I’ve always preferred—I still prefer—to make the movies into an event: going out with friends, or sitting alone in the front row flanked by eccentric weirdos, lost in the passion of Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running, with fries and beer and dancing to follow. Now, the only new entertaining motion pictures are shot by Leninist teens on TikTok. It’s not quite the breeding ground for innovation that Vine was, but it’s something. I hope someone somewhere is archiving it all.
In times of quarantine and rioting, moving images have stopped following their regular internet-era rules, which were already on shaky ground. Whatever forces previously worked to separate Netflix Christmas movies, an OK rom-com on a Saturday matinee, rare 16mm screenings of tricontinental cinema at Film Forum, and Nancy Pelosi kneeling in kente have dissolved. The pandemic has allowed the big streaming sites, from Disney Plus to HBO Max, to seize the collective imagination—vulnerable, as it is, after Tiger King and national clown conventions tore through it. Now, time extends more like the endless traffic jam in Julio Cortázar’s “The Southern Thruway” (1966), a stream of institutions looking aggressively forward to post-Covid good times, in manic ignorance of the fact that the old ways of watching aren’t coming back, in denial of the static present and the shifting past.
Still, these past few months, I saw a good deal of new stuff. Almost all of it I’ll need to rewatch in a theater, if and when they come back—most won’t, but some will. There are too many smart, passionate, dedicated artists working in plain sight and sound for there to be no advance, however un-promoted, and as long as we’re beholden to platforms, it’s worth dreaming of a utopian future with more DIY spaces like No Evil Eye and Spectacle and fewer tentpoles like the live-action Mulan or the sixteenth Marvel thing that we go to now as an obligation, like jury duty or Zoom happy hours. For now, all I can do is respond to the few new images I’ve seen in isolation, as the folders on my laptop fill with more and more screengrabs, my iCloud storage dwindling every day.
Da Five Bloods
At the outset of the anti-police riots and rebellions that swept the US this summer, Netflix chose to, why not, get on the bus. From June onward, you could (and, as of writing, still can) watch movies placed under their desperate new “genre” banner of “Black Lives Matter”: Moonlight, I Am Not Your Negro, the aptly titled Imperial Dreams, Homecoming, and—bearing the Netflix Original seal—LA 92, 13th, and the TV reboots of She’s Gotta Have It and Dear White People. That there’s no distinctions drawn among the wide-ranging qualities and ideologies of this cobbled-together selection is only the first red flag. Naturally, Netflix doesn’t want their audience to dwell on any of these advertised products as such. They’re there as symbolic flourish and synthetic choice, an obvious effort to get in lock-and-step to a moment that’s been a movement for centuries by allowing viewers to binge Black-ideated content that they’ll only half remember later.
Such seemed to be the message relayed by the release of the new Spike Lee. Subject: the imperialist racism endured by young black men in Vietnam in the 1960s, which has not before received such raging laurels from Hollywood. This is perhaps a step up from the ’90s neocon triumph of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, but like all recent Lee, the film is a baroque mess. If you squint, you can feel the Sam Fuller-ish impulse that coursed through better Lee fictions of the past, like Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, or Girl 6. A bonkers image in the new joint: before the brief and lifeless shootout finale, Jean Reno decides to make a splashy, last-minute statement in fashion. As Lee’s fat white symbol of French imperialism, who funds the Bloods’ expedition until shit goes south, Reno trades his slaver’s fedora for a MAGA cap, trying and failing Trump-style to button up his suit jacket, stomping around a Buddhist temple out of The Steel Helmet like a peacock. Much of the blandness of Bloods can be attributed to its impulse to show every CGI’d burst of bullets, as well as its lousy and off rhythms, which linger on scenes of blanket camaraderie (it takes six seconds to realize that the men have found their buried treasure, but Lee and the automatic Blanchard score pad this discovery out to a merciless six minutes). We’re far from the lushness of life and skin shot by Ernest Dickerson in Lee’s early films. In the TV-friendly, tensionless flow of Bloods, I feel like I’m hanging out with Wikipedia summaries of comic-book sidekicks, and the sidekicks’ sidekicks—and for an apt length of Marvel time: 155 minutes.
Only two actors evade the general flattening imposed by the four credited writers (the same number as the equally corny BlacKkKlansman). The first is the late Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman, the Bloods’s deceased and Christlike leader. For an actor saddled with so many mythic roles for the first half of his career—now tragically frozen not even at the halfway point—the role of Stormin’ Norman seems to have signaled a turning point. This original character, a becalmed angel of the Black Panther Party, is the logical endpoint of a career spent playing all the roles in the JB-Thurgood-T’Challa mold. In Bloods, Boseman is so deep into his outsized Übermensch period that he emerges as the opposite: beaming, kind of floating in a low-key register, in what’s by far his most subtle performance. As far as the Lee et al. narration allows him (he has very few lines), Boseman walks and talks about ten places slower and more deliberately than any of his men—a leader, geared to the ensemble from the edges of 16mm. The one scene that justifies the entire Bloods venture isn’t even in the final film; it only appeared on Lee’s Instagram the day after Boseman’s death from colon cancer was announced: Boseman singing “God is Love” in its entirety to the squadron. It’s a vulnerable performance, a reminder, in the midst of the current terrors, that a dying man can sing with more passion and faith than most of us space fillers in good health could muster. Boseman shows an ecstatic vulnerability, unusual for someone who was conceivably the exemplar of 21st century movie stardom. (We still have the tragic trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson to look forward to, but even this doesn’t seem like enough.)
The second man, who nimbly maneuvers within the most hopeless constraints, is Delroy Lindo’s Paul, whose military trauma is expressed by a mile-wide death glare, a temper that lashes out at inanimate objects (a bar of gold, a hotel pastry), and a broken croak (which snaps when he digs his own grave and sings “God is Love” as self-epitaph)—a voice engorged in the vengeful faith with which he’d kill in the name of his gods: Jesus, family, his four Bloods. Of course, for every such moment, there are about ten others in which Lindo is given no higher ground to go, because his character—a synthetic Trump-loving Black man who seems pulled out of a New York Times ethnographic profile—is hemmed in by so many do-gooder goalposts. It’s a condescending role, an awkward attempt at making a tragically “complex” villain for our times: the self-destructive Black man made into liberal spectacle, only there when the plot needs it.
Paul is just one of a string of Lee clichés. Like a Netflix collection, Lee ties together every obvious war film reference he possibly can (Apocalypse Now, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Bridge on the River Kwai, along with the Fuller masterworks The Big Red One and The Steel Helmet) without any serious interrogation of their wildly differing ideological projects. Lee’s postmodern romps through history reach their peak with the bizarre pseudo-Godard style of Bloods, in which photos and Great Men from History flash on screen like a PowerPoint made hastily before class, a mind-numbing slideshow of images that range from the obvious (Neil Armstrong; a safe excerpt from King’s anti-imperialist “Beyond Vietnam” speech) to the obscure (Milton L. Olive III, whose life a character randomly suggests should be made into a Hollywood biopic—bankrolled by Ava DuVernay, maybe?). After a while, you acquiesce to the headachy mix of stills and dates and names moving too fast to read. It’s got the energy of someone paying homage to the Classics, who has nothing to prove because his name now comes bow-tied with prestige.
By promoting this bloated epic in their eleventh-hour anti-black saving-of-face, Netflix wants to reassure the average consumer that Hollywood’s images past and present can make sense of the 8 minutes, 46 seconds of life choked out of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. It’s a vile, regressive move, all the more cynical coming from the company whose “culture of reinvention” (per the subtitle of CEO Reed Hastings’s new business memoir) promotes the idea that nothing made before 2000 matters—or even exists: a flat screen history. It’s tempting to imagine, instead, a platform with even a fraction of Netflix’s reach and market share that would promote works like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Jacques Demy’s pro-labor, pro-l’amour musical tragedy Une Chambre en Ville (1982), all of Glauber Rocha’s output, Bill Duke’s 1919 Chicago labor melodrama The Killing Floor (1984; streaming in Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema), and the visions of workaday artists like Ja’Tovia Gary, Kevin Jerome Everson, Ephraim Asili, and Ayo Akingbade. These are piercing works, less seen or acknowledged by the mainstream, whose every frame cuts deeper than the double dolly shots in Lee’s films, now an affect as cute to identify as the Hitchcock gut—and just as obvious.
The human face up close—remember that?—forms the base of the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Khalik Allah, and the Ukraine-based, Georgia-born Armenian Sergei Parajanov (1924–1990). Since July, Film at Lincoln Center has made three of the latter’s shorts available to watch in their Virtual Cinema—a random but lovely light in the dark, like much of the pandemic-era virtual programming that’s currently bringing formerly arcane and unattainable gems into the foreground. As in his masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (1969; on Criterion Channel), Parajanov’s living-tableau tribute to the 18th century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, the shorts toss straightness and linearity out the window in favor of exploded still-lifes, which teem with princes, props, and wails that go nowhere. They cull from an image repository of Georgian and Armenian folk culture (Parajanov’s heritage), but they use cinema’s capacity to hone in, linger fetishistically on a detail, then zone out to move cagily across a field of tantalizing pre-scenes: a delicate mannish hand choking the life out of his belt and pearls, a brown-eyed queen, the browning tome that she fingers.
Those bits come from Kiev Frescoes (1965; my favorite of the three shorts), which Parajanov planned as the follow-up to his magnificent Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964; streaming on MUBI). While Shadows went heavy on the handheld (the skipping body galore), with the Frescoes, Parajanov made the first leap towards his now-iconic frozen dynamism, which flourished in Pomegranates. Soviet authorities commissioned Parajanov to film a simple retelling of the liberation of Kiev from Nazi forces on the twentieth anniversary. Instead, he ignored all instructions (again) and made a poetic allegory (again) involving baskets of flowers, longshoremen, widows, modern dance, and virgins walking out of their museum frames. The Soviet film authorities cancelled the project, but not before Parajanov shot a few screen tests for his gloriously mad treatment. “Gloriously mad” is the only proper way to understand the sight of a tense, Balanchine-ish boy offering a ring in holy love to an adored Madonna princess out of Velázquez, who then stoops to floss his teeth with the string of a piano on which Debussy’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” keeps filling the room in eternal radio fashion, gliding and serene.
The other two shorts in the Lincoln Center package are tributes to painters: one a 19th century “inside” portraitist of the Georgian rich (Hakob Hovnatanyan, 1967), the other a turn-of-the-century Georgian “outsider”—with Henri Rousseau vibes—who died in the 1918 flu epidemic (Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, 1986). All are implicit arguments on the need for archivist-artists: those far-out threats like Parajanov, sick of the old-hat biases that are stacked against terms like “the amateur” or “the forgotten,” who go deep into the cultural research vaults. Working with the spotlight-shunning impulse of film programmers at BAM or the Cinephobe, these artists unearth dazzling images and colors that only a few (couldn’t be me!) can fully unpack, leaving the bored out in the lurch, the rest of us intrigued conspirators in a new kind of seeing that reacts first and thinks later. No wonder Julie Dash, by her own claim, was partly thinking of Parajanov when making her Daughters of the Dust (1991), exploding iconography from within the creolized life of Gullah women in the US South.
I regret not seeing critic and director Dan Sallitt’s new film Fourteen in a theater. His sensitivity to what shattered friends never say, never even hint at through body language, cries for scrutiny on a big screen. The Sallitt world lavishes a sort of attention-love, I guess, on its actors, but as Cassavetes says in Love Streams, “Well, love is dead.” It might be the case that “love” is too generous a word for the numb subject under consideration in Fourteen. Within these Brooklynites doomed to never grow old together, there’s a cruel, staccato repression of any emotional honesty that would be unbearable for even an Ozu or a Naruse; no relief, no heat, no yearning. Fourteen, with its insistence that all main actions occur beyond the frame, is made of stubbornly in-between scenes that offer a prickly nothing.
Tallie Medel wants to write. Norma Kuhling is a troubled social worker who has no direction in life—that is, except for quick, inexplicable slashes to the immediate left or right of the frame as she, for instance, ducks into a pie shop, or out onto the street to smoke her eighth cigarette or joint. What Kuhling would be good at, exactly, is unclear. The two women have been best friends since childhood, but something has always been off about Kuhling. Medel calls her a “basket case” behind her back. Kuhling is incapable of sustaining a relationship, whether with a girl or guy, beyond a few weeks or months. In Fourteen as in quarantine, as Kuhling’s T-shirt declares at one point, “Time becomes meaningless.”
Kuhling sucks the energy out of the room while keeping everyone on tenterhooks as, sighing with low-key dread, they wait for her to fuck up yet again. Except for a painful-to-watch breakdown in a Brooklyn apartment, wedged oppressively between two bland pieces of IKEA furniture, she has no obviously dramatic scenes. At one point, she’s said to have drawn a kitchen knife on a hapless boyfriend, then to her own throat, but Sallitt wisely never shows these allegations onscreen. Every so often, a wisp of hair dips down to hide her eyes like Veronica Lake’s once did—and indeed, Kuhling exists here with the same kind of twisty Lake energy that keeps psychologists, boyfriends and best friends at arm’s length.
Except for one middle-aged, sad-eyed bear of a divorcé (Dylan McCormick), the men in Fourteen are a rivulet of skinny blahs, pinned butterflies, drips. They talk in the assured, hermetically sealed tones of intellectual judgment. Here’s one boyfriend (C. Mason Wells) in response to Medel’s writing: “It’s very quiet. Not a lotta frills to the writing. I like that. Why’d ya make the central character a man.” Outrageously, she consents to have a daughter by this dude. The biggest warning sign is his matter-of-fact justification for his threesome fetish, which is so flagrantly solipsistic and ungiving (“It’s not about two women doing each other…but it’s really more about me”), it becomes a horrifying, dead-on put-down of the brainy New York loner who stalks the worlds of Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach. Unlike any of the outsized performances in Marriage Story or Blue Jasmine, none of the Fourteen performances seem grooved to the visible, prestige-wracked honor of an Oscar, a César, or people’s choice awards.
Like the characters, I broke down twice, in two compact bursts of agony that each lasted for about fifteen seconds—only to compose myself in the next shot, like I was being ushered onto a new Instagram story. This is a movie where someone literally says “I’m sorry, I made a spectacle of myself” at a best friend’s funeral. This comes after so much drabness in the first half, scenes of slack tension like a girlfriend helping another fill out her job application over the phone because she can’t do it herself. An “establishing” shot of a train pulling into a station goes on for five motion-killing minutes (not at all like the erotically moving tableaux of The Portuguese Woman); Medel turns into a bug as she scuttles past a swarm of grey cars and vans. After ninety minutes of shrugging complacency with daily cruelty and insignificance, the mouth is agape: “What next? What’s the point?” the viewer wonders. “No next, no point” is the movie’s response. “But if the problem children of the world died today, maybe, finally, we could begin to live.”
“You know how insulted I am by mediocrity,” says Shirley Jackson’s husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the latest from Josephine Decker. “Terrifically competent: There’s no excuse for that.”
He could be knocking the “Imitation of Everything” biopics of recent infamy, those factual things that fill empty theaters and fail the Wikipedia Test: Does the movie tell me anything I couldn’t have known from reading about it online? Bombshell, Tolkien, The Two Popes, Just Mercy, Seberg, anything that requires the services of Meryl Streep or Eddie Redmayne: all of these flunk and are put to shame by Shirley, which is a biopic in genus only. Nearer to the vulgarities of Lust for Life (1956), Melvin and Howard (1980), Joy (2016), Tesla (2020), and the weirder Marielle Heller films, Shirley proves that rampant fiction is the only way to survive this tired genre with integrity, opting for pagan fabrications in witching-hour forests and ugly nearsighted blurs of the camera.
Elizabeth Moss plays Jackson with fine, faint traces of the author’s numerous personae: the folk-humored mother driven up a wall by kids and infantilizing mailmen (Life Among the Savages), the sad Rebecca-obsessed romantic (The Haunting of Hill House). With better success than her creaky madwoman of Queen of Earth, Moss spikes her performance with endless effects, in flights of grand “theatah” that would be anathema to the cooler slow-burn of Fourteen’s Norma Kuhling and Tallie Medel. She is alternately the ringleader of a Bennington, Vermont circus of brat Albee types; a child anarchic marred with a sick, lowbrow humor (she scares Odessa Young by ingesting the killer mushrooms from Beguiled and Phantom Thread); a doting mother; an insomniac sage; and a polyamorous witch. In this unsustained grab-bag of masks, Moss gets across the aspirational mess of a certain kind of fiction writer’s life: the desire to be your own protagonist in the Northern gothics that you write, which are more fucked-up than your real life as a witch.
The Decker men, as usual, are plastic, stuck-up horndogs afraid of any overtone that smacks of queerness or witchcraft, especially the button-down Brooks Brother played by Professor Logan Lerman (whose hotness is used against him—a nice twist). He makes less of an impression than the crazy Stuhlbarg, who goes the extra mile as Stanley Hyman, the literary critic husband stoking his wife’s deadly games of fiction, whose method of flirtation with his WASP students entails dancing like a mechanical scarecrow to Leadbelly’s “Swingin’ on the Gallis Pole.” For these moments—and the one of Young blowing Shirley Jackson a kiss across the room, lit in the harsh Decker style, as her teeth rot on a gratuitously pink sugar cookie—we can forgive the over-baked images of vulgar Freudianism that Decker occasionally falls back on: a pile of cracked eggs on the floor, cross-cut with a fertility ritual; Jackson pinned to the bed by writer’s block, arms splayed in an easy cruciform. The stealth concern of Shirley: how many ways can we convey the truth that the best writers are at base friendly parasites, freaky sadists, looters of life.
The Portuguese Woman
Here’s an uncompromised film that, scene by scene, reinvents what it means to linger in time and space, treating states of stasis with an eye attuned to the languid in the erotic, the erotic in the languid. This is not the languidity burdened by sameness and doom which we’ve grown accustomed to in the stuffy, unaired bedrooms of quar. Instead, The Portuguese Woman is a mesmerizing historic wormhole into a plein air future: the wind rushes in from a window, dresses ruffle and drag, the sun filters across a maid’s quarters to lift its bleakness.
The Portuguese Woman was released in 2018, but I saw it in August, as part of an ongoing MUBI retrospective of Rita Azevedo Gomes’s films. She adapts the 1924 Robert Musil novella of the same name, perversely erasing all the lines of narrative coherence that a less alert mind would have relied upon as a handy map. Instead, we’re treated to a cluster of surreally enclosed scenes not unlike those we see in the Parajanov fragments: the Portuguese lady draws herself and reflects on a plague-sick cat from the poor part of town (“Cats have the soul of philosophers”); her war-loving husband climbs a dangerous cliff to prove he’s still got his zeal for meaningless actions that don’t result in political gains; their baby son is washed by a scullery maid who looks like she spends all day bathing in the light of Vermeer windows.
Most of the Musil novella is about the story-prone husband; by contrast, Gomes is more interested in the story-averse lady. Gomes creates audacious, busy networks of three, four, sometimes even five distinct planes of horizontal and vertical action: the lady arrives in her caravan, townsfolk surge in perfectly-spaced-out clusters of three, then a donkey wanders into the shot, unbalancing this highly choreographed milling-about. After many such scenes, the film builds to the effect of seeing Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-23), a lonely Vélasquez, and frothy Lubitsch comedies back-to-back. In all, the subject matter (backdoor desire), the immaculate compositions, and the lush treatment of silence and open space is basically the same: a will-they-won’t-they pas de deux between lovers who keep getting interrupted by only the pettiest political dramas, the loudest barn animals, the hottest cousins vying for the lady’s attention, the chaos outside the castle gates threatening to psychologically undo the bored rich folk. Ingrid Caven (of the legendary Fassbinder stock company) keeps drifting in and out of the film as a Brechtian chanteuse—history personified?—who sings of the rise and fall of the titled gentry in cryptic Latin, French, German, and Portuguese. She’s often hugging the castle walls where the Portuguese lady is holed up, with its washed out white-brick facade, with moss creeping in vines down this unforgettable symbol of rot.
In the end, sex and love triumphs over war. It’s a refreshing kind of fatalism: doom but no gloom. I kept being reminded of Robert Altman’s anti-Western masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), with its similarly rambling open spaces in which the poor and the wealthy slide in and out of focus and earshot. The only difference is that McCabe takes place in 1900, the start of the 20th century; it’s Altman’s necessarily cynical view that the would-be poets who might change the world will end up frozen by the snows of time, their loves abandoned in a haze of opium, capital in bloody triumph at the end of most days. Something stranger is happening in The Portuguese Woman, which ends as Lubitsch comedies of the 1930s once did: affirming sex over iron with a hauntingly elliptical image—a naked foot slipping inside the crimson canopies of a bed. It’s just as fatalist, but we are at the end of the 16th century, not the beginning. A new wave of energy is going to demolish these castle walls, which once seemed impenetrable. Going forward, we would do well to carry Gomes’s energy within us, her faith in depth, an attunement to pleasure.