Tag Archive | criticism

Year-end Wrap-up, or: How I Relearned to Stop Worrying & Love the Movies

A screencap from "Dr. Strangelove" showing a man in cowboy hat riding an atomic bomb like a cowboy as it's deployed

Although I’ve been mentally drafting my year-in-review, I suppose it’s only fitting that I finalize it while home for the holidays, spending many an hour in the suburban too-quiet family room that used to be occupied by my late father in the evening and myself overnight as a “troubled adolescent,” watching movies in the dark, sometimes obsessively, and cultivating both a deep appreciation for the art form and a number of deeply unhealthy relationships to it that I’ve long since grown past. For a variety of reasons (primarily a pandemic and a waning interest in weird fiction), my interests drifted back over to film this year, both in terms of consumption and writing production. I’ve always been passionate about film, but this year felt like a frenzied renewal of interest in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was a teenager first learning how to appreciate movies at the same depth as literature. I can’t remember a specific year in which I saw movies with a greater diversity of noted directors, genres, nations of origin, and time periods since then either.

Although it was far from my favorite movie, I have to give substantial credit to Uncut Gems, which I finally got around to seeing in February. For whatever reason, it unleashed a torrent of thought about how to deconstruct and understand the film’s effectiveness, and I began writing almost obsessively about it after a certain point at which I’d jotted down numerous random observations that began to point in some consistent directions. Those notes congealed into what I thought might be a blog post and eventually became the 2nd longest piece of discursive writing I’ve ever finished, coming in just a couple pages fewer than my “Titus Andronicus” thesis. There was a lot packed into the movie, and I enjoyed breaking it down in ways that I haven’t focused on in a while. I think it’s been 4-5 years since my last long-form book criticism, and 18 years since the last real film essay.  I should also mention Letterboxd, which is for movies what Goodreads should be for books, and I’ve found countless gems, if you’ll pardon the word choice, from reading there that I never would have heard of.

Coinciding with this specific movie was an interest in seeing more of Dario Argento’s films, as I’ve been a big fan of Suspiria for a long time and had never gotten around to seeing anything else by him. This then broadened into digging into the giallo subgenre as a whole (which makes a certain amount of sense because slashers–specifically Scream–were what kicked off my interest in film as a teenager), more independent modern horror films, and other classics that had long flown under my radar. Although long ago I had embarked on a quest to watch all of the movies on the original AFI 100 list, that took me about a decade to finally complete and afterwards I became a bit lackadaisical about pursuing great older films that wouldn’t have surfaced on the AFI list.

The enjoyment and intellectual development I got from digging into Uncut Gems continued in a bit of a flurry, with me setting goals for myself to publish some kind of film analysis in a venue or venues that I respect, and I cranked out a critical essay about Anything for Jackson (I Would Do Anything for Jackson (Yes, Even That): A Horror-Comedy Demonstrates Why Invoking Satan Rarely Goes as Planned and Can’t Solve Your Grief) that also became deeply personal. Alas, I fucked up with the somewhat nebulous deadline for the venue I intended to submit to, but this project nonetheless kept the creative momentum going and the more important thing to me is the experience of writing something I feel is fully developed to my own satisfaction. It’s how I learn best. I’ve also produced a lengthy essay about the excellent vampire film Byzantium that I need to get off my duff and keep shopping around.

While exploring gialli and overlapping genre film from the 70s and 80s, I discovered a whole lot of stuff that had long been informing the tastes I’ve had for most of my life, and furthermore I started to feel better able to appreciate certain movies with perhaps poor production/low budget/bad acting but other striking characteristics that stick out above those constraints and provide other elements worth appreciating, and worth learning how to appreciate.  This year I’ve trained my brain to be more fluent in some of this stuff, which has made me a better viewer overall. I’ve been on a bit of a B-movie rabbit-hole, and I’d be a fool not to mention how great the free streaming service Tubi is, especially if this is where your interests lie.

I’ve also found it a fruitful writing exercise to post capsule reviews to Letterboxd and Facebook of basically everything I watch, as much to point people to good things they might not have encountered as to reify my own engagement with the film in some way. You can look over all 213 movies I watched this year (as of this day and excluding a few minor things I didn’t need to log) if you like. Going along with this, I was delighted to be invited to be a regular guest co-host on Celluloid Citizens, a podcast about film. This has provided a forum for in-depth discussion that I don’t have many opportunities for, and led me to see things I’ve been meaning to see for 20 years or films I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

Likely stemming from my interest in giallo, my wife’s recent interest in Indian cinema, and the excellent selection of international films available on Tubi (free), Kanopy (also free), and Criterion, I’ve watched more first movies from a nation new to me than probably any other year I’ve been alive. I’ve long since seen films from Japan, South Korea, France, and others, but this year marked my first film from the following countries:

  • Brazil (Bacurau)
  • Portugal (The Strange Case of Angelica)
  • Turkey (Baskin) (unless we count Midnight Express, which I watched often as a teen, but it was mostly British and American made)
  • Norway (Thelma)
  • Russia & USSR (Come and See, Solaris) (unless one counts Mute Witness, which is great and I saw long ago but I think is mainly a U.K./U.S. film with a Russian setting IIRC)
  • Switzerland (Sennentuntschi… Can’t believe I spelled that right on first attempt here)
  • Greece (Alpha)
  • Haiti (Kafou)
  • Chile (The Wolf House) (unless one counts The Motorcycle Diaries but that’s a Brazilian director and basically lists a dozen countries that they travel through and I didnt like it anyway)

Other countries of origin represented in this year’s viewing, in many cases several movies per:

  • Argentina
  • Thailand
  • Japan
  • China
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Ireland
  • S. Korea

And now the fun part: some more lists

New favorites of considerable personal significance:

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • Come and See
  • Last Year at Marienbad
  • Personal Shopper
  • Martyrs
  • Inferno
  • She Dies Tomorrow
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black
  • Venus in Furs
  • New Rose Hotel

Favorite gialli (full list here)

  • The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
  • Torso
  • Autopsy
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
  • Hotel Fear
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black
  • What Have You Done to Solange?

Favorite under-discussed recent horror (released in last five years or so)

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • Pines
  • She Dies Tomorrow
  • Anything for Jackson
  • Cold Hell
  • The Eyes of My Mother
  • Vivarium
  • Pihu
  • Insane (2016)
  • Starfish
  • Fashionista
  • The Wailing

Top older films I saw that i haven’t already mentioned elsewhere:

  • The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
  • Solaris
  • The Devils
  • La Jetee
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Carnival of Souls
  • Black Christmas
  • Hana-Bi
  • Angst
  • They Live
  • Nightmare on Elm Street

Favorite podcast discussions (full list of my own appearances here)

Favorite comedies seen this year (these are all horror-comedies since regular comedies stopped being made 12 years ago)

  • Bad Milo
  • Mom and Dad
  • The Editor
  • Cheap Thrills

Most rewatched:

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • A Dark Song
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
  • Inferno
  • Climax
  • Anything for Jackson

All told, I wrote around 30k words in essay form and the cosmos can only guess at how many more in the form of capsule reviews and similar.

Although I mentioned above I’ve drifted away from books lately, I’d be a fool not to mention how good Negative Space by B.R. Yeager is, which I read at the beginning of the year. It gets a lot of praise but it fully deserves it.

I guess that’s a wrap for now. Hope you found some worthwhile suggestions in here.

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.

Without further ado: The Global and the Hyperlocal: Chains of Exploitation, Voyeurism, and Family in Uncut Gems

(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.