Top 20 Films of 2017: #17- The Red Turtle

I have had a long, torrid relationship with the notion of coherence, in film and other art forms as well. Coherence has always been important to me, but when I was twenty it was everything. As an early film-goer, ideological clarity was my mental gatekeeper, separating the great films from the nobly flawed, the pretty good, and the just plain awful. In those college days, I would walk out of a theater and call a film great if I could neatly explain the general thrust of the film’s message within the hour. If I could not do this, then obviously the film’s theme was confused or it just didn’t have one. I remember walking out of Triplets of Belleville in my third year and thinking that I had just seen something strikingly beautiful and funny and arrestingly strange, but I could not bring myself to give it a four-star grade. I was hungry for something clear, and this bizarre, bewitching, sardonic little imp of a film had left me feeling confused. Even at that time, I deeply enjoyed that confusion, but I couldn’t reconcile it with my feeling that a great film should have a certain rigorous coherence. A great film was to be judged on its ideas and I had no clear handle on what Triplets‘ ideas were. I could pick out a lot of the emotional core: loving one’s kin and sacrificing everything for family and feeling appreciation for our loved ones. But it all felt like less than a comprehensive thesis. This twenty-year-old was contemplative and sober-minded and deadly serious about movies and he wanted an overarching message that rose above the story and declared itself in large font. My rigid conception of coherence led me into trouble in those days. It was what allowed me to give overly high grades to the didactic diatribes of Crash, the blunt TED talk of Syriana, and the intermittently self-satisfied musings of Closer. I sound as harsh to myself now as I was to films like Triplets of Belleville back then. The truth is I still like all three of those films to varying degrees. Yes, I even still like parts of Crash. But my thirst for theme and message at that time in my life was also preventing me from giving proper credit to films that were more understated and enigmatic in their approach. To be clear, I still put a very high on premium on coherence and theme now, but I have made more room in my cineaste heart for ambiguity and that irreverent spirit that leads a filmmaker to deliberately confound the viewer; to challenge them by withholding easy explanation. I never saw a Paul Verhoeven film until I was a twenty-seven-year-old in law school and I am glad of that. That college kid, for all his rigor and for as much as he genuinely loved movies, would not have been ready. He would have myopically dismissed Starship Troopers as immature, when he was the one who still had growing up to do. I’m in a place now where I see that ideas can be teased out or hinted at rather than concisely explained. Films can be great for what they leave unsaid. A film can find brilliance in mystery and confusion. That sense of mystery is key to appreciating The Red Turtle, a delicate, emotionally rewarding animated film whose ideas about life, nature and death are as gently amorphous and as hard to pin down as wisps of smoke.


The Red Turtle is the first full-length feature by the Dutch animator, Michael Dudok de Wit. Dudok de Wit won the Oscar for Animated Short in 2000 for the elegantly simple, heartfelt Father and Daughter, about a little girl whose beloved parent leaves when she is a tender age, and who rides her bicycle to the same place throughout her life hoping to see him again. I have always thought highly of that beautiful short, but I held a very tiny axe to grind with it for beating out Don Hertzfeldt’s hilariously inventive and demented Rejected. Whatever small grudge I have held over a beautiful work of art beating out a brilliant work of art, I now lay it to rest.  The Red Turtle is proof that Dudok de Wit is a great animator and the kind of sentimentalist I can get behind: soulful and devastatingly delicate. The film opens with the sound of the ocean, heaving and hissing over a black background. When we open our eyes, we are surrounded up to our heads in ferocious waves and pelted by relentless rains. It is also the dead of night. Our unnamed protagonist soon pops his head above the surf. He is a dark-haired, Caucasian man in his thirties, and he is struggling to keep from drowning. Among the dark swells and white crests, he eventually finds an overturned rowboat, which we assume must be his. He clings feebly to it as the dark, angry sea throws him onto the shore of a remote island. In the daylight, we see the island is very small. It has a beach and a rocky outcrop and, further inland, a bamboo forest, some grassy fields, and a freshwater pond. Its non-human residents include a cluster of curious sand crabs, a flock of birds, and a cantankerous grey seal. The Red Turtle is a film with effectively zero dialogue. Its only human utterances are the man’s angry or frustrated screams which are never more verbal than the word “hey”. He runs around the island trying to collect his bearings and desperately searching for food. He eventually finds a tree that provides coconuts. After taking his fill of food and water, his next thought is of leaving this desolate place. He starts gathering bamboo logs and fashions a crude raft. Once he sets out to sea, however, some unseen creature batters the underside of his raft and reduces it to driftwood. He swims back to the beach, screams exasperatedly at the crabs who shadow him, and almost immediately sets to making a new raft. When he heads out to sea again, the second raft meets with the same fate as the first one. On the next attempt, the man finally sees the beast that keeps preventing his escape. It is a large, vibrantly red sea turtle. After showing itself, the turtle destroys the raft a third time and swims up onto the beach. In a fit of anger, the man flips the turtle on its back, stomps on its stomach, screams at it and leaves it to die of exposure.


As night falls, however, guilt overtakes him and he tries in vain to resuscitate his tormentor. He shakes the turtle and splashes it with sea water from a bamboo cup, but it is too late. The turtle is dead and the man falls to his knees in sorrow and shame. A fourth version of his raft sits half-finished on the edge of the frame. As he mourns the life he has taken, the underbelly of the turtle’s shell suddenly splits open. When the man looks at the cracked shell, the turtle is gone and a beautiful, red-headed woman now lies unconscious inside. The man rubs his eyes in disbelief and frantically runs for fresh water from the pond. When day breaks, he builds the woman a shelter of fronds and leaves to protect her from the glare of the sun. Eventually, the woman wakes up and wades out into the shallows. The man cautiously tries to coax her back onto land, as she repeatedly sinks and resurfaces in the low tide. When she pushes her old, discarded shell out to sea, he pushes the pieces of his raft out as a sign of trust. He no longer wishes to run away. The Red Turtle transitions from being a film about escaping a survival situation to a film about accepting one’s circumstances and finding a new life with another person. The woman comes to trust the man and treat him with kindness. She takes him out to a sand bar and shows him how to forage for mussels. The man is still wracked with guilt over his violence toward her, but she forgives and reassures him.  They quickly fall in love. The two will spend a full life together on this island. They give birth to a child, who will eventually grow to be a man with something of his mother’s turtle essence. One day he will swim away from the island with a group of turtles and start a life of his own somewhere else. The Red Turtle is a gentle, humane, and sweetly melancholic fable about the full gamut of human life, playing out in a seemingly hostile place.


The Red Turtle is something of a simple film and that begins with its animation style. The characters are rendered like drawings out of a children’s storybook. Their eyes are nothing more than charcoal-black ovals. Their bodies are basic, two-dimensional sketches, and so is the environment they inhabit. But for all that simplicity, I will echo what a great many other critics have said: this is an incredibly expressive and vibrant piece of animation. As he did with Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit knows that a simple sketch can be even more suggestive than a detailed image. We can see well enough that these are human figures and whatever they lack in finer detail only allows our imaginations to get more involved in filling them in. The characters may look like simple drawings, but their body language is subtle and natural and it conveys a wealth of information and emotion. This proves vital for a film with no dialogue.  Likewise, the world of the island never feels flat for its simplicity. There is so much lush color and clean detail in that bamboo forest that it feels all-encompassing in spite of the fact it is a two-dimensional image. The same goes for the softly rustling meadows and the surf spraying off the rocks and the placid freshwater pond. The surface of the animation may be unadorned, but the whole landscape teems with tiny details. If Sunset Song captures the experience of reading a classic novel, The Red Turtle perfectly conveys what it is like to thumb through a lovely illustrated storybook.


The Red Turtle is a wordless, spiritually soothing experience, but it does have deeper themes, or at least thematic motifs that waft through the film like gentle island zephyrs. I would say the largest theme is the question of what makes a life; the idea that your life is whatever simple joys you find while alive and that existence can be beautiful and fulfilling even when your greater plans get swept out to sea. In this regard, The Red Turtle shares a thematic thread with this year’s Passengers, a film that it bests in every possible way. After spending the first half of the film shouting inarticulately at the heavens and frantically seeking escape, the man finally comes to see that he can be happy right where he is. Here, it is probably valuable to see the film as a fable or an allegory, as I obviously wouldn’t begrudge anyone trying to get back to civilization if they were marooned on an actual deserted island. But in the context of the film, the island is an opportunity for the man to see that life is all around him and that he can experience connection and growth even in this most seemingly inhospitable of places. He can even find family. The man and the turtle, who becomes the woman who becomes the love of his life, experience the joys and hardships and occasional disasters of a full human life, all in a tiny pocket of the world and all over the course of an 80-minute film. This idea is not hammered into anything resembling a thesis statement, but it is there to be taken in whatever way the viewer wishes. Saying that a film is just about life can often feel like a bit of a cop-out, but The Red Turtle bathes itself in the stuff of life and does so without grandstanding or resorting to sweeping statements. It is not the kind of film to make points, but its small, understated observations of life and nature hold a great deal of serene wisdom. And this understated approach is very well calibrated to Dudok de Wit’s unassuming, emotionally direct style of animation.


Dudok de Wit places his protagonist in the midst of nature, and he has the invaluable aid of animators from Studio Ghibli, home of anime laureates like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, to help create wonderful images of nature. The Red Turtle has much in common with a Miyazaki film, in its peaceful tone and especially in its love for the beauty and magic of the natural world. In Miyazaki films, mankind has a fractured relationship with the land and sea but is also permanently and inextricably bound to it. The Red Turtle is very much about humanity’s relationship to nature and the virtues of tending to that bond. At the film’s halfway point, we see the man make his fateful decision. He stops turning his back on the turtle and atones for his violence against nature. It is in trying to save the turtle and asking penance for his cruelty that the man finds a kind of love that he never knew existed. This love takes the form of a woman who becomes his romantic partner, but that woman is also still the turtle deep down inside, and maybe all of this could just be a love within the man’s own soul. A love for one’s self. I think the film is saying that all these kinds of love are equally valuable and rewarding. In the end, this is a fable, so how real or illusory any part of the story is seems beyond the point. It is a piece of mythical fiction intended to make us think about our own relationships with other people, nature and ourselves. The Red Turtle seems to suggest that, just as life is where you find it, maybe love is to be treasured in whatever form it takes.


On second thought, I regret ever suggesting that The Red Turtle is less than coherent. More accurately, I would say it’s more than coherent, or perhaps above coherence. The film is cohesive but I think Dudok de Wit and his animators would find a term like “coherence” unbearably rigid and restrictive for what they have in mind. Part of that is because The Red Turtle is about life and life cannot be easily contained by academic words like “coherence”. Another reason is that the film’s refusal to spell out its ideas helps to create a sense of amorphous, undulating mystery that is key to its emotional effect. If I haven’t made it clear at this point, The Red Turtle is the kind of film that gently, but firmly seizes your heart. Helping with this coup is Laurent Perez del Mar’s yearning score, which evokes a maritime, magical realist Ennio Morricone. The film is very much what one might call a tone poem. Yes, there are ideas and themes, but they are not the purpose of the thing. They float by us and around us like bamboo logs in the aftermath of a tsunami. We grasp onto these fixed concepts to steady ourselves, but The Red Turtle implies that life is not about feeling steady or certain. Perhaps our natural state is just to feel confused and curious and overcome by emotion. While I tried to wrangle The Red Turtle into positions that would fit easily into a film review, I started to realize that its real goal wasn’t to expound on anything too specific. Instead, the film’s goal was to make me feel what it is to be alive, not with intellectual pontificating but by jamming the porcupine quill of sweet, fragile, impermanent life under my skin. The Red Turtle is about capturing the throbbing ache of being and knowing that nothing lasts. It made me feel that mixture of love and faint sadness I get whenever I yell at my sweet, misbehaving dog. I experience a burst of anger and that soon gives way to a dull sense of melancholy. Because, even though the unruly moppet deserved his scolding, I also love this dumb creature and don’t like to feel harshness in myself. And because he makes me feel happy most of the time and life is short – mine and especially his- and there’s just so much good about being alive that those bursts of ire feel like tiny tears in a blanket that there isn’t nearly enough of to begin with. Stupid dog, stupid life. I love you more than I can say and it breaks my heart to know that one day you’ll be gone.


Like life, The Red Turtle is a film to be experienced and felt. I still watch films to get them, to figure them out. I have never once done this in an outwardly greedy or acquisitive way. I do not go into any movie with the goal of avariciously ingesting its ideas and moving on. Nonetheless, there is a fidgety curiosity in me that makes me want to turn a film over and inspect it with a meticulous eye, and that can be a reductive way to see a beautiful piece of art. Films are not resources to be mined. The Red Turtle reminded me of how restless I can be, both as a watcher of films and as a human being. On my first and even second viewing, a part of me wanted to possess the film and understand it more fully. But the film just wanted me to reflect and feel and know that not everything can or should be crushed down into some concise kernel of knowledge. Even now, there is something about The Red Turtle that eludes my grasp, expanding outward the more I try to corral it, but I have come to love the film for that very quality. I am no longer pressed by the need to figure it out. To figure a thing out completely is to be done with it, and I am no more eager to be done with this entrancing little fable than I am to be done with life itself.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #18 – Sunset Song

One of the marks of a great film is being able to capture sensations that transcend words. While most of my favorite films rely on great scripts filled with beautiful, expressive language, the best films never rely solely on their writing. Because film is a visual medium, it has the potential to capture something that is not possible in purely written form. Film can help express emotions and sensations that transcend words. However, I ran into a challenging paradox in reviewing Terence Davies’ sumptuously literate Sunset Song, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel from 1932. I experienced an emotion that was beyond my ability to verbalize, but was also the kind of feeling I have only previously experienced when reading words on a page. Specifically, Sunset Song is the rare literary adaptation to take the feeling of being immersed in a classic novel and translate it into cinematic terms. I went looking through every possible dictionary, internet forum, and literary blog I could find, searching for a word to describe that phenomenon. I was confident that I would find something in short order. My reasoning was that, if the old axiom holds that writers love to write about writing, then there should be some word to capture the general feeling of experiencing something in the written form. After an hour, I had turned up nothing satisfactory, so I turned to friends for assistance. An old friend, Matthew Byrom, suggested words like “literary” and “bookish”. Those are very fine words, but I needed something that spoke more to the subjective experience of being an entranced reader. I needed a word that conveyed that hushed state that falls over a person when their mind merges with the world of a novel. After a few hours, I was about ready to give up and just admit that some feelings really don’t have words to capture them. It was at that time that my very learned friend, Anne Peattie, came to my rescue with a word from that most efficient of languages: German. The word was “Lesengefühl”, which is literally the words “read” and “feeling” sandwiched together. There is nothing fancy about it. I imagined some German scholar, feeling just as baffled as I was, straining to describe this dreamlike sensation, and eventually blurting out “read feeling” in exasperation. The term is both simple and enigmatic, which is appropriate because I presume no one person’s “read feeling” is exactly the same as another’s. The read feeling is both universally relatable and impossible to entirely define, and that makes it a fine way of describing a film that is very much about the gulf between words and the inexpressible.


The first image of Sunset Song is of golden wheat fields blowing gently in the breeze. As we float just above them, a young woman sits up from where she has been laying and pokes her head above the waving blades of grass. Her body becomes part of the landscape. This is our protagonist, Chris Guthrie (played with beautiful sensitivity by former model Agyness Deyn), a young woman on the border between adolescence and adulthood. Chris is the second oldest of four children living on a farm in early 20th century Scotland. The Guthries start the story in the town of Aberdeen, but are forced to move to a larger homestead after Chris’ brutish father, John, (the reliably brutish Peter Mullan) forces her mother, Jean, to become pregnant with two more children. The Guthrie clan piles into covered wagons and rides through the mud and freezing mist to the Blawearie farm in the fictional village of Kinraddie. Chris is a gentle, observant, and smart young woman with plans to become a teacher of language. She is an excellent scholar, fluent in Latin, French, and English. Much of Chris’ journey deals with a schism in her soul between the world of letters and higher education and the coarse, agrarian life that she feels makes her a Scot. Sunset Song is Chris’ story through and through, and the major dialectic battle is between the verbal and the ineffable, particularly as it pertains to the unspoken feeling of connection to one’s homeland. There is a part of Chris that desires to flee her homeland and a life that has its share of hardship. Chris’ life is a daily challenge filled with the arduous nature of farm work and the strain of living with a domineering, violent father. Much of this violence is inflicted on the eldest son, Will, who is in his twenties and looking for any opportunity to leave the old man far behind. Will despises this blunt, callous man, who recklessly forces their weary mother into having ever more children, and rarely ever has a tender word for any of his kin. Jean tells her daughter that the challenge of a woman in their day and age is to somehow survive the men around them. “You’ll have to face men for yourself when the time comes,” she tearfully cautions. The next morning, Jean poisons herself and her infant twins. With no mother in the house, the two youngest sons are sent to live with Chris’ aunt and uncle, leaving only Chris, Will, and their increasingly unhinged father to run the farm.


One day, Will finally has enough money saved to run away to a big city and later to Argentina with a new bride at his side. On the morning her brother makes his escape, Chris cries at the window and watches him sprint down the muddy path with every bit of speed in his body. Sunset Song is the story of how Chris comes to outlive a tyrannical father and persevere long enough to see her life become her own. In time, she will taking over the Blawearie farm and flourish as the head of her own household. Chris will also fall in love with a young farmhand named Ewan, get married, and have a child, and she will proudly be able to say it was all of her own choosing. We watch Chris become the agent of her own destiny, while also learning to weather the gales of conflict and change. Chris’ tale is empowering, as she confidently cuts her own path to happiness and independence, but that is not to say that her life suddenly becomes easy. The juggernaut of the first World War soon tramples through Scotland, and the village of Kinraddie, sending most of its men away to Belgium to fight in the trenches. Ewan enlists out of shame, and when he briefly comes back for a furlough, the psychological torments of battle have made him angry and vindictive. It is as if he has been possessed by the demonic ghost of the late father Chris so hoped to be done with. Sunset Song is about the things that stay the same, like the ancient, green fields of the Scottish farmland, and it is about the passing storms of that blow however briefly across that landscape. As her mother warned her, Chris will have to learn to face men and survive them, whether that be an abusive father, the general sexism of turn-of-the-century Scotland (which forbids her from living alone at the farm she now owns), or a terrible war. In the end, Chris comes not only to embrace the eternal earth of Scotland in all its beauty and hardship, but to see herself as its natural extension; as an avatar of peace and steadiness in the midst of human turmoil. Our current film landscape is flooded with origin stories, but Sunset Song is a very rare and welcome kind of origin story. It is not the origin of a superhero, but of a strong, self-reliant, and endlessly sympathetic young woman.


It is never my intention to force patterns on the films that make my list, but Sunset Song does have some interesting parallels with Things To Come, the film just behind it on my year-end list. In both cases, we come to meet and care for a strong, inquisitive female character, as she sets out to explore and understand the nature of how time changes people. However, while Things To Come is about wrestling with the fact that almost everything changes, Sunset Song is more interested in looking at what endures. Sunset Song is the story of those two poles in Chris’ spirit, the verbal and the ineffably terrestrial, and how she grapples with the choice of who she should become. For all her love of words, Chris comes to identify with the glens and ponds and meadows of Scotland because they hold fast. She sees strife and instability in the world around her, and she aspires to become a rock that can withstand it. Chris does what her mother cannot. She survives men, which is to say that she survives the perpetual chaos that men so often create. Happily, Sunset Song does not present a false dichotomy where men are utterly vile and amoral and women are virtuous damsels under constant threat from every man they meet. The film is a wonderfully lyrical character drama and its view of human folly and cruelty is honest, unflinching, but never unduly judgmental. Even a barbarous cur like Chris’ father gets the odd moment to be jovial, or thoughtful, or even encouraging of his daughter’s talents. Men are not devoid of goodness in their souls, but they are still a minefield that women must navigate. With all their capacity for kindness and love, men are nonetheless something that must be survived. If anything, the problem is that man, as a collective force, is never consistent. Chris’ father may have a moment of peace, but it will not prevent him from flying into a rage an hour later. One of the most unfailingly kind men in the film is an kindhearted older farmer named Chae Strachan, who dotes on Chris, treats her as an equal, and respects her as the driven, competent master of her own domain. But even he buckles when the trumpets of war sound for him. Even peaceable men leave their families to go participate in the whims of less peaceable men. Even Chris’ beloved Ewan goes off to fight and comes back as a creature of violence, fear, and shame, given to destructive impulses that he would have once stood against. And so, Chris learns she must plant her feet in the ancient dirt and become her own immovable object. Sunset Song claims eternal Scotland for its diligent, spirited, and long-suffering women. They persist, while the men take their leave for Argentina, Belgium, and the great beyond.


Sunset Song is a lengthy film with a sprawling plot and a Scottish village’s worth of characters. It is the kind of film that gets referred to as “epic” and it is filled with flowery writing, either narrated by Chris in voiceover or spoken in splendidly acted dialogue scenes. It has stirring themes about change, the notion of country, family, and the desire to control one’s own fate, which it refracts through the lens of being a woman in a patriarchal society. And, now that I have used a lot of my own words to describe how verbally rich Sunset Song is, I must tell you that I find its words to be of secondary concern. Sunset Song succeeds on many fronts, but it positively soars as a beautiful, painterly, and tactile work of visual and aural art. It is a film that inundates you on multiple sensory levels. It overflows with texture, color, and sound. I do not know if I have ever had a good reason to gush about mud (at least not since turning six), but let me make up for lost time right now. Sunset Song is the most lusciously muddy film I have perhaps ever seen. Terence Davies presents the dirt of Scotland in so many different shades and states of wetness that I do not honestly have the words to accurately recount them. And that is important for two reasons. First, because a film so concerned with the idea of how people connect to the land of their birth really should give us a strong sense of what that land looks like. Secondly, in a film that presents land as something beyond the powers of words to describe, Davies puts his mud where his mouth is and lets Scotland speak for itself. One has to look at Sunset Song to really feel its impact, and the mud and dirt are only one small part of the film’s visual palette. Beyond that, there are impossibly green hillsides that shine brightly in the daylight and then mellow into darker shades of jade at dusk. The film has an incredibly sharp sense of weather and the shifting seasons, which helps it translate all those words about time and change into visual poetry. There is every matter of dew, rain, and fog. We see lightning strike a fencepost during a summer storm, sending off a shower of sparks into the rainy night. Chris and Ewan have a beautiful wedding on New Year’s Eve in a barn full of pine wreaths that you can practically smell. When the wedding is over, they walk out into soft snow that falls against the midnight blue backdrop of the sky. There are more gradations of sunlight than I could hope to name. Midday sunlight blazing down onto the workers in the fields. The gentle light of a temperate day that reflects off a small pond. And the pale, airy shafts of morning light that trickle into the Blawearie kitchen. Sunset Song is the kind of film with too much detail to ever catch in a single viewing. It was difficult to look down at my yellow notepad and scribble notes during my second viewing. I was always in danger of missing some rapturous image while I was vainly struggling to put the last one into words.


On top of all the visual majesty, Sunset Song is also a superb feast of sounds. There is the soft squelch of human feet and wagon wheels in the mud, the hiss and roar of the drizzles and downpours, and the diverse chorus of Scottish burrs. I could honestly rewatch Sunset Song as a purely sensory experience, ignoring all its dialogue and plot developments, but I would still want the sound of those characters’ voices. And to give your ears even more to savor, Sunset Song fills itself with beautiful old Scottish traditionals, sung over the soundtrack and by characters within the film. In one of the few moments not set in Scotland, we journey to France and the frontlines of the war. We do not see any fighting, but instead scan aerially over an abandoned battlefield. The soundtrack swells with the strains of an old Scottish song, the same one that Chris softly sings at her wedding. The singer croons as we move over the wet, muddy land, all strewn with barbed wire and boots and wheels from old carts. An old Scottish voice sings a lullaby of home, though we are now looking at another country’s mud. I am not even certain now that I have a correct reading on what it all means, but I know that, like the rest of the film, it involves the mingling of land and rain and sunlight and music. And I know that I was utterly overpowered by its depth of feeling. When the film ended, the presence of the word “song” in the title suddenly made sense to me. There is something quite musical about its approach. I came to think of the dialogue as lyrics underscoring the music of its images and sounds.


Sunset Song is gorgeous to experience with your eyes and ears and I think that is what makes it such an arresting movie, but it also has a very special, transporting kind of bookish quality. Even though Sunset Song probably spends more of its time visualizing the splendor of Scotland than it does on dialogue, it feels quintessentially literary. But, as I said before, “literary” is the wrong word for what I felt. Calling a film “literary” often has a slightly pejorative connotation. Plays that get turned into movies are often called literary when they fail to offer much in the way of a visual signature. It feels wrong to apply it to a film with an entire Scottish art gallery’s worth of breathtaking imagery. Sunset Song manages the nimble feat of making words feel sensory, just like a book does. This is what sent me off in search of a phantom word for that feeling. A feeling that has bewitched me since I was eight years old, when I first picked up a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “Read feeling” is just about right. Sunset Song does an amazing job of capturing the experience of sitting there in a warm room, with a great piece of classic literature. It gives us lovely words but is also just as interested in engaging personally with our imaginations. I think it may be the fact that the film is so visual that allows it to feel more like reading. Books have space for us to take a breath and get wrapped up in picturing the way a room or barn or field looks and smells and feels to the touch. By making the film adaptation of Sunset Song so intoxicatingly sensory, Davies approximates the process of setting the book down for a moment to draw the scene in our heads. He captures the act of reading better than a more verbal approach would. Reading is so much about the act of bringing our selves and our senses into the process, where details in our heads become more vivid than they would be in real life. For example, as I write this, I am sitting one foot away from a space heater turned up to its highest setting. It’s very warm. But if I pulled out my copy of Little Women, I would soon be with the March sisters, reclining in front of their roaring hearth. And the warmth radiating from this appliance would feel clammy by comparison. After two hours in the thick mud and cool, damp air of Sunset Song, only an imaginary fire could warm my bones.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #19- La La Land

One of my favorite bands is the Talking Heads. There are a number of their songs that I might call their best on any given day, but I think the one that has always resonated with me most is “Life During Wartime”. It’s a bleak, deceptively energetic song about how living through war strips human beings down to a state of bare subsistence. At the height of wartime, human beings no longer think about things extraneous to their survival. To live through war is to lose the taste for nice things, such as notebooks, dancing, and music in general. Lead singer David Byrne repeatedly wails, “I ain’t got time for that now”. This song is a sad but clear-eyed observation of how times of great strife and conflict impact our relationship with the art we consume, and the sober conclusion seems to be that, after experiencing enough oppression, fear, and loss, one might stop seeking art altogether. I do not believe we are living through literal wartime right now, but I do believe that we are in the midst of the most fractious, dismal, and dangerous time I have been alive to see and I do not know when things will get better. I felt the heavy weight of that realization throughout the end of 2016, as friends and I observed the latest changing of the political guard and discussed what it would mean for women, for members of the LGBTQ community, and for people of color. And while we debated and the heavy clouds formed above, the Oscar nominations came out at their usual time and a tiny, gossamer skiff sailed into the brewing storm. That fragile vessel was La La Land, Damian Chazelle’s sweet, nostalgic, lovingly crafted modern showbiz musical. As it blithely paraded its old-fashioned charms through the annual awards season, its bright colors cut a strange figure against the ominous landscape. As it moved past films about racism, misogyny, homophobia, grief, economic strife, and corporate soul-sickness, it began to resemble an oblivious, bewildered aristocrat, emerging from the hermetic seal of the palace to find violence and chaos in the streets. I loved Damian Chazelle’s previous feature, Whiplash, and I think La La Land is a terrific, clever, moving piece of art, but even I have to ask: has the feverish conflict in our country reached the point where a bright, bedazzled bauble like this no longer means much? Do we no longer have time for something like La La Land?


To put it another way, is La La Land a film out of time? Despite the fact that it bills itself as a modern musical, it is really a movie that seems to want to exist outside of any particular era. We see modern cars and e-mail and a character even makes a reference to early 21st century television show, The OC. And yet, in the film’s Oscar-winning tune “City of Stars”, Emma Stone coos about meeting someone though the “smokescreen of the crowded restaurants”. Smoking in California restaurants has been forbidden since 1995, so it seems likely that La La Land means to keep one foot in the present while also existing in a kind of romantic dreamworld cobbled together from real and cinematic history. The film is meant to be a surreal reverie, reflecting the romantic ideal of movies, Los Angeles, and the many people who come to Hollywood to dream. La La Land begins with its most energetic number, “Another Day of Sun”, in which a congested freeway becomes the stage for an elaborate dance number performed by starry-eyed motorists with dreams of fame. The film will come to focus almost exclusively on its two leads, Sebastian (a charismatically grumpy Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone, playing a wide range of emotions and putting the adverb “charmingly” in front of each one). However, Mia and Sebastian are nowhere to be found in this first number. It is only when the singing stops and the motorists all hop back into their cars that we see both Mia and Sebastian are stuck in this same traffic. Mia is practicing a monologue in her car and not paying attention to the road. Sebastian pulls up beside her and honks in frustration and this becomes their first fateful meeting. Mia runs into Sebastian again later that night (it happens to be Christmas), right as Sebastian is being fired from his pianist job at a supper club. Sebastian, a stubborn, jazz-loving idealist, is being let go for playing free jazz instead of “Jingle Bells”. Coincidence keeps throwing the characters together until they eventually become a couple. Both are artists with dreams of success. For Sebastian, that means owning his own jazz club, where he can play the kind of traditional jazz that he feels is being left on the scrap heap. Eventually, he joins a jazz fusion combo with an old classmate (John Legend), but the band’s very modern musical identity is worlds apart from the kind of jazz Sebastian wants to play. Meanwhile, Mia is a struggling actress and aspiring playwright, repeatedly going through the indignity of terrible auditions, trying to put on a one-woman show, and wondering how much more stomach she has for the kind of rejection that Los Angeles regularly serves up. As they contend with failure and setbacks, they are also forced to juggle their newfound romance and the challenges of chasing their dreams. La La Land is a film about the joys and the costs of following your passion and it holds the idea of dreaming up to the light like the world’s most sacred object. For better or worse, the power of dreaming is the film’s central theme and the modesty of that sweet, admirable notion in troubled times like these seems to be the central point of controversy around it. That said, it is not La La Land’s only issue.


One of the major critiques directed at La La Land is that it only achieves modest success as a musical. I understand and even somewhat agree with this criticism. I will immediately concede that the dancing in La La Land is mostly lackadaisical. It tips its cap to the idea of dancing in a 1950s Hollywood musical without ever really coming close to the astounding feats of choreography found in those movies. The film claims to be inspired partly by Singin’ In the Rain, the second best film ever made by my estimation, and that comparison really does it no favors. There is not a single dance move in La La Land that can stand next to the blistering athleticism of Singin’ In the Rain. Donald O’Connor’s doctor famously ordered him to stay in bed for three days after he filmed the dancing for “Make ‘Em Laugh”, while the idea of Ryan Gosling so much as pulling a hamstring on “Waste of A Lovely Night” is laughable. La La Land hits the peak of its physical virtuosity in the first scene, before we ever see Mia and Sebastian. I will also admit that Gosling is a bit of a middling singer, though this shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that he has a dry, understated sense of timing, which complements the breezy, jazzy, effervescent tone of the songs. This is not a musical that really calls for vocal showboating. Emma Stone is a better singer than her co-star, but I admit that her voice can be a bit breathy and strained. That said, she also has a knack for conveying emotion through her singing and that becomes indispensable by the time the film reaches its final, and full-stop best, song: “Audition”. I genuinely like every one of La La Land’s songs, but most of them are humble melodies more suited to humming to one’s self on a warm summer evening than belting out in a karaoke lounge. These are fine little tunes with a firm grasp of melody and emotion, but I would agree that La La Land would fall utterly short as a musical if it did not have at least one song that brings the house down. It needs that one moment of unbridled catharsis. “Audition” finds Mia being put on the spot at the most important audition of her life. Rather than recite a prepared piece, the casting director wants her to simply tell a story. Hearing that the film takes place in Paris, Mia’s thoughts go to her late aunt who once lived there. This aunt first introduced Mia to the magic of movies and inspired her to write and perform. Mia haltingly begins to tell the story of when her aunt, acting on a whim, jumped into the Seine river. Her nervous, faltering speech suddenly transforms into a gentle melody and from there it builds into a full-throated ballad about following one’s muse right up to the boundary of madness. “Audition” is the moment that this laidback musical reaches a much-needed fever pitch. As Mia sings a toast to “the ones who dream”, she renews her own depleted spirits and the film throws its arms around the artists of the world. Whatever other reservations I have about La La Land, I unabashedly love “Audition”. I love it for the small details it gives us of this aunt we will never meet. How she took her shoes off before jumping into the Seine, the image of her sick in bed but determined to repeat this meaningful mistake. The sense of a fiery flawed woman who “lived in her liquor”. In a film that can occasionally feel suffocating for keeping its focus exclusively on Mia and Sebastian, these small glimpses of a beloved aunt help the film’s miniature Faberge world feel just a little bit bigger. And for all of Stone’s limitations as a singer, I adore her for the entirety of this song. Some of her breathiness is still there, but the context of the scene and the song turn that limit into a strength. Her weaknesses make the scene exciting and moving. Stone pushes the vessel of her voice as hard as she can over the choppy surf of the film’s one truly big song, and the fact that the vessel is frail and rickety only increases the tension and the overwhelming emotional release of her make-or-break moment.


I can very easily put myself in the shoes of a La La Land detractor. A musical made mostly of modest ditties that uses up all its noteworthy choreography in the first five minutes and gives its one and only vocal showstopper to a woman with a plaintive, trembling voice. That is all true, of course, but I think to flatly label that as a failing is to forget that there are many different kinds of musicals. Not every musical needs to be an explosive display of singing and dancing. For example La La Land’s most important musical influence is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1960s French operetta starring the brilliant and captivating Catherine Deneuve. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, for my money, the second best film musical ever made and it shares La La Land’s sense of understated, jazzy melancholy. The songs in Cherbourg are gorgeous, but its delicate emotional register does not conform to the glitzy, epically melodramatic scale of a Broadway show. The film is not an extravagant burlesque revue but a wistful French romantic drama where characters sing their lines. Cherbourg and La La Land are both soft, twinkling musicals about lovers whose ideals about romance are challenged by economic realities and by life’s winding course. They are mature films about compromise as a hard but necessary part of life. Both films have a musical style that is alternatingly breezy and melancholic and they present life as a symphony of sweet and sorrowful notes playing off of one another. Unexpected joys and missed connections. I do not think people are wrong for wanting more out of La La Land in terms of musical prowess, but I encourage people to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a true masterpiece of the musical genre, and consider La La Land in that context. If La La Land feels more musically modest than some would like, that is at least partly by Damian Chazelle’s design. It is a delicate and fumbling musical because its ideas lend themselves to that kind of low-key approach. It is about struggling and failing and learning that even success carries its own bittersweet consequences. If one looks at the film this way, its earnest, shaky voices feel distinctly more at home. To put it in terms of a musical analogy, I have great respect for the massive voice of Whitney Houston, but my favorite artist is Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan made some of the best albums ever recorded, but his voice is not what you’d call technically impressive. It is an expressive but reedy instrument. Someone could approach me and ask, “Well, wouldn’t those great Dylan albums sound even better with a massive voice like Whitney Houston’s? Maybe Freddie Mercury?” Of course not. Throw Luciano Pavarotti in there while you’re at it and the answer is still no. And the reason is there is more to music, or any other kind of art, than sheer technique. Making great art is about nuance and shade and sometimes that means a shaky singer is a better fit for the music than someone with a five-octave range. It’s the reason the simple harmonies of a Ronettes song give me chills, while Santana will always bore me to tears. Not every painting calls for the same giant brush, not every song should end with an American Idol glory note, and not every musical has to feel like Phantom of the Opera.


Chazelle’s overtly stated desire to pay homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg helps to contextualize some of its musical modesty. However, it also casts light on what I think is La La Land’s bigger deficiency: its story and characters. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a masterful, heartbreaking story of romance thwarted by war and life’s cruel economic hurdles. It justifies its relative musical restraint by being one of the most powerful, rich, and emotionally overwhelming love stories ever told. By comparison, Mia and Sebastian’s romance feels very slight. Their romantic tribulations are the product of their own decisions about how to pursue their artistic ambitions and, while balancing a relationship and a career is a relatable struggle for many, their story is much less devastatingly impactful than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When you get down to it, La La Land is not just a modest musical, but also an exceedingly modest love story. If I can pinpoint the problem, it’s that Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Justin Hurwitz, and the rest of the technical crew do such a fine job of making their Los Angeles dreamscape feel lush and intoxicating that it throws the relative banality of the romance into even greater relief. The story of Mia and Sebastian, two likeable artists who spend six months falling for each other and have to decide whether they can balance that love with their burgeoning careers, can feel a little blasé on repeat viewings. And, again, I would argue this is entirely by Damian Chazelle’s design. The film’s entire purpose is to take a very small story of dreaming, loving and compromising and give it the emotional tug of a Hollywood musical. The interplay of the sweetly modest and the emotionally ravishing is very much what La La Land has in mind. Nevertheless, this is how the film stumbles at the same time that it succeeds. And this brings me back to why La La Land looks like such a strange, bejeweled relic next to the year’s more substantively great films. Because once you’ve finished admiring its clever story beats and its beautiful colors and its bewitching music, what you are left with is two average Angelenos giving voice to the year’s most anachronistically inconsequential movie theme: the power of dreams. La La Land is about the value of dreaming and the compromises that come along with that. And, please don’t laugh, pursuing your dreams is a very good thing to do. And making human connections and finding love are a huge part of what it means to be human. And learning about compromise and how we have to let go of some dreams so other dreams can flourish is a big part of life. If these ideas are not matters of life and death, I still think they are sweet and thoughtful and worth holding onto.


Still, I can see why those concerns seem naïve and sheltered in the increasingly dark days of early 2017. The breathless sincerity with which the film watches two nice, young, photogenic white Californians follow their bliss feels undeniably quaint. La La Land is a good-natured, fizzy, wistful, technically assured, well-acted film about dreamers, and I wanted dearly to write about its many pleasures without taking the conflict and fear and uncertainty of the outside world into account. As a sterling piece of escapism, La La Land was always meant to be cordoned off from the outside world. But the film is over and now I’m sitting in my world, the real world, and trying to make sense of where La La Land fits into it. And if it doesn’t fit in anywhere, as a number of people seem to think, then that sends an important message about where we are as a society, whether the film had that message in mind or not. And, very clearly, La La Land had nothing of the sort in mind. This earnestly extravagant nostalgia trip had the misfortune of being born right as the world took a turn for the macabre and there is not a thing the film can do about it. It talks in urgent, hushed tones about the importance of dreaming, but its dreams are filled with celluloid and lipstick and it never has nightmares. I had a lovely time with La La Land, but I also understand that this film, which evokes a bygone era, may have been made for a more recently bygone era. If the film’s Technicolor fantasias are too slight, too sheltered, and too euphorically oblivious to resonate in a world this anxious and besieged then so be it. I’ll lock this little trinket away in a desk drawer and dream of a time when it is useful again.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #20- Things To Come


The French language title of Mia Hansen-Love’s perceptive new French film is “The Future”, but its English title is Things To Come. Both fit the film perfectly, but I think the English title goes further into probing the film’s meaning and the mindset of its protagonist. “The Future” is a fine and fitting title for this beautiful, understated domestic drama about a French philosophy teacher in her sixties who, over the course of a year or so, loses her marriage, her mother, and her general sense of stability. The film is very much about saying goodbye to one’s past, both distant and recent, and looking toward the future. However, “things to come” puts a word like “the future” under a magnifying glass, turning it over and unpacking for deeper layers of meaning. Even though we cannot see it, the future is something we all at least expect. A title like Things To Come, however, serves as a reminder that any person’s future is comprised of events that are entirely beyond our vision and beyond the realm of certainty.  And so, Things To Come looks at the changes in the life of one fairly ordinary philosophy professor, given extraordinary depth by the great Isabelle Huppert, and uses that journey to explore how quickly assumptions about the days and years ahead of us can be thrown into flux.


When we first meet Nathalie, the woman at the heart of Things To Come, she is riding a ferry with her husband, Heinz, and their two youngest children. While the rest of the family converses on the front of the boat, Nathalie remains inside alone, reading through a book of philosophy. The family has gone to the French seaside to visit a famous writer’s grave, perched at the edge of a cliff. Both Nathalie and Heinz are writers and philosophy teachers at Paris high schools and it seems likely they have come to pay their respects to some important literary influence. After a moment at the grave, the children run off down the winding path and Nathalie turns to follow them. As she does so, Heinz asks to stay behind a moment. It may be a simple desire to reflect at the final resting place of an inspiring writer, but it could just as easily be an excuse for Heinz to buy himself a brief moment apart from Nathalie. When the film skips ahead three years, we will learn Heinz has been in an affair for quite some time. After the film revealed this pivotal piece of information, my thoughts went back to those first two scenes, depicting a marked distance between husband and wife. Was that moment of solitude at the grave the time when Heinz first contemplated seeing someone else, or had that relationship already started? How taken aback was he on the day he woke up and felt the desire to betray his wife of twenty-five years? Had he thought about it for months or did the temptation sneak up on him suddenly? How does a relationship change and eventually dissolve? Is it gradual, instantaneous, or some mixture of the two? I pose these questions not from a place of moral judgment of Heinz but more in the way Hansen-Love’s film does: out of a genuine, empathetic curiosity. The film is less interested in easy conclusions than in probing the mysteries of how people shift and evolve over time; how being in a relationship entails having to dance with a constantly changing mass of emotions, ideas, and flesh. And of course, you too are transforming away from what you have been and into, well, whatever is to become of you.


Early in the film, we see Nathalie lecturing her students on the philosopher Rousseau. She reads them Rousseau’s thoughts on democracy, a form of governance that rests on the collective will of a teeming mass of people. Things To Come is about change, but it is also more pointedly about how change manifests through the erratic nature of human beings. Nathalie tells her students that Rousseau believed only a nation of gods could form a truly effective democracy, because humankind is too fickle. Human beings are inscrutable and unpredictable, and chaos arises from the fact that we must each build our lives upon the shifting sands of other people. Yet, while Nathalie is mindful of the unsteady nature of human beings, she also seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that this same philosophical principle she applies to human governance also applies to the smaller sphere of her marriage. Nonetheless, Nathalie’s next words to her students offer a reminder not to take human caprice too personally. “Don’t misinterpret,” she cautions her students, before reminding them that Rousseau was a firm believer in the social contract, meaning that he was never proposing we could do without each other. On the contrary, we must accept our fallible natures and still learn to make do with one another. At the end of the day, the chaos of human choice is simply a fact of life; a phenomenon no more deserving of condemnation than the wind or the tides.


Outside of her teaching job, one of Nathalie’s constant tasks is looking in on her mother, Yvette, an elderly woman with early signs of dementia. Yvette has made part of her career on being a model, and still spends her time looking for work, even as her health steadily worsens. Yvette’s steady decline in cognizance is another reminder of how life is always moving and shifting, until it eventually escapes our very bodies. One morning, Yvette informs Nathalie that she is in consideration for a new role. She will be portraying a cadaver in a television show. In scenes like this, Things To Come reveals itself as a clear-eyed, mature, and unsparingly direct exploration of how relentlessly life moves forward. Nathalie’s beautiful, aging mother has spent her life doing a job that calls for her to sculpt imaginary realities, but there is a grain of truth in the fiction. At one time, Yvette was in her late twenties and one could have imagined her playing a college student or a young bride. In her forties, one could have perhaps seen her in the role of a middle-aged attorney or a professor. One day, she woke up to eighty years and a new reality: a casting director could imagine her as a dead body. Within the span of about a year, life will imitate art and she will no longer be alive. Change and the steady erosion of time are such pervasive forces that not even fiction can ignore them entirely.


One of the film’s most stinging insights is that change can not only drastically alter our futures, but also rewrite our relationships with the past. After maintaining her composure for many weeks, Nathalie finally breaks down in tears while talking with an old student. The reason for her tears is not thinking about Heinz or his infidelity or the children she will see less often. Instead, she weeps from thinking about a place: Heinz’s family’s seaside home on the coast of Brittany. She recalls many summers spent there. It is the place where her children learned to swim and where she spent hours, days, and years carefully planting and nurturing a garden. It suddenly dawns on her that these spaces will be lost to her forever. Mere weeks ago, these places had a tangible connection to her present, because she could look forward to revisiting and touching them each summer. Now they will become the stuff of memory alone. Heinz feebly tells her that she can still visit any time she wishes, even when he is not there, but she tartly rebukes him. “You keep acting like everything is the same,” she spits out in exasperation. “What planet are you on?” Of course it is physically possible for Nathalie to return to her ex-husband’s summer home, just as it is physically possible to go back to the halls of your old high school, or to travel back to your favorite restaurant in the town where you lived when you were twenty-three. The physical possibility is not the issue. For Nathalie, the context has all evaporated. The dissolution of her marriage is such a powerful event that it has radically altered the very essence of a physical space. Brittany still exists on a map of France, but it will never be the same.


Now, perhaps this all sounds like a depressive wallow at best, or a tedious essay at worst. A pensive examination of how change and upheaval affect an aging French divorcee could have easily been relentlessly dour or unbearably dry in the wrong hands. But, somehow Things To Come manages to be a terrifically involving and engaging study about living and adapting. It becomes a lovely and lively character study, while always remaining understated in its observations. It’s actually quite a feat of thoughtful, low-key filmmaking, and there is really no doubt about who makes it possible. With all due credit to a subtle, terrific cast of French actors in smaller roles, the film belongs entirely to the two women in charge: Isabelle Huppert, finding the nexus between subtlety and jazzy spontaneity in front of the camera, and Mia Hansen-Love sympathizing and commiserating with her as a director. Huppert is one of our greatest living actresses and she accomplishes the seemingly impossible trick of making a reserved, contemplative woman’s late-life crisis feel dynamic and even funny. Hansen-Love mostly sits back and trusts Huppert to breathe uninhibited life into this very simple narrative, but that is not to say that there is anything passive or lazy about her directorial approach or her wise, delicate screenplay. She just has the courage and the cool confidence not to manufacture needless melodrama. As a result, Nathalie’s journey is somehow both emotionally rich and refreshingly unsentimental.


Hansen-Love knows how to tease out the themes of her story in small details. Take for example Nathalie’s profession as a philosophy teacher. That character trait is not merely there so Hansen-Love can fill her film with bits of Rousseau and other deep thinkers. Nathalie’s philosophical hunger is key to the character and her arc, because it ends up being the compass that sees her through. It is as important to Things To Come that Nathalie is a philosopher as it is to Happy Go Lucky that Poppy is an optimist. It is a film about life’s trials as experienced by that specific type of person. Having the inquisitive spirit of a philosopher enables Nathalie to take a removed and curious view of her own misfortune and about the uncertainty of what is to come. That is why Things To Come can look without blinking at some pretty miserable circumstances, like betrayal, divorce and the loss of a parent, and never really feel miserable. Nathalie is by turns apprehensive, fearful, and frustrated, but she is simply too vivacious and present to ever succumb to despair. In one of the film’s most famous shots, the two current tragedies in Nathalie’s life team up to knock her for a loop. As she rides the bus home from her mother’s funeral, she looks out the window and sees Heinz walking blithely down the street with his new, young girlfriend. At that moment, she stops sobbing for her departed mother and laughs in disbelief. The puckishness of this timing is too cruel to be believed and also too bleakly absurd not to be just a little funny. Life can be merciless. How curious.


In Huppert’s hands, both Nathalie and Things To Come dance along a tightrope between sorrowful pragmatism and zesty curiosity for what it means to live, love, and one day die. In one of her most depressed moments, Nathalie tells her old student that she will never again know romance and that a single women her age is marked for the trash heap. A few minutes later, however, she quickly brushes her woes aside. “It’s not that serious,” she reminds her student and herself. “My life isn’t over.” This is the essence of the film and the character; intrigued and at times overwhelmed by emotion, and by the knowledge that every single thing we know and experience will one day end, yet never surrendering to fatalism. Death is a part of Things To Come, but Things To Come is not a film about death.  It is a story about putting a hand across one’s brow and peering out toward all that will transpire between this most recent, passing moment and the eventual conclusion of it all. I believe Huppert and Hansen-Love want us to take heart and inspiration from Nathalie. To allow ourselves to feel sadness, or whatever  emotion strikes us, for the departed past, while still looking to the horizon with curiosity and some guarded measure of hope. That seems worth striving for, in 2017 or any other time. I would go too far to call Things To Come an optimistic film, but its voice is warm, soothing and composed. We should do our best to keep moving forward while we are alive and we should learn to find some mixture of excitement and edification in the fact that nothing in life ever truly stops changing. “Death and taxes”, Nathalie might say, before taking out a red marker and crossing out “taxes”.