Do Not Go Gentle: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison

ellison pipe

I had given the book to my older brother as a gift.  Strange Wine.  It was a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison, whom I mainly knew as the author of “City on the Edge of Forever,” one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, and as the irascible subject of a funny, smart, and acerbic interview in Starlog magazine.  I figured my brother would probably dig Ellison’s stuff.  He did.

After he had finished reading it, I borrowed it from him.  I wasn’t prepared for its impact on me.  I didn’t know which I liked better, the stories or the introductions that Ellison wrote for each of them.  To be honest, I almost preferred the intros.  Theirs was the unmistakable voice from that Starlog interview.  But the stories sucked me in too: they were alternately gritty, poetic, intense, funny …  Just read “Croatoan,” one of the best stories from Strange Wine, which ends with a creepy sequence in the sewers of New York City.  Whew!  To my mind, as I was being driven from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, Ellison was my new Ray Bradbury.  A hipper science fiction poet of the short story with attitude to burn.

I’m sure I drove many friends and acquaintances nuts with my endless encomiums to Ellison.  I talked about him with practically everyone who had the misfortune of having a conversation with me.  Even so, I’ll admit that I was a bit startled when my freshman comp teacher told me she thought Ellison was sexy—it was the first time I’d considered that someone might find a person sexy because they had a big brain, ahem—and I’m embarrassed to say that in return I shared with her my anxiety that Harlan, who would have only been 48 at the time, was getting pretty old, and I feared I was only going to be able to enjoy a few more new books by him before he left us.  She laughed and assured me he would probably be around for a while longer.

I can’t overestimate the impact that Ellison had on me at the time.  With cutting humor, he confirmed my pugilistic approach to discussing the arts: what I liked was superior, everything else should stand guard.  I could go on the attack at any moment.  More importantly, already inspired by the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, Ellison encouraged me, when I attempted to write fiction, to write the hell out of a story and not fear bloodying a few noses in the process.  The results were overwrought and underbaked, as in the hopefully long lost short story I wrote about a space traveler addicted to a drug made of condensed time that I titled, for reasons still unknown to me to this day, “Time is the Purple-Backed Purveyor.”  What?

kerouac radioOverwriting remained my modus operandi for years, even after I’d essentially stopped reading Ellison, and I fear it still clings to my prose like a chill mist—though my propensity for long sentences that might leave the reader gasping at the end from sheer effort (my friend Virginia Kuhn once pointed out to me that a monumental paragraph in a paper I was writing in grad school was actually one long, run-on sentence) has different origins: Jack Kerouac, who, among other things, wrote that gorgeous three-page sentence in The Subterraneans; Thomas Pynchon, whose best long sentences leave me gasping for reasons other than effort; and Herbert Blau, whose sentences unfold in undulations of thought as he tried to capture “it all, it all.”

I wasn’t even aware I was overwriting until, before graduate school, I took a short story course at a local writing center and in the margins of my story, alongside what I thought was a perfect evocation of the overly sweet, fermented odor of elm trees cut down after succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease, the instructor warned me to “rein it in.”  It forever changed how I saw my writing.

Despite his importance to me, in the years after graduating from college, I lost interest in Ellison, even though I still remembered how incredulous I had been at a college friend’s indifference to Ellison Wonderland, which he had purchased because of my tireless, effusive praise of Ellison’s writing.  A few years later, I finally read the book myself and understood what he was talking about.  It was a feeling I was to experience as often as not after finishing each Ellison collection that I read.  It seemed that with all but his non-fictions books—my favorite being Sleepless Nights on the Procrustean Bed, a small press collection of essays I’d borrowed from a friend who seemed to be as equally hot and cold on Ellison as I—there were a few hard, glittering diamonds in each collection, amid heaps of coal, stories that could have been gems too had they been given more time.

star wars explosionI also tired of Ellison’s film and television criticism, as good as some of it was.  The world stopped seeming so black and white to me.  I no longer viewed something as either a masterpiece or absolute trash, a problem of extremes that I feel traps too many who care about the arts, even close friends of mine.  Worse, though, Ellison’s criteria for praise or damnation seemed rather arbitrary.  For example, considering all that could be leveled against it, I recall that Ellison’s biggest complaint about Star Wars was how it ignored physics, especially in the space battles that were filled with noise and fiery explosions and people flying small spacecrafts that seemed to push and strain against gravity.  It’s the flipside to the response of one of my friend’s undergraduate students who praised Star Wars for its realistic fight scenes.  Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on—and Ellison is right here if you’re talking about space travel, the students if you’re talking about the WWII dogfight footage that inspired George Lucas—I don’t understand why it’s worth talking about, unless the whole point of cinema, and by extension art, is to ape reality in the most painstakingly, mindnumbingly literal way possible.  If so, then much of the greatest art of all time is worthless rubbish.

I still cared enough about him in the end that I was moved by an anecdote shared by John Scalzi in his memorial to Ellison in the Los Angeles Times.  Scalzi recalls when he had phoned Ellison in 2011 to inform him that his story “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” was nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).  And Ellison, that alter cocker who used to call Scalzi when Scalzi had been the SFWA president and yell at him about whatever Ellison had on his mind, wept at the news.  The nomination, official recognition by his peers that his work was still vital, had deeply touched him.  And that, almost in itself, makes his work once again flare to life in my memory with vivid color.

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Age of Anxiety: Watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend


Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana), Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), and Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Recently, I’ve been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  Several friends of mine have been big fans over the years, and one was finally emphatic in his recommendation.  I didn’t want to disappoint him.

What I saw surprised me.  First, I didn’t know the show was a musical.  I’ll admit, had I known this in advance, it probably would have been a deal breaker.  What’s weird about that kneejerk reaction is that I enjoy most of the musical numbers in the show.  They’re catchy, they’re witty, they’re delightfully vulgar when they need to be.

And I like The Music Man.  God help me, it’s as corny as the horizon in a road trip through Iowa.  I should hate it.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  Hell, even Thomas Pynchon, the greatest novelist alive—what was that punk?  Jonathan Franzen?? Do you want a piece of me, you worthless mother…—seemingly can’t write a novel without envisioning his characters randomly breaking into song.

And yet, had I known Crazy Ex-Girlfriend prominently featured musical numbers, I would have put it in the Netflix queue along with a thousand other things—until Netflix’s monthly purge begins and reduces my queue by half—fully intending to watch it after re-watching Deadwood, the best television show ever aired—What???  Breaking Bad?  Come over here and say that!—which, by the looks of it, I won’t be doing for years to come.

Even worse for me, the show’s premise seems to follow the blueprint of a rom-com: the lead, in this case the multi-talented Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch (is she a closet Aline Kominsky-Crumb fan?) desires heartthrob Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), who is definitely cute and sweet but is a bit of a lunkhead, while Rebecca herself is adored by the, at least in season one, saner, smarter, and, in his way, sexier Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana).  We know who the plot wants us to root for but also who we secretly hope wins the day.

To be honest, the rom-com formula isn’t the end of the world for me.  I saw The Goodbye Girl when I was in high school and adored it.  My worship of Richard Dreyfus, who was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made—Star Wars?  Never heard of it!—and my sense that Neil Simon was among the pantheon of great playwrights were confirmed.  (Yes, I have significantly revised the latter opinion over the ensuing years.)  But it is definitely not a plus for me, either.  I thought that what was exciting about Amy Schumer’s and Judd Apatow’s film Trainwreck was seriously undermined by its adherence to the rom-com formula.  (If you’re interested, you can read my review of Trainwreck here.)

What has been most surprising to me, though, is how personally affecting I have found Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  After all, the show is often silly.  I love silly, it’s one of the things I love about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the underrated Green Acres, for example, and it’s also one of the things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  But it’s not a quality one associates with deeply personal feelings.  Nor does the rom-com plotting of the show.  Yes, I’ve had crushes on people, and of course they were devastating—that’s why it’s called a “crush,” right?  But I’ve never done anything like what Rebecca does, not even remotely, so it doesn’t strike me on a level much deeper than any other structural device.

Rather, it is in those moments when Rebecca paints herself into a corner—when she’s left with nothing to do, nowhere to turn, except face the uncomfortable truth—that my heart hums at an uncomfortably electric and familiar high pitch.  I have never felt a show evoke anxiety in me so well, at least the species of anxiety that has been my close companion these past five-plus decades.  When, for example, on the party bus, Rachel’s boss Darryl—a piece of work himself—contradicts Rebecca’s narrative about what brought her to West Covina, essentially undermining her identity, and Rebecca freezes, her face blank with terror, or when she walks into Josh’s apartment and finds Josh, Valencia, and Greg gathered for what appears to be a confrontation with Rebecca, Trent Maddock, Rachel’s virtual “beard,” a stranger to all four of them, standing among them, her cover once again blown, her feelings in danger of being exposed, and she again freezes in terror, I relived my own anxiety, the dread of knowing that I will be found out, discovered a fraud.

Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar, poet laureate of the discontented

These spells are immediately broken when Rebecca stammers like the lead in a farce, knitting preposterous explanations until people are confused enough that she can weave a new lie and hide again.  But it’s those brief moments when the jig is up and there’s nothing to be done that I can hardly bear.  What makes them so intense for me is that Rebecca’s lies are designed to make others like her, but what gets revealed is her fear that there is really no reason for anyone to do so, a line of thinking already abject in an “adult” that is rendered even more so by the sheer knowledge that such a fear is revolting to look at.  It’s like staring into a deep, dark, truthful mirror.

While those moments thrill me with a threatening charge of vulnerability, I love the show because of how funny it is, the laughs it elicits all the richer because their peals echo on the lip of an active volcano.

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The Impossibility of It All: JoAnne Akalaitis’s BAD NEWS! i was there …


JoAnne Akalaitis

I unfolded the piece of paper, uncertain about what would be written on it, but certain that whatever it would be, it was going to be bad news.  I had been told it would be.  I was attending the premiere of JoAnne Akalaitis’s Bad News! i was there …, a theater piece created by bringing together speeches from classical drama in which messengers describe often horrific scenes they have just witnessed, a violent pastiche including works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Racine, and Brecht.

At the end of the show, as we were processing what we’d just heard—to the best of our abilities; what we had heard encompassed what was, in its extremes, incomprehensible—we were asked to share our own bad news, whatever it might be, to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a collection box to be anonymously shared in a discussion after the finale of Akalaitis’s show.

So there I was, unfolding a sheet of paper containing what was sure to be bad news.  What I found was a list, numbered one through five.  That in itself made my heart sink a bit.  How much sorrow can one endure, either in the telling or the hearing of it?  I skimmed the list and was further stymied.  Based on what I saw listed there, I couldn’t share the news with others.  I didn’t know how.

To be honest, the first three points were banal—heartfelt, perhaps, but written in a way that would have meant nothing to anybody but the writer.  The next two points, however, resisted communication in a different way.  The words, what words were there, were also not up to the task, but they echoed the vastness of what it seemed they were attempting to express, what they were so clearly failing to express that they couldn’t help but give us a glimpse of it.

Point four simply said: “We can’t be here.”  When I first read it, I had to re-read it.  It was so different in character from the other three, I didn’t know what to make of it.  Who was “we”?  Where was “here”?  That those questions resisted resolution, that they themselves were the answers, was brought into sharp focus for me by the word “can’t.”  At first rub, of course, “we” referred the audience and “here” to the Guthrie.  In that context, “can’t” suggests a prohibition—we can’t be here bearing witness to this litany of horror, some of which, we imagine, is beyond imagination.  In other words, the crimes witnessed and described to us by those who were there go too far, they trespass into the inhuman while remaining all too human.

bad news

Bad News! i was there … rehearsal

We intuitively know, even if we want to deny it, that what is human is too often defined by what is not.  Worse, like all paradoxes, that insight seems to undo itself.  If what it means to be human includes what is inhuman, then what exactly do we mean when we refer to “human”?  One is reminded of the great Austrian critic Karl Kraus’s aphorism, “That we all are only human, is no excuse but a presumption.”  Once we’ve gotten to this point in our thinking, we can begin to see, if we allow it, the extent to which this line of questioning can be extended.  It’s not just the category “human” that depends on what it is not to appear.  Every single thing we can point to, literally or rhetorically, does.  So just what do we mean when we say, “we,” or “I” for that matter?  It is a question that helps us to see the “can’t” less as a prohibition than as an impossibility.  If I am what I am not, then I can’t possibly be here.  I don’t think this is quite right, to be honest, but I think it’s righter than most would concede.  And the anguish in what it gets wrong must be immense.  Nobody likes to believe they’re nothing.

As the others who had picked up sheets scattered in the center of the room were sharing their bad news, I felt in that little sentence, “We can’t be here,” all of the negation it implied while being sure that I wouldn’t have been able to put what I sensed into words, at least not yet.  So I just kept looking at the sentence, wanting to read it aloud, but refraining from doing so, afraid that the words coming out of my mouth wouldn’t have had the same impact as they had on the page.  The sentence was so brief, I would have finished reading it before the audience had even begun to hear it.  Rather than diminish its anguish, I decided, I would remain silent.

And point five?

Point five was blank.

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Meatball Doesn’t Work That Way: Netflix’s Wild Wild Country and the Struggle for Enlightenment

rajneeshI wasn’t far into Netflix’s documentary series Wild Wild Country about the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon during the early 1980s before I witnessed the unseemly spectacle of religious zealots contorting with spiritual ecstasy, some with their heads thrown back as if in narcotic dream as their guru pressed his fingers to their foreheads, ostensibly to awaken a deep consciousness within them.  Such acts are so intimate, they’re practically like watching someone have an orgasm.  And I like to choose who I see doing that, thank you very much.  When you get down to it, I suppose, the two acts aren’t that dissimilar.  Both involve a letting go of one’s self, releasing that self into something greater, two communions.

What makes such a sight truly disturbing, though, clear to anyone watching who isn’t already taken in by it, is that this stuff is dangerous.  Whether conscious of it or not, most people are willing to give themselves up for something greater.  That willingness is already a misunderstanding of a subtle desire we have that is even more familiar and less articulable, a primordial stirring that whispers to us that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, which we translate into a sense that there is something greater than “I”—whatever “I” is—that we actually belong to, there must be.  But then we muck it up further by confusing that vague “something greater” with a belief that we hold, some of which seem so reasonable to us that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs.  And at that point people are especially susceptible to manipulation, from others and themselves, often leading to dubious if not outright cataclysmic ends.

antelopeanThe confusion I’m describing is so common, most aren’t aware they’re doing it. After all, the sannyasins, followers of the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the ones I watched succumbing to ecstasy, aren’t the only ones identifying themselves with their beliefs and in turn losing themselves.  So are the “normal” folks in Oregon who live in the small town of Antelope that the sannyasins overtake and rename Rajneeshpuram, and so are the dedicated, occasionally smug, law officials instrumental in bringing down Rajneesh and ultimately Rajneeshpuram.  It’s just that, because the sannyasins look and act differently from what we’re used to, what they’re doing seems more conspicuous.

fbiThe documentary is fair to all three sides, allowing each to tell the story as they had experienced it, but it is also clear that none are without blame in the darker turn that events took.  I found myself disgusted and angry when people from all three sides gloated at their moral superiority.  It is this kind of entrenched, blind, self-regard that is among humanity’s worst traits.  Even worse, I thought a spiritual teacher worth his salt would know this, especially one whom several of his followers called the most enlightened being on the planet.  Yet Rajneesh denied culpability in the heinous acts his most trusted followers engaged in—which included plotting to kill U.S. Attorney Charles Turner and using salmonella to render hundreds of Oregon citizens ill before an election.  While Rajneesh might not have known of the plans to commit these acts (but then again, he might have), he had to have understood that his teachings, only glimpses of which surface in Wild Wild Country, were of a kind to have provided conditions for his followers’ behavior to flourish.

That he vehemently denounced those who had been involved in these plots, decrying the woman to whom he had handed over power of leading the sannyasins as a “bitch” and a “traitor” who had acted unilaterally, shows no wisdom at all.  Nor does one of his teachings, which he attributes (though it sounds to me like he misattributes) to Zen.  The teaching is about a Zen master who clubs a student to death, but just before the master’s staff comes down, just before death is meted out, the student is enlightened.  The woman who relates this teaching had tried to kill two people in Rajneesh’s name, and the teaching had tortured her for years, as she wondered if she had missed her opportunity for enlightenment.  Alas, for the sannyasins, the others in the documentary, and for the rest of us, to paraphrase the narrator of cartoonist R. Crumb’s satirical gem “Meatball,” “Enlightenment doesn’t work that way.”  Thank goodness it doesn’t, but pity us just the same, because we will do all of this, or a version of it, again and again and again until we realize it.

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I’m Putting You On: Self-Fashioning and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread

phantom-threadSeeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread for a second time, I was struck by how apt the world of haute couture is for the landscape of a story in which the self-fashioning of love—both of ourselves and how we see others—plays out.  It begins with Reynolds’ and Alma’s first date.  After dining at a fine restaurant, Reynolds rushes Alma to his country home, where after some conversation, she agrees to join him upstairs—so he can try a dress on her.  Then, with his tape measure, no air quotes intended, he takes his measure of her.  What else does one really do on a first date, though usually we’re not so literal about it.

As the scene unfolds, Reynolds pins a prototype of a dress on her and we can see him dreaming the Alma he wants to fashion from what’s before him.  At one point, he even remarks that Alma has small breasts.  Blushing, she stammers an apology before Reynolds cuts her off and tells her she’s perfect, concluding, “My job is to give you some.  If I want to.”

What makes all of this even more startling is that when the scene had just begun, Reynolds’ sister Cyril enters the room, unbidden.  Quickly ascertaining what’s transpiring, she sits down with a notebook and records the measurements that Reynolds calls out, essentially taking charge of Reynolds’ taking charge.  Initially confused, Alma begins to realize she’s at the bottom of the food chain here, an Eliza Doolittle whose Henry Higgins has his own master.  These relationships, this gamesmanship, sets the stage for all that happens throughout the film.

As with any good title, the meanings of the phrase “phantom thread” proliferate upon reflection.  There are, for example, the hidden messages that Reynolds sews into the lining of the clothing he creates; the strong ties to his long-dead mother for whom he created his first dress, the wedding gown she wore at her second wedding; and the ephemeral nature of fashion (“Chic – oh, don’t you start using that filthy, little word, chic. Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public. I don’t even know what that word means.”) and of Reynolds’ dresses themselves, worn how many times before being discarded.

Literally, “phantom thread” refers to a disorder suffered by seamstresses of Victorian London, in which they would continue in their homes at night the sewing motions they had engaged in all day long at the clothiers’, essentially sewing spectral garments with phantom thread.  It is a disorder of a sort suffered by Reynolds and Alma as they fall in love, only to sense that the ties that bind them are phantom.

And what ends they go to as they attempt to rebind their relationship with those phantom threads!  At one point, when Alma believes she sees their relationship splitting apart at the seams, her attempt to redress the problem leads Reynolds to inveigh, “Who are you? Do you have a gun? You’re here to kill me?”  But his professed existential crisis, part put-on at this point in their relationship, is nothing compared to the solution Alma devises and to which Reynolds capitulates toward the end of the film. It suggests that love is a malady that keeps us alive, if only we can survive it.

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Favorite Movies of 2017

There was much about 2017 that was unpleasant, harrowing at times, but boy was it a great year for cinema.  For the first time since I began making these lists, I saw enough movies that moved me—emotionally, intellectually—or just entertained me, that I had to exclude as many movies that I’d really liked as I included just to keep my list at ten-ish.  Probably the biggest disappointment for me this year was The Last Jedi.  I enjoyed The Force Awakens and Rogue One, though in different ways, and think that Rogue One’s successful pilfering of the ragtag team of misfit soldiers wins the battle subgenre made it among my favorite of the Star Wars franchise.

But for all that The Last Jedi offered, including top-notch acting and some eye-popping visuals—like the showdown on the salt pan of planet Crait with clouds of red dust flaring into the sky, the trails left in the white desert floor by the rebel fleet looking like lacerations on a vast plain of alabaster flesh or the scene in which Rey seems to descend into the pupil of an immense stone eye, encountering in its subterranean chambers endless iterations of herself shimmering in and out of sync with one another—I thought it was a bit of a mess.  It tried to include so much that it really couldn’t do most of it justice, and it lurched tonally with uncomfortable speed.  The humor seemed especially misguided.  One scene, featuring General Hux (Domhnhall Gleeson) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a standoff, with its simple “joke” repeated several times, guards sniggering as their evil master stammers “comically” with confusion and frustration, would have been more at home in Mel Brooks’ Space Balls than a Star Wars film.

But some of the other films this year!  After a first viewing, I didn’t exactly know what to make of Blade Runner 2049.  I know I liked it.  Its visual invention alone makes it worth revisiting.  But what about the rest of it?  A second viewing revealed a solid, deliberate film, its plot carefully unfolding to reveal a dramatic irony that would have made Philip K. Dick proud.  And when K (Ryan Gosling) finally meets Rick Deckard in the ruins of Las Vegas, a whole new landscape, internally and externally, opens.  I have a feeling this movie will stick with me.

Finally, I’m not sure how to categorize the last item on my list, the eleventh item.  I almost didn’t include it—not because I didn’t love it, but I wasn’t sure if it belonged here.  I loved it so much, I decided to include it.

Here are my favorite ten movies (plus one) in the order that I saw them:

1.  Behemoth
An impressionistic non-fiction film by Chinese director Zhao Liang, Behemoth is nothing less than a portrait of Hell, recalling the fearsome triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch with its delirious eye steeped in ruin and devastation and including a final sequence that evokes the abject meaninglessness reminiscent of the Theater of the Absurd. Set in Inner Mongolia, the film opens with wordless, sumptuous images of coal being strip-mined, heavy machinery devouring green pastures where shepherds tend their flocks grazing beneath hills from which a succession of trucks dump tons of earth.  The film then moves to the inferno of mills, where the coal is shipped, with its molten steel and fire, smoke and sweat, sparks flying into the air, flames licking workers’ boots, before taking us to the humble dwelling of a pair of those workers, their bodies wracked by their labor, untended by doctors.  It is the final act, the end product of these devastating labors, that brings the cruel absurdity of it all home.  And the Behemoth, the beast described in the Book of Job for whom “Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play,” who “drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: [who] trusteth that he can draw up Jordan in his mouth”?  There can be little doubt by the end of the film what this beast is—it strides among us, leaving in its wake death and destruction.

2. Paterson
References to William Carlos Williams’ epic modernist poem are refracted throughout Jim Jarmusch’s quirky, charming, and funny paean to poetry and creativity. Set in Paterson, NJ, Paterson follows Paterson (Adam Driver), bus driver and poet, as he engages his daily ritual of waking up, going to work, writing poetry whenever he can, spending time with his creative wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and having a few beers at the local bar. Then, of course, there’s Marvin, his bulldog, with whom he has forged a kind of détente, at least temporarily.  Through his interested attention to the world around him, Paterson embodies the creative impulse: to experience that world and then attempt to convey it through art.  Laura, on the other hand, seems to channel in her imaginative pursuits the jouissance of creating art.  Ron Padgett wrote most of Paterson’s poetry—some poems written especially for the movie—which is projected on the screen alongside a collage of images, the lines appearing and read aloud as Paterson records it into his notebook.  Overall, Paterson is a bit of a fairy tale told with an intentionally repetitive, ritually quotidian structure.  This may be Jarmusch’s most satisfying film since 1995’s Dead Man.

3. I Am Not Your Negro
Director Raoul Peck centers his film—at once a portrait of James Baldwin, a look at the Civil Rights movement, and an essay on the current state of race in American employing Baldwin’s words—on excerpts from “Remember This House,” Baldwin’s unfinished book about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all slain before the ‘60s came to an end.  From Baldwin’s reminiscences, Peck moves outward, cutting from TV clips featuring Baldwin, to archival footage of the Civil Rights movement, to clips from Hollywood movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to footage of incidents of racial injustice tearing at our country today, all narrated by the words of James Baldwin as spoken by him or read by Samuel L. Jackson.  The result is a powerfully insightful look at what’s happening with race in America today, tracing the history of some of today’s most trenchant insights to the flashpan moment of desegregation in the ‘60s.  It’s an involving, illuminating film that stands testament to Baldwin’s piercing eloquence and captures the way the Black Lives Matter movement and contemporary African American intellectuals carry on his critique, bringing it to the streets to try and affect long-needed change.

4. Sieranevada
The premise of Sieranevada, to me, is unpromising: the dysfunctional Mirica family gathers in a too-small flat to memorialize the recent death of Emil, the family patriarch.  Too many mediocre films have been made of families falling together and then apart before finally really pulling themselves together as they gather to attend a funeral (often of the patriarch) or celebrate a holiday.  But director Cristi Puiu, creator of the brilliant The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, is a master filmmaker, and what he makes of this premise is fantastic.  The flat in which the action occurs induces claustrophobia, especially given the sparks that are flying: infidelity, conspiracy theories, Romanian politics, sibling rivalries, caddish behavior, and somebody who very well might be struggling with an overdose.  The results are funny, fraught with conflict, and, when they need to be, devastatingly poignant.  The focus of the film is Lary (Mimi Branescu), clearly the voice of sanity in all of the insanity exploding around him, though Lary is hardly a saint, as is revealed in the quiet scene between Lary and his wife, as they have an intimate conversation in their SUV.  Still, other characters shine, especially Lary’s great-aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), a wonderful comic creation, whose defense of Ceaușescu’s regime is brazen, even cruel, as it brings one of the young women of the family to tears.  I’m surprised this film didn’t get more attention than it did.

5. Graduation
The Aldeas live in a run-down part of an unnamed city (apparently in Transylvania)—the concrete buildings surrounding their flat are dilapidated, facing weedy lots and narrow, untended streets, and as the film opens a brick sails through their living room window.  Worse, the evening before her exams, daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), who has an opportunity to leave Romania and study medicine at Oxford, is raped and assaulted, threatening her chances of passing the exam.  And if she doesn’t pass, Oxford is out of the question.  So Romeo (Adrian Titieni), her father, puts into motion a plan to rig the system to assure his daughter’s success.  What plays out is a fairly gripping film that unveils, through this small act of corruption, the unfairness and corruption of the very system itself.  Director Cristian Mungui, who along with Sieranevada’s Puiu is one of the stars of the Romanian New Wave, creates a bracing, taut film with inedible images, like the scene in which Romeo, believing he has hit an animal with his car, but unsure of what it was because it is night and it all happened so fast, walks into the woods to find out, his flashlight beam the only illumination as he gets tangled up in the brambles.  And only gets further entangled in them as the movie progresses.  Despite its seemingly humble scope, Graduation has its sights set on bigger game.

6. Get Out
Jordan Peeles’ directorial debut seems to be on everyone’s best of the year lists, and I’m guessing that’s because it is not only an excellent horror-comedy, but it expertly uses genre to comment on race, in particular on the black male body as a site of desire and fear, one that, when coaxed out into the open, risks being “disappeared.”  Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an up and coming photographer in New York City, is invited by his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Alllison Williams) to join her and her family at their cottage in Connecticut.  Chris is understandably uncomfortable, asking Rose, “They know I’m black right?” and is even more uncomfortable when it sounds like they don’t.  While Chris is welcomed by Rose’s family, their hospitality is oddly detached, as if they were less speaking to him, than to some idea of him.  The creepiness that detachment evokes is only the beginning.  Soon, the strained air of his interactions with Rose’s family and their friends cracks open to reveal something stranger and scarier.  Get Out uses horror the way the best horror filmmakers do, but Peele has a satirist’s flair for trenchant humor that makes Get Out quite funny while losing none of its bite.

7. The Death of Louis XIV
Like Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” there is no false advertising in the title of Albert Serra’s film.  From beginning to end, we watch Louis XIV, the Sun King, Louis the Great, die from gangrene, and the results are imminently watchable.  Played by French cinema legend Jean-Pierre Léaud (the lead boy in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows now frail and wrinkled), Louis XIV, one of the most important kings of French history, is shown at his most intimate and human.  Whenever his kingly duties are evoked, as when he is expected to attend some gathering or another or when he’s asked to make a decision on the building of a bridge that is deemed essential to the survival of the monarchy, the trappings of worldly power are revealed to be threadbare, ridiculous even.  The film is closely observed—we mainly remain by the King’s bedside, with a few notable exceptions, and see every tremble of the hand or eye, mote of dust, candle flicker, and hear the rustling of bed clothes, and each exasperated sigh of the dying monarch.  And it is visually stunning.  Each frame looks like it could have been painted by the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century.  It’s a slow film, but one that rewards viewers’ patience.


8. Wonderstruck
In what is undoubtedly his most commercial film, Todd Haynes adapts Brian Selznick’s young adult novel about a boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), and a girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in the 1970s and 1920s respectively, who run away from home to New York City to find a missing parent.  While a lot of the pleasure of Haynes’ film is formal—the scenes from the ‘20s are as if from a silent film and center on a girl who we learn is hearing impaired, those from the ‘70s are shot with a film stock that recalls cinema from that era, to give only two examples—and Selznick’s plotting is admittedly clockwork-like, in which everything seems to point to something else in his narrative, the movie still manages to evoke strong emotion.  I choked back a sob at the question scribbled on a piece of paper that the older woman in a bookstore poses to Ben.  At the heart of this movie is the pain in the keen desire to have a purpose while fearing one has none, and the need to be loved by someone, even if trying to elicit that love prompts one to behave unethically.  The palpable desperation of Jamie (Jaden Michael) to be friends with Ben is heartbreaking.  This is another success in Haynes ongoing project to create formally interesting melodrama.

9. The Florida Project
The title of the movie sounds like a science experiment, but that’s not the kind of project it has in mind.  Set in a motel where those on the lower rungs of America’s socio-economic “ladder” dwell, The Florida Project follows the adventures of six-year-old Moonee (an incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they traverse a kitschy landscape of low rent motels and commercial enterprises that surround the burnished wholesomeness of Disney World and the downward trajectory of Moonee’s immature if loving mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Director Sean Baker shows great affection for the characters, even while putting them through the paces by the difficulty of their situation, and he has a great eye for the trashy vibrancy of their world.  The children in this movie are amazing.  Baker has done an excellent job capturing how children act—one of the first things we see them doing is having a spitting contest on a car that had the misfortune of being parked near them.  What they do may be harrowing at times, but only because children live in a richer, more dangerous world than most adults.  And the heart with which Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the overworked manager of The Magic Kingdom, the motel where Halley and Moonee live, which, if it possesses any magic might be “magic fingers,” is a welcome turn from the heavies that Dafoe is usually typecast as.  He is as much social worker as building manager.  The Florida Project is a vivacious film that reveals the life in those places where most of us usually don’t care to look.

10. The Shape of Water
Apparently, when director Guillermo del Toro first saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he thought it was going to be a romance between the female lead and the creature—after all, the movie intimated as much.  He was so disappointed it didn’t turn out that way that he has finally made his own version of the story.  Lavishly designed and directed, del Toro’s film takes the subtext of classic Universal horror films and makes it the text of his film: the drama of the persecution of the marginalized, how society makes them monstrous and punishes them for it, is made explicit as a mute woman, a gay man, an African American woman, and a Soviet scientist/spy more interested in truth than national interests, side with the “monster,” an amphibious humanoid whose mysteries, the Americans feel, could give them an edge over the Soviet Union in the thick of the Cold War (the film is set in 1962); and then, of course, there’s the eroticism between the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins).  I don’t think it’s a perfect film—I think the Amphibian Man would have been more interesting had one sensed more deeply that he’s not human, which is addressed in one gory scene that is so offhandedly dismissed one senses as missed opportunity, and good and evil are too emphatically drawn, the good people were pure of heart and the evil character was literally rotten.  But as a friend pointed out, the story was framed as a fairy tale, and in the end, I was swept off my feet.

11. Twin Peaks: The Return
Is this a movie or a TV show?  It’s not a question I wrestle with much except when I was putting this list together.  Director David Lynch said he envisioned Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18-hour film, but watching the show, I thought it felt structured enough like episodic television that I considered it a show.  And yet I didn’t.  I have never quite seen a show or movie like it, so I thought I would include it on my list.  If it’s not clear already, I loved it.  I didn’t expect to.  In fact, I thought revisiting Twin Peaks was a bad idea.  Worse, the recent revival of The X Files seemed to presage what Twin Peaks: The Return could be if it tried to rebottle the magic of the original series.  But, of course, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had something else in mind, and they created a show that was wholly new, honoring the original series yet not bound by it.  It was surreal, funny, and more often than I’d expected, touching.  Each episode cast a spell that I didn’t want to break.  Talking to friends, it’s clear this was a divisive show, with most of those on the “nay” side accusing Lynch of self-indulgence.  To me, it was the late work of a major artist, drawing on motifs and themes from his entire career, from his paintings to his early experimental films to his better-known films and television, and weaving them into a new context.  Best, the final two hours of Twin Peaks: The Return reframe the entire Twin Peaks narrative as a tragedy of Greek, though most definitely post-Euclidean, dimensions.


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Do You See What I Hear? The Deadly Mantis and 2001: A Space Odyssey



Movie diary:  I was watching snippets from The Deadly Mantis on Svengoolie recently—it was your typical prehistoric giant praying mantis on the loose leaving behind a trail of death and destruction kind of movie.  It had a handful of well-done, low budget effects, like when a soldier squirts a jet of fire from a flame thrower onto the mantis.  Mostly, though, it was forgettable.

But then the mantis took flight.  I didn’t even know mantises could fly, but some do.  This one did.  But it wasn’t the visual effects that impressed.  It was the sound, that when it settled into a lower register resembled the full-throated singing of a monotone men’s choir.  It was like hearing the crude seeds for the mysterious, haunting monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There is much that makes Kubrick’s monolith alien, seemingly beyond human comprehension.  Its perfect, hard-edged, rectilinear shape, its sleek blackness, are wholly unnatural, especially in contrast with the imagery that precedes it, the organic, sun-blasted landscape of a desert plain on which early hominids struggle, at times with other beasts and at others among themselves, to survive.  What audiences first experience in that initial encounter with the monolith, though, is a sound, an otherworldly, ethereal, shimmering dissonance of human voices, not delineating a melody but surging with intensity.   We hear that sound—onscreen the cautious, fearful curiosity of the hominids are seemingly aroused by it—before actually seeing the monolith.

monolithOnce we see the monolith, it becomes unclear: were the hominids reacting to the sound or the spectacle of the monolith?  When I first saw 2001 back (way back) in high school, I couldn’t figure out what the sound was.  Did the monolith make it, and could the hominids hear it?  Or was it only on the soundtrack?  I’m not sure if I initially thought it was music; I’d certainly never heard music like it before, not in Little Chute, WI.  But music or not, if it was non-diegetic, it intimated the implacable otherness of the monolith and the hypnotic power it seemed to have over the hominids.

The indeterminate location of the music—in all its thrillingly dynamic stillness—is its genius, suggesting as it does, something in this world that is not of this world that’s wholly out of this world.  It presages Dave Bowman at the end of the film watching himself age and die and fade into emptiness, where, as Zen master Shunryu Suzuki tells us, the “great self appears,” as it does in that beautiful, cryptic closing shot to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

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