South Dakota and the Movies: Part IV

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 nevertheless shaped who I am today. The films are organized in alphabetical order. Here is the next installment:

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers, 2013)

Brandon, Iowa, near the Cedar Valley Nature Trail (photograph by Seth S.)

Prologue: Some Reflections on Decay, of Varieties both Cultural and Spiritual, as Happens to Communities and to Persons

My wife and I saw Inside Llewyn Davis at the old Promenade Theater in Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City—best known for the Sam Elliott-approved sarsaparilla in The Big Lebowski—is very much a Missouri river town, comparable to Council Bluffs (an hour or two downriver). Its reputation in Iowa is similar to Council Bluff’s or even Waterloo’s. These aren’t the sort of places that Iowans consider “nice” or “safe” (which is code: Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and Waterloo acquired significant Black populations after the Great Migrations). They are predominantly working-class cities, industrial towns infused with metallic odors from factories and processing plants. These communities once housed massive stockyards. They have higher crime rates than the rest of the state.

And so, to Iowa’s Wonder-Bread-white natives and the state’s few tourists, towns like Sioux City aren’t as charming as the Dutch enclaves of Pella and Orange City; the energetic college towns of Ames and Iowa City; the historical Mississippi river towns of Dubuque and Davenport; the quaintly German Amana Colonies; Scandinavian Decorah of the Driftless Area; or funky Fairfield with its adjacent Vedic City (home of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendentalist university). Even Cedar Rapids, another industrial city, seems downright hip by comparison: the 500-year flood of 2008 wiped out the Czech Village, allowing for all kinds of New Urbanist gentrification to rise from the waters (the neighborhood is now called “New Bohemia,” “NewBo” for short—can’t make this up).

But Sioux City has tried to change its fortunes. Over the past three decades, many Great Plains cities (Fargo, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Lincoln, Kansas City, Lawrence, Wichita, Topeka, Tulsa) rebuilt their downtowns and enticed Richard Florida’s creative-class types to visit, maybe even move there. Smaller, more isolated prairie towns have followed suit. Sioux City is trying to revitalize itself into a regional hub, although its small population limits its potential (Sioux City is home to 85,797 residents; metro area ~150,000). The Promenade Theater aspires to be an arthouse cinema, situated within walking distance of the only Thai restaurant within a hundred miles. But it’s also across the street from a loud sports bar featuring like 500 beers on tap.

We saw Inside Llewyn Davis back-to-back with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a movie about the unusual types of people who live not in “small rural communities” but in those tiny, nearly-empty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlets whose residents number in the low three digits. Nebraska was shot primarily in small northeastern Nebraska towns, most within a stone’s throw of Sioux City. Although Bruce Dern’s lead performance is truly impressive, I didn’t much care for Bob Nelson’s Oscar-nominated script. Nelson was born in Yankton, South Dakota (the old territorial capital), but he spent most of his life in Seattle, where he had a career in sketch comedy. In short, Nelson probably didn’t spend a ton of time around the sort of people and places he portrays in Nebraska.

But before you accuse me of reverse-elitism, let me give Nelson the benefit of the doubt: he may be a Northwesterner now, but I’m sure, through his Yankton connections, he has witnessed the world of Nebraska and met the people who live in the most rural pockets of the Great Plains. It’s obvious from his script that he loves these people, albeit from a distance. And so he affectionately tries to stretch these characters into a family of eccentric Chekhovians. The problem with this approach is that, unlike a great Chekhov play, films like Nebraska aren’t good comedies of manners. The “manners” at stake in Nebraska are utterly foreign to most movie audiences.

Furthermore, characters like Woody, Nebraska’s grizzled protagonist (who lives only a few degrees from Ted Kaczynski-style isolation), don’t generate much empathy from multiplex audiences. Such characters are too alien, too far removed from American civilization. This is something David Lynch understood in his Iowa film, The Straight Story, and so he just leaned into the weirdness. And scripts like Nelson’s don’t do much to widen their audience’s imagination to include deep-rural America. Instead, Nelson transforms his audience—i.e., the (mostly) white folks in large metro areas or university towns who actively seek out Awards Season fare like Nebraska—into Victorian ethnographers, gawkers who enjoy visiting faraway colonies to leer at the dancing natives.

Take Woody (Dern) for instance. He is a wheezing, dead-eyed alcoholic who lives in Billings, Montana, and who recently won a million-dollar sweepstakes. His family insists that he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but the possibility looms over the film. Unfortunately, Dern’s performance (which is convincing) and Nelson’s writing exhaust whatever sympathy the audience can muster for Woody’s lonesome condition or for his compromised mental state. Woody is simply too self-absorbed and too cruel for anyone but his children to tolerate. As we spend time with him, we realize that these traits are not the product of old age; Woody has probably always been like this, and now he is too old to change.

So the audience isn’t here to sympathize with Woody or to witness some modicum of “growth” on his part. They are only here to watch his life unravel, to watch his body and mind decay, just like all the hamlets and gas-station towns of his homeland have decayed.

Nebraska

As his son (Will Forte) points out toward the end of the film, Woody is not senile, he’s just stubborn (a distinction that reveals more than a little denial on the son’s part). Woody clearly understands that he has won a million dollars and that, to get the money, he must travel 850 miles of Interstate from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. He makes a few aborted attempts to leave Billings (the police discover him walking to Lincoln along the shoulder of the Interstate), but he is simply too incapacitated and too unpredictable to get anywhere on his own. And so his son (the film’s sadsack “straight guy”) arrives to help his father make the thirteen-hour car ride to Lincoln. They travel by way of Rapid City, South Dakota (Mount Rushmore doesn’t impress Woody, nor should it) and eventually reach the fictional village of Hawthorne, Nebraska, a grease smear on the map and also Woody’s hometown, the place where he raised his family.

We meet a whole cadre of weirdos in Hawthorne, including the film’s most exaggerated character, Kate (June Squibb), Woody’s estranged and eccentric wife. Unlike most residents of these tiny communities, Kate has not let decades of rural disintegration beat her into stoic submission. She doesn’t sit alone in her living room, drinking daytime booze and watching daytime television via antennae while communicating to friends and family through grunted monosyllables and pro-Trump memes (yes, they do have smartphones in the hinterlands). Kate never became one of those human monuments to malaise, frozen in the wake of post-industrial agriculture. Instead, she went crazy. She internalized the death of her community and of her culture by transmogrifying into what my people call “a screaming squirrel.” Kate is brash, lewd, and viciously jocular amid the decay that surrounds her. She’s stuck in quicksand and she’s laughing the whole way down. In the scene that nearly won Squibb an Oscar, Kate wonders aimlessly through a country graveyard, identifying long-dead relatives and explaining which of the deceased women were “sluts.” In the scene’s triumphant punchline, Kate exposes her genitals to the tombstone of an ex-suitor, exclaiming, “See what you could have had, Keith, if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time!” The Academy gave a standing ovation.

Nebraska is supposed to be a “dark comedy.” If you didn’t realize that going in, then you will be cheerfully reminded in every scene by the sheer meanness of the characters and by the film’s dreary black-and-white cinematography. What was the point of shooting in black and white? It doesn’t add much dimension, style, or thematic depth to the film (compare this to David Fincher’s Mank, reviewed below). Why couldn’t this movie have been shot in color? Perhaps northeast Nebraska is a little too green, its cornfields and creekbanks a little too pretty, for the darkly comic landscapes Payne was trying to capture. The whole thing reeks of “world-building,” which should be unnecessary: the film is already set in an ostensibly real place in the world. Again, I refer you to The Straight Story for an example of how to do this correctly.

I loved Payne’s Election (1999) as much as everyone else did. His next film, About Schmidt (2002), is one of my favorite movies, featuring Jack Nicholson’s last great performance. Nicholson plays one of those Midwestern businessmen who populated my childhood. Schmidt (I knew a thousand people named “Schmidt” growing up, but not a single “Woody”) is a modest, shy, Omaha-based actuary who has been forced into retirement by young, white collar urbanites, those twentysomethings who, fancy degrees in tow, migrated to Omaha and took over the city’s business community. Maybe it’s the cheap real estate, maybe it’s the proximity to Warren Buffett: whatever the reason, they arrived. The Young Turks view Schmidt as a dinosaur, and he knows that they view him as a dinosaur, and so he views himself as a dinosaur. From this premise, Payne tells a lovely little story, imbued with sweet but honest reflections on aging and the loss of masculinity.

Here’s the thing: About Schmidt takes place in Omaha and Denver, two communities Payne seems to understand. Payne is from Omaha (metro population ~1 million) and neither he nor the Seattlite Nelson possess the capacity to write well about the tinier specks on the map, towns like the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska. Even I don’t have the capacity to write about such places, and my hometown boasts a mere 5,000 residents.

Whether we want to admit it or not, unless you’re Ibsen or Chekhov or Samuel Beckett, some people and some places just aren’t worth writing about.

My wife and I recently visited Brandon, Iowa (population 341), to trek the nearby Cedar Valley Nature Trail. Maybe it was the overcast sky and the threat of oncoming thunderstorms (tornadoes struck later that evening), or maybe it was the creepy man sitting alone in his 1978 Buick LeSabre on the side of the trail, but we were both pretty unnerved by Brandon: its Chernobyl-like skyline of rusted grain elevators, its long-abandoned storefronts, and its crumbling roads. The most lively spot in town was the sewage plant, which hummed an electric buzz out near the train tracks. Despite Nelson and Payne’s best efforts in Nebraska, these places have all the dramatic dimensions of a corpse.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Part One

Inside Llewyn Davis portrays the initial stages of existential decay, the sort of decay that is already well-advanced and metastasizing in Nebraska. This early-onset decay is occurring in the person of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and is set against the flowering Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. Llewyn’s crisis begins in the Village’s music venues, which are full of nice, earnest people who enjoy each other’s company, their scene, and their music. Llewyn, meanwhile, has grown disillusioned with the whole milieu. This gulf between Llewyn and everyone around him provides a productive tonal contrast that is totally absent in Nebraska, a film in which everyone is either sad or a freak.

When we meet Llewyn, he is an increasingly bitter, increasingly misanthropic, and increasingly lazy musician living in a lively neighborhood at an interesting time. We get the sense that Llewyn used to derive a lot of meaning out of his art and his relationships in the Village, but that this sense of meaning is slowly evaporating. His fading ambitions and his disintegrating relationships are more tragic than Woody’s apathy in Nebraska, an apathy which long ago ossified into a nearly inhuman lack of connection to the world outside his trailer. Woody’s crisis is long over before Nebraska even gets started, and so the entire film lacks necessary tension and characterization.

Like I said, setting matters. The liveliness of Greenwich Village offsets Llewyn’s personal crises. Some readers might object that Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t paint an especially rosy picture of the Village in the 1960s. Fair enough. The film’s accomplished cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, does gravitate toward muted tones, dreary blues and greens, reflecting both the chill of New York City in winter and Llewyn’s frosty spiritual condition. We are definitely watching this film through Llewyn’s eyes, and most audiences will not remember Inside Llewyn Davis as an especially “colorful” movie. But Delbonnel, together with the film’s art director and costume designer, uses a varied palette: pink and orange pop out amid the bleak Village winter. The darkly lit interiors of the Gaslight Cafe immerse the viewers in rich, relaxing hues of red and brown. Visually, this is all far more dynamic than Nebraska’s stark blacks and whites.

So Llewyn is an unhappy man who is situated not among losers but among winners. These supporting characters seem to be in the right place at the right time, the kind of people who have nothing but happy lives ahead of them. Not every character in the film will achieve fame and fortune, but they might enjoy relative success in the folk scene and then go on to have fulfilling careers, loving families, and fond memories of their nights in the Village. Such characters are cheerfully embodied in the performances of Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, and all the other actor-musicians who make cameos at the Gaslight Cafe. Each one of these characters has made compromises with reality: Timberlake and Driver cheerfully record a cheesy pop song about space travel in exchange for an album credit, some studio time, and a little extra cash. Sands’ character has joined the military to add a some discipline and security to his burgeoning music career. These are not compromises Llewyn seems willing to make, at least not until the very end, when it may be too late.

Llewyn must have once imagined himself as among but not of these people, as someone with a destiny that would transcend Greenwich Village. Maybe he would transcend folk music altogether and become a recognized artist, someone the Columbia professors whose cat he babysits would take seriously. Maybe Robert Zimmerman would have traveled from Minnesota to the Village only to discover that his space was occupied by Llewyn.

But by the film’s opening scenes, something has changed, something Llewyn doesn’t understand or even notice. He is still a talented guitarist and performer, but he is becoming less patient with the scene, more irritable toward his fellow musicians. His gigs and studio sessions are growing fewer and farther between. His charisma has diminished. He needs money. In the middle of winter in New York City, he doesn’t have a reliable place to sleep.

Above all, Llewyn struggles to find a competent record producer and a promoter who will give his music the publicity it deserves. This leads to the film’s centerpiece: Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago to meet with the Windy City’s top producer of folk records, Bud Grossman. Naturally, Llewyn doesn’t own a car, so he catches a ride with Johnny Five, a silent greaser-poet, and Ronald Turner (John Goodman), a blues aficionado and heroin addict. Roland is the sort of music critic we’ve all encountered, a complete slob whose enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of a specific genre renders him dismissive of anything outside his niche. He especially despises contemporary folk music and treats Llewyn with disdain. Nevertheless, in between fast-food dinners and strung-out pitstops at filthy roadside bathrooms (he needs to shoot up somewhere), Roland just won’t shut up.

I will unabashedly sing the praises of Oscar Isaac until the eschaton, but John Goodman gives the best performance in this film. Roland is a troll-man worthy of Ibsen: he is a vortex of insecurity, resentment, hostility, and unfettered appetites. He is a frightening character, frightening to the audience but especially to Llewyn, because Roland offers Llewyn a depressing vision of the future. Llewyn cannot help but wonder: will I become like Roland, maybe twenty years down the line? We can easily imagine Llewyn in 1981, in the backseat during a road trip with younger musicians, perhaps spike-haired new-wavers, spewing spit as he opines about the virtues of ‘60s folk, all while his fellow travelers begrudgingly tolerate (or just ignore) his ranting.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Part Two

I am, like most people, terrified of failure—not just failure in the short- or medium-term, not just failure to find a job or make my marriage work, but the kind of existential failure that undermines your chances of success and happiness for your entire life. Such failure is one of the Coen Brothers’ great themes, a theme they have cultivated as early as Miller’s Crossing. The way I see it, you can more or less divide the Coens’ filmography into two halves, into two moral arcs: perhaps we call them “Films of Innocence” and “Films of Experience.” The first deal with the nature of perfect success. The second deal with the nature of absolute failure.

In their most beloved and upbeat films (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the Coens develop offbeat characters—some of them are downright idiots—who manage to achieve genuine happiness and success on their own (often bizarre) terms. These characters inhabit situations and places that most respectable citizens would avoid (e.g., an Arizona trailer park; a bankrupt manufacturing company; rural Minnesota in winter; a Los Angeles bowling alley one year before the riots; a chain gang in Depression-era Mississippi). The protagonists of these films have relatively low expectations for their lives, but they happily meet those expectations. They lack self-awareness but they possess confidence in spades, a combination which guides them through whatever trials and tribulations that the Brothers Coen can throw at them. When the final credits roll, each of these characters seems to be enjoying happy endings.

For the Coens, it the path to happiness and success requires that you accept your own simplicity and your own innate stupidity. For their best characters, simplicity and stupidity provide a path toward wisdom and self-actualization: think of Marge Gunderson at the very end of Fargo. She’s no idiot—she’s the smartest character in the film—but her intelligence does not inflate her ambition or imbue her with even the slightest pretense of entitlement. She doesn’t view herself as “smart.” Her Minnesotan simplicity, and her sheer contentment with that simple life, grants her genuine happiness, familial love, a selfless concern for others, and an abundance of grace.

In their darker films (e.g., Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens develop complex, ambitious, deeply intelligent characters who just straight-up fail. Barton Fink, Llewelyn Moss, Larry Gopnik, and Llewyn Davis are not simple or stupid men. What’s more, they inhabit settings and careers where they ought to prosper. Barton Fink is a lauded playwright. Larry Gopnik is a tenure-track professor. Llewyn Davis is a semi-successful folk musician in the Village in the early ’60s, for pete’s sake! Only Llewelyn Moss is perhaps the exception, but even he scrapes by with his beautiful, supportive wife. The problem, however, is that each of these men possesses a deadly combination of intelligence, partial self-awareness, and a sense that the universe owes them success on their own terms. Barton Fink wants to be the great proletarian poet of the American theater. Larry Gopnik wants love, recognition, and respect from both his family and his academic colleagues, and the Coens have a blast denying him all of it. Llewyn Davis wants to be a nationally-recognized folk musician. Llewelyn Moss never dreamed of being a millionaire, but once the opportunity falls in his lap, he pursues it with Macbeth-like intensity all the way to its fatal end. (It’s not surprising that Joel Coen’s most recent film is The Tragedy of Macbeth.)

These characters fail because their respectable talents and their limited resources simply cannot accommodate their aggrandized sense of themselves. These are entitled men who are undone by their unwillingness to scale back their ambitions and to compromise with reality. These characters should have been content to apply their prodigious intellects and relative talents to more modest aims. They could have used the example of Fargo’s Norm Gunderson, whose definition of success is pretty simple: he wants his painting of a mallard duck to appear on a three-cent U.S. postal stamp. The tragedy of each of the Coens’ fail-characters is that, despite their combination of intelligence, talent, and ambition, they still lack the skill and willpower to do anything but fail over and over again.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Part Three

I’m tired. I’m so tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s more than that.

Let’s return to Llewyn, sitting in the passenger seat on his way to Chicago. Something has infected his psyche. He can’t quite identify what it is, or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Llewyn’s decline has been gradual up until now, but as the film enters its second act, things begin to accelerate. Llewyn notices that he is aging. He is losing his interest in music. He has instructed his sister to get rid of his “stuff,” including his early recordings. It’s a decision he quickly regrets but then eventually accepts, throwing his hands in the air. Who cares about his early recordings? He is slouching toward what Ralph Ellison called “the lower frequencies.”

The most horrible scene in Inside Llewyn Davis occurs after Llewyn finally arrives in Chicago. He walks through the snow to Bud Grossman’s studio and auditions for Grossman in an empty theater. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is painfully honest: he tells Llewyn that he’s just no good as a solo artist, advising him to reunite with his old musical partner, who (unknown to Grossman) has died by suicide. F. Murray Abraham’s cameo is extremely effective. His sad, knowing eyes tell us all we need to know. Llewyn’s struggle has finally transfigured into total failure.

I was still a struggling academic, looking for jobs but not yet finished with my dissertation, when I saw Inside Llewyn Davis. The timing could have been better. I had difficulty not identifying with Llewyn as I sat in an old theater in Sioux City, out in the middle of nowhere. Even though he lives in Greenwich Village, in the center of it all, Llewyn spiritually occupies the middle of nowhere. He still can’t even find a place to sleep.

At one point on his trip back from Chicago to New York, Llewyn accidentally hits a cat with his car. He pulls over. His front bumper is covered in blood. He then spots the pitiful creature limping into the woods to die. The scene is as dark and ugly as anything you’ll find in a Coen Brothers movie.

I once hit a cat on a country road, when I was a teenager. The cat jumped in front of my car, and I drove forward rather than risk spinning on the gravel and crashing into the ditch. My tires hit the cat with a terrible “thud,” and in my rearview mirror I saw the cat spring backwards into the air before falling hard on the gravel, dead or dying. It was one of the most awful experiences of my life. I’ve devoted part of my adulthood to caring for abandoned cats, largely as atonement for that one terrible car ride.

So yeah, it was hard for me not to identify with Llewyn Davis. In addition to writing my dissertation, I was also an adjunct professor, which is one of those careers that makes you a professional irritant to others. You’re always scheming, always looking for an angle, always self-promoting, always self-preserving, always asking for a shot, a gig, a library card, a literature course, any course. You have to beg for everything you’ve got, however meager it is, and at the beginning of each semester, you have to beg all over again. You have to listen to yourself beg.

And you’re always just there, an unwanted presence at meetings or in elevators, annoying your superiors as you scrounge around their feet for crumbs under the table. You’re desperate for any semi-official role in your university, a place where everyone around you seems to be happily succeeding on their own terms. Your department’s chair won’t keep appointments with you. The dean regards you with contempt. Eventually, your whole existence just exhausts you.

Yeah, Inside Llewyn Davis was my movie for those years.

The Coen Brothers reportedly based Llewyn Davis on folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a Village staple during the 1960s. Van Ronk composed the arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” that Bob Dylan stole, the one that subsequently inspired the Animals’ radio hit. Van Ronk told this story, a little bitterness between his smiling teeth, in Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. In that film and in so many others, Van Ronk was an invaluable eyewitness to a critical moment in the history of American popular music. His solo album Inside Dave Van Ronk clearly inspired the title of the Coens’ film and also the album art of Llewyn’s own record, Inside Llewyn Davis.

But Llewyn is not really a Van Ronk figure. He’s not eyewitness to anything but his own suffering. The most historically significant event in the film occurs after he has left the building. Van Ronk became a minor legend, a multifaceted artist who worked in all kinds of genres, including jazz and ragtime. He influenced nearly every mainstream folk singer you can name. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Does Llewyn Davis have anything like this in his future? Nah. He’s a failure in total. We’ll never hear from him again, except maybe from the backseat of some future Coen Brothers movie. His last line in the film is “Au revoir.”


Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Part One

Greta Gerwig is one of the best living American filmmakers. She began her career as a second-string Chloë Sevigny, an okay actress who built her mainstream reputation as Noah Baumbach’s “muse.” It’s a label she rightly resisted; she and Baumbach are, after all, a real-life couple with a three-year-old son. Initially a staple of small “mumblecore” films, Gerwig won wider recognition for her performances in Baumbach’s Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America. I don’t like these movies. The characters are wholly unsympathetic. Bad things happen to them, and—despite what you’d think—it’s not really fun watching bad things happen to unsympathetic characters.

Take, for instance, Greenberg (2010), Baumbach’s Ben Stiller vehicle about an embittered Gen Xer named Greenberg. He’s a man-baby, a wannabe rock star (ugh), the sort of resentful person you’d find in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, if Osborne had been born in 1965, attended college, and listened to Elvis Costello. We have no idea what Baumbach is doing with the character: are we supposed to respond to Greenberg with affection or hostility? He spends literally the entire movie pissing us off but somehow manages to capture the attention of Gerwig’s character, Florence. In one scene, Greenberg and Florence have sex. Immediately afterwards, Greenberg loses his temper at Florece for…having sex with him

Even less tolerable than Greenberg is Frances Ha (2012), which Gerwig co-wrote. The film’s manic-pixie-girl protagonist, Frances (played by Gerwig), is a quirky Californian who transplanted herself to New York, who dreams of living in Tribeca and must settle for Chinatown. She went to Vassar. She wants to be a dancer. She takes a spontaneous trip to Paris, which she pays for with a credit card. This is essentially an early Henry James novella without the Henry James perspective or style.

I did enjoy Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), particularly for Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, who convincingly play a professor and a novelist. I also enjoyed the funny/sad subplots about their young son, who compulsively masturbates in the school library, and their elder son, who pretends to have written Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” (Daniel and Linney’s pop-culturally illiterate characters actually believe him). Although the performances are all really great, the adult characters are infuriating. The movie works largely because we view everything from the children’s perspective. The children are, masturbation and deceptions aside, their parents’ saviors. In Baumbach’s other films, the savior sons are replaced by savior women, who are superhumanly tolerant of Baumbach’s protagonists. In fact, they seem to exist only to nurse his hapless protagonists back to social and spiritual health.

And then there’s the whole Brooklyn thing. Baumbach seems intent on beating us over the head with the sad lives of upwardly mobile Brooklynites, arguably the worst people in the world. Baumbach grew up in Park Slope and boy, can you tell. His imagination doesn’t extend much east of Prospect Park or further west than the Hudson river.

And so, when I first saw the poster for Lady Bird, I uncharitably assumed it would feature yet another “manic pixie girl.” I had a low opinion Gerwig, dismissing her as a New York-based “it girl,” someone whom I would go through life ignoring.

But it turns out Gerwig is not from Park Slope but from Sacramento, a real place. She was a talented writer in high school and college, an aspiring playwright who couldn’t quite make it into an MFA program. She turned to acting and began to appear in movies, but never abandoned her dreams of writing. She also acquired new dreams of directing. Gerwig successfully does both in Lady Bird and in her beautiful adaptation of Little Women (2019), the best film version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel (it’s probably better than the novel, too). Gerwig also discovered her own muse in the brilliant Saoirse Ronan, who is the kind of actor you want to form a longtime collaboration with. Noah who?

Little Women

I streamed Lady Bird in the upstairs TV room of our California-style house on Seventh Street in Brookings. The film fit perfectly on our small flatscreen. It’s very much a small film, one that makes its Sacramento setting feel quiet and cozy. The actual metro area of California’s capital city is home to 2.4 million people; not huge, but not exactly as small as Gerwig’s Sacramento appears. Still, Gerwig creates a definite sense of place. The film’s quaint neighborhoods suit Lady Bird, which is a character study of a high school girl from a tight-knit community who wants out.

Saoirse Ronan plays the girl, Christine MacPherson, who calls herself “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone else do the same. Lady Bird attends a Catholic high school, where she endures typical teenage crises, none of which are overblown in Gerwig’s script. She struggles with the social ecosystem of her high school. She wants a boyfriend. She resents her sometimes tense, sometimes affectionate relationship with her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, who is always fun to watch. In Lady Bird, she expertly navigates the confused hopes, desires, attachments, and various roles that every mother of a teenage girl must balance. Marion is Lady Bird’s parent, confidant, adviser, advocate, and guard.

Lady Bird’s main crisis is the question of college. Where should she go? She wants to pursue her education in theater in New York City. Her mother wants her to opt for something nearby, something more practical and affordable. The family is not wealthy, especially compared to the affluent families whose teenage children attend Lady Bird’s high school.

What else to say? Lady Bird is another perfectly cast movie, full of actors whose names you don’t recognize but whose faces you do. Beyond Ronan and Metcalf: Tracy Letts, who won a Tony for the 2013 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, is Lady Bird’s father. Lucas Hedges, from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, is Lady Bird’s not-yet-uncloseted boyfriend. Beanie Feldstein, from Booksmart and the Clinton-Lewinsky season of American Crime Story, is Lady Bird’s best friend. Stephen McKinley Henderson, a theater actor best known for his recurring presence in the plays of August Wilson, gives the most beautiful performance in the film. He plays Lady Bird’s acting coach, a kind priest with a tragic past. Timothée Chalamet (no need to cite his credits) plays the detached cool kid every girl wants to date, who deceives Lady Bird in an ugly scene.

Chalamet and Ronan seem to be having parallel careers right now, both of them beloved by serious directors. Ronan is far and away the better actor. She was a child actor comparable to Jodie Foster, playing abused and abusive young girls. Her adult range is comparable to Meryl Streep’s, before Streep became Meryl Streep. She is incredibly selective with the projects she chooses, working almost exclusively with top directors, but she still manages to make like three films a year. She appeared in The Crucible on Broadway and as Lady Macbeth in the West End. She and Gerwig have a very bright future.

Part Two

I enjoyed Lady Bird for the performances, for Gerwig’s direction, for her script, and for the script’s quiet spirituality. Gerwig offers a touching, sympathetic portrayal of cafeteria Catholicism. The film won the praise of Robert Barron, the so-called Bishop of the Internet. Barron cites an interview with Gerwig (who also attended a Catholic high school), in which Gerwig revealed that Lady Bird was inspired by her own reflection on the saints and what the saints must have been like as teenagers. She draws from this inspiration with the skill of a talented playwright.

Lady Bird is the second compelling Catholic film I watched in South Dakota. The other was Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). I didn’t include Silence in this series because I’ve already devoted an entire essay to it on this blog. Like Lady Bird, Silence elicited a review by Bishop Barron. The film was a Scorsese passion project, twenty-five years in the making, one of his deeply religious movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Bringing Out the Dead. As I’ve said before, Scorsese is our great Catholic filmmaker: only Abel Ferrara comes close. But Ferrara, the Rome-based American director/writer of Bad Lieutenant, makes movies that are often too brutal to watch.

While in Brookings, I saw two other religiously-minded films: Noah (2014) and mother! (2017). These otherwise wackadoodle movies prompted me to reflect seriously on religious themes, and both were candidates for this essay series. Both films were directed by Darren Aronofsky, a wild, religiously-minded-but-secular Jewish filmmaker. (Aronofsky also directed the remarkable time-traveling meditation on Christian belief,The Fountain [2006].) As with Lady Bird and Silence, Bishop Barron offered thoughtful reviews of Noah and mother!. These four films were cinematic homilies that informed my faith while I lived in South Dakota.

Silence

Set in Japan during the isolationist Edo period, Silence follows two Jesuit missionaries as they search for their lost mentor, who is rumored to have abandoned his faith. While in Japan, they minister to local Catholics, who have been driven underground by the Tokugawa shogunate. Scorsese uses this story and its setting to examine the nature of faith and the relationship between belief and action.

We are taught that salvation hinges on our obedience to God, on accepting or rejecting God and his commandments. But what does it mean, exactly, to accept or to reject God? And what does obedience to God look like?

According to the New Testament, a transformation occurs when we accept the Gospel of Christ and begin to follow God’s commandments. We become new beings, totally transformed. Usually such transformations are visible to others. To what extent, however, can our transformation—the evidence of our faithfulness to God—remain invisible? Is it possible to accept God without any outward display? And is it possible to have faith but still reject God, even unknowingly?

Is it possible to follow Christ secretly, to obey God silently? Didn’t Jesus, after the transfiguration, instruct St. Peter to tell no one what he saw?

These are questions that Silence explores, along with others: How do we practice our faith within the context of a specific time and culture, and how elastic are those practices across time and cultures? At what point does the elasticity wear slack or snap? How can Christian practice vary throughout the world while the Church remains catholic?

Scorsese doesn’t offer solid answers, but makes a strong aesthetic argument that God’s grace is wider than we sometimes think.

Scorsese is interested in the intersection of dogma and ethics, in the tensions between Christian ideals and our corrupted human lives. Darren Aronofsky is less interested in the paradoxes and contradictions of practical faith, but he is deeply invested in the consequences of such faith. A a self-professed atheist, Aronofsky’s filmography, beginning with Pi (1998), positively drips with religious themes. He explores how Jewish and Christian exegesis, tradition, and storytelling affect the lives of people who do take God seriously. Conservative critics dismissed his film Noah as thinly-veiled environmentalist propaganda, a cinematic diatribe about climate change. In reality, the film’s concerns are much broader than that.

Noah

Aronofsky cheekily called Noah the “least-biblical biblical film ever made.” He claimed that he wasn’t interested in scriptural fidelity. Nonsense. Aronofsky is deadly serious about the Bible. Noah is not unbiblical but rather extra-biblical: Aronofsky engages the midrashim, a genre of Jewish scholarship dating from the Second Temple period through the Middle Ages. In the rabbinic tradition, a midrash interprets Biblical narratives and then restores—rather than adds—details to those narratives. At his most ambitious, Aronofsky seems to fancy himself a modern midrashist. In Noah, he compiles elements from Jewish-Christian literature and oral history, from Scripture and Apocrypha, in order to completely recast the Noah story, opening it up to a greater spectrum of possible meanings.

Consequently, Noah explores themes that are only hinted at in the sparse Biblical text: the relationships between creation and destruction, between history and myth, between the urban and the rural, between technology and nature. These themes manifest in the visual details of the film. Aronofsky captures both the appearance and the difficult logistics of Noah’s building project, combining the practical with the miraculous. In one beautiful scene, he shows Noah’s family incensing the ark, which calms the animals to sleep and which (as Bishop Barron points out) looks for all the world like a Catholic/Orthodox liturgy.

Aronofsky also adds new characters from throughout the Hebrew Bible to the story of the Great Flood. He includes Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who passes down oral tradition concerning the Creation and the world before cities. He includes Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain and metalworker associated with the rise of technology. In the film, Tubal-cain is Noah’s city-dwelling, meat-eating nemesis. Aronofsky fleshes out the Biblical account of Noah’s family, adding drama and characterization. There’s a whole subplot involving Noah’s daughter-in-law Illa (Emma Watson), whose unexpected pregnancy complicates Noah’s interpretation of God’s instructions.

The midrashic element of Noah that confused audiences most was Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Nephilim, a word in the Hebrew Bible that simply means “giants.” According to the rabbinic and Christian traditions, the Nephilim are the product of sexual intercourse between fallen angels and “the daughters of men.” Although they inhabit what we would call “the physical world,” they are also spiritual beings, not quite angels or demons. Aronofsky calls them “Watchers,” a name he takes from the books of Enoch and the book of Daniel (the Aramaic word is iryin and is associated with fallen angels). In the film, the Nephilim look like the Ents from The Lord of the Rings, adding to the strangeness of Noah’s world.

As I noted, most critics interpreted Noah as an allegory about climate change, even if Aronofsky was trying to accomplish something more interesting. But Aronofsky is not a subtle filmmaker. In mother!, he doesn’t just construct an allegory about religion and environmentalism. He takes his allegory and, Cain-like, beats you over the head with it until your skull cracks. In the film, a man and a woman are in the process of restoring an old home. The man invites a strange couple to the house, including their two sons, one of whom murders the other. Then more people show up. The house floods. The restoration starts over. The woman gets pregnant. She gives birth and her husband presents the newborn child to the visitors, whose numbers have increased exponentially. They cannibalize the child. The mother freaks out. Mayhem ensures. The house eventually burns down.

Get it?

As Jay Bauman of RedLetterMedia argued, mother! is the indie equivalent of those action movies that require you to “turn your brain off.” That’s good advice. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Bible, Western literature, or Western philosophy will easily decode each symbol in mother!. The film is about how humans inevitably wreck religion and destroy nature. The end.

mother!

So are there any good ideas in a movie like this? I think mother! works best as an allegory whose antecedents are intentionally obvious. The obviousness is the point. The film is essentially a morality play. As I discussed in my recent essay on Yelena Popovic’s Man of God, morality plays relied on everymen and other archetypes, characters who don’t possess complex personalities but who instead represent abstractions. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character is clearly “Mother Earth.” Her husband, Javier Bardem, is not merely God but the spiritual realm itself, the realm of Platonic Ideals. If the woman is earth, the man is fire.

mother! is also structured like a passion play. These medieval dramas rehearsed Jesus’s suffering and death, a story their audiences already knew. The same is true of mother!. It resembles a liturgy, oft-recited and interactive, more than it resembles a traditional horror film (Paramount marketed mother! as a mainstream horror film a la Rosemary’s Baby, resulting in many shocked, angry audiences). mother! is wild, harrowing, noisy, and violent, much like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). And like The Passion of the Christ, mother! tells a well-known story. The retelling is the point.

Coda

Of these four films, Lady Bird offers the strongest religious praxis. It doesn’t explore the complex relationship between faith and action. It offers no Biblical exegesis, nor does it reinterpret religious tradition. It doesn’t rehearse a well-known narrative, apart from the secular “coming of age” story. But through the relationships between Lady Bird, her mother, her Catholic teachers, and her friends, we witness the emergence of a distinctly Christian selflessness.

When we first meet Lady Bird, she has already renamed herself. Renaming is an ancient religious tradition, one that implies that a person is reorienting themselves toward God. Usually, however, it is God who renames us. Lady Bird has renamed herself; she is, like any teenager, struggling with her identity. But she is also exploring different strategies for living. She tests her close relationships, makes missteps, and then steps back. As her story progresses, she discovers that purpose and meaning are not found in our own self-actualization, but in the relationships we cultivate with others. She begins to reorient herself toward holy love and, in the process, begins to grow out of her assumed name.

At the film’s conclusion, Lady Bird is in college in New York. Once again, she is struggling with her own identity. She attempts to introduce herself to a new acquaintance, a boy at a party, but she drinks too much and winds up in the emergency room. Once sober, Lady Bird gives the emergency staff her real name, Christine (the feminine form of “Christian,” from the Greek for “anointed”). After leaving the hospital, she finds herself drawn to the familiarity of church, in this case a beautiful Presbyterian church, and her experience there has a strong effect on her. She feels inspired to call her mother and ask for forgiveness, not because she has committed any specific sin, but because, ultimately, we all need forgiveness. Perhaps she is anointed, at the beginning of a saint’s journey. As Bishop Barron observed, Lady Bird is the story of a saint in development. It abounds with those moments of grace that awaken us to the presence of God.


The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014)

“When we were kids,” my sister said, “we didn’t just play with legos. We played with legos.”

When playing with legos, you are faced with a philosophical dilemma: Will you follow the bright yellow instruction sheets—minimalist, without any words, clearly of Scandinavian origin—to construct a mirror image of the picture on the box? This method of play is orderly. You assign the correct role to each brick and each minifigure. You situate your characters within the appropriate vehicles and buildings, each with their accompanying accessories: pirates belong in pirate ships, astronauts in space shuttles. As The Lego Movie suggests, adherents to this method sometimes glue each lego piece into place!

Or will you follow a different method, ripping open the package, throwing out the instruction sheet, and building a whole universe from a random pile of bricks without guidance, without design, without telos? Will you combine all the different lego themes together? Will modern auto mechanics interact with medieval knights? Will futuristic spacemen steer your pirate ships? Will you incorporate entirely different toys into the mix, introducing Hot Wheels and G.I. Joes and X-Men figurines into your legoverse?

Will you carefully display your perfectly constructed, LEGO-approved designs on your dresser or bookshelf? Or will you let the pieces crash and scatter all over your floor? Will you store each set in a separate container, or will you sweep them all into a single bin, an errant block or two left behind for an unsuspecting foot to step on?

When my sister said that we truly played with legos, she meant that we chose the latter method. For us, the less orderly, more chaotic approach to legos was the correct approach. You could, for instance, introduce time travel, sending aliens into the past to attack cowboys or propelling Robin Hood into the future to spread economic justice in a modern city.

My sisters and I played with legos before you had Star Wars sets or Batman sets. (They even have Stranger Things legos now, for pete’s sake.) Legos used to be simple. If you wanted Darth Vader to invade your lego castle, you had to use an actual Kenner Darth Vader action figure.

For other kids, the best way to play with legos—the purest, most authentic approach—meant following the damn instructions. After all, that approach is the surest, most direct path to the truly awesome toys displayed on the box. Sure, you could build your own rudimentary pirate ship with a handful of random blocks, but it would never sail, its cannons would never fire, its canteen wouldn’t accommodate dining tables, and its helm would never turn quite right. In short, your ship would look bad. Yes, there are talented independent builders out there who submit their sophisticated designs to LEGO IDEAS. But do you really think you’re one of them?

The LEGO corporation has attempted to resolve this dilemma with their LEGO Dimensions video games, or with Time Cruisers, a time-travel theme that scrambled pieces, costumes, and designs from all the other LEGO themes. Time Cruisers rendered the style of play that my sisters and I preferred into the logic of the more orderly, instruction-following method. But this only misses the point. You can’t make the chaotic form of play official! You can’t break the rules by following them! The two philosophies of lego play are irreconcilable.

I mean, LEGO itself designates certain building techniques “legal” and others “illegal.” How can you argue with that? LEGO is clearly refereeing this debate, and it has historically tipped the scales toward the side of order.

The Lego Movie was made to appease lego fans like my sisters and me. The title itself—featuring the relaxed, lower-case “lego” instead of the uptight, official all-caps “LEGO”—was a signal that this movie was made for people who didn’t give a shit about the LEGO Corporation or its diktats. The film’s villain, played by Will Ferrell, adheres to the strict, instruction-following approach. The heroes are happy to mix everything together; they even include duplo bricks in their lego civilization.

Don’t get me wrong: the film was LEGO propaganda that slyly subverted official LEGO doctrine in order to trick kids into supporting LEGO. It resembled the Russian government’s “anti-Putin” propaganda that is actually pro-Putin but is designed to fool anti-Putin voters into supporting pro-Putin policies.

Sure enough, LEGO sets appeared before the film’s premiere, featuring the mixed-up Lego Movie characters, buildings, and vehicles: Batman plus pirate ships plus ghosts plus duplo characters! It’s all here! These sets allowed the goody two-shoes to enjoy chaotic play while still following the instructions. Before the movie even hit theaters, I was suspicious.

Class distinctions underpin this dilemma. The sad truth is that LEGO sets are expensive. If your parents could afford to buy you two, three, or more (!) LEGO sets each year, you would most likely store your legos in nice, distinct boxes, making sure that all your efforts to follow the instructions and construct an admittedly badass LEGO toy were not in vain. If, however, most of your legos were hand-me-downs or purchased from Goodwill, your lego collection consisted of mostly incomplete sets and odd pieces. You were more likely to store all your legos in a single bin, because what was the point of dividing the pieces into separate bins of incomplete sets that were impossible to properly build? Maybe you would keep your pirate legos separate from your Robin Hood legos; more likely, however, you would just combine them all into a single lego cosmos. Sure, you would lose more pieces that way. Sure, the bottom of your spaceman’s helmet would inevitably crack (a design flaw so ubiquitous that it is featured in The Lego Movie). Sure, your minifigures’ legs would eventually snap off, their arms would loosen free from their torsos, and a heap of dismembered limbs would collect at the bottom of the bin. What are you going to do about it? If you couldn’t afford the complete sets, that was just the price of free play.

Back when I was a kid, before the age of ten or eleven (i.e., before you stop playing with toys), my family hovered close to the poverty line and frequently dipped below it. My parents had four children during this time, so we couldn’t afford many toys. Most of the families in our neighborhood were either solidly working class or lower middle class. When I visited their houses, I would marvel at my friends’ rooms, which were full of awesome toys: all manner of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, of which I only had a couple; bulging-eyed creatures from The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which I wasn’t allowed to watch; various iterations of Arnold from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which I really wasn’t allowed to watch; and every imaginable species of xenomorph from the Aliens toyline, which I would never even consider asking to watch. Additionally, most of my friends had hand-me-down Star Wars toys from their older siblings, and I was amazed by their detail and by how many characters from the Trilogy had their own plastic figurines.

I wasn’t jealous of my friends’ toys, not really. But I was awed by their bright colors and sheer variety. I would spend most of my times at friends’ houses just looking at the toys (much to my friends’ consternation). Meanwhile, I was lucky if I got a couple new Playskool Dinosaurs every year. When the neighbor girl ruined the joints of my spinosaurus by pouring sand in them, I was furious. What could we do, replace it?

By the age of six, I had acquired a prodigious collection of He-Man figurines, most of them gifts from extended family. My maternal grandmother and I used to play “find Mossman” in her yard, which abutted the Okoboji lakes near the Iowa-Minnesota border. The game was pretty simple: you hid the green, mossy Mossman in the the grass and the other person tried to find him. My last memory of my grandmother was a game of “find Mossman,” which she insisted we play before she was driven to the hospital.

Then I turned six. My dad had been forced to change careers and my family’s financial situation went from bad to terrible almost overnight. Around the same time, my parents converted from Lutheranism to Pentecostalism and became very concerned about the role of Satan in our lives. Our new church taught that He-Man was Satanic; God was the true Master of the Universe. My mom put all my He-Man toys in a box and sold them as one unit at a yard sale to a thirtysomething collector who seemed shocked to find them all at such a low price.

As an adult in South Dakota, I began collecting art toys: Kidrobot dunnies, Superplastic jankies, Be@rbricks, and other pieces of pop surrealism, the sort of items you see in Japanese storefronts or a twentysomething Thai millionaire’s home or Dr. Phil’s grandson’s mansion. I love contemporary art, so I genuinely love my Kidrobot collection, but I’m also clearly compensating for a childhood sense that I was deprived of the best toys.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t truly deprived as a child. My parents managed to get food on our table, even if they didn’t always know where the next day’s food would come from. They loved their kids. I wasn’t abused or treated poorly. We went to the pool almost every day in the summer. We went to the zoo. We managed to own a cheap TV and a cheaper VCR, although we didn’t always own both at the same time. We never went to the movie theater but we saw each new Disney film a year after its release on bootlegged videos. We played with neighborhood kids, not always peacefully. We rode our bikes downhill over the cracks in the cement where the hornets lived. We could afford those ice pops with the plastic wrappers that cut the sides of your mouth. So yeah, I had a normal childhood. Everything was awesome.

I could tell you that The Lego Movie features the best animation I’ve ever seen. We could all sing the praises of the film’s incredible CGI until the sun sets and it’s time for bed, and we could all complain about how, in the summer, they make you go to bed while the sun is still in the sky. Say what you want about the great Disney films of yore or about the genius of Pixar. For my money, The Lego Movie is the Citizen Kane of children’s films. It is dense with subplots, allusions, and inside jokes that give lego-playing kids the thrill of recognizing something their parents won’t (at least that’s what the kids think). It is packed with digital effects, practical effects, and animation techniques that don’t call attention to themselves but that actually serve the story. The voice casting is spot-on. The script is funny. The music is catchy. It’s a really, really good movie. But what makes The Lego Movie truly special is that it teaches middle-class kids what the poor kids knew all along: how to play with legos.


Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

Yes, this is the movie with the chainsaw duel. In the most Nicholas Cage-iest scene of all time (so far), Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) engages a biker demon in a chainsaw duel. They charge at each other in a lumberyard, spinning their chainsaws at each other like two Leatherfaces. The forest surrounding them resembles Endor by way of Dante’s Inferno. Overhead, the sun and moon hover unnaturally close to the earth, like planets whose orbits threaten the timber below.

But although they feature between them the three most famous chainsaws in cinematic history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Mandy are different in almost every way. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is gritty and grainy, with a neorealist eye toward its rural Texas setting, its characters, and their murders. Mandy, on the other hand, is one of the most heavily stylized feature film I’ve ever seen. Think in terms of makeup. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is what you get at Sephora. Mandy is what Tammy Faye Baker gets at Sephora.

Mandy opens with a couple living together in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. During the day, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, who played Svetlana in The Death of Stalin) works on her sketches and reads pulpy paperbacks. Her boyfriend Red is a lumberjack. His name is almost too on-the-nose: this is the reddest movie you’ll ever see. They seem to inhabit a version of the Pacific Northwest in which Mount St. Helens never stopped erupting.

One day, Mandy attracts the attention of a musician/cult leader named Jeremiah Sand, who is traveling through the Northwest with his band/cult. After his brief encounter with Mandy, Jeremiah does what any smitten man would do: he summons demons—a demonic biker gang, to be specific, who look like the byproduct of Hells Angels and the cenobites from Hellraiser—to hunt down Mandy and bring her to him. They succeed, and then there’s a whole thing with the cult, their motor home, and a huge wasp. Jeremiah tries to seduce Mandy, but when he disrobes, she just laughs at him (and, more pointedly, at his penis). Humiliated, Jeremiah murders Mandy and then burns her corpse in front of Red. In fit of rage and grief that only Nicholas Cage can convincingly pull off, Red loses his mind, amasses an arsenal of absolutely mental weapons, and goes on a vengeful rampage.

Mandy contains the weirdest, most mind-blowing visual effects of any film in this series. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and director Panos Cosmatos shot this movie with all the restraint of an enthusiastic twelve-year-old, particularly if the kid had access to an entire studio of cinematic technology. The film is full of strange dissolves, double exposures, slow motion, special lenses, and unconventional light sources. During most of the nighttime forest scenes, Loeb backlit his characters with car taillights. He relied almost exclusively on wide angle lenses except in closeups, where he (counterintuitively) used long lenses. Most notably, Loeb used huge multi-colored lights and colored filters with names like Coral, Charcoal, and Tobacco. Frequently, filters were placed over filters, which were placed over more filters.

So yeah, the variety of visual effects employed in the film is insane. At one point, in order to accelerate his rage, Red takes a shot of “super-concentrated LSD,” the substance that fuels the film’s demonic biker gang. He instantly bursts into a high-octane hallucination. His face melts and then explodes into sludge, an awesome stop-motion sequence. For a moment it looks like his brain has merged with the sun. Elsewhere, the film interrupts itself with extended animation sequences clearly inspired by Leonard Mogel and Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal. A tiger appears for no apparent reason, roaring against the moon like something from a blacklight poster. The film’s CGI produces backdrops that work like the best matte paintings, opening up world-building possibilities without too much digital clutter. These CGI backgrounds flatten the horizon: the sky appears to press up against the skyline, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere even in exterior shots, as if the outside world has lost all depth and distance.

One reviewer categorized Mandy as “cannibalpsychbikerockgodhicksplattersploitation.” It is certainly the most intensely psychedelic horror movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s a bad trip, and you probably wouldn’t want to watch it while under the influence. In fact, you probably wouldn’t need to—Mandy is nothing if not a self-inducing trip.

Mandy takes place in 1983, and it captures the mood of the two great moral panics of that era: the panic over the corrosive effects of Satanic rock music and the panic over Satanic ritual child abuse. Mandy imagines an alternate 1983 where Satanic sex cults do exist and run rampant over the countryside making music, conjuring demons, and ritualistically murdering innocent people. This was the 1980s imagined by so many televangelists.

As horror movies go, Mandy isn’t really scary at all: it reminds me of the gorgeous-but-tame films of Dario Argento. It exists at the intersection of giallo and Grand Guignol. In fact, Mandy doesn’t really feel like a horror movie. It’s an exercise. I get the impression that Cosmatos and his crew shot Mandy simply to test the limits of their imaginations against their technical skills. They seem to have asked, How much can we do? How much can we get away with? Not in terms of gore, not in terms of shocking content, but in terms of sheer visual energy. I imagine the filmmakers going bonkers on the set when they realized how much their little movie would blow its audiences’ minds.

I could have used a movie like Mandy when I was fifteen. As a young film buff, I would have gone nuts over the insane visuals and the acrobatic cinematography. As a hormonal teenager, I would have absolutely mainlined the adrenaline that fuels the film. As a child of the ’80s, I would have adored the action, the monsters, and the weapons, all inspired by that decade’s most badass movies, toylines, video games, and pulp fiction. Riseborough is smoking-hot as Mandy, the sort of cool, raven-haired woman I would have obsessed over during puberty. And you’ve never seen a more off-the-wall Nicholas Cage performance than the one he gives in Mandy. When I was fifteen, the coolest Nicholas Cage movie I could think of was The Rock.

Cage recently said that he is proud of all his projects over the past two decades, even his roles in direct-to-video movies that provided the cash to pay off his prodigious debts. Even when he was churning out four films per year, said Cage, he gave each performance his all. But, he admitted, there is something special about Mandy.


Mank (David Fincher, 2020)

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about failure. Mank is a film about failure leavened with accidental success. It rehearses Pauline Kael’s argument that Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, was the true auteur behind Citizen Kane. I don’t really subscribe to auteur theory, so I’m not especially invested in that argument. Anyone associated with the production of Citizen Kane could die knowing that they had achieved something sublime.

Mank is directed by David Fincher, using a trimmed-down version of the 120-page screenplay that his late father, journalist Jack Fincher, wrote in the 1990s. Mankiewicz is played by Gary Oldman, the guy who played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Beethoven, Winston Churchill…you get the idea. The man can act. And Fincher can direct. Like Oldman, Fincher is a workhorse, a true professional who—all those green filters, grimy sets, and desaturated colors aside—doesn’t seem especially interested in cultivating a distinctive “style” or being an “auteur.” He just wants to make the best-looking, most engaging movies he can.

Mankiewicz was a high-functioning alcoholic, a prominent New York theater critic who moved to Hollywood and helped doctor countless scripts. He worked on some of the best films of the 1920s and ’30s. Film historians credit his writing style with popularizing the fast-paced patter we associate with that period, the kind of fast-talk that influenced how movie characters spoke for decades. Along the way, he charmed nearly everyone he met and then alienated them with his drinking. In 1930, he befriended William Randolph Hearst. Over the course of the next decade he utterly disintegrated, undercutting nearly all his powerful connections in Hollywood, writing Citizen Kane with a last gasp of resentful energy, winning an Oscar, writing a few more good screenplays, and then dropping dead of renal failure in 1953 at age 55. It’s not a happy story. The fact that Mank manages to construct a happy ending is one of the film’s chief flaws (more on that below).

Mank is, at times, a very frightening film. The relationships surrounding Herman Mankiewicz capture the horrifying essence of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. When we meet him, Mankiewicz is a master of his craft. Yes, he is subordinate in status to his studio bosses and to his new friend, William Randolph Hearst, but he is also, in his own mind, their superior. He taunts them with his wit, his talent, and their relative lack of these qualities. They can sense that, for all of his personal weaknesses, Mankiewicz has somehow mastered them. The plot of Mack is the story of how these powerful men—Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, Orson Welles—attempt to wrangle themselves from the position of slave to the position of master. In the brilliant penultimate scene, Hearst succeeds, utterly devastating Mankiewicz. Then, in the idiotic final moments, Mankiewicz seizes back his mastery over Hearst.

The first meeting between Mankiewicz and Hearst makes for one of the best scenes in the film. Hearst is visiting an off-studio location shoot for an MGM picture that stars his mistress, Marion Davies. Mankiewicz has stumbled onto the set, much to the chagrin of Louis B. Mayer, one of the studio executives who long ago turned against Mankiewicz for his ego, his left-wing politics, and (especially) his drinking. But Hearst is charmed by the funny little man, who is as comfortable poking fun at the powerful men around him as he is poking fun at himself. Hearst invites him to dinner at San Simeon. He even asks that Mankiewicz be seated next to him.

Mankiewicz soon becomes a regular in Hearst’s entourage, the court jester (a title he resents) who holds forth on everything from studio politics to the rise of Hitler. One recurring topic is the gubernatorial race of The Jungle author Upton Sinclair, a socialist. Mankiewicz supports Sinclair. I don’t need to tell you Hearst’s position.

Studio politics and state politics eventually merge. Mayer uses his MGM filmmakers to produce vicious anti-Sinclair propaganda. When Sinclair loses the governor’s race, one of Mankiewicz’s close colleagues (a man who helped produce the anti-Sinclair films) kills himself. Mankiewicz sinks further into alcoholism. His status as a pariah in the industry increases with each passing month.

Fincher alternates between the above storyline (1930 – 1937) and a second storyline (1940), which focuses on Mankiewicz’s struggle to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane. In the latter storyline, Mankiewicz is bed-bound and trying to stay sober, without much success. Producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles do their best to keep him on schedule. Mankiewicz, meanwhile, distracts himself from his work by flirting with the world’s most lovely pair of eyebrows, Lily Collins, who plays his assistant. The scenes with Collins are pretty dull. They tell us a lot about Mankiewicz’s background but don’t show us much of anything. I would have preferred a linear narrative, beginning with Mankiewicz’s early years in Hollywood (those scenes are quite funny) and moving organically toward his relationship with Hearst and, eventually, Kane.

The entire cast of Mank is fantastic. Tom Burke is convincing as the megalomaniacal Orson Welles (no easy task). Sam Troughton is appropriately stuffy and aloof as John Houseman. Arliss Howard is reptilian as Louis B. Mayer. Amanda Seyfried plays Marion Davies as a tragic figure who uses humor and sex appeal to mask both her intelligence and her insecurity. But the standout performance, other than Oldman’s, is Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. I haven’t seen Game of Thrones because I’m a grown-up (a grown-up who just wrote lovingly about The Lego Movie), but I can assure you, Dance has never been more intimidating or terrifying.

I also can’t say enough about Erik Messerschmidt’s Oscar-winning cinematography. The film is shot in digital black-and-white using hi-dynamic range, which creates a mood I have never quite experienced before in a movie. In interviews, Messerschmidt said he wanted to recreate the contrasts and shadows that gave the films of the early 1940s their unique appearance. He frequently shot day-for-night and used deep-focus lenses to capture every detail of the film’s sprawling sets. Costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Donald Graham Burt incorporated colors and hues into their costumes and set designs that were specifically customized to complement the unique limitations of digital black-and-white cinematography. The result is a black-and-white film with disquietingly vivid “colors.” This is particularly effective with the eerie golds in the penultimate scene in Hearst Castle (which I’ll describe in a moment). Visually, Mank really does resemble the films of the 1940s, but those films were shot on celluloid. You can tell that Mank was shot with a digital camera, and so the crispness of the images is startling precisely because they look so much like images from the 1940s. It isn’t distracting at all; it’s intentionally discomforting.

The Lily Collins character aside, I loved every second of Mank until the final shots, which threatened to ruin the entire movie. In the penultimate scene, set in 1937, a severely inebriated Mankiewicz crashes a Hearst party at San Simeon. After lodging insults at every guest, including Mayer, he turns on Hearst and begins to describe a hypothetical film that would paint the tycoon in the worst imaginable light. Mankiewicz is essentially reciting the plot of Citizen Kane before the fact. Everyone present is shocked and furious except Hearst, who sits stoically and, with a slight grin, allows Mankiewicz to finish. When Mankiewicz’s rant finally begins to taper off, Hearst stands up and leads him to the castle door, passing through sprawling, gold-adorned hallways that Messerschmidt’s photography renders like the walls of an Egyptian temple. They are walking through a pyramid, through a tomb. Along the way, Hearst recites “the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey,” which I won’t spoil for you, except to say that, by the scene’s end, Hearst is the master and Mankiewicz the slave. The entire scene is terrifying.

Then come the final shots of the film, set in 1940. Mankiewicz demands co-writer credits from Welles, who eventually accedes. He goes on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. We see Mankiewicz holding his Oscar, giving his acceptance speech, and grinning like an idiot. The End!

Fincher cannot resist letting Mankiewicz get the last laugh, cannot resist showing his pathetic hero triumph in the end. In so doing, Fincher fundamentally misunderstands the story he’s telling, which is ultimately about the dialectic of the master and the slave, the winner and the loser. Mankiewicz was not a winner. He was not a success. His Academy Award was a pity trophy, a bone tossed to a once-beloved industry man. Of course, Mankiewicz was, in his time, the world’s greatest dinner guest. He was an urbane theater critic and masterful screenwriter who had his hand in dozens of immortal works of cinema. He was the man who, in his screenwriting, may have single-handedly invented a new cinematic dialect, a dialect of English that would echo across the American century. Mankiewicz accomplished a lot. He accomplished more than Llewyn Davis. He accomplished more than most of us will. But, despite all this, Mankiewicz was a loser.

One comment

  1. Oh my, that was a long post, and even though I’m just starting to try to catch up on a month’s worth of followed blogs after a being “away” for National Poetry Week activities in April, it repaid the time and attention.

    I’m an admirer of Inside Llewyn Davis too, and in reading others takes on the film, I’m often puzzled by the others dislike for the title character. Yours is balanced compared to some, because you’re more perceptive. Some folks really hate him. He makes the film unwatchable for not a few. I read with appreciation your comparison of Davis’ situation with contract teaching — so well written. My observation is that for most musicians their job stresses and alienation exceed those you so well described in yourself. We as listeners sometimes assume the joy of listening to music equals the joy of the business of making a living at it, even for the “happy” musicians in the scene. This is of course false. You likely know that. But I personally feel that in Davis’ character more than some viewers. And many miss the multiple simultaneous traumas that Davis is going through. Just his partner’s suicide alone would be enough. The loss of his merchant marine card! His father’s dementia and dying. The disconnect between his artistic strength (emotional honesty) vs. the market’s useful light entertainment. There’s more that I’ll leave out. That this man might not be emotionally resplendent at such a time is not (to my mind) a final summation of his character or strength.

    I don’t know. I wonder if some of it is class-based, generational experience differences, or differences in experience in the arts. Maybe some see Davis’ as a 21st century kid going on an indie band little life adventure, and assume what the film doesn’t show, that he’s spoiled, too self-regarding, and expecting too much.

    Despite our age differences (I’m old) I often relate to your tales of Iowa, having grown up there, though my memory of a small town is 700 people.

    Like

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