Dreams Are Lost Memories

There is fatalism and then there is stoicism

Still from The Souvenir.

The Dead Don’t Die 

Bill Murray, as the chief of police in a town beset by zombies, delivers a key line in The Dead Don’t Die: “I was supposed to retire two years ago.” Adam Driver, who plays his junior officer, asks him why he didn’t, to which Murray, breaking the fourth wall, replies, “Are we improvising here?” They leave it at that. This scripted off-script moment and their deadpan delivery evade the question, which the characters, the actors playing them, and writer-director Jim Jarmusch never answer. The Dead Don’t Die alludes to a gerontocracy that has refused to make way for the next generation, holding on to power even if it has to do it from beyond the grave. Tellingly, the first zombies reanimated are Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, playing 1970s rockers who crawl out of a graveyard and head for a vintage diner like the one in American Graffiti. Classic rock will never die, the 1950s will never end.

Murray and his subordinates dispatch members of the current generation swiftly and cruelly, without thinking much about it. They invade the motel room of three twentysomethings played, respectively, by a former TV tween turned pop idol, another former TV tween, and an influencer who makes money by wearing sunglasses on Instagram (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat). The cops find these tourists dead, attacked by the zombies. They chop off their heads preemptively, before they can turn.

The three dead tourists are a far cry from the Blank Generation hipster trio who ended up in a Florida motel in Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise thirty-five years ago, bohemians who came from nowhere and ended up nowhere. Back then, Jarmusch implies, such people could afford to be aimless wanderers, to kill time without getting assassinated themselves. Jarmusch does let some kids from juvie run off, but the movie’s one real survivor is Tom Waits, the only hermit left alive, as unkillable as he was in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs last year.

The Dead Don’t Die situates our unabated longing for the zombie apocalypse in the permanent October of rural areas where the Halloween store is open year-round. The exurban Jarmusch depicts both the sadness of half-empty towns upstate and the annoyance of having to live among neighbors like Steve Buscemi’s farmer, a right-wing sourpuss in a modified MAGA cap. This is a film unhappy with humanity, right down to specific neighbors.

Mild and bleak, idyllic and enamored with hopelessness, the film is either Jarmusch’s version of The Trouble with Harry, the autumnal Hitchcock film in which a dead body keeps reappearing, or one of those goofy William Castle horror comedies from the 1960s with Sid Caesar, in which bodies escape their coffins. In the end, it plays like a country version of Ivan Passer’s bleak-funny 1974 movie Law and Disorder, which starred Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as auxiliary policemen cruising the nighttime streets of the pre-Jarmusch Lower East Side. Back then, strung-out thieves and rapists outnumbered hipster artists in the city, the same way zombies outnumber the hipster cops in this movie. Jarmusch has moved upstate and found the same dead-eyed weirdos milling around.

From Only Lovers Left Alive to The Dead Don’t Die, alive or dead has ceased to make much difference to Jarmusch. When the high-class vampire couple in the former murdered people so they could survive, they were different from these cops because they were aristocrats, not civil servants. What matters to Jarmusch is that there is a natural order in the universe. When Tilda Swinton removes herself from the scene to take her place among the aliens in this movie, that order is preserved, as it was when she was a vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive. For Jarmusch, these lumpen zombies lack panache, their brainlessness is not romantic, and they deserve what they get.


Us

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out also mines country-city terror, though its point of view is Californian, not bohemian. Unlike Jarmusch, who would never do something so uncool, Peele channels the Steven Spielberg of the early 1980s, the Spielberg who hired director Tobe Hooper to make Poltergeist edgy, but then interfered to ensure it remained family friendly. In Us, Spielberg—as a concept, as a theme, and now as a memory—constrains Peele’s vision the same way Spielberg constrained Hooper. Poltergeist is not The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because whatever that movie was and however much money it made, it was not commercial according to the aesthetic moralities of Hollywood.

Peele is haunted by his Reagan-era childhood and its pop-culture debris, which is understandable, but by compulsively inserting it into his movie Peele makes Us much less frightening than it could have been. Too much of the movie depends on what’s on the T-shirts characters wear. Peele’s wardrobe choices are supposed to ground the film in specific time periods but also have to perform the function of grounding it thematically. This is a recurrent tic of Hollywood filmmaking that is both distracting and flattering to an audience already primed to hunt for 1970s and ’80s shout-outs in every Netflix show. In Us, it lessens the impact of the Hands Across America T-shirt at the film’s climax. Peele presents a class-divided America using this ironic signifier, but it has the effect of implying that what will unite us as citizens is not class consciousness but liking this film, as one audience, because we get the references.

Lupita Nyong’o has no trouble being terrifying and disturbing as both the villain and the hero of Us. The scary, constricted voice she uses for her prison-jumpsuited doppelgänger was performance art, with Laurie Anderson vocals that seemed to come from an LP I couldn’t quite remember. Tim Heidecker, as an evil version of the slightly more successful, back-slapping white neighbor, was more genuine in his dangerous frenzy and therefore more frightening. Heidecker comes across as an actual mirror version of himself, revealing in his violence a murderous id he’s channeled from comedy.

Us exposes the shadow world of poverty and despair that undergirds the sunny lifestyle of people who are pretty sure, but not quite sure, that they’ve made it as middle-class Americans. It peaks during its home invasion scene, after way too much loving/winking establishment of regular family life, the kind of thing Hitchcock or a TV commercial would have done much quicker. Peele’s slow buildup to the family’s confrontation with the twisted, starved versions of themselves, who seek to eliminate them and take their place, brings something to the screen that black audiences have been denied in Hollywood movies—a chance to see themselves in the Spielbergian glow of alleged American normalcy.

The nightmare image of the jumpsuit-clad doubles in the shadows of the driveway, a family car sticker come to life as menacing paper dolls holding their own scissors, is the highlight of Us. The home invasion is the film’s best scene, but it doesn’t last long enough after all the buildup. It could have been the whole movie from that point, and maybe would have been, in a cheaper film. Somehow the clash between the competing versions of this family ends up muddled in post–Black Swan ballet, the same way Luca Guadagnino’s ponderous Suspiria remake did. Ballet, as a signifier of class privilege, lacks shock value in something as all-American as Us. Pretending that it’s eerie and sinister is like hitting all the keys on the organ at once, Phantom of the Opera style; i.e., a cliché, not scary.


Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel takes place in 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the O. J. Simpson trial, of “Gangsta’s Paradise” and “Common People.” That’s why I went to see it. I wanted to find out how Marvel Studios handled the mid-’90s. It turns out they handled them like Top Gun, so more like the 1980s. The Blockbuster Video scene in the movie reminded me that people today think the former existence of Blockbuster Video is funny. I guess the existence of Netflix, the contemporary version of Blockbuster, is not funny because you don’t have to go to a store.

It’s hard to remember Captain Marvel, because it was boring. Brie Larson, who plays Captain Marvel and two other young women who are also Captain Marvel, gets to kick an old lady’s ass on a bus. The old lady is a shape-shifting Skrull, however, so it’s OK. Later, Larson becomes a god. Her apotheosis reminded me that before the film came out, Larson insisted that instead of the usual superhero-indoctrinated 40-year-old men attending her press junket, there should also be a young woman in a wheelchair in attendance.

I thought about this young woman as I watched the rest of Captain Marvel. I might resent Captain Marvel, it occurred to me, if I were in a wheelchair and Brie Larson had summoned me to watch her flying through the air and into outer space. In the movie, the Skrulls turn out to be the good aliens and the Kree, friendly at the beginning, are revealed as evil and destructive. The same thing could happen to an entertainment reporter who gets a special invitation from a movie star.


John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

There is an astonishing fight scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 that takes place at night in a glass building with glass floors and walls. The inky set design in this scene, striking and ultra-contemporary, makes everything look like it’s taking place under cracked iPhone screens. But the dynamic between Wick (Keanu Reeves) and the mewling sycophant he’s fighting (Mark Dacascos) took a lot away from the action. There was no way this guy named Zero could get the upper hand for long. The choreography and the black-transparent look of that section of the film gave it a jolt and, for a while, a reason to exist. The rest lacked anything as involving, despite the aggressive, nonstop complication of every second of the film, including the title. There is also a ballet scene that is supposed to be moody and frightening and isn’t.

Asia Kate Dillon, a nonbinary actor with a neatly shorn head, would have made a better foe for Wick, but Dillon is instead constricted to Helmut Newton–esque slinking and posing in tight black pencil skirts. Ian McShane’s Winston, a traitorous hotelier, sleepwalks through his role like he’s playing the Most Interesting Man in the World in the Dos Equis beer ads. As incessant gunfire in the lobby and corridors destroys his hotel, McShane responds with ever faker nonchalant bullshit acting, mirroring the overelaboration of everything else in the film. The John Wick franchise has an official weapons supplier, but the film’s target audience isn’t gun nuts. This is a movie for corporate travel agents upset that it costs so much to stay in hotels.


Domino

Brian De Palma, the director of the first Mission: Impossible movie with Tom Cruise in 1996, and therefore one of the architects of the genre, has, at this point, approximately zero chance of directing a $100 million action movie like John Wick: Chapter 3 ever again. His reputation may have been enhanced by the 2015 documentary about him made by Noah Baumbach and Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother, but his career got no bounce from it. The director of Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Scarface depends these days on sketchy European producers, who have an unfortunate tendency to mirror the plots of his movies by betraying him. Thus Domino, his latest, arrives bitter and slapdash, more a plan for a movie buzzing or shimmering in De Palma’s angry head.

Domino takes place in Copenhagen, where police detectives speak English and used to be in Game of Thrones. The director seems to have contempt for both his leads. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, playing a not-bright cop who sets the plot in motion by forgetting his gun one morning, has a second-choice feel. Carice van Houten, who exists in Domino like she’s waiting for each take to end so she can go outside and smoke, resembles Noomi Rapace in De Palma’s earlier film Passion, but why? In the past, the resemblance would have been evidence of directorial obsession. Here, it’s probably a coincidence.

Even in its partly realized form, Domino’s every frame is better than anything in Game of Thrones. In its less-than-ninety-minute running time, Domino links together CIA surveillance, terrorism, drone warfare, ISIS execution videos, and international film festivals. It all has a last-stand feel, in which De Palma excoriates today’s regime of easy-to-make but disposable images, which people, now all spies, use to brutalize each other. Scene after scene features piles of red tomatoes, there for critics to throw at De Palma so they can be tabulated and scored by review aggregators.

Politics for De Palma is a bizarre excuse for exploitation. This is one of his films in which he spares no one. Everyone is a torturer and a victim at the same time in Domino—confused, compromised, in for punishment. With some irony, De Palma sets up a Libyan terrorist (Eriq Ebouaney) as the film’s conscience. The CIA (in the person of the satanic-blasé Guy Pearce) forces him to work as a double agent, and the film’s plot comes to depend on him. Yet by the end De Palma abandons this downhearted terrorist without any more hesitation than he gave a minor character whose face gets dunked in a fry cooker.

A final scene, which could be the last of De Palma’s career, switches back and forth between a Spanish bullring and a hotel rooftop. The locations are linked by the threat of a mass killing and a camera drone, which De Palma uses to collapse the great distance between mass events and personal ones, a last gasp of mise-en-scène in the age of martyrdom videos on YouTube.


High Life

Robert Pattinson, the lone adult survivor on a spaceship destined for a black hole, jettisons the bodies of his dead fellow prisoner-astronauts, shoving them into body bags then dropping them one by one into the void. With his shaved and sculptural head, Pattinson would make a good match with John Wick’s Asia Kate Dillon, but in High Life he’s saddled instead with Juliette Binoche’s evil doctor-sorceress, a nefarious Beverly Crusher with a Renata Adler braid.

In this very dark (and orange) science-fiction movie, Claire Denis has provided her ship with a cell called the Box, a stainless-steel sex chamber that cleans itself like a car wash and comes equipped with a pneumatic dildo. High Life’s interest in bodily fluids is constant and intense. At one point, Binoche, an insomniac eugenicist, carries a handful of semen around the spaceship, while blood, shit, and breast milk smear its walls and floors. We meet the young co-ed crew in flashbacks. Criminals back on Earth, now institutionalized in the name of science, they are abusive and sexually violent—ugly-minded people who lash out at each other because they’re trapped.

Denis pushes bodies to their limit while sending humanity to the margins of the universe in this frustration endurance test posing as space exploration. Technology exists in the film only as a way to experiment on helpless people. The opposite of Interstellar, High Life presents sci-fi without hope, its ship a borstal. In the crew scenes, High Life becomes an Alan Clarke movie in outer space. It’s a companion piece to another arty genre film Denis made, 2001’s blood-smeared Trouble Every Day. Hard to take, unclear in its intentions, it nonetheless delivers hard truths in a new way.

High Life’s ending lacks the awesome evolutionary psychedelics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, opting instead for a hookup with an earlier, abandoned spaceship inhabited only by sick dogs who survive in artificial green light. Denis contrasts it with the yellow nimbus surrounding the black hole. The end credits remind us, more than once, that the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson somehow owns this yellow light, along with his redesign for the supermarket vegetable sprayer misting plants in the ship’s garden.


Non-Fiction

Juliette Binoche also costars in Non-Fiction. The new Olivier Assayas movie about the Parisian publishing world has things in common with Things to Come, the 2016 film by Mia Hansen-Løve, Assayas’s ex-wife, which starred Isabelle Huppert as a Parisian philosophy professor and author. The difference is that Things to Come was a clear-eyed case study in middle age and Non-Fiction is an immature French farce.

Binoche plays a TV actress named Selena to whom another character mentions Juliette Binoche, a bit of self-referentiality drawn from the “he looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy” gag in His Girl Friday. The Dead Don’t Die does this kind of thing, too, only more so, with the actors breaking character to switch into script discussions. Maybe Jarmusch and Assayas’s generation of arthouse directors feels trapped by storytelling and wants to leave it behind. The Lettrist ending of Assayas’s Irma Vep pointed in that direction; in the years since, Assayas has become a more conventional filmmaker.

Here, he mistakes His Girl Friday for a zany romp instead of understanding that it’s a cynical, fast-talking adventure-romance, like all Hawks’s movies, as well as a comedy about the warlike nature of mass communication. The world of big-city newspaper reporters in the US in the late 1930s must have struck him as akin to the publishing world in contemporary Paris, where the big issues are not capital punishment and government corruption, like in His Girl Friday, but whether ebooks are the future. That adds up to French people saying the word Kindle a lot. This is a variation on the hand-wringing over the future of the cinema in Irma Vep—one thing Assayas keeps telling us is that it’s a changing world out there, with all this technology. Vincent Macaigne is better and funnier than all that as an autobiographical novelist kind of inspired by Philip Roth in the same way this film is inspired by screwball comedies.

In the end, whatever happens to book publishing doesn’t matter as long as these French people can sleep with each other’s spouses and have young mistresses and go to their summer houses. In His Girl Friday, when Cary Grant promises to remarry Rosalind Russell then cons her into going away with him to cover a breaking story instead, it was important to the film that they weren’t married anymore. Grant was exploiting Russell and stringing her along to get what he wanted for his newspaper. In Non-Fiction, nobody can get back together again because they never leave each other in the first place.


The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg’s roman à clef of a movie covers her years in film school in early 1980s London, when she was figuring out how she wanted to make movies and living on and off with an upper-class junkie boyfriend employed by the Foreign Office. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), naive, from a good home, doesn’t at first understand that the semi-comatose but well-dressed and handsomely flawed Anthony (Tom Burke) is a user. Her slow realization that something is wrong, and her polite, matter-of-fact introduction to Anthony’s addiction, which they don’t discuss, are the stuff of a horror movie.

Hogg downplays the lurid aspects of their love affair, replacing them with the familiarity of everyday life as their relationship unfolds. Strange, awkward scenes begin to pile up. Anthony brings Julie lingerie from Paris, asks her to put it on, tells her, “You’re a dark horse, Julie.” Then she sees the tracks on his arm, not knowing what they are. Their meals at Harrods have a sleepy, well-mannered mood that becomes nerve-racking and narcotic as Anthony runs out of money and begins to steal and sell Julie’s possessions. Burke plays Anthony as Peter Lorre in an Evelyn Waugh novel. He’s creepy but since he’s unaware of it, Julie doesn’t see it either. We never see him away from Julie, so his scoring and shooting up are not part of the film, nor his last hours.

The blown-out white light from the windows in their apartment and the pillow shots Hogg uses between scenes, accompanied by snippets of songs from the period by Robert Wyatt, Joe Jackson, and the Pretenders, shield the film from becoming too novelistic—it reminded me of a Margaret Drabble novel crossed with Ozu. The Souvenir is a beautifully realized, painful movie that only hits the viewer in the hours and days after seeing it. Tilda Swinton, in gray hair, plays her own daughter’s mother, communing human-to-human for a change, instead of with the astral beings her muse or casting directors usually put her in touch with.


Her Smell

I never thought I’d see Elisabeth Moss singing “Another Girl, Another Planet” as Courtney Love in The Kat Bjelland Story. In Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, set in the 1990s post-grunge Amerindie rock scene, Moss plays Becky Something, an alcoholic, drug-addicted guitarist and singer in a band with drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin) and bass player Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn). Becky is a mess. A thrower of dressing-room tantrums, by the time she is finally able to make it onstage, she insults the audience and can only plow through a song or two before tottering into the drums and collapsing. Between gigs, she annoys everyone by hauling around her shaman, an irritant named Ya-Ema (Eka Darville). In the studio she fumbles between ill-prepared nothingness and rage.

Perry and Moss follow Becky’s descent into addict hell and eventual recovery with true commitment to Cassavetes-style self-destruction and enlightenment. The difference is that John Cassavetes did not make period pieces. The 1990s evoked in Her Smell are as cleaned-up as Becky isn’t. A new all-girl band comes to supplant Something She, Becky’s weirdly named combo, and Perry presents them as more post-tween Green Day than post-Hole Veruca Salt. They’re nice, studious, and millennial, like they got extra credit in a college course on riot grrrl for being in this movie. This removes the film by one step from the rawness of Becky’s damaged life, turning Her Smell into an acting exercise with ’90s touches.

The film’s five-act structure brings Becky up-to-date at a reunion show, where she almost pulls her disappearing act sober. That could have been more interesting than all the coven-based female empowerment on display in the scenes where other women musicians sit cross-legged on the floor, light candles, and praise her. Those scenes came off as both pandering to a contemporary audience and a rejection of the generation Becky represents. I guess that’s realistic. By act four she had already moved upstate to strum her guitar alone in a big house and ruminate on her misdeeds, a trajectory artists from her era know well. Becky wins her battle with herself, but when it was over I felt bruised and tired, as if she’d been pummeling me, too. Like Roberto Durán fighting Sugar Ray Leonard, she had me holding up my hands and muttering, “No Moss.” Then the credits rolled and snapped me out of it with their fake album covers from the ’90s.


The Hustle

The Hustle is very low stakes and I only saw it because I was stuck in a mall in New Jersey for two hours and it was the next thing playing. The point of this remake of a remake is that the genders have been switched. Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson now play roles played by men in the other two versions. Yet by the end, it is a man who fools these two women con artists, blackmailing them into being his employees. Not the ending I was expecting from a film that begins by asserting that all men are suckers.

Alex Sharp plays this unconvincing man-boy grifter as a bland nothing whose initial guise is colorless and empty—a nice-guy tech billionaire shy around women. Hathaway has to pretend, by turns, that she is a member of the British leisure class and a German psychoanalyst femme fatale. She excels in the latter put-on, opening a new path for herself she will probably never explore again. Wilson, meanwhile, must pretend she is blind, an acting stunt which I guess is only not offensive because blind people won’t see it. At one point Hathaway demonstrates to Wilson how to produce tears on cue, giving the lie to her award-winning crying jag in Les Misérables. It’s a secret of her craft she reveals too cheap.


Long Day’s Journey into Night

With his second feature, following his excellent debut, 2015’s Kaili Blues, Bi Gan has done something radical. An incursion into form, Long Day’s Journey into Night reveals the trick of 3D. Instead of a continuous, pseudo-immersive experience that starts at the beginning, here 3D infiltrates more than halfway through the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. When it finally enters, Bi reemphasizes its alleged immersiveness, 3D’s main selling point, by having this last, hour-long section comprise one continuous take, a single shot that floats from a gondola lift through a nighttime market and elsewhere through the end of the film. Before this shot begins, the viewer must figure out when it’s time to put on the clunky 3D glasses, a point in the film Bi signals by having his protagonist, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), sit down in a movie theater.

Bi has established himself as a significant artist with just two films partially by being a synthesist of all previous auteur cinema. Long Day’s Journey into Night combines many strains, from the poetic realism of Le jour se lève to Hiroshima mon amour and In the Mood for Love, from Warhol (a character eats an entire apple in one shot) to Tarkovsky (a glass shakes itself off a table). It all seems put together in a calm, hypnotic state, using the gliding camera of Theo Angelopoulos to move through the torture and violence of Johnnie To and Tarantino gangster movies via the observational modernism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

That all of this becomes present in the viewer’s mind without taking away from what’s original about his film is a testament to Bi’s skill. He’s an artist who learned online, like some poker champions, watching films at home, and it’s significant that he comes from provincial China, not the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. We inhabit the romance and fatalism of Long Day’s Journey into Night as in a dream—someone says in the film that “dreams are lost memories.” Bi’s camera follows Luo as he searches his hometown for his lost love (the enchanting Tang Wei from Lust, Caution) and his best friend from twenty years ago, Wildcat, probably murdered.

I happened to see Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Metrograph at a morning show at which I was the only person present. During the 3D sequence, a woman came into the theater and sat down right next to me, which I thought was odd. I turned to her, wearing the 3D glasses over my regular glasses, wondering what was going on. She looked at me, and in an Australian accent she asked, “Is this the appatmint?” I had no idea what she was saying. I was fully inhabiting the film and her entrance seemed like part of it.

She repeated the same question—Is this the appatmint?—and this time I understood. She wanted to know if this was The Apartment. Billy Wilder’s movie of that name was showing at the Metrograph in the other theater.

“No,” I told her, “this is a new Chinese movie in 3D.” She looked at me wearing the 3D glasses, then at the screen, and instead of leaving she watched the movie for a while. Something about what was going on froze her in place in front of images that were out of focus for her because she didn’t have 3D glasses on. Suddenly she got up and walked out. Maybe I should have followed her out and gone to see The Apartment, starting my own journey into night, but by then Bi Gan had me pinned in place, stuck in the flow with his moving camera.


Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke’s latest film also focuses on events in the early 2000s, but since Jia has come to his mastery the hard way, his view of the interrupted relationship between a gangster (Liao Fan) and his moll (Zhao Tao) expands not just in filmic memory, but out into the real world of contemporary Chinese history. His vistas are bigger, plainer, and harder on the people who inhabit them. If this is a genre story in some ways, just as Long Day’s Journey into Night is, it’s a more tragic one, with bitter, unromantic repercussions. There is fatalism and then there is stoicism.

Here, it is a woman’s longing, not a man’s, that propels the film. Zhao is one of the greatest actresses in cinema, and her journey in Ash Is Purest White is hardboiled and subtly melodramatic. She begins as the realist daughter of an outmoded communist ideologue, then transforms herself into a cool money-making criminal in the provincial jianghu underworld. She takes the fall on a gun charge for her lover and ends up a jailbird. To get back to him after prison, she passes through the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River on a ship where her identity and money are stolen. The new Chinese capitalism erases her past, rendering her sacrifice meaningless.

Zhao’s Qiao is absorbed into a vast audience singing along with pop performers onstage, a wider angle on the individual karaoke in Bi Gan’s film. Jia’s tour of his country displays a 21st-century China that is dirty and mean, punishing its characters for coming into adulthood in a petty, greedy time. There is no progress in their lives, only aging. Qiao ends up where she started, doubly abandoned in her old hometown, serving the old gangsters who never made it out. For Bi Gan, only love can break your heart. In Ash Is Purest White, there are many more things that can break your spirit.


Diamantino

This soccer-refugee satire from Portugal by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt is cute as hell and as fluffy and pink as the enormous Pekingese puppies Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta) pictures in his head when he’s on the field about to score a goal. Unfortunately, it’s also about as savage as those puppies.

Diamantino is a modern Candide, a pampered star athlete without a thought in his head. He adopts a refugee as his son after a sudden burst of compassion, then allows himself to be experimented on by scientists who are after his perfect superman genes. Diamantino is too clueless to realize his refugee son is actually a queer girl (Cleo Tavares) scamming him, and that his doctors are slowly turning him into a woman, a side effect of their gene-mapping drugs. On top of all this he is duped into running for office by a fascist, anti-immigrant political party.

The plot sounds like next-generation Almodóvar or latter-day John Waters, but because Diamantino is so gentle and nice in its intersectionality, it ends up somewhat hapless, with a downbeat, wistful ending. Surely big pharma, right-wing manipulation, and the endless greed of the already wealthy deserve something a little harsher than this ninety-seven-minute underwear ad, an example of present-day camp too sane and well-behaved to have much bite.


Jobe’z World

Shot by Sean Price Williams, the dexterous cinematographer who also filmed Her Smell, Michael M. Bilandic’s Jobe’z World, which is set, I think, in the present, is way more forthright and weird than Alex Ross Perry’s film. The kind of micro-budget New York indie that exists to get gloriously terrible, out-of-it reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, Jobe’z World is pretty glorious and out-of-it itself.

The film follows Jason Grisell as Jobe, an idiotic former semipro inline skater (“There’s some vids floating around of me on the internet”) turned drug delivery man. He makes his rounds through an absurd demimonde where he encounters an actor, a doomsday prepper, a brain-damaged stand-up comic, a barefoot bum, and his mother, who is a fan of Bono’s music in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and whom he tells he wants to get a face tattoo.

Jobe has an annoying voice and looks like he’s aging in front of the camera. When his employer (Lindsay Burdge) sends him out on a special delivery, the customer turns out to be his favorite actor, Royce David Leslie (Theodore Bouloukos), a highfalutin sci-fi stalwart in films with names like The Skull Machine. The two discuss the big questions and Jobe shows him a comic book he’s made. After Jobe leaves, Leslie begins livestreaming his drug experience, frothing at the mouth and becoming incoherent. Bilandic multiplies Leslie’s head across the screen in a trip scene set against a backdrop of the cosmos. His death throes resemble the welcome-to-the-movies snipe they project before the feature at the Cobble Hill Cinema.

The cast in Jobe’z World is excellent and will do anything, no matter how stupid. Stephen Payne, as the armed and bunkered-down prepper, gets some big threatening closeups from Bilandic and Williams. They hold on him as he regales Jobe with his theories on movies and points the business end of a rocket launcher at the camera. All the characters in the film have made bad lighting choices for the interiors they inhabit, and the nighttime exteriors are similarly cheap green and purple displays. The stand-up comic (Owen Kline, the younger brother from The Squid and the Whale) is barely coherent and wears a large button that reads license to bullshit. This feature film is a concise and action-packed sixty-seven minutes long, and I could have easily watched another half hour of it. Or definitely another ten minutes.


The Proposal

“Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?” asked J. G. Ballard. Jill Magid’s epic troll of a documentary on the Mexican architect Luis Barragán suggests that it does not. Magid, who features herself in her film as prominently as Barragán (he died in 1988), visits the architect’s house in Mexico, where she stays on a one-person residency to make Barragán-centric art of some kind using his personal archives. In this section of The Proposal, we see shots of Barragán’s monumental, colorful, slab-like work, which photographs beautifully and is a pleasure to look at.

Magid then reveals that Barragán’s estate and the rights to depicting his work are owned by an Italian woman, Federica Zanco. Zanco is an art historian married to the Swiss billionaire whose family owns Vitra, a design firm that manufactures high-end modernist furniture, runs a museum, and has headquarters that feature buildings by famous architects including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Zanco owns the Barragán estate because her husband, Rolf, bought it for her as a $2.5 million engagement present in 1995. Federica and Rolf have subsequently trademarked Barragán’s name. They don’t allow researchers to see his professional archives, nor do they allow any of his work to be displayed in other museums, including ones in Mexico. Photographers who take pictures of the architect’s buildings are supposed to pay them, as are publishers who reproduce the photos. They’ve got the Barragán intellectual property rights in copyright lockdown.

Understandably, Barragán’s family finds these Swiss capitalists obnoxious and creepy, so they allow Magid to dig up the urn containing the architect’s ashes and turn a portion of them into a diamond. Magid sets this new diamond in an engagement ring she offers to Zanco in exchange for freeing the Barragán rights. Zanco will finally get an engagement ring if she accepts Magid’s macabre offer.

Magid films her meeting with Zanco from across the street using a long lens, like a police surveillance video. Zanco is barely glimpsed, inaccessible to the public, protected by her wealth. This could be the subject for a Hitchcock or a De Palma movie, and Magid comports herself with a certain allure and mystery even though she is open and cheerful. Her necrophilia is loving and all-American. She contrasts it with the secrecy of these austere Swiss oddballs and their exploitative scheme. Much of the film is epistolary because it takes Magid forever to get Zanco to meet her. In Magid’s letters she compares herself and Zanco to Barragán’s lovers, while Zanco responds with an excessive, perfect cordiality that seems both ultra-cultured and psycho. Somehow the precepts of the art world allow Magid to execute this giant prank flawlessly, hiring workers to dig up the cemetery and paying scientists to make the diamond in a commercial lab, all just to freak out one avaricious Italian woman who lives in the splendor of a great artist’s work, poring over his records and objects in secret.

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