Thursday, January 17, 2019

Perfunctory as

I'm going to see Mary Queen of Scots tonight, and I could not care less.

It will be my last theatrical outing in my ranking season, and I could not care less.

Yep, really going out with a whimper this year.

In years past, the slate of new movies getting released on Thursday, January 17th, the last Australian release date before the Oscar nominations on Tuesday, might have been formidable. In fact, there were a couple years in there where the Oscar nominations were revealed on a Thursday, meaning I had just enough time to squeeze in that day's new releases before it became Thursday in America. In 2015, I saw a triple feature of The Hateful Eight, Carol and The Big Short, all on that day. (That was actually 2016, but the movie year was 2015.)

No such drama this year.

As I described in this post, this is the only movie it seems even remotely useful for me to try to catch that's coming out today. And I kind of feel like I already saw it when I saw The Favourite last week. The best I can hope for is for it to be kind of like The Favourite, and I was only mixed on that. I already know it hasn't made many, or maybe any, top ten lists this year.

But I kind of already told you all this in the post referenced above, so why am I repeating it here?

I guess the only difference is, now that the day has actually arrived, I'm sure I don't care? And I haven't written anything since Monday? Didn't I say I was going to stop caring about lapses between posts on this blog, especially those as short as this one?

Or maybe it's to tell you about a certain Australian phrasing that I like that I've used in this post's subject.

In Australia people have a tendency toward the following structure for two-word comments: "[adjective] as." You're most likely to hear "sweet as," followed closely in frequency by "easy as." From the context you can probably figure it out, but it's essentially "sweet as [some unsaid thing that is also sweet]," or "easy as [the easiest thing you can think of]."

Here, I'll use it in a sentence: "You're coming out to the movies with us tonight? Sweet as!"

I can't totally pull it off when I say it, so I don't really try, but I do like it.

So my viewing of Mary Queen of Scots is going to be "perfunctory as."

Wish me luck, or at least a reaction with more of a pulse than mere indifference.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Setting the record straight in 2019

It’s the last year of the decade, so I figured, what better time to do a little clean-up?

That, combined with the fact that I’ve got a really good title for it, clinched my 2019 monthly viewing series.

It’s going to be called Audient Audit, and it will entail me watching one movie per month that I’ve listed myself as seeing, but may not have actually seen.

There are a surprising number of these. I’ve got 20 potential candidates and only 12 months to see them in.

How did I get so many? Well, it has something to do with the formulation of my original movie viewing lists, and then the additions and adjustments to those lists over the years to keep them accurate.

It’s going on 30 years since I originally compiled a list of all the movies I’ve ever seen. I’m putting the creation of that list at 1991 or 1992, though I can’t say for certain. The list was the result of going through a comprehensive catalogue of movies from my local video store, and even though it was a really long list, of course there were going to be movies that I’d seen that weren’t on there. I’ve added those movies as I’ve thought of them over the years, and the list I currently have – which is 5,236 and counting – is, I would venture, within a dozen titles of being the actual list of movies I’ve seen.

That potential discrepancy of a dozen includes both films I’ve forgotten about that aren’t on there, and movies I’ve included that I didn’t actually see.

As I’ve been adding to the list and correcting it over the years, there have been a number of times I’ve added a movie that I thought I saw, but could not say for sure. Some of these even probably date back to the time I originally created the list. Duelling movies on Flickchart, which I’ve been doing for nearly a decade, was a big inciting incident for adding movies to the list. A movie would come up in a duel and I’d rank it, feeling fairly certain I’d seen it. Then I might notice it was not on my master list, so I added it.

In 2019, I am going to audit that list.

Which has not traditionally been the spirit behind these monthly viewing series. These series have been designed for me to see movies I might not otherwise see, curated according to certain themes, parts of the world, eras of filmmaking, or the filmographies of certain actors or directors. In almost all instances they were movies that were actually new to me.

Not this year. Or, possibly not, anyway. Some of these movies undoubtedly will be new to me, despite my previous statements to the contrary.

Each month, when I write up the movie on here, I will then make the determination of whether I’d really seen it previously or not.

I have mixed feelings about devoting a whole year to this, but I also could not resist the title. Audient Audit? How could I not do this?

And it’s not the first time I’ve done a viewing series of movies I’d already seen. In fact, I just did one in 2018. That was my bi-monthly series, in which I revisited Coen brothers movies I hadn’t loved. In 2015 I also rewatched, on a bi-monthly basis, the existing six Star Wars movies in the lead-up to The Force Awakens. And the actual progenitor of these monthly viewing series was a couple of weekly viewing series I did back in 2010, the first of which involved rewatching movies others loved that I hadn’t, and the second of which involved putting some of my guilty pleasures to the test with a second viewing. So, there is historical precedent for this. (And even if there weren't, would it really matter? This is my blog and I do what I want.)

To balance things out, my 2019 bi-monthly viewing series will be devoted to six new movies, though I will tell you about that in a separate post.

So I won’t publish the list in advance, because as always, my ability to watch these movies will depend first on me being able to get my hands on them. As previously stated, I’ve got 20 options, so I hope I can source at least 12 of them.

I’ll publish the first before the end of January, after I close my year-end list next Tuesday.

Thanks for coming along.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mediocre is the new bad

I saw one of the most mediocre movies of the year last night.

Kevin Connolly's Gotti was, indeed, extremely mediocre.

But I watched it because it was supposed to be bad. Like, everyone and their mother said it was terrible. But it was really more mediocre than bad.

Then I realized, mediocre is the new bad.

Rarely do you get movies that are just screamingly awful anymore. I've got a couple on my list this year, but not many. I'm not sure if the people who provide the checks and balances at the studios and the distributors are getting better at their jobs, but the worst a movie can be these days seems to be one of the following: random, boring, poorly timed, tone deaf. I don't see many movies anymore where all the decisions are bad ones.

Case in point: Eli Roth's Death Wish. This tends to be thought of as one of the most reviled movies of the year. I enjoyed watching it. And that's because Roth does a lot of things right in it. The thing he does wrong is, well, make a movie about a vigilante that kind of celebrates gun ownership in the year 2018. That makes it poorly timed and tone deaf. But not screamingly awful, as its reviews suggest it is.

Then you've got Holmes & Watson. According to most of you, this movie is an abomination, an offense against nature. This movie used to be called "a dumb comedy" and it got a pass as uninspired but harmless. The worst that happened to it was that it was quickly forgotten, rather than being held up as a shining example of one of the year's true turds.

Gotti has a bit of the sense of being a film out of time, as it's just not all that fashionable in 2018 to make a movie about a mob boss. You can't watch Gotti without watching it through a 2018 lens, in which it feels like an anachronistic example of the problems of a white male, the ultimate symbol of the patriarchy. We don't want those movies right now, and Connolly should have realized that.

Its only real female character is played by star John Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, and she has about the typical level of agency for a mafia wife, which is to say not much. She also plays a number of her scenes pretty big, though she's the only one that ever stands out in a negative way for her acting (I'm sorry to say).

You also can't watch Gotti without thinking of a dozen other movies it obviously wants to be, most notably Goodfellas. Kevin Connolly, erstwhile Entourage star, is obviously not up to that. His attempt is limp, but it's not a travesty. It's bland more than anything else.

And you've also got some life imitating art here. In Entourage, the characters were always making movies that were kind of epic disasters. (And this is not the only way Entourage is rearing its head in 2018 cinema, as a real-world Aquaman movie has finally come out -- and is a massive hit.) In the end, all those characters ended up seeming like douchebags as well, and you felt that the actors themselves were probably douchebags for continuing to play their characters in such douchebaggy ways. Connolly played one of the least douchy characters, but he's not immune to it. Gotti is a bit like the movie Medellin that Billy Walsh made in Entourage, as it's a poorly received epic about a larger-than-life criminal character from history, made by a possible douchebag with an inflated sense of his own abilities. Perhaps cementing the comparison is that the actor who played Billy Walsh, Rhys Coiro, also appears in Gotti. That and the fact that Travolta and Preston both appear give this a feeling of a film made by a small circle of intimate acquaintances doing favors for each other, which is never a good look for a film and which marks many of cinema's greatest flops.

Toward that end, I think in 2018 we would expect Gotti to get some kind of smaller, quieter release, rather than opening on however many hundreds or thousands of screens it did. It's the kind of film that would just be another anonymous nothing if it showed up quietly on a couple off-brand platforms, or even went straight to video, as a lot of Travolta movies do these days. (I'm not sure what distinction I'm making between straight to streaming and straight to video, but you can probably follow where I'm coming from.) By presenting itself theatrically, it's being faulted for having the cojones to think of itself as worthier of our time than it really.

Even with all these factors to consider, this is still a film that is mediocre. Maybe a bit south of mediocre, but not a lot south.

And yet I myself gave it only 1.5 stars, perhaps because I'm feeling the urge to grade on a curve at this point in the year. Out of 140 movies I'm ranking in 2018 as of this writing, only ten have received a star rating under two from me. Only ten.

How could that be? Am I going soft? Have I been more selective this year? Am I throwing a bone to a lot of lame movies? Am I failing to properly assess my own level of enjoyment of a movie?

Or has the critical community shifted to make better use of the whole range of star ratings?

I think this latter must be the case. I feel like there was a time when truly wretched movies more regularly escaped the vetting process at the studio. Like, movies with obvious gaffes somehow crossed the finish line without anyone noticing. I think I'm looking for those gaffes when I'm handing out star ratings of 1.5, one and half-star.

Since we're mostly not finding those gaffes these days, other critics have adjusted their definition of what makes a terrible movie, while I have not. And maybe it's that this is always worth being graded on a curve. The problem is, you can't truly sense the contours of that curve until you have already looked at a sufficiently large body of movies in a particular year, if you even want to use the calendar year as your segment of study. By then you have already given out all your star ratings, which in most cases are issued at the time of viewing and not retroactively.

I suspect I should make this adjustment. Gotti probably really is a one-star movie, but I didn't find any individual technical aspect of it to be laughable. I was especially appreciative of the makeup used to age John Travolta and add deep grooves and wrinkles to his face, for example. It's a reasonably competent movie, it's just a bit random, boring, tone deaf and poorly timed.

You know, mediocre.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Blindfolding my eyes from what I don't want to see

I swear it was just a coincidence that the night after I watched Bird Box, I went to sleep blindfolded for the first time.

You'd suspect some kind of causal link, but really, I was just tired of waking up too early in the damn morning.

Even on nights I have not been tossing and turning for most of the night, I've still been waking up at almost exactly 6:13 a.m. almost every day. That's an hour earlier than I need to get up even on workdays. And it's not like I'm going to bed too early. Rare is the night I am in bed before midnight.

Of course, there's a reason for that time and its exactness. The sun rises right around then. (At 6:11 a.m. this morning, according to the internet.) My body should need more than six hours of sleep, but that damn morning sun prevents it.

Oh yeah, we close the slats on our blinds in our room. But that still allows for enough spillage to rouse me. And then once I'm awoken, I feel the pressing in my bladder that needs to be relieved.

My strategy has been not to go to the bathroom, because my theory is that this will awaken me further and then I'll truly be awake. But going back to sleep with a full bladder is difficult. You can do it, but the biggest problem is that you start thinking about the fact that you're thinking about it, and that itself prevents you from sleeping.

Sometimes I move out to the couch, in the hopes I can grab a few more z's before I really need to get up. Usually, this just wakes up one of my children. They'll either join me on the couch for a few more minutes of vain sleep attempts, or I'll just give up the whole business and start the day.

As this is really affecting my overall energy level and prompting sometimes multiple naps in a given day, I decided to do something about it. I decided to go to sleep wearing a face mask, as my wife already does as part of her normal routine. And finding one wouldn't be difficult, as they hand out face masks on every Qantas flight. I'd thrown the cloth sack containing the face mask, a tooth brush, a minuscule tube of toothpaste and some ear plugs on the shelf after my last trip in October/November, and knew exactly where it was.

Quite by coincidence, I also watched Bird Box on Friday night.

Contrary to the general critical consensus, I liked Bird Box a fair bit. I'm one of those who had read the book, so I was judging it more as a faithful adaptation of the book than as its own entity, though a deviation from the book also could have been interesting. It's a pretty faithful adaptation, and I enjoyed the book, so I enjoyed the movie as well.

I figured I'd always write about Bird Box on here, because after reading it, it was both a movie I immediately wanted to see and one I didn't think was possible to make. The book is told from the perspective of its main character, Mallory, played here by Sandra Bullock. We don't know anything that doesn't occur directly to Mallory. The movie more or less sticks to that, with a few small exceptions.

Because for at least the majority of the book (I won't say whether it's all or not, in the interest of not spoiling), Mallory does not see the creatures driving her fellow humans to suicide, neither do we. There is no description of what they are because no one who sees them lives long enough to describe them. (I'm wondering right now what happens to the people who see them but don't have a means of killing themselves at their disposal. Maybe those are the unblindfolded crazies we see, though the film does not specifically state that.)

So it's a monster book without monsters. That works fine in a book. Not so well in a movie.

In fact, if I had liked this movie less, I probably would have said it suffers from many of the same problems as M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. In fact, if I were Shyamalan, I might get a little mad at Josh Malerman for having written a book that appears to owe so much to my movie. Because that movie was a huge flop, I imagine it's not something anyone is getting too worked up about.

In The Happening, a mysterious event occurs that causes people to start killing themselves. Ultimately, it's revealed that the wind or the trees or something are causing them to go insane. That movie fails not only because of some really bad direction in a couple of the key acting scenes, but because Shyamalan tries to make blowing trees into an ominous force. Not anthropomorphized trees, as in Poltergeist, but just regular trees blowing and swaying in the wind.

Bird Box is a bit like that. I won't say if you ever see the creatures or not because I don't want this to be a spoilery post, but it's probably not spoiling anything to say that the creatures are only hinted at, at least initially. Their presence is sometimes marked by floating leaves, which is, in theory, unscary in a similar way to blowing trees.

For some reason, what Susanne Bier pulls off works, while what Shyamalan attempted didn't. I won't try to analyze why. That's not the point of this post. And in fact, maybe one of the reasons I liked Bird Box as much as I did is that Bier does indeed succeeded at filming a novel I thought might have been unfilmmable. Bravo, Susanne.

The point of this post? Oh yeah, I wore a blindfold to bed after Bird Box.

It's a good story that the movie shook me so much that I felt I needed to keep the creatures out, even while I slept. Really, I just wanted to get a good night's sleep.

And you know what? I think it worked.

Oddly, it did not prevent me from waking up again at 6:13. I did that, like clockwork. What the blindfold did allow was for me to fall back to sleep, for almost an hour. In fact, I sunk back down into a vivid dream, one that didn't have anything to do with invisible monsters. (In fact, it had to do with being seduced by two different women at a party, simultaneously. Shhhh, don't tell my wife.)

The pressure of the sleep mask on my face was a bit funny, and I don't think I'm really used to it. This one-size-fits-all mask was clearly meant for a size smaller than mine. But I can't argue with the results. One extra hour of sleep, and getting back to that sleep with a bladder that needed to be emptied.

Of course, it could also have just been the normal vicissitudes of a night of sleep, where sometimes you sit bolt upright and sometimes you sleep straight through, where sometimes the sun wakes you and sometimes you need your alarm to get you up.

I guess I'll know tonight.

Because if I don't start sleeping better, I may really want to kill myself!

(Don't worry, that's a joke, just a funny way to end the post. Or maybe not funny, but that's up to you to decide.)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Avoiding the Orson Welles problem

Pretty much every year, a movie gets released that’s been sitting on the shelf for a long time. The ones that were shot and maybe debuted at film festivals in, say, 2015, then tried to find a distributor for a couple years, are not so difficult to subsume into the field of 2018 releases, in terms of ranking them on year-end lists.

The ones that stretch that timeline out to closer to a decade? You really have to agonize over them. I didn’t like including All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a 2006 film that only finally got a U.S. release seven years later, in my 2013 year-end rankings. But I did it.

When The Other Side of the Wind debuted on Netflix a couple months ago, 48 years after Orson Welles began shooting it, I had to draw the line.

The fact that there was a whole separate documentary about the making of it, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is properly a 2018 release, made it easier to just slough off the whole thing to 2019.

I love Orson Welles, and in December alone saw another movie he directed (Othello) as well as revisited one he appeared in (The Muppet Movie). But I did not see the one he directed for six years on and off in the 1970s and left incomplete at his death in 1985. I didn’t want to include it with my 2018 movies but also didn’t want to not include it. Easiest solution to that is just not to see it. Not yet, anyway.

This is occurring to me today not only because I’m in the final stages of preparing my own year-end rankings (just 11 more days now), but also because I’m reviewing a list of critics top ten lists on Metacritic, partly out of general interest and partly to make sure I see as much as I can before I finish mine. Of 318 lists Metacritic examined, Wind came in 28th on their scoring system, which awards three points for a first-place ranking, two for a second place, one point for anywhere between 3rd and 10th and then a half point for any appearance on an additional 11 through 20 offered by the critic. This ties it with Minding the Gap and First Man to round out the top 30, and it’s one of only five films on the list I haven’t seen, two of which I will not be able to see before my rankings close.

So I’ve actually got quite good coverage of critically acclaimed 2018 films, which is part of the reason I’m not feeling the same mad rush to squeeze in viewings before January 22nd, and am making some time in my schedule for rewatches. But of those three in the top 30 that I can still see if I choose, The Other Side of the Wind is the only one I will intentionally decline to view.

On the one hand I think my reasoning is sound. This is a movie that was made in the 1970s. It may not have been edited until 2018, and I think there’s some new voiceover if I remember correctly (though I’ve tried not to read too much about it). But it just doesn’t feel like it should go shoulder to shoulder with movies like Eighth Grade and Love, Simon, the stars of whom were not even born when Welles shot his last Wind footage. In fact, the star of Eighth Grade would not be born for another 27 years.

On the other hand, the movie could not have been ranked in any other year. No one saw it until 2018. Even with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, it might have been possible for me to rank it in 2006 if I’d gone to the right festivals or lived in the right countries. Not the case with The Other Side of the Wind.

And my general overriding principle is that every movie deserves at least one year in which it has the opportunity to be ranked. Some get two possible years, such as Paddington 2, which came out in Australia at the end of 2017 but didn’t take the cinematic world by storm until its 2018 U.S. release. I didn’t see it in the theater so I’m choosing to rank it with 2018. But no movie should have no years, which is what gives me such headaches about Wind.  

What year the footage was shot in is rendered less of an important factor when you consider documentaries containing archival footage. One interesting 2018 example of that is They Shall Not Grow Old, the film consisting entirely of World War I footage painstakingly colorized by a team led by Peter Jackson. Sounds really great and I wish I’d taken the opportunity to see it. (Technically I still have that opportunity, as it’s still playing at a theater near me, but it’s gone well past the two-week period I could see it with my critics card, and I guess my desire doesn’t rise to the level of paying $20 for it.) There’s no doubt this is a 2018 film and I would have ranked it with this year’s films if I’d seen it.

Yet the case of The Other Side of the Wind feels different. It feels more like a corpse shocked back into twitchy life by some really powerful electrical currents. It feels like something that was never meant to exist, but did because some good people saw the chance to bring us an artist’s vision, and some not-as-good people saw a chance to make money on it. But many of those who have seen it – those not ranking it in their top ten, anyway – have described it as a weird kind of incomplete experiment, less a film than a collection of disjointed thoughts. Which is to be expected.

I have no doubt that if The Other Side of the Wind had been completed by Welles, it would look significantly different than what we’ve gotten. Since he obviously had a fraught relationship with what he’d shot, there was a good chance he would have thrown out some or even most of it. I appreciate that I will get to see what he shot when I do watch it, but I can’t agree with the argument that this is Welles’ film as he intended it to be seen – if anyone’s making that argument. It’s more akin to an old silent film uncovered in a basement than an actual new release and meaningful part of the 2018 film landscape.

So I might watch The Other Side of the Wind as soon as next month. I kind of can’t wait, actually. But by waiting, then I won’t have to torture myself with whether I made the right decision to rank it or not rank it. It’ll just join the ever-increasing body of Films That Did Not Come Out This Year, and I will appreciate its merits or lack thereof in that context.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The film blogger as Wingless Thrush

Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

We film bloggers don’t get a lot of comments these days. Some, but not a lot.

So it’s especially great when not only do you get a comment, but the comment actually gives you a new perspective on the thing you wrote about.

A week ago I published my ten-year anniversary post for this blog, and I actually got two comments, bless my readers’ hearts. (And I feel bad that it took me five days to carve out the time to reply, though I did take care of that just a few minutes ago.)

In that post, called “Stumbling to ten years,” I talked about how the anniversary arrives with me running out of steam in a major way. As an aside that ended up running longer than I thought it would, I mentioned the frustration of no longer getting many comments. I actually don’t think it would matter all that much to me whether I got comments or not if I were happy with what I was writing, but since I’m not, it caused me to play the “lack of comments” card.

As a response to this, my commenters opened my eyes to a big change in the blogging landscape dating back to about five years ago. That probably is around the time I experienced a dropoff in the comments I once got, and they pointed out that this corresponded directly with the time that YouTube channels really took off as the way people expressed their thoughts/opinions on the internet. Writing of any length became too much or too lengthy for readers to consume. Around that time, even the blog – once considered a form of “new media” – went the way of its forebears, like the handwritten letter, the newspaper, even email in some respects. Many active and dedicated film bloggers subsequently closed up shop.

This was really useful insight for me. It wasn’t just me losing steam. It was the entire blogosphere.

As often happens, a film corollary came up only a few nights later when I rewatched the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I’d had a strong response to the film the first time, but it wasn’t currently holding a spot in my top ten for the year. I suspected it might move up on a second viewing, and whether it did or not … well, it’s only 12 days until I release my rankings in total, so I’ll make you wait until then for the answer.

However, I did realize that that poor armless, legless man in the third short, Meal Ticket, is me.

He’s called the Wingless Thrush on the posters we see Liam Neeson hanging around various municipalities and other isolated outposts they visit through the cold and wintry west. He’s played by Harry Melling, the actor people never tire of telling you once played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies. And yes, he has no arms or legs. (The character; Melling is fully limbed.)

The Wingless Thrush is propped on a chair on this small stage, lit by foot candles (though scarcely protected from the elements). His act consists of oration of great passages from Shakespeare, Shelley, the Bible and Abraham Lincoln, in a show that seems like it must run for about 15 minutes. The sheer fire and commitment of his performance is enough to keep audiences rapt, at least initially, though most of them appear to be frontier types incapable of grasping the finer details of the literature spewing toward them. At first, the performance is enough, and the hat passed around by Neeson at the end comes back clinking with coins.

As time goes on, though, audiences dwindle. The Wingless Thrush is still committed to his work, for the most part, though the sheer repetition of his routine can’t help but crush his spirit, particularly when he is physically unable to engage in other activities of his choosing. But audiences of a couple dozen drop to a single dozen, then just two or three. And tose two or three either don’t have any coins, or they haven’t been sufficiently inspired by the show to part with them.

Neeson sticks with his meal ticket as long as he feels like he can. But certain financial realities start to rear their heads. It’s at this point that he notices crowds of people hooting and hollering around a show whose star he can’t quite make out. As he moves in, he sees it’s a chicken that appears to be skilled at mathematics.

Before long, Neeson has bought that chicken and dumped the Wingless Thrush over the side of a bridge to drown in the icy waters.

I’ve heard speculation that this piece is the Coens poking fun at themselves for selling out to Netflix, and that may be true. However, it has clear resonance for anyone who feels like they’ve become obsolete, replaced by something shinier but of clearly lesser value.

A grumpy author who thinks movies and TV ruined the book industry might be the most obvious comparison, given that it’s the literature the Thrush shares that’s become devalued. But it works really well for the decline of the film blogosphere as well. There are still a number of us Thrushes out here, shouting away day by day. But increasingly we are shouting into the void.

Meanwhile, shiny objects that compress and devalue our primary output, the written word, are the counting chicken. That’s YouTube, but it’s also Twitter. It’s any place where someone can present a thought or an opinion with the kind of extreme economy of words that’s anathema to blogging. Or where the content can come at you passively, without you having to do the work (like watching a chicken do math). Much easier than having to listen carefully and at all moments, to make sure you haven’t lost any of the meaning (as with the Thrush’s ornate literary passages).

And in making what is a useful comparison, I think, I’ve also outlined the very problem we film bloggers have. I’ve written a thousand words on this when 500 surely would have sufficed. In fact, perhaps even the headline would have sufficed. Yet I had to include a lengthy preamble, as well as a plot synopsis of Meal Ticket, to get to my point. Which I have now likely belabored.

Once a Wingless Thrush, always a Wingless Thrush.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Regina King vs. Regina Hall

The other night at the Golden Globes, Regina King was recognized for her work as Sharon Rivers in If Beale Street Could Talk by winning the award for best supporting actress in any motion picture.

I haven't seen the movie yet, and unfortunately, will not be able to until February, after my year-end ranking deadline. However, I did think "Wow, what a great year for her, since she was also critically acclaimed in Support the Girls."

Nope. That was Regina Hall.

In fact, Regina Hall became the first black woman ever to be honored with an acting award from the New York Film Critics Circle, which seems crazy but oh well. Better late than never. She was named best actress by the NYFCC for Support the Girls.

Which I saw last night, leading to this post.

It turns out, the two women have more in common than the same first name, a monosyllabic common noun last name, the same skin color, and earning an acting award in 2018. (That's Hall on the left and King on the right, by the way.)

I figured I was more familiar with Regina King, as I determined she was the one who appeared in the sitcom 227 way back when, and was a fixture in John Singleton's movies in the 1990s. I decided I definitely should not mistake the two and that Hall was likely some new(er)comer who was 15 years younger than King.

In actuality, Hall is older. But not by much. Hall was born on December 12, 1970, meaning she has just turned 48. Thirty-four days later, on January 15, 1971, King was born. Meaning she'll turn 48 next week. And yes, although King did get an earlier start, when she was only a teenager, Hall first hit the (small) screen in an episode of the TV show Loving in 1992. She only had two more roles in the 1990s before starting to appear in an average of two to three projects a year come the 21st century. Making her the rare case of an actress whose career actually heated up when she hit 30.

In glancing over the rest of their filmographies, I can't draw meaningful comparisons between the choices they've made. Hall was in all the Scary Movies as well as a number of romantic comedy/dramas curated for an African American audience (and almost every film directed by Malcolm D. Lee), while King has been sprinkled throughout the movies and TV. In terms of pure critical acclaim for the movies they've appeared in, King seems to have the upper hand, with such films to her credit as Boyz N the Hood, Jerry Maguire and Ray. But my favorite performance of either actress is probably Hall's as the lead in last year's Girls Trip, in which I thought she killed it. Hall is also now more regularly a film actress while King seems to work mostly in TV, which gives her an advantage on this particular blog.

I do think it's strange that they have not worked together during the two decades in the business that their careers have overlapped, which I can confirm as a result of one of those "credited with" searches on IMDB. Someone could have even done it as a stunt. Though maybe casting directors were more concerned about the faux pas of confusing one for the other and just avoided the scenario altogether.

Whatever the case, I'm glad that 2018 represents long overdue recognition for both. It's a shame that it took until they were nearly 50 to be so recognized, but again ... better late than never.

Monday, January 7, 2019

No mad rush to the cinema

With a spate of new releases opening in Australia on Boxing Day, and then every Thursday throughout the month of January, I’m usually racing to the cinema to keep up with awards nominees that had their American debuts in November and December.

Not this year. In fact, after last night’s viewing of The Favourite, I may only have one more must-see theatrical viewing before I publish my 2018 year-end list on January 22nd.

And that doesn’t open for ten more days. And given that it is has made very few critics year-end lists, it’s debatable whether Mary Queen of Scots qualifies as “must-see viewing” anyway.

I’ll be going to the theater at least twice more, but that’s only because I’m going to an advanced critics screening of Green Book this Thursday morning, when I’m working only the second half of the day. Green Book doesn’t open here until two days after my deadline, so that’s a good get. However, it also has not made many year-end lists despite some early buzz.

A couple well-received films (such as If Beale Street Could Talk) will elude me as they usually do, but not as many as in most years.

In fact, the only movies opening this Thursday, one of two new release dates before my deadline, are the Mark Wahlberg comedy Instant Family, which doesn’t feel like essential viewing, and two documentaries, one about the musician M.I.A. and one about … dogs.

A few movies that once seemed like they had awards ambitions, but have gone largely unmentioned in critics list, open in late January or early February, like The Hate U Give, The Frontrunner, The Mule and On the Basis of Sex. But they won’t be difficult losses, and I’m already ranking a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg this year anyway.

So … good?

I suppose, though I do kind of enjoy increasing my theatrical viewings to approximately every three nights at this time of year, from approximately every five. Given how I was falling asleep by the end of The Favourite last night, despite caffeine and sugar stimulants, maybe all I can handle at the moment is home viewings anyway.

And of course this does give me the time to catch up with some movies I need to see at home. But they aren’t feeling quite as urgent this year either. I also have a couple movies I’d like to re-watch, but they are also feeling sort of optional.

Maybe year-end exhaustion has set in earlier this year than in the past. Who knows.

I can credit part of it to having seen three movies while I was on vacation last week, rather than the usual one. Where in the past I might have only caught Ralph Breaks the Internet on that trip, this year we also saw Holmes & Watson and Mary Poppins Returns. I was fully satisfied with having gotten in the first two on our New Year’s Eve trip to the drive-in, and it was actually my wife’s suggestion to take the kids to the third on our transition day Thursday, when we went from the beach house we’d been renting for the previous five nights to staying with friends for two more.

If you read my previous post, which vowed to start producing more interesting content following the tenth anniversary of the blog, and are wondering why I’m now writing this post, the kind of “filler post” I swore off … well, let’s just say that old habits die hard. Also, I did want to put up some new comment so I didn’t leave my “I’m struggling for content” post as the one out there dying on the vine.

Maybe without the mad rush I can start brainstorming this new blog content I keep talking about?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Stumbling to ten years

Do you know what today is?

Why, it’s the tenth anniversary of this blog.

Went by in a flash, didn’t it?

Since this blog commenced on January 3, 2009, I have published 2,093 posts, and have 34 others still sitting in drafts for good measure. (I could delete them, but I kind of like strolling down memory lane to see what I started before losing steam, or often, what I started and never published because I decided it was something I didn’t want to put out into the world.)

Another ten years? That looks pretty iffy.

I’d like to say I’m still going strong, but you probably know that’s not true. Oh, I still write the useful post now and again. But gone are the days when I used to have posts written three days ahead of time because of my practice of never posting more than once a day. Of course, my change in time zones back in 2013 – just a few months shy of the halfway point of those ten years – has now left some days from 2009 to 2013 looking like they had multiple posts. But they were posted on separate days when I wrote them, one of a couple personal blogging rules that I’ve never broken on this blog. (Two others: Never use the same poster art twice, never use the same title twice.)

The just completed year of 2018 was only the second in the blog’s history when I wrote fewer than 200 posts, and I wrote a lot fewer, only 171. That’s still 20 more than I wrote in the aforementioned year of 2013. But not only did I move countries that year, I was also without my computer from the end of August until the beginning of November as a local mom and pop computer shop was forever trying to acquire a new motherboard for me. I borrowed my wife’s Mac during that time, but perhaps inevitably did not write as much.

There’s no excuse for writing so little in 2018 except that I’m running out of time and ideas. I can’t find the time in my day to really research the type of in-depth post I used to write, leading to a lot of quick, superficial posts that have more to do with spotting cinematic coincidences than engaging with meaty ideas. I started this blog without any kids, and now I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old. It takes its toll. I suspect writing less has also diminished my creative juices overall, so I’m not constantly giving birth to new ideas for blog posts. It’s a vicious circle.

I’m not giving up. This is not my resignation post (though that would make quite a tidy end to my blog, wouldn’t it?). I still want to write a quality Audient and I still want you to come and read it.

But I do think I need to re-envision what I want to do with this blog, and ways to revitalize it, both for you and for me. I don’t know if that means more reviews, more lists, recurring features that have more to do with topics you’re interested in than the annual blog series I assign myself, or what. But I think it needs to happen or I won’t go one more year, let alone ten.

What I want to do with the blog has always been something I’ve struggled with. In the early days, I wanted to be active in a community of other bloggers I read regularly, even if it was just for the selfish reason of bringing more eyeballs and comments to my blog. Toward that I end I registered with L.A.M.B. (The Large Association of Movie Blogs), which introduced me to a number of other interesting reads on the subject of film. Almost none of which I check in on anymore. If I don’t have the proper time to cultivate my own blog, I hardly have sufficient time to read others’. That feels like a real shame, because they deserve my eyeballs, probably more than I deserve theirs.

I never really had the spirit of self-promotion required for a successful blog, and still don’t. For the majority of the history of the blog, I didn’t have my real name associated with it, and I still refer to myself as “Vance” to hearken back to those times. Without revealing my identity, I certainly wasn’t promoting my posts on social media. I do that a little bit now, but really only at this time of year, when I want to point people to my year-end posts (which is probably one of my driving forces behind continuing the blog). Part of that promotion was reciprocity with other bloggers, commenting on their posts so they’d comment on mine, and eventually building up a fan base by word of mouth.

But there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do the good work of attaining a presence online. And once you’ve attained it, you have to feed the beast. You have to keep the content interesting or you will quickly lose whatever heat you’ve built up. You also have to stay on top of your design, keep current with movie news, and as I said before, remain an attentive reader of the other blogs you care about. As it turned out, I’d rather use that time to watch a new movie, or rewatch a favorite, than to read about these things.

Blogging can be a lonely pursuit at times. You tend to measure your accomplishments by the number of comments you get. But really, many if not most blogs suffer in the comments department. One of my favorite bloggers out there, Nick Prigge of Cinema Romantico, does not get comments on most of his posts, even though they are brilliantly written and he deserves them. But not everyone who reads your work wants to actually comment on it, which is their right. Page visits can be a helpful benchmark of your reach when comments are not. Ultimately, you have to write blog posts for yourself, because if you’re seeking validation you aren’t usually going to get it.

I made peace with that a long time ago, and the occasional comments I do get are cherished. Even doing the blog for myself, however, has run out of some of its ability to self-sustain.

I think the short term goal will not be to worry too much about “keeping up appearances.” If I go two weeks without a post sometimes, so be it. If I’m doing this mostly for myself, I don’t need to worry about what others think of my blogging health and prosperity. If I write only when I’ve got something truly interesting to say, that will be better, as it will reward them when they do come and read, and they’ll come back. If I’m just pointing out coincidences in my viewing schedule, and only so I have something to write about during a given two-week period, well, maybe that’s not that useful.

I also vow – call it a New Year’s resolution – to find new ways of making The Audient more interesting. Again, I don’t expect a reader spike or comment spike as a result of any initiatives I put into place. But if I myself recognize that it’s not as interesting as it should be, then you probably do too. As with everything related to blogging, you have to make it interesting to yourself before it can be interesting to anyone else.

So I’m sorry if this seems like a bit of a bummer of a ten-year anniversary post. It’s just these are my honest thoughts on where I am at the moment.

I wanted to go out on a high note by drawing attention to one post I'm really happy with from each of the ten years, to bring the kind of retrospective quality a post like this should have. Truth is, it's the holidays, I've been out of town, and I just didn't have the time before my deadline arrived. Can't celebrate a January 3rd ten-year anniversary on January 10th, now can you?

But I did want to say that in the approximately one week since I first wrote a draft of this, I've posted almost every day and written actual posts that I would enjoy reading. So that's my high note. I love blogging, and I will continue to do so. I can't promise you ten more years, but I can promise I'm going to go forward with a new fire in my blogging loins.

Won't you join me?

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Eve with John C. Reilly and Kelly Macdonald

It's possible the programmers at the Dromana Drive-In realized they were scheduling a John C. Reilly double feature for one quarter of their New Year's Eve audience. However, they probably didn't notice they were also curating a Kelly Macdonald double feature.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself.

First of all: Happy 2019! It won't actually be the new year yet for most of you when I post this, but here in Australia, we're already nine-and-a-half hours into the last year of the decade.

Secondly, my family and I are spending five nights down on the Mornington Peninsula between the 29th and the 3rd. It's a long stretch of beach towns about an hour's drive from Melbourne, making it an ideal spot to feel like you're truly away from the city without having to drive for ages.

We had more or less this same holiday last year, and at that time, I had a desperate urge to scratch my vacation movie itch by going to the nearby Dromana Drive-In, about 15 minutes from where we were staying. Coco, my eventual #5 movie of the year, was one of the movies playing, and it seemed like the perfect beach holiday activity.

For whatever reason, we didn't do it. My wife must have seen my puppy dog eyes, but she didn't yield. Something about keeping the kids up too late, maybe. She did throw me a bone -- to extend the dog metaphor -- by taking our kids to the theater in nearby Sorrento for a viewing of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle on our last day. We all really enjoyed it and that worked as a compromise.

When my wife scheduled another beach holiday for the same area this year, I think she knew she couldn't avoid the drive-in for the second year in a row, and indeed, she didn't want to. So she leaned into it. Not only would we go to the drive-in, we'd spend our New Year's Eve there, with fireworks at midnight and live music leading up to the 9 p.m. start time, once it was finally dark enough to start showing a movie. Because of the extra benefits, the tickets were $50 a head for adults and $30 for kids. Yep, that's one quick way to spend $160 on New Year's Eve.

But we both sensed it would be fun to do something festive and celebratory to ring in the new year -- which was also ringing in the fifth birthday of my younger son, a January 1st baby. What's another $160 here and there?

At one point she'd made the case to me that we should hold our Grinch viewing, which occurred on December 23rd, for this very eventuality. As it turns out, we could have. One of the options on four separate screens was The Grinch and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which would have been half of a great double feature. But I took my older son to a Spider-Man critics screening in order to review it, and though he would have been happy to see it again, we had initially determined it might be a little too intense for the younger one when debating whether to take him along to that screening. (Even becoming a big boy at age five.) As we ended up finding out, this was the one pairing in the deckchair cinema venue, which did not involve the essential drive-in experience of sitting in our cars. Better to have our kids' first drive-in experience -- or the first they can remember anyway (we took my older son twice when he was an infant) -- be of the traditional variety.

Two of the other three options would have been Aquaman and Bohemian Rhapsody or Bumblebee and Mortal Engines. I've already seen Rhapsody and Engines, but that wouldn't have been the most relevant factor in rejecting those pairings. We aren't even taking the older one to movies like Aquaman just yet, although he turns nine this year and that will probably be a good time to start. All three of Aquaman, Bumblebee and Mortal Engines seem to be about that level of maturity. Plus, we're seeing Aquaman at a different outdoor venue at the end of January, as discussed in this post. And Bohemian Rhapsody? I have no idea what the kids would do with that one except be bored.

But Ralph Breaks the Internet and Holmes & Watson seemed to be a perfect fit for us. Ralph was the one I'd targeted way back when I learned its release date, and knew we might be on the peninsula at that time. And sure, Holmes & Watson might be a bit ribald, but we figured that at least the younger one would be asleep by its 11 o'clock start time (which ended up closer to 11:30). The older one is just getting into comedy and they both loved Elf, which also stars Will Ferrell, so no further debate was necessary.

We spent a lazy afternoon recovering from a hot day at the beach, so we weren't there when doors opened at 5:30 or 6. When we did arrive just before 7, we'd already yielded some of the prime viewing angles to our more proactive neighbors, who were expanding outward from their cars with all sorts of camping chairs and a cornucopia of picnic-related paraphernalia. But we did find a decent spot on the left side, which we quickly switched for a more centered option that was a row further back. At the time we selected the spot, it had nice breathing room and few obstructions.

By the time we returned to our car, after dinner in the 1950s diner on site and throwing around a football for a bit by the playground, the situation had become a lot more dire. We could no longer properly open the doors on one side, and large pickup trucks with people sitting in the bed, not to mention SUVs with their hatchbacks open, were now proving significant obstacles. The kids had wanted to sit in the front seat, but my wife and I quickly determined we had no vantage point on the screen at all when we were sunken into the back. Desperation was on the verge of setting in.


Even though we saw our $160 flashing before our eyes, we didn't panic. The key decisions? Moving our car back about six feet, to improve its angle of incline, and removing the headrests from the front seats. With the headrests gone, the kids could see the screen from the back seat, and my wife and I didn't need them for our own viewing comfort. We were kind of like bugs in a rug, and I made an effort never to shimmy out of the passenger side unless absolutely necessary, since I had to suck in my gut to do so. But we cracked our beers and chocolate milks and were ready for the movies to start.

It occurred to me fairly early on that John C. Reilly was in both of these movies. If it's not clear to you, he provides the voice of Ralph, as well as the voice, face and all the actions of John Watson. In the U.S. he wouldn't have had two movies released on the same day, since Ralph Breaks the Internet came out at Thanksgiving, but here it seemed as though Boxing Day was Reilly's day to strut.

But it wasn't until deep into the second movie that I noted Kelly Macdonald's role in both films, which was oddly similar in its comedic function. It took Holmes (or was it Watson?) saying to her character that he didn't understand anything was saying to remind me of the fact that Macdonald is also in Ralph Breaks the Internet -- in a role where nobody understands what she's saying. Macdonald is Scottish, as you will remember from her breakout in Trainspotting, and she leans into her accent as Merida in the Pixar movie Brave. Merida makes an appearance in the famous (notorious?) Disney princesses scene in Ralph, and spews forth an indecipherable combination of Scottish brogue and vocabulary. One of the other princesses says they can't understand her because she's "from the other studio." As Holmes and Watson's housekeeper, her dialogue is easier to understand, until it becomes more working class near the end and Holmes (or was it Watson?) comments on it.

I expected to enjoy Ralph, and thought Holmes looked dreadful from the trailers -- plus it had a rare 0 Rotten Tomatoes score at one point, though that's now up to a hearty 8. In the end, though, I derived more enjoyment from the first movie than the second.

Holmes & Watson is clearly the least fruitful of the collaborations between Ferrell and Reilly, which is probably to be expected when Step Brothers is one of my favorite comedies of all time and Talladega Nights has some really funny moments. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that their line deliveries caused me to burst out laughing on a dozen occasions, if not more. It's perfect silly drive-in fodder (though by 1 a.m. I was desperate for it to be over, through no fault of its own). And though there are probably some things I wish my kids didn't hear -- neither of them fell asleep as we'd planned -- it was better than exposing them to action that was too intense. My older son and I laughed at the same stupid fart and vomit jokes, so that was nice.

Ralph Breaks the Internet produced very few laughs, and very few things that I thought were genuinely inspired, including its core emotional conflict. This is going to sound like sacrilege, but I'd take last year's similar The Emoji Movie over this any day. I think some people are conflating their affection for Wreck-It Ralph with this, but it's just not that good. And the extent to which Disney travels up its own ass in this movie -- with its use of the princesses, stormtroopers and other intellectual properties over which it now claims dominion -- really annoyed me.

Although I've rambled on at far too great of a length for you to read on either the last day of the old year or the first day of the new, I can't finish without telling you about the fireworks. With about two minutes to go before midnight they shut off the movies and replaced them with a clock counting down to zero. That was a relief, as part of me had thought they might just play the movies through the fireworks show, which would be counterintuitive but wouldn't really surprise me.

So we all piled out of the car, me in my socks, the kids in their pajamas, and counted down to both New Year's Day and my son's birthday. It was the first time my kids have been up at midnight on New Year's Eve, so that would have been fun enough itself.

But the fireworks ... oh the fireworks. They were shot off from a field just beyond the playground, so we were no more than a hundred yards away from them. I guess I expected a modest regional drive-in to give us a minute's worth of low-end pyrotechnics, and that would be good enough. These fireworks went on for six or seven minutes and included all variety of colorful explosions, some of which I'd never seen before. I thought I knew everything that fireworks technology had to offer, but had several welcome surprises in the offerings here. While my younger son covered his ears (NOT a great birthday present for him) and the older one looked on with a mixture of trepidation and awe, my wife and I ooh'd and ahh'd and both called it the best fireworks show we'd ever seen live or from this close. Right then and there our entry fee was justified.



We were all in bed by 2, and now I'm awake writing this.

And off we go for another year.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The year filmmakers got away with bloat

I've just finished my 2018 series looking at the works of auteurs I had previously been unfamiliar with. But I feel like I was watching the work of auteurs throughout 2018, even when I didn't specifically select to do so.

We tend to think of "auteur" as a term from the past, reflecting a time when studio notes did not apply to certain directors, who could muscle through any eccentric vision they wanted. Of course, the past was also the era of the studio system, when directors were largely just hired guns under contract and were often not meaningfully described as the authors of their own movies. But in the years following the studio system, particularly the 1970s, a large number of directors achieved final cut on their films, as the studios appeared to entrust them with the best judgment on when their films should end and what they should contain.

I'd argue that another correction has occurred in the recent few decades, when studios became more risk averse on things that were not considered established properties, and feared the judgment of audiences in test screenings. Although you don't want a truly great artist to be shackled, I think you also don't want there to be no checks and balances on their most indulgent impulses. I feel like I saw a lot of films in the 1990s that were a really tight 95 minutes, and all the better for it.

Well, something has changed again in 2018. Especially as the year wore on, I couldn't help notice how many really loooong movies I was seeing.

To determine if there was some truth behind this, I took the 127 movies I've watched so far from 2018 that I've considered eligible for year-end ranking and recorded their running times. I then added and divided by 127 to get an average.

The average length of the 2018 movies I've seen is 109 minutes, or 109.4724 minutes if you want to carry it out four decimal places as my Excel does by default.

That seems pretty long to me. I don't have data from any other year to compare it to, and though I could probably accumulate that for a truly scientific comparison, it took long enough to record these 127 movies as it was. That's only ten minutes shy of two hours. And though we often describe movies as being "two hours long," most of them truly are not -- or should not be, anyway.

But this year, many were. Many were well over two hours long. In fact, I've seen 31 2018 films that have been at least 120 minutes long, 16 of which were over 130 minutes. That's compared to only six that were 90 minutes or less. Only six.

If you change your cutoff to 100 minutes -- triple digit minutes -- a full 89 of those 127 films were at least 100 minutes. Leaving only 38 that were shorter than that.

At one point this year I also saw 14 straight 2018 movies that were at least 100 minutes long.

Have filmmakers been allowed to slouch into a self-indulgent kind of inefficiency? Have they not been "killing their darlings"? It would seem so.

The poster child for this phenomenon -- quite literally as I've chosen it as the poster for this post -- was Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria. Guadagnino made the longest film I saw this year at 152 minutes. It was a remake of a 1977 film that was only 98 minutes. Now, I certainly understand that Guadagnino did not want to make a shot-by-shot remake of Dario Argento's original, and I appreciate that. But there are a lot of unchecked indulgences in 54 extra minutes of footage. That film was going in six different directions in once, and as a result, it didn't go in any of them in a way that felt truly satisfying.

Steve McQueen's Widows was another example, though a lot shorter and more successful. McQueen had a lot of movie he wanted to bit off and chew, and to his credit, he managed to bite and chew it in a comparatively economical 128 minutes. But in the past, he would have been required to bite off less, and spit out some things he'd already started chewing at the editing stage.

Directors who have had about two to three well-received movies prior to this one seemed especially susceptible. Did Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Blue Ruin and Green Room really need to be 126 minutes? And yet Hold the Dark did run for that long, slow and agonizing duration.

However, it wasn't just moody genre mashups that were bloated. Movies that traditionally come in much shorter were pushing the two-hour mark, like the Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty at 111 minutes. At this point it's no surprise that the shortest of the superhero movies I saw this year, Venom, was still 112 minutes, but a bit more of a surprise was that the two animated superhero movies I saw, Incredibles 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, were 118 and 117 minutes, respectively.

So it wasn't just directors with an inflated sense of their own genius who were making long movies. It was a bloat that crept through the industry.

And not every person we would think of as an auteur had to make long movies. In a demonstration of economy that's highly endangered these days, Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) and Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War) made two of the four movies I saw that were under 90 minutes. I wasn't in love with either of those films, but they demonstrated that you can execute your vision tightly by focusing on a single compelling story, rather than veering off into more subplots than you can ever properly resolve.

From the studio's perspective, the logic would seem to be that shorter would be better, to compete with shorter form content on the internet and to appeal to shorter attention spans. Then again, the reverse could be true, if the idea is to provide a clear alternative to peak TV by giving audiences longer content that draws them out to the theater. Maybe the more you have to pay, the longer you want the movie to be -- although MoviePass-style subscription packages were also being tested out by a lot of theater chains, deemphasizing the payment for an individual viewing experience and perhaps shifting the bias to shorter films again.

In short, I don't know.

I do, however, think that every filmmaker should kill his or her darlings, just as every writer should do that. Easier said than done, though. I probably go on at excessive length on this blog, because I have no one telling me to shave off 300 words. If no one's doing that for the excessive subplots for these directors, they'll be inclined to leave them in.

Maybe in 2019 we can at least get that 109-minute average down to 105.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Chantal Akerman

This is the final installment of my 2018 monthly series Audient Auteurs, in which I’ve been seeing two movies per month from a renowned director whose works had previously eluded me.

I spent a lot of this series not knowing who my next auteur would be and whether I would be able to track down any of his or her movies, but I’m ending it on a positive note. Not only am I finishing with one of the directors on my original list, but she also adds some diversity to the group, becoming my third woman of the 11 auteurs I’ve watched for this series.

That would be Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director whose life came to a tragic end when she committed suicide in 2015 at age 65. So I guess it’s only sort of ending the series on a positive note.

When I looked for Akerman earlier in the year, I swear I could not find any of her stuff available for streaming or rental. I guess I should say, I couldn’t find Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles anywhere, and didn’t look beyond that because I didn’t see any point in watching Akerman if I was not going to watch that. It may have been user error on the search or its availability may have actually changed over the course of the year, but when I took another look in November, voila, Jeanne Dielman was available for rental on iTunes. Not only that, but I could select my second film from a handful of others also available for rental.

I have a funny pre-existing relationship with Jeanne Dielman, which is that it has taken over the mantle of the title I go to when I am looking for a random obscure movie with a long and unwieldy title. In these situations I used to always use The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, but Jeanne Dielman has eclipsed it in perceived humor value, probably because it’s in French and has all those commas. And as I did eventually see Englishman, I figured I was destined to one day catch Jeanne Dielman. That day ended up being December 4th. And 5th. But we’ll get into that in a moment.

First, a bit about Akerman. She was born in Brussels to a Holocaust survivor in 1950, and attended a Brussels film school at age 18. She claimed to have been inspired to become a filmmaker by Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, and you can see that Godard’s non-traditional approach to filmmaking has rubbed off on Akerman’s films. Stylistically, she’s known her for use of long takes and for her incorporation of feminist themes into her work, specifically the toxic intersection of femininity and domesticity. However, Akerman also rejected the labels critics tried to ascribe to her, be they “Jewish” or “feminist” or “lesbian,” and claimed to feel more of her identity stemmed from her relationship to her mother, with whom she was very close. She killed herself in October of 2015 after being hospitalized with depression.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

This is not just a long title – it’s a long movie. I knew that going in. I can’t imagine getting much more bang for your rental dollar, on a per minute basis. The movie is three hours and 21 minutes long.

That wouldn’t be a surprise if it were some kind of war epic, but Jeanne Dielman is as far away from that as you can get in. In fact, it’s a portrait of three days in the life of a suburban Belgian mother who feeds and houses her young adult son. And it’s three days in which nothing much happens. Jeanne’s life is one dominated by chores – washing the dishes, preparing meals, doing the laundry, running errands around the neighborhood. Oh, and there’s also the occasional sex with a stranger. See, Jeanne supports herself and her son through prostitution.

That makes this movie sound exciting in some way, but it’s really not, and that’s by design. Dialogue is sparse, and usually pedestrian when it does occur. The interactions with the johns are mostly boring as well. This is meant to be a stultifying 200-minute document of the tediousness of this woman’s domestic life, and though something does happen in the final 15 minutes, I think it’s worth not spoiling for you what that thing is, or how effective it is as an outcome of what’s come before.

Any movie that goes on for more than three hours involves some kind of strategy for watching it, whether that’s splitting it up over the course of several viewings or engaging in some other task while you’re watching. I did both. In fact, I got this idea that the best way to watch Jeanne do chores was to do chores myself. So I did put away laundry. I did write Christmas cards. I did wash dishes. In fact, there was one brief moment when Jeanne and I were both cutting vegetables at the same time. It was sublime.

Watching this for three hours and 20 minutes is some kind of endurance test, but it does have its moments of reward. Although Jeanne’s interactions with her son are mostly banal, each night as he’s going to bed he plunges into some kind of thoughtful and in-depth analysis of a past event in their life, involving his father, or a dream he had. In a movie chock full of dialogue, a moment like this might not mean much, but in this movie it does make you sit up and take notice. Ditto a scene where Jeanne reads a letter from her sister. I thought the film’s most profound moment is when Jeanne is standing at her door after returning the baby she’s been babysitting to the mother. You can’t see the mother – you can only see Jeanne on her side of the door – but you can hear the mother’s disjointed comments on being at the butcher and trying to figure out what to order. When she gets to the front and hasn’t decided, because it’s not her comfort zone, she panics and orders the same thing the woman in front of her ordered. This little anecdote mirrors the desperation we are starting to realize that Jeanne also feels.

There are some interesting formal things Akerman is doing here as well. The camera is exclusively stationary as the film is composed entirely of long takes of mundane activities. One thing that’s interesting, though, is how many of the shots involve Jeanne walking into or out of a room and turning its lights on or off. It demonstrates the way Jeanne’s life can be compartmentalized into all these little “rooms,” these chores and tedious obligations, which get switched on and off ad infinitum until the end of time.

I ultimately came out positively on Jeanne Dielman, but I kind of feel like the same effect could have been accomplished in half the time, and it still would have felt quite long and tedious (in the useful ways Akerman is intending, I mean). There’s certainly something impressive about how the actress, Delphine Seyrig, goes through these tasks in a single take without botching them, and how her commitment to the project brings home the soul-killing nature of this woman’s existence. However, as can be the case with art films, you get the concept pretty early on, and it’s hard to compute exactly what quantity of it is really needed to achieve the goal. Why 201 minutes? Why not 401 minutes? Why not film three days in real time? Certainly, part of what makes Jeanne Dielman Jeanne Dielman is the torturous running time, and it wouldn’t feel like nearly the experiment it is at only 90 minutes. Even at 90 minutes, though, it would still be a distinct creation, and would have been possible for me to take down in a single sitting. And maybe consider watching a second time at some point in the future.

I actually watched Jeanne Dielman for even longer than I needed to. The resumption of one of my pauses during the 48-hour rental window brought me back to an earlier point in the running time without me initially realizing it. I watched footage I’d already seen for somewhere between 15 or 20 minutes before realizing I’d already watched it. I just thought the repetitive nature of it all was part of the point.

No Home Movie (2015)

Flash forward 40 years and Akerman is still interested in some of the same things, though this time, they relate to her own mother. No, her mom was not a prostitute -- I think we established earlier she was a Holocaust survivor. And though I suppose those two things are not mutually exclusive, let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

This is a documentary that consists largely of conversations between Akerman and her mother in the last months of her mother's life -- some in person, some over Skype. There's a lot of eating of meals in her mother's home, some chores, even some turning on and off of lights. It made me wonder if this also constituted the core text of Akerman's other films that I haven't seen.

It appears she may have finished filming but not finished editing before Natalia Akerman died. Akerman never states that her mother died -- that would not be very Akerman of her -- but the images she chooses to close the film create that impression. After two hours of footage mostly of her mother pottering around her Brussels house, her health steadily deteriorating, the final shots are of the house without her in them. These are not the movie's first lingering shots of the house -- lingering a bit too long, some might argue -- but they are the first in which the elder Akerman does not eventually wander into the shot. That's saying something without actually saying it.

The film has other footage that doesn't obviously relate to Natalia Akerman and her immediate environs/circle of acquaintances. There are a number of long takes of a camera looking out the windows of moving vehicles at barren landscapes and the like. This is travel footage but there is no overt explanation of its relationship to Akerman (who appears regularly in the film) and her mother. Some of them last for five or six minutes. In fact, the film's most profound shot is its opening shot, which shows a tree against such a landscape being buffeted about by violent winds. This too goes on for several minutes, and is sort of hypnotizing.

As with Jeanne Dielman, there are a number of profound moments, but a lot of material that strikes me as a bit indulgent. Comparing this to other documentaries or narrative features is a bit apples to oranges, as this is clearly a personal film about an extremely personal subject -- which is also why I feel very hesitant about criticizing it in any way. Never mind the fact that it was Akerman's last movie, as she killed herself the year after her mother died, which was the same year the film was released. Clearly her relationship with her mother was one of the things that had been sustaining her.

But it did beg the question, for me, of what questions she asked herself about which material would comprise this movie. Of the 40 hours she purportedly shot, how did she choose these particular 115 minutes? Quite a bit of it seems to be lacking in thematic import. It's tricky because neither do I want her to be on the nose, though there was never any risk of that with this filmmaker. I guess I just prefer a bit more rigor in terms of the choice of what to include and what not to include, and to have the reasons for each seem clearer to me. Put another way: Would this even have been worth making as a film had her mother not been dying? That's cold but it's a legitimate question on my part.

Part of me also wondered if she knew her mother was dying when she started making the film, although the fact that she was 86 at her death indicated it was in the relatively near future no matter the state of her health when filming began. There's never any prognosis, negative or otherwise, about Natalia's health mentioned in the film, though she asks if the physio is coming in an early scene, and as the movie goes on, she develops an alarming cough that does not portend good things. If the younger Akerman had just wanted to record her mother's stories, I suppose that's reason enough to make the movie, though I wonder if it then does belong more in the realm of the "home movie" it claims not to be. Maybe it's Akerman's mere status as a filmmaker that makes her mother's stories worth sharing with a larger audience. Maybe if we all had the capacity to do so, we'd tell our parents' stories too.

Okay! That brings Audient Auteurs to a close. Instead of recapping what I watched and which were my favorites, I'll give you my regrets: the auteurs who were on my list who never made it into the series, in all cases because I couldn't source their movies despite repeated checks throughout the year. They are:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Hal Hartley
Jacques Rivette
Eric Rohmer
Lina Wertmuller

So the other seven names I gave you in my original post back in January did make it into the series, which I guess is pretty good. With Hartley I may not have looked hard enough, because I think his stuff is generally available, and I feel like I should be able to get my hands on some Eric Rohmer. Well, it's in the past now, so I won't worry about it.

A few others that I added to my list during the year but could never find:

Charles Burnett
Philippe Gurrel
The Shaw Brothers
Lav Diaz

Once the clock strikes 2019 I'll be back to tell you about my new monthly series for the new year. Thanks for reading!