I’d imagine every one of us, despite our individual life situations, however privileged or difficult they may be, wouldn’t have too much trouble coming up with a pretty long list of people and circumstances for which to be grateful, during the upcoming week traditionally reserved for the expression of thanks as well as throughout the entirety of the year.
Even in our brave new world, where gratitude and humility and generosity of spirit often seem to be in short supply, at the mercy of greed, abuse of power, disregard for the rule of law, and megalomaniac self-interest cynically masquerading as an aggressive strain of nationalist, populist passion, there are good, everyday reasons to look around and take stock of blessings in one’s immediate surroundings.
And speaking specifically as one who has the privilege and opportunity to occasionally write about matters concerning the movies, and even a (very) modest readership cultivated over the course of 14 years of noodling away at it, it’s hard to be entirely defeatist about the prospect, even if moment by moment the movies themselves can sometimes cause a chin to get heavy and droop. For those who love the art form of the movies (and by extension, all the art forms that feed into and make the movies uniquely pleasurable), it seems there will always be a reason to take heart, if not always from the current state of the art, then perhaps from the richness of our shared movie past.
For instance, just this past week I was fortunate enough to see two great films by Robert Altman. If there is any lingering doubt as to whether or not McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is one of the great American movies of any age, then one need only see it as I did last week at AFI Fest 2017, projected in a spectacular 35mm print, to dispel those silly misgivings. Unfortunately, that kind of opportunity for confirmation is very rare indeed, even in cities like Los Angeles or New York, so don’t be discouraged that your best alternative is Criterion’s smashing digital Blu-ray upgrade. In addition to the highest quality digital transfer of Vilmos Zsigmond’s revolutionary cinematography now available, McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s celebrated, and excoriated, soundtrack, layered with overlapping dialogue which enrichens the movie’s bustling, claustrophobic daguerreotype-in-motion style, gets spiffed up too, with optional English subtitles (created by myself and my wife—check the liner notes) which weave an illuminating line through the creative cacophony of the town of Presbyterian Church.
Better still, I saw Nashville, far and away my favorite movie over the past 40 years, projected (digitally), this past week too. Nashville is a movie I initially resisted, when I first saw it at age 15, one which came to overwhelm my sense of what movies were and what movies could be as I gave it some repeated viewings along my journey toward adulthood. Nashville has always had the ability to speak to me about our country and its citizenry in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate time for which it was originally made. But seeing it and thinking about it now has proved to be artistically valuable and important, for me at least, in processing the violation of American tradition, manner and protocol that has proved to be the primary currency in the age of Trump. (I wrote a piece on about the movie on the eve of last year’s election that was certainly one of the ways I attempted to deal with the imminent bad moon rising: here’s the link.)
I took my own politically engaged 15-year-old along with me to last week’s screening, fully aware that she is the same age now that I was when I first saw and rejected Nashville. I wasn’t really hanging my hopes on her recognizing it as the profoundly funny masterpiece I happen to believe it is. But as someone who is learning to face up, with anger and passion, to gender inequality and other forms of social injustice, I thought she might possibly connect with Nashville on some level which might translate to her Trump-resistant daily life. She did not, unfortunately, and that’s okay. My real regret, when comparing her negative response to the experience of the film to my own back in 1975, is that she’s not growing up in a culture which encourages re-experiencing movies like Nashville, if there can be said to even be a film culture in America in 2017 that is remotely like the one which existed in cities and on college campuses in 1975. (Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Altman made movies from MASH and The Long Goodbye to Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women and even Popeye under the aegis of big American studios.) So, it’s unlikely that my daughter is ever going to stumble upon a screening of Nashville in her young adulthood and say to herself, “Hey, maybe I oughta give that movie another chance,” the way her dad once did.
But seeing the movie together did give me a moment with my daughter to remember. As a way of preparing her for the film, I was giving her some idea of the sociopolitical context—Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate and the erosion of faith in the American politics, and the American class system as reflected in the microcosm of the Music City society of celebrities, up-and-comers, has-beens and never-will-bes, all mixing it up with a rainbow coalition of regular citizenry that make up the movie’s teeming cast of characters. As we got ready to leave the car, I finished up my little lecture and I noticed that she had a big grin on her face. I asked her why, and she told me, “I just like listening to you talk about something you have so much passion for. It makes me happy.” Well, after that she could have unfavorably compared Nashville to Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy for all I cared. It was one of the nicest things anybody had said to me in weeks, courtesy of my daughter and, by extension, my favorite movie. What’s not to be thankful for?
That’s not the only thing deserving of my gratitude this year, of course, and most of those things that rate appreciation in my life have precious little to do with the movies. But of the other things that do, maybe I’m most grateful for the sea change that seems to be taking place in Hollywood, and in America at large, regarding sexual harassment and abuse of power in the working world. I remain hopeful that a backlash is not inevitable, that the more women who step out and stand up to the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of their male colleagues, the ones in power and the ones in the trenches right alongside them, will strengthen the resolve to face the problem head on, and not encourage those so inclined to blow it all off as a tide of opportunism risen by women with shallow careerism or simple revenge as motivation. But I’m also grateful for the wave of insistent shame I feel personally for having cruised along on a certain measure of male privilege all my life, never having tumbled as to just how pervasive a problem this has been not only for the high-profile women speaking up against the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Roy Moore and (sigh) Al Franken, but for women I have personally worked with and respected ever since taking my very first job. I should feel ashamed. And may I never again be so casually comfortable about knowing that my female friends and colleagues must put up with shit I will probably never have to endure. Yes, Harvey, it was a different world then, but we have a chance to make it an even more different, measurably better world now, and for that I am also very thankful.
I’ve been writing about movies in a public forum for over 14 years now, and that endeavor has brought me in touch with a lot of people whose talent and perspective are infinitely valuable to me. Without presuming to put myself on their level, I am and always have been grateful to call these people my peers and my friends: Simon Abrams, Jeff Allard, Peg Aloi, Christopher Atwell, Steven Awalt, Sean Axmaker, Larry Aydlette, Christianne Benedict, Howard S. Berger, Tom Block, Chuck Bowen, Tom Carson, Justin Chang, David Chute, Paul Clark, Michael Colleary, Joe Dante, Brian Doan, Phillip Dyess-Nugent, David Edelstein, Jim Emerson, Paul Gaita, Peet Gelderblom, Michael Giammarino, Odie Henderson, Robert Hubbard, Dan Jardine, Larry Karaszewski, Craig Kennedy, Sharon Knolle, Charlie Largent, Tim Lucas, Kevin Maher, Don Mancini, Nicholas McCarthy, Roger McDorman, Marty McKee, Marya Murphy, Farran Smith Nehme, Peter Nellhaus, Sheila O’Malley, Angelina Orduno, Craig Phillips, Terrence Rafferty, Carrie Rickey, Patrick Robbins, Shade Rupe, Steven Santos, Michael Schlesinger, Matt Zoller Seitz, Gene Seymour Richard Harland Smith, Peter Sobcynski, William Speruzzi, Michael Sragow, Charles Taylor, Ella Taylor, Michael Torgan, Lee Tsiantis, Noel Vera, Richard Von Busack, Bob Westal, Matthew David Wilder, Mike Werb, Chris Willman and Stephanie Zacharek. Many of you are fellow writers, but regardless of what your talent may be, all of you made my life richer and more interesting because of your intellects and your good humor during the past year, and I am beyond appreciative for your presence in it.
I am also grateful for any movie year in which I was able to see films like Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, James Mangold’s Logan, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Joon-ho Bong’s Okja, Don Mancini’s Cult of Chucky, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Ceyda Torun’s Kedi and Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game.
Then add to the mix David Lynch’s monumental 18 hours of Twin Peaks: The Return and the Netflix series Mindhunter, shepherded by creator Joe Penhall and director David Fincher, and homing in on what might be the best picture of 2017 becomes an even greater challenge.
All that, and I’ve still to see Mudbound, The Meyerowitz Stories, One of Us, First They Killed My Father, Battle of the Sexes, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, Lucky, Our Souls at Night, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Faces Places, The Florida Project, Take My Nose… Please!, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, Happy Death Day, Human Flow, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, BPM, Wonderstruck, Bill Nye: Science Guy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Novitiate, The Square, 11/8/16, Last Flag Flying, LBJ, My Friend Dahmer, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Lady Bird, Murder on the Orient Express, Justice League, Wonder, Coco, Darkest Hour, Molly’s Game, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, The Disaster Artist, Wonder Wheel, The Shape of Water, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Downsizing, Happy End, The Post, Phantom Thread and, perhaps of even more interest now, the post-Spacey All the Money in the World.
I am grateful for the cats in my house, Poyo, Toast and Juju, who will always sit down and watch TV with me, as long as there’s a blanket on my lap, and sometimes even when there isn’t.
And most of all, I am very thankful for the family and friends with whom I get to experience all this joy and frustration and madness every day. My sanity, and perhaps yours, hangs in the balance. Happy Thanksgiving!