10 Days/10 Films #4: No Country For Old Men

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This movie is—quite literally—about as far as you can get from my experience of growing up in Dallas, but that only cements my love for what it “gets right” about Texas. That I lived for eighteen years in the same state as the events of this film, but nearly 450 miles away says it all. More than that, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Lonestar Noir is an unforgiving look at everything that makes my home state terrifying and beautiful. The vast, open landscapes are treated with just as much reverence and awe as the creeping rot underneath everything—“the dismal tide,” as one character quips. Characters are at once quiet and strong, yet weak, ruled by greed and malevolence.

We can’t forget the genius of Deakins. No Country came out in 2007—along with two other entries on this list—and it’s widely believed that the DP split his own Oscar vote by being nominated for two movies in one round of voting (the other being The Assassination of Jesse James). Deakins holds the incredible honor of being nominated for best cinematography 9 times in the past 10 years–finally earning a win for the underappreciated Blade Runner 2049— and No Country For Old Men makes it easy to understand why. The magnificent opening shots, believe it or not, are B-roll that Deakins shot by himself in natural light, just to give the Coens an idea of what he had kicking around in his head.

The sublime opening images lay over a monologue by Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell, and it’s McCarthy’s writing, shining through in a straight-ahead adaptation by the Coens, that really brings the entire thing together, along with career performances by Jones, Brolin, and Bardem. On the surface this is a relatively straightforward hardboiled flick about a man who takes some money that doesn’t belong to him and the horrible consequences that follow, but it’s also about Sheriff Bell coming to grips with a world that seems to grow more and more brutal with each passing year, and the bleak hopelessness of trying to believe in something that gets you through “all that cold, and all that dark.”

It would be a tougher watch if it didn’t sing on every level possible. An absolute masterpiece.

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10 Days/10 Films #3: The Night of the Hunter

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When I was younger, my mother was fairly strict about the content of what we watched and read (I still bristle when I remember having my brand new copy of The Shining, bought for me by my much more laissez-faire father, taken away when I was 12 or so). That’s probably why I gravitated to films steeped in darkness and horror as I grew older, but back in first grade, I often had to rely on friends to recount the plot of Aliens or Terminator 2. Remember, this was back before every household in America had high-speed Internet.

Speaking of bygone technologies, I also spent a lot of time in the school library, and one book I kept returning to again and again was this volume full of glossy photos that was basically a collection of synopses about various horror films. A lot of them were classics like Dracula or The Wolfman, but some of the more contemporary slashers were in there too (I think both Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth made appearances). Why this was stocked in an elementary school library I have no idea.

Anyway, on the more “classic” side of the book was an entry for a film I had never heard of before: The Night of the Hunter. The story of an evil, itinerant preacher/conman who finds himself stalking two small children in order to gain access to a small fortune hidden by their deceased, bank robber father. I remember being fascinated by the beautiful photograph of Robert Mitchum leaning on the fencepost, his famous tattooed knuckles flashing the words “love” and “hate.”

I wouldn’t actually see The Night of the Hunter until college. Maybe it was all the years of childhood buildup, but I found myself entranced by Mitchum’s performance, as well as the razor-sharp themes the movie put forward that seem controversial in god-fearing, capitalist America now, let alone in 1955 when it was released. Charles Laughton’s only feature as a director is also steeped in beautifully orchestrated shadows and light, clearly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, creating a sinister fable about evil and imposters that stands in stark visual contrast to more celebrated American films of the era.

The Night of the Hunter went on to influence future generations of filmmakers (see Radio Raheem’s monologue and gold knuckle-rings in the wonderful Do the Right Thing, and  famous “street lamp” shot from The Exorcist), but it remains somewhat obscure in 2018. At a recent screening, I was dismayed to hear the audience snidely chuckling through most of the film. The Night of the Hunter is one of those movies that taught me about the importance of history and taking classics on their own terms…the only way to learn anything new at all.

10 Days/10 Films #2: City of God

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City of God is another benchmark film in terms of my development as a member of the movie-going public. I’d always been into movies, courtesy of my mother (an addict who still goes to the movies weekly at the age of 69) and father (a painter and architect who once eschewed film as an inferior art form), but up to high school, my tastes had run fairly commercial and mainstream, excepting the time my mother brought me to see The Big Lebowski at age 14.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I met Jacob Sloman, who has remained a lifetime friend and collaborator. It pains me to give him the satisfaction, but Jacob was the one who opened my eyes to the rich and untapped world of global cinema, particularly the beautiful films of Brazil. It’s because of him that I even heard of films like Carandiru, Bus 174, and I’m Not Scared. But the one that always sticks out in my memory is City of God.

Vibrant, sensuous photography, a riveting story that spans years and intertwines the lives of several different characters, crackling with energy and originality, City of God was a film that showed me, even earlier than the aforementioned The Assassination of Jesse James, that movies were so much more than Hollywood. It’s a story about poverty, violence, and inequality that avoids becoming too message-laden or despondent, instead painting a richly realized landscape of Rio slums that are populated with characters who make us laugh and cheer as much as they  make us cry.

Despite its bombastic presentation, City of God is all about balance. It’s a perfectly-oiled machine that pushes and pulls its audience through a variety of different moods and tones, which perfectly reflects the complex and complicated realities of subject matter that is too-often boiled down to the sum of its parts.

10 days/10 films #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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I saw this movie by myself on a dreary autumn afternoon in 2007, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. The screening was something I had experienced only a few times before or since: one of those trips to the movies where you can tell, minutes in, that you’re watching something important and life-changing.

I believe I went to a party that night, and couldn’t stop talking about the movie. Roger Deakins wasn’t a name that I knew well at the time, but I knew the images he crafted for the screen were sublime. Earth-shatteringly beautiful paintings that were somehow very quietly powerful at the same time. But how the movie looked was only a sliver of what had grabbed me. The way the film advances, leisurely and reflective, like a long walk that you have all to yourself, was electrifying. That a film about one of America’s most infamous outlaws (that’s really about so much more) could be so lyrical and moody, gently insistent in what it was trying to say concerning legends, legacies, the transient, elusive nature of time and glory, was a revelation.

What’s so satisfying about The Assassination of Jesse James is how it manages to succeed in the face of conventional wisdom about what a Western–or any movie for that matter–should be. It’s long, the final runtime a staggering two hours and forty minutes. It’s framed by a voiceover narration that seems like a big no-no, but inexplicably works. You can count the number of gunfights and on-screen deaths on one hand. Perhaps most notably, the drama and action are almost solely contained within the fluctuating relationship between Bob Ford and Jesse James, which is somehow mesmerizing even though the title of the movie leaves no room for doubt as to the story’s conclusion.

It’s essentially a film that proves how impactful and resonant art can be when it is demanding and respectful of its audience, and I’ve spent much of my movie-going life chasing after other films like it.

Anthony Bourdain

It always takes me a while to process things, and I’d like to pretend this leads me to think about things a lot before I say them, but that “virtue” only really extends to writing—and is propped up by laziness.

Anthony Bourdain has come and gone, having apparently hanged himself in a hotel room in the middle of shooting new episodes of his incredible CNN Travel/Culture series, Parts Unknown. He left behind no note or explanation, or if he did, it hasn’t been made available to the public.

There’s been no shortage of tributes to Bourdain since then, from chefs, writers, activists…the list goes on. I’m adding nothing particularly new and insightful to that list, but as I’ve been re-watching some of his work, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus proclaiming that what Anthony Bourdain dedicated his life to was nothing short of radical compassion.

Make no mistakes—the author of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, the host of Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and The Layover had a brand, one that was rooted in a certain type of swaggering machismo and irreverent cool that can sometimes grate. His output was possessed with a certain opinionated authority that can turn some people off, especially as we collectively lurch towards a society in which we question exactly how many cool, swaggering straight white dudes we need in the cultural conversation.

However those critiques of Bourdain’s brand do nothing to dampen the aching desire for connection and compassion that underscores all of Bourdain’s creative output, and one that is realized most purely in Parts Unknown. The strength of the show lies not just unearthing the little-known or unseen, but in Bourdain’s understated deference to people who are different to him.

Watch episodes in which Bourdain travels to the Congo, Houston, Myanmar, Los Angeles, Chicago. The common thread is the method by which the host seeks to interact with members of a community that is not his own: one possessed by curiosity, empathy, kindness, and humility. The manners extended to his hosts do not feel like a matter of decorum, they feel genuine. Wherever Bourdain goes, he asks questions, sits back, listens, and offers gratitude. He is pointedly aware of his status as a guest, an attitude that would be refreshing to find in any world traveler, let alone one propped up by status and fortune.

Even setting that graciousness aside, the entire premise of Bourdain’s oeuvre was rooted in the radical notion that we all have something to offer one another, and that we all have an obligation to seek out and understand one another. He celebrated differences as well as common bonds. He strove to highlight what it was about this world that is so beautiful, in spite of all the strife, turmoil, sorrow, and conflict.

Why Bourdain chose to end his life is, at this point, a matter of speculation. Given his past history with substance abuse and depression, his political leanings, and the overall state of the world—something Bourdain was probably even more hyper aware of than most—I can’t help but wonder if he, having reached the age of 61 with a lifetime of achievement, found the looming threat of fascism too much to take. It could be something else entirely, but his choice is certainly something of a blow to people who admired him for being uncompromising in his goals and values in a world that seems to be pulling away from them.

We all need to take heart and remember Anthony Bourdain not just for who he was and what he did, but what he stood for. The feelings he conjured up in people were extraordinary, and that collective yearning for connection, adventure, understanding, and mystery are what drew us all to his aura and his work. We shouldn’t forget that, even as we mourn our loss. What Bourdain did was rare, but it doesn’t have to be.

Do You Think We’re Not Ashamed?

If you are reading this outside of the USA, ask yourself this question, because you may have to reckon with it sooner than you expect—when would you turn your back on your country?

At what point would you stop trying to fight, in whatever small way you could, and accept that the place of your birth, your upbringing, your culture, was in irreversible decline? I’ve found myself at various points in the past few years pushing my hard limits further and further back, but in the past few weeks, I realized something, with stinging sobriety: I’m not willing to die for this.

I love the United States. I always have, even as I’ve grown more and more critical of its culture (or cultures) and institutions. I’ve been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively and there is no place on earth like it. No greater earth-shattering beauty, fiercely unique peoples, all living together and bonded by the idea of a few sacred shared beliefs.

There’s always a “but.”

As I’ve grown, the severity of the rot eating away at my homeland has been laid bare. To not see it at this point requires a special kind of blind and slavish devotion that rivals anything I could ever hope to muster, for anything or anyone. The United States is a on a full-tilt slide into authoritarian oligarchy, and is further along in the process than most people think. Our elected officials have strategically gutted the instruments that are vital for maintaining an egalitarian state in the name of amassing untold power and wealth for themselves. At this point, it’s hard to see a way out. Too many people are too dumb, too disenfranchised, too utterly defeated by the monstrous will of a few hundred megalomaniacs that have less than zero care for anyone other than themselves. They are the avatars of selfishness incarnate, of pure, walking malevolence. To chalk it all up to greed is not enough; these people take comfort in the fact that untold millions will suffer and perish and have their lives and futures destroyed as the direct result of power wielded by a few. There is no regret. There is no remorse. There shall be none.

I used to say that if things got really bad in the US, that I’d stay and fight. My stance on that has changed. Perhaps it’s because I’ve fallen in love, and preserving our life together and the future I hope to build is paramount to me—this could be related to why I’m suddenly anxious on plane rides—but I’m no longer willing to put myself in harm’s way in order to make a symbolic gesture in opposition to the absolute worst people ever produced in human history.

Instead, if it comes to “that” (currently, “that” is—for me—the abolition of term limits, but we’ll see) I will refuse to participate. I owe this country and its government nothing. They owe me. They have betrayed me, time and time again, and I refuse to die for them. So if it comes to “that” I’ll leave—I’m unspeakably lucky that I have the option, and hope I will continue to have the option—and then I’ll hope, against all logic and reason, that it doesn’t come to “that” again.

 

What the “Civility” Police Don’t Understand about Conservatives

This is not another treatise on why it’s OK to confront your elected officials in public when they enact policies you find repulsive and inhumane. That’s a given, and other people have written better-researched and more informative takes than I could offer. It’s a boring debate on its face, mainly because there shouldn’t be one; in the United States, politicians exist to serve the interests of their constituents, which means they should be made to answer for any and every single thing they do while supposedly working in the interests of the people they govern. To be frank, confronting politicians is not only justifiable, it’s a moral imperative, and one that should be enshrined in law (elected officials should be required to hold at least monthly, if not weekly, face-to-face town halls with the public).

ANYWAY, even if we dismiss the notion that politicians somehow deserve our respect and civility as a baseline, the hand-wringing beltway elite are mistaken about civility politics on an entirely different level: one that wrongly presumes not only the effectiveness of olive-branch, bi-partisan kumbayaaism, but also fundamentally misapprehends the conservative mindset.

The myth of the “working-class” Trump voter has widely been debunked. There’s no evidence to suggest that the President was brought into power by a groundswell of blue-collar, Midwestern and Southern Johnny Lunchpails, which in turn exposes the myth of the “reasonable” Republican as a lie. Make no mistake, the demographics of Trump’s voting bloc are not rooted in Appalachia mining towns or bombd-out Rust Belt enclaves. Rather, they are the supposedly “forgotten” upper-middle class. These are people who own multiple cars, run successful businesses, live in McMansions, and spend a majority of their ample free time posting memes about cartoon frogs shoving Bill Kristol into ovens.

The reason it’s important to appropriately separate the Trump supporter from the Trump voter lies in the confounding and naïve theses of nearly every panicky Op-Ed that has been farted out by an overpaid ivy-league graduate over the past week or so. The theory goes one of two ways. Option one: alienating Trump’s backers on the hill is counterproductive, because “incivility” breeds “incivility” and will only lead to the base becoming galvanized. This is hogwash on its face; to support Trump is to be possessed of an intractable, inherent bitter hostility that frames every waking second of life. Nothing can quell the white-hot, searing resentment that rages inside of every conservative. Not political victories, not economic success and stability, not the comfort and love of family and friends. The resentment is rooted in a feverish internal wailing that only ramps up in pitch and volume with each passing year, as civilization inevitably marches on—imperfectly, problematically, and with dire consequences for the vulnerable that should not and cannot be understated—towards incremental progress. The old ways of life, what we know about the world and how we occupy it together, are changing, and societies are adapting. To a conservative, this amounts to no less than a betrayal. A broken promise that America has long extended to the powerful—mostly white, wealthy, straight, Christian men—since its inception.

That’s important context for understanding the second prong of “civility” op-ed writing. “Incivility” is useless, the story goes, because it does not affect political change. Only voting does that. This is well-intentioned enough, and certainly nobody taking it upon themselves to scream in Jeff Sessions’ face that he’s an evil fraud should not vote, but the math is off. The fact of the matter is, most conservatives don’t push for the policies and legislation that they do because they want the world to change in any material way—most of them have every material thing they could ever want, and will be able to pass these things on to future generations of their families easily. Their places in the world are safe and stable, confirmed by society. Most conservatives—the elite, multiple-boat owning class that brought us Donald Trump, that is—are comfortable in their day-to-day lives. What they lack can never be satisfied, as the world has left them behind. So they wave their MAGA hats and cheer their child concentration camps and sneer about California and Chicago and climate change “hoaxes,” not because it impacts their lives in any discernible way, but because it allows them to bathe in the brief, fleeting reprieve that comes with knowing you’ve triggered the liberal cucks. Brief flashes of feeling powerful are the only joy any of these people have in an otherwise cold and meaningless existence.

Similarly, conservative politicians only exist to serve the wills of these slobbering, hateful idiots and to gleefully exercise their own power in the process. But politicians don’t suffer from the same buried existential crises that their constituents do. That their lives have meaning—for good or for ill—is obvious. They shape and enact political will (or do not). Whatever else might be on a politician’s conscience, he or she can rest easy that they go to sleep as somebody whose life (ostensibly) matters. The wielding of power is to the conservative politician what hissing, bilious hatred is to the conservative voter. It sustains them, and keeps the metaphorical wolves at bay.

That said, when the metaphorical wolves (self-doubt, existential crises, nagging conscience) become a bit more concrete (people who live in your city telling you to fuck off everywhere you go) the deal doesn’t seem as sweet. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s possible to yell your way into Mitch McConnell surrendering his stolen SCOTUS seat, but to suggest that consequence is not useful in guiding behavior in any way whatsoever is no less childish. How hard will spineless flesh-sacks like McConnell work to support policies that mean nothing to them outside of their ability to rally their base and trigger the libs if they know those policies will interfere with getting a good table or being able to sleep? How content will the inside-the-beltway, garden-variety GOP remain carrying Trump’s water when it’s staring down a career of public shaming and being pelted with rotten fruit?

Again, I’m not suggesting that this is anywhere close to the end-all-be-all of affecting public policy, but it is useful.