Why I loved 24 Frames and hated Widows

24 Frames

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When Abbas Kiarostami died in 2016, we lost one of the greatest artists of our time, but he did leave behind one last film. He was still working on it on his deathbed and left his son instructions for finishing it. And what a film it is.

24 Frames is not the place to start with Kiarostami (I’d suggest Taste of Cherry), but to paraphrase his son, it’s the perfect place to end. It’s at once confoundingly simple and profoundly challenging, and a film that I look forward to watching over and over again throughout the rest of my life.

Here’s the basic idea: the film is composed of 24 short films, or “frames,” each of which is four and a half minutes long (note that 24 is the number of frames per second for traditional film projection). Each frame is based on a still image, which Kiarostami manipulates in various ways (superimposition, digital animation) to turn into a moving picture. The first frame is based on Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting “The Hunters in the Snow.” He tells us in an opening title card that he wanted to fill in what he imagined might have happened a couple minutes before and after the moment captured in the painting. This was how he first got started on the project, but he soon proceeded to his own photographs, which serve as the static images for the remaining 23 frames.

Typically, the action depicted is sparse. A boat washed up on shore is batted about by the waves. A group of pigeons is repeatedly dispersed by passing traffic. Two lions mate in the rain. There are some recurrent themes, like human activity as an intrusion into nature, but no one theme is touched on in all 24 frames. A recurrent visual motif is looking out into the world from some interior space (a car, a house, etc.), but again, this is not true of every frame.

There are many layers to be unpacked through repeated viewing, but my initial take is that one of the things Kiarostami is doing is meditating on the nature of cinema as an art form by connecting present digital filmmaking techniques with early cinema (as in late 19th and very early 20th century cinema). Early films were thought of as “moving pictures.” Photography and drawing were already established media, and cinema was understood in reference to these media. The magic and wonder of early film was seeing a picture– something that’s normally static– move on its own. Early films were just short snippets: a train passing, a horse running. But these simple moving images were awe-inspiring. We’ve lost this sense of awe as cinema has progressed and we have gained the ability to manipulate images digitally and portray pretty much anything we want to. Giant alien robot emerging from the sea floor and propelling itself into the cosmos? No problem. Kiarostami is rediscovering the bygone joy and wonder of film, and he’s doing it on his damn deathbed. He’s taking still images and making them come alive– returning in the digital age to the original manifestation of cinema as moving pictures. A very accomplished photographer in his own right, he’s also exploring the relationship between the media of painting, photography, and film and elaborating on how this relationship informs his own creative process.

I just find this deeply moving as the swan song of one of my favorite artists. Especially coupled with the knowledge that he bequeathed the unfinished project to his son to bring to movie theaters as his final statement.

24 Frames (2017)

I want to turn now to the single worst film review I’ve ever read, from Indiewire darling David Ehrlich, known for his best-of-the-year video edits. I haven’t always minded Ehrlich: back when I wasn’t paying very close attention, I often noticed he’d include a movie in his yearly round up that I thought was generally underappreciated. But after reading this review and then looking at what else he’s had to say lately, he’s come to embody for me the worst of contemporary film criticism. Here’s the review: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/24-frames-abbas-kiarostami-review-cannes-2017-1201833244/

I have a problem with nearly every sentence here, but I want to focus on the most appalling through line, which is his absurd, self-serving, and utterly offensive interpretation of Kiarostami’s quote: “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for for weeks.”

Here’s the full context where he said this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxukX96bqAU&feature=youtu.be&t=1m33s

He draws a contrast between on the one hand films that take you hostage, take command of your attention, and provoke you but then you forget about them the next day, and on the other hand, films that give you the freedom to drift away, that lull you into a meditative state, that don’t take forceful possession of your attention, but that burrow into your thoughts and stay there long after they are over. You may even doze off watching the latter kind of film, but it will chase you into your dreams.

Here’s where Ehrlich goes with this quote (I’ll quote all the relevant bits at once here):

“So while I passed out (and passed out hard) roughly 15 minutes into “24 Frames,” the fascinating, posthumously completed non-narrative project that will serve as Kiarostami’s final farewell, I suspect that he wouldn’t take my unconsciousness as a criticism or a show of disrespect. On the contrary, I imagine that he would have been delighted to see the dozens of nodding heads that dotted the film’s final Cannes screening, where the narcotic quality of Kiarostami’s cinema was compounded by the sheer exhaustion of simply coming to see it. He would have loved the low rumble of snores that filled the auditorium in surround sound. To some extent, he might have even appreciated the steady stream of walk-outs, or my decision to take a short walk halfway through and then watch the rest of the film while standing at the back of the room.”

“Kiarostami corrupted the tyranny of time and space, he dissolved the wall that separates present and past. He made Schrödinger’s cinema, and — as “24 Frames” so poignantly confirms — he is both dead and alive, as all great artists will always be. But yeah, it’s still one hell of an endurance test. Arguably better suited as a museum installation than as a theatrical experience (the context of the former might help encourage people to engage with the project on Kiarostami’s terms)….”

“And, in the end, patience is a virtue. After walking back into the theater to shift and stir through the final five tableaux, I was rewarded with a beguiling experience that doubles as a perfect — and perfectly self-reflexive — tribute to the defining pursuits of Abbas Kiarostami’s working life…. So what of the unconscious girl, there but not present, who misses out on a great filmmaker’s dying flare of genius? She’s just one last person who Kiarostami had the satisfaction of putting to sleep.”

In the middle of all this, he slips in that he considers Close-Up to be his favorite film. That’s certainly a respectable choice– the film is a masterpiece– but I find it extraordinarily off-putting that a professional film critic who is posturing as a great lover of Kiarostami could at the same time say such incredibly disrespectful shit, giving himself a free pass on the basis of a very extreme interpretation of a single quote taken out of context. An endurance test? Seriously: a fucking endurance test??? Maybe if you’re someone who goes in cold with no familiarity with Kiarostami or experimental film it might be a tough sit. But it boggles my mind that someone who claims Close-Up as their favorite film could see 24 Frames as an endurance test. The frames are four and a half damn minutes a piece. The film is less than two hours long. On a typical visit to a photography exhibit, plenty of people spend at least 4-5 minutes a piece on the photos that interest them. Here the photos fucking move and somehow it becomes an endurance test? And look, when Kiarostami said that some films that have made him doze off have also been the ones that have kept him up at night, he did not mean that these films made him “pass out hard” after a mere 15 minutes and then get up and walk around, restlessly stir, and then stand in the fucking back for the last bit. A Cannes audience was snoring and there were a steady stream of walkouts? Everyone knows that Cannes audiences are revered for their good etiquette.

Sorry, but it’s offensive as hell that you slept through this movie, got up and walked around, made a pronunciation on its merits without actually watching it, and then claimed Kiarostami would have approved. And, sorry, but the museum exhibit line is the worst thing you say in the entire godawful piece. Have you ever seen a video installation in a museum? People talk, use their phones, kids misbehave, walk in and out without any regard for whether they’re at a natural starting or stopping point. A museum video installation has to be designed to withstand this awful setting. This film was not. It was designed to be shown in a theater, and for people to see the entire thing from start to finish, with maybe a brief doze or two. There are 24 frames, you’re supposed to see all 24 of them, not the second half of one frame and first half of another as you make your way through a museum.

Widows

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This one I hated and Ehrlich loved. Plenty of people loved it, so I’m not interested in singling him out here (though he is at the center of the current trend of fawning on films like Widows that substitute progressive signaling for cinematic ideas), but I’ve got some thoughts about the film:

Let’s say you want to make a heist movie with an all-female team of crooks featuring Viola Davis, Cynthia Ervio, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki. That sounds super rad. One of the first things you should probably think about is how to make the heist itself cool as hell. Don’t want to go for the cheeky flash of Oceans 11 or the massive scope and harsh brutality of Heat? There’s always the quiet tension of Rififi. Just give me SOMETHING. Make the heist interesting in some way or other.

This question doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone involved with Widows. The result is perhaps the most boring heist movie ever made. What special obstacles do the women face when planning the heist? What occasion do they have for ingenuity? Money is heavy and they’re women so it’s hard to carry. I’m not making this up: that’s really all this movie has up its sleeve. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes for anything to happen and when it does it could hardly be less interesting. There are a couple additional minor obstacles when the heist is in progress, but they are very conventional and easily dealt with. This is a heist movie where no one even tried to make the heist interesting. It’s so cynical: it tries to get by on the most superficial possible social justice pandering and a few topical references. But can’t they be a diverse crew of women *and* pull off a cool caper?

The wonderful cast is terribly wasted. How can you not give Michelle Rodriguez any scenes to steal?? Cynthia Ervio is an electric screen presence, but she gets jack shit to say or do. She’s supposed to be The Driver and she doesn’t even do any noteworthy driving. It’s insulting: ogling her biceps is the prescribed mode of admiring her female strength. Even Viola Davis in the lead is rendered paper thin— she’s reduced to a gesture in the direction of the grieving black mother media fetish object. The police violence topical reference is perhaps the most cynical element of this movie: it’s substituted for more robust character development, as though it tells us most of what we need to know about this woman all by itself. There’s an empowerment arc, and it centers on the agonizing cliche of female strength as a self-conscious imitation of masculinity. This is exactly the bullshit Rivette critiqued in Gang of Four: find a way of portraying female strength that isn’t just acting like men and delivering shitty dialogue about having enough balls.

Everyone praising Widows (including our friend Ehrlich) focuses on how great Elizabeth Debicki is, and they are right about this: she’s by far the best part of the movie, followed by Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell and a couple surprising shots where McQueen imitates Kiarostami (the reverse POV driving shots, especially the one where we can’t see into the car). But doesn’t anyone see the irony here? We’ve got a black woman in the lead, a black woman as the badass driver, and frickin’ Michelle Rodriguez, and the best role goes to the tall, slender blonde woman?

 

M. Night Shyamalan reconsidered

There are two common critical lines on Shyamalan. Mainstream critics generally say that he peaked with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and is now a joke. Deeper down the rabbit hole of blackbelt cinephilia, one finds a lot of hardcore Shyamalan cultists. There are several people I read regularly who think most of his films are masterpieces and many others who revere a subset of his Certified Rotten output. I occupy probably the least populous quadrant of Shyamalan critical opinion: I think The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are two of his weakest movies and that he didn’t really come into his own until he started tanking on the Tomatometer. I’m not going out of my way to be a contrarian here: these are my honest views, settled only after revisiting Shyamalan’s body of work and reflecting on it a great deal.

Shyamalan is not for everyone. He’s certainly not for The Bookkeeper. The Bookkeeper is the viewer who is preoccupied with continuity and plot rationality. The Bookkeeper hates Bird Box and The Last Jedi. I’m happy to live and let live in matters of taste, but I generally don’t enjoy discussing movies with The Bookkeeper and there’s very little chance we are going to converge at all on this one. Shyamalan is also not for The Irony Skeptic. The Irony Skeptic doubts that Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. The Irony Skeptic laughs derisively at goofy, wonky dialogue and thinks it’s trying and failing to be serious rather than assuming it’s supposed to be funny.

This stuff is more likely to appeal to the viewer who is happy to put style and craft first, who enjoys the ridiculous and goofy, and who isn’t put off by big, dumb (often metafictional) themes delivered with a superlatively heavy hand. I should qualify this characterization by mentioning that there are some very advanced contrarians out there who find all sorts of fascinating things to say about Shyamalan’s themes. See, for instance, the writings of Mike Thorn. I have great admiration for this sort of highbrow Shyamalan criticism, but this is not the primary level at which I personally enjoy most of this stuff. I’m more interested in the execution than in what he’s trying to say.

Now, I shall rank and comment on his filmography:

12) Wide Awake (1998) and Praying with Anger (1992)

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These are the two Shyamalan films that predate The Sixth Sense. I tried watching both of them and found both to be unwatchable. Praying with Anger feels like a student film and is only available as a horrendous VHS rip. Wide Awake got destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, but it never had a chance: an annoying kid struggles with his Christian faith and forms a friendship with a kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell. You lost me at “kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell.” It’s saccharin to the point of being unbearable.

11) The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I never liked this movie. Along with The Usual Suspects, it’s a pinnacle of the late 90’s twist-gimmick cycle that I fundamentally hate. I know some people found it scary back in the day, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. I revisited it recently and my opinion hasn’t changed. I hate the gimmick, the kid is extraordinarily annoying, Bruce Willis is a blank, and the central romance is so underdeveloped that I’m unable to find the Olivia Williams’ grief as moving as it should be (though her performance is the bright spot of the movie).

10) Unbreakable (2000) 

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I like the concept: a superhero origin story that’s set in the “real world,” i.e., the nearest possible world where there are superheroes. I also like the metafictional themes that emerge through making the supervillain a comic book obsessive. Samuel L. Jackson is very good. Where this falls apart for me is in the details. One of the central, driving questions in Bruce Willis’ investigation into whether he may in fact be a superhero is whether he’s ever been sick. I’m no Bookkeeper, but this just makes so little sense that it’s hard for the investigation to sustain interest: how could he possibly be in doubt about whether he’d ever been sick? He wouldn’t even know what it’s like to be sick! Unbreakable is way too front-heavy with this tedious, poorly written investigation material and when we finally get around to the superhero ascendancy it feels rushed. When he goes out into public to be a hero he finds a serial killer *immediately* and dispatches with him in like four minutes, and then we get those godawful anticlimactic closing title cards. It’s so dissatisfying.

9) The Last Airbender (2010)

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I don’t know the source material and I don’t generally like this sort of kids movie but this isn’t all that bad. The narrative is a total mess and there’s some ridiculous dialogue and acting but Shyamalan is way, way better at using CGI than most directors and I thought for the most part this movie looked cool as hell. Don’t go out of your way, but it has its pleasures.

8) After Earth (2013)

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There’s a lot to like here. This is a tight, tense sci-fi survival-adventure movie with one glaring flaw: Jaden Smith. Will Smith is actually pretty good in this but his kid is a train wreck. Recast this with Michael B. Jordan and you’ve got a very solid movie. The action scenes are great.

7) Signs (2002)

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From here on up everything is excellent. Signs is probably Shyamalan’s most conventionally well-executed movie. It works on multiple levels: as a thriller, a parable about faith, a character-driven family drama. The whole cast is great. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are standouts, but even the kids are really good in this one. I prefer Shyamalan’s crazier movies, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Signs. 

6) Glass (2019)

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I went to see Glass and I loved it, but I am going to be conservative with ranking it because I have much less confidence in my appraisal than I do for the ones I’ve seen multiple times. My initial opinion is that it has second act pacing problems but is otherwise thrilling. I love low-budget digital Shyamalan. It’s very evident that he feels freed rather constrained by this mode of filmmaking. Glass’s greatest merits are the seamless, masterful direction and two brilliant complementary performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. If you couldn’t stand McAvoy in Split, you won’t be able to stand him here, but if you’re like me, there’s no such thing as too much McAvoy (NB, I did not like him until I saw Split). I find Anya Taylor-Joy’s blurring of the line between Stockholm Syndrome and profound Christian compassion deeply moving (more below re: Split). If you haven’t seen Split, see that first. If you like it, definitely see Glass. If you don’t, there’s not much of a chance you’ll like this.

5) The Village (2004)

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The Village is arguably Shyamalan’s greatest accomplishment of mise-en-scène, and it’s probably his most revered film among blackbelt cinephiles. It was widely dismissed in the US when it was first released, though Cahiers du cinema had it on their top ten of the year (Shyamalan usually makes their list). I certainly dismissed it; I was in a very anti-twist mindset and I found the ending to be a real groaner. But I was young and I didn’t know very much and I was wrong to dismiss the film. Revisiting it, I found it worked much better already knowing the twist. Having the big picture in mind helped me appreciate the rich details of Shyamalan’s direction, and also let me understand what the hell Adrien Brody is up to. The acting is wall-to-wall amazing throughout (not to mention the dialogue!). The score is top notch. I plan to revisit The Village again and I think it’s entirely possible that it will grow even more in my esteem. If you skipped it or haven’t seen it since its initial release, I recommend giving it a fresh look. It’s aged well.

4) The Visit (2015)

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Grandparents horror! What glorious subject matter. Watching this, one wonders why more filmmakers haven’t tapped into the vast horror possibilities that grandparents present. Aging, illness, incontinence, mental dissolution: this is the terrifying reality of grandparents. The Visit was Shyamalan’s first low-budget digital movie, and his glee at being able to do whatever he wants shines through. He inverts his usual high polish aesthetic, going for a grimy found-footage approach, but the Shyamalan metafictional wonkery is present in full force, with the young girl as the diegetic filmmaker and the young boy as a freestyle rapper. The rapping is very cringey but I admire how Shyamalan just totally goes for it. The tone is so wildly uneven (in a good way) that I can accept the absurd insistence on giving the 13 year old ample rapping time. Also: the jump scares are far superior to those found in typical found-footage horror.

3) Split (2016)

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Split is not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I delayed watching this for a long time because I wasn’t at all interested in yet another horror villain with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I had no idea. This is a giant James McAvoy atomic bomb. I can TOTALLY imagine finding him unbearable in this but for me his performance is an absolute joy. He frickin’ lets it rip. This is R-rated, low-budget, off-the-leash Shyamalan and it is remarkably insane for a movie that made 280 million dollars. It goes to some extremely dark places, with bold shifts in tone that are even more jarring than those in The Visit. This is not a politically correct movie: the subject matter is volatile and unsanitized. But I think it’s got what it takes to roll with high stakes content. It builds surprising weight by the end and McAvoy and the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy absolutely crush oceans of feeling.

2) The Happening (2008) 

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The Happening is a modern day cult classic. Watching Bird Box recently (which I liked), I was struck by how much more mileage Shyamalan got out of the spontaneous suicide premise. This was his first R-rated movie, and it’s a great delight in the age of PG-13 horror. He doesn’t waste any suicides: they are imaginative and often disturbing. He’s said in interviews that he was going for a B-movie in the vein of The Blob, and admitted that he may have punched too high at times and misled the audience about what he was going for. I don’t really see how so many people were misled when the central thematic exposition is delegated to Hotdog Guy, but there is a level of seriousness to the movie’s environmentalism that clashes with the overall ridiculousness of the whole affair (which for me just adds to the ridiculousness). There is camp value throughout, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous casting choices (Wahlberg as a science teacher and Leguizamo as a math teacher), but it’s also genuinely frightening. I’ve watched The Happening lots of times but I had two major new insights on my last viewing. The first is that it’s picked up a new resonance: middle class refugee crisis. The second relates to my own biography. I lived in the northeast until I was 26, when I moved to Montana. I spent five years in NJ, not far from where this movie is set. Part of what generates the horror of The Happening is being trapped in the all-consuming maze of suburban sprawl as the menace strikes smaller and smaller population centers. The path to safety for the protagonists is to stay away from people, but this is impossible in that part of the world. I relate very strongly to the movie’s Northeast claustrophobia. There’s just no way to get to wide open spaces, and anyplace that’s even a little open is bound to be full of people. I’ve lived this shit: once I drove to damn North Carolina and back just to try to find some open space. Once I drove to Ithaca, NY just to go swimming. Endless suburban sprawl messes with your mind, and this movie nails the horror of being trapped in it.

1) Lady in the Water (2006)

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To be forthcoming: I am definitely an outlier on this one, but I feel very strongly about my stance. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan’s masterpiece. I loved it back when I first saw it, and revisiting it more than a decade later I loved it even more. It’s definitely not for people who are on the fence about Shyamalan: it is his most extreme work with respect to metafictional mayhem and he goes right ahead and casts himself as the messiah figure. Lady in the Water announces its primary theme through Bob Balaban’s grumpy film critic, who makes the familiar postmodern complaint that there’s nothing new under the sun and cinema is doomed to rehash its past ad nauseum. Shyamalan is like “Hold my beer, ’cause Uncle M. Night’s gonna tell you a bedtime story.”

The nature of a bedtime story is to make it up as you go along, piecing together an ad hoc mythology that generates continuous conflict while facilitating the desired conclusion. Shyamalan builds this methodology into the structure of the film, as an antidote to the postmodern death of originality. It’s an optimistic film that aims to reveal the boundlessness of the imagination. The meta-fictional material and the first-order narrative work seemlessly together. The result is by turns hilarious, moving, suspenseful, and exhilarating in its unbridled creativity. Giamatti is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. I love Lady in the Water with my whole heart, and I’m not ashamed to shout it from the rooftop.

The day I stumbled into one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen and my Netflix cynicism finally cracked

The last couple years I’ve been watching about 700 movies a year, probably 90% of which are from the 20th century. I made a deliberate decision to stop trying to keep up on new releases (I let my brother filter those for me) and focus on deep canon dives. I’ve also cut way, way back on TV and I’ve been brutal about quitting shows if they don’t totally grip me. As one might expect, given my frame of mind I’ve been very down on Netflix, which is all about the next new insubstantial audience-pandering thing. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like their algorithm picked up on the fact that some people like things that are good, because they have been sorta killing it. Two Timo Tjahjanto genre movies, CAMThe Haunting of Hill House: this is some excellent shit. I was definitely a thumbs up on Bird Box, which is way more fun than most thrillers of the same ilk.  They also ponied up a massive budget for Martin Scorsese, and I’m damn excited to see the results of that. I haven’t watched Roma yet but I intend to… I’ve heard very mixed things. Some people whose taste I admire thought it was a masterpiece, a lot of others shrugged. Netflix also wrote a check for Bogdanovich to finally finish editing the long lost Orson Welles holy grail The Other Side of the Wind, which is a MASSIVE service to the world. I haven’t watched it yet, because I’m saving it for the perfect day and because I want to finish ticking off the other late Welles films I haven’t seen first (I’ve made a lot of joyful progress on this task). They’ve also been greatly expanding their collection of Hong Kong flicks in the original language with subtitles: lots of Johnnie To and Shaw Bros.

So I was browsing Netflix with a new sense of optimism. Then, yesterday, I got my face melted. I’ve been very sick all week and I haven’t really felt like watching too many heavy duty movies, so I’ve been watching more TV. I saw You featured on Netflix and was mildly intrigued: ooh, Dan from Gossip Girl… stalker… sounds like a black comedy. But how the hell is it a Lifetime show?? I didn’t even know they did anything with high production value. I was slightly deterred by the way I was seeing it hyped on social media: clickbait articles from trashy entertainment publications that I only follow for the sake of hate-reading touting it as “the bonkers, out of this world show you just HAVE to binge watch!” The last time I fell for that line I wasted a couple hours of my life on the Jonah Hill and Emma Stone shitfest Maniac, which is horrendously awful. But I was sick and I needed another show and it does have Dan from Gossip Girl. I ended up watching the entire season in one sitting and it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen.

The comparisons that come to mind: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Veronica Mars, Dexter, Nip/Tuck. There’s so much Hitchcock! Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca. And a whole lot of Lang’s M and Secret Beyond the Door. The show does an absolutely masterful job of getting you to sympathize with and even involuntarily root for the sociopathic monster at its center… so much delicious cognitive dissonance. It’s also extremely funny, with a sense of joy in its nastiness that rivals Nip/Tuck. It manages to hit a lot of very salient themes re: MeToo, nice guys of OkCupid, shitty allies, etc., without being cloying or preachy. Believe me: if it were cloying or preachy I would definitely be writing a savage diss right now. Throw in some funny MFA creative writing satire and a totally solid cast top to bottom (that alcoholic neighbor guy! whoever that actor is, he’s amazing). And they totally stick the landing: what an ending. I am absolutely with the viral TV trend of the moment: run, don’t walk. Avoid spoilers. Enjoy.

The show bombed on Lifetime but it’s Netflix’s most popular show right now (I just read). They are taking over and bringing us a season 2. I hope they don’t mess it up they way they messed up Black Mirror (badly enough that I now dislike the original series because I can’t get the horrible Netflix-produced episodes I watched out of my head). If they do that, maybe I’ll go back off the Netflix wagon, but for now: feeeeeeeeed me.

Missoula Dining Guide 2019

I’m generally grouchy about the dining scene in Missoula but there are a few gems. I mostly cook at home, save my money, and go nuts when I travel. In any case, here’s my advice:

The Best (go out of your way):

Biga Pizza

I’ve had multiple visitors from places with great pizza (like, um, NYC) who have texted me months later telling me they are still thinking about Biga Pizza. This is the one culinary experience in Missoula that is truly world class. It gets the basics right (excellent brick oven crust and high quality ingredients) and then adds lots of really amazing, thoughtful flavor combinations. Chef Bob Marshall thinks about texture when putting toppings together, which is something that even a lot of very good pizza chefs ignore. My winter favorites are the pie with sweet potato, bacon, maple-chipotle, and hazelnut and their signature classic: smoked Gouda, fennel sausage, Flathead cherry chutney. In the summer I like the margherita, the bacon and fennel marmalade, and the mushroom-arugula. Also, with the exception of the occasional vanilla-laced vinaigrette, their salad game is on point. I almost always order the special salad, and it’s almost always stellar. One small negative comment is that lately I don’t think Marshall has been developing the weekly special pizzas himself and some of them have been out of balance (like a Cubano pizza that sounded amazing but was overwhelmingly acidic).

Dinosaur Cafe

Cajun joint in the back of Charlie B’s. The setting here is great. Charlie’s is the best bar in Missoula, and really the only one I actively enjoy spending time in. What’s so great about it is the total lack of social barriers. Everyone goes to Charlie’s from all Montanan walks of life and people mostly get along. I can’t vouch for most of the menu but the Gumbolaya (yep, gumbo on jambalaya) is the best cheap, quick lunch around and I would eat it twice a week if I lived closer. Also: very good wings. I’ve had the etouffee and some of the po’ boys and I enjoyed them but I like the Gumbolaya so much I rarely even think about what I’m going to order.

Le Petit Outre

Well-prepared Vivace espresso from Seattle and excellent not-too-sweet French-style pastries. The canelés are transcendent and the other pastries–except the scones– are great (though a lot of people also like the scones). This is the only coffee or espresso in town I will go out of my way for (ignore their drip, though).

Kamoon Arabian Cuisine

New food truck outside Imagine Nation Brewing. Spendy, but I don’t mind supporting these guys and this is really the only great non-Western food around. Indeed, it’s exceptional. One thing: if you get a wrap, probably ask them to heat the shell just to make sure they do. That’s the one problem I’ve had.

Hobnob Cafe

Best breakfast, and a good value. Corned beef hash, sourdough pancakes.

Parker’s Family Restaurant

This is actually in Drummond, but it’s totally worth the drive (closed on Sundays and Mondays!) and easy to tie in with a visit to Garnet ghost town during summer months or Phillipsburg all year round. They have like 127 burgers on the menu and they get really crazy. Like, you can get a burger topped with a smaller burger. The woman who runs the place is AMAZING and I LOVE HER.

Also decent:

La Mas Fina Mexican Food

This is down in Victor, but it’s the only Mexican food around I’d go out of my way for. Good tamales.

Notorious P.I.G.

This place has been inconsistent in my experience but it is generally very solid BBQ. They are better at ribs than brisket. The sides are generally awesome. Not into the sauces but when you catch them on a good day their meat doesn’t need any sauce.

Lisa’s Pasty Pantry

A taste of Butte, right here in Missoula. Aside from a classic pasty, you can get a Butte-style fried pork chop sandwich or a pretty damn good Reuben.

Snowbowl

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a ski area that serves better food for more reasonable prices than Snowbowl, which is also open much of the summer for MTB and ziplining. The pizza is not as good as Biga, but I wouldn’t want to eat only Biga and never have Snowbowl. It’s good in its own way.

Sweet Peaks

Excellent hipster ice cream. Much better than Big Dipper. Avoid the sorbet. I like mainstays like salted caramel, but their very best special flavors deploy fresh herbs.

Bernice’s Bakery

Excellent cake. The only bakery around besides Le Petit that I’d recommend.

Glen’s Cafe

Fun spot for homemade pie down in Florence

Red Bird Wine Bar

Best burger in the city limits. Get hushpuppies on the side. The duck pâté is good but I generally don’t enjoy the rest of their menu.

Masala

Unexceptional but pleasant Indian counter service. A good choice for a quick, relatively healthy lunch.

Bamboo Chopstix

They moved to Lolo. The only acceptable Americanized Chinese food around.

Tagliare

Inconsistent but usually very good expensive sandwiches. I always get the Megadeth.

The Empanada Joint

Solid. They do more traditional Argentine-style but also breakfast empanadas with eggs and bacon or sausage that are awesome.

Other comments:

I do not recommend fine dining in Missoula. None of the places here would be good enough to stay open in a modestly competitive market. If you absolutely must, you can get a tasty plate of overpriced food at the Pearl. Avoid Scotty’s Table and ignore the people who will inevitably disagree with me about this. They make some very basic mistakes for a place that charges as much as they do (standing out in my memory: mushy mussels and unbalanced plates without enough of components that you need with every bite). Except for their holiday stollen, avoid the very popular Black Cat Bake Shop, which has gone way down hill. Almost everything there tastes like the walk-in freezer.  They fill fruit pastries with pie filling out of a can. Almost everything is underbaked. Avoid all Asian food not mentioned above, except maybe Vietnam Noodle, which does kinda sorta have a place in my heart (it’s not good per se but it’s got charm). The Michi Ramen bar is probably the single worst place I’ve eaten at in Missoula (the food made me so angry that I was inspired to write this post– greasy, watery, undersalted, mushy noodles, undercooked egg white, overpowering burnt garlic). Definitely no sushi. There used to be a marginally acceptable place in Hamilton but it closed and reopened and I heard that it’s now bad. Avoid all the random upscale bar food like the James Bar. Just go to Charlie’s if you want to eat in a bar. And that, friends, is my grumpy Missoula dining summary.

 

 

 

 

2018 Albums

This was a good year in music for me. For the first time in recent memory, my favorite album was not a rap album. Hands down, no question, my pick is Aïsha Devi’s DNA Feelings. It feels to me like a futuristic pagan ritual, which is exactly my taste. The other big one was of course Both Directions at Once, though it’s not really fair to count that as a 2018 album.

For R&B, I was extremely fond of SiR’s November. My favorite pop album was SOPHIE’s OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, followed by Kali Uchis’s Isolation and Robyn’s Honey.

For most of the year my favorite metal album was Chrch’s Light Will Consume Us All, which is an excellent doom metal release. Just recently I discovered a couple other metal albums I really like: Toronto death metal outfit Tomb Mold’s Manor of Infinite Forms and Head Cage, a grindcore album from Pig Destroyer.

I listened to quite a bit of electronic music this year. After Aïsha Devi, my favorites were Jlin’s Autobiography, Aphex Twin’s Collapse EP, Jon Hopkins’ Singularity, Pauline Anna Strom’s Trans-Millennia Music, The Field’s Infinite Moment, and Skee Mask’s Compro (thanks, Dru).

I don’t listen to much rock music, but someone recommended I check out Zola Jesus (thanks, Catharine) and I loved her release Okovi: Additions, which consists of unreleased tracks and remixes from last year’s Okovi. There’s a Wolves in the Throne Room track! She reminds me of Florence and the Machine, except good.

The one country album I got really into was Colter Wall’s Songs of the Plains (thanks, John). I also saw him perform live and it was excellent, though (predictably) compromised by bad audience behavior.

I listened through some of the other big critical favorites that I’m seeing on end of the year lists. I didn’t find much that really interests me, except Low’s Double Negative, which I need to spend some more time with. I actively dislike the Noname and DJ Koze albums, and I find Mitski irredeemably boring and I have no idea why critics are so into her.

Now, the main event. Top ten rap albums:

1) Earl Sweatshirt- Some Rap Songs

Dense, dark, and innovative.

2) Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y, and The Alchemist – Fetti

The menacing beats and gritty storytelling make for a welcome reboot of the 90’s east coast sound. This stood out against the sea of uptempo trap.

3) SOB X RBE– Gangin and Gangin II

According to Spotify, SOB X RBE was my most-listened to artist of 2018. It’s because they released not one, but two albums that I totally loved. The four-part ensemble west coast sound is raucous, with Yhung T.O. at the center channeling the sort of gangsta-badassery-expressed-through-soulful-melody feel that we associate with Akon and Nate Dogg.

4) Pusha T- Daytona

Way too short but basically perfect within its constraints.

5) Ski Mask the Slump God- Beware the Book of Eli

I love the crazy Ski Mask creative energy. His more recent studio release isn’t as good but this shit is lit. While other rappers are still talking about guns, Ski Mask’s signature threat is to drown you in a river of lost souls.

6) Joey Purp- Quarterthing

He spans basically every style of contemporary rap here and hits them all out of the park. This is a tight album.

7) Cardi B– Invasion of Privacy

I was a little disappointed at first by how overproduced this turned out to be, but it grew on me steadily and I’m still listening to it regularly. I do prefer Cardi’s rawer tracks but she’s pretty much always fantastic.

8) Lil Wayne- The Carter V

!!! I went to see Lil Wayne live a couple years ago purely for the nostalgia and was relieved that it wasn’t terrible. I certainly didn’t think he’d ever release a good album again. This is about twice as long as it should be and there are many mediocre tracks but the high points are extremely high and I love seeing Wayne shut the haters up.

9) BlocBoy JB- Simi

Rude, brash, offensive, and unrelentingly fun. He’s got a strong Memphis sound, in the vein of Young Dolph but more dynamic. He creates a vivid, richly detailed world rather than just rattling off the standard boasts.

10) Kodak Black- Heart Break Kodak

This blew my mind when I first heard it but I wore it out relatively quickly. I want to acknowledge it though as a very unique and timely mixtape (much better than the album he recently released). At a point when everyone is going full autotune, he released one of the most emo, out of key, raw, underproduced, brutally honest tapes in recent memory (alongside Boosie’s In My Feelings…).

Honorable mention: 21 Savage is my favorite rapper right now but I thought his album (just released last week) was a little uneven. I thought the Gucci Mane album, the JID album, the Metro Boomin mixtape and the Jay Rock album were excellent. I like the minimalism of the Quavo solo album. There were a lot of not-very-distinct but enjoyable trap albums this year. My favorites were Playboi Carti, Young Nudy, and Lil Baby with Gunna. It’s a little boring but I appreciate the professional polish of The Carters’ EVERYTHING IS LOVE, and the video for “APESHIT” is all time.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 6

Featured image from The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Amazon Prime

Amazon prime is so amazing now. Month after month they just keep adding incredible stuff that’s not easily accessible elsewhere. The one thing to watch out for is that they often run stuff in terrible quality or the wrong aspect ratio, but as long as one is careful to check whether a better version is available there are many treasures to be found. I vetted the quality of any title I’m recommending where I thought there might be a concern.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Barilli, 1974)

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This is a peak giallo. It’s ultra lurid and moody, full of creepy hallucinations and perverse secrets. I would rank it up there with better known gialli from Bava, Argento, Fulci, and Martino.

Basket Case (Henenlotter, 1982)

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American exploitation classic from the great Frank Henenlotter, now part of the permanent collection of the MoMA! Exceptional practical effects, a wicked sense of humor, and more psychoanalytic acuity than one might expect.

Performance (Roeg and Cammell, 1970)

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In honor of Roeg’s recent passing, I recommend this batshit early work starring Mick Jagger. Roeg took it to 11, making heavy use of the jarring crosscuts that were characteristic of his style throughout his career.

The Proposition (Hillcoat, 2005)

Written by Nick Cave, this is an extremely dark and intense Aussie western. I think it’s easily one of the best entries in the western genre in this millennium.

Dog Soldiers (Marshall, 2002)

I was so thrilled to see this show up on streaming! This is one of the best modern werewolf movies. It uses practical effects throughout, no CGI wolf morphing crap.

House of Games (Mamet, 1987)

In honor of Ricky Jay’s recent passing, I recommend this wonderful David Mamet con artist flick. I grew up loving this movie, and I think it holds up well. As one would expect, there are lots of twists and turns and it’s full of amazing Mamet dialogue.

Dolls (Stuart Gordon, 1987)

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No one can execute an awesome horror premise like Stuart Gordon can. Every Stuart Gordon movie is worthwhile, and this one’s on Prime.

Eaten Alive (Tobe Hooper, 1976)

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Yes! This is where to go next if you like Texas Chainsaw and want to dig deeper into Tobe Hooper’s filmography. Creepy bayou hotel, crocodile, etc. It’s crazy and awesome.

Alexandra’s Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003)

Interesting to see this one pop up. I rented it from Netflix dvd ages ago while watching through Rolf de Heer’s complete works and it’s stuck with me every since. It’s not the most cinematic of his works (far from it), but it’s distinctive in how angry and hardass it is as a feminist invective.

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Pasolini, 1964)
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One of the only Pasolini movies I fully love, and possibly the best movie about the life of Jesus Christ. It plays up Christ’s activities as a lefty political agitator.

Excalibur (Boorman, 1981)

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This is pure, distilled awesomeness. All the totally on the nose Wagner is what really puts it over the top.

Point Blank (Boorman, 1967)

This was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson. As much as I love Mel Gibson, Payback is a very shoddy movie compared to Boorman’s masterpiece, and Mel is just no Lee Marvin. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate.

Blind Woman’s Curse (Ishii, 1970)

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Meiko Kaji yakuza revenge movie. I don’t think it’s ever been readily available in the US before.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Miike, 2007)

Very fun mashup of the spaghetti western and samurai genres.

First Reformed (Schrader, 2018)

This has come up several times already on Strohltopia and yeah, I’ll say it again: this is the movie of the year.

Netflix

Netflix has been better lately. It’s still fundamentally awful and curse them to hell for the bait-and-switch they pulled by killing the rental store and then removing nearly all classic cinema from their platform, but some of their recent proprietary movies have been awesome and they finally have a couple decent reality food shows. Prime is still vastly better but I have some solid Netlix recs this time.

The Five Venoms (Chang Cheh, 1978), Return to the 36th Chamber (Lau Kar-leung, 1980)

Related image

The problem with vintage Shaw Brothers on streaming is that it’s usually presented with dubbed English audio. One should never (I repeat, NEVER) watch a Shaw Bros martial arts movie dubbed. These movies are amazing and the English dubbing always completely destroys their tone and essentially makes a mockery of them. Netflix has done us a solid and presented these two titles (and a couple others that are a bit later) with the original audio and subtitles. You’ll need to go into the audio menu to switch it.

Christine (Carpenter, 1983)

John Carpenter’s classic Stephen King adaptation is essential viewing and holds up extremely well.

May the Devil Take You (Tjahjanto, 2018)

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I’m an instant fan of Timo Tjahjanto. I loved the two horror anthology shorts I had seen, and his two new features on netflix (this and The Night Comes for Us) are both excellent. This is sort of like Hereditary but not boring and with more of a Raimi-esque style. Top tier for recent horror.

47 Meters Down (Roberts, 2017)

Extremely effective, unambitious shark horror. It delivers. I screamed an involuntary, high pitched scream at one point.

The Final Table

There are so many bad cooking shows on Netflix. Of course Bake off is amazing, but I can’t stand most of their proprietary content. Ugly, Delicious was good, but I’ve found most episodes of Chef’s Table that I’ve tried watching to be unbearably pretentious and the reality competitions to be shrill and uninteresting. This is the big exception: it’s at least on par with the very best reality cooking competitions. The cooking and most of the judging is at a very high level. There are some judges that are brought in more for humorous banter but every episode has a world class food critic and a world class chef. I enjoyed the way so many different world cuisines are represented, even if the downside is that they are represented rather superficially. But yeah, if you’ve been reading my commentary you’ll know that I’m generally very down on Netflix’s original content, so it was sort of a coup for me to enjoy one of their shows as much as I enjoyed this.

Hulu

Slim pickins on Hulu, though The Duchess of Langeais, which I recommended last time, is still available.

Let the Sunshine In (Denis, 2018)

Image result for let the sunshine inThis is an odd duck of a movie. She made it to kill time while waiting to start a more expensive project, and she clearly wasn’t trying to make the greatest movie ever. It feels like she had a couple ideas and characters in mind and she took the opportunity to explore them in a free-form manner. The acting and direction are just exquisite, and although in one sense this is an unambitious movie, it’s also something very special and unique. I love it, and I think it’s easily one of the best movies of the year.

Lifeforce (Hooper, 1985)

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Totally bonkers naked space vampire shit. A crown jewel of Hooper’s filmography. I believe this is also on Prime.

All is Lost (Chandor, 2013)

Very effective, well-crafted Robert Redford nautical thriller.

A Fistful of Dynamite (Leone, 1971)

One Sergio Leone’s less well-known works. James Coburn plays an IRA explosives expert who gets involved with the Mexican Revolution. It’s fantastic and something you should definitely see if you like his other movies.

 

 

Notes on the death and rebirth of Filmstruck

It’s never been as painful to receive a $9 refund as it was to see the balance of my yearly Filmstruck subscription show up on my PayPal account earlier this week. I’ve been holding back from commenting in hopes that it would somehow be prevented by the collective efforts of champions of cinema like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who have been pressuring the relevant corporate overlords to reconsider.  They have indeed succeeded in eliciting a promise that a Filmstruck reincarnation will be included in a set of channels that Warner/AT&T will seek to launch next year.  Meanwhile, Criterion has announced a stand alone channel as soon as this coming Spring.

I’m still binging: Rossellini histories, some odds and ends from Oshima, Tourneur, and Straub/Huillet, hopefully Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin and The Crucified Lovers (AKA A Story from Chikamatsu).  I’ll be fine in the interim: there’s still MUBI, Fandor, the Cohen Media Group channel on Amazon, Shudder, and the vast and bottomless internet.  I rarely have trouble getting my hands on something I want to see. But I still feel an abiding sense of sadness about the state of film culture.

What most saddens me about this affair is what it reveals about the role film has come to play in mainstream American life. When Warner/AT&T announced that it was going to murder Filmstruck, they said they learned the lesson that it’s too “niche.” But what is the content of Filmstruck? What all the movies on Filmstruck have in common is that they are justly considered canon. They are movies that are somehow important or significant for the global tradition of filmmaking. Not all of them are aesthetically worthwhile, but most of them are, and the ones that aren’t are still important for understanding the development of the medium. They range from the universally acknowledged (like dozens of movies by Ingmar Bergman) to titles that are less well known by mainstream film fans, like a series of works by Indian filmmaker Bimal Roy or a selection of obscure low-budget Phil Karlson flicks or a huge cache of Shirley Clarke shorts.

If you love movies, you should be able to just throw a dart at Filmstruck and hit something that you’d like to see. My queue always grows faster than I can tick titles off, and I watch a lot of Filmstruck. The target audience is people who care about film as an art form. This is a niche, apparently. It’s so small of a niche that it can’t justify a piddling ongoing effort by the many-headed hydra of AT&T/Warner.

I have a diagnosis. Film culture has struggled in the US ever since the success of Jaws reoriented the strategies of major studios, but the rise of streaming has taken us to a new low. I’m not going to search for it now, but I remember reading an article in the early days of Netflix streaming about the divergence between what people say their favorite film categories are and what they actually watch. Back then, instead of your foregrounded streaming options being selected by an algorithm, you had the opportunity to tick off boxes indicating your favorite categories: Comedy, Drama, Action, Romance, Independent, Foreign Language, Classic, etc. The article I read said that Netflix had found that while many people checked the boxes for Foreign Language and Classic, few people actually watched this content. Serial television, blockbusters, new release Oscar contenders, sensationalist documentaries, star vehicles: this is the stuff people actually watch.  This revealed an unsurprising divergence between peoples’ aspirations and day to day inclinations. People filled their queues with titles they saw as edifying or in some way worthwhile, but then eternally procrastinated watching them as they rubbernecked from New Thing to New Thing. As more streaming services popped up and licensing became more expensive, Netflix opted for the content people actually watch rather than the content that people merely aspire to watch. Now they have basically no classic films and their foreign language selection is random and filled with bargain basement junk (though, to be fair it usually has a few gems).

Now, instead of every subscriber living with the background hum of their aspirational queue, the service aims to give us more and more of what we already like. The algorithm is antithetical to the evolution of taste. It’s an all you can eat buffet filled with all your favorite junk food. There’s no push to challenge yourself or broaden your horizons. To have the aspirational queue, you have to make a separate purchase of a separate streaming channel—presently, Filmstruck—that offers nothing but the good stuff. I did a little googling to learn more when I found out Filmstruck was being cancelled, and the discussion I saw was extraordinarily dispiriting.  People sagely diagnosed: it’s too expensive, and there’s not enough content. First of all, the notion of caring about the ratio of content to dollar is so ridiculous….  Netflix has vast oceans of garbage. Filmstruck has more movies than I have time to watch and they are all worth watching.  Second of all, I’m filled with contempt at the consumer’s notion that they know best what they should be watching—just give us as many choices as possible and we will live our best lives through our own self-direction. The age of a hyper-excess of options has deadened us to the value of curation. Filmstruck employs experts to create curated features meant to introduce us to content that we may not have had an antecedent desire to engage with. This is a valuable service. I don’t care who you are, you can benefit from letting someone else take the reins for a minute. In concrete terms, I’m saying: if you care about film, consider subscribing to the next incarnations of the Criterion channel and/or Filmstruck and just watching what they throw at you, even if it’s not something you already think of yourself as being interested in. I’ve been doing this, and my aesthetic life has been so much richer than it was during the brief stretch where I was trying to keep up with Netflix’s foregrounded content.

This is the core of my sadness: film is being sucked into a culture of gratification, where endless ways to feed our already entrenched preferences occlude the limitations of our self-knowledge.  We know what we want, and we don’t question whether there are other things that maybe we should want even more. But there’s still an opportunity to resist. The corporate invasion of our taste is not absolute yet. Support the good shit.