Viewing Diary January 2019

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Shinbone Alley (1970), directed by John David Wilson

Don Marquis wrote a newspaper serial throughout the ’20s that became a Broadway musical in the ’50s, and the latter turned into this cheap cartoon a decade later. Its saga of cockroach Archy and kitty Mehitabel is strictly episodic. The bug dwells on his feline friend’s sex life as they loiter in trash cans. Sometimes they’ll sing tuneless ditties barely adapted from Marquis’s free verse. The voice work is strident, especially Carol Channing as Mehitabel. Interludes based on Archy’s poems venture into psychedelia with loops of pink and yellow. One highlight of the animation is an homage to Krazy Kat artist George Herriman. But the bulk of the film is a hash of garbled misogyny. The stop-start pacing makes its hour and a half stretch into an eternity.

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On Viewing Habits

’50s sci-fi movie This Island Earth

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll list off every decade from the 1910s to the 2010s. 100+ years. I’ll go backwards through the movies I’ve been watching and cross off each decade represented, until only one remains. Then I’ll think, “Oh, I guess it’s been a while since I watched something from the ’40s; what’s still out there?”

I keep lists, dozens of ’em. Not just by year or decade but by director, genre, topic, critical champion, or nebulous mood. None of this is necessary, but it does bring me pleasure. I love to build taxonomies of the unseen.

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sick day, sick life

[cw: mental illness, suicidal ideation, trauma]

it’s been a really long time and i’m a very different person than the last time i posted anything on here. pussy goes grrr will be ten years old this april. i will be thirty this may. i’ve looked forward to being thirty with an unreasonable intensity since my early twenties. my thirties have to be different than my twenties, i’ve told myself for years, they just have to be. i can’t go on like this if they’re not. 

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2018: Resilience and Despair

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Unfriended: Dark Web, A Star Is Born, Lean on Pete

Writing these countdowns always comes with a sense of relief. I made it through another year. (And spent a big chunk of it watching movies.) Excitement, too: now I can set aside that year, break it down, hold its little pieces in my memory. The year that was can hold no further surprises; now, as I pause in late December waiting for the new one to start, I have an opportunity to assess it. So here, as far as cinema’s concerned, are the little pieces of 2018.

First, a couple outliers. Blue is a lovely Apichatpong Weerasethakul short that premiered at TIFF this year. Within its 12-minute run time, he finds sublime uses for some antiquated visual trickery. The Other Side of the Wind is a film Orson Welles starting shooting decades ago, now given a posthumous release. It’s breathtaking: a poison pen roman à clef full of formal experimentation. (Ranking it alongside films from living auteurs feels a bit like apples and oranges, but it’s a strong addition to the Welles corpus.)

Here are 15 other movies I enjoyed in alphabetical order: The Day After, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, First Reformed, Happy as Lazzaro, Lean on Pete, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Minding the Gap, Private Life, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother YouA Star Is Born, Unfriended: Dark Web, Unsane, Werewolf, and Widows.

And here are 10 other performances: Bryan Cranston, his voice a forlorn growl in Isle of DogsWidows’ Viola Davis, giving blunt directives in the midst of mourning; Jennifer Ehle (supporting actress extraordinaire) as The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s homophobic villain; Daniel Giménez Cacho, who bears weariness in his sharp features as Zama’s title character; Upgrade’s Simon Maiden, drily funny as a HAL-style AI; Amanda Seyfried as bereaved mothers-to-be in both First Reformed and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Adriano Tardiolo, his eyes wide as the namesake naif in Happy as Lazzaro; Tessa Thompson embodying praxis as the earring-adorned artist in Sorry to Bother YouReady Player One’s Lena Waithe, transformed via mocap into a lumbering avatar; and Anton Yelchin, now a couple years deceased, playing the scumbag of all scumbags in Thoroughbreds.

And now, the list:

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Writing Samples 2016-18

A few years ago, I compiled some writing samples. This is an update with some of my subsequent work. I fear I haven’t been especially prolific, and I can readily pinpoint the reasons why. I’ve worked a series of exhausting day jobs; suffered periodic bouts of depression; and seen my ambitions recede a little. (Countless half-finished projects have led me to set myself fewer and humbler creative goals.) That said, I’ve still written things, and I’m proud of it. On this blog alone, I kept up a thorough viewing diary in 2017 and have put out year-in-film summaries each December. Elsewhere, I’ve published the following:

Here’s hoping I’ll have enough for a similar round-up a couple years hence.

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2018

Beggars of Life

Every year I put a list like this together as a means of remembering what I’ve watched and loved. A dozen months distilled into a few dozen titles. These movies might’ve made me weep or shiver—though maybe I just sighed, “This is nice,” and put them from my mind till they flew back like a boomerang weeks later. Between them, they boast the acting of Judy Garland and Eusebio Poncela; ZaSu Pitts and Claude Rains; Shu Qi and Roy Scheider; Sharon Stone and Sol Kyung-gu; Lily Tomlin and Denzel Washington. They’re shorts and features, curios and crowd-pleasers, each with its own share of power and beauty.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) · Arrebato (1979) · At Berkeley (2013) · Basic Instinct (1992) · Beggars of Life (1928) · Black Girl (1966) · Blood Tea and Red String (2006) · The Chase (1946) · The Cremator (1969) · Duelle (1976) · Duplicity (2009) · 45 Years (2015) · Greed (1924) · I Am Cuba (1964) · I Could Go on Singing (1963) · In My Skin (2002) · In This Corner of the World (2016) · The Kleptomaniac (1905) · The Late Show (1977) · The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) · Losing Ground (1982) · The Manchurian Candidate (2004) · Madam Satan (1930) · The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) · Master of the House (1925) · Millennium Mambo (2001) · The Moderns (1988) · Moscow Clad in Snow (1909) · The Mouth Agape (1974) · Peppermint Candy (1999) · The Passionate Friends (1949) · Private Lives (1931) · Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) · Running on Empty (1988) · The Sacrifice (1986) · Satan’s Rhapsody (1917) · Senso (1954) · Shoulder Arms (1918) · Sorcerer (1977) · Spanglish (2004) · Stage Door (1937) · Starman (1984) · The Stone Tape (1972) · Stromboli (1950) · Terms of Endearment (1983) · They Were Expendable (1945) · Thief (1981) · Tugging the Worm (1987) · Up the Down Staircase (1967) · Les Vampires (1915)

[The bolded titles form a loose top ten. Everything is pre-2018.]

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Yes, Dad

A third of the way into The Shining, the explicit terror has barely begun. Danny’s been riding his big wheel or watching TV with his mom while Jack marinates elsewhere in the monotony of their new home. Yet an exchange between the two of them when Danny’s fetching a toy fire truck is more insidious than any apparition. It’s just a father holding his son, at first tightly, nuzzling against his head, then with a looser grip as he looks him in the eyes. Their dialogue’s as banal as their domestic surroundings: “Are you having a good time?” asks Jack. “Yes, dad,” says Danny. “Do you feel bad?” asks Danny. “No, just a little bit tired,” says Jack. They go back and forth like this for a while, question and answer, before Danny brings up the hotel’s ambiance and the prospect of physical harm. “I love you more than anything else in the whole world,” assures Jack. “I would never do anything to hurt you. Never.”

Strings and rumbling percussion complicate the scene’s tenderness, as does Danny Lloyd’s robotic inflection. Jack Nicholson gives his lines sinister subtext with those arching eyebrows and curling lips. Their relationship manifests itself in these horror movie techniques. Throughout their talk, Jack keeps both hands on his son, because his affection’s synonymous with control. His is a love that precludes the vocalization of fear. Although this is a vast, bombastic movie, with Nicholson playing a histrionic monster, he’s nonetheless recognizable as a real-life dad with his bathrobe, stubble, and mussed hair. A dad can surround you forever with his body and his love; he can make himself impossible to escape. He can dislocate your shoulder and chase you with an axe and still protest that he’d never do anything to hurt you. Never.

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