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Top 20 Films of 2021: #4- The Souvenir: Part II

Films, they say, are made in the editing room. With due respect to all the crafts, the editor has the most comprehensively vital and perhaps difficult role of them all. The editor is the shortstop of the cinema world and all of the action has a way of inevitably going right through (and hopefully not past) them. When all the actors and craftspeople and even the director herself have done their jobs, it is the editor who sits in a little room with all the raw material that will become the film and painstakingly trims and assembles it until it is at last a finished motion picture. When they do it well (like pretty much any film edited by Martin Scorsese’s lifelong secret weapon, Thelma Schoonmaker) they can single-handedly make a film work. When they do it badly, you end up with Bohemian Rhapsody. In one scene from Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, her marvelous sequel to her masterful 2019 addiction drama, she gives a splendid, subtle salute to the value of the editor. Our heroine, Julie, is deeply mired in grief over the recent overdose of her toxic beau and she is just as bogged down in the ordeal of turning that traumatic relationship into a film for her graduate thesis. Things are going far from swimmingly. Her actors find the characters (based on Julie and her late junkie boyfriend Anthony) confusing and psychologically opaque. Her cinematographer keeps taking her to task in front of everyone for not providing a coherent enough shooting schedule. Her professors have little faith in her project and openly express doubts that she will even graduate on time. And then the handsome, suavely modest editor enters the picture and some small bit of gloom (though by no means all of it) dissipates. Enough for Julie to maybe see a path forward. He sweetly gives Julie new confidence in the movie she is making. He raises a beer with her and reminds her that there is something here after all, even if nobody can quite see it yet. The fog of filmmaking may be think but you just have to believe it will all come together. And “It’ll all come together” is engraved somewhere on the crest of every editor ever. Of all the small, two-scene performances in her film, what a sweet stroke of genius for Hogg to make this editor the most soothing, affable presence of all. Because that’s exactly the kind of calming, centering effect a great editor has for a filmmaker (and in this case, a human being in mourning as well). Even when you feel completely lost as a filmmaker and everything feels like it’s bearing down on you, the editor calms your nerves and assures you that it’s all going to be okay in the end. If there’s a film somewhere in all of this footage, they will find it for you. No wonder Julie tries to make a pass at the charismatic bloke. Who doesn’t go a little weak at the knees for an editor? Thelma Swoon-maker, am I right?

Joanna Hogg’s exquisite second chapter in her The Souvenir saga follows where the almost equally exquisite first film left off (a top 10 finisher in my 2019 list). Julie, a well-off British film student has just lost her deceptive, heroin-abusing older boyfriend Anthony, the first and heretofore only love of her life, in the most wrenching way possible. And, while it will probably be better for Julie in the long run (as she very clearly never would have left him), that long run still feels a great distance away. Julie (rapturously and tenderly played by Honor Swinton Byrne, who I expect won’t need to be introduced as Tilda Swinton’s daughter much longer) is absolutely shell-shocked and visibly depleted. The tragedy she is weathering unfortunately does not change the fact that graduation is mere months away and she needs to cast and direct a new film for her final project. In the 2019 Souvenir, Julie was struggling with how to come up with an idea for a movie when her age and privileged background had yet to give her much interesting life experience. Julie no longer has that difficulty to reckon with. She decides to tell the story of her first painful, intoxicating, debilitating brush with love; to seek some solace or catharsis for her heartbreak and complete her sophomore film in one swoop. Because this story is Joanna Hogg’s own autobiography, her surrogate is essentially making the first Souvenir film, though unlike Hogg, she is choosing to make that story at the beginning of her career and with a more avant-garde sensibility. Julie learns, perhaps unsurprisingly, that directing a film from the bottomless pit of bereavement and post-traumatic shock is not easy. Less so when you are choosing to make your film about the very source of your trauma. And even less when you never grasped that trauma very clearly while you were in the middle of the relationship. The Souvenir: Part II is about the nexus between trauma and art and what kind of therapeutic role art should play for its creator and its audience. It is a film about art’s proximity to truth and how clearly or unclearly a work of art should present the world.

2022 was the first year that really felt post-COVID to me. That’s not to say COVID is remotely done with us, but 2022 felt like a bit of an exhale, a time to come to terms with the immense loss of the past two years. Among its treasures, the year saw a number of great works about processing grief, COVID-related (Bo Burnham: Inside) or not (Drive My Car, C’mon C’mon). The Souvenir: Part II is truly special in that regard. Joanna Hogg’s stunning achievement is a work that bathes in the currents of grief. It is a painting of grief by someone who has spent real time gazing at the subject. Hogg gives us grieving as a many splendored thing. She is sensitive not just to its tears and pain but to its fatigue, its waves of guilt and relief and anxiousness to put the worst behind you. A film about a young woman coming to terms with a terrible tragedy and feeling gutted about it probably sounds about as pleasant as watching a movie about a woman hopelessly in love with a tyrannically moody, thieving heroin addict. But neither of Hogg’s twin masterpieces are punishing wallows, bruising as they can be. They are both elevated out of exploitative despair by the very thing that inspired Hogg (and Julie in the story) to make them: curiosity. Hogg and Julie are stimulated by their trauma in a way that almost feels perversely humorous. Even one of the worst experiences a person can go through cannot pummel the observance out of them. Julie spent the first twenty years of her life with no unique stories to tell and then she stumbled into a veritable doozy. It’s a shame she had to suffer immensely to get it, but now she has something real and alive she can tap into. She has been forged by fire into a proper story-teller and there is a strange empowerment in that fact that Hogg is eager to wrestle with. All Julie has to do now to make her first great work is relive the same excruciating suffering all over again. All in a day’s work and so on. The Souvenir: Part II is about trying to wrap enough of your mind around your own trauma to tell the story of it in the first place. Grief is disorienting by its very nature. “It’s not linear,” says a vainly grandstanding fellow film student (Richard Ayaoade in what may be the year’s most perfect true supporting performance). But he is not referring to grief. He is talking about what it is to make a movie.

Like her protagonist in mourning, Joanna Hogg is marrying the grieving process to the filmmaking process. She is laying them on top of one another like transparencies (though transparent is the last word I would use to describe Hogg’s subtly woozy direction) and marveling at the parallels. The way both sometimes involve having to move backwards to move forwards. The tedium and the uncertainty and the lost sleep and the claustrophobic pressure. The way it sometimes feels like you’ll never be done with them, that you’ll just be wandering the labyrinth forever. And Julie’s relationships to her student collaborators reveal things about grief to us and to her. Her sweetly calm editor gives her a soft shoulder and a listening ear the same way an editor helps ground the chaotic fragments of a film and calm a director. Her actors, on the other hand, create stress for her by wanting to dig into their characters, which gives Julie the daunting challenge of explaining Anthony and that version of herself and the relationship and all the maddening decisions she made in the first film. To give them a chance to play their parts well, Julie must step back and publicly dissect herself. Her cinematographer likewise wants clarity, the very thing Julie most fears. And yet, by choosing to make the film, she is forcing her own hand; forcing herself to grieve in a more honest and lucid way. By telling her crew the story, she is reluctantly telling herself the story in  a way she was unable to process before. In shooting a scene where Anthony is hiding in the bathroom in the depths of a heroin binge, Julie drives her camera crew crazy by insisting they only shoot outside of the slightly ajar bathroom door. She only wants to shoot what she really saw and what she knew about. And that just begs the most unnerving question of all: how much did you see? How much did you know? The Souvenir: Part II is about grieving but it is also about making some sense out of the aftermath of staggering heartbreak. And the challenge of film is that what you may take for granted as making sense in your own mind must now make sense to others too. And when Julie starts to see how elements of her painful past year don’t add up, she must account for that.

Joanna Hogg portrays the film-making process as a maddening game of telephone. You may start with some reasonably clear vision in your head (if you’re lucky anyway), but that is only the beginning. You must then explain what is in your head to a whole team of others who are not automatically privy to the contents of your brain. You must, in effect, describe a dream. And you well know how deceptively slippery that can be. In how it approaches both self-deception and the making of art, The Souvenir: Part II is about wanting to see the truth clearly and realizing how far you have to go to do that. It is the story of a young woman trying to make honest art out of an ordeal that was marked by deceit and denial. The only way for Julie to honestly tell the first Souvenir‘s story is to confront the shameful fact that she lied to herself, kept truths concealed from herself just as Anthony hid things from her. Debased herself with the lows of what she was willing to accept in exchange for being loved. She spent months and months at the bottom of the sea. Months in the stranglehold of something terrible and hypnotic that she could only survive by shielding her eyes from it. But now she must do what artists do and try to look at the truth dead on. How one looks at truth is a question at the very heart of art and there is no set way to go about it. But I think there’s a fateful step the artist must make toward wanting to tell the truth at all. At some point, the artist must look inward and utter the words Julie speaks in her film. “I do want to know.”

As with the first film, Hogg makes achingly powerful use of the real-life mother-daughter bond between Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tilda Swinton. In taking the story past the first film’s devastating climax, it continues to be a powerful and complex tale about parenting. Or maybe it is more accurately about not parenting; not parenting too much anyway. I think Tilda Swinton could knock this role out of the park even without her own daughter suffering and imploding across from her, but the real history and maternal concern she must feel leaps off the screen with barely a flick of Tilda’s wrist. And I choose to believe Hogg’s canny casting is achieving its exact intention. Because this isn’t the kind of tragedy where the mother calls attention to herself or bursts into sobs or fights with her struggling child. Though Tilda Swinton’s performance is demurely towering, it is the exact opposite of a histrionic Oscar performance. Quiet, constant support is the key to this look at motherhood and what it feels like to watch your own child experience an ordeal almost too harrowing to imagine. It gets back to the idea that both of Hogg’s films are about how every human being must make their own mistakes and maybe even walk themselves right into irreversible heartbreak. Because our choices make us, so we must all be allowed to make those choices for ourselves. It is that powerful, unspoken truth that crackles at the heart of Tilda Swinton’s perfect work in both films. The Souvenir: Part II is Julie’s story, her epic and intimate coming of age odyssey. Her coming of artistry too. And it is just a little bit her mother’s story too in a perfectly judged kind of way. It is quietly about a woman who watches her child nearly waste away and then sees her get saved but only through the bizarre grace of a trauma that will remain inside her like a piece of shrapnel for the rest of her days. It is about the anguish of not doing more to stop that, while also knowing that taking steps to stop it would have done even greater harm. It is about this woman’s own choice to support her daughter but without getting in the way of things her child had to go through and process on her own. We cannot live on our loved one’s behalf. We cannot take over the making of their film. Like an editor, a good mother is there to listen and talk and help her children piece hard-won wisdom together. But they must gather the pieces on their own.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #5- Licorice Pizza

Every now and again, it feels like the critical community will assemble a quorum and make a motion to retire some turn of phrase that has been ground down to the nub. The most recent phrase to become cliched is saying that a film’s place is like an actual character in the film. New York City has been called a character so many times, it’s actually low-key scandalous that all five boroughs have never been nominated for an acting Oscar. I get the need to scale this tired metaphor back due to overuse. It also presents a challenge for me in writing a review of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film by my count to be immersed in his childhood stomping grounds, the San Fernando Valley. So, true to my word, I will not say that the Valley (Los Angeles’ sprawling, adult film-friendly neighbor to the north) is a character in Anderson’s latest home run. First, because it’s a lazy way of shortcutting what is better to fully describe. The early 1970’s Valley of Licorice Pizza is a richly shot, intricately specific (it feels instantly familiar even for someone like myself who has spent very little time there), entirely lived in part of the world. Its fast food drive ins, sushi bars, grubby convention centers, suburbs, fine dining establishments, high schools, dumpy mattress retailers and municipal golf courses all feel vibrant and down to earth at the same time. They are all the fine-tuned product of an artist who has spent a lifetime feeling both love and boredom for these old places. The Valley is not a character but a place in Licorice Pizza, and Anderson just has the visual flair and conceptual imagination to give that place fundamental importance; to render it like its details matter. Secondly, Licorice Pizza has no need of the Valley as a character because, as with any Anderson film, it is already uncommonly rich with actual characters, from its two fantastic leads down to a murderer’s row of phenomenal one-to-two scene roles. Anderson regular John C. Reilly plays Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne for a literal instant, handily earning himself the honor of 2021’s best 10-second performance. The characters in Licorice Pizza are like characters and the Valley is like (like) a place, and both of those elements have been brought to the screen by one of the seminal talents of the last thirty years. I hope this brief foray into place as character, character as place, and each thing as itself hasn’t been too disorienting. But if it has been , I hope you’ll forgive it in this case, seeing as blissful disorientation is one of Licorice Pizza‘s prominent virtues.

Licorice Pizza is an early 1970’s coming of age love story (though whether we should root for it to become a love story is up for debate), set in the aforementioned Valley. A 15-year old named Gary Valentine (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s dead ringer of a son Cooper Hoffman, making a terrific debut) already feels too big for the walls of his high school. Gary has a lot of natural confidence from years of being a child star. His mother’s public relations company has made its name on marketing him until very recently. The acting gigs, even the commercial work, have sadly disappeared since his height shot up and his voice cratered. Nonetheless, Gary has the easy, cocksure cool of a kid who has spent most of his life being the family’s major breadwinner. A born hustler. A guy who is forever considering the angles and looking out for the next big score. On the day we meet Gary, his hustle is not a financial opportunity but the attention of a young woman whose ear he is chatting off. Alan Kane (Alana Haim of the rock band HAIM, in her absolutely ferocious debut) is a sardonic 25-year old photography studio employee who is there to help with the school’s photo day. Gary flirts shamelessly, but with the wide-eyed sincerity of a teenager who firmly believes he’ll be the first to knock life out in the first round, if he hasn’t already. Alana, a smart, ambitious 25-year old Jewish woman stuck living claustrophobically at home with her parents and sisters, has none of Gary’s shiny optimism. And she is less than impressed (and even less convinced) by his boasts of former Hollywood stardom. Nevertheless, and despite her visible annoyance with Gary, she ends up meeting him for dinner that night and it isn’t long before she’s accompanying him as a chaperone to a TV reunion special for the Cheaper By the Dozen-esque film franchise he has now clearly aged out of. Their connection is a testy one. He puts on airs. She domineers him and regards him with snarky fatigue. And yet, Gary’s starry-eyed faith that they were meant to know, maybe even love, one another is not entirely off base. Anderson is also wise and subtle to never really endorse their age-inappropriate, not-quite-romantic codependency. He evokes The Graduate in both his empathy for youth adrift and the quiet implication that love maybe shouldn’t conquer all. Licorice Pizza is the complex, but sweetly non-judgmental story of two confused, restless youths who are probably going to end up together one day. And the wrong and the right of that future, and whatever joys and mistakes it might hold, is left for us to weigh. Alana helps Gary start a reasonably profitable waterbed business. Gary introduces Alana to the same Hollywood connections that are no longer of use to him. Alana, the year’s most wonderfully thorny and funny screen creation, takes us through the inner turmoil of a young woman trying to choose a future and finding no obvious path. I have heard Licorice Pizza described as being about Gary in its first half and about Alana in its second half. And, while I think it’s very much a duet between them the whole time, I do also agree that it becomes her story. Because it is about her decision. The tragicomedy of 15-year old Gary Valentine is that he likely already is who he is going to be for the rest of his life: an charmingly oily, impulsive, slightly conceited, but essentially good-hearted hustler. Money and the desire for the next big thing will drive him from scheme to scheme; from waterbeds to pinball arcades to whatever new grift the 1980s might hold for him. In spite of being ten years Gary’s senior, t is Alana who must still decide who she wants to be (the question of who she ends up with representing just a single important piece of that) and where she wants to go.

 

Like Gregg Mottola’s Adventureland, another splendid coming of age film, Licorice Pizza is about characters who are turning, or just about turn, into their future selves. Anderson’s nostalgic Valley is a richly rendered weigh station for people waiting out the last heady days of indecision. It is a fondly remembered limbo, where our characters rev their engines in neutral for just a moment more. It also keens with the melancholy knowledge that much will change soon. Whether Gary and Alana continue to live here or not, the Valley we are seeing is a place that they will soon be leaving because that incarnation of the Valley will soon be leaving. Gary is already looking in the rearview at his life as an actor. And the things he thinks will be part of his future won’t be part of the future for very long. It’s a good thing he gets out of the waterbed business early. That said, Atari and Nintendo are just over the horizon, waiting to make life as a pinball entrepreneur a little more complicated too. Anderson keenly sets his film on Hollywood’s outskirts. We catch glimpses of silver screen glitz. We meet talent agents and old actors. Barbara Streisand’s unhinged, Shampoo-inspiring boyfriend Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, brilliantly putting the movie in a chokehold for a white knuckle 15 minutes). But this is mostly about life just outside of the silver screen’s glow. It’s a world where some see their dreams of fame come true and the rest get about to the business of figuring out something else to do with their lives. It is about the restlessness and uncertainty of young adulthood, manifested as a real, physical space that both nurtures and restricts. A place that sates and frustrates. The place that you either break free of or surrender yourself to. Anderson imagines the strong hold of one’s old home and the siren’s call of a new life both seem impossibly strong. It is almost thematically straightforward by Anderson standards. A luscious ode to one’s hometown and an intoxicating meditation on growing up. What makes it more than just the latest “high school movie” is how much fun it has imagining this place and the inner lives of its denizens. It soars where Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast felt flat because, while we may have seen countless memory plays about artists and the places that raised them, nothing in Licorice Pizza feels cliched or stock. Like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, it succeeds by immersing us in deliriously rich details. It hums with a sense of lived experience.

Licorice Pizza is a story of people in strange, intoxicating transitional states. A 15-year old already has decided he has it all figured out already – in spite of the fact that his only heretofore career path is rapidly peeling away from him – and he doesn’t seem to see how ossifying that early might not be an entirely good thing. A reverse mirroring in ways touching and toxic is an impetuous, hot-tempered, occasionally self-sabotaging twenty-something who hasn’t officially decided on anything. Their first time really hanging out together is with him as the established professional and her as his timid, star-struck handler. “I’m his chaperone,” Alana whispers breathlessly to a fellow stage parent, as Gary enjoys his last moments under a spotlight, almost completely impossible to make out behind a chorus line of smaller, cuter talent. These character are not just nuanced, but have a keen kind of interlocking complexity. Gary Valentine carries himself like a 38-year old small business owner, but he is also every bit as immature as his fifteen years. He sabotages a job when a customer is rude to him and Alana has to bail him and his little brothers out of a legitimate ass-whooping. Gary obliviously, chauvinistically gives credit for the narrow escape to both of them. For as sweet and endearing as he can be, he already takes her for granted like some jaded salesman husband. And Alana, in spite of being stalled in her life for most of the film, also has an unmistakable self-possession and shrewdness. She makes her questionable decisions, whether making out with a stranger in a fit of jealousy or agreeing to be part of an aging actor’s dangerous motorcycle stunt, with an unflappable sense of purpose. She has all the maturity Gary still lacks, even if she sometimes balks at using that maturity. “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his fifteen-year old friends all the time,” she blurts to her sisters between tokes on a joint. Unlike her pimply, posturing counterpart, Alana knows she has a lot left to figure out about her life. As he demonstrated in The Master and There Will Be Blood, Anderson has an impeccable gift for developing characters alongside and in opposition to each other; that bounce off of each other in richly literate fashion.  Each character has a way of teaching us facets of the other character in ways far more revealing than any monologue could. Ever since Boogie Nights‘ vast ensemble disco-danced together and sometimes heartbreakingly apart from each other, Anderson has been perhaps the best working choreographer of dazzling character arcs. He is a virtuoso of setting motivations in motion and letting fascinating psyches explode across the screen.

And as Licorice Pizza‘s characters stall internally, one of them spinning his wheels with money-making schemes and the other anxiously biding her time to put key to ignition, Anderson uses all his dynamic skill to make the year’s most liberated motion picture. He gives voice to the growth and movement Alana and Gary crave by creating a chugging, choogling, hurtling rock anthem of a film. Licorice Pizza is a hot rod, a thing of pure beautiful forward momentum. Anderson’s images are candy-coated, his period-appropriate soundtrack fun and swinging and impeccably cool. He directs the year’s most giddily white-knuckle scene using a box truck, an empty gas tank, and the winding Hollywood Hills. He also makes a high school’s class photo day feel invigorating. No 2021 film moves this confidently or energetically. Licorice Pizza moves and moves and moves. Its characters are often seen in full sprint, a physical expression of what they still can’t quite figure out how to do emotionally or professionally. Of course, it is sometimes easier to just move spastically than to do nothing. This is especially true when you are young and feel like you’ve spent your entire life waiting to be allowed to move, to find freedom and self-determination. The ending to The Graduate, sometimes misinterpreted as a joyous cry of youth rebellion, quietly implies that there is a cost to the rash action of adolescence. There is sometimes a price to be paid for the romantic decisions of youth, once we crest and hit the plateau of adulthood. After the rush of moving, there is still the living with whatever moves we have made. I would not say that Anderson ends Licorice Pizza with a Graduate-level note of melancholy (far from it!), but I do wonder if critics of the film’s romance plot aren’t overlooking a note of critique that the ending’s exuberance masks. Gary and Alana merrily running off together as a couple does not mean that the film entirely endorses that choice; that their choice, as exhilarating as Anderson renders it, is uncomplicated or even morally cool. Like The Graduate‘s characters, they will eventually reach a destination, tire of sprinting, ease into a life with less dramatic highs. The adrenaline will die down, and then the real, patient business of living day to day will begin.

Because it is a film about limbo states, about trying to playact adulthood before you have quite gotten there, I find Licorice Pizza‘s most moving scenes to be the ones where flashes of adult life intrude upon the dreamy 1970s idyll. Where Gary and Alana come face to face with actual adults and realize how little they know of that realm of life. In a fantastic scene, Alana nails an audition for a proper film with a handsome but aging action heartthrob (smartly played by Sean Penn as a charismatic, slightly pretentious enigma of movie stardom) After bagging her first role, Alana lets him whisk her away for drinks at Glendale’s fanciest fanciest supper club (Gary jealously eyes her from his usual table). She feels dizzy and proud to be seen out with a real celebrity, a real established professional in one of the lines of work she is trying to break into. But it also soon turns into a confusing experience for her and Alana starts to feel like she may have time-traveled into a future she isn’t ready for or isn’t ready for her. Peen’s waning star is somewhere off in a dreamworld of his own, a smoky old Hollywood reverie. He reminisces softly and wistfully about far-off places and memories that mean nothing to the young lady sitting next to him. Is this man talking about old movies he starred in, old life experiences or both? He is galaxies removed from her, transported on the wings of ecstasies and regrets that Alana knows nothing of. He does not register for a moment that she isn’t following a word of what he’s saying and it is doubtful it would matter if he knew. In a moment, Alana feels just as alone at her table for two as Gary is at his own. And when she finally drifts back to earth at the end of the night, it is Gary who is still her closest friend and it is Gary who she will walk back to her noisy, crowded home with. Licorice Pizza‘s secret poignant weapon is in how it uses glimpses of a grown-up world that its two leads still do not fully grasp. Alana and Gary are characters we come to love, but their kind of performative maturity still has the arrogance of youth about it. Time in the adult trenches, for all it can wear a person down, will also teach them humility and patience. Right now they are both too reckless with one another’s feelings and at the same time too entitled to each other’s attentions and affections. For all that they bicker and repel each other, they are secretly possessive of one another in a way they do not even quite know what to do with. At another adult dinner that teacher her how much she still does not know, Alana sits between a young politician and the secret lover he cannot be with if he wishes to have a career. The lover is not satisfied with sharing a brief, clandestine meal together with a twenty-something girl seated between them to ease suspicion. “I want you to myself,” the heartbroken paramour begs. “Well that’s just not how the world works, is it?,” the councilman tosses back with matter of fact resignation. How the world works is not a thing Licorice Pizza sets out to strictly define. Speaking the language of adulthood is a tricky thing to narrow in on and Anderson’s film is too generous to lecture. It is enough to say that his endearing but still wayward heroine hasn’t mastered it yet, to say nothing of the overgrown teenager she has paired with. As someone once said about pornography, the San Fernando Valley’s favorite export, I guess Gary and Alana will know adulthood when they see it.

 

 

Top 20 Films of 2021: #6- The Beatles: Get Back

Peter Jackson’s three-part, fly on the wall documentary project The Beatles: Get Back (released as a miniseries on Disney+) is a great many things over its more than eight hours. But what it is maybe first and foremost is a loving reclamation project. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be was released to mostly mixed reviews and dismissed as a disjointed muddle brought only occasionally to life by the presence of the band’s music. Its perceived aimlessness (even at a brief 88 minutes) with rehearsal scenes intermittently punctuated with arguments, might have just been confusing and unfulfilling except for one major offscreen development. The Beatles had broken up barely a month before Let It Be‘s release date. And so, understandably, a disjointed hash of a film was seen contextually as the last dismal bit of found footage from the scene of a devastating falling out. A gloomy, incomplete recording of a bruising cultural loss. A scrambled black box that had happened to capture the death of the entire 1960s. Gimme Shelter‘s less coherent, generally mediocre cousin. The complex, 22-day album recording process (during which they wrote most of the songs for their closing masterpieces, Abbey Road and Let It Be) had been condensed into a woefully truncated hour-and-twenty, and I think a lot of people filled all that empty space with their own grim speculation. Chief among them is the old chestnut that John Lennon’s soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono’s presence in the recording studio was a major catalyst in The Beatles disbanding. If nothing else, Hogg’s Let It Be documentary helped turn Ono’s name into a shorthand for meddlesome significant others that muck up a band’s creative process. Never mind the fact that Paul’s own girlfriend was also often present or the fact that Ono is mostly seen quietly watching and drinking tea. Hogg’s film notably omitted the few days when George Harrison prematurely quit the band for reasons having seemingly nothing to do with anybody’s girlfriend and much more to do with feeling creatively neglected by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting juggernaut. Whatever Hogg’s good intentions, 1970’s Let It Be feels a bit like tabloid journalism and it fed shallow, reductive takes about the band’s last days and who was to blame. Peter Jackson’s miraculous and generous document (made from Hogg’s wealth of footage and stunningly restored by Jackson and his team) takes what was a superficial blurb and opens it up into a nuanced, winningly digressive essay. In place of an autopsy of The Beatles, he finds a vibrant, poignant and bittersweet tale of beautiful art and painful personal change. The Beatles: Get Back is a corrective tonic to a saga that was once tinted by acrimony. You will finish the film mystified as to how anyone spent all these years laying the blame on sweet, humble Yoko Ono. As if life and art and interpersonal relationships are ever so simple. You will finish the film with a lot of newfound clarity and empathy for everyone involved in that final month that would be the world’s greatest band’s last hurrah.

After a breathless and moving (and musical, of course) montage of the life of The Beatles, from the first time John and Paul, the film drops us in the late Sixties. The film documents a span of twenty-two days in January of 1969. Shortly before this moment, the band had performed live together for what was the first time in two years. Realizing how much they had missed it, As the film begins, The Beatles have booked a space at England’s Twickenham film studios (where drummer Ringo Starr would soon film a comedy with chameleonic character actor Peter Sellers) and set about to write new music. Their challenge is to not only come up with a whopping fourteen new songs for a new album, but to record them all as part of a live TV special. A band that has seen its individual members scatter off in pursuit of personal passion projects has given itself seventeen days to create, memorize and play a full album’s worth of new material without the use of any studio tricks. It is not spoiling too much to say that complications ensue, that the visual nature of the special is argued over (Michael Lindsay-Hogg has his heart dead set on the band performing at an outdoor amphitheater on the North African coast), deadlines are pushed back. Having reviewed all of Hogg’s footage, Peter Jackson felt moved to tell a fuller story about these three weeks. He wanted to make this epic to show that there was so much more here than just discord, than the seeds of the band’s breakup. But that said, a tone of dysfunction does rear its head intermittently. The passing of the band’s mentor and manager Brian Epstein less than two years prior hangs heavy over the group and Paul McCartney feels a sudden need to impose some now-absent sense of structure and discipline onto the band. He speaks gently and patiently to his friends, but whiff of paternalism is unavoidable. George Harrison, who has always felt like a third fiddle (the producers always pushed Lennon and McCartney as the key songwriters) feels more dismissed than every by this version of Paul. And many of George’s ideas, which feature a more dense, jazzily ornate sense of musicianship, are dismissed because Paul favors simplicity and tonal clarity. John Lennon seems a million miles away for the first handful of days, probably wishing to spend more time with his spouse or on his Vietnam activism. And Ringo patiently watches and tries to lend an ear to whoever needs it. Because they all need to hear each other and hearing each other, like music itself, takes practice. The Beatles: Get Back starts with a band struggling to find itself again, takes us through three weeks that produced some of the most famous and brilliant songs ever written, and culminates with the famous, much-parodied final concert on the rooftop of London’s Apple Studios. In between is humor, heartache, and pure magic. I have great admiration for the arc of Peter Jackson’s career (The Lovely Bones and The Hobbit trilogy sadly excepted), from gleefully tacky goremeister to Oscar-winning traverser of Middle Earth. He only recently moved into documentary, vividly colorizing the British World War I experience for 2018’s very strong They Shall Not Grow Old. It feels strange to call The Beatles: Get Back his best film, not only because of how tremendous the first two Lord of the Rings films are but also because the documentary genre still feels so uncharacteristic of him. That Peter Jackson is still only two films old after all. And yet, the glorious, detailed and humane sweep of this 8-hour opus (not to mention the outstanding feat of restoration and editing it represents) is enough for me to at least float the idea. I’ll save the actual debate for another day and just say that, in no uncertain terms, The Beatles: Get Back is exceptional and transcendent. And that, after more than a decade in the wilderness post-Rings, Jackson has not only returned to us but grown in a way I never expected of him. Call him Peter the White now.

The Beatles: Get Back sets out to dispel easy, pat theories on what broke The Beatles up. It is a notion the band would have surely approved of. The four lads repeatedly skewer tabloid rumors of their demise, full of fisticuffs and divorces, by reading them out loud and mocking them. At one point, the band has a rock-and-roll freakout session, jamming thunderously while Paul reads a particularly glib gossip article over his bandmates’ din. At the same time, the question of where they finally lost the desire to play together is a compelling one. Some old theories are debunked. While John and Yoko had been spending a lot of time together, Paul very sympathetically defuses that as being a major issue. “Let the young lovers stay together,” he says. The much larger issue that appears (and again, was given much less focus in 1970’s messy post-mortem) is the alienation of George Harrison and his songwriting talent. Jackson lets us come to our own conclusions but he gives us a rich array of perspectives and details. He lets the discussions play out in full. Yes, Paul and George were disagreeing more about the sonic direction of The Beatles, but these same sessions also forged two albums that many place in their top five (this critic considers Abbey Road to be their best and maybe the best album of all time). The film lets us see how four talents this powerful and restlessly were evolving in new and different directions. And nobody was wrong here. While I happen to favor Paul’s clean, emotionally direct popcraft to Harrison’s more Clapton-esque, ornately filigreed style (and it’s not as if I don’t love Harrison masterworks like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something”), that opinion only goes so far as what I like from The Beatles. I also happen to think that George Harrison made a compelling argument for his oft-disregarded ideas by turning around and making the best solo record any of them ever made, the towering triple-disc masterpiece, All Things Must Pass. The beauty of The Beatles: Get Back is in how understanding and non-judgmental it is, so that it really just becomes a lovely and mature meditation on how bands (and friendships) change and grow. And sometimes grow apart. It manages to become overwhelmingly life-affirming and joyful without minimizing how painful change can be. And while we know watching this footage that The Beatles are barely a year away from hanging it all up, Get Back isn’t actually about watching a growing rift. It’s actually about watching four friends heal and play together again. It sadly happens that this will be the last time. But Jackson blesses us with a chance to see them come together and to witness the astonishingly beautiful results.

After all the rumors and arguments and creative differences have faded away, what remains is the band’s ingenious, whimsically soulful music. To call The Beatles the greatest band in history has always felt too dismissive of the sheer wealth and diversity of music out there (both the Chuck Berry rock pioneers who inspired them and the multitude of musical geniuses who sprung from their influence). And yet, the mantle feels fitting when you watch them work up close. More than anything, Get Back is maybe the most astoundingly detailed document of collaboration and the creative process that I have ever seen. I would have to go back to 2007’s musical masterpiece Once to find an ode to both the doldrums and the ecstasies of music-making that operates on this level. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously intimate window into the making of two timeless albums is great not just because the music is great but because it is so perfectly keyed in to the connection that develops between long-time artistic collaborators. At one point Paul gushes about getting the new songs honed enough that they become second nature. He says he’s excited about moving on to what he calls “the riff stage”, and when he says those words, John’s face lights up and they both share a knowing giggle. The film has a way of bringing you in to the codes and shorthand and inside jokes of the band. We get to see the shared language they have developed . It is rich and compelling to watch them navigate an arduous process charged with the joys and stresses of more than a decade working together. In the first of its three parts (arguably my favorite segment, though each one is perfect and revealing in very specific ways), Get Back has the patience to begin with the band mired in claustrophobia and writer’s block. Watching the opening minutes, one can see where Hogg’s more negative document may have come from. Needing still a dozen songs, Paul sits down and starts to improvise, finger pick, jam. As if to wave away the mental haze hanging over them in a flurry of strums. And then, all of a sudden, like a lighthouse’s beam breaking through a fog, the strains of “Get Back” emerge. And the fact I love this band obviously helps elevate that moment, but I think something in that scene transcends The Beatles themselves. The simple act of starting from a desperate, despondent place and then seeing a brilliant, now-famous song suddenly materialize out of the ether is so impossibly exciting. And, after the gloomy dysfunction of those opening minutes, it is also tremendously moving. It’s not as if I didn’t expect to hear Beatles songs in a Beatles documentary. But Peter Jackson builds up the fatigue, miscommunication and general stakes so well that hearing something finally come together feels like a triumphant act of willpower. You sense the daunting achievement that is the writing of one, just one, perfect song. And then more start to arrive. “Dig A Pony”. “Two of Us”. “Carry That Weight”. Oh yeah, “Let It Be”. If 2021 held more transcendent scenes than Paul unveiling “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” to a visibly, almost begrudgingly impressed John Lennon (it is the moment Lennon’s apathetic malaise truly dissipates, I think the moment we get him back), they are few and far between.

What is also moving is just that Jackson has removed and corrected any lingering traces of bitterness from the story of this band. I think of Celine’s words to Jesse in Before Sunset when they finally reunite after nine years apart. “Now that we’ve met again, we can change our memory,” she says. “It no longer has that sad ending of us never seeing each other again.” Jackson’s miracle is to change our memories. The Beatles disbanding didn’t mean they never spoke again, but the impending breakup came with such a seismic tone of era-ending finality that it has always cast a shadow over their last burst of creative output. With The Beatles: Get Back, Jackson sheds warm sunlight on this complicated but beautifully productive final chapter. The creation of Let It Be and Abbey Road wasn’t the only beautiful thing to come out of all this. The footage itself and what it says about this band and friendship and music in general is an absolute good. Peter Jackson’s momentous, painstaking accomplishment is really a humble act of asking all music lovers to revisit and reevaluate. It is the same thing any good critic asks of a reader. Whatever you believe about a story, remember to always reconsider. The Beatles: Get Back is like the band’s wonderful self-titled album (famously known as The White Album). It is a sprawling, digressive anthology that bursts with moments of humor, pathos, whimsy and love. And so, these last two albums were not the products of mere strife and dysfunction, but of something more richly optimistic. Yes, the band would shortly break up and they would sadly never fulfill Paul’s wishful prophecy of playing together as old men. But here, lovingly touched up and joyfully observed, is a beautiful, hopeful work of art about the making of two beautiful, hopeful works of art. It’s another good something to come out of that time and an exuberant recontextualization of music history. For a band that gave the world so many good and tender things, Get Back feels like a final give given back to the band and to anyone who ever loved them.

And one last word on the subject of recontextualization. In the same way Yoko Ono has been unfairly yoked to The Beatles’ break up for decades, Ringo Starr has always gotten a bit of a raw deal too, just in terms of his critical appraisal. Lennon and McCartney wrote the bulk of rock and roll’s richest songwriting catalogue. George Harrison wrote phenomenal songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”, and was a slept-on genius who should have been allowed to contribute more. And Ringo Starr banged away on the drums. He had a big nose and big sad Eeyore eyes and he played hangdog comic relief (marvelously well) in the film A Hard Day’s Night. And he wrote “Octopus’s Garden”, the perennially mocked middle child of Abbey Road. In other words, Ringo Starr has spent a lot of time as a punchline. A fond, gentle punchline maybe, but suffice to say he has long commanded the least esteem of the group; the consensus least-fab of the Fab Four. The Beatles: Get Back beautifully dispels the notion that Ringo Starr was in any way superfluous to the success of the monumentally talented group he was in. In the opening montage, Jackson reminds us that the band was thrilled to have Ringo Starr come aboard. They brought Ringo in upon their triumphant return from Hamburg to their home of Liverpool. They brought him in because he was the most beloved, celebrated drummer in the whole city. But beyond his skillful playing, the picture of Ringo that emerges from Get Back is of the most humble, sweet, well-humored, attentive and selfless musical collaborator one could ever hope to work with. It’s there in the way George Harrison chipperly exclaims “Hey Ringo” when he arrives early to find the dear man already in the studio. It’s Paul’s girlfriend, Linda Eastman saying she feels completely relaxed around Ringo Starr. It’s the fact that literally everyone is relaxed around Ringo (even the famously difficult Peter Sellers, for God’s sake) and the implication that his calming presence may have kept the band from splitting apart at the seams during that last month. His sweet demeanor and gift for really listening to people was probably crucial in creating the harmony needed for the lads to make those last two masterworks. In its kind, non-judgmental approach, Jackson’s film reels most possessed by the spirit of Ringo Starr. And that’s not just a nice revelation for the film to make. It’s also crucial to its exploration of the musical process as something not so linear, not so simple to get right. Get Back is a film about music, but also about all the vital intangibles that go into making great music. The cups of tea and cigarettes and the day Linda’s 7-year old daughter comes in and gives everyone’s spirits a boost. And there, seated behind the hit-hats and snares, is the greatest intangible of them all. “The Greatest Intangible of Them All” sounds like a joke he could have made at his own expense in Hard Day’s Night, but it’s absolutely true. The most important intangible in this whole documentary is the man who exudes empathy and positive vibes from his every pore. The one who can always give you some peace of mind when it’s in short supply. And when he’s done quietly grounding the egos and brightening the mood and blowing away the anxieties like puffs of smoke, he still knows how to play a mean kit. Liverpool’s favorite son. Whenever he gets to Heaven, there’ll be an octopus’s garden waiting for him.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #7- The Power of the Dog

I promise to form a few thoughts of my own in this, my review of Jane Campion’s Best Director-winning The Power of the Dog. But has anyone tapped more succinctly and perfectly into the nature of this transfixing slowburn masterpiece than dear old Martin Scorsese? At the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, the invaluable, film-loving genius started his adoring speech with two questions. “What is strength and who is the strongest?” It’s an area Scorsese knows something about. The director of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas has spent a career digging into toxic masculinity, examining men whose tendencies toward violence, abuse and self-serving greed mark them not as the strong alpha males they want to be, but as feeble, stunted and soul-sick. It is not only a perfect starting place for The Power of the Dog, but for Campion’s own rich and enigmatic filmography. Campion details the female journey through worlds overseen and dominated by conceited, insecure and possessive men. Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano is a mute woman sold into an arranged marriage with Sam Neill’s controlling land-owner. She seems to be literally without voice or power and then her petty husband asserts control over her further by refusing to keep her beloved musical instrument (her one real mode of expression) in his house. In Bright Star, Abby Cornish’s Fanny is repeatedly disrespected as a tiresome nuisance by her paramour’s jealous friend. Great New Zealand author Janet Frame loses eight years in the patriarchal maze of the asylums in An Angel At My Table. Campion’s women are among the most complex, human characters put to screen and they are invariably the strongest people in their own stories, despite having to jockey with men who try to break them in like wild colts. Campion’s wild and passionate women are not demure, but they also do not win their freedom and respect by conforming to the aggressive male traits they rebel against. I would call their perseverance feminine, though perhaps Campion would resist gendering it at all. Campion women retain the ineffable, mysterious essence of who they are. But one thing is true of strength in her films. It is a thing kept inside and it is not easily defined or pigeon-holed.

 

The first of our four main characters we hear from is the teenaged Peter, though only briefly and offscreen. The soft-spoken, effeminate boy is the youngest and seemingly frailest of the bunch. Nonetheless, his words, softly spoken in voiceover over a black background, are chosen to start the film. He speaks of his recently widowed mother and a need to keep her safe. “For what kind of man would I be,” he asks, “if I did not help my mother?” The year is 1925, the setting is Montana (played by the rugged hills of Campion’s native New Zealand), and two ranch-owning brothers are about to go on their last cattle drive together. It is also the 25th anniversary of their start in the cattle ranching business. One brother, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, giving his first full-stop brilliant performance), sees this as a poignant and momentous occasion, the end of a very special partnership. He keeps looking to his brother, George, to validate that sentiment, though his manner of getting attention (mostly by barking and calling him Fatso) is clearly backfiring. George Burbank (a lovely Jesse Plemmons, the very picture of subdued decency) is a brick wall, though we pick up that he may be looking forward to working less closely with his irately domineering brother. He certainly does not seem to attach any strong emotions to this last ride down the trail. George’s taciturn manner only seems to fuel Phil’s never-ending cycle of putdowns and childish neediness. The end of their road (them and a gaggle of younger cowboys) is the small town of Herndon, where the dirt-caked men will enjoy a celebratory fried chicken dinner, drunkenly dance and carouse (though Phil never seems to gravitate to any of the saloon’s willing women), and have a good sleep in a real 1920s hotel bed. The owner of the hotel is Rose (Kirsten Dunst, heartbreakingly vulnerable), a recent widow – a “suicide widow” as Phil cruelly puts it – who runs it with her unguardedly feminine 18-year old son Peter (a spellbindingly complex turn from Aussie up-and-comer Kodi Smit-McPhee). We first see Peter alone in his room making elaborate flower arrangements out of magazine paper to stand in for the ones that are hard to come by in this arid cowtown. He places a few on his father’s grave and uses the rest to decorate the restaurant’s dining tables. When Peter comes to wait on Phil’s table, Phil mocks his lisp and uses one of his artificial blooms to light a cigarette. He very transparently does this at the exact moment Peter is watching. Phil’s act of cruelty comes back to haunt him when George goes back into the kitchen to pay the bill and finds Rose weeping. No stranger to Phil’s bullying himself, George feels a duty to comfort Rose. He even comes back some days later to help her serve food. In a matter of weeks, the two will be married (Plemmons and Dunst are husband and wife in real life), much to Phil’s angry, misogynistic disapproval, and Rose will live under Phil and George’s roof. With George getting out of the cattle business and into bigger things, and Peter off at his first year of medical school for a full third of the picture, Rose now has to spend her every waking moment alone with a mean-spirited bully who terrorizes her with alternating waves of vindictive mockery and frigid disregard. When Peter finally comes to spend his summer break at the Burbank ranch, he finds his already meek mother a pale shell of herself and deep into drinking herself to death. The Power of the Dog is a mystery thriller about what will happen to Peter, Phil and Rose (straight, heterosexual George will be just fine), as this toxic dynamic comes to a head. It is also interested in what motivates Phil Burbank’s unrelenting animosity.

The great power in a film like this is in its ability to patiently tease out the important details of its plot and its characters. It builds suspensefully and methodically, doling out information at the time we need it. But if one thing feels apparent from the start, it’s that something in the feminine, seemingly open book of Peter stirs up something combustible in Phil. His jockish ridicule is not a million miles removed from the way certain straight men have bullied gay men throughout history and that gives Phil all the plausible deniability he needs. He has an excuse to fixate on a guileless, barely of age twink he has only just met for the better part of an evening until it drives poor Rose to tears within minutes (a first impression of Phil that time will prove correct). It’s the 1920s and all Phil has to say is that he was teaching a naive homosexual what the tough old world will do to him if he continues to reveal himself so unashamedly to strangers. And yet, there is just something too obsessive and eager in Phil’s attentions toward Peter. As openly antagonistic as they are, they also have an unmistakable tone of wounded neediness. Campion has crafted a film in dialogue with Ang Lee’s queer landmark Brokeback Mountain in how it presents Western tropes as being loaded with domination and hypermasculinity, while also seeing something tender and anguished beneath all the machismo. The film is based on the 1967 novel by queer author Thomas Savage, who took inspiration from his own experience coming of age on his stepfather’s cattle ranch after his own mother was widowed. It would be easy to say that Peter is fully Savage’s surrogate and yet Savage would not fully open up about his sexuality (he had a 50-year marriage to a woman, a fellow writer) for several decades. Peter, by contrast, seems like he’s never hidden that part of himself for a  minute of his life. Without saying too much, there is more to the queerness of the story than just Peter. This would not be the phenomenal mystery box of sexuality and identity that it is if the only non-straight character were the one completely honest and upfront about it. The beauty of the film is how it locates its queer themes in a landscape and a lifestyle that seems anathema to queer identity. The cowhands laugh at Peter and make their horses rear up to scare him when he first arrives. And yet these same alpha men are themselves very uninhibited. They are unashamed to splash about naked in the rivers and sunbathe together. Campion is not entirely denying Phil’s tirade about the danger of being openly gay at this time. But on the other hand, she delights in showing how much appeal cowboy culture’s rule-free, unshackled, theatrically rough vibe might hold for a man who pines for the company of other men.

Campion is fascinated by human contradictions and by the veil between authenticity and performance. In one one scene from her masterpiece The Piano, a group of Maori tribesmen storm the stage at a local play because they think the silhouette of a villain threatening some women is an actual killer on the loose. There are no stage actors in The Power of the Dog, but Campion reveals layer by layer how much of Phil’s homophobic, ornery, grimy (his refusal to bathe for a dinner with the Governor of Montana feels like the petulant tantrum of a four-year old) persona is all an elaborate act of dress-up. The tenuous border between truth and playacting is still present in Campion’s vision of the West, just as it was in the misty wilds of  New Zealand. Phil isolates from the high-minded, elbow-rubbing sort of company his brother wants to cultivate, but we come to see these socialites are much more his natural fellows than the free-roaming hayseeds who work for him. In stark contrast to Phil’s plain-spoken blue collar character, the Governor remembers Phil as a one-time Ivy League student who majored in dead languages. Somewhere beneath the stinky, muddy costume Phil dons each day are the remains of a hyperliterate intellectual. And we can see from the first moment we meet him that Phil is wealthy. He and his brother live in a mansion with servants and cowhands. Getting up on a horse and tanning leather and castrating bulls isn’t even something he needs to do. The politician regards Phil’s crass affectations as an unwashed cattle rustler with unconvinced bemusement. “So he swears at the cattle in Greek or Latin?,” the perceptive Governor wryly asks George. But I don’t think Campion or Savage mean to entirely demean Phil for his histrionic, tough guy posturing. We all have the right to create an image for ourselves that fits who we are better than the one we are born with. And Phil has clearly found no joy in the life of a rich landowner and cattle magnate, though he clearly is one. Maybe it’s just that the more Phil talks tough, the less convincing he really seems. Apart from poor, fragile Rose, nobody really ever seems rattled or afraid of his grandstanding meanness. Annoyed or weary of it, perhaps. We can sense that the first time we see George tune his brother out on their last ride. George is wise enough to pull away from Phil,  so secretly relieved to finally break their bond that he literally weeps for joy when he and Rose are finally married. The problem is that, with the entrance of Rose, Phil finally finds someone he can truly hurt, even destroy. And that development means that Phil does become more than just a paper tiger, more than just a sad, volatile, mean-spirited little man. For as much as we come to feel for Phil Burbank and the real life he believes he can never have, he is also a mad dog in this story. The blustery masquerade he has been performing suddenly becomes as real as he always wanted it to be. Phil gets the chance to do more than just fashion himself as a swaggering brute. He becomes an actual monster. And that brings consequences that the one-time Latin scholar fails to recognize.

None of Phil’s vileness detracts from the scale of his tragedy. It magnifies it. Many of the most heartbreaking characters throughout history are monsters. One of the motifs in The Power of the Dog is the pairing of characters. For it is a story, as George tearfully puts it to Rose, about how nice it is to not be alone. When the film begins, Phil is already losing George (his bullying likely drove him away ages ago). Then George finds a wife and becomes part of a truly healthy pair. Rose and Peter are another pair. They have each other’s backs with a tender, fierce resolve that Phil is blind to. He is too spiteful of all things soft to recognize the strength of these bonds. Or maybe he self-destructively spits in the face of all that due to the loss of the person who meant the most to him. An older mentor named Bronco Henry once taught Phil everything he knows about ranch life and even saved his life in a blizzard. He helped the brothers start their business. When George balks at toasting to Bronco Henry at that farewell fried chicken dinner, Phil shows that maybe he does understand the value of kinship, of letting someone in. “People helped you, Fatso,” he snarls, the empathetic wisdom of his words curdled, as always, with abrasive cruelty. Bronco Henry died many years ago, leaving only the saddle that Phil tenderly keeps and maintains in the barn. Phil is alone and initially seems determined to stay that way for the rest of his miserable days. Until one day, when Peter is spending his last weeks at the ranch before returning to university, some patch of ice thaws. Phil unexpectedly apologizes to Peter about starting off badly with him. He talks of them one day becoming good friends. He takes Peter under his wing and teaches him to ride and pours his energies into braiding a rope for him to take back to school with him. Those scenes have a tone that is both poignant and also tremendously unnerving. Not because we do not buy Phil’s newfound affection for Peter, not because Phil’s sudden compassion is necessarily counterfeit. But because, in desperately grasping for a bond with Peter, Phil is weaning him away from the desperate, deteriorating Rose. And because Peter now has to reconcile two poles: a fond friendship with a man more like himself than he first thought and the monstrous animosity that same man shows toward his mother. Phil seems to believe he has found something deeper than friendship with Peter. Possibly love and at least the chance to share more deeply of himself than he has in decades. Peter sees that he may not be able to have both Phil’s companionship and his beloved mother. Someone will have to lose. And nobody wants to be alone, but maybe enough trauma and misfortune and bad decisions casts that die for us. Maybe those who commit to a path of being unknowable and abusing others don’t get the luxury of connecting with the very humanity they have shunned. Even if that one little connection may be their only hope of redemption and self-preservation.

 

And while Campion is a master at ruminating on these heady, soulful matters of longing, masculinity, femininity, and soul-sickness, The Power of the Dog is too taut to be categorized entirely as a tone poem. I suppose it resists that easy categorization in a very Campion way. The Neat trick is realizing what a tightly wound watch it is. It is the kind of film that, on first viewing, feels more languid and meditative than it is. On a rewatch, I saw fateful decisions, dialogue and character reveals happening for the entire runtime; pulling together slowly but surely like the knots in Phil’s braided rope. Of all the mood pieces to accuse of being sedate, I am surprised that this one has attracted such a vocal band of detractors. For me, The Power of the Dog splits the difference between a tone poem and something akin to a great episode of The Twilight Zone. Not that there are any sci-fi elements, but that there is a twisty, punchy, satisfying little morality play nestled at the heart of it. It’s one of the only films I can think of whose sense of storytelling can be described as both lush and sinewy, dreamy and muscular. And being able to really see the shape of it makes revisiting it even richer than discovering it for the first time. It grows in pathos when we have learned all the choices its characters will make. And what seemed like small details take on the weight of tragedy. Phil and Peter’s first meeting and the power dynamic between them. The way Phil clumsily caresses the inside of a paper flower he will later destroy. A rabbit Peter captures and hot it reveals a new, surprising side of his nature. How the mostly sweet George obliviously alienates Rose in favor of his work, creates a rupture in the film’s pairing motif, and pushes the plot fatefully forward. An anthrax outbreak at the ranch. The cowhides Phil refuses to sell just so he can burn them. Phil’s need to burn through everything and everyone. His need to appear tough in his work, even if it’s all just for pointless show. Even if it’s liable to get him hurt. A rope and how very much it can symbolize. Ties of love and friendship. But also bondage, domination and power. What is power and who wields it? What does real power look like? Is it the horse whinnying and bucking or the rabbit hiding and planning its next move for survival? What is strength and who is the strongest? Campion’s way is not to offer up any readymade answer but to open our minds to the idea that strength is a nebulous thing. A fluid and situational thing. A shapeshifter whose true nature is fleetingly glimpsed and only with the right kind of eyes.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #8- Bo Burnham: Inside

 

For longer than I can remember a certain breed of comedian (we’ll just call them Gervaises) has loudly and performatively insisted that comedy is dying on the vine. “Comedy is over” has been the doomsday refrain of a whole host of thin-skinned and overwhelmingly male (give or take a Whitney Cummings) standup comics, beside themselves that audiences are no longer letting homophobia, transphobia and bigotry slide just because the person saying it is at a comedy club. It’s a hysterical bad faith response easily debunked by simply watching or listening to any of the numerous hilarious and empathetic comedic geniuses working today, from Patton Oswalt to Jenny Slate to Nathan Fielder. Proof that comedy is far from over exists right here in the fact that, for the first time in my years writing reviews, a comedy special has ranked as one of my ten best films of the year. Innovative, comedian-turned-exciting-new-director Bo Burnham’s (now two for two after 2018’s humane and deliciously awkward adolescent dramedy Eighth Grade) creatively restless and anxiously topical “special” is a visionary meditation on where this poor world stands, sent out from the lockdown prison  of one 30-year old man’s cramped apartment. In one of Bo Burnham: Inside‘s first songs (oh yes, this is a musical comedy, a term that is ill-equipped to contain the sheer scope of what Burnham is up to), our quarantined funnyman host also asks the question: Is comedy over? He blessedly means it in a very different way than your typical disgruntled male rights activist. What Burnham is bemoaning is no the comic’s sacred right to offend without critique. He is asking the larger question posed by Andrei Tarkovsky’s bleak but life-affirming masterpiece Andrei Rublev. In times of extreme sorrow and strife, does art have any real power? Are literature and music and now comedy nice things that wither in the face of real disaster? As we look out our windows at the rise in ocean levels and in worldwide authoritarianism, is a comedian’s punchline or silly ditty really worth all that much? In that song, simply titled “Comedy”, Burnham asks, “Should I be joking at a time like this?”, as a canned studio audience laugh track plays behind him. He just as quickly puts his own selfish solipsism in the crosshairs by recommitting to “healing the world with comedy”. Like the rest of Inside, the song is musing on the limited power of art while also skewering the vain folly of thinking that our good intentions and kind sentiments can fix what is broken. “If you wake up in a house that’s filled with smoke, “Burnham softly croons over an 80’s synth tone, “Don’t panic. Call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”

Limits are not just Burnham’s key themes (COVID’s limited spatial freedom, limited emotional energy, and a world whose days feel increasingly limited). Limits also provide the film with the great production challenge that makes the whole thing go, as Burnham tries to make use of a single room, a Casio keyboard, some rudimentary lightshow equipment, some microphones, and a camera to create a work of art that feels expansive and boundary-pushing for all its claustrophobia. It is the very fact that he is working with a sparse set of tools and no visible collaborators that makes his haunting, manic depressive message in a bottle feel so perversely fun and spontaneous. Inside is a relentlessly melancholy film and arguably the most downbeat piece of work to ever earn the classification of comedy special. But it is also very, very funny. Burnham knows what he is doing and the goal is to leave us in a heady, contemplative  and disoriented headspace. Yet he also finds room for a gleefully silly song about FaceTiming with your folks, a Sesame Street parody with dystopian undertones, and a riotously scathing pump-up tribute song for Jeffrey Bezos, sung with barely contained rage. It may be too soon to identify a signature style that ties Inside together with Eighth Grade and Burnham’s past stage-based standup specials. But what stands out early in his directorial career is an unpretentious appetite for experimentation and an appreciation for cringe humor done in the right way. He has always had a Weird Al playfulness about him. His first instinct is to keep things light, goofy, and anarchic toward pop culture trends. What makes Inside so captivating and alive is Burnham’s willingness to let that more winking sensibility merge and mutate with a newfound sense of real darkness; the dread he has come to feel in these increasingly troubled few years. In taking a year-plus to document the effects of quarantining on his mental well-being, he makes the important choice to lean into that dread. To not worry if his anxiety and depression will overwhelm the comedy in what is nominally billed as a comedy special. He trusts that even all-consuming panic and mental disintegration can be funny, and he is absolutely right. He fully gives himself over to the demented experiment and ends up duetting with his own demons like a mad drunkard in some ramshackle piano bar.

If art does sometimes feel powerless to offset a mounting ledger of catastrophes, it is still one of the only positive byproducts of tragedy. The hope of anyone living through those much-feared interesting times is that the trauma and adversity will at least provide the inspiration for a handful of brilliant songs or films. The sweet pixie dust foxtrots from artists like Benny Goodman, which enchanted and soothed a generation grappling with devastating poverty and staring down the Nazis. The brilliant noir films cooked up in a climate of post-World War II paranoia. Th ecstatically beautiful, angry, and playful rock and roll that exploded form the powder keg of the 1960s. In that spirit, Bo Burnham has presented us with the first masterpiece to come directly from the monumental tragedy of COVID-19. Inside is not simply an examination of the mental toll of having to isolate to keep each other safe, though it speaks to that quite eloquently. It is also an audacious and formally brilliant visual essay of the COVID lockdown experience. The struggle to find something new to do after months and months in a single space. The oscillating between morose despair and bursts of manic, pent-up energy. The way so many stayed glued to the insanity and the reports of death because it at least provided some kind of emotional rush when everything else felt mired in the doldrums. Burnham uses tricks of light, projections on his walls, and a full-body shaggy camouflage suit to conjure up his own subjective experience of lockdown. Beyond the songs and their messages, Inside‘s stylistic creativity tells a story all by itself. The story of a person trying every last idea he can think of to occupy himself and distract his brain from the stark reality that he is stuck in a room watching the outside world get worse. In the end, as the physical world full of disease, mass shootings and mental illness gets more dangerous to exist in, we find ourselves sheltering indoors more and more. An as our real homes inevitably come to feel more claustrophobic and oppressively familiar, we all get funneled toward a world that shapeshifts and tantalizes us with the possibility of transcending our cramped physical reality. A world that makes us a Faustian offer of never-ending stimulation and pacification. The prophecy uttered by The Social Network‘s Sean Parker has come true. We are all living on the Internet.

Inside is a film rich with ideas about the ominous, disquieting, and fascinatingly absurd trappings of life in the current age of the Internet. The late capitalist Internet. The Trump Internet. The Internet with the power to launch righteous progressive movements and just as quickly funnel them via algorithm into echo chambers that dull their rhetorical power. As Burnham remarks in the devastating and intimate Father John Misty sendup, “That Funny Feeling, “In honor of the revolution, it’s half off at the Gap.” He laments a culture where corporations can leverage the name-checking of just causes into a rote dollar value. “Who are you, Bagel Bites?,” Burnham asks with tongue barely kept in cheek. Bo Burnham has long made a living off of pitch-perfect spoofs of post-2010 musical styles and social media trends. But Inside marks an evolution. Any sense of glibness for the thing being parodied has given way to something more grounded and less politically ambivalent. They say a great parody artist should have some love for whatever they are parodying and Inside finds Burnham clinging to some vestige of that love. A song like his Grammy-winning banger “All Eyes on Me” is just too heartfelt and genuinely cathartic not to have been made with real affection for the woozy, cerebral R&B that artists like Beyonce, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and James Blake made over the last decade. He loves the form and the sound of this music. And he has always used modern styles to his own Puckish ends; to playfully and knowingly rib at club culture and modern materialism. But the Bo Burnham of Inside has lost any trace of smirking archness. He’ll still give you a sparkly slow jam about the difficulty of deciphering emojis in “Sexting” or skewer social media tropes in “White Woman’s Instagram”. But he is unafraid to explore the serious harm of a digital culture that encourages constant saturation and precious little time for processing and unpacking. A platform that, as he sings on the towering standout centerpiece “Welcome To the Internet”, tempts us with “a little bit of everything all of the time.” Wearing demonic round shades, Burnham looks like the unsavory beatnik second coming of the apolitical master of ceremonies in Cabaret. Social media as the impartial, chaotically fun drug dealer to us all. Whether helping a disgruntled loner build a bomb or helping you learn which Power Ranger best represents you, the Internet takes all comers and refuses no requests.

Among his laundry list of anxieties, ranging from the global apocalypse down to lifelong panic attacks and agoraphobia, one major anxiety seems to be how our digital solipsism, that insatiable thirst for likes and followers, is cutting us off at the knees in terms of being able to do effectuate meaningful progress. Hobbling our power to do anything about the threats to freedom and continued terrestrial existence. Comedy obviously isn’t going to save the world, but what is going to save us if we are all lost in an opioid haze of narcissism and needy vanity? We have great public stages where we can shout many noble and eloquent words at each other, but Burnham mourns how the power of those words is becoming diluted. Inside‘s visual style is brilliant because it makes us feel more and more like prisoners of a demented, echoing funhouse. The features of the small space are regularly obscured and distorted by disco lights and lasers and skewed camera angles. Burnham projects clouds and sky onto the walls as a reminder of what we’re missing or maybe in a feeble attempt to make this space feel like the new outside. In the middle of a YouTube video advising people not to commit suicide, he smash-cuts to the now-filmed anti-suicide PSA playing across the screen of his own chest. He stares vacantly at the back of the room, uninterested in his own pious voice. The deeper I progressed into the vortex of Inside, the more I started to realize that this isn’t just an impressionistic, gonzo snapshot of COVID quarantining. It’s reckoning with a death of the soul and mind that may have begun a decade ago or more. He seems haunted by a need to figure out when everything went wrong. “You say the world is ending, honey, it already did,” Burnham’s auto-tuned voice croons. Does Burnham mean the start of the pandemic and its cataclysmic death count or does he mean the world ended at some earlier time that we somehow didn’t register? Inside was filmed in response to lockdown but its mournful subject is a kind of lockdown of the human spirit that predates March 2020. The maddening thesis of this hilariously devastating musical is that a cavalcade of pre-pandemic ills (gun violence, the eroding of empathy and community, Trumpism, the Internet-ification of our every word, thought, and social activity) conspired to trap us inside in a way that may be irrevocable. Locked inside of ourselves and our neuroses. Shuttered away in rooms within rooms within rooms within rooms.

Inside is a comedy special on  Netflix. It’s occasionally haha-funny, but more often than not it’s hugging-your-knees-and-nervously-chuckling-to-yourself-in-a-corner-funny. To be fair, still funny. That still leaves it as one of 2021’s comedic treasures. Even if, as Burnham himself theorizes, “comedic” seems like a feeble word to encompass what it is going for. And if the price of good, rich  laughter is hyperventilating a bit and questioning the very fabric of modern reality, I’m ready to call that sanity well spent. I’ve paid more of my mental stability for far lesser works of art. I paid theatre prices to see Tom Hooper’s Cats, for Macavity’s sake! And, with the right tour guide, a nice voyage into madness can be a vital and liberating experience. From the time I was old enough to drive myself to a movie theatre, I’ve been an ardent fan of animator Don Hertzfeldt, ever since I saw his Oscar-nominated short film Rejected at Berkeley’s sadly defunct Shattuck Cinemas. The singularly macabre auteur makes films that puncture social niceties, grapple with ennui and mental illness and dance along the nexus between what is real and imagined. Hertzfeldt has the sheer talent to make a schizophrenic man dreaming of an anthropomorphized talking fish feel both upsetting and uncomfortably uproarious. More than anything, Bo Burnham: Inside feels like the first time a live-action director has taken up Hertzfeldt’s mantle as a chronicler of terrifying, claustrophobic modern absurdity. The first film to bring that unsteady, humanely maniacal sensibility out of Hertzfeldt’s Shanty Toon Town and into the three-dimensional world. Like Don, Bo chuckles into the abyss. And when the abyss chuckles back, the sound is unmistakably that of canned laughter.