Autumn Color

Autumn is my favorite time of year, mostly for the changing leaves and a brief respite of coziness and relative warmth before it gets too cold to do much outdoors except for getting from one place to another.

The foliage isn’t as robust as in past years, thanks to an ongoing lack of rain over the warmer months.

Fortunately, that does not mean no color at all.

The park near my house in early October is not without at least one burst of red.

Those three trees in the background never fail to transform at least one small section of the park’s landscape every Autumn.

However, for the most part, a burnt, somewhat dingy orange predominates this year.

Granted, this hue is more or less the norm for the tall trees at the edge of my backyard.

On one of my periodic, two-to-three mile neighborhood walks, I spotted this brilliant yellow, made even more striking by the blue of the house next to it.

To see ample colors in one place, however, I had to visit Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

On the third Sunday in October, I spent an afternoon there, seeking out as many seasonal shades I could find.

Walking around Mt. Auburn, I was not disappointed. Robust reds, bright oranges, sparkling yellows were all around.

I’m not a religious man, but parks, cemeteries, woods–any kind of green space is the sort of place my soul thrives in.

I remember driving out to Kettle Moraine North in Wisconsin with my parents when I was four or five, collecting pretty fallen leaves to place into a construction paper album.

I held onto that album for most of my childhood, no matter how brown and crinkly the leaves turned.

For those few bright red maple trees I see around Boston, I think fondly of the street I grew up on, which was lined with them. There was a particularly big one in front of our house–I can recall the impossibly massive piles of leaves my dad would rake from everything that fell onto the front yard, the sidewalk, even the street.

Within weeks, the trees will once again be bare. However, I’m genuinely optimistic for the first time in four years. The trees will bud again come April or May, hopefully stronger than ever before as we begin to heal and nourish our collective soul.

Film Journal: October 2020

Ham On Rye

In the tradition of “Marty Mondays”, I did the same for Marlon Riggs this month when his oeuvre became available on The Criterion Channel. A black, gay film essayist who died of AIDS in 1994, I was first aware of Riggs a few years later as a Film Studies grad student. I remember watching the first few minutes of a bootleg VHS of Tongues Untied borrowed from the Harvard Film Archive (where I was an intern) before putting it aside, overwhelmed by my master’s thesis and all the other stuff I was required to watch.

My present overview of his work has been mostly chronological (and will extend into November), though I started with Tongues. An hour-long examination of what it means to be black and gay in the 1980s, it’s arty, layered and inviting, equally adept at exuding sly humor and heartfelt pain. Obviously more personal than his (admittedly solid) television documentaries Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, it’s as essential as anything from the New Queer Cinema canon while somewhat standing apart from it.

Best new-ish titles this month include Sundance hit doc Dick Johnson is Dead, Josh Melrod’s impressive shot-in-Vermont micro indie Major Arcana, Canadian stage play adaptation Mouthpiece (a return-to-form for director Patricia Rozema) and odd streaming sensation The Vast of Night (like a Spielberg film written by Amy Sherman-Palladino and directed by Andrew Bujalski.) However, the one I can’t get out of my head is Ham On Rye, Tyler Taormina’s audacious, dreamlike debut feature where a cadre of suburban teens meet up for a party at a local deli—to say anything else would lessen the impact it has when it takes an unexpected turn and transforms into something I haven’t really seen before.

More re-watches than usual, mostly because of the season: Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (of which The Vast of Night lovingly references) remain all-time favorites, with mid-tier Burton both better (Sleepy Hollow) and lesser (Dark Shadows) than I recall. It was also a kick to see Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature after so many years–it’s definitely an impetus to eventually re-watch them all (for who knows when his new one Days will be available to screen or stream at-large.)

Best first-time watch, however, was Harry and Tonto, recorded off of TCM. I wrote on Letterboxd, “It’s the greatest Hal Ashby film Ashby never made.” While not as special as, say, Harold and Maude, it’s both a great showcase for Art Carney and a neat cross-country time capsule of mid-70s America as illuminating as, well, The United States of America. A touch sentimental but never sappy, it confronts aging and change with honesty and grace.

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

Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, 2018) 8
The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 7
The Boys In The Band (Joe Mantello, 2020) 8
Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989) 9
Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, 1953) 7
Residue (Merawi Gerima, 2020) 5
Queen Bee (Ranald MacDougall, 1955) 6
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)* 7
The Vast Of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019) 7
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)* 10
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020) 8
Mother (Albert Brooks, 1996) 7
Major Arcana (Josh Melrod, 2018) 7
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015) 5
Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1974) 9
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020) 6
Ethnic Notions (Riggs, 1986) 7
Affirmations (Riggs, 1990) 7
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)* 9
The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, 2020) 4
The Trip To Greece (Michael Winterbottom, 2020) 6
Rebels Of The Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)* 8
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)* 6
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)* 10
Color Adjustment (Riggs, 1992) 7
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 7
Ham On Rye (Tyler Taormina, 2019) 9
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)* 8
Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) 6
Dark Shadows (Burton, 2012)* 6

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

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

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

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

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

(Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.)

This Year’s Garden

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

May 27

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

June 28

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

July 4

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

July 16

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

July 24

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

August 30

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

A red zinnia up close.

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

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

September 20

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

October 17

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

July 20

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

York Harbor and Wiggly Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Autumn in Maine can be quite lovely.

This is along the North Basin of York River.

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

Looking West on Route 103 before the bridge…

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

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

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

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

About 45 minutes before sunset.

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

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

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

Film Journal: September 2020

House Of Hummingbird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1986: Come On Home

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

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

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

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1986.

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

Toronto, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Journal: August 2020

Bacurau

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

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

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

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

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

Midwest Trilogy, Part III: Michigan

Go here for Part I and here for Part II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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