2023 Movie Diary (2/5-2/9): Three Thousand Yangs of Longing

February 5th

  • What Happened Was… / 1994, dir. Tom Noonan
  • Wavelength / 1967, dir. Michael Snow
  • Tartuffe / 1926, dir. F.W. Murnau

What follows is a cursed description of a great movie.

The screenwriting award at Sundance? Yuck! Charlie Kaufman loves this movie? Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! A two-hander where people bounce off each other awkwardly? Good God! But you oughtn’t to judge a movie by its little description on Criterion or Mubi any more than you ought to judge a book by its cover. What Happened Was is such a Sundance movie. A paralegal with pretensions and a crippling fear of embarrassment gets invited to a secretary’s apartment, and while he’s there…not much happens. There are no hard drugs, no guns, no fistfight or attempted rape. The action remains in the apartment, and there are no flashbacks to the law firm or to Jackie’s childhood. Noonan does not allow the camera to rest on obvious close-ups and medium shots throughout the film like it’s any other stage play turned into a movie. The first serious close-ups of the film are jarring; when the movie starts, we’re almost unbelievably far away from Jackie as she’s rushing around the apartment trying to get ready. The film does not impute its seriousness by working in serious colors. It’s dark, but the darkness of the film is because Jackie’s apartment is not well-lit, not because the world itself has gone behind a filter. The light over Michael as he comes in is a strobing fluorescent light that certainly made me blink. There are purples and reds in tandem, a rare combination not just in movies but almost anywhere you look. I’ve had arguments with people before about whether or not doing something at a higher degree of difficulty makes a movie better or worse. I think it’s obvious that the answer is “No,” obviously, and it’s not just because I was taught Mies adages from a young age. What makes What Happened Was great is in part due to how difficult it must have been to create it, especially in the writing. Noonan does not hit a single easy button, but that’s not really about how easy or difficult it must have been to write it. It’s about skill.

Wavelength is another film which falls into this idea of “Is it easy or hard?” that’s better asked “Was this done by someone skilled or unskilled?” I suppose it is easy enough for someone to do the slow zoom in a single room with a week’s worth of footage. It just takes a little mathematics. That’s also the most uncharitable way to describe Wavelength, which, to put it just as casually, I’d happily call one of the twenty-five greatest films of the 1960s. There is a story in Wavelength, I suppose, which is that a man wanders into a room, keels over, and then later one a woman reports that there’s a corpse in her apartment. Snow is not a storyteller. He is a visual artist. It is not hard to fake being a storyteller. Surely you know people who delight in telling stories from their lives or from the lives of acquaintances of acquaintances, people who want to tell you about being at a baseball game or what they saw at the zoo. Those people may play at storytelling, but they could not be visual artists. Part of the immense joy in great visual art is in its mercilessness. A stroke of the brush, an incision of a chisel, a swipe of the charcoal and it’s wrong forever. Wavelength is as subject to editing as any other film is, but there is a mercilessness in its presentation which adds to its greatness, which creates an awe for us as we’re sucked ever closer to the final destination, a point in space, on screen.

In Tartuffe, we see the play described as being one for all times. Maybe (probably?) this is an Anglophone chauvinism coming out, but there are simply not that many Moliere movies running around. Murnau’s Tartuffe, which slims down the action of the play considerably and succumbs to the inclusion of a frame narrative, might even be the best known movie of the MCU? The best parts of this movie are probably not the ones which are pulling from the play itself, although Lil Dagover is very good as the despairing wife of the story’s key idiot. Even though old master Emil Jannings is Tartuffe in this film, and even though the movie’s frame is about a young man who is worried that his grandfather is being manipulated into leaving his fortune to someone else, Murnau simply seems most at home with the women in this film. The housekeeper in the frame narrative is as much a monster lurking in sepia shadows as Nosferatu, a parasite, a bloodsucker with a bestial face. The best scene in the movie works because of Dagover, who weeps a couple of tears onto a miniaturized picture of Werner Krauss, and in doing so disfiguring his face as her understanding of him has been disfigured by the addition of the trickster Tartuffe to their family.

February 6th

  • After Yang / 2022, dir. Kogonada
  • Three Thousand Years of Longing / 2022, dir. George Miller

In a month or so I’m going to have to really knuckle down and get to work on the Grouches, which is the best-of Anglophone cinema per year awards we do here which have better taste and structure than the Oscars. I am not looking forward to it. I really hoped that After Yang would be the movie I watched that gave me a clear frontrunner for some of the awards, given that (spoilers) Nope appears poised to run away with the majority of the very real trash cans I give out to the winners. I liked After Yang, which is shot handsomely and which I think has a pretty unpretentious approach to what the near future could look like. Kogonada evinces a gift for making the world of his characters seem entirely normal to his characters, rather than asking us the characters to wink at us in order to get a reaction or for us to put our fingertips together and coo, “Ahhh, hard science-fiction.” After Yang reminds of Never Let Me Go the novel as much as anything else, more for the sense of a future that is so established that the characters take their lives there as inevitable and less so for the business about what humanity actually means, the age limits on the soul, things like that. The issue I have with After Yang is that for all of this quiet industry to make the lives of the characters feel real to them, the ideas in the movie don’t live up to that rigor. I kept trying to understand the movie as something more than “human starts to recognize that the robot/servant is not really so Other” mostly because I didn’t want to think the movie was stuck in that place itself. The more After Yang insists on its thesis, the more stale it becomes.

On the other hand, Three Thousand Years of Longing was outstanding. There are a lot of critics agglomerated by Rotten Tomatoes who did not have much use for it: Stephanie Zacharek, Manohla Dargis, Adam Graham, Richard Roeper, Bill Goodykoontz, Dennis Schwartz, Kristy Puchko, Christy Lemire, Anthony Lane, Mark Asch. What it comes down to for most of those critics (certainly not all!) is that they treated the Djinn and Alithea as a frame narrative for three stories told by the former, and found themselves bored or disinterested by those three stories. A bored critic is every bit as bad as a bratty child or a snotty hedge fund manager, since, like the child or the capitalist, the critic does not frequently think about how they got that way. The bratty child wants a candy bar in the supermarket, and the snotty hedge fund manager wants to be treated like a brilliant benefactor rather than being seen as Nosferatu with a necktie. The bored critic believes that their boredom has to do with taste rather than with, well, personality. Clearly, I was entranced by the three stories that the Djinn told, as well as the romance between himself and Alithea. There’s a moment in that third one where Zefir, the first woman who the Djinn has really loved, wishes that she had never known him. I gasped. You could impale someone on a duller spear than that one. Imagine falling in love, giving everything you could to someone, choosing someone so totally, and then, more by accident than by malice, losing her forever. It’s worse than death, because at least a dead person doesn’t have to sit around thinking about how s/he was killed. The Djinn has to live with that thought, dying alive, more than entrapped in the little bottle that Alithea toothbrushes open later on (one of the several head-shaking “No no no” laughs I had in this movie) but entrapped in a romance that can be second- and third- and thousandth-guessed for hundreds of years. If the Djinn is the main character of this movie, or if Alithea is, then I suppose I can understand a certain amount of impatience on the part of an audience member who is waiting to get more Idris Elba or Tilda Swinton. But the thing is that the movie’s protagonist cannot possibly be the Djinn. He is a supporting character, the patron saint of anyone who cannot be the protagonist in his or her own life. His existence is defined by doing for others, not for creating for himself. George Miller is writing a story interested in lacing fingers over fingers, the fingers of one hand representing adolescent fascination and the fingers of the other representing sacrificial adoration. Understand Three Thousand Years as the first Powell and Pressburger film that anyone has made in some decades. Not as beautiful as The Tales of Hoffmann, but as convinced that we should be prepared for some unpredictably glorious sight. Not as balmlike at the end as A Canterbury Tale, but still completed with a feeling of great peace. Not as rigidly structured as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but as convinced that three is a number of power. Not as wry as I Know Where I’m Going, but as certain that the love of one’s life might simply be a trip away.

February 7th

  • Cane River / 1982, dir. Horace Jenkins

If After Yang gets a little too far into an idea I’ve seen once too often, Cane River stops short on an idea that I’ve not seen enough. Peter is about as privileged as Black men get to be in the early 1980s. He’s been drafted by the New York Jets, but the money they can offer is not enough to interest him; he has resources enough at home. Though he’s Black, he’s described more often as “Creole,” which is a way for the film to get into colorism. He comes from a landowning family which has held that land for more than a hundred years. When Peter finds out that the land he came home to work has been sold thanks to an unusual will, money problems, etc., he reacts violently to it. It’s then that we realize that even for a Black Louisianan, this is perhaps the first real crisis of his life. The same is not true for Maria, whose father has died, who lives with a religious mother whose personal conservatism creates frequent strife compared to her slightly liberated daughter, and who works as a tour guide at the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. You can guess which one of those three elements I found most fascinating, and you can also probably guess which of those three elements becomes the primary source of antagonism in the film. Cane River has, as everyone says, that Romeo and Juliet vibe to it, in which two young people fall in love and their families from different circumstances don’t approve. That’s fine, but in so doing one also remembers that Romeo’s great-great grandparents did not own Juliet’s great-great-grandparents. For as much as the film wants to show the differences in social class between the two, the major objections to their romance still primarily come from Maria’s mother, who is just as upset that her daughter is dating one of the Metoyers as she is that her daughter is running around New Orleans unwed and that she may not end up at college because of a guy. It’s too universal to be really potent or, within the text itself, clearly groundbreaking.

February 8th

  • The Blood of Jesus / 1941, dir. Spencer Williams

I went back to the Spencer Williams well for The Blood of Jesus, and after being more or less disappointed by Dirty Gertie, this worked out better for me. Is it a narrative? Sure. Does the narrative matter all that much compared to the use of spirituals and other sacred music? I don’t think so! Whether or not the story of a recently baptized woman whose useless and irreligious husband accidentally shoots her goes anywhere is not what will stay with me about The Blood of Jesus. Nor do I even think that the movie’s photographic and special effects, which are incredibly impressive for being made on the shoestring budget this movie was made on, are the things that will hang with me. (I mean, maybe this movie’s slightly adorable presentation of the Devil as a guy in a onesie will last longer on me than I expect, I dunno.) But the women of this film, moving from one song to another, is going to linger. When people know something, when they have grown up knowing it and doing it over and over again, then transitioning into that mode in front of or absent a camera is going to be organic. There is a quality of rehearsal in the music of this film which comes, of course, from rehearsing. This is not a magic of the movies thing; the choral group which I presume did most of the singing is credited, after all. It’s also about this incredibly fine line between being absolutely familiar with an idea without ever growing tired of it, like an athlete’s footwork or a professor’s area of study. It isn’t a great movie, but for the music alone The Blood of Jesus is an essential filmic document of American religion.

February 9th

  • Tongues Untied / 1989, dir. Marlon Riggs

I went into this film with a reasonably amount of knowledge about Marlon Riggs, but I also went into it knowing nothing about Essex Hemphill. This must have the best screenplay of any documentary I’ve ever come across, with the poetry of Hemphill and Joseph Beam included, as well as assistance from several others including Riggs. The performances of the poetry in this film are astounding, but the imagery they rely on is masterful stuff. I was mesmerized by this poetry, and more specifically by three sections of Tongues Untied.

  1. If you can put it up on the walls of a high school classroom or drink coffee out of a mug emblazoned with it, your inspirational quote is dumb. Thus I am not much inclined to respect a line as hackneyed and wrongheaded as “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” which basically says that if your feelings get hurt it’s your own fault. All the same, I was reminded of it as Riggs filmed one man having a conversation with another about fending off homophobic slurs. His idea was that if someone was going to insult him, that someone was going to have to do the work of explaining what it was that was so offensive in his language. This is pretty far from “inferior without your consent.” This is more like Gandhi, this idea that when you ask evil to reflect on itself often enough, eventually it has to pause, slow down, reckon with itself. Hearing someone express this idea casually in some restaurant is incredible, and more than incredible, it’s individual. He’s not saying that he intends to be at the vanguard of some campaign, but that in his day-to-day life he has a moral strategy to maintain himself and better others. I was floored, and a little ashamed that I’m not sure I have something like that in my own life.
  2. The best sequence in here, at least from my movie critic perspective, is one in which a story about going to school as a Black boy is recounted. The speaker provides the story, while four different male mouths all spit out some different slur, epithet, or insult. Two of them are white mouths speaking racial slurs. Two of them are Black mouths demeaning the speaker’s homosexuality. It’s painful, for sure, but the longer it goes on the more all of it starts to feel identical. It’s vitriol, over and over. It’s hatred, over and over. It’s all bad, and over the course of a few minutes, that kind of malice flattens itself out to become a singular malice which is not penned in by race. Riggs doesn’t have to ask the question of how it feels for that malice to flatten itself out over a lifetime. When he gets his interview and footage about the Houses in New York City (a year before Paris Is Burning brought some of those same figures to the screen), you know why they exist.
  3. I’ve seen Spike Lee’s School Daze, and I’ve seen Eddie Murphy’s anti-gay standup routine before in other work. It still really sucked to watch those two, thanks to their use of the f-word, put together in close proximity in Tongues Untied. It’s 1989 and American’s most prominent Black filmmaker and most prominent Black movie star are, in their own ways, the two Black mouths spewing slurs at people like Marlon Riggs. It’s another way for the film to show the necessity of solidarity in the gay Black community, but in 2023 it also acts as a reminder that Tongues Untied is not some faraway historical document. All you have to do is get Netflix going to see more of Murphy and Lee. On the other hand, Marlon Riggs died in 1994 from AIDS-related complications, still years away from forty. There is no older, wiser, or cuddlier Marlon Riggs for us on Netflix.

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