At this point, the insight that limitations are often the makings of great art has crossed the gap into becoming truism. Single locations, shoestring budgets, or amateur actors have yielded great results within the realm of filmmaking. But rarely do these restrictions ever materialize as mechanical. The Dogme 95 movement springs to mind, emphasizing handheld camerawork and natural light as requirements, but these prescriptions lessen the burden on the operator to encourage experimentation before mandating restraint. In terms of a perfect example of obstruction breathing life into film, one exhibit towers above all others — David Lynch’s Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. A 55 second short part of the Lumiere and Company anthology film, the film was shot on the anachronistic cinematograph camera, given three takes to get any given shot, using only natural light, barred from shooting synchronous sound, and an arbitrary mandate that once the camera starts, the take must be finished out. Through this chaste framework, Lynch was able to translate his ideological project into silent tableau vivants, creating a work both succinct and purposeful, an true outlier in the Lynchian corpus.
The assault of images within Premonition are so convoluted it almost evades explanation — police approach the body of a dead woman, a worried housewife in a kitchen, a woman distressed arising from a bed, men in a hellish factory setting engaging in steampunk sadomasochism, brought full circle by the police emerging into the kitchen of the worried housewife. Lynch distilled down to his most pure essence, this image assault can be unpacked with the director’s auteurist mission statement of “I love factories and nude women,” assembling a greatest hits of imagery throughout his career. The opening of police happening upon a brutalized body among bucolic window dressing, immediately reminiscent of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic in the Twin Peaks pilot. The suburban interiors evoke the interstitial scenes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet’s daytime sections, and its final horrors unmistakably Lynchian (it seems of no coincidence to me the tormentors in the short are in jumpsuits buttoned to the collarbone, their distended skulls resembling a wild pompadour, for once Lynch willing to indict himself rather than hind behind folksy aphorisms).
While almost incomprehensible in summary form, it coheres to form the same statement it took Twin Peaks 30 hours of network television, a feature film, and 18 hours of premium cable indulgence to form, and still not stick the landing. Much the same as the show, it eventually reveals that underneath suburban purity lies a powerful evil, that perversion exists in equal and opposite abundance in the sunniest of settings. Much like Fire Walk With Me, Premonitions presents a full sampling of the Lynch auteur fixations in a compacted form, a Tik-Tok length condemnation of Americana, and quite possibly his most fully realized work.
Popular media has spent the last four years searching for the answer to quite a basic question concerning the Trump era: “How did we arrive here?” To the urbane liberal consumer, the last eight years seemed relatively harmless, a mark of competent technocrats able to stem the tide of unease among the materially comfortable. Boys State, the hipster prestige effort from an Apple/A24 partnership that would seem self-parodic if algorithmically generated, throws its hat in the ring to answer the very same question. A nationwide program dating back a century (founded as a reactionary counterpart to the socialist youth movement of Young Pioneer camps, a fact woefully omitted in its opening exposition) where young men simulate the American civic system, with exceptional participants graduating to the honor of Boy’s Nation, with a track record of taking in great men in their adolescence, with alumni ranging from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss zone in on the Texas state competition, hoping to extract the greater truth of our times straight from the mouth of babes. Unfortunately, Boys State, striving to ascribe universal truth as solutions to socially-constructed problems, treating an open system as a vacuum, and a wholly uncritical presentation in the miscalculated pursuit of vérité objectivity.
McBaine and Moss’s premise is that these children are all innate politicians, driven by some libidinal urge for power present since birth. Principal players are introduced watching Reagan speeches in dark rooms, spouting epigrams of personal responsibility seemingly sourced from the primordial ooze of the pubescent brain rather than an imitation of the shadowy parental figures. Opting for an approach of direct cinema, Boys State fails where its greater apostles (the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker) succeeded. Drew or Wiseman used the power of editing to stitch together a thesis, contrasting a fascist teacher’s enforcement of dress code along with the male gaze as atelier for school-issued gym clothes (Wiseman’s High School), while McBaine and Moss use this set of aesthetics to elide the tough questions, cutting away material that doesn’t fit with their thesis, refusing to evolve along with the reality.
Once actually within the thick of it, this intellectual laziness begins to make itself even more apparent. The documentary’s central dialectic is basic new-left v. new-right, trying to probe how a lifetime of being terminally online has poisoned the youth, broadband connections the new fluoride in the water supply. There are invocations of Ben Shapiro and online conservatism, and even the hushed uttering of “memes,” but it goes no further. The complete democratization of political theory, a new home to polemic media, the death of the classic public intellectual, all phenomena uniquely suffered by zoomers — and left completely unexamined by the lazy, entitled, assumptions of Gen Xers. While it is much easier to build a taxonomy of the New Right within the film, obsessed with libidnal drives and socialized responses of homophobia and misogyny, its left-wing contingent is exponentially thornier. Its central figure, Steven Garza, has all the bona fides: son of immigrants, energized by Bernie Sanders, the soul of a poster, the left insurgence personified. However, he reveals himself to be far closer to the center than the film works so hard to convince its audience. His true political heroes are Beto O’Rourke and Napoleon Bonaparte, revealing a soft spot for spineless centrism and a pathological draw toward central power, the non-aristocrat making up for falling short in station of birth (as well as height) by a rise to autocracy. The fact in the wake of the film’s release drooling droves of spineless liberals proclaiming a countdown to his presidential eligibility speaks both to the type of audience this drivel is made for as well as McBaine and Moss’s worldview.
The film also commits an even greater sin than dishonest presentation — naive conclusions. While its axis of good may come up short institutionally (much like real life? Get it? Isn’t this so fucking smart?), its final moments are meant to inspire hope. Garza takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention, extolling the utopian vision of a post-partisan America, that there is greatness within this country, a great revelation met with rapturous applause. This moment calls to mind none other than William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (another fraud perpetrated by dishonest framing). In 2004, a PoC, son of immigrants, a self-labelled “progressive”, a new face on the political scene, took the stage and told us a red America and blue America were relics of the past, a post-partisan nation had arrived. And what was given to us from this great promise? Eight years of corporate bailouts, endless war, kids in cages, the machinery of state-sponsored violence running even smoother than before with technocratic lubricant. Like Basinksi’s loops, the repeated sound degrades, its resonance now even more agony-inducing knowing its emptiness, that in its unraveling the battle is now over. The day may pass, but the song remains the same. And it is repugnant works like Boys State that will ride into town and promise this snake oil is a new flavor, and as we turn away it will be poured upon the taxpayer-funded Harrow, giving it the juice to carve a commandment of “BE JUST,” Kafka’s penal colony now indistinguishable from our democracy.
“[People] feel that I’m probably playing myself in the film. What I’m actually playing is, I’m playing my father or what I would have become if I let my father’s heavy impact stay in my life. And what I play in the last five minutes of the film is me on a really good day.” -Vincent Gallo
When pursuing an artistic appraisal on the corpus of Vincent Gallo, it seems almost impossible to separate the art from the antics. A creative mind of mythic origin, Gallo fashioned himself as the renaissance man at the end of history — acclaimed painter, musician and bandmate of Jean Michel Basquiat, heroin chic heartthrob, essayist, prestige actor, sneaky real estate mogul, and actor-director all count themselves among his achievements. But much like his films, for every positive, there seems to be an equal negative. Outspoken conservative, spiteful and petty to his artistic peers, Trump Tower resident, and general provocateur. From 30,000 feet, Gallo’s artistic output seems to be at direct odds with his personal statements — a firebrand fueled by personal spite against anyone richer or more famous colliding against radically vulnerable films fixated on the collateral damage of performing the abrasive masculinity he cloaks himself in offscreen. His semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Buffalo ’66, encapsulates this perfectly. A self-described musical that operates in a fairy tale framework more than the arthouse modus operandi, Gallo makes his grand statement on masculinity as a carceral construct through a thoughtful exploration of male survivorship under the same abusive structures they perpetuate, presenting radical vulnerability as its panacea, and in the process creating the zenith of 90s American independent cinema.
While containing multitudes, the film’s general framework is remarkably simple — recently released convict must make his homecoming, produce the fictitious wife his parents have been sold on, and keep up the facade of a confidential government job used as an alibi for absence. In spite of its premise approaching screwball sensibility, Gallo’s radical stylistic choices and penchant for emotional intimation provide depth. From frenetic jump cuts in its opening scenes, its breaking of the 180 degree rule throughout the homecoming, to strip clubs rendered in schizoid, Francophilic color palettes, Gallo’s love of cinema and general chops begin to show through. His insistence to shoot the film on reversal stock, attempting to recreate archival NFL footage, saturates every frame, providing high color contrasts and making every composition striking despite the purposefully drab settings of Buffalo. This commitment to reverse stock mirrors the world of its protagonist: obsolete in form, volatile and unpredictable, seeing the world in saturated extremes of expression. Although credited to cinematographer Lance Accord (known more widely for his collaborations with Spike Jonze), Gallo’s painterly background is unmistakably behind the film’s aesthetic preoccupations, recalling David Lynch’s Eraserhead in images having more in common with carefully constructed tableaus than cinematic compositions.
At the center of it all is the film’s protagonist Billy Brown, an embodiment of masculinity’s faults, a vat of rage constantly boiling over, with the film’s first act reading more as horror than the working-class Wes Anderson whimsy that follows. The opening frame of the film is Billy as a young boy, spelling out his name, birthdate, place of birth, directory information that reads more as inmate intake than biography. As this is digested, soft guitar leads pluck away as Gallo’s pubescent voice creaks out “all my life I’ve been a lonely boy”, communicating the literal prison Billy will be released from is not the primary concern — but rather the metaphysical prison of loneliness. No matter where he goes, he cannot be offered shelter from the storm. The antidote to this loneliness is Christina Ricci’s eminently charming turn as Layla, emerging radiant and sprite-like, making the film function as a children’s fairytale with her full embodiment of love and acceptance.
Despite Billy’s placement as the protagonist of Buffalo ’66, it is Layla that allows the film’s thesis to cohere. At the other side of the dialectic, she fulfills both the role of anthesis and spirit guide, his Virgil on the journey to self-acceptance. Layla finds herself drawn to the things Billy hates, and vice versa. An avowed vegetarian forced to stomach tripe in the promises of being “my best [Billy’s] friend”, this imagery finds a match in her love for hot chocolate — a substance her captor has the strongest of allergies to. In this exchange, Buffalo ’66 reveals its central statement on the radical possibilities of domesticity, forging a kinship with the American modernism of William Carlos Williams, a vision where “the business of love is cruelty/ which/ by our wills/ we transform/ to live together.”
While it may be easy to dismiss Billy’s flaws as a digestion of the gospel of misogyny (with a dash of homophobia thrown in there too), a more apt reading of the film is that of survivorship, with Billy reeling from a lifetime of abuse and an inability to achieve bodily autonomy. Upon homecoming, he is immediately triggered, reduced to a sniveling child crying out “Don’t touch me!” and taking on a defensive posture. This remains a refrain for the rest of the film, always in moments of vulnerability that suggest drifting into the sexual. Billy’s father begins to complete the puzzle with his Elektra-in-law fixation on Layla, wooing her with Sinatra renditions (lip-synced to recordings of Gallo’s own father, reminiscent of Dean Stockwell’s “In Dreams” routine in Blue Velvet) and doting annunciations of “daddy’s little girl” arriving home, put in context by Ricci and Gallo’s mutual expressions of discomfort. A flashback, rendered as a tableau vivant exploding from Billy’s head (one of the cleverest stylistic choices in a picture chock full of them) given life, we see his canine companion murdered for urinating within the house. This symbol of prelapsarian beauty destroyed for refusing to control its urges, a vulgar metaphor begins to form, intimating the abuse and loss of bodily autonomy that formed the broken man we meet at the film’s start. He is not alone in this exercise of repeated exposure, finding a compatriot in his mother. She refuses to live in the realm of reality, clothing herself in the same Starter jackets Billy dons in flashback, pacifying herself with photo albums of Bills memorabilia, a surrogate family to mask the failure of her own. On the living room television, footage of Wood’s missed field goal repeats on a tape loop, sending her into dining table hysterics, a parallel drawn with Billy’s lingering traumas, never knowing when the next reminder will make itself known.
It is only when Billy is in control of his bodily functions we ever see him able to control his emotions and perform vulnerability. Throughout the film, bathrooms serve as a cathartic oasis for Billy, providing the viewer a brief glimpse into his psyche (something that repeats throughout the Gallo auteur project). After a tear of violence that results in Layla’s abduction spurred by denial of a bathroom (that very space blocked off by a corral in the shape of small children, touching on childhood trauma being a rub on the path to vulnerability), he finds roadside relief by a tree, reestablishing his control over his own faculties before the tenderness underneath surfaces. Gallo constructs his Garden of Gethsemane moment in a diner bathroom, breaking down after encountering an unrequited love whom recounts his past, delivering incantations he “do[esn’t] want to live anymore” between sobs (it becomes irresistible to make biblical parallels when Gallo himself bears such a resemblance to the anglicized Christ). On the other hand, the viewer is treated to Billy’s worst tendencies whenever this autonomy (in his perception) is denied. An unfortunate encounter with a urinal gazer sends Billy off on a tirade to “get your face out of my pants” peppered with homophobic slurs and rhythmic stamping. It is this loss of privacy that sets off this invective, less an expression of pure hate than it is a triggering in what was thought to be a safe space (the rhetoric inexcusable all the same). Combining this with the film’s phallic fixations, encompassing Billy’s red rocket boots, the “blue bird” bus that shuttles him from the prison, the inability to handle the masturbatory performance of a manual transmission, and a mission to murder Scott “Wood” for ruining his life, this motif finds its way into every crack of the narrative.
Within its final act, the focus moves beyond that of singular suffering, of triggering experiences, to a screed finding beauty in connection, loving the ugly and the mundane, digesting the tradition of Whitman repurposed to post-industrial exteriors. Finding himself in a run-down hotel room, he finds himself in a possibly intimate situation for the first time with Layla. His response — to decry the dirtiness of the bed and flee into the bathroom to clean himself. Unlike other instances earlier in the film, Layla joins him. He winces at the mention of resembling a “little boy in that tub,” met with pleading whines of “don’t look at me,” Billy afraid to bear his shame, that he was victimized by the very same construct he finds himself trapped in. In this union, bringing her into Billy’s safe space, their romantic etiolation occurs. With this newfound trust, symbolically disclosing his trauma and struggle to regain autonomy, Billy can face his fear — masculine performance. He enters Wood’s strip club (the film’s first foray into explicit sexuality) with a comically undersized pistol, intended as a tool to reclaim his pride from the masculine ideal (strapping athlete, rich man, prolific philanderer) in Wood. However, the ideal is far from the reality. Wood is a pudgy schlub, an emperor wearing no clothes save for a gaudy bow tie. It is only with this newly discovered vulnerability he can see the futility of his sacrifice, the violence brought on by the phallic substitute destroying his own life, rendering his face unrecognizable in suicide. Toxic masculinity warps Billy into a completely different person in the literal sense, and leads him only to destruction.
Once this pentecost falls, Billy is Lazarus risen, uncorrupted by the leprosy of anger and hate that once ate away at him. Like the fool in love his father so tenderly sang, Billy rushes in. Gallo portrays this rebirth with a puerile joy, his hissing anger turned manic logorrhea, running to acquire the hot chocolate for Layla he once loathed with all his being. The ideological project of the picture comes together in its final moments as he is mystified by a heart cookie, knowing that after a lifetime of alienation and othering, he encounters a totem of shared experience. For all the horrors and aesthetic wonders that proceed this moment, it all leads to this. No matter what follows you, a choice to be open and loving can be your salvation, all you have to do is make a little room in a cramped bathtub, and over time maybe your heart can too.
In a career plagued with anti-establishment screeds, from the hysterical prophecy of Network to the pre-Watergate deep state paranoia of The Anderson Tapes, Sidney Lumet’s most resonant statement may very well be 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. Ostensibly a heist film based on a true story, centered on Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) staging a bank hold-up that gradually unravels until reaching a full-blown hostage situation, its archetypal setup hides a much thornier statement within. However, it is not the breadth of insight that separates Dog Day apart from the rest of the Lumet auteur project. Instead, it is its complete flip of perspective. In 1975, a year in which the American public was foaming at the mouth after huffing the fumes of Watergate paranoia, the rise of Thatcher across the pond, the official end of conflict in Vietnam, an all-time high of anti-establishment sentiment, Lumet turned the tables. Dog Day Afternoon serves up a scathing indictment of the American counterculture, pointing the finger at the inefficacy of liberalized activist movements, the lack of material discourse within them, and the scourge of middle class kids role playing revolutionary within the ranks of the American left.
Within its primary narrative, Dog Day positions its characters as sociological ciphers, representing a demographic struggle more than a personal one. At its most basic level, the story is three of the forgotten people: the economically destitute in Sonny, the degenerate in Stevie, and the dullard in Sal, taking up arms against the personification of institutional squareness: the bank. However, as soon as the armed revolt begins, it is the curly-haired, plimsoll wearing Stevie who cannot take the heat, citing “bad vibes” as overwhelming his disposition. The film begins to show its hand. The oxymoronic mainstream counterculture, the cute kids in neat outfits will not save us with clouds of stale pot smoke and surgically straightened teeth, this is not the make of a revolutionary vanguard. Dog Day Afternoon is a vision of the revolution as it may actually be, not the telegenic idealists at the front of the phalanx, but instead the invisible, the aggrieved, the written-off, channeling their rage into action.
While the shrewd setup provides a neat statement of its own, the film’s ideology does not coalesce within the bank, but rather outside of it. Later, with the heist now degenerated into a hostage situation, a series of dispatches from Sonny to police handlers, more negotiation than tent revival is when it comes into focus. Reminiscent of the stained-glass framed tirades that would make up the bulk of his magnum opus Network, Pacino’s proselytizing zeal winding up growing crowds with the caterwaul of “Attica! Attica!”, invoking the prison uprising that left 42 dead at the hands of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. With this one chant, a river of imagery arises — attacks on institutional wealth (personified in Rockefeller as well as the bank), an indictment of police brutality, the collective action of the proletarian body politic. When interviewed by the news not long after, Sonny confesses there is no ideological engine, purely material pressures. Faced with the question of “Couldn’t you get a job?”, he expounds on the grim economic prospects of the working class, the evaporation of union opportunities and the crunch of stagnating wages in non-union settings, spelling out the inertia that would come to characterize neoliberal labor markets. However, this material focus does not last long. Once news of the underlying motivation behind the robbery to finance the gender confirmation surgery of Sonny’s mistress, the crowd changes. It becomes a demonstration for queer liberation, chanting “Out of the closet, into the streets!”, championing representation and visibility over the prime mover of the caper, economic anxiety. The media narrative shifts, emphasizing the scandalous concept of “two homosexuals” holding up the bank, throwing an intersectional view by the wayside in favor of divisive essentialism, forecasting the discourse to come. His suffering and pressures are forgotten, and instead he becomes a mascot, his voice now harder to hear over the growing crowd jeering on, awaiting an impending martyrdom.
The fundamental rope-a-dope of the film is that despite Sonny’s ostensibly leftist actions throughout: engaging in material redistribution of wealth, anti-cop sentiments, and queer identity — his personal ideological outlook is quite reactionary. A Vietnam veteran who makes his desire for a military funeral known, a Goldwater supporter, and virulent misogynist who acts abusively toward his intimate partners. When asked where he wants to flee after the heist, he joyfully states his intent to flee for the tropics, Algeria, every single one of them colonial lands spoken by colonial names. When a cutaway to his childhood home reveals not a scourge of poverty but instead the trappings of the middle class, a mother hysterically proclaiming “if he needed money he should’ve come to me”, it all starts to come into focus. Sonny is not the great emancipator, nor is he the true underclass — his alienation is an expression of agency, and his holdup histrionics a cynical performance.
Dog Day Afternoon, while remarkably biting and humorous in moments, is a work created from a place of mourning. The radicalism of the 60s had come and gone, promising American emancipation, but what came of it? Abbie Hoffman bloviated in front of angered crowds, he became an outlaw figure, but at the end of the day he was still a middle class kid who wanted to role play guerrilla revolutionary. When the party was over, when the collateral damage made itself clear, it was those just like Sonny who made it out clean. And in the last moments of Dog Day, with a tasteful zoom and hold on Pacino’s pained face, the failure of the American revolutionary project makes itself clear. Those who needed it to succeed the most were the first ones to fall, and its failure will hold the gaze of survivors for decades to come, the suffering reverberating throughout the decades, finding new names with each cycle, but the players seem to remain the same.
Despite buying into the hype cycle fully, I had my quibbles with Aster’s second feature when it came out, finding it a bit bloated, redundant, and derivative much like Hereditary (although at least Midsommar steals from several films instead of wholesale ripping one iconic film as Aster’s debut did Rosemary’s Baby). It was the same schtick as before, a nebbish know-it-all repurposing films that fell out of fashion; selling schlock to zoomers unaware history began before the Clinton era. However, I left the theatre with a vague sense of disgust and discomfort. Something didn’t quite sit right with me as time passed on and the film settled in our cultural imagination, feeling as though the brainworm had eaten through the frontal lobe of the collective unconscious, sapping away any ability to think about the film’s moral outlook.
I heard the best minds of my generation destroyed, in real time on twitter; taking to the streets to scream “yasss queen!” and “leave him sis!”, heralding the film as the cosmos’s rebuke to the collective, oppressive monolith of the shitty ex-boyfriend. And as this chorus tormented my mind, I began to explain it away as a simple misinterpretation by the viewing public, the same tragedy that befell American Pyscho or Wall Street after falling into the sociopathic arms of finance bros; the same happening reskinned to the #girlboss crowd whom cling more fashionably to the era.
Sent by God to deny my cold comfort of such a rationalization, the precious director’s cut arrived. While I personally have an embargo on giving my time and money to work I find artistically amateurish and ideologically appalling, I did give it a cursory glance. But after doing due diligence and reading up on every addition, I can’t quite claim it as an exculpatory document. On the margin, each scene only exists to prime another conflict, framing Christian as an even more detestable character (more fraught disagreements, more grad school solipsism) and build the Harga lore, juxtaposing the family unit with the alienating shitty boyfriend to further bolster its revolting conclusion. Aster’s ideal version of the film is one that aligns with the popular intent, throwing the excuse of audience misinterpretation right out the window and into the realm of impossibility.
Although what comes before is no great work, with sluggish pacing and repetitive, leaden writing, the third act is where it goes off the rails. The cathartic finale, often touted as its key achievement, is where Midsommar falters. Dani’s arc throughout is searching for the comfort of a family unit, finding security to “make her feel held” spurred on by a realization she may be “leaning on” Christian too much as the relationship fails. By submitting herself to become part of the Harga, she does not find any sort of support or catharsis, just a motley crew to enable her BPD tendencies and keep it pushing in perpetuity. From here on, she’ll be forced to relive the death of her family, every single year watching another house burn, another family sacrifice, reliving her trauma until she is no longer considered viable, and murdered along the mores of her adoptive “family”, meeting the same fate of her parents. There is no resolution or growth here, with the most generous interpretation being a tragic embrace of another toxic dynamic to replace another. This is an ending that says “go on, be spiteful, vindictive, petty, someone will eventually accept you as you are.” A despicable, narcissistic banner to rally behind, lending truth to the boomer perception of the youth as fragile and stunted, validating the worst impulses of c-suite despots and the unwashed zoomer masses alike.
While the implications of Dani’s fate are worrying to say the least, it is Christian’s undoing that disturbs me the most. The same as Dani, just the same as his friends, he was lured in by Pelle and groomed for his eventual martyrdom. He is put in social situations manufactured to put him in close contact with his soon-to-be rapist, and left in the dark the whole way through. The audience is forced to watch him sprint around the village, wide-eyed and nude, inches away from blaring yakety sax as the slapstick routine runs its course. When this great deliverance of his death arrives, so freeing cheers erupted in my own mannered suburban chain theatre, a young man has been duped into joining a cult, groomed, forced into the arms of his abuser, only to be ritually raped, drugged, and offered as a sacrificial lamb to superstition. And this is supposed to be some euphoric conclusion? A survivor being shouted down and suffering greatly because of purely personal grievance? In this cultural moment with an unspoken edict emphasizing allyship to survivors, that even those guilty of moral transgression should not be given summary execution by a state body, this elated response can be read as nothing but hypocrisy. It puts an asterisk next to a marginalizing experience, that you must be pure and loved to elicit any sort of empathy response. You matter, until you fall out of favor, then your trauma is someone else’s rightful recompense.
The unmasking of Midsommar as nothing more than empathy deficient detritus is Aster’s own inspiration. The director has said the film was inspired by a breakup of his own and going as to call it a “wish-fulfillment fantasy” in his view of the film. This reveals a disquieting revelation: Aster envisions himself as Dani, not Christian. As to indulge my own thought experiment, I ask you to imagine Midsommar had Aster not committed to this shrewd reskin. A film in which a man spends two hours showing you how shrill and unkind his girlfriend is, before crowning himself king of the enabler club and smiling as his partner who has just been drugged and raped burns to death, their own assault being probable cause for summary execution. Dismissing the film as transgressive but worthy becomes inexcusable once this premise is accepted, Aster is not some deranged bard conveying his genius through brutal imagery, but a message board incel hiding behind a shield of inoffensive center-left identitarianism. That in the modern age, where toxic masculinity is skewered on the hour every hour, something that trafficked in such thinly veiled misogyny as Midsommar being embraced as empowering will forever remain a divine mystery.
Midsommar may have some glimmers of merit. As a rare artifact of horror rendered in daylight, a performance showcase for Florence Pugh, and some moments of impressive direction, all worthy of note. But within those fleeting moments of aesthetic appeal, there lies something darker: a puerile retreat into toxic masculinity rebranded as “ladies rock”, abuse apologia that conditions an audience to excuse assault when they simply do not take a liking to a given survivor, and a proclamation that growth or forgiveness is dead, that instead codependency is über alles. Midsommar is the definitive statement of millennial narcissism and entitlement, a declaration that in our alienated destitution that empathy has fled for warmer climates, that someone’s trauma is your punchline, and as long as one can cry in the arms of another hivemind, no reflection is needed. Instead, burn your ex-girlfriend in effigy over 147 minutes and let $9 million go up in smoke along with them, because the blue checks will proclaim “gooble gobble one of us” and accept you all the same.
Gregg Araki’s 1993 Totally Fucked Up is a one-of-a-kind artifact. Essentially John Hughes for the misfit crowd, Araki shines a light away from the jocks and library-bound nebbish types onto the burnouts, producing a portrait of adolescent ennui fueled by 120 Minutes and college radio. One of the foremost voices of the New Queer Cinema movement, Araki rises above the aesthetic transgressions of early adulthood, thoughtfully interrogating the spectral threat of HIV/AIDS in the queer community and its paralyzing effect. With a framing device of videotaped interviews lifted in both tone and style from Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization and a chapter/intertitle structure borrowed from Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the film acts as a showcase for Araki’s early potential as a stylist. But beyond these film school bona fides and ability to tackle the big questions, my pitch is this: the film is the rare teen romp that gets the burnouts right. There are no broken softies like Judd Nelson’s Bender nor is there an eccentric goofball similar to Jon Cryer’s Ducky. These kids are moody bummers with an outsized sense of importance, but they look good as hell in the process. With “Katy’s Song” needledrops to pretty boys using Morrissey lyrics as come-ons. There are shots lifted straight from Jesus and & Mary Chain videos (a pretty extended riff on the “You Trip Me Up” video being the best), fevered discussions on the merits of the Cocteau Twins, and plenty of brooding eroticism. Quite frankly, it’s the ideal adolescence. More importantly, the fits are of the highest order, interpreting the fashions of west coast hardcore kids with an anglophile goth bent.
Fit 1: Outerwear Masterclass
From moment one, strong showing. The real statements here come in outerwear, from the classic double rider on Andy (far left), Steven’s tasteful mac coat, and Deric’s oversized blazer (far right). The strongest of the three has to be the mac, showcasing a tasteful alternative to the stigmatized trench, which can make you out to be LARPing in your father’s close or drift into Klebold-core if you’re not careful. In terms of macs, I’m partial to A.P.C.’s offerings or if your pockets are deep, Burberry is always the gold standard.
Fit 2: Use Protection (eye protection)
Of course in the heat of the summer, providing counseling on outerwear can feel a bit useless, I do understand. But Fucked has so much more to offer. Here we find ourself with advanced maneuvers in eyewear aplenty. Andy and Tommy’s protective gear for sunbathing gives two treasures, an elongated oval on Tommy immediately dating the film to its era and a daring circular frame that could pass in any epoch. In terms of circular frames, I’m quite partial to the Persol 3901, although they only seem to get more expensive as the years pass. In terms of Tommy’s silhouette, your mileage can vary from this slightly more angular take from Grey Ant or if you want to get real weird with it, take Loewe’s Ibiza sunglasses, taking the skeleton and putting a massive frame around it until it reaches the point of self-parody. In terms of Andy’s more understated metallic-framed shades later on in the film, the tried and true American Optical can get you mostly where you need to go.
Fit 3: FBI – Full Blooded Italian
Undershirts aren’t cool. This is something we all have to accept, you look like a child, and I only ever think about Tim & Eric sketches when I see an adult sporting one. But you do have an enlightened option – the guinea tank. The superior undershirt, the guinea tank is a cornerstone of sleaze, a perfect warm weather option if you want to rock a camp collar completely unbuttoned, or you can just rock out undershirt only. Just a word of caution, make sure your pant silhouette matches. With wide pants in vogue, stick to a simple straight cut, or make the leap to slim denim if you are weak in spirit. No need to even give you a link, just walk into your local big box store and pick up a Hanes 3 pack.
Fit 4: We Live In a Society
We’ve reached peak graphic t-shirt awhile ago. Luxury brands can print out movie stills and sell them for $400 a pop, and everyone signed to a skate team can screenprint Princess Diana riffs for $35 a pop. It’s become completely ubiquitous, and yet the power of a good graphic still captivates me. What separates the good from the bad? Well, just like pornography, there is no definite parameter, but you know it when you see it. Here, we find ourselves in the presence of such a graphic. Tasteful, elusive, referencing something just out of reach in your mind, and just edgy enough to be labelled transgressive. There are reprints of the shirt that are easy to find, but they’re usually on Gildan blanks and won’t have the perfect fit and high neck seen here (I say this as a Gildan evangelist). Vintage prints seem to be pretty hard to come by, but never lose hope.
Fit 5: Make Hedi Proud
The perfect double rider has always been an aspirational item, spending hours of my teenage years yearning, looking through inspo albums during the reign of Hedi’s SLP. It was everything I wanted, a jacket that signaled danger, you smoked unfiltered, and that you probably owned a film camera, all things yet to be played out in 2015. Here, we find ourselves with the platonic ideal. A beat-up, worn-in perfecto jacket sported by James Duval’s Andy. I find certain details to be a bit much, the hanging belt and epaulets reeking too much of functionality LARP unless you actually ride motorcycles. The gold standard for perfecto jackets is the Schott original, the very same one Brando wore in The Wild One. If you’re a bit pickier, you can go with TOJ successor Falcon Garments that allows for customization and MTM options, but the price is a tad higher. Of course there’s the vaunted designer option, with Hedi still on his quest to craft the perfect biker jacket, but at $4500 you’d be a dipshit to purchase instead of trying to get steals on his SLP output secondhand.
I’ll admit it, I’ve been having great difficulty sleeping soundly. Some evenings, I toss and turn, my mind racing on some minutiae that has no right to live rent free in my subconscious. I can’t quite blame the turbulence of the times, no pandemic or systemic upheaval can irritate me quite the same as this atrocity — David Ehrlich’s (maybe the most insufferable living film critic, managing to have an even poorer success rate on takes than Ebert) absolutely dogshit take on David Lynch’s definitive work, Blue Velvet:
“so this probably won’t be my most popular opinion (my most popular opinion = spoons are good to use to eat pudding), but like… doesn’t TWIN PEAKS largely negate the need for this movie? aside from Dern, Hopper, Rossellini, and ‘Mysteries of Love?’”
However surprising, I agree with Ehrlich on the central premise. Twin Peaks does operate under the same general thesis as Blue Velvet — a Newtonian view of morality that underneath suburban charm, there is a lecherous underbelly equal and opposite in magnitude. Blue Velvet earns its title as one of the great American films by taking Hitchcockian conventions and filtering them through the unique grammar of hypnogogia, granting profundity to the mundane. Prom dances become religious awakenings, Roy Orbison’s lovelorn paeans become calls to violence. Through this inversion, Lynch articulates the flaws within the American experiment are indelibly intwined with its successes. Twin Peaks, while coming from the same starting position, expresses this thesis in a less effective form, creating an inferior work as a result.
The Twin Peaks creation myth is well-worn territory. A generational talent taking advantage of ABC’s deep pockets to smuggle in a subversive examination of America packed to the gills with arthouse flourishes, a hagiography applied to everything from New Hollywood to Eastwood apologia. In actuality, Twin Peaks is not some landmark achievement. In actuality, it is possibly the most accurate manifestation of the anti-Lynch strawman, the founding text being Ebert’s infamous pan of Blue Velvet (essential watching, one of the many times Ebert showed his ass on national television). Ebert’s indictment rests on the idea that the film blunts its own impact, “defus[ing] it by pretending it’s all part of a campy in-joke.” This sentiment is far more resonant with the Twin Peaks project in which one is forced to invest in the murder of Laura Palmer, but within the show, such brutality is almost on the back burner. Instead, the bulk of the content being a relatively toothless, smarmy satire of daytime soaps. Of course, one could easily dismiss such a critique as authorial intent, especially given Lynch’s own intent to never reveal Laura’s killer; the true focus being the eponymous town’s human drama all along. However, this line of thinking betrays an even more horrifying reality — Twin Peaks is not a noble misfire, but rather exploitative dreck. A show that uses violence against women as an aesthetic crutch (a claim that could be leveled against Lynch regularly, particularly the puerile Wild At Heart), creating lazy intrigue for audience buy-in for the comparatively mundane corporate skullduggery and secondary school social politics that occupy its universe. This line of thinking cannot even be excused as a failure of imagination — Lynch’s charming but forgotten (and arguably superior) TV follow-up On the Air as well as The Straight Story are examples in which the director’s humanist tendencies are able to conjure great drama from the everyday, making Laura’s murder a needless catalyst for the resulting daytime TV drama.
While most of this can be attributed to network censors blocking the depiction of more libidinal concerns, most of the weak spots of Peaks tend to be attributed to a period of Lynch’s absence, absolving him of the narrative nadir in absentia. Lynch himself has gone a long way to embrace this apologia, saying “the second season sucked” outright. However, I would contend the abject failures of the show come not from an absence of his influence, but rather an unchecked embrace of Lynchian whimsy. The oft-maligned second season with its ridiculous b-plots, languid pacing, and shaky writing after Lynch left the series to focus on Wild At Heart (somehow an even poorer decision) builds off the same substance-free absurdity of the first season, but the lack of aesthetic panache reveals the weaknesses the series had all along. Ben Horne’s confederate delusions, Nadine’s super strength, this absurdity was an extension of the previous material. A collage of pure Americana made perverse, set against a tranquil, bucolic town, all straight out of the Lynch playbook.
Beyond the structural issues stemming from the mores of network television programming, the efficacy of Lynch’s style in a primetime medium is another rub. In broad strokes, the method of his best works (Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, Eraserhead, and to an extent Lost Highway) is using the language of dreams to communicate primal fears, communicating through a dialect only spoken within the subconscious. For all its detachment from reality, the opening of Eraserhead accomplishes this exercise perfectly; the diseased Man In the Planet tugging on a phallic rod to control bizarre sperm creatures, communicating the negative valence of sexual impropriety, an anxiety within the viewer from moment one. Lost Highway takes it a step further, taking the outside context of Robert Blake’s uxoricide and the omniscience of video cameras to transmit the idea that a guilt of that magnitude cannot be escaped through adapting the artifice of a new identity, telegraphing the climax from moment one. In Peaks, even its most famous moments of Lynchian indulgence are masturbatory exercises in abstraction. The oft-cited Red Room/Black Lodge iconography has no real metaphorical depth, instead hoping the viewer finds a leisure suit-clad little person kooky and unsettling, exploiting ableism to get a cheap squirm from mom-and-pop pairings across the country. This focus on shock value is at the core of Ebert’s critique, allowing transgression to masquerade as insight. When the imagery isn’t focused on abstraction barren of substance, its use of dreams is completely literal. The most effective case, Cooper’s encounter with Laura Palmer in the Red Room, materially amounts to no more than thinly veiled allusions to the gory details of her death. There is no artistic merit there, it is simply using an insufferable Freudian literalism to avoid the wrath of the FCC, that in order to exist in the medium the integrity of the art must be compromised.
Now there is still an elephant in the room: the presence of Mark Frost, regularly the scapegoat for many failures throughout the Twin Peaks project. Often credited for being behind the greater lore of the series, as well as the dominant narrative scribe, it becomes quite easy to pin the lack of focus, the jumping of the shark, and the lack of constructive transgression on Frost’s architectural role. However, one key document illustrates that much of the complaints previously raised have little to do with Frost — “The Last Evening” (S01E07). Quite frankly, “The Last Evening” (one of the rare episodes solely written and directed by Frost) is the best episode of the series, treating the subject matter with rare respect and emotional subtlety. From the opening sequence with Dr. Jacoby and Maddy brings about true anguish, reckoning with her absence as tragic instead of fodder for absurd nervous breakdowns or teenage horniness. Leland’s visit to the hospital is a resonant statement on the greater thematic argument up to this point, positing the darkness once unleashed can consume what little grace and purity remains. Even the more meat and potatoes elements concerning Cooper’s investigation are taut and suspenseful, with Frost’s Hill Street Blues chops making themselves very apparent. Frost’s vision of Peaks is much closer to a successful rendering, treating its content with a tenderness often missing, refusing to indulge in the dismissive irony utilized elsewhere in the series.
Rendering the shortcomings of its televised counterpart even more frustrating is the unqualified triumph of its cinematic companion piece, Fire Walk With Me. Dispensing with the slapstick and snark, Lynch crafts something closer to Passion of Joan of Arc or Vincent Gallo’s opus The Brown Bunny than the original series, spinning a complicated yarn of survivorship. Laura Palmer is given a presence and voice, her pain made real rather than a past tense justification to gobble down donuts and dance under the fluorescent diner lights. The film strips away the twee trappings of its original text, reducing the fat until only the ugliness is left. A fascinating exercise, outperforming the original series run and providing a superior version of The Return and its climax by doing away with the hopelessly indulgent exercise of fan service orgasm denial. While one could pooh-pooh FWWM’s merit as simply saying the quiet part out loud, the film is able to make a grand statement in two hours on systemic abuse as well as paint a harrowing portrait of psychic torture; accomplishing in two hours what the series failed to do in 48.
This is not to say Twin Peaks is irredeemably bad, in fact as far as network television goes, it is quite good, even great. However, it would be equally as valid to say its influence towers over its merit, and an outsized cultural importance is the result. Twin Peaks is a success in that it provided a precedent for authorship within television, broadcasting difficult images throughout the nation, intimating that television could be more than drivel. However, it is the very failures I have laid out are why it has had such profound cultural staying power. Its aesthetics of accessible transgression become an easy reference point for artists in all other mediums, reproduced easily when there is not much substance to interpret. Badalamenti’s iconic score has certainly done the show a great service in its longevity, becoming another object of cultural affection. David Lynch has become less of a filmmaker and more a cultural signaling point, an art school evolution of the “NORMAL PEOPLE SCARE ME” t-shirts after the Tumblr cohort aged out of schlock. As a result, a cult of personality has erected itself almost overnight, throwing a never-ending pentecostal revival, speaking in tongues over a man who makes profound statements just as often as he makes blundering, often problematic failures. A television show that combines the great dopamine rushes of soapy love triangles and procedural mysteries with avant garde credentials, Twin Peaks and its continued relevance makes much more sense in a neoliberal hellscape in which consumption and commodity signals personal identity, but as some sort of unrivaled artistic triumph, the worship rings less true.
Filmic fits is a weekly column in which a film is just not on the content of its character, but what truly matters: the content of its clothing.
California Split is many things. The tale of a relatively straight-laced magazine editor (portrayed as a passable cypher by George Segal) joining forces with a veteran gambler (Elliott Gould at the peak of his powers, running on the fumes of his stoned Phillip Marlowe in the previous year’s The Long Goodbye), finding both friendship and fuel for the fire of degenerate gambling within the other. In terms of merit, despite some questionable trans representation and being a pretty low-key affair, there’s a fair amount to be found. Split pushes the boundaries of Altman’s overlapping dialogue present in Nashville and 3 Women, makes a compelling case for Elliott Gould as the hottest of the New Hollywood rogues, is maybe the greatest film ever made about gambling (Uncut Gems may have it beat at this point), and an all-time entry within the subgenre of hangout films. But above all else, California Split is fitted. A study in the prep/sleaze dialectic, the eventual synthesis is a sight to behold.
From the first moment, you’re in for a treat. Segal’s Bill Denny puts on a masterclass in the subtleties of metropolitan prep, a prescient vision of Frank Muytjens’s better days at J. Crew would come to be. A heavy chamois overshirt that in less experienced hands might end up as a statement piece instead plays support, complimenting a chunky cream cable knit turtleneck, and finished off with voluminous brown cords. Here texture is all the game, letting neutral tones do the work and the contrast of fabrics making it all pop. (side note: However, you wouldn’t fucking know much texture, with Columbia letting this film languish in licensing hell, leaving VHS quality rips to be the best available option), but trust in this: cord and a chunky knit can transcend even the lowest of fidelities.
Gould’s Charlie Waters showcases the garment to end all garments: the fitted white t-shirt. Here, fit reigns king, giving a blossoming dadbod the appearance of virility and strength, understanding the role of clothing as emphasis of your most flattering assets, and camouflage for insecurity. While this isn’t any sort of revelation or advanced maneuver, it reminds you of the first rule of dressing yourself: fit is everything.
A sleazecore masterclass, from the lapels to the highly visible undershirt, everything about this fit oozes disrespect to mores of formality and an embrace of casual comfort. A relic of its tine, Gould’s blazer is all 70s with oversized notch lapels and boxy cut. Pairing that with a patterned camp collar (long sleeve at that!) is one thing, but going for an advanced maneuver with his collar spilling over and covering the lapel is what takes this over the top. Emulate with both caution and confidence, as belief in yourself can be the deciding factor between coming off as a charming lowlife or Cosmo Kramer. A testimony to the idea one must wear the garment before you let the garment wear you, sleaze is all about a perverse embrace of personal style over stuffy convention.
Much the same from Gould here, now just confirming an aptitude for choosing the right print and another showcase for the visible undershirt as conscious decision rather than faux pas. Segal puts on a prep showcase once again, playing with brown tones and an immaculate university stripe OCBD, throwing a playful twist on what could’ve been an otherwise self-serious ensemble.
Whenever discussing the more progressive American film movements of the 20th century, the movie brats are not exactly the first to spring to mind. From George Lucas’ puerile refusal to move beyond recycling adventure serials predating the New Deal or Paul Schrader’s polemics of white male alienation, much of their output revolved around a sort of cultural solipsism. The one true outlier among them (at least in their prime, as Schrader did eventually blossom until a more complete artist) was Brian De Palma, whose progressive (although not particularly progressive in his aesthetic fixations and perversions) ideology became nakedly apparent as early as Greetings! or Hi, Mom!, the former a sharp critique of anti-war sentiment brewing among disaffected American youth and the latter a more self-effacing look at Woody Allen’s beta male masculinity and coming to terms with its toxicity. His first substantive success, both critically and commercially, came in 1972 with Sisters. While De Palma always included intimations toward women’s sexuality and its condition post-sexual revolution (Carrie’s preeminent rebuke to evangelical chastity, Body Double’s examination of the male bystander under rape culture), Sisters is really the only one to present a substantive critique of the white feminist body politic. Using the duality present in the split psyche of Dominique/Danielle reflected upon Jennifer Salt’s Grace Collier, De Palma is able to deconstruct the failures of the American New Left (in the arena of women’s liberation) to bear fruit in praxis and shine a light on the collateral damage.
The driving animus of Sisters is Danielle’s murder of Phillip Woode while overtaken by Dominique’s persona, the one thread of the film lets remain unresolved by the time the credits roll. The fulcrum upon which this lack of resolution turns is Woode’s identity as a black male under the faux progressive veneer of his metropolitan lifestyle. He is forced into a situation with Peeping Tom that makes him participate in the objectification of Danielle, and for his refusal to participate in the gross collective ogling that wins him the attention of Danielle to begin with. However, once he commits the transgression of sex with Danielle, he is now persona non grata to the greater systems of power. When he enters the completely white mid-century modern decor (Figure 1), his Blackness penetrates the insulated, sanitized space, something echoed later in the film with the mental patient’s unhinged monologue on maintaining “cleanliness” and order to maintain sanity. In her murder of Phillip, the darker side of white feminist movements emerges. On the surface level the action is exclusively concerned about his possession over women, but only occurs because of Dominique’s faulty heuristic of sexual aggressors being of systemically non-dominant identity, calling to mind Angela Davis’ work on “The Myth of the Black Rapist”. In her castration and eventual death strike to the jugular (the first of Woode’s sexual virility and the second to silence his ability to vocalize), she is silencing the ability of the marginalized to make their oppression known. Despite her emancipatory intentions, it betrays the insularity of her motivations, that the liberation of the white, middle class woman is of paramount importance and all other identities are qualified to be her collateral damage. So when at the end of the film Grace, surrounded by dolls and other symbols of infantilization in her childhood bedroom, beseeches “there is no body” and the claim of murder “was a terrible misunderstanding,” the film’s thesis comes into a cruel focus. The marginalized are not accounted for under white feminist movements, either reduced to the same object status the privileged fought to be freed, or pushed to the margin of invisibility.
The main tension of Sisters draws from the dialectical tension between Danielle and Dominique, the two embodying the conflict of shifting sexual morays. Under a progressive, modern society, it is the demure, dulcet-toned Danielle whom wholly submits to the authoritarian patriarch of Emil, while it is Dominique’s rejection of traditional femininity that fuels her eventual demise at the hands of Emil. When Dominique strikes out, it is at institutions she deems unjust: the rejection of domesticity and compulsory motherhood (her attempted garden shear abortion of Danielle’s baby) as well as the tyranny of patriarchal oppression and male sexual entitlement (her murder of Emil via attempted castration, striking at the central node of his lechery). It is not Dominique’s antisocial behavior or neurodivergence that is contemptuous to her overlords, but rather her use of revolutionary methods and violence in order to achieve them. Tackled in De Palma’s earlier, more experimental work (specifically Hi, Mom!), his contempt of purely aesthetic “progress” under the toothless, comfortable, New Left has always been a prominent motif in his work. In order to allow the status quo to continue, Dominique (repeatedly referred to as a “freak” to her own visible terror in Grace’s dream, blatantly outlining her outgroup status) she must be suppressed, allowing the aesthetically free but substantively constrained Danielle to exist peacefully. The fetishization of Danielle as the object petit throughout the film is visible through Emil’s sedating of Dominique during the climactic flashback sequence, it is only when Dominique (the revolutionary force in the dialectic) is suppressed that Emil can achieve a sexual union with Danielle. In his castrated death, he and Danielle lie together in a post-coital position (Figure 2), now achieving true intimacy in unison with the death of his ability to exert his patriarchal urges upon her. Without the presence of a threat of sexual coercion, the tension within Danielle/Dominique ceases to exist, resolving the dialectic not through synthesis, but rather through subtraction.
Sisters is a movie preoccupied with the limits of the petit bourgeois’ political passions, that the status of economic and political inferiority is only unacceptable for certain identities. Once the state of Danielle’s struggle is resolved (that is, the struggle of white women), then the narrative itself is resolved. Even when the central conflict of the film is catalyzed by violence forced upon black bodies, that violence is forgotten just as easily as it is perpetrated. Despite the success in their own emancipation, the collateral damage of those silenced or forgotten is too high a price to pay. By deconstructing the failings of white, middle-class liberation movements, De Palma makes a case for intersectionality in emancipatory movements decades prior to the term’s inception. For all the (well-earned) criticism over the course of his career, Sisters remains both a technically marvelous as well as marvelously radical piece of filmmaking worthy of a closer look.