My Year in Movies – 2017

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What a year.

2017 is, without hyperbole, probably the best year for cinema this decade (though 2013—the year we saw HerInside Llewyn DavisGravityShort Term 12, and Upstream Color all hit theatres, is hard to beat). There have been so many truly great movies put out, and even more really good ones. Hell, I even liked two of its six superhero films, something that hasn’t happened for me since 2012. And not only have there been an abundance of great movies, so many of them have been made by new, diverse voices. The two best-reviewed films of the year are both directorial debuts, one a woman’s incredibly empathetic portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age (Lady Bird) and the other a black man’s genre-bending indictment of the white appropriation of black bodies (Get Out). The most successful superhero movie of the year was directed by and focused on a woman. And what’s likely to end up the highest-grossing movie of the year, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, is centered on two women (one Asian-American), a black man, and a Latino man. Besides being important steps forward for equality (though we are far from there yet), these movies are injections of new perspective that are vital, exhilarating, and truly new.

And what’s especially wonderful is that not only were so many great films released, a fair chunk of them got way more exposure than is typical. Get Out made over $250 million on a budget of less than $5 million. Lady Bird became the highest-grossing domestic film in A24’s history. The Big Sick was a word-of-mouth sensation. In a world where the medium is suffocating under an increasingly studio/franchise-dominated business model, to see this level of success for indie films is incredibly heartening.

A24 was the clear winner of the year for me—of my top five films for 2017, three (The Florida ProjectLady Bird20th Century Women) are A24 releases. Their continued willingness to take artistic chances and distribute films that are unique, challenging, and diverse is a true gift, and my gratefulness for them is impossible to express. May 2018 bring them even more success.

Cinema in general has been a lifeline for me this year. The mental exhaustion of post-Trump America takes its toll, and one of the things that most helped me to get some relief in 2017 was the abundance of humane, beautiful, true cinematic experiences I was able to escape to for a couple of hours at a time. Art is so, so vitally important to who we are and who we can be, guys. Don’t let it go.

And now, without further ado, here are my reviews of each of the new films I saw in 2017, with awards and a “best scenes” list following. Each of “The Great” gets two paragraphs; the rest are each granted one. Full warning re: my biggest hot take—A Cure for Wellness and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets > Blade Runner 2049 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I REGRET NOTHING

(I wish to God I’d been able to include Phantom Thread on this list, but it doesn’t open in MN until 2018. I’m resigned to placing it on next year’s list, where, knowing my relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson, it will probably earn the top spot.)

The Great

thefloridaprojectThe Florida Project

In trying to describe my reaction to The Florida Project, the closest equivalent I can think of is the first time I saw The Tree of Life. Rather than striving for that movie’s cosmic scale, this film embraces the transcendence of the utterly mundane. There’s no plot to be had, just a series of flashes, impressions, and routine tasks as the characters do their best to eke out a living in and around the squalid motel building that is, to them, nevertheless an almost infinite space. Said characters are achingly well-drawn—six-year-old Brooklyn Price’s brash Moonee, Bria Vinaite’s childlike and increasingly desperate single mother Halley, and Willem Dafoe’s quixotically decent landlord Bobby are as true a set of players as have ever appeared on the big screen. They’re an endearing but hopelessly fucked-up family—Bobby is the only one to realize the unsustainability of their situation, which makes his kindness hurt even more.

Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s frames capture with a perfect mix of dazzle and grit the candy-coated rot that exists on the outskirts of Disney World, a blend of pastel and poverty that feels like a self-contained universe. The film neither condescends to nor manipulates either its audience or its characters; its portrait of American citizens trying to create magic in the direst of straits is free of romance without ever devolving into cynical caricature. Maintaining this precarious balance, it builds and builds into what I can only describe as a spiritual experience—by the final scene, it’s dragged you through a full spectrum of emotions and left you both numb and exhilarated, a window into eternity finally slamming closed. Monumental.  (★★★★★)

lady_birdLady Bird

This movie is a gift. If I were a high-school girl it would have instantly become my favorite film, and even as it is I saw so much of myself and my family in it (mix up the worst aspects of Lady Bird’s twin love interests, played by Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, and you get a pretty decent picture of me at sixteen). It’s a reflective, adult look at the relationships between parents and children that still never ceases to feel like it was made specifically for teenagers the same age as Lady Bird. There’s so much affection for and insight into both sides of the generational coin, and reducing it to a movie whose moral is “just call your mom” is to do Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking a disservice. From the Polaroid haze of the visuals to the deft juggling of tones to the constant honesty of the script, it transcends the cliches of your typical YA coming-of-age movie time and again.

What’s almost as remarkable as the confidence Gerwig displays in her directorial debut is the trademark verve and humor she manages to bring even though she’s no longer performing her own material. Saoirse Ronan isn’t playing her director, exactly, but she’s the perfect muse for Greta to imbue with her ebullience and unguarded warmth (and her love/hate relationship with “Crash Into Me” continues the tradition of me falling in love with the central song of every Gerwig movie). I dearly hope Greta continues acting for a long time to come—her screen presence is something truly special—but I’m more than happy to be there opening night every time she chooses to remain behind the camera.  (★★★★★)

3756-12187-mothermother!

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film as full of seething, all-encompassing hatred as this one. The only thing it despises more than the animals that are humanity is the preening God that allows them to wreak continued havoc because his ego cannot conceive of an existence without worhsipful subjects. Where Aronofsky’s previous metaphysical films, The Fountain and Noah, find comfort in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, this one raves not at the dying of the light, but at the fact that the light will never be allowed to die. It will continue in unceasing misery forever, raped and murdered again and again to feed a single being’s hubris.

All criticisms of the film’s heavy-handedness are warranted—for those who are familiar with its Biblical subject matter (although a number of critics seem to have missed it altogether, misconstruing the movie as an egocentric apology for the artist’s mistreatment of his loved ones), it’s as blunt an allegory as they come. But there’s something deeply exciting about a piece of art in today’s world that takes religion utterly seriously and refuses to tamp down its sense of importance with irony. Not Aronofsky’s best film, but undoubtedly his most impassioned. And like The Fountain, I’m confident that in a decade it will be viewed as something of a classic.  (★★★★½)

24282_320_470Dunkirk

With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has accomplished something he’s failed to do since 2006’s The Prestige—make a perfect movie. His epics from The Dark Knight through Interstellar (though I dig them all to varying degrees) had a hard time balancing their cinematic ambitions with fully realized stories and themes, so it’s ironic that the solution came not in focusing more on character but paring it down to the bare minimum. There are almost no names assigned to the film’s players, no memories of far-away lovers or dreams for a postwar future. For 100 minutes, they have one impulse only: survive.

Not since Gravity has a movie functioned so unrelentingly as an anxiety engine—and the swooping vastness of Dunkirk‘s 70mm IMAX footage deserves comparisons to that film’s yawning scope—but Nolan manages to marry that desperation with a gradually increasing sense of patriotism and comradeship that never feels out of place. The film’s denouement gives full voice to the emotional undertone that’s been building as the evacuation’s timepiece winds tighter and tighter, but it escapes the jingoism and manipulation that a lesser story (see Darkest Hour much further down this list) would have smacked of. Dunkirk‘s patriotic pride rests not in cheap nationalism but in the sheer decency displayed by everyone involved in the evacuation’s miracle. It exists regardless of England as an institution or an empire—it’s found instead in nothing more than the extraordinary heroism of neighbor helping neighbor.  (★★★★★)

386079872161fa09fbb819c723b80aa9_300x44220th Century Women

Dandelion Wine for the post-feminist age. Mike Mills’ ode to the women who helped raise him isn’t a perfect movie—it can meander a bit too much for its own good, and the universal nature of the title when applied to a film that would more accurately be called 20th Century (White) Women is troubling—but it’s a pure delight from start to finish, and no movie this year has meant more to me.

The bedrock of the film is its performers—they all do fantastic work, but the standouts are Annette Bening as frazzled single mother Dorothea and Greta Gerwig as punk photographer Abbie. Bening’s Dorothea wants to be warm but can’t bring herself to be vulnerable, has worked so hard to provide for her son that she’s falling further and further behind in knowing who he really is; the rueful sadness she can convey with just a twist of her mouth makes you ache. Gerwig’s Abbie is her finest performance to date—the ebullience of her characters in Frances Ha and Mistress America, which in the hands of a male writer/director could have soured into a manic pixie dream girl cliche, is leavened by anxiety and trauma that she refuses to give into. The sheer life that Gerwig breathes into the role is infectious; she’s absolutely magnetic, elevating every frame she’s in.

Shortly after my third viewing of the film, I went out and dyed my hair to match Abbie’s flaming red, just as she colored hers after David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth. She’s a character I’d like to model my life on.  (★★★★½)

john-wick-chapter-2-20170303013804John Wick Chapter 2

The first John Wick consisted of broad swathes of greatness marred by niggling mediocrity—stunning action scenes and world-building weighed down by a clunky screenplay, ugly cinematography, and off-kilter structure. Its sequel fully embraces the magical realism hinted at in the first film and in so doing creates something very close to an action masterpiece, a neon ballet of carnage operating on a plane somewhere above the real world.

Rarely has a sequel taken the universe crafted by its predecessor and built upon it so perfectly. The labyrinthine society of assassins that Keanu Reeves’ Wick has been pulled back into is expanded into a gloriously absurd underworld of near-supernatural henchmen and enemies, one whose rules are as ironclad as its methods are outlandish. Gunfights and brawls attain a quality the Star Wars prequels’ fight scenes aimed for but never attained, full of beauty and grace but possessed of a brutal kineticism. Visuals build and build in stylized beauty until, by the third act, it’s as though we’ve entered Orson Welles by way of Blade Runner. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film taken as a whole is like a Greek tragedy of hitmen, one that dwarfs the first John Wick in nearly every department.  (★★★★½)

p13831327_p_v8_aaThe Big Sick

One of those rare beasts: a rom-com that’s genuinely unconventional and chooses to do more than coast by on the strength of its performances. Not that those performances aren’t fantastic—Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both deserve Oscar nominations, Zoe Kazan is as winning as always, and Kumail Nanjiani does an eminently respectable job of playing himself. But they’re equaled by the razor-sharp screenplay, which line-for-line is the funniest thing I’ve had the fortune to watch in the presence of a packed theatre.

It’s also a movie that’s unafraid to be about more than just a cute love story—unsurprising, considering that Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon based it on their real-life adventures. Kumail’s fraught emotions as regard his Muslim family are the source of plenty of jokes early on, but midway through the film the subplot transforms into something far more honest and emotionally raw; meanwhile, Romano and Hunter share a fractured love story that earns its pathos without devolving into mawkishness. Kumail’s relationship with Kazan and her parents is the heart of the film, but it’s these side stories of broken bonds and strained identity that elevate The Big Sick from an unusually funny indie joint to a truly remarkable piece of comedy.  (★★★★½)

free_fire_1200x1600_6905d96a-ab18-42b6-ab6c-62269ccdb76d_1024x1024Free Fire

Caustically funny and juvenile in a way that’s crucial to its themes rather than obnoxious, this movie constructs what we expect will unfold into a humdinger of an action setpiece—a gun deal between IRA agents and a South African gun runner goes bad, with both sides drawing sidearms and scattering throughout the warehouse where they’ve met to exchange the goods. And almost immediately, things degenerate into something entirely different from how this sort of thing typically goes.

Geography splinters into a maze of confusing angles and obstacles. Bullets are traded in desperate, pathetic salvos that never allow the characters to relax but neither actually do much to resolve the situation. Alliances form and collapse at will, as panicked and livid people do their best to just get the fuck out of here. All this could result in a film that’s a droningly one-note if reasonably effective skewering of the notion that giving everyone a gun is the way to a polite society. Fortunately, the script’s consistently hysterical (in all senses of the word) sense of humor and a top-notch cast (Armie Hammer is my undisputed MVP, absolutely oozing charisma) mean that Free Fire never feels like a message film even as it’s pounding said message into your head with every shot fired. Instead, it’s a riotous, concussive blast from start to finish.  (★★★★½)

getout_chair_uk-600x888Get Out

“It’s true. All of it.”

This is such a smart, assured movie, and the fact that it’s Peele’s directorial debut is downright intimidating.  He effortlessly weaves the terrors of white supremacy into a nuanced horror framework, and manages to maintain a substantial percentage of his usual humor without ever overplaying his hand and dissipating the relentlessly mounting tension. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris is largely thankless, but he does an incredible job of conveying repressed frustration, anger, fear, and grief, the complexity of his emotions matching the depth of his director’s social commentary. Even after two viewings, I don’t think I spotted all the different signifiers and emblems Peele snuck into the script, the set design, the cinematography—it’s clear that he’d been making this movie in his head for years before he shot it, and every single element serves a thematic purpose.

The final scene might be the best film moment of 2017 [SPOILERS AHEAD]. When those police lights show up, the audience’s hearts plummet, knowing full well what’s about to happen to Chris. And in that moment, before anyone can think to rationalize the sickening instant of realization to themselves, the truth of white America is laid bare. A perfect ending to one of the best horror films of the century so far.  (★★★★½)

toni-erdmann-posterToni Erdmann

That this is being remade as a Hollywood production baffles me; it’s the kind of movie that could never have been made in America. A three-hour, multi-language comedy epic about the impossibility of family connection and the alienation of modern life? Even Scorsese couldn’t get it off the ground.

It’s such a distinctly odd movie, and one that I imagine plays far better to European audiences than it does to the States, but even so my theatre was howling for most of the third act, whose climax is the stuff of legend. The runtime coupled with subtitles can feel daunting before going in, but I wouldn’t have wanted it a second shorter.  (★★★★½)

good_time_xlgGood Time

A ticking time-bomb of a movie, one whose neon jitters quickly seep under the viewer’s skin. Our anxiety is not for Robert Pattinson’s Connie (a performance that, as with Personal Shopper and Kristen Stewart, should put to rest any doubts that existed about the former vampire’s acting capabilities). He’s such a miserable piece of shit that we quickly learn to be far more concerned for the innocents pulled into his orbit, who he’s all too happy to turn into collateral damage if it means staying one step ahead of the law. The patina of filth that sticks to Connie covers the rest of the cast as well—everyone is in some form or another pathetic, whether they’re compatriots of the two-bit sociopath or bystanders brought low by him.

I walked out of the film feeling dirty, jumpy, and exhausted. It’s a singularly nasty piece of art, its absurdist sense of humor doing little to mitigate the crawling sensation it leaves you with. And I mean that in the best possible way.  (★★★★½)

in-this-corner-of-the-world-600x889In This Corner of the World

Bought this, the first anime film in my library, blind on a recommendation. I was not prepared. Why can’t we in the West have wide-release 2D animation anymore? Why?! This thing is more gorgeous than any Pixar film on a crowdfunded budget equivalent to $2.2 million. The watercolor background of each frame is just prettier than any of us deserve.

You’d expect the premise—a young woman and her family live day in and day out on the outskirts of Hiroshima as August 1945 draws ever closer—to stray heavily into grimdark territory, but while things do get appropriately somber in the back half, for the most part this is an elegant slice-of-life family drama. That’s not to say it’s overly schmaltzy or twee in the face of trauma, which would destroy it entirely. But life goes on, even in wartime, until the horrible moment when it can’t. And even moments lived on the verge of violence can be full of grace.  (★★★★½)

The Very Good

  • djputcvvwaaflwwLast Flag Flying
    • Was worried that this would veer toward ra-ra military dreck, and there are still isolated choices that make me wince—uses of “raghead” by soldiers who’ve deployed to Iraq are period-appropriate, I suppose, but c’mon. These jarring moments aside, though, Last Flag Flying is a low-key pleasure to sit through. It leans heavily on its players, but you’d have to be soulless to not love Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne taking each other on in full ham-to-ham combat (and Steve Carell anchoring them in an almost eerily quiet performance). While the cast goes for broke, Linklater keeps his direction restrained, his leisurely editing letting the script breathe and his muted color palette keeping Carell’s grief in the back of the audience’s mind. This isn’t a movie calculated to awe with its ambition a la the Before trilogy or Boyhood, but I think that’s why I like it so much.  (★★★★)
  • the-meyerowitz-stories-2017The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
    • Wouldn’t have started out this year predicting that Adam Sandler would outperform Dustin Hoffman in the same film but here we are. Baumbach gets career-best work out of both him and Ben Stiller, and though the white-guy daddy issues premise has been done to death elsewhere (and arguably better, at least as far as skewering self-absorbed Rothian artists goes, in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip), the film has more than enough warmth and wit to justify its existence. I miss Greta’s presence, but hey, at least she showed up via Skype call.  (★★★★)
  • ddi9fwxxkaav6xbBaby Driver
    • It’s no masterpiece. Characters are underdeveloped, plot is formulaic, and the ending just doesn’t work (save as an unintentional commentary on our justice system’s willingness to let white people slide through circumstances that would leave black suspects gunned down on the pavement). But god damn if it’s not impossible to resist this movie’s charm. It has exactly one trick—the editing of its action sequences to line up precisely with the songs that play over them—but it pulls that trick off time and time again without the fun ever wearing off. And that final “Brighton Rock” scene? CINEMA.  (★★★★)
  • silence-posterSilence
    • Shusaku Endo’s novel, in which two Portugese priests arrive on the shores of Japan and find themselves in mortal spiritual and physical peril, is one of the great works of literary theology of the 20th century. At times it feels like Scorsese is barely scratching the surface of the his source material’s spiritual depth—there’s only so much one can do in translating inner monologue to spoken dialogue, even in a three-hour film. But this is still a harrowing, wholly admirable adaptation, which makes up in beauty what it can sometimes lack in faithfulness to the text. Andrew Garfield does career-best work; it’s predictable but still incredibly frustrating that the Academy decided his performance in Hacksaw Ridge was more deserving of a nomination. His increasing desperation as he realizes just how much his journey to Japan may cost him is agonizing to watch.  (★★★★)
  • paterson-20170303013604Paterson
    • Just pure loveliness—one of the many movies this year that portray the mundane beauty of working-class life with affection and warmth. The titular character, a bus driver and aspiring poet, simply lives under our scrutiny for a week, his routines and relationships unspectacular but a sort of utopia nonetheless. We should all be blessed with an Adam Driver in our lives—the film hangs on his performance, which is understated but full of kindness and nuance.  (★★★★)
  • the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogStar Wars: The Last Jedi
    • An absolute hot mess of a movie, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For every wildly unique scene there’s a jarring tonal shift; for every structural weakness there’s a new idea. What you get out of it will largely depend on which parts of the mishmash you choose to focus on. I’ll take The Force Awakens‘ unity of purpose and theme over this one’s gonzo carnival, but there’s no denying there’s an abundance of compelling material here even if it leaves the trilogy in a very uncertain place. Contains some of the most breathtaking visuals of the franchise, and is certainly its best-acted installment—Adam Driver continues to kill it (“Blow that piece of junk OUT OF THE SKY” is the single greatest line reading of the year) and Mark Hamill delivers the best performance of his career.  (★★★★)
  • nullCall Me By Your Name
    • A languorous, turbid first act that’s little more than a bunch of obscenely privileged people being vaguely snippy to each other amid gorgeous surroundings gives way to a love story that made me feel a tangible swooping in my gut at multiple points. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are each outstanding, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s supporting performance deserves an equal amount of praise—the level of empathy he brings is a bit staggering. The movie is at its best when it allows that emotional honesty to take center stage rather than the (admittedly heavenly) sun-drenched Italian scenery.  (★★★★)
  • hgn8jpfThe Disaster Artist
    • I have no way of knowing how much mileage people who’ve never seen the so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece The Room will get out of this. The source material, Greg Sestero’s chronicle of his relationship with would-be auteur and superlative weirdo Tommy Wiseau, is a much darker, surprisingly nuanced account of a struggling actor slowly realizing that not only is he making the worst movie of all time, he’s befriended a monster. The movie, which could have been a classic if it had plumbed similar depths, is instead content to remain a largely surface-level farce, and its depiction of Wiseau’s magnum opus as an off-beat success story is not only sugarcoated but downright morally questionable in light of the sustained abuse the director/writer/star/producer put his cast and crew through. That said, as an ardent fan of The Room I was still delighted. Because while this does render itself a lesser film in giving up the book’s darkness, it’s devastatingly funny. It gets a lot of mileage out of not much more than Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau, but said impersonation is so uncannily good that my fellow premiere audience was howling for a good half of the runtime. So while it falls short of being a masterpiece, as a fan’s labor of love it’s a joy.  (★★★★)
  • Transfiguration03The Transfiguration
    • Gave this one a whirl on Netflix after seeing some positive buzz and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Owes a lot to Let the Right One In, but it’s more than just a reimagining of that tale of vampire preadolescence; more important than the setting change (from Sweden to New York) is the choice to have the audience view the world through the (possible) undead creature’s eyes rather than those of its new best friend. The resulting mix of slice-of-life friendship story and ambiguous portrait of supernatural/mental illness consistently exceeds expectations, painting a picture that’s nuanced and often gripping.  (★★★★)
  • a-cure-for-wellness-2017A Cure for Wellness
    • If it weren’t for the fact that mother! came out the same year, this would be the absolute craziest studio release of 2017. That Gore Verbinski managed to convince Fox to greenlight his batshit mashup of Bioshock, Lovecraft, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” for a budget of $40 million after his Lone Ranger was one of the biggest bombs in film history is an unbelievable achievement, and even if I didn’t like the film I’d have to respect him for it. Fortunately, I continue to disbelieve how much I do like it. It’s uneven, and the digital photography can be distractingly plastic at times, but the sheer Gothic insanity that Verbinski keeps hurling at the screen with abandon is just delightfully bonkers—it’s as if he knew this was gonna be his last big(ish)-budget feature for the foreseeable future and just poured everything he had into it. Leading man Dane DeHaan, between this and Valerian, is the year’s MVP for his willingness to just go for it in utterly bizarre auteur-driven tentpoles.  (★★★★)
  • logan-2017-poster-2Logan
    • The first superhero movie I’ve really liked since The Dark Knight Rises. Mangold shakes off the consequence-free, snappy shackles of his MCU brethren and dares to craft what’s almost purely a character piece, one whose violence carries unbearable weight and whose harsh, sun-bleached cinematography looks like a movie as opposed to a greyed-out TV show. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give their absolute all, both reduced to worn-out wrecks of their former selves but carrying meaning in that weariness rather than giving in to the adolescent nihilism of a Frank Miller comic. There are some missteps throughout, mostly in the number of villains that square off against our clawed hero, but it’s the first one of these things to even approach greatness in nearly a decade.  (★★★★)
  • 04gicwdksulzThe Shape of Water
    • The rapture so many people feel watching Guillermo del Toro’s films always seems to pass me by—I respect much of his work but love little of it. The same is true here—Sally Hawkins’ performance as the mute heroine Elisa is a thing of grace and passion, Alexandre Desplat’s score is full of sweeping romance, and every aspect of the art direction and production design (especially the absolutely seamless bringing-to-life of Doug Jones as the Creature) is perfection. But I don’t feel the dazzling love that Del Toro is trying so hard to induce—perhaps because he’s trying so hard to generate delight in his audience, I’m left feeling that I’ve been told I’m swept off my feet without any sweeping occurring. This is a lovely film, a film whose heart is entirely in the right place, and I enjoyed it more than any other Del Toro flick I’ve seen besides The Devil’s Backbone. But alas, that deep connection still eludes me.  (★★★★)
  • 2adad826a68b21d29ae9b48e617b96e6371b0a7bIcarus
    • One of this year’s most disorienting turns in subject matter—what started as director Bryan Fogel’s investigation into sneaking through doping tests in cycling turns into an espionage thriller that uncovers a Russian state-sponsored athletic conspiracy decades in the making. Not a whole lot happens on-camera—the doc consists largely of interviews, news footage, and the occasional computer-graphic sequence—but it’s still engrossing. The central tragedy of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was forced to flee Russia for his cooperation with the documentary/the Olympic authorities and remains in hiding, is heartbreaking, anchoring the broader political implications of the film with a thoroughly human center.  (★★★★)
  • mv5bmzcyntc1odqzmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntgzmzy4mti-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_A Ghost Story
    • Casey Affleck is trash, but he did this movie for free and spends most of it under a sheet so I was able to pay to see it guilt-free. Its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp—that house-party monologue on Beethoven and the impermanence of humanity is as heavyhanded as any Tyler Durden speech minus the wry humor—but on the whole it’s a moving examination of transience, time, and memory. Come for the existential anxiety, stay for Rooney Mara eating pie for the first time.  (★★★★)
  • beguiled-posterThe Beguiled
    • Almost palpably humid with morning mist, claustrophobic space, and sexual tension, Sofia Coppola’s hazy, sweltering hothouse potboiler is bathed in stifling, dreamlike atmosphere. As a look at the gender politics of the Confederacy it’s a failure—it’s ridiculous that a movie like this can simply ignore the existence of black women, especially when one was present in its source material—but as a piece of psychosexual tension it’s often superb. The photography and production design are the MVPs, but close behind them are Nicole Kidman’s icy matriarch and Colin Farrell’s slimy silver fox of a Yankee deserter. That accent just keeps getting sexier.  (★★★★)
  • found-footage-3d-posterFound Footage 3D
    • Figures that the genre-savvy parody of the found-footage conceit would also be one of the few times it’s truly worked—this “behind-the-scenes” look at the making of the world’s first 3D found-footage film is a cynicism-free love letter, but its subversion of its format’s pitfalls means it mostly rises above its source material (besides twin pillars The Blair Witch Project and [REC]). It falls down when it gets too nudge-nudge-wink-wink (the third-act intrusion of horror critic Scott Weinberg as himself is hilarious but diminishes tension far more than it’s worth), but for the most part strikes an admirable balance between self-aware satire and genuine suspense. Too inside-baseball to stand completely apart from the films it riffs on, but for fans of the genre’s heights and victims of its lows it’s a great time. (★★★★)
  • personalshopper_keyart1_fmhrPersonal Shopper
    • Are we all on the same page now re: Kristen Stewart actually being great? I sincerely hope so. She turns in one of the year’s best performances here, as a reluctant medium who’s struggling to commune with her dead brother’s spectre only to find that the spirit realm could be out to get her. A kind of Vertigo for the cell-phone age, but where that film is operatic this one turns inward, threatening speeches reduced to onscreen text messages and broad emotions distilled to fleeting microexpressions. Stewart communicates more in a handful of facial twitches than many actors do in whole monologues.  (★★★★)
  • jim-andy-the-great-beyond-600x890Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Appearance by Tony Clifton
    • Jim Carrey seems to think this is an ultimately uplifting meditation on the nature of identity, in which everyone involved in shooting Man in the Moon bonded over his quirky-but-endearing method portrayal of Andy Kaufman. The far more engrossing reality is that this is a downright disturbing testament to what he put an entire film crew through in his attempts to channel the late comic’s spirit. I felt genuinely sick whenever we were shown footage of Carrey interacting in-character with Kaufman’s family—what he sees as a beautiful act of healing is so emotionally manipulative it gives me the shivers. A harrowing glimpse of what must have felt like a living hell for everyone on-set but Carrey.  (★★★★)
  • ksd_1sheet_alt_curzon_hrThe Killing of a Sacred Deer
    • More consistent than The Lobster, although it never reaches the highs of that movie’s first half. Lanthimos’ knee-jerk urge to throw in casually delivered shock lines can wear a little thin at times—and isn’t justified here the way it is in Lobster—but his compositions and use of music are exquisite, and the kitchen shouting match between Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman is one of the year’s great scenes.  (★★★★)
  • 0702446Imperial Dreams
    • This one was filmed in 2014 and then languished until Netflix picked it up. It’s mostly a vehicle for John Boyega’s performance as an ex-con returned to the ghetto, but he takes the material and elevates it far beyond what a lesser actor would have been capable of. The desperation in his eyes as he struggles to make a life for himself and his son is heartbreaking.  (★★★★)

The Good

  • lightbox_194552_1497869652Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
    • A swamp of a screenplay full of wooden dialogue and meandering structure can’t hope to dull the manic energy and furious creativity that propel Valerian and the Overlong Title along. Possesses all the color and enthusiasm of Guardians of the Galaxy and none of its cynicism, along with one or two of the most riotously original SF/F action setpieces in years. The casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at first feels like a baffling misstep, but their adolescent attempts at badassery and charisma feel so much like children playing pretend that it ultimately just adds to the off-kilter charm. Joy-inducing in a way the genre rarely is these days.  (★★★½)
  • war-for-planet-of-the-apes-poster-5War for the Planet of the Apes
    • Doesn’t reach the dramatic or philosophical heights of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (a truly impressive piece of stakes and character), but sends off the trilogy with enough directorial panache and elegiac mood that the depiction of chimpanzees as concentration camp inmates manages to mostly avoid crossing the line into unintentional hilarity. (Would that this occasionally clumsy but always earnest examination of human nature were a baseline for franchise films rather than a rarity.) The visual effects are the most impressive of their kind to ever grace the big screen—there isn’t a frame of mocap primate that isn’t completely convincing—and Andy Serkis turns in a career-best performance. It’s high time the Academy changed the rules for eligibility—he deserves a Best Actor nomination, and if this trilogy hasn’t proved that nothing will.  (★★★½)
  • logan-lucky-poster-4597-600x890Logan Lucky
    • Considered purely as a heist movie it doesn’t approach the heights of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, but as a loving portrait of the eccentricities and nobility of the West Virginian working class it’s a winner. Daniel Craig is having fun onscreen for the first time in years, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are as stalwart a leading pair as any of 2017, and Katherine Waterston has far too little screentime but remains a joy. There’s a Game of Thrones gag midway through that won’t be understood by anyone in a couple of decades, but until that point it will remain the absolute funniest joke of 2017.  (★★★★)
  • 6cbb943a8973ec66de94483295d2135cCoco
    • A decade ago this would have been subpar Pixar, but these days it’s a welcome relief from a string of duds and cash-grab sequels that, with the exception of the genuinely great Inside Out, has been ongoing since 2011’s Cars 2. Stunning animation—the neon metropolis of the Land of the Dead may be a high-water mark for the studio—elevates but can’t quite save a story that starts to noticeably lose steam as it approaches the third act. It’s right around this point that a tiresomely mustache-twirling villain thrusts himself into what’s otherwise a relatively nuanced, mature look at family responsibility and the impermanence of memory, watering it down pretty severely. Still, the drag didn’t stop me from almost tearing up at the end—Pixar may have lost a good deal of their touch, but not that one.  (★★★★)
  • whose-streets-posterWhose Streets?
    • Suffers from its compact length, which keeps its engagement with much of what happened in Ferguson, MO pretty surface-level, but it chooses its images well. It’s kind of unfathomably weird to watch a documentary that regularly cuts footage and tweets I saw unfold live three years ago—it simultaneously feels as if it had just happened and as if it were an eternity ago.  (★★★★)
  • largeposterIt
    • A wretched adaptation that works quite well when taken on its own merits. Pitch-perfect casting, which was always going to be the key to success here. Never even attempts to tackle the book’s genuinely epic meditation on childhood, aging, memory, and friendship, but hits the lesser target of Stand by Me/horror hybrid in consistently crowd-pleasing fashion (the audience I saw it with was riveted). And if this, rather than the godawful 90s miniseries, is a new generation’s way into the novel, I’ll take it. The kids are all great (though both Mike and Stan are rather unforgivably watered down from their literary counterparts), but Sophia Lillis in particular is one to watch.  (★★★½)
  • rawRaw
    • You know what they say about hazing—it ain’t great. (Nowhere near as shocking as festival buzz made it out to be—granted, this is coming from the Hannibal fan—but there are a few good squirmy moments in addition to a lot of genuinely funny black comedy. Quite an impressive first-time effort from both writer/director Julia Ducournau and lead Garance Marillier.)  (★★★★)
  • 71yqgyuakol-_sy550_I Am Not Your Negro
    • As a portrait of James Baldwin it’s scattershot, and downright irresponsible in the way it near-completely ignores his sexuality. But the screenplay is largely his own words, and no documentary that’s built on that basis could ever be classed a total failure. The contrast between Sam Jackson’s narration and period footage of the man himself is striking—Jackson is gravelly and somber, while Baldwin’s jumpy eloquence remains electrifying some sixty years later.  (★★★★)

The Mixed

  • bb_launch_a4posterBrigsby Bear
    • I probably would have preferred this if it were a deconstruction of the toxicity of fan culture and cheap nostalgia—especially in the wake of the internet’s absolutely bonkers rage toward Mark Hamill’s other big movie this year—but the movie’s so sincere in its love for the positive impact our childhood media consumption can have on us that it feels uncharitable to find fault with its approach. Come for the Lonely Island production logo, stay for Luke Skywalker as an evil sentient moon-creature.  (★★★½)
  • blade_runner_2049_posterBlade Runner 2049
    • Beautiful but sterile visuals (Roger Deakins has seldom been this majestic but seldom as plastic either) reflect the soul of the film at large. Villenueve has little to offer but stale repackaging of ideas from better films (HerEx Machina, and the original Blade Runner chief among these), even if those repackagings are exquisitely crafted. Throw in some absolutely abysmal treatment of its female and POC characters (the two of which almost entirely fail to overlap—it’s ridiculous that thirty-five years after the original we’ve actively regressed in representation), and we’re left with a movie that’s satisfying enough on its own terms but falls down as both a worthy sequel to its predecessor and a truly thoughtful piece of SF.  (★★★)
  • mollys-game-film-posterMolly’s Game
    • At this point in his career, Aaron Sorkin’s writing has retreated from attempts at deeper thematic resonance; his one remaining trick is to have characters deliver rapid-fire repartee full of facts that serve no narrative purpose beyond showing off how smart the screenwriter is. Said repartee is still entertaining enough to make for a consistently fun two hours—and Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are fantastic at delivering it—but when compared to prior Sorkin scripts like The Social Network and Moneyball, which were both more disciplined in their displays of authorial ego and more restrained by talented directors, Molly’s Game can’t help but feel self-indulgent and slight. This isn’t helped by Sorkin’s slack gestures toward feminism, which never make it further than “I can be just as good a rich criminal as these men!” and ultimately collapse into an embarrassing daddy-issues emotional resolution.  (★★★)
  • lrg-png__650x935_q70Wonder Woman
    • As much as I’d like to truly love this one, I can’t. The first and third acts are messes (the former stiff and talky, the latter a confused jumble of plot and CGI), and the cartoonish treatment of WWI Germans as Nazi stand-ins is both juvenile and worryingly ignorant of history. That said, seeing honest-to-god color onscreen is delightful, the middle act’s focus on character and relationships feels like such a breath of fresh goddamn air, and seeing a female superhero dominating the screen solo for the first time in my life was properly exciting. Mr. Pine remains the pinnacle of the Hollywood Chrises.  (★★★½)
  • 59a462129e241Hidden Figures
    • Fits the standard Hollywood race-biopic subgenre to a t—complete with obligatory white-saviorism—but there’s something so incredibly satisfying about watching the story of these women finally being told in spite of the predictability. And there are moments where it rises above the moral two-dimensionality usually associated with this subgenre to become a more nuanced indictment of white supremacy—Ocatavia Spencer’s weary “I’m sure you believe that” to Kirsten Dunst’s white supervisor speaks volumes. Janelle Monáe is a literal goddess.  (★★★½)
  • 3bb_key_1sheet_101_f3_smThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    • Gets so close to being good that its bummer of a third act leaves even more of a sour taste. Said third act, in which [SPOILERS] a key antagonist who we’ve seen brutally torture an innocent person just for kicks (and who we’re told has a history of racial violence) turns good on a dime for no particular reason other than someone telling him to love more [/SPOILERS], feels like a betrayal of the movie’s first 70 or 80 minutes. Said beginning section, which features tremendous performances from everyone involved (especially Frances McDormand as our righteously angry protagonist), is caustically funny and for the most part manages to avoid smothering genuine emotion with flippancy. It’s unfortunate that this devolves into something far broader, cheaper, and more sentimental, losing its bite and honesty and exacerbating early representational flaws into full-on apologism for police violence.  (★★★)
  • mv5byzu5ywflyzktmmjjmc00nwe3lwiwnwmtmjg2ztzmzwy3mdyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqzotywmzc-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Detroit
    • An unbearably tense middle section that unfortunately veers into white-on-black torture porn is bracketed by first and third acts that fail to provide the macro-level context necessary for the movie to function as the citywide portrait its title promises. The central confrontation between police and black victims is admirably crafted on a pure suspense level, but I have to wonder what such a sustained depiction of black pain in a vacuum is supposed to offer artistically or politically. I’ll take Get Out‘s signifier-rich pulp thrills over this one’s vacuous self-seriousness any day.  (★★★)
  • abl-rtdadv1sheet-rgb-1-5938474674f1c-1Atomic Blonde
    • Icy neon visuals, gloriously obvious 80s needle drops, Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, and a few extraordinary action scenes—including a genuinely astonishing one-take stairwell brawl— elevate what’s otherwise a pretty tepid, convoluted espionage drama too mired in twisting in on itself to ever become interesting. Director David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski, shares his former collaborator’s enthusiasm for bright colors but lacks his eye for truly unique visuals; it’s all surface-level aesthetic, though that surface has its isolated moments of badassery.  (★★★)
  • mudboundMudbound
    • A staid, lifeless first hour whose Ken Burns narration has a soporific effect eventually gives way to a film that’s just as brutal as Detroit but has at least a hope for redemption where that film offered nothing but black pain. It’s mostly a disappointment coming off the heels of director Dee Rees’ near-perfect Pariah, but there’s enough good here to make its duller bits worth the slog. Its cinematography, dusky and atmospheric, is probably the best of any Netflix original to date.  (★★★)
  • one-sheetIt Comes at Night
    • Not much more than a 90-minute episode of The Walking Dead minus the zombies, but its grimdark “humans are the real monsters” story is performed, shot, and structured well enough to feel at least somewhat worthwhile. Disappointing for an A24 joint, but a perfectly decent if forgettable postapocalyptic flick otherwise.  (★★★)
  • mv5bmtrhyjyxntetnzu3zs00ngrklwjimzutzwi2otu1yzmxnmewxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzq0mtcymju-_v1_sy1000_cr006971000_al_Lady Macbeth
    • Florence Pugh is the only true standout here—it often feels as though we’re watching an unusually pretty direct-to-television film—but this nasty remix of Wuthering Heights is still consistently tense and grim without becoming dull, Pugh’s dead-eyed hatred taking over every frame it’s present in. Men are trash, Victorian men even moreso.  (★★★)
  • i_don27t_feel_at_home_in_this_world_anymoreI Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
    • At its strongest when first-time director Macon Blair channels memories of his work with Jeremy Saulnier of Green Room fame. In terms of lasting impact, this comedy-thriller is of little consequence, but it’s endearing to me if for no other reason than giving stars Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood a much-needed chance to shine.  (★★★)
  • manifesto-movie-poster-1Manifesto
    • Its collage of art treatises is less the draw than Cate Blanchett playing thirteen different people, but Julian Rosefeldt was humble enough to realize that and hire her anyway so bravo to him. (This never stops feeling like the art-museum installation it started off as, but its star is incapable of being boring.)  (★★★)
  • murder-on-the-orient-expressMurder on the Orient Express
    • The great joy of Branagh’s Shakespeare films is how exhilaratingly alive they are—the directorial choices he makes in them aren’t always the best, but the conviction and enthusiasm of the performers and the energy of his guiding hand were a revelation for me when I first experienced his Hamlet and Henry VMurder on the Orient Express, by contrast, is frequently plodding and airless, characters reduced to a handful of tics and Branagh’s usual passion succumbing to the canned accent and massive mustache he’s forced to bear. It’s not offensively bad, though—the richly saturated 70mm photography is an absolute pleasure to take in, and watching Johnny Depp get stabbed in the chest over and over will never be the wrong move.  (★★★)
  • wonderstruck-first-posterWonderstruck
    • A visually immaculate construction that left me completely cold. Haynes’ sumptuous photography and wondrous art direction are bogged down by characters that never even rise to the level of assembled quirks—they’re all blank slates wandering through a fantastical world that dazzles without ever moving (perhaps a result of Brian Selznick of Hugo fame penning the overcautious adaptation of his own novel). Even more disappointing coming off the masterpiece that was Carol, it’s a children’s fantasy that’s not engaging enough for the kids (though Carter Burwell’s score, the best of the year, does everything it can to generate momentum) and has nothing substantial for adults to hold onto.  (★★★)
  • song-to-song-20170711104326Song to Song
    • Like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups before it, some absolutely breathtaking visuals and scenes—one sequence of Rooney Mara dancing alone in her bedroom is perhaps my favorite purely visual moment of the year—in search of a decent anchor. Malick’s increasing distaste for story and character in favor of elliptical fragments isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but his attempts to create a narrative throughline through constant voiceover actively hinder the experience he’s aiming for—the naked, revealing monologues that propel Badlands and Days of Heaven and the minimalist, elemental thoughts that pervade The New World and The Tree of Life have been replaced by lifeless platitudes that distract rather than immerse.  (★★½)
  • nocturama-paris-is-happening-posterNocturama
    • An hour’s worth of remarkable, nearly wordless tension bookends a middle section of adolescent terrorists acting out The Neon Demon inside an abandoned Parisian shopping mall as they wait for the inevitable to fall upon them. Just as uneven and frustrating as that description makes it sound.  (★★½)
  • 661820936_ztkyvpkz_eba08ceb8d94ed8c9c-ec98a5ec9e90Okja
    • At its core is a reasonably effective satire on the absurdity of neoliberal ethics and corporate morality, but this movie is so goddamn shrill that its sharper points of critique are almost completely obscured. Paul Dano is the only adult lead to escape with his dignity intact—Gyllenhaal and Swinton are absolutely insufferable cartoon characters made flesh, which might be more acceptable if director Bong-Joon Ho had shaped the whole film as a kid’s fantasy rather than including rape and slaughterhouse scenes deliberately designed to evoke Holocaust associations. The resulting tonal mishmash contains several worthy scenes, but the obnoxiousness they’re mired in is so exhausting to wade through that it’s hard to summon much interest when they arrive.  (★★½)
  • all-these-sleepless-nights-posterAll These Sleepless Nights
    • Explores similar structural territory as Song to Song, but possesses neither Malick’s visual panache nor his sense of the spiritual. What starts off as a promising portrait of wandering youth in that netherworld that exists between 1 and 5 in the morning crumbles into a repetitive, monotonous look at aimless debauchery.  (★★½)

The Poor

  • eda5gozhwyawqu1xkqe5The Void
    • Populated with dodgy acting and an abundance of tired horror tropes thrown into a nonsensical blender, this one’s sole selling point is the practical effects used to form its Lovecraftian creatures. Said effects are quite good—it’s just a pity the amateur cinematography and lighting mean that we barely get a glimpse of them. Watch a John Carpenter movie instead.  (★★½)
  • battle-of-the-sexes-2017-04Battle of the Sexes
    • It can’t decide whether it wants to be the movie its title suggests or The Billie Jean King Story, and ends up being a satisfactory version of neither. Stone and Carrell are likable as ever, but their performances and some pretty film grain can’t rescue the movie from its bizarrely lopsided structure and its inability to commit to which story it’s going to tell—it’s too interested in other aspects of King’s life (and too pedestrian in its shooting and editing) to be a tense sports drama, but also too committed to giving Carrell’s Bobby Riggs as much screentime as possible to turn into a biopic of its heroine.  (★★½)
  • jcwn2t9x3gozDarkest Hour
    • Rests solely on the shoulders of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill, which in the best of circumstances would mean a forgettable, tepid chamber drama with some memorable character work. Unfortunately, these aren’t the best of circumstances. Oldman is on autopilot—he lisps, brays, and sprays spittle at the screen in what isn’t a performance so much as the same shtick played at varying degrees. Add to that the fact that neither Churchill nor any of his fellow players are given any sort of interior life—one never gets the sense that these are people living their lives, just orators exchanging lines—and what results is an utterly hollow, empty bit of drama. If Oldman, after decades of Oscar snubs, finally nabs the golden man for this, in the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, Timothée Chalamet’s breakthrough, and Willem Dafoe’s career-best work on The Florida Project, it’ll be a sad if predictable state of affairs.  (★★½)
  • suburbicon586Suburbicon
    • I should have known this wasn’t going to turn out well as soon as I learned that Clooney had rewritten the original Coens script that allegedly forms the basis of the movie. Painfully unfunny and annoyingly sanctimonious in its attempts to weld a half-baked civil rights subplot onto what’s otherwise a cynical farce, it limps through every single scene save the two that weren’t altered from the original draft. Said scenes are fortunately the ones that include Oscar Isaac, whose presence in that hat should be a requirement for every movie forthwith.  (★★½)
  • 527496The Discovery
    • Rooney Mara does her best to breathe some life into what’s otherwise a tiringly dull and overlong extrapolation of an SF premise—what if we had definitive proof of the afterlife?—that in its execution is neither thoughtful nor thought-provoking. No worse than a second-rate episode of Black Mirror, but most definitely no better.  (★★)

The Godawful

  • woodshockWoodshock
    • Neither shocking nor woody. Wants to be Upstream Color so badly, but where that film runs purely on emotion this one decided to take a few really banal characters and their hour of story and tack on thirty minutes of double-exposed shots and elliptical editing. Kirsten Dunst does her best, in a performance that’s basically a hazier version of Melancholia‘s Justine, but with the material she’s given she can’t achieve much more than strolling through pretty lights looking vacant.  (★½)
  • brawl_cb99_teaser_2764x4096-1-e1503427449280Brawl in Cell Block 99
    • A first half that’s atrociously color-graded and amateurishly structured slides into a second half that wants to be a visceral descent into hell but instead is simply a perversely gleeful dive into grindhouse schlock. The audience is offered little more than some split-second shock at the cartoonish brutality on display; the characters less than that.  (★½)
  • c8f7pflvwaayhkpThe Book of Henry
    • Too entertaining in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely hated. This truly bizarre attempt at imitating human behavior feels like a slightly more sapient Tommy Wiseau joined forces with Gus van Sant to produce a monstrosity that slides from sickeningly twee to hilariously sociopathic—Sarah Silverman making out with a ten-year-old cancer patient is one of the less weird things that it features. It probably contributed to getting Colin Trevorrow kicked off Star Wars Episode IX, so we’re eternally in its debt. Poor Naomi Watts deserves better, though.  (½)
  • the-snowman-first-posterThe Snowman
    • Too dull in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely entertaining. (What I did there? You see it?) Bewildering in its editing choices, its pointless subplots, its basic character motivations, and its choice to name its protagonist Harry Hole (three of which became clearer when the director admitted his crew had forgotten to shoot 15% of the script), it’s a good forty minutes shorter than David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but feels twice as long. In a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and J. K. Simmons, not a single person manages to walk away looking good.  (½)
  • ho00004153Beauty and the Beast
    • Feels like the most purely useless movie ever made. A cynical mishmash that’s made up entirely of scenes that either rehash their animated counterparts in inferior fashion or “expand” the story in a way that makes it actively worse. The Gothic beauty of the 1991 film is degraded into ugliness almost everywhere—the slipshod, “gritty” CG reimagining of the enchanted castle and its inhabitants; the audible pitch correction slathered over nearly every singer’s voice; the wooden, cringing acting of anyone who isn’t Gaston or LeFou. The fact that this narrowly avoided being my most-loathed picture of the decade speaks to how ghastly the final candidate on this list is. (For more thoughts, see my long-form review.)  (½)
  • the-dark-tower-posterThe Dark Tower
    • An utter abortion of an adaptation, one that takes the insanity of a book series that’s a dimension-hopping fantasy/SF/western metafiction epic and turns it into a seemingly autocorrect-generated screenplay whose visuals and characters have all the life of a screensaver. Its 90 minutes feel like an eternity, and Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey’s heroic attempts to bring something of the source material’s fire just make it hurt even worse. I pity the viewers who watch this movie and as a result are turned off from the books forever. It has forgotten the face of its father.  (½)

The Awards

  • Best Picture
    • Sean Baker, The Florida Project
  • Best Foreign Language Film
    • Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
  • Best Animated Feature
    • Sunao Katabuchi, In This Corner of the World
  • Best Documentary Feature
    • Bryan Fogel, Icarus
  • Best Director
    • Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  • Best Original Screenplay
    • Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird / Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
    • Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role
    • Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role
    • Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project / Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role
    • Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role
    • Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
  • Best Cinematography
    • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Best Editing
    • Lee Smith, Dunkirk
  • Best Visual Effects
    • Weta Digital, War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Best Original Score
    • Carter Burwell, Wonderstruck
  • Best Original Song
    • Dark Rooms, “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story
  • Best Stuntwork
    • John Wick Chapter 2
  • Best Production Design/Art Direction
    • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Best Costume Design/Makeup and Hairstyling
    • A Cure for Wellness
  • Best Sound Editing and Mixing
    • Dunkirk

The Best Scenes of the Year

  • prom, Lady Bird
  • communion, mother!
  • fish in a barrel, Dunkirk
  • menstruation, 20th Century Women
  • shootout in the catacombs, John Wick Chapter 2
  • 9/11, The Big Sick
  • hands up, Get Out
  • house party, Toni Erdmann
  • the blast, In This Corner of the World
  • “Brighton Rock,” Baby Driver
  • poetry forum, Paterson
  • sunset, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • clearing the air, Call Me By Your Name
  • kitchen shouting match, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • interdimensional firefight, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • napkin of demands, Logan Lucky
  • the memory maker, Blade Runner 2049
  • stairwell brawl, Atomic Blonde
  • bedroom dance, Song to Song
  • the inevitable, Nocturama

 

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God Will Cut You Down

grit-51Watching the Coen brothers’ rendition of True Grit is akin to watching something Shakespeare might have written, had Shakespeare been born in 19th-century America. There’s always a level of unreality to the dialogue in the Coens’ films, but True Grit is unique in just how bizarre its characters’ speech is. There is perhaps no better example of this than a jibe Rooster Cogburn, the drunken, grizzled U. S. marshal, makes at the expense of the foppish Texas Ranger LaBouef:

I’m struck that LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly severed his tongue, and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.

The marshal scoffs at his companion’s highfalutin speech, yet he himself talks in a manner far above that of a redneck, near-illiterate Wild-West gunslinger; “severed,” “cease,” and “spills the banks” are not common turns of phrase in such circles. This commingling of high and low speech is the basis of another joke earlier in the film; Mattie Ross irritably informs Rooster, who’s attempted to leave her high and dry while he and LaBeouf seek out Tom Chaney:

And ‘futile’, Marshal Cogburn, ‘pursuit would be futile’? It’s not spelled ‘f-u-d-e-l.’

The world of the film’s script is one of blatant unreality. No matter a character’s education or station, they are capable of spouting verbiage that carries more poetic lilt in one line than most screenplays do in their entire text. They will likely as not, however, do so in a manner that’s as rife with vernacular turns of phrase and grammatical errors as Rooster’s correspondence with Mattie is rife with misspellings.

A large portion of this off-kilter speech originates not with the Coens but with Charles Portis, the author of the novel on which True Grit is based. Nonetheless, only the Coens could have pulled it off in a film setting with the kind of richness it deserves. Witness by comparison the 1969 True Grit film; it’s a decent Western for another cinematic day and age, but Portis’ words are as flat and clumsy in the mouths of its actors as one of Rooster’s corn dodgers. Whenever one of those absurdly elegant sentences is read, that’s what it feels like—a line reading and nothing more. When the actors in the 2010 True Grit speak their lines, it’s as though torrents of verbiage flow from their mouths. Their frontier poetry is electric, full of texture, and if we don’t always grasp the individual syllables—particularly from Jeff Bridges’ slurring Rooster—we always have a firm hold on the meaning.

When the film was released in 2010, it received overwhelming critical acclaim, but the consensus seemed to be that it just wasn’t a Coens film. Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, put it thus:

What strikes me is that I’m describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That’s a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career. It’s a loving one. Their craftsmanship is a wonder. [. . .] But this isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky.

I find this sentiment more than a little puzzling. I opened this piece with observations on the film’s dialogue because it’s the most obvious sign that True Grit is anything but a straight genre exercise. There are very few films period whose scripts walk a similar tightrope between the vernacular and the poetic, much less Western films. But it’s more than just the words the characters say. What makes True Grit a Coens film is the even narrower tightrope it navigates: that of tone. The aura of the film is a mix of the heroic and the banal, the noble and the farcical, that is the signature of its makers’ oeuvre.

Joel and Ethan Coen are often painted as cynics whose creations feature characters for the purposes of pointing and laughing rather than empathizing. This holds true for a few of their films—Barton Fink is filled with a loathing for its protagonist that becomes more and more obvious as its story unfolds, and when I recently revisited Burn After Reading I was exhausted from the sheer contempt it holds for its entire cast. But more often than not it’s a reductive claim.

It’s more accurate to say that the brothers make films whose worlds point and laugh at their inhabitants but whose stories ultimately admire their characters’ refusal to give up in their struggles, futile or undignified as they may be. The titular folk singer of Inside Llewyn Davis spends the entirety of the film in a Sisyphean fight to break out of his rut, one that’s as funny as it is heartbreakingly cruel; but the movie ends on an astonishing note of empathy for its reluctant hero, who vents his demons in a song and—just maybe—opens up the possibility of breaking the cycle. The Big Lebowski takes an unholy amount of delight in hammering the junior Lebowski with break-ins, injuries, burnt cars, and dead friends, but in the end the Dude abides, taking it easy for all us sinners. The Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! is as far from meaningful as it’s possible to get, but when Eddie Mannix thunders to disgraced star Baird Whitlock about the sacredness of their business, you can see the Coens mean it as much as he does.

The best example of this cruelty overcome by affection is Fargo. Even those who have never seen the film are familiar with its broad satire on the Midwest—the thickheaded goodnaturedness of its inhabitants provides constant comic fodder throughout the movie’s runtime. More than that, Joel and Ethan take active glee in wresting control away from characters who are determined that things go exactly according to their plans, particularly would-be criminal mastermind Jerry Lundegaard and his bumbling pair of kidnappers-for-hire. But the film possesses a genuine respect for its heroine, pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson. More than that, it refuses to poke fun at her Midwestern sense of decency in the way it does with others’.

There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

You get the sense that, even if the Coens don’t really believe this sentiment themselves, they want to.

True Grit is in many ways a stunningly cruel piece of cinema. The drab browns and yellows of its vegetation and the frequent drifts of snow that waft through its frames set the tone for its Wild West—elegiac, cold, and harsh. Attempted sentimentality constantly has the rug pulled from underneath its feet. Rooster caps off a dying man’s pious anticipation of walking the streets of glory with the advice not to go looking for his killer. At a public hanging, the two white men present are allowed to finish their speeches; when the lone Indian begins his, a hood is placed over his head and the lever is pulled. The undertaker in charge of Mattie’s father idly tells her that if she’d like to spend the night in a coffin, “it would be alright.” Hardly a maudlin or sugary moment is allowed to exist before being brutally cut short.

More than any of these little moments, though, it’s the central journey of Mattie Ross that often feels as though it’s actively punishing its heroine. Mattie opens the film coming into town to collect her dead father. When she attempts to recruit men to come with her and go after after his killer, Tom Chaney, she is met not just with rejection but contempt; LaBeouf makes crude sexual comments and Rooster steals her money before giving her the slip. Shortly after this, there’s a sequence that initially plays out like a standard heroic-Hollywood moment; Mattie, undeterred by the roaring river standing between her and the two lawmen, urges her horse through the water while Carter Burwell’s strings swell. As soon as she gets to shore, LaBeouf snatches her from her horse and spanks her; ultimately, she has to be rescued by Rooster.

When Mattie does get to Chaney, she finds to her vexation that he fails to recognize he has done anything wrong and greets her like an old friend. She manages to shoot him in the short ribs only after he instructs her in how to cock her gun properly; when she tries to fire a second time, the gun fails and Chaney takes her away. When our hero finally manages to bag her man, the recoil of the gun sends her sprawling backward into a pit filled with rattlesnakes. She loses an arm for her trouble, and Rooster rides her horse to death getting her to the doctor.

Nor is even this the last time the film twists the knife. A quarter-century after her arm is removed, Mattie, a spinster after all these years, receives a letter from Rooster asking her to visit him. She makes the journey. She arrives a few days after the ex-marshal dies of “night hoss.” All she can do is bury him.

The above three paragraphs read like nothing so much as a 19th-century book of Job. In isolation, this flat description makes it seem as though the Coens have an overwhelming amount of sadistic disregard for their protagonist. But what’s remarkable about True Grit is how much the opposite is true.

Ethan, in a 2010 interview, says of Mattie that she’s “a pill [. . .] but there is something deeply admirable about her in the book that we were drawn to.” And while the film portrays her in constant states of indignity or frustration, the viewer never feels a directorial delight in Mattie’s suffering. In many ways, she’s a fierier, more Old-Testament version of Marge Gunderson. She is hell-bent on judgment by violence, and will not see anything less for Tom Chaney than death—specifically for his murder of her father, not the state senator he shot under the name Chelmsford—but this bloodthirst comes not from any personal inclination toward violence but from a deeply ingrained sense of decency and justice. Just as the world of Fargo belies Marge’s conviction that a day can be truly beautiful, the world Mattie inhabits frequently punishes her for her unwavering principles, and works its hardest to show her that life is not as simple as what’s fair and what’s not. She never wavers, however, and if that’s a kind of blindness, it’s a blindness that the Coens respect, not the kind of arrogance or stupidity that draws their ire in characters such as Barton Fink or Burn After Reading‘s Linda Litzke.

The most profound marker of the directors’ affection for their heroine is that they ultimately do let her have her way. In both Portis’ novel and the 1969 film, Mattie fails to kill Tom Chaney. She fires at him and is flung back into the snake pit; he leans over the edge to taunt her, at which point Rooster disposes of him. It’s a death that’s anticlimactic, cruel, and the precise opposite of catharsis. If the Coens truly felt any sort of contempt for Mattie, they would have kept it this way. But in a change that is crucial to the ultimate tone of their True Grit, they let Mattie have her justice. She looks her man dead in the eyes, grins, and cries, “Stand up, Tom Chaney!” And as the realization of what’s to come dawns in Chaney’s expression, she pulls the trigger. Over the cliff he goes.

Mattie still plunges into the pit of snakes and loses her arm. Her victory is not easy, and cannot simply be handed to her without consequence. But she still gets a split second of unequivocal triumph before she takes that fall. Blind belief in justice is perhaps deserving of punishment, the film says. But in the case of someone like Mattie—a girl who is capable, intelligent, and determined to get her job done—it is also deserving of reward.

The 2010 rendition, then, is a cruel film that never fully descends into sadism. It’s a heroic quest that never allows its main character more than a few isolated moments of heroism. It’s a movie that walks a constant knife’s-edge of philosophy and tone, and a lesser director would have turned it to the mush that the 1969 film all too often is. But to Joel and Ethan, this kind of juggling is second nature.

True Grit is often overlooked in discussions of the Coens’ 21st-century output. It doesn’t possess the raw intensity of No Country for Old Men, the personal investment of A Serious Man, or the forlorn majesty of Inside Llewyn Davis, true. But besides the latter film, it’s my favorite of their movies, and I maintain that attempts to exclude it from the conversation on the basis that it “isn’t a Coens movie” are fundamentally misguided. Not only is it a Coens movie through and through, it could only ever have been that.

A genre picture it may be, but merely a “straight genre exercise”? Not on your life. (Stand up, Roger Ebert.)

The Blood Cries Out to Me from the Ground

joshI’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular episode of VeggieTales.

For those who aren’t familiar, VeggieTales is a computer-animated children’s video series that originally ran from 1993-2000 (it’s gone through a number of iterations since). The premise is simple, if a bit bizarre to think about if one didn’t grow up with it: anthropomorphic vegetables and fruits get together to retell Bible stories to a young audience, with various skits and songs throughout. Lessons are learned, laughs are had. Fin. The series was something of a staple for a certain generation of us who grew up evangelical, and it’s actually not at all bad. It’s often quite funny, and unlike a lot of lesser religious children’s media it’s genuinely concerned with storytelling in addition to didacticism. And while it is overtly religious, many of the moral lessons it imparts are universal enough that kids growing up secular can learn a thing or two from it as well.

But then there’s “Josh and the Big Wall.”

This particular episode is, as the title implies, the vegetables’ retelling of the story of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho. The Israelites are played by most of the main vegetable characters (Joshua himself by Larry the Cucumber); the citizens of Jericho by the villainous, eminently mockable French Peas. When the Israelites attempt to enter the city—they explain to the Peas that God has given them the land, so there’s really no other option—they are rebuffed by a torrent of hurled slushies. Several minutes of further slapstick and such ensue before, inevitably, the troops rally around Jericho and the walls are brought down by a divine force. The Peas—no worse for wear after the collapse of their city besides a little bit of dust peppering their faces—turn and run. The Israelites have won their first victory in the conquest of Canaan. The End.

All in all a fairly innocuous, fairly amusing retelling of the Biblical story. Right?

That’s what my memories of it were for the last decade or so, anyway. It’s been about that long since I’ve actively watched a VeggieTales episode, so my recollections of it aren’t exactly sharp. It’s all sort of faded away into a vaguely pleasant melange of scenes and gags in the back of my mind, my fondness for it remaining despite my departure from the church.

But recently, for no particular reason that I can figure out, I started turning over “Josh and the Big Wall” in my mind again. And to my dismay, I realized:

This is an absolutely horrific way to tell a Bible story. To anyone, but especially to children.

* * * * *

In order for this essay to continue, there are a couple of basic premises we’re going to have to agree on.

1.) The Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the later books of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua is an attempted genocide against the inhabitants of that land in order to make way for God’s chosen people.

2.) This genocide mandated the killing not just of fighting men, but of women, children, and infants. Virgin women were spared to be raped.

Note that I’m not passing any moral judgment on the conquest of Canaan in stating these two premises. I’m not interested in writing a post about whether or not the acts described in these books are unconscionable atrocities—full disclosure, that is what I think (divine command morality can quite frankly go fuck itself), but there’s a whole literature devoted to just that point and I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything new there. So, Christian readers of this essay, I’m not asking you to accept my opinion that the Old Testament describes immoral, unforgivable acts of genocide mandated by God. But if this essay is going to be of any value to you, you’re going to have to accept that the premises above are both true.

It shouldn’t be hard, honestly. Those premises are pretty literal, neutral interpretations of what the Old Testament has to say on the matter. I’ll restrict my citations here to two, one for each premise:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded. that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

—Deuteronomy 20:16-18

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. [. . .] And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. [. . .] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

—Numbers 31:7, 9, 14-18 (ESV)

There isn’t really any getting around these passages. Not that evangelicals necessarily feel the need to! A good portion of the apologetics field is devoted to explaining how these acts are perfectly morally justified because of x reasons.

Again, I want to reiterate: I’m not here to combat those apologetics. But I do find it interesting that many evangelicals, though they’re perfectly happy to explain why these killings and rapes weren’t really wrong, are probably made profoundly uncomfortable by referring to them as a genocide. I’m sure a fair number of my Christian readers felt an initial urge to disagree with the two premises I listed above specifically because of that word.

Why is that?

* * * * *

Christian media really likes to erase certain terrible Biblical things from its consciousness.

It’s right there in that VeggieTales episode, where the complete slaughter of Jericho is turned into a food fight that ends with the losers simply running off into the distance. It’s there in innumerable retellings of Noah’s Ark, which are full of smiling animals and lovely talk of God’s promise with the rainbow and show no pictures of floating corpses. It’s there in the ways Christians love to tell their kids these Bible stories and mine them for examples of positive lessons—look how good God is, look at what can happen if we obey him, etc.—without ever dwelling on the darker side that’s plainly there in the actual Biblical text.

And I think that as Christians, parents should stop and think about the consequences of doing this.

I do not think that these are stories that should be told to children. And I think that when they are told to believers for the first time, it needs to be in a way that respects the full weight and consequence of the Biblical texts themselves. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of erasure of troubling things from our perception of the Bible repeats itself.

One Bible story that definitely isn’t told to children is that of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges. I’ll quote the relevant portion in full here:

 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

—Judges 11:29-40 (ESV)

The first thing that needs to be accepted about this story is that God lets it happen. One could argue that His hands were tied in this situation because Jephthah had already made a binding oath, but that’s a flimsy reading for a number of reasons. First of all, God is conceived of as absolutely sovereign; if He does not wish something to happen, that something cannot happen. Second, God is conceived of as absolutely just; in this situation, it doesn’t take an ethical genius to work out that, if someone must die in this instance, it would be more just for the father to be wiped out for making a flippant oath than his innocent daughter to be wiped out for no wrong of her own. Third, and most obvious, we already know of at least one previous time in which God explicitly prevented the killing of an innocent child despite a divine command: the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. If God had truly wished for Jephthah’s daughter to be spared, He would have made it so. He did not. This is not an instance of a hand-wringing God; the burnt offering of the girl is endorsed by Him.

The above, rather laboriously made point is simply a necessary prologue to my real point, which is this: the text does not gloss over the horror of this situation. That’s the key to its power. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is pretty remarkably similar to a Greek tragedy; an inevitable doom awaits one of its key players, and she willingly embraces it knowing that there is no other option. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s beautiful precisely because of its willingness to recognize its own consequences. This nameless girl will never share her bed with a man, a man she may very well have loved when he came into her life. She will never bear children. She will never comfort her father in his old age, or be comforted by her own daughter in turn. She is a candle snuffed out, and she embraces this dying of the light because she knows there is no other choice.

These are the implications, fully present in the text, of a single death ordained by God. Now think back to the Canaanite genocide.

An invading force has been ravaging the surrounding land, killing left and right. The inhabitants of the city are terrified. They have heard that a supernatural force impossible to beat lends this invader strength, and now that supernatural force has commanded that this city’s people are next.

This is their home. It has been since before they can remember. And so, the men go out and fight. They tremble with fear, they shake as they move into battle position, but they have to give their families a chance. They are brave for their wives, for their children, and they all bleed out on the sand, throats torn out, limbs removed, heads severed.

The mothers do their best to crawl into the corners of their homes, to squeeze into shadows with their babies in their arms so that these terrifying strangers will pass over them. It does no good. Infants are torn from blankets and smashed against stones, their blood so inconceivably great a torrent from such small bodies. Little children, wailing, with no comprehension of what has swooped down upon them, are stabbed and strangled and torn to pieces. Young girls, no more than twelve, are led away by men two times their age to strange tents where unspeakable things will happen to them.

The invaders move on to the next city.

I hate to repeat myself again, but I want to emphasize: I am not passing moral judgment here. This is simply, if you believe the story, what would have happened.

This is what happened at Jericho. It’s what happened at dozens of other cities throughout the region. It’s what happened to the Amalekites centuries later when they had committed no crime except to descend from a city that had refused to let the Israelites through generations before. And all this pales in comparison to the watery deluge that sent everyone on earth to a screaming, choking grave, from infants to the oldest of men and women.

This is what God commanded.

And if you choose to look away from these implications—to simply brush past all of the human pain, terror, and anguish that are the direct results of stories whose main theme is usually distilled to a variant on “Trust in God to achieve great victory”—you are robbing the Biblical story of something that’s inextricably a part of it.

Now, the stories as I’ve summarized them in the above paragraphs can’t be told to children, I’m sure many of you are thinking. I agree. They can’t. But I also maintain that to teach children the sanitized versions that evangelicals have all grown up with—the smiling animals, the rousing songs of victory at Jericho, the amusing vegetables launching frozen drinks at each other—is an obscenity.

Whether or not you believe that what happened to the Canaanites was morally justified, there’s no denying that it was a terrible thing. Terrible in its classical sense: Awesome. Fearful. Horrifying to behold. Someone may believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary; they will probably also readily admit that the scale and horror of the destruction were sobering and unfathomable. They’d have to be a completely emotionless shell not to. They’d also have to be a complete nut to show their child a picture of a smiling atomic bomb as it merrily laid waste to thousands of invisible, unnamed Japanese citizens, or to act as though the explosion was nothing more than a scary noise that caused the residents of Hiroshima to flee to the next town with no harm done.

* * * * *

When the movie Noah was released, one of the chief criticisms directed at it by evangelicals was an objection to what was perceived as a certain sordid quality. People in the film are shown clambering over each other to reach high ground, clinging to rocks in piles to avoid succumbing to the watery depths. Noah himself almost kills an innocent baby. This is immoral, was the cry. There is no excuse for this darkness.

Now, those objectors are in a sense right. These events are lurid and sordid and tragic and horrifying. And they’re the exact kind of thing that would have happened on an immense scale during the stories of the Old Testament, over and over and over again. But because our culture has been fed the sanitized versions of these stories since childhood, a good portion of us are unable to emotionally come to terms with the fact that these terrors are part and parcel of what God commands to his people.

It’s impossible to obtain the Bible’s full beauty without the horrific, the tragic, the awesome, the terrible. God is a fearful combination of love and wrath. “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal,” as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life puts it; that sentence itself is a microcosm of the Book of Job, probably the most stunning poem ever written. The power of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, is found in its paradoxes. A constant concern for the vulnerable juxtaposed with the divine order of the slaughter of infants. The tenderness of God’s still, small voice paired with with the desolation of the Ten Plagues. The healing power of the prophets alongside a massacre of young men by bears who tear them to pieces. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Whether or not we think these latter events were morally justified, they give us pause. They trouble us. They are the parts of the Bible that are ultimately the most moving, even as they disturb their readers.

Christians need to recognize the power of this paradox. They need to embrace it, and respect it. And part of doing so is realizing when the time is right to expose the next generation to the full weight of that power. Showing them only one side will not do. Infantilizing what the Bible itself is careful to depict as fearful won’t either.

If we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—atheists and believers both—we need to accept it for what it is, and to pass it on as such. And only when those it’s passed on to are ready to accept it in their turn.

Skeletal Rot: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the Bungling of Structure

beauty_and_the_beast_ver2There’s a separate grammar to movie musicals than there is to stage musicals—at least, there is to the type of movie musical that Disney makes. Classic stage musicals are pervaded with song. Many of them are almost/entirely sung-through—Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.—and even those that aren’t will have musical numbers peppered liberally throughout their runtime. In this type of musical, songs are the default mode of expression—not every song will be as important as every other, simply because there are so many of them present. They’re not events in and of themselves, though some of them will contain events.

The musical format of the Disney Renaissance film, by contrast, weighs its songs carefully. Of the three animated musicals that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated on prior to Ashman’s death—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin—none has more than half a dozen songs, reprises included. This scarcity in and of itself would amplify the impact that each song has, but it’s not the only thing that does. Every single song in Menken and Ashman’s animated collaborations is designed to crystallize a specific emotion or theme that’s crucial to its film’s narrative. In Les Miserables, when a character sings it is because music is their default mode of expression; in a Disney Renaissance musical, when a character sings we had better pay attention, because something important is happening.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll confine examples to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast:

  • “Belle”—the opening number. It establishes perfectly not only its titular character’s nature and desires but the circumstances that render her unable (as of yet) to attain her desires and that will later enable Gaston to stir up a mob against the Beast.
  • “Gaston”—what the former track does for its titular character this one does for its own, and then some. Its initial appearance firmly cements our impressions of Gaston and shows us just how enamored of him the town is; its reprise, following shortly thereafter, sets off his transformation from boor to outright villain.
  • “Be Our Guest”—an explosion of color and kinetic motion that transforms the castle from solely foreboding to a place that has the potential to be wondrous and cause happiness.
  • “Something There”—basically the crucial song of the entire movie, as it ultimately has to convince the audience that Belle and the Beast are organically moving from adversaries to friends.
  • “Beauty and the Beast”—is almost equally crucial in that it has to give the final push from friendship to something more.
  • “The Mob Song”—brings the themes of bigotry and, well, mob rule firmly to the fore and completes Gaston’s transformation into a villain.

Sure, it’s pedantic of me to lay out what anyone who’s seen the film already knows, but my point is this: every single emotional and thematic beat that builds to the climax of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is embedded in a song. It’s possible to remove any number of songs from a sung-through musical and still have its narrative as a whole stay upright. If you remove any single song from Beauty and the Beast, IT CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL NARRATIVE.

Why am I hammering so heavily on this point? Because the fact that those half-dozen songs are the emotional and thematic skeleton of Beauty and the Beast means that there’s only a very certain way in which that film can proceed. Events have to unfold in a certain order across a certain timespan in order to match the emotional/thematic journey; if they don’t, the film’s narrative body doesn’t match its skeleton, which is a painful place to be in.

Fortunately for all involved, the narrative totality of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast hangs on its musical skeleton pretty damn near perfectly. It’s compact and it’s balanced, progressing events just enough in between musical beats that we feel we’ve undergone a complete emotional journey without having had our time wasted. However, that’s a really tough tightrope to walk successfully, and any deviations, no matter how slight, risk sending the film tumbling from on high.

So when I heard that the live-action Beauty and the Beast would be using the Menken-Ashman songs, I got nervous. Because there are really only two possible outcomes once you’ve committed to that creative decision. Either you follow basically to the letter the path of the 1991 film—in which case, why are you making a new movie at all? or you start to drift further and further away from your skeleton—which doesn’t feel good and can leave you falling limply all over the ground.

I kept shaking my head the deeper into the movie I got, because the 2017 Beauty and the Beast has absolutely no idea what to do with its story beats. It already has a very narrowly defined path to walk in order to keep the beats that the songs encapsulate maximally effective, but it can’t walk that path because it’s trying to simultaneously ape its source material in order to trigger audience nostalgia AND to be its own thing. And rather than take a look at how important, how fucking crucial, the narrative structure of its source material is, and realize it has to either confine itself solely to that structure or drastically rethink how it’s going to approach this remake, the film makes the worst possible compromise and tries to be “its own thing” by stretching its namesake’s 84 minutes to 129 and trying to shove additional material into that extra space.

Now, even just shoving simple filler in between song-beats would be enough to collapse the movie. Those songs depend on a very precise rhythm in order to be effective, and interrupting that rhythm with longer lengths of time dilutes its power just as much as if you were to take your favorite pop song and insert random blank spaces between every few drumbeats. But what Beauty and the Beast does is even more disruptive than that. Rather than simply injecting blank spaces into a pre-existing drum track, it starts running its own track on the off-beat, to fully complete this strained metaphor. It starts duplicating beats that have already been covered in the original narrative structure, or it starts throwing in new beats without encoding them in songs. And it’s just. Disastrous.

We’ve already seen (well, we’re supposed to have seen—more often than not the remake is shockingly incompetent when it comes to eliciting the same feelings as its source material) everything we need to know about the relationship between Belle and the townspeople in “Belle” the song—that emotional beat has been hit, and it’s time to move on. Instead, the 2017 film inserts an additional scene of her teaching a little girl to read, only to have her laundry upset by angry neighbors. This is immediately followed by another duplicate beat in which Gaston is in general a boor about this matter of uppity women’s book-larnin’, which already occurred immediately following “Belle.” Indeed, Gaston is the source of subsequent redundant beats throughout the film—where the animated movie establishes his slide into scheming villain with the end of the “Gaston” reprise, this one makes the frankly baffling decision to have him delay this moment to follow Maurice into the woods to look for Belle, then again repeat his being a boor about Belle, only this time with Maurice. We then, finally, get the moment of his slide from buffoonery to villainy when he ties Maurice to a tree and leaves him for dead, but wait! Maurice escapes and returns to the village, so his rejection by the townspeople for being crazy can happen again and Gaston’s turn to wickedness can also happen again when he turns his reluctant father-in-law over to the madhouse.

There is so little purpose to these repeated beats that it’s frankly baffling that they made it into the screenplay—until we remember that the film needs something to cut to in the midst of new Belle/Beast material. The problem is, not only can the film not come up with anything better to do to fill this space than to repeat itself over and over, the new Belle/Beast material is equally as disastrous because it can’t inject itself properly into the original narrative skeleton established by the 1991 musical’s songs. The biggest addition to the B/B story is a long scene in which the two of them travel to Paris via enchanted book so they can come to the realization that each has suffered the childhood loss of a mother. This is intended to further strengthen their relationship, but it’s a jarringly false note for a number of reasons.

First is that the enchanted book itself, which appeared nowhere in the animated film, is also nowhere in this film except the one scene in which it’s featured, and it’s so clearly a clumsy bit of handwaving by a screenwriter who couldn’t find an organic way to work the information about Our Couple’s mothers into the script that it’s frankly insulting. More important, however, the emotional payoff of that information is nonexistent. “Belle” the song features no information about the loss of Belle’s mother being an important part of her character; she is defined by her love of learning and adventure and by the opposition to her surroundings that this causes. The film doesn’t alter the song to include her absent mother as something that’s been important to her, and it doesn’t add a new song to cover that information either. Not that the latter would have been all that great either, because then we’d have yet another instance of a redundant beat—we’ve already defined Belle’s character, why are we doing so again?

Indeed, inserting a new song to cover an emotional beat is something that the film does later on, when the Beast has a long and angsty soliloquy after he lets Belle leave the castle. The instinct here on the filmmakers’ part is closer to correct, because they’ve at least recognized that the connection between emotion/theme and music is important. But it still falls flat, because it’s interrupting the carefully established rhythm set by the 1991 movie. As the animated film rushes to its climax, its rhythm increases pace, with the “Mob Song” following close on the heels of “Beauty and the Beast” to ratchet up tension in the viewer. The Beast’s anguish is communicated through a single roar because there’s no time for anything more—not only would his launching into a song be a more overblown way of saying what can be communicated through a wordless scream, it would stop the film’s escalating pace dead in the water. The 2017 film chooses to have the overblown monologue for drama’s sake, and in the process achieves completely the opposite of what it wants to.

The same thing happens in a slighter, non-musical manner at the film’s emotional climax, when the Beast lies dying, the rose loses its last petal, and the castle’s servants transform fully into inanimate objects. There’s a fine balance to be maintained here—if you’re going to show the servants losing themselves, you have to do so quickly before cutting back to the dying Beast in order to maintain urgency. Instead, in a microcosm of the problem that cripples its entire narrative structure, the film chooses to give each of the key servants a dying monologue of sorts as he or she slowly becomes inanimate. It’s an artificial way of increasing “drama” and adding “difference” from the source material that serves to completely undermine the emotion it’s trying to convey. The same kind of microcosm can be found in numerous instances within the modified Menken-Ashman songs, which are subjected to added dance breaks and dramatic tempo changes for no real reason other than creating more spectacle. All these modifications end up doing is, Simmons-like, beating a cowbell out of time in order to disrupt a carefully established sequence of building events.

There are many other things wrong with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast. Its singing is pitch-shifted to hell and back; its aesthetic is a pretty unbearably ugly attempt to combine the gorgeous Gothic animation of the 1991 film with a modern, “realistic” look; it exchanges Howard Ashman’s lyrics for inferior replacements for no discernible reason; its screenplay is on a line-to-line basis a godawful travesty that’s maybe 1% subtext; the way it chooses to kill off Gaston transforms the moment from a death rooted in the character’s nature to a needless deus ex machina. And of course there’s the remarkably and frankly appallingly cynical decision on Disney’s part to take a character who is coded with negative gay stereotypes, claim they’re making him their FIRST OPENLY GAY CHARACTER in order to gather clicks, and then reduce the only instant of his actually being openly gay to a literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the midst of the film’s conclusion, thus simultaneously rendering that character a case of shitty representation and for all intents and purposes not really representation at all.

But for me the single biggest problem for the film, the one that completely undoes its ability to function as a successful narrative, is its inability to understand successful rhythm. On a moment-to-moment basis, it robs scenes of their dramatic potential and drags songs down to no real purpose; when viewed as a totality, it takes what was a perfectly structured movie musical and turns it to boneless sludge.

The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom we could blame this violation were it to happen to us. We had the potential within us all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and its has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave-sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.

 

 

The Power of Story: SF/F and the Beauty of Diversity

In the face of tragedy, our first impulse is always to find some meaningful way to respond. All too often, these responses end up being knee-jerk screams into the void that are useless at best and actively cause harm and hurt at worst. We allow our lack of understanding, our swirling emotions, our confusion and fear and anger, to take possession of our lips, our fingers, our keyboards, and pour themselves out.

I don’t have much that’s valuable to offer in the wake of the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, or the shooting in Dallas, or the attack on the Pulse club in Orlando, or any of the other tragedies that occur over and over again on American soil. I’m a white, cis, mostly straight, middle-class male, and no matter how much I read the words and listen to the stories of women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color, I will never understand what it’s like to live their lives for the span of even five minutes, let alone every day. Any advice I have to give is ultimately presumptuous, any insights on the situation hopelessly removed. So rather than comment on this madness directly, I want to write something about stories.

The guiding star in my literary tastes since the age of fourteen has been Jonathan Strahan’s annual anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I discovered it when I was first falling into SF/F fandom, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s been the single greatest influence on my writing in the last six years—most of the authors who are most influential to my style, including Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kij Johnson, and Catherynne M. Valente, are writers whose stories I first read within its pages. Just as important as its guidance on my writing, if not moreso, has been its guidance on my mindset.

Prior to my exposure to the series, my SF/F reading had been composed entirely of novels written by and for white males. The first tale from Strahan’s anthology to burn itself into my brain was Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”, the story of a black professor living in the midst of World War II. The story is a remarkable example of racist genre fiction of the past being reclaimed by progressivism—it takes the shoggoth, a creature invented by the obscenely racist H. P. Lovecraft, and turns it into a metaphor for the enslavement of black men and women by whites. At the time, I wasn’t at all aware of this subversion—Lovecraft was completely unknown to me—but the story was nevertheless singularly powerful. Not only was it written beautifully, its dual remove from my perspective—a female author and a black protagonist—rendered it a learning experience. Here was a character whose mindset I would never be able to assume, whose experiences were entirely removed from mine, but who I could grow to understand better, if not to understand on the deepest level, through the power of story and imagery.

This kind of story is far from unusual for The Best SF/F of the Year—Strahan goes out of his way each year to select stories by people of all races, background, and orientations, writing from places that come from their singular experiences. My first exposures to feminist and LGBTQ fiction, to stories that dealt with Islamic culture, that bent boundaries of race and sex and gender, all came within its pages. And there was a period in which I wanted to resist some of these exposures—I was a conservative evangelical at the time I first picked up the series, and remained so until the age of sixteen—but I couldn’t. The stories were too beautiful, too fascinating, too true to look away from. They were humanity reflected and refracted in all its glittering, shifting facets. My awareness of all the possibilities our species has to offer itself grew and grew.

I have grown so, so tired of a certain kind of creatively bankrupt fiction over the last few years. An exemplar of that sort of fiction is the tale of the middle-aged white academic who dwells obsessively upon his sexual prowess and the sexual attractiveness of his students, and once he is caught with one of them (or worse, betrayed by one of them) feels nothing but righteous indignation that anyone could question his right to sex. My objection to this sort of story is not first and foremost a moral one, although that certainly is a major part of it. It’s first and foremost that this sort of story is so damned boring.

Everyone knows the agonies of the white male. They’re unavoidable. All of his problems, his confusions, his prejudices, have been laid out on the page or on the screen over and over and over and over again ad nauseum. Not to say that talented people haven’t written about them in the last several decades—I dearly love a great deal of Philip Roth’s work, and early to mid-period Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors—but even they can’t relieve the tedium from a perspective that becomes more and more solipsistic and facile with each reiteration. It’s enough to make one lose their faith in literature.

But every time I feel this way, I can return to SF/F and find myself renewed. I can tear through the latest volume of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, drinking in story after story written from a unique perspective. I can immerse myself in the behemoth Dhalgren, written by a gay black man in the 1970s and containing within its pages an entire apocalyptic dream-world informed by his gayness and his blackness. I can examine the minute, perfect gems that are the short stories of Caitlin R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente, stories that take traditional concepts of gender and love and twist them into Mobius strips. I can watch Ex Machina and ponder a riveting thriller that becomes superlative because of its insights into feminism and the male gaze; or lose myself in the roller-coaster ride of The Force Awakens, an adventure that is incredibly enriched by its eschewing of the white Chosen One in favor of a woman, a black man, and a Latino man; or be riveted by Mad Max and its transcendent madness of women’s liberation and intricate violence. I can return to genre fiction again and again and remain confident that I will be exposed to new perspectives, and learn from them, and be better for it. And the literature will be better for it too.

There have been attempts to hijack this celebration of diversity. Most recently, a neo-fascist group of fans, led by the odious Theodore Beale/Vox Day (who among other things believes that black people are subhuman and that feminists deserve to be burned by acid), attempted to burn down the Hugo Awards with cries that they had allowed politics to infest the nomination process and had robbed SF/F of what makes it so much fun. These attempts to regress genre fiction back to some Golden Age of pre-political white man’s paradise are so monumentally off the mark that they would be laughable were they not so potentially damaging. The best SF/F—the kind that has endured—has always been political. Bradbury’s presentation of Mars as second Eden destroyed by the stupidity of American jingoism. Delany and Le Guin and Tiptree’s refusal to play by the rules of gender. Butler’s withering critiques of racism. Gaiman’s constant push to expose his readers to LGBT culture. And had these authors not been political, their work would have been utterly neutered. Instead, they dared to show us perspectives we were not comfortable with, and decades later, they’re still vital presences.

This is the world that I desire to live in.

The future of humanity does not lie with insularity. It does not lie with colorblindness, or cover-ups, or willful insistence on the comfort of the familiar. It lies with the people who embrace the existence of our species not as a monolithic whole but a variegated, scintillating, ever-shifting sea of different lenses with which to view the beautiful, horrifying, awe-inspiring universe in which we all live. Who open themselves to all the differences their black and brown and Asian and bi and gay and trans and Muslim and pagan and etc. etc. etc. brothers and sisters have to offer, and embrace their own differences as integral to who they are, to what makes them beautiful people. Who enshrine these differences in stories, in books and music and film and video games and art.

Hate can’t extinguish this beauty. It will do its utter damnedest. It will break black bodies on the curb, it will gun down people in gay clubs, it will slander and bully and scream. But even as it does these things, it is slowly, slowly dying. It will never, ever entirely go away—”Our prefrontal lobe is too small, our adrenal glands too big,” in the words of a man not otherwise known overmuch for his celebration of diversity—but it will die and die and die, growing smaller and smaller. Those who espouse it will grow more and more shrill, more and more piteous.

And those of us who do our parts to kill it will live. We will spread love, and spread beauty, and make art, and share experiences, and eventually we will die. And we will have left a better world behind us.

Bigotry is many things—hateful, vicious, ignorant—but above all it is boring. And diversity is exhilarating. I thank the universe every day that I was able to discover this through the SF/F community. My deepest wish is that that exhilaration will be humanity’s defining legacy.

 

Beauty is the only thing: “The Neon Demon” review

the-neon-demon-poster ✦ of five

The phrase “style over substance” is pretty well bankrupt when it comes to art. In dealing with aesthetic mediums, style and substance are inextricable—the substance of Shakespeare would be nothing without the words with which he wrought that substance, the meaning of Under the Skin would be nonexistent without its choices in cinematography, to name but two examples. The people who have no patience with a film unless it’s plain and simple in its meaning—who would strip away all artistic artifice and just get to the point already—are the worst kind of critic.

In light of all that, I don’t want to write The Neon Demon off for being slight, because its artistic elements are second to none—its cinematography and score are easily the best of 2016 thus far. However, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that those artistic elements aren’t there for anything—or rather, they’re there for something, but that something is so slight and indeed banal that the grandiosity of the manner in which director Nicolas Winding Refn chooses to convey it is almost humorously arrogant. It’s there right from the opening credits, in which the initials NWR are prominently emblazoned below every title card—The Neon Demon is a work of art, but it’s also an ego trip, one in which the director’s ambitions exceed his profundity.

Refn wants the world of his film to be a sort of Mulholland Dr. for the new decade, a nightmarish hellscape that tears down the world of fame and glamour, but he possesses neither Lynch’s sense of humor nor sense of humanity. Mulholland Dr. is certainly ambitious in its goals, but it balances this with a midnight-movie atmosphere of schlock and absurdity that restrains its director’s artistic vision from becoming an Oh-So-Serious sermon. It also absolutely depends on its cast, especially Naomi Watts and her ability to perform a gradual slide from Stepford-wife-perfect caricature to damaged, embittered wreck. The Neon Demon, on the other hand, has absolutely no sense of humor about its increasingly absurd take on the world of modeling—its overlap with Hannibal in terms of subject matter and cannibalism-as-metaphor serves only to emphasize how important the black humor of the television show is and how much it’s missed here.

Worse than that, however, is its decision to spend its entire runtime with each of the characters in a relatively static, emotionless state. Elle Fanning is a truly gifted actress, which is why it’s so painful to say that her character, the protagonist Jesse, could have been played by anyone—the same goes for Abbey Lee, who was arresting in her supporting role in Mad Max: Fury Road and is utterly wasted here. Through a self-important screenplay and what I can only assume is Refn’s direction, these two and nearly all of the other performers are trapped into giving flat line readings and static smiles for nearly two hours. A breakdown from this sterility into something more human, or the inverse, would have made this stilted quality mean something emotionally—as is it’s simply dull. A movie that’s about the damaging effects of the fashion industry can’t begin with its characters at the same point they are when they reach the end, but that’s exactly what Refn does.

The only exceptions to the above are Keanu Reeves, who breaks type as an over-the-top shitheel who runs the motel Jesse stays at and is clearly very much enjoying himself, and Jena Malone, whose smile-plastered makeup designer does indeed mirror Mulholland Dr. in her gradual unraveling. They are bright spots in an otherwise joyless exercise of smashing the audience over the head with the rather banal thematic statement “The fashion industry will chew you up and spit you out,” this metaphor eventually turning literal in unintentionally comedic fashion. (I will note that more movies should feature lovingly shot necrophilia—the obnoxious people who’d spent the entirety of my showing talking to each other walked right out of the movie.)

All this said, I can’t give the movie anything less than a three-of-five rating, because while it’s undeniably arrogant and egomaniacal to pull out all the aesthetic stops on such a slight screenplay, pull them Refn does, and it’s glorious. Nathasha Braier’s cinematography delivers everything that the movie’s title promises, bathing each frame in frozen blasts of harsh blues and reds—one early sequence turns the film into a flipbook, colored strobes against a black background recreating and obliterating the characters’ visages frame by frame, and is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This pulsing frigidity is matched by Cliff Martinez’ synthesizer score, reminiscent of It Follows‘ soundtrack—simultaneously lush and dead, rich and completely artificial, it fully commits to sonically communicating everything Refn wanted to say with his screenplay. Art direction, production design, and costuming are, naturally, second to none.

The overwhelmingly good and the disappointingly bad collide to form a whole that’s by turns compelling and vapid, repulsive in ways both intentional and unintentional. One could argue that that’s the point—the film’s very shallowness is a reflection of its thematic concerns—but where American Psycho recognizes, expertly utilizes, and ultimately undermines its narrator’s banality, The Neon Demon is fully convinced of its own deep importance. What we’re left with is a mediocre screenplay filmed with artistic perfection, populated with actresses who at times elevate their material but are often directed into a corner.

I can’t write off The Neon Demon, nor can I give it a fully negative review, because it is one of the most visually and aurally engrossing movies of 2016. I only wish those arresting qualities had been placed within an equally arresting context. As is, it’s a tale told by an egomaniac, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—but what entrancing sound and fury.

We dance alone: “The Lobster” review

the_lobster_poster_quad ✦ of five

There is a fine line between genuine whimsy and self-conscious attempts at oddness. For example, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, while a thoroughly enjoyable and gorgeous film, falls too close to the latter for me to truly love it—at times it is delightfully offbeat, but one can always sense the hand of the writer behind the characters’ speech. In trying so hard to break the mold, it becomes trapped in its own sort of stiffness.

At its most successful, Yorgos Lanthimos’ screenplay for The Lobster is full of the kind of whimsy that is as real as it is bizarre—its oddness is a natural consequence of the world it depicts. At its worst, the sentences begin to crack, and through these cracks we can see Lanthimos’ desire to keep his audience on the back foot, to play an escalating game with their expectations. It doesn’t by any means ruin the film, but it does take what could have been an unqualified masterpiece and wrap a tangle of barbed wire around its ankle just before it hits the finish line.

The Lobster is at its most successful during the first half of its runtime, which is the half that was pitched in its trailer—an unnamed man (Colin Farrell in a performance that somehow manages to be engaging while at the same time remaining completely one-note) has been left by his wife, and by the laws of the land must travel to a hotel where singles find new partners. He has forty-five days to complete this task, after which he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing—though he can extend his stay by hunting and capturing members of a renegade community of loners who live in the nearby forest.

This first hour of the film skewers a relatively easy target—our cultural obsession with escaping single status—but does so in increasingly funny, increasingly cruel fashion. Deadpan satire escalates into shocking levels of violence, and Lanthimos has no intention of letting the viewers escape. Shots linger, and linger, and linger, until the mood has passed from uneasy laughter to discomfort to a burning desire to turn away from the screen. This dispassionate examination of cruelty is matched by the actors’ performances, all of which are as if Siri has taken control of a number of human slaves, and by the cinematography, which takes the vibrant green of Ireland and tamps it down to a beautiful but desolate palette of greys and washed-out yellows and browns. None of what is going on is remotely subtle, but it doesn’t really have to be; at this point, Lathimos is interested not in a philosophical examination but a brutal mockery of dating culture, and he tears into his victim with flair.

Once the film switches focus from the Kafkaesque hell of the hotel to the wider world, however, this sadism loses focus and the film begins to lose its bite. Most of the second half is spent among the refugee loners in the forest, and while Lea Seydoux is a welcome (and frightening) presence as their leader, she can’t save the screenplay from falling into a muddle. Lanthimos’ depiction of the loner conclave seems to be an attempt at evenhandedness, but this sort of seeing both sides is incompatible with the broad polemic that constitutes The Lobster‘s first act. The loners are painted in strokes far too broad to be taken seriously as part of a social critique, which is what Lanthimos apparently wants his film to be; attempting to depict both sides of the equation as equally absurd cuts the legs out from under the caricature of the hotel and renders the loners’ conclave a bit of a bore to sit through at times. Depicting the wider world further dilutes the satire; taken on its own as an absurdist parable, the hotel can remain unquestioned, but when a worldwide culture that runs on the same principles surfaces it’s almost impossible to not begin asking logistical questions, which is the last thing one wants to be doing in the midst of such an enterprise.

This inferior second act aside, The Lobster is a film very much worth watching. Even as its screenplay begins to lose control of itself, the performances and camerawork remain a treat to watch, and the surreal hellscape of its first act is more than worth the price of admission. At ninety minutes, Lanthimos’ film could have been a masterpiece. At its current 118-minute runtime, it is merely a very good movie, but it’s a very good movie that no major studio would have the courage to release. That A24 continues to take risks with projects such as this is nothing short of a blessing.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)