Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why now? Well ... why whenever?

I was trying to put my finger on why I didn't think Pablo Larrain's Jackie was so great -- okay, but not "so great" -- and I came up with the idea that it didn't feel timely.

This realization was immediately followed by the realization that almost no film about an event from another time period can be considered "timely."

If we filmed movies only when there were landmark anniversaries -- say, 1492 being made on its quincentennial -- we would miss out on a lot of good historical dramas. And the Oscars would be largely bereft of Oscar bait.

Sometimes, a movie can feel timely because it speaks to something else that's going on in our news or just in our collective psyche. Still, given the long lead time for the production of a typical movie, you can't bank on capturing the zeitgeist in that way. Being a year or two out of sync with the news can feel even worse than having no relationship to the news whatsoever.

Jackie felt like it had no relationship to the news or our collective psyche, even though it probably does. It's a story featuring presidential transition that comes out at a time of presidential transition. It's a story about a nation mourning the loss of a president at a time that we are mourning the end of a beloved president's administration, the failure of another president to get elected and the election of a third.

Yet as I was watching Jackie I thought "Why am I watching this?"

And I still don't know why this movie caused me to ask this while a hundred others didn't.

It's an especially unusual question to ask about a movie centering on the Kennedys, a perennial source of fascination to the nation, even the world. You might consider this an ever-replenishing well of ongoing interest.

But maybe that's part of why I have a different standard. If you are going to give us something new on the Kennedys, doesn't it have to be something crazy and groundbreaking? Is a view of the events of her husband's assassination from Jackie's perspective crazy and groundbreaking enough to qualify?

Formally, it might be. Larrain definitely brings a particular vision to this project. The film's most astonishing shot -- from behind Kennedy's convertible as it speeds him toward the hospital -- will make your jaw drop. Larrain also spends a lot of time in and up close to Natalie Portman's face, which would be an unusual choice were this to be considered a straightforward biopic. Further, by being shot the way it was (Super 16 mm) it feels like a real relic of its time, a bit grainy and somehow hyperreal. I'm on board for all of that.

But I still thought "Why am I watching this?"

Maybe I just don't care that much about the Kennedys. I haven't seen a lot of supplemental filmed material on them, and really only a couple movies (like Thirteen Days and a few others). Even though I think of John F. Kennedy as one of the great presidents of the 20th century, despite not having lived through his administration and being personally familiar only with its broad strokes, maybe I just don't buy into the static surrounding his family, which has come to feel more like a tabloid story or a soap opera than a portrait of a great trio of brothers and their impeccable liberal ideals.

Or it could be the whole timing thing. But I hope not ... because I'll have a lot of reevaluating to do in terms of how I judge the relevance of the movies I'm watching.

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