Meditations in an Exploration: ‘The Calming’ Lives Up to its Name

In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace.

The first thing to notice about The Calming is the foliage. The film opens in an art gallery where an image of a forest is projected on a blank wall. A gallery employee adjusts nature for brightness and contrast. The next scene takes place in a tree-lined park where the main character (played by Xi Qi) lets a friend know she and her partner have broken up. In the subsequent scene, the foliage is fake and stuck forever between drywall and glass in a restaurant. Oh yes, writer and director Song Fang is going to have something to say about surroundings.

And it’s not all trees (though it is a lot of them). Fang places her protagonist against an incredibly varied array of backdrops: a city at night, a snow-covered country, bamboo forests, industrial refineries, mountains. She is almost always shot from behind, the camera at a safe enough distance to put her body and her environment in equal focus, forcing the audience to constantly evaluate the image to determine if her current place is the right one. The one that fits, that feels right. The one that will stick.

The Calming’s protagonist is constantly on the move, from city to city for her documentary exhibition or lectures, for brief visits to see friends and her parents. The walks she takes in nearby forests or parks are the only times she transports herself. She is always on a train or bus or in a cab. She is neither in the driver’s seat of her own life nor is she the author of her artist’s bio, because any talk of her life or work is spoken of by others. Her friend asks her about what happened to her relationship and she changes the subject to someone’s recent death. She’d rather talk about the absence of life than herself.

And so the audience is left watching her watch others, since she won’t talk about herself. Watching her wander paths to watch the branches and leaves blowing in the breeze. The presence of sound is so scarce. She has no internal monologue, and there is little soundtrack to speak of. To be contented to settle into this film of listless wonder appears to be the endgame.

But it’s not about wonder, is it? The closer she gets to home, the less honest she is about the end of her relationship. Why? When her belongings arrive at her new apartment, they barely take up one corner of one room. What does that say?

And then there’s the opera. The only time where we get to really see her face, and her eyes are closed. She is not only emoting for the first time in the film, she’s crying as she listens to Händel’s aria that says, “Convey me to some peaceful shore, where no tumultuous billows roar, where life, though joyless, still is calm, and sweet content is sorrow’s balm.”

The Calming is a story of a broken heart. In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace. We watched the protagonist wandering the woods and we wondered, “What is she looking at?” Instead, the movie was asking us, “What is she looking for?” The protagonist’s life may be joyless, for now, but it sure is calm.

There is No Spark in ‘Tesla’

Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

Written, directed, and produced by Michael Almereyda, Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

While an omniscient narrator spoon-feeds the viewer facts in place of a story, a fourth-wall breaking frame narrative derails what little momentum exists from an already wordy script, making any discernible story nearly impossible to follow. Busy camera work tries in vain to create a mood while a baffling array of plot points distracts from whatever the point of this film is. (Did you need to know how Thomas Edison courted his second wife? Because for some reason Tesla will tell you.)

There is nearly as much emphasis on the prolific Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) as there is on the titular character himself (Ethan Hawke), which could be a fun mirroring exercise if not for the lazy retelling of Edison as villain as though hipsters haven’t extolled this sentiment for years. Tesla is left substantially underdeveloped, mumbling and bumbling around in rooms full of powerful men without ever asserting what makes his life worthy of a film adaptation, proving that this one is more interested in exploring its own gimmickry than creating a story of value.

An auteur’s self-indulgent fingerprint is all over this bloated slog of a film, so much so that it lacks the fundamental element that made Tesla’s AC current so innovative: there is absolutely no spark.

Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

‘Shirley’ imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption.

Anyone who’s watched five minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of that show’s success falling entirely on the actability of Elisabeth Moss’s face. It’s excellent at hiding secrets. When her eyes need to read emotionless her mouth takes over… she smirks, snarls, exhales cigarette smoke not through pursed lips but by jutting out her lower jaw. If a smile sneaks through, she swallows it. It will be to your delight that Shirley contains much of the same, for similar and somehow even darker reasons than the Hulu show.

A viewer could be forgiven for confusing Moss’s age in Shirley, because for someone as hardened, bitter, talented, strained, and achieved as Shirley Jackson you’d imagine her to be much older than her 35 years at the time she wrote Hangsaman. (Presumably the novel she’s writing in the film. Though never specified, the general premise and a scene with three Hanging Man tarot cards suggest as much.) Though the actor is barely older than this, the performance reads much older, as though Moss was playing some decades her senior. She is weathered, lowering her vocal tone in line with Jackson’s penchant for smoking, though she’s not physically aged to look older.

But Moss’s Jackson reads “old” simply because the male gaze hasn’t struck her, simply because we’re not used to seeing women like this. Her breasts sag and her tummy bulges. She looks wrong in a red lip. She is not of her surroundings… or is she? She looks and acts as though she’s been chewed up and spit out by the expectations of post-war, American dreaming New England. Her mental illness(es) are a part of her whole person, which by nature is not for the consumption of men. Such is the sexualization of women in the language of film that “crazy” rarely translates as more than Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The only exception to this may be Misery, but even then, her un-sexuality is a plot device to keep her as neutral and unthreatening as possible.

Shirley Jackson is not neutral. But she is unconventional. Unconventional in the way that women are not allowed to be when placed out of the male gaze because of the inherent danger they exude, a danger both alluring and repulsive to those around her. Shirley imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption. She’s the embodiment of the first day you realize the patriarchy is real, when the bottom falls out from under everything you once saw and now you see it everywhere. She infiltrates minds. The dean of the English department confesses that after reading Jackson’s work he imagines taking his own paper weight and bashing his head in.

A premaritally pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) in her sweater set is ripe for becoming Shirley’s newest vessel. Rose is caught between both the horny, debauched underbelly of academia (members of which are often jerking each other off both figuratively and otherwise) and the smothering nature of the time period, with an evolved sexuality of her own that buzzes at the edges of her scenes. If not for Shirley, Rose would have become like all the university wives, both victims and contributors to their fates.

If Shirley is of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lineage, Rose acts as more Nick than Honey to Jackson’s Martha. She both torments and nurtures Rose, using Rose as a filter through which she can process both her emotions and her intensely engrossing work. Through Rose, Shirley is able to shed a layer of neurotic skin, appearing whole, almost relieved when done. Through Shirley, Rose becomes unconventional. She is now the terrorist, able to infiltrate minds, needing to shed her own skin. And on and on the cycle goes.

‘Light from Light’ is Here to Soothe Your Existentially Anxious Soul

‘Light from Light’ worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing.

Grasshopper Film

This review contains mild spoilers. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be remarkable for a film to have an exceptional opening scene, but Light from Light shows how rare it is. Right out of the gate, the film expertly stages the entire piece in tone and intent. The scene is impeccably structured and showcases the protagonist’s journey with a skilled deep-dive into her background. The strength of its introduction makes you believe.

As a child, Shelia (Marin Ireland) once had a dream that could be interpreted as prophetic and otherworldly or merely coincidental, depending on one’s individual proclivities towards such things. But it was deemed prophetic for her, turning little Shelia be something of a psychic and became a small town celebrity for a time. People relied on her for guidance and comfort, anxiously awaiting to hear her most recent dream. But once her dreams ceased to foretell anything at all, her community quickly lost interest in her. A fact that, while not explicit, visibly still pains 40-something Shelia in the present day as she’s retelling the incident in a radio interview. The young girl thought herself to be special, in the kind of way that’s reflected in everyone else’s behavior towards her, until one day she wasn’t. Though Shelia grew up to be a small-time paranormal investigator, her belief in both the supernatural and herself never really recovered. 

Sheila is instantly empathetic, and the film that follows the opening scene never exploits that. She’s almost permanently wounded, though not bitter, and moves through the world with a sense of resignation less indicative of depression than a sincere belief in one’s own inconsequentiality. A financially struggling single mother, Shelia had to forfeit her position with her ghost hunting team because she couldn’t afford the dues. However, when she takes on a freelance case with a widower, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she does so for free. It’s a development that at once checks out and feels a little superfluous, but Shelia’s altruism is the logical extension of her outlook on life. Nothing really matters, including money. 

The concept of paranormal investigation is usually relegated to campy horror, but the fact that it’s been a part of popular culture for fifteen years and is rarely used as a device of high drama is rather surprising. Light from Light rightfully finds the metaphor in the practice: of course it’s not about proving ghosts exists more than it’s about providing consolation for the pained and living. It’s a salve for even the irreligious (or especially for them); a metaphysical exercise to sooth your aching soul. Shelia’s involvement in ghost hunting is threefold: she wants to help people, she longs for confirmation of a divine existence, and she needs the fix of hopeful possibility. 

It’s that fix that fuels the paranormal investigation field, both for those who participate and those who watch it. That fix keeps even the Light from Light film watcher on high alert, keenly searching every corner of a room for movement or a misplaced item. When it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed. When it does, you’re thrilled. For a moment.

Because when the film is over, the jolt of the thrill dissolves and inevitably feels empty. Because the act of seeing releases the narrative tension. Because now there is proof and proof is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of it, or the tease of not obtaining it. Something is now definitive where once it was delightfully opaque. Shelia is relieved at having seen, but why? Is it merely because she’s proven to herself the very thing for which her community rejected her as a child? She now has an answer, but what will the answer solve? Having seen absolves Shelia of finding purpose within herself. Of doing the work of living. 

Light from Light worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing. It develops its world and really lives in it, full of characters together but alone, drifting through whatever we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s not aimless, even if its characters seem like it. Its climax doesn’t negate the rest of the movie, but it’d be something more profound without it: What do we owe to ourselves? Where does hope come from if not from above? How do we keep going, when the fix is so temporary?   

‘Midsommar’ is Pretentious Nonsense

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as ‘Midsommar’ is self-indulgent.

Ari Aster is a tease. There’s an allure to his filmmaking style. His shots are long and careful, sometimes lasting full scenes, often utilizing the space of a whole room. He wants your eye to wander, to notice what art is on the wall or what books are on the table. With Midsommar, the camera floats around a scene or straight into the atmosphere, wheeling above the action. You, along with the characters, can’t find your feet. You’re disoriented, but you like it. Aster politely requests your attention, and you offer it to him, along with your patience. He’s trustworthy. 

Oh, but then. Somewhere in the second act, you get an itch. Shots become too long and too careful. Lingering on imagery now feels more like a preoccupation than nuance. You want desperately to come down to earth and find your footing, because the experience of watching Midsommar is becoming tedious and uncomfortable. And then you realize, to your disappointment, that that’s probably exactly what Aster was going for.  

His characters are too archetypal to exist as people. They’re shells of people, serving as functional cogs in a machine. Some function to generate empathy, others to hate or laugh at. At least one exists only to ask questions because Aster so clearly and desperately wanted to avoid using classical exposition. All his characters go through feelings of tedium and discomfort, along with confusion, repulsion, maybe fear – like you do as you’re watching. You are to inhabit the shells of his characters. His machine is putting you through the paces of the characters so that you feel as the characters feel, and he believes there’s artistry in that. 

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as Midsommar is self-indulgent. The Shining’s massive Overlook Hotel feels like a slowly tightening straightjacket. The Babadook twists your nerves until they feel as Amelia’s hair looks. Each and every one of Georgina’s noes in Get Out burrows itself under your skin until it’s crawling. You are claustrophobic, wrecked, unnerved, all because of carefully crafted choices made by the filmmakers guide you to that place. Aster’s choices are empty stunts that feel condescending. There is no value in verisimilitude if the story is the expense.    

Detail is Aster’s aesthetic, and it’s his most annoying quality. My movie companion and avid horror fan said of Midsommar, “It’s the horror movie that social media made.” There’s so many visual cues, so much folk art to filter, so many flower crowns to selfie. But they’re also vapid and intentionally misleading. He mistakes minutiae for symbolism, and unless you’ve read the same books on Swedish pagan rituals as he has, most of what he offers is meaningless. 

There’s a strong sense that Aster is very pleased with himself and his obtuse creation. Throughout the film, he purposefully withholds explanation to keep you on the hook and then delivers something that answers nothing. When the denouement hits, you half expect to see Aster peeking out from behind the screen, grinning at you, inviting you to interpret all you want, knowing you will never get it because you are not him. One should not have to do follow-up reading in order to understand what happens in a movie.

Midsommar is less than the sum of its parts. It has a handful of effective moments, but it’s full of missed opportunities. Specifically, the film is so very white, but it never approaches what it means for docile whiteness to heel-turn into hostility. It’s not to say that all filmmakers need to speak to our sociopolitical times, but avoiding the topic feels like a glaring omission.

But then, there’s no examination of anything in Midsommar. Aster knows what everything means, but he refuses to tell you. Instead, he places people, scenes, events in front of you and commands you to do something with them. You squint. You scour the shot for a clue. You save the details for later. But there’s no reward in it for you, because Aster isn’t telling a story. He’s playing a guessing game.

‘On the Basis of Sex’ is Infuriatingly Dull

‘On the Basis of Sex’ failed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story.

Focus Features

I’m feeling the urge to use profanity. Well, more profanity than I might use in a typical review of a lukewarm movie. 

I’m also feeling the urge to use the first person, which I try not to do as a practice of objectivity, in as much as a film critic can be considering the whole job is to state an opinion. But I’m mostly reaching a point of exhaustion with the whole genre of the award-baity biopic. 

They’re so fucking stale. They’re coated with this layer of politeness so thick that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That they have to be made with permission from their subject (or their subject’s estate, either of which usually has a vested interest in the movie’s production) neuters the story. They become an unreliable source of information because nothing the subject could do can veer too far from a predetermined, politically correct path. This is not a case for “warts and all” necessarily, but a plea to take some goddamned risks with your story. Especially when your subject is Ruth Bader fucking Ginsberg. 

There are few people alive in the United States right now that matter more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her literal existence is keeping this country afloat. Her recent health scares have pushed the entire country’s populous to the edge of their collective seats (whether you agree with her politically or not) and her absence threatens to derail decades of progress and stall progress for decades more. This person’s story is one of urgency because the consequences surrounding her very fucking personageare so dire. 

And no amount of triumphant shots of RBG walking in skirts and heels among pant-legged men will convince me On the Basis of Sex had any interest in being anything other than cute. The film strives to be the origin story for a real-life superhero whose revolutionary infallibility has made her a cultural icon. But instead of showing her strength, On the Basis of Sex would have you see her belly, her vulnerability, her set-backs, the moments when even she couldn’t be moved beyond rejection. 

The film is too cute. Too cheeky. It uses too many historical in-jokes that undercuts its subject’s importance. It’s respectful in a way that robs the magnitude of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s achievements. It’s respectful in the way that has become distasteful in a post-11/9 America. Of course she’s suffered set-backs. Of course she’s been made to feel unimportant and silenced. A lot of white, liberal soul-searching over the last two and a half years have resulted in unhappy realizations of what hasn’t changed, not what has. Progress is progress is progress, but by and large the marginalized are still so. There are few of us left that aren’t disenfranchised, and the function of a film like On the Basis of Sex serves mostly as a reminder that forty years later, those in power still have their thumbs pressed firmly on this country’s forward momentum. 

We live in a time that’s too weird and nasty and tumultuous and to settle for respectful. Of course making a movie about a living legend is difficult. But On the Basis of Sexfailed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story. This film is a history lecture instead of a battle cry. Its crowning achievement was landing a cameo by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the final moments. She’s reached the top of the steps of the Capitol Building and there she is, despite her movie, a steel fucking beam. It’s enough to make you cry. 

‘Boy Erased’ Exists in a Religiously Tolerant Bubble

There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Unerased Films, Inc.

Boy Erased is a film at the center of several Venn diagram bubbles. The first is that of Biopic, as it is based off of writer Gerrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. The character of Jared Eamons, portrayed by Lucas Hedges, is Conley’s surrogate, who is outted as gay to his parents by his college friend, Henry (Joe Alwyn). Jared and Henry are freshman who have a strongly developed sexual tension, until Henry rapes Jared, then confesses he’d also raped a kid in his church. Henry contacts Jared’s parents as a preemptive measure, to scare Jared into keeping silent about what happened.  

The outing comes with additional implications, because Jared and his parents are Evangelical Christians, which creates the second bubble. Upon Jared’s admission that he thinks he’s gay, his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) enroll him in a gay conversion program called Love in Action. The program operates with very strict rules, including supervised uses of the bathroom, no phones, and no writing or reading, other than the materials provided. Jared’s classmates are mostly young adults or teenagers, and mostly male, so the program is tailored to enforce gender roles and stereotypes for young men. They’re taught to gesticulate in certain ways that read more masculine (fingers facing front when putting hands on hips, sturdy handshakes), and are goaded to feel anger rather than sadness, since the former is more masculine.

Though Jared’s story is an atypical one and doesn’t necessarily aim to be a catch-all tale of conversion therapy, the subject matter alone creates the third bubble of Harrowing Journey. His story is baseline humiliating, as this deeply personal aspect of one’s life becomes a community affair. He’s made to consider his sexuality as first a “problem,” and then as a “sin.” The tragedy in Jared is his how hard he’s trying to make it work. He wants so badly to live up to his parents’ and religious community’s expectation of young manhood. He believes so strongly that his faith will be what saves him. Jared is just a Good Kid. His Christian morality (the good, Jesus-like parts) are deeply ingrained, and he treats people with dignity and empathy. 

The trouble of Boy Erasedis that it leaned too hard into the intersection of Harrowing Journey and Christianity, not through Jared but through his parents, of which there is little more than a self-induced persecution complex. The film has an unexpectedly soft view of religion, which is difficult to not be cynical about, given the fear and anguish that religion (specifically this kind of religion) causes. There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Jared gets out from under the thumb of conversion therapy with the help of his unexpectedly tolerant mother and his own impressive capacity for critical thinking, but other kids are not so lucky. One is clearly being regularly beaten by his father, another kills himself after his family is forced (and fully willing) to beat him with a Bible. Boy Erasedis asking too much of its audience: it wants to give credit to the ignorant while creating empathy for those who torture their children physically, emotionally, morally, and otherwise. 

After Jared leaves Love in Action, the film jumps forward four years, and shows him living in New York with a bevy of supportive friends and some published writing. In what appears to be a rare moment of communication with his still-religious father, Jared tells him that he’s the one who needs to change, not the other way around. If Boy Erasedwere interested in Jared’s journey and not the redemption of the ignorant, it would have shown how he found and rebuilt himself over four years, not his reluctant father ignoring his son’s pleas.

Boy Erased is not a bad movie in its execution, but there’s something distasteful in its loyalty to the world that created its very subject matter. It’s not a cautionary tale more than a polite imploration of empathy to the religious right, who would likely not see this movie anyway. It exists in the bubble it created for itself. 

‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like “The Wife” comes along. 

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

The Merit and Uncomfortable Politics of Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Does it make you a bad person for buying a ticket to see Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’?

birth-of-a-nation

How do you support an artist that was involved in the sexual assault of a young woman? Do you support that artist at all? Should you? Is purchasing the art that this person created a concession of their guilt or innocence? Is lack of participation in that art a personal condemnation of their character? Is it bad for wanting to enjoy a piece of art by an artist that has an unsavory past? Is that past indicative of their character? Is that past indicative of their art?

Does it make you a bad person for buying a ticket to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?

Let’s come back to it.

Judged on its own merit, The Birth of a Nation is an above-average biopic. The film is about Nat Turner, an educated slave who led a rebellion against slaveowners in 1830 Virginia. It spends an appropriate amount of time on each aspect of Nat Turner’s life: the marks that proved he was destined for greatness, his early aptitude for learning, his marriage, the relationship with his slaveowners. There are some post-modern flourishes, but none that go far enough to give the story much additional meaning. Most impressively, and to my relief, it avoids the biopic trope of using a present-day frame narrative to enlighten the story with modern context.

The nagging problem with most biopics is that they tend to be treated like documentaries, which forces them become a casual retelling of someone’s life instead of a dramatized version, the latter of which always better. Filmmakers seem to think that a remarkable sperson’s life will translate easily to film just because they were remarkable, but neglect to consider why is this person’s life story worth telling.

But Birth succeeds where a lot of biopics fail because it finds an angle in Turner’s story and builds its plot around it. It’s not just that Turner was destined for greatness, but his empathic nature drives him (and the conflict) to achieve something greater than is expected of him.

The film chronicles the many indignities of being owned by another human being, which, sure, is to be expected of a film with this subject matter. But this film takes care to show Turner’s reaction to each moment a black person is put down by a white person, and the range of moments is wide. He saves a woman (who would later become his wife) from being sold to men grinning and rubbing their crotches. He witnesses the mutilation of a man by his owner when he refuses to eat. He watches as a little white girl plays, holding a rope and tagging along a little black girl tied to the end of it. The film isn’t showing these things for the sake of painting a picture of a different time, or for an audience’s consternation, but as little catalysts for Nat Turner’s eventual rebellion.

Those moments, coupled with each time Turner is forced to preach to other slaves about keeping obedient to their masters for his own master’s profit, form a slow and strong build that influence his decision to rebel. He led a group of fellow slaves and free black men that killed 60 or so slaveowners, but didn’t have the fire power to succeed beyond one night of rebellion. Turner was hanged for his leadership in the uprising.

The last shot of the film is of a young slave boy (who betrayed Turner to his master) witnessing Turner hang to death. His face then morphs into an aged version of himself in a Union uniform, firing a bayonet directly at the camera. It’s a loaded moment, one that works for the context of this film and at the same time feels like a direct indictment of the “original” Birth of a Nation from 1915.

I keep finding myself referring to Nate Parker’s movie as the “new version” of the D.W. Griffith film, as though it’s a remake for a newer, more socially advanced, “woke” generation. It’s not, even though the reclamation of the title is a brilliant move, but there are parts that – arguably – could be. Even without the aforementioned modern-day narrative bookends to give the new Birth of a Nation context, its strongest theme is of action versus passivity.

All of those moments where Turner witnessed atrocities towards slaves were moments where any good person would feel compelled to intervene. But every time I mentally willed him, “Do something!” I realized that he couldn’t, because the likely outcome would mean at least pain, and at worst death. The young boy who told his master what Turner was planning, and the house slave who warned Turner a revolt would mean death on everyone, acted against their own best interests out of fear of the result. The mother to Turner’s master, a woman of great kindness, was also one of inaction. She witnessed her son become crueler the more he felt the need to prove himself a capable, slave-owning man in the county, but didn’t say a word to dissuade him.

Turner’s rebellion didn’t ignite a war, but that didn’t seem like the reason he did it. He reached a point where he decided that any action is always better than inaction, and when you consider that it’s hard not to think of the benefits of all the social activism happening in our 2016 world. The Birth of a Nation isn’t quite what the post-Sundance fanfare promised, but it’s a solid film of a man who’s story is worth telling.

So: Am I a bad person for buying a ticket to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?

Well, I suppose if I thought so I wouldn’t have bought that ticket in the first place. But back in February, who didn’t want to see this movie? Birth‘s first screening happened very shortly after the Oscars, and a film written, directed, produced and starring a black man about a rebel slave felt like the perfect middle finger to the second year of #OscarsSoWhite. It was the perfect antidote to Hollywood’s race problem.

It didn’t take long after the film’s debut for Nate Parker’s 2001 rape trial to become public knowledge, and has been the topic of countless internet think-pieces since. Even though he was acquitted of the rape charges (though his friend and fellow Birth screenwriter, Jean Celestin, initially was not), his culpability in an act that may or may not have led a young woman to take her own life has been a part of the conversation around his film. But it’s ultimately not very different from any conversation people have had regarding the past indiscretions of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant. It all comes down to whether we, as consumers of popular culture and empathetic members of society, condone the nefarious behavior of people by partaking in their product.

The problem is there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this moral dilemma, but the Internet tends to make it seem like there should be. I have a friend who was a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, as well as a pit bull owner and lover of animals, who disagreed so strongly with the organization’s decision to draft Michael Vick in 2009 that she vowed never to watch another Eagles game again. To my knowledge and her Facebook posts since, she never did. But does that mean the people kept watching Eagles games were bad people? Does Vick’s past discredit his athletic achievements?

Can you think of all those who mourned Michael Jackson’s death, lauding him a singular artist of which there is no other, without mention of his involvement in child abuse scandals? Or all those who celebrated Kobe Bryant’s recent retirement as the end of an era, consciously disregarding his rape allegations?

I recognize it’s harder for an athlete or a musician to have the same kind of public persona as a film auteur, who, by the nature of the medium in which they work, tend to create art that is similar to their own lives. This tends to be Woody Allen’s problem with the general public: he’s been accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter when she was as young as seven. Even if those are just accusations, the reason it never really goes away is that he did have an affair with the adoptive daughter of his then-wife Mia Farrow, and almost all of his movies involve an older man in a relationship with a younger woman. In short, we as an audience are constantly reminded of his possible molestation.

And that is something we can’t help. The Birth of a Nation has two scenes where the rape of a woman was implied. The act of rape is not shown, and the scenes seem to be included as yet more examples of white people enacting their power onto black people, as opposed to something gratuitous. But still, Parker’s rape trial becomes what critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls “a mental asterisk.”

I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art of an artist who’s personal actions I find abhorrent, at the same time recognizing that mental asterisks may happen. To repurpose MZS’s position on the shot of the 59th Street Bridge in Woody Allen’s Manhattan for the purposes of this essay: Nate Parker made a fine movie, too bad he’s a possible rapist.

The best and most comfortable moral position I’ve found on Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation came from the activist group Fuck Rape Culture, who led a candlelight vigil at initial screenings of the film last Thursday. The group’s founder Remy Holwick said, “The goal tonight is to show that there is space in Hollywood to both celebrate a film that has incredible for promise for people of color advancing in Hollywood while simultaneously creating space for those that wish to honor victims of rape and sexual assault.”

I think it’s possible to have both.

Whaling and Flailing: A Review of ‘In the Heart of the Sea’

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Just in time for the holidays, Ron Howard cooked up the film version of a turducken: a movie based on a book that’s based on two different accounts of an event that is one of the inspirations for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. This is a seasonal way of saying that if it seems like the film would have an identity crisis, it does.

In the Heart of the Sea opens with Mr. Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself arriving at a boarding house to enlist the memory of an unnamed and surly old man (Brendan Gleeson) who may have the kind of tale to tell that will turn Melville into a bonafide success story. This Old Man is the last surviving crew member of the Essex, a ship from the Nantucket whaling glory days, and has refused to discuss what happened to the fallen ship his whole, surly life. But in due time, through some bribing with cash and whiskey, he tells of the Essex’s captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), its first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and the rest of the ship’s crew as they set out on a voyage for the procurement of whale oil.

Y’see, Captain Pollard is the sire of a great Nantucket whaling dynasty, while First Mate Chase is just the of son of a poor farmer and had to work to get where he is now. Even though Chase was promised the level of captain after a successful previous expedition, his experience was no match for the bureaucracy and nepotism of the whaling industry, and thus was demoted to serve under this privileged sissy. Both men resent the other for something to do with male pride, and so, very early on in their voyage, a good amount of dick swinging leads to a pissing contest in which Pollard gives an order that almost destroys the ship. This contest is ultimately of little consequence and its inclusion only feels relevant because it was actually something that happened to the real-life Essex, and it proves that our protagonist, Chase, is indeed the better seaman.

At least, I think he’s our protagonist. The film certainly spends time on building the context and credibility of his character, and why else would they cast Thor if not to emasculate everyone around him, particularly his adversary, who just happens to be Eric Bana and Colin Firth’s lovechild? But just when you think the movie is about Chase’s journey into whaling legitimacy amid the backdrop of an action adventure, this big whale starts knocking everything around as they’re trying to kill it, and soon the plot pumps the breaks. (To cry “spoiler” here feels superfluous, given that this was an actual even that occurred almost 200 years ago. But here it is, anyway.) Halfway through the movie, the Essex succumbs to this whale, the would-be Moby Dick, and the ship’s crew is stranded in several row boats as they watch their vessel burn away in the Pacific. All that whale oil does not make for an inflammable vehicle, after all.

As the crew tries to survive while bobbing in the middle of the ocean 2000 miles off of the South American coast, one begins to wonder what this movie is actually about. Since there’s no longer a ship, In the Heart of the Sea is no longer that blockbuster-looking thrill you were expecting in the trailers. The lack of a vessel leaves the Chase/Pollard fray redundant. There’s a reference to alcoholism that doesn’t go anywhere. The frame narrative had been sliding back and forth through time as Melville prods the Old Man about his experience, and at the height of the Essex crew’s desperation on the sea, the most significant slide reveals the reason the Old Man never told anyone about what happened (Spoiler, again. History!): they had to eat their crew mates to survive.

This admission feels like it was meant to serve as the film’s moral climax, since the Old Man seemed freed of his guilt and was subsequently totally comfortable discussing what ended up happening for the rest of the film. It’s not to say that cannibalism isn’t awful or shocking or reprehensible. In an objective sense, it is, obviously. But that up until that moment, In the Heart of the Sea had little to do with crew camaraderie and brothers-in-arms than whale hunting and the minutia of the industry. Sure, it’s what the actual men involved with the Essex had to do, but in the context of the movie, the plot did not set itself up for the emotional crest that it wanted that cannibalism bombshell to be.

It also turns out that the Old Man, who one assumes would be old First Mate Chase because of course it is because Chris Hemsworth and why else are we here, is actually the grown-up version of the Essex’s cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). So there’s that.

In the Heart of the Sea is a confused film. If you think it’s about Chase, it’s not. If you think it’s an adventure, it’s not quite. If you think it has to do with a whale, it doesn’t really. What does exist here is a thin vein of  commentary about the exploitation of whales and their oil as an energy source, as whale oil was used to light the homes of a burgeoning United States. It may be that I spent most of my long Thanksgiving weekend watching Planet Earth, but the scenes in which the whales were hunted did not feel as exuberant as the men with spears whooping above water. Rather, it felt like the violent chase of a helpless animal. As the crew extracts the oil from one whale carcass early on, there is no mention of utilizing other parts of the animal, like using its meat as a food source. At one moment during the crew’s stranded desperation, Chase wonders if whale hunting isn’t cruel and derivative of human arrogance; to which Pollard retorts with a diatribe about man’s ownership of the earth and our right to bleed its resources dry as we please. Moby Dick himself is not portrayed as a vengeful killer of men or an enemy to anyone aboard the Essex. He swoops to protect a female whale with her calf swimming beside her. Moby Dick is Whale Superman. He’s Whale Lorax; he speaks for the whales by destroying the thing that is destroying them.

Driven home by a late mention of Old Man Nickerson that oil was found in the ground of Pennsylvania, this comment on the destruction of nature at the hands of man would have made for a poignant thesis for a film that is basically about a really big mammal. But this film tries to be about so many other things that it can’t serve as anything other than an unfortunate reminder of the story’s lost purpose. (For god’s sake, there are title cards at the end explaining the writing and publication of Moby-Dick and what Nathaniel Hawthorne thought of it. What?!) Almost worse than its inability to achieve a focus, the film is so inoffensive and bland that it’s hard to avoid an overall feeling of indifference about the whole experience. Howard avoided showing anything that would portray their 90-days-at-sea seem actually harrowing (along with eating their friends, the real-life Essex crewmen also had to drink their own pee for three months) other than restricting the actors to a diet of 500 calories so they’d lose weight and look gaunt; a kind of sacrifice on the part of the actors that was definitely not worth the commitment. But In the Heart of the Sea did not commit to any of its plot points the way Chris Hemsworth did to losing weight, so the end result of this film is so inconsequential that it’d be a more worthwhile journey to go out to Barnes & Noble and spend the $12 on an actual copy of Moby-Dick. At least then you’d know what story was being told.