“Every day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be, more stupendous.” — Emily Dickinson

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Higginson

Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830. It is not known why she withdrew from society so completely. Theories abound. Books have been written. What we have are her poems. A wide interior life lived in one house. (Terrence Davies’ miraculous film A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily, is a fascinating meditation on this idea.) Michael Schmidt wrote:

“We have the legend, but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent. Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetical strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.”

The legend of the publication of Dickinson’s poems posthumously is … complicated, and it’s made up of confusion, mixed-motives, and frustration. Even now, it’s challenging to find a published version of her poetry that keeps her syntax intact, all those breathless dashes. All of that stuff was ironed out and eradicated in the initial edition, and … it’s been like a game of telephone over the years. Famously, Thomas Higginson and Mabel Todd brought out a volume after her death, in which they “neatened up” her unique punctuation (and also erased every reference to “Sue”). It’s bowdlerized, as is the “legend” spread about her being this shy retiring recluse. The story was told by Mabel Todd and it’s stuck. Boy, has it stuck. I highly recommend the wildly entertaining and yet also informative Wild Nights with Emily, starring Molly Shannon as Dickinson. I reviewed for Ebert. I adored it. We owe Todd and Higginson a huge debt. I know, I know. But they butchered her language and the confusion persists to this day.

Joseph Cornell made some of his most famous “boxes” for Emily Dickinson. He built those boxes as spaces she might inhabit. He was “preparing a place” for her. Or … preparing to imprison her? So many of his Emily boxes are empty. With open windows. Has she flown the coop? Interesting: he was creating a box for her, where he could hold her and keep her – but he always left the window open.

Here is the most famous Emily Dickinson box, called “Toward the Blue Peninsula”:

It’s like she just left, hopped out the open window.

More on Dickinson after the jump:

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November 2023 Viewing Diary

After Everything (2018; d. Hannah Marks, Joey Power)
In early November, I holed up in a cozy little house in Connecticut with Allison and Carol. I had to work the whole time, which was a bummer but the night was ours. We watched The Golden Bachelor, and then we somehow tripped over this one. We had been talking about The Bear, and so Jeremy Allen White caught our attention. This was pre-Bear, and it’s clearly a low-budget movie – the sound quality was sometimes iffy – but it was shot on location in New York City (sadly rare, these days). White and Maika Monroe star as a couple who meet randomly in a subway station, spark up a relationship immediately, which is then thrown into a different dimension by his cancer diagnosis. Not perfect, but in today’s corporate-inhuman world, I do appreciate a movie about an adult relationship, with complexities, and long conversations between two people. More, please.

Wingwomen (2023; d. Mélanie Laurent)
I wasn’t exactly surprised how much I loved this – I’ve loved every one of Mélanie Laurent’s films – but I wasn’t expecting the film to be so HUMAN, so RELATABLE, especially since it’s a big-budget international-heist movie, featuring car chases and assassinations and etc. The film has an almost ragged human energy, and the priority is the human relationships. This is no easy feat. So often films like this feature dialogue little better than sarcastic quips, and “snark”, and “banter”. Here, these women talk REAL to each other. I loved it. I reviewed for Ebert.

Watcher (2022; d. Chloe Okuno)
Watching After Everything, both Carol and Allison were struck by Maika Monroe. They weren’t familiar with her work, and they really loved her. She is very pretty, of course, but not in an outrageous way. She’s pretty in a very real-woman kind of way. She’s also a good listener. I filled them in on Maika Monroe’s career, and sang the praises of Watcher, which never gained much traction and I just can’t understand why. In the olden days, Watcher would have had a nice theatrical run, and gotten more attention, not from critics necessarily, but from the public. Monroe is SO good in it. The movie is SO good, and frustrating, and disturbing. So we watched it and had a great time. Good discussions too about listening to your gut, paying attention to red flags. The film has a lot in it. I really loved it. I reviewed Watcher for Ebert.

The Golden Bachelor (2023)
Watched with Allison and Carol. I haven’t been watching it, so they filled me in on all of the “contestants”, all of whom had nicknames: “Dancer Chick.” “Gnome.” The show is weird. I would never call myself old-fashioned, but … I think The Bachelorette works better than The Bachelor, where the woman has to vet all the men, and the men have to show their stuff. It’s like the natural world, lol, where males strut around in their plumage, and women pick. It just seems to work better. Don’t taze me, bro. There’s something really disturbing about women racing to tell a man they love them: and these contestants all say the same things: “I feel like I am falling in love with you.” “I am in love with you.” “I am not falling in love with you. I AM in love with you.” The words “I love you” take on almost a talismanic importance in The Bachelor universe, and it has nothing to do with how life is actually lived on the ground with real people. In the real world, racing to tell a man you love them first is in no way a deal-closer. As a matter of fact, he may run fleeing into the night. In what universe is a woman clamoring to tell a man she loves him the moment a man goes, “Well, YOU are clearly THE ONE.” No! It’s the opposite. It looks desperate! The Golden Bachelor would respond with comments like “That is so special”. Or “What a sentiment”. Or, the worst: “Awwwww.” lol We watched with a mixture of hilarity, mockery, and interest.

July and Half of August (2016; d. Brandeaux Tourville)
Somehow our discussion of The Golden Bachelor turned into a massive conversation about relationships. We all were sharing our experiences. I talked about the weird love triangle I was in in my late 20s. The love triangle had long-lasting consequences. I don’t think I even realized it at the time it was happening. This somehow morphed into Allison telling Carol about my short film, July and Half of August. Which was so sweet. It was Allison’s idea to show it to Carol. I had the Vimeo link and Allison worked her magic and projected it onto the huge television. It was so fascinating to hear Carol’s reaction, especially since she didn’t know the whole play, and only had the film to go on. I’m proud of it.

Your Lucky Day (2023; d. Dan Brown)
Another assignment where I was surprised how much I dug it, and how much I found in it. There was a lot to talk about. It’s a hostage-scenario-movie, a “thriller”, I suppose, but it’s actually much nastier than that, with a lot to say about How We Live Now. Big-corporation “message movies” could take a page out of Your Lucky Day. I reviewed for Ebert.

Godland (2023; d. Hlynur Pálmason)
A powerful uncompromising film about a priest who travels across the icy/lava wilderness of Iceland to build a church in the middle of nowhere. The cinematography is beyond compare: similar to The Revenant, there are some shots where I literally can’t figure out how they did what they did. They are clearly out in the middle of ice fields. It’s a very disturbing film about a man filled with convictions and good intentions, all of which are challenged when he has to deal with actual humans. The sense of place is awe-inspiring. The pacing is slow, stately even, but fraught with gigantic emotions. These actors are all really out in the elements. No fakery. Amazing film.

Escaping Twin Flames (2023; d. Cecilia Peck)
This is the second documentary I’ve watched about these grifter con-artist bozos. I think I’m done now.

Anatomy of a Fall (2023; d. Justine Triet)
Sandra Hüller is having quite a year, appearing in this and Zone of Interest, two totally different kinds of films and characters. I’m sure you’ve heard of this one: in many ways it reminds me a little of Force Majeure: there’s an accident or an unforeseen natural disaster, and people react in different ways: relationships topple, identities dissolve, certainty shattered. Here, Hüller plays a successful writer, living in a mountain retreat with her husband and son. One day, husband falls off the balcony and is killed. There’s something sketchy about the fall (according to police). Hüller is looked at and treated as a suspect. Since we- the audience – do not see the fall, we are kept in a state of suspended tension, wondering if she did it, could she have done it, IF she did it then WHY? This is a very long film. I’ve seen complaints. I definitely felt the length but I didn’t mind it. The sense of uncovering bits and pieces of the truth, and then the deeper truths of what is going on in that house, what the married relationship was like – its tensions and problems … all of that was fascinating. About 3/4s of the way through there’s a flashback to an argument between husband and wife. It is our first encounter with the husband when he is alive. This scene is explosive, unforgettable, the kind of partnership acting I yearn for in movies: the scene is long, it is jagged, it goes many places, it starts as a normal discussion and then escalates. These ACTORS. My GOD.

The Killer (2023; d. David Fincher)
A chilly funny “the sad life and times of an assassin” film, directed by the master of mood and detail. Michael Fassbender plays “the killer”, on a stakeout in Paris, monologuing to us in an almost bored voice about the job and what it requires. He holes up in an abandoned We Work office (just one of the many funny moments in the film), and does yoga, grabs McDonalds, watches, waits. He fucks up this job, badly, and has to go on the run. He’s hiding from those looking for him, but he’s also seeking out the ones who have put him in this position: each “chapter” of the film features another character. It’s a sparsely populated film. Each “chapter” has its standout scene, either an emotional standoff or physical (there’s a physical fight – in a dark house – that has to be seen to be believed). I loved the humor in this. It’s SERIOUS, but it’s not self-serious, a huge difference. My cousin Kerry O’Malley is the “star” of one of the chapters. She’s so good. A couple of my NYFCC colleagues have said to me they think she steals the whole thing, and I can’t disagree.

Chile 76 (2023; d. Manuela Martelli)
Aline Küppenheim plays Carmen, a pampered upper-class woman living in 1976 Chile, a hair-raising time to live in Chile, although Carmen’s economic status protects her somewhat. She’s got her summer house, and parties to plan, friends to visit. Meanwhile, though, all around her is a state of terror and a siege-mentality, as the mostly working-class members of society protest Pinochet’s dictatorship, and are “disappeared”, leaving no trace. Through her work at a nearby church, she is taken to see one of these protestors, a young man injured by a gunshot, who can’t be taken to a hospital because he’d surely vanish. She tends to him, and through this relationship she is drawn into the conflict, way outside her comfort zone, where checkpoints are terrifying places, where parking your car in a certain neighborhood is asking for trouble. Meanwhile, Carmen’s rich friends all say stuff like “Thank God law and order is being established” and “Nice to get back to normal after all that Socialism” (i.e. Salvador Allende’s time in office). It’s grotesque. A story like this perhaps needs a Costa-Gavras to really pull it off. This is the story of one individual privileged woman whose eyes are opened to what is really going on. It’s a start, but we need more. (A film like last year’s Argentina 1985 is an example of a film with more of a macro point of view. The story of an individual is, of course, important but the wider story is MORE important.)

Priscilla (2023; d. Sofia Coppola)
I was just talking with Mitchell about this in regards to Maestro. Like it or not, “great men” are different. It’s why they are “great”. This is not to excuse the behavior, but to acknowledge reality. People dislike this narrative now, and there’s a great societal levelling going on, and in most cases this is, I think, good and right. But when we’re talking about interpersonal stuff, it’s not so simple. We were talking about Bernstein’s wife and how she is presented in the biopic, eventually exhausted and disheartened by the claims on her husband that take up all his time: professional/personal/sexual. But … you’re not marrying Joe Schmoe. You’re marrying Leonard Bernstein. This doesn’t mean you have to put up with it, not at all, but you can’t really BLAME him for not being a nice middle-class husband. He’s not. You married a public man, a bisexual if you want to label it, maybe let’s just say a promiscuous man who slept with basically everybody, and a great artist. Like it or not, it’s going to be different married to a man like that. You can’t ask him to NOT be those things. There’s “bad husband” and then there’s “bad husband who is also Leonard Bernstein and/or Elvis Presley”. lol I felt Priscilla didn’t quite deal with this reality (in the way Baz Luhrmann’s film did, although Priscilla played, of course, a smaller role in BL’s film, albeit even more consequential in terms of her involvement in the overall Story). I love Sofia Coppola. She is rare, a poet of boredom. Films aren’t usually ABOUT boredom. Her films are mostly about women and girls waiting around in a state of bored and sometimes restless yearning (being bored AND restless is not a pleasant experience), hoping their life will soon start for real. Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, The Beguiled all live in this amorphous space, of languishing boredom and WAITING. Somewhere is, I believe, her masterpiece. Somewhere is all about male waiting, and perhaps it’s her masterpiece since she had a little bit of distance from it. I don’t know. Priscilla is perfect material for this Poet of Boredom, and it is that which she captures beautifully. Sitting around, waiting, standing, watching him go away, clinging to the phone, lolling about painting her nails, everything vivid and yet somehow muted as well, gauzy and indistinct, just like the experiences of being a teenager in that totally unreal situation. Bad husbands are all the same, though … it’s the usual: he’s not there, he’s cheating, he leaves her out of things … but … but … it’s ELVIS. And so what does him being ELVIS add to this weird WEIRD experience? Jacob Elordi is way too tall (Elvis was tall, but not that tall), but he got Elvis’ leg jiggle and stutter AND big open laugh down to a T, and he didn’t condescend to Elvis. You felt he was sincere. The film incorporated things Baz Luhrmann left out, things I missed, like Elvis’ New Age stage, and Larry Geller the Guru, and Elvis reading all these incomprehensible books, driving everyone mad. I loved those sections! The issue I had was in the disconnect between Elvis the real guy and Elvis the Superstar. (I don’t want to blame the film for what it DIDN’T do, I want to be clear). It’s not that the disconnect wasn’t real: The disconnect was totally real and Priscilla was kept in a constant state of anxiety, waiting for him to calm down, come down to earth, come home, etc. Elvis himself had a hard time connecting his worlds, which makes sense. The gap between them was vast. But in the film, I never got the sense that the Bad Husband on display was also the Famous Supernova onstage. It didn’t connect. I never felt Jacob Elordi was capable of going out onstage and doing what Elvis did. This is a common problem with biopics: how do you make an audience believe that an actor is ALSO a well-known figure who can actually go out onstage and SLAY? In Coppola’s film we never saw Elvis performing. It was just this whole other world which Priscilla couldn’t enter. Okay, fine. But Elvis onstage was, arguably (although for me NOT “arguably”) way WAY more important (and interesting) than Elvis at home being distant (the only times I felt Luhrmann’s film lagged was in the section where he and Priscilla split. There, it became just any other biopic. Like I said: bad husbands and marriages aren’t unique. They all look the same.) Regardless: Elvis at home and Elvis onstage were solar systems apart. But a biopic has to connect those dots (which it did in Maestro.) Coppola doesn’t seem all that interested in Elvis as a person OR a performer, and of course that’s fine, but … when all you see are the trappings of fame (cars, wealth, etc.) and you don’t deal with the REALITY of the WEIRDO who was Elvis Presley, the man as performance Phenom, you’re missing the key part of the story. He wasn’t just any other guy. Yes, he was human, but come on, let’s be real. Priscilla’s story is fascinating – she wasn’t just any other teenager – and her waiting around at Graceland, going to high school … I mean, it is totally weird. Coppola captures that part of it: it is, ultimately, what interests her. The wandering anxious boredom of a teenage girl playing at being a grown-up. There’s a scene early on where Priscilla goes roller skating with Elvis and his yahoo pals, and it’s filmed with vivid energy, swirling in a swoony dreamworld of deep blues and pinks, the dizzying circular rink, the circling lights above, the disorienting exhilaration of being in love and being in the same place at the same time with this fabulous OTHER, the “other” being Elvis. It’s my favorite scene in the film. I also loved the scene where they took provocative Polaroids of each other, a scene which eventually “turns”, but before it does, they play, they laugh, they goof off, they are play-acting sexually for each other and the camera, and it’s beautifully intimate. Human. They’re on equal ground. Priscilla wrote about these moments in her book with affection – they’re good memories – and Coppola and her actors capture it.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023; d. Daniel Goldhaber)
A fantastic eco-thriller: sticks to its guns, briefly sketches the different personalities involved, and how they all come together, but doesn’t really dwell on the personalities (except when it’s in connection to their part in the plot to blow up the pipeline). There’s the tag-along worried girlfriend. There’s the couple who show up together – one is clearly a dropout from the middle-class, the other a kid who grew up in foster care and on the street. There’s the college student whose mother has died. There’s the wordless indigenous kid, whose rage is so incandescent he literally can’t speak. There’s the “leader”, a guy who seems like he wouldn’t fit in at all with the rag-tag group of early 20somethings, an older guy, married, white, wearing trucker hats, etc., but in many ways his views are less abstract than theirs: the pipeline affects him personally. It’s running through his land. It’s ruining his life and the life of his family, in an immediate way. The energy is intense, the editing superb: multiple locations, characters, tasks, all happening simultaneously, and you never get lost in it. You understand the plan. You understand the breakdown of labor, who’s doing what. I love a film that focus on facts and practicalities: a film like, say, Le Cercle Rouge: the heist is the main event. The personalities are evident and important, but not central. We are seeing thieves, but we are mostly seeing competent thinking people, and I hunger for this in film. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is about people smart enough to plan far enough ahead to get shit done. I mean, look at the title. The film lives up to it.

Sam Now (2023; d. Reed Harkness)
Reed Harkness spent his childhood making movies with his brother Sam, stop-motion mad-cap stories, where young Sam throws his body around, fearless and open and free. Behind the scenes, though, a trauma has occurred. Sam’s mother (Mr. Harkness’ second wife) vanishes. One day she just left the family. And disappeared without a trace. Amazingly, the family never talked about it. Where did she go? Was she murdered? She didn’t seem unhappy. She’s seen in home videos laughing and part of the group dynamic. When Sam is a teenager, older brother Reed suggests they try to track down Sam’s mother. They work it like little Sherlock Holmes. They find her. They drive the length of California (filming the whole way) and show up at her door, camera rolling. This is just the beginning though, of a family story: the current interviews with everyone, many of whom appear to be speaking about it for the first time. Sadness and guilt pouring out years after the fact. Sam is now in his late 20s and just now starting to deal with what happened to him. For years he took a philosophical approach: well, she left, but now I get to see her, so it’s okay. A common trauma response. The film is an attempt to address the trauma, delve into it. It’s also a mystery story in a way, an interrogation into who Sam’s mother is. Nothing can excuse walking out on your child. And there’s a disturbing sense of narcissism in her character. She truly doesn’t seem to get what the big deal is. She wasn’t happy so she left. Sam Now is one of the best documentaries of the year, and it’s been an amazing year for documentaries.

Blue Jean (2023; d. Georgia Oakley)
This is on my Top 10. I heard buzz from when it played the various festivals, and I clocked it as a film I needed to remember to check out once it arrived in theatres/streaming. Blue Jean is Oakley’s first film as a writer and director (SO MANY AWESOME first films this year!), and you’d never know from the confident approach that she was just starting out. Blue Jean takes place in Thatcherite 1980s England, a bleak scary place if you were anything other than a rich white straight person. The Section 28 laws, forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality”, were passed in 1988 (laws identical to the “don’t say gay” nonsense happening now in the United States. In the fucking 21st century. It is a DISGRACE). Section 28 was the law of the land in England from 1988 to 2003. Oakley, after reading some articles and interviews with older lesbians, realized how much these laws – put into place the year she was born – affected her life. She lived in the reality of them, it affected her personally. So she decided to explore it in film. Rosy McEwan gives a phenomenal performance as Jean, the phys. ed teacher, “out” at home (although not happily: her family doesn’t really accept it), but closeted at work. Terrified she will be discovered, and fired. This was happening all around her. “Grooming” wasn’t in the parlance of late 80s England, but it was the same shit: we can’t have gay people teaching our precious children. Oakley’s decision to make Jean a gym teacher was deliberate: gay gym teachers ran even more risks, because they dealt with bodies, they saw teenagers in the gym showers, etc. etc. (There’s a great interview with Oakley in Slant about all the choices she made in establishing the context of Blue Jean). Jean enjoys her job, is a good teacher, maybe plays favorites a bit, and she’s not all THAT much older than her students: she’s on somewhat shaky ground. She lives alone, fearful of her snooping neighbors, especially when she has her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) over. My God, I love Viv. Viv is out. Viv is openly butch. She lives her life. She loves Jean but she can’t bear the closeted torment Jean puts herself through. Oakley really captures the lesbian “scene” of the late 80s, the gay bar Jean goes to at night, the house where the community congregates, to party and hang out without fear of homophobia (or, hell, being arrested, faces splashed on the front page). Things go south. There’s a moment where Jean says the words, “I’m a lesbian”, and then has this huge response later, when she’s alone. Collapsing down, laughing and crying, in relief and terror. It’s one of my favorite acting moments of the year. I’m in tears just thinking about it.

Sanctuary (2023; d. Zachary Wigon)
What a hoot. Margaret Qualley (one of my favorites in the new batch of actors: head of the pack, as far as I’m concerned) and Christopher Abbott (love him) star in this two-hander, taking place solely in one location, a hotel room. It’s similar to the set-up of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, except it isn’t, to put it mildly, a gentle feel-good romantic(ish) comedy. Instead, it’s a battle of wills. It’s incredible the emotional places these two actors traverse: dark twisty manipulative territory, not a common thing in today’s sanitized corporatized film landscape. Director Zachary Wigon also directed The Heart Machine (which I adored: check out my Substack piece on the film). John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Lyn Sheil star in another (almost) two-hander: an online relationship drives a man into literal madness, excruciating madness. It’s highly subjective filmmaking, very uncomfortable. Sanctuary feels like a play. It could be a play. From one moment to the next, you are never sure what either of these characters will do.

May December (2023; d. Todd Haynes)
I love Todd Haynes. May December is in my Top 10 of the year. I reviewed for Ebert.

The Zone of Interest (2023; d. Jonathan Glazer)
Sandra Hüller again, this time playing Hedwig Hoss, wife of Rudolf Hoss, commandant at Auschwitz. They live in a house right next to Auschwitz, a wall separating their garden from the camp. You can see the watch towers on the other side. The sound design alone should win an Oscar. Everything going on on the other side of the wall is present, but it is dimly heard: screams, shots, chugging engines, dogs barking … it’s just background noise. The Hoss family lives an idyllic life (if you can ignore the context: which you can’t, that’s the point), living in a stolen house, dressed in stolen clothes, eating on stolen china. The sheer casual-ness of everything is the true horror here. The film is a very difficult watch. The sun is always blinding, but the colors are somehow silvered, or greyed – a result maybe of the ash floating in the air, ash shoveled around in their garden beds, ash making it impossible to let laundry dry on the line. It’s horrific. My cousin Kerry went to a screening, and Hüller was there. Kerry told me that Hüller asked the costume designer to give her shoes a size too big. The shoes of a probably dead Jewish woman, once the lady of the house where Hedwig now lives. The clunky big shoes gives Hedwig a clumping peasant walk, an ugly walk: she is a grotesque character, but grotesque in her normalcy. Rudolf Hoss was an absolute monster. He wasn’t an Eichmann, huddled over train schedules (monstrous in and of itself). Hoss was ambitious for himself. He reached the pinnacle, overseeing the death of thousands of people. Christian Friedel’s Hoss is so undeveloped he’s practically an embryo. He looks like a homunculit, with an embarrassing disgusting haircut. (Look up a photo.) Kerry told me they filmed it in a house literally right next to Auschwitz, with a mostly Polish crew. This made the German actors feel very uncomfortable: Hüller was traumatized, she still has nightmares. You never see what’s going on in Auschwitz, although prisoners show up on occasion, and terrified trembling Jewish girls serve the Hosses tea. Hedwig at first may seem like an oblivious participant in a horror, she’s just married to a monster, she could conceivably claim innocence. But the film reveals the darker currents. Hedwig isn’t worse than her husband, but she’s just as bad. Maybe you could say she was worse. Hoss got the end he deserved. Not so much Hedwig, who ended up in America. We turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees during the war, and we let HER in. The De-Nazification process in Germany following the war … how could you de-Nazify Hedwig? You couldn’t. The rot goes all the way through.

20 Days in Mariupol (2023; d. Mstyslav Chernov)
In my opinion, there’s no other choice for Best Documentary. There are other good documentaries but as far as I am aware none of the film-makers literally risked their lives, running from gun-shots, staring at tanks rolling into the neighborhood, holed up in an emergency room, taking pictures that then went around the world. I just think degree of difficulty needs to be taken into account. The film is so harrowing it’s a very difficult watch, ripping your heart out of your body. It needs to be seen. A lot of people had very fucking weird reactions to the invasion of Ukraine: it’s like it didn’t fit into their ideological structure and so they focused on peripheral things, or ignored it altogether. Disgraceful.

Passages (2023; d. Ira Sachs)
I like Ira Sachs’ work. I loved Love is Strange. Passages got a lot of attention this year – it’s a great cast – the film racked up a number of awards internationally. I didn’t care for it. Every year there’s a film like this: the majority of people I know flip out for it, go mad for it … and I’m like, “….really?” I don’t even dislike, I’m just indifferent. It’s kind of a weird feeling. It makes you feel like maybe you’re not getting something, or you’re resisting something when … maybe you just don’t like it. I felt this way about Her (yuk). I felt this way about Hereditary. Like I said: there’s usually one a year. And this year it’s Passages. The fault is probably in me, I will grant you that, but I can’t pretend to like what I don’t like.

A Thousand and One (2023; d. A.V. Rockwell)
Another incredible first film. Teyana Taylor gives one of the best performances of the year as Inez, recently out of prison, back on the streets, living in a shelter in her old neighborhood, struggling to get her life on track. The film takes a turn when she basically kidnaps her son – now in a violent foster care home – out of a hospital. She gets away with it, by forging documents, changing names, moving to another neighborhood. This, of course, will eventually cause problems, and it does. She has to travel two hours to get to her job as a cleaning lady. She leaves him locked in the apartment, telling him to not answer the door. The film takes place over a 20-year period, and yet it never loses its eye for detail, the small things that make up life, the struggles, the moments of joy, the sense of how hard it is to have any time to even THINK about what kind of life you want. Three different actors play her son, and they’re all terrific.. I must shout out William Catlett, who plays Lucky, Inez’s long-time boyfriend, also recently out of prison. I fell so in love with his character, flawed though he is, and was incredibly moved by his character development. Everyone develops. By the end of the film, you are not just invested in these people’s lives. “Invested” implies distance. You love these characters. Teyana Taylor is mostly known for her music career. This is her first lead role. She is unbelievable. One of my favorite performances of the year.

Return to Seoul (2023; d. Davy Chou)
Park Ji-min plays Freddie, a French girl of Korean descent (adopted when she was a baby), who returns to Korea, on a whim almost, and finds herself attempting to locate her biological parents. Return to Seoul doesn’t go the way you perhaps think it will go, mainly because of Freddie’s character, a fascinating uneasy mix of aggression, rudeness, denial, conflict, provocative sexuality. She revels in making people uneasy. She can’t/won’t do small talk (she really can’t, because she relies on a translator). She’s French, she keeps insisting she’s French, not Korean. The Korean people she meets are taken aback, confused, upset, although they do their best to understand, make allowances. (Much of this reminded me of Daughter from Danang, a similar story although it’s Vietnam, not Korea. Daughter from Danang is one of the most painful upsetting documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s like the film-makers themselves had no idea what would be unleashed by this American woman traveling to Vietnam to meet the parents who gave her up. They probably assumed it would be a tear-drenched heart-warming meeting. Yeah. No. It doesn’t go that way.) And neither does Return to Seoul. Although that’s just the beginning. There are two time-jumps, unexpected, since the first section takes up so much time. This will not be just one story. It will be multiple stories. Return to Seoul exists at an intersection of conflicting realities: belonging/not-belonging, expectation vs. reality, culture-clash, even more disorienting since Freddie is French, but is treated like she’s “come home at last” by the Koreans she meets. Where Freddie goes in her life journey is unexpected, to say the least. It’s interesting watching a film where the lead character is so unfriendly, whose behavior is so off-putting. Freddie is so closed off, so hard. It’s not just a protective facade, shielding her vulnerability. Nope. There’s something steely in her. It’s refreshing.

Fallen Leaves (2023; d. Aki Kaurismäki)
My #1 film of the year. I’ll be writing more about it so I’ll just leave it at that.

Four Daughters (2023; d. Kaouther Ben Hania)
Another harrowing documentary. It’s hard to explain. There’s a complicated premise. A Tunisian mother raises four daughters. There’s no dad in the picture. Life is very hard. Two of the daughters become radicalized in the upsurge of strident political Islam, sweeping through Tunisia and everywhere else. They don full burkhas. They lecture and scold. They are teenagers. Then one day, the two daughters disappear. They snuck away to join ISIS, to marry ISIS men. (These girls are famous. I saw a couple of news stories about them.) These girls – now women, now mothers with children – are still being held in a prison in Libya. Tunisia will not re-patriate them. They might as well be dead. Mother and two remaining daughters grieve the loss. But Four Daughters is not just this terrible story. Director Kaouther Ben Hania hires five actors to play the mother and daughters: they re-enact scenes told to us by the mom, by the remaining daughters. Sometimes the actual real people act in scenes as well, re-living their old arguments, or the games they used to play. It’s basically a group therapy session, theatre as therapy. (Honestly, I think it’s now the actors who are going to need some therapy.) A fascinating and troubling concept: boundaries have blurred, it feels dangerous: should any of this even be happening, should it be filmed? What is the use of putting these people through the trauma all over again. The cruelty is breath-taking. I have hopes for the two remaining daughters (I have little hope for the other two), but … how on earth can they even make sense of what has happened? Their mother basically re-traumatized them. It’s ugly. All of these women offer themselves up to the camera with transparency and vulnerability. It’s awful and beautiful.

Eileen (2023; d. William Oldroyd)
I loved this. It’s nasty, grubby, and anti-charming. I appreciate all of these things. I reviewed for Ebert.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023; d. Raven Jackson)
Also in my Top 10. Also a first film for the writer-director. I’ll be writing about it.

American Fiction (2023; d. Cord Jefferson)
Allison and I watched this when she was staying with me for Thanksgiving. Another first film. Like … I know film is in a tough spot right now, and streaming is fucking everything up. But … somewhere, still, people are making provocative personal films, they’re still doing their thing, trying to make work that says something, means something. Jeffrey Wright has been doing excellent work, on stage/television/screen, for decades. It’s so much fun to watch him as the center of something, as opposed to a peripheral and treasured character-actor spot. American Fiction is satire (mostly), and it’s satire in the classical sense: It actually feels dangerous. It’s telling some dirty little secrets, and it’s presenting these dirty secrets in a funny way. So people laugh. But what if the wrong people laugh? What if people take it the wrong way? Well, this is the thing with satire. You can’t control the reaction, you can’t explain yourself, or try to make it OBVIOUS to the enemy what you are doing. You can’t say “Okay, you people over here are allowed to find this funny. You people over here are not allowed to laugh.” What surprised me, though, was the heartfelt family story (Sterling K. Brown!), and the romance between two ADULTS. So sadly rare. These people are grown. A romance is different when you are fully grown. So it’s a mix of satire and reality. The trailer makes it look like a comedy and it is often very VERY funny. But it also brought me to tears. I really loved it!

Afire (2023; d. Christian Petzold)
Also in my Top 10. I love Petzold’s work. Afire, on the surface, seems to be one thing. And in a way, I watched it as that one thing: a struggling writer trying to get his book done, keeps being distracted, etc. But days afterwards, I was still thinking about Afire, feeling like I might have missed the deeper meanings on first watch. It’s not about the lead character at all. Or, it is, but what’s important … is that forest fire. The haunted woods. The sound of unseen helicopters. The sense of encroaching destruction.

The Boy and the Heron (2023; d. Hayao Miyazaki)
I was going to show this to my nieces and nephews, who adore Miyazaki’s other films but … I think it might be too scary? Hell, I was a little scared! The heron freaked me out. It’s gorgeous though: elegiac, phantasmagorical, imaginative, somber.

All of Us Strangers (2023; d. Andrew Haigh)
I was reduced to an absolute sobbing wreck watching this. I watched it on my birthday which was not a good choice, although … I didn’t KNOW it was going to destroy me going in. It hit me totally unaware. I went in not knowing anything about it, except that it stars Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, and both Claire Foy and Jamie Bell are also in it. I love all those people. Okay, fair enough. I settled in. And soon after I was dismayed – truly – to find tears streaming down my face. I had to pause a couple of times. I don’t cry all that much anymore. Maybe a function of having cried so much in my 30s? I don’t know. Maybe I just have a better attitude now? But the emotion pouring out of me was alarming and made me think that … maybe I’m just better at NOT dealing with things now? I don’t know the answers. All I can say is my heart exploded. It HURT. The catharsis was personal. I guess I needed to cry. I’ll be reviewing this one so I’ll stop here.

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“Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart” — William Wordsworth on John Milton

Milton was born on this day in 1608. Although he left Oxford without completing his degree, he remained a thinker, a propagandist/pamphleteer, a scholar till the end of his days. The isolated poet, focused on self and personal emotion, would come in with the Romantics. Milton was a public and a political man, a propagandist for the Commonwealth (a dangerous position to take, especially once the Restoration came about). He addressed all kinds of “unpoetic” social and civil issues in pamphlets, books, poems, articles. He was famous in his own day. His reputation since then has risen and fallen with the tides, and we are now in a huge Milton upsurge. He turned 400 in 2008, and there were celebrations across New York City: art exhibits, library exhibits, and also a costume-party in Brooklyn where you had to dress up as either Milton, or a character from Paradise Lost.

I had to read Paradise Lost in high school and thought it was the most boring thing I had ever been subjected to in my life. I had to prop my eyeballs open. I re-read it about 10 years ago, and was totally swept away by it, not only by the thoughts/philosophy in the great work, but also the depths and transcendence of the language itself. I feel like people should be forced to RE-read what they were forced to READ in high school.

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“There needs to be one more bag.” — Buck Henry

It’s his birthday today.

As someone whose family can (and does) recite What’s Up, Doc? from beginning to end – “What happened to Fritz?” “There is only me. Franz.” “Oh, what a SHAME.” – this is sad news! (My old friend Trav wrote up a tribute to Henry when Henry died in 2019.)

Here’s a story I came across just recently. It illuminates perfectly Buck Henry’s genius. It comes from an interview with Peter Bogdanovich at the AFI back in the 70s. Bogdanovich had the idea for this kooky story, a spin on the screwball comedies of the 1930s, featuring a dizzy dame, an absent-minded professor, and a hot-to-trot old lady, who all have the same style bag. Hijinx ensue when the bags get mixed up.

Bogdanovich brought the script/treatment to Buck Henry for feedback. Buck Henry sat there and read it all the way through. He thought a little bit. Then he said, “I think there needs to be one more bag.”

One more bag in play means one more level of confusion. Means more utter anarchy. If there were only three bags, the audience could easily keep track of each one. With four, you lose track. As a matter of fact, during filming Bogdanovich lost track at a couple different points. “I think we’ve lost one bag.”

To me, this small anecdote shows Buck Henry’s genius. He didn’t need weeks to come up with it. He read Bogdanovich’s first draft and he knew something wasn’t quite right.

“There needs to be one more bag.”

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“As long as the house of The Holy Spirit remains a haven for criminals the reputation of the church will remain in ruins.” — Sinéad O’Connor

It’s her birthday today. We lost her last year. I’ll never be over it.

It’s hard to describe what it was like when Sinéad O’Connor arrived on the world stage. She came from seemingly nowhere. Her voice was eerie and transcendent. She was drop-dead gorgeous. Her head was shaved. It was a protest against objectification, an announcement she would not be just another “pop star”. She insisted she wasn’t a pop star at all. “I’m a protest singer,” she said. She arrived fully formed into a world that had no place for her. She created her own place. The second she arrived, you couldn’t imagine what it was like before she got there. That’s how it was when Sinéad O’Connor arrived.

If I had to talk about favorite songs … there are so many. “Troy” blows your hair back. “Red Football.” Protest. “This is the Last Day of Our Acquaintance.” Personal. “Famine.” Political. “Scorn Not His Simplicity.” “Black Boys on Mopeds.” Political. “Daddy I’m Fine.” “No Man’s Woman.” “4th and Vine.”

She torched her career when she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.

But she was fucking right.

And she was courageous enough to say it out loud when nobody wanted to hear it. When people were still propping up evil, defending and denying it. She ruined her career for it. She was fucking RIGHT. Where were all the apologies owed her?

If you haven’t seen this recent performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” … clear your schedule.

My brother wrote an essay about her album The Lion and the Cobra.

Sinéad O’Connor deserved better. The world showed its true colors in response to her, as it always does when someone breaks from the status quo, when someone says “FUCK THIS”, when someone tells the truth nobody wants to hear.

Let’s end with “Troy”. Hair-raising. Let’s look at the recording and then watch it live.

I will never stop being sad.

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“It’s been awhile. My Oscar is getting kind of tarnished. I looked at it a couple of years ago and thought I really needed a new one.” — Ellen Burstyn

It’s her birthday today.

In less than a decade, Ellen Burstyn was nominated 5 times for an Oscar (for The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Same Time Next Year and Resurrection) and won one Oscar (for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). One of the best runs in the business. Then in 2001, 4 decades after that extraordinary run, she was nominated for an Oscar again for Requiem For a Dream. Her work in the 70s and 80s helped define the new cinema, the independent era, the boundaries-breaking of the old studio system. Similar to Jack Nicholson, she WAS 1970s film.

She’s nominated almost any time she acts, including the controversial nomination for her 14 seconds of screen time in HBO’s Mrs. Harris in 2006. People were upset, like: how on earth could only 14 seconds be worthy of a nomination? It was the talk of the town for a good 2 weeks. Burstyn made no statements about it for a while. After all, it wasn’t her fight. If they wanted to nominate her, how is that HER fault? Finally, she did make a statement, and it’s glorious:

I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don’t even appear.

She’s co-President of the Actors Studio, an organization which she has always been highly involved in and associated with. Lee Strasberg adored her, and clocked what he saw as her issues as an actress immediately, issues that needed to be addressed if she wanted to get anywhere in her career. But I’ll talk about that in a minute.

First, a story.

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“I think they saw me as something like a deliverer, a way out. My means of expression, my music, was a way in which a lot of people wished they could express themselves and couldn’t.” — Little Richard

It’s his birthday today. One of the best documentaries of the year is Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard: I Am Everything, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Ebert.

Little Richard. Live performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”, 1963.

In the performance above, Little Richard moves from preacher to sexually-explosive showman to maestro, sometimes blending them all together, no difference between Personae. The performance is almost 6 minutes long. He conducts the audience, like a Pentecostal preacher does on any given Sunday, bringing emotions, down, then up into a fevered pitch, or like a conductor of a gigantic orchestra, commanding the strings to retreat, the percussion to come forward, the horns to subside, the unison/melody to explode as one. Little Richard starts out like he’s in church, speaking to the congregation, telling him what he wants from them, telling them what he EXPECTS from them. This will not be a passive experience. He demands something from them, just like they demand something from him.

The audience response throughout is both organic and created: Little Richard is in control of it. The audience response is damn near involuntary – and that is because he is never less than totally in charge.

The middle instrumental section is riveting: Slowly, with no fuss or fanfare (it’s not James Brown throwing off his cape: it’s as though Little Richard is in his bedroom by himself), Little Richard takes off his jacket, folds it, puts it down, straightens his tie, and then re-tucks his shirt into his pants, as all hell continues to break loose around him. Taking off his jacket is not a “bit.” It looks practical: a professional performer who gets rid of the jacket because it is constricting and he’s hot (and so wet with sweat by the end of the performance he looks like he’s swum the Hellespont). But the tucking-in-shirt, straightening-the-tie caesura is also because he has to take a moment to “get himself together” before he moves into the second half of the song … which he knows will be a workout. He knows where he’s about to go.

Near the end of that sequence, he climbs up on top of the piano: he needs perspective so he can conduct from a better vantage point, so that everyone can see him.

Later, he drops to his knees and the mood changes, the bottom drops out: he’s got something personal to say, he needs them to listen. He’s a preacher again, pleading with his audience, bringing them down: quiet down now, quiet down, listen to what I’m telling you. After getting them in unison with that quiet, he jumps to his feet again, and the performance explodes. You wouldn’t think there was a higher level the performance could reach, but Oh Us of Little Faith.

Little Richard’s job – calling, more like it – is to perform, to bring that song to its full potential, the potential that already lives in him: he does not rely on lights or choreography or fancy sets or camera work. Part of his job is controlling audience-engagement:
1. Give them a GREAT time.
2. Make sure they follow him through the peaks and valleys: everyone must be in sync – emotionally – at all times.

HE wants to get something out of the song, too: it’s the only way he can do it. He is searching for a catharsis, too. The apotheosis of his expression. His personal experience of performing that song would be meaningless without the two-way current running between him and the crowd. NO ONE IS HELPING HIM in the performance except his partner – the audience.

I am only pointing this out ad nauseum because most performers need help. They need choregraphy/costumes/lights to help them (and, perhaps, also hide them, pump up a sense of engagement when there isn’t much there). But here, whatever goes on in that room, it is only Little Richard who is responsible for it. He is in charge of every mood-shift, every explosion, every switch-back, every intimate almost whispery “Okay, so let’s go over this one more time” …

Follow the Leader. And they follow him into mass-psychosis.

The stories of Little Richard on tour with Sam Cooke (as told in Peter Guralnick’s biography of Cooke) are so funny and so absurd you almost distrust the accounts. But there are multiple sources, everyone who was on that tour with them, saw it. At the time of that tour, Little Richard had become convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s music. He devoted himself to Jesus (actually, devotion is too mild a word), but he was still touring with packaged “rock” shows when this born-again-twice experience happened. He now felt that everyone around him – including the audiences – was evil and/or lost souls who needed to be saved, but his tour-contract hadn’t run up yet. He drove everyone on that tour insane. The promoters and managers were not thrilled that Little Richard was turning rock ‘n’ roll shows into revival meetings. There are stories of Little Richard reading the Bible backstage in a booming voice while wearing a cape.

That tour was the in-between time where Little Richard was still billed as a rock ‘n’ roll star, even though he was performing gospel songs (annoying audience members who wanted him to sing his hits). After the tour ended, he poured himself 100% into gospel music, putting out a couple of great gospel albums (some of his best stuff, I think).

But finally Little Richard switched back again. He succumbed to the inevitable draw. The draw his audiences felt too. In other words, he accepted Satan back into his life. He roared back into the secular scene.

As with all those country boys – white and black – who changed American culture, Little Richard was never far from his Jesus-loving roots. Elvis, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf … their sexual/emotional ferocity was another kind of expression of what went on in the little country churches – Baptist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God – on dusty corners through the American South. This was heresy to say at the time, and probably still heretical in some circles now. We are still split: the divine and the secular, the holy and the profane … kept in separate rooms. But these guys … they kicked down the walls between separate rooms, creating one big room.

Being saved is for the NEXT life, not this one.

There was precedent for this in Little Richard’s life. His father was a deacon in their Baptist church by day, and a nightclub-owner and bootlegger by night. The scales of Good and Evil were balanced (uneasily) in him, as they would be in his son. Jesus and Moonshine and Rhythm & Blues walking hand in hand. It was not hypocritical at all (and this was something Northeast secular-minded critics couldn’t get a handle on at ALL because it wasn’t their world. If you’re raised, oh, Episcopalian, or Unitarian, if you grew up in the suburbs in Connecticut… how are you going to understand these Southern boys? With their Jesus and their pink suits and their unashamed sexuality?).

And that’s what you can see in this 1963 performance. Little Richard sings about shaking bodies and orgasmic expression but what he’s doing is taking all of those people to CHURCH.

“Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen.” — Little Richard

One of my favorite covers of all time:

Here he is doing it live at The Today Show in 1997.

LR singing “Tutti Frutti” in Alan Freed’s 1956 film Don’t Rock the Knock.

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“Even to this day, I watch The Wizard of Oz like I did when I was five years old. I get really involved in it.” — Lynne Ramsay

“When I go to the cinema, I want to have a cinematic experience. Some people ignore the sound and you end up seeing something you might see on television and it doesn’t explore the form. Sound is the other picture. When you show people a rough cut without the sound mix they are often really surprised. Sound creates a completely new world.” — Lynne Ramsay

It’s Lynne Ramsay’s birthday today.

In a better world, this fascinating complicated director would have a larger body of work. But she is independent, fiercely so, and she develops her own projects. It’s my kind of work, she’s interested in the darker side of things, the ambiguities, the wordless and sometimes incomprehensible (to outsiders, that is) response to crisis. The opening sequence of her 2002 film Morvern Callar is a case in point. I saw that one in the theatre, and I was stunned by it (I hadn’t seen Ratcatcher. I went into Morvern Callar pretty much cold). The opening sequence is just astonishing – but what is even more astonishing is what happens after, what Morvern (the brilliant Samantha Morton) does AFTER that opening scene. You keep waiting for an “appropriate” response from her, and it never comes. Social norms are a very thin veneer indeed, and mostly for people who can easily fit into its little boxes. John Cassavetes’ films – although they take place in a very different landscape, and exist on a very different wavelength than Ramsay’s films – exist too in that netherworld where social norms just seem insane, or at the very least, so far away as to be irrelevant. Sane people watch Faces and think, exasperated, “These people all need to go home, take a long bath, and get a good night’s sleep.” Yup! But that’s first of all not interesting or dramatic, and second of all, beneath the “appropriate” veneer is a vast swirling chaos, of impulses we can barely control, of pain we can’t face, of the things we do to just shut up and endure. This is Lynne Ramsay’s wheelhouse.

I look forward to every single new film she does. I feel a bolt of excitement when I hear she’s got a new one coming down the pike.


Morvern Callar

We Need to Talk About Kevin

You Were Never Really Here

A couple years back, she made headlines walking off a film she had helped develop. She looked around, realized the producers wanted her to change things, wanted a happy ending (fuck these people and their happy endings) … and finally just figured out, “Oh. They actually don’t want me to be making this film for them.” Ramsay is not – never – ever – a “hired hand”. So she walked off, with no notice. People were outraged, how dare she, etc. I really love this interview with her – not just about that situation, but about her career in general.

I reviewed the thriller (?) – Ramsay-style anyway – You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix for Ebert. Loved it. Definitely check it out.

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“The ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.” — Joan Didion

It’s her birthday today.

Someone said that Didion’s (seemingly) simple sentences are like a perfect puzzle. If you remove one line from a paragraph, everything falls apart. Her writing is that well-constructed. She was a notoriously painstaking self-editor. She would work for months on a single paragraph.

My friend Rebecca introduced me to Joan Didion. We were working at this crazy startup together, sitting side by side at a long table, lined with computer monitors. I was new(ish) to New York, only in the city two years. She and I were somehow discussing our experiences of New York, and how vivid it was. The wine bars we loved, the dance nights we loved, the brunch places we frequented … we both came from elsewhere (although both New Englanders). She asked me if I had read “Goodbye to All That”, by Joan Didion. I said no. The next day, she brought me a Xeroxed copy. I read it in one sitting, then and there. It’s one of those essays that enters into your own personal experience, explaining inchoate sensations to yourself, an essay which also changes its shape as you gain other experiences. I could not believe how perfectly she described New York, and the vivid impressions of my first years there. But there was uneasiness in my response too. Because Didion’s essay was “goodbye to all that”, it was an intimation of the future, of times changing, of the ephemeral nature of youth, and there is a point where you realize your youth is over. I didn’t feel young then, but I was young. Unlike Didion, I would stay in New York. But she was right. There was a point when it all ended. And still I stayed on.

One of the fascinating parts of this Rebecca backstory is that Allison (whom I didn’t know at the time) introduced Rebecca to Joan Didion. I met Allison through Rebecca shortly after this. Allison is now one of the most important friends in my life. We were close almost immediately. In fact, the very first post written on this here blog was written from Allison’s apartment and described the day we just had – which, more irony, was a very New York kind of day, the kind of day Didion described so memorably in “Goodbye to All That.” It wasn’t until a couple years later that we put all this together: Rebecca passed Joan Didion on to me, and she got it from Allison. It was like Allison and I were connected by Didion before we even met. Allison grew up in Malibu. Didion’s essays about Malibu speak so strongly to Allison.

A couple years ago, Christian Lorentzen wrote a piece about her political novels, and her political writing, in three of her astonishing novels: A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing She Wanted. These complicated novels are in the process of being erased, due to the Oprahfication of her legacy brought on by the masses of readers who only came to her through her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. The Year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful and important book, addressing the unreality and hallucinatory nature of grief. But if that’s all you read of her, it would give you the impression that Didion was a “personal essayist” and “memoirist” primarily. Those late-comer readers would be taken aback by her novels, by her political writing (she went on the campaign trail numerous times). Her novels capture the paranoid cynical 1970s, the shady dealings of the CIA’s involvement in Third World political eruptions, eruptions and civil wars and assassinations financed by the United States. Joan Didion did write personal essays – the aforementioned “Goodbye to All That” a famous example – but they were a small portion of what she wrote about. She wrote about dams, war, freeways, nuclear power, Nancy Reagan, California history, crime, and politics. Her main subject was California. Magical Thinking was an anomaly. In Lorentzen’s very important piece, he expressed concern about this erasure, concerns I share.

This famous picture shows Joan Didion standing in Golden Gate Park in 1967, while she was there trying to figure out *what was really going on* with all the “hippies” flocking to San Francisco. The essays she wrote about this time – mainly “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” – are masterpieces. Look at the contrast. She’s wearing white tights. She does not blend in.

In 1967, Didion wrote a great essay about Howard Hughes. It’s important to see here, in the following excerpt, another version of her famous quote “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, from the famous essay “The White Album”. People have interpreted that quote as “all our stories matter”, thereby totally missing the point, sidestepping it, AVOIDING it. Didion was much chillier than nursery school-level sentiments. She had her romanticisms, but her vision was cold and clear. “Stories” in her lexicon meant fantasy/narrative, often indistinguishable from lies and false narratives, or at least fantasy erected to stave OFF reality. Dangerous, in other words. Politically dangerous. She saw it in operation in late-60s Haight-Ashbury. Didion doesn’t condemn our story-generating impulses. Condemnation was not her style. Instead, she was interested in what the stories we tell reveal about ourselves. This comes into play in her essay about Howard Hughes.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of power and money in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

“The stories we tell” is also in operation in one of my favorite pieces Didion wrote, “Girl of the Golden West”, about Patricia Hearst. The Hearst story includes the formation of California, and how this history shapes California’s citizens (whether they are aware of it or not), and how big events – like 60s Haight-Ashbury, like student protests in the late 1960s, like the Cotton Club murder, like the Manson murders, like the creation of the freeway system and/or the dam system in Californial, like the military-industrial engine of California’s economy , etc. illuminate what is really going on in California.

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” — Joan Didion

Didion was interested in the narrative beneath the narrative. As I mentioned, way too often when people quote Didion’s “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” they betray their misunderstanding. People take LA freeways for granted. Didion did not and excavated their history and functionality and what all this revealed about the character of California. Geography determines character. Same with water distribution. And Patricia Hearst’s story was often understood in terms of the irrational bent of radical politics at the time. The madness of it. This is not a misreading.

But Didion saw Hearst’s story primarily as a story of “the Golden West”, a California story, in other words. It could only have happened in California, populated as it was by descendants of pioneering types (Didion’s ancestors), with backstories of Donner Party horrors, everyone driven by escapist tendencies and a longing vanish into a future disconnected from the past.

The Patty Hearst article shows Didion’s absolute primacy in this arena. She was obsessed not with the subject itself but with figuring out what was REALLY going on.

It was a family in which the romantic impulse would seem to have dimmed. Patricia Campbell Hearst told us that she “grew up in an atmosphere of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, rambling open spaces, long green lawns, large comfortable houses, country clubs with swimming pools and tennis courts and riding horses”. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park she told a nun to “go to hell”, and thought herself “quite courageous, although very stupid”. At Santa Catalina in Monterey she and Patricia Tobin, whose family founded one of the banks the SLA would later rob, skipped Benediction, and received “a load of demerits”. Her father taught her to shoot, duck hunting. Her mother did not allow her to wear jeans into San Francisco. These were inheritors who tended to keep their names out of the paper, to exhibit not much interest in the world at large (“Who the hell is this guy again?” Randolph Hearst asked Steven Weed when the latter suggested trying to approach the SLA through Regis Debray, and then, when told, said, “We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head”), and to regard most forms of distinction with the reflexive distrust of the country club.

Yet if the Hearsts were no longer a particularly arresting California family, they remained embedded in the symbolic content of the place, and for a Hearst to be kidnapped from Berkeley, the very citadel of Phoebe Hearst’s aspiration, was California as opera. “My thoughts at this time were focused on the single issue of survival,” the heiress to Wyntoon and San Simeon told us about the fifty-seven days she spent in the closet. “Concerns over love and marriage, family life, friends, human relationships, my whole previous life, had really become, in SLA terms, bourgeois luxuries.”

This abrupt sloughing of the past has, to the California ear, a distant echo, and the echo is of emigrant diaries. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can,” one of the surviving children of the Donner Party concluded her account of that crossing. “Don’t worry about it,” the author of Every Secret Thing reported having told herself in the closet after her first sexual encounter with a member of the SLA. “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings – they’re no help at all.” At the time Patricia Campbell Hearst was on trial in San Francisco, a number of psychiatrists were brought in to try to plumb what seemed to some an unsoundable depth in the narrative, that moment at which the victim binds over her fate to her captors. “She experienced what I call the death anxiety and the breaking point,” Robert Jay Lifton, who was one of those psychiatrists, said. “Her external points of reference for maintenance of her personality had disappeared,” Louis Jolyon West, another of the psychiatrists, said. Those were two ways of looking at it, and an other was that Patricia Campbell Hearst had cut her losses and headed west, as her great-grandfather had before her.

Nobody did it better.

Posts about Didion

On Blue Nights
On The Year of Magical Thinking
On Where I Was From
On ‘Clinton Agonistes’
On ‘Political Pornography’
On ‘Newt Gingrich, Superstar’
On ‘Eyes on the Prize’
On ‘Sentimental Journeys’
On ‘Times Mirror Square’
On ‘L.A. Noir’
On ‘Los Angeles Days’
On ‘Pacific Distances’
On ‘Girl of the Golden West’
On ‘Insider Baseball’
On ‘In the Realm of the Fisher King’
On Miami
On Salvador
On ‘In the Islands’
On ‘The Women’s Movement’
On ‘Bureaucrats’
On ‘Holy Water’
On ‘The White Album’
On ‘Notes From a Native Daughter’
On ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’
On ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’
On Play It As It Lays

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91 Years Apart

Blue Jean (2023)

Big City Blues (1932)

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