It’s nearly time for British film magazine Sight and Sound to publish their once-every-decade critic’s poll of all-time greatest films. Ten years ago, I presented my own hypothetical ballot; for this latest edition, here’s another one with ten different films. My only criteria was to not repeat anything from my 24 Frames project—a relatively easy task because there is an almost overwhelming amount of movies to pick from for a list like this.
In chronological order:
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Director: Carl Dreyer, France, 1928)
My silent-era pick. Wholly radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film that utilizes faces and close-ups with such candor. As with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, I remain uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this film’s rare achievement makes me wonder.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940)
This is the oft-described “Lubitsch Touch” at its most graceful and lithe. The epiphanous, empathetic last twenty minutes or so is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to; Stewart (in arguably his most complex performance until VERTIGO) puts it best: “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
I could’ve gone with any one of this duo’s efforts from this period; this has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color (even more so than THE WIZARD OF OZ). Still, as with the best of Powell and Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance.
THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1960)
I didn’t appreciate this when I first tried watching it in my twenties, but I fully get it now (being a major influence on MAD MEN helps.) No other filmmaker besides Billy Wilder ever achieved such a tricky balance of humor and melancholia as he did here. Also, how in the world did a rarely-better Shirley MacLaine lose the Academy Award for Lead Actress to Liz Taylor???
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, Mexico/USA, 1974)
I first saw this neglected classic five years ago at a screening in conjunction with Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU and fell for it instantly: Peckinpah’s scabrous take on the human condition feels entirely undiluted and yet so… humane. Warren Oates very well may also be the original anti-hero (or at least the template for those of modern prestige-TV.)
LOVE STREAMS (John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
Cassavetes’ final film is almost a beautiful mess, and one by design. Knowing he had not much longer left to live, he made something people might’ve deemed elegiac if his philosophy would’ve allowed for such sentimentality (it mostly did not.) To put so much of oneself onscreen warts and all was his specialty whether in the guise of his ensemble players (including wife Gena Rowlands) or, in this case, himself; arguably, no one did so with more blistering honesty.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, UK, 1992)
Davies’ personal, idiosyncratic style refashions memories as a stream-of-consciousness rush, although perhaps rush is the wrong word for a film that lovingly takes its time. The rare period piece to revel in nostalgia without letting it obscure the mundaneness of everyday life, it’s also pure poetry in how it orchestrates all of its cinematic elements, especially its bold use of light and darkness.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
Last year, I rewatched all of Wong’s films included in the new Criterion Collection box set and this one’s still his best. A deceptively simple tale of a romance that’s never acted upon, it sounds like the stuff of a prime Douglas Sirk melodrama. Instead, it plays out with such nuance and restraint that it achieves an almost unbearable intimacy, leaving the viewer both swooned and devastated.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis, France, 2008)
I included another Denis film on my 2012 ballot; here’s one nearly its equal. Less formally adventurous, this account of a single father and his adult daughter communicates less through words than glances and evocative stylistic choices such as hypnotic point-of-view shots taken from commuter trains in motion. Also, what a sublime soundtrack, not only for the Tindersticks score but also its unexpected use of a certain Commodores song.
PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)
Haven’t rewatched this since right before the pandemic, but I imagine it holds up brilliantly—so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control. As usual with Bong, it’s tough to classify or define: is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror film? Bong seems to be asking, “Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that?”
I spent a recent holiday watching the 287-minute director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 techno/sci-fi extravaganza Until The End Of The World (streaming on Criterion Channel.) The 158-minute theatrical cut infamously bombed and the film, a follow-up to the still-beloved Wings of Desire seemed to languish in memory until this longer version surfaced–first in Europe, then in the US in 2014 and finally as part of the Criterion Collection a few years later.
Rather than attempt a traditional review, I present a journal of my viewing experience, done pretty much in one sitting—possibly the longest film I’ve ever conceived this way. (Times are in hours:minutes.) SPOILERS AHEAD, obv.
0:04 – Protagonist Claire (Solveig Dommartin) wakes up and wearily strolls through a lingering party in a bohemian but upscale Venice apartment like she’s Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll 25+ years early.
0:10 – Set in “1999”: MP3s do not yet exist, although music comes on ultra-thin rectangular discs that resemble playing cards instead of CDs. More prescient (to the COVID age, anyway): the boat driver wearing a face mask.
0:14 – I was thinking I could spend the entire film blissfully watching Claire driving through pre-apocalyptic landscapes and whoops, her car just crashed.
0:24 – The problem with sci-fi, particularly films set less than a decade in the future is that the imagined technology often resembles a slightly warped take on what is readily available in the present. Hence, the bank of VIDEOPHONES Claire calls her friend Makiko from (and runs into Sam (William Hurt) at for the first time.)
0:24 We have the U2 title song! I remember seeing/hearing this soundtrack everywhere but have no memory of the film playing theatrically in Milwaukee, though I was 16 and not yet aware of the ins and outs of arthouse cinema.
0:30 – At least some of the imagined tech is seriously warped, like the police cars that resemble Lego Duplo figures.
0:37 – Well, Claire and Gene’s (Sam Neill) Parisian flat is the most 90s apartment ever; Elvis Costello’s slooow version of The Kinks’ “Days” is the worst version I’ve heard (def. inferior to Kirsty MacColl’s from two years before.)
0:44 – Someone actually says, “Don’t be stupid; this is 1999.”
0:53 – Nearly 20% (!) through the film, and I’m suitably entertained. When not overtly wacky, the production design’s sublime (e.g. the giant, rotating world globe illuminating one time-zone clock after another.)
1:03 – Between this and The Piano, early 90’s Neill really was your go-to guy for playing strait-laced, uptight cucks.
1:14 – “Bounty Bear” WTF.
1:29 – I might’ve done without so much narration from Gene. “She spent a fortune video-faxing the tape to me in Paris,” he notes, presumably straight-faced.
1:33 – Oh Claire, I hate Gene’s suit too.
1:35 – Guessing the Tokyo hotel chase scene, where the film briefly turns into an episode of Scooby-Doo (with spazzy, incidental music straight out of an ancient Merrie Melodies cartoon) was cut out of the shorter theatrical release.
1:44 – Regarding the rural Japan sequence, as Wenders proved in his earlier doc Tokyo-ga, Ozu he is not; it’s still touching to see octogenarian (and Ozu regular) Chishū Ryū onscreen though.
1:52 – Here we get to the premise/MacGuffin/whatever: “A camera that takes pictures blind people can see !” (o rilly?) To which Claire silently responds, Can you see my naked body?
2:01 – After the unexpected thrill of seeing Claire and Sam to do “The Twist” on a cruise ship, the U2 theme appears for the third time. Feeling overwhelmed that we’re not even halfway through this thing, so I’m taking a 15-minute break.
2:19 – The bright blue and orange of the Australian outback landscape is truly breathtaking; not even late-period Lou Reed can destroy it, although Gene doesn’t throw the most convincing punch at Sam. I had to look up and confirm that the South Australia town of “Coober Pedy” actually exists.
2:31 – “They shot down the satellite” – man, it really is Y2K; also, “It’s the end of the world” (but certainly not the film.)
2:42 – “These are bloody dangerous times, mate.” Believe the guy with the hook (not only for a hand, but his entire arm.)
2:51 – So happy Jeanne Moreau is here. And Max von Sydow as a weird doctor? What novel casting!
3:22 – Around here is where I start to drift. The theatrical cut apparently contains less than an hour of the Australia stuff while this has more than two. I miss the “on the road” part of this road movie—it builds more momentum than waiting to see if blind Moreau can see the images taken by the special camera. I imagine the actress lying down in the simulator thinking to herself, “Merde, what did I get myself into?” The “simulations” themselves have a flash video quality and sound not far off from the early days of dial-up internet (so that’s prescient of ’99.)
3:27 – We have a digeridoo, and of course the guy with the hook is playing it.
3:43 – Gene’s narration includes a dippy speech about music being the purpose for their journey – what a dopey writer, ain’t he?
3:49 – On 12/31/99, we find out the nuclear crisis is averted for the missiles conveniently blew up in space. Von Sydow exclaims, “The world is still alive!,” while sourpuss Moreau dissents: “The world is not okay.”
3:51 – At least Solveig’s Nico-esque version of “Days” is charming (and much better than Costello’s.)
4:03 – That darn Dr. Von Sydow! Now he wants to record pictures of dreams, the dope. I begin waiting for Harvey B. Dunn from Bride Of The Monster to show up and say, “He tampered in god’s domain.”
4:12 – The dream imagery is not pretentious, exactly, but unquestionably weird. Turn off the sound and it might make for good ASMR. This is getting vaguely psychedelic, like end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but less portentous.
4:19 – Someone named Karl: “There’s a line that should never be crossed, and we passed it a long time ago.”
4:32 – “Split… from myself”; “Impossible to rescue a man lost in the labyrinth of his own soul”… now the film’s getting a little pretentious.
4:38 – Gene’s still wearing that awful suit!
4:41 – Gene wrote his book, and Claire read the whole thing! It all ends with perhaps the worst rendition of ‘Happy Birthday” ever, then that damn U2 song returns over the closing credits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Not the resurrected masterpiece I was hoping for and not Wenders’ best by a long shot (I’ll stump for Paris, Texas though I haven’t seen it in a quarter-century.) Maybe his last good non-documentary*, however, though it may have had a sharper impact had it been split into two a la Kill Bill or The Souvenir.
*Buena Vista Social Club, while imperfect, belongs on a shortlist of essential Wenders.
Continuing a tradition, here is a selection of color shot in and around Boston during my favorite time of year. Above is the Charles River Esplanade as seen from the Longfellow Bridge. This is a few days before Daylight Savings Time ended; as of today, I’m doubtful much foliage is left.
A burst of yellow on the Esplanade with the Arthur Fiedler statue in the right background.
The Boston Public Garden one brisk morning this past week.
The Garden’s easily one of my favorite spots in town. When I took this photo, I noted how it was a reminder as to why, after moving here decades ago, I stayed.
Across the Charles and over to JFK Park near Harvard Square on an idyllic Saturday morning.
In late September I first noticed how unusually… robust the color was this year. Chalk it up to the summer drought, the subsequent rain, global warming or chance. Either way, I made time for a visit to Mt. Auburn Cemetery on the Cambridge/Watertown border, a place I didn’t make it to last year.
My mom has asked me, “Why go to a cemetery to take pictures?” Here’s one reason…
…and another. Mt. Auburn often feels as much of an arboretum as it does a cemetery.
We conclude on Millennium Park in West Roxbury – a ten minute walk from home and thus a park I’ve spent more time in than nearly any other in the area.
The trees were noticeably sparser than they were just five days before I took this one. Luckily, flashes of that rare autumnal red remained.
IFF Boston’s Fall Focus is a counterpart to their main film festival in late April/early May (in my opinion the best in the area.) Since this offshoot began about 7 or 8 years back, I’ve caught titles there such as Anomalisa, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Cold War and Shoplifters. After an online-only edition in 2020 and my skipping it last year, it was a treat to return. Of the eleven films playing over four days (plus two bonus titles afterwards), I saw these three.
Sarah Polley’s return to directing after a decade carries almost ridiculously high expectations due to her previous, consistently strong body of work (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell) and all the awards season hype already showered upon this new film, which Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel. Happily, Women Talking mostly meets them.
Set in a remote, rural, unnamed religious community (though Mennonite seems most likely), it revolves around an emergency, clandestine meeting among about a dozen of its women. Upon discovery that some of their men are drugging and raping them, they debate whether all the women should stay and fight back or leave the settlement with their younger children. It takes place in the near-present, though with the addition of an unlikely musical cue it could reasonably be any time since the late 1960’s; it also leaves open the possibility that it could even be in the near (or remote) future.
Much of it is exactly what the title promises: the women process the dilemma before them, discussing and arguing at length the implications of what courses of action are available to them. If this sounds dry and overly, well, talky, it’s visually far less static and isolated than something like last year’s (admittedly great) Mass. Polley not only sculpts dialogue to ebb and flow naturally like a good screenplay should, she also comprehends the value of opening up this world cinematically when the time is right for it. As the camera moves around and sometimes away from the barn where much of the action occurs, one can usually sense Polley’s hand as an additional unseen character right beside the women, reacting to and often enhancing what transpires.
The superb ensemble cast includes indie-friendly stars (Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy), Canadian stalwarts (Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod), revered veterans (Judith Ivey and in a smaller role, Frances McDormand) and Ben Whishaw as the sole on-screen adult male, a sympathetic school teacher asked to take minutes of the meeting (most of the women there are not taught to read and write.)
As the women work their way towards decisive action, the film accumulates considerable power, laying out what’s at stake for these characters, illustrating their turmoil (but never in an exploitative way) and placing it in a larger context that strives to be universally applicable. Occasionally, the story oversteps, simplifying logistical concerns for actions taken; the final section also drags a bit, reiterating ideas and emotional beats already touched upon. However, those are minor missteps. The world Polley depicts is contained to the point of being restrictive; Women Talking, with great catharsis and reasoning explains with artful clarity as to why this is damaging and what future generations can do to avoid succumbing to such a closed-off, incomplete life. (4.5 out of 5)
After a brief sojourn in France (The Truth), director Hirokazu Kore-eda made this movie in South Korea rather than his home country of Japan, purportedly so he could work with the actor Song Kang-ho (he was most recently the patriarch in Parasite.) As with its predecessor, the shift in locale does not mean any departure in style or tone, though some parts of Broker might comprise his most overtly comedic work in years.
The plot, however, is the stuff of drama and suspense. Two men, Sang-hyun (Song) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) run an illegal business in Busan where they steal abandoned infants from a church’s drop-off box and sell them on the black market. It works swimmingly until So-young (singer/songwriter IU), a teenage mother in the process of dropping off her own baby discovers their scheme and joins them to interview prospective adoptive parents. Meanwhile, two detectives (one played by Kore-eda alumnus Doona Bae, now middle-aged but still fabulous) sit in their unmarked car and watch this all play out.
Although Broker won the Jury Prize at Cannes, it isn’t on the same level as Kore-eda’s very best work (my top four, chronologically: After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Shoplifters.) Actually, it’s slightly flabby (maybe 10-20 minutes too long) and although he retains a knack for getting amusing (but not irritating!) performances out of children, this film’s humor and pathos do not always sit comfortably alongside each other. Of course, as veteran auteurs go, Kore-eda is still in a class of his own. He may be relying on variations on familiar themes, but no one else matches his sustained comfort and nimble touch with depicting makeshift families and finding those ingenuous, unforced grace moments that co-exist with the mundane. (4 out of 5)
The latest from writer/director James Gray is almost nakedly autobiographical. His 11-year-old alter ego, Paul (Banks Repeta) lives in Queens, 1980 (as Gray did), the younger son of a middle-class Jewish-American family whose grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) arrived at Ellis Island near the turn of the 20th century. A would-be artist prone to daydreaming with little traditional work ethic in him, Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American classmate who was left back the previous year and is barely tolerated by their public-school teacher. His friendship with Johnny doesn’t so much open up a new world for Paul as it gradually puts into perspective his own place in the world and how his race and class afford him privilege; meanwhile, his grandfather helps him to understand the complexities of bearing such privilege along with the moral and ethical implications at risk as a result.
Gray gets the period look and feel exactly right but sometimes struggles with other details. Apart from Hopkins, Paul’s family can come off as stereotypical-verging-on-cartoonish; even worse, Johnny’s barely a character at all, a sacrificial lamb for Paul to learn from. The insertion of two real-life figures related to a former president also feels a little clumsy, reiterating the overall point by practically banging it into the ground. On the other hand, the film would fall apart without Repeta’s naturalistic performance; he’s certainly one of the more plausible 11-year-old film protagonists, itself a tough age to depict in that Paul is still an innocent child to a degree but also easily corruptible. Of the few Gray films I’ve seen (Ad Astra, The Immigrant) this is somehow the most satisfying but also the most flawed, which frustrates–I repeatedly sensed that he’s just too close to the material even though it’s undeniably his story to tell. (3 out of 5)
After a two-month break, I’m planning on putting up new posts every Monday starting next week. Sometimes, it’ll be a film or album review; other times, a list or a personal essay. Occasionally, I’ll post a photo essay (or at least one photo, like today.) In the new year, I will (hopefully) get back to my 24 Frames project, which currently sits at the halfway mark.
Thanks to anyone reading and/or subscribing out there. I began blogging twenty years ago this month; while my posting frequency has been erratic at most and social media has all but obliterated blogging itself, I will continue utilizing it as a platform for stuff I’d like to share with any potential reader.
I moved to Boston 25 years ago today. I’ve commemorated past anniversaries with photo essays, listicles and, five years ago, an accountof my first 48 hours in town. Below is a follow-up essay on how I spent (and survived) my first 12 months as a Bostonian.
I wore out a City of Boston street map my first year living there.
Accustomed to Milwaukee’s perpendicular street grids (see also Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and nearly every other major Midwestern city), little prepared me for this layout. An ungainly mess of former cow paths and meandering post roads dating back to the 17th century, I likened it to the messy imprint left behind by a fistful of linguini with sauce, misidentified as spaghetti and flung against the wall by Oscar Madison in the film version of The Odd Couple (upon which he proclaims to Felix Unger, “Now, it’s garbage!”) As a longtime map enthusiast, I was determined to know it by memory. In this pre-smart phone era, I carried it with me, often unfolding and consulting it everywhere I went from the student and immigrant ghettos of Allston Village (where I resided) to the shores of Wollaston Bay in Quincy on a Saturday spent scoping out its beach and multiple clam huts.
My first week in town, I composed in my journal an itinerary of Places To Visit based on obvious landmarks, Boston Phoenix listings and random hearsay. I included major tourist destinations (Quincy Marketplace, the North End, the friggin’ Freedom Trail), cultural institutions of the sort I usually seek out in any big city (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library’s central branch) and naturally, since I moved here to earn a graduate degree in Film Studies from Boston University, independent movie houses (Brattle, Somerville, Coolidge Corner.) A few items on this list now baffle me—I can understand wanting to check out massive community garden Back Bay Fens (even if I had no inkling of its after-hours reputation as a cruising spot) but wherever did I hear that Chestnut Hill Reservoir, while a pleasant place to visit was a must-see spot amongst the myriad of more-than-adequate parks closer to my apartment?
Inevitably, some places didn’t live up to the lofty reputation I assumed of them simply because of their names. Take Downtown Crossing, a shopping district home to Filene’s and Macy’s. Sounds like a hip, happening neighborhood, no? I remember my spirit dissipating the first time I walked along pedestrian-only Winter Street and took in the shabby storefronts, the pathetic Corner Mall (laughably dated even in 1997!) and the rundown Paramount Theatre (a few years before its glorious renovation.) All that held interest for me there was the modern, massive Borders Bookstore at the intersection of Washington and School Streets. Though I miss the now-defunct chain, even then it was nothing worth getting too excited about.
In time, I’d stumble upon places I’d actually want to revisit: the original and relatively spacious outpost of AIDS Action thrift store Boomerangs located down the street from the TD Garden (then called the FleetCenter); Pipeline, Looney Tunes, Second Coming and every other used record store strung along Mass Ave. between Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge; Deli Haus, a venerable Kenmore Square greasy spoon that I described in my journal as “the dumpy, unpretentious lunch spot I’ve been looking for”; and a handful of local coffeehouses. Having formerly lived in a city without any Starbucks (Milwaukee’s first opened around the time I left), I had a somewhat irrational aversion to them. To my delight, late 90’s Boston was teeming with plenty of alternatives from the workmanlike Caffe Romano on Newbury Street and local mini-chain Carberry’s to funkier, more exotic joints such as the richly painted little rooms of Curious Liquids just across the street from the State House or Iron Lung, a homey, cozy place to sip a Chai Tea near BU’s South Campus. (All of these establishments are sadly if inevitably long gone.)
Often craving to escape my apartment (which I had dubbed the “Shitbox”), I took refuge in whatever beautiful green space I could find (at least until winter arrived, and sometimes even then.) I’ve written before about Knyvet Square, a tiny oasis of a neighborhood park in Brookline just blocks away from the Shitbox; I also often rode my bike down to the Esplanade in hope that one of a group of four benches flanked by three giant trees overlooking the Charles River and the Longfellow Bridge was available. I eventually made my way up and down Frederick Law Olmstead’s famed “Emerald Necklace” of linked parks: venturing south along the Riverway, I fell hard for Jamaica Pond and the Arnold Arboretum, both places considerably expanding my city view by offering acres of space for hiking, reading, sunbathing and solace.
The Public Garden is also a major and more centrally located part of this chain (and one of the notable places in Boston that hasn’t seen too many significant alterations over the past quarter century.) After biking along the Esplanade all the way down to the Hatch Shell, I’d cross over the winding, monolithic Arthur Fiedler Footbridge where the Garden’s northwest corner awaited on the other side across Beacon Street. I’d walk my bike on the central path circling the lagoon teeming with wooden swan-shaped boats (and often, some actual swans), seeking a bench overlooking the peaceful milieu or perhaps another spot along the secondary paths that broke off from the main drag. Some of them led to elegantly manicured rose bush displays or such hidden wonders as a monument dedicated to the invention of ether.
One late Sunday afternoon in early October, I lounged on a bench there reading The Portable Jack Kerouac. A middle-aged man sat down on the next bench over, clad in a blue suit and striped tie, sporting early traces of a receding hairline. Before long, he introduced himself as an out-of-towner here on a business trip and asked me for suggestions regarding stuff to do. Our conversation about the best Boston had to offer rambled on innocently enough for five minutes until, slightly nervously, he asked, “I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner with me tonight.” So, this guy wasn’t just looking for tourism advice. I’m certain I turned beet-red realizing that a man twice my age was trying to pick me up. In a tone straining to be as polite and least awkward as possible, I blurted out, “Oh! Sorry, I actually need to go. You know, homework to do before class tomorrow.” He seemed less disappointed or embarrassed than apologetic as I wished him a good rest of his time in town, got up and left.
Biking home to Allston, I was extremely weirded out. With my green-flannel shirt and short blonde hair, I must’ve resembled quite the young twink engaging in conversation there with an older man looking for some action (no matter how discreetly.) The thing is, I was actually yearning to connect with other gay people. My coming out happened to coincide with moving to Boston, though at this early phase it was more about my own coming to terms with it. After years of denial and despair, I was finally able to admit it to myself and accept it. However, given my introvertive nature, I didn’t yet know how to be actively out. I kept hoping the gays would come to me, that I’d magically stumble upon them. Perhaps if this guy had been more attractive (not to mention much, much closer to my own age), I would’ve taken him up on his offer. Instead, it was what it was and not what I wanted my first homosexual encounter to be.
When I look back at this period, learning how to take comfort in being out defines it as much getting used to being completely on my own. I took on two massive changes simultaneously and struggled with both. Although grad school offered plenty of structure, it threw into relief the part that didn’t—a mostly nonexistent social life. A brief attempt to meet up weekly with my fellow classmates for movie nights and visits from my parents and a close friend from home broke up the monotony somewhat. Still, I generally had way too much time to myself. I did adjust to moviegoing alone, catching a matinee of the then-new The Big Lebowski at the Nickelodeon near BU on Easter Sunday; I also attended the occasional party, including one where I tested the outer limits of my alcohol consumption. I even once worked up the fortitude to check out gay night at Avalon, a spacious nightclub on Lansdowne Street (now home to the local House of Blues.) I paid my cover and lasted less than an hour, dancing by myself a bit and downing a Rolling Rock (my brew of choice as an impoverished student.) No one spoke to me and vice versa; I was likely too nervous to actually notice if anyone was checking me out. I quickly decided it just wasn’t my scene—the insistent, anonymous house music thump held no allure, and everything was too loud, too dark.
I longed for much more, missing the life I had in Milwaukee while knowing it would do me no good to go back there permanently. When I did return for a two-week visit after the Spring semester ended, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been trying too hard to recreate good memories here.” Back to Boston on Memorial Day with no classes until September, I spent weeks devising productive ways to occupy my time which, given my responsible Catholic work effort would ideally result in a paying job. Combing through the classifieds, looking into summer work-study opportunities at BU and filling out applications at local businesses produced few desirable prospects. I finally resorted to temping, scoring an eight-week term as a desk receptionist at the Massachusetts State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. It was dull but manageable work, sadly cut short after a week when one of their night watchmen coerced them into giving him the job instead—my older co-worker Linda dismissed the guy as “psychotic” to the point of her having to take tranquilizers to deal with him, so perhaps I dodged a bullet there. Either way, by then the staffing agency was unable to find me another short-term assignment.
The summer dragged on. I biked nearly everywhere until the chain on my cheap ass Trek jammed up. After taking it by the local shop (the pretentiously named International Bicycle Center) and being told by a snotty employee it was “horribly unsafe and not worth fixing”, I unceremoniously dumped it into the massive communal trash bin in back of my Shitbox. Given that my lease was up at the end of August, I began looking for a better place. For a week or so, I believed I’d found one, a three-bedroom unit on Beacon Street in Brookline that was tiny but sunny and at least much cleaner than the Shitbox. Unfortunately, within two weeks of seeing the place, the current resident suddenly decided to move herself; the landlords gave me 24 hours to either put down a first and last month and security deposit for the entire unit or find two roommates willing to go in on it with me. Neither option was going to happen.
I felt like I was slowly losing my mind. Perhaps a combination of the relentless summer heat and my continued inactivity was to blame but I began witnessing sights that seemed exceptionally surreal: the middle-aged, Middle Eastern, pink-shirted man practicing ballroom dancing steps by himself in Knyvet Square, or an army of kazoo-wielding toddlers marching and tooting past my bench in a park in the middle of Cambridgeport. My hometown and adopted home began merging in my dreams where, instead of the spot Commonwealth Ave curved at Packard’s Corner, I’d find myself getting on the MBTA Green Line Subway at, say, Forest Home Avenue a few miles from where I grew up.
It all came to a head frightfully early one morning when I awoke to the CLICK! of a door abruptly locking behind me. Inexplicably, I stood outside the Shitbox wearing nothing but my tidy whities (good thing I didn’t sleep in the nude!) A 6:00 AM sun beamed down but I found this bright, cheery tableau utterly disorienting and baffling—this was decidedly not a dream. I don’t recall ever having sleepwalked before, but as the old cliché goes, there truly is a first time for everything. Knowing only one of my two roommates was home (the other had gone out of town), I rang our buzzer five, ten, twenty times, to no response. Heck, if I’d been in bed and heard it this early, I would’ve ignored it too.
Thus, I had no choice but to exit the lobby and walk barefoot in my undies around to the back of the building and shout at my roommate’s first floor window, “Abel! Wake up, I’ve locked myself out!” The window was open (no A/C for us in the Shitbox!) but I had to repeat my plea a few times in an increasingly louder (and more desperate) voice. Finally, Abel got the hint, got up and walked to the building’s auto-locking front door to let me in. I thanked him profusely, embarrassed but knowing I had no other choice than to seek his assistance. We both went back to our respective bedrooms and never spoke of it again.
Thankfully, this was my first and last time sleepwalking (that I know of.) It was even more disturbing than that failed pickup in the Public Garden, but I was determined to move beyond it. Later that day, I wrote, “I’m not going to let this city drag me down,” and I meant it. I contacted another staffing agency and scored a few brief assignments in August (including one office job that I summed up as “A world of cubicles, fruit platters and coffee creamers.”) I found a better apartment all the way over in North Cambridge in the right half of a townhouse where I had two roommates (one of whom became a good friend) and, as my bedroom, the entire basement to myself. As the days grew shorter, I could see my limbo approaching its end, for September would bring new classes and work-study opportunities. When the fall semester began, I purchased a new map to replace the old, seriously creased and tattered one, though my familiarity with the area was now such that I didn’t have to use it nearly as much. If I learned anything that first year as a Bostonian, it was that a map can only lend so much direction—the rest comes through various experiences, mishaps and the occasional success.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 Oz, Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach), 1967 (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In The Heat of The Night) or 1974 (Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, Young 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 Election, The Straight Story, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings and All About My Mother. Consider lesser-seen cult pictures such as The Limey, Ratcatcher, The Iron Giant, American Movie, Judy Berlin, Dick, Topsy-Turvy and Jesus’ Son. Don’t forget expert popcorn entertainment like Galaxy Quest, Office Space and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I could even make an argument for films I personally don’t care for (Fight Club, Eyes 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.
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.
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.