Kelsey Ford on Manchester by the SeaRead More
Andrew Root on Arrival (2016)Read More
Angelica Jade Bastién on Moonlight (2016)Read More
Lauren Wilford, on Robert Eggers & The WitchRead More
Fran Hoepfner on Sing Street (2016)Read More
Katherine Webb on Stranger Things (2016)Read More
by Matthew Eng
There can be a maddening rigidity to the phrase “political film.” The dominant concept still maintains that a political film must be hyper-realistic as it holds a mirror up to the society that spurred it. It has precise points and lucidly argues them. It is timely, relevant, and, to paraphrase one cinematic touchstone, mad as hell about current power structures and not going to take them anymore. Amid the turbulence of 2016, two fictional films from celebrated British filmmakers debuted on the world stage with strikingly dissimilar notions of what might classify a film as “political”: Ken Loach’s bristling critique I, Daniel Blake and Andrea Arnold’s opaque odyssey American Honey.
When George Miller announced that he and his eight-wide jury had awarded the Palme d’Or to Loach’s film at the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2016, even the viewers who generally admired the newest effort from the prolific, 80-year-old activist-auteur seemed perplexed. As I, Daniel Blake heads into Oscar season with a prestigious prize but waning interest, the best thing to be said about the film is that it represents a form of artistic protest that is seldom rendered with such pointed force. Loach’s latest targets Britain’s benefits system, which remains patently rigged against those it was always intended to aid. In this film, that includes Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), an aging, ailing Newcastle craftsman who gets the bureaucratic runaround while seeking a disability allowance, as well as Katie (the astonishing Hayley Squires), a scrambling, newly-relocated single mother with two kids and capped benefits whose life merges with Daniel’s after he intervenes during a tense quarrel at a welfare office.
As with so many of Loach’s films, the central achievement of I, Daniel Blake is its willingness to shine a spotlight on lower-class individuals who are rarely foregrounded in popular cinema. The film is keenly attuned to and endlessly empathetic toward the realities of poverty, which is a testament to Loach’s bone-deep humanism. At times, the film also reminds us what a compelling dramatist Loach can be, not in spite of but precisely because of his inability to put aside his beliefs: a harrowing scene of desperation in a food bank is as urgent a plea as any to improve the welfare of the lower classes. I, Daniel Blake remains an undertaking worth lauding, but cause-driven filmmaking has its pitfalls, and Loach is not exempt from them. His screenplay, written with longtime creative partner Paul Laverty, can veer into diatribes and clichés. Good-hearted Katie descends into prostitution which, consequently, sticks Daniel with the role of sensitive male savior—a crude and unavoidably musty plot turn, despite both actors’ credible self-control. A scowling female unemployment officer is introduced early on as the personification of bureaucratic indifference, as though Loach were intent on qualifying her for some film-villain-of-the-year derby.
I don’t mean to suggest that Loach ought to offer some kind of of deferential respect for all viewpoints, because that clearly isn’t his goal; a Loach film will always side with David over Goliath. But this imbalance of sympathies too often results in films that are themselves imbalanced. Loach works with a heavy hand, imposing static scenarios and crystal-clear polemics on his characters where a subtler director might have conveyed the message through images or behavioral observations rather than rhetoric. At times, one gets the sense that I, Daniel Blake would pack the same punch as a radio play as it does as a motion picture, a testament to the force of Loach’s unwavering agitprop but not, necessarily, to his filmmaking, which remains roundly unconcerned with expanding its visual imagination.
Loach’s cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, has one of the most distinctive eyes in world cinema today, and he contributes an atmosphere of oppressive, slate-gray grubbiness to I, Daniel Blake. But one gets the sense that Ryan has stifled his natural creativity to fit Loach’s ethos. Conversely, Ryan feels utterly unbound from any aesthetic constraints in Arnold’s splendid American Honey, which follows a squad of wayward, whiskey-guzzling millennial magazine-sellers as they fight, fuck, and motor across some of America’s most destitute cities.
Arnold’s film competed alongside I, Daniel Blake at Cannes, where Arnold earned her third Jury Prize, and American Honey serves as a fascinating counterpoint to the film that bested it for the top prize. Although its cool reception earlier this fall threatens to solidify its popular legacy as little more than The Film That Shia LaBeouf Ruined His Hair For, American Honey remains a remarkably ambitious cinematic undertaking. Arnold is forging a kind of egalitarian filmmaking, where the individual efforts of each and every collaborator pull equal weight: the restless ingenuity of the director; the enthusiastic and uninhibited commitment of her ragtag ensemble; the flowing and pristine editing style of Joe Bini; and the sound technicians who have created a thrumming aural atmosphere that rattles and grinds with Rae Sremmurd, Rihanna, and a multitude of other mainstream artists whose boisterously-curated tracks are each invaluable components of Arnold’s splintered American sprawl.
Andrea Arnold is forging a kind of egalitarian filmmaking, where the individual efforts of each and every collaborator pull equal weight.
Yet it’s Ryan, Arnold’s DP-of-choice since her Oscar-winning short Wasp, who is the film’s most valuable player. In American Honey, Ryan’s camera masterfully shifts between the roles of hyper-attentive witness and roving participant, making gobsmacking use of natural light and crafting some of the most indelible images of his underappreciated career. He shoots leading lady Sasha Lane—playing our heroine, Star, an orphaned teenage runaway and the group’s newest recruit—with such intoxicating extreme close-ups that his lens all but grafts onto her like a second skin. When Star finds splendor in the grass with LaBeouf’s rakish, rat-tailed organizer, Jake, Ryan shoots their hook-up with such deep-down, bone-quaking intimacy that both actors appear to be sprouting up from the earth itself. Some of Ryan’s best shots veer away from the film’s human subjects to tell clever and concise stories all on their own: a frozen dumpster chicken oozing on the side of the road; a swarm of ants laying siege to a stray french fry in an empty refrigerator; a gummy bear clinging to the van’s sticky-hot window; the headlight of a passing truck morphing into a setting tangerine sun as it flickers and fades behind a line of trees.
These images unfold with the strange and subjective distortion of a daydream, but their beauty is grounded in an honesty about the world Arnold depicts. American Honey does not, at first glance, appear to be a political film; its political insights are not of the self-consciously pointed sort that works, Loach-like, toward one ultimate, all-encompassing plea. “If I’m making a film, it’s going to be influenced by me and what I’ve seen,” Arnold recently told The New York Times, the same publication whose article on cross-country “mag crews” inspired Arnold’s film. “[My film is] never going to be like a huge truth, because everyone’s truth is different. I’ve experienced America in a completely different way to anybody else, so it’s going to be my version.” Before the film went into production, Arnold made several solo road trips across America, where she encountered the type of debilitating rural poverty that she renders unflinchingly throughout Star’s voyage, as well as in Star’s own home life, which is characterized by grim flashes of empty refrigerators and sexual abuse in the film’s pre-getaway prologue. But unlike I, Daniel Blake’s righteous broadsides, American Honey’s treatment of inherently political subjects (race, class, gender, sexuality) is wrapped in ellipsis and ambiguity.
Tensions simmer and subside throughout American Honey, with Krystal, the crew’s mercenary ringleader, assuming the role of chief instigator. Played with a perma-scowl and a burnt-apricot tan by a magnificently viperish Riley Keough, Krystal is a nasty piece of work, a capitalistic Southern belle who offers her roustabout teens a freewheeling impression of freedom and family, all the while withdrawing herself to private motel rooms with Jake, her consort/flunky, to count and pocket their hard-earned profits. Her cure for boredom? Forcing the two lowest earners to savagely duke it out for the amusement of the group and their commander.
When Star’s arrival into the unit pushes Krystal out of Jake’s foremost affections and briefly disrupts the (cash) flow of things, she quickly makes herself a prime target for Krystal’s scabrous ill will. This is perhaps because Star is a charismatic, dreadlocked black woman impeding on the personal and monetary property of a Southern-bred entrepreneur. Star’s racial identity is never discussed in American Honey, nor is blackness in general, despite the omnipresence of black rappers and singers on the soundtrack and the fleeting black faces (aside from Star’s) that appear sporadically in the film. It would be easy for a screenwriter to pin Krystal’s disdain for Star as straightforward bigotry and categorize their strain as a deeper racial conflict, but Arnold sustains intrigue by never making this explicit. Instead, she leaves it up to her images and scenarios to slyly convey the prickly dynamic’s deeper meanings. In one scene, Krystal dresses-down Star while clad in a newly-bought Confederate flag bikini. Jake scurries around on his knees, smearing liberal amounts of tanning lotion over Krystal’s legs and nodding stonily in agreement as Krystal chastises his latest sweetheart. It’s a reassertion of dominance by way of decadent spectacle, where power comes in the form of racist iconography emblazoned on a skimpy piece of apparel.
By embracing an intrepid visual vocabulary and detaching itself from any decisive critiques, Arnold’s film achieves a depth of empathy that is afforded to just about every individual Star comes across. American Honey’s coming-of-age story unfurls like a patchwork flag, of which Star’s story is just one piece. She is our protagonist, but she is also just another passenger, traveling the same roads as everyone else. One of the film’s richest and most enigmatic scenes finds Star as a literal passenger in someone else’s ride, sitting shotgun alongside a soft-eyed, middle-aged truck driver to whom she’s trying to peddle off some magazine subscriptions. They talk about his love of sailing, even though he has never seen the ocean. He shows her snapshots of his just-married daughter, who might be close to Star’s age. He asks Star about her dreams—a question she has never been asked. At one point, Bruce Springsteen’s rumbling cover of “Dream Baby Dream” comes over the radio and the two sing along. Throughout all of this, Arnold’s direction remains impressively unhurried and her patience deepens the interaction’s mystique. The situation builds from the scenario’s latent sense of danger—i.e. young girl trapped in moving vehicle with older man—to instead etch a humane portrait of two weary travelers whose journeys momentarily intersect. When the driver ultimately buys some subscriptions from Star, his underlying motivation could be anything from pity to arousal to genuine interest. When Star parts ways with him, only to realize, with surprise, that she has been riding a cattle truck the entire time, this too complicates our perceptions without force-feeding us a message.
American Honey forcibly rubs and shoves against the boundaries of cinema until it spills out into its own paths, down which it can impulsively wander and explore.
If the politically-pointed but inevitably simplified I, Daniel Blake cements Ken Loach as a director who cares about the state of his country but doesn’t trust his audience to understand more than one message at a time, then American Honey solidifies Arnold as a filmmaker with faith in her audience’s ability to closely engage with her work and create their own meanings. Though not expressly political, American Honey reveals itself as a film that might be more in tune with the needs of a contemporary political cinema, especially one made in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump. (The latter actually gets a shout-out in an early scene of Arnold’s film, as LaBeouf openly wonders whether his dress pants and suspenders evoke the man who was only a far-flung presidential hopeful at the time of American Honey’s production.) Arnold is as aware of the painful parts of society as Loach is, but she sees in all directions and her film evokes a multiplicity of sides without passing judgments or spinning her narrative into a tale of us vs. them.
Star is undeniably an outsider, but in ways that diverge from the displaced identities of the mag crew. She stares in shock at the copious birthday gifts laid out in the living room of a white, upscale Kansas City family, whose house Jake has elbowed his way into, then seethes when their host condescends to them. Later on in the film, she retaliates against Jake by hopping into the backseat of a Cadillac driven by three greying cowboys, who take her home and plow her with tequila, all the while circling and staring at her like some eroticized Other. And then there is the late-film group singalong to the titular Lady Antebellum country track, throughout which Star is the only one in the crew to remain completely silent. She stares with nervous uncertainty as these white men and women sing a song whose words have never belonged to her, evoking a gated, time-honored industry—and thus an entire world—that she will never readily be invited into. In another director’s hands, this scene could be purely menacing, a millennial remix of Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” scene. But Arnold’s vision remains so hopeful that the moment isn’t purely exclusionary. At one point, QT (Verronikah Ezell), the crew’s endearing butch teddy bear, turns to Star and sings, finding and including her with a warm smile that seems to ward off Star’s encroaching disillusionment, if only for a verse.
American Honey forcibly rubs and shoves against the boundaries of cinema until it spills out into its own paths, down which it can impulsively wander and explore. It pushes the medium forward, but it also attempts to bridge the gaps in political cinema that few filmmakers can even discern. These changing times demand more directors like Arnold, who is doing something much more intricate than delivering messages or holding up a mirror to reflect the world as it appears. Arnold captures the desolation of the milieus her characters inhabit, but she refuses to withhold hope or beauty for the sake of starkness, or to ignore her poetic instincts in the name of sheer authenticity. Watching Star stumble and soar throughout American Honey, one can envision what political filmmaking might continue to become in the next few years: less a mirror than a window, opening outward onto an alternative view of the world, in which reality and imagination are not alienated, but allied.
Matthew Eng is a writer and editor with Tribeca Film who has contributed to Little White Lies and The Film Experience. He also co-hosts Asian Oscar Bait, a podcast that recounts true stories of Asians from history and pitches them to Hollywood as a way to boost Asian representation in the media. He lives in Brooklyn and believes there is no higher power than Gena Rowlands.
by Victoria Large
As part of the marketing campaign for writer-director Shane Black’s film The Nice Guys, Warner Brothers released a series of viral videos, one of which was a skit featuring the film’s producer, Joel Silver, crashing a press junket with its stars, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Silver berates his two leading men because their film is losing ground to its most direct competition, The Angry Birds Movie, which was based on a popular gaming app and opened on the same May weekend as The Nice Guys. “People only care about seeing what they know!” Silver fumes, adding that Neighbors 2, another production that opened opposite The Nice Guys, has the advantage of a “2” in its title. It’s a jokey video, but it isn’t far off base: The Nice Guys reportedly failed to earn back its $50 million budget at the US box office, and as I write this in mid-December, the current list of 2016’s biggest hits is packed with sequels, remakes, spin-offs, and adaptations—stuff people already know, and often stuff that is tied to hugely recognizable brands like Disney, Marvel (which Disney owns), DC Comics, and Harry Potter.
In 1987, when Shane Black made his splashy screenwriting debut with Lethal Weapon, an R-rated buddy-action comedy like The Nice Guys, it was one of the top ten box office hits of the year, as was Stakeout, another film from the buddy-action mold. While it’s certainly no shock that audience tastes have shifted in the ensuing three decades, the nature of the shift is telling. The media landscape has grown so much more crowded: with the rise of an overwhelming array of entertainment and distractions via the internet, and particularly via internet-enabled streaming services, even those who were once ravenous for pop culture may now feel glutted.
In 2016, following various pop culture conversations online quickly becomes exhausting; critics and bloggers burn through topics at an absurd pace—so much so that the conversation about something like the Ghostbusters remake felt tiresome before the film had even opened. At the same time, a film like The Nice Guys can get lost in the shuffle: it is neither the type of brand-name behemoth that generates widespread excitement and outrage with every teaser trailer, nor the type of film that is able to gradually build a buzz in the manner of a modest indie hit like The Lobster. The viral marketing video with Silver, Gosling, and Crowe may acknowledge this issue—even as it attempts to harness whatever it is that makes people hit “share” on social media—but it wasn’t enough to help The Nice Guys make an impression at the box office, and that’s too bad.
Though it maybe hasn’t found enough of its audience yet, I hope The Nice Guys eventually builds its own cult of fans, and I think it has a shot at doing so. After all, though Lethal Weapon is one of its most obvious spiritual siblings, so is the Coen Brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski, a weirdo comic twist on Los Angeles film noir that took ages to earn its reputation. The Nice Guys follows a bankable (in 1987) buddy-action formula, but it also takes endearing turns for the weird: there are dreams of talking bees, party guests dressed as mermaids and trees, and discussions of near-death visions of Richard Nixon. The phrase “action-comedy” might have unwelcome connotations for some readers—we’ve all seen plenty of cringe-worthy examples of both genres, and mention of combining them conjures images of actors spitting goofy one-liners while dodging fireballs—but Black and his cast give action-comedy a good name here. Rather than punctuating the action with one-liners, Black finds humor and absurdity in his characters and situations: a goon gives medical advice before breaking his victim’s bone, a character defensively throws a pot of coffee without realizing that it’s cold, and an action sequence that finds a character falling through two windows, only to be doored by one car and hit by another, unfolds with the antic energy of a Chuck Jones cartoon. Black’s humor doesn’t devolve into smug parody because he genuinely loves his genre, and here he offers his audience reason to share in his affection.
Yet while Black can reliably find humor in a cinematic shoot-out, the film’s story has some sharp edges. Set in 1977, The Nice Guys looks at its era with something less than nostalgia. The plot that brings Gosling’s morally compromised P.I. Holland March and Crowe’s hired thug Jackson Healy together involves the former’s search for Amelia, a teenage girl whose environmental activism gets tangled up in the flourishing ‘70’s porn industry. Amelia had a hand in producing the film’s MacGuffin, which is a print of How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?, an adult film that details the auto industry’s collusion against stricter emissions standards. The juxtaposition of Amelia’s youthful idealism and the sleazy exploitation of the skin trade is played for occasional laughs—such as when Amelia fervently insists that the nudity and sex in her political film are “just the commercial element”—but there’s a ruefulness here too, a reminder, perhaps, that the sexual and political awakenings of the sixties didn’t yield as much positive change as many hoped they would.
There’s a weariness running through Black’s characters as well. He has long been drawn to protagonists that are haunted or hurting: from Lethal Weapon’s suicidal Martin Riggs to the shell-shocked Tony Stark of Black’s superhero debut, Iron Man 3, the writer-director’s characters frequently come laden with emotional baggage. Unhappiness is not inherently interesting, but characters that struggle can often feel more realistic than those that don’t, and The Nice Guys gains a more complex texture because it follows people who are conflicted, sad, and flawed. March lives in a rented place down the road from the empty lot where the house he shared with his late wife once stood; he is literally and figuratively unable to rebuild. His daughter Holly visits the lot regularly, remembering her home and her mother—both lost in a fire. Meanwhile, Healy longs to feel “useful” but feels most useful when he’s at his most violent; pay attention to Healy’s brutality in the flashback to his “heroic” confrontation with an unhinged gunman in a diner, and you might remain a bit afraid of him for the remainder of the film. “Am I bad person?” March asks his daughter, and later in the film Holly asks Healy if he’s a bad person. The truth is that March and Healy aren’t nice guys—at least not all the time—but Black has a gift for giving life to likable but damaged characters: not-quite-nice guys (and gals) who are looking for a chance to be better.
Of course, Black’s affection for L.A. Confidential (and its forties and fifties film noir antecedents) is obvious here (this is made especially explicit by the presence of Confidential stars Crowe and Kim Basinger), and troubled characters have always populated film noir. The Nice Guys’ mean streak—springing from its noir roots—seems worth emphasizing as we reach the end of what was, for many, a bruising year. While I hope it’s clear that I find the film quite funny, it’s also a story where the main characters unravel the mystery, but people still get hurt. People still get killed. And systemic corruption gets most of the bad guys off the hook. By the end, Healy may have found a way to feel useful, but he’s also drinking again. Despite March’s climactic bit of narration: “And sometimes—sometimes—you just win,” this isn’t really a story about winning. It’s a story about trying, and digging for truth, and not letting uncertainty and despair prevent you from trying some more. Reflecting on it now, perhaps pitting a story like that against a long string of superhero and fantasy movies, perky animated fare, and broad comedies isn’t a recipe for box office success. The big movies that dominate each summer are pitched at massive audiences, and it’s hard to sell those audiences on world-weary noir, even if it’s cut with levity. Still, as 2016 comes to a close, there’s a resonance to a film where persisting in a corrupt and dispiriting world is a victory in itself.
Victoria Large holds and MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her writing about film has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You, and her short fiction has appeared in various print and online publications.
by Holli Carrell
In 1856, my great, great, great-grandmother crossed the Rocky Mountains in one of the first Mormon handcart companies. She had traveled from Glasgow to Liverpool to Boston to Iowa. Somewhere along the way, she sold her wedding ring for a sack of flour. I grew up being told that along the Rocky Mountains, before she reached Idaho, she sat down on the trail, in the after-dust of the handcarts, and told the company to go on without her. She was 24 and pregnant. I’ve always imagined she was very matter-of-fact about it. I hear her telling her husband she would rather stay back and die in the same voice she told him they were out of corn, or the handcart wheel needed repairing, or there was a rattlesnake in a bush.
I spent twenty-four years living in the rocky mountain region: a block of states that make up the most diverse terrain and climate in the United States. To understand what it is like to live there, you must appreciate what it is like to drive six hours—through mountain peaks, miles of desert terrain, red rock formations, salt flats, and forests—only to remain in the same state. In my experience, the distance of the land is part of the very makeup of its people. The summers are hallucinogenic-hot and dry, and your body feels the pressure of the land the same way you can experience claustrophobia in a city. People pride themselves on their endurance and stamina. Even if it snows six feet, there never are any snow days. Maybe it’s a hand-me-down from our ancestors who broke the land first for us, or maybe it’s just how we’d like to be seen.
Kelly Reichardt's sixth feature film, Certain Women, is a triptych based on the short stories of the Montana-based writer Maile Meloy. In the film, Reichart captures the quiet desperation, perseverance, and grace of a community of women living in Montana and doing their best to navigate through the struggles of day-to-day life. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once famously said that if women told the truth about their lives and experiences, "the world would split open." Through lightly intersecting stories, Reichardt shows us just this, while exploring the barriers we place between ourselves and others, with fierce emotional precision.
In the first story, we are introduced to Laura Wells (played by Laura Dern), a lawyer in Livingston who spends her days trying to appease her sulky client, a man named Fuller, who has fallen on his head in a workplace incident, lost his job, and is experiencing his first instance of systemic injustice. The Montana that Wells resides in is like a wintertime Stephen Shore photograph: sleepy strip mall parking lots and miles of untouched countryside are pinned beneath vast stretches of sky. Reichart intentionally shot on 16mm film so that we could see the texture and contrast of winter; the grime of rock salt and dead bugs stained on Wells’s windshield, and the lint on her sweater. As a single woman in a male-dominated industry, Wells sees the reality of her predicament as clearly as Reichardt does. She accepts the harsh reality that if “I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen" because there is no other option available to her.
Wells is a backboard for Fuller's verbal tantrums, his threats to make others pay for what has been done to him, and his musings that “all there is to do is buy a machine gun and kill everyone.” Wells tolerates Fuller's behavior not just because she is his lawyer, but because she is a woman and is expected to. Some reviewers have called Dern’s character “big-hearted,” and although I do think she feels for Fuller's situation it is too simple an interpretation, and no better than saying all women are innately compassionate or have a desire to bear children.
Fuller suffers from the vanity of the privileged, believing that in his moment of suffering he is the only person who has suffered. When Fuller breaks into a company building and takes a security guard hostage, Wells is called in by a male police force to draw Fuller out—an action they deem too dangerous for themselves. At the site, Wells is strapped into a bulletproof vest and handed a map, never giving any indication that this is something she is comfortable with or has entirely agreed to. In how many films have we seen a heroine entrusted with the task of mollifying an uncontrollable man or monster? Reichardt allows us to see the double bind: in order to be useful, Wells must temporarily forgo all agency over her body and sacrifice her personal safety—a reality that most women in this country, sadly, are not stranger to.
In an interview with Slant Magazine, Reichardt said that she is most interested in exploring “what is our relationship to each other. Are we in this all together or are we just supposed to make our way, keep our blinders on, and not care about the person standing next to us?” Wells is grappling with the same question when she visits Fuller in jail after an extended period. He is lonely, has lost his wife, and asks Wells why she hasn't written. Wells can only respond that “she just didn’t know what to say.” It’s possible that Wells’s statement is a comment on the failure of language to provide adequate comfort to those experiencing pain, but what is more discernible to me in these scenes is Wells’s struggle to determine how much of her inner life she is comfortable giving to Fuller with no foreseeable benefit.
Attempting to bridge the self-protective barriers I’ve placed around myself, in order to see my own emotional makeup in others, has been one of the primary obstacles in my life, and Reichardt allows us to see the difficulty of adult connection while never moralizing. She asks us to consider our obligation to those who suffer. What levels of selfishness we are comfortable with? Is it enough to bear witness to another person’s suffering; or are we, as witnesses, obligated to do more?
In the second story of the film, Michelle Williams plays Gina, a woman camping out with her husband and teenage daughter on riverside property that she has recently purchased for a part-time home. You don’t need to catch that Gina’s husband is the man Laura Wells is sleeping with to understand that there is a strain on the family. Williams is distant from her husband and teenage daughter (who seems to resent her mother more than the average teenager does). Williams is the reverse unhappy housewife and holds her position (obligation?) as the sole financial provider for the family like a weight around her neck. “No one asked me to help, but I kinda figured it out myself," she tells her daughter.
Even though Gina has a desire to build her home “right”—only sourcing local materials and using plants native to the ecosystem—she has a disconnection from the land and the damage that she is causing it that is similar to what she is experiencing with her family. Gina and her husband descend somewhat vulture-like onto the property of Albert, a man experiencing the early stages of senility who owns a heap of pioneer sandstone Gina is eager to buy. Even though Gina recognizes she should bring an offering to Albert, she doesn’t. Her expressions of quiet frustration, as she tries to lead Albert into a business deal and away from scattered small talk, tell us everything we need to know about her: her desire for the acquisition of the sandstone is larger than her sympathy for Albert’s condition, what he has lost, and is losing.
It's easy to judge a character's motivations and actions on screen, but when I watch a Reichardt film, I'm reminded that we are all just doing our best to find our way against tremendous odds. After Gina takes the rock off Albert's property, she admits guilt, but rejects the opportunity to give it back because “someone else will just take it.” We end the story with the image of her standing on her property staring at the sandstone with an unreadable gaze. She has guests over but stands away from everyone. Although the rock has been moved, it's still the very same heap of chaos. No rooms have been constructed, no relationships improved. Whether Gina is feeling satisfaction or sorrow—more likely some combination of the two—she is still very much alone.
In the last slice of the film, we open on a female rancher (Lilly Gladstone) who is working alone in the middle of winter caring for horses. The rancher’s need to break the crushing monotony of her solitude leads her to a continuing education course taught by overworked lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart).
Loneliness is like winter, and we feel the rancher’s desire to form a deeper intimacy and connection with Travis as clearly as we can feel the cold, frozen landscape that surrounds them. Friendship is too strong a word to describe the interaction that occurs between them on the handful of occasions they spend together. Travis is always in a hurry and is fixated on the distance from place to place. She can only see the four-hour drive from her main job to Livingston, the divide between a job selling shoes and a “good job” as a lawyer, the widening gap between herself and her female family members, and the difference between herself and the rancher.
Travis reminds us a little of a younger version of Reichardt’s first two characters. In her pursuit of achievement, Travis has lost sight of what exactly she wants, and is realizing that wealth and security do not necessarily mean a happier life. The rancher (who is never given a name in the short story or the film) has a connection to the land and her feelings in a way that the other women have learned to ignore. One evening, the rancher brings a horse to class so that Travis can enjoy a ride to the diner. She tells Travis to "don't think" and just do. It isn’t impulsivity that guides the rancher's actions, rather a trust that her emotions and decisions will lead her to the right place. She allows herself to be vulnerable and isn't preoccupied with looking foolish or acting “appropriately.”
After Travis drops the class because of the distance of the drive (or perhaps the developing intimacy), the rancher goes to Livingston to find her. In dark, half-lit scenes, we watch her wander the streets alone, juxtaposed beside glimpses of couples dining inside warm and brightly lit restaurants. In these scenes, the rancher reminds me of the prototypical cowboy-outsider in a western film, but instead of seeing the rancher’s independence and self-reliance, we see how isolated and lonely she really is.
It doesn't seem to be acceptable in our society to admit our need for one another unless it fits into a clean Nicholas Sparks model of heteronormativity. When she finally does find Travis the rancher admits "if I didn't start driving, I knew I wouldn't see you again, and I didn't want that." Regardless of whether the rancher is romantically attracted to Travis, or is longing for a deeper female friendship, Travis is unable to acknowledge or shoulder her need. Travis’s cool silence is reminiscent of Wells’s a few scenes before, and it’s tragic because we sense she could benefit from the relationship (by stepping outside of her own self-absorption) as much, if not more, as the rancher. They need one another.
Suffering is what unites us. The stories of our victories and defeats (and the murky middle-ground) formulate our collective truths and are embedded in our identities. My great, great, great-grandmother, Maria Brown Wright, eventually stood up, finished the trek to Utah, had nine children, and lived to be 81. The image of her sitting helpless and defeated in the dirt, however, is what I’m always drawn back to. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it’s because I see myself most clearly in that moment beside her. I need her story to understand mine. Adrienne Rich said that when a woman tells the truth about her experience “she is creating the possibility of more truth around her,” and I think we, as women, need this community of openness now more than ever.
During Sundance press interviews, Reichardt stated that Certain Women isn’t a political film, rather a “personal film of the small little life politics of everyday struggle.” Even though the spaces between the women in Certain Women are vast, Reichardt allows us to see how much they need one another; and by seeing the missed connections in their lives, we see the disconnection in ours. Reichardt is a master because she gives us permission to hope that her characters will find one another. She gives us hope that we'll find those connections ourselves. And despite that certain impossibility, she reminds us that none of us are totally lost, just still finding our way.
Holli Carrell is a poet living in Queens. She is a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Poetry at Hunter College where she was a teaching fellow. She has written for This Recording and has forthcoming work in Tinderbox Poetry Journal. She is originally from Utah.
by Karina Wolf
You believe in God but there are no special dispensations.
Remember January last, before 2016 revealed its bloodthirsty temperament? At the dawn of the year, I was 14 time zones in the future, in an Indonesian rice field, downloading David Bowie’s Blackstar. Through the speakers, there was Bowie, long-lost and familiarly himself — haunted, haunting, hinting at universes that we could only touch in imagination. Is there anything more thrilling than communion through art with another soul, the author-subject? This South Pacific island, one of Bowie’s favorite places, ravishes with its riot of scent and light, its tangle of textiles and jungle plants. Then there are the gods — storeys-high Hindu deities battling over our daily lives. Ganesh, elephant-trunked, bug-eyed, guarded the portal to nearly every house, promising protections and beginnings and also warning: the shadow side of beginnings are the endings that precede and follow.
A day later, Bowie died. Here’s my personal, completely tenuous identification to the Starman — he and my mother share a birthday and asymmetrically colored eyes. On some occasions, Bowie aligned his nature with his star sign, Capricorn, and I can see in him the humble understatement, the sober workhorse, the melancholy loner that his work masked and exposed.
This is all projection. This is all an imaginary conversation with myself. If art begins in some alchemical combination of a soul, a set of traditions, and some catalytic stimuli, it is completed in the interplay with another mind, an audience. The relationship is one of linked imagination. An artist is a cherished companion tied to the progress of our own years, one of many transitional objects to teach our own mortality. When the creator disappears, we, the audience, also disappear — our consciousness halved, our senses dimmed -- since a persuasive artist speaks more than we’d see or enounce ourselves. They leave, becoming a matter of record, what was signed and left behind, rather than a living responsive thing. We are bereft of their possibility and of our own. And what of harder sorrows -- in this year when so many of our most beloved became ancestors, how do the survivors get by?
Things we love, we love, we love, we lose.
The mind stutters when it encounters loss. Trauma is the great em dash of the mind’s storytelling impulse. This tension — between the comfort of meaning and the volcanic disjunction of emotion — troubles every frame of Andrew Dominik’s documentary, One More Time With Feeling. The film was devised to document the recording of The Bad Seeds’s newest album, Skeleton Tree. Its dramatic drive springs from the sudden death of Cave’s 15 year old son, Arthur, who falls from a cliff during a youthful experiment with drugs. What began as a document for Cave enthusiasts transforms to another kind of record. Arthur Cave has died but those he left behind are in their own spiritual bardo. They can’t quite exist in the living world around them. The audience makes an uneasy witness to this devastation. We are brought close to the onslaught of mourning — faces irradiated by loss, sorrow exposed like an unstaunched wound, the tests of self-reproach, guilt, and shame. The film is often so painful that it demands a degree of self-examination to justify watching it. The filmmakers, foremost, occupy this position: a movie about a public figure’s personal woe risks exploitation, mining a tragedy for prurient interest.
In part, the film’s ethical solutions are technical: director Dominik incorporates the production’s practical glitches, flares, soft or dropped focus, outtakes, to approach the subjects with respect, to allow these characters to author their own portraits. At times, the film becomes a mono-medium: we hear voices in intimate confession accompanying a blank screen, or we see the reflection of a camera crew without sound, dollying across a track to get a shot. In grief, we are all trespassers, even the mourners, creating a kind of distance through participation, always circling, never at the center.
The film endows the perspective of a shattered subjectivity. We meet human faces in planes or segments — nose then brow and eyes, chin and jaw, skull and shoulders. Warren Ellis, Cave’s protective djinn and creative shepherd, reaches out to us through a shallow puddle of focus. We see Cave from afar, as he sits in a studio lit like a space station. Plastically, the film recreates that uncanny quality of grief — when you recognize the weight of an event from the outside in. The look on your face informs you how you’ve been affected. Grief estranges a selfhood.
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator.
Nick Cave first appeared onscreen as himself in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. That film, a kind of filmic Humans of Berlin, forms a composite portrait by following a clutch of guardian angels who eavesdrop on the city’s mortal residents. Instead of hearing people tell their story, we hear what they tell themselves. The predicaments are direly relatable: estranged children, desperate women, men awaiting their expiration date. But the angels also find homeric old men, an amused and engaged film star in Peter Falk, and one ethereal trapezist who inspires an angel to take mortal form. When the angel becomes human, the film’s point of view transforms too — Henri Alekan’s shimmering black and white is replaced by clashing, cacophonous color: the human impulse for ornamentation in joyful competition. Bruno Ganz’s angel is delighted by this luridness, chooses the loudest patterns, savors the most strident hues. The film’s richest color is its red, a shade that seems to signify lust for life rather than merely libidinous desire. There is an elegiac quality to the film, but a redemptive one: mortality is where it’s at — pain, loss, pleasure are rewards when you opt to take part.
In that panorama, we meet rock star Cave, the intimate train of his thoughts overdubbed as he and his band deliver the final songs of a nightclub performance. Graphically, Cave is somewhere between an angel’s remove and a mortal’s sanguineous engagement. He wears a garnet shirt, but retains his undertaker’s pallor, hair pushed back in an inky slick, eyes shadowed. “One more song and it’ll be over. But I’m not going to tell you about girl,” Cave insists to himself. There’s sorrow in his thoughts, and there’s also craft, the workmanlike distance that a performer retains to be effective. He launches into ‘From Her To Eternity.’ “I’m gonna tell you about a girl,” he sings, reversing his inner rebellion. Here Wenders presents the paradox of inner life and public performance: does art cheapen a sentiment, or does it provide necessary distance to elevate and elegize it? Is the performer talking himself into a feeling, or allowing it to bloom? Is the audience achieving communion or a pornographic kind of titillation?
And I’m breathing deep and I’m there and I’m also not there.
Cave’s cameo appears close to the climax of Wings of Desire and feels suitably momentous: he carries a mortician’s gravity and preacher’s promise of redemption. His earlier band was called The Birthday Party, perhaps an allusion to the Harold Pinter play. In any case, Cave’s performances invoke ceremony. He’s always been a high art cleric cloaked in B movie trappings, a holy roller meets man in black.
In One More Time, Cave has styled himself more Lee Marvin than post-punk — an assassin’s uniform of polyester threads and aviators cloaks the rawness in himself. He has also shed his habitual reliance on narrative, replacing it with a compulsion for repetition and variation. The mind is more circular than linear, he seems to tell us. Events are not causal, but piled upon one another. His Skeleton lyrics are looping and insistent — slipping between slackness and authority, iterative like a prayer. There’s no room for storytelling now, although he grudgingly allows for the most basic of human narratives: birth, decline and demise.
“It’s strange to rehearse the chords when I don’t know what the chords are,” Cave muses over his songwriting. Onscreen, he clings to a word or a note until he can advance to find the next one. Like all arts, music can begin in improvisation — the songs’ components are depicted as a kind of clay, massaged and reshaped until the shape pleases them. The band doesn’t know what they’re looking for until they see it. As Cave gamely responds to the director’s interrogations and requests, one senses it’s because he has a measure of patience for experimentation in search of form. If he dislikes the prodding and personal exposure, he recognizes that the performative aspect of the documentary is a way of getting through. Play and playing music is generative.
For his part, director Dominik has chosen a set of toys to tackle his weighty subject — a black and white 3D camera, lengths of dolly track, oversize lights. They confer a godlike perspective in the intimacy of its faces, the remove of its greyscale, the majesty of its pans of skeletal Brighton Pier, deserted nightscapes, a cliff’s precipice. Even so, the musicians don’t always follow the film’s mandate: Cave and Ellis rankle at the tiresome technical breakdowns and invasive and artificial requests in service of non-fiction. “Fuck continuity,” the keyboard player says and grins. He’s referring to the beard he acquires between episodes of filming. But Cave, in his grief, has also been stripped of continuity — narrative no longer makes sense, consistency and logic have departed and offer no solace.
The intellect grabs wildly for meaning, as if meaning provides consolation. “I wish I could boil this all down to a greeting card platitude,” Cave implores. You have the sense that he’s agreed to the documentary as one in many attempts to wrestle with the illogic of Arthur’s death. When nothing is bearable, anything can be attempted. The only boon of trauma is the daring that accompanies it. Or there is no gift — survival is an enactment, a possibly empty ritual with an unknown outcome.
Portraiture comes up repeatedly: film crew becomes subject when Cave remarks that Dominik’s cameraman looks like Miroslav Tichy, a Czech street photographer. They line up a row of framed Tichy prints on the floor of a studio antechamber. Tichy fashioned his own pinhole camera for his work — candid peeps at the female form that have a dreamy softness, like a direct message from his unconscious to yours. In Dominik’s film, we find disassembled people looking for themselves, recognizably isolated by bereavement.
Somehow simultaneously the Cave family lives under the dark star of grief and outside themselves — perhaps this is the only way anyone can experience such a loss. What’s palpable is Cave’s wife’s deep fragility, the puppy-faced innocence of his surviving son, Earl, whose upturned nose and dark blue eyes impart the tender boy that Cave might once have been. The difficulty of the film and of the album crafted within it is that the death never transforms to metaphor and becomes manageable. Here are a man, a woman, a child, a group of friends wrestling with the world’s chronically unsolved problem, time. They are dealing with a permanent after, an irretrievable before.
One has the sense that Cave’s art has previously served as an escape. He’s an ardent creator, verging on workaholism. But trauma is not an inspiration for work, it’s a hindrance, and mediated experience doesn’t solve the problem of pain. At best art is a way to pass the time as you get through it, a problem that gives shelter, if only for seconds. The difference between me and the universe is that I have consciousness, Cave insists. That’s his middle finger to the contingencies of the mortal world — the most eloquent mind and voice fighting to make words and music.
Kelsey Ford, Senior Editor:
Breaking the rules, probably, because this is television, but it is by far the work I have thought about the most, talked about the most, laughed about the most, and returned to the most, from 2016.
2. Manchester by the Sea
I've already said so much of what there is to be said, but let me add: Michelle Williams.
I remember the silence in the theater after this movie ended. That's how I still feel about this movie.
If you haven't seen this documentary, I mean, jesus. It manages to be The Jinx but with a tickling competition.
5. Don't Think Twice
An overall lightweight film, but I still sobbed the whole way home, so.
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This is what all blockbusters should be. And, jesus, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
Probably the most fun I had in a theater this entire year. I think it's going to be very fun to watch Glen Powell's career.
8. Louder Than Bombs
I walked into this with high expectations, and even those expectations were shattered. This movie is so good, so heartbreaking, so strange, so funny. If you haven't seen it yet, please, do yourself a favor.
Andrew Root, Senior Editor:
1. The VVItch
I can't count how many times I've watched this masterpiece. By rights, I should be sick of it, but I could watch this slow-burn horror film again right now. I put it on last night to help me fall asleep. I have it on when I'm washing the dishes. I can watch it causally or intently, and there isn't a single thing about the production or execution that doesn't fill me with delight. I eagerly await a sequel, the entirety of which is Thomasin testing out her new powers and hanging out with her new friends. I also highly recommend Olivia Collette's excellent piece on how the music of the film functions.
I believe I wrote an article about this movie. This was one of about 15 angles you can look at this film from.
3. Hail, Caesar!
This film is what happens when you get all your talented friends together and let them show off their tricks. Its madcap energy and smart, nuanced tone (especially in its treatment of stupidity) is confident film making at its best. Plus, Alden Ehrenreich...have mercy.
4. Sing Street
This is the movie you watch when you want to feel like anything is possible.
5. Come Together (Wes Anderson's H&M Commercial)
What's captured in this short is how much hard work goes into a magical moment. I love how determined Conductor Ralph (Adrien Brody) and Assistant Porter Fritz (Peter Serafinowicz) are to provide a sense of home and warmth among the varied passengers—especially the unaccompanied minor—even if all they have to work with are paper snowflakes and chocolate-flavored hot beverage with whipped topping.
Lauren Wilford, Senior Editor:
I spent much more of 2016 catching up with older films than keeping up with new ones, so my top ten is just the top 50% of all the 2016 films I saw. Nonetheless, I liked these.
1. The Lobster
2. The Witch
4. The Innocents
5. The Neon Demon
6. Green Room
7. Love & Friendship
8. Swiss Army Man
9. The Fits
Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief:
1. La La Land
2. Manchester by the Sea
4. Hell or High Water
5. Sing Street
7. Swiss Army Man
9. The Nice Guys
10. Blue Jay
11. Pete's Dragon
12. Hail, Caesar!
13. The Witch
14. Don't Think Twice
15. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
16. Kubo & The Two Strings
17. Love & Friendship
19. Everybody Wants Some!!
20. Morris in America
Karina Wolf, Contributing Editor:
Elle - "she bought a gun the way other women buy perfume"
OJ: Made In America
A Bigger Splash - a poisonous quartet on a perfect island
One More Time With Feeling - portrait of a battered monument
20th Century Women
Hell Or High Water
Absolutely Fabulous - shouldn't admit this publicly but it made me cry (laughing)
Fran Hoepfner, Contributing Editor:
1. The Handmaiden
4. Little Men
5. Hell Or High Water
6. American Honey
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
9. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
10. Sing Street
Elisabeth Geier, Associate Editor
The Four Best Films I Saw in 2016
Beautiful, haunting, at times hard to watch, at time so seductive you want to jump into the screen and breathe in every color, every shoulder movement, every puff of smoke. An essential film.
Somebody on some podcast said "watch this movie" so I did without knowing anything about it, and I was charmed from the very first scene, and after it ended I looked it up and found out it was from the director of Once, which makes sense because a) Irish b) pop music c) romance and d) the way fantasy helps us survive reality. One of the most purely uplifting (without being corny) films I can recall.
A small, impactful movie full of lovely, funny, quiet performances. I never thought I'd laugh at a cancer patient planning her burial or sob to Train's "Drops of Jupiter," but here we are.
I saw Ghostbusters 2016 with the Blood Moon Coven, a group of female friends I met through nerd shit several years ago and convene with on Slack every day. In July, we gathered IRL and rolled into a Ghostbusters matinee in matching, emoji-printed sweatshirts. By far the best movie theater experience of my year. The movie isn't perfect, but I love it a lot. It delivers genuine laughs, a few good jump scares, and four of the funniest actors/comedians working today. In a year when America made it very clear how they feel about a powerful woman, watching four bad-ass ladies shoot a screaming man-baby in the crotch is what I NEED.
The Four Best TV Shows About Depression (and Other Stuff) in 2016
The underwater episode is my absolute favorite media anything I consumed all year. It is a visual poem; a long-form joke; a perfect episode of television.)
The Sexy French Depression Song = anthem
The perfect six-episode series for your Sunday hangover binge
Maria Bamford for President of My Life
Christopher Fraser, Operations Manager:
Oh man. I was really bad at watching films this year. But I really liked The Program, Stephen Frears's film about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Ben Foster's terrifyingly unhinged in it—it plays more like a thriller than an account of real events. Generally, though, I was watching films to cheer myself up in what has (in many ways) been a fairly garbage year. So I really liked The Nice Guys, Zootopia, Paddington and The Night Before—they're not necessarily quote-unquote movie-critic "good" (though The Nice Guys really is), but they put a smile on my face and that can make a huge difference when it seems like the world is going to hell. Those last two weren't released in 2016, but I can count the number of times I saw a film in a movie theater this year on one hand. Like I said: garbage.
Zosha Millman, Copy Editor:
1. La La Land
1. The Handmaiden
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
1. Personal Shopper
1. The Nice Guys
1. The Witch