1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 1: The Restless One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)|
1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 2: The Desolate One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)
1. Arabian Nights, Vol. 3: The Enchanted One (dir. Miguel Gomes, 2015)
Another Miguel Gomes entry, another Amir Soltani dedicationfor an acquaintance that barely existed at the start of this decade that became a deep, dependable, much-valued, movie-loving friendship by its end... and for all the times I've talked to and thought of him during the chaotic and critical weeks while I was writing these entries. For Jonathan Storey, another friend and cinephile whom I didn't even know when the 2010s began, and who gifted me the most beautiful letter and the loveliest visit. (No fan of the chaffinch, that one.) And honestly, for anyone who made a movie, programmed a movie, bought a ticket to a movie, talked to me about a movie, or especially shared with me their love for a movie at any time during the last ten years. They've been terrific and tough. Cinema, as always, made them so much better, as did you.
By the way: if this is the first entry you're clicking on, I promise no others are this long. Not even close.
The Night Before (December 6, 2019)
I think I'll do a list. But instead of just name the films, to quote Cher, "Now I wanna really, I wanna really say...something." I would like to feel like a real, longer-form writer again, not just a slingshotter of tweets. I would love to start a project that I actually finish, with no deadlines or editorial criteria to satisfy but my own. (I'm sure longtime readers doubted, with warrant, if I'd see this all the way through.) I'm also about to start drafting a book that's a history of commercial cinema at the end of the 1990s, so it might help me gear up for that one and loosen my writing fingers a bit to look back on the 2010s. In less than a month, we'll be welcoming yet another decade. For all kinds of reasons, from watching friends pass prematurely to seeing fire, melt, and climate chaos on every continent, I don't take for granted that I'll witness more after this one. In that spirit, I'd like to mark this occasion as special. I would be honored to take one more shot at signal-boosting for a bunch of movies I adored and admired that never reaped the level of broad visibility they deserved, alongside other films I equally adored and admired that millions upon millions of us got to share in common.
As an incorrigible list-maker, I hope to certify that even if lists are unavoidably performative, self-aggrandizing, saturated with conscious and unconscious bias, and reflective of all the maker's blind spots and limitations, the good ones can also entail earnest and complicated reflectionon one's own tastes, perspectives, and social position, as much as on the listed objects. I would like to pay homage to the film artists whose work I constantly consume, who pour huge amounts of time, care, and energy into crafting their movies. My best way to do that is to prove how hard I try to meet them halfway with my own effusions of time, care, and energy, and my own willingness to be publicly critiqued when a line, idea, or choice of mine, or maybe my entire point of view, strikes someone else as incomplete or incorrect. I'd be overjoyed to hear from website and Twitter followers (the nicest, most considerate ones on the internet, I am 100% positive) about the movies they loved as much as I did, or more or less than I did, and why.
More than anything, at a moment in time, nationally and globally, that feels rather loveless in wide-anglethough my own life, I'm fortunate to say, is full of love, support, and camaraderie in close-upI would like to bolster my spirits and take advantage of a rare window of leave time from my job by only writing about movies I love. And if I do this long enough, I'll get to write about Arabian Nights, the most astounding film event of the decade, on which I've never published anything longer than 140 characters.
Night #1 (December 7, 2019)
This is already so fun!! If I keep doing what I did today, writing 250-400 words about four films apiece, including Honorable Mentions, I can wrap up every day before early afternoon and will end right as the ball drops on New Year's Eve.
Night #5 (December 11, 2019)
Oh, these are getting longer. But surely I care more about writing, rewatching, and conversing than about finishing "on time"? It's nobody else's time but mine! I think my own favorite entries so far are the ones about Mr. Turner and the First ManWind Rises duo. But boy, did the Pina fans show up and show out! And I'm so elated that more people are learning about Valencia, and finally have a way to see it.
Night #25 (December 31, 2019)
Still learning so much from this exercise. Readers and commenters have been incredible. Meanwhile, movies keep shifting places from my first draft. I'm definitely getting even more out of this work the longer and deeper I go with the essays, whether on ones that have been favorites for almost ten years or others that have just come out, or both of those things at once, or movies I've written about elsewhere from totally different directions, or newborn movies that will need help getting the widest releases they can, or movies that played everywhere but still reaped less acclaim than they merited. Admittedly, though, it's getting much harder to know what to put next. How am I only at #28, but I've already arrived at Court and A Separation?? How are these not in the Top 10? At least I know for sure what's #1. I'm coming to you, Grand Vizier Miguel Gomes!
Night #27 (January 2, 2020)
I couldn't be happier in my private nook of the world, or more despondent peering outside it. I don't feel right just living inside this cinephilic bubble I've created around myself the last month and posting about my favorite arteven the entries that made me proudest, even when they're helping me think through violence as a local and global scourgewhile other writers in my Twitter feed are directly in danger, or straining to transmit information that shouldn't be fighting through clutter, like what I'm posting. Do I quit? If I pause, when or on what grounds do I resume?
Night #28 (January 3, 2020)
I don't think friends always believe you, much less do sympathetic comrades you "know" through the internet, when you say how much their words have helped, and how much their honesty and encouragement can mean the world. That definitely happened for me today, when numerous people wrote to tell me that they need more testimonies of love to read, even as things are darkening, or that one of my essays was the happiest spot in a day that was otherwise fretful and fearful. I don't know how to repay these people for that kindness, though finishing the project is a start. And when I get to #1, I'll have a perfect chance to ponder the dilemmas of writing about just one thing when so many topics require our attention, or of how to balance calls toward beauty, wonder, and imagination without silencing those of political urgency or national crisis.
Night #41 (January 16, 2020)
Did I just lie to everyone when I said that the entry on Joshua Oppenheimer's movies was the last joint citation on this list? I mean, Miguel Gomes made Arabian Nights all at one time and released it all together, so it's always been one project. Also, despite what people say, the three 2-hour films into which he divided the work do really benefit from being watched in the designated order, and as close together as possible. But it's kind of a joint citation. People will be forgiving. As Scheherazade knows, you say what's necessary to keep folks coming back.
Night #49 (January 24, 2020)
Scheiße! I had totally intended to knock out the entries on Western and The Tree of Life today, but I had so much trouble deciding which was #3 and which was #2 that I wound up rewatching both, and only had time to write one essay. Taking a list this seriously has to qualify as stupid, though I'm prouder of what I was able to write because the film was so fresh. Ranking is so arbitrary, especially since every title as Amour has been credible as a potential #1. Then again, not really, because Arabian Nights has felt like my movie of the decade since I was about a half-hour into my first encounter with Vol. 1: The Restless One. I remember having this precise thought during the passage when Gomes, appearing early in the film as himself, was still vacillating between making a film about laid-off dockworkers in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, or one about nearby wasp invasions, or maybe about both, or maybe no film at all. What an earnest but witty expression of struggle that became! What an incomparably beautiful, instantly engrossing job he did of fulfilling both of those tasks, and working through the problem of what "both" even means, while claiming to have gotten nowhere. Or maybe Gomes actually felt he had gotten nowhere? Well, I can't get too ahead of myself, there's another essay to write before that one.
Night #50 (January 25, 2020)
There went The Tree of Life! And here goes my 50th night of writing, which I thought would be a fitting date on which to wrap up, but this project just kept getting bigger. Arabian Nights, too, kept growing and growing. Miguel Gomes never intended to produce three separate, simultaneous, interlocking features until he went into the field of his own country, looking for all the stories that deserved lifting up, and realized he was gonna need a bigger boat. I'm so glad he made that choice, and so awestruck that his collaborators, especially his producers, found the resources he required. That's a remarkable feat, given everything Arabian Nights showcases so clearly about Portugal's financial infirmitymuch less what other films and news reports have taught us across the decade about tightened belts and tapped-out funds all over the world.
This trilogy was always going to be my #1 of the 2010s, totally on its own one-of-a-kind merits. That said, I'm getting a kick out of the dialectical synthesis as well as the transcendence of dialectic that Gomes's triptych represents between the two movies ranked just below it. Arabian Nights reflects all the deep political attunement of Western and shares its well-deserved confidence that life in a "smaller" country, undermined by its own leadership and by an entire economic system, can be fully, deeply illustrative of worldwide problematics, without forsaking the specifics of this time and place. All of the characters played in Arabian Nights by Chico Chapas, especially Simão, the fugitive reprobate turned cult hero in Vol. 2: The Desolate One, and, well, Chico Chapas, the legendary chaffinch trainer in Vol. 3: The Enchanted One, project a weather-beaten masculinity that still looks lean and sharp-edged, like Meinhard's in Western. The legions of unemployed laborers, suspicious neighbors, striking policemen, bird enthusiasts, and midwinter bathers we meet across all three parts of Arabian Nights feel like collectives that would interest Valeska Grisebach, as well. Both movies trust documentary-based aesthetics to lend real-world weight and texture to their fictional talesa merging that has manifested across my list as a whole and within several of the films I spotlighted. Major swaths of Arabian Nights basically are nonfiction films, especially the first quarter and the last third of Vol. 1 and well over half of Vol. 3. Even the segments of Gomes's trilogy you'd most quickly presume as inventions are rooted in recent fact.
At the same time, without literally spanning eons the way The Tree of Life does, Arabian Nights links its creative fictions about contemporary Portuguese sagas, playing out in real time around the filmmakers, to brazenly pastiched versions of a mythic Middle Eastern-cum-Mediterranean past. Blending a reconstructed "old" with the self-destructive "new," finding vibrancy, melancholy, and looming threat in both eras, Arabian Nights is as self-consciously grand as The Tree of Life, despite being so photographically, culturally, and thematically distinct. Both projects condense within their nonetheless-sprawling shapes huge, tumultuous movements of time, history, aspiration, disappointment, and archetypal storytelling. They boldly defamiliarize their most iconic frames of reference, from churches to courtrooms, shipyards to solar systems, God to Scheherazade. They feel like the results of Malick and Gomes reinventing how cinema itself might look, sound, and feellinked to both men's refusals to develop material through anything like a standard, script-based production process. Each feels like the first entry of a totally new era of movies. At the same time, each is self-aware as a time capsule for such long pasts that precede them, capacious and vivid but rueful and recently diminished. They seem to have been pushed as far as their stories and creators will allow them to go, just in case no other movie ever gets funded again, or the world itself changes so dramatically that movies become obsolete, or the Earth itself halts tomorrow. That's a strong argument for waking up in the morning and trying something I've never done, going somewhere I've never gone. But, as per my personal religious practice, I plan to spend my Sunday just as I spent today: contemplating once more a text that will always exceed and elude me, even as it elucidates so much around me.
Night #51 (January 26, 2020)
It's already after dinner time, and I haven't even started writing. I spent the whole day re-watching Arabian Nights: a necessary step toward writing anything cogent about it, but also a luxurious pastime for any Sunday, with or without a larger motive. For me, that prologue is still love at first sight. If you haven't seen Arabian Nights, or haven't recently, we start on majestic tracks past the Viana do Castelo shipyards, overlaid with rotating voiceovers of different men who grew up knowing they would work there, recalling the sweaty and sea-salt smell of their fathers' uniforms, and learning of a wide world where the crafts they manufactured were headed: Germany, Israel, Brazil, the USSR. The same men testify how this tentpole industry is now collapsing, the last 600 jobs (of what once were thousands) disappearing as the final boat sets out to sea, without so much as a launch ceremony. Miguel Gomes, the genius behind Tabu, newly funded by the cash-poor Portuguese government to make another movie, cannot stomach telling any story about his country that looks past this economic cliff-dive or denies the plight of these working families, who are taking to the strees in their own hopeful defense. But as he finds out more about the unrest in Viana, he's learning on-site about a massive wasp infestation that's decimating the local bee population and, with it, another proud and longstanding industry. The wasps are spreading fast to other parts of Portugal, despite resourceful and visually transfixing pushback. (That plague, by the way, is not letting up.) Hence, Gomes's ambivalence over which story to tell. He senses the possibility of a linking metaphor, but asserts of himself, "I'm stupid, and abstraction gives me vertigo." Besides, does pursuing this metaphor turn the fired dockworkers by implication into drones? Does it naturalize the cruelties of 21st-century capitalism into a state of nature, like a cyclical infestation, rather than a manmade problem? Gomes gives it a good go, pairing images of either boat-making, protesting, or nest-burning with voice tracks that refer to one of the others. But he gets so certain of his own failure that he literally sprints off his own set, forcing his crewthemselves newly laid-off, in the absence of their leaderto come find him in the countryside, beating their way through forest underbrush like search parties in a Gillian Flynn novel.
Gomes winds up buried to his neck on a beach, forced by his own camera and sound teams to lip-sync for his life after his precipitous abandonment. Time to start serving some Scheherazade Realness and tell some stories that will keep an audience interested, keep the crew employed, and keep the spirits and conflicts of modern Portugal in view, even as the movie's spectacles and stories will seem to wander far afield. Of course, this isn't quite how things went down. Gomes did not abscond, though his script-less, fluid, exploratory methods and his penchant for conceiving huge ideas with meager funds might one day land him amidst a mutiny. The actual genesis of Arabian Nights is less dramatic than this, but still pretty weird by moviemaking standards. Gomes recruited three journalists, billed high in the credits, to seek out stories worth telling from all over Portugal and report back to a Central Committee; especially promising yarns would prompt closer study, full-crew visits, and rapid-fire creative summits about how to preserve, rework, and/or wildly extrapolate key details. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was seduced into moving to Portugal for a year, without so much as a confirmed story structure or location itinerary. He was fully trained through collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee) to heighten real, unromantic scenes of life into bases for sometimes-extravagant folklore; he is also skilled, as we see in Call Me By Your Name, at filming picturesque locations without making them glossy. The two-pronged passion play of Viana do Castelo was not the first discovery of Gomes's sleuths. They learned first, as per his production diary, of a criminal trial launched against a rooster in the small northern town of Resende, arraigned for waking all the citizens too early. Resende was also beset by mysterious arsons that someone (not, presumably, the rooster) kept starting in the nearby mountains. Off Gomes & Co. went to see how these threads might mix. Off went Arabian Nights.
It's even harder with this filmmaker than with most to disentangle the truth of his movies and how they were made from the beguiling apocrypha he spins about them. Even Gomes's production diary appears inside the Kino Lorber Blu-ray with a note that winkingly frames it as stolen, disputed property. But what's easiest to believe is that Gomes felt artistic and political compunction about how to speak on behalf of a nation in painas witness the three
captions that preface each of Arabian Nights's three installmentswhile also nourishing his audiences with the kinds of humor, color, melody, escape, respect, imagination, and counterfactual fantasy that prevailing circumstances in Portugal, and not just in Portugal, made so valuable and so scarce. And so Arabian Nights coalesced through deeply eccentric, highly improvisational means as a joint venture in fact-finding and fabulation, two of cinema's greatest capacities. Sometimes the two stand rather apart, as in the surrealist court proceedings in Vol. 2, where the ghost of a dead cow gives testimony. Compare that to the real, heartbreaking, straight-to-camera autobiographies in Vol. 1 of three newly jobless men in the central coastal city of Aveiro, where the annual January 1st tradition of a civic-sponsored dive into the ocean has been jeopardized by local austerity measures. However, even in that basically accurate episode, the determined convener of the "Swim of the Magnificents" ceremony has recently received, in Gomes's version, an electrocardiogram test inside the belly of a whale. Arabian Nights, devised amid the already-notorious era of Fake News as a global meme, never positions honesty and invention as opposites. Crucially, though, it furnishes fact, fiction, and their tense interdependencies in ways that draw us closer to the world we inhabit, rather than distorting it past recognition.
Night #437 (Vol. 1: The Restless One)
The first panel of Arabian Nights would be my #1 feature of the decade even if it weren't followed by two companion films that broadened, deepened, and complicated it even further. Beyond including the prologue I've been describing, gorgeous in itself and mobilizing of the whole piebald and diffuse opus to come, its other episodes land perfectly and establish the ambitious tonal range of Gomes's project. The "Island of the Young Virgins of Baghdad" section that follows the perfect preamble, introducing Scheherazade and activating the narrative structure still linked to her name, also has the virtue of initiating Arabian Nights's layered politics around gender. Granted, majority-male collectives like the deposed dockworkers of Viana and the bird obsessives of Vol. 3 are often centered as paradigmatic sufferers under neoliberal Portuguese rule. That said, Gomes makes a point of underlining the impacts of such 21st-century tyranny on women, but also the fates of women, even privileged women, under the heels of patriarchy at all echelons of culture and society, more or less forever. It's a strong take without being a flat one, and Scheherazade herself is an inspired avatar. She is both a desperate, imminent candidate for despotic, misogynistic violence and an intrepid volunteer for that position, sure that she can outfox her oppressor and save her sisters in the process. The "Island of Baghdad," where Scheherazade visits a commune of women more or less her age, sharing bounties of food, wine, and story with no men around to bother them, is sadly close to a nonsense in our world, as is the notion of an "Island of Baghdad." From here, nonetheless, Scheherazade starts imagining the stories that will hopefully save her hide. We only cut in on her 437th night of 1,001 narrationswhy, I'm not sure, except that Gomes's implied conceit is that, for all the abundance and calico craziness Arabian Nights will encompass, it barely skates the surface of all the tragedy and farce unfolding in the naked country. The tales we hear, ending in Vol. 3 on the 530th night, are clustered in the middle of Scheherazade's famous repertoire. Hopefully this suggests that, just as what we see on screen has been preceded by expansive histories, so too is Gomes's story bound to continue, despite intimations of decline or outright apocalypse. May the same hold true for our actual world!
Scheherazade starts, then, on that 437th night with the bawdy and politically merciless "Men with Hard-Ons," in which an already-fractious summit between Portuguese administrators and emissaries from Europe's Central Bank are together seduced by a reclusive wizard who promises them unending erections and sexual vitality in exchange for an end to austerity policies and "labor redundancy" purges. Unafraid to call things by their names, Gomes's frontal indictment of wealth-hoarders as phallus-obsessed hedonists makes clear that Arabian Nights will not partition its goals of delicious satire ("The world is spinning around our penises! This is so cool!") and bitter lament. But the satire is not as mono-targeted as it may appear, taking additional aim at the tourist culture of many of us who may visit Portugal and imagine we are witnessing "real life" and paying into local communities when it's very likely we're doing the opposite. The fate of the female Finance Minister, the Condoleezza/Kellyanne anomaly in what is otherwise an almost literal sausage party, is a tonal puzzle that Gomes approaches with some agility. The final, wickedly plotted coup de grâce is that these profiteers' nascent boredom with the very thing they most craved will not expose to them the thinness or violence of their wants but will only reawaken their hunger for exploitation.
Night #445 ("The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire")
That kind of ironization, often quite subtle even in stories that seem plainspoken to a fault, resurfaces in "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire." This apparent send-up of provincial backwardness reveals itself as, among other things, a tough-love j'accuse to a petty and simple-minded electorate, who struggle to envision big pictures while cleaving obsessively to our most immediate and narcissistic tribulations. Furthermore, these citizens' responses to bureaucratic inconvenience (though you could fairly label this case as ballot interference) is not to demand democratic justice but to throw a tantrum at the ballot box and make a further travesty of the whole process. At the exact moment the rooster/defendant becomes that story's narrator, it sidewinds, as Gomes's fabliaux often do. What suddenly emerges is a nutty love-triangle melodrama among teenagers, one of whom keeps setting the surrounding woods ablaze, so as to put her rival, a volunteer firefighter, at a dangerous, near-ceaseless remove from the boy they both love. Gomes scores some laughs off the abbreviated text-speak of these children: "IWALU," they declaim, sorta citing Whitney Houston, from the bottom of their hearts! He also vents some spleen about the whole notion of setting alight a world we ought to be saving from conflagration. At the same time, the impacted hieroglyphics of instant messaging are another version of what Scheherazade's and Gomes's Arabian Nights both arereinventions of language and of storytelling. He also takes poignant visual note of what it means that early adolescents are out here trying to save an ecosystem that's all too likely to disappear for good under the neglectful "eye" of their elders.
Night #453 ("The Swim of the Magnificents")
The ultimate glory of The Restless One, though, lies in its longest and final section, "The Swim of the Magnificents," as Luís, a "trade unionist, swimming teacher, and recent divorcé" as per voiceover introduction, and Maria, his spiky-haired, Lisbeth Salander-type assistant, try to ensure one last holiday for their neighbors in Aveiro but also to understand the details and depths of their suffering. Adriano Luz, the master thespian who plays the aging, ailing, kind-hearted Luís, has already appeared as one of the dick-worshiping austerity champions in the "Men with Hard-Ons" chapter. Crista Alfaiate, who plays Maria, recurs in every installment as the glammier, femmier Scheherazade. Such cross-casting offers not just evidence of the actors' shape-shifting skill and Gomes's frugal use of a limited repertory but further proof of Arabian Nights's grounding claim, reassuring but also haunting, that few people are simply monsters, and even fewer are uncomplicated paragons. That doesn't mean that Gomes is unduly invested in muddying moral waters. It's hard to react with anything but pure empathy to the slowly zoomed-in testimony of the first documentary subject, ex-sales manager Aníbal Fabrica, or the static, loving two-shot on the next memoirists of hardship, ex-fisherman and steadfast café waitress Rui Silva and Sónia Vieira. However, by the time we get to the final unemployed speaker, Paulo Carvalho, in scrutinizing close-up, Gomes characteristically complicates our compassion (without, crucially, obliterating it) by having Paulo admit that his unseen girlfriend has been the worse victim and hopefully-not-literal "punching bag" of his own struggles with aimlessness, depression, and ineffective prescriptions. "The Swim of the Magnificents," which covers the passage of December 2013 into the advent of January 2014, and which punctuates its candid profile of the growing Portuguese underclass with cameos by spontaneously exploding cetaceans and mermaids gasping for breath, defers any necessary choice between telling tall tales and telling it like it is. The inhumane difficulties of modern life, imposed under the sick-making banner of "leadership," are the tallest tales of all. Meanwhile, the sprint of the half-dressed hoi polloi into the freezing-cold and gray-beige surf, hoisting the very flag under whose watch they have suffered, defies its own seeming pointlessness and its lemming-like visual connotations to take shape as a stirring demonstration of political defiance.
Night #470 (Vol. 2: The Desolate One)
The middle film in the Arabian Nights trilogy hardly lacks for color, fascination, or charm, particularly in a closing episode that might have been called Ghost Dog: The Way of Portugal. Still, it earns its eponymous claim on "desolation" since all three of its constituent narratives force the audience into uncomfortable epiphanies. "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão 'Without Bowels,'" the borderline non-narrative story that inaugurates this film, is not just about an elderly fugitive from justice (his worst crimes have been against women) but about his escape from the kind of public condemnation that would be his lot in a saner world or era. The 35-minute episode detonates the mythology around rugged, off-radar individualism that continues to entice so many people's romantic feelings, not least because cinemas of the classical-midcentury and contemporary-arthouse varieties have frequently printed that legend. I'll confess that "The Tears of the Judge," which consumes the middle 43 minutes of this second feature, and thus the structural epicenter of Arabian Nights, is the one interval that strikes me as an ambitious idea only half-successfully realized. Written as a spiral-beyond-control of a seemingly open-and-shut trial for thievery, in which almost everyone attending the public hearing turns out to have some near or distant complicity in the crime, this story's rhythms and imagery never achieve the precision or vitality manifest in Scheherazade's other tales, as thematically and stylistically disparate as they all are. It also ends on a discordant O. Henry twist with an uneasy-at-best racial politic. That's not to say there's not plenty to recommend in "The Tears of the Judge." Smartly, the abyss of disillusionment opening beneath our female judge reaches inward as well as outward, given how assiduously she has steered her daughter toward a "perfect" suitor who has now come back to haunt them both. This episode also rescues Arabian Nights from an idealizing paradigm by which women can only ever be figured as wily controllers of narrative, as secondary characters, or as abused objects of power. In any case, I find it a healthy epiphany that even the best movie of the decade, or the best of anything, or the best of any of us, remains open to debate, the very principle that ambiguously shows its value but also goes wildly off the rails in this judge's court.
Night #497 ("The Owners of Dixie")
Virtually everyone's favorite passage of Vol. 2: The Desolate One, if not of Arabian Nights altogether, is an hour-long final movement that centers around an adorable dog named Dixie. First glimpsed as a dirt-streaked foundling in a public park, Dixie becomes the shared joy of several residents within one of Portugal's block-housing complexes, proliferating in proportion to the growing numbers of Portuguese who have been displaced and/or impoverished by changing economic conditions. As much bliss as Dixie brings to the various households among whom he gets passed, for reasons ranging from the altruistic to the morbid, he does not succeed in eroding intramural prejudices among them. A young couple, Vânia and Vasco, trying to make a break from their shared past as pusher and addict (the auspice under which they met), seem poised to make friendlier contact with their neighbors once they inherit this sweet-tempered pet. In fact, they remain pariahs and keep their distance after donating Dixie to another family who seem likely to love him and better able to care for himthough not till Vânia tests a morsel of Dixie's food. Evidently, she is that hungry for some new taste, any new taste, after weeks of the unchanging canned goods that count as public-welfare sustenance for the needy.
"The Owners of Dixie," named for a fluid constellation of semi-acquaintances with tenuous claims on that title, features Tabu stars Isabel Cardoso and Teresa Madruga. In its prismatic interest in multiple adjoining apartments, each host to its own enigmatic dramas, this episode also recalls the format and scope of Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds, just as the ripples of metaphysical Otherness that permeate the whole complex align with Mendonça Filho's Aquarius. (Is this as good a time as any to celebrate the absolute marvel of Lusophone cinema in the 2010s, bridging Portugal and former colonies like Brazil, copious on my list but also extending well past it?) Even little Dixie runs into his long-dead double, around the time our voiceover narrator calls attention to the dog's own duality as a peppy companion to an ever-rotating cast of owners, seemingly unbothered by their cycle of displacements and outsourcings: by choice, by hardship, or by death. "He was as much a machine of loving as a machine of forgetting," is the screenplay's poetic and humbling insight into the life of a Maltese who's more buoyant than Herzog's grizzlies but not necessarily less indifferent. Gomes, as committed to paradox as any working director, and as sprightly about confronting it, is able to follow this insouciant little pet and discern another case study for his ongoing focus on comfort and coldness, the magnificent and the mundane.
Night #515 (Vol. 3: The Enchanted One)
The third film in the Arabian Nights cycle comprises Gomes's fullest plunge into the luminous, rapturous, multi-colored possibilities of imagining a new version of its titular text and idiom. Alert at all times to the risks of uncritical Orientalismand therefore blatant in all its sonic and visual choices, from scoring to costuming, about its own inauthenticityArabian Nights nonetheless exhibits at the start of Vol. 3 much of what a naïve spectator might have anticipated from the start. Gomes goes Big with the fronds and textiles, the sapphire seas, the sun-kissed lovers, the plush boudoirs, the gossamer dissolves, the soulful singing, and the indexical depictions of feminine lament. If the combination, rich with sensuous intoxications, verges more closely than anything else in Arabian Nights on the idiom of garden-variety exoticism, then take note that it's also framed belatedly as Scheherazade's own dream, from her prison of isolation and indentured storytelling. Even amidst that fragrant fantasia, Scheherazade discovers that the mythic "flower of a thousand scents" she has been seeking actually "doesn't smell like much at all." With those first 40 minutes threading together promised ecstasy with disaffected anticlimax, Scheherazade has to reboot...
Night #515 ("The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches")
...and thus commences, that same night, the recitation that sticks most stubbornly in the craw of Arabian Nights's detractors. It is also the one that Gomes names in his "Production Diary" as the local history he uncovered midway through filming that revealed to him how the whole movie would look, sound, and coalesce. Gomes had to know, he had to, that the 80 minutes of collective, bewildering, largely fruitless fetishism of Portuguese songbirds that ends Arabian Nights would be as alienating to most audiences as it was apparently invigorating to him. I cannot blame anybody who finds this long chapterwhich resumes even after the film appears, 42 minutes in, to turn a new pageto be an impudent, gruesomely unsatisfying finale for such a kinetic and variously seductive enterprise. Arabian Nights requires great investments of time and trust from its spectators, only to land them ultimately in the company of a dozen or so men, most of them taciturn and impenetrable, who collect and cage chaffinches as an obsessive hobby, to the acute consternation of almost all their families and girlfriends. (Once again, women suffer!) The men train these birds, far more impersonal than Vol. 2's Maltese, at least as onerous to the ear as Vol. 1's strident cock, to absorb new songbooks which many of the chaffinches flat-out resist. Meanwhile, they cart the little warblers around to a Sisyphean series of drab-looking "competitions" where prizes are in ample supply; all of the top ten finalists at one such convention receive a trophy. They parse among themselves the (alleged) difference between a sound called iak-iak-iak-chi-kuik and an iak-iak-iak-chee-yew-kuik, and whether a given animal, small enough to hold in one palm, might be coachable to achieve one of these vocal runs, rather than the mere iak-iak-iak-keak with which nature or God endowed it.
Very possibly, ending my six-week countdown with Arabian Nights, and with such a lengthy write-up of it, and especially with this long, seemingly dehydrated passage of Vol. 3: The Enchanted One, may land like cold water on some readers. Arabian Nights has many, many fans in the world, so this is hardly a contrarian selection, even though I believe that Miguel Gomes has nowhere close to the level of U.S. name recognition that his career thus far has earned him. But even for some of those devotees, the chaffinches are hard to endorse. If I were Scheherazade, and I do feel like this Films of the Decade project has more or less been my version of 1,001 Nights, some Grand Viziers might at this point show me the door, or the dagger.
To that, what can I say? "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches," even on its own terms, but especially as contextualized by the five prior hours, totally works for me as a mini-feature documentary. Marx talked famously about religion as the opiate of the masses. Gomes posits the chaffinch, I think, as a figure of sincere wonder to the men who shape their lives around it, but also, as per the section heading, as an "inebriate," an all but random object of distraction and compulsion that gets people through a quotidian existence that is sparse in other comforts. Many of these guys live in block-housing compartments like the ones Dixie's successive parents and champions inhabit in Vol. 2: The Desolate One. A few appear to be homeless, and most seem unemployed or, at best, precariously employed for reasons that Arabian Nights has so thoroughly chronicled. The fact that several folks in the chaffinch crowd play additional roles in other portions of Arabian Nights suggests Gomes's pledge to employ them as fully and for as long as possible. I can't believe I'm going to mention Freud twice in the last two essays of this feature, since he's not someone I think about all that often, or someone whom Arabian Nights or The Tree of Life readily summons to mind. Still, it seems relevant to recall that his notion of the fetish is of a partial object, detached from context and sublimated as separate, that elicits such relentless focus that it deflects from the insupportable hardship of training one's eye on a full picture of another person, or of the world in its entirety. I don't mean to pathologize these men by pointing out that the chaffinch segment of Vol. 3: The Enchanted One suggests an inordinate hyper-attention on a nearly arbitrary object. This thrall spreads to Gomes himself, who dotes on this material last and longest, and fills his frame with more numerous and more extensive expository texts than any other section receives. The chaffinch, in its strange blend of nondescript and wondrous qualities, is both exemplary of and detached from the larger view of Portugal and the larger canvas of the film. Across both, so many libidinal objects have been subtracted (lovers, jobs, neighborhoods, justice, welfare nets, even favorite pets), and the antagonisms of power and the dwindling horizons of prosperity are so strongly marked, that something must cushion the blow. Some of these men grow so attached to their birds that they're wrecked when one dies, often mid-trill. Some fellows seem to want to become these birds, reclining in their own protective mesh, into which they insist they accidentally fell. Or maybe they're making excuses when discovered because they have nowhere else to nap or to live.
When I say I don't mean to pathologize these men for their extreme focus on birdsong, their demotion of everything else in life as subservient to these animals, I am not just being tactful. You're reading this essay at the end, or maybe the start, or maybe the middle of an obsessive list and an attendant series of essays I've crafted to the near-total exclusion of everything else I normally do for the past seven weeks. The movies I've chosen as the Best of the Decade represent just one portion of the 1,841 new films I watched in the 2010s, indexed and spreadsheeted in an amazing variety of ways on my laptop and on this website. Many I viewed multiple times, even some I disliked. It's not the only writing project about movies I have going at the moment, whether publicly or privately. All of them involve ornate structures, arcane charts, and painstaking deliberations about what to include or not include, much less what to say or not to say. I try to get these movies, these performances, these images and artists to sing in their own voices but also to sing in my voice, in the way I encountered them initially and over time, and as they persist in my own heart and head. One of Arabian Nights's undisguised subjects throughout is cinephilia. It's not just a feature but a foundation of the project that Gomes wants to give us as much Movie as he possibly can. He touches so many parts of local, national, and global culture but also a nearly infinite number of filmmaking traditions. Any valentine to cinephilia, as a way to live life, a way of managing and schematizing life, and/or a way to soften or hide from life is, at some level, about the same peccadilloes and passions that motivate the men who are drunk on chaffinches. So maybe you get to the end of Arabian Nights or the end of this countdown and think, "Where in the world am I? Who would lead me here, and why??" But I arrive at these two ends seeing Gomes's obsessions and my own in ways I never would have otherwise. I find myself thinking, with confidence, "This is where I live. This is what I do. This is who I am."
Night 1512 (September 19, 2015)
That's how many days you have to travel backward from the start of my Best of the Decade project to reach that day in the Art Gallery of Ontario when I saw all three installments of Arabian Nights back to back to back in a room of fellow chaffinch nuts, by which I mean other cinephiles. Some of them were my partners by choice as we absorbed part or all of Gomes's great experiment, his all-in gamble on keeping alive cinema as ambitious praxis and cinema as utopian dream. Some of these cinephiles I know only a little, but their ideas and their words matter a lot to me. Some are so dear to me that I can tell their iak-iak-iak-keaks from their iak-iak-iak-chi-kuiks. I see most movies alone, and I often frankly prefer that. But I love the memory of that day and revisit it often, especially its sense of a monumental movie that is also three movies that are also 1,001 movies, playing to a few hundred people that was also one audience. I know opinions were divided, and the contexts we brought to the movie differed, but I felt that Gomes saw us, and had made something for us to marvel at, learn from, worry over, quarrel about, and enjoy. It made me feel closer to Tina, to Corey, to Alex, to Nathaniel, to Yaseen, to Amir. It defied all reason by making me feel even closer to the movies than I already felt.
Night #52 (January 27, 2020)
If you've been following this countdown from the start, you've allowed me to enthuse, to analyze, to disclose, and to think out loud for 52 nights now, during which time I've produced more than 162,000 wordsmuch more writing than I usually manage in 52 weeks. If you're reading this a while later, you're still enabling me to do those things. I'd name all of you who have corresponded most actively, but I know I'd forget somebody and feel terrible, and I know there are more and different people reading than I could include. I'd list everyone who had any role, from director to funder to editor to grip, in making possible the 126 movies I've packed into an erstwhile "Top 100," or the 193 others I snuck in more briefly as Honorable Mentions. Clearly, there is no way to do that. So to anybody reading, and to anybody still making ambitious, heartfelt movies as the 2020s commence, hoping that audiences will not just devour but will engage, wrestle with, study, and discuss them...
2. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
For Derek, who puts up with insanity like, but not limited to, what I describe below. For Becky Krug, whom I've just learned is a fan of The Tree of Life, and who backed me up so vigorously 20+ years ago in my feeling that I had a future in this kind of work. And for Stephen and Braulio and Michael and every other person on Twitter who's kind to me and who says regular prayers of gratitude for this movie. And in the spirit of the film, for my own dear brother, Nate Davis, very much alive, with me even when not with me. I am choosing to overlook that when I texted him about The Tree of Life, he responded with some palaver about Transformers: The Last Knight.
For reasons never explained to me, and in a fashion that's never repeated, The Tree of Life played for a week before it went wide in this one Landmark cinema in Chicago, when it was otherwise only on offer in New York and Los Angeles. Derek, who sits out the vast, vast majority of my moviegoing dates, decided he wanted to join for this one. He can, for sure, catch the scent of genuine creative ambition from miles away. He'd also gotten to see Days of Heaven on a huge screen shortly after we'd moved to Chicago, and he knew how important The Thin Red Line was to me. Another friend of his through his job at the opera also asked to accompany us. I was totally happy about this, but I had to be stern on one point: "I don't think you guys understand how ecstatic the advance word on this movie is, or what real Malick fans are like. This is the only place for hundreds of miles in one direction or thousands in the other where anyone can see The Tree of Life."
"So, you really think Chicago's going to turn out in a big way for this early-afternoon matinée?" Derek asked, palpably skeptical but trying very hard to take me seriously, and hopefully finding it slightly cute that I was so worked up.
"It's opening day! I think people will probably come from Indiana, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Detroit, maybe even Minnesota. This is a big deal, you guys. I think we should arrive an hour and a half early." Derek and Hugh agreed to this plan. 90 minutes after we took our seats, the three of us and maybe a dozen other people had the cine-spiritual experience of our lifetimes. By which I mean, Derek and Hugh thought it was very, very good, and I helped them to see it had #actually been the cine-spiritual experience of their lifetimes. And they did not say out loud, "Sure, Jan," even if they thought it. Now, it's a crux of this story that I would not have been so vehement (read: deranged) about the prospect of almost any other film. The luckier for me! If I had dragged them even to something as good as The Artist or Moneyball under such alarmist, ridiculous auspices, I'd have likely sat there distracted by my own sheepishness. But The Tree of Life amply vaporizes whatever was preoccupying you five seconds before the movie starts. Besides which, if any director is willing to risk absurdity in worshipful pursuit of the serious, it's Terrence Malick, so I elected to believe I had responded in kind.
Of course it would have been impossible to imagine The Tree of Life before actually seeing it. What's more astounding is how hard it can be to imagine even after seeing it. Nearly a decade of deep acquaintance has not desensitized me whatsoever to its mystery and magic. I am regularly surprised that I have mis-remembered the proportional balance of its composite passages, and I unfailingly "discover" shots or beats that I had not remembered at allmost recently, the brief montage of that 20th Century Women-ish biplane ride that Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) once received as a graduation present, which she describes for her sons at bedtime after the middle child, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), asks to hear a story "from before we can remember." Or what about this brief, casually staggering shot of her oldest child Jack (Sean Penn), much older now than she was then, perceiving his own distorted reflection inside his own elongated shadow within a shimmery-edged shallow of clear tidewater over a sandy shore? I didn't recall it, but there, in one image, is the whole movie.
Other surprises abound, including some that stand out because they contradict the larger, more infamous impressions made by the film. For example, it's easy to associate The Tree of Life so closely, and deservedly, with the furthest reaches of cinematographic flamboyance and with the most ambitious yet elliptical architectonics of how huge sections might relate. This is so much the case that I forget the movie's myriad moments of trust in tiny inflections, cupping whole worlds of dramatic ramification in their delicate hands. The movie's first canto centers around the long, unceasing history of shockwaves still passing through a Texan family, and especially through the life of middle-aged architect Jack, after the death of his brother R.L. That awful news arrives into the O'Briens' lives via a Western Union telegram, delivered to his mother inside a glass-walled house that, based on associations with similar spaces across the film, I would bet is a house that Jack built. Mrs. O'Brien doesn't seem perturbed at all by the fact of this telegram, and we track behind her as she opens it, with other mail still in her hand. A sudden, arrhythmic, two-second push-in on the back of Mrs. O'Brien's head is all that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki require to pinpoint the exact moment the information strikes her, and the exact type of information it is. (Worth noting: Lubezki is a disembodied wizard who became manifest amid the transition from the Hadean to the Archean Eon, about 4 billion years ago, and he is able to photograph movies without any kind of camera at all, instead manipulating the molecular behavior of light itself.) The jump cut that intercedes between a three-quarter profile shot and then a half-profile shot on Chastain quietly but definitively reinforces, like a mid-line period in a sonnet, that inside this wordless moment of reading, something stopped in Mrs. O'Brien's life and something else, against every one of her wishes, started.
"Brother... Mother..." These words, elemental to the scene I have just related, also open The Tree of Life. They are spoken at that point by the adult Jack, who concludes this halting thought with the confession, "It was they who led me to your door." Despite the surface simplicity of that utterance, the film has instantly launched us into the byzantine runnels and rhizomes and unsolvable mysteries for which it is famous. Who is this you in "your"? What is this door, and to where does it lead? The portal through which Jack will most conspicuously step in The Tree of Life is a doorway that precisely lacks a door, a rude driftwood structure disconnected from any surrounding edifice. Stepping across its threshold transports the film (it may or may not transport Jack himself) back into the fiery prehistory of the planet, but also in short succession, in tandem with Jack's narration about reaching "the end of time," into possible looming futures of the planet, alternately broiled and frigid. From thereas in, somehow beyond the End of Everythingthe film finds another door with an enigmatic chaperone who may, though unbilled as such, be the younger self of Jack's mother, and then an open gate with a church door behind it, and then another door, with one of the spell-caster Lubezki's many iridescent flares shining through. Amidst all these serial portals, complex in temporality, in ontology, in spiritual resonance, Jack will encounter the brother he lost, the mother who may by now also be deceased, his own younger self (played for most of the movie by Hunter McCracken), and an entire, populous beachside realm that may imply a certain kind of Heaven. If so, it is not a conventional Heaven, peopled as it is with those who have passed but also with prior incarnations of those who still live.
Despite all of its running, rotating, adjoining, interleaving, slowing, accelerating, superimposable parts, I find it not only tempting but luxuriously easy to experience The Tree of Life as a seductive holism. In this choric, oceanic, or ethereal environment, our ears or eyes may snag on any number of evocative details. We may yet feel disinclined to "read," to trust that there is anything like a clear story or staged argument inside it, or across it, depending what metaphysic seems right for this movie. The Tree of Life, after all, is not just a tree, or even a root system, but feels just as often like a bubble, a garden, a prayer, a memory, a gaseous plume, a recited verse, a ring of Saturn, an endless stretch of wave after wave. Faced with all that, another type of spectator might feel that there is one lesson, tale, or archetype lurking inside and around the whole movie, whose discovery will re-affirm something already known. Maybe it's the Holy Trinity, in a movie full of trios and robust with Christian tropes and signifiers. Maybe it's the Oedipal family of father, mother, and child. Maybe it's the slippery calculus by which each of those formations has always presumed the other as its own precondition. Was the fact of human reproduction and bloodline groups the Big Bang event that made God imaginable as a patriarch, or Jesus as an immaculate child? Or were divine origin, idealized maternity, and filial manifestation the three beams of an inexplicable, self-standing doorway through which we passed toward our ideasfluid, endless, inadequate as they areof mothers, fathers, and children? What's true in life is true in this Tree: you can't well pose a thought or a question about any of these notions without chuting and laddering yourself into thoughts and questions about the others, even if you're trying to maintain some One on a pedestal: brother, mother, father, Father, Son, holy spirit.
I'm sure Malick's devotion to God and his inclination to find or at least imply God within every image, edit, or soaring sound has enticed some audiences to believe in The Tree of Life who would normally reject any piece of art this defiantly elusive and complicated. (Though let's not short-change those people: anyone who's been studying the Bible or any foundational religious text their whole lives is no stranger to the defiantly elusive and complicated.) I find that the opposite is true for me, and I don't mean to be remotely glib about this: it is Malick's devotion to cinema, in its power and still barely-tested potential, that brings me much closer than usual to the possibility of God. As embarrassing as that is to say, it is irrefutably how I feel while watching the film. That said, the version of Faith that The Tree of Life comes uncannily close to inspiring in me is resolutely non-denominational; there's a reason, I feel sure, it is titled after the rare figure to surface in so many spiritual traditions. That Faith is also inextricably, ironically tied to exactly the notions that would seem to exist outside it or subsist most comfortably without it. What I mean is this: The Tree of Life is radiant, in my viewing, with a species of faith that purosefully mixes, as I have just done, the language of science with the rhetoric of holiness. The movie and the type of faith it awakens depend as fully on contacts with the unfathomably External as they do on encounters with the unknown known that is our planet; with the intricate riddles that are our families; with the black boxes of grief and of time; and with our individual, incompletely recoverable plenitudes of past, future, and present selves.
This is my way of wending toward that long passage in The Tree of Life, starting around the 20-minute mark and lasting almost exactly as long as what preceded it, that felt initially and feels still like the cinema reinventing itself. Like the history of time being rendered, somehow, in sensory form. This kaleidoscopic, synaesthetic origin story for Matter itself is preceded by the voice of Mrs. O'Brien, speaking through a darkness, inhabited by nothing but her questions and some evanescent aura, both of them turning slowly but restlessly inward on themselves. "Lord?" she asks, as though that word is not a name, but a question. "Why? Where were you?" Based on everything we've seen and heard thus far, she appears to ask, as so many people in mourning have done, how a dearly belovedin this case, her second soncould have been allowed to die. But she also, based on everything we're about to see and hear, may as well be voicing the same request that this same second son puts to her, earlier in the scheme of her life but also later in the thread of the film: "Tell us a story from before we can remember." Malick tells us a nameless, faceless story from before any of us can remember, before there was an us, before we were a scintilla of a scintilla of a scintilla of possibility inside a drifting protist or a boil of barely-cooled lava. That whole montage, spanning countless millennia, and yielding image after image after image after image that I have never come close to forgetting, defies anyone to ascribe it a center or give it a name. Still, I'll toss out three: God. Science. Art.
Prove to me that these images are not exemplary of eachof Art, of Science, of Godor that they could even exist without relying on all three at once, like legs of a tripod beneath them. From this point forward, I spend the rest of The Tree of Life facing my own beliefs, my own doubts, my own knowledge, and my own limits about God, about science, and about art. (And also about every single branch of AMPAS, with an emphasis on doubts, but whatever.)
The only speaker we hear during this majestic Book of The Tree of Life is Mrs. O'Brien, and only very sporadically. Her soul is the site of the deepest, most despairing religious search in the film. She is also, as we've reminded ourselves, the person whose questions motivate this most expansive fantasia of origins and oblivions, which turn out to be cyclical, whether or not that's any comfort. The movie treats Mrs. O'Brien
as an almost deified presence, a denizen of many doorways, a lighter and snuffer of many lamps, sometimes traveling impossibly aloft on the air's currents. But Mrs. O'Brien, playmate but also occasional, trusted chastiser, is not just some airy fairy, and she's more palpable than a deity. She runs her fingers fondly through grass and over bark. She marvels at animals both real and pretend. In her griefindeed, on the very precipice of her apostrophe to God, begging for answersshe wanders through woodlands that look disturbingly like a suicide forest. So, make all the "twirling" jokes you want, but I see Mrs. O'Brien, The Tree of Life's staunchest but most shaken Catholic, an embodiment of what is impossible but also what is worldly in the film, as implacably joined to both the faith-based and miracle-of-science invited by that early, definitive montage of Earth's own coming-into-being. You can get there without even drawing the standard tropic equations of Mother = Mary or Mother = Earth, and pondering how they manage to coexist across so many centuries and cultures. And as the figure who seems to inspire The Tree of Life to pay a loving, constant, and creative tribute to her, whether as domestic angel or occasionally steely combatant, she's a muse and patron saint of Art.
So, there's Mother. I've said less throughout about Father, conspicuous in his absence from Jack's opening benediction, but a dominant cloud and troubling presence across so much of The Tree of Life, particularly after its first third. If Mrs. O'Brien is occasionally lighter than air, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) has an almost unbearable heaviness, like a beached proto-sauropod, grand but alone. Is the Dad of this script automatically the loving but cruel Father of scripture? In many ways, sure. Yes! But he is also the frustrated inventor with 27 patents but no shine to his name, and a devout gardener and co-planter of trees, and therefore endemic to the film's parable of Earth's bounty and of mortal creation. He is also the devout yet frustrated disciple of Brahms and Toscanini, and thus inveterate to how The Tree of Life thinks about and struggles with Art and its legacies. One of this movie's most important and moving arcs is the process by which 12-year-old Jack, passing through the gauntlet of a surly and heretical phase, finally testifies to this father he's considered rejecting (and has come very close to killing), "I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her." Watching Brad Pitt react to these words from Hunter McCracken's mouth is a quietly, quickly, humbly heart-stopping moment of screen acting, even though this late, arguably climactic scene is shot and edited such that this dialogue may only afterward have been imposed over it. But, as with everything simple or straightforwardly spoken in The Tree of Life, it's also disarmingly difficult. In realizing he is less Mom and more Dad, is Jack confronting the fact that he is closer to or further from God's image than he thoughtgiven, from his point of view, his parents' competing claims on that stature?
I know some audiences have always found The Tree of Life a flat tract on the role of God as the Father. I've probably made clear how much I disagree, just as I reject the reading that Malick somehow turns the white, nuclear, Cold War-era US family into the apogee of billions of years of evolution. The sheer scale and solemnity of the first hour has always driven me to receive the rest of The Tree of Life in something close to an opposite spirit. This family, this suburb, this way of living may be everything to the O'Briens and the frame by which the husband and father will measure his own success (rather grimly, as it turns out). What I see is a vision of life, of time, of matter, of Holiness if you like, that makes this particular formation into one of innumberable specks and accidents of history, poignant not as an implied zenith or universal but in its very smallness. How helplessly, though, we all approach our small lives and societies as hugeand how could we not?
But in the end, as at the literal beginning of the movie, there is not Mother or Father, but Brother. On leaving the theater, I summarized The Tree of Life as "a brother's grief kiln-blasted and glazed into a grand, restless, ecstatic lament for a living and dying world." The loss of a flesh-and-blood sibling, and the love for such a sibling that precedes or follows such a loss, gets showcased less often and less deeply in our arts than those feelings surely merit, given how embedded they are in so many of our lives. Thinking specifically of brothers, as The Tree of Life does with such implosive but also such volcanic and centrifugal emotion, I start drawing connections to unexpected stars in a barely perceptible constellation. This impulse takes me all the way from the personal-political tragedy of Antigone and Polynices to the wailing rhapsody of Arthur and Hall Montana in James Baldwin's Just Above My Head to the epochal heartbreak of what transpires between Michael and Fredo Corleone. Like many constellations, this one constitutes an irregular shape at best, and though I'm sure you can furnish your own points, what strikes me mostly is the encompassing void: why aren't there even more tales about this? I think, too, of the profound contentions of psychoanalytic scholar Juliet Mitchell in her 2003 book Siblings, which took note of the fact that Sigmund Freud, in his second year of life, lost an infant brother named Julius. A mentor of mine described reading that book as a sensation of watching whole libraries, and whole routines of intellect and of emotion, suddenly list side-to-side in a buffeting wind. How different would Freud's theories be of the psyche and of development, and therefore how different would our theories of the psyche and of development be, whether fashioned in sync or in stark opposition to his, if every obsessive claim about fathers and mothers were engaged on their own rich terms but also understood as tangents, deflections, overtaxed and overdetermined in the wake of losing a brother? How much could Freud even remember of that brother? How much, indeed, of his theory's reliance on primal scenes, on irrecoverable episodes that cannot be recalled but are nonetheless taken as incalculably formative, has to do with that memory and, more likely, that incapacity to remember?
Yes, Freud, had a sister, and I'm not even going to get into the complexities or the politics of her role in this thought-experiment. I will note, though, that the strongly-centered Jack and the much-lamented R.L. have a third brother in The Tree of Life, named Steve, and played by Tye Sheridan, the only one of the movie's child actors who's gone onto a subsequent career in cinema (and indeed, a quite thriving one). The love of brothers and of sons is voluminous but also jealous in The Tree of Life. On that late beach that feels like an afterlife, Mrs. O'Brien gets to cradle again the cheek of the boy she lost, with all the energy of our solar system dilated to a point but beaming outward from that point, between and behind the two of them. For a moment within that intimate scene of touch, Steve, the strangely unspoken son and unspeakable brother in this glorious cinematic martyrology of brothers and sons, intercedes within this shot. And look what he does: he blocks the sun. He's everything that R.L. is, except not sublimated by having died or having narrated this film, in which older brother Jack recalls with rivalry but also wonder the birth of R.L. but omits Steve's entirely. There's so much we could say about that omission, to include: it's apparently very hard for Mrs. O'Brien or for Jack, maybe at all times or just in their grief for R.L., to hold more than just R.L. in their minds. It's impossible for them to hold a trio: Jack, R.L., Steve. It's not clear Mrs. O'Brien ever moved on from R.L.'s loss, or if she survived it. Jack, now in his 50s, has not moved on, as his calls home to his aged father make clear, even though R.L., only two or three years younger than he, died at 19. (We never, incidentally, see what R.L. looked like at 19, even in a still photo, or learn anything about how or where he died. The characters' and the film's devotion to this small, tow-headed, guitar-strumming, sweet-tempered, too-trusting version of R.L. is itself a puzzle worth exploring.) Certainly we have no idea where Steve is, or whether he's living or dead. Does he make any calls on this apparent anniversary of R.L.'s passing? Does anyone call him?
Grief is a ceaseless challenge. Trios, trinities, are also challenges. Emphasis on one member of a triad seems inevitably to deprive another of attention. Even or especially as a member of a triangle, facing toward one of your fellow points means you're probably facing away from another. Steve, even if he started as a mundane example of the notorious violence of Malick's editing room, becomes for me a figure for what and who remains absent, even as Jack, R.L., their parents, their neighborhood, their lives, the world, the numinous, the Spirit, become confoundingly visible, audible, memorable, and present across The Tree of Life. As I've said, I take the movie to be about Science, Art, and Godor maybe we could reformulate those terms as the Mortal, the Immortal, and the Amortal Divine. I haven't been particularly consistent in my vocabularies, and again, trios are challenges. Even trying to name or grasp one element is hard enough, without trying to think simultaneously and with equal rigor about the others, and about the mercurial relations that bond them as something richer, deeper, more unruly than "symbols" for each other. I have declined, too, to organize these reflections into a firm shapesomething I think The Tree of Life both possesses, maybe even more so than first impressions suggest, but also rejects, in all the ways I've said and more. It's a monumental poem to what can never be organized, and an imposing illustration of things that, to varying degrees and for disparate reasons, cannot really be illustrated. But Lord, mother, muse of muses, how we try!
3. Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
For Nathaniel, my movie brother, whose site has brought me so much joy over the years. As the lights came up after Western, we just...stared at each other.
First, that title. Western, in the context of Valeska Grisebach's perfect film, denotes a genre reappropriated in a seemingly far-flung place, attached to new frontiers, new tensions, new eras of politics. Depending on the projected speaker, though I'm not sure the word is ever uttered in this movie, "western" might serve as a proud descriptor for one's own competence, generosity, and entrepreneurship or as an epithet for other people's collective arrogance, linked to cultural and material usurpation. It could also name a point on a compass or a horizon line, though for all the movie's adeptness in mapping out spatial relationships, its camera and especially its characters move in every which way, lacking any clear direction. Whichever way you look, literal and figurative suns are setting.
The premise of Western involves a band of German utility workers on a remote assignment to build a new hydroelectric power plant in Bulgaria. They construct their own hilltop enclave, surely rather rickety by their professional standards (at least, I hope so), though half the physical structures in the film look as if a decent wind might push them over. These men are proud to plant a German flag atop their outpost, but that flag will soon go missingone of several symptoms of tense relations that immediately form between the German visitors and the local Bulgarian villagers. To every extent that Western's narrative and its title require a steady ratcheting-up of tension between mutually suspicious groups, a paranoid ambiance in which emptiness or silence on main street bodes ill for everyone, a positioning of women as competitive prizes and collateral victims in conflicts waged primarily between men, and a larger tussle over ownership rights of the land and its resources, Western fully delivers. We even spend quite a bit of time with dudes on horseback, which feels like a surprise for a film set amid the mountains of southeastern Europe. (Then again, what do I know about the fauna of rural Bulgaria?) That said, despite the seeming bluntness of Western's title, the movie never comes across as obsessed with its own generic homage, which a fully attentive viewer might nonetheless miss. Furthermore, Grisebach's reimagining of this cinematic legacy encompasses plenty of bold departures. There is, for example, only one gunshot in the film, to put an injured horse out of its miseryan episode volatile with meanings and portents in context, but executed with the quiet tone and self-effacing visual grace that permeate the whole film, aligned more with documentary than classical Hollywood traditions. This tonal and stylistic environment, resembling a minor-key performance of a major-key symphony, itself constitutes an extraordinary act of creative and ideological intervention. Imagine an Anthony Mann film told entirely in whispers, with a modest camera and no musical score, and you're close to grasping what a rare bird Western isor, I suppose, what a horse of a different color.
You're also a good way toward conceiving how Grisebach keys her story and its stakes not to the gruesome tumult of imperial nation-building in America's Old West but to something newer, quieter, and differently violent. I'd call it the near-death by old age of Nation itself as a coherent idea in the world, or as a durable bond among citizens, even as (paradoxes abound!) nationalism and xenophobia remain in ever-ready supply. In a way, the plot concerns emissaries of one country impressing themselves on a township in another, but this is just as much a case of one market formation, European Union, or multinational system (we might call it "western") traversing former boundaries within itself in pursuit of profits disguised as philanthropy. Which is to say, however inspired Western is in reflecting on longstanding traditions within its own art form, the film is even riskier and more trenchant in its gaze on the current world, exploring several of the conflicts that organize our lives and set us against each other. The film pursues these projects in ways that do not feel like systemic critiques devised in the abstract, which might have coalesced similarly no matter where the camera was planted. Grisebach's staging of her story, which she devised more or less spontaneously from day to day to day of a three-month shoot, has everything to do with local environment, and she acknowledges human complexity and opacity at the individual and collective levels. Let's press further, then, into the crucial layers of Western's narrative. "Bulgaria," even this remote corner of Bulgaria, is not one place, but a frontier itself between fossils of socialist resource-sharing (a hand-cranked lever to decide which of three communities gets exclusive access to water at what time) and fragile capitalist interests (convenience marts in what look like private homes, etc.). Many residents quarrel over plans for infrastructural improvement and competing claims on available equipment. One of the most promising members of the young generation, a woman named Viara (Viara Borisova), is building a life elsewhere and visiting after a five-year absence.
The Germans are an even more fractious unit, defying national stereotype by lazing about as often as toiling, poking fun at each other's real or perceived failings. The guys in this outfit regularly have a go at Vincent (Reinhardt Vetrek), their Napoleonic boss, embarrassingly transparent in how he tries to mask incompetence, immaturity, and insecurity with pride, temper, and brutish chauvinism. Deployed as knights of modernization from an ever-ascending continental power, the Germans under Vincent's authority struggle as much with their equipment as the Bulgarians do with theirs. They are stymied by local shortfalls of very basic material, like gravel and water. They make grandiose, blame-shifting pronouncements, like "the problem is that the river is in the wrong place." Nobody seems especially impressed with Vincent, whose favorite vest, a runt's conception of an alpha-male's power garment, with optional undershirt, offers an instant and accurate indictment of his personality. Still, Vincent only seems truly set off by the stony gazes and terse remarks of Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a mysterious loner with silver-tipped bullets in those blue eyes of his, huge and hard. A wanderer, an unbeatable poker player, a man of few words even in languages he understands, a granite-faced stoic who suddenly tears up at the mention of a deceased brother, he also has unconfirmed rumors of battlefield violence in his past. Meinhard's very presence seems to irk Vincent at best, infuriate him at worst, the same mix Billy Budd inspired in John Claggart, or Gilles Sentain did for Sgt. Galoup, though without the age difference or the evident factor of homoerotic longing and hatred in those stories. (Look, it's not my fault that Beau travail is an ur-text for so many of this decade's best movies.) Meinhard only further enrages his peevish boss by building his way in slow, furtive steps toward a series of tentative but fond friendships with many of the Bulgarians. He even achieves, as Vincent can detect just by glancing, a sexual rapport with Viara, whom Vincent has openly coveted since their fateful first meeting at that "misplaced" river. His loutish conduct of a failed midstream seduction is something for which he later tries to apologize. However, as low-key as Grisebach plays this incident, with a more distant camera and a less heightened tone than other directors would impose, it emerges more and more clearly as a major fulcrum in this story, which none of the Bulgarian characters have forgotten or forgiven.
Having sewn multiple seeds of discord within and between both sides of her putatively "us vs. them" standoff, Grisebach keeps viewers guessing over who will initiate the likely crescendo of violence, and whether their target will be external or intramural to their own team. Multiple objects and individuals take shape as Chekhov's guns in this largely gunless western, with no clear sign as to which of many contenders will be the catalyst for the story's eventual crisis: a horse, a hat, a knife, a flag, a woman, a card game, a secret control station. What's hard to capture even in paying such tribute to Grisebach's storytelling is that Western doesn't play primarily as a guessing game, or a suspense drama with questions at every turn and flare-ups potentially around every corner. Through its unhurried rhythm, its impeccable but totally un-ostentatious photography, its refusal of audience-goosing devices like dramatic music, and a host of other directorial strategies, Western distills all of this drama into an utterly convincing mimesis of daily life in an exact time and place. Grisebach takes what could have been played for Haneke-style menace, or pathos-laden soap opera, or diagrammatic social critiqueany of which might have been routes toward a powerful or at least an engaging movieand makes this seemingly "niche" story feel utterly recognizable. She has condensed the relevant vectors of economic, gendered, and regional tension into an artistic and analytical point of view so elementally pure that it belongs on a periodic table. She has captured a version of what bell hooks called, in relation to Reservoir Dogs, the "vampire culture" of "hard-core white patriarch[y]," willing to suck the very groundwater right out of each other's valleys and veins, without giving any faction in her film a racialized scapegoat group on whom they might project their rivalries and revenges. In this allegory of contemporary Europe, where the East needs but resents the West, and the West sees the East as uncivilized, anachronistic, but rich with "development" potential, the Germans are the migrant population and Bulgaria is a sort of in-house colony of the EU.
I saw Western twice in the theater and both times experienced the multiple, overlapping currents of resonant, persuasive interpretation it spawned in Q&A, in lobbies, and hours later over beers, despite relying on none of the usual grammars or story structures of a "talking point" film. I also remember, and I recapture even in private re-viewings in my apartment, the incredible tension wafting off a movie with no obvious climaxes. The way the audience kept gasping when an animal suddenly slides down a rocky outcropping where it should never have been walking, or a parentless teenager named Vanko (Kevin Bashev) miscalculates badly in his attempt at a practical joke on Meinhard, or Meinhard makes a probably innocent gift of his enormous hunting knife to this same teen, clearly revealed how much we'd all been holding our breaths during superficially low-stakes scenes in between. In that respect, it isn't just the documentary-inspired style of Western that approximates daily life but its uncanny ability to render on-screen the unrelieved tension of contemporary global affect. Grisebach totally gets and thereby evokes the carpal-tunnel syndrome that results from all of us gripping our imaginary armrests at all times, wondering if this year's the year, today's the day, this hour's the hour when shit really hits the fan, no matter how placid the scene around us might appear. (For some of "us," of course, the scene is never placid.) The majority of Western transpires outside, under full sun and against the emerald hills of Bulgaria; how very green, indeed, was their valley. But the audience steadily, increasingly feels that, with or without a moment's notice, broad daylight could turn into high noon.
In these respects, Western resembles its central figure, Meinhard: loose in gait but imposing in gaze, recessive by temperament yet wiry and intense. If you extracted the central passage of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, after we've learned of Tom Stall's past and what he's consequently capable of, but before we've witnessed his high-Guignol rebirth as a killing machine, that's how it feels to watch Western as a whole, and to see the unforgettable performance that Neumann, a total nonprofessional, unfilmed before or since, achieves in this role. You might also imagine him as the lost sibling of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. With the former, he shares the convincing mien and profile of someone with darkness in his past, who may get lured back into that darkness, but in a milieu and a movie straining way less hard for Archetype and Insight. I think Western handily eclipses Unforgiven on both points, and does a significantly better, less histrionic job of joining its critical lens on patriarchy to its overall lens on petty tyranny and small-town social behavior. Wenders's film feels like a relevant intertext from the first shot of Meinhard walking from no discernible origin point toward no obvious destination, a habit he will retain throughout his many, many traversings of wide-open space in the rest of the film, whether in the open countryside or the unfamiliar streets of the unnamed Bulgarian town. Nobody knows why Meinhard is so eager to befriend the Bulgarians, whose words he doesn't understand and in whom he confides very little. Some of what he does share, especially about his military service, may be fabricated to get him out of a jam. His pursuit of Viara may be earnest or may be a demonstration to the always-watching Vincent of how easily he can beat that Trumpy little goblin at his own game, while only half-trying. A few characters start quizzing Meinhard, "Where are you from?" or "Do you have family?" or "I don't know what you dream about" or, climactically, "What are you searching for here?" Meinhard never has answers, either because he's determined to be cagey or because he's unsure himself. "Everybody has their reasons," said Jean Renoir's Octave, famously, in the actor-director's own Rules of the Game, eight decades earlier on the same continent, now barely recognizable as itself. This new incarnation may also be on the edge of its own total, disastrous paradigm shift. Whether or not that's true, it furnishes fewer reasons to hope that reasons will ultimately reveal themselves, that the game still has rules, or that everyone's even playing the same one.
Not since Morvern Callar have I seen a film and a performer conspire so brilliantly to allow a character a cryptic, fathomless privacy that only gets more engrossing the more time we spend with themand in a story that you can't help but suspect will avoid a clear "finale." The aesthetics of Western and Morvern are quite different, but each is a case study of how hard an instinctive, idiosyncratic director and a team of trusting collaborators must work to make such a character click in a medium where expectations for narrative and/or psychological transparency run quite high. Every image, edit, sound element, and performance choicethe ones that withhold as well as the ones that suggestfeels like an incremental build in our acquaintance with Meinhard and with Morvern, even as we're aware we never know these people at all. It's debatable how well they know themselves, or under what terms. And to me, it's particularly exciting how Western manages its Olympic-level study of unresolved but unusually evocative personal opacity in tandem with its complicated exercise in multivalent sociopolitical analysis, where no one element feels like the key to all others, yet the removal of any brick would bring the whole wall tumbling. I don't know how anyone pulls off either of those tricksespecially without a script! I certainly don't know how anyone accomplishes both. And to do it in a way where there's not one shot, scene, or second I want to add, change, or remove? That makes Grisebach a prodigy in my book, surpassing understanding as fully as Meinhard doesthough, based on her jovial and illuminating Q&A's, infinitely folksier and more forthcoming. She took eleven years between her previous feature, Longing, and this one. I hope it's not as long before she produces another, but if there's any artist I'm prepared to trust to her own timeline and process, it's she.
Honorable Mention: Stylistically, Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete (2017) is hardly Western's twin, and the moods they conjure are far from identical. Still, when I saw these two films on successive days at TIFF 2017, they felt bonded by more than the obvious trope of a man and his horse. Each traces an already-isolated guy cast into even greater solitude, devoid of any true community, though this happens earlier in the life of Lean on Pete's teen protagonist, via events to which we're privy. Both take meticulous note of landscape, which figures as much more than picturesque backdrop. They respectively survey a region of a country (in Pete) and a continent (in Western) in which it's easy to get lost, or feel lost. Should you be found, you may still be lostsomething that feels true as well of the country and continent in question. I wish Lean on Pete had caught on more; even fans of Haigh's Weekend, Looking, and 45 Years often profess unawareness of this beautifully acted film, directed with such exemplary, unsentimental sensitivity. Then again, I've spoken to several people who name this as their favorite among his work. For basically this whole decade, before I wrote these 100 lengthy tributes, my predominant genre was the tweet, and after I saw Lean on Pete, I wrote, "Felt like Ozu, then like Mizoguchi. Warm, thrilling, sad, like an unrequited love admitting they once loved you, too." If you're curious what that means, or how it could apply to a US-set movie by an English director where love is mostly felt through its absence, do check this one out.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018)
For Hortense, and for my Film Comment editors: Nic Rapold, a dear friend of 20+ years, and Michael Koresky, a true genius, and a pal who fell as fully, instantly in love with this movie as I did. The article I wrote on Beale Street for the Nov-Dec 2018 issue, my favorite of all I've published with FC, was never available online. I hope it won't anger anybody if, just this once, I reproduce the text here as my countdown entry. If you like the essay, wait till you find out you can read loads more like it every two months, written by smarter people with more encyclopedic film knowledge than I have, just by subscribing! Plus, that'll get me out of hot water for recirculating this piece for free.
Hollywood's reluctance to build artistically ambitious films around black leads, compounded by its even more chronic incuriosity about collective experiences of blackness, undoubtedly bears the lion's share of blame for James Baldwin's absence from our cinemas. But let's imagine for a moment that some studio or intrepid band of artisans realized that Go Tell It on the Mountain could yield a stunning big-screen exploration of faith and sex and archetypal family tensions, or that Another Country is perfectly designed to teach almost everyone in America about almost everyone else, while also arousing every possible spectator to climax and moving each one of us to tears. Wouldn't that be something? Let's say these folks were all crewed up, sitting on a pile of money, ready to go.
What would emerge at this beautiful, improbable juncture is another obstacle coursebecause, despite his essays' fully earned reputation for frank oratory around complex problems, Baldwin is a formally slippery fiction writer. This fact surprises people who haven't cracked one of his books in a while, or have busily revered him without bothering to read him. He loves the trope of the ecstatic or elegiac instant in which characters' lives flash before their eyes and, more pointedly, unfurl from their mouths in satin banners of speech that can sound a lot like their author, indulging in direct address. In fact, Baldwin's characters seldom experience just one or two of those epiphanic moments in their lives. They have far more of them than you or I do, whether they are high on love or God or Harlem or music or friendship or fucking or Paris or drugs, or whether they are abruptly, violently denied all those things because they're forever vulnerable to the world's ferocious militarizing against joy, especially black joy. In a novel like 1974's If Beale Street Could Talk, every short, temporally disordered scene is a wormhole into all the others, a network of chutes and ladders leading from jail cells to perfume counters to bubble baths to corner bistros to sculptors' studios to the docks of New York to funky-smelling bedsheets to other jail cells, or the same jail cells. And that's before we jet to Puerto Rico. And how we get there, and why, is a whole awful, exciting, tragic, hopeful, hopeless, other thing, separate but not at all separate from the rest.
Few would begrudge a filmmaker who, having settled on this project, soon elected on some artful pruning of subplots, some canny strategies for reassembling this bruise-black mosaic of sharp, shimmering shards into a conventional shape. But Barry Jenkins, who announced in 2008's Medicine for Melancholy his bent toward emotional transparency and cautious romanticism, and who achieved in 2016's Moonlight total creative consanguinity with another major writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, seems utterly unafraid of Baldwin's tonal or structural demands. Quite the opposite, in fact. So the mandate is amorous devotion between two people, played utterly without irony, and between that couple and their city, even as it threatens to gobble them both, with one lover already halfway down its throat? So the story has to move implacably toward its conclusion, but in another sense it never really budges, and in another sense it's a constellation of exquisite sequences driven more by intuitive than narrative logic, with unclear time gaps and transitions between each? Jenkins is ready. His whole team is so ready, not just to conjure Baldwin on film, as they brilliantly do, but to interweave his unique languages of love with so many others in cinema history. Here's an Umbrellas of Cherbourg that centers blackness, with two sad angels strolling down Minetta Street in the rain, their red parasol glowing like an open heart, the singing outsourced to Nina Simone and Billy Preston, because who better? If Beale Street Could Talk reaches further back to Murnau and Borzage, with actors who are their own light sources, the whole film attuned to the textures and unfair rules of a dangerous place, all in lucid balance with big, bold essences of earthly emotion.
What all of that means is that If Beale Street Could Talk borrows a great artist's playbook that virtually anyone else would get wrong and proceeds for two hours to put every single foot right. The night the movie world-premiered at Toronto, one woman in the audience drew an ovation from 2,000 of her peers when she announced her heart was full and broken at the same time. By their own admission, several cast members took a minute to find their groove in the Q&A because they had just seen the film for the first time, and even seen this type of film for the first time: a song of two humans where both humans are black, their blackness hardly exhaustive of their identities or their story but nonetheless fundamental to both.
You could map many comparisons and macro-narratives onto If Beale Street Could Talk. It's an urban panorama as meticulous and glorious as Roma's, but it knows its characters more thoroughly and is less fixed on its own grandeur. It's a meditation on the decade-after-decade stocking of prisons with the bodies and minds of black men, framed not as exposé or as systemic protest (though that's certainly baked into the film) but through the inductive logic of emotional lament, watching a soul with everyday imperfections get railroaded down some familiar tracks and sequestered from everyone who loves himincluding the filmmakers, who have only partial access to his experience. It's a threnody for black women who get forcibly accustomed at young ages to their own solitude, even when nobody has abandoned or rejected them: everyone who loved me still loves me, everyone who wanted me still wants me, so how in the world am I here by myself? It's an epic poem, albeit allergic to "epic" bombast, for the man in jail and the lonesome woman, both of them rejecting the two narratives I've just compressed. Surely he won't stay confined. Surely she won't remain by herself. They insist despite everything on holding tight to each other. It's Carol for straight people. It's All That Harlem Allows. It's a saxophone blast or a cello thrum for a baby about to come.
If Beale Street Could Talk is all of this and more, but it's also quiet and distilled, willing to be small even as you savor its bigness. It's as simple as 1+1, as 1=1. It's two. Its aspect ratio is literally 2:1. Its most recurrent musical motifs, amid hummingbird flights of woodwind or brass and surging waves of sympathetic strings, are two identical or near-identical notes played in intimate successionor, sometimes, two different notes struck on the same keyboard at the same time. The two have names. They are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), though both were born with other names. They have grown up together. They love each otherin a new way, recently. They are expecting a child. They start the movie on a nearly wordless walk between a gold-leafed wood and a gray stone wall. She wears a buttercup coat over pale blue and white; he sports a bolder blue jacket over a brighter yellow shirt. They are twins and inverses, he louder than she. These colors will follow them through the movie, woven into many of her clothes and painted on the walls of his penitentiary, where he is soon locked away on false charges of rape. That hasn't happened yet as we follow this opening promenade, but the movie seems to know it's coming. Without realizing it, Tish steps far enough away from Fonny to inhabit her own frame. They each gaze directly into their own cameras, pledging their readiness for a life spent together, but despite their sincere communion, they're already struggling to share a shot. Soon enough, Tish's voiceover breaks the news of Fonny's incarceration, then shepherds us through a monochrome, still-frame montage of black men flouted by their country, and of countless children "who had been told that they weren't worth shit." So Tish, who speaks for Baldwin but also quite confidently for herself, knows that her private trial is also an age-old public tribulation, and she probably guesses where it's headed.
The photo montages and Tish's narration are two elements that come and go during If Beale Street Could Talk, which some viewers may consider erratic but to me evoked that dimension of Baldwin that will risk a bit of formal dishevelment to evoke a bigger truth about lives in pieces, and puzzles never solved. Jenkins and his editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, face a still higher climb here than in Moonlight, since asymmetries and fitful rhythms are part of their game plan, even as some sequences achieve a creamy smoothness that other filmmakers would die to achieve. When If Beale Street Could Talk touches down for a long setpiece, you see how this crew, extending to all the visual and sound departments, have the gift of flawless scene-construction. Two cases in point are a tempestuous pregnancy announcement that simultaneously unites and divides two families and a quietly heart-stopping pas de deux between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, tremendous), testifying across their divergent experiences of what it's like to live a whole life feeling "so fuckin' scared."
Still, just because Jenkins and his company can achieve emotional, formal, and thematic synthesis as well as anyone does not mean that this is always Beale Street's aim. Plenty of scenes or inserts could be placed almost anywhere in the film, especially those that advance feeling or tone more than plot. Full credit, then, to McMillon and Sanders for maintaining affective through-lines and dramatic momentum even in passages with no binding structure. Several immaculately played characters likewise seem ready to anchor larger subplots or even their own pictures, and we're meant to sense their rich story potential but also our incomplete acquaintance. Sorry, baby, but Tish's and Fonny's emergencies take precedence. Another way to say this is that If Beale Street Could Talk often has to cut away from lively households, New York streets teeming with tales, or Caribbean jazz clubs and favelas and return us to a lawyer's office or a dun-colored visiting area where the whole point is that too little is happening.
That probably wouldn't work if KiKi Layne and Stephan James did not achieve such exquisite rapport with each other and with the camera. Tish's and Fonny's stuckness is more compelling than a lot of movies' whirlwind tours of action. In their sublimely restrained way, Layne and James face a similar task to the editors', vacillating between scenes where they get to paint a clear idea or emotion in big, bright colors (adoration, trepidation, fury) and others where we are less certain of their feelings, as are they. Layne, who looks 14 in some shots and twice that age in others, sneaks opportunities to telegraph her fear of Fonny's temper, especially in light of his father's, despite all her dukes-out speeches where she catalogs the reasons why every black man in America should feel outraged. James is a miracle worker, playing a hero and a victim and a hothead and a matinée idol, signaling what time in prison has felt like in phone-call scenes where he's precisely straining not to disclose that. A lot of Fonny's preoccupying thoughts, like his suspicion that nobody around him really understands his sculptures or trusts that he's a great artist, are never verbalized, but James makes sure we knowand Layne makes you believe she hears it, too.
Beale Street does talk, then, candidly and euphemistically, out loud and telepathically, about specific individuals and entire cities and full histories of a people. It talks in an amazing number of global languages: whole characters, shots, and sequences would not sound or look as they do without the influences of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Ousmane Sembène, and several others, though Jenkins is not interested in simply feeding allusions to hungry cinephiles. The syncretism of styles is the sign of a portraitist who has amassed as many tools and colors as he can, but also a welcome signal that this African American story, this New York story, is also a global story. Baldwin stressed always that black people belong to the world, and the world to black people, despite a million brutal violations of those contracts. A vast, sprawling history condenses in the whispered moments of Tish and Fonny declaring their love, and fighting for it. It abides in all the reasons why they're forced to fight. I challenge anyone on Earth not to be lifted and crushed by their story, not to see part of your world in theirs, but also to respect it as theirs and not oursparticular, private, precious.
Honorable Mention: Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) took the very bold step of refusing to be straightforwardly expository about who James Baldwin was and what were the chronological landmarks of his life. You absorb most of that relevant information as the film proceeds, but the movie, adapted from one of his own unfinished texts, is an ode to self-authorship precisely insofar as it's keyed to that same spirit of jagged mosaic that If Beale Street Could Talk so devotedly commemorates. I took ten first-year college students to see it, only one of whom already knew who James Baldwin was, and several of them commented that they now felt like they knew a lot about him but still had lots of unresolved questions about what or how much they knew, and probably needed to read more of his work. This is a precise result of this great, punchy movie working as it wants to.