the favourite (2018)

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A costume drama, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite cuts a deliciously cruel and filthy figure. The characters here do not play coy with their ambitions or their pleasures. “No, I don’t think I will send her away,” one woman says to another. “I like her tongue in my cunt.”

We are at the turn of the eighteenth century, in the time of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). England is at war. The noblemen race ducks along the halls of power. Everywhere one encounters foppish manners and ridiculous wigs and bizarre dances that appear to have been improvised according to the direction: “Be weird! No! Weirder!” It is a time of madness. Much like most times, I suppose.

The film centers on three women. There is the aforementioned Queen, a half-mad, somewhat ineffectual human being. There is the queen’s closet advisor, and secret lover, the the cunning and ambitious Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). And there is the pretty and capable young thing, Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who shows up looking for work one day, a glint in her eye and a face full of shit.

“Have you come to play with our children?” Lady Sarah asks. “Have you come to be their little monster?”

Abigail does not need to think very long about this. She scrunches up her face. “I can be a monster,” she says. And then she raises her claws and growls. Grr.

In his earlier film, The Lobster, Lanthimos created a world in which single people were forced to find a partner lest they be transformed into a beast. The film starred Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and it was a dark and funny take on the desperate nature of us humans. Particularly the desperation of our need to belong to someone, or something, else.

There’s something of a similar theme in The Favourite. We watch as Abigail endeavors to ingratiate herself up the rungs of power, using her naked wiles and bare shoulders to woo men and women to her cause. Lady Sarah admires this. And she is wary of it. There is a scene in which she takes Abigail out to shoot pigeons. Abigail takes aim and misses. “There is always a price to pay,” Lady Sarah says. “And I’m willing to pay it.” She then shoots down a pigeon. “Are you?”

It is Abigail’s turn next. The pigeon flies. Abigail raises her rifle without hesitation. She fires quick and sure. Blood spatters Lady Sarah’s face. Abigail is a fast learner. She does not miss twice.

Lanthimos shoots here sometimes with a fish eye lens. This has the effect of showing you more of the world, but it comes at the cost of warping everything out of all reality. Other times, he comes in close to study the set of Lady Sarah’s jaws or the shadows at play in Abigail’s eyes. In those moments, we see these individuals, and their souls, with startling clarity. But the world, oh the world. It is all lost.

Lady Sarah reveals, about halfway through the the film, the flaw she sees in Abigail’s character. She is the type of girl, Lady Sarah believes, who craves two things above all else, “safety and favor.” And, to be sure, as the stories barrels on towards its tragic and victorious conclusion, we realize the truth of that earlier scene in which Emma Stone’s Abigail transformed, at a whim, into a monster. She will do, we come to understand, anything in order to win, if for no other reason than the imagined safety she believes waits for her at the foot of power. As such, she indulges the Queen’s madness and, in the end, is overshadowed by an insanity of rabbits. Lady Sarah, as ambitious as she may be, will not pay that price. She will sacrifice everything but herself.

maniac (2018)

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Maniac is a trippy sort love story. There is a man, Owen, played by Jonah Hill. And there is a woman, Anna, played by Emma Stone. The man struggles with schizophrenic episodes. He finds it difficult to know what is real. The woman struggles with moving past her sister’s death. She knows all too well what is real. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to move on from that reality.

The two meet at the intake of a pharmaceutical trial. She is there to score more of the drug that allows her to relive the death of her sister. He is there in the hopes of learning how to live.

The world in which they live is a wackadoo place, equal parts Douglas Adams and William Gibson. It is the future as we once imagined it. Neon signs, clunky keyboards, blinking cursors. The IBM of all possible worlds. There are, too, scattered throwaway gags—like the adBuddies or the Statue of Extra Liberty—that recall something of the whimsy, and benevolent cynicism, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The trial where Owen and Anna meet is run by Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. The culture here is American Japanese. Or possible Japanese American. The head scientist is Dr. Mantleray, a hassled and mother-wrought man played by Justin Thoreux. His second-in command is Dr. Fujita, a no-nonsense woman with a bowl-cut and giant glasses played by Sonoya Mizuno. The AI that helps runs their experiment is voiced by Sally Field, who also happens to play Dr. Mantleray’s mother. The series, for all its technological trappings, is a deeply Jungian text. Everything is archetype.

During the trial, Owen and Anna and the other subjects receive three drugs. These drugs are labelled ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. They are meant, respectively, to force a subject to relive their deepest trauma, learn the defense mechanisms (lies) they built for themselves in response to that trauma, and enable them to move on from that trauma. Each instance of the trial we disappear for part of an episode into the minds of Owen and Anna. We experience their pain as various forms of film genre. Indie realist, neo-noir, and high fantasy. If you ever longed to see Jonah Hill as a brooding, existential thug, or Emma Stone as a pointy-eared, and delightfully bitter elf, here you go.

This is psychotherapy done with a healthy dose of cinematography.

Loosely based on a Norwegian comedy show of the same name, this version of Maniac is run by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers). Each has made a name for themselves with series seen as existential and vaguely, if not as in the case of The Leftovers–literally– apocalyptic. Maniac has something of that feel, as well, with each episode’s mind-bending journey through pain and deception, leading us ever onwards towards a sense of revelation. It never quite gets there, but then, as we all know, therapy is a process, not a destination.

to all the boys i’ve loved before (dir. susan johnson, 2018)

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Based on a wildly successful young adult book of the same name, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before contains a sprinkling of those tropes typical of much YA fiction—a dead parent, a charming parent, a bitch, a jock, and a character in love, perhaps a little too much, with books and their own imagination. Happily, these tropes, and any misgivings one might have about them, get swept aside both by the charms of the young actors and the tendency of the film to sit with them in moments of complicated emotion and allow them, and us, to forge a real connection with these characters.

Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a sixteen-year-old girl in love with her older sister’s boyfriend. To deal with her tormented feelings she writes this boy a letter. She does not send it to him, though. As she says, it is only for her. It is a way to work through something for herself. In a way, she says, it has nothing to do with him.

Lara Jean is an experienced imaginer of love. She has written four other such love letters to four other such boys. She keeps them all, sealed in addressed envelopes, in a small box given to her by a long-dead mother. She might be, I suppose, writing as much to her imagined mom as she is writing to these imagined boys.

It is an error common to most—this desire to live in one’s imagined version of the world—but in the form of crushes, I think, it is an affliction most often imagined as being a disease peculiar to teenage girls, child’s play if you will. This is poppycosh, of course. Crushes are violent things. They are, often, literally crushing. You don’t have to be a boy or a girl to experience them, nor must you have a crush only on a boy or girl, either. You can have a crush on a way of life, a forgotten home, a lost parent. A crush is at heart only a longing for a world that seems impossible.

The thing you know must happen, in a story with secret letters, does happen. Lara Jean faints at her first confrontation with the consequences of her imagination. One of the boys she loved before shows up holding one of her letters and down she goes. When she comes to, there’s his big dumb real face. Beyond him, there is yet another boy she loves approaching–her sister’s recently ex-boyfriend, in fact. Lara Jean does what she believes she must. She kisses the boy with the big dumb face who she used to have a crush on in order to distract the boy she still has a crush on from knowing how she really feels about him.

There are scattered scenes throughout of Lara Jean having conversations with her imagined versions of these boys. They pop up in the hallways of school, sometimes. Mostly in her bedroom. One of them one time sees her look out the window at the real version of himself. The imagined boy tells the real girl that he knows he’s more important to her than the real boy. This is the heart of the film, I think, and I longed for more such scenes. One imagines the book is full of them. But the film does what it needs to do, I think, if not what I wanted it to do. Later on, when Lara Jean’s father speaks of her mother, we see how hard it is for him, for anyone of any age, to share what is real. “You deserve to know about who your mom really was,” he says. “But I was too sad for too long to share those things with you.”

Lana Condor had a very small, if brightly fashioned, part in X-Men Apocalypse as Jubilee—one of my favorite characters from the X-Men cartoon series I watched religiously with my sister in the early-to-mid 90s. Jubilee is a young girl in a long, bright yellow coat with giant neon hoop earrings and the power to shoot electricity from the tips of her fingers. There is something of this ability to spark that seems innate in Ms. Condor. Her face has such exquisite expressiveness, her nose the most miraculous scrunchability. You always know exactly how confused and wondrous she feels. Her arms twist in elegantly awkard arcs. She plays nervous well. And when called on to be still, she does that, too. Listen to her voice. Hear how it changes depending on who she’s talking to. You will very likely have a cursh on her by the end of the film. I imagine many boys and girls will be writing letters to her.

Sometimes I imagine everything I write is a letter to someone. In this case, I suppose, I have been writing to you.

Good luck out there, today, whoever you are, in your attempts to interact with the real world. It’s the only place where anything really happens.

the host (dir. bong joon-ho, 2006)

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The Host is a movie about monsters in the same way that The Goonies is a movie about treasure maps—that is to say that the presence of the monster mostly serves as a way to lead us through the emotional landscape of the lives of our heroes.

In this case, rather than a bunch of misfit friends, we have a misfit family. There’s the Olympic archer who failed to earn gold because she couldn’t bring herself to let go in time. There’s the young man who sacrificed his youth in the protests that led to the democratization of South Korea and now mopes about mostly unemployed and bitter. There’s the father stupid and hopeless with everything except his love for his daughter—he collects change (stolen from his father’s food stand) in a ramen cup, in the hopes of one day having enough to buy her a new phone. I think deep down he knows it will never be enough. I think deep down she knows that he loves her more than anything and that this is more than enough.

When the monster steals the daughter away, the entire family gives chase in a determined, if hopeless, sort of way that reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine. But, you know, with a higher proportion of dismemberment and an even more overt political commentary. The monster is born from an American ordering a Korean to dump toxic chemicals into the Han river. The monster at the heart of the film, you see, is the literal product of the polluting presence of American power. It’s not all fun and games and tentacles. There’s something for everyone.

In the end, all of the family’s dysfunctions aid in the fight against the monster. Archery. Protest. A stupid amount of love. The film ends on a note of melancholy, though, that would be almost impossible to imagine in films like The Goonies or Little Miss Sunshine. That is only one of the reasons why I love it so much.

You can read more about such reasons, and also how watching this movie led to me moving to South Korea,  in a short essay I wrote for Volume H of Shelf Heroes. It’s out this month and available online and in shops like MagCulture or the BFI. I’ll post an excerpt a bit later on, readers.




why don’t you play in hell (dir. sion sono, 2013)

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“Give me a Japanese girl, small and strong. Bare arms and naked blade. Hair in her eyes. Blood on her cheek. Don’t worry. She can still see well enough to separate you from your heart.” (scribbled in a boy’s notebook after watching this one film of which you are about to read a review)

I don’t know where this began. This desire for a woman both deadly and cute. Maybe it began with Buffy. Maybe it began that one afternoon in the aisle of a grocery story in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee when a man told my mom she had such a cute daughter and I felt this rush of confused shame. Maybe I am always searching in art for the redemption of some shameful part of myself. People say they want to see themselves on screen, but I don’t know about that. Some of us never saw ourselves in the mirror, and so, when we watch movies the last thing we want to see is someone who looks like us. We want to see someone who feels like us.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a Sion Sono film. In an early scene, a group of young film obsessives (The Fuck Bombers) runs into a group of warring yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, led by their fearless leader Director Hirata, don’t bother trying to break up the fight. Nor do they do the sensible thing and run the other way. Instead, they film it. At first, the yakuza are annoyed. Then confused. And then, finally, compliant. They take direction as to how best to murder each other in front of the camera. Hold your sword here. Swipe like this. Yes. Fantastic. Cool. Ready? Roll tape. Action.

Sion Soho’s film concerns itself, as many of his films do, with love and perversion. In a Sono film, characters are defined, for the most part, by whatever all-consuming obsession warps their reality. Earlier of his films have seen him explore incest, religious cults, suicide, rape, upskirt kung-fu, and murderous hair extensions. This film does not really deal with that sort of thing. For the most part, the characters in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are perverted not in their love of themselves or others, but in their love of celluloid. They are perverted by their desire for a life that feels like the movies.

The film begins with a commercial for toothpaste that features an irresistible jingle. You can watch it here. Its star is Mitsuko. Mitsuko is the daughter of a yakuza boss. Her career as a child star gets sidetracked when her mom is arrested for murdering a bunch of yakuza who dropped by their house hoping to kill Mitsuko’s father. Later, we encounter Mitsuko as a young woman tied to a chair, surrounded by a group of thugs. It turns out she has a habit of running away. Possibly because her father has attempted, throughout her life, to turn her into a film star. Her entire childhood has been spent in a movie her father has been trying, and failing, to make. She has grown up trapped in the stories her father wants to tell about her.

In a madcap turn of events, Mitsuko manages to escape, for a time, and she tries to elude detection by asking a random man on the street to pretend to be her lover. This works about as well as you can imagine. He definitely falls in love with her. She definitely still gets discovered and recaptured and now her faux boyfriend is on the chopping block for having supposedly aided in her escape. Mitsuko tells her father, though, that this man is actually a super amazing director and he will make her a star if only he might see fit not to separate him from his head. Of course, this guy isn’t a director. But. Never fear. Through more madcap hijinks, the Fuck Bombers—as older, though no less deluded folk—find their way back on the scene. All the pieces come together for a finale in which a real-life yakuza battle is fought in order that it might be filmed as a film in which Mitsuko might emerge an action star.

Some have pointed out that the director character in Sono’s film bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also true that in the action-packed finale, in which the warring yakuza gangs fight for the benefit of the Fuck Bomber’s cameras, Director Hirata asks that the yakuza forego their guns for samurai swords and their subsequent fighting—in which fountains of blood are spilled and Mitsuko, at one point, decapitates an entire ring of gangsters with a single mighty swing of her sword—bears more than a passing resemblance to those fantastically bloody bits of Kill Bill set in Japan.

This is Sono’s most straightforwardly delightful film, and I think this is probably because, in the end, it’s all about looking good. Films—particularly certain Japanese samurai and yakuza films, as well as, yes, the many films of Tarantino—have a way of turning violence into something beautiful and admirable. Sono wants to explore the horror of this. And, in so doing, he has produced a film that looks and feels amazing, even as it constantly reminds you of its own stupidity. Mitsuko tells a character at one point that she was born stupid and will die stupid, but she has always wanted, at least once, to shine in a big way. At another moment, she also admits that she has always wanted, at least once, to really kiss someone. Not on screen, but in real life.

Mitsuko spends this whole movie trapped between a desire for something real and a desire for something that feels more real than real. She never manages to escape the fantasies of others. Sono, for all his skill, never quite brings her to life until the very end. Perhaps, in some way, that’s the twisted point of the whole thing. Mitsuko wanted to shine big and, as the curtains close, she does just that. Sono sacrifices her to the gods of film in a moment both dumb and heartbreaking. Her final words: “I looked good, didn’t I?”

edward scissorhands (dir. tim burton, 1990)

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We begin with an Avon lady. A woman who sells the modern ideal of beauty—or, more precisely, the appearance and means of achieving that beauty. When she meets Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp)–a leather-shrouded man locked away in a dark house on a tall hill with, literally, scissors for hands–she meets her greatest challenge. A person immune to the means of beauty, but deeply in touch with the meaning of it.

The Avon lady, Peg (Dianne West), takes pity on Edward and brings him home. She attempts to acclimate him to normal life. She begins by getting him to look the part. A fresh, white shirt, an old pair of trousers, snappy suspenders. She dabs his scars with concealer. At dinner, Edward struggles to use his knife and fork. The son, Kevin (Robert Oliveri), struggles not to stare. Peg tells him it’s not polite to stare. The daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), struggles to hide her frustration and embarrassment at everything. Peg asks her husband how it went at work. There’s nothing so lonely as being surrounded by people pretending that you might be something other than what you are.

Edward Scissorhands has, for a long time, held a special place in my heart. Not for what it meant to me so much as for what it meant to someone I loved. She grew up in Florida, where the film takes place, and she saw in Edward Scissorhands, I think, a mirror of herself. A grotesque creature in love with, and shunned by, the idea of beauty. A tender, if awkwardly assembled, creature who believed themselves unable to touch anything without destroying it.

Edward is a great artist because of his awkward assembly. As a creature constructed from a hodgepodge of curious hope and industrial machinery, Edward knows what it is to construct beauty from the humdrum materials of our world. Women from all over town fall in love with his ability to recognize the beauty tucked away beneath the surface of things. They see him turn hedges into art sculptures and, before long, they get him to style their hair. They hope, I suppose, that as go his skills with topiary, so go his skills with women. They hope that he might cut free the beauty trapped inside of them.

It is the mission of Tim Burton, I believe, to transform fear into tenderness. Edward is not a natural being. Like all of us, he is a constructed one. And, like all of us, he is unfinished. He wears in his body a permanent state of incompleteness. No amount of make-up will make him appear more beautiful. He already contains all the beauty he needs. We hope he understands this. We hope even more that everyone else does. It is a hopeless hope. Most hopes are.

Peg brings Edward down from his dark house atop that tall hill, but she is not really interested in him so much as she’s interested in what she can make of him. She wants to force him into a role that doesn’t quite fit. She is either unwilling or incapable of engaging with Edward as he is. This is true of almost everyone in the film. No one seems capable, or willing, to grapple simultaneously with the horror and pain and tragedy and beauty and rage and love and gentleness which comprise Edward’s life and heart. See how the husband imagines that Edward can just go to the bank and get a loan. See how the son imagines Edward a kind of deadly cool monster thing worth bringing to school for show-and-tell. See how that one neighbor sees him as an exotic creature destined to unleash something warm and dark from inside of her.

Depp plays Edward as an innocent in the way a child is innocent, which is to say not all that much. He wants and feels and loves and when betrayed, when the world, or a person he cares about, fails to live up to his expectations, he goes into a rage. He lets go of all the safeguards that have kept him from destroying himself. In these rages, he confirms his worst ideas of himself. He destroys. He destroys. He destroys.

For most of the film, Edward is happy to play along with what people ask of him. He cuts their hedges and their hair and their dogs. He tries to eat with a fork. We laugh and we cringe and we cry because this doesn’t seem like the life for him or for us. But it does seem to be what we’ve built for ourselves. It seems to be all that we have.

Kim’s boyfriend, at one point, wants Ed to help him break into his own house and steal many of his father’s fine and beautiful things. Kim knows this is wrong. But, she asks Ed for help anyway. It all goes wrong, of course. It was always all going to go wrong. Kim asks him why he ever agreed to do such a thing if he knew that it wasn’t going to work out. Ed has a very simple and heartbreaking answer for her. Because you asked me, he says.

This is, I think, Burton’s most delicate, and perhaps saddest, film. It is the story of a creature perpetually misunderstood and doomed to solitude. In that way, I suppose, it is–like all great art–a description of someone so individual as to contain within them the plight of everyone. Who among us isn’t doomed, in one way or another, to being perpetually misunderstood and, for the most part, entirely alone? If there is any hope here–in this film anyway–it is that Edward experiences a moment of love and connection with Kim.

Still. I’m not sure whether to think of this as hope or tragedy.

I think often of the end of the film. Of how, it turns out, Edward lives on, forever honoring the memory of that moment of love, carving its image over and over, but never finding his way back to it in real life. He is always, and forever it seems, kept separate from the reality of love. He can only ever imagine it. Maybe this is true of all of us. I like to think not, though.

Kim is the teller of this story. She is a grandmother at the beginning and end. The story belongs to her, in this way, more than it has ever belonged to Edward. For most of her life, she has been afraid to go and visit Edward. She arranged his “death” to protect him, and so, perhaps, at the start, she left Edward alone because she needed to protect him from the town. But, now, when her granddaughter asks why she doesn’t go visit Ed, Kim says that she is too old. She doesn’t want him to see her like this.

Has she forgotten, or has she never really known, what Edward was like? Out of all of them, he was the one who could see the hidden shapes inside of bushes. He could see their true form. That she refuses to go and see him, and that she imagines, or truly believes, it is because of how she looks–well, that breaks my heart. I imagine this was Burton’s intent.

I have had trouble with Burton, from time to time, as one can only have trouble with an artist, or lover, or family member, who seems to struggle with many of the same questions as you, but who seems to have made of their life some very different answers.

Where in my own work and in my life, I have worked to see everyone, including monsters, as people, in that they are made of a mess of good and evil and sin and innocence. Burton often works to see monsters as innocent of good and evil and people as monsters of both. I think, at one time, I thought this was too cruel in regards to people and too simple in regards to monsters. I have changed my mind.

Monsters are, for the most part, only symbols. They don’t really exist. And so, by definition, they exist outside of our ideas of good and evil. People do exist. And, in the way that Edward cuts beauty from the heart of the world, people cut good and evil. People aren’t the real monsters. But they are the only species of life, perhaps, capable of creating them.

Of all the monsters here, only Kim seems to have glimpsed something of the true nature of Edward’s soul—and in so doing, perhaps something of her own and of life’s true nature, as well. I like to imagine when she tells Edward, “I love you,” that it is a love that will sustain for her a new way of seeing. That she tells his story to her granddaughter means that perhaps it has. That she refuses to visit him makes me doubt. There is no answer here. I don’t know what Burton meant. I don’t know if I am right. I love this film for so many reasons. It took me a long time to come to terms with that love.

somewhere (dir. sofia coppola, 2010)

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Sofia Coppola understands aloneness and loneliness better than most. She knows, for example, that aloneness and loneliness are not the same thing. We are all alone, but we are not always lonely. To be alone is to be alive. To be lonely is to feel cut off from life. Her films consist almost entirely of characters cut off from the possibilities of life. Somewhere along the way, though, they meet with someone, or some event, that threatens to wake them up. And, in the end, we will see them riding, or walking, off into the sunset. Often, they are still alone. This is okay. Their victory in these stories is not to find and hold onto love, but to rediscover that such things are possible. Whether they are about queens or movie stars or lonely Americans in Japan, Coppola makes films about us, and, like us, they tend to be relatively straightforward, if enigmatic, creatures.

Somewhere is a simple and enigmatic film. It is about a world famous actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dourff) and his relationship with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). We don’t get much of glitzy parties or boring junkets. We don’t get much, really, of the events of Hollywood lifestyle. We do get the trappings, though. We get penthouses and pools and muscle cars and private pole dances. By the time Marco’s daughter shows up, we already know that Marco lives an empty life and we are not surprised to learn that he hasn’t been around for much of her life. Wherever Cleo has been—even if they shared the same room—Marco has always been somewhere else.

I have seen Coppola’s style of filmmaking described as detached. People say this, I think, because they believe that since her characters rarely find the words to tell us what they want or how they feel that Coppola doesn’t know how, or isn’t interested in, communicating to us what her characters want and feel. This makes sense. We have become accustomed to thinking of film as an art-form in which very little is asked of us as viewers. We expect there to be a central conflict and a series of smaller conflicts which reveal and frustrate a character’s desire until such time as we reach some sort of resolution. In films like this, we often imagine we’re observing characters when what we’re really observing are arguments between metaphors. Coppola constructs her scenes more like those found in the old masterpieces of Europe. La Dolce Vita. L’Avventura. Le Mepris. We linger in moments. There are no metaphors. Only people. There is no rush to find the next obstacle to our character’s desire. We already have everything that we need.

Most Hollywood films teach us to identify with and see ourselves in the actions of a hero. They do this by attempting to construct conflicts as universally as possible. I wonder, sometimes, if this has led people to fall out of the practice of observing and imagining the interiority of characters. It is rare to see, as in Coppola’s films, a film that asks us not to identify with, but to enter into empathy with a character. To imagine them, as it were. I have had many arguments with people who believe film to be a passive art form. I wonder if they have as much trouble imagining the reality of real people as they do imagining the reality of the people they see on screen. There is no such thing as a passive experience. There are only people experiencing things passively.

Coppola’s films are all show and no tell. They invite misunderstanding and approach great art. There is a scene, about halfway through, in which we find Marco alone in a make-up chair, his face vanished beneath a shell of white plaster. Coppola takes her time here. We zoom in on this faceless man with a great and delicate slowness. There is no soundtrack. Only the sound of his breath. In and out. He is no one. But he is someone. We can’t see him. But we know he’s alone.

Without his Cleo, Marco is lost. With his daughter, he comes to life. They play ping pong. They have tea at the bottom of a pool. Elle Fanning, as Cleo, floats through these scenes, pale and lanky and so obviously desperate for her father to be a father. Dourff, for his part, plays Marco’s slow unfurling, his slow becoming, so delicately that there’s never a moment where we go, Aha! There he is! But somewhere along the way, perhaps at ping pong, or at the bottom of that pool, we know that we’ve known it for a while now. Here he was, we think. There they are.

Late in the film, in a poolside scene, Coppola reverses the shot she filmed of the faceless man. Here Marco and Cleo sit side-by-side, and Coppola leaves them there, drifting slowly back. We’ve seen all we need to see, she seems to be saying, and now it’s time to go.

That’s the secret of a film like this. It gives you the space to lose yourself in the lives of these strangers. And when they find what they need, so do you. I have rarely been so affected by a film.

carpool karaoke: sophie turner and maisie williams

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There are those times on the road, stuck in traffic or rolling down free along the highway, that you are passed by a different car, and, while you can’t hear the music, you can see the people in that passing car singing and dancing and you think and you wish, if only for a moment, to be a part of their world, to be in that particular car, with those particular people, sharing that particular joy.

Carpool Karaoke, a skit that began on James Corden’s late night talk show in the US before evolving into Apple’s first mildly successful TV offering, grants its viewers that wish. Through some combination of a surprising number of cameras you are put in the car with a couple of celebrities as they drive and sing and dance and talk to each other and try to remember to watch the road.

I’ve only ever watched one episode of Carpool Karaoke and that one featured Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, Arya and Sansa Stark, respectively, from Game of Thrones. I remember less about the songs they sang, and more of how they sung them. For example, in their rendition of “Wrecking Ball” by Katy Perry, they seemed to be competing to see who could render the most tragically wrecked performance. Maisie, at one point, looking over at Sophie’s broken, weeping face, almost bursts out laughing because she can see what we can see which is that her friend is a fucking amazing actress.

There is a somewhat hackneyed, late-night, skittishness still draped over the show—a feeling that these bits are in some uncanny valley between improv, scripted, and actual. One bit, in which they visit a Game of Thrones event at South by Southwest, is both cringey and kind of wonderful. Another bit in which they each read sentences and generally carry on in the voices of Ned Stark and Jon Snow is just wonderful. There’s also a bit where they do some kind of magical psychic mind-reading thing. I don’t really know what that was about, but they made me believe however silly and weird it looked that there was something true and sweet and lovely about it. Much like this episode.

I don’t know if I ever need to watch another episode of Carpool Karaoke, but I’m very glad I watched this one.


Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.


Here we are in a kitchen in Shropshire. Cry of lambs, scuttle of kettle. I’m finishing Kaveh Akbar’s collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf. The radio is on. You told me once that your family always has the radio on. You said that this is a mark of class. On Radio 4 today, they’re discussing the American Civil Rights movement. Martin and Malcolm and Black Lives Matter. “Racism,” someone says. “We have been on the right side of that argument for five hundred years. The system won’t birth justice anymore than a chicken will birth a duck.”

I finish my book of poems as this story ends.

You sit down across from me. You smile. You drink your cup of coffee. The lambs keep crying.

I think about how farming in one way or another has given birth to all of our favorite metaphors.

I think about how one way or another we are all seeking resurrection.

a review of the royal tenenbaums (2001) in five chapters

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

Chapter 1: This one girl

In Mississippi, I once met this one girl who enjoyed very many different kinds of tea and also peacock feathers. She often had to explain to people that though her face always looked like it was frowning, she was almost always not all that unhappy.

This one time, several months after I first met this girl and not long before I was to leave Oxford forever, she bought me a copy of The LIttle Prince as a goodbye present.

She wrote a note inside letting me know that the secret truth that she had learned during our time together was that I was, in fact, the little prince.

It was one of the better presents.

The other thing about this girl is that she told me once that she never really liked very many movies.

Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, she said. She said that movie was basically a true story about her family.

This is how I first came to watch my first Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Chapter 2: The Innumerable Failures of Love

The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s third feature-length film after Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, concerns a family of geniuses not all that dissimilar to the Glass family—a brilliant, and occasionally depressive, brood that featured in several of J.D. Salinger’s short stories1. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the father. Anjelica Huston plays Etheline Tenenbaum, the mother. In an extended prologue, we learn how Royal left the family early on and how Etheline, through a precise and exacting regimen, raised their three children into the very model of modern major child prodigies. In this extended prologue, we also learn that this is the type of film that features an extended prologue.

The Royal Tenenbaums is divided into chapters. Each chapter begins with an insert 2. This insert takes the form of a chapter’s opening page. If one were so inclined, one could read this page and note that it corresponds more or less exactly to the scene we are about to see in the film. Anderson once before said that all of his films, no matter how they begin, end up as fables. The Royal Tenenbaums, though, is the only one that appears to have been literally adapted from an imaginary storybook.

When we encounter the Tenenbaum children later in their lives, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Chas, Richie, and Margot are played, respectively, by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and each of them, more or less literally, find themselves in an extended montage of feeling entirely at sea. They have all, despite their promising starts, arrived at a point of failure. This is also true of their father, Royal Tenenbaum, who has run out of money and time. Not long after his eviction from his home in a hotel, he learns that Etheline is considering remarrying. This inspires him to spin for Etheline, and his children, a tale of his impending death in the hopes of bringing the family back together. “I’ve got a pretty bad case of cancer,” he says. He doesn’t bother getting too specific. That being, of course, the great giveaway of any lie.

His plan is not entirely unsuccessful.

The Royal Tenenbaums only contains one actual attempt at suicide, but, so far as I can tell, everyone is looking for a way out. Margot, married to a moribund Bill Murray, spends most of her time in the bathroom. Ritchie, broken by his unrequited love for Margot, has run away to sea. Chaz, still traumatized by his wife’s death in a plane crash, runs constant fire drills in his home so that he and his children might maintain the proper preparedness for the inevitable need to escape from one or another of life’s little terrors. There’s also this one falcon called Mordecai. He lives on the roof of the Tenenbaum’s old home. Let me tell you. He almost steals the film. Really. Look at him go. Seriously. Look at that little guy go.

As it happens, each of the Tenenbaum children, in their final retreat from life, will escape back into the relative safety of their childhood home. There they will encounter their mother, who seems to have gotten on just fine without them, and their father, who seems desperate to introduce himself back into their lives through a bewildering combination of apology and reckless abandon.
Chapter 3: You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown

One of the dangers of a Wes Anderson film is that the diorama he has so carefully constructed—and which so particularly captures a very particular kind of not exactly unreal life—will collapse under its creator’s suffocating precision.

One of the ways in which The Royal Tenenbaums avoids this trap is through music.

There’s the moment, for example, when Margot, returning home in a cloud of depression, gets accompanied by a sad string of solitary piano notes pulled from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Or the moment not too long after, when Ritchie—convinced of the futility of his love and his life—attempts suicide in the bathroom. Anderson plays overs this scene an Elliot Smith song called, “Needle in the Hay.” It’s worth noting, however appropriate the song may at first have seemed, it now seems much too appropriate. Elliot Smith committed suicide in 2003, two years after the release of this film. Somehow this accidental echo, this collision of reality and artifice, suits the film even as it darkens it.
Chapter 4: Mordecai Comes Home

Something you need to understand about Wes Anderson’s films is that they always function as a kind of window on the endless tug-of-war between the forces of order and chaos. Here, in one corner, we have Etheline, who shows her love for her children by carefully scheduling their lives, and, in the other corner, we have Royal, who demonstrates his love by, seemingly at random, causing his children great harm. At one point, while in the midst of playing war with his children, he turns on the son on whose side he was meant to be fighting. “We’re on the same team!” a young Chas screams. “Hahahaha,” says Royal.

Ritchie keeps a pet falcon on the roof. This is the aforementioned Mordecai. Mordecai lives in a small cage and wears a tiny leather helmet. At one point, Ritchie sets Mordecai free and Anderson follows him on his flight across the city. This may be the first and only time in any Wes Anderson film that you will see a shot lose its focus or fail to frame its subject precisely. Mordecai soars and turns among the city’s towering brownstones, and it is all Anderson can do just to keep up with the little guy. We feel such a rush of freedom in these scenes, and we understand that this feeling, exactly this feeling, is what the film and its many children have been searching for this whole time. Everyone here has tried, in one way or another, to fly the coop. And they have all met some trauma in the world that has brought them back home again, afraid of the world and its many wild terrors. Just as Mordecai, later in the film, returns home, his feathers turned white from some fright he has suffered out there in the big, bad world.
Chapter 5: Go Garbage Truck, Go!

The Royal Tenenbaums I believe, along with Grand Budapest Hotel, remains my favorite of Anderson’s films. I think it has something to do with the way it never quite finds the balance its seeking. Its characters, despite reaffirming the endless well of love they share for each other, never quite find themselves on solid ground. This is because, of course, love doesn’t really make these characters safe. As Margot says, at one point, to Ritchie, “I think we’re just gonna to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.”

For much of this film, Royal spends his time trying to wake his children up from the doldrums which have so thoroughly engulfed them. He begins doing this because he wants their love as a treasure, I think, with which to win back the affections of Etheline. Or, perhaps, to be both more precise and vague, to win back some long vanished idea of the man he imagined himself to be.

There is no answer to the questions Anderson poses in this film. There is no way to be both fully alive and entirely safe from harm. There is no way to fly without risking a crash back to earth. I think of Chas, early in this film, hustling his children out of bed, of the comfort of their home, in preparation for some imagined terror. And then I think of Chas at the end of this film, with his wildcat of a father and his children by his side, the bunch of them pilfering a ride on the back of a garbage truck. You see in the way they swing loose, in the way the wind pulls at their hair, that they have found if not an answer to the questions of their lives, at least some kind of peace with the inevitability of that failure. I think of them there holding on tight and soaring a few feet off the ground and I smile that life, and Wes, has afforded them such a moment of breathless joy.

  1. Here is a fun fact. Are you ready? One of these characters goes by the name, Beatrice “Boo Boo” Glass Tannenbaum, and she is described at one point as “seafaring.”
  2. a still image inserted into the otherwise continuous flow of the film