There’s this axiom: “The worst your past was, the worse your present will be.” I’ll try not to get too dramatic as I don’t want this to degenerate into whining. I felt myself thin away and teetering toward oblivion throughout passages of 2018. Or: it wasn’t the best year. I started it off unemployed, laid off a week prior to Thanksgiving 2017 and forced to hustle a menial, demeaning job to make it through the holiday season. It was humbling (which more often than not reads as: terrible) and a casual reminder that the distinction between nightmare and reality can be blurred beyond recognition.
Good news was that I started a new position with one of the most renowned academic institutions on the planet in late January. The tide was turning, the molecules of the universe finally colliding in a way that actually benefited me. I never before felt like I was on the fringe, but I certainly felt less passive and more active in becoming a fully functional human being. 30 howled and with it a set of anxieties and preoccupations that, somehow, I seemed capable of handling. It hasn’t always been a picnic, but the alternative – unemployment, anomie – and its resulting anxieties have thankfully been kept at bay.
But then I ended a decade-plus long relationship with my girlfriend. My brother described the breakup as monumental. That word never felt more appropriate. It’s a weird feeling, knowing someone for that long and then not. Not adequately prepared to go into it, other than a strange, knee-buckling, sweaty-palmed cardiopulmonary reaction takes place every time a memory of her seeps in. They call it Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It is what it is.
A lot of my favorite films of 2018 cover two distinct spectrums: the unceasingly despairing and the profusely hopeful. It reflects, I think, a lot of what we see on a day to day in this country. My antennae wasn’t tuned to it all; life had a fairly viscous tendency to get in the way. But those paradoxically conjoined emotions of despair and hopefulness was what I needed and the best films of 2018 tended to, however briefly, acknowledge that one rarely happens without the other. At least for those who keep on traversing up hill, no matter how steep the incline may be.
(Alex Ross Perry)
Alex Ross Perry’s filmography has been filled with flattering gestures of recognition. His films have centered on asshole guys who find their undoing when confronted with their own vanity. I get that. But there’s a sophistication to Golden Exits that makes it harder to isolate. It confronts its characters in harsh, unforgiving ways. It’s bleaker. The film’s happy ending involves Jason Schwartzman’s character confronting some very clinical truths about himself that take him to the brink of oblivion. With something like Perry’s Listen Up Philip, I took profound satisfaction in finding Elisabeth Moss navigating the mess of her relationship and becoming stronger for it. That immediate sense of satisfaction isn’t here in Golden Exits. These characters are broken and stay broken. What’s defective in them remains a permanent feature. Their fates are sealed. This sun-soaked, springtime exercise may be ARP’s most despairing film to date and it conceals nothing – it gets to the truth of things in a way his previous films haven’t before.
The Sisters Brothers
Earlier in the year, Childish Gambino’s This is America became a viral hit, one of those few music videos that managed to briefly revitalize the floundering art form. It’s a notable, transgressive exercise: a confrontational appraisal of contemporary American gun violence, media surveillance, and corporate beneficiaries/greed that understood principle components of depth of field and composition. Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers may not have been a global hit (3 million domestically, though tellingly, double that in Audiard’s home country of France), the film, similarly, examines the elemental corrosiveness of the American spirit, relocating its narrative to the mid 1800s on the Oregon Trail. Thematically, the two are tethered to this notion of America as a barren warzone where as Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “death is the most prevalent feature”. The film opens with a gunfight, only the blasts from pistols briefly illuminating the landscape before light surrenders to darkness again. What follows is a trail of dead, men and women listlessly passing the time with booze and sex, all in pursuit for a little green, err, gold. Perhaps “the” quintessential American narrative, told once again with more clear-eyed wisdom from an outsider.
The slate is cleared and canvas washed as Alfonso Cuarón returns to Earth following Gravity. Roma, set in early 1970s Mexico, offers something more cosmically-inclined, existentially-driven than the filmmaker’s robust catalogue of SFX-driven curiosities. Centered on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the help for a wealthy family, we observe a woman’s journey through discord and disappointment. Throughout Roma, Cuarón frames Cleo on the perpetual cusp of being consumed by the Earth, submerged in flames, flooded by riots on the street, and shattered beyond repair. The gorgeous black and white frames that compose the film only accentuate the recurring theme that runs through Cuarón’s filmography: faith is the force of life. Survival through a perilous warzone, the outskirts of the planet, or the ocean itself requires a belief in something infinite and larger than yourself, especially when Cleo’s grueling day-in-day-out confronts her with nothing but the finite.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
In Travis Wilkerson’s documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? the white American Dream is exposed for its cracks and falsehoods as a white nightmare story. Wilkerson examines a cataclysmic event in his family’s history, where his great grandfather S.E. Branch murdered a black man named Bill Spann. Attempting to piece together the history of the event from the early 1940s proves to be an increasingly fruitless, dead-end task with frustration, self-loathing, and defeat settling into every pore of the film’s tone and tenor. When Wilkerson attempts to find Spann’s gravesite, the harsh reality settles in: “two families, they both live in Alabama, one of them is white and one of them is black. One of them is the family of a murderer and one of them is the family of the murdered. One of them is buried in an unmarked grave and one of them is filming it. That’s a pretty precise expression of racism no matter how you cut it.”
Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson setting Isle of Dogs in Japan clearly bothered a lot of people and it’s made talking, let alone writing, about the film feel like a real chore. By the time the film made its way to Chicago theaters, Isle of Dogs had undergone so many critical assessments and revisions that I opted to just let the film’s angry conversation continue without my participation. Because Isle of Dogs never registered as an example of cultural appropriation nor did its quote unquote white savior evoke discomfort from me. Maybe that’s the point? What Isle of Dogs boiled down to, what makes it one of my favorite films of 2018, is its evocation of loss. Anderson examines how our unhappiness and misfortunes tend to make people vulnerable, and how those who wield power can exploit that vulnerability. An immaculate sequence involving the process of making sushi isn’t some throwaway scene – it’s everything you need to know about the movie. There’s the fish, there’s the knife-wielding chef, and there’s the man who eats it; or – the victim, the master, and the self-deluded masses.
Whereas I can barely recognize the childhood at the center of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s spoke directly to me, even if it only flirts with being a great film. I recognize the kids here. I wasn’t one of them, but we orbited the same space frequently. With a harsh Eastern European upbringing, afternoons, let alone nights, out with friends were a rare occurrence that demanded an endless series of planning, coordination, and lies. On those rare instances we were able to get together, it was like stumbling across a secret society, a meeting of all those faces that you saw passing in the hallways of your elementary school. We wasted away the afternoon before the night bled into the sky. The crowd thinned out but it was always the same handful of kids who stuck around, typically older boys, playing basketball. If they weren’t older, they seemed it. That was the allure of it, I suppose. You’re a kid sifting through a paradoxically endless and limited series of options that you can’t help but idealize those who seem so inherently confident, as if they figured out the great human game of life by simply opting out of it.
No cell phones, which means no scrolling through images and videos of your friends. When my school day ended in the eighth grade that was pretty much it. You just didn’t see them, in any form, until the next day. My mother was strict and demanded I come home for an early supper so that I would eat alongside my father before he started his night shift as a journeyman. The screen that dominated my day-to-day was the television. If I did happen to see friends after school, we didn’t center our activities at malls or a party; we just went to each other’s homes and played video games or went to the park to sit around and do nothing. Life moved slower. Each second took its cut, if you know what I mean. I was in the sixth grade when Columbine happened and never experienced an “active shooter drill”; America required at least a decade’s pile of bodies to respond (inadequately).
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade doesn’t resemble my experience. All the indicators and cultural signifiers are too removed, in what feels like a full generation moving on without me. It’s kind of thrilling and a little despairing to see these kids figure their way around a social circumstance with these new technological tools and to see them cope with the cultural reality of the present. Sometimes I think I’m too ill-equipped to handle it, but here Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is doing it. Surviving. If only barely.
Sorry to Bother You
It always struck me as little absurd that people cite the ending of Sorry to Bother You – the big reveal involving equisapiens – as where the film veered too far off course. The film begins with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a job at RegalView, hocking home-made trophies and plaques highlighting his qualifications for a position as a telemarketer. He harnesses the literal voice of David Cross, as a means of selling prospective customers on a white experience, to help him move up in a company that’s on the cusp of a volatile breakdown between management and workers. Cash is promoted, ascending to the heavens of RegalView, where he’s able to finally participate in a consumer culture that he’s been on the fringe of. All the while, wherever Cash goes, billboards and television screens highlight the slave labor housing project known as WorryFree (an enticing resort for those on the brink of losing everything) or a television program involving men and women getting violently assaulted for some undisclosed prize. Or consider a party hosted by WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), where he demands Cash rap for him and his guests, where the hard-r use of the n-word gets the crowd popping. Boots Riley was always upfront from the very first scene of Sorry to Bother You about where his film was going, in what’s a top to bottom admonishment of how the elite, 1% of society observes the rest of us: as little more than herd animals, sated by sex, liquor, and violence, intended to build their empires on. If you didn't see the horses coming, then you weren't paying close enough attention. Keep sticking to the script.
I’m 30 and haven’t seen my parents since I was 25; irreconcilable differences, one could suggest, but both camps have long forgotten whatever argument spurred that fissure. Since then, I had been adopted, more or less, by my girlfriend’s family, who for over a decade provided me with a source of comfort that I never received from the ol’ flesh and blood. You can add the “ex” prefix to girlfriend now, and as such, you can add the “ex” prefix to adopted family, leaving me to confront some very clinical truths about where I’m at and where I’m going. So clearly, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters obliterated me. The film, detailing the life of a surrogate family clinging on to only the vestigial notions of existence, examines family as a vital necessity, wherein each member – adult and child – provides both the capital and emotional support to simply live. Kore-eda, who frequently operates in singular analytic or sentimental tenors, melds his two sensibilities, finding fleeting moments of beauty in even the most dire of circumstances. Few films this year have understood the fluid, frequently indistinguishable lines that divide joy and catastrophe, beginnings and ends.
World of Tomorrow Episode 2:
The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
I resisted writing anything about Don Hertzfeldt’s follow-up to World of Tomorrow. To consider a sequel to one of my favorite short films seemed like an impossible task; everything I loved was on the table in Hertzfeldt’s first film. Not that I anticipated a shallow rethread, but rather that, like with so many sequels, the question of necessity tends to hover close overhead. It was a question that lingered close when I first watched Episode Two in late 2017 (released in Chicago in 2018). But revisiting the film in conjunction with World of Tomorrow, I’ve warmed to it considerably. Hertzfeldt takes the original’s universe and expands on its depths though remains loyal to his two characters, Emily and Emily Prime. The experimental flourishes that ornate the film is compounded by his persistent examinations on the passage of time, where the glimmer of hope that defines childhood combats the disappointments of adulthood. But whereas World of Tomorrow often registers as perfectly contained, Episode Two strikes me as a connective tissue to something larger. The World of Tomorrow does not end here.
While the breeziest of Oliver Assayas’ recent examinations of how technology shapes our present, it would be a mistake to assume that Non-Fiction doesn’t have a lot on its mind. It’s perhaps the densest of Assayas’ recent scripts, where a quartet of intellectuals considers posh existential questions regarding their relationship with technology in an increasingly globalized state. The spectrum of Assayas’ characters more or less suggests an argument with himself, yet each character is so vividly rendered, demonstrating a clear-headed understanding that each perspective that values past, present, future, or some place in between has its merit. There is no appropriate response to how we tackle our anxieties with the future or how we cope with the disappointments of the past or even the failures of the present. We all deal the best way we can, shuffling through our strongbox of responses in hopes of experiencing some measure of catharsis, whether it’s writing a novel or a tweet.
The opening credits scrawl of Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 quotes Colin Dickey’s Ghostland, “Cities that are haunted… seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” For the once-thriving copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, there’s an active attempt to not have the past inform the present. The past, as we learn, is riddled with a great toxic shame that the community would much prefer to overlook: 100 years ago, striking minority miners were deported at gunpoint, herded into cattle carts, and shipped to a barren dessert in New Mexico to be left to die.
Greene’s previous films, Actress and Kate Plays Christine, valued reenactments not merely as a documentary crutch but to speak to a larger, more complicated relationship that we as viewers have with documentaries and their subjects. A passive experience became something brutally active, to the point that Greene would didactically address the audience for their bloodlust. The approach, while not without its elegance, never did quite register for me. That is up until Bisbee ’17, where all of Greene’s tendencies, preoccupations, and stylistic flourishes are funneled into a pristine vision that utilizes Bisbee as a microcosm for a larger, fundamentally American, propensity to fear anything and anyone it doesn’t understand.
The House that Jack Built
(Lars von Trier)
The cautionary component to all of Lars von Trier’s filmography is a reminder that if we forget how to die then we will forget how to live. As Verge (Bruno Ganz) reminds Jack (Matt Dillon), the various incidences that compose The House that Jack Built involve women; naïve women who are cooed by a white man’s ineffectuality, politeness, or romanticism. The promise for a complete, nuclear family allows one woman to trust Jack, only for her and her children to be gunned down, left to be nothing more than another notch to his belt, another trophy to his collection. And so it’s this fear and anxiety of being alone (note how Uma Thurman’s Woman #1, despite her various disparaging remarks against Jack, practically demands his presence and assistance with her car) that von Trier transparently argues is humanity’s undoing. It’s a nihilistic perspective, but I think a fairly important one to unpack. We can become a complete nonentity, blotted out from existence, if we allow ourselves to submit to our weakest inhibitions. Loneliness may provoke despair, and with it a collection of reprisals and concessions. We all end up going to the same abyss in the end. Why sacrifice our time in the here and now with half measures?
This one-track mind of a film, involving the circuitous attempts of a husband and wife (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) trying to have a child before it’s too late, understands the combustible, self-defeating, and skull-clutchingly despairing attempts to leave behind a legacy. Once prolific artists, the two haven’t so much put their creative ambitions on hold as simply let them die, becoming so self-involved with parenthood that even their closest friends and family remark on how they still haven’t given up their foolish dream. What Tamara Jenkins captures in her first film in over a decade is the discord and dissatisfaction that comes with a partnership that has plateaued, where having a child becomes the logical next step in a relationship that has done it all, achieving a level of comfort that requires something to jar it from its stasis. When professional and personal ambitions fail to fill in that hollow feeling you tend to strive for something so unobtainable as to give you reason to keep going. But when the aperture for getting that done begins to close, the steady realization that this is it can sometimes be more harrowing than you’d expect
Minding the Gap
We tend to fixate on the inalterable past because we like to tell ourselves that maybe, if we can’t learn from our mistakes, that someone else can. It’s a running theme throughout Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, one of those impossible films of Chekhovian magnitude that captures every dramatic, unarrangable episode in the lives of three Rockford skateboarders. A young man thrust into fatherhood, another reconciling his own troubled past with his father, and the third confronting his mother about the abuse he endured on behalf of his stepfather, the film examines that oft left unsaid Truth that the world’s endemic isn’t some tactile, visible deficiency; it’s loneliness, disappointment, and despair. When Kiere traverses through a cemetery to find his father’s gravesite, the search brings him to tears. Countless headstones, one after another, all functioning as totems for someone else’s loss – he finds his father’s marker and it’s the only one that stares back at him.
“I was just another white kid… I never thought much about it and now I’m thinking about it all the time.” This profound line, uttered by Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in a scene toward the middle of Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman as he holds his newly acquired membership card to the Ku Klux Klan, captures a moment of wokeness that most filmmakers would strain to capture. For Lee, one of America’s preeminent filmmakers, he refrains from grandiose gestures, instead closing in on Driver’s distinct features as the undercover Jewish cop begins to acknowledge the struggle of his fellow officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington). The scene begins with the two in medium shot, their backs against one another, cuts to Driver in close-up as he wrestles with his indifference to the Black experience, and then cuts to an oblique angle, with Washington at the center of the frame. On the whole, the scene and its formal qualities serve to acknowledge the inherent difficulties in having a white advocate to the Black struggle, wherein Zimmerman proceeds with his reluctant partnership with Stallworth out of obligation and duty. It’s at this moment, however, that Zimmerman’s perspective shifts, where his lack of identity and cultural agency becomes a cognizant deficiency to him; where he understands that what he’s fighting for and whom he’s fighting with. Call it wokeness or empathy, it’s the sort of moment of clarity that can only be adequately experienced in its negation. Once you see it – the struggle of when you’re considered deficient, inadequate, and inferior - you can’t unsee it.
Yorgos Lanthimos is the sort of filmmaker who will smooth out every scene, every tracking shot, and every frame to the very last crease. The clinical, aloof aspects of his filmmaking, especially in his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, could at times be too overwhelming and distractingly fussy to recommend. But with The Favourite, that fastidious quality never seemed more vital and teeming with life. Like with his previous films, it was a component that took some time to get used to: the profuse use of fish-eye lenses and the steadicam tracking shots cued me in to the reality that I’m indeed experiencing a Lanthimos film. But it’s intriguing to see what’s been stripped away: the robotic, icy performances that were a staple of most of the comedic moments of The Lobster and a despairing slog in Sacred Deer has been replaced by a more traditional and frankly sublime ensemble headed by three of the most dynamic performances of the year from Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman. The playfulness of how these performers interact cuts past Lanthimos’ formal rigor, dictating a mischievous yet nevertheless warm experience. It amounts to an astonishing dynamic, with Lanthimos’ formal predilections softened while the edges of his performers sharpened as they deploy some of the sharpest, most biting witticisms of the year.
Ash is Purest White
An expansive, profusely epic movie by Jia Zhang-ke, Ash is Purest White is the Chinese master’s most ambitious film to date. This, despite the aperture in which its decades-long narrative is funneled through the singular romance involving Jia stand-by Zhao Tao and Liao Fan. Alternating from gangster picture, prison drama, brazen romance, and road film at a snap, it’s perhaps the closest Jia’s come to reproducing a David Lean epic, particularly Dr. Zhivago. But Jia’s preoccupations remain indebted to his examination of China and its progressive, unceasing globalization; can love survive a country that has extinguished all remnants of the past? Can modernity’s unceasing march forward untether the connection had by two lovers? Trends become outmoded, torrents of technological growth have rendered artifacts into dust, and yet the heart, buried deeper and deeper, somehow desires to keep going on. While some have grown weary of Jia’s continued embrace of narrative, avoiding some of the experimental qualities of his earlier work like Platform or The World, I’ve found his recent growth as a narrative filmmaker to be profoundly riveting.
My favorite Haruki Murakami novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, has a passage involving a young Korean woman named Sumire and her friend, the book’s narrator and Murakami-proxy, “K” discussing their mutual disassociation and listlessness with the world. When Sumire finally asks K if he ever felt confused by what he’s doing, he bluntly replies that he “spend[s] more time being confused than not”. K is a character with no itch for personal glories, defeated by life’s disappointments and content with being a complete nonentity, having stepped aside to make no claim to the world. That is until he meets Sumire. She rattles something awake within him, dimming the darkness and birthing sunlight. Though as these narratives tend to go, reciprocity proves to be as unattainable as wealth, status, and privilege.
Like many great filmmakers, Murakami had a tendency to repeat himself, with Sputnik Sweetheart possessing the thematic skeleton that we find in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (adapted from Murakami’s short story, Barn Burning). Like Sputnik Sweetheart, Burning involves a triptych: a central male character consumed by self-doubt and disappointment, a woman whose interest in him fluctuates, and a third, more ephemeral character whose mythology and charms weigh heavily throughout. Yet to see this rendered cinematically is Lee’s great accomplishment, where the internalized prose that makes Murakami’s work so affecting is realized in its absence, with stretches of Burning finding Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a lost, despondent writer, in solitude. Murakami’s prose tends to highlight the hostility of life’s expectations not being met, where the atoms of the universe fail to collide in the precise way you want them. Lee, most persuasively, encapsulates this by showing us a certain feline near the film’s end; just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
When I was a teenager in the early aughts, I had a novelty tee shirt that stated, “I’ve gone to find myself. If I get back before I return, please keep me here.” It was a silly shirt and the kind of fodder that conservative loudspeakers highlight as liberal foolishness, an ideology that only daydreaming, privileged metropolitan scene kids could afford. I hadn’t thought about the phrase until I came across Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline. Detailing the emotional descent of a prodigious young theater actress, we observe the shaky, uncertain terms of reality and fiction converge, where Madeline’s (an ebullient Helena Howard) sense of self perpetually remains outside her grasp. It’s detailed throughout the film, whether it be the endorphin rush of a kiss before its crashing affects, or the excitement of participating in a theater-house prank before confronting a parent. Dreamy, teenage wispiness confronts clinical truth. Decker’s not the first filmmaker to explore this sense of finding oneself when coping with anomie or despair, but she’s the first that I can immediately cite that understands that the notion of “finding oneself” lends itself to realizing that a piece of you has been misplaced, and maybe even lost forever.
You took the plea deal that your past offered you. No use relitigating; it’s too despairing, too violent. So you start over. Or try to. You relocate and try to build a new future for yourself, even if the inalterable past haunts everything, infiltrating your muscle memory, burying into the cavities of your marrow. It’s not like you’re not trying. You realize the burden is too much for you to handle so you do the one thing you didn’t want to do: you ask for help. And you feel good about it, initially. The waves of anhedonia subside and maybe this might work. But the help has its motives, its own set of expectations.
Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane demonstrates a precise understanding of the monumental agony it takes to hoist yourself up from the traumas of the past. They linger like apparitions, following you through every hallway, leaving you weak at the knees, and threatening your collapse at any given moment. The film disguises itself as a thriller, an examination of a woman’s paranoia and the crazed lunacy of unchecked masculine entitlement. And it veers into a critical essay on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. It’s successful in all regards, but what makes Unsane absolutely vital to me is in how it approaches the idea of moving on: to become well-adjusted requires a Herculean effort.
The prevailing sentiment I have about Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is that it is remarkably difficult to write about. It’s perhaps, like with a lot of difficult or dense films, because there’s a lot to unpack, particularly given that so much of Suspiria requires a viewer to align itself with the emotional tenor and beats that the film provides. What was initially a quasi-giallo feast of neon colors by Dario Argento, it is given sociopolitical heft, funneled through a concrete visage of 1970s Berlin that marries the ideologies of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and David Cronenberg. The eerie, electronic tenor of a score by Goblins has been replaced by the saintly voice of Thom Yorke. Blood spills infrequently (let alone the neon blood of Argento’s film), instead replaced by the body contorting and bones compacting. In essence, what Guadagnino’s Suspiria does for me is everything that Argento’s film never could: it’s a skull-clutchingly powerful, purely ephemeral exercise, the kind you feel in every active nerve ending in your body. As a character inquires early into the film, “When you were dancing, what did it feel like in your body?” As a viewer, it felt like an avalanche – a sensory exercise that left you feeling everything.
Support the Girls
Dumbest thing people tend to do is minimize the struggle of their day-in day-out routine by pointing out that there are indeed other people suffering more than they are. No shit. That doesn’t make it any easier. Recontextualize that when looking at Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a film about a coterie of women working a dead-end service sector job, making ends meet the only way they know how. Centered on one of the best performances of the year from Regina Hall, the film is a symphony dedicated to those relegated to penciled-in footnote status; a tribute to those making a living. It’s a film so full of warmth, imbued by a vivid sense of sorority among those who must negotiate and leverage their sexuality with every social encounter they have with a specific subphylum of men that can more or less be described as trash. Bujalski, much like what we tend to see from Steven Soderbergh, understands the incomprehensible, impossible situation that women find themselves in when a culture values them exclusively as accessories. The concrete web that these women inhabit threatens to ensnare and consume them, that’s until they shout from the rooftops, refusing to be tethered to disappointment.
If Beale Street Could Talk
If everything ends, does it deepen or void all that came prior? Barry Jenkins’ astonishingly tender adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel examines the then and now as he follows a young black couple in their attempts to make it in 1970s Harlem. Baldwin’s novel opens with Tish Rivers looking at herself in the mirror. In Jenkins’ adaptation, Tish (KiKi Layne) looks through glass where she sees Fonny (Stephan James) on the other end. Incarcerated for a crime he claims he did not commit, it’s up to Tish and her family to save Fonny.
Jenkins doesn’t adhere to every narrative development of Baldwin’s text nor is he especially committed to exploring the orbiting characters outside of Tish and Fonny. This is their story and where Jenkins (impossibly) does do justice is in his vivid rendering of Baldwin’s internal prose. The benevolent romanticism, the sweet gestures of Tish and Fonny’s courtship, where the two wander a park at night or leave a restaurant under the cover of a vibrant red umbrella, are absolutely scintillating. Baldwin’s prose can be so arresting in its passion that one may have imagined Jenkins’ subtler, serene gestures to be too ephemeral. That’s certainly not the case as the two minds, the then and now, merge to create an authentic tapestry of love that’s just as striking and relevant in its poignancy. When Fonny asks Tish if she “believe[s] we going to make it?” it echoes with such urgency, inspiring the paradoxical in both hope and despair. I hope they do make it, even as the world has stacks the deck against them.
I read Leo Tolstoy’s Confessions this year, an exceedingly Russian and dire (redundant?) account of the novelist’s existential crisis. He concisely notes that, “Faith is the force of life. If man lives, then he must have faith in something. If he did not believe that he had something he must live for, then he would not live… Without faith it is impossible to live.”
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is barely alive. He presides over a sparsely attended congregation in one of New York City’s oldest temples, First Reformed. The venue, now relegated to a tourist spot that serves as part of a larger megachurch, is in the midst of renovations with its sestercentennial approaching – a leak in the men’s bathroom and a broken organ are among Toller’s concerns as he prepares for the event. He’s the kind of man who prefers to handle the situation by himself, not one to bother others; we learn a lot about him through his refusal to ask for aid. Yet the shadow of something more pressing and transcendental looms overhead, as we overhear through the numerous passages of narration that Toller will proceed with writing in a journal daily for a year’s time before destroying the record and setting it aflame. The diary of this country priest, with its pages penned typically at candlelight with a bottle of cognac within arm’s reach, will be filled with woe.
Confessions is most remembered for Tolstoy’s metaphor on the agony of living, where he likens existence to a man clinging to life on the branch of a tree. Below is a dragon, open mouthed, and prepared to erase man from existence. The man clings to the branch, with only a bit dripping honey sating him. He tastes the honey in brief, infrequent increments. It’s all he has, his brief respites in agony, lest he lets go and falls into the dragon’s maw.
The honey drips seldom for Reverend Toller. A contentious intellectual debate on bringing about a new life with a parishioner gives him renewed appreciation for his faith, until that same parishioner takes his life days later. He befriends the widow, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and their time together fills his heart, briefly, with renewed meaning. A bike ride and prayer leads to a moment of levitation. But that moment is not without its agony, as Toller and Mary drift through beautiful visages until they don’t; images of Earth rendered uninhabitable pervade his thoughts even as he has a heavenly angel next to him to navigate his heart.
Tolstoy concludes his essay by suggesting that “the essence of faith lies in giving life a meaning that cannot be destroyed by death.” Whether or not Toller finds that meaning is up for debate, as Schrader leaves things fairly open-ended for interpretation. At my darkest, I know that Toller is dead, the door having been locked before and thus preventing his angel from rescuing him. But at my most hopeful, I know that he’s alive, having taken solace in the arms of a lover. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is my favorite film of 2018 because it understands the fundamental principle that life may feel like you’re clinging to a branch that’s prepared to snap, but there can be enough honey to keep you going. I’m not a spiritual man, but I do have faith.