feel more like her. I can’t get pregnant, but being a mother is a desire that I have that I cannot act on directly so I have to let it drift away until the moment where it could feasibly become a reality through something like adoption. I don’t want to make some of the same mistakes I know she made by being overbearing and too protective of my brother and I, but I know I’m made of the same stuff. I can see her in myself, and it is a struggle to know that I can’t talk to her about these things mother to daughter, because my transness is never something she’s fully accepted. Despite this, I still love her, and I am sometimes burdened with the thought that in order for me to survive I had to leave, but doing so broke her heart, probably forever.

It’s difficult for me to rewatch News From Home with this new, real life, context. I’m far away from my mother, the same as Chantal and I wonder if she felt guilt too, leaving when she did. I can’t watch without thinking of my own letters from home. Some of Natalia’s words echo my mother’s. Sometimes word for word. It has this scary effect of feeling too close to the spirit of my own life as it unfolds in front of my eyes, and I struggle knowing that there was no easy way for my mother or I to get out of this situation without wounding one another.

The final image of News From Home is a static shot of New York City drifting away, getting smaller and smaller from the perspective of a boat leaving port. It plays like a reverse Ellis Island. There’s no voice over in this scene. Just the size of a city shrinking, and fading. I wonder what my mom thought when she saw my car drifting away behind that cloud of dust. In her heart, I think she knew she wasn’t going to see me for a long time. I think she knew that this was goodbye.

I wish I could see her, but more than that I wish she could see me.

this essay was originally published on my patreon in 2019. It was re-edited and re-published on May 5, 2020

Missing the Cinema

David Bowie in “Labyrinth”

I was browsing twitter late one evening on the night David Bowie died. No one really believed that he had passed away when the faint whispers of death began to get louder. I thought it was a hoax. Everyone did. But it wasn’t a cruel prank, and when the weight of his death settled in it felt like some of the magic in the world had slipped away. That great album he had released only days prior changed dramatically with this news. It now carried the weight of deaths and goodbyes behind it, but it also reaffirmed the belief his fans had in the shape shifting and bountiful creativity that Bowie always possessed. Needless to say we were all hurting when he passed away. Fans of his went out into the streets and sang “Starman”; a kind of public grieving and shared togetherness that feels impossible now. I never want to forget the image of hundreds reaching out together to say goodbye to someone who mattered in their lives. It helped us all at once move on together. That morning my husband, my best friend and I sat on a bedroom floor listening to Bowie as the sun rose and in between crying fits of disbelief we talked about how much Bowie meant to all of us.

A few weeks before David Bowie passed away our local cinema had announced a screening of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). Bowie stars in the film as the Goblin King. He’s a sorcerer of sorts, seductive in his tight fitting onesie, cod-piece and all, with billowy anime hair. He scared me in this movie when I was a child, but I was also attracted to him. I fell in love with the danger that his sex offered before I ever gave a damn about his music. Years later I’d be drawn to his muddying of gender and the latent homosexuality of the simulated fellatio that he sold with Ziggy Stardust era guitarist Mick Ronson. Along with Lou Reed he was this totemic figure of queerness when I came out of the closet as a trans woman in 2011. It was so easy to get swept up in songs like “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Candy Says” or “Rebel Rebel”. These songs suggested a world I wanted to live in, like a yellow-brick road to self-fulfillment and existence. But before David Bowie could be a guardian angel for a trans girl with broken wings he was a goblin king.

My David Bowie story isn’t unique. Before the screening fans of Bowie were showing up to the theatre dressed as the man, or wearing t-shirts that adorned his face. Some wore Ziggy facepaint. It was very clear that the two-hundred or so people that were there for Labyrinth were there for David Bowie. When the movie began I wondered what kind of energy the screening would have, and I learned very quickly that this was not going to be a funeral dirge. Everyone there was tired of crying and when David Bowie made his first appearance in the film the audience exploded in applause and cheers. I’ll never forget that moment. The weight of Bowie’s passing was still there, but we didn’t come together on that day to say “goodbye”. We were there to say “thank you”, and it would not have been possible without the communal experience that cinema offers.

There’s really nothing else like going to the movies. After all these years I still find something infinitely magical about the experience of the lights going down. It’s the only place where you can be alone and with others at the same time. I love the experience of walking out of a movie after the credits have rolled. The world is a different place after a truly captivating movie, because the great ones will hang in the atmosphere. You can physically feel the movie when they’re special or if you’ve had a memorable experience with the crowd. With all the restrictions in place right now due to COVID-19 I’ve worried about the life of the cinematic experience going forward. If going to the movies isn’t viable anymore or if it changes to alienate us with more distance then a moment like the one I had with Labyrinth will struggle to exist, and I find that immeasurably sad. I’ve often compared the cinema to church. I’ve told friends of mine that I go a little batty if I go a long time without going to a movie theatre. I haven’t been to one in two months, and I find myself missing the cinema more and more, but I’ve also been thinking of all the great memories I’ve had at the movies like watching Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) with my best friend three times in one week when they visited or when an older woman told me and my husband that she was happy to see young people appreciate the classics after a Sunday matinee screening of City Lights (1931). I think more than anything I miss people, and the possibility to share the experience of movies with them. Watching over Zoom or Skype or through streaming is not the same thing, and we all know this to be true. I don’t know when it’s going to be safe to go to the movies again, but I hope that they’ll be waiting for us when we come back.

During this pandemic my childhood theatre that I considered my real home closed up shop for good. The place wasn’t taken care of and hadn’t been renovated since my mom saw it open in the 1980s. She used to talk to me about sneaking out to see Purple Rain (1984) on opening night with her best friend. She wore these purple boots with jewels encrusted on them, teased her hair with an entire can of aquanet (not really an exaggeration) and wore a baggy Prince t-shirt. After Prince passed away in 2016 I got the chance to see Purple Rain in a cinema as well. I drew his symbol on my left arm and wore purple. It wasn’t as celebratory as Labyrinth, but with the screening I had the chance to be sad and say goodbye and see him full of life performing his music. I felt connected to my mom when I watched the movie. I haven’t seen her in years, but when I heard the cinema back home had closed down I thought about her time there as a teenager, and my time there as a teenager. Because it hadn’t been renovated I felt close to the stories she told and the history of the place. They were even slow to switch to digital, and projected on film up until 2010. That place is now empty and I assume it’ll be torn down as my home-town begins to look more and more like a place with history, but not one with a future.

The cinema has this spiritual magnetic quality to it, and I miss it more and more by the day. I’ll probably weep the next time I walk through the doors of a movie house for a screening, but I wonder if it’ll come with a sense of relief that some of the old ways of life can be preserved or if it’ll feel like a boxer standing up for another round when he should have just stayed down. I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, and I’d be naive to say that what we’re experiencing right now will be the only massive shift in our day to day lives with things like climate change needing to be addressed, but I hope the cinematic experience can survive. I long for wasted days of a time gone by filled with the simple pleasures of catching whatever is playing next and then getting a coffee and chatting about what I saw with a friend.

And if the cinema I remember is gone or has been changed irrevocably from this virus then I will remember the times I spent in the theatre as the most wonderful thing I ever had the chance to experience. and I’ll probably never be quiet about how much I loved going to the movies.

Celebrating One Year of the Criterion Channel

The Criterion Channel is like the bible of streaming services for people who give a damn about movies. For the sheer variety, history and global diversity they offer they are truly the crown jewel among the lot. When they rose out of the ashes of FilmStruck’s demise they picked up the torch for serious movie lovers and obsessives and for the past year they have proudly showcased a wide array of films and an almost limitless back catalogue of over one thousand movies, much of which will be there for the foreseeable future. When the streaming service began in 2019 they offered up a free movie every week that anyone could watch. It didn’t matter if you had a subscription. It gave audiences a little taste of what to expect from the channel. For cinephiles these choices were very “movies-101”, with the likes of Chungking Express (1994)and Stalker (1979)being so entrenched in the canon that I can remember them being mentioned among the all time greats when I first started getting into movies in 2004 at the perilous age of thirteen years old. But in addition to those movies they introduced viewers to Elaine May with her film Mikey and Nicky (1976), Karel Zamen’s delirious animation in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961)and there was even room for wuxia with John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979). As a lead-in for the channel you couldn’t ask for much more than what Criterion presented, and I had a wonderful time writing about each of these films as they aired to both highlight the channel and what I’d be doing with my patreon. I’m particularly proud of a prose based piece of writing that was published in conjunction with Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970). To this day I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and in the process I fell in love with Loden as not just a filmmaker and an artist, but as a woman, as I explored her life and dreams in I am Wanda (1980).

Wanda (1970)

When the channel officially launched they did so while highlighting a set of noir films from Columbia Pictures and on the one year anniversary of the Channel they have brought those films back, along with some sister films to expand on the initial mission statement of what the Criterion Channel would offer. One year out, what I remember about the experience of watching most of these films is slipping away into the shadows and haze they offered in the deep dark of quiet nights while being snuggled next to my husband. I fell asleep for brief moments during almost all of these films, but I subscribe to the notion that falling asleep during a movie is a gracenote of a sort: a gift of comfort. But I was taken with some of these films and in particular I strongly remember the proto-Fargo-ness of Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957), and the way Kim Novak announced herself in her debut performance as Lona MacLane in Pushover (1954). At the time I wrote about Novak’s performance:

She’s seductive, like a drug, and coils around the viewer until you find yourself nodding along to every last thing she’d request or demand, and as a woman, that power is tantalizing. I’d love to be as beautiful as Kim Novak, with an aura around me that was enviable in the way truly beautiful people are. Watching Kim Novak gives one the same feeling of perfectly applying a smokey eye-shadow and the intoxication that comes with artistic femininity.”

Of everything that I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel in the past year the most significant of these viewings had to be when I dove into the collaborations between director Nicola Roeg and actress Theresa Russell. In particular, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Bad Timing (1980) and Insignificance (1985), both of which had an effect on me that could be described as life-changing. Art offers a subjectivity that allows me to wrap myself around certain scenarios and characters with the context of my own life, and as a result film can sometimes act as a model of communicative therapy for myself. In these two films Theresa Russel plays a stylized version of Marilyn Monroe (Insignificance) and the self-destructive Milena (Bad Timing). In both she’s playing these characters that audiences will recognize as corpses before they can be anything else. In Bad Timing, Milena’s cold, grey flesh is shown before any other part of her story and the film works backwards to show how we arrive at the image of death. It’s a familiar one of bad men, and external forces trying to control someone who is doomed to this world. In Bad Timing Theresa Russell’s performance echoes that of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. In my essay on Bad Timing I wrote that Russell plays Milena as if she is old before her time and that she’s so very tired of everything. She lights the flame at both ends while drowning in whisky amid all the frustrations of the prodding, shitty men she’s been surrounded by her entire life. I found companionship in the way this character saw the world and the way that Theresa Russell brought her to the screen. I don’t believe I’ll stop thinking about her anytime soon. These films aren’t currently available on the Channel at this time, but they’re both available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

Insignificance (1985)

Earlier this year my husband and I set out on a quest to watch all of Akira Kurosawa’s films, and it is something that would have been much more difficult to accomplish without the access of the Criterion Channel. To this day, they still have the vast majority of his films on the service, and while we’ve been going through his filmography slowly it has allowed for us to really marinate in what his films have to offer and to watch Kurosawa evolve. He wasn’t the director we all know and love in the beginnings of his career, because he was working under heavier censorship rules and forced to support the Imperialist government of Japan at the time by inserting various bits of propaganda in all of his war-time pictures. The most fascinating aspect of this period of the master’s work is how he smuggled in his own political feelings through a subtle usage of form that he had complete control over by the time of1944’s Sanshiro Sugata Part Two. I wrote about one scene that I found especially startling given the time and conditions of its release:

When Sanshiro fights an American boxer named William Lister a lesser director would have configured this encounter as an us versus them skirmish, but Kurosawa uses it as an opportunity to understand one another through their combat techniques. It’s a masculine interpretation of formed relationships, but one that has ultimately always worked in cinema. Sanshiro watches Lister’s body and Lister does the same. They’re both counter-fighters, and especially in the case of Judo, it’s what the entire martial arts technique is built upon, and when Lister does eventually lunge, Sanshiro catches his arm. Lister tries to wrangle himself free, but Sanshiro steps with him so he can’t wiggle loose. Kurosawa frames this in a wide-shot, and because we can see the entirety of their movement we can see the relationship they have to one another as fighters. While Lister is trying to free himself of Sanshiro’s grip the Judo technician is watching Lister’s feet and when Lister steps in too closely Sanshiro positions his foot so he can use a hip-toss into a throw combination maneuver and win the fight. The Japanese audience cheers and the American audience defeated, but Kurosawa makes the dangerous decision to have Sanshiro help the American man to his feet.”

One of the greatest curatorial strengths of the Criterion Channel thus far has been its ability to showcase specific actors and actresses from Old Hollywood. They currently have a spotlight set on the delightful Rita Hayworth, but in the past they’ve offered up a bounty of features from the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. The actor among those that I focused on first was Barbara Stanwyck. At this time last year I wasn’t very familiar with her body of work or her talents as an actor, but I quickly fell in love with what she does, especially in pre-code films from the likes of William A. Wellman, where it wasn’t strange to see her trading fists with the likes of Clark Gable. I wrote about Stanwyck last year:

Stanwyck has a few trademarks that are consistent throughout all of these films. She’s a master of body language and always perfectly conveys everything her characters mean through the way she carries herself. Frank Capra and William Wellman are good directors, and have numerous films featured in this set on the Criterion Channel, but the draw in these movies, the real author, is Stanwyck. When watching these movies certain patterns emerge. I love the way Barbara Stanwyck walks whenever she’s playing a character who isn’t a Spring daisy. She saunters with her hands in her pockets (POCKETS!). Her hands are hidden away downstairs, her elbows bent, obviously taking up more space, but what impresses me most about the way that she walks is that she doesn’t do so with her hips, but her shoulders. She’s angular. Most women who are movie stars, walk with their hips first. They sway, which emphasizes her form, but the way Stanwyck walks is triangular, uncommon, rare, it’s a subtle statement of star-power and dominance itself. My eyes are drawn to Stanwyck when she walks, because she carries the rest of her body in tune with that movement. Her eyes are steely, squinted, almost in the same way that made Clint Eastwood famous many years later. Cowboy shit. You get the sense that you could hit her with a car and she wouldn’t even move. But I wouldn’t categorize the way she walks as masculine either, because the way she moves doesn’t come with a socialized casualness in the same way men tend to move. She walks in a way that is still very cognizant of her surroundings, as if she’s scheming in her own private thoughts. If I saw Barbara Stanwyck walk into a room I would know immediately that she was someone of importance, because she doesn’t move like anyone else. She moves like Barbara Stanwyck.”

The Night Nurse (1931)

But it was Bette Davis who had the biggest emotional impact on me as a viewer, as critic and as a woman. Now, Voyager (1942) had a palpable, almost life-changing effect on me as I watched Davis’s character struggle to ultimately let go of the past and try to move forward with her own life despite the abuse she had grown up around. What’s so extraordinary about Davis in this role is that even when she does recover you can still see the weight of the past in how she carries herself, how she talks and how she moves. She never lets the character become completely confident of herself, and it is a daring choice on her part, because it would have been easy enough to turn on the fire and embers that she is capable of emitting. Instead, she opts for something softer, reserved, tired, but never at the expense of the euphoria that she feels when the character does ultimately get control of her life. It’s a performance I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life, and even having only watched the film a month ago I’m ready to return to it, study it and feel it again and again.

There’s all this wound up confidence in Davis, because she knows she can do anything, and delivers as much time and time again. Her work in The Letter (1944), which mostly captured with her back facing the camera is a master-class in how to move ones own body to tell a story. For all the criticism that Davis sometimes gets for being a little too much or a little too explosive and larger than life much of her work strikes me as subtle, or rather, the aspects of her ability and talent that I gravitate towards are things that others don’t seek out as much when thinking about acting. I watch Bette Davis and she makes me want to try out acting. She makes it seem like the most fun anyone could ever have even when you can see all the work she puts into her characters. While watching Davis you can see that she never lost the child-like notion of “play”, and because of that, the time that she does spend with child actors in a film like Now, Voyager feels all the more powerful. After witnessing many of her films through the Criterion Channel I now worship at her altar, and throughout 2020 I have a loose plan to watch many more of her features. I can’t get enough of Bette Davis, and the absolute best thing one can say about the Criterion Channel is that through their curatorial work they will light the spark for others to dive deeper as well. Cinephilia is a mindset of discovery, about people, places, time periods and history, and Criterion’s streaming service is without a doubt the kindest to these principles of learning. It is one of the best things to happen in all of movies in the past year, and now that we are all stuck at home for the foreseeable future it has only illuminated for me further that they are a torch carrier for cinema.

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Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt

The  image that most people had of Courtney Love in 1995 ran parallel to how she presented herself during the MTV Video Music Awards that same year. She picked fights with Madonna, who claimed Courtney just wanted attention, and  later she flashed her ass to paparazzi on her way out. She was a fuck up  who appeared to be wasted 24/7, but the image of Courtney Love has  always been more complicated than surface level assertions by reporters and papparazzi. That’s been the way with her ever since Vanity Fair published a hit piece on Love  asserting that she did heroin while she was pregnant with her soon to  be daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. No one’s ever really taken the time to  empathize with her and the agony that lay within. That part of her  image, was saved for the stage when Hole performed, “Violet” that evening. 

Courtney  stood there wearing a tattered pink baby doll dress. Her eyeliner  blackened beyond all recognition standing out against her ghostly pale  face. The paleness and her body language in those opening seconds of  silence are haunting. She approaches the microphone and in a droning  voice, she says this one is for Kurt and Kristen and River and all the  other lost souls of the 1990s. She stares out into a sea of people for a  moment before clasping the microphone and glancing downward, pulling  herself up for the performance and all it takes for Courtney to come alive is a few chords. She screams, throws her body around, barely  keeping her voice in tune and scraping against the limits of her lungs and throat like nails on sandpaper. It’s an astoundingly physical performance. After the better part of a year of grieving the one person she loved above all  else, this is a catharsis. She hurts and every single time she screams it echoes out beyond  the veil of a TV screen, begging you to listen to this torrential  release of everything she’d been keeping inside. “Go on take everything”  as if a dare to the world that she’s already been dealt her worst blow,  what else could you possibly do to hurt me? Damaged girls feel seen. During this song she doesn’t seem wasted, but she carries the wounds of the past in her body  and during “Violet” it feels like she may fall apart or combust at any  moment. When the song’s over she drives away at a few repeating chords  and howls “god bless your soul” before hurling her guitar into the drum  kit. There’s a stray image of Courtney caught by the cameras before they  cut to break where she grasps up at her hair with a pained expression on her face. What do you do after the music stops? What can you do when the music isn’t enough? 

Courtney  Love is both these images. She carries that in her persona in  everything she does. The damaged feminine, a tattered angel, someone  with a deep insularity and loneliness because no one’s ever been there  for her without it falling apart. No one ever expected much different from Courtney Love in 1995 other than the rockstar death wish she seemed to carry with herself, but that all  changed for a brief moment when Love become more than just a musician in  Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. 

Courtney  Love had dabbled in acting a bit before performing in Forman’s film,  but it was mostly relegated to side characters in Alex Cox films during  the 1980s where she was given little space to make much of an impact.  This was years before she had created an image of herself as the frontwoman of Hole and been dubbed the Yoko Ono of grunge, by shit-head rock fans who blamed her for the death of her late husband Kurt Cobain.  Courtney Love always wanted to be an actor, but after years of confirmed drug usage and suspected substance abuse in other instances she was a risk to hire. Milos Forman fought for her, because he knew she was perfect for the role of Althea Flynt and had a unique screen presence in her own right. Forman put up one million dollars of his own money to insure that she’d be drug tested and meet the strict guidelines of  Columbia Pictures while the film was being shot. He took a chance on  Courtney Love and it paid off.

In a way  Courtney Love was made to play Althea Flynt, because Althea and  Courtney lived similar lives. They both had trouble in their upbringing  from abusive parental situations and went in and out of foster homes until they decided to strike out on their own in an uncaring world. They  both lit the flame at both ends in their work and home-life and both were brilliant at what they did. By not so secretly coding the Althea  Flynt character as a veiled version of Courtney Love it allowed Courtney  to inject her own real life personae, built upon anarchic femininity, into the character.  The type of acting that’s built by creating a  unique personae is extremely difficult to maintain and while old Hollywood was built upon the strength of all the greats who understood their own brand and how to convey that outwards in an appealing and  seductive manner it wasn’t nearly as ripe in the 1990s. MTV fundamentally changed how we perceived screen stars with the advent of the music video which allowed for musical artists such as Madonna and Prince to become the new screen legends of their time. When you take the  MTV model and apply it to rock music iconography and status built upon  controversy, such as the case with Courtney Love, it hitches the  performance to a set of expectations one can expect. It was shrewd casting on Forman’s part to crystallize this notion into a movie which  tapped into everything that made Courtney Love a dangerous, seductive,  damaged force of womanhood in the mainstream. That Courtney got to funnel all of this into her character and play off Woody Harrelson’s  portrait of Larry Flynt as a walking talking middle finger was an added  bonus. Love and Harrelson are mesmerizing to watch, because they  shouldn’t be lead actors. They’re too weird, too specific, and in Love’s case too prone to explosiveness in her own life, but then Althea and  Larry shouldn’t have been iconic public figures either.

The first time we see Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt she’s  stripping in Larry’s club, and shoving her ass into the camera, just like at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. It’s an inauspicious debut for her in mainstream movies, but it’s also totally her. You don’t get the sense that she’s a special actor until the following scene when Althea and Larry discuss the legality of her stripping in his club due to her being underage. They have immediate chemistry and unlike her stripping,  which is purposefully robotic and unsure, her seduction of Larry in his own office is another story. She has him in the palm of his hand, making sure to lean into her own sexuality, words slipping out of her mouth like crushed velvet and gesturing to Larry that she’ll be legal “just like that, in one second” before snapping her fingers. She has him,  completely and then she asks him a question: “if he ever fucks the girls in the club?” and that’s enough for Larry. He’s done for. In this scene Courtney Love completely overwhelms Woody Harrelson, which is exactly the point. Woody has the hyper-flustered body language of someone with an erection under his desk and Courtney plays the room with the knowledge that by making him feel that way she’d be in complete control.  Courtney Love would usually play the guitar with one leg hiked up on an amplifier in a power stance. She didn’t care if you could see up her  dress. She was putting her foot down that she owned this room and if you  looked it’s because she wanted you to. She brings that to Althea who  goes from merely getting Larry hard to marrying him in no time flat. She gets what she wants. She falls in love easy, but you get the sense that she wanted that to happen too.

In these opening  scenes between Althea and Larry Courtney Love’s image as a rock star and a fuck-up that we’re more familiar with isn’t used in her technique, but she does so later. It’s light and day between the confident, boisterous, powerful woman we see running Hustler magazine along with Larry Flynt and the addict Althea would become later in the film. Both parts of Courtney’s image are used in The People vs. Larry Flynt,  because the rise and fall structure of biopics is perfect for rock-stars  who live floating on the ether of both at all times, and in Love’s case  she does so with the amplifiers cranked up to eleven. The difference in her physical stature when Althea slips into drug usage as a side  effect of Larry’s paralysis after a failed assassination attempt is  staggering. Courtney Love becomes the Courtney Love we all know well,  albeit one with black hair instead of her usual blonde. In court-rooms she laughs inappropriately, becoming child-like and seconds later  vulgar. She can’t keep herself up on two feet and stumbles, shifting her  body language to that of a wrecking ball. She did the same things when  trying to interrupt Madonna’s interview at the ’95 VMA’s. Courtney Love  finds that part of herself and weaponizes it in the performance which blurs the line between reality and fiction in Althea. By contrast,  Harrelson opts for a transformative angle, changing the cadence of his speech and his own physicality when Larry becomes bound to a wheelchair.  Woody’s choices are big, and Courtney’s introspective ones meld into a relationship that feels lived in and dynamic and as a fan of acting it is exciting to watch, because they’re working in completely separate modes, and both are doing it so well. 

No one really expected Courtney Love to survive the 1990s. Everyone just  assumed she’d go the way of Kurt one of these days and opt for oblivion  instead of perseverance so the final image of Althea having drowned in a  bathtub is a startling one, because it’s an image that could have been real in Courtney Love’s own life. Because Courtney Love opted to create Althea as an extension to herself this final image, becomes shocking and unnerving. The  blurring of reality and fiction between Courtney Love and Althea forces that image to reach deeper, beyond the movie and become contextually relevant to Love’s own public and artistic image as a tortured woman martyr. No such model for who Courtney Love was had ever happened before in rock music, and the typical ending of rockstars going out before their time, for Love, only ever happens in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The most shockingly brilliant thing about Courtney Love’s performance is that she changed her image, by using every last bit of what people thought of her before burning it to ash as Althea Flynt. She opts to  survive. She only died in fiction. 

originally posted 11/26/2018

His Motorbike, Her Island (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

Here Comes the Rain Again,

Falling on my Head, Like a Memory”

Annie Lennox

We’re never really alone. We can feel it on our skin. A presence gently announcing itself or tussling our hair like an older sibling might do. She’s always there, underneath the beating heart of the sun and the soft bed of the sky. Like a human, she’ll shift and evolve, curve and break on the edges of bodies. Looking for the wind becomes less of a quest and closer to a prayer that the Earth is still breathing upon her children. She knows every last one of us, has touched the soul of every child who can feel her, or hear her, just outside the realm of visibility. Even if we’re gone, she’ll still sing, still gust with stories of everyone she met as a natural goddess of Earth. She’ll bend for eternity, but she’ll never break under the weight of all her lost children.  

I’m looking for the wind, and then I’m going to take a nap”

Ko (Riki Takeuchi) drives a motorbike and dreams in monochrome. He wears a leather jacket, a white t-shirt, denim, of course, and brown riding boots. A uniform for the free man. He’s restless, looking for something more than life can offer him, but he’s not the kind of man who would say he needs an anchor in life or something to push his narrative forward. All he needs is a stiff kick, and the loud crack of an engine giving way to the next chapter in his life. Whatever happens will happen, and he’s carefree in that belief. It’s easy to fall for a guy like him, with his abs, cocky smile and his allegiance to the road. A woman could only ever be third place for Ko after his bike and after pavement. She might believe her truest task is convincing him that she’d offer more depth than the unpredictability of whatever may come out of the curve, with the wind by his side, but she’d be wrong. It’s why men give things like bikes she/her pronouns. Ko’s already married to the wind, and he has a relationship with her that doesn’t require responsibility, only trust, that she’d be behind his back and on his flesh as he blares off into the distance, where only sound would remain for women who’d look on.  

Miyo (Kiwako Harada) is a surprise coming out of a curve. Ko falls for her instantly in that way characters in movies do. On the surface she’s perfect. She takes pictures, keeps her eyes open to whatever life may throw at her, and listens to what comes ahead. She’s in love with his motorbike, a Kawasaki. She notes that Ko has the same name as his bike, like they’re made for each other, and she wants to ride. She wants to be his. It’d maybe be more truthful to say that she wants what Ko has: the wind. Like the wind, she becomes soft, barely there, but still present in Ko’s memory. She flashes back in when the two wild at heart kids run into each other, as if by fate. And, because this is a movie, the opening title card states as bluntly, they’re pulled toward each other. They’ll remember each other forever, and their time on the island, on the road, will echo into eternity.  

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s insistence to shoot the romantic sequences and the more important moments of the film in monochrome, which bends into colour, functions like memory. We want to remember certain memories as perfect, as cinematic as possible. It doesn’t matter if that’s how they actually happened, because the memory of how we remembered it is definitive. A picture can lie, because it can’t mutate or evolve with time, but memory bends to context and emotion. It can have jump-cuts, moments where music swells, and sequences where the world only belongs to you. The road is kind of like that too. You can soundtrack it to whatever music you’d like in your car or on your bike or in your heart. Each passing town or house or inch of pavement can open up a new chapter in your life. You don’t even have to know where you’re going, because the road will point you in the right direction. When Ko and Miyo start riding motorbikes together they drift apart when one takes a new intersection, but always circle back to one another when the road meets again. They swerve in and out of one another on completely abandoned highways. It may have not happened like that exactly, but film isn’t a place for realism and neither is memory. They dart back and forth between one another like a metaphor for two people truly in love. She was him. He was her. They both lived behind the wind, pulled into one image. Even if life has a way of pulling someone out of perfection and into a back-highway of desolation you can still rest easy knowing that you and perfection will always be back then. In Clint Eastwood’s, A Perfect World (1993), there’s a short monologue about cars being time machines. Everything in front of you is the future, and everything in that rear-view mirror is the past. Maybe this is why we make movies about cars, about motorbikes, about love.  

originally published 06/27/2019

Three Short Films to Watch from SXSW


The South by Southwest Film Festival was cancelled this year, and left many filmmakers without an outlet to showcase their films. Devastating would likely be an understatement for these budding filmmakers and veterans who depend on something like SXSW to further push their films out into the world. With the recent loss of this film festival and many others the eyes of the film world have turned to streaming and that is indeed where we find ourselves with the batch of short films that were going to play at SXSW. Below, I take a look at three short films that were slated for the festival that I think are well worth your time. The entire crop of short films can be found at mailchimp.

Nadja Andrasev’s short film Symbiosis mixes 2D animation, collage and photographs that recalls the exceptional work of surrealist animation legend Suzan Pitt. Symbiosis follows a young woman investigating the trysts that her partner is having with other women, but her jealousy quickly evolves into a curiosity about bodies, objects, and sex. Andrasev’s style is dreamy and melancholic with a real focus and detail rendered in how she emphasizes touch through the eroticism of her characters. She’ll frequently loop images into one another to create a fluidity that feels inherently sexual, like a flower blossoming. Instead of using traditional cutting methods her images are more likely to bleed into one another and transform, much as her character does, and the resulting effect is a beautiful work that completely understands how to evoke the mindset of the central character. Of all the short films I watched from SXSW, this one is my favourite.

Broken Bird

Rachel Harrison Gordon’s Broken Bird follows a bi-racial Jewish girl at the precipice of deep change. She’s prepping for her Bat Mitzvah, but ultimately trying to figure out what that means for her as someone who is bi-racial, and in addition to that she is navigating the difficult waters of comprehending where she stands in the two cultures that rest inside of her. There’s the Star of David around her neck, but she also loves deep diving into her father’s record collection which houses classics from the likes of artists like Donna Summer and Jimi Hendrix. Gordon shoots much of her short film in loving close-ups and even at the brisk running time of about ten minutes she gracefully illuminates the colliding worlds that rest inside of this teenage girl. Stay for the end credits, when she makes the world her own through dance, and reshapes the bat mitzvah on her own terms.

Zoe and Hanh

Kim Tran wrote, directed and starred in this short film about a young woman and the difficult relationship she has with her mother in the wake of her father’s death. Tran shoots exceptionally close to her actors, including herself, and by doing so, creates a space for these relationships to collide off of one another without distance. This short film slowly unpeels the layers of her complicated relationship through dialogue and then through conflict, but does so in a breezy sort of conversational sense that allows the actors to do much of the heavy lifting. Trans also isn’t petrified to get into murkier territory and complicate these relationships by not giving them resolution or happy endings. Zoe and Hanh is a movie that begins and ends in medias-res with little solved between mother and daughter. In fact the relationship may even be fractured beyond repair, and it takes guts to offer up that moment as the one of relative importance, instead of the ambivalent, quiet solutions that have occupied much of American independent cinema in the previous decade. I left this one wondering where these two characters would go from here, and it’s the only short film from the SXSW group that I believe would benefit from a feature-length run-time.

A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

An old rock star (Bradley Cooper) tilts his hat down before walking out on stage. It’s hazy, the stagelights are blinding but all we can see clearly in the tracking shot is Jackson Maine’s hunched back. He’s crushed with the weight of something we’re not familiar with yet. Before going on stage to tell his story for the sea of listeners he hesitates, takes a step backstage and downs a drink, illuminating the reason for the weight he carries in his slouched shoulders. He’s a cliche of rock stardom, writing his own swan-song, completely comfortable with the slow poison of his suicide solution. He’s ashamed of it, refusing to make eye-contact with others and performing without looking at the crowd, instead opting for the brotherhood of an interlocking guitar solo. A fretboard won’t judge, and you can’t shove alcohol down your throat in the middle of a guitar solo. A guitar only ever asks to be played and Jackson Maine can at least answer that prayer, even if he’s already given up the ghost of his own life. A song is only a respite from his problems. When the crowd goes home and talks about how amazing Jackson Maine was that evening, he sits alone, letting a dwindling bottle of alcohol become his new audience, but that’s soon gone as well. He has to chase a new muse, but on this night, he finds more than alcohol.  

Ally (Lady Gaga) is not a rock star. She blends into the surroundings at her job, forced to wear a uniform that betrays star power. Bathe yourself in the waters of conformity if you want to disappear. She’s a singer, but right now she’s a waitress. No amount of talent keeps her from the uncaring world of 8 hour shifts that denigrate employees to meddle around in trash before they get off work. When Ally leaves her job, to get to the gay bar she’s set to perform in that night she hums Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s a nice homage to the woman who made the 1954 version of this story shine, but it has added context when sung by someone wishing for a falling star. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an anthem of dream chasers and when Ally walks up the back-alley street and the title card fades in like prophecy “A STAR IS BORN”.  

A Star is Born is a familiar story told four separate times, before Bradley Cooper’s instalment, over different generations of American filmmaking. Legendary director George Cukor made the only two exemplary versions before the newest one was released. Cukor’s earliest, What Price Hollywood? (1932), laid the groundwork for everyone who would follow. In these movies, one star fades out, as another fades in, a dissolve made into narrative. The most well-known example of this story comes with Cukor’s 1954 adaptation, which loosely reimagined What Price Hollywood?, but took the romantic angle from William A. Wellman’s, A Star is Born. Featuring greatest of all time calibre performances from both Judy Garland and James Mason the 1954 version is a tough act to follow. Cukor’s second verse of this story is the classic epic Hollywood tragedy with a lightning in a bottle moment from its stars and director, all of whom are at the very peak of their talents. It’s near impossible to top, but in A Star is Born (2018) Bradley Cooper comes close by insulating the romantic angle in a bubble which amplifies the tragedy that comes in fracturing a perfect world self-made between two people. But first Jackson needs a drink.  

As if by fate Jackson stumbles into a gay bar. Quite the feat considering he is neither gay, nor plays the kind of music that’s celebrated in establishments such as the one he’s just walked into. He’s even greeted at the door with a “you sure you’re in the right place?”, but any bar is home if it has alcohol when you’re looking to get plastered. Jackson’s need to get drunk lets him become comfortable quickly among the queens, but he quickly gets sidetracked when he hears this girl sing. Nearly everyone has been lip-syncing or performing karaoke all night, but she’s different. The otherwise loud bar dips into a stone cold silence before she begins to wrap herself in the sensuality of her performance of “La Vie En Rose”. The girl that’s singing is Ally.  

In these movies it is vital to deliver the “star-making” moment and Bradley Cooper’s version of this story arguably creates an entire film around this idea in the overwhelming awe Jackson has for Ally throughout. The moment where this is crystalized is Ally’s performance of “La Vie En Rose” which suits Gaga’s mid-range vocal abilities to perfection. Gaga, to her credit, completely controls the moment, making the song not just a performance of vocal ability but of how she moves her body. She manages to travel the floor and encompass nearly every square foot of the bar before she ends up in front of Jackson Maine. Bradley Cooper uses a close-up on Gaga to stand-in for Jackson’s own point of view reaction to making eye contact with Ally for the first time. This is not just a star making scene, but the moment where two people fall in love. His decision in form here foreshadows how the rest of their relationship would be shot. The moment they lock eyes and Ally’s face completely overwhelms the frame, while being lit in a deep scarlet red with just enough sea green to make the image lush, we know his love for her is real. It insulates the two in a bubble almost immediately and the tracking shot we saw earlier of Jackson, in its formal conceit, to create a stoic singular figure, falls away and shows this man willing to open up his world for another person. The camera makes space for her, and Jackson does too. Jackson’s blurry vision and failure to make eye contact goes away with Ally. He focuses on her. His eyes light up and show life for the first time and he’s pulled out of the sea and back onto land when in her presence. Jackson Maine looks at Ally in awe, not only for her talent, but for love.   

Jackson meets Ally backstage and immediately there is something between the two characters. It’s a crowded room full of queens, but their eyes seem to follow each other. Even with everyone surrounding them they’re framed like the only two people in the world. Jackson is interrupted occasionally to sign a pair of fake breasts or take a picture with a starstruck fan, but his attention to her never wavers. Jackson is acting, as if in a focused trance, after Ally’s performance and Ally, not completely realizing it just yet, because, she too is somewhat starstruck, has been captivated by him the entire time. Despite her obvious interest Ally keeps a shield up. Folks in the music industry have always burned her in one way or another and she’s worried Jackson may be the same, but that changes later that evening when the two of them find their way into a cop bar. After another fan insists on getting a picture with Jackson, this time rudely, Ally punches him in the face, because he’s invading the space she and Jack have created for themselves that evening. Jack’s impressed, and Ally laughs it off, not knowing what got into her.

They travel to a grocery store at his insistence and he cares for her swollen hand, using diy medical techniques, like using duct tape and peas to keep her piano hand from further injury. Jackson and Ally sit in the grocery store parking lot and in a low-angle wide image they’re the only two in frame. The entire world is theirs in that moment. Everything belongs to them, and they can be as comfortable and vulnerable with one another as possible. They talk about childhood troubles, songwriting and cheetos. Ally is wearing Jack’s leather jacket so she doesn’t get cold, and after hearing about Jack’s childhood issues she writes a song on the spot that would become the grand centerpiece of the film, “Shallow”. The entire sequence in the grocery store and the parking lot drifts. The images take their time and these two characters slip into one another in that way people do when they’re having a perfect conversation. Everything is smooth and easy and trapped in time. Minor on the surface, but the sort of evening you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s the beauty of falling in love in the single image of Jackson and Ally’s warm isolation from the rest of the world. Their intimacy spreads beyond the scene, and outwards, like all the best love stories. In the back of our mind we know how this story ends, because we’ve seen this story before, but in this moment, everything is perfect, and you forget that this won’t last forever.  

Following that parking lot scene Cooper does a lot formally to emphasize the shelter these two have in one another with grace-notes involving human touch. There are obvious ones like Ally applying makeup to Jackson’s face in a bubble bath while he holds her, and others that are subtle like Jackson running an index finger up Ally’s calf while they ride a motorcycle. All of this is to say that their relationship is sexy and tactile in nature, but it also goes to sure up how Cooper articulates his shot selection to keep a tone of the two of them against the world. Jackson is in love with Ally, because she’s a greatt artist, a better one than he is, and Cooper acknowledges this in just how much of the movie he spends staring at Ally in awe of her abilities, but also because she’s the first person he’s let into his world in ages. Despite all of this Jackson still drinks, even to Ally’s protests. Love isn’t enough and the bubble between the two of them fractures when Ally’s career begins to take off after her concert appearances with Jackson go viral. There’s a short scene between Jackson and Ally after she moves in with him where Jack thanks her for giving him a home. She asks him to clarify and he said “this place never felt much like one before you were here”. That home might as well be Jack’s life, and the tragedy of the movie is the perfect world they made with one another, by nature of their own relationship, slipped through their fingers before they even knew it was gone. Ally’s world expands with her stardom, but Jackson was comfortable where he was at in his life. Jack’s friend, George (Dave Chappelle), likens his life to a ship being at sea, “You set sail, you’re out there for a long time, chasing something, but you dock into port, and you find you kind of like it here. Years go by, and you forgot why you set sail in the first place, but you don’t mind, because you’re comfortable.”  

Jackson and Ally get married. Ally makes a pop album.  

Many have criticized the movie’s second-half for failing to give Ally an equal share of the narrative as Jackson, and while I think this is a fair point, I think this is exactly the point of what the film conveys. The camera sticks with Jackson, because he is in stasis, and he struggles with the loss of the world he and Ally had when it was just the two of them, so he drinks more and more. Ally’s story expands, like a star exploding, she’s on SNL, she’s nominated for Grammy’s and she gets giant billboards plastered all over the city adorned with her face. Ally needs more than Jackson, but she doesn’t want to lose Jackson either. The fissuring of their relationship comes at the cost of her expanding career and his inability to cope with the specific circumstances that come with being a woman in the music industry. Jackson wants her to sing, and tell her story, but that’s never enough for a woman. She has to know how to dance, she has to be attractive, and she has to cultivate a self-image, because the industry is functionally different for her than it is for him. He sees this as a tragedy, and while she isn’t entirely comfortable with pop star trappings, she still thinks it’s “fucking awesome” at the end of the day. This isn’t a question of rock music versus pop music in the larger scheme of things, because Ally always mentioned wanting to have “hits” and Jackson obviously never kept up with the world around him and saw how the industry changed since he broke out in the 90s.. Jackson can play rock music to the same crowds as he did in the 90s, because he has a built in audience, but Ally has to create her own image and narrative, and he struggles with that reality. He loses her to the pop machine. He’s selfish to some degree in wanting to keep her where she is, but he’s honest about it, and it does come from a place of love. To watch him struggle with the realities his relationship is now facing is harrowing, because we have the context for how these stories end. It’s like watching someone morph into a corpse in real time, and Cooper, to his credit, plays the downfall with just the right mixture of self-righteousness and vulnerability. Ally never loses her love for Jackson, but she constantly makes comprises for his sake, because she still wants to keep the world they fostered at the beginning of the film alive. She wants him to be on tour with her, and protect him from his own problems even if it comes at the expense of sponsorship, additional tour dates and freedom. She makes these sacrifices because Jack is her person, and she’s willing to do anything for him, even when she knows what’s broken cannot be fixed.

A Star is Born is a movie of love and the sacrifices you have to make when your life becomes entangled with another person. Love is not independent. There is no singular “you” when you’re in a relationship that really counts. You fold yourself into the person you love and become like one single entity. Their problems are yours and there isn’t a worse feeling than failing to solve the problems of the person you love. Ally’s story reduces in the second-half of the film, because she’s away working hard to become the artist she knows she can be, and when she’s home she sacrifices herself to help her troubled husband rise back above water. She is selfless, even to the point of breaking her own heart if it meant he could find peace. She gives everything, even when she knows it’s impossible. Jackson does too. You do that when you’re in love.  

Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018)

Keanu. Winona. We tend to refer to them by a singular name, like Madonna, Cher or Prince. It should have been common sense that these icons of Generation-X would play off each other in a romantic comedy or starred alongside one another in a multitude of projects, but Destination Wedding is only the second time these two have shared a screen. Their first collaboration was in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula (1992), which wasn’t exactly the “of-the-moment” event these two stars needed at the absolute zenith of their careers in terms of popularity and creativity. The two have seen dips and valley’s in their career following Dracula, and luckily Destination Wedding comes at a time when both are on the crest of a new wave in popularity. Both Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are as hip today as they’ve been in a very long time, with both experiencing something of a career renaissance. After a long period of sexism induced blacklisting by Hollywood at large Ryder has begun to make the first stabs at a comeback with her role on the very popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Winona Ryder has deserved a large scale comeback for years, and she should have never been pulled out of the public sphere, especially considering there are men who have done much much worse things than shoplifting who continue to make film after film. It’s a shame that it has taken this long for doors to open for her again, but I’m nonetheless happy she’s back. Keanu Reeves by extension has the massively popular action movie series, John Wick, which has not only turned him into an icon for an entirely new generation, but propelled him into the conversation surrounding the greatest action movie stars ever. His stoicism and ragged physicality, built upon a jangled trauma of an unwanted skill and the recurring domino effects of violence of his job as a hit-man in the Wick movies has reinvigorated him. It’s a role only he could play. Enter Destination Wedding, which sees the two stars on a collision course for one another, and the only bullets here are the barbed wire insults they sling at each other until they realize “this is the only person as fucked up as me” and they begrudgingly admit that it’s better to hate together than apart.  

The basic premise of Destination Wedding is a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy immediately hates girl, they end up at a wedding together, they cross paths with a mountain lion, and tolerate each other long enough to have sex. This has happened to literally all of us. The boy in this case is Frank (Keanu Reeves) and the girl he hates is Lisa (Winona Ryder). Lisa is going to this wedding because she wants to get closure with her ex-fiance, and Frank? Frank is the estranged brother of the groom. They both hate the groom so they find an initial bonding over the double act of hating each other and hating this other person they know intimately. Nothing says a meet-cute like an expletive leaden brush with jealousy. The framing device that director Victor Levin uses throughout the movie hollows the world out around from Frank and Lisa through predominate medium-wide shots where Lisa and Frank often appear to be standing in a room full of mannequins. This is probably how they view the other guests. The formal decision to keep them separate from everyone and focused entirely on their banter throughout the miserable wedding is a smart one, if not entirely effective. Levin sometimes pushes the camera too far away rendering Keanu and Winona ant-like in the frame, and it makes their chemistry and witty back and forth harder the discern because we can’t see their faces. When Levin’s drops the pretenses of the wide-mannequin rendering shot, the script blossoms in the hands of these two iconic actors.  

The rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue recalls screwball at times. If the camera were more interested in catching the actor’s physicality in motion instead of standing back and letting their verbal skills do all the work it would be appropriate to discuss the film in these terms. Levin doesn’t have the chops or the understanding when to let his formal ideas expand and it holds the film back pretty significantly at times. In the hands of a more seasoned director Destination Wedding would likely be considered among the finer comedies of the decade, instead of merely, being a great exercise in verbal dexterity from two the finest actors of the 1990s. I do not want to short change just how good Reeves and Ryder are however; their pitch perfect, charred, hate-fuelled rants at anything and everything are a constant joy and the sheer annihilative pitch and speed in which the film spews bile almost renders things abstract. It’s akin to being stuck in a punchline whirlpool, and if you enter into this movie with the full intention to get down on the level of Lisa and Frank’s debased sewer spewage bile the film will reward you with a deranged symphony of laughter.  

Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018)

“I’ve been praying for the day he’s released.” 

These  words are said by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) after stumbling  across the latest crime scene committed by Michael Myers. In the newest  incarnation of Halloween the film gestures toward a narrative  about trauma and the aftermath of violence, but does so with a  distinctly simplistic, offensive and male idea of survival. The above  phrase stuck out to me while watching the movie like a sore thumb and a  Rosetta stone of sorts on this movie’s understanding of traumatic  events. To put it in the most basic way: I was offended at the notion  that this is what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like in women.  The last thing a trauma victim would want is the release of their  monster into the world to do damage to more people, but this doesn’t  seem to bother Laurie. Probably because those in charge have no idea  what trauma actually feels like.

I was in a  Costco about a year ago with my in-laws stocking up on groceries for  the winter season. It was a regular day, and despite the store giving me  anxiety due to the sheer amount of people aisle to aisle and the  occasional unwanted brushing up against other customers I was mentally  holding it together. Going down the freezer aisles, however, was a  disaster, because I saw someone who looked eerily similar to my father,  and I couldn’t breathe. I hyperventilated and shut down. I stood there,  disassociating, until he turned around and I realized it wasn’t actually  my father, but I still had to be taken into the food court to calm  down. I have no concept of whether or not I made a scene or was noticed,  but it felt like a black hole was pouring out of me and pulling me  inward. I was disappearing. I didn’t realize how badly I had shaken  myself up until my fiance gave me the finer details of what happened  later that evening. He was there to calm me down, but I don’t know what  would have transpired if he had not been there. With post-traumatic  stress disorder we do our best to move forward in day to day life. We  try to make a life out of something damaged and we do our best not to  dwell on things that may trigger or send us spiraling into the abyss of  our own memories. This is not typically how post-traumatic stress  disorder is characterized in motion pictures. In movies, it’s an avenue  for revenge, but the last thing we’d ever want to do is to be put into a  position where we could be hurt again. What we want is sanctuary and  peace of mind. Not bloodshed. 

What Halloween suggests  is that the only way to get closure is to kill your abuser and ensnare  your entire life around the past waiting for the perfect moment to take  back what was lost. I would respect Halloween’s understanding of  trauma if it were at all intellectually rigorous or honest in its  intentions toward recognizing images of bodies, power and gender like in  the Female Prisoner Scorpion series,  but it is merely a short-cut for the same boring “strong-female lead”  characterizations we’ve been seeing for the better part of twenty years  now in place of women who feel like actual human beings. Laurie stalks  Michael’s place of hospitalization to keep an eye on him, she stockpiles  fire-arms and lives in constant panic that he’s going to come back. I’m  not going to assert that everyone who experiences PTSD is the same, but  to insist that this, of all things, is a stunning portrait of female  trauma is absurd to me. The real strength that lies with us is the  understanding that we can still live our lives. Laurie Strode doesn’t.  She’s a plot-device waiting to spout a one-liner before blowing her  victimizer’s head off. She’s little more than a frat boy’s idea of a  badass grandmother. Jamie Lee Curtis does her best playing this  character who is obviously fractured and scarred by her past, but you  can only do so much with a script that cares more about the jokes that  are inserted to de-escalate tension than it does the victim’s  themselves, including Strode. 

Even if one were to look  beyond the absolutely abysmal rendering of trauma and pinpoint only  director, David Gordon Green’s chops as a filmmaker you’d come across  with the same tired result of Carpenter copy-cats that have run this  series into the ground sequel after sequel. Rob Zombie being the lone exception.  Green renders all of his slasher showdowns and kills with  over-calculated consideration for the shot above the actual violence or  the humanity of the characters. He can snake his camera through a maze  of trick or treaters in a long tracking shot, but he can’t give anyone  any depth or linger on shots long enough for us to feel the full impact  of the violence. It’s the same tired slasher bullshit. The only person  who comes away from this movie unscathed is John Carpenter who created a  soundtrack to accompany the film, updating his score from the 1978  picture with some consideration for modern sensibilities while still  leaning on his classic synthesizer horror. He’s still the master. His  music is the only thing that gives this movie life, lifting the  otherwise rote filmmaking out of the gutter from time to time. I’d say  John Carpenter deserves better, but I’m sure he’s very happy cashing  checks on movies that only further cement his legacy as someone no one  can equal in a genre of filmmaking he helped create.

The 50 Best Movies I watched in 2019

2019 felt indescribably long. When I look back on the list of movies that made an impact on me in the last 365 days I am taken aback that some of these weren’t watched in 2018. My sense of time seems to be corroding to some degree, and I’m not sure how I feel about that happening. It’s strange, but living in 2019 was strange. There’s a a ghostly quality to the last few years, as if we’re on a sinking ship, while hoping we can patch one of the biggest holes in 2020. I don’t know how things are going to turn out, but cinema is my one constant, and in 2019 I watched more movies (401 if Letterboxd is to be believed) than I had in the previous four years. When I look at this list the biggest thing that pops out to me is how much I used the Criterion Channel streaming service, which both guided my viewing and gave me the opportunity to explore an under the radar director like Keisuke Kinoshita. Theresa Russell’s movies with Nicolas Roeg made a gigantic impact on me, and I think in Russell I’ve found a new actor to obsess over. I’m unsure if Bad Timing is actually the best movie I watched last year, but putting it anywhere but number one felt wrong, because Russell’s performance so grabbed ahold of my psyche that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the character since. Her turn as Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance created a similar effect. Naoko Yamada’s work with Kyoto Animation was also significant, with K-On! being like a life raft in dangerous waters. I so looked forward to returning to the mundane lives of those teenage protagonists in the Fall of the previous year. Jacques Tourneur, Powell and Pressburger and Amy Holden Jones were also dominant in my viewing patterns. This list is a reflection of everything that burrowed its way into my body and mind in 2019. I greatly admire all of these films. I am sure that 2020 will bring more.

1. Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980)
2. K-ON! (Naoko Yamada and Kyoto Animation, 2009-2011)
3. School on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1988)
4. Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
5. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)
6. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
7. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
8. Insignificance (Nicolas Roeg, 1985)
9. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
10. Anne of the Indies (Jacques Tourneur, 1951)
11. Stars in my Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
12. The Adolescence of Utena (Kunihiko Ikuhara, 1999)
13. The Slumber Party Massacre and The Slumber Party Massacre II (Amy Holden Jones, 1983 and Deborah Brock, 1987)
14. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
15. Blackout (David Lynch, 1993)
16. Somewhere in Dreamland (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
17. Puce Moment (Kenneth Anger, 1949)
18. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984)
19. Asparagus (Suzann Pitt, 1978)
20. Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946
21. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Leslie Harris, 1992)
22. Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
23. It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen, 1955)
24. Woman (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)
25. The City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
26. No Regrets For Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
27. Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997)
28. Death Dream (Bob Clark, 1974)
29. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
30. Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
31. To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)
32. Love Letters (Amy Holden Jones, 1983)
33. For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989)
34. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (Shusuke Kaneko, 1999)
35. Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
36. The H-Man (Ishiro Honda, 1958)
37. On the Town (Stanley Donen, 1949)
38. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
39. His Motorbike, Her Island (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)
40. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
41. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
42. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1996)
43. Girl Pack (Lisa Baumgardner, 1981)
44. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zamen, 1962)
45. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
46. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
47. So Dark the Night (Joseph H. Lewis, 1946)
48. Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)
49. Sister Street Fighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1974)
50. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)