The constant weight of the Perpetual Ghastly Premise, illustrated: a few weeks ago, prodded by the Oscar nominations, I started a post aimed at “ranking” my favorite movies of 2017, because movies, and ranking things, and yammering uncontrollably, are each things that I liked to do before the Incident. And I had vowed to do my damnedest to try, in 2018, to do more of the things I liked to do before the Incident.
But then the past two weeks have been among the very worst yet in the Trump presidency. I wrote a post three weeks ago about how bad this might get, and yet am still shocked at how quickly and fully Republicans have embraced and amplified this attack on America. So to yammer on about movies, no matter how much I enjoyed it *before*, seems trivial, and I’ve been unable, for weeks, to sit down and finish the post. But for whatever reason, I was able to do that this morning, and if only to please my legions of readers to whom I’ve mentioned this post, I’m going to post the stupid thing.
None of this is to say, mind you, that the Perpetual Ghastly Premise (getting ever-ghastlier) is far from my mind, even in a “fun” post about movies. As the writer and critic Dana Stevens explains far more persuasively than I can, it was impossible to see movies in 2017 through anything but “the eyes looking out of our current heads.” So with each of the movies below, I couldn’t help but see them through the lens of our present American calamity, and my own unmoored state of mind – for that I apologize. Now commence with the yammering…
Our world is changing so quickly, in so many ways, and although I love movies (and going to the movies), I’m hardly immune to the basic allure of streaming, and binge-watching, and “peak TV.” But I’ve heard, more times than I can count over the past 3-4 years, that in this fast-past world, we just don’t have the time or attention span anymore to “sit through a movie.” And I’m sorry, but unless you’re a toddler or the President (or both), that’s utter bullshit.
In the amount of time we spend every single day offering our drooling, rapt attention to social media – in which, let’s be clear, nothing compelling happens, ever – we could easily churn through “Laurence of Arabia,” and enjoy the first act of “The Deer Hunter” by dinner. It’s not an issue of attention span, it’s a problem of constant distraction, and the ability to watch any new release from your couch – with your cell phone by your side, remote at the ready for the moment your mind strays – has placed the future of “movies” as we know them very much in doubt.
But the movies listed below offered me a little bit of hope on that front. Each was so immersive – the storytelling so tight, so perfectly tailored for the big screen – that when the end credits rolled, I felt palpable relief at spending two thrilling hours in a space where distractions were simply not tolerated. If cinema has a future in this world, I have hope that it will be as that kind of refuge: the simple pleasure of sitting in a dark room, in the quiet company of strangers, and solemnly swearing not to be distracted while we give ourselves over to old-fashioned storytelling.
Each of the film below also reminded me of perhaps my favorite aspect of going to the movies: the unique community of a darkened theater. My favorite movie of the year, “Lady Bird,” featured the best-drawn American family I’ve seen in recent memory, and I was struck by the way different corners of the theater would erupt in titters, or gasps, with each new, pitch-perfect familial beat. Everyone in that theater saw themselves in some piece of Lady Bird and her family, but different moments spoke to each of us differently. Our willingness to express ourselves in the darkness of the theater – a credit to the beauty and brilliance of the film – created a fascinating bit of group therapy, a communal rumination on that old Tolstoy saw about “happy families.”
With “Dunkirk,” I felt the community in the deafening, awestruck silence, the almost church-like reverence in a crowded theater. This is a story about the implicit heroism, and the extraordinary luck and grace of God, that comes with simply surviving; walking out of the theater, it was a strange comfort that everyone, if they dared to talk at all, was still whispering, muttering quietly, struck by the same shared revelations. And I cried, real, hopeless tears, during one of the most uplifting moments in “The Post,” cowed by the unavoidable juxtaposition with our current, desperate moment. I suspect I wasn’t the only one in the theater in that very dark place, but I drew a special kind of succor, a fleeting hope, from the whispered cheers, the old guy three seats down who involuntarily hooted and clapped, that surrounded me.
And there was no movie moment for me in 2017 quite like seeing “Get Out” in a packed theater, sharing with a group of strangers in each shock and surprise, each sly bit of subversiveness, each moment of horror and triumph. We have far too few communal experiences these days, we are stuck in our bubbles, herded into an increasingly virtual world. All of which made it so thrilling to walk out of the theater after “Get Out,” nod at the other movie-goers, our eyes ablaze, like we’d been through something together. Moments like that were too few, and too infrequent, in 2017, and if we’re going to fix what’s so broken about us, we need to find more ways to capture that sense of common magic.
3 & 3(a). “The Post” and “Get Out”
I very nearly made the mistake of writing this post before seeing “The Post” (and leaving an exceptional film off of this list altogether), having read that it was a little “manipulative” and “on the nose,” and lord knows anything bearing that description can’t possibly be great art. But what I ultimately found to be so refreshing, thrilling and vital about “The Post” and “Get Out” – two films that bookended my 2017 year in movies – was their uncommon bluntness, their willingness to dispense with pretense and obliqueness, and to just call a spade a fucking spade.
That “The Post” endeavored to address our current calamity with such clear eyes – never equivocating or pulling punches in telling the story of the only recent (albeit woefully inadequate) historical analogy we can turn to – was the source of its strength.
There are 1000 practical reasons for Katherine Graham and her hangers on to tread carefully, set against one overarching principle desperately whispering, “yes, let’s go, let’s publish.” That stark dichotomy indeed leaves little room for nuance, but this is a film that is, at its core, the story of a slow, meticulous deliberation: it’s those clear-cut moral and ethical lines that allow that kind of story, one where the “action” never rises above the level of politely heated conversations, to feel so thrilling, so urgent. Are Bradley Whitford and his cadre of condescending white men effectively straw men? Sure, but the cathartic pleasure of “The Post” is watching Graham and her dedicated newsroom knock those mother-fuckers down.
And this supposed “straw man” construct is only apparent through our eyes now, with the benefit of hindsight. “The only way to assert the right to publish, is to publish,” says Ben Bradlee, and we nod our heads, but that’s only because in hindsight, we know who should, and will, win this fight. While the film is ultimately a story of Katherine Graham knocking down walls, Ms. Graham herself, in the moment, struggles mightily with her inclinations towards the practical, prudent, play-it-safe, straw man approach. So many of us do not need hindsight to identify the flimsy straw men propping up our present-day nightmare, but what “The Post” reminds us is that in the moment, things are hardly so clear to all.
All of the unique mirrors to our present nightmare aside, “The Post” is, first and foremost, an expertly composed film. A goddamn Murderers Row of actors filters in and out of every scene, and even those in the smallest roles find something desperately human in their characters. Two of our very greatest actors – Ms. Streep and Mr. Hanks – give a masters class on how to embody, without succumbing to mimicry, historical figures, and how to give those figures enough grace, wit and decency to carry a film of this nature. And Steven Spielberg outdoes himself, propelling the narrative forward, balancing immensely high stakes with the perfect mix of humor, and personal depth. I saw the bulk of the Oscar-nominated films this year, and none were so impeccably paced, so carefully structured to both challenge and reward the audience in equal parts.
As I understand it, “The Post” was conceived in a post-Incident fever, with all of the great talents who were involved – both in front of and behind the camera – coming together, sacrificing their time, their presumably substantial egos, to produce a bold rebuttal to a uniquely dangerous President, in a matter of months. “The Post” would be a great film, I believe, in any context. But that it was made, consciously, in this moment, that the finished product was this tight, this vibrant, this stirring, was in and of itself an act of true citizenship, and a proud act of Resistance.
The revolutionary bluntness of “Get Out” arises from its insistence – no ifs, ands or buts – that, in order to enjoy and share in its myriad thrills and pleasures, its audience must first accept its honest and uncomfortable premise: black people in the United States of America carry a unique and bleak baggage, an ingrained understanding that nothing in this country is *for* them, that America, for all its uneven but undeniable progress, still sees black people as bodies to be used and exploited, as pawns to be maneuvered and manipulated, as less.
“Get Out” expertly uses the horror movie trope of the oblivious hero/victim – ignoring bad omens, warning signs, even direct pleas to “get out,” all while stumbling ever closer to a ghastly fate – except that in this story, our hero is hardly oblivious. Chris (with the help of his TSA buddy) sees every ominous omen, he feels every bit of casual racism and condescension, he tracks, immediately, that he needs to be cautious and careful. But because he’s a black man in America, he’s been conditioned to accept that all of that is simply his lot in life, not something to flee or escape, but something to stoically endure.
The big reveal in “Get Out” – the moment we learn what these too-friendly white people are really up to – is comfortably the stuff of fiction, but everything leading up to that point can, at least through Chris’ eyes, be explained away as all too familiar. The eerily subservient, clearly damaged black servants are unnerving, but Chris has seen that kind of thing before, the way that vestiges of American slavery can still damage and demean. And when his girlfriend’s mother hypnotizes Chris, against his will, he’s disturbed, but he also knows, innately, the way that some white people feel they have a right to “fix” a black man, to “protect” him from his worst instincts. And so he stoically endures.
Accepting the underlying premise of “Get Out” – its thesis regarding the uncomfortable reality of what it means to be black in America, even today – is essential to accepting and believing Chris’ stoicism, which is essential to the cathartic release of Chris’ eventual triumph. In a world where open racism is ascendent, where many deny that racism exists at all, one remarkable feat of “Get Out” was the fact that so many people ($250+ million in ticket sales worth) were willing to accept that underlying premise.
This was partly the result of the times, I’m sure, as “Get Out” hit theaters shortly after President Trump’s inauguration. But like with “The Post,” I suspect “Get Out” would have been a success no matter when it was released, due to the adept, propulsive, and yes manipulative, storytelling on display. This was a movie that had no interest in leaving things vague, or open to interpretation; it was consciously crafted – each beat, each revelation expertly tailored – to take its audience to a very specific, deeply discomfiting place, to play on and tickle their collective fears and expectations, and to deliver them on the other side to a place of thrilling catharsis.
I alluded above to the fact that “Get Out” was a movie made to be seen with others, as part of a crowd. If movies are to survive as a vital art form in his culture, my hope is that filmmakers will increasingly take a page from Jordan Peele, who managed to make a brilliant, modern “crowd pleaser.” Not, by any means, the old fashioned kind of crowd pleaser – the innocuous adventure flick that has a love story for Mom, some cleavage for Dad, and some fart jokes and talking animals for the kids – but a challenging, complex, thrilling piece of cinema that puts in the hard work necessary to reward its audience immensely for coming along for the ride.
A source of comfort for many in this dark time is the notion that “History” will vindicate us, that we’ll look back on this madness someday, and clearly identify the villains and the heroes, the mistakes made and the moments of American exceptionalism that, in hindsight, were the first rays of an emerging dawn. I’m less optimistic. Even if we survive, and there is a “history” to be written, the victors write the history books. And there is no guarantee that we will score a victory over those dark, anti-democracy forces inside the gates, much less one that will be sweeping enough for the “history books” to adequately identify the heroes and villains.
So one painfully unsettling thing about “Dunkirk” for me – a film that I loved, deeply – is that it is the rare film which I suspect will gain esteem, and live in “history,” no matter which history prevails. The writer Richard Cohen grappled with this exact issue with “Dunkirk,” with the fact that the film is a “war film for the Trump era,” one that is deaf to history. Mr. Cohen examines the way that the film all but whitewashes the basic fact that these boys on the beach were being bombarded, killed like rats in a barrel, by a malevolent, evil, and powerful force (the Germans) the likes of which the world has never seen.
I agree. We live in a world where the lessons of history are increasingly dismissed and discarded, where Holocaust denialism has become strikingly mainstreamed. “Dunkirk” is a film that, disconcertingly, fits comfortably in that world. I explain that away – something I’m admittedly remiss to do in most other contexts – and trumpet “Dunkirk” as my second favorite film of 2017, by presuming that Christopher Nolan did not set out to make a “war film for the Trump era,” that this was a matter of unfortunate timing. Because in another context, another time, “Dunkirk” would simply be an extraordinary film, and I pray, to a God I struggle to comprehend, that it will be remembered in history that way, as opposed to a harbinger of deeper darkness.
The film is a technical marvel, a tour de force of constant, high wire tension, and features a realism that is somehow both heightened and meticulously muted. We feel like we’re “there” – with the boys on the beach, the pilot in the air, Mark Rylance in his boat – but the structure of the film allows us to observe, to cheer, to empathize, from a place of slightly-more-comfortable remove.
With the exception of the strange removal of “the Germans” as a player, the conscious choices made in “Dunkirk” are remarkable both for their audacity, and how well they work. In the buildup to the film, I read concerns that viewers would be “disoriented” by the shifting timelines, but it had the opposite effect, creating an unspoken pact with the audience, an insistence that they pay careful attention, play along right through to the end credits. And the decision to effectively make the film non-verbal – with each panel of the triptych painted almost entirely through somber reactions and bursts of action, rather than dialogue and exposition – becomes, itself, the ultimate exposition, a skillful shorthand to explain the already desperate, bleak and endless grind of this war.
More than anything though, it was the portrayal of war as a hopeless, entirely random slog – another risky choice that paid off in spades – that made “Dunkirk” so very powerful. The boys on the beach are indeed, unnervingly, rats in a barrel, their survival dependent not on courage or character, but on raw luck. This is an uncomfortable message, a reality that challenges our modern notions of what war looks like, of what our American heroes look like. But “Dunkirk” pulled it off: it allowed us to both shudder at, and not look away from, the unsung reality that war is abject, man-made anarchy, and celebrate, in a way our culture rarely permits, the victory and nobility of simple, dumb-luck survival.
1. “Lady Bird“
My favorite movie of the year, the masterful “Lady Bird,” is bookended by two acts of perfect teenage impetuousness: Lady Bird begins the movie by jumping out of her mother’s moving car, and ends it waking up in a hospital bed, after a reckless night of college freshman drinking. One of the things I admired most about “Lady Bird” was the way it rejected the mundane, stale, rise and fall narrative arc that is all too common in most films, but especially in those about “everyday people” and events. There’s no quirky, holy grail that Lady Bird is working for; no powerful, life-altering lesson she has to learn; no personal growth that won’t be rescinded, abandoned or reconsidered 100 times over the course of her life. It’s nice to imagine Laurie Metcalf’s character allowing herself a melancholy half smile when she listens to her daughter’s stilted apology on the answering machine, but we know that, come tomorrow, that hospital bill is going to arrive in the mail, and mother and daughter will be back to navigating the same, familiar landmines.
The writer and critic Ann Hornaday wrote a compelling piece about “Lady Bird” as an epic, and about the need to reframe more female stories in that way. To my mind, even in the movie’s narrative structure – Greta Gerwig’s willingness to simply allow the staccato, misshapen, often-side-by-side moments of gravity, laughter and sadness that make up a life to play out naturally, without trying to squeeze them into some artificial meaning or arc – it feels like an old fashioned movie epic. If there is a theme I latched onto, engaging with this film, it’s the notion that every one of us is working through our own epic – sometimes sprinting gleefully, sometimes muddling through – and we’re deluding ourselves if we think we’re living out a carefully calibrated story arc, a rise, a climax a moments change. But that’s not to say our own personal epics are not endlessly interesting, and worth the ride.
To that end, “Lady Bird” glories in the understanding that each of our own personal epic stories are continually shaped, altered and upended by intersections and collisions with the stories being lived by the people around us. The beautiful, understated story of the drama teacher/priest is striking both for the depths that are plumbed with just a few perfectly-structured scenes, but also the way in which his plight ricochets off of the challenges of Lady Bird’s own family. Virtually every character to touch the screen in “Lady Bird” gets this type of careful, caring treatment: we’re given just enough of a glimpse of their own, personal, epic stories to understand that a dip into their lives, with Lady Bird as a quirky bit character, would be every bit as fascinating and important.
Of course, nowhere is this more evident than with Lady Bird and her family. Ms. Gerwig had the wisdom to work with extraordinary actors in “Lady Bird,” and Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are each remarkable (and the actors playing Miguel and Shelly fit seamlessly into this family unit, despite less prominent roles). But actors are nothing without great writing, and Ms. Gerwig’s script creates moment after moment – the cigarette with Shelly, the moment father and son recognize they’re applying for the same job – that are stunning for their simplicity, and for the sheer weight that a simple, all-too-common argument among family can be unpack.
A lot has been written about Laurie Metcalf’s airport drive, and I can’t say enough about the power of her performance, the silent earthquake when she realizes how stupid she’s been, icing out her daughter in the weeks before she leaves for college, and her lip begins to tremble. In hindsight, I’m struck again by the insight of the writing – yes, “Lady Bird” is bookended by acts of teenage impetuousness, but its most powerful scene stems from an act of impetuous, adult obstinance. As powerful as that moment of recognition at the airport is, it presumably passes, and fades, as quickly as it came; there’s no desperate, apologetic message waiting for Lady Bird when she checks into her dorm room; the moment passes, it’s as hard for Lady Bird’s mother to demonstrably “learn” from her mistakes as it is for her daughter, or for any one of us.
In this increasingly dark world, I have clung to the foolish notion that an absolute turning point is possible: a turning point for the GOP cowards who enable this madness; a turning point for the WKC or Noxious Mods who are shrugging off all the alarms; a turning point for me, personally, a moment where I magically find clarity and purpose, a rudder and a compass to navigate the fight ahead. “Lady Bird” is an extraordinary film for more reasons than I can count, but what I admire most is its recognition that life is rarely about dramatic turning points. It’s about growing slowly, in fits and starts, doing the best you can, moment to moment, to inch forward, and, if you’re wise, finding the light and good wherever you can. Whether this is a good metaphor for the Resistance – whether we are, collectively, inching towards the light – remains to be seen. But as a reflection of the epic journey of every human life, “Lady Bird” is the best thing I’ve seen in years.
P.S. – I referenced Dana Stevens’ work above, and linked to her “Movie Club,” a winding discussion of the films of 2017, between and among Ms. Stevens and her estimable critic colleagues K. Austin Collins, Mark Harris and Amy Nicholson. If you’re interested in movies, or the intersection of art, politics and society, please set up a bookmark on your phone, and take some time to work your way through the entire discussion. One disturbing feature of our information society is our bizarre, misplaced confidence that – having briefly scanned a Wikipedia page, or pulled out our phones over dinner and quickly googled “invade normandy” – we know all we need to know about any given topic or issue. If we’re going to survive as a society, we need to be seeking out experts, on all fronts, to be searching for the critics, the thinkers, the truly learned souls among us in every arena. For my money the Movie Club is a fantastic place to start.