For Musings, I take a look at the trilogy of Jack Ryan movies from the early 1990s, and how they reflected the global politics and action aesthetics of the time. I can now happily check "Get paid to write about The Hunt for Red October" off my bucket list. Dr. Ryan: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kremlin
For Musings, I wrote about Tender Mercies and The Apostle, in an attempt to examine the intangibility of belief and the challenge of convincingly portraying on film something that looks and feels differently for everyone who experiences it. “Sing It the Way You Feel It”: Forgiveness and Faith in Tender Mercies
I interviewed Justin Cronin for Houstonia magazine. Cronin is the author of The Passage and its sequels, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors, a trilogy of post-apocalyptic literary thrillers that follow a group of people fighting for survival after a deadly plague wipes out most of the world's population and turns some of its victims into vampiric monsters. We talked for a couple of hours at his place about creativity, how to make a living as a writer, and what kinds of stories get him going. I'm really happy with the resulting feature, and the extended interview is filled with great observations about (among other things) culture, the industry, and how the Cold War shaped Cronin's personality. Feature: How Life Feels for Best-Selling Author Justin Cronin
Extended interview: An Extended Conversation with Houston Novelist Justin Cronin
For Musings, I wrote about Samson Raphaelson, a playwright and screenwriter most notable for his nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. I discovered Raphaelson after watching the Criterion release of 1943's Heaven Can Wait, which featured among its extras a thirty-minute PBS documentary about Raphaelson, who was then in his 80s. He came at the screen a man possessed, shaking his hands and extolling the virtue in screenplays of human characteristics above all else. To say I fell somewhat in love would not be inaccurate. He wrote a book called The Human Nature of Playwriting[footnote]Available on Kindle.[/footnote], drawn from a course he taught in 1948, that's just as illuminating. The Craftsman's Hands: How Samson Raphaelson Shaped Classic Hollywood
• When we talk about this movie, we're really talking about Heath Ledger. He died in January 2008, six months before The Dark Knight came out, and though he also appeared posthumously in 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it's The Dark Knight that's considered his true final role.[footnote]Ledger died during production of Parnassus, which resulted in a rewrite that saw Ledger's character played by multiple actors, including Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.[/footnote] His death at such a young age — he was 28 — gave the film's nihilistic horror an unearthly sheen; it felt, in a sense, like it was his role as the Joker that had taken him away. He's absolutely stunning in the part, too, in a way that makes everyone else look drab and stilted by comparison. As a character (often historically but especially, and more importantly, within the specific world of The Dark Knight), the Joker is effective because he's willing to go farther than others to achieve his goals. He has no regard for human life or society's structures. He murders with glee. Ledger is smart and strong enough to be able to play this insanity as straight as possible. He occasionally bursts into ugly, shrieking laughter, but more often than not he just smacks his lips and blinks a few times and gets on with it. His performance is anchored in a sense of commitment: this Joker, this unnamed and unnameable killer, believes wholeheartedly in the righteousness and purpose of his destructive causes. There's a look in his eyes as he cavorts around town that says he can't believe he's getting away everything, and that he thinks his opponents are laughably dumb. It's Ledger's performance that makes the movie, and his acknowledged absence from today's world that makes it so haunting. • If Batman Begins spawned imitators who aped that film's grim tone and heady self-seriousness, The Dark Knight was responsible for popularizing an even more frustrating trend: the villain's ludicrously complicated plot. Partly this is because The Dark Knight, as a whole, has a much more sprawling plot than the first film. I am writing this the day after rewatching the movie, and honestly I'm still having trouble coming up with a tidy summary. Here's what I came up with:
Gotham's mobsters pool their money to avoid it being seized by Batman and the cops, and their accountant — a CEO of a Chinese company — absconds with a money to keep it secure. Batman captures the businessman and puts him in police custody, but the mob wants him, too, so they hire the Joker to get him and reclaim their money. Along the way, the gangsters realize that employing a sociopath of the Joker's caliber was probably not the wisest course of action, and the Joker starts to consolidate power so that he can provide Gotham City with "a better class of criminal." Essentially, Batman's job is to help the cops and D.A. Harvey Dent preserve a semblance of law and order, while the Joker wreaks havoc to his own end.
I think it's pretty accurate, though I feel like it's still incorrect on some level I can't identify. The movie is more of an experience than a story, like a pop version of Malick.
• Now, this is admittedly a little hairier than the plot to Batman Begins, and one far more reliant on the nebulous conflict between opposing points of view than on action motivated by belief. It also features a series of fantastically executed action set pieces that turn out to be part of a plan for the Joker to allow himself to be kidnapped so that he can then break out of the police station with the Chinese businessman he's been hired to hunt, a plan that sails right past Rube Goldberg and into all-new realms of luck-fueled machinations. The story manages to hang together because of director Christopher Nolan's energy and sense of pace, but many action movies that followed failed in their attempts to cook up similarly complex plots. Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness come to mind: both featured villains who acted out ridiculous, billion-piece plans that made almost no sense.
• The film's convoluted plot does turn out to hold water, but it also works because it's a structural reflection of the emotional chaos caused by the Joker. This is, after all, a villain whose m.o. is to destroy social order just to see if he can. Batman Begins took story pieces — a toxic hallucinogen, a conspiracy to poison the water supply, a stolen piece of military equipment — and threaded them together in a loose mystery. It was Batman's job to solve the mystery and, then, to stop the villains from carrying out their plan. The Dark Knight inverts this: the Joker's goal is clear from the start, and he even telegraphs his moves by leaving notes in which he names his successive victims. It's anti-mystery. Batman's job isn't to solve the puzzle, but to realize he might not be able to stop it. Indeed, while the first film ends with the death of the villain[footnote]Eleven-year-old spoiler alert, I guess, but if you've read this far into a blog post about Batman movies and didn't know what happened in them, you have only yourself to blame.[/footnote], this one ends with the Joker surviving after delivering a speech about how he and Batman are "destined to do this forever."
• The Dark Knight is demonstrably bigger in scale than Batman Begins — tons of location shooting, multiple scenes filmed in IMAX, a larger plot — but it's also, in its way, less organized and less believable. Part of what makes Batman Begins so strong is its sense of what it is and what story it wants to tell. The Dark Knight, though, is a moodier meditation on the nature of good and evil, and its a bit shaggier as a result. Still great in many ways, and good in many others. But not quite as finely tuned as its predecessor.
• The Dark Knight makes a big deal out of Batman's "one rule," which is that he refuses to kill. The screenplay hammers this pretty hard, in more than few lines of clumsy dialogue that make the subtext into just plain old text. Yet Batman Begins ends with Batman essentially murdering Ra's al Ghul. They're locked in a fistfight aboard a runaway elevated train when Ra's al Ghul realizes that he's been had and that the train is about to go flying off the track. Batman looks at him and says, "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you," then opens his cape and flies away. Boom, train careens into the ground, Ra's al Ghul is presumably crushed to a thin paste. Pretending this somehow qualifies as not killing someone is a cheap move. One of the points of the movie was about Batman realizing the lengths he would need to go to win against a truly committed opponent. His finishing move here is like saying, "I'm gonna hand you this lit stick of dynamite and let you try to extinguish the fuse." Maybe the guy has a chance to survive, but who are we kidding?
• The dialogue is often weak here. Characters tend to speak in the kind of aphoristic non sequiturs that litter modern action movies. It's English, but it's not dialogue, and rarely recognizable as a conversation. The scene in which the Joker visits a disfigured Harvey Dent and tells him to just go out there and start killing people makes almost zero sense on any level: narrative, emotional, linguistic, you name it. Rather, it feels like one of those things that had to happen to let Dent fully transform into Two-Face and go on a brief murder rampage before being subdued by Batman.[footnote]Not just subdued, either: killed! Two-Face falls to his death as Batman saves Gordon's kid. Batman can rig a variety of life-saving ropes and wires when facing off against the cops, and he can fall from a skyscraper and land on a taxi and survive, but he can't toss a line around Two-Face? Come on.[/footnote] Some of the actors are better at handling these lines than others. Michael Caine is king — Alfred's story about the crazy bandit who just wanted "to watch the world burn" is perfect — and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good at it, too. But it's much more a film of visuals and ideas than Batman Begins, which seemed to have a better handle on actual character.
• This is also when Bale's voice, when in costume as Batman, was amplified with much more rumble and bass than was present in Batman Begins. In the first film, he speaks with a bit more of a growl, sometimes whispered, to disguise his voice and appear intimidating. Here, though, the postproduction manipulation of his voice is unmistakable, and often overdone. Watching the first and second films back to back really highlights the oddness of the change.
• Some of the visuals, though: damn. There are some fantastic compositions here, and they're paired with smart soundtrack choices that highlight a few spare instruments or sometimes drop the music altogether. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are what feel like stolen moments — Ledger sticking his head out the window of a cop car as it careens down the street is one of those perfect bits of movie poetry.
• The sequences shot in IMAX are, as would be expected with a filmmaker as skilled as Nolan, stunning. He and d.p. Wally Pfister make expert use of the altered aspect ratio to emphasize the verticality of the frame, packing the images with tall buildings and steep drops. They're the rare visual gimmick that live up to the hype.
• The opening sequence, in which the Joker and his (soon-to-be-executed) crew commit a bank heist, remains one of the most exciting things Nolan has ever done. It is relentless, energetic, captivating, terrifying, and the perfect way to set the tone of the film to follow. It's also a clear indication that, whatever the film's location shoots and visual attempts at reality might attest, we're in a land of high fantasy. The Joker's getaway vehicle is a school bus that drives through a bank wall and merges with a line of other buses going past, while cop cars speed in the opposite direction. It's a great visual punch line, but it also requires ignoring the questions that such an event would raise. Why didn't the guy driving the bus behind the Joker's say anything when a bus drove out of a bank and joined their queue? Did he just not notice the hole in the side of the building? (And what kind of gas was in the grenade that the Joker shoved into the mouth of the bank manager?) Tonally, though, it is flawless. Ledger's introduction when he removes his mask, coupled with the way his dialogue is amplified on lower registers over the film's soundtrack, is staggering.
• One of the ways in which Batman Begins made its story feel somewhat more organic was the way it downplayed the use of character nicknames. Batman was often called "the Batman," a reference to character history and a way to turn him into an object: the vigilante, the freak, the Batman. It was as much an identifier as a name. Ditto the way that "Scarecrow" was not used much, and certainly not as a way to address Dr. Crane, even when he donned his burlap mask. Yet The Dark Knight reaches a little harder for these names, notably with the way it makes Dent's "Two-Face" a nickname referring to his battered reputation among cops he'd investigated for corruption. When he loses half the skin on his face, the name becomes a kind of sick joke. It just feels forced. The Dark Knight Rises backed off a little in this area: Selina Kyle was a cat burglar, and her goggles, when propped upon her head, looked like cat ears, but "Catwoman" wasn't getting bandied about.
• The Dark Knight is a pitch-perfect continuation of the tone and style Nolan started refining in Batman Begins, and its effect on the superhero movies that followed is impossible to ignore. But many of those movies — your Marvel sequels, your YA adaptations — have imitated the film's dark tone without being able to replicate any of the other elements that made it work. This is a grim film, but it's also about redemption. It's about heroes, but also about the inevitability of losing. It's bulky, but it makes room for character development. It employs tragedy, but never falsely manipulates. And it has at its center one of the best and most vivid performances ever done in a superhero movie, one so good that it makes everyone else look poorer by comparison. The movie might not be perfect, but Ledger is perfect in it, and that's ultimately what makes the film.
• This is the movie where what we think of as Christopher Nolan's style began to solidify itself. It was his third time working with director of photography Wally Pfister, and his first time working with editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. All three would provide crucial elements of Nolan's work. It's easier to see like this:[supsystic-tables id='3']
Filmmaking is, ultimately, a collaborative enterprise, and Nolan's major movies are defined by the efforts of this core team. Batman Begins has a beautiful, burnished look, with amber-soaked visuals that rely on narrow depth-of-field and crisp edges. It's also cut incredibly fast: with more than 2,800 shots, its average shot length is just 2.8 seconds. These rapid cuts start right at the beginning, too. It's Nolan's way of cramming the maximum amount of information into a cinematic moment, relying as much on intimation and vibe as on actual depiction. And all those visuals are set against the thrumming, chord-hammering score. Zimmer's composition is markedly different from, say, Danny Elfman's rousing theme from Tim Burton's 1989 version. It's not about melody, but atmosphere. The "Batman theme" here, such as it is, is just a minor chord held in a crescendo, then a shift to major as the crescendo peaks. Quick, sharp, moody: this is Nolan finding his pop voice.
• The script's structure has grown on me over the years. When I first saw it, it felt too clumsily tripartite: staring with Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghul, then making it about Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, then shifting back to Ra's al Ghul seemed off in some way. Clunky, like grinding a transmission to find the right gear. But I realize now that I was bringing too much expectation and outside knowledge into the film. To a certain degree, I was expecting both a clear announcement of the villain and a typical kind of superhero movie. What's more, since this was Nolan's first time working with this kind of structure, it was my first time learning how he makes movies. It feels much smoother now in part because I'm more used to Nolan's approach. Memento's approach to storytelling helped put Nolan on the map, but that film is still fairly straightforward: scenes playing in alternate order, one timeline moving forward and the other moving backward, until they meet in the middle. Batman Begins, though, is much more temporally fluid: it starts with Bruce Wayne as a child, then jumps forward to reveal we were watching an adult Bruce dream about himself, then weaves in more flashbacks as Bruce leaves prison and begins his training with Ra's al Ghul. The first time I saw it, the first third of the film felt so much like an extended prologue that I was a little jarred by later developments. Now, though, its easier to see how assured Nolan is of how he wants to tell the story. The high points even broadcast the plot in a neon that my eyes didn't notice a decade ago: Bruce's training is about being forced to confront his fears by powerful, ruthless men who traffic in psychotropic hallucinogens. When Dr. Crane shows up using the same methods and referring grimly to his unnamed employer, who else could he be talking about but Ra's al Ghul?
• The script also has some shameless moments of blockbuster pandering. A civilian, dazed by the sight of the tank-like Batmobile scrambling by, actually does a double-take at his coffee cup. This is a cartoon-level gag, one step above cutting to a reaction shot of a dog covering its eyes. Jim Gordon is also impressed by the Batmobile, saying, "I've gotta get me one of those!" These are the kinds of moments that can't feel authentic because they exist outside the movie's reality. They reference a specific kind of historical gag and reference, and they're meant to act as winks to the audience to remind them how much fun they're having. It's like the "woman inherits the earth" riff in Jurassic Park. It exists for no other reason than to remind people they're watching a movie.
• One of the film's strengths, though, is the degree to which it manages to stand on its own while also realizing — and acting accordingly — that it cannot help but be the latest link in a pop culture chain stretching back to the 1930s. It does a good job at establishing Bruce Wayne's trauma, obsession, and general emotional instability, all of which are necessary to make the leap from "sad orphan" to "man willing to design and wear a bat costume to fight crime as a ninja." This is why it takes so much screen time for Batman to appear (and why, in Bruce's first outings as a nighttime vigilante, he's dressed in a balaclava and rappelling gear). By the time Batman shows up, we're invested.
Yet the film can also only make sense if you go in knowing who or what Batman is, or at the very least have an understanding of the basics: Bruce Wayne is orphaned rich boy turned crimefighter, his enemies are usually insane people like the Joker, it all takes place in Gotham City, etc. Batman is one of the oldest and most enduring comic book heroes in pop culture, and even a film like Batman Begins that retells the origin story in its own manner is going to rely on that collective cultural history in ways it might not even realize. If you had never heard of Batman at all, the film would mostly work, though some of the narrative and aesthetic choices would be odd. E.g., when young Bruce's parents are killed, he's comforted at the police station by a mustachioed young officer for a surprising amount of time. The officer's captain enters and addresses him by name — "Gordon" — as the soundtrack briefly swells to highlight the moment. For this to make any cinematic sense, you have to know that Batman works closely with an older Gordon when he's police commissioner in comic books, TV series, and other movies. That is the only way this scene, the way it's done here, can matter. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, either. It's just a sign of how hard it is to make "fresh" movies when you're working with a story that, at the time of the film's release, had been part of American entertainment for more than 65 years.
• Katie Holmes is a lot better in this movie than people probably give her credit for being. Rachel Dawes has plenty to do: Bruce Wayne's childhood friend, a crusading lawyer determined to take on organized crime, and a motivating force for Bruce to examine his own life and motivations. She's the one who shames Bruce when he admits to planning to kill the man who shot his parents, and she's the one who tells him that actions speak loudest when it comes to social change. Holmes is good, too: sharp, engaging, a nice physical and emotional counterpoint to Christian Bale. [footnote]She was good in some of her earlier work, too, including Go and Wonder Boys, as well as Thank You For Smoking, which came out the same year as The Dark Knight.[/footnote] But Holmes got engaged to Tom Cruise the same month Batman Begins hit theaters, and that was pretty much it from her, in a serious way, for years. She didn't reprise the Rachel role in The Dark Knight, instead appearing in that year in Mad Money, which tanked. She was in a couple more movies, but she didn't divorce Cruise until 2012. Watching Batman Begins is like watching an old home movie of someone who would later be kidnapped, blithely going about their day, with no idea of what lies in store.
• The soundtrack and sound design are so crucial here (and in all of Nolan's movies) at making small moments feel unsettling and packed with possible horror. When Crane visits Falcone in prison, he asks him rhetorically, "Have you seen my mask?" Falcone narrows his eyes as the soundtrack hums with a low pulse — quiet, gut-level — and it's more than enough to make whatever's about to come feel like it will be terrible. Cf. the sound design of any scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker interrogates someone.
• Batman Begins — and Nolan's Batman trilogy in toto — changed the shape of superhero movies. It was grayer and more serious than, say, Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, and its success led to legions of imitators that aped its grim tone but didn't have the story or directorial skill to match it. Modern Marvel movies are now basically just plodding ripoffs of Nolan: thundering, laborious, complicated, not much fun. And for all the trauma on display here, it's still a movie that knows how to have fun. The Batmobile chase scene is undeniably fun, and there's a prickly thrill in watching Bruce Wayne learn how to outfit himself and become a dark warrior.
• The film is packed with the kind of stunning images that still feel surprising in a superhero movie, and were that much more startling when the film was released. The awful monster Crane sees in Batman's face when he hallucinates; the red-eyed demon Batman appears to be when he flies over a crowd of people infected by the hallucinogenic toxin; the scene in which Batman interrogates the crooked cop by hanging him by an ankle and raising and lowering him several stories at a time. No other hero movie looks like Nolan's do.
Four years ago my wife found a box of week-old kittens abandoned outside her office. They'd been left in a cardboard box with a bowl of water; it's amazing none of them had drowned in it. She called me, frantic, as she was driving them to the vet to see what needed to be done. Or maybe she was driving home when she called, the rough outlines of a plan having already formed in her mind after talking to the doctor. I can't remember any more. It's one of those mercurial details that keeps sliding away. But ultimately what happened was she brought them home and we decided to foster them during their infancy until they were old enough to be adopted. We already had a dog, two cats, and a pair of finches,[footnote]We eventually found a new home for the finches. A dog and two small birds is fine; add cats to that, and you've made a food chain.[/footnote] so adding five cats to that mix seemed absurd. But we didn't want to turn them back into the world yet, either. They were too young for a shelter to take them, so we reasoned that we'd be able to find homes for them if we kept them healthy for a few weeks.
If you want to make God laugh, etc. The early stages of caring for the kittens were blurry and fearful. We prepared formula, fashioned a pen from a spare dog crate, bought them a heated stuffed animal with an electronic heart designed to mimic the presence of their absent mother; we nuzzled our mouths and jaws against the tops of their heads, a sign of comfort and love the vet told us would help them feel calm; we gently rubbed damp cotton swabs against their groins to teach them to urinate and defecate. We did not sleep much. Our guest room was given over to them entirely.
The vet didn't want us to have any illusions about their life expectancy, telling us that, of the five, we'd be lucky if one survived. A few days after bringing the kittens home, the littlest one, a tiny scrapper we'd named Runty, began to slip away. His struggles were too great, and we had to put him to sleep. A few days after that, my wife went to check on them and found that one of the others — a bruiser we'd named Scooter, for his habit of scooting backward up our arms as we cradled him — had died in his sleep. The vet took care of him for us, too. We felt trapped and helpless by what was happening.
But then things got better. The three remaining cats — all girls — grew stronger and healthier. They'd been too weak to make any sound the day we found them; now they howled and clamored at meal time. We started taking more pictures. We rearranged the furniture in the guest so that they'd have space to wander around. They started eating solid food, and we felt more sure that the worst had passed. We entertained the notion of placing them in a good home, but we wanted them to stay together, and to be kept inside. A few people offered to take just one (usually the one with the white fur on her feet and face, like a mustache and socks), but it felt wrong. Time passed, and we grew attached. I grew attached. My wife and I had helped these little animals cling to life, and against unlikely odds, they'd survived. We talked less about finding homes for them, and we realized they'd been ours for a while.
I remember one day walking in to check on them and seeing that one of them had developed an eye infection: one eye was open and clear, the other was swollen and squinted shut. I was so worried about what would happen to her, but the vet said it was a common ailment in kittens. She gave us cream to apply to the eye twice a day, and I'd gently rub some around the little one's eye as I fed her. We named her Squints. Some time later, she took to me. They all love us, of course. They play with us, climb on us, roll around happily. But Squints began to assert that kind of ownership that strikes pets seemingly of their own accord. She just likes me. As soon as I sit down, she climbs into my lap. She follows me around the house, waits for me outside the bedroom in the morning, scales my back to perch on my shoulders. I'm her human.
So now we have these grown cats, and every now and then my wife and I will look at each other and look back at them and realize that we have animals in our house, real animals, walking around and eating and pissing and everything, animals that give the house a sense of constant movement and habitation. A dog and five cats: we sometimes call our house "the menagerie." But we're bonded to them, and they to us.
For Musings, I take a look at Sunshine, a sweeping historical drama that stars Ralph Fiennes in three lead roles across three generations: grandfather, father, son. Before rewatching the film for this piece, I'd only seen it once. I rented it on a whim in the fall of 2000, when I was a freshman at college. The video store down the street[footnote]Actual VHS tapes.[/footnote] offered one free catalog rental every day in a different genre: comedy, drama, horror, family, etc. I went all the time, always on the lookout. I hadn't heard of Sunshine or its writer-director, István Szabó, before then, and I'd only seen Ralph Fiennes a few years earlier in Quiz Show.[footnote]I would see Schindler's List later in 2000, and The English Patient sometime in the next year.[/footnote] But the film rocked me back and stayed with me, and I would find myself thinking of it regularly for years. I wanted to revisit it with older eyes, and I was happy to find it's still beautiful, sad, operatic, and ultimately big-hearted.
I don't watch as many movies as I used to. It's not that I love them any less: I still think film is one of our best and most powerful art forms, capable of saying so much more about us than we even realize or intend. But for the past couple years, I've felt less interested in staying current with new releases, and with the inevitable pop-cultural #hottakes that accompany them, and more focused on watching what I really want to watch. I went weeks in 2015 only watching one or two movies, and spent whole months just working through classics. In general, I didn't catch up with most 2015 releases until the end of the year, and before mid-November, I'd seen almost no 2015 releases. My tally of first-time viewings reflects the change. Beyond that, though, I also spent more time this year revisiting films I hadn't seen in a while, seeing how they've changed in the intervening years, or seeing how I've changed. My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
I used to think I needed to hit a certain number, or a certain kind of number, but now I realize that the natural ebb and flow is more comfortable. Gorge and break, skim and stop; explore as a result of your own drive.
Whiplash (2014): Writer-director Damien Chazelle focuses on the physical tools needed to bring music to life: the sticks, the horns, the stands, the folders, the sweat. It’s shot and cut within an inch of its life, and it almost shakes with energy. Pillow Talk (1959): From a historical standpoint, it’s fascinating and uncomfortable to watch a closeted gay man play a character who at one point makes fun of closeted gay men. This comes with the territory, though. Watching older movies always means experiencing them through your own time, as well as the time in which they were made. (Another example: Pillow Talk came out five years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.) It’s easy to see why the movie was a hit, though. Rock Hudson is staggeringly charismatic, and Doris Day’s energy is perfect. Black Sea (2015): On paper, it has the elements for pulpy, thrilling entertainment: a submarine, a band of rogues, and a hunt for forgotten Nazi gold. And indeed, the first two-thirds of the movie are tight and propulsive, as greed and fear drive the characters to play off each other in desperate ways. But the home stretch finds certain characters swapping personalities and motivations, and they cease to be people and instead become interchangeable devices for plot mechanics, after which it’s a bumpy ride to the finish line. Rewatches: — The Critic (selected episodes): The first season is better than the second — the animation is a little tighter, and the stories have a little more bite — but it’s still an enjoyable series to revisit. It’s also supremely weird to rewatch as an adult who has worked in a freelance capacity as a film critic for more than ten years. Jay’s struggles to reconcile his tastes with others’, and his general insecurity, are arrows that hit somewhat close to the center of the target. — Singin' in the Rain: The older I get, the fonder I grow of musicals. They’re such a pure cinematic form, blending fantasy and reality in ways that no other genre can. There’s so much beauty here, too, in what has to be one of the best musicals and one of the best movies ever made. The energy, the love story, the Hollywood satire, the music and movement: every bit of it is gorgeous. — L.A. Confidential: It’s fitting that Curtis Hanson’s period piece about Hollywood crime is itself a throwback to big, brassy Hollywood movies. What really popped for me this time around was the score: bombastic, moody, driving, exactly the kind of thing you don’t get much these days. And even with so many good performances on screen, Guy Pearce’s always stands out. Ed Exley has to be power-hungry but also uneasy with himself, cocky but insecure; he imagines that he’s holding it together, even though he knows that people can probably see through his act. He has to carry himself with a certain confidence even as he knows he’s acting. There are wonderful layers to the character that Pearce brings out, and he’s so good and subtle that it’s easy to overlook him in favor of the equally impressive but flashier work of Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe. Hanson never lets the energy falter, either, especially as the movie gathers speed and enters the home stretch. — Casino: It takes a lot of work and skill to make something this big feel so breezy. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts this thing within an inch of its life: the movements are rapid but never dislocating. What they are is a kind of purposeful disorientation, so that watching the movie starts to mimic the queasy feeling of being in an actual casino, surrounded by vice and unable to find the exit. Scorsese’s second collaboration with Nicholas Pileggi is probably bound to forever live in the shadow of their first one, Goodfellas, but Casino is still stunning all on its own. What makes the film so charged is the way Ace and Nicky are fated to come into conflict, driven to overreach by their own hubris (Ace picks fights with the local government, Nicky crosses the bosses).
Hairspray (1988): I came to this after seeing the musical, which made for some interesting dissonance. Although this is the original film, I find myself almost unwittingly thinking of it as an "alternate" story to the musical's "true" one. I also just enjoyed the musical more, thanks largely to the cast. (Divine has presence, but still seemed too aware of the camera.) The China Syndrome (1979): One of the standout thrillers reflecting the bleak 1970s back on itself, anchored by a typically memorable and multi-faceted performance from Jack Lemmon. He has to walk so many wires with his character here: smart enough to do his job, but also smart enough to realize when things are going bad; canny enough to reach out to the reporter (Jane Fonda), but also honest enough to try and flirt with her. He's tangible in a way few actors are. The One I Love (2014): It's amazing the depth and distance that quality writing, directing, and acting can create in a movie that only has three characters. Godzilla (2014) (half-finished): Laughably inept. As the lead, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems unable to express any single recognizable emotion. His own father dies right in front of him, and he resorts to running his hands through his hair; five minutes later, it's as if it never happened. A clumsy, overplotted blockbuster that uses effects as an excuse to string together boring plot points, with no consideration of acting, writing, or narrative thrust. I turned it off around the one-hour mark because I didn't want to waste a second hour of my life on it. The Two Faces of January (2014): I could probably watch Oscar Isaac do anything. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015): Never underestimate the power of evil to manipulate the desperate. Rewatches: — The Hunt for Red October — Get Shorty: One of the more enjoyable movies about the movies, in part because its idea of "the movies" resides in a pleasant alternate universe that broke from ours sometime in the 1960s. Shlocky monster horror is mainstream, superheroes are unseen, and YA franchises don't even exist.
Life Itself (2014): The best moments were those that touched on Roger Ebert as a man at war with himself: aware of his limitations and vices, working to live with them. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015): This Alex Gibney doc doesn’t hit nearly as hard as his Going Clear did, but that’s the price you pay for access to estate materials. Nicely structured, though, weaving through Sinatra’s “farewell” concert and looping out to different parts of his life. We Own the Night (2007): This was only my second James Gray film (after the stellar The Immigrant), and it was fantastic. It's a solidly built drama about crime and family, and a blend of classic and modern style. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (2014): The inadvertent comedy of the redundant title was the first sign that there wouldn’t be much worth exploring here. Far too pat. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): They’re really determined to keep making these. Marnie (1964): Sexually bizarre, but a great thriller. That applies to a lot of Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train (1951): Told you. Rewatches: — Wag the Dog: A movie this dark was never going to be widely accepted. But its strength comes in part from its willingness to follow through on the awful conceit of its story: that people determined to fabricate a war to save a presidency wouldn't hesitate to eliminate anyone who would threaten their operation. — Jerry Maguire: Absolutely holds up.
Elizabethtown (2005): Better than its reputation; weaker than its predecessors. Ex Machina (2015): Chilling, gripping science fiction with a genuine head on its shoulders. Oscar Isaac has now ascended to the level of treasured national resource. We Bought a Zoo (2011): Doesn’t even feel like a Cameron Crowe movie. It’s weird and almost unsettling that the same guy who did Say Anything… did this. The Rundown (2003) Rewatches: — Wet Hot American Summer: A+ for comedy, Beth. — Best in Show: Guest's second best.
An American in Paris (1951): Gene Kelly was superhuman. The plot's not as memorable as some of his other musicals, but the ballet in the final act is every bit the masterpiece. Rewatches: — Nightcrawler: Queasy and beautiful. Makes total sense that writer-director Dan Gilroy's brother Tony did Michael Clayton. That's an ideal double-bill. — High Fidelity: Cusack is the perfect hesitant shitheel.
The Way of the Gun (2000): A little overly “gritty” in that late-1990s kind of way, but still engaging. Black Rock (2013): A great, grim, quick little thriller. It works in part because it starts so innocuously, and twists so suddenly into horror. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015): The ideal summer entertainment. Light, slick, funny, bracing. Rewatches: — Mission: Impossible: Almost twenty years on, and still a tight, winning action movie. The set pieces feel almost small compared with where the series (and action cinema in general) has gone, but they've lost none of their punch.
Hard Boiled (1992): Worth it for some wonderfully choreographed action, especially in the climax. The End of the Tour (2015): It’s hard to watch a movie like this if you’re a fan of its real-life subject, David Foster Wallace (which I am). Jason Segel does a good job at seeming like a real person, though — quiet, insecure — as opposed to a collection of tics meant to forecast tragedy. Yet that’s ultimately what makes the film so odd and, in its way, unfair. It’d be one thing to tell a fictional story about an aspiring writer worming his way into the life of his more talented idol, and Jesse Eisenberg makes for a perfect Salieri figure. But so much of the film feels predicated upon the viewer’s knowledge of true events, including Wallace’s suicide, that the film skips over characters, plots, and even consequences in the service of a general air of “inspiration” in its final moments. For instance, Eisenberg’s David Lipsky wants to write an article about Wallace, but we never find out if it runs; he wants to grow as a writer, but we never found it if he does; we also don’t even learn the circumstances that led him to publish his book about the days he spent with Wallace. In other words, it feels too falsely manipulative, unwilling to stay loyal to its nature as a story and too eager to trade on the viewer’s knowledge of what would eventually happen to Wallace. Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot (2015): A fun but aimless collection of behind-the-scenes footage. Less a documentary than a loose assemblage of clips. The Drop (2014): Tom Hardy should always have a dog as a costar. The Thin Blue Line (1988): Throws you into the deep end and then gets in with you. Trouble in Paradise (1932): Lighter than air and sexy as hell. Witty, warm, exciting; almost everything you could want in a movie. Rewatches: — Night Moves — Inside Man: One of Lee's best. — That Thing You Do: A comfort-food mainstay. — Croupier — Edge of Tomorrow: I can't stop watching this movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): I didn’t see the clothed emperor so many of my colleagues did here. It’s got plenty of energy, sure, but the characters are so empty (especially Max) that the story is meaningless, and the resulting product is essentially an exercise in impressive stuntwork. Exporting Raymond (2010): There’s a good idea in here somewhere, but the problem is that the film’s subject, Phil Rosenthal, is also its director. As such, the central story (investigating what happens when an American TV show is remade for a foreign audience) is a little shapeless. One Hour With You (1932): Maurice Chevalier getting away with everything he could in the final days before the Code. Twilight (1998): The plot turns are telegraphed almost in neon, but it’s still alluring to see Newman, Garner, and Hackman in their latter days. Rewatches: — Awful Nice: Not as strong as I remember it being from a SXSW screening a couple years back, but not bad. — Junebug — Mulholland Dr.: I love this movie.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): Another pre-Code Chevalier from Lubitsch, and cute enough, though not as winning as One Hour With You. Lost Highway (1997): David Lynch scares the hell out of me, and I love it. (See also.) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): A surprisingly twisty noir — it feels like it has seven acts — with great work from John Garfield and the stunning Lana Turner. Bonus: Hume Cronyn almost walks away with the show. On the Town (1949): Effervescent, beautiful, crackling. One of my favorite viewing experiences of the year. Laura (1944): “Have you ever been in love?” “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me.” That’s when I knew I’d found something. Anchors Aweigh (1945): The first Sinatra-Kelly pairing (which would prompt their reunion in On the Town), and while it’s a little flabby, it’s still gorgeous to look at. Kathryn Grayson is about as exciting as a wet sock, and her period-style warbling doesn’t age well, but Sinatra and Kelly are still great. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953): Fantastic and slick in that 1950s Hollywood way. You can practically smell American empire through the frame. The Amityville Horror (1979): Could be summarized: "Strange things happen and then everybody gets away just fine." Weirdly anticlimactic. Rewatches: — The Departed: DiCaprio is so good here, so on edge, that he walks away with the movie. — The Prestige: One of Nolan's absolute best, if not the peak.
The Haunting (1963): Nothing but smart editing and sound design, yet it’s more terrifying than most modern thrillers. M (1931): Eerie, unnerving, fantastic. Spy (2015): Melissa McCarthy has settled into a nice groove: she knows what she wants to do, and what she's good at doing. The Watcher in the Woods (1980): My wife grew up watching this, and it is bonkers. It starts out as a ghost story but then says "Maybe aliens?" Carol (2015): Todd Haynes is a methodical filmmaker with a modest output — he's only made six features in 24 years — and that sense of care and focus are evident here. Carol is a quiet film about repression and fear, relying on glances, body language, and the hope of the unknown to communicate its characters' longing for love. Steve Jobs (2015): Aaron Sorkin's script is effervescent, but the film as a whole doesn't quite hang together. Spotlight (2015): Tom McCarthy's another filmmaker who traditionally focuses on small, interpersonal moments, which makes him a good fit for the journalistic grind of Spotlight. It's such a solid, strong film that its real skill and power won't be recognized for a few years. Trainwreck (2015): Judd Apatow's films now seem hidebound to follow a formula he stumbled across a decade back: lots of improvised riffs, some stray plots that go nowhere, and running times that are about 30 minutes overweight. (When a potentially breezy rom-com like Trainwreck clocks in at just over two hours, something's gotta go.) There's still a good deal to enjoy here, though, especially Bill Hader's chemistry with Amy Schumer. I was a little late to the party, watching the film a few months after it came out, but even so I was struck by how tone-deaf and immature some critics' reactions were to the film re: what they viewed as its conservative or regressive bias. Schumer's character, by the end, decides to grow up a little: she cuts back on the boozing and opts to risk heartbreak for a real relationship. This is a pretty common arc, especially for an Apatow movie, which are all about people deciding to get their acts together. It's not inherently conservative[footnote]Whatever this even means to the different critics hurling it at the film like it's the biggest rock they can find.[/footnote] or retrograde for a character to have an awakening of sorts and pursue change in the name of a higher good; that's most drama. It doesn't become oppressive just because the protagonist is a woman. Results (2015): A shaggy, warm, engaging romantic dramedy. The low budget and run-and-gun attitude shine through in the best way. Rewatches: — Bull Durham: A perfect film. — Magnolia — It Should Happen to You
Joy (2015): A soupy mess. Jennifer Lawrence, charismatic as she may be, doesn't have the age or range to play a grown woman with the kind of history David O. Russell wants her to have. Russell's determination to keep making the same film over and over — a cranked-up version of 1970s histrionics — is old now. I pine for the days of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The Hateful Eight (2015): A brutal, riveting drawing-room horror story. The first 90 minutes are the tightest, most suspenseful filmmaking Tarantino's done; the second 90, when all hell breaks loose, is just as rewarding. Best of Enemies (2015): A well-meaning but small-feeling doc about the rivalry between Vidal and Buckley. Two titans seem weirdly shrunk. The Big Short (2015): One of the best American movies of the year. Punchy and full-throated, like an angry civics lesson from a history teacher too tired to pretend the world's worth saving. Inside Out (2015): A flat-out masterpiece. The characters and story are perfect, and the emotionally nuanced message — about the necessity of sadness and grief, and the way all memories are made of a mix of feelings — is one of Pixar's most powerful. Sicario (2015): Great photography. Bad everything else. The Revenant (2015): See above. Trumbo (2015): See above. The Good Dinosaur (2015): See above. Brooklyn (2015): A wonderful film. Too often the end of the year brings dramas that traffic in the worst of the human condition, and while those stories are worth telling, they can induce a Pavlovian response. More than halfway into Brooklyn, I kept expecting someone to get raped, or have a medically risky abortion, or run over a friend with their car, or contract polio, or who knows what. But this isn't that film. Rather, it's a beautiful drama that digs into the life of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1950s. By focusing on these "small" stakes, the film feels universal in its observations of family. Bonus: my favorite ending scene/shot of the year. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): It took 35 years, but somebody finally made an entertaining Star Wars movie again. The Martian (2015): Entertaining, meat-and-potatoes adventure. The book is a mess, but that makes it perfect fodder for a movie adaptation. There's no style or insight to be shed in the process of translating it to the screen. Rewatches: — Sunshine: Not the Danny Boyle film, but the 1999 drama by Istvan Szabo. I rented it from the video store in the fall of 2000, on a whim, and it stayed with me. I revisited it for the first time since then, and I found it even more moving. — The Godfather: What's left to say? The American dream as operatic tragedy. — White Christmas: My father and sister loved this movie when I was young, but it took me years to appreciate it. — Star Wars: I was born in 1982, and am therefore of the generation that still refers to the first film simply as "Star Wars." — The Empire Strikes Back: The best, most beautiful, most impressive film in the series.
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 64[footnote]To keep things easy, these numbers only cover films that were new to me, not rewatches.[/footnote] Documentaries: 6 Animated films: 2 Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 1[footnote]Ugh. What a terribly low number.[/footnote] Movies released in 2015: 26 Movies released before 2015: 38 Movies released before 2000: 22 Movies released before 1950: 8 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Favorites (in no particular order): Brooklyn, Laura, On the Town, Trouble in Paradise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Drop, The Rundown, The Big Short, Carol, Spotlight, Ex Machina
Quitting a book you aren't enjoying is one of the few unspoiled pleasures of adult life. For the past few years, as I've tallied up the books I've read and compared it against those I've quit or set aside, I realize that by abandoning those books I conclude aren't for me, I've opened myself up to happier reading experiences in general. Time spent with a book is, of course, different from that spent with a film. I've muscled through several films I wound up disliking in order to have a better understanding of them as a whole, knowing that at most I'd be setting aside about two hours for them. A book, though, can spend weeks on your nightstand.[footnote]Many people, including my wife, read faster than I do. I typically read before going to sleep, and usually only make it a few pages before the day's fatigue catches up with me. Hence, a book someone else might knock out in a few days of dedicated reading will be in my life much longer.[/footnote] Accordingly, this year I thought it worth breaking out the list of books I encountered in 2015 into separate lists: those I finished, and those that, for whatever reason, I didn't.
Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film, Patton Oswalt (2015): Most comedians who excel on stage aren't able to find similar success in prose, and Oswalt is, unfortunately, no exception. But his latest book is still a breezy, fun read, the kind that can be plowed through in an afternoon or evening, and his observations about the cultural battle between two broad definitions of comedy (crowd-pleasing versus introspective) are astute and hard-earned.
Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish, David Rakoff (2013): A novel constructed in meter would have to be brief to avoid turning gimmick into obstacle, and Rakoff's slender book is the perfect length. The best section: when he dives into the mind of a man in a coma, haunted by his memory.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989): One of the best books I read all year, and my first Irving. I have fuzzy memories of Simon Birch, the 1998 film loosely adapted, but they're vague enough (and the film reportedly different enough from its source material) that I didn't have anything to interfere with my experience of the book's story and themes. I picked it up on a whim at the public library and fell into a world of bruised but yearning faith, and a sprawling, heartfully messy plot about childhood and love and death and the things that haunt all of us all of our lives. It wrapped its hand around mine and did not let go.
The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman (2014): A worthy and energetic end to Grossman's trilogy — begun with The Magicians and The Magician King — but still a little airy in parts. I can never shake the feeling that the first book in the series was the story the author really wanted to tell, and everything that's happened since is more of a fun "what if" extension of that initial, most powerful volume.
Bird Box, Josh Malerman (2015): A post-apocalyptic thriller I can barely remember months later. The hook was that some kind of madness or disease wipes out most of the population, and people catch the disease by seeing its effects and going mad. The good guys hang in there by the end, I think.
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): The first and best volume of Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, about government efforts to investigate a supernatural, sealed-off area along an unnamed[footnote]I think; it's been a while.[/footnote] (but, I believe, Floridian) coast. This book reads like a modern update to Lovecraft, and the trilogy could have ended here and no one would've been the wiser or poorer.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (2014): Of the many post-apocalyptic books out there right now, this is one of the best and most moving I've read. The end of the world is a popular topic in fiction in an era when nothing seems to be going right and national interests are giving way to personal ones. Mandel keeps the focus on the characters, though, instead of getting lost in the math. A hopeful, authentic experience.
Authority, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): Book two of Vandermeer's trilogy is, like a lot of sequels, a little softer than its predecessor but not without its own merits. The best thing about it is that it moves the location of the story from inside the supernatural region to the bureaucratic, politically oppressive office that investigates it.
Acceptance, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): Book three feels like a checklist being dutifully worked through: flashbacks for you, and you, and you, and here we are.
Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce (2014): Outstanding, stunning, wrenching, engaging, truthful, powerful, every other superlative you can think of in that vein. Hits like a hammer and doesn't stop.
The Steady Running of the Hour, Justin Go (2014): I couldn't shake the vibe that this novel about World War I seemed reverse-engineered just to coincide with the centennial of the war's beginning. It's a treasure hunt/history lesson of sorts, but emotionally a little dense, and I started skimming about halfway through.
Alys, Always, Harriet Lane (2012): A solid little psychological thriller about a woman who worms her way into a widower's life. Eerie for what we never find out about her, or what drives her.
Lucky Alan and Other Stories, Jonathan Lethem (2015): I like to stay up with Lethem, though nothing of his has ever connected with me the way The Fortress of Solitude did. Maybe that was our only time to be in sync.
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015): I finished it out of sheer spite and will. Characters and plot became laughable, and the mystery doubly so.
In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders (2006): Saunders should be canonized, taught in schools, and given his own holiday.
The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski (1993/2007): I spent a serious amount of time this year playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which might be one of the best video games I've ever played. I became so attached to the fictional world that I picked up this volume of short stories that created the character. They're enjoyable fantasy tales, and pleasingly unpredictable.
Purity, Jonathan Franzen (2015): This apt line from the L.A. Review of Books keeps ringing in my ears: "The Corrections was prescient and Freedom timely, but Purity arrives into a literary world already dated." There's definitely a sense of remove in the book that likely comes from Franzen's professed disdain for digital life and communications. The largest character in it — a hacktivist modeled after Julian Assange — also feels like its thinnest and least relatable. Conversely, the section that deals with the young, doomed marriage of two other characters, structured as novella written by the man, is the strongest. Go figure.
Some Luck, Jane Smiley (2014): The first volume in Smiley's trilogy of American life in the 20th century[footnote]What's with me and trilogies this year?[/footnote] was both gentle and profound. Each chapter covers a year in the life of the Langdons, starting in 1920, and that structure allows Smiley to start piling on the years like weights on a scale. The effect, after thirty-odd years of narrative, is of watching a river carve its bed out of the rock.
We the Animals, Justin Torres (2011): A grim, quick-shot novel about rough childhoods and decaying families. I don't regret reading it per se, but have zero plans to revisit.
Left by the Wayside
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (transl. Lydia Davis) (1913): My weakness[footnote]One of innumerably many.[/footnote] is my pride in my sense of what I should be reading, or should have read. The latest case in point: this gorgeous and evocative volume of the first book of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which I found moving and beautiful but eventually just sort of drifted away from by February. I'm not resigned to defeat, though.
The Abominable, Dan Simmons (2013): I liked The Terror quite a bit — ditto Summer of Night — but I lost interest in this thriller about mountain climbers who wind up facing threats from a yeti. (At least, that's where it was heading when I checked out.) I realize I liked the straight-ahead thrills more than the awkward attempt at involving the supernatural.
The Troop, Nick Cutter (2014): A Lord of the Flies tribute muddied by weak writing.
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (2015): A gorgeous book that I had to put down out of basic squeamishness. I don't eat animals, and I found I wasn't that keen on intense depictions of their subjugation, hunting, and death.
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (2014): I just gave up and read the Wikipedia description.
Two Years Before the Mast, Henry Dana (1840): I couldn't lock in with the prose, which is an occupational hazard with a book that's 175 years old.
Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston (1939): I loved the early sections, but lost interest as the plot began to wander.
The Martian, Andy Weir (2011): The writing here is sometimes laughably bad and ungainly. It comes as no surprise that it was self-published before taking off with Kindle audiences and being issued as a proper book. At first I couldn't stand the gee-whiz tone of the narrator; skipping ahead, I saw that the tone wasn't confined to one character. Back to the library it went.
Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (2015): Overly maudlin and drippy.
The Cartel, Don Winslow (2015): My mistake was trying to jump into this before reading its predecessor, The Power of the Dog. Worth revisiting in the future.
Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (2009): A great idea — a futuristic take on the florid history novels of the 18th and 19th centuries — but one I started to tire of after a hundred pages or so.
City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (2015): Some great writing, but a little weighed down. I realized that I was reading at one point out of a sense of social obligation to one of the year's Big Books, and not as much out of any real curiosity or connection to the work. When it came time to return it to the library, I let it go without too much sadness.
Early Warning, Jane Smiley (2015): Smiley's second novel in her American trilogy started as captivating as her first. But I think I'd spent so much time going so deep into the Langdon family that I needed a break, and so jumping into this so soon after completing Some Luck wound up a bit of a miscalculation. I'll be back to it later, though.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, Station Eleven, Love Me Back, In Persuasion Nation
For Musings, I take a look at It Should Happen to You, a bittersweet dramedy from 1954 that pretty much predicted Kim Kardashian: I’ll Help You Be Popular: It Should Happen to You and the Thirst for Fame
When Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for an interview with Marc Maron in January, he said of his 1999 film Magnolia that, if he were making it today, it would be a great deal shorter. The film runs just over three hours, and though Anderson didn't disown the film at all, he did talk about what drove him to make it the way he did. His father — actor, announcer, and radio personality Ernie Anderson — died in February 1997, a few months before the release of Anderson's Boogie Nights, and Anderson spoke to Maron about the degree to which Magnolia was a way for him to process his grief. It's very much a film of and about mourning: Anderson, not yet 30, was wrestling with the death of his father, and the film that came out of that is wounded, frenetic, and restless with emotion. There's very little release in the film. Rather, initial set-ups will build to emotional intensity and hold it, often cutting between multiple story lines caught at similarly fraught moments, scored to swirling music that never lets up. It's raw, is what it is: uncomfortable, yearning, rocking back and forth. It's the work of a young man working through something big. It's no surprise that he'd tell that story differently now. More than fifteen years have passed, and Anderson's evolved both as a filmmaker and as a person. But that's precisely why Magnolia is so important the way it is. Art is many things, but among them it's a snapshot of the artist at that moment in time. Here is how they decide to tell the story; here is what they value; here is what they revere or disdain. Of course Anderson at 45 wouldn't make the same Magnolia as Anderson at 30. That's the whole point. It's a work by a gifted artist at that instant in their life. A year on either side, and the final product would be different. Magnolia is the howl over a hospital bed, the thump of the first clod of dirt hitting the coffin lid, the sweat on the pallbearer's palms. It's a reckoning, and it's made from inside the pain. A film made with the benefit of distance provided by time wouldn't necessarily be bad (Anderson hasn't made a bad film yet), but it would necessarily be different. The monologue about regret still has blood on the page:
The film runs thick with the themes of parent-child relationships, forgiveness, loneliness, and reconciliation. There are two elderly, cancer-ridden fathers who have destroyed their relationships with their children; a third abusive father who exploits his son; a has-been pining after an unrequited love; a divorced cop struggling to do what's right; and adult children, stunted by abuse, who have to learn how to live. When Anderson talked to Maron, he said there are parts of the film, possibly entire plots, he'd do away with now, and the film does indeed sprawl. But that sprawl is part of what makes the film rewarding. It's a movie made by a guy trying to feel everything at once, then trying to understand it and get it down on paper. It's obsessed with coincidence and chance, with the intersection of mercy and grace, with the way we can make mistake after mistake but still find the opportunity to make up for it. The performances are uniformly stellar, the individual stories land with weight and power, and the film still has the power to stir in the viewer the same awe and fear it evoked all those years ago. Watching it fifteen years later, you're struck not by how long it is, but by how short; not by how much is in it, but by the shadows of the world just outside the frame.
My latest piece for Musings is about Croupier. I feel lucky to have actually caught this in the theater when it was released. It was my introduction to Clive Owen, and for years after, I thought first of Croupier whenever I saw him. He's fantastic in it.
My first piece for Oscilloscope's Musings is about a standout scene in Clean and Sober, one of those great little dramas that can be too easily forgotten. (Good news: you can rent it for a couple bucks.) We Admitted We Were Powerless: Addiction and Recovery in Clean and Sober
"If you're going to reckon with the past," I said, "you might as well reckon with all of it." I was talking to an old friend as we sat in the living room of a house that ten of us had rented for the weekend. It was a Friday night, and we were in Baird, Texas, population 1,500. The house was old and creaky, its style dating back decades, but it had room for several couples and their small children. I slept on one of the couches. Baird sits twenty miles outside of Abilene, population 117,000 and home to Abilene Christian University, from which my friends and I had graduated ten years earlier before stumbling out into the world. We were back for our class reunion, and as a group we’d rented the house as a way to spend as much time with each other as possible throughout the weekend. Maybe because it felt safer, too. Going back to a place you used to know, and that used to know you, is always unsettling: you can see your own ghost walking around. You find yourself making idle talk with people you used to see every day but to whom you haven’t spoken in a decade, and you realize at the start of every single one of these conversations that it will be impossible to convey to the other person the many ways in which you’ve changed since graduating. And you know that they’re having this realization, too, though that doesn't make things any easier, and you feel that every detail about your job sounds ridiculously boring. There’s a reason people drink at these things.
I was talking with my friend because I'd been on the fence about getting up early the next morning to attend a breakfast for alumni from my social club, ACU’s version of fraternities and sororities.[footnote]ACU does not participate in the national Greek system, instead offering “social clubs” for students that simulate the experience to a degree. It winds up being another way to make students feel different from their peers, and many of the activities social clubs perform, though accepted as tradition at ACU, make little to no sense elsewhere.[/footnote] I was reluctant to go to the breakfast because I’m not as comfortable with the fraternity mentality as I was when I was in school, but I ultimately decided that there wasn’t much point in driving the 350 miles from Houston to Abilene if I wasn’t going to attend each of the handful of events that would involve people I knew, or had known. So like I told my friend: I might as well be honest about where we all came from, even when it’s hard to do.
I don't tell most people that I went to ACU. Not that I feel I got a bad education: on the contrary, I had some fantastic professors and some wonderful classes, especially in my junior and senior years, when I was working through upper-level coursework that proved to be among the most challenging and rewarding of my time there. But whenever the subject comes up, I usually just say "I went to school in Abilene" and move on, adding that I moved to California upon graduation and then back to Texas a few years later. I turn the college into a point in a story, not a destination in its own right, and it's because I know I'll wind up shuffling my feet and wanting to apologize for the fact that I went there. I feel like doing this because I’m nervous and embarrassed by the way that people from my background traditionally have and currently often do treat members of marginalized communities — specifically gay men and women. There's a rampant, pointed homophobia in evangelical Christianity and on my old campus, and though I have shed those cruel and cloistered ideologies in the years since, I was as much a part of it in my time as anyone. I entered college fearing and disliking gay people, and I let the word "fag" cross my lips as an insult on a regular basis. So many of us did. When talking with other young men in my social club about one of our rival groups, we’d dismiss them with “They’re fags” and not blink. I hang my head now thinking about those moments. I was well into my junior year before I started the slow process of changing my beliefs. I spent a semester in Los Angeles that proved crucial, and I came back restless and frantic. I suddenly felt uncomfortable with myself, and with what I’d been doing, and I wanted to destroy it all.[footnote]I was young and somewhat in love and exhilarated by a future I could just barely touch, and I seemed to experience every feeling at maximum intensity. In other words, I was 21.[/footnote] I wrote a column in the school paper about the way homophobia was damaging people of faith inside and out, ending with a dramatic line in the sand that suggested I would refuse the label of “Christian” if it meant embodying a position of segregation and intolerance. I was angry and afraid, and though I believed the words, I was also borrowing some of them, including thoughts and phrases from an influential professor in California. It was the closest I could get to what I wanted to mean. I didn’t know what I felt, but I knew I didn’t like it.
Gay rights became an issue I returned to before graduation. During my senior year, I interviewed several gay students for a feature story that the paper's editor wrote about their lives and what they had to deal with on campus. I still remember the details of the stories they told me, about shame and torment, verbal and physical abuse.[footnote]The story was pulled by administration the night before it was set to run, in an act of cowardice and shame that still upsets me. But the university’s president is also the paper’s publisher, and as such, we had no recourse.[/footnote] I no longer believed that being gay was somehow wrong, and of course I still don't — this seems like a silly and obvious sentence to write in 2015, but it goes against everything I was brought up to think and that, by college, I’d believed for so long, and accepting it at that time meant taking another step away from my old life. Those steps always look small after you've taken many more, but in the moment, they're taken with trepidation. With each one, you shear away another layer of skin.
My club breakfast was scheduled for 6:00 that Saturday morning. The drive into Abilene was dark and wet — the storms from Friday night hadn’t finished blowing over — and the downtown neighborhood that housed the venue was deserted except for the men ambling two and three at a time into a meeting space that had been converted for the occasion with cheap folding tables and chairs. I saw a few men I hadn’t seen in years, many of them from my pledge class or from those just a year or two removed in either direction, and we sat together and ate bad eggs and thick biscuits. The atmosphere at these breakfasts is a little like that of a conference of sadistic zookeepers who have assembled to inflict mild distress on the animals. The boys of that fall’s pledge class were lined up in an adjoining room, standing in a silent row, eyes closed, each one pressing his nose to the back of the boy in front of him — in the spot below the nape of the neck, between the shoulder blades. “Nose to back!” would go the call during pledging, and we’d stand in a row, inhabiting an intimate space.
Homecoming weekend is a grueling one for students pledging a social club, and Friday night is usually a sleepless one: tradition holds that Friday night is when the pledges build a float for the following morning’s parade, and after the parade, the pledges attend a special weekend chapel service[footnote]ACU holds chapel services five days a week at 11:00 a.m.; student attendance is mandatory. On Homecoming weekend, an additional service is held Saturday morning at 11:00 for alumni, and pledges also attend this, as they are required to cheer for homecoming queen nominees belonging to sister clubs.[/footnote] and, later, the Homecoming football game. So the boys standing there had been awake for at least 24 hours. They looked to be on another plane of existence.
At one point, we alumni went around the room introducing ourselves with name, hometown, and pledge class title. One of our boyish traditions has each pledge class come up with an acronymic name for their group with twin meanings: one clean, one crass. For instance, you might name your class “ROC Class,” with the three-letter designation standing both for “Rely on Christ” and “Respect our cocks.” This is the kind of asinine but community-forming thing that repressed 19-year-olds do. Several younger men said that their pledge group was called "NBD Class." I didn’t know what they meant, but I didn’t think much of it, nor of the scattered laughs that came every time it was mentioned. I doubt I would’ve learned the meaning at all if I hadn’t happened to see the current club president that night at my own graduating class’s reunion dinner — he was a volunteer there in some capacity, handing out name tags. He explained that “NBD” meant, honorably, “No Big Deal,” while the alternate version was “Novas Bang Dudes.” A “nova” is what the pledges of our rival club are called, so the point here is that some of these young men, our “enemies,” are gay. That’s the entire joke, as it were.
Yet statistically, some of those boys are bound to be gay, and if not in this pledge class, then certainly in last year's or the one before. And the same goes for my club. Several men I knew in college, from my club and others, have come out since graduating. When I was in school, rumors swirled about my club’s “reputation” in the late 1980s, when membership dwindled to just a few students before the club was “rechartered” with an altered name and broader appeal. I could’ve asked the young club president: Do you really think there aren’t young gay men among you right now, in your club, in your dorm, in your college? Men who are living in nine kinds of agony because of where they go to school and what they are told they should or shouldn’t feel? You think you didn't pledge with gay men? Didn't eat with them, sing with them, watch the game with them? Haven’t hugged them and wept with them? Do you have any idea how cold and hard and regressive it is to keep falling back on the same stereotypes, homophobia, and attitudes of fear, shame, ostracism? Do you know the torment to which you subject these men who have done nothing wrong? Do you know what they already deal with? Do you know how many men from our club and others have come out? Are you bound by grace and mercy?
But I didn’t say any of that to him. And I didn’t even think it, either. Not then, when he told me what “NBD” stood for, not when I was with my friends later that night, not on my drive home across the state. Not for days and weeks. It slid away.
If it’s easy to become offended and upset by someone’s behavior, it’s that much harder to be aware of your own complicity in unconsciously modeling that behavior. This kid didn’t need to be scolded or shamed, but he did need to have some direct, gentle questions asked of him. Like those asked of me when I was his age, and like I didn’t do when I had the chance to help him. It would be so simple and (seemingly) righteous to rage against this young guy and his ideas and his jokes, but the words would taste like filth in my mouth, because every condemnation would be a lie: a smug way to pretend the fault is all his for saying these things, and not mine for not telling him about the error of my own ways. That the problem is all with them, and never with me. That my silent beliefs are morally superior to someone else's spoken ignorance. I could have shared so much with him from my own experience. To excoriate him without thinking about my place in that chain — without acknowledging that I’d stood in his place and made the same jokes just a few years earlier — would be dishonest and disrespectful to every man and woman I’d wronged. No one is the worst thing they’ve ever done, but only because we live with the opportunity to atone for those things. What are we if not made of such memories?
Six months later I sat in a hotel ballroom north of Houston and listened to stories about a dead friend.
He’d gone to ACU, and he was a member of my social club. He was two years behind me at school, and he was gay. I’d liked him quite a bit at school, and I even remember giving him the hard sell about pledging. He was musically talented, and I viewed his joining the club as a way to give us an asset in the musical-themed medley competition the clubs performed every spring.[footnote]Don’t ask.[/footnote] I got to know him a little when I was a junior and he was a freshman, and I spent more time with him when I was a senior and he was a sophomore, which was the year he pledged. He was kind and funny and sweet. I last saw him in 2006, two years after I graduated, when I returned to campus for my younger sister’s commencement. He and I exchanged a few Facebook messages and comments over the years, but that was it. I didn’t know he was sick until late last year, and I didn’t know the extent of his cancer until it was too late. Most of us didn’t. He was 30 when he passed. A few weeks later, a scattering of friends and family gathered to eat together, lift a cup in his honor, and share stories about their time with him.
I’ve been trying to remember if there was a time before I knew he was gay, or if I ever cared about it one way or the other, and I can’t recall. Because I met him in the fall of my junior year, so close to the beginning of my own change of heart, it’s likely it never entered my mind. Then again, while I was conducting research for that doomed newspaper story and interviewing gay students, it didn't occur to me to talk to him. Was it because I forgot, or because I didn't know? It's lost to the past. I got to know him better my senior year, but even thinking of those days, I can’t summon up a memory of thinking of him in terms of his sexual orientation. Either I always knew, or I’ve forgotten learning. But what stuns is that I became friends with him only a couple of years after I casually tossed around homophobic slurs, and even though those two years can contain lifetimes when you’re that young, I still have trouble reconciling that version of myself.
I was one of the few people in attendance that night from my graduating class. Most of the other alumni there were two years younger than me: a gap that would mean nothing if we met now, but one that still somehow segregates us all in our minds when we talk about each other and our college experience. They had bonded to each other the way I had with my own friends. I sat and listened to them talk about their jobs and families, and then listened as they told stories about the departed: his quirks, his passions, his joy. I didn’t have a story to share, so I sat and tried to honor those who did. They wept and held each other, and I watched them as they took turns going up to the podium at the front of the room to talk about their short time with this young man. Sometimes I couldn’t look at them. Bearing witness almost felt like too much.
It was past 10:00 that night when I left. I made my way to the parking garage and fell into place at the elevator bank behind a figure in a black suit. I thought for a moment I recognized him, and I realized I had a memory of seeing him walk into the hotel as I drove past the front doors and headed for the garage. He was a priest. He waved goodbye at someone already moving further into the garage’s ground floor, then hopped into the open, empty car.
“There’s plenty of room!” he said to me, smiling. His voice took on a joking tone: “Unless you’re gonna hurt me!”
This is the kind of idle joke you sometimes hear when you’re big, like I am. I shook my head and said, “No, I’m incredibly weak, so it wouldn’t work out well for either of us.” This was close enough to humor that he laughed.
“I’m glad the rain stopped,” he said. “The good news is I don’t have far to go. Thank you, Jesus!”
I laughed a little at the idea of a priest giving thanks for easy weather. He seemed harmless. He was young — I wouldn’t put him past 40 — and he had brown hair, cut modestly and held in place with light product. His voice was an agreeable baritone, and he carried a notebook in his hand.
We stepped out of the elevator into a vestibule on the roof, which led to a set of double-doors to the lot outside. I made more small talk as we walked about also being thankful for a break in the rain, since I had 40 miles between me and home. We both turned to the right outside the doors to head to our cars. I was walking beside him instead of ahead or behind, walking the way you do when you’re with someone you know, not a stranger. I started talking before I was really sure I would.
“I was here for a memorial service,” I said. “A friend of mine from college. He was 30.”
We kept walking as the priest caught up, repeating pieces of what I’d said. “You said a memorial service?”
“Yeah. To remember him. He was 30. Anyway, just, if you could, say a prayer tonight for him.” There seemed no place to start, so I came at it from every direction.
I hadn’t been aware of it, but we’d stopped walking. We were halfway down the row of cars next to the vestibule. I repeated my petition for prayer. The priest asked me about my friend and his life, and I told him some of what I knew. A car three spaces down started up and drove away, but after that it was quiet. The priest was backlit by the giant security light: I kept seeing his face and losing it again, blinded.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Daniel,” I told him.
“I’m Darren,” he said, holding out a hand.
I told him about my friend, and how young he’d been, and I discussed in generalities some of the suffering he’d endured. I asked if he could pray for some kind of peace for him, and for me. And at some point I started to weep. I couldn’t speak any more, and I looked away, out over the dark trees, waiting to be able to talk again. Here. It had to happen here. This weight on me, this sadness, rolling off my shoulders. How young he was. What he'd been put through. What we do. “I’m sorry,” I said, sounding like I’d had the breath knocked from me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t have articulated what I was sorry for, but it seemed like the only thing to say.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s my job.” And he didn’t say this like a joke, or like he was rolling up his sleeves to go to work. He was kind. He said it to say, that’s why I’m here. This is what I do.
“I can see you all loved him,” Darren said. Then he told me that God loves me. I told him I knew that, and that I believed in that. I just needed peace. The tears slowed, and I wiped my eyes. We stood and didn’t say much. No one came, no cars drove by. The night was cool.
“Can I pray with you?” he asked me. I nodded, and Darren stepped closer. I think he put a hand on my arm while I stood there, but I don’t remember. He prayed for me, and for the friend I’d lost, and for all of us. I wanted to sit down, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to touch his face. Everything seemed too awful, and I felt so tired.
“What church are you with?” I asked him after. I didn’t know if this was a dumb question, but I couldn’t remember how many outfits were fitted with clerical collars. “I’m a Catholic priest,” Darren replied. I nodded.
“You know,” he said, “we just had Easter Sunday, but on the Sunday after that, we in the Catholic church celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. And on that day, we ask” — he counted on his fingers — ”we trust, and we show. Mercy.”
After a few minutes, clusters of people started showing up, heading for their cars: couples in formal wear, families in swimming gear. It was as if a breath had been released, and time, no longer stopped, had started moving again. I don’t remember everything we talked about. I thought during the prayer about getting his card or at least his contact information, but some part of me forgot. We said our goodbyes, and he wished me peace and rest as we parted. I got in my car and pulled out, passing him as he sat parked in his spot, his hand out over the wheel to wave farewell to me. That's the clearest image I have of him, more than the fragments of his face: an open palm, fingers out, almost reaching. I drove home in the rain.