New Nonfiction: “Uncut Gems” essay
Recently, I caught up to the party and finally watched Uncut Gems. The first time through, my mind wandered a bit at times and there were some occasions on which I wondered if perhaps I’d been conned, even if I did find it entertaining enough for the most part. However, when it wrapped up I found myself thinking that the closing scenes of the movie are among the most effective I’ve seen in any movie, and unsettling in ways that overlapped with some of the best horror movies I’ve seen. Something about how everything came together for such an effective climax made me want to understand more about what went into achieving the effect, even if it meant reconsidering some of those moments when my attention strayed. I started jotting down an occasional note about something that stood out about the movie, and then another and another. A page of these random thoughts became 3 became 5 became 10, and eventually I had a few solid pages of real writing behind which emerged some converging themes, and now…whatever this has become.
(VERY HEAVY SPOILERS in the essay, including both images and text. Allusive references to potential plot spoilers below, but this intro is meant for a general audience that includes people who have not seen the movie. It’s rare that I think spoilers are very significant, though I always try to be considerate of others with them. In this movie, however, I strongly urge you to go in knowing as little as possible. If you haven’t seen it and there’s a chance you will, I’d urge you to see it before reading the essay. Every aspect of the plot is discussed.)
Here are a few things this piece of writing has become for me personally: at about 9,300 words, it’s the longest piece of nonfiction writing I’ve done outside an academic context, and second overall only to my thesis. Hopefully not too many of those words are repeated needlessly. It is the longest piece of non-researched criticism I’ve done (I did skim some reviews and am aware that some of these have touched on a couple of the topics I explore, but I’ve neither sought nor seen anything that attempts to look at the film as closely as I’ve ended up (compulsively) doing…You’re not my teacher, you can’t tell me what to do!). The essay is the longest piece of film writing I’ve ever done by far, and indeed the only “serious” film writing I’ve done since the lone film class I took as an undergraduate 17-18 years ago. It’s a piece of writing that has highlighted something that’s always been there for me as a literature student but that I’ve recently begun to appreciate more deeply, which is the wide variety of ways in which learning about one piece of art teaches us about a whole lot of other art, in both a general and specific sense. While writing this essay, Uncut Gems had me pondering a wide selection of movies I’d seen before that encompasses but is probably not limited to the following: Funny Games, Run Lola Run, Rounders, It Follows, Poltergeist, Requiem for a Dream, U-Turn, The Big Lebowski, Leaving Las Vegas (all of which I heartily recommend). If I had to sum things up, I’d point the curious prospective viewer toward the first three movies I mentioned as touchstones while disclaiming that it would be by far an insufficient comparison still.
I jotted down several pages of notes after one viewing, but at that point I had not yet really decided to do anything with them. After a second watch, I had the feeling that I’d created, after all, a solid framework of initial observations for a thorough understanding of the movie. Also, I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about it. I’m sure there is still a lot I haven’t noticed, but there is so much detail packed into every aspect of the filmmaking that I’m sure ten watches (pun always intended) wouldn’t do the trick either. I’m also sure there could be a few observations in the writing that are a bit off, but I think the general directions in which I’m casting about have held more merit the more closely I’ve looked at them.
It seems to me that there is a unity of purpose between the themes and techniques that begs to be examined closely, and they come together in a way that only the most effective films manage. Except perhaps to clarify a minute detail or prove a point to someone I’m arguing with, I don’t think I’ve watched portions of important movie scenes frame by frame since I took that one film class, but I’ve felt compelled to do it in several key scenes here. That final class project required groups to do a deep enough analysis of a scene that it would take up most of a class meeting. Our group did the final 30 seconds or so of Double Indemnity, a fantastic project to have worked on and something I’d encourage anyone to do some time. I certainly didn’t expect at the time to be thinking back on it at age 39 in this way.
Perhaps more than anything, Uncut Gems has made me ponder the fact that for every “big idea,” in art and elsewhere, there are a thousand little ideas that have to work in harmony to make it happen and countless little accidents that you have to roll with and make work in concert with what you’ve already accomplished. I wanted to know what those ideas and decisions were, or at least try to divine them from a closer inspection. As in every movie but which we so easily forget through acclimation (again, a point that coheres with part of my interpretation of the film), everything that appears in frame and everything you hear was a decision of some kind made by someone, even if there was an accident that was preserved in post-production. Since learning this basic principle in that literature and film class, it has always stayed with me and, I think, made me a better movie watcher, better reader, and better music listener. Rarely have I had as much occasion to make use of that basic fact than with this movie: costumes, sound mix, performance theory…there is a lot to talk about, as with any movie, but here it all comes together in a way that creates a truly stand-out, complex experience worth understanding deeply.
As for what I’d read of the movie before seeing it, that consisted mostly of the basics that everyone hears about the movie: great performance from Sandler, fast-paced, anxiety inducing, New York. As impressive as Sandler’s performance is (though I will disclaim he as a person is a significant part of my hesitation to watch the movie), I was equally taken with the character Phil, played by Keith William Richards. I have not seen a performance as menacing and unsettling in an antagonist in many places outside of a near-perfect horror movie, and I wanted to understand just why that is: performance aside, the character doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen in movies a thousand times and become conditioned to see as unremarkable, which I think is part of the movie’s brilliance. This basic point lines up well with how the movie toys with viewer expectations shaped by all the crime media most Americans consume, and that aspect is very much related to other themes I discuss in the essay. A great juggling act is done with subterfuge/denial and the overstated/unbearably obvious, embodied in Phil as much as Howard. I would stack him up against any horror villain (at least, the ones confined to the physics of the real world). But it’s also important that we don’t much think of him as a villain, not really. A “bad guy” and antagonist, yes, but we mainly think of him as a functionary of a greater power than himself, which may or may not be to our folly. He’s a muscle guy doing a job, right?
Howard doesn’t want to see it either, even as he clearly tells us he’s aware of the violence in the hyperlocal sphere as it affects him, that if the ring isn’t back by Friday he’s a dead man. He looks so deeply into the gem, phone, and TV so that he can refuse to look at what those things entail for him as a human and the shrinking world he affects. Eventually the entirety of what his eyes behold will be brought into congruence with what we as viewers behold, with cosmic fragments of all that came before encompassed within it. It’s part of his pathology and part of the seductive precarity of the situation we’re in with him that makes the movie so anxiety-inducing.
I could be wildly casting about in the dark here. I certainly hope not, but it’s a constant concern when writing anything like this. Even if that is the case, I think there are enough observations with factual basis that even someone staunchly disagreeing with my conclusions might find some details of value in here that will deepen one’s appreciation of the movie.
Thank you for reading.