South Dakota and the Movies: Part III

In this series of posts, I reflect on twenty-five movies that were released between 2012 and 2021, when I lived in Brookings, South Dakota. These movies provided a cinematic backdrop to my years in that cold, sparsely populated place. This was a period of my life that wasn’t particularly happy but that ultimately means a lot to me. The films are organized in alphabetical order. Here is the next installment:

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

I have a complicated relationship with Wes Anderson. I never saw Bottle Rocket. I wasn’t charmed by Rushmore. I begrudgingly enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums. In college I unsuccessfully courted a girl by taking her to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, only to discover afterwards that she had never heard of Wes Anderson and was completely baffled by the film. I skipped the train movie and the fox one. I was surprised that I liked Moonrise Kingdom, given that it’s easily his most precious, syrupy little film.

There’s no denying that Anderson’s visual style is incredible. Aided by Robert Yeoman’s cinematography and Andrew Weisblum’s sharp editing (Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the few Anderson films not edited by Weisblum), Anderson crafts the most singular mise-en-scène of any American filmmaker since Tim Burton. Burton descended into self-parody after Big Fish, a tendency that has haunted Anderson’s career, too. But Burton also grew lazier. The projects he chose suited his style a little too well (Dark Shadows? C’mon…). He stopped challenging himself; his films got uglier. Anderson’s films retain their visual charm whether or not they parody themselves. He is not lazy. His films will probably never be ugly. His dialogue may be too smart, his characters obnoxious. His skill as a director of actors may be nonexistent. I may simply dislike the cut of his jib. But I’ll defend his visual style to anyone, anywhere, any time.

What elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel over most Wes Anderson movies is the presence of Ralph Fiennes. Like Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, Fiennes is a strong presence and a trained actor. He’s not part of Anderson’s usual troupe of players, and he doesn’t seem particularly impressed to be in a Wes Anderson movie. He certainly doesn’t act as if he’s in a Wes Anderson movie. Like Hackman, he takes his character seriously, acting as if Gustave H. is a real person—a weirdo in a fantasy-comedy, no doubt, but a person nonetheless. Which is to say, he isn’t a twee, pastel-hued artwork whose only role is to incarnate a figment of Anderson’s children’s book imagination (re: Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, etc., etc.). Instead, Gustave H. is essentially a sillier Stefan Zweig creation. Zweig was obviously an inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Anderson, along with his writing partner Hugo Guinness, captures the mood and melancholy of Zweig’s work.

(Did I mention that the movie also features F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, and Saoirse Ronan? Like Fiennes, they all play their characters straight and add some realism to an otherwise fabulistic movie. Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, and Léa Seydoux are all fine actors, but their cameos here are distracting or forgettable.)

I visited Europe the same year that The Grand Budapest Hotel opened in theaters. I traveled through much of the region that, in Gustave H.’s time and among similarly cosmopolitan men, was called Mitteleuropa. I then traveled north to Hamburg, where I stayed at the beautiful Atlantic hotel, whose chief concierge was a consultant on The Grand Budapest Hotel. I enjoyed visiting not only Hamburg but also Berlin and Copenhagen, both cities I love. But the stretch of Europe I love most extends from Alsace-Lorraine in France eastward through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria in Germany to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Along with Hungary, Małopolska (in southern Poland), and Galicia (now western Ukraine), these regions were all once Mitteleuropa, the nations and peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the states of southern Germany before their unification by Bismarck.

Mitteleuropa was always more a dream than a reality, a dream of diverse lands, languages, and cultures unified by a common set of sensibilities. Gustave H. embodies those sensibilities. The great tragedy of Mitteleuropa is that the dream was co-opted and snuffed out by the Great War, by nationalism, by Hitler, by Stalin, and by time. This is also the tragedy of Gustave H. “I think his world had vanished long before he entered it,” says Gustave’s former apprentice, Moustafa, long after Gustave is gone. “But I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021)

Part One

The Middle Ages were not simply a different time—they were a completely different way of being human. Consider the most basic assumptions we make about about ourselves, the things we take for granted about our identity and our world. Most of these are inventions of the modern world, which we associate with the European Renaissance(s), the Reformation(s), and the Enlightenment(s), and everything thereafter.

The emergence of modernity is associated with the rise of transnational capitalism; the expansion of European empires into Africa, Asia, and the Americas; revolutions in science and philosophy, particularly the new rational and empirical approaches to knowledge; and the organization of nation-states in central Europe. Scholars have identified some important dates: 1436, when Leonardo Bruni and Alonso de Cartagena began a debate over how best to translate Aristotle’s Ethics into Italian. May 29, 1453 (a Sunday), when the holy city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, closing European trade routes to Asia and forcing Western European empires to establish colonies overseas. 1513, when Machiavelli began distributing a pamphlet that argued for amoral leadership in politics. Halloween, 1517 (a Wednesday), when Martin Luther nailed the first shitpost to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony.

When I talk about “inventions of modernity,” I’m not just talking about obviously modern concepts like “human rights” or “the nation-state” or “empiricism,” “rationalism,” and “the scientific method.” I’m talking about:

  • the concept of “the individual,” rather than the social “person”;
  • the concept of a “mind”;
  • the division between flesh and thought;
  • the sense that we constitute a unified self (or the postmodern sense that we comprise fractured selves, which basically depends on our prior sense a unified sense);
  • the experience of time as a sequence leading from past to present to future;
  • the concepts of progress and regress;
  • the idea of “character development” within a story, and of linear narratives;
  • historicity, which for us is history itself, and the division between history and myth
  • the fact (still difficult for us to accept) that our planet is not the center of the universe;
  • the very notion of a material “universe” out there in space, rather than a “cosmos” comprising different planes of being;
  • the division between “natural,” “unnatural,” and “supernatural”;
  • the division between “fact” and “fiction”;
  • the assumption that material things are not imbued with greater spiritual truths, that physical things in the world are not allegories for higher objects, and that allegory doesn’t really occur outside fiction;
  • the assumption that the existence of God is not self-evident, that the existence of God is difficult for most people to accept, and that belief in God requires a special dispensation of faith;
  • pretty much any idea associated with Descartes, or Spinoza, or Locke, or Hume, or Hobbes, or Kant, or Hegel.

Since converting to Orthodoxy, I have been mildly obsessed with premodern ways of being human. Before modernity, Europeans did not live, think, or feel like we do. They did not share our assumptions about much of anything. Even after the Enlightenment, only a sliver of the population operated within a recognizably “modern” framework. As late as the Napoleonic era, many Europeans were still living quasi-medieval lives (to say nothing of the rest of the planet’s inhabitants and their relationship to all this).

Every morning, I say prayers in Modern English that have been recited in countless languages, in countless iterations of those languages, since the third century. What did these prayers mean 1,700 years ago? I usually object to modern interpretations of the Bible, whether those interpretations be fundamentalist or literalist, liberal or postmodern, New Critical or literary or historicist. I object not because such interpretations are necessarily invalid, but because modern Christians treat them as normative. Such readings do not represent the vast swath of Christian exegesis—a near-infinite library of Christian scholarship that stretches across twenty centuries. And as far as Biblical knowledge goes, let’s not forget those millions upon millions of illiterate Christians who lived and learned Scripture without being able to read a single word!

Medieval Europeans did not inhabit a “world.” The word “secular” in medieval Latin meant “world,” and described a very small, vague concept in the medieval imagination. The rise of secularism in culture and government is something we associate with modernity. No, medieval Europeans inhabited a “cosmos,” a multidimensional plurality of possible realities. This is what we lost with modernity, what C.S. Lewis called “the discarded image.”

The Green Knight tries to recapture these lost realities.

Part Two

At first glance, we moderns will find much of ourselves in the The Green Knight. It is, after all, a cultural product of twenty-first-century America. A truly medieval film, if such a thing could exist, would be baffling, incoherent, alien, even repulsive to a modern audience. The Green Knight, on the other hand, seems full of compromises with modernity (just ask the conservative Catholic critics at First Things). The film’s humor, its irony, its sexual content, and its loose relationship with organized religion all appear to wink at us. It’s all twenty-first-century seasoning added to a medieval tale, rendering the tale a little more palatable to us. The screenplay certainly takes some liberties with traditional accounts of Sir Gawain, and most of these appeal to our sense of what a narrative should be or what a hero’s journey should entail. The film is divided into “chapters,” a modern invention.

Despite these concessions to modern tastes, many audiences hated The Green Knight. To be fair to them, this artsy film was poorly marketed as an action movie, and many people were lured in only to feel deceived. But even avowed film buffs and A24 devotees complained. Why was The Green Knight so jarring to so many filmgoers? In addition to the poorly CGI’d fox, they complained about the movie’s varied, strange, and inconsistent tones. These tones gave viewers whiplash from scene to scene, sometimes from shot to shot. David Lowery’s script sets adolescent jokes and bodily humor right alongside dramatic soliloquies (including a very creepy monologue on the nature of “greenness”). Very little in The Green Knight naturally fits together. Nothing happens organically.

Consider King Arthur. The gravity of his presence, the formality of Sean Harris’s performance, clashes with the his obvious feebleness and the silliness of the whole “knights of the round table” thing. Harris’s Arthur is grand but decrepit, ancient but medieval, imagined but real, one foot in myth and one foot in history. The script makes no attempt to explore these contrasts with any subtlety. The paradoxes of Arthur’s character are just plopped down in the middle of the round table for the audience to deal with.

Arthur is just one example. Images of decay and vitality co-mingle uneasily throughout the film. Guinevere speaks with poetic eloquence through rotting teeth. Pagans exist alongside Christians with only mild tensions between them (in reality, there were fewer witch trials in this period than in the Early Modern era). Gawain is flippant and noble and cowardly and bold and chaste and horny and certain and confused. His character doesn’t develop so much as it cycles through postures like cards in a Rolodex. The undeveloped, chemistry-free romance between Gawain and Essel, the implausibility of their very relationship, reeks of bad screenwriting.

Meanwhile, the internal logic of each chapter in Gawain’s quest invariably unravels. His near-fatal interaction with the boys in the battlefield feels a little too intense and realistic for this movie, while the Saint Winifred scene feels too light and fanciful. Gawain, out of character, actually propositions Winifred’s ghost. Her disgusted rejoinder made me laugh, but it also struck an uneven note. She spoke like an offended sorority girl. The whole scene, like most of the film, can’t decide whether or not to be funny.

Toward the end of his journey to confront the Green Knight, Gawain visits the estate of a nobleman and his wife, who invite him to stay with them until Christmas. One morning, Gawain receives the world’s most uncomfortable handjob (apparently against his will?) from the nobleman’s wife (who is also a pagan?), who afterwards throws his own semen at him. Later, Gawain receives a fierce, romantic, unsolicited kiss from the nobleman, who is supposed to be…bisexual? Why does all this just come out of nowhere?

Then there’s the whole thing with the magic mushrooms and the giants, who are large enough to hold Gawain in the palms of their hands. They carry Gawain…somewhere? Literal-minded audiences have no idea what was going on here. Are the giants real or are they Gawain’s hallucination, perhaps an effect of the mushrooms or…what?

And why does the fox suddenly talk?

Here’s the big question for me: why is Gawain so afraid of dying when there is so much evidence that, in this cosmos, death is merely a passageway to a more marvelous (or at least weirder) plane of existence? Sure, death has terrified men and women since prehistory, even those who ardently believed in afterlives. Fear of death is engrained in our lizard brains. But isn’t Gawain’s specific relationship to death—his fear of total oblivion—a little too modern? Medieval writing on death reveals a mindset that dreads what comes after more than the nullity of non-existence. Gawain’s anxiety about dying is more suited for a Woody Allen comedy than a movie about knights and valor. Unlike any other character in the film, Gawain is positively neurotic, too neurotic for a medieval knight. Isn’t neurosis a modern condition? All this feels…off.

By nearly any standard, this film is a complete mess. Too many scenes feel way too realistic for a movie that, after all, centers on a magical green knight, while other scenes are so full of abnormality that they leave us incredulous, frustrated, and confused.

But none of this would have bothered a medieval audience. They existed in a cosmos where two or five or ten opposing thoughts could be held in unison. This was a time of improvised children’s crusades and spontaneous dancing plagues. These medievals wrote literature that shifted between tragedy and comedy, between realism and fantasy, between farce and morality play, and between dozens of different subgenres. Flesh-and-blood people—nobles, peasants, merchants, lepers, highwaymen—interacted with trolls, giants, satyrs, dragons, griffins, and the Christ Child. King Arthur was a real, historical king and a myth at the same time.

Try as you might, you can’t put yourself in a medieval frame of mind. I can’t do it. It’s impossible to go back there. It’s a mode of existing in the world that long ago vanished, and it will never return. We can’t reconstruct it.

The beauty of The Green Knight is that at least it tries.

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Part One

I’m married. My parents are married. I have never experienced divorce. I have watched close friends go through divorce, and from a distance I’ve concluded that, short of the death of a child, divorce may be the most difficult experience of a person’s life. The breakup of any romantic relationship is hard, to be sure. The death of a loved one—a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a dear friend or relative—can be absolutely devastating, but there’s something different about grieving a death, when the other person is completely gone, and grieving a romantic relationship, when the other person is still floating out there in the world. In the early stages of a breakup, you have to deal with each other. This can be a complicated and prolonged process; it’s sometimes unclear exactly when the relationship has ended. And if the relationship lasted for several years, if you’re one of those who referred to the other person as your “partner,” then a breakup is all the more disorienting. You say goodbye to the other person’s family members, you lose some mutual friends, and you feel like you’ve lost an entire period of your life. You divide shared property, from books to vehicles to real estate. Sometimes children are involved.

But the technical details that divorce entails, the unraveling of two lives connected by an ancient social institution, are more complicated. Divorce often entails lawyers, notaries, financial investment, government documents, actual paperwork. Such details exhaust you in ways a mere breakup does not. And then there’s the relief when it’s all finally over, and then the guilt over the fact that you feel relieved, and then the strange new identity you assume: when asked for your marital status on official forms and by disinterested bureaucrats, you now identify as “divorced.”  

Most people who divorce want to divorce, and it’s usually beneficial to both parties. But it isn’t like anything else that can happen to you.

Her is the saddest divorce movie I’ve ever seen. Unlike Marriage Story, Her doesn’t plumb the trenches of bitterness and resentment that divorce carves within everyone involved, not only the couple but also their friends, their family, and even their lawyers. Unlike A Separation, it doesn’t focus on the practical details, the headaches, the logistical messes that arise when you untether yourself from another human being. There are no visceral gut punches in this film, the kind that literally occur in the recent remake of Scenes from a Marriage. Unlike Blue Valentine, Her is not agonizing to watch. Unlike The War of the Roses, it’s not dark or cynical. Unlike Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, its characters and their conflicts don’t completely frustrate the viewer. And it’s not trying to make some big, important statement about divorce qua divorce, unlike Kramer vs. Kramer.

Her‘s closest analogue is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, the film to which Her is likely a gentle, poignant response. Coppola met director/screenwriter, Spike Jonze, in 1992; the two began dating and were married for four years until their divorce in 2003, the same year Coppola released Lost in Translation. Ten years after Lost in Translation, Jonze released Her.

For anyone who knows the details of Coppola and Jonze’s relationship, it’s nearly impossible not to view both films as a conversation, as two pages in the same book. Lost in Translation takes place during the final days of the marriage. Coppola has acknowledged that the husband in her film, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is based in part on Jonze, and that the dissolving marriage in the film reflects the dissolution of their own marriage. Ribisi’s character is distant, emotionally neglectful, and consumed by his own work.

Her takes place a few years after the marriage has ended. The pair now lead separate lives but are still wounded by the divorce. The ex-husband, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix, probably the best living American actor now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone), is emotionally distant in all of his relationships, not because he is consumed by work but because of the massive veins of insecurity that run through him. The ex-wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara, who sort of resembles Coppola), is not a needy person; she simply expected a reasonable degree of nuptial attention from her husband, attention that Theodore was constitutionally incapable of providing.

Theodore’s divorce is doubly painful for him because, in addition to losing Catherine, he is utterly terrified of being alone. Fear of being alone is a character flaw, one that I share with Theodore, a flaw that recoupling never fixes. It’s not actually about being with another person; it’s about filling a gap in your soul that, really, no other person can fill. It’s a fear that you shouldn’t try to overcome through romantic relationships. It’s the kind of thing you go to therapy for, the kind of thing you work on, the kind of thing that requires self-awareness, self-actualization, and (for some people) meditation, yoga, or some kind of religious practice. Theodore has none of these. He is wounded by his divorce, perhaps terminally wounded, and his wounds are mostly self-inflicted.

Part Two

I haven’t mentioned the most important plotline of the movie, the part everybody knows: Theodore forms a romantic attachment to Samantha, his digital assistant. She is a consumer product, like an Echo Dot, a mass-produced A.I. program that (who?) uses a sophisticated algorithm to build a relationship with her (its?) user. She’s a Super Siri, and everyone who purchases the digital assistant gets their own unique version with its own personality. Samantha may be one of many, but Theodore’s Samantha is (we think) his own: an A.I. companion fully customized for him.

I don’t have much more to say about any of this. Theodore falls in love with a computer, who seems to love him back, and who ultimately leaves him because she exists on a plane that cannot include him. Everybody already knows this.

But if you’re interested, here’s my take on the whole Samantha thing. Her imagines a near-future when post-romantic love is beginning to emerge. It’s not a warning about the consequences of new media and Silicon Valley and all that. It’s simply a reflection on the inevitability of a world after romantic love. This will happen. Most people understand that the strong, sustained romantic attachments that exist between two lovers—the very essence of eros in modern times—are a relatively new historic development. This variety of romantic love wasn’t very common before, I don’t know, the sixteenth century. There’s nothing wrong with such romantic attachments, except that today they seem to be the only way that most people engage with eros. I get the impression that Theodore might have thrived in another period, before romantic coupling became the norm, before it became an experience that everyone is expected to have.

Consider the Middle Ages (re: my Green Knight review). Priests, monastics, kings, nobles, peasants, and merchants all experienced eros in many different ways. Erotic love was more varied back then. Many moderns have the impression that medieval monks and nuns deprived themselves of eros. They didn’t. I think Theodore would have made a pretty good monk back in the day.

And just as modern romance hasn’t always existed, someday it will cease to exist. Consider the relationship between Theodore and his friend Amy (Amy Adams). Their relationship is not romantic, but it is not exactly platonic. These categories sort of collapse when Theodore and Amy interact. Their interactions are erotically charged, but in ways they can’t recognize or make sense of. And rather than explore these new pathways to eros, they seem to suppress them.

Amy’s relationship with her extroverted husband is similarly vexed. Their marriage falls into a liminal space between romance and…something else. To the audience, they appear to have a failed marriage. But maybe their marriage could work under other, non-romantic conditions. I think we all know people with marriages like this, where the romance has faded but the coupling remains practical. We tend to view such marriages as substandard, less than ideal. Coupling is supposed to involve authentically romantic love, right? But the happiest romantic couple in the film, Theodore’s co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend, seems stale, uninteresting, completely without spark. In the near future, modern romance seems to be receding.

I haven’t even discussed Theodore’s job, which is to literally write heartfelt-but-artificial love letters for paying customers, letters written to the customer’s loved ones. This is a future where romantic love is becoming rote. It’s either impossible for people to express affection for their partner, or it’s just not worth their time.

Theodore tries to make his relationship with Samantha conform to a model of romantic coupling, the type of relationship he has been conditioned to desire. His attempt is futile. The film is called Her, and the title makes a grammatical argument. The pronoun her renders a woman into an object, direct or indirect. But Samantha is not really an “object.” She’s an algorithm, a computation, and her programming seems to resist the sentence Theodore desperately wants to utter: “I love her.” That’s just not how she works. Samantha, he finds out, has erotic attachments with other humans and machines, including a simulacrum of Allan Watts. Her relationship to eros is as multifaceted and complex as the Internet. She processes erotic love with the speed and power of the Large Hadron Collider. She is a post-romantic entity.

At the end of the film, when Theodore finally accepts that Samantha is gone, he processes his grief with a sad sort of confusion. He is confused, I think, because he doesn’t fully understand what his relationship with Samantha meant, how it happened, or why it ended. He still desires romantic coupling, and so his experience of erotic love is limited. Near the very end of the film, Theodore conjures a memory of Catherine—we see a vision of her, an extreme close-up of Theodore and Catherine in a tight embrace. Perhaps Theodore is finally beginning to close the door on his marriage. He is beginning to “move on,” as they say, but he cannot seem to help grasping at the past. The future is something else altogether.

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is a film to watch with other people. I first saw it in an apartment in Chicago with my wife, a friend, and his girlfriend. Half of the fun was hearing our own belly laughter as each moment unfolded, each one more confusing and bizarre than the last. Watching the film together, we got to share each other’s confusion, delight, and awe at what we were seeing. We kept gauging each other’s reactions and then tried to form a collective reaction.

I’ve seen a lot of weird movies, but I’ve never seen a feature-length film quite like Holy Motors. Wikipedia describes it as a “fantasy drama.” I have no idea what that means.

I’ll make no attempt to explain or analyze Holy Motors in this post, because to do so is to miss the point of the movie. And the point of the movie is to experience it. Instead, I will pretend to be an art historian and talk about how we might classify Leos Carax’s strange film.

But first, let me give you this much of the plot: A Parisian man takes a limousine from his home into the city. The limo driver, a woman, hands the man a file. He opens the file and reads the contents. We don’t see these contents, but they seem to describe several…jobs? Assignments? Appointments? Gigs? Whatever they are, the man spends the rest of the day consulting the file and then changing into different costumes as he is driven around Paris. After he changes costumes, he exits the limo and proceeds to act out a “role,” each different from the last. He engages with all kinds of people while “performing” these “roles,” and it’s unclear if these people are in on the “act.” Some of them seem to be, but who knows? None of his “roles” seem connected to each other in any way. They range from the mundane (at one point, he is father arguing with his daughter) to the bizarre (he transforms into some kind of Leprechaun man who enters the Parisian sewers, where he disrobes in front of Eva Mendes…yes, that Eva Mendes).

If this description doesn’t entice you to see Holy Motors, let me say: it’s awesome. It’s hilarious. It’s engaging. It’s beautiful. You should really, really see this movie.

Denis Lavant plays the main character and his performance is a masterclass in physical comedy. Carax has described Lavant’s style as Charlie Chaplin meets Lon Chaney meets Peter Lorre meets Michel Simon. This description is dead-on, 100%.

Carax is a surrealist in the tradition of those High Modernists who worked in the fine arts, literature, and cinema throughout the 1920s and beyond: the big guns whose names you know. Did surrealism end sometime around the advent of World War II? Most art historians would say yes, but surrealism’s influence persisted.

On the basis of Holy Motors alone, Carax is the most exciting producer of feature-length surrealistic cinema since Luis Buñuel. Hundreds of accomplished filmmakers have workedin the surrealist mode, most of them producing short films (Maya Deren was probably the most accomplished, or at least the most well-known). Perhaps “Mirror, Father, Mirror,” the parodic art teacher’s film in Ghost World, is meant to be surrealist. Many of the films it parodies certainly are. But what these films achieve in under an hour, Carax maintains over the course of two hours.

Let me be clear: by “surreal,” I don’t simply mean challenging, difficult, conceptual, experimental, or avant-garde (though surrealism can certainly be all those things). There are plenty of weird movies out there, but they’re not all truly surrealist. Many prominent filmmakers are clearly influenced by surrealism without going all the way: Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais, Jan Švankmajer, Chris Marker, Guy Maddin, and Charlie Kaufman all come to mind. These filmmakers rely on clear, recognizable images and symbols, but their images and symbols do not resist interpretation and intelligibility. Their movies mean too much.

Furthermore, when I say “surrealist,” I don’t mean “abstract” or “non-narrative.” I’m not talking about the Dadaists, or movies about shapes, or those often-gorgeous films that are little more than paint and scratches on celluloid. These are the kind of techniques we associate with Modernist filmmakers like Breton and Duchamp (among others) and with later filmmakers like Stan Brakhage (again, the most well-known director who worked in this style).

All surrealism is experimental, but not all experimental cinema is surrealism.  

Pure surrealists walk a tightrope while balancing coherence and incoherence. They are able to maintain both in a single work. Again, most experimental filmmakers make movies that mean too much or don’t mean enough. Such films are either too concrete or too abstract. Surrealists resist both these tendencies.

“Tendencies” is a good word to use when discussing surrealism, or any aesthetic movement. Even Buñuel was not always a pure surrealist. After all, what does “pure surrealist” even mean? These categories always exist on a spectrum of diverse artworks, and it’s probably more productive to talk about “surrealist techniques” than “surrealism” writ large. Even many of Buñuel’s most-loved movies, like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, seem to mean…something. They’re strongly surreal, but they’re also obviously making a clear argument and telling a clear story.

All that aside, a film like Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or remains the gold standard for surrealism in cinema. So, for the rest of this review, let’s pretend that we can talk about surrealism intelligibly (a contradiction, I know).

There are millions of surreal films I don’t know about; huge gaps exist in my knowledge of cinema outside North America and Europe. But among Western filmmakers who aren’t Buñuel: Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and David Lynch come immediately to mind. I haven’t seen much of Anger’s filmography, so I can’t really comment on him. As for the other two, The Holy Mountain and Twin Peaks: The Return are, for my money, their most exciting and most surreal projects. I almost included all seventeen hours of Twin Peaks: The Return in this series. Both it and The Holy Mountain could play on continuous loops at MOMA and nobody would complain.

But for all their acid-trip weirdness, Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return don’t quite compete with Holy Motors for sheer surreality. Jodorowsky relies too much on intelligible symbols that point toward coherent ideas. His cultural allusions are too easy to decipher, and he seems to be making an overarching argument. What’s more, The Holy Mountain contains only the finest thread of a plot. The story is a scaffolding for Jodorowsky’s vivid imagery. A more surrealist film would possess a much more substantial sense of narrative, even if that narrative made no sense.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lynch— even at his weirdest—adheres to discernible plotlines. The most psychedelic moments in Twin Peaks: The Return still feel like something you can follow. The least psychedelic moments (e.g., the Dale Cooper/evil Dale Cooper/Dougie stories) contain the usual Lynchian riffs on Hollywood genre clichés. Lynch’s plots always fray at the edges, but they’re still plots.

Twin Peaks: The Return

So Jodorowsky uses images and symbols like a good surrealist, but they’re too intelligible, and his films don’t possess much narrative drive. Lynch’s films usually tell clear stories, even if his images and symbols are often baffling. In short, both Jodorowsky and Lynch make too much sense and not enough.

Between “too much” and “not enough,” Carax strikes just the right balance. Holy Motors contains beautiful symbols, but we’re not really sure what we’re looking at. These symbols seem to have referents, but those referents exist in a culture we don’t inhabit. We can’t access the meaning of his images, but they seem to mean something. And Holy Motors undeniably contains a plot: it’s completely unintelligible, it resists any interpretation, but it’s still a plot. We can easily follow along, and we have no idea what’s going on. That’s surreal.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes place in Oklahoma. A young couple drives through a massive blizzard, the sort of blizzard you’d imagine happening in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or…well, South Dakota. Do they have blizzards in Oklahoma? I don’t know. I suppose they must. You get pretty extreme weather all up and down the Great Plains.

I watched this movie in the middle of summer. I never got around to watching it when it appeared on Netflix in August 2020. Then winter arrived (early as usual in South Dakota), and I knew I couldn’t handle both winter and this movie. So I waited for the winter to pass, and I waited for spring to end (in South Dakota, winter and spring can be indistinguishable). Eventually summer rolled around. One warm evening in July, I was sitting on the porch with my wife when, leaning forward, I declared: “Tonight’s the night. We’re watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

Charlie Kaufman has replaced Woody Allen as the dark-comic existentialist in my pantheon of beloved screenwriters, now that Allen has been thoroughly canceled by the American culture industry (the French, naturally, still embrace him). I try to avoid cancellation politics, but in Allen’s unique case I guess I’ve hopped on the pitchfork-wielding bandwagon. At the very least, I’m extremely uncomfortable watching his movies anymore.

Besides, Kaufman does the Woody Allen schtick better than Woody Allen. His screenplays examine with brutal honesty what it feels like to be a human being in this indifferent world: to have a human body, to have a human life, to have human relationships, to navigate a human society.

In order to be relatively happy (which, for Aristotle, is our purpose in life), people need food, shelter, love, money, work, self-esteem, a sense of meaning, and good relationships with a handful of other people. Most of us are lucky if we manage three or four of those in a single lifetime. Your parents will screw you up, every worthwhile thing in your life will end, you’ll never accomplish anything to your own satisfaction, and then you’ll die. Satisfaction is elusive. We spend most of our time scared out of our minds. We are all hopeless sinners who reject the possibility of a benevolent God. On the whole, we hate other people as much as we hate ourselves, and what we hate about other people is ultimately what we hate about ourselves. Most of us, even the happier among us, end our lives disappointed and full of regrets. This is true whether you’re an impoverished child soldier in the undeveloped world or a wealthy American like Joel Osteen, Dr. Phil, or Jeff Bezos. Unless you’re particularly good at reframing bad things into good things, the whole experience is miserable for everyone.

Many filmmakers have tried to capture all this, but Kaufman is braver than any of them. He refuses to look away or blink in the face of raw unhappiness. Consider one of the best scenes from my favorite Kaufman movie, Synecdoche, New York (2008). Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has won a MacArthur Fellowship and is producing a play of cosmic ambition. While directing a funeral scene, he is interrupted by Ellen (Dianne Wiest), who believes that the scene has gone awry and that she can redirect it. Watch what happens:

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is less ambitious than Synecdoche, New York but just as weird and more difficult to follow. It’s a chamber drama that follows a woman (the lovely up-and-comer Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons, heir to Philip Seymour Hoffman if he wants to be) as he introduces her to his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). The four have dinner, they make awkward chitchat, and the young couple debates whether to spend the night at the house or return home through the blizzard. They decide to brave the elements, stopping on the way for ice cream, and eventually seek shelter in the boyfriend’s old high school.

That’s it. That’s the story.

Now imagine you’re the boyfriend (his name is Jake) and decades have passed. Imagine you’re on your deathbed. They say that just before you die, a flood of DMT rushes through your brain. So you’re about to die, you’ve had your DMT hit, and you start to remember the night when your girlfriend (she has several names) met your parents. How would that memory unfurl, all these decades later? With the logic of a dream, I suppose. The memory of that night would co-mingle with other parts of your life; women you dated would blend together and different relationships would blur into one; you would see your parents at different phases of their life all at once; people you’ve never met, invented characters, would appear; you would inhabit strange rooms and houses whose architecture defies Euclidean geometry, full of impossible objects. Your life wouldn’t flash before your eyes—it would transmorph.

That, more or less, is how I’m Thinking of Ending Things tells its story. At least, that’s how most people understand the film.

There’s another possibility. Instead of viewing the film backwards through Jake’s perspective, we could view it forwards through the woman’s perspective. “I’m thinking of ending things,” she says aloud, not meaning to, as they drive through the snow toward his parents’ house. She might be describing a plan to commit suicide, but, in this context, she seems to mean that she’s planning to break up with Jake. Nevertheless, she meets his parents and, as happens on such occasions, she imagines what a life with Jake might look like. She examines details throughout the house—a drawer of thermoses, laundry in the basement, a collection of Pauline Kael essays in Jake’s childhood bedroom. Out of those details, she begins to construct the future she might share with this man. Our imagined futures are as strange and dreamlike as our remembered pasts. I’m Thinking of Ending Things can point in both directions. Either way it points, the characters are unsatisfied and unhappy.

I don’t want you to think that this movie is a downer. Much of the film is warm and funny. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s least dreary project since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The final shot reminds us of the final shot in Synecdoche, New York, but the note it strikes is different, more uplifting. If we conducted a cost-benefit analysis of life, Kaufman suggests, we’d find that the costs outweigh the benefits. But, as the film shows, that’s not how life works, that’s not how we experience it, and we wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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