2023 Movie Diary (1/31-2/4): Time to Start Watching These Best Picture Nominees

January 31st

  • Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. / 1946, dir. Spencer Williams

This isn’t a movie I would have felt compelled to watch if not for the fact that it’s a Thais movie; it’s entirely possible that I would have been unable to resist “Dirty Gertie” as a phrase forever, so I don’t want to act like I never would have gotten to it. The filmmaking was not really the problem for me, even though I don’t think there were any acting performances in this I actually liked and of course this has the microphones falling into the shot and other issues of that ilk. There is one shot in this movie that floored me, a close-up of Francine Everett where Williams, momentarily released from the bonds of having to film in x days with y number of dollars, simply makes a tremendous portrait of his star. What ultimately lost me was what felt like an unnecessary streamlining of Gertie herself, a woman who as Thais or Sadie Thompson finds something better, or at least more personally fulfilling, than what she practiced before. In Dirty Gertie, she’s just a woman on the run who gets murdered by an ex who follows her to the Caribbean. If she were a three-hundred page book, the film rips the last hundred pages off her life and acts as if there’s no difference in the story. Killing Gertie gives the film a fairy tale feeling, down to this moralizing tone that the film can’t entirely escape. When Lionel Barrymore kills himself in Sadie Thompson, that’s a moral decision by the film as well. He was not holy enough to live with his exacting standards and thus has to die because he is insufficient to God. Sadie, on the other hand, has done some impolitic things in the past but will end up forgiven by her soldier in the end; for a presumably racy film it’s got an incredibly potent case of Christian redemption overlaid atop it. Gertie, with all her running and dancing and flirting and carrying on, almost seems to get what she deserves in an emotionless final confrontation.

February 1st

  • Cooley High / 1975, dir. Michael Schultz
  • Sambizanga / 1972, dir. Sarah Maldoror

Glynn Turman was about the same age when he made Cooley High as Paul Le Mat was when he made American Graffiti, the movie which Cooley High is pulling from most actively. There’s another way of saying this, which is that Turman was about the same age that LaKeith Stanfield was when he was making Judas and the Black Messiah. Remember when we all got mad together about Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya playing guys who were so much younger than they were? Something similar is afoot in Cooley High, a similar problem with the film’s approach to an untimely death that is even more untimely because the boy who’s killed is really just a boy. But the boys of Cooley High don’t really seem like boys, hardly more than the boys of American Graffiti seem like boys, and the older I get—and the longer I’ve been teaching high school, which is related—the more put off I am by watching people who are nearly my age playing people who are eons younger than me. There’s too much focus on how Turman can make Preach older than his years at the end so he can give a big speech rather than how we’re supposed to see Preach as this mischievous but functionally guileless kid. I liked Cooley High an awful lot until it decided that it was going to get murder-serious. Turman is too old for this but he is funny as hell in this movie, and Schultz has a gift with physical space for comedy. The stolen car that Preach is driving like a madman is funnier because the three guys inside with him spend the entirety of Mr. Preach’s Wild Ride smacking him and hitting him over the head and yelling at him to pull over. The scene where Preach hides in an occupied bathroom with a girl who’s sitting on the toilet and doing much the same thing his friends had done in the car is also funny; Schultz leaves the camera in one spot and lets us soak up a goofy premise executed with arrhythmic aplomb.

When I was looking through the additions to the 2022 Sight and Sound list, one of the titles below 100 that caught my eye was Sambizanga, an Angolan film that I had never heard of before, and on seeing it was on Criterion I ran to see it. It’s emphatically worth the run. For one thing, if you scroll through the Letterboxd reviews, you’ll see people reviewing a print that is incredibly difficult to watch with subtitles that are near impossible to read. Since those people saw it, Martin Scorsese and the World Cinema Project have gotten their hands on it, and now it’s pristine. After some introductory text and a map at the start of the film, the first diegetic shot of the picture is one with enormous brown ocean waves almost on top of each other. It’s an unusual position to view the waves from. Tell someone that to imagine waves coming in, and the image you’ll create will almost always have the waves moving at the viewer, colliding with them. The waves of Sambizanga are parallel to us. They will always crash near us but not on top of us. It is a staggering opening shot, one that immediately demands attention, and the film keeps it for the rest of its run. I love the structure of this film. Domingos is captured by the police, pulled from his home while his wife Maria screams and tries to fight the man, and from there the film continues to split. Domingos and his struggles in prison take one part of the film, one that is left for some time before returning. Maria, a rural woman carrying a baby on her back and relying on friends she made far from home more than a decade ago, searches multiple police stations to try to find Domingos. (It is a futile mission from the beginning, not because Domingos dies so quickly but because she has nothing to offer anyone to get him out of jail. It is a dutiful mission she undertakes, not a hopeful one.) And the network of revolutionaries manned by boys and well-off young men in bellbottoms and men with broken arms and crooked legs takes a third string of the film, trying to learn what they can about who the captured revolutionary is, what he might have revealed, who he was trying to recruit. Maldoror will leave characters and situations longer than I expected her to. Even Maria, who is more or less the main character, will disappear for several minutes at a time for a couple of links to be made on the revolutionary side; Domingos is absent long enough in the first half of the movie that I’d begun to expect I’d never see him again. It’s a decision that allows each chapter of the movie to unfold like a novella, and by the end a fairly short film with only a handful of named characters has taken the shape of an epic.

February 2nd

  • Women Talking / 2022, dir. Sarah Polley

It didn’t take me long to remember the last time I’d heard people speak in the style of dialogue that’s dominant in Women Talking, that roundabout, pseudo-profound but mostly obvious as a brick wall style of short sentences. I was thrown back bodily to a room somewhere in Ocean City, Maryland, where I was attending a Christian youth retreat as an eighth-grader and part of a large, free-for-all discussion. The events of Women Talking, the story of women throughout the community who have been drugged and raped in their sleep by the men, is a deadly serious story. It deserves a telling that does not remind me of being surrounded by a bunch of other teenagers reaching for godly commentary with the dignity of raccoons jumping. It’s a tiresome movie where everyone is doing their best Streep impression, which is to say using accent work to define the character for us, but no one is quite capable of maintaining the accent. Claire Foy’s monologues stop being the justifiably angry words of a farmwife and start sounding suspiciously like Elizabeth II again; Jessie Buckley’s Kerry upbringing gets brought up. Even Sheila McCarthy, possibly the only person in this entire movie who’s holding up her end of the bargain, is awfully Canadian when she apologizes and says it “sore-ry.” In almost every movie, I just do not care about whose accent does work. I am less interested in accent work as a statement of performance quality than in maybe any other element of acting. I did not get mad when the people in Game of Thrones could not agree on what kind of British Isles they were inhabiting. I think the reason most people react to accent work in a movie is because it’s the most obvious thing to react to, and you can hear it in action even if you’re playing Candy Crush while watching the picture. The reason I object to the shoddy speech in Women Talking is because it makes a gamble that the accent work fails at. When you keep the action of a film so limited to a few places, we have really buy the reality of that place and of those people; cracks form faster in this kind of movie, whether that’s fair or not, and it doesn’t take long before a film can fall through the ice. Women Talking already has an uphill battle because it takes place in a religious community that the film itself struggles to understand, let alone the coastal liberal viewer the movie is made to excite. The film is shot in this blue-gray haze which deadens the eyes and flattens light. Every time the proof of Buckley’s accent slips out in this movie, that ice gets ever thinner because “Mariche,” who presumably is speaking Plautdietsch and not English, should not sound like she’s from Killarney. The humble clothing of these women becomes pronounced; their unadorned faces draw attention to themselves. Again, the problem with this movie is not in any individual performance so much as it is in Polley’s script, which had me rolling my eyes within twenty minutes, but the voices of these women talking are certainly symbolic.

February 3rd

  • All Quiet on the Western Front / 2022, dir. Edward Berger
  • In the Mouth of Madness / 1994, dir. John Carpenter

All Quiet and Women Talking have basically the same color palette, and even if I don’t really care for it in Polley’s film, at least that’s an interesting stylistic choice. All Quiet‘s use of gunbarrel blue and watered lentils green are par for the course now. We’ve shifted away from those years of Saving Private Ryan adulation, where the lentils were more brown than yellow and there was always a little rain falling. We’ve now reached the point where Dunkirk is the visual paragon for war movies, evidenced at the absolute outer limits of taste with 1917 and now presented thematically as well in All Quiet. Not only have Berger and cinematographer James Friend basically cribbed Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema’s work, but they’ve also done something similar in making their protagonist all symbol, no man. Fionn Whitehead and Felix Kammerer are ciphers, hidden underneath big helmets or mud makeup effects in order to make a point about the common man during wartime. (The noodge in me can’t help but hear Glenn Close saying “Salome…the woman…who was all women…” whenever we try to ensure that the doomed boys of these stories are basically blank slates.) Kammerer gives a decent performance, I think; I’m not trying to write him off, nor Albrecht Schuch as Katczinsky, the most colorful character of the novel or of this adaptation. Private Ryanism supplies the thesis that soldiers are heroes thrust into the bloodmuck of war, and uses movie stars and active cameras to ensure that heroism is brought out. Dunkirkism supplies the thesis that soldiers are cannon fodder and we happen to relate to certain soldiers because of circumstance, not innate qualities. There’s something fascist in that presentation. Paul and Kat and Tjaden and all of Paul’s friends are just there to die and for us to say, Oh, golly, how pointless this all is! There is no more reason to mourn Paul, who dies slightly after 11:00 on November 11th (you know, just for the full gut punch), than there might be to mourn a squirrel that chews through a power line. As a Hollywood Jonesite, I don’t think this picture has its moral compass pointing north. I think I just coined the phrase “Hollywood Jonesite,” and for now what I mean is that the best movies about war recognize that the dehumanization and death of the individual in order to achieve basically fruitless corporate goals is the meaning of war itself. Paul and Kat die, but they were never individuals in the mind of the movie; they can hardly be dehumanized because they are barely human. I even like the moves outside the trenches that the film makes, though, even though doing so only furthers the film’s failure to recognize that Paul might be a human being. (Not to compare this to the 1930 film so much, but that movie does a way better job with seeing the soldiers as individual people than this new version.) Bringing in Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Bruhl, shows that the diplomats and generals and politicians are all working on different planes. Erzberger is trying to prevent more German men from dying. Foch is trying to reverse the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. Delays occur in the negotiations and more men die. It’s all very pointed, and I think the scenes are done well enough to make their inclusion appropriate. It just shows, though, that the new All Quiet is more inclined to whatever Sid Meier’s version of World War I would be than Erich Maria Remarque’s. It’s still a great story, and the novel is as good as it ever was. Do you think Edward Berger and company would be able to reject a war in 2023 with the emphasis they reject a war which was history when their grandfathers were young? If not, then maybe All Quiet on the Western Front has simply lost its power.

On the other hand, In the Mouth of Madness is only more fascinating three decades on. I liked a lot of things about this movie, but my absolute favorite part of it was the part where they said Stephen King’s name in the same sentence as “Sutter Cane,” thus making it clear to Stephen King, his legal representation, and major publishing houses that this “Sutter Cane” dude who writes enormously popular horror fiction and resides in picturesque New England writing increasingly depraved stuff was not, absolutely never, totally unlike Stephen King. Loved that. This is probably the most engaging Carpenter film in terms of its effects since The Thing; Jurgen Prochnow turning himself into something like paper and then ripping himself open is an absolutely spectacular moment. In the Mouth of Madness sits in this fascinating historical moment where people could worry openly about the effect of Satanic imagery on an unsuspecting populace and get people to take them seriously; the West Memphis Three were convicted while the movie was in post. In They Live, a throwaway line towards the end indicts Carpenter as some kind of corrupter of the youth, a vessel for bringing filth into mainstream culture. In the Mouth of Madness is much wiser about what it means to smuggle filth into mainstream culture. When the publishers admit that they sent Cane away from New York in order to set up more riotous publicity to sell his latest novel, it’s an incredibly powerful moment, much more powerful than the self-congratulations in They Live. Here Carpenter points the finger at literally Charlton Heston and his ilk, the people who decry a supposed social downfall via ill morals and Satanic imagery and intend to line their pockets with that wickedness. If you want a horror movie that comments on itself and its genre, this is the one for you; Ari Aster and Robert Eggers haven’t shown the ability to reach the heights Carpenter has even on what appears to have been something of a side project compared to what actually interested him. The Lovecraftian monsters of this movie are honestly pretty creepy!

February 4th

  • Flowers of Shanghai / 1998, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien

Unlike Sambizanga, I’d heard of Flowers of Shanghai long before it showed up in the back end of the latest Sight and Sound poll. I didn’t have an excuse for not watching it earlier, so I gave in to some guilt to watch it. This is why I trust my guilt. Hou is painting in turmeric in this film. The surroundings are dim, in the color of turmeric as you see it in the jar. And the lamps that shine at the center of so many shots are like dried turmeric on a white linen, amplified with stage lighting beneath. You could write a book talking about all of the ways that Flowers of Shanghai is historically beautiful, whether one focused on the faces of actors or their costumes and hair and makeup, the sumptuous production design, the low light, the lengthy medium shots which ensorcel and envelop. In a movie which has maybe two or three scenes which show serious emotional distress, Hou has thrown down a shockingly histrionic gauntlet for other filmmakers: what’s your excuse for not making your films as meaningfully beautiful as this one? There has to be some reason why these men come back to their brothels and play the same dumb games and get drunk every time out and eat the same food and only change things up by sitting at different places at the tables. Is it the women, who they have these years-long relationships with, who they buy trinkets for, who they have to balance jealousies with even though no one can be said to have any claim on a person that lasts longer than a simple debit. In that opening scene, intoxicating as the production is, I couldn’t take my eyes off Tony Leung. He looks like he’s ready to jump off a bridge; he looks as sad, as defeated, as hurt in that opening sequence as I think he does in any part of In the Mood for Love. Why come back when this kind of beauty must be replicable in some other setting, in some other place where you can fix a permanence that is impossible even in cathouses as chic as this? The answer is obligation. Obligation returns the men to the women, keeps the women bound to the men, and puts that look of despair on Leung’s face.

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