Top 20 Films of 2017: #11- Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that packs in a lot of raw information, and I would say that conservatively 95% of that information is conveyed through informational title cards. It’s the kind of screen text that you see used at the beginning and end of historical films or used sparingly in your typical documentary. But in Bill Morrison’s hushed, poetic look at the history of a tiny Alaskan town established during the Yukon Gold Rush, informational title cards run throughout the entire two-hour duration. This technique is just one of many unusual facets in what is the most unique documentary fllm to come out in years. The first title card scarcely prepares us for the many directions this singular film will take, but it could well be the film’s mantra. It reads, “Film was born of an explosive.” What follows is a brief account of how the early, extremely combustible nitrate film was developed using gun cotton, the same ingredient used in warheads. Title cards tell us that the only element separating nitrate film from a weaponized explosive device was camphor. As a result, the early days of cinema were often marked by fiery disaster, as film prints could and often would burst into flames at a moment’s notice. One of the earliest film screenings burned down Paris’ Bazar de la Charite and claimed 126 lives. “Film was born of an explosive.” It’s an enigmatic way to open a film about a remote former gold mining town, but Film happens to be where this documentary’s journey begins and ends. Before Dawson City traverses dreamily through the closing decade of the 19th century and the first seven decades of the 1900s, it picks up in 1979. In the small Alaskan tourist town of Dawson, a local pastor and alderman was using a backhoe to assist in a construction project. He was clearing rubble from the site where the town’s athletics facility once stood in order to make way for a new recreation center. Among the debris, he found hundreds of canisters of old nitrate films that had been buried beneath a former swimming pool and hockey rink. These films had survived for decades underground, sealed in a layer of permafrost. Dedicated archivists and curators came to Dawson City and discovered a massive supply of 1900s film reels just sitting there in the cold dirt. They included many lost silent films, old newsreels, and even footage of the infamously thrown Black Sox World Series of 1919. What unfolds in Dawson City: Frozen Time is not only the history of a tiny town between 1893 and 1979, but also a hypnotic vision of American history and early cinematic history, interweaving with each other and almost entirely underscored by a visual collage of moving images from those 533 rescued nitrate films. For as many films as were rescued, however, the greater point is how many more thousands of nitrate films have been lost through the years; to decay, to water damage, and especially to fire, for fire is a relentless, recurring character in Dawson City. Film was born of an explosive. It’s a fact that paints Film itself as a kind of mischievous willing accomplice in its own destruction. From the very start, it was in the nature of Film to go up in flames. To put it another way, Film is an unstable element. Much as we human beings may try to make a record of the past, the materials we use to make that record, be they celluloid, paper, or canvas, are always falling apart. Or, in the case of early nitrate films, exploding into giant, raging infernos. At the heart of Bill Morrison’s passionate, wistful, operatically nostalgic documentary is an elegiac ode to the futility of trying to hold on to the past. It is about the Sisyphean struggle to corral and preserve the past, through Art and through our efforts to group a teeming multitude of divergent stories into some clean form that we can call History.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of how a remote town in Alaska’s Yukon Territory came, though sheer happy accident, to house and shelter a vast, lost library of old films. As a town on the edge of the Alaskan and Canadian wildernesses, Dawson had the fortune or misfortune to be the very last stop on the line of movie distribution, back when studios would send film prints through the country one town at a time. Once those films reached Dawson City, the studios opted just to let them stay there in forgotten exile, unwilling to shoulder the cost of having them shipped back to Los Angeles. The old films began to fill up the basement of Dawson City’s library and the town’s civic leaders were at a loss for what to do with them. Some were floated down the Yukon river and dumped into the frigid waters. Others burned up in various fires that struck the town’s theatres. And a lucky 533 films were buried as landfill under the lot where the town’s amateur athletics building once stood. The unceremonious burial and eventual rescue of those nitrate films is the documentary’s basic genesis and catalyst, but the film soon bursts from that spark into a much more expansive and detailed story. It is frankly too detailed a story to fully tell in this review, but the essence of Dawson City is how Dawson was established when gold was discovered there in 1896, spent a few years as the epicenter of the Yukon Gold Rush, fizzled out a bit when its fortune-seeking population moved on to other claims, and eventually settled in as a small but profitable mining town and site of historical interest. During its boomtown heyday, Dawson City became a vibrant tributary for thousands of travelers, many of whom would go on to become notable successes in business and in the world of art and entertainment. Jack London would base his novels on the experience of traveling to Dawson. Years before becoming a titan of Hollywood, a young Sid Grauman (who would build the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater) sold copies of Seattle newspapers in this frigid, isolated place. Charlie Chaplin was among the group of travelers to Dawson, and he would later base one of his most famous films, The Gold Rush, on his time in the Yukon. Years before they would find fame and riches, film directors, tycoons, and future cinema stars were all here, milling about together in the snowy wilds of Alaska. We even learn that Donald Trump’s family fortune got started when his grandfather set out for Dawson City and set up a successful brothel somewhere along the way. Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of a tiny frontier town and its overlapping destiny with film history, entertainment history, and American history. Dawson City became known as much for its theatres, casinos, and dancehalls as its gold claims, as many made their fortunes simply by catering to the needs of the town’s prospectors. One man made thousands just by buying a single newspaper and charging crowds to hear news of the Spanish-American War. This makes Dawson City something of an early tidepool for America’s penchant for entertainment. As the dawn of Film arrives, Dawson City becomes a wider story of early 20th century American history. Dawson’s residents came to rely on the stream of movies and newsreels to connect them with a country that was rapidly changing, fighting labor disputes, building fantastic machines, going to war with Germany, and throwing baseball games. The films brought visions of science, exotic places, and explosions of technology to the frozen Yukon wilderness. One beautifully edited montage of rescued footage starts with a group of people racing, then introduces horses, and crescendos into an ecstatic torrent of automobiles, steamships, blimps, and aeroplanes. Dawson City is about History’s rushing rivers and smaller creeks intersecting and diverging. We see footage of large social movements and we follow the smaller events occurring in this little town. The infamous Wall Street bombing happens and Dawson City gets a new library. Bill Morrison’s wondrous, stirring film is about a tiny, snowy town that once saw a river of historical events and persons course through it, went back to being a humble little dot on the map, and eventually made history again for unwittingly preserving an important chunk of the past. The film is about the erratic river of History and the strange, fateful turns that it takes. It is also a film about Film; about how Film is at once a record of time, a product of its particular time, and is at the mercy of Time’s relentless forward motion. Dawson City: Frozen Time is such a unique documentary experience that words will almost certainly fail me. It is simply the most dreamlike time I had viewing a film all year. From the near total absence of human voices, to the alternatingly sweet and sadly plaintive tones of Alex Somers’ delicately powerful score, to the brilliant way Morrison uses archival photos and footage from the preserved films to act as a kind of silent visual narrator, Dawson City is the rare documentary that works on a hypnotic, almost subconscious level. It oscillates between feeling serene and quietly unsettling, and it becomes a strange, mesmerizing hymn to History and memory. It is a lovely lullaby to the past and also a soft dirge for what stays buried there. It looks through the tiny keyhole of a Yukon town and catches glimpses of things as enormous as the birth of modern America and the infancy of Cinema. It feels eternal, yet is chiefly about how very little lasts.

In trying to paint a portrait of modern American history through a dizzy swirl of facts and disparate cinematic snippets, Dawson City says something resonant about the complexity of trying to piece together a narrative. The story of who we are, as a country, as residents of a town, or just as people living in a particular time is a hazy mirage, and what the smoky reverie of a film like Dawson City implies is that no one person’s take on a story is definitive. One of my favorite sequences takes place at the opening of the film. Before we even see our first title card, we get an excerpt of Bill Morrison presenting the discovered footage on High Heat, a baseball-related television program hosted by popular sports broadcaster, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. Russo, in his excitable, high-pitched New York accent, is gushing about the found footage of the 1917 through 1919 World Series games. And of course he would be, as that footage is a huge historical find for any sports history buff and Russo is the host of a show about baseball. But I think this scene is also an early clue to how we try to grapple with the steering wheel of narrative. Dawson City becomes a movie about the Yukon Gold Rush and Dawson and early 20th century American history and the birth of cinema. But before it becomes any of those things, it appears for a brief moment that this will be a film about the early days of baseball. And a film well could have been made just about the Black Sox footage. The point is that even the simplest of stories, such as the seemingly small tale of some film canisters found in an old Yukon town’s abandoned lot, can be chock full of new narrative directions. Every anecdote, no matter how straightforward, may point the way toward a hundred different anecdotes if we keep following the strand. Every story’s beginning is a river ready to break off into a dizzying number of tributaries. Dawson City toys with this idea again early on, when we learn of the Han-speaking people who used to live on the land and their leader, Chief Isaac. Chief Isaac is one of the first historical personages we meet and his introduction is a feint toward a direction that the film very consciously does not opt to take. Soon after, gold dust is found in Dawson and Chief Isaac and his people are forced off of their land. They are shuffled five miles downriver and fully out of the lens of what had been, for thousands of years leading up this point, their story. Our understanding of the past is thwarted by the erosion of knowledge on one side and by a paradoxical overabundance of knowledge on the other. History is constantly decaying and there is also simply too much to take in. There are so many voices that we absent-mindedly forget to record or callously choose to ignore. And to transition clumsily from marginalized perspectives back to the Great American Pastime, something of History’s erratic, fickle nature can be seen in a segment showing the three World Series. In 1917, a dominant and ascendant Chicago White Sox team won the World Series behind the talent of their beloved superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. In 1917, the White Sox were a celebrated championship team and that was the story. The next year, the White Sox only made it to 6th place because Joe Jackson was serving at a shipyard in World War I. In 1918, the White Sox were a fallen giant, brought back to Earth by the capricious hand of War. The following year saw Joe Jackson return from service and the mighty 1917 White Sox roster was reunited. Baseball fans giddily prepared themselves for a heroic redemption arc. In October of that year, the White Sox would throw the World Series. In 1919, eight White Sox players, including Joe Jackson, would be found guilty of accepting bribes and would be permanently barred from ever playing the game again. From anointed heroes to World War I-era underdogs to reascendant icons to disgraces. History has a course all its own and we can little see where it will be even a year later. There is simply no telling when the river will veer from its present course and leave our tenuous understanding of where it was heading forever altered.

 

While there is a substantial amount of historical newsreel footage in Dawson City: Frozen Time, the most consistent visual accompaniment is its tapestry of scenes from early 1900s silent films. Working from the idea that factual narratives are not always as straightforwardly trustworthy as they appear, Morrison frees himself to find a great deal of truth in cinematic fiction. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his film relies as much on fictional images to tell the story as on real ones. When the film relates Dawson’s early days as a haven for gamblers, we see a staccato montage of roulette players, card cheats, and blackjack dealers, all pulled from the rescued silent movies. When the film comes to the point where the old films are buried in a landfill, quite possibly never to be seen again, we see old film shots of doleful, despondent, and concerned faces. I think what Dawson City is subtly saying is that our attempts to corral History will inevitably fall short, but we can actually find a lot of truth about ourselves in the fantasies we create. In some ways, our fictional art may hold just as much objective truth as our newsreels and photographs because people put so much of their inner selves into them. Even when we are looking at staged, melodramatic scenes that don’t directly match what is happening in the factual narrative, those images have an honest kind of subjectivity to them. Films reflect our feelings back at us. They spotlight our fundamental desires and zero in on our most visceral fears. Dawson City weaves the real history of this gold mining town together with moments from the films that played there to create a vibrant, kaleidoscopic version of reality. Silent stars throw doors open in rapid succession. Scenes of love ebb into scenes of jealousy and anger. At one point, when silent films first come to Dawson, a series of eager, fictitious audiences gaze back at the viewer. The human need to take things in, in the name of entertainment or in the name of trying to make sense of the world, is so universal that we even put audiences in our movies to watch us watch them. The juxtapositions in Dawson City: Frozen Time are striking, moving and feel all the more honest for their exuberant silent film theatricality. Facts are more fragmented and enigmatic than we like to admit and the grand fabrications of popular art have golden nuggets of pure truth hidden inside of them.

 

But, for all the ideas flowing through Dawson City, it is most intoxicating as a sonic and visual achievement. It is vibrantly intelligent and rich in ideas, but nothing compares to the powerful pull of its emotional current. It is rare to have a documentary that feels this lusciously, elementally sensory, and the overall sensation of seeing it is one that I cannot put into words. It’s the way Bill Morrison presents the facts, events, and personages of this sprawling story and lays them on top of a fascinating bed of film imagery, without any talking head explaining their significance or how they relate to one another. It’s the way the fictional and the factual work off of one another, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes in ambiguous tension. It’s the gentle, steady heartbeat of Alex Somers’ wondrously effective score. It’s the narrative motifs that emerge. Populations ebb and flow like the tides. Historical figures emerge, disappear, and then suddenly pop back up to make their mark on history. Some of the people we meet become icons and others are only vital within the smaller story of Dawson City. In a narrative where Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Jack London all make appearances, the most important player in this film is probably just a town bank manager, who thought to bury some old film canisters under an abandoned hockey rink and unwittingly ended up preserving a big piece of history. It’s the way all these stories swirl around each other like wisps of smoke. It’s the way the film binds itself to the elements. Images of people, both fictional and real, trekking through the high drifts of snow. It’s fire after fire, as we hear of the many warehouses full of films that have went up in flames over the years. We learn that Dawson itself burned down once a year for the first nine years of its existence. It’s the unflagging fire that has devoured so much fragile human history and, in the case of those 533 films, it’s the ice and earth that preserved a small piece of it. And what emerges from all this sound and imagery is an impressionistic painting of what History itself might look like. Smoldering and water-logged and crackly and slipping away into beautiful, melancholy, discordant entropy. Bill Morrison could have simply made a documentary about film preservation or the Yukon Gold Rush or America in the early 20th century or even baseball, but what he has made instead is a nonsummative masterwork of the non-fiction form. It is a documentary as much about sensing History as it is about learning it. In making a film about how History is too elusive to see with undiminished clarity and too massive to take in all at once, Morrison has also crafted the perfect frosted glass aesthetic for that thesis. What may have started out as a small story about unlikely film preservation in a tiny Yukon tourist town ends up becoming an ocean in a teacup. In peering through a small window in American history, Dawson City manages to become a movie about humanity’s entire vain, gorgeously doomed attempt to rage against the finiteness of things. It is a film about a specific pocket of time but the struggle at its heart is timeless.

 

That struggle is mainly the attempt to gain some clearer understanding about ourselves and the world we live in. That is something that we look to Art to help us do, whether it is a non-fiction book giving us greater clarity into a chapter of History or a great film helping us glimpse something fundamentally true in the human soul. And, to be clear, I do not believe Dawson City: Frozen Time is roundly dismissing the act of parsing our collective past or saying that it is entirely futile. Any film that renders History in such a thoughtful, visually rich way must have some deep affection for the value of learning about what came before us. But this documentary does remind us that every golden nugget of time is an elusive, multi-faceted thing. The idea is not that humanity can never have any understanding of where it has been or where it is going, but that we would do well to remember that knowledge is a dense, refracting crystal. The truth of things can shift tantalizingly based on what corner of it we hold up to the light. It is not that there is no Truth, but that the nature of Truth is so brilliantly confounding that the process of looking over it is essentially never finished. Film was literally born of an explosive, but Dawson City sees History, Memory, Literature, and Art as being similarly prone to turbulence. All of knowledge is an incendiary, unstable element. Meaning can shift dramatically based on how we look at things and also depending on who is doing the looking. If there is a lesson to be taken, I believe it is that we should welcome a multitude of perspectives and that we should never fool ourselves into thinking we are done learning. But beyond any lesson, I think Dawson City is just reminding us that this is the way things are. To be alive is to both know things and also have that knowledge continually challenged and disrupted. The best thing you can do is to find some beauty in being mystified. If you don’t find yourself frequently confused, bewildered and awestruck, you probably aren’t doing it right.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #12- The Big Sick

The Big Sick is not a Judd Apatow film in the strictest sense. The film’s director is Michael Showalter, a writer, director and performer who came up on the 90’s sketch show The State (MTV’s very funny answer to Kids In the Hall), helped form the well-regarded Stella comedy trio, and has now directed a few features, including the creatively premised but middling romantic comedy The Baxter and 2015’s mildly well-reviewed Sally Fields dramedy Hello My Name Is Doris. The film’s credited screenwriters are two married comedians, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon (a comedy writer and pop culture podcaster), and the story itself is an account of the early days of their relationship. The Big Sick is only an Apatow in the sense that Apatow acted as a mentor when Gordon and Nanjiani were fine-tuning the script and his production company, Apatow Productions, provided the financing. But, while Judd Apatow is probably not even the fourth person I would credit The Big Sick to, I am going to have to begin my review by talking about Judd Apatow. The reason for that is that The Big Sick fits so snugly into the wheelhouse of what the best Apatow films do well. At the risk of coming off like some kind of stunted, nerdy bro, The 40 Year-Old Virgin was a formative comedy experience for me. For context, I was 23 years old and there are few things more quintessentially Apatowian (Apatovian?) than having a formative experience at a stoner sexy comedy when you are old enough to have a spouse and a full-time job. But in all seriousness, the bracing mixture of human warmth and bawdy comedy moved me then and still does. When I was a teenager, the sex comedy was most visibly represented by the mean-spirited hijinks of the American Pie franchise and the copycats it inspired. These movies ostensibly had protagonists that we were mean to root for, but the aim always seemed more to see them go through a gauntlet of dumb humiliations. And I don’t want to be too harsh on dumb comedy here, because I can watch a good Farrelly Brothers (a good one, mind you) any day of the week. But I always felt that the American Pie’s of the world were just had cruel little souls. For all that Jim was the hero of American Pie, I never felt like his own film liked him all that much. Even as an awkward, sexually inexperienced teenager myself, I could not imagine actually identifying with Jim or wanting the best for him. The film’s sneering sense of mockery seemed to discourage anything resembling empathy. Having grown up with those films in the mainstream, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad were like fresh oxygen to this sensitive, humanism-loving movie buff. And now that maybe a little bit of the bloom has fallen from the Apatow rose and we’ve weathered our first patch of Seth Rogen fatigue, I have to defend what films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin meant, and still mean, to me. The idea that uproarious, profane, sexually frank films can be sweet and driven by empathy is a notion worth holding on to. That you can even have a character experience a funny bit of humiliation and still laugh with them because the character is given dignity, intelligence, and an awareness of their own ridiculous situation. Whatever quarrels one might have with the Apatow comedies, I maintain that they are comedies that genuinely like humankind and that matters tremendously to me. It means a lot to me as someone who just likes to see kind, relatable human beings in films. It also means a lot to me as someone who values sex-positivity, because having bawdy sex comedies with generous spirits allows us to laugh about sex in a way that is honest and curious rather than just crass. Most of all, I am in love with any film that can be both uproariously funny about the foibles and misunderstandings of human coupling and still genuinely want the best for those people.

 

All of that is to say, while giving credit to Showalter and especially Gordon and Nanjiani, that The Big Sick is the best kind of Apatow film. It not only hits comedic highs that are worthy of comparison with the funniest moments of Knocked Up and Superbad, but also manages to hit dramatic depths that are deeper than any of its Apatow predecessors have reached. The Big Sick is the true story of the courtship of Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who met in 2006 at a Chicago standup comedy club where Nanjiani was performing a five-minute set. Gordon (who was completing her Masters to become a therapist at the time) shouts a supportive “woohoo!”, which gives Nanjiani an excuse to approach her at the bar under the guise of correcting her. He explains that heckles are heckles, even when done with positive intent, and the two are soon engaged in deep conversation about their plans and aspirations. They eventually go back to Kumail’s place to have sex and ignore Night of the Living Dead and they end the night intending to not get too serious. However, after proposing not to see each other again too soon, the two quickly fall into a pattern of spending every waking moment together, and before long they are in love. Soon after, however, their relationship has to withstand two potentially catastrophic obstacles. First, Nanjiani has serious trepidations about telling his strict Pakistani parents (played very well by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who insist he marry within a Pakistani woman like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar in a funny and subdued performance). His mother is particularly insistent, regularly inviting young Pakistani women to “drop by” during family meals so they can meet Kumail and give him their photographs. This leads to disaster when Emily discovers the photographs and consequently learns the even more hurtful fact that Kumail has been hiding their relationship from his parents. As a result, Kumail and Emily end up having a very turbulent breakup and Kumail is resigned to the fact that he will probably never see Emily again. The second obstacle comes shortly thereafter when Kumail receives a call from one of Emily’s grad school classmates alerting him that Emily has come down with what appears to be a very nasty case of influenza and has been placed in the emergency room. Kumail arrives to check on her, only expecting to stay until a friend or family member can take his place. As fate would have it, he ends up being the only person present when the doctors come to a sobering discovery. Emily’s flu has turned into something far more serious, a mysterious infection in her lungs, and she will have to be put into a medically induced coma until they can figure out her ailment. One of Emily’s physicians urges Kumail to say that he is her husband so that they can sign off on the procedure before it is too late. Kumail agrees to sign off, calls Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth, to tell them the news, and then stays until they arrive. When he awakes to find them standing by Emily’s bedside, it is immediately clear that they know this is the young man who broke their daughter’s heart. As Kumail introduces himself, Beth (Holly Hunter, in a performance that juggles fiery anguish, caustic wit, and maternal warmth) tells him tersely, “We know who you are, Kumail.”. Nonetheless, Kumail stays with the Gordons long enough to learn more about Emily’s prognosis, until the genially awkward Terry (a hilarious, utterly revelatory performance by Ray Romano) makes it clear that he can go. Kumail initially does leave, but comes back moved by the feelings he still has for Emily and gripped by a desire to atone for the hurt his dishonesty and cowardice caused. So, after starting as a lovely, sweet, and eventually heartbreaking story of romance found and lost, The Big Sick becomes a different kind of relationship story: the nuanced, overwhelmingly poignant story of a man almost losing his new love to death and going through a harrowing experience with her parents. As that is happening, Kumail is trying to find the strength to come clean with his stern, traditional family about his aspirations to pursue a career in comedy and the fact that he is in love with a white woman. I could say more about the plot, but The Big Sick really is about getting to know these characters (none of them less than very well-acted) and being overwhelmed by the depths of its deeply felt humor and humanity. As with all the great Apatow films, the secret sauce here is a kind of improvised, non-programmatic direction. Scenes don’t simply perform their function and end, but malinger a bit to let the moments and characters breathe. I have personally always liked this loose, shaggy quality , but I do not begrudge anyone who feels the Apatow films could benefit from a bit more economy. That said, if you found Knocked Up too meandering, you will at least be pleased to find that The Big Sick is almost certainly the most focused film to have the Apatow name attached to it, all thanks to its doozy of a central concept. Having an actual matter of life and death at the center of this kind of comedy has a galvanizing effect on the usual loose-limbed, gangly humor. The pathos makes the film feel urgent and immediate even in its most hilariously digressive moments, and the frequent laughs come like sweet, cool breezes of relief in the face of the anxiety and dread that the main characters are coping with. And because this is clearly a film more driven by its plot and its jokes than by anything you could call thematically heady (a Judd Apatow essay film is something we will all just have to keep waiting for), I must proclaim that The Big Sick really is just a terrific story. It has the kind of joyful, unfussy plot that has the good sense not to get in its own way.

Then again, I just wouldn’t be true to my nature if I didn’t point out a theme or two, and The Big Sick wouldn’t be such an unexpectedly moving addition to the romantic comedy genre if it didn’t have some real thoughts on its mind. One way that The Big Sick adds even more resonance to an already powerful plot is by seamlessly folding in one of the most moving, well-observed looks at the experience of being an immigrant in America. Kumail’s identity as the son of Pakistani parents has a tremendous impact on the plot of the film, while also being intrinsically valuable as a lovingly candid window into his culture. Apatow himself has said that he, Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter all felt a lot of good would come just from the simple act of placing a Pakistani immigrant family on screen and just letting them be funny and human. The Big Sick touches on what it means to be Middle Eastern in our current American climate, and if it is not a searing indictment of xenophobia, it achieves something powerful just by allowing Kumail Nanjiani (a terrifically funny and gently disarming comedic presence) to tell a story with great, fully developed Pakistani-American characters. It is quite positive enough just to give voice and a moving narrative to a culture we do not often see on screens. But as with everything else in The Big Sick, the moving and the funny are very much in sync. The most heartening fact to me is that we now have a splendid comedy where Pakistani culture plays a pivotal role. The benefit of making a blissfully funny comedy about an underseen culture is that great comedy has a unique capacity to knock down irrational phobias and ignorance. Nanjiani’s approach, both as a comedian and now a screenwriter, is to use his humble, self-effacing, and gently mocking comedic voice to simultaneously zero in on the peculiarities of his cultural back ground and to brush away the mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. I am happy for any film that gives us a view into another culture’s customs and unique social mores, but I am especially glad that this year gave me the chance to learn about a marginalized culture through a comedy this consistently side-splitting and humane. Once you have laughed, not simply at but with characters from a different culture, it becomes all the more difficult to think of them in an otherized way. As with so many Apatowian comedies, I left The Big Sick having gotten to know a whole host of relatable, fallible, spontaneous, funny people, but this time four of those people were lovingly drawn, well-observed characters of Pakistani descent and I cannot overstate the value of that basic act of representation. When it was over, I felt I knew an entire family of idiosyncratic, prickly, unique individuals with distinct personalities and aspirations. And even if you happen to be one of those filmgoers who think that the Apatow comedies meander and spend too much time just hanging out, I hope you will forgive that indulgence in this one case. Hollywood invites people like the Nanjianis to just hang out much too rarely.

 

The Big Sick is not only an observant look at a Pakistani family, but something of a sweet love letter to family in general. One of my favorite things about the narrative structure of this film is how it spends well over running time not on the dating between the two main characters, but on the interactions between Kumail and Emily’s parents. In a way, one could argue the main romance of the film really is the one that develops between Kumail and the new family he realizes, almost too late, that he wants to be a part of. The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano is a subtle master class of humor, tension, worried fatigue, and guarded hope, all butting up beautifully against one another. While Emily is conscious, Kumail is constantly balking at the prospect of meeting Emily’s parents, worried that he will then have to reveal her to his own family. And you can chalk this up to the fact that it really happened, but it adds a poignant dimension to the film that he ended up finally meeting them in this peculiar way, in these harrowing circumstances. So The Big Sick really is two romances: a sweet love story between a man and a woman and an entirely different kind of love story between that same man and his paramour’s family. It is about coming to love someone more through learning about the people who raised them. And while The Big Sick is too light on its feet to belabor or underline this point, the wide shadow of parents and family is a consistent emotional motif. The film becomes a beautiful meditation on the conflicting emotions that family brings out. The need to love our parents, repay their sacrifice, and also find a way to define ourselves outside of them. And what makes The Big Sick such a smartly plotted film is how the interactions with Emily’s parents, which Kumail conceals from his own family, give him insights in how to think about and interact with his own mother and father. It is through spending time with Beth and Terry that Kumail starts to see his parents with more dimension than he once did. During a night of bonding. as Kumail and Emily’s parents fight off their dread with bottles of wine, Beth explains to him how her North Carolina family hated her now-husband for many years. Kumail doesn’t tell Beth his fear that his own mother will disown him over loving Emily, but he asks her how she got over that familial obstacle. How did she make it work? “Lots of fucked up dinners,” she replies in that perfectly tart, winningly direct Holly Hunter way. This conversation plants the seed of Kumail’s growing courage to own up to his love for Emily. It stokes the grit to rebel against his parents. But the same conversation also makes him reflect on his love for them. As Beth talks about how she and Terry fell in love, Kumail realizes that he never found out what movie his mother and father saw on their first date. It was a question he had somehow never thought to ask them. Kumail starts out nervous and afraid of the Gordons; first fearful to meet them and then ashamed for hurting their daughter. But the lovely arc of the film is his decision to summon some trace amount of courage and stay with them through the ordeal; to own up to the hurt he caused Emily but to also assert himself. In finding the will to speak plainly to the Gordons and to also listen to them, he learns something valuable about parents. They are not crutches to depend on, nor tyrants to grovel before, nor ogres to be feared. Parents are just people and, even when they don’t see eye to eye with you, the right thing to do is to love them, listen to them, and also be yourself. To proceed stalwartly on your own journey, while also having empathy and curiosity for where their journeys have taken them.

And if there’s a third message to be gleaned in this delightfully funny film, I think it’s just about basic courage. And honesty. And standing up for one’s choices. If you group all those ideals together, I think what you end up with is that word so beloved by my late grandfather: gumption. It could scarcely be an Apatowian comedy, if a character didn’t have to stare down his growing pains and make the hard, fruitful decision to grow and change into their own version of an adult. And when I look at this wooly, lovable dramedy through the lens of gumption, it does start to attain its own shaggy kind of thematic coherence. Moving to a new country or a new city, committing to our first serious relationship and forming new bonds with our loved one’s loved ones, and redrawing old boundaries with the people who have known us all our lives. They all require self-determination, self-belief, and the summoning of our will power. They are what you need if you want to build a new life, and I really do think The Big Sick is about the first steps people take toward building a new life for themselves. To do so, we must make ourselves understand and believe that the pains of changing will be outweighed by the rewards to come. And if growth, change, maturity, and committing to a new course are all common tropes in the Apatow canon, I am not sure they have ever felt so thoughtfully reflected in every atom of the narrative as they have here. I must reiterate that The Big Sick is a consistently hilarious comedy before it is any kind of rigorous examination of stasis and transformation. But when I was done laughing until my sides hurt, what kept me warm for days afterwards was recalling how many kind-spirited, generous, and honest lessons this film offers about doing the right thing.

 

What I love most about The Big Sick probably just comes down to how lovely its tone is. Michael Showalter is not a director of any remarkable pyrotechnic skill. There is nothing remotely flashy in the film’s approach, and if I were judging on direction and editing alone, The Big Sick would not be anywhere near this high on my year-end list. But while it may lack anything formally impressive, The Big Sick is a film with a rather wonderful, understated sense of tone. It is the kind of tone that can have you feeling genuine pangs of sadness and concern for a character at the same time that you are audibly howling at the world’s best 9/11 joke. And for as much as I try to celebrate films that push the needle forward visually, sonically, and ideologically, there are also films that achieve their power through an invisible emotional undercurrent. When you get a film that can combine a wide gamut of emotions and make that blend feel seamless and intuitive, that is something special. To me, it is a skill every bit as worthy of praise as capturing a difficult shot or editing together a perfectly propulsive montage. I turned off The Big Sick with the deepest affection for all of its characters. I had experienced elation, dread, and sorrow. I had learned about a different culture and thought about the bonds of family. I had felt rich laughter rippling around uneasy knots in my stomach. And to me that is a magic trick all the more satisfying confounding for not being easy to visually identify. Like the very best films I saw this year, The Big Sick served me an impeccably mixed cocktail of humor, pathos, cultural insight, and conflict. It was a sweet beverage with subtle bitter notes and it sent me tripping back into the world with a damp, happy face. I stood in the warm, fading sunlight, buzzed, giddy, and ready to fall in love with humanity all over again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #13- Mudbound

I will start by begging preemptive forgiveness for anything awkward, inelegant, or, God forbid, downright problematic that I might write in this review. As I have said before, in fractious times such as these, I pray for films that stare down injustice, thrust oppressed perspectives into the foreground, and force us to engage with how we can do better by our fellow human beings. And I pray for such films for the very same reason that I often tremble at reviewing them. What often makes films like those brilliant is their ability to shine a floodlight on the comfortable status quo, and the comfortable status quo is certainly what I am. If I am watching a film with righteous power and scathing social insights, there is a very good chance that my own failings are right there in the crosshairs, staring back at me like shifty rodents. My privileged background, my protected skin color, my roundly accepted sexual orientation, and my own complicit cowardice. And if a film like Mudbound were not already eloquent enough at exposing the daily benefits I enjoy, then writing a review of this honest, ravishingly poetic portrait of America’s racial divide will surely finish me off. Allow me to strike the first blow against myself by presenting an inherently problematic idea. Art can be a Trojan Horse for just, humane ideas. It was a thought I remember having when I watched Ryan Coogler’s Creed a few years back. The immensely talented young black filmmaker set out to make the latest entry in the Rocky franchise and, as far as I’m concerned, gave the series its clear best film. I sat and watched the film with an enthralled, mostly white crowd in Danville, California, close to where I grew up. And, to be fair, I had no idea what any of the audience’s thoughts on race were, or their views on any particular social movement, or whether they considered racism to be a pressing modern day crisis. But I thought of Roger Ebert’s theory on movies as empathy machines and I watched a crowd of happy, enthusiastic, damp Caucasian faces leave the theater thoroughly moved by the story of a young black man coming to grips with his familial history and finding a reason to be proud of himself. And, please pardon my cynicism, but I do not think that even a quarter of those people would have been there to meet Adonis Creed and have that positive movie experience if the film was not part of a famous, popular boxing franchise. The Trojan Horse of a rousing, well-reviewed sports movie had smuggled in a sweet, frank, observant black coming-of-age story and slipped it under the guard of people who have likely not shown up just to see a young African-American man learning discipline and self-love as he becomes an adult in a new city. And now I am literally blushing with embarrassment for what I have just suggested. Because I know in my soul that this Trojan Horse theory is (and there is no better word) a fucked-up notion. Black narratives deserve to be told, and not just the ones that are charming and life-affirming, and certainly not just the ones that are agreeably packaged. It goes without saying that we should not need to sneak ideas about the dignity and self-worth of African-Americans in to the mainstream under the disguise of film tropes that are more traditional, palatable, or generally popular. But, with all that said, the bones of old standbys and reliably well-liked genres are there for any filmmaker who wants to use them. To sneak insights and new perspectives past our privileged guards. To get around our blinders and reinvigorate our empathy. To fool us into engaging with our better angels, the same way you might fool an infant into eating its peas. And it’s all very unfortunate that such measures are necessary, but I am glad that such measures exist. I do think this ability to place critical ideas inside a popular form of storytelling is a large part of the genius of Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Rees is an African-American woman and one of a few directors in 2017 to make rigorous, beautiful, compelling films about the experience of being black in America. Rees’ film is very upfront in being about racial disparities, but it dresses itself in the disarming classical finery of the old-fashioned Hollywood epic film. Rees knows that Americans have always had a soft spot for the prestige and massive scope of a big, lush period piece, and she has created the very best big, lush period piece since at least 2016’s Sunset Song.

 

Based off of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Mudbound is the story of two families of sharecroppers tending to the same muddy plot of land in rural 1940s Mississippi. One family is black, the other is white, and we get to know all of their members very well over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes. The black family is the Jacksons, lovingly overseen by its gruff, kind patriarch, Hap (played exquisitely by Rob Morgan). Hap is a man constantly protecting the flame of his dignity from the howling wind of Mississippi bigotry; a man wo has learned to weather the ever-present racism of this corner of the world but has never felt right or easy about the stooping it demands. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a quietly lovely, sensitive, Oscar-nominated performance) feels as wounded as Hap does about the sacrifice and soul-sapping compromise of surviving this time and place, but she moves with this treacherous landscape with a kind of understated grace. Florence is a figure of both beautiful strength and sad resignation, focused on the safety and well-being of her family and acutely aware that shepherding them through this cruel country will require a daily denial of herself. The Jacksons have been diligently working their rented patch of land for decades, hoping to one day purchase it, when their white co-tenants, the McAllans, arrive. The head of the household is Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, doing fine, solid work in what is probably the film’s most thankless role), a stubborn, taciturn company man who has uprooted his wife and infant daughter from their quiet, suburban lives to pursue a dream, or more truthfully a sudden whim, of becoming a farmer. His wife, Laura (a very strong performance that only looks effortless because it’s coming from Carey Mulligan), insists that she never knew anything of her husband’s agrarian aspirations. Their marriage seems to be one built more on material need and mutual companionship than on any real sense of love. It certainly does not seem to be built on communication. Laura is a woman of some sensitivity and culture, which leads her to have a much deeper bond with Henry’s charismatic, university-educated younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, originally of Tron fame). Hedlund here sheds all of his handsome lunkhead persona to give one of this phenomenally acted film’s two best performances. The film’s most poignant and perfectly acted character is the Jackson family’s eldest son, Ronsell (Jason Mitchell, who has already been terrific as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and seems to only be hitting his stride). Ronsell and Jamie spend at least half of the film separated from their respective families, as both volunteer to fight overseas in World War II, Jamie as a bomber pilot and Ronsell as a tank commander. Finally, there is Henry’s despicable, seething bigot of a father, Pappy (the great Jonathan Banks, of Breaking Bad fame), who Henry has invited to live with them, to the utter dismay and disgust of his wife. Pappy is an irredeemable, unrepentant open sewer of hate and hurt, unflagging in his contempt for any non-white person and incapable of the slightest show of warmth or mild fondness toward his long-suffering family. The main thrust of the film are the parallel, diverging, and dovetailing stories of this large ensemble. The story begins in earnest when Henry shows up at the doorway of a nice single-story house in town, telling the confused owner that he gave a man $200 for an oral agreement to purchase the property. As fate would have it, that man immediately sold the house to the man now standing in the doorway and hastily left town, leaving Henry with no deed, no house, and $200 less to his name. “You got swindled,” Pappy sneers at him. With scan options and very little money, Henry moves his family out to the Jacksons plot to sharecrop there. Henry McAllan makes his introduction by interrupting the Jackson family’s dinner and coercing Hap into helping him unpack in the middle of the night, while a not remotely grateful Pappy glares at him through suspecting eyes. And while there is a great deal of plot that unfolds in dense, rich detail, the film is really just the story of how all these people coexist and drift around each other’s orbit. Mudbound is chiefly the story of these two poor families with different skin colors, eking out a meager existence in the nation’s most racist state in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. Eventually, Jamie and Ronsell come home from battle and rejoin the main narrative, bringing with them an understanding that the fascist battlefields of 1940s Germany are more turbulent and in some ways more hospitable than the farmlands of the 1940s American South. And this very detailed synopsis, or more pointedly the fact that it does not even begin to sum up the film, should give you a sense of what a full-throated, staggeringly epic film Mudbound is. It may sound daunting, and I will concede that I finished both my viewings emotionally spent. But what I want to convey is just how soulful, heartfelt and alive Mudbound is; how filigreed it is with color, sound, dialogue, poetry, and richly observed characters.

 

I would like to revisit the notion of the artistic Trojan Horse and temper it a bit where Mudbound is concerned. Because it is not quite right to say that Dee Rees is using the historical epic to disguise her interest in racial strife. Anyone who reads that Mudbound involves a family of black sharecroppers in 1940s Mississippi and does not expect to encounter the issue of racism probably needs to refamiliarize themselves with American history, or Mississippi history at the very least. It’s not that the trappings of the big, beautiful historical epic really hides any of the issues that Rees is confronting. It is more accurate to say that the sensory pleasure of watching Mudbound and being transported to its time and place is so exquisitely mounted that it becomes something of a mandatory viewing experience for anyone who just enjoys a lavish, meticulously curated historical drama. Mudbound is not quite the longest film on my year-end list, but it is certainly the one that feels the most overwhelmingly detailed. Like last year’s Sunset Song, its epic Irish cousin, part of Mudbound’s accomplishment is in making the dust and grime of an arduous agrarian lifestyle look so ruggedly beautiful. Moreover, it is an honest kind of beauty. The images of flooded fields and green trees popping against the dark brown landscape and every possible shade of that titular mud are all gorgeous, but in a way that never lets you forget how taxing it must have been to hoe and till and hack at this stubborn land. And the wealth of detail only begins with Rachel Morrison’s (the first woman ever nominated for a Cinematography Oscar) lusciously stark lensing. Those stunning images take place in a vast, unfurling tapestry of a story, populated by no less than six major characters, each of whom stake their claim to being the film’s key protagonist. I am wary of overusing the word “novelistic”, but it is not simply an accurate descriptor for Mudbound; it is the essential adjective. Mudboundis a film to give words like “dense” and “overwhelming” a good name. It is a hearty cinematic meal, to be sure, but it does not feel bloated or stretched thing, the way so many of its historical epic brethren do. It proceeds patiently, but each scene, beat, and frame feels immediate. In rewatching Mudbound, I took so much time noting poetic turns of phrase that I would momentarily forget to not its lovely frames and saturated color palette. Then, when I stopped to feebly try to write something about the grit and grandeur of the images, I would struggle to capture the vividness of its lyrical, powerful screenplay. Very little time passes over Mudbound’s 135 minutes when it is not simultaneously one of the most splendidly composed and sumptuously written films of the year. At a certain point, I had to limit my note-taking and just trust my memory to do its humble best. To fully honor its shots, I would need a giant coffee table photography book. To fully capture its florid, soulful writing, I would essentially have to rewrite its script. The only true way to experience the splendor and immense emotional undertow of Mudbound is to take it in with your own eyes and ears.

 

All this lovely detail, both visual and verbal, enables me to sincerely applaud Mudbound as the vwery best kind of grand, sprawling, old-fashioned film. It’s the kind of epic they scarcely make anymore and that were rarely made with such vibrant detail when they did make them. But Mudbound is also a thematically rich work, which gives it a kind of cerebral heft that is even more rare in the prestigious historical dramas that are its contemporaries. The themes of Mudbound largely fall into a discourse between the nation that binds us together and the persistent racial prejudice that overpowers that sense of national unity. The idea of unity is represented through the notion of mud, dirt, and land, which are constant motifs throughout the film. Mudbound opens with a scene set late into its narrative, as Henry and Jamie plunging shovels into the thick Mississippi mud. Pappy has died and they are rushing to dig a grave for him before a heavy rainstorm floods the grave. As they dig deeper, Henry finds another body from many decades ago. There are manacles next to the skeleton and the skull has been pierced by a bullet hole. Henry and Jamie have found the old grave of a runaway slave. Henry insists that Pappy would recoil at being buried in the same resting place as a slave, but the old racist is dead and there is no time to start digging anew. So Pappy is laid to rest in the same place as a man who he would have called beneath him. The poignant, acerbic idea of this scene, and of Mudbound in general, is that all the struggle and injustice and bloodshed throughout the centuries, from the beginning of slavery to the present-day, is all tied to the soil of this one single place we call a country. It is an idea that sounds almost too simple, but Rees’ sense for tone and character, and the beautiful prose of her source material tease this idea out thoughtfully until it becomes a thing of elegiac resonance. Rees is not saying something so facile as that all the racial divisions between white and black Americans are smoothed out over the simple sharing of a piece of land, be it a grave or a country. But I believe she is positing that, no matter what happens, being countrymen fates us to share a story. Pappy’s story, in the end, is that for all his hate and his feelings of superiority over anyone who didn’t look like him, he was always fated to die and come to rest in the same mud as the people he despised and tormented. And the land will now keep his final chapter and hold it together with the final chapter of that murdered slave, and if anyone comes digging decades later, they will find that 19th century skeleton in his shackles right next to that spiteful cur who died in the 1940s and that will be fitting. Not because time makes things okay and not because in death they are not so different, but because those two people, and so many other slaves, masters, victims, and aggressors are part of the same blood-soaked book. And now the illusion of time, probably only some 80 years anyway, can be shattered and the constant Earth can hold Pappy and this slave right next to each other where they belong. It can keep the two side by side, one shot and unceremoniously dumped here like an animal and the other laid here in a cheap wood coffin, far better than he deserved but all the better to evidence a blunt truth of this American epic we are penning. That not every dead soul in this country got to be buried by its family, and not every man was afforded the right to die decently. Mudbound has plenty to say about the different path black Americans have had to walk, but it is also saying something poignant, disturbing, and scathing about how Americans of every race are bound together in the same violent, leather-bound tome; the same national narrative.

 

The other voice in Mudbound’s direct but nuanced conversation is the one that knows a sense of unity has always been something of an American myth. The folly of that myth is there in the repeated motif of the Jackson family’s interrupted dinners. The black family’s sanctuary of peace and loving kinship is repeatedly invaded by the loud knocking of the McAllan patriarch, insisting on some favor or bit of assistance from Hap or Florence. And the mixture of frustration and wounded pride we see wash over Hap’s face lays the truth bare, that even some 80 years after Abolition, Hap and his family are at this insignificant white man’s beck and call. And the possibility that Henry McAllan doesn’t quite register the coercive sway he holds over the Jacksons makes this imbalance all the more insidious, infuriating, and scary. It is present in the way Florence swallows her pride and accepts work caring for the McAllan children, optimistically telling herself the extra money will be good for her family. Still, she reminisces in voiceover about how her own mother spent her daylight hours tending to white babies while her young daughter mostly had to settle for seeing her in the dark. Mudbound is about the sad, aggravating truth of what it has meant, and still means, to be black in this country, and how easy it is for a group of people to brush that truth aside or ignore it when they do not have to live with it day after day. The McAllans and the Jacksons both live hard, dirty lives, but the problem is that this shared hardship makes it too easy for the McAllans to live in ignorance of how much more strenuous this grueling lifestyle is for a black family. Both households go to bed with grubby fingers and throbbing muscles, but the Jacksons also have to tend to a constant ache in their spirits. The McAllan’s myopia even extends to the most enlightened member of the family, Jamie. And it is here where I believe Dee Rees feel the most anguish about the sweet sincere hope for understanding and friendship across the racial divide and how it just cannot be that simple. Not in this country with this history and these sins buried in its soil. The friendship between Jamie McAllan and Ronsell Jackson is the emotional lynchpin of Mudbound, which is quite a feat considering that the two do not meet until 90 minutes into the film and everything that comes before that is beautiful and powerful and completely moving. But those scenes of the two returned soldiers, played with such exquisite empathy by Jason Mitchell and Garret Hedlund, allow Mudbound to be both a prayer for hope and brotherhood and an unflinching account of how hope can also be a scary thing. Ronsell and Jamie’s connection, their shared empathy over the horrors they have seen, and the sudden appreciation each one feels for having found a kindred spirit made me beam and wince all at once. Because even something as intuitive and natural as two good men becoming friends cannot entirely escape the corrosion of the toxic air around it. And the most damning, emotionally gutting thing about their arc together is how even a smart, compassionate man like Jamie cannot quite grasp Ronsell’s reality. He cannot quite see that, even as an educated, benign white man, he poses a danger to his dear black friend. Mudbound is about the experience of being black in American, but it is also a very effective critique of the full gamut of white ignorance: from Pappy’s bilious racism, through Henry’s apathy and Laura’s well-intentioned equivocating, to the naivete of someone like Jamie thinking they can glide over centuries of entrenched bigotry just by being one of the good ones. Through all of this, Mudbound holds on to traces of optimism. Though the story goes to some unspeakably tragic places, it has hope its heart. But if that hope is to mean anything, it must be clear-eyed, and that means recognizing that our problems have never been one and the same. This country’s best hopes won’t be realized until the last of us stops trying to pretending otherwise.

 

Mudbound plays beautifully as an amazingly well-acted, gorgeously detailed American epic with just a touch more arsenic in its veins. And maybe part of that is using the appealing form of a large ensemble epic to house subversive, trenchant ideas that are not always present in films of this kind. At the same time, I do not feel Rees is attempting a deception here. I think the moral is that, for the 200-plus year American saga, this idea of a land that unites with one hand and divides with the other, has always been in the very text of the story. If it has been more implicit and less pronounced in the past, then perhaps it is time we told the story of this country more candidly. Even Mudbound’s musical score feels like the vibrant, subversive hybrid of something both familiar and radical. The guitar strings and low tones evoke the muck and dusty, hot days of a Mississippi summer, but there are subtle tweaks that make the melodies sound discordant, almost decaying. It sounds like an acoustic blues band sinking slowly into a swamp. Mudbound is an old song sung not necessarily in a modern way, but with an awareness of the present day and how little has really changed in the decades between. Many of the same old stories are being told. But what is blessedly changing, however slowly, is the diverse range of people who are now able to tell those stories. In 2017, I watched an old-style, swelling Southern historical epic. It was not the first time I had seen that kind of movie, but this time a black woman was behind the camera. And that, as it turns out, makes a world of difference.