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Monday, March 04, 2024

American Fiction

I cannot rightly claim to have read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” on which “American Fiction” is based, and so I can’t say what is similar and how they differ, and which is best. But I have seen Spike Lee’s 2000 satire “Bamboozled” in which a Black television writer creates a Black minstrel television show out of anger at the medium’s misrepresentation that becomes a hit instead. It’s not an unfair comparison because the narrative is eerily reminiscent of the one in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of “American Fiction,” and it’s a useful one, too. Because whereas Lee’s satire is truly that, exaggerated, hyperbolic, Jefferson has virtually strained all his satire out, melding it with a domestic drama rendered in such a polite aesthetic that the caricature mostly just plays as regular old comedy. There’s an early scene when author and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is on his phone, detailing how racism doesn’t really exist while a cab drives right by him, picking up a white passenger instead. It’s a familiar joke that Chris Rock radically re-altered a quarter-century ago (!) in his Bigger & Blacker stand-up special, an inadvertently deft illustration of a movie that wants to comment on the times yet feels behind them, nonetheless. 

“American Fiction” begins with Monk being placed on temporary leave by his university after putting a problematic, in the parlance of our times, Flannery O’Connor quote on the markerboard. The presentation of this moment, however, in which an offended student walks out, is less provocation on the movie’s part than evocation of Monk as a man out of time. His terminal lack of place is underscored at a literary seminar where he leaves his poorly attended panel for a packed one with Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) who has become the toast of the publishing world with a book titled We’s Live in Da Ghetto, exploiting the sort of African American stereotypes that Monk detests, and are eaten up by white liberals with a spoon. Between the standing ovation that follows, and the blackened bar to which Monk repairs after, he is rendered as essentially invisible, a modern version of Ralph Ellison’s famous protagonist. 

In a fit of rage, Monk pens his own version of the same sort of book under a pseudonym, My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh. Intending it merely as a middle finger to his own industry, it becomes a best-seller, necessitating a cover story, that his pseudonym belongs to a wanted fugitive, meaning he cannot appear in person to promote the book. Even as the lie grows, Monk is forced to deal with more grave matters back home in Boston. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) dies of a sudden heart attack, leaving the distant son to negotiate his mother’s (Leslie Uggams) descent into Alzheimer’s while also struggling to corral the impulses of his newly divorced and gay brother (Sterling K. Brown). 

The more traditionally dramatic scenes at home begin well, especially in the chemistry that Wright and Ellis Ross achieve in their scenes together, movingly embodying two people who clearly have not seen one another for a long time yet share a history they can’t deny. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s unfortunate her character has to die to trigger the narrative, and that the history their characters share never feels as charged as it does with anyone else. Monk’s mother, his brother, especially his late father, the roots never go all the way down, these characters and relationships just skimming the surface, too obviously revealing this whole parallel narrative as an allegory for the sorts of Black stories that Monk would rather see in popular culture. The dueling storyline of Monk’s book success, meanwhile, feels like satire directed by, well, the dude directing the other half of the movie, gently humorous rather than humorously bracing, and oddly unimaginative. The one scene from My Pafology played out as fantasy comes across staged and deadened rather than an illustration of the imagination, and the worldwide phenomenon of his book never really comes through.

It would have been interesting to see Wright’s restrained performance contrasted against a truly explosive satire, a man who can’t put back in the box what he has unleashed, but as it is, he melds with the tamer impulses of this “American Fiction” anyway. It’s as if Monk is never entirely committed to playing Stagg R. Leigh in the first place, and as if the walls confining a Black artist in this world can’t really be breached. That’s what makes the end, of all things, the best element in the movie, which brings it to a conclusion though something apart from a true resolution, Wright playing his final act as a kind of weary sigh, resigned to sacrificing himself, in a manner of speaking, for nothing much at all.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

As part of its Settle In series, “six films that test the limits of runtimes,” the Gene Siskel Center here in Chicago recently screened “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Based on the famous 1929 German novel by Alfred Döblin, the 1980 adaptation written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was originally presented as a television miniseries in West Germany, 13 parts plus an epilogue running 902 minutes. That’s nine-hundred-and-two, a little over fifteen hours, if you’re keeping score, which I certainly was, and My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and our friend Chad with whom we went to see it were probably keeping score too. It was too long for the Gene Siskel Center to condense into a single day, in fact, prompting two showings on Saturday and Sunday, February 3rd and 4th. That was the day after Groundhog Day, of course, which in many respects has become as associated with living the same day of your life over and over thanks to the Harold Ramis 1993 movie borrowing the holiday’s name. And it was appropriate that our showing of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” coincided with Groundhog Day weekend since, honestly, Sunday felt a lot like Saturday. Our alarm went off at the same time, we caught the train downtown at the same time, the movie started at the same time (11 am), the three of us stood in the exact same place at each brief intermission, chatting and stretching as we geared up to go watch some more, we essentially ate popcorn (which was made free) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “I think I’m tripling down on the popcorn,” Chad said at the second intermission on our first day and My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I followed suit. It was only two days, I know, not the seeming lifetime that Phil Connors lived in “Groundhog Day.” But then, have you ever watched a 15-hour German movie about the doomed Weimar Republic over the course of two days? It feels endless.

I don’t mean this as a criticism. Rarely, if ever, has my experience watching a movie so effectively mirrored the movie itself, not just its immersive nature but the almost punishing emphasis on repetition and the habituating plight of its main character, Franz Bieberkopf (Günter Lamprecht). He is released from prison as the movie opens after serving four years in the murder of his girlfriend Ida and into a Berlin that is a mess of conflicting interests and ideologies, and Franz himself is nothing less than a walking, talking confliction, a hectoring brute, and a happy buffalo, in one astonishing sequence falling off the wagon by drinking three beers and cooing to each one like it’s his little newborn baby, as amusing as it is devastating as it is gripping, more gripping, in fact, than most movies these days in total (see photo above). As it demonstrates, Franz is determined to stay on the straight and narrow but can’t, swept along in the economic, political, and social maelstrom, and never quite smart enough to realize he’s stupid, making the same mistakes again and again. Fassbinder underlines this in ways as small as the relentlessly blinking neon light outside Franz’s apartment, or the roughly sixteen-thousand glasses of kummel he imbibes, and big, like the murder of Ida, seen in flashback over and over, and not just a flash but the whole gruesome thing, a sin for which he cannot atone. All this might call to mind the Biblical Job, but the real parallel is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which the narrator essentially quotes mid-movie, “Man’s fate is like that of the beasts,” adorned with images of a slaughterhouse, equating Franz Bieberkopf, and man in general, with animals biding time until they are butchered. 

The epilogue, then, when it arrives, is as discombobulating as it is refreshing, in a sense. Driven to madness, and into a mental asylum, much of the concluding Part XIV is a trip into Franz Bieberkopf’s psyche. There is so much happening here, and it is all ripe for literary study, but as movies in this vein often are, it’s best just to let yourself go and feel your way through the aesthetic punchbowl. What has very much been in a movie set during 1929 suddenly feels of its own time in the hairdos and disco balls and angels that are like less glam versions of Ziggy Stardust, as My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife noted, yet not of its time either, with Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and Velvet Underground on the soundtrack. Released in 1980, it was a year ahead of MTV, and if you told me Fassbinder’s epilogue inspired a legion of confounding Bonnie Tyler-like MTV music videos, that reading would be as good as any. Whatever it is, it’s what I was in the mood for, whether I knew it or not, having been in a movie theater for virtually two days straight, my knees and back beginning to ache, filled to burst with popcorn, my mind swimming from a Voodoo Ranger IPA, ready to leave but still needing to stick it out, I felt like I was starting to hallucinate and so does the movie, two moods merging as one. When we came to, Franz Bieberkopf seemed not found, though not quite lost either, more like the fleshy antithesis of “2001’s” Star Child, reconciled, and without thought, sleepwalking toward, well, 1929 Germany, you know what.

Afterward, standing on the sidewalk outside the Siskel Center in the darkness, the weekend somehow going by in the blink of an eye despite spending it watching a 15-hour movie, Chad, who had proposed the idea in the first place, thanked us for accompanying him on the journey, before noting, circumspect but not necessarily critically, “I probably wouldn’t do it again.”

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Lessons in Darkness (cont.)

In a Best Picture race that is all but over, Werner Herzog at least threw a little more flour into the dying flame with his controversial, or maybe just confusing, remarks on Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” Talking to noted horse’s ass Piers Morgan, the eccentric and esoteric German director was asked to weigh in on the Barbenheimer phenomenon that in so many ways defined moviegoing in 2023. Herzog confessed he had yet to see “Oppenheimer,” likely Best Picture winner, but of “‘Barbie,’” he said, “I managed to see the first half-hour. I was curious and I wanted to watch it because I was curious. And I still don’t have an answer, but I have a suspicion – could it be that the world of ‘Barbie’ is sheer hell?” Of course, Herzog also admitted he had only watched the first 30 minutes of “Barbie,” which perhaps ruled his view out of order, though plenty seemed to suggest he was just out of order in the first place. 

Though like most takes on “Barbie,” if not most takes in general, this one could stand to just be laughed off and ignored, I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in, nevertheless. After all, astute readers might note that this blog’s banner deploys a phrase - The Ecstatic Truth - of one Werner Herzog. What is The Ecstatic Truth? That can be hard to pin down. He sort of laid it out many years ago in a 12-page speech in Milano, Italy, translated by Moira Weigel, describing The Ecstatic Truth as “the enemy of the merely factual.” In his discursive manner, he eventually arrives at another explanation, describing “a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft.” He submitted another version of that same sentence in 1999 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, transcribed by the late Roger Ebert who deemed it the “‘Minnesota Declaration’ of (the director’s) principles.” “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema,” Herzog explained, “and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”     

Fabrication, and imagination, and stylization? Werner, baby, that’s “Barbie.” But then, as some on social media suggested, was Herzog even really insulting “Barbie,” or was he complimenting it in his own enigmatical way? After all, the final point of his 12-point Minnesota Declaration is this: 

“Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”

I mean, could one not argue that is “Barbie?” Barbieland is life in a pink-hued ocean of artificial hell, and in traveling out of Barbieland to the real world, and eventually passing from plastic doll to human, Barbie herself has evolved, crawled, and fled, with a conclusion suggesting nothing if not the Lessons of Darkness continuing. “Oppenheimer” can have Best Picture, mate, no worries; “Barbie,” on the other hand, found something deeper, the poetic, ecstatic truth.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

One Perfect Moment

It might seem strange to consider Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” (2007) in conjunction with Wim Wenders’s “Perfect Days” (reviewed yesterday), even if, like me, the former is a movie you are thinking about all the time. “Perfect Days” is a contemplative drama in which nothing much happens. Indeed, nothing much happening is the point. It is a portrait of mindfulness, of a man, Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), fully aware of and present in the moment, and how he seeks to remain that way each successive day. “Michael Clayton” is a fast-moving crime thriller with a jigsaw plot structure and an eponymous character (George Clooney), a law firm fixer, who is anything but mindful, his mind always churning instead, eternally on the clock, evinced in the opening scene’s early morning consultation. He is dealing with familial strife stemming from a deadbeat brother, and a bar business that went bust in part because of his deadbeat brother, and a mob debt on account of the bar business that went bust, and trying to wrangle one of his firm’s lawyers who has gone off the deep end, or maybe just come to see the light, making a case against his biggest client who, in a way, Michael starts making a case against too, all of which comes to a head during a fateful drive through the country roads of upstate New York in a car with a bomb wired to the GPS by two corporate hatchet men who are tailing him, or trying to, and trying to find the right moment to trigger the explosion. 

The contrasts extend further than the narrative too, and to the character, the performance, the framing. Hirayama is frequently seen alone in “Perfect Days,” but he is not alone, whether reading in his small apartment by lamp, or eating alone at a noodle bar, a picture of contentment. In images of Michael Clayton alone, on the other hand, he is the furthest thing from. When he’s sitting at a police precinct, waiting for the off-the-deep-end attorney he is struggling to corral, Clooney puts his chin on his hand, staring into space, and you can practically see his mind on everything. One of my three-hundred favorite moments in the whole movie is when Michael is in his office and on the phone with a client and says “Let me get a pen,” even though we can see he already has a pen in his hand, and as he momentarily lowers the phone, pretending to go find a pen, he comes across as a bone-weary man trying to steal a moment for himself in a world that won’t let him have it.

There is one moment ostensibly confounding moment in “Michael Clayton,” “the case of the three horses,” as a Roger Ebert Answer Man column put it the year of the movie’s release. This moment occurs at the climax, when Michael is driving around upstate New York, and suddenly pulls off to the side of the road, and gets out of his car, and ascends a small hill, all because he is riveted by the semi-surreal sight of three horses all on their lonesome in the early morning light. It’s true that Gilroy has planted little seeds in the narrative to make this make literal sense for the message board-styled critics, but it’s also true that you could not so much interpret this moment a thousand different ways as project what you think this moment means a thousand different ways, as Googling “Michael Clayton horses meaning” will attest. But a movie is only “exactly what is shows us,” as the esteemed Ebert also once noted, “and nothing more.” And what we have is an unmindful man who, for the first time all movie, becomes fully aware of the moment, and only the moment, and as his car going up in flames over his right shoulder illustrates, that newfound mindfulness saves his life. 

Monday, February 26, 2024

Perfect Days

Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho) wakes every morning in his small Tokyo apartment naturally, no alarm clock, to the sound of a woman sweeping up outside, suggesting the sleep of the contented. He trims his salt and pepper moustache and steps outside, stopping to glance up at the sky before grabbing a canned coffee from a nearby vending machine and setting forth on his job cleaning public toilets across the wide expanse of the Japanese capital, evoked in the name emblazoned on the back of his blue uniform, The Tokyo Toilet. When he’s done for the day, he cleans up at a public bath, grabs dinner at the same subway noodle shop, and then settles in for the evening, reading, usually a classic, until he turns out the lights and goes to sleep, seeming to dream in half fragments of the day he’s just experienced, like he really does live 24 hours at a time.

These are Hirayama’s perfect days, in other words, and for an hour of this two-hour movie, this is essentially all it is, plotless, and defined by the smallest variations, slight changes in camera angles, a different cassette tape on his way to work, Van Morrison one day, Lou Reed another. At lunch in the same park each afternoon, from the same bench, Hirayama looks up at the trees, noting the cracks of light between swaying leaves, snapping a photo that he files away with the hundreds and hundreds of photos before, suggesting “Perfect Days” as a sort of cinematic version of Monet’s haystacks, intending to capture the small shifts in the everyday.

Initially, there is no drama, no real conflict, even his job, suggesting something unpleasant, features no more trouble than an annoying co-worker and a still-drunk salaryman stumbling for a place to relieve himself. Gradually, however, hiccups emerge. His annoying co-worker up and quits, leaving Hirayama to cover two shifts in one day. His niece shows up announced, leading her mother, his sister, to come find her, leading to brief, cold interaction hinting at familial drama. An interruption of a routine toward the end prompts Hirayama to buy beer and cigarettes, suggesting an addictive past. But that’s all these are, suggestions, as Wenders pointedly refuses to fill in blanks, never following up on these narrative strands and forgoing a voiceover that might have provided more clarity. That, however, is not the kind of clarity Wenders seeks.

Though Hirayama favors legacy acts on his musical cassette tapes, one artist he does not play is Bruce Springsteen, though I kept thinking of him anyway, and how his work in the 90s, both released and unreleased, is packed with his own variations of lines about slipping, or shedding, his skin. Hirayama has shed his skin too, and all these encounters signify fragments of the past he has left behind. And that’s where they remain, too. They do not alter his future, because in “Perfect Days,” there is no future, and there is no past, there is only now, a line he literally says at one point, which, for a minimalist movie, I honestly could have done without. And that only goes to show why “Perfect Days” requires no voiceover; whatever he says, would be redundant. 

What needs to be said is said in Hirayama’s face, in his expression, in his looking to the sky, in the way he cracks open his can of coffee, in the way he leans back at the noodle bar, so that you can practically see contentment wash across his face. More than merely a man sticking to his routine, “Perfect Days” is a portrait of mindfulness. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

“The Match Factory Girl” brought Finnish director’s Aki Kaurismaki’s Proletariat Trilogy (see: two previous Friday Old Fashioneds) to a close by essentially mirroring the execrable downward mobility of the exploited working class. Indeed, it is the grimmest of the three, by far, and perhaps why it’s also the shortest, running just seven minutes over an hour. If it went any longer, you might be tempted to drink rat poison yourself. But then, I’m sort of giving away the end. No, “The Match Factory Girl” appropriately begins as an industrial montage, two minutes taking us through the processes of the eponymous workshop, seeing exactly how a matchstick, or matchsticks, get made. You’d be forgiven, in this moment, for thinking the machines have won, and not in the Marxist utopian sense but in a John Mellencamp writes an album about Skynet sense. It takes two minutes before we see a human being, Iris (Kati Outinen), working on the matchmaking line, and even then, it takes several more minutes before we hear a person speak. And when we do, it’s not her, it’s her father, and when he does, you wish he wouldn’t, not once, not ever again.

Iris still lives at home, even though her parents treat her like dirt, and falls in love with a man, Arne, who thinks she’s a prostitute, and when she gets pregnant with his kid, he tells her to get rid of the brat. It’s relentless, this movie and her life, living as existing as a series of gut punches. In long shots, Iris seems to disappear amid her drab surroundings, the bleak(er) Nordic version of the Milford Academy stressing that one should be neither seen nor heard. In close-ups, she betrays nothing, her unforgettable visage, the slope of her forehead, like a human eave, the daily rain of b.s. rolling right off. And though Kaurismaki’s entire trilogy might exist on a muddy line between crying and laughing, “The Match Factory Girl” stretches that line the furthest, a movie that virtually sacrifices any kind of commentary to simply sustain itself as one, long grim mood, pushing you and her to the breaking point until finally, at the end, it figuratively twists its lips into a blackly comic grin. Sometimes you just have to laugh knowing that the world is a hellhole from which there is no escape. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ten Biopics + One

If you thought Peter Jackson’s 3-part, 468-minute “Get Back” was as close to a definitive, what-else-do-we-need experience of The Beatles, a rock n roll band from Liverpool, as we were ever gonna get and/or needed, think again. This is 2024, son, savvy? Rather than leave the people wanting more, we seek to give the people more than they ever needed, or better (worse) yet, wanted, and so Sam Mendes has announced plans to make four Beatles movies, one biopic each of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, sort of the cinematic version of each member of four-person Kiss recording his own solo album in 1978. And that, as it absolutely had to, got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about what band I would want to see get the same treatment.

There are so many ways to go here, too many fact, so many that no matter how many bands I mention, I leave myself open to comments of “What about…” and “You didn’t mention…” Still, it’s too tempting not to attempt. Dueling Hall & Oates film would be sublime. Three Smashing Pumpkins joints would be great, mainly because I imagine Billy Corgan demanding final cut on all of them. If my faux movie studio had unlimited funds, I would green light a movie about every Go-Go in a heartbeat. But the only suitable answer, at least from where I’m blogging, has to be Fleetwood Mac.

The only real problem with a Peter Green movie followed by a Jeremy Spencer movie is that we would need 60s Dennis Hopper to direct them both.

The Fleetwood Mac rhythm section will be combined into one movie, recounting the period when Mick Fleetwood and John McVie just tried holding the whole thing together between Green & Spencer and Buckingham & Nicks.

The Christine McVie movie would cool things off, at least a little. 

There would be six Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham movies, three each, all of them answering the one before it.

Buckingham I. 
Nicks I. 
Buckingham II. 
Nicks II. 
Buckingham III. 
Nicks III.

Then a Stevie Nicks solo movie.