- Wee Willie Winkie / 1937, dir. John Ford
I suppose if you compare virtually anything to Gunga Din or The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, it starts to look surprisingly nuanced about imperialism, but Wee Willie Winkie demands that we give the British Raj some side-eye from the very beginning. Priscilla does not immediately grasp the idea of what colonialism is, why the British should be in India at all. It doesn’t really matter that a child says it, for two reasons. First, there is a gust of wisdom in something as simple as Priscilla’s non-comprehension, the way that it is not obvious to new eyes why there should be this kind of dominance exerted by one people over another. And second, that child is Shirley Temple, the third-most popular child in American history. (Baby Jesus wins in a landslide, followed by George Washington back when he was assassinating trees. It is our patriotic duty as Americans to ensure that Caillou remains dead last.) Wee Willie Winkie starts from this point of view, and then throughout, individuals and not nations signify a person’s morality. How immediately susceptible an adult is to Temple’s sweetness is usually the last word on their morality, and Wee Willie Winkie is no different. MacDuff is conquered in an instant, which is makes him the movie’s hero to Priscilla’s heroine. There are some movie stars who you can tell were just so, so good with kids sharing the screen with them, and Victor McLaglen is spectacularly jocular and genial with Temple on screen. I have no idea whether or not McLaglen was personally good with children, but as MacDuff next to Priscilla he is wonderful, mirroring her enthusiasm while still playing the good childless uncle for the camera. In a different movie, he’d be carrying her around on his shoulders or teaching her how to play baseball or something. (Maybe boxing? It wouldn’t be a proper Ford without Victor McLaglen just KOing some poor doofus, and he does that here.) There is another British office who does, in fact, let Priscilla climb on him like he’s a noble steed, and eventually her curmudgeonly grandfather comes around to her too, but the other person in this film besides MacDuff who immediately recognizes how precious Priscilla is stands in total opposition to the Crown. Khoda Khan (played by Cesar Romero, I know, not great, even though he is personally very good in this part) understands that there’s something different about this white girl compared to all the other white people he sees. She is concerned about returning a necklace to him, and she manages it while Khan is in captivity. The British (including the Scotsmen in this unit, who do not appear to have the spirit of Bannockburn in them) react to him like a cat reacting to zucchini, but Priscilla is not trained to see him as the villain. Even when she’s his captive later on in the film, he never treats her like the villain; when the other Indians mock her, he intercedes for her.
- Where Is the Friend’s House? / 1987, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
There’s something a little bit funny about Ahmad running up and down the zigzag path of the hill between Koker and Poshteh, especially when he finds himself doing it over and over again because his understanding about where his classmate Mohammad Reza might be changes over and over again. He isn’t very big—Mohammad Reza is even smaller—and while he has the sprightliness of a child he does not have natural athleticism. His legs don’t move gracefully as he makes the lap between the two towns. They still fumble a little bit, the steps are a little off, his pants don’t do him any favors. The typical read on this movie has to do with adults just really not being able to understand what children say to them, either because children are speaking some kind of different language (it is shocking how often Ahmad has to repeat himself) or because they’re simply disinterested in what the kids might be telling them. Disinterest or uninterest is insufficient for what Ahmad’s mother or grandfather feel for what Ahmad is trying to tell them. It’s anti-interest. Ahmad’s grandfather is an especially irksome burr in Ahmad’s sock, sending him off to buy cigarettes during what’s increasingly become a life-or-death mission for the little boy. I have cigarettes, another old man says. I do too, the family Judas says as he pulls some out of his pocket, but the point is to teach the boy obedience. The teacher listens, for whatever that’s worth, but his vexation is his pedagogy, and the tears he forces out of Mohammad Reza are some of the saddest I’ve ever seen in a film. Not having your homework done, having your homework done badly, having your homework done beneath the contempt of the instructor, being chewed out by the teacher, being late to class: these are the tragedies of childhood. Kiarostami knows it, as I think most of us know it, but he has not forgotten it or suffocated those tragedies under the sediment of age. Where Is the Friend’s House? is awfully empathetic, but what drives that point home is how faithful Ahmad is. There are multiple points in this story where I think a different kind of child, or any kind of adult, might say, “I’ve done my best to return this notebook and now it’s out of my hands.” The thought never crosses Ahmad’s mind, not even when he has to come home for the night. Not to put myself on the couch too much, but this movie doesn’t have an ounce of sweetness in it. Ahmad’s faithfulness is like the faithfulness Johannes displays in Ordet, but it’s all the more potent because the stakes are, frankly, lower, and because there’s no omnipotent god to back him up. It’s just Ahmad.
- Midnight / 1939, dir. Mitchell Leisen
My favorite part of Midnight is, with apologies to Leisen, more about the Wilder-Brackett screenplay than it is about his camera or his blocking. It’s breakfast at this charming residence at Versailles, and the rich folks and their hangers-on are poking around for the choicest delicacies. Marcel, Helen’s gay confidante, remarks that what a disappointment it is that there are no plovers’ eggs. (Rex O’Malley’s performance is so, so good in this potpourri of good performances; it’s like Edward Everett Horton, but a top.) Plovers’ eggs are a great pull here, the kind of thing that only fancy rich people are going to eat. I have Brideshead Revisited lizard brain, so hearing that phrase put me back in the early going of that story. Sebastian has invited Charles to lunch to make up for barfing in his apartment the night before. Boy Mulcaster, the least refined of these fashionable hedonists, wanders in and notes them immediately with an, “Ahh! Plovers’ eggs!” These are the same sorts of people, just Frencher, and so to get this moment with/without plovers’ eggs characterizes them exactly. This is my favorite part of the movie, which is a sick reaction not unlike looking at a beautifully carved door and focusing on the hinges. But it’s great writing!
The dearth of plovers’ eggs leads to questions for the servants about why there aren’t any. Well, the phone is out, the butler says. Helene begs to disagree. The Baroness Czerny (née, and in reality still, Eve Peabody) has just been on the line to Budapest, talking with her rapidly recovering daughter, as has the presently absent Baron Czerny (née, and in perpetuity, the taxi driver Tibor Czerny). The news of a daughter sick with measles has been reported to the Baroness via secret telegram, with a cheerful drawing of a speckled child with the legend “PLEEZ CUM HOME” written next to her. The phone call was faked, with Helene’s husband Georges helpfully voicing the child from another extension. (“Hello, Dada!” he says when Tibor is handed the phone.) And now…the phone is out? We’ve watched Eve get obliterated in bridge earlier this game, but it turns out it’s not because she hasn’t the proper gambler’s streak in her. She doubles down on a bad hand. Tibor is crazy, she tells them. He has these spells where he thinks he’s someone else, like, say, a taxi driver. Midnight spends a long time being more witty than funny, but the film’s turn to total uproar over breakfast got as many cackles from me as any other screwball comedy scene I could name. That plovers’ egg pivot is the center of a great running yolk.
- The Mosquito Coast / 1986, dir. Peter Weir
The Mosquito Coast begins in western Massachusetts, in Hatfield. Allie Fox and his wife, who is unnamed in the film but actually shares the same name as Mike Pence’s wife, are raising four children in one of those rambling farmhouse setups while Allie damns the state of the nation and tacitly, anyone who refuses to recognize his genius. He is a Harvard dropout, a genuinely visionary inventor who would probably be more easily recognized as having the temperament of a cult leader if they had more of those Hulu docuseries widely available back in the ’80s. It is not long before he has lifted his family from Massachusetts and taken them to Central America, where he can be Cortes without all the hacking and slaughtering. It’s meaningful that Allie is living in the key state of New England, the slightly tepid bosom of Yankeedom, because his great flaws are among the great stereotypical flaws of Yankees and Yanquis alike. First, that good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity, the ingenuity of Eli Whitney and Ruth Wakefield and Daniel Chapin, is present in Allie Fox. Unlike Ruth Wakefield, who bestowed the chocolate chip cookie on a grateful world, Allie doesn’t know how to bestow anything but thinks that his fellow man ought to be a lot more than grateful. He has that Yankee stubbornness and arrogance in him as well, a little libertarian New Hampshire seasoning sprinkled atop, along with that busybody quality which is a byproduct of Puritan piety mixed with American arrogance. If he were a midwesterner, perhaps the Law of Jante would prevent him from breaking away from the community; as a New Englander, where secession from the Union was first spoken loudly, “you” knows better than “we” and also won’t shut up about it. This attention to detail points The Mosquito Coast in an entirely different direction from Fitzcarraldo, to which it is far too often and always erroneously compared. Fitzcarraldo wants an opera house in Iquitos and wants to use profits from the rubber business to make that opera house a reality. Fitzcarraldo’s madness is ultimately self-centered in a very literal way. The mania is about him, and he has the wherewithal and sufficient resources to impress that mania onto others the way James Cagney impressed Mae Clarke into a grapefruit. Allie’s madness does not really work that way. If he watched Fitzcarraldo, he would have seen an effete nutcase, not a reflection of himself. Allie thinks of himself as Techno-Schweitzer, one without God but with a great sympathy for men who have not used ice or known the benefits of more modern farming techniques. The film turns on the moment where ice fails to sufficiently amaze the people of the village of Geronimo. No, Allie says, we must take ice to the indigenous tribes of this country, people who can really be in awe of it, and transitively in awe of Allie himself. Before he enlists his sons and a friend to help him carry ice through the jungle so that he can more totally receive the admiration of strangers, Allie is a mostly harmless kook with an inflated ego and a submissive family. After the failure of this mission, Allie spits fire on the rainforest.
This could be a lot worse, to be clear. I love Separate Tables, think it’s long overdue for a reevaluation as a film which gets after this idea of “cancel culture” as well as a film which marvelously adapts not one but two plays. I had to see She’s Gotta Have It at some point, and I have this pet belief that The Front Page is better than His Girl Friday. It’s that 2021 day that really stands out to me. Nomadland just didn’t work for me at all, and the fact that the film feels like a complete afterthought just a few years after winning Best Picture seems like proof that maybe it didn’t speak to people quite as powerfully as like, the Oscars thought it did. But Waves. Man, what a movie that is.
I’ve given out forty-one half-stars on Letterboxd out of about 3,500 rated movies. That’s just over one percent of all the movies I’ve rated on that site, and while I certainly agree that star ratings are not everything, extremely reductive, etc., they do function as a helpful shorthand when you’re trying to recall your impressions of a film years later. For me, the half-star rating is really special, even more special than the five-star rating. I’ve given out two hundred (how neat!) five-star ratings on that app, and I try to save that for movies that make me see God. The half-star rating means one of two things for me. If the movie is just a truly catastrophic picture in terms of craft, it gets the half-star. We’re talking 12 Pups of Christmas, Radium Girls, Shang-Chi level bad. I don’t use that very often, because I really prefer to save the half-star for things which are loathsome. Not just bad, but deeply offensive on a artistic or moral level. Artistically, a film like Language Lessons or First or Bohemian Rhapsody deserves it; morally, that’s for Life Is Beautiful, American Beauty, or, of course, Best Picture winner Crash. Waves is not quite both. I don’t think it’s especially offensive, even though it’s sort of tiptoeing on that line with Sterling K. Brown’s character. (I have kvetched about Brown this year already!) It is absolutely an artistic offense, a series of mystifyingly awful choices which recall Orson Welles’ wonderful comment about a movie being the “biggest electric train set.” Waves is like giving an electric train set to a child whose conception of play is to bash the individual pieces against the wall until he breaks through to the studs.
(At this point, I am not really writing about Waves anymore, so feel free to jump off if you’re not someone who needs extra credit.)
Trey Edward Shults is in his early-mid thirties right now. He’s roughly part of the same generation as people like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, Damien Chazelle, Lena Dunham, Ryan Coogler, the Safdie brothers, Sean Durkin, the Daniels, Chloe Zhao. In other words, they’re Millennials, either Saved by the Bell or SpongeBob flavored, and to see who they call their filmmaking influences is to get a real jolt. I spent like ten minutes on the Internet and here’s what I came up with. I don’t say this because I believe this matters when we talk about analyzing the films (it could hardly matter less to me!), but because I’m trying to see if there’s something in common with their reference books.
|Filmmaker||Influential Directors for Specific Films|
|Ari Aster||Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier, Sergei Parajanov, Peter Greenaway, Nicolas Roeg, Jack Clayton, Powell and Pressburger, Stanley Kubrick|
|Damien Chazelle||Federico Fellini, Marcel Carne, Martin Scorsese, Jacques Demy, Frank Borzage, Vincente Minnelli|
|Ryan Coogler||Andrea Arnold, Spike Lee, Jon Singleton, Abderrahmane Sissako, Ciro Guerra|
|“Daniels”||the Wachowskis, Charlie Kaufman, Wong Kar-wai, Satoshi Kon, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho|
|Lena Dunham||Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, Jaromil Jires, Catherine Breillat, Jacques Demy, Andrea Arnold|
|Sean Durkin||Sidney Furie, Peter Medak, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Michael Winner|
|Robert Eggers||F.W. Murnau, Stanley Kubrick, the Dardenne brothers, John Huston, Jean Gremillon, Sergei Parajanov, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky|
|the Safdie brothers||John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson|
|Trey Edward Shults||Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lars von Trier, Terrence Malick, Elem Klimov|
|Chloe Zhao||Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai, Spike Lee|
Malick, Kubrick, Bergman, and von Trier show up a lot. So do Wong, Demy, Parajanov, Scorsese, Lee, Arnold, and Anderson. Eggers and Chazelle are both reaching all the way back to silent films as a matter of course. Aster and Dunham scan as Europhiles, Durkin as an Anglophile, Daniels and Zhao as inter-Pacific, and Coogler and the Safdies as Americanists. What this exercise says to me, basically, is that there are a lot of directors who have identified a visual style that they like, as well as plot details from specific movies that they feel they should be pulling from or nodding to. What a lot of these people really seem to struggle with is how to grasp the emotional or spiritual implications of the directors they’re watching. This is a dour group of influences, on the whole, and it’s created grumpy filmmakers. Their visions are grandiose. Lena Dunham at least was watching Clueless to help shape her point of view for Catherine Called Birdy. There’s a self-awareness there that’s missing from like, Kwan and Scheinert thinking that their work might resemble Kon or Carax, or in Zhao or Shults’s insistence that their use of light is more Malick than Instagram filter. These are fans of these directors, but I seriously question if even the directors I’d call the most talented of the bunch were able to create movies in the same layer of the atmosphere as their heroes. Robert Eggers has not shown that he’s capable of a Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (I am dreading his Nosferatu…why anyone would make a remake of their own favorite film is an issue best discussed with a licensed therapist.) Damien Chazelle is nowhere near Parapluies or Demoiselles. Ari Aster has not made a relationship befitting some of Bergman’s lesser movies, let alone his best. And Trey Edward Shults will learn, maybe, possibly, who knows, that a good soundtrack is not what makes Boogie Nights good, and that fun lights did not make Terrence Malick’s work divine.