2023 Movie Diary (1/1-1/5): India Songs

January 1st

  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening / 2021, dir. Bianca Stigler
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself / 2003, dir. Thom Andersen
  • Crimes of the Future / 2022, dir. David Cronenberg
  • India Song / 1975, dir. Marguerite Duras
  • Pearl / 2022, dir. Ti West

Every year it seems, there’s a documentary that a number of critics go gaga for and which inevitably disappoints me. In 2018 it was Minding the Gap, in 2019 it was Collective, in 2020 Time, 2021 Flee, and this past year Fire of Love. “Disappoints” is a purposefully vague term meant to cover but regardless I was a little worried about Three Minutes: A Lengthening. (The documentary is technically from 2021 but didn’t make it to America until Sundance 2022; it did not make the shortlist for Documentary Feature, but if it had we might have seen it at the Oscars this year.) What I admire about Three Minutes is that it doesn’t act as if the film itself is somehow doing journalism, or, to put it more unkindly, it doesn’t take us on the true crime podcast twist-shocked-gasp thrill ride that so many widely released docs have fallen into. The circumstances by which the short films were taken and rediscovered are covered quickly; the story of how it was deduced that the Polish town being filmed was Nasielsk is also treated efficiently. There are not talking heads, just talking. The film does not move us away from the fragments, and finds ways to showcase them in new ways. Reversing and forwarding to see the face of the young Maurice Chandler, one of the many youngsters mugging for attention in front of the novel but familiar device. Chandler’s face allows for a digression about social class given the kind of cap he’s wearing compared to some other boys in the frame. Cutting between instances of a girl with braids who shows up an awful lot, someone who must have followed the American tourists and their camera around. Closing in further and further on the square where the Jews of Nasielsk were ordered by the Nazis in December 1939. Technique matters in a non-fiction film every bit as much as it matters in a fiction film, and the technique of Three Minutes is outstanding.

On the other hand, I was incredibly excited to finally dig into Los Angeles Plays Itself; I watched Red Hollywood for the first time a couple days before this, and I was raring to go for another Andersen essay. I didn’t love Los Angeles like I loved Red Hollywood. Although the strategies of both films are much the same, setting up a giant canvas and then dripping over it in stages until it’s filled and then some, I think I was more sympathetic to Red Hollywood simply because the canvas is a little bit smaller. Los Angeles Plays Itself is about something that I’m honestly amazed Andersen managed to fit within three hours. The short version, expressed by Daniel Pinkwater (with the tacit hat tip to Baudrillard), is that Los Angeles doesn’t exist. The long version is Los Angeles Plays Itself, the story of a town that might already defy its own existence a little bit just through its sprawling haze—no one has ever explained why New York is more photogenic than Los Angeles better than Andersen does—but which defies its own existence by hosting an industry that seems a little ashamed to be from there. I was more impressed with Los Angeles than Red Hollywood, but it didn’t gain my fidelity even though I generally agree with Andersen’s arguments about almost everything, from his coolness towards L.A. Confidential to his focus on architecture. Everyone does have to mention the whole “don’t call it ‘L.A.'” thing in order to prove they’ve seen it, and in a goofy way I’m on board with Andersen about that too. In my head, sometimes I call it “Los Angeles” the way they say it in the newsreels, with the long o in “Los” and “Angeles” pronounced “Ann Juhlees.”

Crimes of the Future is the first Cronenberg movie in ages to do the body horror that’s going to be in the first line of his obituary, and I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t miss it. Amusingly, while I venerate his pioneering work in this field, whether it’s the stuff that makeup effects enthusiasts or grad students like, I’m much more drawn to him when he’s depicting some kind of mental torment, a twisting of the brain. That’s why The Fly gets me. The HIV/AIDS metaphor works as well as it does not because of the creeping and inevitable transformation coming to its protagonist; when The Fly was made, AIDS was a death sentence, and there’s nothing about Brundlefly that is inherently a death sentence. It works because it’s about what the irrevocable physical change means to the person trapped in that body, and what it means to the person thrust into the role of caretaker. It’s why A Dangerous Method, bald as it is, remains my favorite movie of his, and why Naked Lunch fascinates me as much as anything else he’s done. Crimes of the Future feels rote down to the presence of Viggo Mortensen and the fact that it shares the title of a previous Cronenberg text. Rote, and almost impersonal. Even something like The Dead Zone, which could have smelled like any Stephen King adaptation, feels far more like Cronenberg than this.

India Song is another film, like Los Angeles Plays Itself, that I had circled for the new year. I was more captivated by Los Angeles, predictably, even though the structure of India Song fits it more tightly. For Jean Renoir, there was nothing to do but go to India to make The River, a picture which one cannot imagine being filmed anywhere else. For Marguerite Duras, working with an all-white cast and shooting in France, the title is essential. We must have it if we are to understand why these languid people could not simply be in France or Austria or northern Italy, why their lives could not be slow and boring and pointless a little closer to home. It’s a movie I struggled to like, although it is ease itself to sit in wonder at Duras’ patience and timing. It is a novelistic film because it relies so boldly on unseen voices to tell the story, although it is not much like a novel in that so many of those voices ask detailed questions which receive a “Oui” in return, as if we know already. And in the performances themselves, even after we’ve gotten proof of the terrible heat which beats them into puddles via some close-ups of sweat, we know how hot it must be in every room, how impolitely humid.

There are some joyfully macabre moments in Pearl that I laughed out loud for. The way that Mia Goth tries to hold that unblinking smile as far as she can into the credits, the way that the alligator catches a decapitated head in its mouth the way a golden retriever would catch a squeaky toy, lines like “It’s just a pig!” I even liked Pearl’s dance audition, which has some Napoleon Dynamite in it but then transforms into a vaudeville routine with pale, rouged toy soldiers in doughboy outfits behind her. To say I was disenchanted by the two long monologues set at the dinner table, one spoken by Pearl’s mother and the other by Pearl, is an understatement. Pearl, like a great many genre movies without gravitas but with pretensions, has a “Gunslinger” problem. “Gunslinger,” a song made most famous by The Limeliters, was written the year after The Searchers and lampoons westerns with unnecessary psychological complications. “Did you come from a broken home on the range?” is a good example, summing up a lot of the problems with Pearl as well. Is there really any point in identifying the brokenness between mother and daughter as the prime mover for a serial killer like Pearl? Mia Goth has a celebrated one-take monologue talking about her deep desires to belong and be loved, and she also has an executive producer credit and a screenwriting credit.

January 2nd

  • Le notti bianche / 1957, dir. Luchino Visconti
  • Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical / 2022, dir. Matthew Warchus

One of the last movies I watched in 2022 was Four Nights of a Dreamer, a Robert Bresson film from 1971 which is based on the same Doestoevsky short story that Le notti bianche is taken from. There are only so many films with multiple interpretations of one story made by such esteemed directors—the only one that comes to mind for me which might equal Bresson-Visconti are the Jean Renoir-Akira Kurosawa renditions of The Lower Depths—and it was serendipitous that I finally got around to Le notti bianche after seizing Four Nights of a Dreamer while it was available via Le Cinema Club. Bresson and Visconti both prove the problem posed in Yeats’ “Among School Children,” where he asks how we may know the dancer from the dance. Only Carl Theodor Dreyer is more reliably spiritual than Bresson, and Visconti, the nobleman who came to prominence with the proletarian Ossessione and La terra trema, is as much a materialist as his Marxist peer Pier Paolo Pasolini. Yet Bresson finds vectors for spiritual meditation through the meanest flesh: an ailing priest, a redoubtable donkey, an axe murderer. And Visconti’s focus on self-representation through blazoned facades are windows to the soul, whether that self-representation is melting hair dye or castles of terrific grandeur. The spirit of auteurism is alive in adaptations of “White Nights.” Bresson is getting after the incorporeal connection that a hobbledehoy tries to make to his painting or to a pretty girl on the Pont Neuf, while Visconti is less interested in what pushes the romantic boy to the shy blonde girl (could it be, as the poet said, any more obvious?) and more interested in how a space makes us fall in love more than the person can. In those dimly lit cobblestone streets, with neon hanging like ornaments from a Christmas tree and the water as black as the shadows, a young man’s fancy gains a direction. I like nice girls more than the next guy, but it’s difficult to see what Mario would see in Natalia, at least in the 20th Century. In the 17th Century it was easier to be father and lover and feel that appealing. Mario is in love with his garret, his coffee, his trips into bars and the cold night promising fantasy and pretty girls that he discovers like Schliemann discovered Troy.

I really thought I was going to like Matilda the Musical. It’s probably mean to say this about a child, but Alisha Weir did not have the charisma of Mara Wilson playing the same character so much as she had the charisma of Mara Wilson’s Twitter. Things never really got that compelling in the film, even though I’m curious about finding other music that Tim Minchin has written. You’d think that braininess and smothering precision would serve a film about a titchy girl version of Reed Richards pretty well, and yet the film never really finds a way to make the (surprisingly crowded) story match the music’s energy. You can get much better in the goofy children line from the Sack Lunch Bunch.

January 3rd

  • The Saragossa Manuscript / 1965, dir. Wojciech Has
  • RRR / 2022, dir. S.S. Rajamouli
  • Cleopatra / 1934, dir. Cecil B. DeMille
  • Vagabond / 1985, dir. Agnes Varda
  • The Menu / 2022, dir. Mark Mylod

A movie that takes three hours to watch is going to gain weight in the mind of a viewer in much the same way that a road trip that takes three hours going one direction is going to feel heavy to the driver. We expect a three-hour drive to have some weight and purpose to it (at least we on the East Coast feel that way). And a three-hour movie, more often than not, tends to be a difficult emotional experience. The Saragossa Manuscript is not at all difficult to sit through or to vibe through. It’s delightful in the same way over and over again through its runtime, and its length is part of the reason why it’s so much fun. The more the film readies you for the joke (“Let me tell you a story about this,” Alfons drinking from the skull goblet proffered by one of his two would-be Muslim cousin brides and waking up among the hanged men, Don Roque Busqueros eating Lopez Soarez’s food…), the funnier it gets. The Saragossa Manuscript is silly, impossible to summarize, and balanced beautifully. From one story to another, Has just cuts. In that moment, it’s like blinking eyes open from a dream, although the joy of the movie is that one falls asleep and picks the dream up only to wake again.

RRR, possibly the most beloved movie of 2022, fell short of hypnotic for me. The CGI is serviceable (not that I wish they were using real animals), and that means that my favorite action sequence of the film doesn’t feel much more than serviceable. I liked that the man of the forest, attempting to rescue a child of the forest, uses the animals of the forest to attack the British palace, but weirdly the animal that got my attention most was a deer that gored a Brit as opposed to a wolf or one of the big cats. Somehow it felt more real to watch that deer prance its way into a human body than it was to watch the backs of a leopard or tiger bend in ways that I’ve never seen them bend before, something more triangular than gelatinous. RRR is at its best in those moments when bodies move with the jaunty joint of ’80s action figures, where you can see the little mechanisms in the arms and legs of the hero. It’s there in the outstretched arms of the bridge rescue, when Raju and Bheem first meet. It’s there in my favorite sequence of the movie, one that I think I’ll end up watching on YouTube for years to come, a loosely synchronized but powerfully precise dance-off with those snooty and somewhat gelatinous limeys.

The first time I ever heard of Claudette Colbert, John Williams was using her in an interview to explain what kind of inspiration he was seeking for “Across the Stars” (you know the one, the “Love Theme from Attack of the Clones“). He was trying to get after that feeling we have watching a star from the past, like Colbert, with some handsome guy. I like Colbert, and I like her opposite handsome guys, but the handsome guys in this movie absolutely get blown off the screen by her. The Mankiewicz Cleopatra does much the same thing that the DeMille Cleopatra does, which is to suggest to us that the queen of Egypt is so hot that Alexandria cools off ten degrees when she leaves town. DeMille does not have Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. He’s got Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon; William is not a bad Caesar, but he’s not bringing a personality to the guy the way Harrison does. Wilcoxon is no comparison for Burton, even though I wouldn’t call Antony one of Burton’s better roles. No, the Cleopatra who we could understand as part of an intercontinental power struggle in 1963 is not like Cleopatra of 1934, who seems to be steps ahead of her competition at all times. Colbert plays her part with the same kind of snappy, canny cognizance that makes her sexy in a Lubitsch or Sturges, and around these marble men the effect is double-edged. The movie is good, not as good as the ’63 interpretation, but Colbert is riveting.

Mona is not a pleasant person, which is one of the reasons why she’s alone as much as she is. There’s an unpleasantness in her that makes her not all that fun to be around over the long term, but it’s self-perpetuating. She can’t make herself amenable to others easily, which other people resent, and then she becomes resentful towards them, etc., etc., until you freeze to death in a ditch. Watching Vagabond one wants to overcome this sort of awkward feeling about Mona, not because she’s the protagonist but because she’s a challenge to any person who wants to brand himself as empathetic. She struggles to receive kindness when there is any hint of remonstrance within it. The farmer, himself a former wanderer who has settled down to raise goats and other critters, sees himself in her. He gives her a little plot that he’ll till so she can grow some potatoes when she says she wants to do it; he does not recognize that this is the kind of help that he might have wanted when he was younger but that Mona cannot accept. It’s the first step in chasing her off the farm, which of course she does herself. Assoun, the Tunisian who is looking after a vineyard basically alone while his colleagues go home to their families, is more straightforwardly giving. In return she picks up the shears and starts to learn how to do the work that he does. (When the men come back and kick her out, she is far more unkind to Assoun than she was to the goat farmer and his wife; it hurts her so much more. It’s such a simple reaction but it aches as much as watching a child express the same kind of pain, a bludgeoning that takes your breath away and causes a panicky flailing.) From whom nothing is expected, much is given. The old lady, mostly deaf and extremely aware that everyone infantilizes her, gets no such treatment from Mona. They crack open a brandy together and get to drinking, and I don’t think any scene has made me smile so broadly this year as this old woman and this young woman, a woman with wealth and a woman with nothing, whooping it up together.

No such smiles were earned from The Menu, which was written by people who don’t have any previous writing credits and was directed by Mark Mylod. Mylod has directed a bunch of episodes of Succession, which might be why I found The Menu such a chore. The sleekness of the environment that Mylod envisions is only so interesting, and thus we’re left with whatever goofy story with hideously prescribed situations and needlessly arch dialogue is there to fill it. This is my problem with Succession, a show where none of the events ever make any sense because they’re all just building up to one larger attempt to make people watching TV over their phones say “Whoa,” and none of the dialogue ever rings true because it sounds like a screenwriting major trying to one-up a theater major as many times as possible over sixty minutes. The same problems are basically there in The Menu, which has three suicides, each of which is less interesting than the last. Look, any of you out there who wrote bad short fiction as a middle schooler, as I did, know that suicide is the road characters take when the writers don’t actually know what to do with them anymore. Maybe Seth Reiss and Will Tracy just needed a first try to get some of the stupid out of their systems, but if they do have careers in front of them, I imagine they’ll be the middling careers of self-important hacks.

January 4th

  • Son of the White Mare / 1981, dir. Marcell Jankovics

Part of me wishes I’d watched Son of the White Mare without the subtitles. It’s not so fantastic a story nor so witty a screenplay that they add a whole bunch; to be entirely honest, you could probably pick up about two-thirds of what you needed to know without reading. And then on top of that, all the words do is interrupt what might end up being the most visually spectacular film I watch this entire year. For such a maximalist film, one which really does mean to awe you in each frame with shimmering detail work within clothing and hard lines like carapaces around the characters, it has a real sense of self-control. It uses a fairly limited color palate, relying heavily on red, yellow, blue, and green at the expense of other secondary colors. There are browns and grays but rarely hard blacks or whites; the white mare of the title is sort of a blueish gal. A fairy tale saga in under ninety minutes, maybe not entirely child-friendly but more than likely spellbinding for people of all ages. It makes you wonder why every movie isn’t animated.

January 5th

  • Captain Horatio Hornblower / 1951, dir. Raoul Walsh

I was kind of expecting an “Oceans are battlefields” vibe from this naval story of the Napoleonic War, and then it turned out to be one of the busier movies I’ve watched in a long time. Over the course of this movie, Hornblower (Gregory Peck, cut from an only slightly less rugged cloth than he wore for Twelve O’Clock High) does a couple of Bond movies’ worth of thrusts and sallies. He falls in love with the hottest babe on the high seas, keeps a straight face in front of what has be the most racist makeup/performance I’ve seen in the past six months, captures a ship only to have to sink it later, escapes French captivity and poses as a Dutchman, and generally has a stiff upper lip and a crippling devotion to his responsibilities. It’s an incredibly fun movie, especially once the film gets past the El Supremo character. (Seriously, is the idea that Europe is somehow immune to the nutjob weirdos with delusions of grandeur who are plaguing Central America in this movie? Europe invented the nutjob weirdo with delusions of grandeur.) Virginia Mayo turns out to be a pretty spry sparring partner for Peck, adequately spunky while totally earning the name “Lady Barbara Wellesley.” There’s also a couple scenes in this movie between them that are genuinely shocking, even by today’s standards. The scene where the two of them, who have been growing extremely close via Hornblower nursing her through three days of “swamp fever” and a relatively steamy montage of longing looks, exchange close words on a starry night on deck is stunning. Not least because it ends with Hornblower, who we cannot imagine ever putting a toe out of line, dropping a grenado on his pretty passenger’s head: I am married. We knew she was engaged, but not that he was married; not long after we find out that his son has been born and his wife has died in childbirth, leaving him a letter which says that in their fifteen years of marriage they have had fifteen months together. A sailor needs someone to come home to, she writes in her final hours. Despite all her years of pining, it turns out that the woman he comes home to is the maid. His wife has been replaced in his heart by a woman of similar appearance who wears clothes identical to hers.

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