DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

Death is still one of the greatest taboos. On the whole, we don’t talk about it simply because we fear it and for good reason—it will happen to each and every one of us and no one knows what follows. To ponder the oncoming death of a loved one is even more daunting; to capture that person’s decline on film is too much for most to bear. Which is why, a minute into this, the instance an air conditioner unit falls out of a window right onto Dick Johnson’s head on the sidewalk below like a 16-ton weight out of Monty Python is so jolting, no matter what the film’s title promises.

If you know exactly what Dick Johnson Is Dead is about before going into it, you might laugh out loud like I did at that moment. Or, it may take seconds until the subsequent reveal that it’s just a prank, that the director, Johnson’s daughter Kirsten, has fashioned the film as a way of coping with the inevitable: Octogenarian Dick, a retired, widowed psychologist, is slowing down and entering the December of his life. Throughout, Kirsten stages one fake death of her father after another, ranging from crude sight gags such as the A/C unit to more high-concept spectacles, sun as entering the gates of heaven, complete with costume changes, dance sequences and camera trickery—they often resemble something David Lynch would’ve made in a particularly jocular mood. Happily, for his daughter and for us, the affable Dick is game for seemingly anything (would your father agree to the process of installing an intricate apparatus that allows a considerable amount of fake blood to seemingly shoot out of his neck?)

Kirsten’s previous feature Cameraperson recalibrated the longtime cinematographer as an essayist on the order of Agnes Varda or Ross McElwee; here, she delves into even more personal, thornier territory, documenting the final years of her father’s life, facing and dissecting head-on what it means to inch closer to the end of life both for her subject and herself. The fake death sequences provide levity but also open up a dialogue between what we can imagine the act of dying and its aftermath to be like versus what actually happens, i.e. what we can’t possibly fully comprehend. Through this push-and-pull, death is rendered less taboo without becoming trivialized, but its mystery also remains intact and not fully reconcilable.

At the film’s tricky, decidedly meta-conclusion, Kirsten seems to finally, fully confront and elegize her father’s demise while further blurring the difference between what we perceive and what we’re actually witnessing. When the reveal comes, it’s a kicker on par with suddenly seeing an appliance crashing down from the sky right towards your own head. Grade: A-

(Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.)

This Year’s Garden

When I moved into my current home four years ago, the best thing the former residents left behind was a garden box in the backyard. Overgrown with weeds and spaghetti-like remnants of long-forgotten plants, I thought to myself, “It’s too late in the season, but next year, I can do something with this.”

May 27

Since then, I’ve cultivated a garden each summer. Growing up, I used to love helping my mom out with her garden–basically two narrow strips, one alongside the house (where we always planted tomatoes); the other next to the garage (chives, radishes and a catnip plant we could never fully exhume.)

June 28

Figuring out what works here has been a matter of trial-and-error. I knew I wanted tomatoes, and put in three plants the first year. Since I’m the only one here who eats them, I went down to two plants last year and only one (a cherry tomato) this year. Marigolds tend to always be bountiful; for 2020, I also put in two of each of the following: blue lobelias, red salvias and multicolored lantanas (the latter were the only real duds.)

July 4

I also tried out a six-pack of multicolored zinnias, which I did not expect to get so tall.

July 16

The zinnia’s flowers, however, were worth their domineering overgrowth.

July 24

I was concerned about the cherry tomato at first; it was a brash Home Depot purchase at the height of quarantine and took awhile to get going. Fortunately, it came through as the zinnias bloomed.

August 30

By August 30, the garden was at its peak. When I planted it back in May, it was by far the most therapeutic activity I had partaken in since quarantine commenced, reminding me why I liked to garden and what serenity and spiritual refreshment I got out of it.

A red zinnia up close.

Fresh cherry tomatoes, a side dish fit for almost every occasion.

Jalapeños–I also planted another type of chili pepper this year (can’t remember the exact name) that, left unpicked turns nearly candy apple red, becoming *extremely* spicy.

September 20

After Labor Day, I began taking out the zinnias one by one as the flowers lost their petals and brilliant colors. Close to the Autumn Equinox, I replaced them with three gelosias (red, purple and orange) and a hearty pink-and-green coleus. Somewhat late in the season, but I appreciated what they added to the tableaux.

October 17

As of this weekend, the garden is in its last throes. The cherry tomato is mostly dead, though I refuse to remove it until it stops bearing fruit. Marigolds and peppers are still plentiful; the coleus turned out to be not so hearty after all. Considering potting the rosemary (in the rear left) for the winter.

July 20

I’d rather remember this year’s garden for its summer brilliance–particularly that one early evening when it attracted a bluebird.

York Harbor and Wiggly Bridge

A few weeks ago, prior to a socially-distanced dinner with friends in Kittery, Maine, we made a pitstop in nearby York Harbor.

Slotted in between York Village and York Beach, York Harbor neither has much of a charming Main Street (the former) nor gift shops, restaurants and sandy beaches beholden to tourists (the latter.)  It’s mostly residential and thus much quieter.

We actually met up with my parents for a mini-vacation near here a dozen years ago this month, but haven’t been back since. We must have explored this marina then, although I barely remembered it.

Boaters will know exactly what this doohickey’s for; I just admire the contrast of its colors and textures against the deep blue sky.

For me, it’s not a trip to coastal Southern Maine if I haven’t taken at least one photo of a hanging buoy.

On that mini-vacation I might’ve made a joke about this directed towards my Mom, but in all seriousness, I wasn’t aware crabbing was a thing here; I mostly associate Maine with lobsters and oysters.

I enjoy taking pictures of little dinghies–the junkier, the better.

Early Autumn in Maine can be quite lovely.

This is along the North Basin of York River.

Glance to the West and you’ll see this bridge, Route 103.

Looking West on Route 103 before the bridge…

…and on the bridge, where one can spot another, decidedly tinier bridge in the distance:

The Wiggly Bridge is famous enough to have its own Atlas Obscura entry. This I remember from that mini-vacation.

Looking straight-ahead across Wiggly Bridge back towards Route 103.

To the right of Wiggly Bridge, it’s Barrells Millpond.

About 45 minutes before sunset.

Above and below: a narrow path from Wiggly Bridge back to Route 103.

So long, you can barely make out Wiggly Bridge in the distance.

And, if you walk past Wiggly Bridge in the other direction, you’ll find this serene beauty.

Film Journal: September 2020

House Of Hummingbird

So, Toronto International Film Festival—was hoping to attend in person for the first time in six years, but that obviously couldn’t happen. Fortunately, I secured through work an industry pass allowing me to “virtually” attend, streaming from my Macbook an official selection of fifty features. Despite numerous titles frustratingly being unavailable because of my type of pass or country of residence, I still managed to catch 22 features over eight days—the most I’ve ever seen in that short of a stretch, except perhaps when I was a Film Studies grad student.

Needless to say, the real “TIFF” experience is not fully present this way, as half the fun consists of live Q&As, standing in lines, exploring Toronto and scouring the streets for cheap eats between screenings. Still, I’m grateful for even this version of it. My favorite film of the fest was predictably Nomadland and it’s no small thrill that it’s seemingly most other people’s as well. No close second-or-third place contenders, but I was delightfully surprised by Shiva Baby, No Ordinary Man, Limbo, 76 Days and Spring Blossom, and disappointed by Enemies Of The State, Pieces of a Woman and to a lesser extent, Summer of 85. My rankings and reviews are available here.

As for the rest of the month, the best newish title was House of Hummingbird, a South Korean coming-of-age drama that’s a little like Koreeda by way of Mike Leigh, but director Kim Bora clearly has her own voice. The new Charlie Kaufman boasts a great, intimate ensemble and the chances it takes mostly pay off, but it’s a lesser film than Synecdoche, New Yorkor Anomalisa because there is such a thing as being too abstract.

Paused the chronological Egoyan re-watch to take in later work Adoration before it left Criterion Channel—possibly still his best of this century (which isn’t saying much.) A lot of re-watches lately, in fact: Beau Travail (in 4K restoration, looks superb even on a laptop), Staying Vertical (gradually ascending up my best of the ‘10s list), The Gleaners and I (Varda Forever), Support The Girls (let’s all scream!) and Hard Eight, PTA’s least essential feature, but still worth a watch if mostly for a touching lead performance from a never-better Philip Baker Hall.

Films viewed in September in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

Arizona Dream (Emir Kusturica, 1993) 7
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos, 2019) 7
Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)* 8
A Five Star Life (Maria Sole Tognazzi, 2013) 6
Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Werner Herzog, 2019) 6
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)* 10
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020) 8

Toronto International Film Festival:
One Night In Miami (Regina King, 2020) 7
The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2020) 7
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020) 9
No Ordinary Man (Chase Joynt, Aisling Chin-Yee, 2020) 8
Gaza Mon Amour (Tarzan and Arab Nasser, 2020) 6
Enemies Of The State (Sonia Kennebeck, 2020) 5
Limbo (Ben Sharrock, 2020) 8
Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo, 2020) 4
Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, 2020) 10
New Order (Michel Franco, 2020) 7
76 Days (Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, 2020) 8
Summer of 85 (Francois Ozon, 2020) 6
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard, 2020) 6
Concrete Cowboy (Ricky Staub, 2020) 6
Wildfire (Cathy Brady, 2020) 6
Bandar Band (Manijeh Hekmat, 2020) 4
Fauna (Nicolas Pereda, 2020) 6
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, 2020) 7
The Water Man (David Oyelowo, 2020) 7
I Am Greta (Nathan Grossman, 2020) 6
Spring Blossom (Suzanne Lindon, 2020) 8
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020) 9

House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora, 2018) 9
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008)* 7
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015) 7
A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) 7
Studio 54 (Matt Tyrnauer, 2018) 5
Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie, 2016)* 10
Support The Girls (Andrew Bujalksi, 2018)* 9
Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks, 1991) 8
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2020)* 9
Gregory Go Boom (Janicza Bravo, 2013) 6

1986: Come On Home

When I posted my 1985 mix, I suggested the following year was more “Peak Eighties”—think state-of-the-art, ultra-synthetic, BIG sounds that evoke bright neon colors, huge hair and millions spent. At least half the tracks below conform, often blatantly (Bananarama’s S/A/W-produced Shocking Blue cover, Siouxsie and the Banshees at last embracing the sparkly pop in their goth, Talk Talk bridging the gap between their new-pop past and near-ambient future) but occasionally accidentally as well. Given their timeless melodies, one can easily imagine what songs from The Bangles, Peter Gabriel (with crucial help from Kate Bush) and Eurythmics would’ve sounded like if recorded in another era.

Still, not everything in ’86 was synths and spandex (to quote another blog). British-inspired jangle guitar pop was at a shimmering peak, whether it was made by Americans (The Feelies, R.E.M.), Australians (The Go-Betweens, Crowded House) or actual Brits (XTC, The Smiths, The Housemartins.) In the earlier essay, I also alluded to another “underrated, pastoral, anomaly-within-the-artist’s-catalog ballad”: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Coming Up Close” not only transcends 1986, it’s the song of theirs that most closely predicts Aimee Mann’s unlikely (at the time) solo career.

As always, I love the year’s true oddities, from an ingeniously cheeky track off of They Might Be Giants’ debut album to the rise of innovative producers Jam/Lewis via Janet Jackson and The Human League to more sophisti-pop from Simply Red and The Blow Monkeys to Everything But The Girl’s brief departure into orchestrated Burt Bacharach splendor. Also, actual one hit wonders like Timbuk 3’s goofy/caustic rave-up and the immortal “I Can’t Wait” by the terribly-named Nu Shooz, which both reeks of 1986 and also could’ve come out yesterday.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1986.

  1. The Feelies, “Let’s Go”
  2. Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”
  3. They Might Be Giants, “Number Three”
  4. The B-52’s, “Ain’t It A Shame”
  5. The Go-Betweens, “Spring Rain”
  6. The Housemartins, “Think For A Minute”
  7. Erasure, “Oh L’Amour”
  8. Bananarama, “Venus”
  9. Pretenders, “Don’t Get Me Wrong”
  10. R.E.M., “Fall On Me”
  11. Billy Bragg, “Honey, I’m A Big Boy Now”
  12. The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
  13. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Cities In Dust”
  14. The Blow Monkeys, “Digging Your Scene”
  15. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
  16. The Human League, “Human”
  17. Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done For Me Lately”
  18. Husker Du, “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”
  19. Pet Shop Boys, “Love Comes Quickly”
  20. The Smithereens, “Blood and Roses”
  21. ‘Til Tuesday, “Coming Up Close”
  22. Rubber Rodeo, “Souvenir”
  23. Love and Rockets, “All In My Mind”
  24. Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It”
  25. Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”
  26. Madonna, “Live To Tell”
  27. Everything But The Girl, “Cross My Heart”
  28. Simply Red, “Holding Back The Years”
  29. New Order, “All Day Long”
  30. The Chameleons, “Swamp Thing”
  31. Prince, “Kiss”
  32. The Bangles, “Manic Monday”
  33. Timbuk 3, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”
  34. Cameo, “Word Up”
  35. Paul Simon, “The Boy In The Bubble”
  36. XTC, “Earn Enough For Us”
  37. Eurythmics, “Thorn In My Side”
  38. Cocteau Twins, “The Thinner The Air”
  39. Hunters & Collectors, “Through Your Arms Around Me”
  40. Concrete Blonde, “True”

Toronto, 2005

In normal times, I’d be in Toronto for TIFF. I am currently attending the modified “virtual edition” of it, but it’s not the same as being there in person. My last TIFF was in 2014 (see here and here) and I’m overdue for a return (just not this year, naturally.)

I’m thinking a lot about my first TIFF, 15 years ago. Earlier this summer, going through a slew of CD-Rs full of photos from the Oughts, I found one disc I didn’t know I had from that trip. I believe this was right before I acquired my first digital camera, so these pix are among the last I ever took with my old, trusty point-and-shoot (before it unceremoniously died.) Above is McCaul Street and the ever-distinct OCAD University building.

I’m certain I saw more films at the Paramount (now ScotiaBank) Theatre than any other venue that year, thus spending much time around this nearby stretch of Queen Street West. Club Monaco and Steve’s Music (not pictured) are still there, but I’m guessing not much else is.

My first TIFF was also my first time in Toronto (and Canada, for that matter). Although I managed to see 16 films in five days, I also made time for sightseeing. Here’s Spadina Avenue in Chinatown…

…and nearby Kensington Market. Above is a stretch of Kensington Avenue; I don’t seem to have a shot of Augusta Avenue, where I just had to seek out the building used for exterior shots in the cult sitcom Twitch City.

Back in 2005, I found Toronto City Hall fairly ugly; now, I appreciate its mid-century modern splendor. It’s sleeker than Boston’s Government Center, anyway.

University Avenue. I retain fond memories of getting iced coffee from Second Cup along this stretch and being puzzled that the straws available for use had no paper on them (particularly shocking in 2020.)

Further up University Ave: Queen’s Park, and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

I was lucky enough to visit Sam The Record Man on Yonge Street before it closed.

I stayed at a bed and breakfast over on Jarvis Street, across from Allan Gardens, pictured here. (Please ignore the (incorrect) time stamp.)

I was amused to see a bar/restaurant named after my hometown in Toronto at 220 Adelaide Street West. It’s long gone (as of 2007, according to Google Maps.)

I don’t recall if I went up the CN Tower back then (I know I did in 2009.) Anyway, here’s a bit of Old (the smokestack), New (the glassy high-rises) and Mid-Century Toronto (along with a seabird.) I look forward to seeing it all again, maybe in 2021.

Film Journal: August 2020

Bacurau

If you’re looking for something as nearly tuned into the modern world and its growing socio-economic divide as last year’s Parasite, have I got a new film for you. Bacurau, the latest from the Brazilian director of my second favorite movie of 2016, had a brief, mostly virtual digital cinema run just as COVID started shutting everything down earlier this year. Now available to stream on The Criterion Channel (and rent elsewhere), it’s a visionary take on an established genre (best not known going into it.) As it unfolds, a fervent chaos burrows deeper and deeper into both its narrative and moral code, surfacing in often thrilling ways: a drunken rant at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain ‘80s pop song appearing out of nowhere but recalibrating the mood perfectly. I’ve seen two new movies I’ve loved more in 2020, but won’t be surprised if a second viewing pushes this to the top.

In addition to continuing my Egoyan re-watch (The Adjuster, a leap forward in style/budget/concept, even if it’s hard to care about most of its quirky characters; Calendar, a formalist hoot and the type of low budget/experimental film I wish he made more of), I revisited for the first time in two decades Kiarostami’s “Koker Trilogy”, which was filmed in a rural Iranian village over about six or seven years. Not really conceived of as a trilogy, it nonetheless tracks his move from neorealism to meta-comment on narrative and filmmaking itself. He did the latter better elsewhere (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry), but the first of the three films, Where Is My Friend’s House? remains his peak regarding the former (and it also has what is still one of my favorite final shots ever.)

Apart from Bacurau, best first-time watches included my first Mia Hansen-Løve film (which takes its time but eventually arrives at a lovely place, in no small part due to Isabelle Huppert’s always reassuring presence), Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins such a winning heroine in this) and Mr. SOUL!, a stellar doc about a forgotten early public television show/host you should know. Also liked Walk Hard (no one rips a sink outta a wall like John C. Reilly), Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend could’ve been the black Christopher Guest), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (young Paul Newman my god!) and Amy Seimetz’s first feature, which manages to be more Floridian than even The Florida Project.

Films viewed in August in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin, 2020) 5
Where Is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)* 10
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007) 7
Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Love 2016) 8
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958) 7
Bed and Board (Francois Truffaut, 1970) 6
Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987) 7
Life, and Nothing More… (Kiarostami, 1992)* 9
Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) 8
Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz, 2012) 7
The Adjuster (Atom Egoyan, 1991)* 7
High Heels (Pedro Almodovar, 1991) 6
Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)* 9
Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961) 7
Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 1994)* 7
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2012) 4
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Juliano Dornelles, 2019) 9
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)* 8
I Used To Go Here (Kris Rey, 2020) 6
Calendar (Egoyan, 1993)* 8
Burning Ghost (Stephane Batut, 2019) 5
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) 7
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)* 6
Epicentro (Hubert Sauper, 2020) 7
Mr. SOUL! (Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip, 2018) 8

Midwest Trilogy, Part III: Michigan

Go here for Part I and here for Part II.

Thursday morning, Ewa yells down to the basement, “Chris, are you up?” Half-asleep, I mean to answer “yes” but blurt out, “OK!” We have a six hour drive ahead of us and want to reach Ann Arbor by 5. After a quick meal of Sugar Smacks and Polish peach concentrated drink, we hit the road. Under overcast skies, we enter I-94 South, which will take us all the way to our destination. I pop in The Last Days of Disco soundtrack while Ewa whips out a pack of Kool cigarettes, having run out of our beloved cloves. It takes a few puffs to adjust to a fresher, mint-ier flavor, but as “I’m Coming Out”, “Good Times” and “Let’s All Chant” (the latter’s repeated “WOOP! WOOP!” cries will stay in my head all weekend) fill the air, I get used to the taste.

An hour passes as we crawl through Chicago; by then, we’re knee deep into ABBA, listening to “Waterloo” twice in a row, each lighting up another Kool. We leave the South Side behind for the blast furnace-lit shores of Northwest Indiana. A sign announces the new state as THE CROSSROADS OF AMERICA, whereas Michigan, some 20 miles on, has GREAT LAKES and GREAT TIMES (a slight improvement over the YES! M!CH!GAN tourism campaign of my youth.) Craving more than the leftover bread and tomatoes Ewa brought along for the ride, I make her stop at a Long John Silver’s outside Benton Harbor so I can use the restroom (or “Necessary Room” as they label it) and order some fries and hushpuppies.

We return to I-94, munching on fried food, unceremoniously throwing the trash into the backseat without a care that someday, we’ll have to collect and dispose of it elsewhere. We look for ways to amuse ourselves as we roll across flat, uneventful Michigan. I spot a business curiously called ABBITT, INC., to which Ewa suggests, “Well, some of their typewriter keys must’ve gotten stuck.” We bypass a town called Coloma, which inspires me to note, “I’d rather be in a coma than have to be in Coloma.” Hours pass. We listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland and I read a chapter or two of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. In time, I recline my seat and nearly doze off to the dreamy African choral sounds of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

We arrive in Ann Arbor right on time. I imagined Teresa, whom I haven’t seen in over two years, would be living closer to the University of Michigan (where she’s studying Behavioral Science); instead, she’s in an ugly, utilitarian 1950s apartment complex on the outskirts of town, not too far from neighboring Ypsilanti and quite close to the Ypsi-Arbor Bowl (one can spot its vintage neon sign, with four pins spelling out B-O-W-L from her sliding glass door.) The unit is decorated with Formica-heavy furniture, tan shag carpeting and thick brown window drapes (with an ancient, equally brown 70s stove)—the kind of place you’d expect an elderly woman to reside in more so than a grad student, but Teresa seems content, as does her brownish-orange cat, Virginia, forever slinking near the door wanting to escape.

After a lazy debate as whether to go out or stay in for dinner, we rummage through Teresa’s fridge and find a package of Healthy Choice hot dogs and in the cupboard, a can of generic brand baked beans. Combined with Ewa’s leftover bread and tomatoes, we boil the hot dogs, nuke the beans and have ourselves a poor grad student’s feast. Still, it’s not enough. After a run to the local Farmer Jack’s for a box of Orville Redenbacher’s Redenbutter Microwave Popcorn, we settle in for an evening of The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, which Ewa and Teresa have seen repeatedly to the point of being able to recite all of the dialogue. Ewa takes the spare bedroom, while I set up camp on the living room couch. Virginia scratches the side of it for a minute before taking refuge on her cat bed. Worn out from all that time spent on the road, I doze off immediately.

The three of us sleep past noon and hang around Teresa’s place, resting before the evening’s activities: we are to pick up her friend and U of M classmate Nate and then go out to dinner followed by dancing at Nectarine, a gay club. Ewa in particular’s excited to go there with me; it’s not my first gay club, but the first one I’ll attend with friends from my pre-coming out days. I’m somewhat anxious about them seeing this side of me, but I figure that if I’m going to go to a gay bar with anyone from my past, it might as well be these two gals I went to high school with: Ewa, my best friend and Teresa, my Junior year Homecoming date (we went as “friends”, naturally.)

Nate resides in a typical off-campus apartment in central Ann Arbor—well, typical except for walls blanketed with taped-on Abercrombie ads ripped out of magazines featuring muscular young men in their skivvies. If I’m a newbie in regards to coming out, Nate’s unquestioningly gay with a capital G: he has the requisite bleached, cropped hair and wears a V-neck white t-shirt with a rainbow-beaded necklace; he only differs in appearance from the boys on the wall in that his physique’s more that of a (shaved) bear than a jock with a six-pack (or a twink.)

I instantly see why Teresa’s friends with Nate: he’s unaffected and outgoing, especially in his incessant candor regarding his sexuality. To pass time before dinner, he shows us a porno called Comrades in Arms from some former Eastern Bloc country. “All the guys in it are uncircumcised!,” he gushes. I haven’t watched any gay porn at that point and am intrigued for obvious reasons, but the women in our group aren’t impressed. “It just feels like something’s missing for us!,” Ewa explains. Nate then puts in an unmarked VHS of amateur porn (neither made by nor starring himself, thankfully) just because he wants us to witness the moment a women loudly belches after she spends what seems like hours going down on some guy.

I feel no physical attraction to Nate whatsoever, but his openness fascinates me; it’s something I haven’t really encountered on the handful of dates I’ve had with other guys. During dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, he even says to us, apropos of nothing, “I worry I jerk off so much that it’s making me ill!,” causing me to nearly choke on my Mango Chicken Curry.

Like the gay clubs I’ve checked out in Boston, Nectarine is dark, crowded and loud, but the vibe’s a little different—not as intense or as guarded for sure. Maybe friendlier? Or is that just because I’m an unfamiliar face on a Friday night at what’s likely the only game in town for the LGBT community? The four of us get drinks at the bar (I’m sticking to Absolut Citron and Sprite) and venture out onto the dancefloor, Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” coursing through the sound system. The boy/girl ratio is at least five-to-one; there’s a few male couples here and there and not too many obvious lesbians.

Maybe it’s the booze, but I feel far less self-conscious than I usually do at a place like this. In the men’s room, I breezily walk up to a urinal, only half aware of the spiky-haired, heavily-pierced guy waiting in line ahead of me. He says, “You just walked right past me… and you did it so well.”

“Yes, I did!,” I triumphantly respond, my back to him. When I turn around, I see he’s probably close in age to me and kinda cute, but I don’t think of extending the conversation any further; I just smile and nod. I’m in town only for the night, I’m here with friends and I’m don’t want to hook up with someone right now. Still, I exit the bathroom more than a little giddy; no guy has talked to me so… flirtatiously before.

I return to the dancefloor, confident, exhilarated, even, worming my way through the throng, finding Ewa and Teresa at the opposite end; I don’t know where Nate’s gone (I’ll later find out that he went off with someone he met at the bar.) Donna Summer’s exuberant version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partirò)” comes on and the whole venue pulsates, seemingly on the verge of exploding.

As we jump to the beat, a tall blonde guy wearing a salmon-colored sweatshirt begins to dance right in front of me, smiling. I smile back. I don’t feel any pressure to make a move on him; perhaps if I were home, I’d feel more inclined to strike up a conversation, but it’s so loud and it doesn’t matter—I feel euphoric, as free as I’ve ever been. I’m doing the very thing that was inconceivable to me three years before when I finally realized exactly who I was and felt nothing but fear and misery about it. At last, I’m being myself and doing it so well.

The next morning, it’s time for Ewa and I to drive back to Milwaukee. My parents are picking me up there in the afternoon and we’ll return to Des Moines by nightfall. As we head West through Southern Michigan (nearly as flat and devoid of life as Western Illinois), Ewa says, “You know, Chris, Teresa and I were talking before we left. We’re impressed—you seem so much more comfortable in your own skin since the last time we both saw you.”

“Really?,” I respond. “Well, yeah, I guess I do.”

250 Films

For this blog’s 250th post, here are 250 films I adore, in alphabetical order by title. All-time-favorite lists are always subject to change; it’s a good bet that I’ve forgotten a title or two more worthy of inclusion than a title or two here. I couldn’t even begin to rank all of these, but know that the directors with the most entries (five each) are Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson–extra impressive for the latter, who has to date directed only eight features (and I would re-watch the three that didn’t make the list in a heartbeat.)

Title Director Year
2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick, Stanley 1968
25th Hour Lee, Spike 2002
3 Women Altman, Robert 1977
35 Shots of Rum Denis, Claire 2008
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Mungiu, Cristian 2007
49 Up Apted, Michael 2005
A Christmas Story Clark, Bob 1983
A Hard Day’s Night Lester, Richard 1964
A History of Violence Cronenberg, David 2005
A Matter of Life and Death Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1946
A Serious Man Coen, Joel and Ethan 2009
A Woman Under the Influence Cassavetes, John 1974
Ace in the Hole Wilder, Billy 1951
Airplane! Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker 1980
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Fassbinder, Rainer Werner 1974
All About Eve Mankiewicz, Joseph L. 1950
All About My Mother Almodovar, Pedro 1999
All That Jazz Fosse, Bob 1979
All the President’s Men Pakula, Alan J. 1976
Amélie Jeunet, Jean-Pierre 2001
American Splendor Berman, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini 2003
Annie Hall Allen, Woody 1977
Aquarius Filho, Kleber Mendonca 2016
Army of Shadows Melville, Jean-Pierre 1969
Au Hasard Balthazar Bresson, Robert 1966
Away from Her Polley, Sarah 2006
Back to the Future Zemeckis, Robert 1985
Beasts of the Southern Wild Zeitlin, Benh 2012
Beau Travail Denis, Claire 1999
Beetlejuice Burton, Tim 1988
Before Sunset Linklater, Richard 2004
Being John Malkovich Jonze, Spike 1999
Best in Show Guest, Christopher 2000
Best Worst Movie Stephenson, Michael Paul 2009
Bigger Than Life Ray, Nicholas 1956
Black Narcissus Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1947
Blue Velvet Lynch, David 1986
Bonnie and Clyde Penn, Arthur 1967
Boogie Nights Anderson, Paul Thomas 1997
Boyhood Linklater, Richard 2014
Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin, Guy 2006
Brazil Gilliam, Terry 1985
Brief Encounter Lean, David 1945
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Sam Peckinpah 1974
Bringing Up Baby Hawks, Howard 1938
Burning Lee, Chang-dong 2018
C.R.A.Z.Y. Vallee, Jean-Marc 2005
Cabaret Fosse, Bob 1972
Caché Haneke, Michael 2005
Call Me by Your Name Guadagnino, Luca 2017
Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller, Marielle 2018
Carol Haynes, Todd 2015
Casablanca Curtiz, Michael 1942
Celine and Julie Go Boating Rivette, Jacques 1974
Cemetery of Splendour Weerasethakul, Apichatpong 2015
Children of Men Cuaron, Alfonso 2006
Clean Assayas, Olivier 2004
Close-Up Kiarostami, Abbas 1990
Clue Lynn, Jonathan 1985
Day for Night Truffaut, Francois 1973
Day Night Day Night Loktev, Julia 2006
Dig! Timoner, Ondi 2004
Do the Right Thing Lee, Spike 1989
Dogtooth Lanthimos, Yorgos 2009
Dogville Von Trier, Lars 2003
Donnie Darko Kelly, Richard 2001
Double Dare Micheli, Amanda 2004
Double Indemnity Wilder, Billy 1944
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Kubrick, Stanley 1964
Drive Refn, Nicholas Winding 2011
Duck Season Eimbcke, Fernando 2004
Duck Soup McCarey, Leo 1933
Ed Wood Burton, Tim 1994
Election Payne, Alexander 1999
End of the Century Castro, Lucio 2019
Exit Through the Gift Shop Banksy 2010
Exotica Egoyan, Atom 1994
F for Fake Welle, Orson 1973
Faces Places Varda, Agnes and JR 2017
Far from Heaven Haynes, Todd 2002
Fargo Coen, Joel and Ethan 1996
First Cow Reichardt, Kelly 2019
First Reformed Schrader, Paul 2017
Flirting with Disaster Russell, David O. 1996
Frances Ha Baumbach, Noah 2012
Freaks Browning, Tod 1932
Get Out Peele, Jordan 2017
Ghost World Zwigoff, Terry 2001
Gleaners and I, The Varda, Agnes 2000
Good Time Safdie, Benny and Josh 2017
GoodFellas Scorsese, Martin 1990
Gosford Park Altman, Robert 2001
Grey Gardens Maysles, Albert & David, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer 1975
Grizzly Man Herzog, Werner 2005
Groundhog Day Ramis, Harold 1993
Hairspray Waters, John 1988
Happiness Solondz, Todd 1998
Harold and Maude Ashby, Hal 1971
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Mitchell, John Cameron 2001
High and Low Kurosawa, Akira 1963
High Hopes Leigh, Mike 1988
Holy Motors Carax, Leos 2012
House Obayashi, Nobuhiko 1977
How to Survive a Plague France, David 2012
I Killed My Mother Dolan, Xavier 2009
I Like Killing Flies Mahurin, Matt 2004
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing Rozema, Patricia 1987
Ikiru Kurosawa, Akira 1952
In the Loop Iannucci, Armando 2009
In the Mood for Love Kar-Wai, Wong 2000
Inside Llewyn Davis Coen, Joel and Ethan 2013
Judy Berlin Mendelsohn, Eric 1999
Knives Out Johnson, Rian 2019
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter Zellner, David 2014
Laura Preminger, Otto 1944
Let the Right One In Alfredson, Tomas 2008
Life Is Sweet Leigh, Mike 1990
Limey, The Soderberg, Steven 1999
Living End, The Araki, Gregg 1992
Local Hero Forsyth, Bill 1983
Los Angeles Plays Itself Andersen, Thom 2003
Lost in Translation Coppola, Sofia 2003
Love Streams Cassavetes, John 1984
Magnolia Anderson, Paul Thomas 1999
Man on Wire Marsh, James 2008
Manhattan Allen, Woody 1979
Marwencol Malmberg, Jeff 2010
McCabe & Mrs. Miller Altman, Robert 1971
Me and You and Everyone We Know July, Miranda 2005
Melvin and Howard Demme, Jonathan 1980
Meshes of the Afternoon Deren, Maya, Alexander Hammid 1943
Metropolis Lang, Fritz 1927
Minding the Gap Liu, Bing 2018
Monty Python and the Holy Grail Gilliam, Terry and Terry Jones 1975
Moonlight Jenkins, Barry 2016
Moonrise Kingdom Anderson, Wes 2012
Morvern Callar Ramsay, Lynne 2002
Mulholland Drive Lynch, David 2001
My Winnipeg Maddin, Guy 2007
Mysterious Skin Araki, Gregg 2004
Nashville Altman, Robert 1975
Nine to Five Higgins, Colin 1980
North by Northwest Hitchcock, Alfred 1959
Not One Less Yimou, Zhang 1999
On the Waterfront Kazan, Elia 1954
Oslo, August 31st Trier, Joachim 2011
Our Song McKay, Jim 2000
Parasite Joon-ho, Bong 2019
Paris Is Burning Livingston, Jennie 1990
Paterson Jarmusch, Jim 2016
Peeping Tom Powell, Michael 1960
Persona Bergman, Ingmar 1966
Phantom of the Paradise De Palma, Brian 1974
Phantom Thread Anderson, Paul Thomas 2017
PlayTime Tati, Jacques 1967
Portrait of a Lady on Fire Sciamma, Celine 2019
Pulp Fiction Tarantino, Quentin 1994
Red Desert Antonioni, Michelangelo 1964
Reprise Trier, Joachim 2006
Roma Cuaron, Alfonso 2018
Rosemary’s Baby Polanski, Roman 1968
Rushmore Anderson, Wes 1998
Safe Haynes, Todd 1995
Salesman Maysles, Albert & David, Charlotte Zerwin 1969
Scenes from a Marriage Bergman, Ingmar 1974
Scorpio Rising Anger, Kenneth 1964
Sherman’s March McElwee, Ross 1985
Shoplifters Koreeda, Hirokazu 2018
Sideways Payne, Alexander 2004
Singin’ in the Rain Donen, Stanley, Gene Kelly 1952
Sleeper Allen, Woody 1973
Songs from the Second Floor Andersson, Roy 2000
Spirited Away Miyazaki, Hayao 2001
Stalker Tarkovsky, Andrei 1979
Staying Vertical Guiraudie, Alain 2016
Still Walking Koreeda, Hirokazu 2008
Stop Making Sense Demme, Jonathan 1984
Stories We Tell Polley, Sarah 2012
Stranger Than Paradise Jarmusch, Jim 1984
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Murnau, F.W. 1927
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Haynes, Todd 1988
Suspiria Argento, Dario 1977
Sword of Trust Shelton, Lynn 2019
Synecdoche, New York Kaufman, Charlie 2008
Talk to Her Almodovar, Pedro 2002
Targets Bogdanovich, Peter 1968
The 400 Blows Truffaut, Francois 1959
The Act of Killing Oppenheimer, Joshua 2012
The Apartment Wilder, Billy 1960
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans Herzog, Werner 2009
The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler, William 1946
The Birds Hitchcock, Alfred 1963
The Case of the Grinning Cat Marker, Chris 2004
The Decalogue Kieslowski, Krzysztof 1989
The Duke of Burgundy Strickland, Peter 2014
The Garden Jarman, Derek 1990
The Godfather Coppola, Francis Ford 1972
The Graduate Nichols, Mike 1967
The Happiness of the Katakuris Miike, Takashi 2001
The Host Joon-ho, Bong 2006
The Hurt Locker Bigelow, Kathryn 2008
The Innocents Clayton, Jack 1961
The King of Comedy Scorsese, Martin 1982
The Last Days of Disco Stillman, Whit 1998
The Last of England Jarman, Derek 1987
The Last Picture Show Bogdanovich, Peter 1971
The Long Day Closes Davies, Terence 1992
The Long Goodbye Altman, Robert 1973
The Manchurian Candidate Frankenheimer, John 1962
The Master Anderson, Paul Thomas 2012
The Night of the Hunter Laughton, Charles 1955
The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer, Carl 1928
The Piano Campion, Jane 1993
The Red Shoes Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1948
The Return Zvyagintsev, Andrey 2003
The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson, Wes 2001
The Shining Kubrick, Stanley 1980
The Shop Around the Corner Lubitsch, Ernst 1940
The Squid and the Whale Baumbach, Noah 2005
The Sweet Hereafter Egoyan, Atom 1997
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Sargent, Joseph 1974
The Thin Man Van Dyke, W.S. 1934
The Triplets of Belleville Chomet, Sylvain 2003
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Demy, Jacques 1964
The Visitor McCarthy, Tom 2007
The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami, Abbas 1999
The Wizard of Oz Fleming, Victor 1939
There Will Be Blood Anderson, Paul Thomas 2007
Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould Girard, Francois 1993
This Is Spinal Tap Reiner, Rob 1984
To Be or Not to Be Lubitsch, Ernst 1942
To Kill a Mockingbird Mulligan, Robert 1962
To Live Yimou, Zhang 1994
Tokyo Story Ozu, Yasujiro 1953
Tootsie Pollack, Sydney 1982
Trainspotting Boyle, Danny 1996
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Weerasethakul, Apichatpong 2010
Under the Skin Glazer, Jonathan 2013
Vertigo Hitchcock, Alfred 1958
Volver Almodovar, Pedro 2006
Waiting for Guffman Guest, Christopher 1996
Waking Life Linklater, Richard 2001
What Time Is It There? Ming-Liang, Tsai 2001
Where Is My Friend’s House? Kiarostami, Abbas 1987
Wild Reeds Techine, Andre 1994
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Almodovar, Pedro 1988
Written on the Wind Sirk, Douglas 1956
Y Tu Mamá También Cuaron, Alfonso 2001
Yi Yi Yang, Edward 2000
Young Frankenstein Brooks, Mel 1974

Midwest Trilogy, Part II: Wisconsin

Go here for Part I.

Less than an hour on the United Limo bus from O’Hare, we cross the state line. A rustic wooden sign, WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU in the shape of said state only hints at an array of tidbits on the other side: Mars Cheese Castle (with its ginormous concrete mouse), restaurants promising “Bohemian Specialties” and a couple of adult video stores. Escape To Wisconsin for Dairy and Porn!

I arrive at Mitchell Airport just after 3:00. Ewa shows up in a red Grand Am and a white T-shirt. Her hair, like Dana’s, is the longest it has been since high school, rendering her slightly less tomboyish than usual. We hug and have so much to say to each other we barely know where to begin. Within seconds, however, she excitedly asks, “So, no pressure, but do you wanna drive out to Ann Arbor to see Teresa on Thursday?” Teresa is a mutual friend from high school that was also Ewa’s college roommate for two years. I wasn’t expecting to go to Michigan, but she really wants to see Teresa one more time before she moves to Poland to begin medical school next month. Ewa’s originally from there, having immigrated to the states with her family when she was seven.

Midway to her parents’ townhouse in the suburbs, I disclose that I have a fresh pack of clove cigarettes in my bag. “Well, Chris, why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” she blurts out. We immediately tear into them and take the long way home so that her father won’t smell anything on her. We drive down Old Route 41, itself shadowed by the adjacent expressway, past ancient motels sparsely dotting the strip with names like “El Rancho” (which Ewa dubs “El Roadshow” because it’s never busy except at lunchtime when customers apparently congregate for a downlow quickie) and the “Knotty Pine” (which I’ve always called the “Naughty Pine” for the same reason.)

After we drop my stuff off at the house, we take a walk along the new bike trail across Drexel Avenue. The late-afternoon August sun dominates the sky. We break out the cloves and I ask about her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend; I get an expurgated version as she’s already sent me an epic letter with all the details (I’ll see it when I return to Boston.) In turn, she asks me about my sexuality. I’d come out to her the previous year via another epic letter. I am her first openly gay close friend, so she has a lot of questions. She’s curious at how I know what I like, since at that point I’m still a virgin. “What do you think of Harrison Ford?!,” she asks, herself a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones; she’s watched The Fugitive at least a dozen times. It’s hard to explain (I’ve never really thought about Ford, to be honest), but I don’t feel insulted, more relieved to be able to talk so freely with someone about this.

We head back towards civilization and reach Ewa’s house just in time for her father’s arrival. A physician, his thick accent and considerable girth always intimidated me in the past; now, it’s time to have dinner with him and Ewa’s comparably petite mother. We eat in the dining room, amidst upright cabinets displaying Polish plates, butter dishes and assorted knickknacks. On the menu: individual meatloaves, plain boiled potatoes sans any hint of seasoning and green beans one can accompany with a pour of bacon grease. Roughly similar to the kinds of meals I was served growing up, and yet not (potatoes of every variety were always doused in butter and bacon grease was usually poured directly from the pan into an empty can to congeal before its disposal.)  I load up on beans (and just a few drops of the grease.) Her dad questions my post-grad school plans and offers some wine. I do as best I can to convince him I know what I’m doing with my life; I decline the wine—before dinner, Ewa warns me never to accept alcohol from her father or encourage him to drink because he tends to gets drunk, and besides, he’s on call tonight!

After dinner, I crave that hometown delicacy, Frozen Custard, so we swing by Kopp’s on 76th Street for a scoop. Then, we take a rather impromptu trip to my old neighborhood on the South Side. I haven’t been back home in over a year, but my anticipation diffuses as we drive down my street—it feels overly familiar, but tired rather than inviting since my parents no longer live there. We swing through the alley in back; our neighbors have replaced their junky old swing with a slightly newer, but still second-hand (and fairly junky) one; everything else is pretty much the same.

I awaken the next day around 11:00, racing up two flights of carpeted stairs from the basement and poking my head into Ewa’s bedroom. She’s still asleep under her cow-print blanket, arms at her sides like a mummy, her little grey cat, Taro, curled up on her pillow. Her father sits in a front of a computer screen in the next room, looking for a good deal on a used computer Ewa could take with her to Poland. His back to the door, he doesn’t notice me. I return to the basement, sprawl across the sofa bed and stare at a wood-and-brick paneled wall, pictures of Ewa’s older brother (now living in California) and his many framed accomplishments staring back at me.

In time, I walk back upstairs to find Ewa sitting in the living room, a bowl of Sugar Smacks in her lap, a mug of Turkish-style coffee at her side. We go downtown in order for Ewa to visit the Citizenship Office to get her status straightened out before going back to Poland. Once there, we empty our pockets before passing a security check—a novelty in the days before 9/11 made this mandatory for air travel. At the other end of a spacious marbled hallway, the Citizenship Office is so packed, Ewa has to take a number. She picks 10; they’re on 69, somehow. As we sit on an oak bench, I pour through copies of local alternative weekly paper The Shepherd Express and The Onion, which one can only read online in Boston.

Thirty-odd minutes later, I need some air, so I go for a walk. Compared to Boston at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, Milwaukee’s almost a ghost town. I head west on Wisconsin Avenue towards the Milwaukee River, past Wok N Roll (a Chinese takeout place, obviously) and Grebe’s Bakery. I wonder into Walgreen’s, craving chocolate. A bum stands outside the store, selling something indiscriminate—candy, perhaps, or crack. Upon exiting Walgreen’s, I slip my Butterfinger into my jeans pocket and avoid eye contact with the street-salesperson (who is now talking to an immense, bearded man.)

I take the Riverwalk, passing under multiple skywalks until reaching Wells Street. From there, I revisit all the institutions I grew up with: The Pabst Theatre, City Hall (forever immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley), Marcus Center For The Arts, Cathedral Square. As with my old neighborhood, everything feels overly familiar, not thrilling like I’d expected or hoped. I think back to a few years before, when I’d walk all the way from Marquette University to the Lower East Side, rummaging in one used record or bookstore after the next, blissfully bored but satiated. In Boston, I can more or less do the same thing there, so the idea of tracing this route again no longer has the same appeal.

When I return to the Citizenship Office, the front door’s locked. It had closed at 2:30, but Ewa was presumably still inside. She emerges fifteen minutes later, her status closer to being sorted out but not entirely (to her chagrin.) Ready for lunch, we drive over to The Gyros Stand in Bay View, which still has the best gyros I’ve ever consumed. I order the titular treat, along with super-thick-cut seasoned home fries and a bright green lemon-lime slushy that comes, as always, in a short, fat plastic cup.

We take our food over to South Shore Park, eating at a picnic bench overlooking Lake Michigan and the beach. Ewa only finishes half of her gigantic gyro, so she throws a piece of meat towards a seagull nearby. Seconds after this gesture, a swarm of twenty or so additional gulls materialize; they all caw and screech whenever Ewa throws them another piece of gyro meat. We take delight in this display of hunger and greed amongst the gulls, although I question whether they might start attacking us, having now developed a taste for flesh. Fortunately, as soon as Ewa runs out of meat and pita bread, the gulls quickly disperse.

By the following evening, we’re both chronically bored—contrary to what some Milwaukeeans might claim, you can only consume so much frozen custard or smoke so many cloves while driving through the outer suburbs or spend so many hours slugging down cheap coffee and frozen French fries at a George Webb’s (a local greasy spoon chain frequented by slacker college students and the elderly.) This is how I generally felt two years ago when I decided to move to Boston, hungry for disruption and change. Fortunately, Ewa and I were heading to Ann Arbor the next day.