Have you ever finished a film with a friend, and they proceed to immediately launch into their theory on what they believe it “meant”? They instantly seem to have the answer for what the director was “trying to say,” and meanwhile you have drool spilling out of the corner of your mouth. You are lost in thought, still trying to grasp how to pronounce Joaquin Phoenix’s name, and you’re half sure his name might actually be Joker Phoenix. Your friend rattles off a phrase like “Capitalistic Masculinity.” You nod your head like the mindless, cog-in-the-machine, drone soy-boy freak that you are… and to top it all off, you feel like a ginormous dummy.
This feeling of shame you hold is because your “friend” in this scenario, is better than you are. They watch movies better than you do. You are, in short, an uncultured caveman and a freak. Which, as we both know, is not acceptable. Your reputation is on the line, and if you don’t have a theory as to what that film “meant” ready to regurgitate in the movie theater parking lot, then your ass is grass my friend (your friends will kill you, chop you into pieces, and smoke you like they would weed and/or grass).
In this essay I will educate the reader (soon to be VIEWER (film viewer that is!)) on how to watch a film, using my professional guidelines… but I will not just teach you how to watch film. I will teach you how to absorb film, so that it truly becomes one with your being, much like the xenomorph in the Alien film series. And too, much like the xenomorph in Alien, this newfound film passion will burst out of your chest in a fiery bout of expression, and everyone in your surroundings shall exclaim, “Wow.” If ever you have wanted to “wow” your friends, well then this is the specific essay on a blog chock-full of young men ranting about movies into the void for you.
SETH’S FILM VIEWING RULES:
Rule #1: NO PHONES
You want to watch movies? Then hurl your phone into a river, or other large body of water. Phones have no place in the life of a cinephile, it is a mere distraction – and I don’t want to hear any of that BS about “emergencies”. There’s an emergency happening right in front of you! It’s called The Inciting Incident! As Alfred Hitchcock once famously state, “Movies – the final frontier.” Note how he said movies and NOT phones!
Rule #2: FOCUS
So, you just finished a film. Great. Good work. Now, quickly, recite every line of dialogue from the beginning of the film on… What’s that? You can’t? Well, looks like it’s back to frame one with you! And this time, how about paying attention?! A cinephile must have A Beautiful Mind and a photographic memory (or even better, a cinematographic memory!) if they want to earn the respect of others. True cinephiles will, in fact, often speak in terms of which frame a certain scene or line of dialogue occurred so you had better focus up.
After a film, one film buff might say, “I truly enjoyed the diction and framing found in frames 3,134 through 4,433. The delivery of such dialogue, particularly with the surrounding mise en scène illuminating the importance of such words, was incredibly profound and worthy of a Certified Fresh rating from the film critic Rotten Tomatoes.”
To which you would respond, “Frame 3,134 through 4,433. Yes. The low exposure of the film made it quite dark, and when he said ‘Rosebud’ I found myself nodding and stroking my chin with delight. Good. Thank you for saying that.” These are the conversations you have to look forward to upon completing my essay and promptly logging it on Goodreads.
Rule #3: STAND AS YOU WATCH
This rule is quite controversial. I say this as someone who has had virtually every object feasibly held in a movie theater rifled at the back of my head while standing upright in a movie theater, and yet still I stand. The fact is this, movies are the products of the hard work and toil of countless studio executives. If you cannot respect that and show solidarity by standing in respect of movies, and what movies stands for in this country, then you might as well get the fuck off of this website.
My ideal movie theater has no chairs. It has little white boxes drawn in chalk on an entirely flat surface that moviegoers will all stand in with perfect posture, and there they will respectfully stare at a 72 × 53 ft screen in sheer silence.
Rule #4: NO ESCAPE
As a cinephile, once you have begun a film, you have signed a contract of sorts with the filmmakers. This contract states that you will not quit mid-film. You will watch it in its entirety or be shunned all the way down into the Cinephile Underworld (a location I intend to write about further at a later date). The fact that the doors in movie theaters are not locked as soon as the film begins is a fact that sickens me beyond belief and has often kept me awake at night… watching movies! So perhaps I can’t complain.
Rule #5: UTILIZE YOUR FILM CHARM
I assume that, if you are interested in becoming a true cinephile, you already own a personal film charm. However, for those of you that are unaware, a film charm is a magical and unique object of importance to both oneself and cinema. After each film viewing, your film charm absorbs the energy of the moving image and harnesses it as a form of pure, unbridled, and raw moviegoing power. You must keep your film charm on your person for all film viewings if you wish to grow as a cinephile, as this power can then be harnessed to “level up” in a sense and make you a smarter person. This process is unique to each charm. As my charm is a VHS copy of Mrs. Doubtfire, I must re-watch Mrs. Doubtfire in its entirety (including special features) in order to absorb its power. I know what you’re thinking, “wouldn’t watching Mrs. Doubtfire just refill the charm, and thus creating an endless cycle of moviegoing vigor?” This would be incorrect and foolish. This is not how film charms work.
Rule #6: JAMES CAMERON ONLY
You must only watch James Cameron movies.
(an exception obviously lies in a circumstance where one is absorbing harnessed energy from one’s film charm.)
There you have it. With these 6 rules I can effectively guarantee that you will become among the greatest film critics in the world, nay the galaxy. And after a lifelong adherence to these rules, your visage will live among the stars alongside the greats – and no… not Hollywood stars, but the real stars… up in the sky – God’s Movies.
If you are anything like me, the Criterion Closet tour videos are one of the most trustworthy vessels for film recommendations around. There is a certain catharsis achieved in watching your favorite filmmakers become immediately giddy with excitement when discussing the films that hold a dear place in their heart. And for my money, the Safdie brothers’ visit to the closet remains steadfast at the top of the list of closet visits. After some brief commotion regarding Josh’s stolen Norman Mailer Eclipse set, the first film they dive into is none other than Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983). This moment doesn’t muster any particular excitement for someone unfamiliar with Mike Leigh’s work, yet Josh and Benny’s overwhelming enthusiasm to riff on what Meantime means to them is infectious. Upon viewing Meantime for the first time I found myself bewildered how this plotless, slice-of-life Channel 4 picture had influenced so much of these burgeoning auteurs’ ideological project. Meantime’s influence is never more apparent than in the Safdies’ initial mainstream success, Good Time (2017).
On paper, these films’ narratives appear diametrically opposed. Meantime follows a working-class family’s aimlessness during times of mass unemployment under the fist of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Good Time is a robbery-gone-wrong thriller starring a former teen idol reinventing his image. Yet Leigh and the Safdie brothers are infatuated with the world they live in, albeit in London or New York, and do not stray away from these worlds. However, the Safdies dress New York up in heightened visuals and outlandish scenarios where Leigh dresses London down trough mundane dialogue and lack of plot. But burrowed under these stories, or lack thereof, political, racial, and economic similarities, framed through the lenses of two brothers, keeps the heart of these two pictures beating.
The Conservative-Liberal coalition’s recipe for turning things around amounts to more Thatcherism—more cuts in government spending, particularly welfare benefits; more privatization; more deregulation. So far, it has failed dismally; the limits to Thatcherism are more apparent than ever.
Early on there is a moment in Meantime where Mark, Colin, and their father, Frank visit the unemployment office to apply for the dole. Each interaction these characters have with the office worker reinforces what we about them: Colin is a bit slower filling out his application, Frank becomes defensive when told to wait, and Mark is a know-it-all angry at the society Thatcher so boisterously denounced Yet there’s a microcosmic prop in this scene that is only highlighted by Mark’s bitterness towards the dole office worker, a pen.
Acting as a totem for Thatcher’s austerity program the pen becomes a summoning point for turning the personal characterizations toward the explicitly political. After Colin chews on the pen the dole office worker throws it right into the garbage (this plays out comically until Mark’s turn with the worker). When the worker asks for Mark’s pen back, he fires off “Our pen!” and slams it on the counter. The direct comparison her seems to be unemployment and denial of upward mobility. “We are not talking about your jobs; we’re talking about our jobs” is the rallying cry made by Mark right before this moment.
Mark realizes he and those around him are trapped by the austere decisions that never considered them. Public services have been slashed, jobs are unavailable, and the only activity available is to toil and wait. Leigh himself believes that the education system had failed Mark and should have nurtured his intelligence in a positive & proactive direction, rather than a bitter and aimless direction. Yet without these services, Mark must hand this pen back to those that are denying him from opportunity.
The pen motif returns quietly in Good Time when Connie, an unemployed individual who becomes a small-time bank robber, approaches the bank teller in the film’s opening robbery. This confrontation is not over the top. Connie does not wave a gun in her face or start holding hostages as you might expect from a Michael Mann thriller. He uses a pen to take money from the institution that capitalistic governments work so hard to bail out. And his intentions for doing this are to provide his brother a life that the government has deemed as a lost cause. The poor state of disability services has failed Nick, Connie’s developmentally disabled brother, just as they failed Colin. Instead of being fated to Colin’s life of nothingness, Nick’s fate lies in the carceral state, and Good Time becomes a parable on desperation, like Meantime before it. Connie may be the immediate reason Nick was sent to Riker’s Island, but only on the predicate of a country gaining its feet post-recession and the consequences the working class is forced to face.
With the dire economic conditions in the worlds of Meantime and Good Time, these main characters do not have the means to fall back on anything except their skin color. Never is this more apparent than in Coxy and Colin’s venture to Haley’s housing project. While waiting for an elevator, the two encounter a Jamaican man, not too distant in age from themselves, and tension starts to escalate. Leigh and Oldman show us Coxy’s deeply seated insecurity through his racist proclivity to start a scuffle with the Jamaican man after asking “I’m all white, you all white?”. Throughout the altercation Coxy feels the need to assert himself by ridiculing the way the man speaks (Leigh touches on the idea of elocution later with Aunty Barbara’s superiority complex over Mark). Coxy antagonizes through plausible deniability, operating in liminal spaces of trust and safety afforded by white privilege, an experience shared with Pattinson’s Connie.
Connie uses Crystal, Dash the security guard, and even the Domino’s Pizza employee on his chase for an idealized life with Nick, without any remorse for how his privilege affect these individuals. Connie is aware that the color of his skin provides him with a certain privilege that other characters are not afforded (the dark-skinned masks used during the robbery sequence show this). The police do not question that Connie broke into Adventureland and immediately profile a drugged Dash as the perpetrator. There is no follow up with the security footage immediately illustrating the institutional racism that plagues policing in America. And while this moment is the most on-the-nose depiction of institutional racism in America, the following sequence with Connie and Ray breaking into Dash’s apartment tells a similar tale with more nuance. Connie and Ray commandeer Dash’s apartment to organize a drug deal on their own agenda. The two put no second thought into the fact that they’re ostensibly gentrifying this Black man’s apartment by virtue of their own skin color. Connie and Ray fail to realize that even when a Black person has followed the American ideal of picking yourself up by your bootstraps, white people still have a capacity to come in and take from people who are deemed less than. This is where Meantime and Good Time diverge. Meantime is targeted at a group of people like Mark, whose experiences are mirrored in this tale, yet Good Time’s audience fail to see their own experience mirrored in Connie and Ray.
Despite what statement I believe Leigh and the Safdies are making, it’s undeniable that these two films are stories about brothers. Family, similar to privilege within this economic context, is a fall back for these characters. Connie and Nick have nothing but each other. Mark and Colin have nothing but each other. The parental figures in their live have a way of blaming their children for personal insecurities and drive their children away from them. This insecurity radicalizes Mark and Connie but forces Colin and Nick to retreat inward. Mark and Connie are very protective of Colin and Nick as any older brother would be. But Mark and Connie also understand their brothers’ have been marginalized by society and fight for their brothers’ voices to be heard.
On day 56 of self-isolation, I decided it was an opportune time to check off a few films on my watchlist. At this point I had not seen another human being in weeks and wanted to watch something that matched my lonesome mood. What better way to complement my sense of yearning than with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho? This screenplay based on a Henriad tetralogy is the kind of avant-garde film that finds itself in the hall of fame of the New Queer Cinema movement. Van Sant tells the story of a young street hustler named Mike (portrayed by king River Phoenix) who embarks on a journey to find his mother, while overcoming obstacles like narcolepsy, poverty, and unrequited love. Through captivating landscapes and a mesmerizing, steel guitar-filled score, we follow Mike on a globe-trotting mission to uncover insights from his past in an attempt to make sense of his identity. Along with Van Sant’s directorial and writing abilities, I was equally impressed by the costume choices of one Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, whose other works include To Die For (1995), Good Will Hunting (1997), and my personal favorite — Aeon Flux (2005). With the new rise of the soft boi and e-boy aesthetics, we would be remiss if we didn’t appreciate the inspiration by which a lot of these trends stem from. Hints of 90s fashion always seem to find themselves in recent fashion cycles, and My Own Private Idaho is a classic example of this era.
In the opening scene we find a pensive Mike trying to comprehend his surroundings after experiencing yet another narcoleptic attack. As seen throughout the rest of the film, these characters have an affinity for sherpa-lined corduroy jackets. Along with the moss-colored coat, Mike dons a vertical-striped blue shirt with a name-tag that says “Bob” over two t-shirts on opposite ends of the gray spectrum. Pasztor makes use of layering akin to recent F/W lines by Gucci–eclectic, disjointed, and slightly oversized. Aside from the price, a large difference between her and Alessandro Michele’s stylings is that Mike and his gang of friends layer their clothes not only as a way to express themselves but to provide protection from the chilling winds of the Portland streets they sleep on.
Mike and his best friend Scott (played by a mid-20s Keanu Reeves) are brought up in very different social classes. Scott is the mayor’s son and Mike lives on the streets. Another contrast in their characterization is the way Pasztor designed their fashion expression. Scott dresses himself as a bad boy motorcyclist who likes all black attire and sometimes abstains from the incessant layering by not wearing a shirt at all. On the other hand, Mike regularly wears attention-grabbing fiery ensembles that juxtapose his somber attitude. In most of the movie he is shown in his signature scarlet jacket with a variety of layered shirts beneath. From the top down his polychromatic costume becomes progressively darker, starting with a light yellow dress shirt and ending with black leather boots. Although Mike doesn’t have much abundance in his life, he makes the most of his clothing options.
The penultimate scene hearkens to the theme of class struggles and parallel worlds. Here, two nobles die. One the king of the poor and the other the king of wealthy. Up above the powerful mourn one of their leaders, while a few hundred yards away the powerless celebrate the life of their mentor. While giving a mundane sermon, a priest wears a black suit, his neck wrapped in a regal purple stole. Scott returns to claim the throne he has inherited and sports another sleek black outfit, but this time he ditches the jackets and ripped jeans for an upscale suit and sumptuous pea coat. All flamboyance is lost as he transitions into his new life. Meanwhile, his old crowd of friends are in their usual rags. They mix and match classic autumn colors like burgundy and honey with juniper and carob. All in all, I like to think that the legacy of costumers like Pasztor continue to inspire the fashion choices of modern-day alt kids across the world.
Now that you have a good feel for Tarkovsky and his style, it’s important to go back to the beginning to see that vision in its earliest stages. Ivan’s Childhood was not initially a Tarkovsky film. Eduard Abalov, the initial director, abandoned the project not long after the first test screenings garnered some conflict between him and the Soviet Arts Council. Tarkovksy, upon learning of the abandoned project, applied to take over and was allowed to resume shooting the same month.
Despite the film beginning as the project of another, there is no denying that Ivan’s Childhood was very personal for Tarkovsky. There are a good number of moments throughout this film which hint at what is to come for our great director. In Sculpting in Time, he expands upon his growing hypothesis that the truth, that is to true experience as felt by the artist, is the very basis for their connection with the audience through their work. He writes:
“…I am firmly convinced of one thing (not that it can be analyzed): that if an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations… This will in turn affect the audience… Episodes redolent of the author’s own mood include the birch wood, the camouflage of birch branches on the first aid post, and the landscape in the background of the last dream and the flooded dead forest. [The dreams] are based on quite specific associations, too. The first, for instance, from start to finish, right up to the words, ‘Mum, there’s a cuckoo!’ is one of my earliest childhood recollections. It was at the time when I was just beginning to know the world. I was four.”
The sequences mentioned by Tarkovsky do indeed rise above the others, as do a few more which are not directly touched upon. Each of the four dreams exhibits that metaphysical quality that Tarkovsky would become known for, although somewhere along the way he concluded that a dreamlike quality need not be reserved for dreams only. Another sequence, in which the young soldier Ivan comes upon the destroyed house of a bewildered civilian, actually uses an atmospheric device which would be recreated almost directly in Stalker. The door of the man’s house, the only thing still standing besides the chimney, continually opens and closes in the threshold throughout the scene, filling the silence with a monotonous and repetitive creaking and knocking that becomes somewhat surreal in the midst of the rubble. If you screened Stalker before this, you might have noticed the striking similarity between this scene and the scene just before they reach the room, in which the shadow of an unseen door continually opens and closes, once again filling the silence with that jarring sound. Finally, the scene in which Ivan manically recreates an escape (perhaps his escape) from a concentration camp is truthfully among the most disturbing scenes in Tarkovsky’s entire career.
The two largest criticisms I found immediately with this film are as follows: the score, while not bad on its own, feels entirely too conventional and out of place. Tarkovsky would later become very in tune with the function of music in his films, but here, it is just off. Perhaps this is due to pressures from the council to be more conventional, a hopeless pursuit they would maintain until Tarkovsky left the USSR for good. Either way, there are a great many moments in which the effect would be tenfold were there atmospheric sound, or indeed even no sound, underneath. The pacing of this film is likewise wildly out of character for Tarkovsky. This is his shortest film coming in at ninety five minutes, and the contrast can really be felt. Again, this is most likely due to outside pressures, but nevertheless it becomes clear that Tarkovsky’s style requires a much slower, pensive pace. That said, the pacing issues are not entirely due to the sheer duration of the film alone. Mirror, for instance, is only thirteen minutes longer yet seems infinitely more contemplative. And after watching three of his more languid films back to back, these ninety five minutes go by in a flash, especially considering that in the later part of his career there will be singular shots that feel as if they go on at least that long.
After a pre-modern meditation in Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky turned his attention towards the distant future with the first of two forays into the science fiction genre. Science fiction has always been about exposing fundamental truths which science will never be able to cure and, more often than not, will manifest themselves further as humanity advances. It goes without saying that Tarkovsky was supremely interested in the human experience. He felt that western science fiction was too cold, sterile, and largely devoid of the humanism necessary to make depictions of the future relevant and truthful. Most famously, Tarkovsky said in reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, “[It] is phony on many points, even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated.” For Tarkovsky, the focus of 2001 (and of western science fiction by and large) was placed entirely too much on technological advancement and aesthetic. Tarkovsky became determined to fix what he saw as flimsy pretension with his third feature, Solaris, based upon the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem.
Tarkovsky’s disinterest in the glamour of futurism can be observed immediately. The future prescribed by Solaris is nothing close to the one foreseen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where the latter is clean, bright, and immaculate, the former is largely… the same? If it was not clear before, with Solaris it should be abundantly clear that Tarkovsky was never interested in science, precision, or technology. Deep space travel aside, the world of Solaris is devoid of almost any classic science fiction identifiers. The space station is messy, disorganized, with exposed wires and wood panelling. The scientists aboard are disheveled, manic, and unkempt. Almost none of the technical interest present in Lem’s novel made it into the film, but its absence is hardly felt. The futuristic setting of Solaris only serves to catalyze a different look into the question of humanity that Tarkovsky rehashed again and again, and as such requires none of the artifice one usually associates with the genre.
Unfortunately (but predictably), Tarkovsky once again faced pressure from the authorities to compromise his artistic vision. The Soviets’ State Commission for Cinematography objected greatly to, among other things, the references to God within the first cut of the film. It was this opposition to the spiritual and metaphysical that routinely placed Andrei at odds with the Council, which is not surprising considering that those two subjects are where the bulk of his interest was placed. However, Tarkovsky was able to circumvent most of the changes requested and saw his personal conception largely intact. For instance, the unnamed entity (referred to as such, despite clearly being an almost Lovecraftian god) which resides in the ocean of the planet Solaris is given sentience by the scientists aboard the space station to avoid the otherwise obvious implications of having a supremely powerful being with the ability to read one’s very soul residing at the edge of the universe.
Solaris is interested most of all in the idea of perception and what it means to be conceived of in the mind of another. And, furthermore, what part of a person is left with you once they have gone, either in the literal sense or in the sense of death? What starts as a seemingly detached analysis into the psyche very quickly becomes overwhelmingly human. We exist entirely because of perception, either by our own self-perception or the perception of another. But what does it imply when the way you are perceived is almost entirely up to that which is perceiving you? Following this chain of logic, how many versions of you exist? At least as many as the number of people you have encountered. And is any one depiction truly the correct one? Additionally, can the fragments of another soul that stick with you truly be them, or are they inevitably just another part of you?
The very powerful emotional impact of Solaris snuck up on me in a way I was not expecting. But by the end, that same truth by which Tarkovsky abides again and again becomes clear: true human connection is all that we have.
“Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant, then began singing the theme of Seven Samurai at the top of his lungs. I joined in, eager to keep up.
At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.” – Akira Kurosawa, May 13, 1977.
In 1982, Comrade Andrei left the motherland and headed to Italy for the third time. He would never set foot in Russia again.
Nostalgia is the most autobiographical film Tarkovsky would ever create. The film is about a Russian poet, also named Andrei, who is researching the somewhat obscure medieval Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky. Sosnovsky, like both of our Andreis, was exiled from his homeland of Russia to Italy. This film’s Andrei (hereafter referred to as Gorchakov to avoid confusion) travels to the town of Sosnovsky’s exile as a part of his study and succumbs to the overwhelming longing to be in his native land. Of the project’s conception, Tarkovsky writes, “I wanted to make a film about Russian nostalgia- about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land… How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalgia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear that painful malady within myself?”
Tarkovsky’s exile, while technically self imposed, was nonetheless a source of great pain for him. After clashing with, as he puts it, “certain official groups in the cinema”, Andrei decided once and for all that it would be impossible for him to continue to work in the USSR. The numerous confrontations between him and the various councils had become too problematic for him, and it was not until the completion of Nostalgia, which Soviet authorities prevented from winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, that Tarkovsky concluded the attempt to continue his work in Russia was impossible.
Nostalgia is Tarkovsky’s most muted, understated work. Initially, it stuck out to me as being lesser than his more popular films. However, upon rewatch, my perspective was altered greatly. Perhaps my understanding of him was not where it needed to be initially. But now, with a greater knowledge of both him and his life, it is possible that Nostalgia will become his greatest work in my eyes in due time. The atmosphere is the most cohesive tonally of all his works, arguably even more so than Stalker. Everything from the bleak, cold, foggy visuals to the distant and harrowing score create a singular, persisting image of alienation and yearning. It is with films like Nostalgia that Tarkovsky’s modus operandi is undeniably present. His experience, his pain, and the state of his soul permeate throughout every frame as the camera, totally unbiased, commits his condition to the celluloid.
The final film in our journey, The Sacrifice is a general thematic culmination of Tarkovsky’s work, an existential parable, and a sister-piece of Nostalgia. As far as final films go, I am hard pressed to find another that is as personal, prophetic, pressing, or honest. Furthermore, its connection with Nostalgia, while perhaps unclear at first, becomes much clearer upon further viewings. But beyond that, The Sacrifice is a worthy addition to The Canon™ for a multitude of other reasons.
This is the second film that Tarkovsky directed in a language other than Russian. The Sacrifice is often spoken about in the context of Ingmar Bergman, and for good reason; this film has much spiritual and practical overlap with the work of the great Swede. The film is in Swedish and was shot on the island of Närsholmen (Tarkovsky was denied access to Bergman’s legendary island of Fårö by the Swedish military). Furthermore, a few of Bergman’s frequent collaborators were involved in this film’s production, the most notable being Sven Nykvist, Anna Asp, and Ingmar’s son Daniel, among others. Erland Josephson, who plays Alexander and whom Tarkovsky directed as Domenico in Nostalgia, was also one of Bergman’s frequent collaborators.
While appearing as somewhat of a companion piece to Nostalgia, The Sacrifice was in Tarkovsky’s mind long before Nostalgia’s conception. “I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of equilibrium-” he writes, “of sacrifice, of the sacrificial act, the yang and yin of personality… the theme of harmony which is born only of sacrifice…” It could be this interest that catalysed the character of Domenico in Nostalgia, who expresses similar sentiments of sacrifice, love, unity, and the dangers of civilization. Domenico has much in common with The Sacrifice’s Alexander, in fact, although to expand too heavily on their similarities would inevitably be to spoil both films.
It is very clear that Tarkovsky’s own mortality was more present than ever during this film’s development. Tarkovsky’s illness from the production of Stalker was progressing. Not only that, it has just taken the life of Anatoliy Solonitsyn, a longtime collaborator and friend of Tarkovsky’s who appeared in most of his films. Of Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky said, “He died of the illness of which Alexander was cured and which a year later was to afflict me. I don’t know what this means. I only know that it is very frightening…” This awareness of death is not merely present in The Sacrifice. The film operates at the stake of global destruction and mutual nuclear annihilation while at the same time successfully conflating it with the mortal grievances of a singular man.
As is obvious from the title, this film is about sacrifice. “Every gift involves a sacrifice.” says the character of Otto, “If not, what kind of gift would it be?” But it is more explicitly the nature of sacrifice, not the sacrificial act presented, that this film is concerned with. Tarkovsky was very interested in the place of the individual within society, as is the previously mentioned character of Domenico. An early scene within The Sacrifice involves Alexander explaining his philosophy that any action, no matter how small, if done ritualistically, can change the world. Later, Otto comments that a cockroach would spend eternity circling around on a plate, never understanding the larger scope of existence, and still be happy. Alexander, Domenico, and Tarkovsky by extension, all see extreme value in humanity’s mundane existence. In the face of terminal illness and nuclear extermination (both of which were very real to Tarkovsky) the task of holding onto faith is made almost impossible. But it is this Herculean labor which everyone on the planet will wrestle with eventually.
What is this small existence for, and what is it worth? Would you give up your small part in it to change the world? How about to change one soul? Tarkovsky was of the belief that humans exist to create art, that art was done in service of the spirit, and that the connections of spirit between humans is vital in securing our existence. Tarkovsky writes as much in the final passage of Sculpting in Time, which I will leave below. All of the mentioned works can be found on the Criterion Channel. I hope this guide has been useful in kindling either a new interest or a renewed fascination in the works of this great mind. Above all, the project of Andrei Tarkovsky is the project of connection. Connection through experience, through spirit, through cinema, connection to our own existence and connection to the source of it. One of the greatest poets, filmmakers, and souls, his works will no doubt stand against the passage of time, as they have thus far, as they continue to shine a light onto the eternal plight of our kind.
“Finally, I would enjoin the reader – confiding in him utterly – to believe that the one thing mankind has ever created in a spirit of self-surrender is the artistic image. Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God”
No Country for Old Men is my favorite film from the Coen brothers for several reasons. It is probably the best adaptation of a book I have ever seen. It stays remarkably true to Cormac McCarthy’s original novel, and when the Coen brothers stray from the original text, it is always an improvement, not a detraction. Despite having seen it several times, No Country for Old Men keeps me at rapt attention with a rich atmosphere of pure dread, heightened by the film’s great sound design and near complete lack of a score. The action scenes are some of the most intense ones ever put to film, in my opinion. Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem, remains one of the most iconic antagonists ever put to film. The Coen brothers apply so much polish in this production, that nearly every detail seems deliberate and purposeful. One of the most important details in No Country for Old Men, one that I appreciate especially, is the purposeful costume design of its characters. The film’s costuming, as I will explain, reflects not only the backgrounds of its characters, but the greater themes of the story as well.
The film’s false protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, is perfectly costumed as a southwestern everyman. The first time the audience sees him, he sports a pair of dark wash Levis, a tan check pattern western shirt, Larry Mahan cowboy boots, and a straw stetson hat. He blends into the rocks of the volcanic ridge he is hunting antelope from, his fashion is that perfect for life in the desert. Throughout the film he cycles through a series of western shirts, and during his nighttime visit to the site of the desert gun battle, Llewelyn dons a Carhartt chore coat. His costume design is directly in line with the audience’s expectations for the average Texan blue collar worker, and the same goes for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who aligns with our expectations for a Texan lawman. He too wears a western shirt, adorned with a sheriff’s star and Terrell County sheriff patches, alongside a pair of brown trousers and boots, and finally topped off with a white straw Stetson. Like most police officers, he accessorizes with a leather gun belt. Both Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell are clearly at home in the west. Their outfits incorporate a lot of the natural colors of the desert landscape they call home, and foreshadow their clash with the very dark and unnaturally costumed hitman, Anton Chigurh.
During the film’s opening monologue, the audience sees several shots of beautiful Texas vistas at sunrise. This establishes the film’s color palette of earth tones, beiges and browns, with some green in the desert scrub and vegetation. We are then introduced to Anton Chigurh, who is immediately at odds with both the desert landscape and its inhabitants. His dark clothing nearly renders him a silhouette, contrasting with the tan uniform and white hat of the deputy escorting him into his squad car. The film takes place in the summertime, yet Chigurh is always clad in an extremely dark navy trucker jacket. He wears this alongside a pair of navy pants and a dark brown shirt. Unlike nearly every other male character in the film, Chigurh wears no hat. Chigurh’s outfit eschews the western details of the film’s protagonists in favor of strong, straight lines. His ensemble establishes him as alien to the earth tone world of Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell, and hints at his strange, violent nature before he commits a single crime on screen. Even his boots differentiate him from the other characters. He wears dark alligator skin boots (ostrich skin in the novel), a rather flamboyant choice, but one that further separates him from the other characters’ traditional style. The boots line up well with his unusual haircut, an odd mop of hair that places him more in line with the discoes of the seventies than the Chihuahuan desert.
His entire look is confusing, and aligns with the protagonists’ confusion at his motives and rationale. Elements of the outfit like the unseasonable denim jacket hint at Chigurh’s almost inhuman toughness, he can simply ignore the heat which the natives alter their clothing to adapt to. In fact, whereas Moss and Bell’s outfits seem to reflect the pale Texas sunlight, Chigurh’s dark ensemble is designed to absorb that light. The Coens effectively costumed Anton to be the antithesis of the world Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell believe they live in, he is a visual representation of the titular country.
Then, there is the middleman of the cast: Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson. Like Anton Chigurh, his outfit avoids earth tones. His grey suit stands out fairly well in the desert, and this hints at him being a fellow hitman to Chigurh. Unlike Chigurh, however, he has adopted elements of western style. Wells’s suit bears pointed western yokes, he wears a hat (felt, in contrast with the straw hats of the protagonists), and his shirts snap up, like Llewelyn’s. Wells’s costume is a middle ground between the shadowy and strange attire of Chigurh, and the familiar everyman earth tones Moss sports. His role in the film is thus, that of a junction between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss.
To say No Country for Old Men has been influential upon my personal style would be a massive understatement. I fell in love with western clothing because of this film. I find myself poring over the shirt racks in thrift stores desperately seeking a snapshirt resembling the ones Moss sports, visiting western stores in search of a Stetson like his, and sporting Levis just as he did. But it is impossible to perfectly replicate his outfit, as every aspect was carefully crafted by the film’s crew to reflect Moss’s personality and the ideas he symbolized (I also can’t grow facial hair, which means I will never sport Moss’s amazing moustache). In studying the costuming of No Country for Old Men, it is clear that every character’s costume is carefully tailored to suit both their personal character and to reflect the themes of the film. No Country for Old Men is essentially a story of stubborn people being unable to understand the nature of the unstoppable evil lurking in their world. The western, antiquated earth tones of stubborn Texans meeting the unnatural and alien navy of Chigurh’s denim jacket and his bizarre disco haircut. Effectively, the Coen brothers used characters’ costumes to highlight this contrast between good and evil in a way that blends seamlessly with the time and place the film occurs in.
Cinema is full of sacred cows. Bergman. Fellini. Antonioni. Names which upon their mere utterance evoke unspeakable grandeur, craft, artistry, and mastery. But even the sacred cows of cinema have their own sacred cows, creating a holy bovine hierarchy in the pastures of cinema. And the King Cow, the most sacred of all the sacred cows, is Andrei Tarkovsky. Of Tarkovsky, Bergman once said, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” And old Ingmar is certainly right. Tarkovsky is often compared to Stanley Kubrick in his methodical and unbending personal vision. This comparison gives too much credit to the latter and not enough credit to the former. Only with 2001: A Space Odyssey did Kubrick come anywhere close to reaching the levels of metaphysical speculation, spirituality, and truly stirring and evocative compositions that Tarkovsky operated at his entire career. And I say this as a fan of quite a few of Kubrick’s works (Barry Lyndon truther here).
The filmography of Tarkovsky invokes at once the real and the transcendental, the spirit and the body, the waking and the dreaming. Initially, I had picked only four of Tarkovsky’s films to write about. However, upon my reading of his fantastic book, “Sculpting in Time”, as well as my revisiting of his works, I felt compelled to share thoughts on all of them. Tarkovsky believed that every work of art changed the artist’s life from that point on. As such, in order to get a well-rounded view of the man and his life’s relation to his work, it is perhaps necessary that each of his seven films which so changed his life are touched upon. This is part one, wherein I will highlight three of the seven that I feel are absolutely essential to understanding what Tarkovsky is about. In part two, I will give my thoughts on the remaining films (which still hold immense value but are better viewed as further investigations into Tarkovsky’s philosophy and are not as necessary to forming a basic understanding).
Andrei Rublev is Tarkovsky’s second film following Ivan’s Childhood, a film which he inherited upon Eduard Abalov’s abandonment of it. Taking place in 1400’s pre-modern Russia, the film follows real-life icon painter and travelling monk Andrei Rublev. Rublev became famous in Russia partly due to attempts by the Soviet Union to reclaim and lift up figures deemed important to Russian history. Appearing almost coincidentally alongside this movement, Andrei Rublev also marks the beginning of Tarkovsky’s frequent conflicts with Soviet authorities, such disagreements later forcing him to go into exile. Because of studio (and Soviet) demands, several cuts of this film exist. This article is in relation to the 183-minute cut, the same cut which can be found on the Criterion Channel.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Andrei Rublev is the somewhat secular approach to the real-life figure and the history of Russian Orthodoxy by proxy. The film’s opening features a seemingly unrelated depiction of the folk myth of Kryakutnoy, a Russian inventor who was alleged to have invented the hot-air balloon fifty years before the Montgolfier brothers in France. The relevance to the Soviet attempt at building the Russian folk mythos should be obvious. It must have been to Tarkovsky as well, who took no real interest in the mythic aspects of either this story or of the lived experience of Rublev. The balloon sequence is totally unglamorous, devoid of the legendary nature the story had picked up, and ends with a crash, bringing us down from the heights of cultural folklore back to reality so that a grounded analysis of the life of Andrei Rublev can take form.
The film’s episodic nature enforces the attempt to avoid creating unnecessarily apocryphal depiction of the painter Rublev. We are given few sparse pieces of Rublev’s life, but Tarkovsky avoids the notion that Rublev, or any great historical figure, need be viewed through the mystifying lens of linear narrative. In this way, Rublev is depicted as perhaps the most secular of any monk put to screen. We see his contemplation and spiritual struggle, but he is the furthest possible from the inscrutable religious figure he has been made out to be. Rublev’s struggle with faith, while crucial thematically, serves to emphasize his greater conflicts with creation and perseverance.
Tarkovsky’s films are notoriously long, and Andrei Rublev contains within itself a premonition regarding Tarkovsky’s long winded nature. Nearly three hours in, in the penultimate episode titled, “The Bell”, we see the film’s thesis explicitly stated. This sequence is grueling, boring, taxing. Full of setbacks, doubts, violence, all in the name of creation. One can imagine that the forging of this bell, done in the name of a murderous prince by a lying little boy, works analogous to both Rublev’s struggle and Tarkovsky’s process as an artist. Creation is oftentimes destructive, scatterbrained, with the final product often out of sight. But for what is all this done? Andrei Rublev argues that it is done for the process, that such destruction serves only as a catalyst for greater and higher creation.
“When I began work on Mirror,” Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time, “I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not merely the next item in your career, it is an action which will affect the whole of your life.” It is impossible to know for sure whether Tarkovsky knew how true this statement was at the time, or if it was simply a wise observation of an artist near the end of his life. Nevertheless, the immense value he put on art cannot be overstated.
Mirror is perhaps the most challenging of the seven films in that any semblance of causality is virtually non-existent; Andrei at his most Tarkovsky. But this is not to the film’s thematic detriment. At its most base level, the film is composed of the thoughts, memories, dreams, and feelings of a dying man named Alexei. The film is heavily autobiographical and even features Tarkovsky’s actual parents among the cast (Arseny, his father, narrates the film, as well as his own poems within it. Andrei’s mother, Maria, plays Alexei’s mother, although their names are the same).
Tarkovsky was of the sentiment that the greatest, most evocative mode of communication was the image. It was to the image that Tarkovsky was supremely devoted. And if Andrei’s church was that of the image, Mirror is its foundational text. The film is visual poetry in every sense of the word; it contains perhaps the greatest photography of Tarkovsky’s career. It is through the supremacy of the image by which all other substance of a film is allowed to manifest. For Tarkovsky, the relationship between cinema and literature was somewhat dialectical. While the script and dialogue by extension are important for a film, Tarkovsky doubted the ascendancy of text over the image that most conventional filmmakers and audiences had (and still have). He writes, “…The time has come for literature to be separated, once and for all, from cinema.” And this is not to deny the importance of literature, for it is another of my obsessive passions. Rather, this is a testament to the power of film. It needs no story, words, nor even any sound to remain effective. It bears no repeating that “Cinema is the art of the moving image”, as it has become somewhat of a tired, self-evident cliché in the quest for justifying a lack of linear structure. But the idea is fundamentally sound, as true as anything, and Tarkovsky fully understood this. We might believe that story above all else is what makes great films compelling, and there is of course a place in cinema for such narratives. However, at the heart of cinema, as well as at the heart of Tarkovsky’s project, is the undying loyalty to truth. This truth, he believed, could only be captured by the image. For, though in language we may relate and transcribe experience, it will always fall short. Experience is at the heart of understanding an existence such as ours, and no combination of words will ever be able to capture being there in the same way.
As mentioned, Tarkovsky’s career was extremely personal, putting down his own experience to celluloid with such religious devotion that he became his own martyr. And this isn’t an exaggeration, for the cancer that killed him, as well as actor Anatoli Solonitsyn with whom Tarkovsky worked extensively, was caused by the terrible shooting conditions of this film.
Stalker is Tarkovsky’s second dive into the sci-fi genre after Solaris, however the two rarely (if ever) occupy the same aesthetic space. The film, as well as a few video games, is based upon the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. The film takes place in an apparently post-apocalyptic universe in which, twenty years prior to the film’s beginning, an unidentified object from space crashed into the Russian countryside, leaving a mysterious and ever-changing area called the Zone in its wake. At the heart of the Zone is a room with the ability to grant one’s greatest, sometimes unrealized desires. However, the room can only be reached with the aid of a Stalker, a mythic guide who may bring others through the Zone but may never use the room for himself. Stalker is likely Tarkovsky’s most famous and influential work. Not only that, Stalker is eerily prophetic in both tone and atmosphere with regards to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Stalker is the last film Tarkovsky ever made in Russia due to his self-exile (a part of his life which relates heavily to Nostalghia and will be touched upon in part two). Some would argue that Tarkovsky’s desire to leave Russia can be witnessed in the first hour of Stalker, the film critic Mark Le Fanu among them. I would agree to a certain extent. “I’m imprisoned everywhere.” says the Stalker, not long after the film has started. Likewise, the similarities between the dystopian society depicted within the film and the reality of the USSR and its many gulags cannot go ignored. However, while Tarkovsky’s desire to leave the Soviet Union may be manifesting through this film, it is hard to say that it, or indeed any singular idea, is the main focus.
This film is one of the more ideologically dense pieces in Tarkovsky’s repertoire. Clearly defined in retrospect is the search for hope, the fear of desire, the loss of faith, and the ignorance left by it. But in viewing, the film takes on a spiritual kind of nature that makes hard analysis all the more challenging. The imagery is vast yet dissipates once the meaning begins to come into view. Only in the last forty minutes or so does the film’s hypothesis truly come into view. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I strongly recommend that the next section be read after your first viewing of this film. Think of the coming paragraph as the spoiler version of the Zone. You may only safely pass with Stalker to guide you.
Once the room has been reached, the thematic gears begin to turn at double speed. Upon arriving at the threshold, Writer and Professor (who have hired Stalker to take them to the room) begin to question why they embarked on this journey to begin with. They think of the tragedy of Porcupine, a Stalker who, after sending his brother ahead of himself to die, stepped into the room. Upon leaving the Zone, he was met with a large sum of money. No happiness, no peace, no salvation for his brother. Just money. The terrible reality of Porcupine’s most basic desire as revealed by the Zone was too much for him to bear, and he shortly killed himself. Writer argues that the room is unsafe, and that nothing shown to you can possibly make up for whatever shameful outcome you might receive. Man’s true nature is greedy, hateful, and selfish, and no amount of idealism can protect you from the soul-stripping nature of the Room. Neither he, nor professor, wish to take such a risk. They resolve to stay outside, to the dismay of Stalker. Stalker recounts how his life is meaningless without the zone. He has nothing to show for his life, no money to shower his wife and child, and cannot even enter the room himself. Yet, he has been given the invaluable gift of leading others to the Zone. Without it or the room, his entire existence will be pointless. His two companions proclaim his naivety as he does their pessimism. And nobody enters the room.
This speaks first to the very nature of faith. Stalker’s entire existence is dependent on the truth of the Zone, yet simultaneously faced with the reality of the Zone’s potential for harm. Without such unwavering, unconditional faith in it, he is lost. But because he has so much faith in the room, he inevitably becomes the least likely to take advantage of it. Conversely, Writer and Professor’s doubts about the room and its potential for evil make them more likely to be disappointed by whatever outcome they receive. They are unable to see the beauty in the Zone. And it appears as though Stalker’s faith, too, is wavering by the end.
This film lends itself heavily to dissection by conversation and truly must be experienced for yourself. Additionally, the supremely dense nature of the film lends itself to multiple viewings and many thorough readings. At once haunting, mystic, and peaceful, I consider Stalker to be the best singular example of what Tarkovsky is getting at. However, that does not mean the journey should stop there. In part two, I will discuss the remaining films of Tarkovsky’s career (Ivan’s Childhood, Solaris, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice) as well as their influence on Tarkovsky’s life and philosophy. You can find all of Tarkovsky’s films currently on the Criterion Channel. Viewing the three features mentioned this time around shall give you a steadfast foundation for the rest of our dive into Russian cinema’s greatest mind in Part Two.
“[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.
New York, New York is Martin Scorsese’s most interesting picture. Maybe not his best, and certainly an outlier in his filmography. You’ll probably have a hard time finding it, seeing as it’s been almost scrubbed clean off of streaming services, even for rental. The film was a box-office bomb at the time of its release (Scorsese’s cocaine addiction during production led to some of the film’s more peculiar moments and its negative reception pushed Scorsese deeper into drugs and a depressive slump), but I truly believe it’s one of the most special things Scorsese has ever put to celluloid.
The film follows saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) as they grow as a couple and musical act, both relationships complicated by Doyle’s possessiveness and volatility. Doyle courts Evans at a V-J Day celebration, insistent against her protesting, pestering her for her number after his rejection by the other women at the party. He’s unbelievably sleazy, reflecting archetypal masculine pathology of the time, more Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place than the anodyne Gene Kelly. Francine is staunch in her disapproval, roped into his affairs by a string of coincidences until the two happen to be hired as a musical duo, with Doyle on the sax and Francine singing standards. Their respective musical talents are complementary enough to have them work together, but varied enough to provide them with entirely different career paths and benchmarks for success, branching paths catalyzed by Francine’s pregnancy.
Fully a love letter to The Red Shoes, but quintessentially a Scorsese film, the movie is animated by the twin polarities of glossy artifice and gritty realism. This leads to some discomfort in the beginning of the film, with the musical signifiers starkly discordant against Robert De Niro’s portrait of archetypal and possessive masculinity. Liza Minnelli’s character is more indicative of the melodramatic and classical musical picture; De Niro’s masculinity has a pull over the narrative while Minnelli’s idealism overwhelms the mise-en-scène and set design. The film is in constant tonal conflict between these two registers, pulled in either direction in a tense stasis that finally gives way, oscillating to both extremes in the film’s final act.
Watching this film is an extremely strange experience. It is a Scorsese picture in its honest portrayal of toxic masculinity, but that message is ensconced by the MGM musical artificiality: polar opposites that make for strange moments. Its biggest draw is its spectacular mise-en-scène and cinematography, with inarguably Scorsese’s greatest production design. The overt constructedness of the sets gives the film a Sirkian quality that critiques the spectacle of the Hollywood movie-musical, but like all the best critiques of popular genres in that vein, it delivers on the promises of spectacle.
De Niro’s improvisations lead to moments of awkwardness, leaden lines and passes at humor that go over poorly despite Minelli’s best efforts at recovering the moment. Most of these are mercifully relegated to the beginning, but the rocky start can make identification and interest more difficult in the middle. If you trudge through this, however, the film opens itself up in a series of extremely compelling vignettes as the film barrels toward its climax. One scene of De Niro and Minnelli in their apartment together, shortly after De Niro’s character returns from touring, is almost unbearably tender, a brief respite from the instability of their relationship that passes almost as quickly as it comes about. The film makes a jarring tonal shift when the couple gives birth to their child, as De Niro’s masculine insecurities and neuroses reach a breaking point and he rejects the family he’s created. He was displeased with the idea of children from the start, irritated by the stalling of his work, and his refusal to be a father in the traditional sense is motivated by those career ambitions during Francine’s pregnancy, but more animated by a nebulous masculine interiority when his son is born, his abnegation of fatherhood feeling like a desire to avoid recreating conditions he himself experienced. The film then careens into its musical within a musical within a musical, diegetically justifying an obscene display of spectacle and reaching the height of the film’s outward face, just before collapsing into a distilled realism that doesn’t feel cynical or negating of the spectacle that preceded it, but instead shows its subjects with a maturity and growth that they desperately needed for a long time. The melodrama works to heighten the emotional stakes of the previous portion of the film, while its comedown serves as a deeply moving reality check. It is neither cruel nor rose-colored, presaging The Irishman’s thesis: it is what it is.
The ending isn’t without its antecedents in the film musical genre, though. The Red Shoes famously ends without the happy ending for which Francine’s musical is named. Similarly, An American in Paris’ ending gives a similar denial of narrative closure after the film’s most stunning musical number. Nor is New York, New York without films it has influenced, most notably La La Land, which draws significant influence from the structure of New York, New York and the films from which it draws inspiration, reskinned for the West Coast. I’m going to prefer Scorsese’s somewhat flawed picture over Chazelle’s film for the simple fact that New York, New York is stylistically and thematically ambitious, constantly in conflict with itself, and significantly experimenting with Scorsese’s specific fixations while paying homage to a series of films he loves. It’s a significant work within his filmography partially because of its poor reception and variation from Scorsese’s gangster auteur project, yet that uniqueness makes it feel like a breath of fresh air within the director’s oeuvre. Like a less stiffly mannered version of The Age of Innocence, it’s Scorsese’s ideological project circumscribed by genre signifiers from a mode of filmmaking almost diametrically opposed to his at the time. Ultimately, it’s a bold film that’s tragically unavailable for viewers reliant upon streaming; Scorsese’s play with genre has never been more moving and more creatively inspiring, warts and all.
There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I mean, how could you possibly resist an art-driven French rendition of Desert Hearts? The enormous swelling silences, the unbearably yearning glances–I just melt at the thought of such sapphic excellence. It’s a film that hurts in all the right places and thankfully received the critical acclaim and recognition the lesbian film canon desperately deserves. Most of the discussion of this movie is in regards to its phenomenal script and unpatronizing depiction of LGBTQIA+ romance. And while I cannot expound enough about the line “In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of” being the most chilling line I have ever heard uttered, what strikes me the most about this film is its visual form that pays homage to the historic period it’s set in.
Situated sometime in the mid to late 17th century, the intense passion and style of POALOF invoke the waning of the Baroque artistic movement that swept across Europe and touched every influential aspect of creative endeavors, and, in some ways, revolutionized visual style and form. As a brief overview, Baroque style is typically characterized in contrast to the previous austerity of artistic movements like Renaissance and Mannerism. So, where Renaissance art was steeped in the quiet dignity of realism that moved to unite Christianity and science, Baroque presents dynamism through precision and embellishment. Through the usage of motion, contrast, exquisite attention to detail, rich coloration, and a sense of awe and adoration to its subject material, Baroque art is omnipresent not only in the story world of POALOF but also in the overall visual effect of the film itself, portraying it as an extension of the period’s paintings in a reinterpretation of film as an artistic medium.
Away from the more muted tones of naturalism, Portrait of a Lady on Fire relies on deliberation in its presentation of selective vibrancy in color. Evident mostly in the strategic color-coding of its queer characters into archetypal figures, Marianne and Héloïse’s costuming provides beautiful illumination to contrast the darkness of the background. Here, the vivid red-orange of Marianne’s dress sets her apart from her landscape filled with the beautiful blues of heavy shadows and ocean waves crashing against the French coastline. Warm tones like hers are commonly used throughout Baroque art to provide intensity and drama to the foreground to pronounce the depth of field in an exaggerated sense of perception. It’s vibrant; it’s power; it’s unsatiated passion in longing for eroticism all composed onto the body in space. Héloïse’s color composition acts in opposition to Marianne’s by using the Convent deep blue tones in the typical Christian fashion of the time to connote angels and chastity. Her tethering to the religious world and the way that it guides her desire shapes the visual juxtaposition of the two women as opposing ideals converging in a perfectly balanced frame. Even as the colors oscillate between the two women, the intentionality of them of the primary figures on the screen in brilliant richness remains constant.
It’s absolutely impossible to discuss Baroque art without at least mentioning the specific implementation of lighting composition which distinguishes it from other previous movements. Chiaroscuro pushed the two-dimensional world of painting into the third by focusing light coming in from a specific direction and gradually shading away from the light source. Portrait channels this directed illumination in its interiors magnificently, relying on the exaggerated shading from candlelight to impartially obscure the subjects into darkness. Every shot of the film focuses the composition on this natural light source draws the viewer into the intimacy of a confined space as the delicate details of the subject flush with a glow to mark tacit glances and hidden gestures of yearning. Even in the exaggerated form of chiaroscuro–tenebrism–the softness and sincerity highlight expression over form as a series of dramatic sparks on par with Caravaggio. In the scene where Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie go to the village initially, the communal fire pit blazes at the feet of the women singing in acapella, casting Héloïse’s face in a fiery warm glow as the darkness of night inks around her outline; she is not just a piece of the story captured in the frame but exists as its entirety while the dynamism of the fire eating away at her highlights her allusion to Orpheus. Kineticism compounds as visual art and film compress into something new entirely that’s just utterly breathtaking.
Héloïse’s looks in those shots are everything as her body slowly sweeps the ground moving away from the fire as she focuses on Marianne over her shoulder like an homage to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Figure play is strangely embracing in a confrontational engagement in and out of the film. More than an audience, the open frame style holds the audience captive through the portal into the diegetic world of bodies in motion. The eye line composure of Marianne and Héloïse throughout the film is obsessively balanced and always in interaction with each other. Living and momentum pull inward and the space between them in a charged vacuum where nothing and everything meets. Typically Baroque composition builds the subjects along diagonal lines that triangulate. But in POALOF, the third point of the triangle is the viewer smothered within the lingering tensioning between the two. You can bathe in the heat of the moment and suck up the sultry energy radiating in the dead space between forbidden sapphic desire.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire reinvents the functionality and limitation of mediums as a visual medium of expression conceptually transforming a film into a living painting perpetually in movement. Its expression and style fights against the chaste austerity and convention of the past to ignite something so beautiful and potent like the fire that lights to warm them. But like all great works of art, at some point, just have to stop.
A leaked dispatch from the late night Scrawls On Cinema Editorial Board Zoom calls. Due to the cowardice and craven careerist tendencies of most involved parties, names have been redacted.
Individual 1: Yeah man, how do we start this? It’s just this….with the rise of letterboxd, the platonic ideal of the movie critic is just fucking useless now.
Individual 2: It’s become democratized to the point where anyone and everyone is visible enough, and that’s the problem with these big publications is they don’t have enough of a critical voice to cut through the noise.
Individual 1: It just did a lot to unmask the craven nature of the median film critic.
Individual 3: And now even the median viewer isn’t interfacing with critics at all.
Individual 2: The tomatometer is as far as most people get now it’s been an insidious force.
Individual 4: You go back 20, 30, 40 years — Ebert and Maltin were far larger cultural forces. Even Ehrlich, one of the more well-known of his generation is confined to twitter.
Individual 2: You could never imagine him going on talk shows and holding court the way Siskel and Ebert did.
Individual 5: I think Ehrlich is a perfect encapsulation of what criticism is now. You don’t really have anybody, any major voice to speak on movies because everybody has their own circles or echo chambers on film twitter, so you don’t need a critic to put a blurb on a box anymore.
Individual 1: And I think at the heart of this, what chafes my nuts about this guy, it’s what Armond White said about Roger Ebert. You know he said “this guy wasn’t a film critic, he was a critic of consumption.” And it’s the same phenomenon with Ehrlich’s criticism. He worships at the altar of consumption, Individual 5tening films that Twitter has already decided will be critically acclaimed, and because of his review embargo, writes a vague “this is awesome” Letterboxd entry and becoming the central node in a feedback loop.
Individual 3: Exactly, somebody has to make the AdSense make sense, so he’s encouraged to do that. He has no reason to stop, he gets engagement, which is the same thing as good criticism.
Individual 5: One could even say…Ebert has a significant part in film as a whole in popularizing the canon throughout his career, and Ehrlich doesn’t even share that, he’s just a pale imitation of what Ebert stood for on a lesser scale, writing the most pedestrian things imaginable.
Individual 2: I can’t think of the last review of his I ever engaged with, that I ever said “Oh there’s something interesting there,” it’s all quite surface level.
Individual 4: He’s a big meme-er!
Individual 5: Come on, that Hamilton four star?
Individual 1: In general, he has no ability to interface with anything beyond the immediate cultural moment. The thing that always exposes him as an intellectual fraud is engagements with the canon. Once you strip away that present tense over-appraisal schtick, there’s no utility.
Individual 2: There’s no historical context. My favorite critics, Armond White, Richard Brody, there’s a clear historical underpinning there.
Individual 4: It’s always “this is the movie we need right now” writing, trying with all his might to tie it to a current flashpoint. Even Paddington 2, in some ways a response to Brexit, was overstated in its social utility and too much of a generous read into the teddy bear film.
Individual 2: Yeah that’s something you can write off in a sentence or two.
Individual 1: I quite like Individual 3k Pinkerton and he’s said something that to reduce a film’s ideology to a current flashpoint is horribly reductive, when often these creatives have been carrying these ideas and images around their whole life. To make a film just about an event that occurred six months before shooting with a script written two years ago is a fun corollary, but it’s not honest analysis. When you have these “this is the movie we need” those analyses tend to turn out ahistorical. Framing Blue Velvet as a pure reaction to Individual 4 doesn’t work, because so much of that film is fixating on childhood trauma and personal obsessions.
Individual 2: It’s confirmation bias. Just like Peter Travers, his mind is made up before the butt hits the seat. He has the blurb ready.
Individual 1: He loves a good four and a half star rating, which is completely craven. Doing the whole:
“This movie is really good, so please don’t tell me I’m being mean or I’m wrong, but also it’s not perfect”
Individual 5: “Yeah, I took off a few points.”
Individual 1: Exactly, reviewing it with the same rigor as a high school English teacher trying to nurse a 14 year old’s interest in writing rather than you know…a serious critic.
Individual 5: And it’s hard to differentiate sometimes — because his Letterboxd is personal enjoyment metrics, but also uses it to promote his writing, so it’s just an extension of his “real” criticism.
Individual 2: Exactly, he’s just a very high functioning Letterboxd and Twitter critic.
Individual 1: Let’s take a look at the 4.5 Ehrlich canon. Annihilation, Suspiria, The Farewell, High Flying Bird…
Individual 5: High Flying Bird?
Individual 1: Fuck yeah dude! The Post, Lady Bird, Inception, The Beguiled…
Individual 2: The #resist thread is there.
Individual 1: Personal Shopper, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, Swiss Army Man, The Handmaiden. These movies are of such different levels of impact and reception but what they all have in common is at the time when he saw an advance screening, Twitter was really fucking excited about these films. He was affirming their hype by saying “These are great, important works,” when nobody is going to be talking about Suspiria (2018) in five years.
Individual 5: Captain Phillips 4.5 as well.
Individual 4: I honestly kind of respect that.
Individual 2: [Redacted remarks]
Individual 4: Jesus Individual 5t.
Individual 1: That’s getting redacted, yeah that’s getting redacted. At least he has a Parker Myers approved Hugo 4.5!
Individual 5: He just needs to watch more movies! However, I will respect his Forgetting Sarah Marshall love, that’s a 3.5 but I respect the love. It’s a very personal movie.
Individual 1: I’m sure he went to grad school, and I’m sure he’s soaked in the canon, and it’s not as much he doesn’t know that he doesn’t care.
Individual 1: His audience will never desire to watch the third best Fassbinder film, so it’s unsurprising the critic that appeals to that audience would care either!
Individual 2: At this point Fassbinder just exists as a buzzword to people.
Individual 5: For this to be one of the biggest critics of our cohort it’s….
Individual 1: For David Ehrlich to be Zoomer Pauline Kael, that’s fucking criminal! It should be a violation of the Geneva Convention to unleash that on your own citizens.
Individual 5: I respect Brat Pitt’s reviews more, because at least they are speaking from the heart.
Individual 1: But what even makes a good critic? What makes Armond White a good critic?
Individual 2: Perspective!
Individual 5: Armond White is….sure as a writer for The National Review he goes into the politics of things with a Individual 1d I obviously disagree with…
Individual 1: Oh fuck off! Just because this is going in the written word doesn’t mean you have to shoot up a flair to signal your acceptable politics you fucking craven fool.
Individual 5: Hey, I —
Individual 1: Individual 5, I swear you’re still going to get laid if you express some sympathy toward a conservative thinker one time, I promise you. You think every time someone says “Thomas Sowell” a vagina dries up somewhere at the same time, you think that’s how that works? It happens simultaneously.
Individual 3: That’s not getting redacted.
Individual 4: No that’s staying in.
Individual 5: Okay, so I respect Armond White. His comparing some of the shot’s in Bo Welch’s Cat In the Hat to German Expressionism is just inspired. Whether it be a troll or not.
Individual 1: Yeah, and that’s something people underrate with Armond is the prose actually flows.
Individual 2: I like some florid prose. That’s why I read critics, I want them to be smarter than me.
Individual 1: And at least Armond has a somewhat consistent worldview instead of just hyping up whatever is fashionable. Say what you will about that “Antifa Film Syllabus”, it’s a dogshit title, but if you view it as “these are 25 films that gave people dogshit ideas” and quite frankly, he’s fucking right! I agree with about 20 of the entries on that thing!
Individual 4: I’m reading Ehrlich’s review of the new Charlie Kaufman novel right now, and it sounds fascinating.
Individual 2: He does a lot of adjacent reviews: novels, video games, that sort of thing.
Individual 1: Didn’t he do a Last of Us Part II review?
Individual 2: Yeah he loves it.
Individual 1: Does anyone have any more thoughts on Ehrlich or can I just stop recording?