Guilt and Grief, and Relief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

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Revenge or Atonement?

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 20.]

[SPOILERS]

Another recent film is often compared to Taxi Driver, but it’s both better and worse than First Reformed. I had a free Redbox rental, which is as good as Movie Pass for seeing movies on which I’m not sure whether I want to spend actual money. So I rented You Were Never Really Here, a story that I liked more than First Reformed, though it’s not nearly as beautiful. I will watch almost any movie that features Joaquin Phoenix, because he’s brilliant. And he needs to be in this movie, because it’s so understated that anyone unwilling to think a little will lose patience very quickly (as many reviews on IMDB prove).

I’m not claiming it’s anything new or groundbreaking. It’s sort of an art house Taken: not nearly as straightforward (which is what was great about that movie), but punctuated by brutal violence in pursuit of young girls being kidnapped, used, and exploited. This is not an explainer movie; more like a painting, where you have to do a little work to put the pieces together. I think the pieces are there, but there are still some unanswered questions. Who is the man for whom Joe works? He has an office, he gives Joe jobs to go out and rescue kidnapped girls, but that’s about all we know.

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The Swedish Theory of Love

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]

What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)

It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.

This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?

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Family Longings

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 4.]

I’m on my way back from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Of the films I saw, one of the recurring themes was youth and growing up in this cultural moment. Two documentaries in particular addressed this theme from different angles. The first was Minding the Gap, about three friends whose youth is documented by a fourth friend. Bing Liu is clearly a talented filmmaker from very early on, as he films his friends skateboarding around Rockford, Illinois.

With none of their families intact, their friends become a sort of stand-in family. But it’s clear from their experiences that friendship doesn’t provide them all the resources they need to navigate adulthood. They have been set adrift by missing, negligent, or abusive parents. There is no necessary repeating cycle of behavior, but escaping the patterns set by parents is easier said than done.

The effects and signs of family disintegration depicted brilliantly in Minding the Gap are everywhere, from the proliferation of parenting and marriage books to the reinvention of nearly every aspect of adulthood. Some of that is simply due to the results of our fluid world in terms of technology, communication, and information. But for many of the answers and solutions and skills which would have been handed down to us by our immediate and extended families even two generations ago we now require YouTube videos, books, blogs, and podcasts.

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Idaho Horror Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 20.]

There are some things that are too horrific to face straight on. You have to shield your eyes, take a side glance, observe from an oblique angle. One of the feature-length documentaries screening at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival is Forever ‘B’ (now called Abducted in Plain Sight), and its story is almost beyond belief.

It is a story that, in some ways, resembles the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in 2002. Both Jan Broberg (the subject of Forever ‘B’) and Elizabeth Smart were raised in Mormon households and both were kidnapped by older men who believed they should marry these young girls. Both kidnappers were adept at religious or superstitious manipulation—though Elizabeth, unlike Jan, was never convinced of the rightness of her kidnapper. Elizabeth’s kidnapper was sentenced to two life terms while Jan’s kidnapper largely escaped serious consequences (in this life).

Elizabeth Smart’s story is strange and horrible enough, but Jan Broberg’s story is even stranger. In its spiraling, strangeness-upon-strangeness unbelievability, it reminds me of another NBFF alum, Who Took Johnny?, which, if you have a strong stomach, you can find on Netflix.

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A Quiet Place

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 14.]

[SPOILERS]

First of all, if you haven’t gotten Movie Pass yet, what are you waiting for? If you sign up on the website, it’s only $6.95 a month, and if you see even one movie a month, it pays for itself. (Just make sure that it covers theaters in your area. It didn’t cover Wenatchee for a long time.)

My first Movie Pass movie was A Quiet Place, which has been generating a lot of buzz recently. It’s a film that confirms my view that horror movies can do things that other, straighforwardly narrative movies can’t do. In some ways it’s like a new song that you feel like you’ve heard a hundred times—or, if you haven’t heard it before, you wonder how no one ever produced this exact melody before. Post-apocalyptic movies have been done a thousand times. Monster movies have been done a thousand times. The fear of the unknown has fueled a thousand plots. And yet, A Quiet Place doesn’t feel like a cliché. It feels familiar, but it also feels new.

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A Failed Project

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 23.]

I’d been waiting to see The Florida Project because of all the positive press it was getting. I purposely don’t like to read synopses, however, because I’d rather have no expectations and let a given film do what it’s going to do, and then take it on its own merits instead of being influenced by what a critic has to say.

The film is set perfectly in Orlando, very literally in the shadows of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Sean Baker sets up shots against numerous backdrops and lets the characters walk through and in front of them. The scenes are both whimsical and depressing, as everything is influenced by Disney, and yet tawdry in comparison (as one unhappy Brazilian newlywed discovers).

I suppose this is what a free childhood summer looks like in 2018: children getting into mischief on concrete and metal rather than in woods and lakes, who can fling expletives as well as the adults, and whose mischief carries heavier fines and penalties than, perhaps, it once did.

The children are actually the glowing center of the film, natural and free within their particular boundaries. They are innocent enough in their own context, but there is always the threat of that innocence being destroyed (as it no doubt will be in the future). I wondered if all their lines were scripted, or if they ad-libbed some of it (in particular, the scene with Moonee and Hailey at the hotel buffet), because their words don’t sound as if they were put in their mouths by adults. They sound like children’s words, though picked up from and influenced by (as children’s words are) the adults around them.

The ending offers a little hope, but it’s hope by escape. And so I wonder what the “project” is in the title. Is it project as in “the projects”? Or is it project as in a work that is in progress? And whose project is it? Is it the American project? If it’s Hailey’s, it seems to be going nowhere. She’s content with where she is and what she’s doing. This is not the sort of down-and-out story where a central character is seemingly frustrated by external forces, preventing her from getting ahead. If her aspirations are frustrated, they are aspirations only for the short-term, the immediate, the next dollar, and the next week’s rent.

It’s not until the Florida Department of Children and Families shows up at her hotel room that she feels her contentment slipping. And even then, in her mind it can’t be because she has somehow failed. It is everyone and everything else that has failed her. They are interfering with her perfectly fine life, and she is perpetually offended. She has created her own circumstances, so she’s not upset by where she is. But she has no sense that her circumstances are unsustainable.

I love the film’s meandering freedom as it follows Moonee, Scootie, Dicky, and Jancey across hotel parking lots, to restaurant back doors, to strange and wild oases not yet covered by asphalt, including one very old tree, which is “still alive,” as Moonee says. But the movie leaves me with a bitter taste at the broken hopelessness. There is not, as far as I can see, a single intact family anywhere in the film. You don’t see families struggling together in hard circumstances. You see individuals, and children, and the other individuals with whom they come into contact. You see the approximation of siblings in the children who run wild, but only one of their parents is a father. The rest are mothers and grandmothers playing the cards they’ve been dealt or which they’ve drawn themselves. In that sense, it’s probably an accurate portrayal of how things are in a lot of places.

That’s why the ending doesn’t exactly inspire hope. It is escapism, sure, as Disney World is meant to be. But it also feels like an unattainable dream. The cinematography suddenly changes and becomes almost dream-like, as Jancey and Moonee run off, headed toward a castle that doesn’t exist in the real world. Isn’t that escapism exactly what Hailey and others in the hotel are actively pursuing? A few moments at a food truck and in a club, an hour with a beer and a joint in the pool. These are moments outside the norm of their day-to-day lives.

For some reason, I’ve seen a few films recently that deal with the inescapability of life as it is, even with brief moments of respite. The situation feels hopeless, whether or not the person is trying to do better. We find ourselves in this or that place, better or worse, and we do what we can. If not an indictment of the “American dream,” it seems like the downward spiral cannot be reversed, so why try? Sure, people might have made different decisions at critical junctures, but they made those decisions, and now what? They can be faulted for what they’ve done and left undone, but floating free from any anchor, all that action and inaction piles up more quickly than most of us realize.

Besides that, The Florida Project casts a cynical eye on the glitter of the rich “tourists,” who themselves are escaping whatever little existences they’ve created. It seems like a clear-eyed vision, but clear vision doesn’t make anyone happy—and the only happiness in this film is feigned. The only smiles that are occasionally genuine are the children’s.

If you want a happy ending, if you want redemption, if you want some hope, don’t look here. Even so, it doesn’t hurt for the eternal American optimist to look in the mirror once in a while.

Reaching for Immortality

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on December 1.]

[SPOILERS!]

Movies and shows made for children always seem to include sub-themes that resonate with adults. Maybe it’s just marketing so that parents will take their children to the theater (only $7,800 for a family of six!), but I can remember it in television shows, as well. Animaniacs was my generation’s Phineas and Ferb. Both have adult jokes running throughout that barely registered with the children who primarily watched those shows. More recently, Disney and Pixar, have made sophisticated, animated films that appeal to both children and adults. Of course, “children’s” authors have probably always included subtexts that only become clear as one ages (see the Grimms, Roald Dahl, or The Chronicles of Narnia). That’s part of the joy of having certain books read to you as a child, and then re-reading them for yourself at older ages.

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What Comes At Night

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 3.]

What’s more terrifying: the things you cannot see that are outside the walls, or the things inside the walls that you may not fully understand? And so the question is begged: what comes at night? I had wanted to see It Comes At Night as soon as I found out that the writer/director was Trey Edward Shults, who made one of the best films of 2015, Krisha (which is magnificent and terrifying in its own way as an examination of family and mental illness).

It Comes At Night is not a typical horror. There’s a minuscule amount of blood, and the terror is mostly confined to wondering what might happen. But, as with any worthwhile horror, the tension is used to tell a deeper story. What are we scared of and why? Are things that should terrify us played down because we know them well? Is the unknown and unnamed fear only fearful because we don’t know it?

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Longing for Happiness

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 7.]

Sometimes you watch a bunch of movies in a row and the same actor appears in all of them (like that time I watched probably five movies in a row with Benicio del Toro (or the Puerto Rican Brad Pitt, as I like to think of him—or maybe Brad Pitt is the North American Benicio del Toro. Anyway.)

Other times, it’s not actors but themes that start to appear and coalesce from more than one movie. So I watched two movies in consecutive nights that deal with the relationships between parents and children. The first, with a father and a daughter, was Toni Erdmann, a nearly three-hour German comedy (yes, really, a funny German film). The second, with a mother and son, was 20th Century Women, a sort of inverted coming-of-age film that takes place in Southern California in 1979 (based semi-autobiographically on writer/director Mike Mills’ own childhood). If I were going to pick a favorite, it would be 20th Century Women, simply for the brilliance of Annette Bening—maybe just for the brilliance of her facial expression throughout the film.

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