24 Frames: Mulholland Drive

Why film? As I watch one movie after another, I seldom pause to consider such a question. I suppose this project is an attempt to track my own relationship with film, how it grew from a pastime of simply viewing them for entertainment to a full flower of talking, thinking about and obsessing over them. Rarely does a week pass where I haven’t watched a single film (or more likely four or five.)

What initially drew me to studying film was its invitation to view and partake in cultures and perspectives outside my own. It’s unlikely I’ll ever spend much time in or even visit Russia, but I can glean various perspectives of what Russia is like through the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrey Zvyagintsev (to name three great directors from three wholly different eras.) Granted, I’ll never know it as well as the places I’ve lived and spent ample time in, but even just familiarizing myself with Russian movies (and those of other countries from Finland to Burkina Faso), I feel my mindset expanded.

Culture aside, film can be limitless in its approach—just think of all the disparate (and in some cases, intersecting) worlds a film can contain according to genre, tone, style and structure. Over ten days at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, I watched a trashy camp classic (Valley Of The Dolls), a pioneering experimental/fake documentary made around the same time (David Holzman’s Diary), a Reagan-era, female-directed French musical (Golden Eighties), the low-budget indie debut from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan (Next of Kin), a popular “ripped from the tabloids” doc from a decade ago (The Queen of Versailles), peak early 90s New Queer Cinema (The Living End) and, from two years before that, Bertolucci’s adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky—there you have it, seven distinct ways of seeing out of hundreds of thousands available to rent or stream.

The Sheltering Sky

Even the pre-streaming age afforded such possibilities if less access and convenience than we’re now accustomed to. As the 1990s gave way to a new century, I kept at it, practically organizing my own life around what I could see in theatres, and then what I could rent or borrow to watch at home. I continued perceiving film as a virtual global passport of sorts, but something else shifted. The idea that cinema not only offered many things to see around the world but also new ways of seeing the world regardless of location registered back in grad school when I first watched bold, wholly original takes on contemporary life such as Safe. I kept this in mind when picking out new movies to see. Those making the most instant and lasting impressions adhered to this notion of cinema as a lens offering viewpoints that were recognizable (to a degree) but also fresh and illuminating in ways that I’d never devise on my own.

Writing about Beau Travail, I championed 1999 as a consensus-supported banner year for film; in my personal view, 2001 nearly surpasses it, especially in the realms of indie and world cinema. Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, In The Bedroom, Memento, Waking Life, Amelie, Gosford Park, Donnie Darko—not too shabby a selection (and I’ve left out some titles I might devote to future entries here.) Adding delayed domestic releases from the previous year like In The Mood For Love and Our Song only enhances this notion of 2001 as another all-timer for cinema.

Naturally, the year carries a weightier association in the collective memory. Even though my spreadsheet of watched films by date only goes back to 2004, I still recall the last film I saw in a theatre before 9/11: a restored print of Godard’s Band of Outsiders at the Brattle in Harvard Square with a solid Saturday night crowd. Francois Ozon’s slow-burn psychological thriller Under The Sand at the Arlington Capitol was what I first saw in a cinema afterwards, three Saturdays later. It’s no stretch in noting how much the world changed between those two screenings and how coincidentally those two titles represent the collective mood before and after (particularly the Ozon film with its gloomy undertones and quiet, numbing sense of dread.)

Under The Sand

Exactly two weeks after Under The Sand, I saw Mulholland Drive on its opening weekend at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. At this point, I appreciated director David Lynch but felt no strong passion for his work. I’d viewed The Elephant Man in a high school class (way over my head at the time); as an adult, I’d watched Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; the former had unnerved me without necessarily transcending that feeling, while the latter left me cold (granted, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the series at that point! Why I watched this prequel at all is best saved for another essay.) And yet, I’d also seen The Straight Story, which did move me with its deceptively simple narrative and in how it captured the unlikely beauty of a region (rural Iowa and Wisconsin) I’m familiar with—never mind that it’s Lynch’s most atypical work (rated G and produced and distributed by Disney!)

Mulholland Drive arrived in theaters with no shortage of hype. Originally conceived as a 90-minute television pilot for ABC (home of Twin Peaks) in 1999, it was rejected by the network. Rather than leave it behind, Lynch refashioned it into a film, securing funding from Canal+ and shooting additional footage. The 146-minute feature version premiered at Cannes in May 2001 to critical acclaim and Lynch tied with the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There for Best Director (Nanni Moretti’s comparatively forgotten The Son’s Room won top prize, the Palme d’Or.) By its theatrical release, growing buzz around the film positioned it as one of the year’s most anticipated arthouse attractions.

A film lives up to such lofty expectations (such as the swaggering, singular Hedwig and the Angry Inch) just as often as it does not (to pick an extreme example, all I wanted to do was take a dozen Silkwood showers after feeling thoroughly pummeled by Requiem For A Dream.) My first viewing of Mulholland Drive was closer to that of Hedwig, but with some reservations. I wrote in my journal (this was still pre-blog) of walking away from it feeling “entranced” (a word I surely overused in my twenties) and given my overall impression of Lynch’s back catalog, a little surprised. I described it as “a world of dreams” populated by characters that were less Twin Peaks caricatures (remember, I hadn’t seen the series yet) but more “grounded and fragile.” However, I couldn’t love it due to its unusual structure and inexplicable twists. I suspect I was far from alone in this, as I’ve discussed the film with numerous people over the years who similarly find Lynch’s tendency to leave crucial things open and unexplained a stumbling block if not a reason for outright disliking it.

Still, that initial watch of Mulholland Drive, perhaps enhanced by a continual string of accolades (like Beau Travail the year before, it topped the Village Voice Film Critics poll) stayed with me. I made room for it on my own year-end top ten film list at #9, right between Our Song and The Man Who Wasn’t There. When it hit the then-second run Somerville Theatre in early January, I saw it again. In that journal entry, I wrote, “It’s a film that begs to be seen more than once” before noting how much funnier it was the second time, the half-filled theater often reacting with belly laughs (only to be subsumed by some rather nervous laughter in the brain-melting last half hour.) Whereas I kept trying to figure out what the hell was going on after that first viewing, now I could come up with a few ambitious (if probably insufficient) theories, having noticed reoccurring objects and parallels drawn between characters and situations.

No matter how much I worked on cracking the film’s narrative code, its mystery (as well as its mastery) left me captivated (to use a slightly better word than “entranced”.) I bought the DVD when it came out months later and re-watched it a handful of times before seeing it again on the big screen at the Coolidge in 2006. When I redid my best of 2001 list a few years later, it wound up at #2. In 2012, it secured a place on my list of ten favorite all-time films inspired by the once-every-decade Sound and Sight poll (as did Beau Travail and McCabe & Ms. Miller.) Just last year in a job interview when referencing my professional and academic background in cinema, I was asked (for a non-film related position, I might add) what my favorite movie was: Mulholland Drive popped in my head before anything else.

I’m not going to make that particular case for it here; to name a single favorite film out of the thousands I’ve seen is increasingly an impossible task. Neither will I fully go through it scene by scene given limitations of time and space and my readers’ patience. However, I have to address the narrative and will do so starting at the very beginning. To this day, I struggle explaining why I feel a sensation akin to goose bumps upon just hearing the opening swing-band music as images blur and skitter across the screen. Soon enough, they settle on a tableau resembling those Louis Prima-scored Gap commercials from the late ‘90s but with slightly older and decidedly amateurish dancers, not to mention all those overlapping silhouettes. As jarring and exciting as any beginning, it barely has anything to do with the rest of the film; only over two hours later does one character (whose visage flashes over the action at the scene’s conclusion) mention once having won a dance competition. Is that what the opening scene depicts, or is it a dream?

In the film’s grander scope, such a question is irrelevant. Mulholland Drive might be the ultimate movie gathering power predominantly from feels rather than plot. Still, one must consider that latter. The narrative throughline of Betty (Naomi Watts), a blonde, fresh-faced aspiring actress from Podunk, Canada apartment-sitting for her Aunt Ruth in Hollywood and her relationship with Rita (Laura Harring), the mysterious brunette car accident survivor/amnesiac she finds squatting there easily draws one in. As compelling a mystery as anything featuring Nancy Drew or Jessica Fletcher, it’s Lynch as his most outwardly engaging and tender.

Alas, as much as it, well, drives Mulholland Drive, it serves as only a part of its universe. The film’s first half often plays like the TV pilot it was conceived as, given to multiple storylines that in a feature context resemble planted seeds meant to develop into full-grown branches in subsequent episodes: the man (Patrick Fishler) recounting his nightmare to another man at Winkie’s, a Denny’s-esque diner where the dream took place; a ropey hit man (Mark Pellegrino) whose attempted mark goes horribly and absurdly awry; Adam, a hotshot filmmaker (Justin Theroux) whom, in a closed-door boardroom is forced by mafioso (one of ’em played by longtime Lynch collaborator/scorer Angelo Badalamenti!) to cast a particular actress as the lead in his next picture, declaring upon her sight, “This is the girl.” That last thread actually develops further as Adam endures and suffers various foibles, only for his story to briefly merge with Betty’s as she visits his film shoot directly after an audition where, performing an intense scene with an older actor (played by Chad Everett!), both she and Watts reveal what skilled actresses they are.

The Betty-and-Rita story increasingly takes up more screen time as the film lingers past the 90-minute mark until they find a key to open the blue box in Rita’s purse. As Rita unlocks and opens it, the camera seems to dive into its darkness; on the other side, everything has abruptly shifted. Watts is now Diane, whose name earlier bred a spark of familiarity in Rita, leading her and Betty to scope out Diane’s drab apartment only to find her decaying corpse lying in bed. Watts-as-Diane, disheveled, glumly shuffling around her shitty bungalow is nearly the polar opposite of Watts-as-Betty, so cheerful even her pink sweater literally sparkled with sequins. Harring also reappears, only now called Camilla, a successful actress who has been helping Diane get bit parts. Camilla (also name of the “This is the girl” actress) is in a relationship with Adam, who is still a filmmaker; at a house party they invite Diane to (out of pity, it seems), they introduce her to Coco (Ann Miller—yes, that Ann Miller), whom we previously knew as the manager of Aunt Ruth’s apartment complex; she is now Adam’s mother. It’s all purposely disorienting and as Diane’s mental and emotional instability surges into the red zone and the film ends with her suicide by gunshot, it’s not difficult relating to her madness.

Eat your heart out, Ann Miller.

For years, my most basic interpretation was that everything up until Rita opening the box was Diane’s dream with Betty an idealized version of herself. It’s probably no coincidence that when Betty becomes Diane, the first words heard are “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up” from The Cowboy, the flat-voiced, Uber-Lynchian figure who ultimately convinced Adam to obey the mafia’s wishes (do we even have time to get into who or what else The Cowboy is?) Going back to my notes after that first watch in 2001, I described the entire film as a dream or a series of dreams dissolving into one another, rather than the opening of the box as a demarcation line between dreams and reality. Those words now startle me, for on my most recent rewatch, they sum up how I currently interpret Mulholland Drive. Given Lynch’s notoriety for refusing to explain anything in his films (no commentary tracks from this guy!), it’s fitting that his greatest work is one of his most enigmatic. He purposely leaves a trail of clues, some of which even match up, but there’s no grand denouement, no rationalization for why Betty becomes Diane—although earlier dialogue such as Betty’s “It’ll be just like the movies—we’ll pretend to be someone else,” or Rita’s anguished cry of “I don’t know who I am” resemble premonitions in retrospect.

Still, when thinking about the film, I always go back to that bizarre swing-dance opening. Whether or not it has anything to do with what follows, it undeniably sets a tone: nebulous and perplexing for sure, but also expectant and positively giddy. Where (and possibly when) in the world are we? The simplest answer (to the former at least) is Los Angeles. Lynch seems to view the city as his medium here, a canvas with space for him to manipulate, paint over and reassemble what’s already there. For instance, he inserts numerous establishing shots panning over the cityscape—in particular, the steel-and-glass-heavy Downtown skyline mostly at night. He just hovers over it all with Badalamenti’s near-ambient, white noise score playing a crucial part. He avoids most recognizable landmarks, instead opting for an anonymity heightening an encroaching dread.

Instead of Grauman’s Chinese Theater or the Hollywood Sign, he renders ordinary, everyday locales as places to remember. Think of those already vaguely recognizable to a viewer of a certain age, like Winkie’s coffee shop or an abandoned drive-in movie theater. In this film’s universe, they’re presented as significant a part of the overall design as Aunt Ruth’s cozy, incredibly well-preserved art deco apartment or Adam’s swanky mansion in the Hollywood Hills. This extends to reoccurring objects such as mirrors, an ashtray and a rotary phone (!) as well as settings that aren’t what they initially appear to be—most notably, the abrupt cut to a tableau of singers decked out in 1950s outfits performing the Connie Stevens song “Sixteen Reasons” in a recording studio. Again, where (and when) are we? As the camera pulls back, we see it’s actually Adam’s film set, an audition for a scene in a Stevens biopic he’s directing—the one he’s being forced to cast a particular lead actress in.

After Betty and Rita’s discovery of Diane’s corpse (which climaxes in a chilling superimposed image of the two of them reacting in horror), most of these locales and objects seem to just melt away, restricting the action to Aunt Ruth’s apartment where Rita begins cutting off her hair to disguise herself until Betty lends her a wig. The two women now look nearly identical, and their relationship soon turns sexual. Then, in the middle of the night (with no explanation), Rita asks Betty to take her to a place revealed as Club Silencio. They sit down in the sparsely attended, dilapidated old theater. A goateed magician takes the mic and delivers a spiel about how “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.” He introduces Rebekah Del Rio, who sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, her tremulous, haunting voice filling the cavernous space like a siren, powerful enough to raise every last hair on your body. She makes it through half the song, her intensity forever rising until she suddenly *drops* to the floor… and the song continues. After all, “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.”

Arriving just before Rita opens the box, the Club Silencio scene could be the key to unlocking the film’s allure, if not entirely its logic or purpose. It’s as if everything has been building towards this gorgeous, striking, transcendent, shocking moment where we witness a great performance that’s not entirely truthful. Similarly, the engaging, intriguing stories of Betty and Rita, Adam and Camilla, Diane, Coco and all the rest of these Los Angelenos aren’t entirely truthful or are at least altered to allow for simultaneous truths, none of which are absolute. Mulholland Drive is indeed a panorama for Lynch to fearlessly explore connections between dreams, reality and also the movies (“Why film?”, indeed), not to mention all of the wicked, sublime and terrifying possibilities that surface as they overlap.

Essay #12 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #11: Beau Travail.

In The Belly Of The Empty Night: Halfway Through 2022

It took some time (mostly due to Adrianne Lenker’s plaintive, unassuming vocals), but I finally “got” indie folk-pop quartet Big Thief with their fifth album, a 20-track, 80-minute-long behemoth that nonetheless proves they can do nearly everything. I’ve spun it more than any other album on this list including Spoon’s fellow February release, a back-to-basics rock record that also suggests a way forward with its closing title track, as languorous and wistful as late Roxy Music or Steely Dan.

Also, happy to report that “Chaise Longue” is no one-off, even if it’s still the undeniable highlight of Wet Leg’s s/t debut. The Angel Olsen and Father John Misty albums are the first of each of theirs that I’ve unreservedly liked; the first album in five years from Stars may not do anything new, but it is a neat summation/reminder of everything they do well–don’t be shocked if it makes my year-end list.

Favorite 2022 Albums So Far (in alphabetical order):

Andrew Bird, Inside Problems

Angel Olsen, Big Time

Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

Cate Le Bon, Pompeii

Destroyer, Labyrinthitis

Father John Misty, Chloe & The Next 20th Century

Hatchie, Giving The World Away

Spoon, Lucifer On The Sofa

Stars, From Capelton Hill

Wet Leg, Wet Leg

After Yang

Now that I’m working full-time again, my movie viewing is down just a bit; I’ve also only made it to one film festival so far (IFF Boston, where I saw A Love Song and Girl Picture.) After a second viewing, Kogonada’s After Yang is near the very top of this (alphabetical) list, followed closely behind by Benediction, Terence Davies’ second poet biopic in a row and maybe his best film in three decades.

Favorite 2022 Films So Far:

After Yang

Anne At 13,000 Feet

Benediction

Drive My Car

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Girl Picture

A Love Song

Memoria

The Worst Person In The World

24 Frames: Beau Travail

Finishing graduate school felt like surfacing from a lingering fog. With equal parts liberation and sheer terror, I had gotten my paper and I was free all right, but to do what? I didn’t invest a small fortune in earning a Master’s in Film Studies with any specific career goal in mind. Six months later, I’d learn to adapt and figure something out once I could no longer defer my student loan payments; in the meantime, I fully took advantage of not tying myself down to any structure. Bidding adieu to my formal education meant I could now watch all the films and read all the books I wanted to. No more assignments or syllabi—I had the autonomy (and acquired tools) to forge my own path.

Serendipitously, I completed film school at an extraordinary time for new movies. While 1999 produced its share of high-profile critical stinkers (due to its May release date, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace ended up my first new movie in a cinema, post-commencement), it’s now considered an above-average year for film akin to 1939 (The Wizard of OzGone With The WindStagecoach), 1967 (The GraduateBonnie and ClydeIn The Heat of The Night) or 1974 (ChinatownThe Godfather Part IIYoung Frankenstein.) Brian Rafferty’s 2019 book Best. Movie. Year. Ever. made an extensive case for enshrining it; even before the year itself ended, Entertainment Weekly ran a somewhat hyperbolic but enthusiastic cover story titled “1999: The Year That Changed Movies”.

For proof, look no further than to ElectionThe Straight StoryBeing John MalkovichThe Sixth SenseMagnoliaThe Talented Mr. RipleyThree Kings and All About My Mother. Consider lesser-seen cult pictures such as The LimeyRatcatcherThe Iron GiantAmerican MovieJudy BerlinDickTopsy-Turvy and Jesus’ Son. Don’t forget expert popcorn entertainment like Galaxy QuestOffice Space and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I could even make an argument for films I personally don’t care for (Fight ClubEyes Wide Shut) that nonetheless were positively received and part of the zeitgeist. Heck, one could even stump for The Blair Witch Project, which I never need see again but can’t ignore the seismic impact it had at the time. (As for that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, American Beauty, I suspect it’s aged as poorly as most would claim in the Me Too, post-Spacey scandal era, but I might be into revisiting it in maybe another decade.)

It’s difficult to explain why so many important films came out that year. One could look to pre-millennium tension/anticipation, arguing that directors and studios were simply inspired to get this product out before century’s end, but I don’t think that’s all of it. Call it coincidental or a reflection of rapid technological and social change brought on by that newish invention, the Internet or maybe just the optimism of an upwardly mobile era; in any case, 1999 was (by COVID-era standards) a great time to be alive and a bountiful year for cinema. I took advantage of it, seeing as many new films as an impoverished 24-year-old could afford. Whether checking out new stuff at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre and the now long-gone Nickelodeon near BU or older gems at the Brattle, Harvard Film Archive and Museum of Fine Arts, I kept up with most notable mainstream and arthouse titles, even if I had to wait until a few reached the then-second run Somerville Theatre or video stores (I’ve only seen The Matrix once, stoned at a friend’s apartment.)

No longer subject to required viewing, I paid more attention to new films than I had as a student, even making my first year-end top ten list in 2000 (although I could’ve easily done one for 1999.) Actually, it included a few titles technically from 1999 that didn’t receive a local theatrical release until well into the new year: Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (#2), Eric Mendelsohn’s now-long-unavailable and mostly forgotten Judy Berlin (#3, and also the iconic Madeline Kahn’s final film) and Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less (#7) are all copyrighted 1999 but were first accessible to most American audiences the next year. This is a perennial issue for the local or amateur critic: Is Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love the best picture of 2000 or should I still consider it for my 2001 list, for I couldn’t possibly see it in Boston until March of that year?

The number one film on my 2000 list falls under the same conundrum: it first played Boston in June of said year although it premiered at the Venice Film Festival the previous September; its first domestic screening was at Sundance in January. This sort of delayed release cycle is particularly vexing when making a best-of decade list: does it belong in the 1990s or, due to such circumstances, qualify as a 2000s-eligible film? These are the kinds of questions that spark debate and keep film geeks like myself up at night, but no matter: Beau Travail, the fifth feature from French director Claire Denis, is, depending on what criteria I use, my top film of 2000 or 1999 or one of my favorites from the 90s or the 00s.

Born in Paris, 1946, Denis grew up in colonial French Africa due to her father’s work as a civil servant. Her first feature, Chocolat (1988) is purportedly influenced by her childhood as it centers on a French woman looking back to her childhood in French Cameroon and the bond she developed as a ten-year-old with Protée (Isaac de Bankolé), her family’s African servant. Denis’ next three narrative features all either focus on Africans living in France or include at least one significant character of that persuasion. None of these films found as much of an American audience as Chocolat but they marked an artistic progression as Denis subverted other genres (the thriller in 1994’s I Can’t Sleep) and took on such unlikely subjects as amateur cockfighting (1990’s No Fear, No Die.)

Good word of mouth from critics I read such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman gradually accumulated in the months between Beau Travail’s Sundance premiere and domestic theatrical release. They raved about the performances, the conceptual savvy of interpolating Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and its brilliant cinematography among other facets. Most significant, though, was how Denis assembled it all into a complete work of art that was referential and recognizable but also something original and bold. You can bet I bought a ticket to see it on the Coolidge’s main screen opening weekend. In my estimation, it lived up to all the hype even if I didn’t fully understand everything it was trying to do—the narrative flashback structure likely went over my head during that first viewing. Really, it was how nearly overstimulated yet blissfully satiated I felt while piecing together the images and sounds onscreen, the ways they informed and occasionally contrasted against each other and how tension accumulated throughout, reaching a breaking point only to find its unlikely release at the end.

Beau Travail (which roughly translates in English as “Good Work”) finds Denis returning to the continent of her youth, following an ethnically diverse troop of the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa bordering the Red Sea. Mostly told in flashback, the film’s POV is of Galoup (Denis Lavant) in the present day from his tiny, sparse apartment in Marseille. Pushing 40, Galoup is a Legion lifer; in Djibouti, he was in charge of a section of a dozen legionnaires while also serving under his mentor, Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, who played an identically named character (minus the title) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat decades before.) Galoup spends his days in the desert leading his section in training exercises such as aggressive calisthenics and challenging obstacle courses (like jumping over hurdles and fences and in and out of deep pits.) At night, he and his men visit the closest village’s chintzy but well-attended disco, dancing with and romancing the local women. 

This would seem a conflict-free existence, stationed on a remote edge of the world during peacetime. However, the arrival of a young recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) upsets the fine balance Galoup has indefinitely maintained. At once, he’s suspicious of the tall, charming, handsome-verging-on-gawky Sentain and the attention everyone pays him. Galoup also admits to some jealousy: “Sentain seduced everyone; he attracted stares,” he reminisces from Marseille without entirely clarifying why this bothered him so much. Did Sentain’s being the center of attention simply shift focus and authority away from him? Perhaps something deeper was festering, his envy a manifestation of a contained desire. Within this troop, it wouldn’t be without precedent. When Sentain later informs Forestier, “I was found in a stairwell” regarding his provenance, the Commandant responds, “Well, at least it was a nice find.”

It’s tempting to paint Galoup and Forestier as repressed homosexuals and leave it at that, but I don’t believe that’s entirely what Denis was going for here. Sure, she physically depicts the often-shirtless young male legionnaires as god-like specimens—one training exercise even consists of them in groups of two, violently “hugging” each other repeatedly as a means of attack (or maybe saving the other from harm?) On first viewing, I thought it was one of the gayest things I’d ever seen onscreen. Perhaps if a gay man such as Kenneth Anger or Derek Jarman had made the film, then such homoeroticism would be undeniable. As a woman, however, Denis suggests other interpretations. The body positivity of an all-male principal cast may be homoerotic by default, but with Denis at the helm, one also can consider the female gaze—a radical concept in itself because we simply don’t see it anywhere nearly as often as its male equivalent.

Whether Galoup really wants to fuck Sentain is also less relevant than the disruption of power the film explores as an adaptation of Billy Budd. In Melville’s novella, the young, titular character, a sailor, strikes and kills an officer who has falsely accused him of mutiny. In Beau Travail, the Budd figure (Sentain) hits the officer (Galoup) after the latter severely punishes another soldier for a petty offense and yet, he does not kill him. Instead, Galoup reverses the table when he reprimands Sentain by dropping him off in the middle of the desert with a faulty compass, essentially leaving him to die. When found out, Galoup is discharged from the Legion and shipped back to Marseille, thoroughly stripped from the purpose sustaining his identity and life.

It’s a story ripe for Greek tragedy, tracking Galoup’s hubris, his inability to adapt or see beyond the prescribed duties and goals he’s set for himself and how one poor decision bites him in the ass and essentially ruins life as he sees it. Yet little about Beau Travail feels heavy-handed or excessively downbeat, not even with the ostentatious strains of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd opera woven throughout the soundtrack. In fact, that grandiosity becomes absurd in this context as it plays over men training to fight in a nonexistent war—men often rendered as insignificant specks in an extreme, beautiful, cruel landscape on an edge of the world, teeming with wide swatches of deep blue skies, sparkling, cerulean seas and a whole lot of nothing. This sort of irony runs rampant through the film but at an elevated, artful level. We’re both encouraged to register the utter pointlessness of a military in peacetime but also understand what it means, what palpable value it holds for souls like Galoup who don’t care to know anything else.

If Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard is responsible for the film’s spectacular look (nearly each frame stuns in its use of mise en scene and/or negative space), then Lavant gives Beau Travail its soul—not an easy proposition since Galoup is such an internal, closed-off figure. Best known for a trio of films made with director Leos Carax (The Lovers On The Bridge), Levant, with his short, wiry frame and pockmarked face already cut a distinctive figure only enhanced by his acrobatic approach and kinetic fury. Since Galoup is nearly the opposite of all that, Levant’s performance exhibits a fascinating duality. Even as he’s all decorum and procedure on the outside, his interior monologue (the decision for him to narrate in voiceover is an effective one) has more the demeanor of a boiling yet closed-off teakettle. Upon first seeing Sentain, he says, “I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me.” Later, rather menacingly backlit against a bonfire, he notes to himself, “We all have a trashcan deep within.” One senses that Galoup’s own can is fairly cavernous, full of so many things he can’t dare openly express or act upon.

When he does act, it goes all wrong. Upon his banishment to Marseille, he retells the story of how he got there in his mind while doing what he can to adhere to the sort of highly structured regiment the Legion provided and required. He meticulously makes his bed with hospital/military corners and painstakingly irons his dress shirt as if preparing a Papal garment. He lies down on that flawlessly made bed, a gun in hand across his stomach. One can easily guess his intent, to end a life that has no longer carries any purpose. Another filmmaker might’ve concluded with him pulling the trigger, or a quick cut to black just before. Instead, as the camera captures the small pulse of his bicep, music fades in from the background—Corona’s Eurodance diva house hit “The Rhythm of The Night” from a few years before, its big beat thumping along with Galoup’s pulse.

Then, a cut—not to black, but to Galoup standing alone in a familiar location, the chintzy Djibouti village nightclub. He’s cladded in a black dress shirt, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He stands still, almost nonchalant against a diagonally mirrored wall adorned with colored blinking lights. The Corona song plays loudly as Galoup takes a few steps, walking around the dancefloor as if scoping out the scene. The camera occasionally moves with him but does not cut. In time, he does a little twirl, reacting to the energetic beat and the music’s joie de vivre. Each movement he makes is deliberate yet feels effortless. Eventually, he almost organically transforms into a whirling dervish, dancing as fast as he can, like a man on fire embracing the flames as they consume him. After a cut to black, with the film’s ensemble cast names appearing one by one on a black screen, we return to Galoup, standing still again before immediately diving back into his frenzy, rolling around on the floor, in and out of the frame.

It’s one of the most astonishing endings in cinema—as entirely unexpected and abstract as anything by Tarkovsky or Kiarostami but a whole lot more fun. Is dancing on his own in an empty nightclub Galoup’s final vision before his death, or might it be his ideal afterlife? We’ll never know for sure; what matters is how it serves as a means for him to release all the tension, repression, guilt, desire, irritation, madness, etc. that he had built up over a lifetime. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense to cast Levant as such a constipated soul if he’s given this climax, this chance to burn it all off onscreen not through self-harm or acting out against another body but in a mad tango with himself on the dancefloor. It may be a fantasy, but it also transcends the idea of a fantasy sequence for how it flips the switch on Galoup—look who was hiding in plain sight all this time. His life is still tragic, for he can only achieve such transcendence alone. For Denis to share it with and in doing so completely take us by surprise, however, is where Beau Travail, like many other films from that era on the cusp of two centuries attains its singularity.

Essay #11 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #10: Close-Up.

24 Frames: Close-Up


In the late 1990s, even as I learned how to view films more critically, I retained preconceived notions of which titles and directors I should pay attention to. In retrospect, I didn’t need to work on a graduate degree in the subject to understand that Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Altman, Herzog, Lynch etc. were all important directors, along with contemporary and up-and-coming figures like Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Jane Campion, Todd Haynes and (as if he would ever allow himself to be ignored) Quentin Tarantino.
 
Obviously, this is a miniscule selection of essential filmmakers—as if one could hope to comprehend the scope and breadth of 20th Century American literature only reading, say, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Roth and Vonnegut. The thing about canons is that they should always leave some room (if not ample space) for more entries. Look at that preceding list of directors: apart from Spike and Jane, they’re all white American or European men. So, as a budding cineaste, you start looking beyond the usual suspects to the work of other women and African Americans, or films actually made in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. You could do worse than begin with universally adored legends such as Sembène, Kurosawa, or Tarkovsky, and then move on to lesser known but equally important figures from the same regions (Mambéty, Ozu, Parajanov), then onto other lands and cultures.
 
Not two weeks into grad school, I overheard two of my classmates gush in reverence over an upcoming Theo Angelopoulos retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, to which I thought, “Who?” This same blank response came up again when, over a cheap dinner between classes, some other students casually discussed the works of Hal Hartley, an American indie filmmaker whom I had never heard of; did films of his like Simple Men and Trust ever make it to my hometown of Milwaukee? Naturally, most people didn’t know Hartley even at his mid-90s career peak. Regardless, I felt annoyed (and a little embarrassed) that I could still be grouped with “most people” concerning movies.
 
Once I realized/conceded that at 22, I still had a lot to learn about cinema (and that in itself was okay!), I set off trying to expose myself to everything I had access to. Whether browsing through the cult section at the neighborhood Videosmith or taking in Greek auteur Angelopoulos’ latest feature, the three-hour-long Ulysses’ Gaze (1995, starring then-ubiquitous Harvey Keitel!) at the Museum of Fine Arts on a Sunday afternoon, I spent most of my free time familiarizing myself with movies from practically hundreds of countries and subgenres. Officially over were the days when I’d go along with whatever a friend wanted to see in a theater or rent from a Blockbuster simply to socialize and fill up my time; I was now cultivating a discerning eye, training myself to separate the wheat from the chaff by seeing things critics, professors and classmates recommended and applying them to my own developing tastes and interests.
 
Around this time, Iranian cinema suddenly permeated American arthouses as films from Germany had in the 1970s and France and Italy before that. Seemingly overnight, it became common to see internationally distributed Iranian titles like Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise and Mohsem Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh alongside such big indie hits of the era as Run Lola RunThe Full Monty and Buena Vista Social Club. Coming from a country that had undergone a fundamentalist revolution just two decades before, it was remarkable that these films would have such a reach in the western world. Chalk it up to widespread acclaim within the global film community and how it tapped into a desire to see other ways of life depicted onscreen. To ignore films from Iran at this time (and ever since) would be like not trying to see anything other than a big studio picture, or only something in English.
 
By no means a scholar of Iranian cinema or culture, my introduction to it was through a screening of Where Is The Friend’s House (1987) in a class on Neorealism film. If any single director could be said to personify post-revolution, pre-millennium cinema in Iran, it’s probably this feature’s director, Abbas Kiarostami. Having completed a number of shorts and documentaries since 1970, this was his first movie to receive any major recognition outside of Iran. It’s a relatively simple film about a boy going to great lengths to return a classmate’s notebook in a neighboring village. However, within this skeletal narrative, Kiarostami delves deep into ruminations on trying to do the right thing and both the physical and moral roadblocks that often prevent us from it. Ending in a moment of unexpected yet earned grace, it’s as miniaturist as a masterwork as Olmi’s Il Posto or Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.
Where Is The Friend’s House

A few weeks later, Kiarostami’s latest feature, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry (1997) opened theatrically in Boston. In some ways, the film is an adult analogue to Where Is The Friend’s House as it involves Badii, a man attempting to complete a task and running into numerous barriers in his efforts to complete it—the big difference being that his goal is finding someone to help him commit suicide. Driving around, he picks up three different men, asking each if, after he spends a night in his own grave, they’d check on him the next morning and help him up if he has chosen life, or bury him if he has not. The third man agrees to the job (but not without trying to sway Badii away from ending his life.)

What’s baffling and/or brilliant about Taste of Cherry is that we never find out Badii’s decision. Instead, after a lengthy shot of him patiently sitting in his grave and a blackout, there’s a cut to video footage of Kiarostami and his crew filming the movie we’ve been watching, followed by the credits roll. I recall sitting in my theatre seat slack jawed, wondering what, exactly, I had missed. How could Kiarostami dangle this narrative carrot with potentially grave consequences only to end not on any conclusion except for the notion that this is only a movie you’re watching; therefore, it doesn’t matter whether Badii kills himself or not because he’s a fictional character. I needed time to process and be okay with such a notion, having been conditioned to look for and only accept concrete resolution where narrative was concerned—e.g., the family who had partially endured a half-century of radial cultural change in To Live or the shifty protagonist who gleefully got away with double-crossing his so-called mates at the conclusion of Trainspotting. But then, I think about how even a zany comedy like Monty Python and The Holy Grail simply ends on the pretense that it’s all just a film.

Taste of Cherry

I don’t know if Kiarostami was at all a Python fan, but in much of his work, he plays with this near-invisible line separating reality from fiction. A few years after Where Is The Friend’s House, an earthquake devastated the remote village of Koker where it was filmed. Kiarostami returned there to look for the two boys who starred in it and then made a semi-fictional feature about it, shot documentary style (with an actor playing Kiarostami) called Life, and Nothing More…(1992). He followed that with Through the Olive Trees (1994), itself another semi-fictional feature: it recreates the filming of a scene in Life, and Nothing More… and the conflict between its two actors, one of whom struggles to differentiate between her acting role and her real-life relationship with her screen partner. Together, the three films are referred to as the Koker Trilogy, even if Kiarostami had not intentionally set out to make one.

Between the first and second Koker films, he completed another feature that had nothing to do with them yet was crucial in his growth as an artist that, much like Maya Deren or Derek Jarman, fuses fact and fiction until the two almost appear inseparable. Close-Up (1990) could be his most resonant film for how smoothly it attains this duality. Some might see it as a magic trick, a balancing act or an admittedly good stunt that is the genesis of his “It’s only a film” ethos. Either way, it’s essential viewing for anyone all at interested in the meta, self-referential aspect of filmmaking and how it can transcend pretensions of cleverness to reveal deep facets of human nature—particularly when one holds up a mirror to a screen but doesn’t necessarily see the exact same thing reflected back.

Prior to the film’s production, Kiarostami came across a news story in Tehran about a man, Hossain Sabzian who had been accused of impersonating fellow Iranian auteur Mohsem Makhmalbaf. Apparently, he led The Ahankhahs, an upper-middle-class family, to believe they’d be starring in his new film. Rather than serving as a straight documentary, Close-Up recreates not only this scenario but also the ensuing courtroom trial where Sabzian admits to being an imposter. Oh, and everyone plays themselves, from Sabzian and the Ahankhahs to the reporter of the news story (Hossain Farazmand), the judge, a taxi driver and even Kiarostami himself. The director shoots the film in a straightforward, cinema verité style, so both it looks and feels like a documentary. Heck, most unsuspecting viewers would likely believe it to be a nonfiction, even if it’s all a recreation and therefore technically a fiction.

Much of Close-Up focuses on Sabzian’s trial which is interspersed with preceding scenes of his arrest, Farazmand meeting with and interviewing him, and a few flashbacks depicting how Sabzian infiltrated himself into the family and those fateful moments when it finally dawned on them that something wasn’t right about the man who would be Makhmalbaf. One could’ve imagined a flashy, dramatic retelling of this story, playing up the hubris of the schmo posing as a famous artist, the mounting suspense of whether or not he can pull it off, the betrayal felt by the family when they learn he’s an imposter, his pleading in court for forgiveness and understanding. While each of these things are present to varying degrees in Close-Up, they play without any gloss or blatant embellishment. It feels more like Kiarostami just pointed his camera at the participants and captured what happened (even if “what happened” is, in fact, a simulation of such.)

Adhering so closely to a realistic presentation, watching Close-Up is at times like stepping through the looking glass. We can’t know whether these things all actually happened; we can only rely on the filmmaker and choose to believe he’s telling the truth. Naturally, that didn’t work out so well for Sabzian, a liar who got caught. However, Kiarostami sees Sabzian, and not the Ahankhahs or even Farazmand as the film’s protagonist. When the two first meet, the imposter tells the director, “You could make a film about my suffering,” words that we’re led to believe were spoken because the legitimate director posits that this was the case by including them in the screenplay. As Close-Up continues, the more meta it seems, particularly in the trial scenes. Sabzian straight off confesses to the crime, admitting, “I really got into the part; it’s even as if I was a director.” Later, the judge asks him, “Have you ever worked in film?” to which he dutifully responds, “No, but I’ve read screenplays and books on the subject.” A member of the Ahankhahs isn’t having any of it; he dismisses any notion of Sabzian’s sincerity in court, arguing, “He’s still playing a role: ‘The sensitive soul.’”

It all comes to a head when the judge asks Sabzian, “Aren’t you acting for the camera right now?” Of course, Sabzian is acting to a degree as he’s playing a version of himself, no matter how identical to reality. But, for the pretense that this is a film, and perhaps a recreation of what he actually said at the real trial, he responds, “I’m not acting; I’m speaking from the heart.” It’s the one moment in Close-Up that almost seems a little too perfect, as if it were straight out of a movie and yet, as viewers, who are we to say whether he didn’t actually say this at the real trial? And does it matter, since this is, after all, just a film?

Naturally, films are more than just self-referential exercises. The medium wouldn’t have gotten very far if it was just about itself and not an endeavor to make art out of recognizable, relatable scenarios and emotions. Following the trial (where Sabzian is hand-slapped but not jailed), Kiarostami orchestrates an in-person meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf himself. They ride together on the latter’s motorbike to visit the Ahankhahs as an olive branch of sorts for Sabzian to personally ask for forgiveness with the encouragement of the famous man he posed as by his side. One could not ask for a more bow-wrapped denouement where the imposter and his subject come together—just imagine the conversation they’d have in all of its awkwardness and grace.

They chat each other up all right, but there’s a catch—the sound keeps cutting out. Kiarostami’s crew can’t figure out the issue, but due to “technical difficulties”, very little of Sabzian’s and Makhmalbaf’s conversation is heard as they motor through the Tehran suburbs, picking up a flower bouquet on the way as a peace offering to the Ahankhahs. They arrive at the family’s front gate, the ex-imposter introducing himself over the speaker by saying, “It’s Sabzian,” a beat or two before he adds, “Makhmalbaf”, either indicating the director’s co-arrival or perhaps reverting to old habits, using the assumed name the family would’ve been most familiar with as his own (even if they now know it isn’t.)

Does the sound cut out at such a climactic moment on purpose or not? One might as well be inquiring whether Badii chose life or death in Taste of Cherry. Kiarostami leaves the question unanswered because it doesn’t matter. The version of events presented here is what matters: if the sound appears to have cut out, then we are called to accept that as the case. No matter how profound, the words exchanged between Sabzian and the man he once impersonated aren’t important. What matters is that they met, that Sabzian met the Ahankhahs, that Kiarostami met Sabzian and that in telling his story, he did so in a way that lets each viewer decide whether it’s all real or not or what in this case (or any case) constitutes “reality”. It’s a question most filmmakers provide as a given—yes, this is a documentary; no, this is purely fiction. What if, like real life with all of its nuances and contradictions, a work of art subsisted somewhere in between those poles? What about the filmmakers whose work tends to fall into such margins? Just a few of the many questions studying films at the graduate level persuaded me to ask about them.

Essay #10 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #9: McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Go ahead to #11: Beau Travail.

24 Frames: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Remember video stores? As a Marquette University undergrad, I had no strong affinity for them. I’d occasionally rent something from the Blockbuster just off campus but mostly borrowed VHS tapes from the nearby Milwaukee Public Library Central branch. Even after I began taking classes for my Film minor, I didn’t have much time (or cash) to seek out stuff to rent on a regular basis, apart from watching popular and/or silly movies with friends. In that pre-internet era, I mostly stuck to TV (and movies I recorded off the TV.)

This all changed once I moved to Boston. Without much of a life apart from my coursework, I not only had ample time to watch movies, but it was also pretty much expected of me (I was pursuing a graduate degree in Film Studies.) In addition to everything I saw in classes, I began frequenting my neighborhood Videosmith, an “indie” chain alternative to behemoths like Blockbuster and West Coast Video (it was pretty much the movie rental equivalent of still-in-business New England record store chain Newbury Comics.) That first time I stepped inside the Allston location (since consumed by the adjacent CVS) and signed up for a membership, I meticulously browsed through the store’s packed shelves, seeking out the ideal first title to rent. I ended up choosing Celestial Clockwork, a somewhat frothy, now mostly forgotten 1995 Venezuelan/Parisian trifle that a recent ex had recommended.

Before long, I settled into a groove: still cash-starved, I’d stop by every Tuesday after my last class to take advantage of that day’s 2-for-1 special, usually walking back to my shitbox apartment with four tapes for the price of two. One could rent new releases for two nights; older titles could be kept for up to five. Sunday would roll around and I’d be back at the Videosmith, picking out another tape to rent if I had the money to spend. This biweekly video store ritual was an ideal way to fill out the gaps in my film viewing which were becoming ever more apparent with the amount of stuff I was exposed to in classes and at revival houses like the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive. That first semester alone, I can recall the first-time watches I rented, including but not limited to The GodfatherMalcolm XRepo Man8 ½Heavenly Creatures, Stranger Than ParadiseEating Raoul and Kenneth Branagh’s let’s-film-the-entire-play Hamlet. In the process of coming out, I also rented every gay-themed movie I could find, from mainstream crossovers (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the DesertLongtime Companion) to stuff on the margins (The Living EndSwoonGo Fish.)

One late afternoon the following August, I walked down to the Coolidge Corner Videosmith—a little further from my apartment, I had started making the trek there more frequently, for it had a wider selection than the Allston store (including a long out-of-print VHS copy of John Cassavetes’ final feature Love Streams (1984), then otherwise nearly impossible to see outside of a film print.) I was three days away from moving across town to a larger place, but still had time to watch movies amidst all my packing. That day, I picked out McCabe & Ms. Miller, Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the titular roles. Halfway home from Coolidge Corner, isolated raindrops quickly escalated into a downpour. I ran the rest of the way, sticking the VHS tape under my t-shirt so that it wouldn’t succumb to water damage.

Back in my apartment, after drying off with a towel still somewhat damp from an earlier shower, I moved a few half-packed boxes blocking my TV screen and stuck the tape into my Panasonic VCR. It opened with credits in a lower-case font slowly moving left over a right-tracking shot of a man on a horse as he made his way through a rustic, partially wooded landscape beset by clouds, rain and wind. That last thing was the first sound heard, immediately followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song”, an acoustic folk tune recorded in 1967. Given McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s setting of roughly 65 years before, this choice should have come off as incongruous or jarring; instead, somehow, it just fit the imagery beautifully. The lyrics seemed to relate to the lone figure riding through the terrain even though they were conceived four years earlier; the melancholy and longing in the song’s minor chords and Cohen’s plaintive, untrained voice also set an ultra-distinct tone that a more traditional score or even music from the film’s period might not have grasped.

It’s rare, but I have fallen in love with a film over its opening credits sequence a few times: Monty Python and The Holy Grail for its sheer hilarity and absurdity; Nicolas Wending Refn’s 2011 neo-noir Drive, its throwback synthpop meshing brilliantly with its nighttime shots of LA and the credits’ hot pink font; the gradual surveillance zoom-in and super-intricate sound design of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Still, the fusion of sound and image in McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s very first scene stands apart in how such an odd pairing on paper proves so effective onscreen. Altman would later explain that in looking for the right score, he’d heard Cohen’s debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen playing one day and thought, “That’s my movie!” He added, “We put those songs on the picture, and they fitted like a glove. I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them.”

Even though I had admired Altman’s output probably all the way back to watching Popeye (1980) in a second-run cinema when I’d just turned six years old, I’d put off renting McCabe & Mrs. Miller simply because I wasn’t a big fan of Westerns. I’d seen and appreciated classic genre titles such as StagecoachRed River and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in my classes but wasn’t moved to check out more. As a genre, the Western peaked in the mid-20th Century and felt like a remnant from a long-past era. Its focus on masculinity also served as a deterrent as it did in some of my other less-preferred genres such as action and war films. Still, I’d scanned over Pauline Kael’s rapturous New Yorker review and, as a fan of such Altman touchstones as M*A*S*H and The Player, I dutifully decided to give his Western a shot.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s frontier setting, populated by horses, saloons, guns and a brothel is certainly the stuff of traditional Westerns; same goes for its story of John McCabe, a tall, dark stranger arriving in town and making a name for himself as a self-made businessman only to face the pressure and wrath of someone more powerful than him (in this case, a corporation that wants to buy out what he’s built.) However, Altman deftly subverts this trope by the introduction of Mrs. Miller, a cockney transplant and seasoned madam who arrives in town, partners with McCabe and immediately towers over him in her intelligence, business acumen and general brashness (Beatty’s look at Christie (his real-life girlfriend at the time) as she authoritatively orders and wolfs down an overflowing plate of food during their first meeting in the saloon is priceless.) Altman also instills within McCabe a certain level of hubris while not allowing him to overcome it and triumph; instead, he easily conveys his pride and stubbornness, telegraphing his downfall.

Still, even with that particular narrative core, one can imagine a more conventional Western (perhaps slightly updated for post-Hays Code times) depicting the goings-on of a brothel with an openness unthinkable just a decade before. Instead, in fully rendering this a revisionist Western, Altman takes a more impressionistic approach. Following the opening credits, McCabe mounts his horse and enters a saloon occupied by at least a dozen men. Rather than deploying an establishing shot or cleanly introducing all the characters one by one, it’s like we’re abruptly thrust into the middle of a scene without context—in other words, from McCabe’s perspective as a stranger. Altman’s camera slowly moves around the set, occasionally zooming in or out, capturing seemingly random bits of conversation. As usual with this director, the dialogue overlaps extensively—in Altman’s own words, “You don’t need to hear everything people are saying to know the world they’re living in.” You can barely see anything as well—most of the lighting comes from gas lamps (as it would in that time and place.) About ten minutes in, when a group of men gather around a card table and one of them lights the lamp hanging directly above, you can suddenly, distinctly make out every person’s face for the first time; it might be the Altman equivalent of the initial view of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

Speaking of self-constructed worlds, in addition to being filmed near Vancouver (as a stand-in for neighboring Washington state), McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s setting, the fictional town of Presbyterian Church (named after its tallest structure) was built from scratch for the production (something Altman would do again in Malta for Popeye nearly a decade later.) Actually, the film was shot in sequence as it was built; thus, one gets a keen sense of how the town develops as the film proceeds, from a ramshackle backwater where the prostitutes live (and work) in makeshift tents to (after Mrs. Miller and her girls arrive) something resembling a civilized village complete with brick-and-mortar dwellings, lushly furnished rooms and such newfangled contraptions as an enormous primitive jukebox of sorts where citizens stand in awe, watching it intently as one outsized disc containing recorded sound changes over to the next.

As the narrative gradually comes into focus, Altman continues to pepper both the edges of the frame and the soundtrack with brief asides that have nothing to do with McCabe or Mrs. Miller; however, they add character and texture, transforming the film into more expansive yet lived-in community. In the first saloon scene, there’s a brief exchange between two men. One asks if he should cut his beard and the other responds, “What d’ya wanna do that for?” A few scenes later, without warning, these minor characters reappear. The first, now clean-shaven asks the other, “Do you like it?” to which he gruffly responds, “No.” The exchanges aren’t integral to the film, but they add something special that most directors wouldn’t think to include—the second one sports the recognition of a callback to the first (for those viewers paying attention), and the comedic timing of the other man’s responses adds some welcome levity.

While the novel setting, unusual sound design and striking cinematography (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who used various filters and the practice of “flashing” the negative to achieve the film’s burnished, muted glow) are all key stylistic choices that set McCabe & Mrs. Miller apart from films of its era (or any era, really), I still go back to Altman’s use of Cohen’s music to explain why it seems so singular, so visionary. In addition to “Stranger Song”, two other tracks from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen are featured extensively. The first, “Sisters of Mercy”, plays over an early montage before Mrs. Miller comes to town. Cohen’s near-androgynous croon relays an enigmatic tale of women (maybe nuns?) who bring some unspecified comfort to him, but Altman’s placement of the song is a touch less sacred. Its presence almost ironically comments on the action, the soothing folk tune and idyllic imagery (watch the light when a man affixes a crucifix to the top of the church, probably one of most gorgeous shots of all time) appear at odds with how ill-equipped McCabe is to run a brothel on his own, unable to prevent one of his ladies from attacking an unruly john, befuddled when another one needs something as common and yet urgent as a place to use the bathroom.

If “Stranger Song” serves as McCabe’s theme and “Sisters of Mercy” the sex workers’, then the third Cohen song, “Winter Lady” is Mrs. Miller’s music. It surfaces multiple times throughout the film’s second half after she has established herself in the community and also following McCabe’s initial mishandling of the company men sent to make him an offer he shouldn’t refuse but foolishly does. Like “Sisters of Mercy”, the tune is a waltz-ballad, plucked acoustic guitars seasoned by a yearning flute and a gently chiming celesta not too far off from the music of that primitive jukebox in Mrs. Miller’s parlor. “Traveling lady, stay awhile, until the night is over,” Cohen trills, adding, “I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover.” Though again not written for the film, the lyrics fit the character almost seamlessly, seemingly alluding to her transient nature and her strictly businesslike relationship with McCabe—even though their chemistry and growing closeness is apparent, when he sleeps with her, he still has to pay her for her time.

“Winter Lady” closes out the film after a bravura, music-free, twenty-minute shootout sequence between McCabe and the hired guns the company has sent to assassinate him. Far from a heroic High Noon-like standoff, the action unfolds as a blizzard slowly moves in. By the end of it, everything is covered in a heavy blanket of snow, the town’s titular church has caught on fire (its citizens haphazardly come together to put it out) and the hired guns are all dead, as is McCabe (one can’t imagine Beatty was too pleased to see his character unceremoniously die alone, heaped over a snowbank after getting shot.) The song kicks in as Altman cuts between shots of dead, freezing McCabe and Mrs. Miller taking refuge in the town’s opium den; she is suspecting his fate without even witnessing it,  lying down on her side, pipe in hand, smoking herself into oblivion. The tenderness and yearning in Cohen’s lyrics and vocal are especially poignant in accompanying Miller’s drug-induced state as she drifts off and away from a world with no room for magnetic, idealist souls like McCabe.

M*A*S*H was a surprise, zeitgeist-capturing hit for Altman, but his follow-up films throughout the early 1970s flopped at the box office. In McCabe & Ms. Miller’s case, it’s not difficult to comprehend why—apart from a rave like Kael’s, it was mostly met with indifference given its unusual narrative approach and radical sound design. It wasn’t so much a film ahead of its time as one strangely outside of any particular time, fusing period dress with contemporary music and perhaps an outlook that defiantly bucked its genre conventions. I’ve barely scratched the surface of its political implications: how McCabe, the self-made man, could never possibly win against the corporation. When a friend of mine watched it with me for the first time five years ago, she drew comparisons to contemporary government encroachment of small businesses that I hadn’t ever considered.

Granted, I tend to react to films emotionally rather than intellectually. Both are valid ways of comprehending art but all it took to attenuate myself to McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s wavelength was hearing “Stranger Song” over those opening credits, its mournfulness and the slight catch of awe in Cohen’s voice instantly drawing me in and not letting go. It’s one of many ways a film can have a positive welcoming effect on us. Similarly, I had to learn how to regard video stores as but one way to find a film. As subscription services and then digital streaming made the brick-and-mortar rental store obsolete, I had no choice but to adapt. Besides, we still find new films through a variety of methods: we can no longer go to Blockbuster (or better yet, a Mom-and-Pop video store, with few exceptions), but we can still visit cinemas, read reviews, check out items from the library and scroll through endless online streaming platform menus to find something new to watch. I still fondly recall how I got to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time, but what remains is not how I saw it, but that I saw it and can still watch it again and again, no matter where I can find it.

Essay #9 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #8: Edward II.

Go ahead to #10: Close-Up.

#MWE February 2022

This past month on Twitter I participated in the #MWE: Music Writers Exercise. The goal is to tweet about an album you’ve listened to for the first time every day during February. I first heard of this two years ago; I was a little distracted/scattered to attempt it last year but thought I’d try it now. I had no trouble compiling a list of albums to listen to and review; it was also genuinely fun to hear a new album every day and determine how to sum it up in 280 characters or less.

The most rewarding discoveries included the 1976 debut from sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle (respectively, Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s mother and aunt), the second LP from 90s jangle-popsters The Trashcan Sinatras, Low’s adventurous new record from last year and John Cale’s Fear, which is indeed rougher and rawer than Paris 1919 but not as much as I was led to expect. I got to roughly half of the titles on my initial list, so I hope to do the #MWE again next February.

Here are my 28 #MWE 2022 tweets:

1. Slowdive, Souvlaki (1993): Having only heard their pretty great 2017 S/T reunion LP, this feted second album is less flashy than MBV’s Loveless but also riper for discovery three decades on., esp. when it resembles proto-Radiohead on the ballads (“Here She Comes”).

2. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Just Dropped In… (2020): Sure, Jones could sing the phone book; this covers comp shows she could also sing disco (“In The Bush”) & Woody Guthrie, and her ad-libs on “What Have You Done For Me Lately” suggest she could’ve done even more (RIP).

3. The Auteurs, New Wave (1993): Imagine a world where this debut was even half as big as Definitely Maybe. Although my favorite Luke Haines songs are those sung by Sarah Nixey, at least here he has the cojones to write a song called “Starstruck” that isn’t a Kinks cover.

4. They Might Be Giants, Book (2021): Their gazillionth album, god bless ‘em; music + book gimmick aside, it’s no different from every non-kid record they’ve made since becoming an actual band with John Henry. Happily, they can still bring the hooks (if not all the quirks.)

5. OMD, Dazzle Ships (1983): I prefer “Souvenir” to “If You Leave” but their infamous fourth album sounds like neither (although “Silent Running” is not too off from the former.) Andy McCluskey’s weird voice meshes really well with the weird, jarring-but-still-catchy music.

6. Rickie Lee Jones, S/T (1979): A recent convert to her second LP, Pirates, her debut’s a respectable one. At this point, she has more command of the jazzy bop stuff than the ballads (“Coolsville” excepted) and the hit remains one of the more delightfully odd ones of its era.

7. Trashcan Sinatras, I’ve Seen Everything (1993): Nearly every track sounds like a slightly different band, at least musically. It’s a shame I didn’t hear this at the time for it might’ve made as seismic an impact on my 18-year-old self as The Smiths’ Best… 1 had.

8. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime (2021): Aware of multiple African musical genres, I only know Afrobeat/Fela Kuti. As for this much-hyped-in-the west Tuareg guitarist, his pyrotechnics serve the melodies more often than not; still, I found the acoustic grooves more compelling.

9. Susanne Sundfør, Music For People In Trouble (2017): Jim Steinman-worthy “Undercover” and climactic “Mountaineers” aside, this eschews Ten Love Songs’ synth-pop anthems for soundscapes far more stripped-down and contained. More musicians should attempt such a bold pivot.

10. Alex Lahey, I Love You Like A Brother (2017): I love Lahey’s second album but her first is the work of someone who set out to make a near-perfect ten track pop punk record and fully understood the assignment. She has the potential to become a 21st-Century Kirsty MacColl.

11. Low, HEY WHAT (2021): Reviews led me to expect something harsher; while abrasive enough, this is more like noisy dream pop, constantly swerving and surprising but also unexpectedly melodic, applying blissful harmonies to unconventional structures. A good headphones album.

12. Frank Sinatra, Watertown (1970): Ambitious adult-pop song cycle that sounds like he’s emulating Scott Walker, of all people. It likely flopped because his voice is often too overbearing for the material; a vocalist such as Dionne Warwick might’ve lent more finesse to it.

13. The Housemartins, The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death (1987): More crisp, clean-cut pop with a subversive streak (title track’s about the Royals) but not much of an advance on their debut. You can hear them turning into The Beautiful South on (great) closer “Build”.

14. Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul (1969): Alternate title: “Opulence – You Own Everything.” Two years before Shaft, Hayes’ breakthrough is a paean to excess with little precedent; in other words, when you slow James Brown down from 45 to 33 RPM, funk turns into prog (and soul.)

15. Virna Lindt, Shiver (1983): Swedish would-be avant-chanteuse (check out her 2021 single “Once”) has no qualms about placing spoken-word tone poems next to a mostly instrumental piano-pounder called “I Beat the System” and a wonky cover of “Windmills of Your Mind”.

16. Amy Rigby, A One Way Ticket To My Life (2019): Comp culled together to promote her fab memoir “Girl To City”, it has very few duds among its 19 four-track demos; a few (“Housecleaning”, “You’re Getting Old”) are almost worthy of 1996’s classic Diary of a Mod Housewife.

17. Prefab Sprout, I Trawl The Megahertz (2003): Originally released as a McAloon solo LP. Experimental but not inaccessible, it sports his loveliest arrangements and most inscrutable content. Worth hearing, even if you don’t hear his heavenly vocals until the penultimate track.

18. Velvet Crush, Teenage Symphonies To God (1994): Assigned to review their last LP, Stereo Blues in 2004, I’m just hearing this one now and yep, they’re the American Teenage Fanclub—power pop more diverse than Bandwagonesque, even, with the quieter stuff an unexpected treat.

19. Roberta Flack, First Take (1969): She’s like a smoothed-out Nina Simone but the latter’s genius was in those jagged edges. Since he put the MacColl song in Play Misty For Me, Eastwood could’ve also added the Cohen cover for Jessica Walter’s supremely unhinged character.

20. Beach House, Once Twice Melody (2022): Lost track of them after Bloom; this is an expansive return. Everything sounds the same but it rarely stagnates & occasionally startles (that instrumental coda at the end.) Between this & Big Thief, is 2022 the year of the double LP? 

21. Kate & Anna McGarrigle, S/T (1976): The word *idiosyncratic* comes to mind, even if it’s not any further out there than Joni or Judee (or Rufus or Martha, no less)—more like Richard and Linda Thompson but with the sibling dynamic rendering it something uniquely their own.

22. Joni Mitchell, Shine (2007): Put off by the Starbucks connection and the covers (both LP and new “Big Yellow Taxi”), I avoided this until now. Not great Joni, but as good as nearly any of her post-Hejira work—that it’s likely her final LP now lends it a sentimental tint.

23. Chris Bell, I Am The Cosmos (1978): It’s tempting to liken this to Big Star’s Third; Bell is less falling apart than struggling to stay afloat. He’s not straining to write decent tunes, fortunately, for at least three or four stand with his best contributions to #1 Record.

24. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain (1971): Justly celebrated 10-minute-long title cut feels half that length, nine-minute closer feels twice as long as that (but I don’t mind much) and “Can You Get To That” gives off the impression of deceptive politeness but it absolutely SLAMS.

25. Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party (1971): Groovy horn-and-sitar-laden kitsch that not only lives up to its title but gets progressively more insane. Wanted to say it likely inspired more than a few Tarantino soundtracks and whaddya know, there’s a cut in Jackie Brown.

26. Stan Ridgway, Neon Mirage (2010): Haven’t heard much of his post-1995 output and it’s almost startling how mature and sincere the guy who once sang “Mexican Radio” sounds here. Exotica and reggae pastiches aside, it’s also a bit boring, lacking the picaresque tales of yore.

27. Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point (2022): The middle sags but this begins and ends so strongly I’m gobsmacked to name another legacy act making such vital music now. Of course, the 18-year break probably helps, not to mention how remarkably young Curt Smith still sounds.

28. John Cale, Fear (1974): Thought this wasn’t all that different from its predecessor Paris 1919 until I got to “Gun” which could be a VU cut. I now wanna check out his other mid-70s stuff, for this sleazier rock vibe (“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy”(!)) most suits Cale.

50 Ways To Woo Your Lover

Happily coupled for some time, I no longer need to make seduction playlists; regardless, here are a few dozen declarations of love, lust, infatuation and devotion that I’ve always kept within reach, most of them spanning my lifetime—a good chunk from those bountiful mix tape/CD years (The Delays’ soaring “Nearer Than Heaven” appeared often) with a select few from beforehand (Ella, Nina) and just as many from the past decade (Alvvays, Years & Years). Revisiting some of these songs again feels like a throwback to that period when I was constantly falling in love (or so I thought in many cases.)

Otherwise, anything that fit thematically was up for grabs here, from stuff everyone knows (Diana, Stevie) to obscurities everyone should (Emm Gryner, Stew). Queer artists are naturally present (Erasure, KD Lang, Pet Shop Boys, Tegan & Sara), as are acts whose general demeanor would initially seem to preclude them from appearing here (Velvet Underground, The Smiths.) My one rule was to include tracks without that overused word “love” in the title, though I made an exception for one song so exquisitely charming and resonant that I couldn’t possibly leave it off.

Listen to/watch this playlist here.

  1. Alphabeat, “Fascination”
  2. Alvvays, “Archie, Mary Me”
  3. The Association, “Everything That Touches You”
  4. Blossom Dearie, “They Say It’s Spring”
  5. Catherine Wheel, “I Want To Touch You”
  6. The Delays, “Nearer Than Heaven”
  7. Diana Ross, “Upside Down”
  8. Echobelly, “Nobody Like You”
  9. Ella Fitzgerald, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
  10. Emm Gryner, “Symphonic”
  11. Erasure, “Let’s Take One More Rocket To The Moon”
  12. Field Music, “Stay Awake”
  13. The Go-Betweens, “Finding You”
  14. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”
  15. Hunters and Collectors, “Throw Your Arms Around Me”
  16. INXS, “Not Enough Time”
  17. The Judybats, “Ugly On The Outside”
  18. KD Lang & The Siss Boom Bang, “The Water’s Edge”
  19. Living Colour, “Solace Of You”
  20. M People, “Excited”
  21. Marshall Crenshaw, “Whenever You’re On My Mind”
  22. Matthew Sweet, “I’ve Been Waiting”
  23. The Magnetic Fields, “It’s Only Time”
  24. Nina Simone, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”
  25. Pet Shop Boys, “Liberation”
  26. Prince & The Revolution, “Take Me With U”
  27. REM, “At My Most Beautiful”
  28. Roisin Murphy, “Unputdownable”
  29. Roxette, “How Do You Do!”
  30. Roxy Music, “To Turn You On”
  31. Rubber Rodeo, “Anywhere With You”
  32. Saint Etienne, “Nothing Can Stop Us”
  33. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “All Over Again”
  34. Shelly Duvall, “He Needs Me”
  35. Sleater-Kinney, “Oh!”
  36. The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
  37. Split Enz, “I Got You”
  38. Stars, “Elevator Love Letter”
  39. Steve Wynn, “Out Of This World”
  40. Stevie Wonder, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”
  41. Stew, “Reeling”
  42. Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”
  43. Talking Heads, “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”
  44. Tegan & Sara, “Closer”
  45. They Might Be Giants, “She’s An Angel”
  46. Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing”
  47. The Velvet Underground, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
  48. XTC, “Great Fire”
  49. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Hysteric”
  50. Years & Years, “Shine”

Favorite Films of 2021

1. QUO VADIS, AIDA?

I tend to avoid feel-bad movies (or as a friend categorizes them, “Films that make you want to slit your wrists”), so I approached Jasmila Žbanić’s dramatization of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre with trepidation. It is indeed a tough watch but a rewarding one in how precisely it lays out all the details leading up to the tragedy, for Žbanić’s commitment to depicting it with both fearless clarity and palpable compassion and most of all, for Jasna Đuričić’s tremendous performance—with respect to Frances McDormand and every other Oscar-nominated actress of the past few years, little of their work was in the same league.

2. THE POWER OF THE DOG

Jane Campion returns to feature filmmaking at the top of her game, from the striking landscapes and multifaceted, unpredictable character arcs to the feminist perspective she lends to the source material: A western/thriller about life on the last days of a frontier, familial dysfunction, the strain of keeping and covering up for a secret and the tenacity of wanting to go your own way and utilizing intelligence to your best advantage. With great performances all around (especially Kodi Smit-McPhee’s unapologetically fey beanpole), it carefully unfolds over two hours without a single wasted scene.

3. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Definitive, and maybe my favorite rock and roll doc since DiG! Despite him having mythologized both Bowie (VELVET GOLDMINE) and Dylan (I’M NOT THERE), I still never would’ve dreamt of Todd Haynes as the filmmaker to tell this band’s story; of course, he pulls it off completely, with masterful editing and sound design. His collage-like study preserves the band’s otherness, evoking a long-gone era so vividly while also recovering his own directorial edge—it’s easily his best feature since CAROL.

4. SHIVA BABY

I first saw this snappy cringe-com feature debut from filmmaker Emma Seligman at virtual TIFF in 2020; hardly anything filled me with more joy than it finding a most deserved audience when released earlier this year. Featuring a near-perfect ensemble (esp. Fred Melamed and the incorrigible Polly Draper as the lead’s parents), along with a pressure-cooker environment and score both somewhat reminiscent of, of all things, MOTHER! (Thankfully, no one eats the baby here.) 

5. LIMBO

Another TIFF ’20 watch: Ben Sharrock’s film about Middle-Eastern and African men stranded in a refugee camp off the coast of Scotland is deadpan and quirky, but it ends up in a place of warmth and great catharsis. The painterly landscapes, subtle attention to detail and the gradual deepening of character all provide a stirring backdrop for protagonist Omar, a Syrian musician stuck between stations of a tumultuous past and an uncertain future.

6. RED POST ON ESCHER STREET

The lesser-seen of two Sion Sono films released this year (the other being the Nicolas Cage-starring PRISONER OF THE GHOSTLAND) is inspired and often insane satire/self-referential cinema, from the five girls dressed in white who form a “love club” (read: cult) for the director of the film within this film to the self-proclaimed “King of All Extras” to the exquisite look of disdain the recipient of a “dream-catcher necklace” sports when she is suddenly gifted it.

7. DAYS

A quiet and often gentle film about loneliness, urban life, food, sex and water in all of its forms—yep, another Tsai Ming-liang picture. Actually, quite a lot happens in this one; naturally, it just does so at a snail’s pace, although like any master of minimalism, Tsai’s still adept at taking the same puzzle pieces and rearranging them into (if ever so slightly) distinct configurations that at best inspire one to look at the familiar with fresh eyes.

8. THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

I continuously felt that this wry, warm documentary about mostly older male Italian truffle hunters (and their trusty canine companions) was made especially for me, from the adorable-verging-on-feral man/dog bonding and the dude who rather resembled Father Time to the multiple scenes of a young lady grooming a fancy red pillow on a pedestal just so in order to display The Perfect Truffle for a procession of onlookers to stop by and fervently sniff. 

9. TITANE

Felt a rush from this similar to first-time viewings of DRIVE or BEAU TRAVAIL. Shocking, seductive, transgressive, bonkers and somehow, I was with director Julia Ducournau (and a poignant Vincent Lindon) every step of the way, even though body horror is not really my jam (and if it’s not yours, see this at your own risk.) I don’t know how John Waters missed placing this on his top ten list of 2021 films.

10. A HERO

After a diversion to Spain with EVERYBODY KNOWS, this is a return-to-form for Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. A neat bookend to A SEPARATION, his breakthrough from a decade ago, he will never struggle to find inspiration for his intricate moral dramas just as the world will never run out of schmucks like Rahim (Amir Jadidi) whom implore one to ask (as a character does here) if they’re really smart or just incredibly simple. 

11. THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS

Tightly constructed, devastating study of a fractured marriage that’s more complex than it initially appears. Each frame is rich without being distractingly pretty.

12. SUMMER OF SOUL (OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)

Astonishing, rare footage + thorough, incisive context + sustained “can-you-top-this-clip” momentum = best concert doc in years.

13. SOME KIND OF HEAVEN

Whereas filmmaker Lance Oppenheim could’ve easily satirized or put down the absurdities of what is essentially Disneyworld for Seniors, his approach is one of cool but considered observation, often keeping the camera static and just letting the action unfold.

14. NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN

“If David Lynch wanted to make a Polish Wes Anderson film” but both weirder and more palatable than that. Rarely has a cookie-cutter residential McMansion community appeared so otherworldly.

15. THE LOST DAUGHTER

As a first-time feature director, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes wise and sometimes risky choices in this hard-edged gem of an adaptation with excellent, thorny work from both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley.

16. TEST PATTERN

This underseen microindie deserves the same attention and cachet received by last year’s NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS; it also has a fearless lead performance from Brittany S. Hall.

17. ZOLA

I would ask for a moratorium on films about seedy Florida antics, only Janicza Bravo continues to impress me as a director with this based-on-a-true-story that’s really an incredible one.

18. THIS IS NOT A BURIAL, IT’S A RESURRECTION

I don’t think I’ve seen anything shot quite like this before: bold colors against darkness, faces and bodies illuminated by a single gas lamp, rough-hewn interiors giving way to bursts of painterly landscapes.

19. THE GREEN KNIGHT

Forget Kubrick—at times, David Lowery’s idiosyncratic take on an offshoot from the King Arthur legend feels more like the movie Tarkovsky would’ve attempted about the subject, at its most dazzling and effective when enigmatic.

20. ANNETTE

A pairing of weirdos (Leos Carax and the musical brother cult duo Sparks) results in an equally strange hybrid of heart-on-sleeve emotion and extreme artifice. I wouldn’t say everything in it works, exactly, but months on, it lingers like a dream (maybe a nightmare?) I’m still trying to assess.

I CARRY YOU WITH ME

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

CODA

THE DIG

DUNE

EYIMOFE (THIS IS MY DESIRE)

HOLLER

I CARRY YOU WITH ME

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

LANGUAGE LESSONS

LICORICE PIZZA

LUZZU

NO ORDINARY MAN

PASSING

PLAYING WITH SHARKS

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME

SPRING BLOSSOM

SWEAT

TWO OF US

Favorite First Viewings of Older Films in 2021

Thanks to being unemployed for most of the year, I saw even more movies in 2021 than I did in 2020. Here are my top ten older films (pre-2020) watched for the first time.

1. A BREAD FACTORY

Compare the generosity and spirit writer/director Patrick Wang elicits to that of other, better-known filmmakers, but that might discredit what he’s singularly accomplished here: a two-part, four-hour-long, layered, emphatic study of a struggling arts organization in small town America whose universe, as finite as it may physically appear, keeps on expanding without obscuring the constants that define and embody it. A pivotal conflict drives the first part (subtitled For The Sake Of Gold) while the second (Walk With Me A While) unexpectedly, gleefully delves into surrealism only to bring it all back to a quietly resonant conclusion. Also, who knew a dramatization of a town budget hearing could be so riveting?

2. A NEW LEAF

I’ve been hearing for years how special this film is, and from the opening EKG car gag on, it does not disappoint. Elaine May’s directorial debut is certainly screwball comedy; however, unlike contemporaneous homage What’s Up Doc, it pushes the genre to unprecedented, discomforting places, tempering Walter Matthau’s sinister intentions with chance occurrences that reset this universe’s moral balance. It’s often brilliant, not only for casting Matthau as a priggish trust fund cad or for May directing herself as a proto-Shelley Duvall character, but also for her convincing him to get so thoroughly soaked in the film’s delirious finale.

3. 12 ANGRY MEN

I don’t know why it took me so long to watch this. Sure, you can adequately summarize it in one or two sentences, but how it gets from point A to point B conveys Sidney Lumet’s mastery of pacing, blocking and framing to transform what is essentially a single set play into cinema. While obviously dated in its racially and sexually uniform cast, it’s best viewed as a period piece that intrigues most when it offers occasional glimpses of self-recognition. And Henry Fonda is perfectly cast in that you both want to slap him and shake his hand, maybe even tell his character your real name.

4. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

A psychological horror film and the monster is utter despair. Sidney Pollack’s 1969 adaptation of a 1935 novel about a Depression-era marathon dance contest eschews any hint of nostalgia for a brutal, gallows humor realism in line with a post Bonnie and Clyde world. I doubt I’ve previously seen a lead character more jaded and irritable than Gloria, and Jane Fonda is indelible in the role—I only wish she was the one to have spoken the film’s title, as it could’ve been up there with “What a dump!” as classic line readings go.

5. NIGHT MOVES

This is almost Royal Tenenbaum, P. I., and that kinda rules. Searching for the missing teenage daughter of a former movie actress, Gene Hackman is nearly as rumpled and lived-in as Elliot Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, only without the latter’s tics and insouciance. Gen-X pop culture buffs will take delight in seeing Susan Clark (the mom from Webster) as his wife, a young James Woods as a bad boyfriend and an even younger Melanie Griffith as the missing girl. A tightly constructed, character-driven thriller that more cineastes should know.

6. STARLET

Sean Baker excels at getting great performances from young Dree Hemingway (a dead ringer for her mom Mariel) and the elderly Besedka Johnson. Both could’ve easily come off as one-note or shtick-driven, but they add heft to this L.A. sex-work centered drama about an unlikely friendship. As someone who found The Florida Project overrated and hasn’t yet seen Red Rocket, I think I liked this even more than Tangerine.

7. HUD

Possibly the best ensemble cast of its era: Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas deservedly won Oscars for this, while Paul Newman’s titular cad was also nominated and teenaged Brandon deWilde should’ve been. Beyond that and the great cinematography, Martin Ritt’s film also feels slightly out of time and proves that old Hollywood could interpret Larry McMurtry nearly as well as Peter Bogdanovich (RIP) would about a decade later.

8. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW

Director Leo McCarey, who helmed many comedies (including The Awful Truth the same year) anticipates his later melodramas like Going My Way with this story of an older couple forced to separate when they lose their home and none of their children will take them in. Remarkably candid and unwavering for its time; the last third, where Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) are finally freed from the shackles of their family and making time for themselves, together, is wonderfully poignant.

9. FAT CITY

I love that this improbable little film from the director of The African Queen (giving New Hollywood a run for its money) with Stacy Keach showing how well he can carry a film, fresh-faced Jeff Bridges more than holding his own and the future Coach from Cheers providing more substance and grace than you’d ever expect from him (takes a deep breath) exists.

10. THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS

This 1985 extravaganza is one of the craziest cult films to re-emerge from Japan to western audiences since the 1977 wackjob comedic-horror dream House. Would make an ideal double feature with Phantom of the Paradise (the credits end with “Thanks, Winslow Leach”(!)) or The Happiness of The Katikuris or even The Apple. Absolutely deranged and all its best songs sound exactly like early-mid ’80s Sparks.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Broadcast News, Bugsy Malone, O Fantasma, The Holy Mountain, The Hudsucker Proxy, In The Cut, The In-Laws, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, The Last of Sheila, Little Murders, Payday, Pink Narcissus, Le Rayon Vert, A Sunday In The Country, Sylvio, Tower, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, Weirdos

BEST RE-WATCHES (not including anything for 24 Frames):

After Life, Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, Chinatown, The Conformist, Exotica, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Happy Together, Head, Housekeeping, The Lady Eve, The Long Goodbye, Margaret, Stranger Than Paradise, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), To Sleep With Anger, What Happened Was…, The Wicker Man (1973)

2021 Booklist

My ten favorite new-ish books I read in 2021 (unranked; in alphabetical order by author’s last name):

Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance

Abdurraqib’s latest essay collection is unified by its focus on 20th century black artists: from Josephine Baker and Ben Vereen to Merry Clayton and Michael Jackson, he approaches each subject with a modern, personal angle that often comes off as if this is the first thing you’ve ever read about the person.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television

Armstrong’s written books about Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex and The City; this one jumps back to the very early days of television, profiling four women whom as content creators, producers and personalities (one of them Betty White, R.I.P.) laid the groundwork to make such later shows possible.

Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing

Longtime indie Canadian singer/songwriter Gryner blends the process and encouragement of a self-help guide (in this case, becoming a better singer) with anecdotes and recollections from her own life (often delving deep into how to make a living as a musician) to the point where it reads more like a philosophy than just a mere instructional guide.

Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life

Harris’ long-awaited Nichols biography does not disappoint: highly readable, it masterfully weaves together all the strands of its subject’s extraordinary life and accomplishments yet also retains a critical eye that Nichols himself might’ve appreciated. Most filmmakers should be so lucky to receive such a thorough, entertaining and incisive overview.

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This

I picked this up not long after reading Lockwood’s hilarious memoir Priestdaddy, whose intricate, sly wordplay carries over to this, her first novel. Few authors capture the feeling, the serotonin rush of infinite scrolling through social media as well as Lockwood but the kicker is how her narrator gradually disentangles herself away from it and back into the real world.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories

Her ambitious 2019 novel Bowlaway went over my head a bit, but McCracken’s latest short story collection sustains her predilection towards charming oddballs in more digestible installments. Five of the twelve stories revolve around the same two characters (Jack and Sadie), but each one approaches them from different angles and time periods so that they all individually feel complete.

Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends

Veteran comedic radio host/podcasting pioneer Scharpling often comes off as a likable smartass over the air; while his persona successfully translates into print, what’s more notable about this memoir is in how candidly he opens up about his mental health issues, rendering them in the same urgent, crackling language as such anecdotes as his failed audition for the cast of The New Monkees.

Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother

Cinematographer-turned-director Sonnenfeld is either secretly a humorist at heart or just a very funny person. This might be the most loving, damning and self-deprecating book written about neuroses passed down from one’s parents since Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure—rendered so vividly at times that one can imagine the hilarious feature film (or streaming series) Sonnenfeld could easily adapt it into.

Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend

Her most candid and searing book since her first, 2013’s Bedsit Disco Queen, Thorn’s fourth memoir focuses nearly entirely on Lindy Morrison, former drummer for the Australian cult band The Go-Betweens. As someone often written out of that band’s story, Morrison is reclaimed by Thorn as a musician, a feminist and most importantly, an artist while she also charts their decades-long friendship within a male-dominated industry.  

Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food

Tucci’s 1996 film Big Night, a celebration of food as a design for living manifests itself in this memoir, which, like Ruth Reichl’s books combines reminiscences with recipes, the latter spanning from the Perfect Martini to the intricate, days long preparation of a Timpano (as seen in Big Night.) The son of Italian immigrants, Tucci also relays with wit and grace his family’s story by way of the food they cooked and cherished.

***

I had ample time to read this year but I didn’t break any personal records: 55 books, same as in 2019. Granted, I spent much of 2021 gradually consuming two 1,000+ page tomes: the final, supersized-compared-to-the-others volume of Knausgard’s six-part magnum opus, and Don Quixote, which I’ve always wanted to tackle despite having long since given away my used paperback copy acquired in my 20s. I feel like I never need to re-read either again but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. Both exemplified the notion “the journey outweighs the destination” that Infinite Jest and 1Q84 had for me previously.

My complete 2021 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

  1. Michaelangelo Matos, Can’t Slow Down
  2. Jennifer Lewis, The Mother Of Black Hollywood: A Memoir
  3. Merrill Markoe, We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries Of…
  4. Emma Cline, Daddy: Stories
  5. Mo Rocca, Mobituaries
  6. Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman
  7. Rachel Bloom, I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are
  8. Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life
  9. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
  10. Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance
  11. Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Six
  12. Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest
  13. Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
  14. Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday*
  15. Bill Cunningham, Fashion Climbing
  16. Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
  17. Jenny Lawson, Broken (In the Best Possible Way)
  18. Christopher Finch, Jim Henson: The Works
  19. Dave Holmes, Party Of One: A Memoir In 21 Songs*
  20. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
  21. Alison Bechdel, The Secret To Superhuman Strength
  22. Dale Peck, What Burns: Stories
  23. Dylan Jones (ed.), Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture to Club Style
  24. Donna Tartt, A Secret History
  25. Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular
  26. Kate Atkinson, Transcription
  27. Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends
  28. Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother
  29. Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters
  30. Ian Bourland, 33 1/3: Blue Lines
  31. Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music
  32. Greil Marcus, Real Life Rock
  33. Rob Sheffield, Dreaming The Beatles*
  34. Francine Prose, The Vixen
  35. Michelle Zauner, Crying In H Mart: A Memoir
  36. Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders*
  37. Marilynne Robinson, Lila
  38. Jonathan Ames, A Man Named Doll
  39. Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief
  40. Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
  41. Richard Russo, Chances Are
  42. John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel
  43. Dana Spiotta, Wayward
  44. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television
  45. Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing
  46. Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
  47. Peter Heller, The Guide
  48. Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
  49. George Saunders, Tenth of December
  50. Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz*
  51. Michael Cunningham, The Hours*
  52. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
  53. Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food
  54. Susan Orlean, On Animals
  55. David Sedaris, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020