2023 Movie Diary (1/26-1/30): The Vanquishing of the Witch Tim Burton

January 26th

  • Devdas / 1955, dir. Bimal Roy

Devdas does not have the structure, precisely, of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov, although the eponymous characters of both stories share an emotional bond. Despite having significant advantage in his society due to money, property, and the other niceties of a higher class, the men are unlucky with the objects of their first attraction and fall into a despair which only serves to attract a well-meaning younger woman to them. In both stories, that younger woman can only forestall the death of a man she believes to be talented and noteworthy for so long. Devdas does something much more interesting with this idea than Ivanov does, with apologies to Chekhov. Ivanov designs the failure of the romance with Sasha with the same blueprint he saved for Sarah, albeit with a facade in a different style so as to throw off would-be critics who might accuse him of self-plagiarism. Find a woman who devotes herself to you, ask her to prove she’s willing to renounce everything in order to gain you (Anna gives up the name Sarah, her family, her Jewish faith, where Sasha goes against the will of her family in marrying this dried brown husk of a bureaucrat), and then systematically destroy her with profound personal worthlessness. Devdas makes its central character, if anything, even more worthless than Ivanov is, and in that worthlessness it finds a success I confess I did not expect from its beginnings. Devdas does not act boldly enough, does not give up his family and more important the privileges of caste to marry Parvati, who is genuinely devoted to him. He lives to regret it, and then the girl who comes into his life deciding she can fix him is even further from acceptability. Increasingly addled by alcohol, Devdas is ultimately only too willing to let Chandramukhi dance her way into becoming his caretaker. Where Ivanov merely repeats himself, Devdas is like a magnet with conjoined poles, capable of rejecting and attracting Paro and Chandramukhi at the same time.

January 27th

  • none

January 27th honks! In 2018, I spent a Saturday on Filmstruck; in 2022, I had a busy afternoon on the Criterion Channel. All of these were first watches for me except for Bernie, which I was going to show for a movie club at school later in the week, and I love first watches more than I love any other kind. I am excited to watch a movie I’ve never seen before. What if it has an idea I’ve never encountered previously, a shot or an expression I’ve never come across? What if it’s one of the best movies of its year, of its decade, or one of the best by its director or with its star or from one of its technicians? I saw Ordet for the first time in March of 2017, and it was the best movie I had ever seen. It is still the best movie I’ve ever seen, but I haven’t given up hope that there may be a greater movie out there somewhere. If the most important feature ever made is Battleship Potemkin, and Citizen Kane is second, then Breathless is probably third. It’s so wonderful to think that a person can sit down on the couch and decide, Hey, I guess today is the day I see the third-most important movie of all time, one that’s been rewriting editing for more than six decades now. Or that on a Sunday, you can pop in a movie you got from the library and find out that it was the best movie of the 2010s, maybe the best movie of the century. Certified Copy is this narratively complex film, complex with its own story but also pulling knowingly from Journey to Italy and literary theory. I adore it for that complexity, but also for the unbearably true simplicity at its center, this idea that Juliette Binoche speaks while she curls on top of the sheets. “If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses, we’d be less alone.” On January 27th, you can have your heart broken hearing something so permanent. And on January 27th, you can also be unlucky enough to watch The Family Stone, a movie which just sucks. The high of seeing Eisenstein’s masterful Ivan the Terrible, Lee Grant at her broadest and yet most terrible focus…and then The Family Stone, a movie that is so offensive and awful that I honestly don’t even have words for it. Life’s funny like that. (Unlike The Family Stone, which is devoid of humor, unless you think that the way God made horseshoe bats or star-nosed moles look has a mirthful malice to it.)

January 28th

  • The Chess Players / 1977, dir. Satyajit Ray
  • The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga / 2014, dir. Jessica Oreck
  • Abigail’s Party / 1977, dir. Mike Leigh
  • Damnation / 1988, dir. Bela Tarr
  • Elvis / 2022, dir. Baz Luhrmann

There are more movies that I admire than like in this stretch. If I were to choose one that I enjoyed most, I’d go with The Chess Players. Two noblemen, theoretically two military officers, are addicted to chess at the expense of everything else. Their wives diminish. One has to dissemble in order just to get her husband in the same room as her, while the other has simply begun inviting her lover to her bedroom because her husband is always somewhere else. On the other side, a British colonial officer and soldier is coming up with increasingly weak reasons to force the local king to abdicate. The game is afoot on both sides. Whether the two noblemen, played by Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey, are even good chess players is up for debate; the film gives the sense that the one played by Kumar is not bad, while the one played by Jaffrey is sort of a chess klutz. (I’ll grant that I am probably reading other Jaffrey roles into this.) Outram, played by Richard Attenborough, would be a heck of a chess player if given the opportunity. He has the soldier’s psychology that is necessary to win games of chess, the psychology to say “Checkmate” and then force the opponent’s king to throw down his crown. Unlike one of his top subordinates, Weston, he is not all that impressed about what his opponent might do to him, or what qualities he has outside of his performance on the board. He is primarily interested in winning the game, and thus his mind is focused and diffuse at once: focused on victory, ranging with possibility. This is not a terribly serious movie. Richard Attenborough looks too much like Richard Attenborough to be menacing, while Kumar and Jaffrey are one stooge short of a true slapstick scene. The Chess Players understands that you can be at the very edge of historical change just as you can be at the edge of checkmate without having realized the pieces were arrayed so dangerously against you.

On the other hand, I wanted to like The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga but couldn’t ever get that far. I like the form of it, the way that it puts a very modern, very natural set of scenes in present-day Eastern Europe and Russia against the Soviet past against a story of Russia’s most notorious cryptid. I liked the way that the film used images, almost like montage, to connect the illustrations of the children Ivan and Alyona with the real people gathering firewood or foraging for mushrooms. It’s a well-made movie, and yet I struggled to feel a sense of urgency in the documentary. Oreck’s insistence on creating a sense of forever in her writing and in the narrations over the scenes of rural life is misplaced. The film does better at building the idea that time is endlessly permeable, that it folds on top of itself like curtains in a wind, when it’s unexpected. The mishmash of Soviet troops invading a rural home, the knock in the middle of the night, and then out of the frying pan and into the fire of a magical and conniving demon woman is surprising. One great evil of Russian manufacture bleeds into another. The evils of civilization have not smoked out the evils of a magical past any more than the evils of the past have retarded the evils of the modern world. That’s compelling, spoken in simple language and depicted in wonderful images. There’s some nice use of magic hour in the photography of modern-day Russia, but even Chloe Zhao does magic hour. Is time standing still or do these people just do the same stuff their grandparents did?

Abigail’s Party doesn’t have a suicide in it, which means it gets off easy in my estimation compared to movies that have to end with suicides because they don’t know where they’re going. That it ends with a fatal heart attack is still not particularly impressive to me. The dinner party story is always fraught from a structural perspective because it either ends at some kind operatic high which feels completely contrived in comparison to what’s usually a realistic-ish story, or it ends with an anticlimactic dud. Most writers do not have the bravery to end with anticlimax, and Mike Leigh in the 1970s didn’t quite have anticlimax in his system. He has the sense not to end the film with a suicide, because, truly, who cares, but ending with the unexpected heart attack is not all that much better. About half an hour into the movie it became clear that it doesn’t have much in it except harboring nasty feelings towards most of its characters. There’s nothing for us to do but find Beverly obnoxious, Laurence craven, Angie brainless, and Tony tight-lipped. All of that is laid out with perfect clarity within thirty minutes. The movie runs another seventy. It’s endless, and while all of it is done with some aplomb by the actors (I like John Salthouse’s occasional moments of lust and essential moments of politeness), we get the point so fast. And then…we keep getting the point. Whether we get the point over and over again in a movie is not necessarily the issue, but Abigail’s Party is only about the point. If it didn’t have the point, it would collapse in seconds, and part of me wishes it had.

I’m only human. If a director’s reputation is that s/he makes lengthy, beautiful films about the deep melancholy of the human condition, then I’m going to be a little intimidated. Long story short, Damnation is my first Bela Tarr, and although Kanopy has The Turin Horse and Satantango, I’m glad that I started with Damnation. (It’s not quite my first Bela Tarr experience. When I was a kid, the youth minister at my church showed us the first ten minutes or so of Werckmeister Harmonies, which then turned into an inside joke within the youth group, and I realize this makes me sound like I’m not a real person.) Damnation is, as I understand it, a pretty good insight into the kind of film that Tarr has made himself legendary making, and as usual the report is more about the patient, slow camera than it is the texture of the film. I think my favorite shots in the film were the ones where rainwater falls down the outside walls, just full enough to create a thin, spackled foundation over them yet still totally transparent. I don’t know how many directors would work for that kind of shot, would find ways to make rainwater so precisely hyperreal while also using puddles as sources of apathy or sources of surprising, dancing joy. Rainwater is loneliness, a man without an umbrella. Rainwater is distance, a woman with an umbrella quoting an extended Bible verse to a man whose head is soaked. Rainwater is what drives people inside, what starts a circle of dance, what compels a sweating clarinetist to blare endlessly.

I went into Elvis with a deep sense of dread. There is no type of genre that bores me more than musician biopics. I laughed at Walk Hard because it’s funny, but I hate this genre so much that I couldn’t even enjoy that movie very much. Elvis from, as HBO Max captions it, “visionary director Baz Luhrmann” is a truly hellish bingo card. It was nice to be surprised by the first half hour or so of Elvis! The way that the film just does not waste any time in giving young Elvis the most ludicrously obvious pair of motivations for his music is so dumb that it’s halfway to brilliant. Everyone already knows that Elvis’s music is a fusion of appropriated and beloved Black rhythm and blues with revival tent gospel, and so starting with Elvis captivated by a blues guitarist and a stomping evangelical service within seconds of each other is like checking off a pair of boxes which everything else in the wake of Walk the Line takes twenty minutes to tromp through this same crap. In that first thirty minutes or so, Elvis gets at this idea, sometimes in hilarious ways and sometimes in sensible ones, to show him as this person who is really fascinated by Black music, Black culture, and who at the same time gets ahead because he’s the white guy who can sell it to white people. Short of a couple B.B. King cameos and an illegally integrated concert, the film doesn’t have all that much to say about the idea. As the movie gets further away from this idea and more towards this idea that Colonel Tom Parker is fat Mephistopheles with a literally indescribable accent, Elvis himself becomes less interesting. He does less and less, less and less happens because of him, and all he is, by the time he’s bellowing “Unchained Melody,” is the voice in our earbuds. I’m not a mark. I’m not going to say that Luhrmann can’t help falling in love with the Austin Butler-Elvis figure who’s been formulated by the film, but this picture becomes unwieldy once Elvis hits Las Vegas because he at that point he’s simply victimized over and over again through no fault of his own. No flashy outfits, wild makeup, or bouncy cuts can overcome this inevitable plot.

January 29th

  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail / 2016, dir. Steve James
  • Mike Wallace Is Here / 2019, dir. Avi Belkin
  • Bless Their Little Hearts / 1984, dir. Billy Woodberry
  • Big Fish / 2003, dir. Tim Burton

The people in Abacus aren’t really that interesting. They react more or less across the spectrum of reactions we’d expect honest people getting sued by the federal government to feel. The patriarch of the family is more or less composed, if obviously not pleased that this lawsuit is coming to dominate his last years. His wife, who is not really that interested in banking, is horrified by the social effects where she doesn’t know how to even tell her friends that her husband and daughters are innocent of the crimes the government has thrown at them. The sisters range from philosophical to whatever the loud stage is right before verklempt. The quality of a documentary, which I am sure would shock Morgan Neville, is not dependent on how interesting the subject is. Steve James isn’t immune to this problem, but Abacus mostly escapes this problem because James has an angle that I’ve rarely seen in filmmaking about the 2008 financial crisis. So many of the docs spend time on the overview of the crisis and then go into the major malefactors. By finding the opposite end of the spectrum—a small bank that employed individual wrongdoers rather than an international bank run by avaricious megalomaniacs—James can get into the cowardice of the government rather than the story of the criminals and their wrongdoing. The people doing the wrong thing here are employed by the government, attorney generals who have decided to get easy wins for their careers and the lawyers who have to follow in that direction. Cyrus Vance, who either is too afraid of Wall Street or too dependent on them to do his job to its fullest, most responsible extent, gives in before he even begins. The reason we can have a financial crisis is because of Cyrus Vance, not because of people like Lloyd Blankfein, and certainly not because of people like Thomas Sung.

I hadn’t heard anything good about Mike Wallace Is Here, and that was basically supported by this documentary which gives a balanced portrait of the famous newsman. Mike Wallace, the interviewer with viperine quickness who redefined what a hard-hitting interview looked like. Mike Wallace, who exemplified toughness but who was not immune to long bouts with depression. Mike Wallace, who, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, was told by the onetime face of Fox News that Wallace was his role model. I can understand why Mike Wallace Is Here, down to its title, wants to do this thing where we get as many sides of Wallace as possible. What I don’t understand is why the people making this documentary thought that would create a smarter, fairer, or more insightful documentary. When you tell the story of someone’s career in order and then throw in a “Personal life” section followed by a “Legacy” section, you’ve made a Wikipedia page. When you do it as a documentary, you’ve made a Wikipedia page with clips. I don’t understand why, if Belkin is not secretly a reporter for the New York Times, he is so hesitant to have an opinion about the guy. At the beginning, when he starts with the O’Reilly interview, I thought this documentary might be going somewhere. I thought we might be getting after this idea that maybe Mike Wallace, the central figure if not the originator of the news magazine program that’s the progenitor of Geraldo Rivera or like, Jesse Watters doing interviews on the street, was not a net positive for journalism. Maybe it’s worth it to say that this guy and his dramatic style of news analysis was more newsmaking for him than it was effective to help people understand what was going on in the world, and that his followers, looking for moments to go viral with their Hitchslaps, are a scourge on genuine understanding of current events. But Belkin, like Wallace himself in his late years, simply doesn’t have a good way to describe how he ought to be remembered. It’s as if the film says that even Mike Wallace can’t give a real answer, so why should we?

There are directors I’ve lost my optimism about. When I watch their movies, I don’t have that thought I had before I watched Breathless, for example. David O. Russell lost me early, back when I was watching The Fighter in theaters and I felt like I could see the wires on the actors. Mervyn LeRoy lost me when I saw Gypsy, a film where he had great actors and still couldn’t make hay. I’ve seen too many movies by Steven Soderbergh that are simply good not great, and I no longer believe in him to make a great film. When Out of Sight and The Limey were just good and not as revelatory as I was informed they would be, I stopped thinking that his heights could be higher than good. I remember the exact moment when I gave up on Noah Baumbach for good. (Trust me, though, had I watched his filmography as it was happening, it would have happened well before this.) It was during Marriage Story, in that scene that made the memes, and not even when he dropped “Being Alive” for the emotional plagiarism.

This was the great moment of the film. It was designed to be that way, this apex of emotion and expression and frustration. And the design could not have been more obvious, the execution could not have been more see-through. I felt myself receding from the film during this scene, becoming more and more alienated from it. It was not honest. It was spectacular, but there was no more feeling in the spectacle than there is inside a Catherine wheel. The argument at the tail end of Bless Their Little Hearts does not have any of those problems. The fight that Nate Hardman and Kaycee Moore have blisters. It shimmers with what feels like genuine pent-up anger, titanic because neither one of them is maintaining dignity, because they are shouting over one another, because the dialogue is not so precious that every line of it must be heard, because the blocking is not so pristine that every footstep must be measured, because the camera moves and twitches a little with discomfort. The two of them have found ways to try to handle their displeasure with one another already. She gives him money to give to the children for the church offering; she wants him to feel small, to know that the provider should not have to get money from one of the people he’s providing for so the children can put in some small tithe. And he has begun to insert himself into the life of another woman, although when she starts talking to him about becoming more involved in her children’s lives, he says that he can barely handle the responsibility of the children he has now. (He’s overstating his capacity.) The fight is not dignified, not pretty. It is not set up so that we can feel some kind of sympathy for both of them, so that neither of them truly compels us to take a side. It is set up so that we know he is wrong, that she is blasting him for being so wrong, and that being as wrong as he is is crippling him. Once the scene was over, and it is a long scene, I was put in mind of this moment from an episode of Chopped I must have seen ten years ago now. One of the judges compliments a chef on how well he’s cooked his pasta, but doesn’t gush about it. “It’s proper,” he said. I didn’t want to gush about how perfectly Woodbine, Hardman, and Moore (goodness, especially Moore) are in this scene. Simply, it was proper.

In Big Fish, we find out that Edward Bloom is dying of cancer. He’s given up on chemotherapy and is basically waiting to die. Then, some time later, he has a stroke which hastens the process of his death. All the same, Edward is basically the same throughout. He’s still lucid enough to hear, still able to speak and be a bedbound version of his raconteur self. And despite the words of the local doctor who says that he hates hearing people try to have heartfelt deathbed confessions, what happens in the end is not unlike one of those deathbed confessions. Finally, armed with more knowledge of his father’s mysterious past and girded with empathy which he did not have before, Will tells a big fish story of his own while his father listens and, once affirmed, can give up the ghost. Big Fish is a movie which takes pleasure in its divergence from the truth, a series of divergences which end up being about as important as the differences between what an amateur angler says his catch weighed and what it actually weighed. In both cases, he caught the fish. Edward worked at the circus for a while, he knew a really tall guy, he fell in love, he wound up in a place called Spectre for a while, he was a traveling salesman. His adventures barely qualify. All of it is for these incredibly stupid moments at the end of the film, moments which are presumably meant to jerk out tears. Certainly the film has a reputation as a tearjerker, and if you’ve cried that’s fine. But I wonder what we’re crying for in this movie. Are we crying for seeing these characters again when Will runs Edward into the river, characters we’ve known for no more than two hours? Are we crying because Will and Edward, two men who don’t see eye to eye, have made up with one another at the last moment? I couldn’t get over how false all this felt, like no one involved with this movie had ever watched someone die before. This idea that there needed to be cancer and a stroke is proof that the film just has this cutesy little parade lined up at the end. The idea that a man’s wife of decades would, at this moment, say, “Sure, I’ll go home and let my husband stay at the hospital tonight without me when I may never seen him again” is proof that the film sees her as a prop in this sparring contest between father and son, like her job was done when she bore him. (“Mom, Dad doesn’t always tell me the truth about stuff.” “Well, Spectre was a place he felt like he had to help rebuild, not this weird Hobbiton ripoff stuck at the end of creepy path.” “Okay, neat.” Roll credits.) Good movies are frequently manipulative. It comes with the territory. I prefer that the people who try to manipulate me, in real life and in film, are not enormously stupid. Life is a carnival, according to Tim Burton, which would maybe hit harder if I hadn’t seen people like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman knock this idea out of the park. Tim Burton takes a swing at this idea in Big Fish, spins around like a cartoon character, and hits himself in the nuts with the bat.

January 30th

  • Portnoy’s Complaint / 1972, dir. Ernest Lehman

When an editor or a DP gets into direction, I’m generally interested. When an actor gets into direction, I roll my eyes for a couple features and then see what’s actually going on there. When a writer gets into direction, I get nervous for them. Ernest Lehman’s Portnoy’s Complaint takes one of the wordiest, talkiest novels in recent American literary history and makes it a tremendously wordy and talky movie. Scenes are lifted from the novel, which, fine, but some of them are monologues that simply do not work when the camera is just sitting there looking at Richard Benjamin’s shirtless torso and Karen Black’s indistinguishable body and Benjamin is doing the “Now you know the worst thing I’ve ever done” bit, among like six other bits mishmashed together. I was terrified for “Leda and the Swan” after that, although I thought Benjamin and Black were a little more game there. Family scenes were fairly effective, and Jeannie Berlin is almost as horrifying and pure here as she was in The Heartbreak Kid. Generally it was a perfectly fine adaptation, but Lehman approached this movie like he had a book to turn into a screenplay, not like he had to turn it into a movie that we were all going to have to watch together. The complaint is thus just a therapy session intercut with flashbacks, and the punchline of the book, one of the few pieces that doesn’t get at least some representation in the film, is elided. Portnoy’s Complaint is a novel where no one learns and no one hugs. As a movie, man, it gets way closer to that learning/hugging point.

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