Signed up for AMC A-List as MoviePass continues its prolonged death scene
Hey, you silly old bears, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my bothersome attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, repertory screenings, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its glory. I hope there’s something here you’ll want to check out.
As always, there are three rules for The 300:
- The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
- I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
- While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.
Had a pretty interesting week of moviegoing, which included a movie bound for my top 20 of 2018, two of the best movies I’ve ever seen, a very good alternative history about glam rock, a revisit of a silent comedy classic, and a transparently treacly movie with a CG Winnie the Pooh.
Pretty well-rounded week overall.
Since MoviePass is switching to just three movies a month soon, I’ve signed up for AMC A-List, which is extremely convenient. With three movies a week through A-List and three a month with MoviePass, I should still be okay to hit 300. I just need to go to a couple more free summer screenings, go to more press screenings, and hopefully cover some fall film festivals. One interesting thing about AMCs in New York is Empire 25 tends to play big-budget Chinese blockbusters (like the new Detective Dee film) as well as Hindi-language movies. Expect to see some of those in the next few weeks. I am legitimately excited to watch contemporary mainstream films from India.
And so, onward.
202 of 300: Cameraperson (2016)
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
The Female Gaze
Thursday, August 2nd
The Film Society of Lincoln Center has been doing a series called The Female Gaze, which is a collection of films shot by female cinematographers. I unfortunately missed a few of the opening weekend screenings, but was able to catch three movies in the series during the last week.
Cameraperson is a masterful example of what can be done with the non-fiction film. It is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Kirsten Johnson, who worked as cinematographer on other documentaries, assembles all of the cut footage from those movies to create a collage essay/memoir. Throughout the film, she uses the juxtaposition of images to reflect on the role of the cinematographer, the types of lives she’s chronicled, genocides and political violence, parenthood, feminism, and grief. Parts of Cameraperson reminded me of the work of the late writer W.G. Sebald, who took a collage approach to his writing and focused a lot of his attention on memory, forgetfulness (both personal and cultural), and historical atrocities.
It’s remarkable how much can be communicated without Johnson having to state it outright. At one point, we hear her break down in tears behind the camera while a boy describes an incident that killed his brother and rendered him blind in one eye. “I’m crying even though I don’t know the language,” she confesses. That may speak to the emotional power of Johnson’s images, which are a wordless language that we can still comprehend. I am still haunted by a particular sequence where we see Johnson’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, buffeted by a strong wind as she wanders a field. How haunting, how fitting, what a powerful metaphor in a film full of such remarkable visual poetry and philosophy.
203 of 300: Blindspotting (2018)
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar
Seen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)
Friday, August 3rd
I wonder how Blindspotting would play in a double-feature with Sorry to Bother You (The 300 Week 27). Both movies are set in Oakland, and while Sorry to Bother You is a raucous late-capitalism dystopian satire, Blindspotting is more straightforward portrait of the city and yet still a narratively inventive one. This comedy-drama offers a multi-faceted critique of gentrification and its discontents, tackling issues of race, class, passing, police violence, and poverty.
We’re shown so many contradictions about Oakland throughout the film, and big part of the movie is about how we view and compartmentalize the world we inhabit. These contradictions seem to be irresolvable and irreversible. As one character puts it, they have been in Oakland for years, and they will endure the hipsters and tech nouveau riche because now there are decent grocery stores in the neighborhood. Contradiction is the source of all of this film’s comedy and drama. Blindspotting even seems to be shot with a sense of contradiction. The occasional surreal or theatrical touch will crop up during a moment of intensely grounded reality, and it’s deployed with great results.
The biggest strengths of Blindspotting come from Diggs and Casal. Both stars are East Bay natives who co-wrote the screenplay, offering an astute, firsthand portrait of the Bay Area in major flux. As Collin, Diggs is a sympathetic guy trying to do right in his last days of probation, but is haunted after he witnesses an Oakland police officer shoot an unarmed black man in cold blood. As Miles, Casal is both comic relief and powder keg, a white guy whose privilege has kept him out of trouble even though he always seem to be starting something. These characters feel like they have a history off camera, and I left the movie wondering what would happen next; they’re so well rendered, Collin and Miles live and breathe when our eyes are off them.
204 of 300: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
The Female Gaze
Saturday, August 4th
As I’ve mentioned in the Week 10, Week 20, and Week 30 roundups, I’ve been using The 300 as a way to also participate in 52 Films by Women. It’s easy: watch 52 films directed or co-directed by women in 2018. My 52nd feature film by a woman this year is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This 201-minute movie about the traps of domesticity is not for everyone, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. A slow burn than builds in dissatisfaction, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte play with the way time unfolds and the way spaces are revealed to us. A slight change in camera angle seems revelatory, much like the many variations on patterns we come to recognize while watching the film. Both time and space help hint at the interior life of a widowed single-mother going through a silent existential crisis amid her daily routines.
Jeanne’s days are mostly the same. She wakes up, puts on her housecoat, shines her teenage son’s shoes, makes breakfast, run errands, starts dinner, does sex work from home to pay the bills, bathes so her son won’t notice, finishes dinner, helps her son with homework, knits, and goes to bed. We watch three days in her life—the first day in media res—and on the second day, something goes wrong. As minor as this event is, the disappointment is tremendous. That slip in routine feels like a kind of tipping point, and we notice other lapses in routine that have such weight to them. By the end of nearly three-and-a-half hours, we are given scenes that ask us to recontextualize the previous days of Jeanne’s life and what they might signify.
Seyrig is so riveting here. Even though Jeanne rarely interacts with other people in the movie, she is constantly thinking but never giving voice to her thoughts. What a quiet desperation. So many times during Jeanne Dielman, our heroine zones out, and yet I wondered what was on her mind. While kneading a meatloaf, I wondered what minor pleasure this must be to have a simple yet enjoyable task to finish. While sipping coffee alone at a cafe, I wondered what she could be reminiscing about as she gazes into the middle distance. And while wringing her hands before being paid by a client, I wondered if she was experiencing trepidation or shame or both.
Paul Schrader speaks of a transcendental style in film, in which long takes and extended time can use boredom as an aesthetic device; paradoxically, this aesthetic boredom activates the engaged participation of the viewer. Aesthetic (engaged) boredom is different from normal (unengaged) boredom. Engaged boredom is precisely what’s going on throughout Jeanne Dielman from beginning to end. The length of Akerman’s shots and the placement of the camera invite the viewer to ask questions, to recognize patterns, to think of the dimensions and confines of this character’s world; to watch the film like a text read slowly, or a painting observed in a gallery alone.
I was so enthralled with Jeanne Dielman, it didn’t feel like 201 minutes save for my need to take a quick bathroom break. When I came back, I missed some dialogue, and it seemed as if I had lost something essential. I probably didn’t, but in the moment I felt as if every inconsequential word mattered. When living with a character whose life is dominated by almost constant silence, a human voice takes on different qualities. What an incredible aesthetic experience to share in a hushed room with so many other people similarly enraptured.
205 of 300: The General (1926)
Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Sunday, August 5th
I haven’t watched The General in about 18 years. Seeing it again, I wound up compartmentalizing a lot of the movie. The General is an undeniable spectacle of physical comedy and stuntwork. There is so much expert timing and clever cause-and-effect throughout the film, and I can see so much here that likely influenced the modern action classic Mad Max: Fury Road. But all of the film’s Confederate sympathies are appalling. Even as The General tries to remain apolitical, hearing “Dixie” and seeing a Confederate flag flown heroically made me angry. They try to paint Keaton’s character as an everyman more concerned with his train and his would be girlfriend than the war, yet his aspirations are ultimately to wear a uniform and kill for the South.
So yeah, it’s got brilliant craft and problematic material. It’s fascinating how your age and the nightmare of contemporary politics affects a movie the second time around.
206 of 300: Christopher Robin (2018)
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jim Cummings, Hayley Atwell
Seen at AMC Village 7 (New York, NY)
Monday, August 6th
I almost want to like Christopher Robin. Almost. There are undeniably sweet and tender moments in the film. I got misty-eyed a few times as gentle Winnie the Pooh tries to coax some amusement from the gray banality of London, or when adult Christopher Robin (McGregor) wanders the desolate fog of the Hundred Acre Wood in search of old friends. Adults do need to get in touch with the joys of childhood every now and again. But Christopher Robin is such a cliched, safe, and saccharine story. Every emotional moment that works was undermined for me by a scene of cloying, clunky obviousness. It’s all artificially sweetened and devoid of nutritional value—this movie is made with aspartame, not honey.
Just when I thought the movie might win me over near the end, it then takes a turn I found so distasteful. This is a movie that wants to have it both ways when it comes to playtime and careerism; Christopher Robin wants to assert the pleasures of childhood as a reprieve from the drudgery of the adult world, but it also wants to commodify childhood as a way to make corporatism more palatable. This is Disney at its most crass: a movie about a man using the joys of his own nostalgia to sell people luggage.
What a bunch of poo.
207 of 300: Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
The Female Gaze
Tuesday, August 7th
One day you’re watching Ewan McGregor play a cliched stodgy adult who needs to get in touch with his inner child to make corporatism cuddly, the next day you’re watching him as an Iggy Pop stand-in (with shades of Lou Reed) as he bones a Batman and a David Bowie surrogate.
Gosh, I like movies.
Velvet Goldmine hops around in time to tell an alternate history of 1970s glam rock. Instead of David Bowie, we have Brian Slade (Meyers) who ends his music career in an unexpectedly dramatic fashion (shades of the final Spiders from Mars show). McGregor plays Curt Wild, an American proto-punk icon who falls hard for Brian’s glittering soul. Christian Bale is a journalist sent to find out what happened to Brian Slade. Todd Haynes draws connections between the glam rockers and Oscar Wilde, whose aphorisms seem to complement Bowie’s career of transformation.
Yet Brian Slade isn’t Bowie, and once I got over the fact that these are fictional personas inspired by real rock stars rather than straightforward biographies, I could appreciate Velvet Goldmine for what it is. The movie is a Toddy Haynes mix-tape about real-life people showing a generation that you didn’t have to be a certain way. Your life may be subject to invention, reinvention, and a constant act of discovery of who you are in time; life can be a work of art, and the artifice of self-discovery can reveal the truth of who you are. That way, your own way, is a better way to be. Wham, bam, thank you, glam.