Archive for the ‘2023 movies and television’ Category

I watched this tonight on the Criterion Channel. If you’ve hung around here for a while, you know that noir is one of my favorite genres, both in print and on film. I just find it fascinating expression of existential tension, both in general and in the context of mid-century, primarily post-war America. You can always find social anxieties and concerns expressed in genre films, whether they be action, westerns, science fiction or what have you.)

This was interesting, but not great. It’s Raymond Chandler’s only original script and (you will be shocked to hear) that the studio forced a change of the ending because didn’t want a serviceman depicted in a negative light. That’s not too much of a spoiler because there are three servicemen characters, and people, this is an almost 80-year old movie. I mean, don’t be mad, but guess what? Rhett leaves Scarlett and Rick makes Ilsa get on that plane.

Something I read offered that this movie could be seen as a precursor, in a way, to The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out a few months later. Of course the latter film is much better – a classic everyone should watch, today, if you can. I can see it – three servicemen just returned from the war, dealing with trauma, injury and family tensions. But of course Best Years is a deep-diving classic, while The Blue Dahlia is a relatively light, convoluted piece highly dependent on coincidence (Veronica Lake just happens to pick up a stranger on the road – who happens to be the trudging-in-the-rain Alan Ladd miles away from where her husband – a fantastic Howard da Silva – has had an affair with his wife. Sure, Raymond.)

That said, there’s a bit of snappy dialogue here and there, Alan Ladd is nice looking and short, William Bendix is traumatized, the female actors, including Veronica Lake are, as most female actors of the time except for the top tier tend to be, stiff. Doris Dowling’s screeching confession that no, her and Ladd’s son didn’t die of diphtheria during his tour – he died in a car accident! caused by her! drunk! driving! was not so much sad as incredible, in the literal sense. I mean, that’s a hard secret to keep, even when your husband is in the Pacific theater. Da Silva was the best part of the movie for me. Casually, confidently unctuous and thoroughly natural in his affect, he made the film.

Oh, and there’s this uncomfortable element – the Bendix character, as I said, has been injured. He’s got a plate in his skull, gets headaches, hallucinates a bit and reacts pretty violently to loud, jazzy music, which he shouts is “Monkey music!” Errr…Mr. Chandler? Really? Maybe that could have used a re-write, instead.

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What a world, in which a film in which characters say “Thank you for being born” is condemned as “pro-life propaganda.”

That’s what one writer said about Broker, the film by Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu, but set in South Korea and starring well-known Korean actor Song Kang-ho (perhaps known to you from Parasite), who won Best Actor at Cannes for the role. Thankfully, for the human race, that’s the only such critique I’ve read. Most other commentary ranges from raves to it’s okay. Not his best, but pretty, pretty good.

I saw Broker the other night at our local indie film venue. I’d expected a wacky, quirky Chosen-Family Road Trip jaunt, but that wasn’t at all what Broker is. It’s slow, a little messy, perhaps overplotted, ambiguous in its ending. It’s also a meditation on brokenness, connection, loss, empathy and mercy.

Quick Wiki synopsis:

Ha Sang-hyeon is the owner of a hand laundry and volunteers at the nearby church, where his friend Dong-soo works. The two run an illegal business together: Sang-hyeon occasionally steals babies from the church’s baby box with Dong-soo, who deletes the church’s surveillance footage that shows a baby was left there. They sell the babies on the adoption black market. But when a young mother So-young comes back after having abandoned her baby, she discovers them and decides to go with them on a road trip to interview the baby’s potential parents. Meanwhile, two detectives, Soo-jin and Lee, are on their trail.

There’s more, of course. Life in orphanages and the alternative play a big role. Dong-soo, the younger man, was left by his mother as a child and grew up in an orphanage himself. During the journey, they drop by the orphanage where they pick up a stowaway as they drive off in the laundry van – a cheerful little boy who takes his chance to get out.

Everyone comes into this with their own brokenness. Sang-hyeon is divorced and estranged from his daughter from that marriage. Dong-soo is still angry with his mother for leaving him. So-young is actually a prostitute and has committed another crime that makes her, at first, sadly determined to have her baby raised by others. Even the older of the two female detectives, Soo-jin – a great character, by the way – is carrying pain of some sort. It’s never clearly articulated, but there’s no doubt that she is filled with anger and judgment at women who are able to have children and then choose to give them to others to raise.

And what happens on this journey – for everyone – is the slow growth of empathy. Why do people do crazy, destructive and even evil things? There’s always a reason. It not be a good reason, and it may even be a rationalization, but there’s a reason. We gain nothing by not listening, we gain everything by trying to understand. We can each, if we choose, be a broker – facilitating a fuller life – for others.

I won’t tell you how it all works out – there’s Plot that Should Not Be Spoiled, but I’ll just end by honing in on that one scene that left the writer above seething.

The clip below doesn’t contain any spoilers. But it just might make you verklempt anyway.

It’s night, and it’s a hotel room.  Things Have Happened and Decisions Have Been Made. Everyone’s faced up to loss and the need, at least for one character, to face some consequences. Life is not easy or clean and will not ever be, but what a grace it is to be here at all – for whatever it is we bring to life, and most importantly, what our presence brings to those around us, whether we know it or not. The world and some in it may have tried to make us believe we are worthless and the world doesn’t need or want us, but it’s just not so.

You matter. It’s good that you are here.

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Last week, I watched two films on subsequent evenings, both of which attempted to use metaphysical fantasy conceits to illuminate the human condition. It was kind of weird.

This one:

And this one:

Considering I don’t like either conceit: multiverses or time travel, you might not be surprised to hear that I didn’t think one of these movies was that great. But you might be surprised to hear that I really liked the other. So…who gets the W?

Last year, the trailer for Everything Everywhere All At Once had me completely jazzed, and I believe I said as much in this space. Middle-aged woman considering the choices she’s made her life and that being worked out in offbeat weirdness which involves her kicking ass? I’m in.

I never did get around to seeing in the theatres, but last week, I watched it with Movie Guy Son (his second viewing – initial review here) and was….disappointed. And puzzled as to why it has been so rapturously received.

There was a lot to like here – the details of the family’s ordinary life. The performances, particularly from Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. The attempt to address the road not taken as well as the theme of how the choices we do make contribute to the person we are in the present. The reflection of the present moment of informational and experiential chaotic overstimulation – we can, indeed, almost feel that it’s possible to experience everything, everywhere all at once as we scroll and poke our screens – an experience that, as it does with Joy, the daughter, lead to anything but joy, but rather nihilism and helplessness.

But in the end, it just didn’t cohere for me. The crude humor – using sex toys as weapons – was just stupid. There was too much going on at the price of human interest. The multiverse idea had potential, but I felt, in the end, that the human relationships needed to be centered more. The biggest problem, I think, was that Joy – the daughter – was not fleshed out enough for her to make sense as the supervillain whose trauma is fueling this crisis. But that’s just one element –  the multiverse element is supposed to illuminate the “real world” – but to me, it just felt mostly tacked on. This is hard to explain, but as absurd as the multiverse material is, if it’s being tied to what’s happening in the “real” world – it itself has to feel “real.” YMMV, but it just didn’t to me, and I think it’s because – ironically enough – the family material – especially between Evelyn and Joy – wasn’t fleshed out enough for me.

On the other hand….not sure why I’d never even heard of About Time before. Granted, I am not a Richard Curtis fan – no Love Actually is not my favorite “Christmas movie.” But still, considering how sweet this movie was, you’d think it would have come on my radar before two people in my family allowed as yes, it’s one of their favorites. What?

So here the conceit is time travel, and I generally hate time travel plots. They just. Don’t. Make. Sense. Butterfly effect and all that. About Time certainly has plot holes and inconsistencies, but the human story of love and connection is so strongly and affectingly drawn, it doesn’t matter (to me at least).

Like Everything, this one is also about choices and the question of what would you do if you had the power to change past choices. Lessons are learned, of course, but what makes it work, in my mind, is not only the charm of the performances, but also the fact that sacrifices are made and loss is confronted forthrightly.

As I said, watching these movies back-to-back prompted me to consider how various genres and plot devices work to explore human problems, concerns, frustration and pain. Both of them land us in the same place in the end.

Everything is certainly about the questions we ask about what would have happened if….but on an even more fundamental level, it’s about the different selves that are within each of us right now, as we live and breathe, and the challenge to live as an integrated person – bringing the gifts and strengths we have as a friend, a daughter, a spouse, a worker, a creator, a parent…a person now sweeping the kitchen floor, a person now driving down the street to the drugstore, a person reading  book, a person praying, a person fighting for truth, a person trying to understand, a person online – what happens when we allow ourselves to live in a fractured way – and what would happen if we were to pull ourselves together and try to bring our whole selves into each moment, the present moment, right here?

About Time invites us to consider the possibility that even if we had the power to travel into the past and change things, such a power pales  – and even seems unnecessary and ultimately unthinkable – in the beautiful light of this messy, lovely, bittersweet ordinary life we lead, traveling through time, in the only way we really can – to this present moment, right here.

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The problem with the film adaptation of Dan Delillo’s White Noise?

There’s not enough of it.

White noise, that is.

Or spirituality for that matter, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

DeLillo’s book is (in part) about the landscape in which we postmoderns dwell, a landscape suffused with, well, white noise. A continual buzz of stimulation, information and entertainment that surrounds us, builds narratives and ultimately distract us from the issue that’s tormenting us all: death.

In Baumbagh’s film, while mostly watchable and entertaining in its own way – until the painful last third – we don’t pick up on that, we don’t sense that, we don’t hear or see any of that. It’s a mildly quirky suburban dramedy that resolves itself in near-sweetness, which the novel does not, at all. He captures the “white noise” of family life, but beyond that, no.  There’s really not much mystery here, and White Noise the novel is suffused with uncertainty and mystery. The most concrete example of this is the Toxic Event itself – its nature is never made clear or explicit in the novel, but in the film, oddly, it’s explained (a collision). I think that’s the movie’s biggest mistake, by far.

(There are others: Both Gerwig and Driver are a bit too young, Gerwig especially. In the movie, the youngest child, Wilder, is the offspring of the oft-married Jack and Babette, but in the novel, none of the children are fully related to anyone else in the family, which is important – the family is thoroughly postmodern – a collection of individuals. In the novel, Babette doesn’t appear in that last sequence of events.)

This isn’t a film I want to write about as much as I want to chew over it with someone else who’s seen it and also read the novel. There’s just a lot to say, notions and insights that emerge when I consider, not what the film includes, but what it doesn’t.

First off, please know that, um, I’d never read DeLillo before last week, when the coming film inspired me to check out the novel. It wasn’t as long as I expected, and I thought I’d knock it off fairly quickly, but that didn’t happen. It took me a good week to finish it, not because it’s impenetrable or dauntingly complex, but because it’s stuffed. I wouldn’t say it’s rich, either – just…stuffed.

And so I think this post will turn more on the novel than the film, with a bit of circling back at the end.

As I read White Noise I was put in mind of Walker Percy, and wondered if anyone had ever written comparing the two. A quick search didn’t turn up much, but yes: the vaguely apocalyptic landscape, the fractured family, the puzzled male protagonist, and – this is important – the medicalization of soul problems. When you are taking pills to ward off your fear of death, seems like that’s Percy territory.

Not surprisingly, I experienced White Noise (the novel) as not just a satire of contemporary American life, but also an exploration of spiritual presence and absence. Joshua Ferris lays it out quite well in this piece, so I’ll quote him. At length.

White Noise begins and ends with a ritual. The first is the cavalcade of station wagons arriving for the new school year, which Jack describes as a spectacle—“a brilliant event, invariably”—and which he has not missed in 21 years. It ends with the communal nightly pilgrimage to the highway overpass where he, his family and his neighbors witness the exalted sunsets that might be a temporary result of fallout from the toxic spill or something permanently deserving of awe. “[W]e don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread,” he says, as if commenting upon the entire phenomenon of white noise itself. In the end, neither he nor Delillo provides an answer.

Between these two rituals, the attentive reader encounters the high priest of Hitler Studies who tries to both evade and master death through his submersion in a “larger-than-death” figure; the ascetic-visionary-guru Murray Jay Siskind; the fundamentalist Alfonse Stompanato who discusses pop culture with the “closed logic of a religious zealot, one who kills for his beliefs”; amulets and vestments, like Jack’s copy of Mein Kampf, which he clutches to his chest at moments of discomfort, and his dark black glasses and heavy academic robe which bestow upon him “the dignity, significance and prestige” appropriate to priests; the rhetoric of exhortations as issued from some holy order found in Jack’s command “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan”; amulets like the visor Denise wears day and night and later the protective mask Steffie refuses to take off; glossolalia; invocations (“Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex,” “MasterCard, Visa, American Express”); the use of drugs, in this case not for ecstatic religious purposes but for death assuagement; numerology (“Is death odd-numbered?”); congregations, whether at the supermarket, on the overpass or in the classroom; superstitions (“It is the nature and pleasure of townspeople to distrust the city”); the miracle of Wilder’s unharmed tricycle ride across the freeway; and many other customs, rites and rituals, not only that of Friday-night TV, but Jack’s more “formal custom” afterwards of reading deeply into Hitler; the heavy visitation to the most photographed barn in America (“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender… we’ve agreed to be part of a collective experience,” Murray tells Jack, elevating a scene typically presented as a lament about the simulation’s preeminence over the real—the photograph of the barn over the barn itself—to one of overt religious import that better explicates Josiah Royce than Jean Baudrillard), and finally Babette’s very secular custom, conspicuously occurring in the otherwise inactive Congregational church, of teaching the elderly how to stand, sit and walk, later upgraded to eating and drinking.

This overwhelming litany of how Delillo fleshes out traditional religious elements in the post-Christian world of White Noise is not exhaustive. He has done nothing short of scuttling the entirety of established religious systems only to remake one, full of the same structures and accoutrements, out of the stuff of American cultural life, very often out of the same white noise that doubles in the book as the agent of death against which those structures and accoutrements are intended to protect. The protective devices of this new pseudo-religion meet with mixed success in giving comfort to Jack Gladney as he struggles with his death fears, but no matter. Their domain is not so one-dimensional as to provide only protective devices. They also reveal to him glimpses of greater meaning, of awe and of transcendence. Above all, they reveal that Delillo goes beyond cultural assessment in White Noise to show—if we didn’t know it already from The Names—that he is a writer deeply, almost preternaturally attuned to the eternal human encounter with what constitutes the religious and the spiritual.

Yes, you’re reading that having watched the film and wondering…what?

In another article (somewhere), I read about the character of Wilder, the youngest child in the family. Those of you who have only watched the film will find my description unrecognizable. What’s in the film in general is very faithful the book – what makes the adaptation so unsatisfactory is what is left out, which is a lot of important elements: most of all, the sense of white noise and the spiritual ghosts, including what DeLillo gives us in Wilder.

In the movie, he’s just a young child who is carted around and only speaks once, and whose presence, his mother says, makes her happy.

In the novel he’s quite different. His silence is often commented upon – it is not clear whether his worldlessness is a choice or a disability. He does make noise, though – especially one day when he cries, weeps and wails from dawn to dusk. This is an important and lengthy interlude in the book. No one knows what to do. Wilder just cries and cries. They take him to the doctor. He keeps crying. But it’s not just crying. It’s a profound, deep keening – DeLillo uses the word – that his stepfather experiences, in part, as something profound with which he feels a desire to connect. In the midst of all the distracting white noise, here’s a deeply human noise coming from a real place, and so Jack, being a human, and being a human who thinks about death, senses it comes from a place where he might find…something. “It might not be so terrible to have to listen to this a while longer,” he thinks.

The family members’ responses and interactions with Wilder are almost like those of worshippers to a holy presence in their midst – they take care of him, they fawn over him, they respond to him ritually (yes yes yes yes). And in the end, when Wilder mounts his tricycle and rides across all the lanes of the highway without being harmed, we sense that he is, indeed, something special – even if that specialness resides in his innocence and, in the midst of a world that fears and denies death, his fearlessness.

Baumbach either didn’t understand or chose to ignore the spiritual implications of White Noise. It really is, as Ferris says, a book that invites us to look at and listen to the world around us and consider the possibility that we are still worshipping, we are still ritualizing, we still are looking for miracles and listening to sacred texts, and none of it seems to be helping.

I want to say something about the closing credits sequence. It’s a long (8-minute) stylized dance routine, involving all the characters, in the, bright, gleaming A & P. In White Noise, the supermarket functions in the same way the village church would – a gathering place, a place to build community, to fill one’s needs, to admire human ingenuity and creativity, but today, controlled and given, rather than evolved from who we are in an organic way. I suppose Baumbach conceived this sequence a way to communicate that. A supermarket scene closes out the novel, as well. But let’s look at the difference:

In the novel, the last chapter is composed of three scenes: Wilder with his tricycle, the gathering to watch the sunset, and then the supermarket. But what happens in the store? Well, the shelves have been rearranged. People – especially older people – are confused.

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.[…]They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

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