A 2015 SLIFR MOVIE TREEHOUSE DIGEST
The SLIFR Movie Treehouse (the acronym stands in for the title of my blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule) is a place where I like to gather a few of my movie-writing pals and exchange long e-mails on the way the movies shaped up for us in the year just left behind. It’s been a few years since I’ve undertaken this project, but the time felt right again, so I invited the very talented critical voices of Brian Doan, Odie Henderson, Marya Murphy and Phil Dyess-Nugent to take part, and to my great happiness they all agreed. (Bios for each writer can be found at the conclusion of each of their individual posts, which can be accessed by clicking below on the title of each post.)
What follows here are samples from the 16 posts we submitted over the week of January 11-17, and we’ll start with a bit more explanation of what readers can expect from following us on our week-long journey.
“Having spent several year-end seasons isolated in my own opinions, I felt like being sociable again. So I sent out invitations to four of my favorite film commenters to breathe life within the rickety walls of the Treehouse once again, and to my great delight they all accepted. Two of them already have official outlets for their film writing. The other two are writers whose work I first became familiar with through the august efforts of the Muriel Awards, then followed chiefly via their witty and wise commentary on Facebook. And all four I consider friends even though, as is increasingly often the case in the world of blogging and of Zuckerberg-influenced social interaction, none of us have actually met in person. What we’re going to undertake here over the course of the next week (and maybe, depending on stamina levels, slightly beyond) is basically an exchange of correspondence in which we will engage each other on the subject of the year in movies—our favorites, our least favorites, disturbing and encouraging trends, hopes for the future, and just about anything else that created a blip on our radar as we spent time gazing at the silver screen, or our laptops and tablets and phones, absorbing the range of cinematic offerings available to us.
Rather than trying to convince anyone, least of all ourselves, that the Treehouse represents some sort of carving out of a Supreme Court of film scholars, I’m envisioning a series of exchanges that will emphasize the way our personalities and tastes interact and feed off one another—those looking for the unleashing of nasty barbs and blood in the water will probably be disappointed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with, and if you spent a serious amount of time with the movies of 2015—would you be reading this if you hadn’t?—I hope you’ll enjoy your time eavesdropping in the Treehouse as much as we will hanging out up there.
“I live in Oberlin, a small Ohio college town that’s about an hour or so (weather and traffic depending) from art-houses in Cleveland and 30 minutes or so from multiplexes in nearby towns. We have one theater, with two screens, which alternate out films about every two weeks or so (give or take—The Force Awakens is in its third week, while Sisters had the good sense to slink out of town after seven days). While it’s not quite Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms hanging out at the Royal in The Last Picture Show, this isolation, combined with the limited viewing time created by day jobs, does mean that I’m often behind on things my big-city friends are chatting about on Twitter.
When the Ebert site asked its contributors for their Top Ten lists, I prefaced mine by addressing this supposed quandary; I guess I felt like it was something that needed to be addressed (a social/cinephile anxiety which certainly says something about me, and maybe about current trends/pressures of talking about films in a tiered movie economy whose discourses are shaped by geography as much as anything). Here’s what I said, shared to give y’all (and those who read it at the blog) a sense of where I’m coming from:
There was a long period when I was bothered by the difficulties that my geographic location presented to my staying in touch with current films; I think I even felt weirdly ‘guilty’ about it, as if being out of the loop meant being away from my ‘real’ movie-going self. But now, I think of it as an odd advantage: it gives me a lot to look forward to, freedom from whatever suffocating cliquishness might exist in bigger cities, and a perspective whose skewed nature (relative to everyone else’s) means that whatever else my viewing habits are, they are mine to take responsibility for and enjoy. As Roland Barthes said, ‘My body is different than yours.’ Or, in the words of Malcolm, the lead character of Dope (one of my favorite films of the year): ‘I don’t fit in. I used to think that was a curse, but I’m slowly starting to see, that maybe, it is a blessing.’”
“I know that watching movies on watches and phones is de rigeuer, but I find the entire concept to be de trop. (You work those French lessons, boy!) I can’t watch squat on my Android, but I am guilty of laptop viewing. In my defense, I have a TV sized monitor on this laptop when I’m home. Part of the critic’s life is dealing with the wonderful movie delivery system known as an online screener. These screeners run about as quickly as a stoned turtle, and have watermarks in the least convenient places (once the watermark covered the subtitles, forcing me to work those French lessons, boy!). Once, it took me 13 hours to watch a movie I had to review. Unfortunately, that movie was The Stanford Prison Experiment, #7 on my 2015 ten worst list. So I try to get out to a theater to see most movies. It’s my preferred method of watching a movie, even if I have to do it in a critic’s screening room that feels like a mausoleum.
For now, though, let us join our fellow cinephiles for a moment of silence to mourn the death of cinema.
Just kidding! Cinema has been dead and resurrected so much that even Jesus is rolling His eyes. I’ve never understood this woe-is-me phenomenon put on every other year by whiny-ass think-piece writers. Cinema, like rock ‘n roll, will never die. If TV didn’t kill it, it will last forever.”
“2015 was a terrific year for small movies that burrowed deep into private obsessions and cultish passions, illuminating out-of-the-way pockets of experience and people who have waited a long time for the chance to be treated as equal partners in the pop culture mainstream. The emergence of movies like Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine is an inspiring story, but having lived through the 1990s, I don’t want to oversell the whole ‘creative spirits from the fringes of society are coming for your multiplex!’ aspect of it. I’m old enough to remember when the ‘plucky outsider with minimal resources crashing the studio gates’ story of the year was El Mariachi, and at the end of the day, it’s possible that the big lesson of Robert Rodriguez’s career is that there are people you maybe shouldn’t encourage. Of course, the big difference now is that talented outsiders may not have any interest in even finding their way to the studio gate unless they have a belly full of beer and are itching to unzip. Baker’s movie was midwifed by the Duplass brothers, bless them, who have gone from making movies that often look like overextended TV skits to creating an HBO TV series that plays like the world’s longest, whitest indie movie. Tangerine blows the pants off most of the Bros.’s oeuvre, but it’s still kind of weird watching a movie that was shot on a phone that is, in turn, fated to be watched by people looking for something to stare at on their phones.”
“When I say I don’t really watch movies anymore, I should clarify that, yes, okay, I watch a hell of a lot more movies than most middle-aged mother-types. But the person I see myself as, the person who spent all day at the multiplex sneaking from theater to theater, who spent most of her young adult birthdays alone in movie theaters, who only went ‘shopping’ if there was a movie theater in the mall, who pre-ordered the first Roku box and dove headlong into the joy of Netflix streaming… I dunno. I dunno where she went.
Okay, I kind of know. My movie-watching and movie-making got tangled up in my head with a marriage that ended. A series of crappy things in the early twenty-teens estranged me from the filmmaking and film-writing communities. It all became fraught. And being a full-time working nearly full-time parenting human is kind of exhausting. But I have time. Man, I have plenty of time. And every freaking time I go inside an actual movie theater, I slip down in my seat, Coca-Cola fizzing next to me, the house lights go down and the screen flutters and I’m ecstatic. And I think, ‘Why am I not always in a movie theater?’
I can’t watch movies at home anymore. I mean, I can, but it’s an effort. I have to stop myself from jumping up to start a load of laundry or check my damned phone or let the neighbor’s cat in or let the neighbor’s cat out or play Simpsons Tapped Out on the iPad or maybe do a jigsaw puzzle or chat with five people on Facebook or take a bath which turns into a nap. I can watch TV shows. Episode after episode after episode. 22-44 minutes at a shot. Endless loop. But movies, man. That’s a commitment.
Shoot, I just realized what it is. It’s the same thing that happens if I drive more than 30 minutes. I start thinking. And feeling. And that’s just not acceptable. In the movie theater, where it’s a wholly absorbing experience, I can fall into it completely. At home… it’s dangerous. Feeling and thinking are the enemies of sanity for me these days.”
“I took my daughter to see Hitchcock/Truffaut, which was followed by a midnight screening of Psycho, which she had never seen. (She’s a 15-year-old movie fan with a strong attraction to the classics of the horror genre.) I asked her before going in how much she knew about the 1960 movie landmark and preemptively mourned the fact that, because we were seeing the doc first, Psycho’s element of surprise would likely be ruined for her. She said she knew about the shower scene, but that was about it. And I was relieved when Kent Jones’ documentary, other than using a shot of Arbogast reeling backward down the stairs in its opening moments, carried discussion of Psycho itself only as far as that shower scene. (Nonetheless, she viewed most of that section of the doc with her ears and eyes partially covered.) After the movie let out, as we were heading back out to buy our tickets for Psycho, I asked for her thoughts and she said, ‘Well, I tried to cover my eyes and ears, but I saw some of it (the shower scene) anyway. Oh, well. So I know how the movie ends, but there’s probably a lot of scary stuff leading up to that, right?….’ Ka-ching! Surprise factor preserved! She spent the last half of the movie in a glorious state of nervous wreck-titude and had no idea what was coming when Vera Miles opens the door to the fruit cellar. One of the great movie moments of the year for me, and for her too, judging by our 2:00 AM discussion on the ride home.”
“Regarding Coogler’s subversive pivoting of the (Rocky) franchise: It’s important how and why he did it. Hollywood simply does not accept the notion that white male audiences will accept and embrace a hero who is a minority or female. And considering all the screaming and clothes-rending that went on vis-à-vis the colorization and/or feminine invasion of the Star Wars and superhero franchises, I can’t say I blame Hollywood for thinking this way. Coogler knows the series runs through the Rocky character, so he needs to give him a storyline for the Rocky fans. But it’s a rope-a-dope on the order of the similar switcheroo in Sirk’s version of Imitation of Life. This soapy, yet effective Rocky storyline is a front for the real story of Adonis Creed’s ascension to the status of new torchbearer/hero. Coogler knows that to have the audience acceptance required to make his remix work, he’ll have to use Rocky the way other movies use a Sidekick Negro character. Except unlike those characters, Rocky has a backstory and an arc. And Stallone does a great job.
More importantly, for all his love of Rocky’s character, Coogler gets to engage in some childhood wish-fulfillment with his new hero, which I immediately picked up on and embraced. He even cops to it in the film visually, with those scenes of young brown faces looking at Adonis with admiration and hope. I’d never seen that in a movie in 43 years of attending the cinema. I wish I had seen this movie when I was a kid.”
“I remember when Pauline Kael’s first collected edition of her ‘movie notes’ from The New Yorker came out in 1983, it included a little note advising the reader that if you watch a great movie on a TV set–even if it’s on LaserDisc!–you are, and I’m quoting from memory, committing an aesthetic crime of which you are the victim. That passage was conspicuously missing from later editions of the book, proving that one of the first things that people usually bring up when they’re explaining why Pauline Kael was the Antichrist isn’t true: she DID once change her mind about something! Or at least backslid on a point of principle when she realized there was no other way she was going to get her grandson to sit still through Seven Samurai.
I’m very grateful for the technological innovations that have resulted in an explosion in viewing choices and given small-time filmmakers a shot at broadening their audience without having to drive from one college campus to the next with a film print in the trunk of their car. (It’s certainly been a boom for documentary filmmakers, and in the past several months streamers have had the chance to sample excellent new docs about Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone and Janis Joplin, the Black Panther party, and Marlon Brando, Crystal Moselle’s mind-boggling The Wolfpack, Alex Gibney’s triple bill of Scientology, Sinatra, and Steve Jobs, and Albert Maysles’s wonderful, high-spirited memento mori, Iris.) But I also miss the feeling I used to have that, however flawed and homogenized movie culture was, those of us who cared to do the spadework could still get our arms around it, get a clear sense of what it encompassed and who was being clearly left out and where to find the pockets of activity that might speak most directly to a moviegoer’s individual needs outside the blockbuster mainstream. It might even have been easier in those days for a critic to discover a deserving movie that the mainstream was turning its back on, like Carl Franklin’s One False Move, and beat the drums for it.”
“Ah, Jennifer Lawrence… I know she is a virtually untouchable figure these days– Deadspin‘s Drew Magary made a joke a year or two ago that even breathing a hint that she might not be All That would cause a person to be sent to a remote detention facility by the internet Powers That Be–but at the risk of excommunication, I’m afraid I have to dissent from Phil’s call for an ‘amen’ on her status as ‘the single solitary person doing the most to keep the art form alive while carrying an entire industry on her back.’ I’m pretty sure Jennifer Lawrence actually exists (to paraphrase what the late Ralph Nader* once said of the Reagans’ racist appeal to white Democrats) to make Hollywood feel better about its ageism, and to let the rest of us be amused by their unacknowledged ironies. Her fellow stars can cheer her on while wearing their various ribbons at the Globes or the Oscars, without feeling awkward about how much of the ‘dramatic’ career they’re celebrating (I don’t know whether I was more moved by her ACTING! in the terrifying ‘exploding microwave’ scene in American Hustle or the ‘I can TOO chew scenery better than De Niro! And in the same scene!’ moments in Silver Linings Playbook) is based on repeatedly giving 40-something roles to a twenty-something with box office pull. That this is occurring while Lawrence is currently burnishing her ‘I’ve got a great bullshit detector’ persona in interviews and solipsistic Lenny pieces proves that finding a career path through maudlin manipulation didn’t die with Stallone’s stardom.”
“Yes, we pay movie stars exorbitant amounts, but we kinda think it’s a scam. We’ll fall in love with actors, but we don’t take them seriously. After all, an actor without a script can be a terrifying thing. There arevery few actors (mostly just the comedians who write) who can go off script and sound vaguely intelligent. Movie stars are lucky. They’re pretty. They’re at best savants of some sort. Our careful and closed intellectual brains can’t quite process what it is that makes them magic. So let me tell you what it is. Hell, I don’t know. Wait, yes, I do. It’s magic. It’s the soul. It’s the exquisite pain of existence poured out in little ice cube trays for your convenient consumption. You hear about a temperamental asshole actor lashing out with crazy petulance and fury at a grip who interrupted a scene, and you feel all superior because you would never lose your temper like that. Consider that the temperamental asshole actor’s job is to tear down every single fucking wall and coping skill and barrier she or he has in order to flay him or herself in front of an audience, the camera, the world, so that you can feel a little something as you watch in the theater, on your television, or on your pocket computing wonder. And when you question the bat-shit choices, addictions, love affairs, acts of public indecency of your cinematic heroes, remember that they’re feeling every second of every day the most vicious, tender, tragic, terrifying, exquisite feelings you’ve ever felt. Every second. All of the feels. Again, I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say it’s amazing to me that they’re not all constantly numbed out of their noggins with every possible drug, drink and sexual escapade they can muster.”
“As much as I (unexpectedly) enjoyed his performance, Sylvester Stallone’s supporting actor nomination, incredibly Creed’s sole recognition, has to register as bittersweet. No Ryan Coogler? No Michael B. Jordan? No Creed for Best Picture, something I thought up until about 5:40 a.m. was as sure a thing as could be anticipated? But nothing. And on Carl Weathers’ 68th birthday too. I get that Creed’s reception by the Academy, the nameless, faceless, lacking-in-actual-corporeality ‘they,’ has been up to this point and continues to be largely a pretext for the coronation of Stallone’s Balboa character, one that began in earnest in 1976 and got derailed by the actor’s cosmos-dwarfing ego, ghastly tendency to mold and relentlessly ride the political zeitgeist of Reagan-era jingoism and subterranean storytelling skills over the last 38 years. But the lack of recognition for the movie, in the screenplay category at the very least, speaks more tellingly to an overall tendency of the Academy to muffle considerations of race, even when it’s an integral part of the story of a film they seemed primed to celebrate, 12 Years a Slave being the exception to the rule that most easily pacifies those who choose not to acknowledge the bigger, more troubling picture. (Of course, the year’s best, prickliest, most challenging movie on race and American society, Chi-raq, never stood a chance of getting within a 10-mile perimeter surrounding the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.)
In this light, Straight Outta Compton’s lone nomination, for its Caucasian screenwriters, by the way, unfortunately ends up looking more like tokenism than tribute. A peek at the way the votes actually tallied might dispel at least some of the unease. But in a year that featured Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Teyvonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Benicio Del Toro and Chiwetel Ejiofor in high-profile roles, to name only a few, the fact that the closest any actor of color came to a nomination was Jordan and Thompson hanging out somewhere in the vicinity of Stallone’s admittedly effective turn, or Samuel L. Jackson sweating it out in the same big, wide, claustrophobic room as Jennifer Jason Leigh while she snarled the N-word, is a bit harder to swallow than it might have been otherwise.”
The early stuff about Dr. Dre and the formation of the group, the material with Ice Cube and his solo career, the insights into the business side of their lives– I thought that stuff was fascinating. The recording scenes were great, and so were the recreations of live performances. But the tendency in any biopic to say “…and nothing was ever the same again,” especially when it works to isolate the group as a singularity (rather than part of a broader moment of hip-hop’s flourishing, increased politicization, and growing stylistic diversity) felt wrong to me. I know it’s about one group, in one period (just as Love & Mercy, which has its own fraught relationship to the biopic, also is), but the larger claims it wants to make might have worked better for me if we got more acknowledgement of musical context than one scene of Ice Cube recording with the Bomb Squad.
It’s actually a movie that got smaller in my imagination the more time passed, because as I turned it over in my head, I couldn’t buy into the movie’s paradoxical braggadocio about NWA’s political stances, and its repeated insistence that “no one else is doing this” (which, having grown up with Public Enemy, the Native Tongues collective, and Boogie Down Productions, all of whom were also doing varied and genuinely radical work contemporaneous/near-contemporaneous with the 1988 Straight Outta Compton album, clearly ain’t so; it works as a character aside, but the film also wants it as its motto, even placing Chuck D’s famous line about rap as a black CNN in the group’s collective mouth). I also wasn’t sure what to do with its ambivalent take on the group’s relationship to violence, which I thought it could never decide if it was celebrating or condemning (although, in fairness, The Chronic itself–which we see the genesis of in the film’s second half–also wrestles with this kind of ambivalence).
“I didn’t see any Brando-level performances this year, but I do think that Jennifer Lawrence, more supernaturally alive than just about anybody onscreen, has shown an amazing gift for playing clear-eyed, passionate heroes who won’t back down, whether they’re bent on toppling a dictatorship or selling a mop, and this year she’ll turn the same age Brando was when he made his first movie. There were, as they say on the infomercials, some amazing discoveries: Daisy Ridley in you-know-what, Britt Robertson in Brad Bird’s overly maligned epic bomb Tomorrowland, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine, Shameik Moore and the other young performers in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope. Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and The Man from UNCLE, Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Nadia Hilker in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s genre-bending horror romance Spring, which also boasts a wonderful performance by Lou Taylor Pucci as an American in Italy whose emotional state shades gratefully from PYSD to lovestruck. (It’s sort of like Before Sunrise with tentacles.)
In Brooklyn, Saorise Ronan grows up onscreen, transforming herself from a painfully shy fish out of water into a confident woman of the world; she made me feel as if I were finally seeing the performance I read about whenever Jessica Chastain plays a young earth mother. Dakota Johnson gives an irresistible star performance in Fifty Shades of Grey, without a shred of help from her material, director, or co-star. (The fact that she’s right there with them on the list of Razzies nominees is a terrible indictment of what indulging in kneejerk, unreflective mockery of officially certified bad movies does to the brain.)”
“(Meryl) Streep said that today’s film criticism was sorely lacking in female voices, which is true. In my younger days, I read so many female critics: Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Kathleen Carroll, Susan Wloszczyna, Sheila Benson, etc., in addition to Roger and Archer Winsten and even Sexy Rexy. I hadn’t even realized that the universe had changed and become so male. So I agree with Meryl.
But in addition to this, I add that we need more diverse voices of color in film criticism as well. We’re both pretty fucked, unfortunately: The consensus is that women will only give good reviews to Nancy Meyers movies and can’t sit through The Revenant (my mother watches Lucio Fulci movies, so fuck whoever thinks this about women). And I can’t tell you how often people are surprised that I know about things besides Black movies. I was talking about 8½ at a party and someone said “GASP! You know about Fellini?” I responded, “You do know Fellini was Black, right? Billy Wilder too! He was passing!”
When that’s not happening, people mistake me for the only Black critic they’ve heard of, Armond White. Now, I’ve met Armond, and he’s probably far more insulted that I’m being mistaken for him than the other way around.
My point here is that diversity matters in the arts and in criticism, and not the fake-ass diversity bullshit I keep getting fed that’s been manufactured by the same PR firm that created “post-racial America.” True diversity, because the current “diverse” situation is predominantly White, predominantly male and totally bullshit. I like exploring the viewpoints of those who aren’t like me, because I may learn something I didn’t know. Why shouldn’t readers or viewers also experience the viewpoints of LGBT people, or women, or people of color?”
“So. The Oscars. Oh, man, you guys. I love the Oscars in all their absurdity. Of course I want my favorite actors and films to be nominated and to win. But what other awards in the world do we feel like we have so much stake in? The movies are ours. We own them. Actors and directors belong to us. They are our royalty and our property. Who won Best Advancement in Cancer Research in 2006? I dunno. Probably some old white guy. But The New World was freakin’ robbed. Crash? Seriously?
I hope the Oscars will eventually go the way of most professional sports. It’ll be only black people who win anything or are nominated. Because, dude, come on. Who wants to see pasty white people emoting? But, nah, as long as we are a mostly white establishment we’ll want to see people like us and we’ll appreciate the performances of people like us and stories like ours. Actual talent be damned. The world is rigged. It is getting better. Maybe. It’s just sooooo goddamned slow. And when the black, brown, gay, female talents come along, well… there’s only room for one at a time. Look, guys, we gave that Hurt Locker chick some awards, like, just a couple of years ago. We often nominate one or two black people. What more do you want from us? Now you’re just trying to take away spots from the nice white men who deserve them. Maybe we can split up the awards. We have actor and actress. How about director and directress? Director and Directress of Color? LGBT special consideration awards. The Special Oscars. Honestly, the entertainment industry is better for non-white people than most industries in this silly planet. I work for a law firm with 65 partners. About 55 of them are, yeah, you know– straight, white men. I want this conversation to be louder and broader. We are a racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, able-ist species. Let’s try to be better.”
“Where once there was jittery disregard for visual coherence in Inarritu’s films, there is now an attempt to wed the visual element in his films to the way people in his films experience the world, which is, I think, a far cry from writing off Inarritu’s intent as an effort to reduce the American frontier of the 1830’s recreated in his new movie to a first-person shooter game environment. Objections like the ones Brian raises—`a bullying assault on its audience, a macho dare to dislike it and therefore be out of the loop’– seem rooted in resistance to a perceived tactic that wouldn’t be out of line with Inarritu’s directorial past, but one which I’m not convinced is entirely fairly applied here. (This is not Gaspar Noe’s The Revenant, after all, and thank God for that.) There is a certain level of verisimilitude that comes with the territory of telling a story like this, one which has been cherry-picked by Hollywood before, by the way, most notably in the 1971 Richard Harris epic Man in the Wilderness. But I never sensed, as Brian clearly did, that I was being put through the ringer by an expert sadist for the dirty thrill of it—for that privilege see instead The Hateful Eight, if you must—or that the movie’s ‘grunting antics’ were ‘art house porn for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Peckinpah or Don Siegel retrospective.’”
Thanks again to Brian, Marya, Odie and Phil for spending time with me in the SLIFR Treehouse talking about movies. Hope they’re ready to climb back up that rickety ladder next year, because I already am.