Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 December 2019

On Richard Jewell, Law, Order, and Ideology


Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell is a sturdy, straightforward movie that is fairly well made and is buoyed by a few really great performances. It feels worth saying from the outset that Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the eponymous character, is really excellent in this. He deserves a Best Actor nomination, but he will not get one because he does not look like a movie star. (There are, for the record, lots of reasons why people don't get Oscar nominations; this just happens to be the reason Hauser won't get one.) Kathy Bates, who plays Jewell's mom Bobi, is much more likely to get a nomination. She has several really great scenes and is really wonderful throughout. Jewell himself is a strange character, and he is sort of hard to like, but Bobi is easy to like and easy to relate to.

Richard Jewell is the kind of movie I mostly like but that never winds up surprising me very much. Eastwood's tone is provocative and a bit procedural, and the film has the kind of repetitive documentary quality he attempted with Sully. This leads to a kind of detached form of viewing, I think. Everyone is good in this, and it's an interesting story. I liked it, but it's not really the kind of thing anyone can get excited about. The main guy is too weird to be a hero. What he is, instead, is a kind of victim of an enormous machine designed to take advantage of him.

Here's what I mean: Richard loves law enforcement. He loves "law and order". He follows the rules, believes in the rules, loves the rules. He trusts the government. He owns a dozen guns because he wants to be part of the club that maintains law and order and keeps people safe in the United States. But law enforcement themselves – and the film underlines this countless times – think Jewell is a boob. They take advantage of him; they talk down to him; they treat him like a naif (and he is one, though he doesn't need to be treated like one). Actual law enforcement also does not behave the way Richard thinks they do (Eastwood underlines this countless times, too): they are petty, devious, and lazy; they bend the rules; they don't care about the safety of regular people very much; they take the easiest way rather than the right way. Actual law enforcement would not have found the bomb in Atlanta that Richard Jewell found. They would have treated it like a backpack full of beer, and it would have done a lot more damage than it did.

If you think about it, Richard himself is a logical extension/embodiment of "law and order" ideas. He takes "law and order" seriously even though most of us do not. This is why the film likes him so much and why he feels like such a weirdo to everyone else. To me this is super interesting. Eastwood's movie, however, is not interested in these contradictions at all – he is telling a straightforward story about a lone hero, an evil newsmedia conglomerate, a corrupt government agency (the FBI), and the way that government and media can crush the little guy. In Eastwood's vision, the media are evil; the government is out to get you; but somehow law and order are still the ideal. The whole thing seemed confused – even tortured – to me. I really had to twist my brain in order to make sense of Eastwood's moral stance here.

I haven't said anything yet about the journalist Olivia Wilde plays. This portrayal/performance is... unfortunate. The media are, of course, the big bad villain in this story, and I get that, but Eastwood/Wilde portray the journo at the center of this story as a caricature of the self-serving reporter. Eastwood introduces the character in the most insane manner possible. She's bragging to the other women on the floor that their stories are insipid and readers only want the exciting copy she writes. She is gunning for television news. She's wearing short skirts and hoping for murders and scandal. She sleeps with an FBI agent for the story. She publishes information that ruins this guy's life. She is, in short, completely without ethics, integrity, standards, or human compassion until very, very late in the movie when she does an incredible (by which I mean I did not believe it) about-face. The whole thing is so caricatured that it doesn't appear the least bit realistic.

Richard Jewell is super interesting for all of these reasons. It's a perspective that is worth watching, even if it doesn't quite make sense or doesn't totally hold together. This is another of Eastwood's American hero movies (Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, American Sniper). I'm not a supporter of Eastwood's flag-waving at all, and I like my stories to be more complex than his Manichean version of the world allows, but there is a lot to talk about in Richard Jewell, and the performances are great.

[One more thing about the filmmaking. Sometimes in Eastwood's films, there are physical choices that make no sense at all – like that fake baby in American Sniper. There is one of those gaffes near the end of Richard Jewell when the FBI brings back all of Bobi Jewell's household items. The folks from the Bureau walk in the door in a line like a little color guard troupe carrying boxes and then they walk out in the same line into the apartment. Where the Hell are they going? This makes no sense at all. My sister and I both noticed it, and because it happened at the end of the movie it was the very first thing we talked about after the credits. There is only an exit in that direction if we're on a movie set, Mr. Eastwood. I know it makes your shot look cleaner, but it defies all logic.]

30 December 2019

Partial December Movie Round-up

Jay Roach's Bombshell is the movie about Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and what I assume is a (fictional and likeable) version of Tomi Lahren. They're women who work at Fox News, and the plot of Bombshell is the takedown of Fox News head Roger Ailes.

You know how this ends. In fact, you probably know a lot about this story of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and rank misogyny.

Bombshell takes a jaunty, slightly mocking tone with this story – in the vein of The Big Short and Vice. This movie is (and I am not the first person to say this) better than Vice but not as good as The Big Short. Even more, there's something about the way this particular Brechtian film works that makes the facts of the story seem like they might actually be fictional, or at least exaggerated. A part of that has to do with the fact that this is a story about Fox News, which is a "news" outlet that cannot be trusted even to report the actual news. The other reason for this is that what happens at Fox already feels so absurd and insane. The real people are themselves over the top and seem slightly unhinged. As a result, even if the events portrayed in the film actually happened, one has the feeling that what is happening can't totally be trusted.

But the acting is pretty great. Charlize Theron is doing a strange but compelling impersonation of Megyn Kelly (the voice isn't quite right, but I didn't really mind), and Nicole Kidman's Gretchen Carlson is less of an impersonation than a powerful interpretation. Kidman is best in show, but Margot Robbie, Kate MacKinnon, Holland Taylor, Allison Janney, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Mark Duplass, Robin Weigert, and Malcolm McDowell are all great. For me, John Lithgow's Roger Ailes felt a little cartoony, but, as I say, the whole of Bombshell is a little cartoony, so this is perhaps not quite a fair criticism of his performance as such. Obviously the film hates this character, and so it's a difficult one to play.

Bombshell works, but it does feel a bit shallow. There are clear good guys in this movie and clear bad guys. There's also a right thing to do, and that is never really interrogated in this movie. In fact, not much is interrogated in this movie. It's a movie with a clear winner and a clear morality and not a lot of room for nuance. I think it could have benefited from a bit of that missing nuance. I would've liked a bit more interrogation into Fox News itself as a purveyor of misogyny, racism, and homophobia and how those values intersect and contribute to the sexual exploitation of women. It might also have been interesting to go the other way and explore this story alongside of the other enormous #MeToo stories. This felt a bit like fuel for a leftist fire already ablaze and not a serious exploration of sexual harrassment, the 24-hour news cycle, the values of television, the values of American Conservatism, or anything else.

I don't want to knock Bombshell too much because it has quite a few redeeming qualities, but it doesn't set out to do very much.

Oscar: I think we're looking at probably three acting nominations. Screenplay seems likely, as well. And film editing. Makeup & Hairstyling is also a fairly obvious nomination (and likely win – Theron looks amazing). So... 6.

* * *

I loved Marriage Story. The title is an intriguing sleight of hand: this is, of course, a divorce story. But Baumbach makes the brilliant choice to begin his movie with all of the tiny things that this couple loves about one another, and so the film starts with us understanding just how much the two main characters belong together – just how much they worked. And then 8 minutes into the movie, we understand that they're already at each other's throats.

Totally generous to the two people at its center, Marriage Story also felt (at least to me) as though it didn't choose sides. At its ugliest moments, the film is also at its most compassionate. But Baumbach's movie is also beautifully calibrated and balanced between very funny broad comedy, incisive and clever satire, and serious drama. It switches modes expertly and with complete confidence. It's heartbreaking and silly and bright and sober, one right after the other.

It's interesting to me that the clip of the film that went viral that everyone was mocking – the fight in Adam Driver's apartment – hit me as the emotional climax of the film. Folks laughed, but I knew nothing of their mockery and I found this sequence absolutely heartbreaking.

The acting is also wonderful. Laura Dern has a flashy role as a razor-sharp, not-to-be-trusted lawyer, and Ray Liotta as her rival is wonderful. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both excellent. I've never loved either of them more.

Oscar: Three acting nominations here, too. Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director. I think that's probably all, but that's a lot: 6.

* * *

I really didn't like Little Women. In the first place, we don't need a fourth adaptation of this book. The most recent one (25 years old now) was just fine. In the second place, Greta Gerwig's adaptation attempts to work against its source material basically for its entire running time, as though it wants to say that what is basically a non-feminist story is actually feminist. This movie apologizes for its source material. Gerwig has created a kind of frame for the movie so that she can comment on the way the original story works. This isn't a terrible idea, but it does lead me to wonder why she wanted to adapt this novel in the first place. It felt to me as though she was trying to save the novel or redeem it.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as always, as are Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern. Florence Pugh, however, is insanely miscast. She is supposed to be playing a thirteen year old and she looks about thirty throughout the movie. Her portrayal of Amy March has the largest arc – especially because Gerwig's Little Women wants to redeem Amy and make her into a likable character. (I saw this with a group of friends, and we all remembered refusing to forgive Amy when we originally read the book.) Pugh plays a very bratty young teenager and it's mostly cringe-worthy. She is also really the only character who changes a great deal over the long timespan the film covers, and so she stands out strangely.

Gerwig's film, in fact, has a lot of trouble with the way it manages time. It jumps back and forth in time in ways that don't always work and frequently feel unnatural or forced. The folks I was with found these jumps confusing, but maybe because I read the book so many times as a kid (at least 8; queer childhood is real), I was never really lost. I did find all of the jumps frustrating, though. The adaptation is already doing a kind of greatest hits of the novel's most important emotional moments, and the jumping back and forth just drew attention to the way the film already functioned as a highlight reel.

The supporting cast is mostly good. Chris Cooper has some great scenes; Louis Garrel is perfectly cast. Tracy Letts is excellently bombastic. I didn't like the young woman who played Beth; she was outshone by the other sisters, even though we keep being told (confusingly) that Beth is "the best" sister. In fact, here's one example where, for me, the film wants to have its feminist cake and eat it too. How is Beth "the best of us"? According to what criteria?

I submit that Beth is "the best" according to the criteria of traditional Victorian womanhood, in which she is selfless, caring, nurturing, loving, shy, sexless, without desires of almost any kind except for her family, and she is mostly silent. She has a good heart and doesn't think of herself, and she wants nothing in return for the gifts she gives to others. Now, I don't particularly object to any of these qualities, but my twenty-first-century attitudes toward gender don't allow me to think this makes Beth into "the best". But Louisa May Alcott does think that Beth is objectively the best. In Alcott's novel, Beth is figured as too perfect to exist in the world. It seems to me that Gerwig, too, objects to ideas like this, but maybe not quite enough for my taste. The new film cherry-picks the feminist values the novel has, but retains plenty of other outdated values that I chafed against as a twenty-first-century viewer. Gerwig's film is, thus, confusing in the way it deals with Alcott's value system. Rather than rethink the novel and really change the content so that she could give us a new version of Little Women, to my mind she keeps too much of Alcott's original. She splits the difference and tries to have it both ways. For me this didn't work.

Oscar: I think Saoirse Ronan will get a Best Actress nomination. I think the film will also get an original score nomination. The Art Directors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild both have ignored Little Women, so I would say those nominations feel unlikely at this stage. Makeup & Hairstyling is still a possibility. I say we are looking at 3.

* * *

I really liked the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems. It's an uncomfortable film in that what one does is watch the film's main character (played brilliantly by Adam Sandler) fuck up for the entirety of the movie. He just. Keeps. Fucking. Up. Again and again. This is an intensely frustrating but also just plain intense screenplay. Things are going terribly, and this fool cannot seem to right himself. He makes mistake after mistake and there doesn't seem to be a way of making things right and finding balance of some kind.

Sandler is so excellent. And Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and (especially) Eric Bogosian are also very, very good.

This is a crime caper, so you have to like things like that in order to like this movie. I love crime films, but I am not sure if I would call Uncut Gems enjoyable. I don't know. It's hard to talk about it. The movie is plainly very, very good, and it's also hard to shake after it's over. But it's just so rough to watch. 

Oscar: I really hope Sandler gets a Best Actor nomination. Screenplay seems likely. I think that may be it, however. I am guessing 2.

26 December 2019

Waves

I know there are a lot of better movies than Waves this year, and I will admit that some of this melodrama was cliché but I was here for all of it. The acting is wonderful – particularly from Sterling K. Brown, who is just brilliant. The lead actors, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell are also great. There isn't much else to say about Waves, but it really worked for me.

22 December 2019

Neighborly Behavior

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is well directed. To be honest, though, I don't totally know how to feel about this movie. I cannot at all take Mr. Rogers seriously; the cutesy, simple way of talking about things, and the recourse to puppets and childishness is totally laughable to me. Maybe four or five times during Beautiful Day I laughed out loud with embarrassment. You're a grown man; put down the puppets. But Marielle Heller's film is, in many ways, aimed at audiences like me. The main character can't take Fred Rogers seriously either, and he sort of learns that even if you don't really get his way of moving through the world, there is still stuff to learn from it. Matthew Rhys is deeply affecting, and I really loved him in the movie. Tom Hanks is fine. I'm not sure I really get the casting. He's a very famous man playing another very famous man, and it's hard to see him as anything other than Tom Hanks. Oh yeah, and running him as a supporting actor for awards is total fraud. True enough, the movie is about Rhys's character chiefly, but Hanks opens and closes the movie, and the movie is most certainly his movie.

21 December 2019

Jellicles Can and Jellicles Do

I felt compelled to see Cats for reasons I can't quite explain. I've never actually seen the musical onstage, so I have no real emotional history with the show at all. When the trailer first dropped, everyone thought it was so weird, but (I thought) isn't the show weird? Like, there are dancing adult humans in catsuits and cat makeup singing about being cats. It's already strange.

But Tom Hooper's movie version of Cats is so much weirder than I imagined. This movie is really fuckin' unhinged. (Tom Hooper, in case you've forgotten, directed the all-close-ups-all-the-time movie version of Boublil & Schönberg's Les Misérables, the Best-Picture-winning The King's Speech, and the mostly-respectable The Danish Girl.) To treat the movie like an adult, of course, is to break the spell Cats itself is trying to cast – as I say, it's about playing dress-up in catsuits and dancing around like a feline, so you can't take it seriously, or, rather, if you do take it seriously you're just going to start laughing.

But Cats takes itself seriously. Cats thinks it's a very important movie.

And here is (one of the places) where the film's problems begin.

Ok. So, a cartoon car pulls into a cartoon alley and dumps a bag with a kitten in it into a trash heap. The alley cats all deal with the new cat in various ways, and they begin by introducing the idea of "jellicle cats". This is a very catchy tune, and indeed I also think it's kind of exciting, but I've always thought this song was strange because of the way Andrew Lloyd Webber's tune starts off by stressing the first syllable of the word – jellicles can and jellicles do – but then changes it up – jellicles do and jellicles can. Now, I am not sure what a jellicle cat is, and I want to say that this is also a problem. The song is about jellicle cats; it's designed as a song to introduce us to the concept and the world of the show, but it is just not very clear about who these cats are and why they're hanging out together. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, a jellicle cat is ... a cat.

Are they ghost-cats? Like, are they all dead? My impression is that these are dead cats.

Structurally, what happens next is that after the opening number about jellicles we get a second group number that tells us about cats' names – not specifically about the names of any of these cats, mind you, just about names in general. These numbers are led by an (unnamed-in-the-movie) cat named (apparently) Munkustrap, who is played by Robbie Fairchild. The movie tells us nothing about him, and he doesn't have a number of his own, but he is really the lead performer in this show.

Then what happens is that we get a series of numbers – maybe ten? – in which a new cat is introduced and sings about him- or herself. The first one is the weirdest one. Rebel Wilson plays a cat named Jennyanydots who is training singing mice and singing and dancing cockroaches and basically running around like a crazy person. This number is manic and bizarre and (honestly) sort of terrifying. There's an absolutely insane moment in which this cat unzips her own fur like she's Violet Chachki to reveal a dance costume and a new suit of rhinestoned fur. This happens really early in the film, and because I didn't understand the rules of this world, this began to confuse me seriously.

Do the cats have magical powers? Just this one? Do they each have some kind of talent? Can they all unzip?

Rum Tum Tugger can get it
The movie doesn't really have any dialogue at all. It just introduces one cat after another before abandoning it. We meet Rum Tum Tugger, the sexiest cat I've ever seen, and then he disappears. We meet Bustopher Jones, who is constantly eating, and then Bustopher immediately disappears. We meet the tap-dancing Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, and then he, too, disappears. That's four cats, but I'm not exaggerating. This just keeps happening. We meet Grizabella, Asparagus, Growltiger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, Macavity, and Rumpleteazer. Each of them has its own song... and only its own song. And each of these cats only sings about itself. They join in with the other cats' songs occasionally, of course, but each cat sings about itself and then fades into the background. The cats that are around the whole time – to whom the camera returns repeatedly – are Cassandra, Munkustrap, Griddlebone, and Demeter, cats whose names I have had to look up because they have no song for themselves and no dialogue, really, even though they're the ones with whom we spend the most time. We keep meeting new cats, but we don't know the (jellicle?) cats with whom we spend all of our time, and every time we meet a new cat that cat immediately disappears.

The audience can connect with none of these cats.  They're not around long enough for that. Instead – and I think this is the film's biggest problem – Cats consistently assumes an emotional connection with these cats, but it never works at establishing it. The first cats we meet – Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, and James Corden – don't want us to connect; they do big numbers that ask for no emotional connection with the audience. And this sets up a pattern. We watch the cats critically from the outside, but we don't identify with the jellicles, and I didn't emotionally connect with any of them.

Wait. I haven't mentioned that they have these very strange CGI faces. This is actually the weirdest part of the movie. These cats are very clearly humans in CGI fur outfits. They have human hands and human feet and they mostly move balletically – except for the railway cat; he tap-dances – and so although they have cat ears and cat tails, they have distinctly human faces. This is so very strange that it never stops being strange, perhaps because we never spend quite enough time with any one cat and so we never really get accustomed to their faces. It looks so weird. Like the Sun Baby who shines down on the Teletubbies. The fur is creepy and attempting to be erotic (I think?) in a way that is troubling. At some point Idris Elba is dancing, and he's naked, and all we see is his (cat) fur suit and his bare (human) feet and hands and face, and it's just so fuckin' weird. Like, that is not how you should look naked, Idris Elba. You should not look like you're covered in sleek fur. That is not what I want to see when you take off your clothes. It's a really disturbing rip-off.

Through most of the duration of this film I was saying (out loud, since I was the only person in the theatre) wait, what the fuck is happening? It's not the first time I've had that thought in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – I still don't know what actually happens in Phantom. And when Cats ended – it ends with Judi Dench's Old Deuteronomy turning to the new (white, of course she's white) baby cat Victoria and telling her "you are a jellicle cat" – I said That's how it ends? We were supposed to be invested in whether or not this young baby cat becomes a jellicle cat? We don't even know what a jellicle cat is! We also didn't know that Dame Judi had the power to turn cats into jellicle cats. The point is I had no idea what the fuck was happening, and Tom Hooper had no idea how to direct my emotional investment toward the journey of any particular one of these human–feline hybrids.

I have one more very serious complaint (amid so many!) and that is that Jennifer Hudson, who has an incredible voice and who sings "Memory" in Cats, doesn't really sing the song. She spends the whole song acting. This is what I mean by the movie taking itself very, very seriously. What we needed from this musical was for the best song in Cats to blow us out of the fucking water by connecting emotionally, hitting all the right notes, and asking us to soar with it. "Memory" is a legitimately great song, and before I continue, let me just share this version, sung by Heather Headley:


Headley asks you to connect with her story emotionally. You hear everything you need to hear about this character, and you feel with her deeply. That is not what Hudson does. She cries and sobs and her voice croaks and she can't quite get there with the notes because of her very important feelings. (Her nose also runs the entire time in an apparent tribute to Viola Davis in Fences.) Of course Jennifer Hudson can hit the notes, and when she finally does as she gets to Touuuuuuuch meeeeeeeeee, my gay ass snapped in the air and was like yaaaaassssssssss, but this is because I was absolutely desperate for her to get there and when she finally did I was just so grateful. In fact, after she belts that one little section, Hudson goes back to acting instead of singing, and the song falls apart again. This was a fundamental mistake in the movie. And I know I complain about this all the fucking time with Hollywood musicals, but the acting is not the most important thing in a musical. The music is. "Memory" is a perfect example. The story is in the music. The music does the work. Hit the notes and you'll hit our emotional notes in the audience, and we will resonate with you. If you spend time attempting to communicate a bunch of feelings by emoting, it's not gonna work.

In other words, aside from Cats' very weird aesthetic problems, it also has some very serious emotional problems. It is, more than anything else, like watching a children's dance recital when you don't have any children in the performance.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a strange film. Joe Talbot's movie is a very A24 type of thing, but this one doesn't totally connect. There's something about the filmmaking that seems stilted or off – perhaps it's that the two main characters both feel neuro-atypical. As such, I had trouble fully relating to either of them. The performances, though, are really great. Rob Morgan is his usual brilliant self. Jonathan Majors is also excellent. And Danny Glover has a lovely small part.

18 December 2019

War and Peace (1956)

The war sequences in King Vidor's War and Peace are cool. Well, they're big anyway, and the scale of direction is impressive. But this 1956 movie version mostly feels like a bloated melodrama rendition of Tolstoy's novel with a bunch of USAmerican 1950s moral conservatism and ideology laid over top of it. I liked Mel Ferrer in this or at least I think I liked Mel Ferrer in this. Maybe I just thought he was handsome, though.

17 December 2019

Summing Up 2019

1. What did you do in 2019 that you'd never done before?
To be honest, it hasn't actually been a very outrageous year. I guess I'm getting older and more stuck in my ways. Or maybe it's that I'm back in Tallahassee...
I went to Puerto Rico, which I have never done before. I also chaired an MA thesis (I've chaired MFA theses before, but never an MA).

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
My resolution for last year was to send out one article every semester of last year. I will still achieve this resolution. I just need to make sure I send another one out in the next two weeks! (I will.) My other resolution was to brunch more. I have to say honestly that I did not achieve this resolution in the way that I really want to, and I think this is because I really wasn't as dedicated as I ought to have been to this important goal.
In short, I would like to repeat my resolutions for 2020. I would like to send an article out every semester and I would like to brunch more. If you're in the same city I'm in on any given Sunday, let's make brunch plans.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
I don't think so.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Thankfully, no.

5. What countries did you visit?
Now, this is technically still the United States because of colonialism, but I got to visit some of Puerto Rico in March. I got to see San Juan as well as El Yunque. It is a very, very cool place, and I ate a lot of mofongo.

6. What would you like to have in 2020 that you lacked in 2019?
Better shoes and better clothes. I need to decide that I'm going to spend money on these things. I shop as though I'm still a graduate student. I try to dress nicely, and I think I do ok, but it's really not a priority, and I think I should make it one.

7. What dates from 2019 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
June 17th, July 5th, and July 8th were probably my favorite days of the year in 2019. I spent June 17th with my colleague Jessica in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We went to a crazy winery on top of a mountain, ate great food, and hung out with her son Macauley. I spent both days in July with a guy I met in Lynchburg named Brett. The 5th was me and Brett and Jacob and Jared jumping around wineries and a brewery and a cidery (!) in central Virginia. On the 8th I had brunch with Brett and then went to Ankida Ridge winery where I met my friends George and Raechelle. We sang and talked and had a great day.
Obviously, there are some themes here: chiefly wine, Virginia, and queerness.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Working on the new production of The Bluest Water and getting to see it come to fruition with my wonderful collaborators at Endstation Theatre Company.
Publishing my article "Truth and Translation at the Heart of Violence" in Theater. I'm really proud of it.
Reworking the curriculum for the BA in Theatre at the School of Theatre at Florida State.
See also #22.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I am having a rough time with my scholarship at the moment. I have a lot of ideas, and I'm tossing around things in my head – I even have a clear schema for how my next book will look – but even if my College is invested in me having more time to do my writing, my colleagues are not really invested in that. They have so far tended to be invested in me taking on administrative projects. I know this is to be expected, and I also know they don't owe me any favors, which means that my failure here is not finding a very good balance with my own work and the work that my colleagues place on my plate.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No big illnesses or injuries this year.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I finally bought a new laptop. I had had my old one since my first year teaching at Dartmouth (Fall 2012), and it was way past time.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My friend Michelle, who deservedly won, like, every article-award in the field of theatre and performance studies for her piece "No 'Thing to Wear'", which I adore.
I had dinner with my former student Alex in April, and he's now working for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. I'm also really proud of Tommy Heller for the public service work he's doing with shelters and in courtrooms in New York. Obviously I am proud of many of my students, but this kind of work is really close to my heart.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I really think the Republicans in the U.S. Congress are probably the worst people in the world.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Into my savings. I started planning for my retirement in earnest this year.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The ASTR 2019 conference. Seeing the MET Broadcast of Akhnaten. Seeing my friend Jaime, who I haven't seen in many years. Hanging out in Joshua Tree with Yasser, Katie, and Jonathan. Getting to see Matt and Geoff in Tallahassee. Honey Boy

16. What song will always remind you of 2019?


Carly Rae Jepsen's "Too Much"

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder? Sadder, but I was very happy this time last year.
b) thinner or fatter? Fatter, but I was very thin this time last year.
c) richer or poorer? Richer.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Writing. Reading. Brunching. Kissing. Walking around without pants. Happy hour. Instagramming cooking adventures.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Sitting in faculty meetings. Worrying about what others think about my writing.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
With my family in Los Angeles. The theme for this year's Christmas dinner is Mediterranean. I'm making a vegetarian maqluba, roasted eggplant dip, a lentil soup with lemon, tahini cookies, and a cake with cardamom and rose water.

21. Did you fall in love in 2019?
No, but I dated a handsome guy named Nate for a few months until ... he ghosted me. That was strange. He was pretty great, though, and I was sorry he didn't want to continue seeing me. I fell for a couple other guys, too – by which I mean I met two different guys I got along with great and would date if we were in the same city. In other words, I'm trying to remain vulnerable and open.

22. How many one-night stands?
Team Baga Chipz!
Seven. And I am so proud of myself!

23. What was your favorite TV program?
I only watched RuPaul's Drag Race season 11, RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars season 4, the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race UK, and Paolo Sorrentino's series The Young Pope. It took me a while to warm to The Young Pope, and all of that Drag Race was maybe a bit much for one year...

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Nope! But I still hate the people I added to the list last year.

25. What was the best book you read?
I keep track of this on GoodReads.
Definitely George Eliot's Middlemarch. I also loved Larry Mitchell's The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions and Tavia Nyong'o's Afro-Fabulations. Patricia Nell Warren's gay classic The Front Runner, which I finally read this year, moved me deeply.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
I am not sure I made one of these this year, but my friend Dayne sent me Carly Rae Jepsen's latest album, Dedicated, and although I was skeptical I quickly became obsessed. Carly's just great! I spent most of my time listening to the new Bon Iver album, i,i, and the new James Blake album, Assume Form.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Oh that's easy. Phelim McDermott's fabulous staging of Philip Glass's Akhnaten with Anthony Roth Costanzo, J'Nai Bridges, and (the brilliant) Zachary James.

28. What did you want and get?
Really, really fit. (I'm not still that fit, but I did get there.)

29. What did you want and not get?
A published copy of my book The Violate Man. It's waiting to shine patiently in the wings like a good supporting actress.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
Pedro Almodóvar's Dolor y Gloria (Pain & Glory) followed by Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. But (as usual) I have another 30 movies to see still.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I got a massage, proctored a comprehensive exam for one of my MA students, taught a class, held student hours, met with a guy to repair my shower, and turned 38.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Honestly, a boyfriend. I am throwing lines out; I've really been trying, but I haven't found someone I want to spend a lot of time with who also wants to spend a lot of time with me – at least not someone who lives anywhere remotely close to me.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2019?
Short-sleeved, patterned button-ups that bring out my eyes.

34. What kept you sane?
Watching movies with Greg. Cocktail hour with Tate. Chatting with Patrick and Dayne. Happy hours with Elliott and Kellen and Chari. Almost any time I spent with Meredith and Jason. Matt telling me things without sugar-coating them.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Sukkolawat Kanarot. I saw him in Malila: the Farewell Flower and promptly fell in love.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Prison abolition. And linked to this is obviously the legalization of marijuana. This needs to happen immediately.

37. Whom did you miss?
Wahima, Justin, Elizabeth, Ashley, Danny, J, Dayne, Caleb, Joe, Tenley, Marko, Michael.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
I met Brett Hastie at the very end of 2018, but I feel like I really connected with him this summer, and I'm so glad I did. He's wise, caring, and generous, and now he lives in Spain and I am sorry I can't hang out with him.

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2019:
Do not waste time on other people's time-wasting tactics! One thing that I have seen happen at my University is that a person will use stall tactics and ask me to go away and think about something or bring them research on a particular topic. Often this person is someone who actually makes the decision. They know that they don't want to do anything differently or make any substantive change, but they also know that other people want to make changes. In order to pretend that they're willing to change, they ask for more time and often also request the labor of the people who want to make changes. Because we want change, we think, ah! I will do this work and then we will get somewhere! Not so fast. It was all a hoodwink. There was never going to be any change. I have learned to avoid these kinds of tactics when they're presented to me. I am happy to do the work, if it's actually gonna help us change something. If not? No thanks. I need to spend my time working on things that can change and working for people who want to make things better for more people.

40. Share an important quotation from 2019:
"Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
—George Eliot, Middlemarch

15 December 2019

Spetters (1980)

Well Spetters is a stunning early Paul Verhoeven film from 1980. There is a lot to say about it, but it is especially notable for a storyline in which a young man is beating up gay hustlers and stealing there money in order to appeal to a young woman who only likes guys with money. But then a gang of four men, led by the woman's brother, rapes this young guy, who, as it turns out, was behaving in this homophobic way because he is actually queer. This entire storyline is fascinating, and I expect I'll probably need to watch this film a couple more times.

14 December 2019

Knives Out

I have a serious question. Why wasn't Knives Out funnier? The trailer looked great; the poster is really amazing, but Rian Johnson's film simply doesn't deliver. It's much busier being a  morality tale than it is making us laugh or giving us the clever twists and turns that we expect both from Johnson and the genre in general. This is fine, but Knives Out isn't really good at doing what it wants to do. And actually, now that I think about it, this isn't fine. What it is is sentimental nonsense.

Quite frankly, however, I thought Chris Evans was hilarious.

12 December 2019

Honey Boy

Honey Boy is a pretty extraordinary film. It's a film about Shia LaBeouf written by Shia LaBeouf in which Shia LaBeouf plays his own abusive father. This descriptions seems like it would describe a train wreck, but what it instead describes is an artist's own unflinching look at his own abusiveness, his obsessions with his father and his father's demons, and a generosity toward this man who didn't know how to deal with his son. The whole thing is moving and funny and weird. I absolutely loved it.

As to be expected, Shia's acting is great. Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe (both playing Shia) are excellent. There's also a kind of motif of chickens throughout that I cannot explain at all but that I loved.

Three of my favorite films this year – Honey Boy, Marriage Story, and Pain & Glory – have involved artists examining themselves in ways that feel unsparing and truly critical. I fully appreciate this from these filmmakers. Their willingness to go in and dig around and dredge up their own uglinesses seems very brave to me, and I find it very exciting.

11 December 2019

Ford v Ferrari

For me this whole thing felt extraordinarily contrived – as though the whole time I felt the hand of the writer. Race movies, and perhaps sports movies in general, often feel this way to me. It's a contest, but, look, the writer just gets to decide who wins. Of course, this is how all movies are; it's just that it seems so much more apparent in a sports movie.

James Mangold has made a film about a pair of men who do absolutely everything right. They're hardasses who fight when they need to fight and win when they need to win. It would appear from the title and the marketing that Ferrari is some sort of villain or antagonist in this movie. Not so. The antagonist in this movie is a smarmy Josh Charles, who has a petty vendetta against our hero Christian Bale. This whole thing is tired, and I was bored, despite the great sound work. I think Matt Damon is a good actor, but man does he make some terrible choices when he picks a script. This thing is a clunker.

I say all of this knowing that audiences have really responded to Ford v Ferrari and spent an enjoyable two-and-a-half hours at the theatre having fun with the car racing and Matt Damon's Texas accent and Christian Bale's noble, uncompromising hero. I think it's great that people are liking this. It wasn't for me.

One more thing, though. Why did the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominate Christian Bale for good actor? Matt Damon's is the better performance in Ford v Ferrari. This seems strange to me.

10 December 2019

Un Zoo la Nuit (1987)

I watched Jean-Claude Lauzon's Un Zoo, la Nuit because it has a male rape sequence in it. In fact, the movie opens with this act of violence, which is designed to communicate quickly and directly what kind of world we are in. This works, but then the movie itself turns out to be rather an excellent story that is about a father and son at the same time as it works as a crime film (with a very strange villain who is a gay male cop). The lead performance by Gilles Maheu is wonderful. I see why it is hard to find this movie, but I really enjoyed it.

08 December 2019

The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum was crazy and occasionally funny.

Hot take:
It's also shot just like a Terrence Malick movie, and perhaps also uses many of Malick's filmmaking techniques. This is a strange movie to compare to Malick – since Korine's film is invested in pleasure and being high on life (Malick's films are never that), but the filmmaking really is similar.

In any case, The Beach Bum wore me down after a while, and its hedonism began to exhaust me. This is not Spring Breakers.

03 December 2019

Frozen II: Frozener? More Froze? Frozé?

Let's talk about Frozen II. The cast and the directors of the original 2013 film have reunited, and we've been given a chilly but not-quite-lukewarm sequel.

As with the original Frozen, the best part about Frozen II is the songs. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have composed some really great tunes, and I loved all of the things that made me fond of the original – 1) the film is actually a musical in which characters actually sing, 2) the film stars Broadway singers and not Hollywood actors who have trouble singing, 3) most of the songs are really incorporated into the film's narrative in a seamless way. And what Frozen II does that Frozen does not do is continue the songs through to the film's end. This is a good thing.


The best song in Frozen II is Jonathan Groff's amazing Phil-Collins-Peter-Cetera-Freddie-Mercury-inspired number "Lost in the Woods". It's completely hilarious. It's filmed and orchestrated like an '80s music video, and I laughed and laughed. It's easily the best thing in the movie.

But the plot of Frozen II leaves a great deal to be desired. A great deal. In fact, the whole thing doesn't make very much sense. I am most confused about the way that Elsa's magic interacts physically with the "natural" spirits of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. Her magic seems to tame these elemental spirits in some sort of way. I don't really get that. There is also a fifth element in this movie, and if you've seen The Fifth Element, you can probably predict where that plot point is headed.

I am also very skeptical of the liberties the film took with exposition. Now we find out that mom and dad aren't who they said they were, and they didn't die the way we were told they died, and (apparently) there's a haunting lullaby that Elsa and Anna always sang to one another – except that they didn't do that in the first movie. Anyway, all of this is suspect, but apparently necessary for this plot to function.

And for me, the plot is the real trouble into which Frozen II wades. See, Frozen II is a colonialist fantasy. Make no mistake about it, while this is apparently a film about the far-off kingdom of Arendelle and its relationship with an enchanted kingdom to the north called Northuldra, what Frozen II is really talking about here is U.S. relations with indigenous American ethnic groups. The Northuldra, in addition to living in harmony with the spirits of water, earth, wind, and fire, are also very clearly drawn to look Inuit. These are indigenous people, and we find out that...

Ok stop here if you haven't seen the movie yet, because I'm about to spoil a plot point or two.

Apparently Grandpa Arendelle (I forget his name) actually killed the leader of the Northuldra, and he was attempting to make them completely dependent on his own power. He also installed a dam, which totally disrupted the natural flow of water and animals in the ecosystem of the enchanted forest. If you're not thinking of the British, French, and Spanish colonization of the Americas, then you're totally missing the plot here. (Now, there are other indigenous groups, too, like Native Hawaiians or the Sámi of Northern Europe, whom the film could be referring to, but this is a film made by U.S. Americans, and our national colonialist fantasy seems to me to be what is driving this narrative.)

What Frozen II offers is a series of colonialist fantasies in which indigenous people need the colonial power in order to survive. In Frozen II the wisdom and knowledge of the colonists solve the problems of the indigenous people (it is the colonists who free the forest from its enchantment). Except, of course, that the plot twists, and we learn that Anna and Elsa aren't colonists so much as they are really good white ladies who find out that they are actually ... half native. In this way, Frozen II invests in the 23andMe approach to ethnicity, whereby Anna and Elsa can be indigenous and profit from the fact of their indigeneity even though they have only a tenuous cultural connection to the Northuldra and haven't grown up in a land without a sky as Honeymaren and Ryder have. Instead, we find that Anna and Elsa are (cellularly!) a combination of indigenous wisdom and white racial (genetic) superiority. And because of this, they can use the knowledge shared with them by the indigenous folks to solve the film's mysteries and inaugurate a new way of life for Arendelle and the Northuldra. So far this is a fairly common U.S. American colonial narrative.

Now, this fantasy is, it must be said, not a fantasy in which the indigenous population is eradicated. This is not one of those "last" narratives that Jean O'Brien has critiqued (like The Last of the Mohicans or The Last of the Wampanoags) in which the native people all die and bequeath their wisdom to the white colonist. No. The Northuldra get to live in this narrative. At the end of the film they run with the reindeer and they live in harmony with nature in the forest in the north. But this is precisely why I am calling Frozen II a fantasy. The lie this film is selling is that in this narrative the native people get to keep their land. That is not what happened in the Americas. And Native American (and Native Hawaiian) land rights continue to be contested, flouted, and otherwise ignored by various state governments and by the federal government of the United States. In the fantasy of Frozen II (unlike in the United States), the residents of Arendelle apologize for attempting to murder the Northuldra and disrupt their way of life, and then they go back to Arendelle.

I hear you waiting to object: No, Aaron. Frozen II is a story of sharing, of cultural contact, of shared love of land, family, and nature. It's about making things right that granddad did wrong. Yes, it is that. But the reason that is a fantasy is that it does not reflect the history of colonial-indigenous relations in the U.S. Elsa and Anna, as it turns out, didn't even have to give up the city of Arendelle. It is saved from the flood caused by the broken dam ... by another dam (this time a magic one).

And where were the indigenous actors? The Northuldra – who are all very plainly drawn to resemble First Nations people – are played by Evan Rachel Wood, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, and Alan Tudyk. If the film were actually about respecting indigenous ideas or cultural contact or some ideals like that, wouldn't it make sense for the film to use some Native American actors? But the film isn't about cultural contact or shared love of nature or whatever. It makes sense for all of these white actors to be playing these native characters because these characters are a mere colonialist fantasy of indigenous people.

As I say, the songs are good. (I thought the pop version of "Into the Unknown" that Panic! At the Disco sang over the end credits was a bop). And I laughed out loud at the hilarity of Kristoff's song (I am glad Jonathan Groff finally got to sing in the sequel). But the film's politics seem to me to do more harm than good, offering a myth of colonial-indigenous relations that differs as widely from the historical record as the myth of the Thanksgiving holiday on which Frozen II was released.

02 December 2019

Jojo Rabbit

It seems to me that the popularity of Jojo Rabbit with so many festival audiences is surely due to the total dynamism of little Roman Griffin Davis, who plays little Jojo.

This film by Taika Waititi is a tongue-in-cheek look at a little wannabe Nazi whose mother is working for the anti-Reich resistance and whose father and sister are gone. Little Jojo sees Hitler like an imaginary friend, and Hitler (played by the director) encourages Jojo and gives him hilarious little pep talks.

Jojo Rabbit is funny for a while, but then, you know, the Americans bomb Berlin and kill a lot of people, and long before that there are Nazis doing evil things, like, you know, carrying out a genocide. And, as it turns out, Jojo Rabbit is mostly just not funny.

I mean, it is funny, or somewhat funny, but it is impossible to forget – and Taika Waititi doesn't even want us to forget – the actual violence and genocide. (I felt this same way about The Death of Stalin last year. This is a comedy about a topic that is basically not funny. Many, many people died. This is a time for jokes?) Thankfully the director has written moments of terror and moments of deep sadness into his script, so that the broad comedy of the film's first act is balanced by seriousness and grief.

Or... that would be true if it were directed differently. Instead what we have with Jojo Rabbit is a very good script that was poorly directed. Waititi understood on paper what the film needed to be, but he wasn't really able to execute that. And I say that as someone who really liked Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I think Waititi can do comedy very well. He hasn't figured out how to balance that out with anything else yet.

Sam Rockwell is good. Scarlett Johansson is very good. Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely great.

01 December 2019

Pain and Glory

My favorite movie of the year so far is Pedro Almodóvar's new film Pain and Glory.

It is absolutely gorgeous. This film has all of Almodóvar's hallmark auteur traits – the narrative doubling and tripling, drug use, frustrated desire, melodrama, bold Sirkian colors – but the filmmaking itself is wonderfully personal and restrained, so gentle and careful. It's a lovely, lovely film. A kind of Almodóvarist 8 1/2.

I think what I loved most about Pain and Glory is the way that Almodóvar, without flinching, examines his own terrible behavior, his own pettiness, his fears about how his mother felt about him, his terror of growing older.

In a typically Almodóvar move, the character who is the version of Almodóvar in the movie (Antonio Banderas) writes a story about himself, and then that story is recounted, movingly, by another actor (Asier Etxeandia) as though it is his own story. But this is how Almodóvar's films work, they never allow you to access the true story, the real one, because there is no essential version of any one story, and that story is not one person's to possess.

Oh and the acting is magnificent: Etxeandia is best in show, but Leonardo Sbaraglia is also just fabulous, and of course Banderas and Penélope Cruz (both beautifully understated) are just lovely.