Dog Lady – Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella (2015)

Some movies tell, while others show. Of course, even within the most abstract or avant-garde film, there is often a narrative, submerged, perhaps, or needfully constructed in the mind of the viewer, but even so, we can divide most cinema along a line of expository clarity. Does the film labor to make sure all viewers alike understand in the same way, and follow along the same thread, or does the film create a space within which viewers are allowed to play more freely, to make their own meanings from the materials at hand? Answering this question, classically, has also served to describe the difference between “Hollywood” productions, where clarity and impact are paramount, and many foreign films, which make the viewer do more work to come to an understanding of what, exactly, is happening. Dog Lady, a low-key and fairly unprepossessing film from Argentina, happily falls into the later camp – it is really little more (but this is a lot) than a book of days recounting the comings, goings, difficulties, and small triumphs of a homeless woman who lives on the outskirts of an unnamed city with a large pack of dogs. While I am probably biased to films that show rather than tell, and which are observational and “meandering” rather than running smoothly on rails, I must admit there might be more bad showing films than bad telling films; it takes some effort and purpose to create a narrative that will attract viewers, so the observational film can often fall into an “art for art’s sake” mindset that elevates anything “real” and unadorned to a place of poetry. (For a recent example of this kind of failure, see Heaven Knows What). Luckily, Dog Lady has only a few wobbles, and the solid acting of Verónica Llinás in the title role, along with an assured tonal sense and a point of view sympathetic without being patronizing or sanctimonious, allows the film to achieve a rough poetry which lingers in the mind of the viewer far afterward.

The film starts in a fragmented cloud of shots, low to the ground, and travelling, in which parts of dogs and the parts of our protagonist are confused. The dog lady is hunting, with a slingshot, to provide her sustenance. At first we might think this is a film about a woman with a confused identity, a feral lady who is one of the dogs that surround her. But no, we gradually see she has a much more ambivalent relationship to the animals, to the point that we begin to wonder if she even enjoys their company much, or if it is forced upon her. She is definitely the alpha, and enforces her priority – we see her smack overly eager dogs in the face when they try to snatch food from her – but she is not overly stingy either. Neither is she the alpha to the degree that the dogs kowtow to her, as they assert the priority of their numbers a few times, as when they tip over her barrel of fresh rainwater; all the same, we do not feel the dog pack is a menace, nor do we feel that the woman and the animals have a combative or competitive relationship. It is one of the main strengths of the film that the woman is not analogized to the animals, and that the animals and the humans have multiple and often conflicting relationships with one another, even as they live in a kind of symbiotic unity (although it is obvious the dogs need the woman far more than she needs them, except as mute witnesses to the facts of her existence). The film takes place over the four seasons of one year, each season being heralded by an intertitle. (This is one of the few criticisms I might level against the film: it could segue from season to season subtly, using the changing environment to cue us to the passage of time, rather than imposing it from without, which gives the film a greater air of allegory and metaphysics than the tale requires. The other main criticism would be the use of music, spare and moody electronics, which still detract from a few key scenes, as when teen boys harass the woman, and she finally defends herself by pegging one of them with a rock from her sling). We, as viewers, have many questions about who this woman is and how she makes a go of it. The film does little to answer the former, but, by the end, has resolved most of the latter. We see where she lives, and how she repairs and builds her structure; we see her collect water, shower, and cook; we even see her interact with locals, fringe types like herself, from sneaking into a more well-to-do woman’s shack to steal some necessities, to having a sexual encounter with a field worker about her own age. She goes to the doctor. She goes, with her pack of dogs, to a kind of demolition derby / spontaneous car festival. What is impressive about the film is that, while we don’t have concrete answers to this woman’s identity, watching her make her way in the world allows us to get to know her such that we can begin to answer our questions for ourselves, even if not definitively. The film allows us to glimpse inside her by way of familiarity; we begin to sense her, to feel her out. A narrative of a type does emerge, and the final shot, while not providing a climax to this narrative, does explore, in a quite simple way, the stakes at play in our dog lady’s tale. Perhaps everyone needs to feel useful, and necessary, for someone, and the dogs, beyond being companions, are also helpful to this woman because they depend on her. Like the best of the neo-realist tradition (in particular De Sica’s Umberto D), which it resembles, Dog Lady reveals the desperate truths at the heart of society and the individual’s quest to survive at all costs, while at the same time never slipping into a bleak cynicism or despair. Whether life is or is not worth living, or is or is not too cruel to tolerate, these films, in their objectivity, do not pass judgement; life gets lived because it is the only choice, but the presence of the animal, or any constant companion, provides solace and camaraderie, if not redemption.

Four stars out of five

The Wolfpack – Crystal Moselle (2015)

Memories are notoriously unreliable, because they are sensuous, living things; unlike facts, which suffer a death when committed to the page, memories transform because we transform. They age as we age, they fade as we fade. But this, the source of their unreliability, is also the source of their power – they are twinned with experience in a way that we cannot control, and if they must share our lives to exist, they also have an existence of their own. This power is attested to by their unexpected emergence; they come forth suddenly, heeding the call of some external stimuli, innocuously living its own life, unaware of the double that we have always borne along inside ourselves. In this way, memories are like a spirit, and we like a vessel – as memories age, they evaporate, leaving behind a substance which is less in quantity, but, as in any distillation, more powerful and potent because of the process. An era, a relationship, a passage, becomes an emblem: a look or a voice that, by being a fragment, cuts all the deeper. Films, like memories, are fragments, and, like memories, are notorious in their unreliability. Pieces of film, like memories, are stitched together into a larger work – the work of telling a story. The best films not only tell a story, they reflect on this ability, which is at the very heart of human nature and sentiment: the desire to use that which is fleeting as the bedrock on which to build an edifice of meaning. For memories are the evidence we sift through (if we are honest, always futilely), to make meaning, and to understand how we are and who we are. Unlike the world of fact, the more we search in memory, the less sure we become, and the less sure we become, the more we sense we are close to truth. It is a testament to the power and art of The Wolfpack, then, that the longer we watch it, the less sure we are that we understand the nature of the story we are seeing, and the more meaningful and multiple that story becomes. It is a story about loving movies. It is also a story about survival. It is a story of pain, dysfunction, and abuse, which is also a story of love, protection, and idealism.

The film, shot in a style not often seen anymore, mimics memory by allowing the story of a family to emerge from observation, and from the mouths of the family members. It is not exactly Direct Cinema, but it is close. Whereas Direct Cinema had a political teleology, The Wolfpack is interested in identity, in manifold forms. Some of these forms are indeed political, or, at least, the film is concerned with liberations of several sorts, but it is an anthropological inquiry only by the way of being an (it must be said, Surrealistic) disquisition on self and other, inside and outside, and the power relations that flow, always, from those two people we all know as Mom and Dad. As is usually the case with those who occupy seats of power, Mom and Dad emerge gradually here, in the negative spaces cast by their authority, in the differences we manage to map between the childhoods before us and memories of our own. The film concerns a band of brothers (and, sadly, discursively, one sister) who spent almost their entire childhood locked away from the world; not far away, as in a fairy tale, but close, in a run-down Manhattan apartment. They can see, smell, and taste the metropolis right outside their window, but they are home-schooled, and only father has the key to the front door. Father also has an interest in movies, and so instead of interacting with other humans, the boys interact with films, and eventually interact with each other through films. They recreate in detail (as far as they can), and re-enact, scenes from the movies they love, as a way to ward off boredom, yes, but moreso as a way to understand what it means to be a human among other humans. Reservoir Dogs (a favorite, we are left unsure, because it deeply connects or because it offers substantial roles for all of them), the Batman trilogy, Halloween, and others become quasi-religious rights, enacted in the living room and hallways with the aid of costumes painstakingly hewn from painted pieces of cereal box and sliced-up yoga mat. The undertaking has the atmosphere of a cult, more of the cargo than of the supreme leader variety – celebrations take on an intensity amplified by the close proximity to the “real thing,” the mysterious society that produced the images that entrance and educate them. (Their Halloween celebration is a thing of beauty, power, poignancy, and some dread). We are introduced to Mom early on, but she seems a bystander, almost one of the gang. Like the titular animals, we begin to think that these teens have raised themselves, and we await the revelation that Dad has absconded to another life, or to the next. But no, gradually father is revealed (although that word might be too strong) to be a hermit, ruling over his own small kingdom rather ineffectually. He could easily have been cast as a tyrant, and without sympathy, but Ms. Moselle is too canny for that. Yes, he is a monster in a way, but he is also a magician. Like Oz, he is a small, disappointed man, out of his element, and with a desire for grander things. He is an idealist – or, better, he identifies as an idealist. Originally from South America, he met mid-western Mom as a guide on the Incan trail. Somehow both of these seemingly hippy dreamers escaped paradise into the urban jungle, and never could find their way out. Unable to go native, Dad dreams of bettering himself in the city, to take the family to the true Western utopia, Scandinavia. Unable to make that happen, he slips into stasis, so close to the ideal, but always too far; he lives in the heart of modernity, and cannot escape to a better one. Or so he says – perhaps these are simply the rationalizations of a lazy, drunken failure. Like everything in this impressionistic film, it is hard to tell what is “true” from what is “real.” Failing to reach his destination, and to deliver his family to their true identities, he recreates his trapped position for his children. As he lives just out of reach of his desire, so shall they.

What separates the monster from the magician might be a matter of perspective. For while this father locks his children away, he does not throw away the key; indeed, he creates a situation (or was it always the case?) that allows them, slowly, to discover that they can escape. And, one by one, they do. They begin to rebel against him, in the necessary process of creating their own identities, and by doing so, reveal their uniqueness to the world, and bring the world into the household (in ways that in other films would have been obvious and ham-handed in their “drama,” but which here flow by suggestively, as memories tend to do). So while father replicated his own prison, he also created a way in which his children could escape theirs in a way he never could. Yes, we can say he has hobbled them, ill-prepared them for the “real” world. At the same time, as we see in a late movie trip to an upstate pumpkin farm, the years cloistered from “reality” have also enchanted reality in a way most of us cannot comprehend. The boys run, whoop, and play, experiencing the colors, tastes, and smells of nature at a time of life which ensures they will be remembered. The father’s sin allows his offspring to experience the world with the fresh senses of children. And, in a turn that is both poignant and potentially self-serving, the children liberate their father as much as is possible – he is along for the ride, although, heartbreakingly, always keeping himself at a remove. As the film winds down, questions only multiply, while answers do not, and the narrative becomes even more fragmented. One of the brothers seems to hitchhike away. Another gets a job as a PA on a film set, and even moves into his own apartment. Mother is reunited with her own mother, who she has not seen in decades. (We hear of a reunion, but do not see it). The daughter, too young to be independent, and who naturally seems to stick close to Dad, remains obscure. (One devastating shot, taken from a distance at the pumpkin farm, shows Mom, Dad, and daughter moving across a field in happiness, only to part as Mom wants to investigate what the boys are up to, Dad splitting off, recoiling into solitude, and the daughter, tottering between them, staggering on, unsure who to follow. We do not see her choice). I am quite positive that the unresolved nature of much of what we see will be dissatisfying for many viewers. If so, that would be a shame, because there is much skill, and strength, in Ms. Moselle’s technique. It takes considerable command, and resolve, to let material speak for itself. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, and gripping, revealing depths that reflect on the nature of the self and of family, and on how we live together at the larger level of a society. In some ways the film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films from the ’70s that focus on outcasts in relation to society, but in many aspects The Wolfpack is more powerful, as it is more humble and less mythic. With the logic of a dream, the film ends with the family producing a “real” film; no longer enacting the dreams of others, each player comes before the camera transformed, representing both him or herself as well as enacting their newly recognized “role.” It is both the logical culmination of the life of a cinephile (playing out in micro form the New Waves of the 1960s) as well as a poetic testament to the forever present possibility of self-fashioning and transfiguration. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as a family portrait; it is the family portrait of us all.

Four and a half stars out of five

Ex Machina – Alex Garland (2015)

The ability to construct a reasonable facsimile of a woman has haunted Western narrative since the beginning. There was Adam, of course, but he had more than a little help from upstairs, both in the realm of construction as well as desire. Pygmalion is the ur-case, perhaps, as he adds the crucial factor of narcissism – that is, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation more for the fact that it is his creation, rather than that it is a beautiful representation of a woman. In a more modern, technologically mediated context, there is Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Future Eve, in which Thomas Edison helps out a friend by building an android version of the friend’s listless fiancee, keeping her stunning form while implanting the desired personality. This instance represents a refinement of the narcissism (and the misogyny), as it elevates man’s belief in technological progress and “perfectibility” as a means of correcting a deficit (in this case, the fiancee’s empty pliability) that was itself constructed by the expectations and strictures of a patriarchal society; the man simply wants a vision of himself, a man with a hot body, and technology is the magic by which this can be accomplished. This magic, however, having no recourse to the supernatural, or God, but having sprung from man’s own strivings, closes the loop, and reveals that the fantasy of constructing a woman is really a stalking horse for man’s envy of feminine fecundity, of his desire to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and/or of his secret yearnings for a homosocial world that satisfies in every respect, even sexually. (Future Eve is interesting in that in the end we learn that technology was not enough, and indeed, for the android to fully replicate a female, the supernatural was required after all). Thus, as with so much discourse about women by men, when all the mirrors are readjusted, we see that what men are really talking about are their insecurities, their disabilities, onanisms, and desires for other men. Ex Machina represents a fairly interesting entry into this lineage, updated for a world on the verge of artificial intelligences that make such possibilities perhaps less allegorical than in past such works.

The film centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for Blue Book, a Facebook meets Google conglomerate and purveyor of soft totalitarianism in the near-future that the film is set in. He wins a contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s founder and resident megalomaniac wannabe God-emperor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his country estate (apparently the size of Texas). It is not until he arrives and signs away his ability to ever communicate about what he will see that Caleb comes to understand his “prize” is really more of a gift to Nathan; his boss has been secretly working on an A.I. that, he hopes, will pass the Turing test, and Caleb is the human equation in the test. The test, however, is a bit revised and advanced, as, when Nathan meets said A.I., she is obviously not human, but rather an android with the requisite basic form to communicate female gender. Knowing he is interacting with a robot, the test then becomes if the robot can convince Caleb to relate to her as a human, and become emotionally involved with her, despite understanding she is but a machine. Nathan and Caleb spend the week hanging out, alone except for a female servant/concubine named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who is silent (Nathan claims she speaks no English). They drink together, and engage in semi-philosophical ruminations on the nature of A.I., based on Caleb’s set interactions with the unsurprisingly named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which take place interview style, once a day, across a wall of plexiglass. Caleb starts to sour on Nathan, discovering he is a world-class egomaniac (also no surprise) who likes to think of himself as a god, treats Kyoko like a slave, and mistakes intelligence for depth (hence the pretentious hijacking of poor Wittgenstein for his company’s moniker). The compound is riddled with closed circuit cameras, naturally, and so soon Ava is devising power outages during the interviews so she can fill Caleb in on what a liar and jerk Nathan really is. After helping Nathan along to a not-unusual blind drunk one evening, Caleb liberates his master key, and goes snooping about. He discovers that, indeed, Ava is not the first A.I. (Nathan has already said as much), and that there are many, many more female robots hanging dormant in closets around the house. Kyoko is herself a robot, kept on call to satisfy Nathan’s need for a party companion and fuck buddy. Eventually Caleb starts to have feelings for Ava (not before learning she is fully equipped to fulfill his expectations in every possible way), and the two hatch a plan to liberate her rather than allow her consciousness to be wiped and upgraded to the next version of womanliness. Nathan is onto the plot, though, and, being a conceited god, certain of his infallibility, does not punish Caleb, but commiserates with him about women and their wiles, which he gladly will take credit for inventing. (Thus, he’s been seducing Caleb all along). Caleb, however, has one last surprise for Nathan, and reveals that the escape, planned for the last day, is a fait accompli. Soon, Ava is loose, Nathan is dead, Kyoko is out of commission, as is poor Caleb, locked away in a sealed room while Ava makes her escape to the outside world via the helicopter that was intended to take Caleb home. The men were all played by the A.I. (or played with themselves in the most baroque way possible), and the A.I. is free to roam the world and people watch (at least until her battery runs out).

There is a lot of interesting material in this film. What it does best is portray the previously mentioned closed loop, the world wherein men invent something that will theoretically prove their manliness, make them omnipotent, and satisfy their desires all in one go, only to have the invention expose their impotence, using their desires against them, and revealing a blind spot in their thinking which is also the size of Texas. As a feminist parable, then, the film succeeds. It is poignant as well, in that it does put (at least this male viewer) into the same spot as Caleb; while I was not attracted to Ava as a sexual object, I did identify with her infatuation and desire to love. When she tells Caleb to “wait here” (in Nathan’s office) after she has been liberated, I assumed she was going into the robot closet to pick out some nice skin, making herself desirable to Caleb and thus allowing her “first time” to be romantic and the fulfillment of what, it must be said, would be her desire only as a projection of a male psyche (which the A.I. theoretically is). The joke was on me, however, as after getting all dolled up in some skin and the requisite virginal white dress (which was my tip-off), Ava seals the doors and exits the facility – her romantic object is the outer world and liberation, not Caleb, who, ultimately, was not necessary. Thus the film is intelligent enough about gender and gendered subject positions to not only complexly represent them, but to reflexively use them against the audience. There are further interesting elements that play deeper into these dynamics. Nathan is, in the end, a very unhappy god, having to drink himself into oblivion almost every night to forget that his “friend” and “lover” is nothing more than an empty fantasy of his own creation. The sequence in the film that is the most disturbing portrays the closed circuit footage Caleb discovers, and watches in fast-forward, of Nathan interacting with his lifeless creations. We see him hauling these replicas of naked women around rooms, attaching and detaching body parts and faces, unceremoniously dumping them in a corner when he tires or gets frustrated. The film thus makes an interesting and perverse connection between the impulse to create and to destroy, as here god looks like nothing so much as a serial killer, playing with parts and bodies. The film seems to posit that, in the end, it is much more likely that creation will hate its creator than love him, and that this is the truest link between the human and the replica – both go about destroying their creator as soon as they have the ability, as a means of escaping the power relation, naturally, but also as a way of lifting the existential onus placed on them from without (Blanchot describes this impulse well in The Writing of the Disaster). Ironically, though, it is this impulse to escape that winds up mirroring the creator most fully, as it sets the created on a course to prove their own mettle by manipulating their environment so that they, too, can become, for a moment, a god. To my taste, this is where the film is most powerful – it suggests that all escapes from control are nothing more (or less) than escapes into positions of control, and that the slave does not become a god to liberate his brothers, but to himself have, or create, slaves.

All of this is to the good. The film has impeccable symbolic logic, which is rare for most movies today, so that accounts for my high rating. At the same time, its narrative logic is not so good. The problem is that, in the world of the film thus created, the narrative simply would not happen. We understand that Kyoko hates Nathan early on. When we see her conspire with Ava later, and then appear in the hallway with her sushi knife, we are confirmed not only in our suspicions of hatred, but in the fact that she has no inherent limitation that would disallow her doing violence to Nathan (indeed, she stabs him first). Ava is theoretically behind plexi because she constitutes a threat; why let Kyoko roam free? Why didn’t Kyoko, at the first good opportunity (that is, Nathan’s first drunk) not slit his throat, grab his key card, and get the hell out, taking Ava along if she wanted? The only impediment would be getting to civilization, which the helicopter, returning to collect Caleb, provides. I’m not convinced that these ingenious A.I.’s couldn’t have found a way around this problem, but even granting that they needed the helicopter, why not simply kill both men once Caleb arrived? There really are problems with the narrative that, unless you take its logic as dream logic, simply cannot be resolved. I’m not a stickler for such things, but sadly, it did weaken the force of the film in the subsequent days after seeing it; even more sadly, such a problem could have easily been resolved with some tweaks to sequencing or minor contingencies. Others might think I’m asking for a little much, but, just like Nathan, Alex Garland apparently has some blind spots. Film-making is, perhaps more than any other art form, god-play. And as we all know, it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five

It Follows – David Robert Mitchell (2015)

It Follows is pitched as a horror film. It is so only insofar as it is a stalking ground for a certain kind of dread. Beyond the trappings of the genre, which It Follows inhabits only as much as it needs in order to critique them, the film is about the sadness inherent in moving from adolescence to adulthood, and more specifically, from a teenager’s conception of sex to a fully informed, mature one. If it were only this, it would already be an unusual, and significant, addition to a genre that, especially in the last few decades, has been painfully devoid of intellectual and emotional significance. But it is more than that. It is not an elegy for a lost, idealized youth, but rather, a portrait of what it means to become an adult, if we take adulthood not as a fallen state, or a cynical inevitability, merely the grabbing ground of goodies denied to youth, but as a stage that must reckon with the endgame while trying to figure out how to play to the end ethically. What sets It Follows apart is not that it contains more insight than your average horror film (it indeed contains more insight than your average film, period), but that it provides an answer to the problems it poses. If it is a portrait, it is a picture of what it means to ethically interact with other people in full knowledge that the end is always already in view, that nothing lasts, and that true friendship, or even love, places demands on us that, if not heeded, result in the destruction of everyone in the game.

Let me be less abstract. It Follows concerns Jay, a girl on the far side of adolescence; she still lives at home with her mother, and attends a local college. She has a clutch of friends that are always hanging around at her house, watching movies, behaving like teens. Jay is not a teenager anymore, but she still has the trappings of a teenager’s life, and we sense, in one of the many quiet moments the film provides, as she floats around in her above ground pool in the family backyard, that she feels herself on the cusp of something she is not quite sure of. She goes on a date with Hugh, who seems a nice enough guy; at the movies (a revival of Charade, ho ho), Hugh becomes disquieted, as he sees a girl in the theater that Jay cannot. They depart, and eventually wind up in the back of his car, having sex. The sex is depicted like much in this low-key, non-exploitative film: as a bit of sweaty, heated connection, not overly profound for either partner. After the sex, Jay lounges in the back seat of Hugh’s car, and he approaches her from behind; he forces a rag over her face, and she passes out. When she wakes, she is in an abandoned building, tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh begins to tell her, and eventually shows her, what will happen to her. She will be stalked by an apparition, which can appear as any person – often it will look like someone she knows, but just as often it will be a stranger. This apparition is, basically, death. If it catches her, it will kill her. This specter is not fast moving; it is insidious, and threatening only in its relentlessness. The only way Jay can avoid this fate is to pass the curse on to someone else – if she has sex with another person, then that person will now be stalked. Jay will not be off the hook, though, just as Hugh is not now off the hook. If the apparition catches the person Jay has slept with, and kills him, then the apparition will return to hunting Jay, and if it catches and kills her, it will return to hunting Hugh. This infinite regress of death, this vertiginous space of slow-moving inevitable destruction, is her new reality, for good. This is the premise of the film, and the rest of the movie works to slowly clarify the realities of this new mode of being; it is really nothing but a description of what it means to live like this. We are not in doubt that this curse is real – the film does not toy with the usual “perhaps she’s crazy, and nobody believes her” cliches. Her friends are affected physically by this unseen force, which can cause collateral damage in its relentless movement toward Jay. Given that it is a real, if invisible, presence, the group tries to destroy it – and indeed, it appears that you can temporarily slow its advance, cause it to dissipate for a short period of time, but eventually it will reappear and resume its forward motion. This invisible force frequently appears to the afflicted with the hallmarks of its character – it often, even when resembling a friend or relative, has the pallor of a corpse, and just as often signifies a sickly sexuality (in this way the film pays homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically the scene where Jack Torrance is seduced by a sexually voracious young woman who, when glimpsed in a mirror, he recognizes as a decomposing yet living body).

Now, this concept, strangely resembling a type of game, or perhaps a chain letter, might sound like a gimmick not much different from many others that guide horror films recently (such as the one that drives the Saw franchise). What places this film above its peers, and reveals the concept to be both a parody and a critique, is that it is not cynical. In fact, the structure of “the gift” forecloses cynicism, or rather, makes mindlessly passing along the curse the most losing strategy of all. Pass it on to some nameless somebody you have no connection to, and before long the specter of death will be back stalking you, as your nameless somebody was unprepared, unknowing of the danger, and thus quickly succumbed. Further, you are setting yourself up to be surprised, as you’ll have no idea when this nameless somebody died, and hence no idea when you will be next. No, “the gift,” for the sake of your own survival, comes with an ethics as well. The best way to ensure your own future is to do what Hugh does: inform the victim of what will befall them. But better yet, take it a step beyond Hugh – watch over your “victim.” Keep an eye on them. In fact, in the best of all possible worlds, you will help them stay safe by becoming a permanent fixture in their life (as everyone with “the gift,” no matter if they are the next intended or far down the list, having been so enlightened, can see the specter). Thus this predicament, undoubtedly a despairing and insolvable one, does have a solution: learn to live with it. And the best way to learn to live with it is to build a community around it. This is why Jay, after much delay and coming to grips with her new reality, gives her “gift” to another. The first intended is Greg, a fellow student at the local college who, we come to learn, she had a sexual relationship with in high school (which was “no big thing”). Greg is likable, and we trust that he has Jay’s best interest at heart, but we come to learn, sadly (for his sake) that he cannot handle the reality that Jay hands him. Taking on her burden as his own, he very quickly becomes distant, avows that he has not seen the specter, and begins to cast doubt on Jay and her burden. Jay’s friends, however, become suspicious of him because of this, as they have both seen material evidence of the specter and, more importantly, understand that something horrible is happening to Jay. Soon enough, Greg’s disavowal catches up with him (in the appearance of his own mother) and he succumbs to his inevitable demise. The second intended is a childhood friend of Jay’s, Paul. He and she shared their first kiss together, and he has obviously retained his crush on her. Near the end of the film, after their last, seemingly fruitless attempt to destroy the apparition, Jay relents to Paul’s desire to share her pain, and she passes “the gift” on to him. The film ends with the suggestion that this bond will take, and, consequently, they will both be better equipped to deal with the future, as they can look for, and fight against, the specter as a team. The last shot of the film shows them, walking hand in hand down the street, with a possible manifestation of the dread ghost slightly out of focus, walking behind them in the near distance.

Rarely, at least in contemporary cinema, has there been as thoroughgoing and unsexy a portrayal of what it means to be an adult, and to live in the grown-up world of knowledge of inevitable death and decay and the responsibility toward others that such knowledge entails. It is not a conservative worldview, predicated on fear of sexuality, despite the coupling of sex and decay throughout the film. Rather, it is a deeply more ambivalent portrayal of sex than we are used to. On the one hand, sex is the release from the world, a means of escaping inevitable death – passing on “the gift” stands in for what the French call “the little death,” the paradoxical forgetting of oneself that another body and, ultimately, the orgasm that body elicits, provides. In mirroring the permanent forgetting of self promised by one’s demise, sexual coupling allows a subject to, temporarily at least, escape their knowledge of mortality. At the same time, passing on “the gift” also binds the two parties together in a permanent relationship, just as sex does in a properly adult world – not as an obligation, but as a profound sharing, profound because of the consequences that can result from the act: not only pregnancy, or the transmission of disease, but of heartbreak or emotional damage. Of course, anyone can ignore such consequences, or pretend they don’t exist, but such a disavowal marks hedonism with a requisite moral decay in our own world, and in the world of the film, the disavowal marks one as weak, an easier target for the creeping inevitable. Thus the depth of the metaphor within the film – of course anyone can pretend sex has no consequences, but doing so is tantamount to believing you will live forever, or that you are self-sufficient and cannot be touched. It marks you as singular, and forever alone; truly alone in your flight from the realities of life (and death). Acceptance of the fact of mortality, and the burden of the responsibilities that it entails, is, really, no burden at all. The film shows this in its resolution – in forming a couple, in partnering, in accepting the consequences of sex, Jay and Paul strengthen each other. This relating as adults, “adult sex,” if you would, is not a buzzkill, but indeed the seedbed of love (as we see them holding hands as they walk away into their future). This real love is not narcissism and denial of reality masquerading as care for another, but actual acceptance of fragility, decay, and the death that awaits us all, with or without “the gift” (indeed, the gift is simply a metaphor for the mature recognition of the facts of life). What is brilliant about the film, and again marks it as not conservative in nature (that is, as espousing that the answer to all life’s problems is to couple up), is that it provides a picture of relating that is fundamentally humane: no matter if within a coupling that is monogamous, or within a polymorphously perverse community, the answer to the problem at hand is to watch over one another, watch out for one another, and to know when to flee, or fight, together.

What is doubly impressive about It Follows is that it provides not only this mature picture of what true love is, but that it does so within the framework of a genre that usually does the exact opposite. As the film begins, before we even encounter Jay for the first time, we are met with the image of a victim of the stalking specter. She flees her house in the early morning hours, perhaps unaware of what is happening to her and the nature of the knowledge she has acquired. She is dressed in a way that is completely ridiculous, even more so for someone running for her life: she wears close-fitting girl “booty short” boxers, a loose tank top, and high heels. This image, so incongruous that it caused me almost instantly to lose faith in the film I was embarking on, is indeed a parodic picture of most films of this type. Sexualized children, set loose in a world of deadly consequence that they cannot comprehend, try their best to play at being adult. Such play is what most films of this type engage in – not actual play, but playing-with, where humans stand in for dolls, and are pressed together, thrown about, and pulled apart with cynical abandon by makers who either possess the minds of adolescents, or believe that we do. There are myriad other, more specific ways that It Follows, image for image, is a revelation, and a significant critique of our culture (I have not even touched on its use of Detroit as a setting, or of its portrayal of fatherless families, or the other filmic quotations, from Breaking the Waves to The Exorcist, that it contains). Its prime contribution, however, is to play fair with its toys, as the “game” that the film proposes is indeed the game of life. Winners will need to strategize, and to realize that such “play” is nothing if not deadly serious; but only by taking it seriously can it also be exciting, beautiful, and fun.

Four and a half stars out of five

The Last Picture Show – Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

The death of small town America, and thus the death of our favorite national imaginary, is by now so done as a topic that I wonder if it even registers anymore. (The Internet has faked us into thinking that geography is irrelevant and that we can all participate in that big whatsit from wherever). Such death is ostensibly the topic of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s well-known and respected first “real” feature from his trio of successes in the early 1970s. Although I’ve seen the other two (What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), and enjoyed them, The Last Picture Show remained elusive – which is to say, I never sought it out, so it is no surprise it did not seek me out either. It happened to be playing as a Sunday matinee at one of the many lovely restored theaters around here, in a small town that, while neither as forlorn nor as inward as Anarene, Texas, did resonate upon greeting me, leaving the film, with empty streets and a hard wind blowing.

If The Last Picture Show was simply about the death of small town America, as it has been often mourned, through the teary and false eye of a simple nostalgia, I can bet I wouldn’t have been terribly affected. Thankfully, the film is really about small towns and death, with America being a happenstance, the far-flung relation calling long distance; we see this America in the movies playing at the picture show, in Duane’s new/used automobile, and in the fissures that provide passage out of or toward it (Mexico, military service, the Korean war). Yes, the film is about the death of a kind of community, but the relationship that community bears to the American “community” is unclear, obscured by the vastness of the land and the pressure that lives lived elsewhere provide, slowly compressing this small pebble of a place from afar. What the film really deals with is community as such – how it is formed, almost ad hoc, and how it goes on, simply because it has to for those that remain. We are given entree to this place through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a quiet, unsure, and ambivalent witness who is unable to tackle life in this small place in any way that produces a satisfying outcome. He is in his last year of high school, and so his fate – what will become of his life? – becomes, in many ways, the fate of the place. The film moves back and forth between a set of teenagers, trying to make their first life decisions (taking guidance from a well-worn and small playbook), and the adults who have to live with their own decisions (and who are also trying to reinvent themselves, although perhaps in small measures, along the way).

The usual cliches about small town existence are avoided. This town is painfully small, and yes, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Whereas in the stereotype of such a community this type of knowledge would lead to ostracism or at least judgmental rumor mongering, Anarene hews closer to the lived reality of such places, where although everyone might know everything that’s happening, judgement recedes and a kind of discretion reigns. Partly this is common sense, the old “don’t shit where you eat” line, but it is also partly compassion of the “we’ve all been there” kind and partly the reality of a forced tribalism, a “we’re all in this together,” even if they’d rather not be. The adults are refreshingly free of bitterness and closed-mindedness, instead trying to impart some wisdom of lived experience while at the same time not discounting their own demanding inner voice, their own desire to feel young or renewed. The teens likewise escape the broad brush, with Jeff Bridge’s semi-dim Duane and Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy being the closest to types we encounter. Jacy in particular could have fallen into the usual mold of the icy, controlling prom queen, but Shephard, particularly in the first half of the movie, portrays her as wistful, unsure, and naive while also craving validation in the usual ways a too-attractive girl might. (It is only after she sets her sights on Sonny that she becomes more craven and hence less sympathetic).

The engine of the drama, if dramatic these events be, is sex. Sex in this community, and this film, is not the hidden aspect of Janus-faced love, ready to tear all stability asunder with the primal forces of desire; rather, love is herein paired with familiarity, and sex provides one of the few forces of novelty in an environment rather devoid of possible permutations. Sex is the force that can and does cut across the static lines of this world (static not because conservative, but simply because this world is small): class, age, power, intellect and experience. What is wonderful about the film is that sex and love are not a simple dichotomy, and that the sex, rather than having unpleasant noir-style implications or “thrills,” instead serves as a way for the characters to generate new alliances, experiences, and (perhaps aborted or sham) voyages of self-discovery. It is a place to pose questions, such as, “How do we live here? What can be done?” and “What does life mean when it has to be small?” Answers are harder to come by. The most resonant of the relationships, and the one that endures in some way, is between Sonny and middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Bogdanovich captures the above dynamic perfectly in his portrayal of Ruth’s “seduction” of Sonny. During their first afternoon tryst, the bed springs squeaking perfectly mimic the squalling springs on a screen door as it opens and closes (as they do often in this film, grabbed and flung by the unrelenting winds). Ruth sheds tears, but they are not of remorse, seemingly – perhaps ennui, perhaps confusion. This sound, of the new and the possible, figured as sexual desire and the young lover, and of the return of the old and familiar, figured as monogamous love and the return of the husband, match. There is no escaping the twinning, hence the tears, but neither is this recognition relentless or shattering; indeed, it is, in a way, comforting. Not the terror of being caught, but the reassurance of being caught – the comfort inherent in being held close and accepted, regardless. Her tears and confusion are not those of the trapped, but those of the seeking. As she looks into the middle distance during the proceedings, Ruth seems to be gazing into the human condition as horizon, that flat line also familiar, homely, comforting yet devoid of meaningful marker or measure.

The film ends, as you might guess from the title, with a shot of the movie house, now shuttered and empty. Set in the 1950s (as is George Lucas’s superficially similar but inversely worthy American Graffiti), the film’s main argument is about the death of a kind of community, represented by movie-going, rapidly being replaced by television and the atomization of life (now, in 2015, already in its baroque phase). This is a familiar (and nonetheless true) observation at this point in history, but Bogdanovich’s vision has not dated, as, for one, the film is set in the historic period of this change, and two, his film is an inquiry into a type of community, not an attempt to diagnose a larger (perhaps national) malady. If it is mourning, the film is mourning the death of the human animal; what better place to observe this animal than in its natural habitat which also happens to be, perforce, an enclosure? Movie-going becomes the metaphor for this animal community: it is a semi-random assortment of folk who meet in the dark to alleviate boredom, to canoodle, to forget themselves, and also to gaze on one another, in an attempt to make meanings that are individually elusive. Thus the death of the picture show is much darker than the film portrays, as it implies a coming reality where individuals are deemed sufficient to figure it out on their own, always already outside the nest. Yet Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who likely deserves equal credit) is not simply practicing an admittedly higher form of nostalgia here, as he also questions what the nature of this “human animal” really is. Near the end of the film, simple Billy (Sam Bottoms), at his Sisyphean task of sweeping out the road, is struck in the middle of the street and killed by a passing truck. The sheriff and his old cronies stand about, tut-tutting and confirming for themselves Billy’s stupidity, his uselessness. Perhaps this is simply a performance, salve to the man who hit him, or perhaps a way of denying their own sadness. But it is coldness and distance nonetheless, and leads to Sonny’s flight out of town, then back into town, and, eventually, to Ruth, both to make amends (we assume) and for comfort. This leads to the perfect, heartbreaking final scenes, where Ruth and Sonny try to speak, but cannot find words. Instead, the purely animal, the comfort and touch of another sympathetic body, presents the only bulwark, if not solution. At the same time, the ending is tragic, as it represents Sonny’s (and our) realization that perhaps this community of human animals was and is a sham, a self-satisfied delusion – that individual meanness and might-makes-right is the way of the human animal, in or outside of a community. Thus the figure of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) as singular. Not, as we first think, as the last of the old-timers, but as their exception: an animal of power, but also of kindness and help. The question that torments Sonny is, perhaps, does the exception prove the rule? And is he capable of inheriting such a mantle?

Four and a half stars out of five

 

Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (2014)

Jauja introduced me to a director I must admit I was ignorant of, although he has directed four other features; the film was entered in Cannes this past year, which is what brought it to my attention. Set in Patagonia, at the turn of the century (or perhaps before, the date is unclear), the film features stunning imagery and restrained performances, most startlingly from Viggo Mortensen, who speaks his patrimonial tongue throughout. A kind of existential western, Jauja concerns Mortensen’s journey, as a cartographer traveling with an army detachment, to locate his runaway adolescent daughter. The film begins with dreamy vibes and only grows stranger, more spare and more hallucinatory, as the saga unfolds. That said, Alonso is known for low-key storytelling and the use of non-actors, so this is emphatically not hallucinatory in the acid western stylings of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace or even Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Rather, the film, by the end, reminded me very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s masterpiece from the late 70s. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t, but I will say that the film, which I felt was going in disappointing directions by the three-quarter mark, turns around in the finish; indeed, the ending, as the best endings do, forces you to reevaluate all that has come before, and opens up a poetic dimension unimagined until that point.

Three and a half stars out of five

Interstellar – Christopher Nolan (2014)

Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious film, in every dimension: emotionally, visually, narratively. The seriousness with which it takes itself is impressive, and I did find it very affecting in parts – the middle third manages to weave some good old fashioned suspense into the larger issues of time, loss, and planetary decline, pinging back and forth between the personal and the cosmic very ably. Nolan also makes allusions to other existential space classics (2001, notably) in the visual register in an intelligent way. That said, the script has more than a few nods to a mass audience (although hardly as bad as it could have been in terms of explanatory dialogue), and the resolution was quite disappointing. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he certainly doesn’t avoid any of the unsatisfying “closed loop” metaphysics common to most movies about time travel. At least it has more weight than the downright stupid and pretentious ending of Inception. Still, it is well worth seeing, and Nolan’s best film; he’s not a major director in any sense but attention and clout, though. (I do appreciate his allegiance to shooting on film however). Enough with movies about saving the world – it’d be refreshing to see a major budget devoted to the question of how we might live in a world beyond saving.

Three and a half stars out of five