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.)