Stuff I’ve Been Reading

— Wonderful interview with director Hou Hsiao-Hsien on his film “The Assassin” (in theaters now. I loved it.). He says:

I’m 68 and I’m running out of time. I started reading martial arts novels when I was in elementary school, the fifth grade, but it wasn’t until my first year of college that I began reading these short stories from the Tang Dynasty, written by people from the Tang Dynasty and published at that time. I found them quite fascinating. The short story “Nie Yinniang,” especially, stuck in my head. I kept thinking that at some point I would like to make a film based on “Nie Yinniang.” As you know, I haven’t made a film in a while because I was serving as the president of the Taipei Film Festival as well as the Golden Horse Awards. That took five years of my life. I’m not getting any younger and realized that now would be the time to make this movie.

Kim Morgan’s gorgeous piece on Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea, which is being panned left and right, totally unfairly (I, for one, cannot get it out of my head.) Kim digs deep into the film. Don’t miss it.

Extraordinary article by Adrian Chen in The New Yorker about how a young woman broke out of a family cult (the Westboro Baptist Church). It’s a long article. To be read in full. It made me tear up. Her “conversion” came through interactions on Twitter which made other people seem real and not evil, plus a moment having to do with the death of Brittany Murphy, which should shut people up forever who sneer at those who grieve celebrity deaths. Her emotion about that event is what helped her realize her mind was her own. Incredible article.

My friend Odie Henderson’s review of Creed. The movie made me cry (maybe 7 or 8 times, so basically I cried all the way through), Odie’s review made me cry, so basically I’ve been making a spectacle of myself all over town. The accolades, though, are well-deserved. One of the best films of 2015. And you know I’m honing down my list now.

My pal Miriam Bale interviewed director Todd Haynes about the cinematic influences for the gorgeous Carol out in theaters now. (I I loved the film.) I love how Miram and Haynes discuss the “artifice”, and how it used to BE cinema, and how it is also “natural” in that context. (Speaking of which, that is what critics panning By the Sea don’t seem to get.)

— Just starting Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. I’m so looking forward to it I’m almost NERVOUS about it.

Posted in Books, Movies | Tagged | Leave a comment

Gena Rowlands: A Life in Film


For Roger Ebert, I discuss Gena Rowlands’ extraordinary 6-decade career in all its facets, not just the productive Cassavetes years. She did a lot of television, and, as she got older, smaller parts in movies with large ensembles, but these roles should not be dismissed. If we want to celebrate the life, and the dedication of one woman to a career in film, to her own art, then let’s look at all of it. This was very fun to research. I had seen all of these films, but many I hadn’t seen in years and years.

I wrote this up because of Gena Rowlands’ recent Honorary Oscar, presented to her at the Governors Awards on November 14th. Still no sign of the Rowlands Tribute Reel, for which I wrote the narration for Angelina Jolie to read. I will share once it’s up!

In the meantime, check out my Gena Rowlands: A Life in Film over on

Posted in Actors, Movies, Television | Tagged | Leave a comment

“When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads.” – Miles Davis on Coleman Hawkins


It’s the great jazz tenor saxophonist’s Coleman Hawkins’ birthday.

Fantastic interview with Sonny Rollins about Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. I thank Glenn Kenny for Retweeting it on Twitter. It’s a goldmine.

In that interview, Rollins says about Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins:

“Thelonious Monk once asked Coleman Hawkins, ‘Hawk, how could you make a song that’s a ballad and you didn’t play the melody, and there was no words and still it became a hit?’ ‘Body and Soul’ is a masterpiece. It still is, will always be. Far be it beyond me to explain it. It’s why Coleman Hawkins is in the firmament.”

Here’s Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul”, 1939. His performance in “Body and Soul” was so radical it inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians. He does not play the melody line. Instead, he explores the structure of the song, digging into it.

Posted in Music | 1 Comment

Seeing Creed Today

It’s one of my most-anticipated films of the year. Not just because of my long-standing Rocky obsession, plus my love of Sylvester Stallone, but because I think Michael B. Jordan is so excellent too (Fruitvale Station!) Plus the wonderful Tessa Thompson, so great in Dear White People (I was on the nominating committee for the Gotham Awards last year, and she won for Best Breakthrough Performance – well-deserved). Ryan Coogler directed Creed and he also directed Fruitvale Station, which was a beautiful and visceral-looking film. Exciting that he and Jordan are coming together again.

Besides which … I still can’t stop thinking about that first TRAILER.

Good GOD that is a work of art.

Creed, Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike XXL get my unofficial Award for Best Trailers of the year.

Going to a press screening today at the WB screening room and I’ve been looking forward to it all week.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Carol (2015); d. Todd Haynes


I love Todd Haynes’ work and Carol is very very good. One of the most beautiful-looking films of the year. Painful and poignant. Had one issue with it, but overall, it’s gorgeous and profound.

Based on the novel The Price of Salt, by the great Patricia Highsmith (she who gave us Tom Ripley), Carol tells the story of a romance between a shopgirl and a housewife in 1950 when such a thing was forbidden. Highsmith based this on a real experience she had: she, too, worked behind a toy counter and met an elegant woman, and fell passionately in love with her – love at first sight. But in real life: the interaction at the counter was their ONLY interaction. It never went further than that and Highsmith never saw her again. Highsmith once drove out to New Jersey to stalk the woman’s house – Highsmith was a brilliant and compulsive stalker. Like all great artists, Highsmith took her fantasy of what MIGHT have happened with that woman (in a perfect world, she would have gotten to at least sleep with that gorgeous creature) and then spun it out into a novel. The novel is an act of wish-fulfillment. If you haven’t read The Price of Salt, I highly recommend it!

Phyllis Nagy’s script adaptation stays very close to the novel, with a couple of alterations (some that work very well, and one that doesn’t.) The Price of Salt is not only a wonderful and groundbreaking queer novel but a great work of fiction no matter the genre. Highsmith was in a panic about publishing it under her own name. She never wanted to reveal too much of herself. Besides, the book was deemed far too explosive in any case by many publishers. It was published under a pseudonym in 1952.

Highsmith would make her name with a series of homoerotically charged novels that feature the best portrayals of the sociopathic mind (from the inside) in literature, topped only by Dostoevsky: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game.

It’s thrilling (and perfect) that Todd Haynes, that master of repression, would direct this story.

My review of Carol is now up at

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

The Books: Baseball: A Literary Anthology; “Pitchers and Catchers,” by Moe Berg


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Baseball: A Literary Anthology

I was born into being a baseball fan. It was a requirement for being an O’Malley. (More specifically, it was Red Sox Nation that was the requirement). I watched the games, understood the rules, could participate in the event. But when I realized, somehow – maybe listening to my Dad and my Uncles talk – that the players were not just beautiful thoroughbreds in white uniforms who could do these amazing feats – that the players had a roster in their mind, of every player on every OTHER team, and that all of that information was at their fingertips, so that they could then make choices about what to throw in a clutch situation. It was the strategy element of it that was so revelatory to me, because as an observer (and I’m talking as a 7, 8 year old kid), I couldn’t SEE the strategy – in the same way that you can SEE it in football. What baseball looked like to me was … a neatly set-up game, everyone in their place, and then what happens after that is sheer luck. Everyone can throw, hit, run. But beyond that … who the hell KNOWS what could happen out there. It blew my MIND when I heard my Dad talking about pitchers and stuff like, “Well, he can’t throw low and on the inside to HIM …” If you could imagine a 7-year-old girl doing a double-take, eyes wide, that would be me. “Wait … why can’t he throw low and on the inside?” “Because he knows that so-and-so has a 5 to 1 chance of hitting a home run if it’s low and inside … and because the last time they faced each other, so and so did blah blah blah in the same situation …” You know, that kind of monologue. As a child, those casual comments from my Dad, rattled off at me as though I would know what he was talking about, as though I already understood that aspect of baseball, changed the entire game for me. It LOOKED different after that. Its mysteries had cracked open for me. It became even MORE beautiful and impressive. Those guys out there weren’t just thoroughbred athletes who could do miraculous things. They were highly calibrated computer nerds, the computer being all the stats in their head. I understood that the catcher made signs to the pitcher. But beyond that, I hadn’t really considered the miracle of what that really meant. I’m actually still not over the miracle of the pitcher, and I’ve been watching baseball my whole life. To be able to whip a ball into that tiny space, to be able to place it carefully – low inside, right, left – depending on who’s at bat, who’s on base, the history of the batter, etc. etc. … all of this seemed so otherworldly in expertise … so beyond the level of normal human intelligence and skill … well, it still blows me away.

The following essay, “Pitchers and Catchers,” by Moe Berg, is pretty famous. In 1941 the editor of the Atlantic Monthly reached out to Moe Berg (who was then a coach for the Red Sox, his playing career over) and asked him to write an essay about baseball. Moe Berg had studied modern languages in undergrad at Princeton, and then attended Columbia Law school before going off to play professional baseball. Because yeah, that’s normal.


Guy was an egghead. He was known as a brainiac. Most ballplayers are tremendous brainiacs about the game and their own position, but Moe Berg was a BRAINIAC brainiac.
He spoke many languages, including ancient obsolete ones like Latin and ancient Greek. His teammates razzed him about his smarts. He was an okay player, but his understanding of baseball was world-class, as you can see in the essay excerpted below. (Many players who have that world-class understanding can’t put it into words.) Moe Berg also worked for the OSS (which would eventually become the CIA) traveling to Yugoslavia as a spy, collecting information for the U.S. government. This experience eventually led to a 1976 book about Moe Berg with a title that is one for the history books of Awesome:


Moe Berg’s essay “Pitchers and Catchers” goes into the psychological and physical qualities that go into the guys who play those positions. And since it’s written by Moe Berg it contains sentences such as: “The catcher is the Cerberus of baseball.” God, I love it. The section on “catchers” is superb but the following excerpt is from the pitchers section. Here, he talks about adaptability being “the hallmark” of any big-league hitter – and how that adaptability must translate into the pitcher’s role. It’s a dance between the two. Berg uses a critical moment/choice in the stellar career of pitcher Lefty Grove as an example of what he is talking about.

Robert Moses (Lefty) Grove.

Here’s the excerpt.

Excerpt from Baseball: A Literary Anthology, edited by Nicholas Davidoff. “Pitchers and Catchers,” by Moe Berg

The game is carried back and forth between the pitcher and the hitter. The hitter notices what and where the pitchers are throwing. If the pitcher is getting him out consistently, for example, on a curve outside, the hitter changes his mode of attack. Adaptability is the hallmark of the big-league hitter. Joe Cronin, playing manager of the Red Sox, has changed in his brilliant career from a fast-ball, left-field pull hitter to a curve-ball and a right-field hitter, to and fro through the whole cycle and back again, according to where the pitchers are throwing. He has no apparent weakness, hits to all fields, and is one of the greatest ‘clutch’ hitters in the game. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Like Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove was a fast-ball pitcher, and the hitters knew it. The hitters looked for this pitch; Lefty did not try to fool them by throwing anything else, but most of them were fooled, not by the type of pitch, but by his terrific speed. With two strikes on the hitter, Lefty did throw his curve at times, and that, too, led almost invariably to a strike-out. In 1935, Lefty had recovered from his first serious sore arm of the year before. Wear and tear, and the grind of many seasons, had taken their toll. Now he had changed his tactics, and was pitching curves and fast balls, one or the other. His control was practically perfect. On a day in that year in Washington, Heinie Manush, a great hitter, was at bat with two men on the bases. The game was at stake; the count was three balls and two strikes. Heinie stood there, confident, looking for Lefty’s fast ball. ‘Well,’ thought Heinie, ‘it might be a curve.’ Lefty was throwing the curve more and more now, but the chances with the count of three and two were that Lefty would throw his fast ball with everything he had on it. Fast or curve – he couldn’t throw anything else; he had nothing else to throw. Heinie broke his back striking out on the next pitch, the first fork ball Grove ever threw. For over a year, on the side lines, in the bullpen, between pitching starts, Lefty had practiced and perfected this pitch before he threw it, and he waited for a crucial spot to use it. Lefty had realized his limitations. The hitters were getting to his fast and curve balls more than they used to. He wanted to add to his pitching equipment; he felt he had to. Heinie Manush anticipated, looked for, guessed a fast ball, possibly a curve, but Lefty fooled him with his new pitch, a fork ball.

Here was the perfect setup for out-guessing a hitter. Lefty Grove’s development of a third pitch, the fork ball, is the greatest example in our time of complete, successful change in technique by one pitcher. When a speed-ball pitcher loses his fast one, he has to compensate for such loss by adding to his pitching equipment. Lefty both perfected his control and added a fork ball. Carl Hubbell’s screw ball, practically unhittable at first, made his fast ball and curve effective. Lefty Gomez, reaching that point in his career where he had to add to his fast and curve ball, developed and threw his first knuckle ball this year. Grove, Gomez, and Hubbell, three outstanding left-handers, – Grove and Gomez adding a fork ball and a knuckle ball respectively to their fast and curve balls when their speed was waning, Hubbell developing a screw ball early in his career to make it his best pitch and to become one of the game’s foremost southpaws, – so you have the build-up of great pitchers.

At first, the superspeed of Grove obviated the necessity of pitching brains. But, when his speed began to fade, Lefty turned to his head. With his almost perfect control and the addition of his fork ball, Lefty now fools the hitter with his cunning. With Montaigne, we conceive of Socrates in place of Alexander, of brain for brawn, wit for whip. And this brings us to a fascinating part of the pitcher-hitter dynamic. Does a hitter guess? Does a pitcher try to outguess him? When the pitching process is no longer mechanical, how much of it is psychological? When the speed of a Johnson or a Grove is fading or gone, can the pitcher outguess the hitter?

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Supernatural, Season 11, Next Up …


Posted in Television | Tagged | 60 Comments

Dance Scenes Mash-up to “Uptown Funk”

This is brilliantly edited. So much fun!

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 18 Comments

Gena and Spike


Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee with their Honorary Oscars. Look at their hands.

As my friend Felicia commented: “Game recognize game.”

Posted in Actors, Directors | 6 Comments

By the Sea (2015); d. Angelina Jolie


A lot of the commentary I’ve seen about Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea has been that it is a self-indulgent vanity project. I have some different feelings about all of that, and also have a suspicion that “self-indulgent” means different things to different people, as does the word “vanity” as does the word “project.” You got the picture? Of course it’s okay not to like the damn thing. It’s not all that easy to like, to be honest, although I loved it. But the movie is strange enough that it deserves to be considered on its own terms, and not dismissed out of hand. Plus, pulling out the words “self-indulgent” and “vanity project”: Paucity of words = potential paucity of ideas/thought. Thank you, George Orwell.

Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, though, is excellent, very thought-provoking. The review is not a rave, but Dargis actually grapples with what Angelina Jolie is trying to DO with the film, not just with the film, but with herself and her persona onscreen.

If you read me with any regularity, you know my fascination/love for Strong Personae. The great actors of the old studio system, the ones who basically helped invent screen acting, operated from carefully-constructed and yet totally-natural-to-them Persona. This type of acting is out of style now. We value transformation (weight loss, different accents, how much an actor can “disappear” into a role). But this is not the only way to measure Good Acting (although you’d never know it from some of the commentary. The stupid “He/she just plays themselves” commentary. My thoughts on that for all time here.) But there are still actors who work in that Strong Persona mode and (not surprisingly – to me, anyway) they are some of our biggest box office stars. Leonardo DiCaprio. Julia Roberts. Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. George Clooney. Now WITHIN their personae there is a hell of a lot of variety, as we can see in the careers of the old-school Persona Actors, like John Wayne. It is a mistake to say these people “just play themselves.” They play to their strengths (a smart move, not a limited move. In my opinion, a lot of the actors playing at transforming themselves now do not have the skill to pull it off successfully. They look like they are working. They want points for how hard they are working.) There were great stars in the studio system who were masters of transformation on the more modern model (Bette Davis is maybe the best example). And some of the greatest “transformers” are the stealth-bombers who come in from the side, the ones who are not starlets trying to show how serious they are by “uglying” up, or bald-faced grabbing for an Oscar nom. (Kristen Wiig, in my opinion, is the greatest transformational actress working at present.)

So let’s bring this back to By the Sea. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt, Jolie both carefully and carelessly (it’s an interesting mix) presents a story that is more a mood-poem or an “impression” than an actual traditional story. Jolie is interested in something else. She doesn’t seem to care about conventional things like “keeping the thing moving,” “mix it up,” “create interest” … and in her hands, what happens in the ABSENCE of all of those conventional storytelling tropes is fascinating. Because there is a plot. The thing does move. The thing is interesting. But it’s placed within this moody dreamy atmosphere, an ocean of unexpressed emotions, mysterious motivations, and eloquent “poses” – self-conscious, “arty,” callbacks to other films featuring malaise and beautiful settings and mystery – Godard, Antonioni, Bergman, some of Woody Allen’s non-comedies – and yet these poses are not self-indulgent. Or, to put it another way, because there are deeper issues here: They ARE self-indulgent, and that is not a bad thing when you are talking about actors with gigantic reach and star power and charisma and face-recognition around the world.

Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”

Angelina Jolie knows she and her husband are the most talked-about couple in the world. I won’t go into how they manage their press (except to say that I think they are brilliant at it), but I will say that By the Sea has a self-awareness about the fascination this couple holds for the world. (I know there are some who will say, “I don’t care about these people. I care far more about the starving children in The Sudan.” I get it, you’re deep, but most of us are able to care about more than one thing at a time. One thing does not necessarily cancel out the other.) So what does Angelina Jolie do with that knowledge that she and her husband are gossiped about 24/7? A couple different things. She places the two characters in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. They are rich, so their clothes are exquisite. There are really only three other people who appear in the movie with any regularity. The whole thing is the Angie-Brad show. A little of this goes a long way, and in By the Sea, Jolie pushes it to its limits. Shots repeat, endlessly: Jolie lying on the balcony in the sunshine, collapsed in beautiful misery. Pitt sitting at a bar, smoking, crinkling with humor, looking around and listening. Back to Jolie, lying in bed in a silk negligee, tears streaking mascara down her face. Back to Pitt, in the bar, seated in a corner, squinting his eyes around at the rest of the customers. Back to Jolie, leaning over her balcony in a gigantic sun hat, kicking her beautiful feet up behind her, but otherwise not moving. And on. And on. And on. And on.



As with any film, your mileage may vary in terms of responding to this, but for me: within all of this repetition a bunch of different things start to emerge, or present themselves. Many of these things may not make literal sense, in terms of Story, but they do have something to do with other things that Art can address or portray, like Beauty. Beauty separated from any need other than having to express itself, show itself, reveal itself. In other words, and I hope you’re still with me, you are given TIME to revel in Beauty. Nothing is rushed. You are given TIME to stare at two of the biggest stars in the world being miserable, angst-ridden, and gorgeous. There isn’t even a busy plot that would take up the characters’ consciousness and energy. There isn’t a huge ensemble. All we get is the two of them, sitting in the middle of a shattered marriage, unable to even speak to one another anymore, about what has happened, what is wrong. The “meta” element of this is huge, because they are a couple in real life, because (at least in their outward appearance and press coverage) they have a good relationship … it’s somewhat fascinating and queasy to see these two well-known famous figures “play” at an unhappy marriage filled with rage and loss. I don’t find it self-indulgent at all. Or maybe, like I said, that word has different meanings to different people. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a real-life couple, swam around in the audience’s knowledge of that fact, and “played out” their relationship in multiple movies. This type of pairing counts on the audience feeling “in” on it.


That’s part of the pleasure, added to the perhaps “common” pleasure of seeing gorgeous people in gorgeous settings being fabulous. (I have no shame about loving those things. Because I am fascinated watching actors who are famous for being famous, or famous because their Personae is so strong and indelible – unique – and I love watching these people work with these things. Even in not-very-good movies it’s always interesting.) Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a bunch of movies together when they were the most famous couple in the world – and it is those movies – like V.I.P.s, Boom!, The Sandpiper – which By the Sea most resembles. They are movies of a different era. You must factor that in when you watch them. They are “vehicles,” and there’s a real show-biz savvy “Give the public what they want and give them MORE of what they want” feel to some of those movies (which are, granted, very weird. But By the Sea is weird too.) Burton and Taylor also did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a brilliant film with superb performances from all involved, and there Burton and Taylor were willing to take the lid off, show their ugliness (the characters’ I mean, the picture was not “biography”), be unsympathetic, be willing to live the lives of stuffy academics as opposed to jet-setting glamour-pusses.


Going to watch Burton and Taylor again and again in these movies (good or bad) hits some primal pleasure-points that academic types find baffling, or disapprove of, but it’s a losing battle. People want what they want. And different movies provide different things. Being socially-relevant, politically-explosive, subtle/nuanced is not the ONLY measure of good art or a good movie. It’s ONE measure, but not every movie has the same goals.

Magic Mike XXL, just this year, really had no story. The only story it had (“one last ride!”) was so cliched that it was practically cringe-worthy. But the film was interested in something other than story, plot, or even character. It was interested in Beauty (Jada Pinkett Smith even says that outright in the script). What is Beauty? How do we respond to it? What does it provide us? What happens when it is offered freely? When someone presents themselves to you as an Object – and does so in a spirit of generosity? Wanting only to “make your day”? These are deeply emotional and philosophical concepts, and Magic Mike XXL addressed ALL of them, all while remaining light, breezy, fun, silly. Because taking Beauty too seriously, or getting bogged down in issues of “gaze”, or “objectification” … that’s fine for your dissertation. And there are real issues about gaze (something that Jolie addresses in By the Sea, by her mere presence behind the camera. This movie is HERS.) But taken outside of academic concerns, people need Beauty. They run towards it. It’s no surprise that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were two of the biggest stars during the 20th century’s grimmest decade. They provided pleasure, beauty, glamour, escape. Powerful primal stuff. What you find beautiful may be different from what I find beautiful. Beauty can comfort, narcotize, enliven … it makes OTHER things seem possible. (“Beauty is Truth,” etc.) Magic Mike XXL is RADICAL in the way it presented all of these aspects in a carefree and yet totally pointed way so that the message could not fail to land. There was no love story. No villain. No fight scenes. Seriously: NO PLOT. There was nothing to distract. There was just a merry band of strippers on a crazy road trip, taking pit-stops here, sleep-overs there, spreading joy and sparkly sunshine to everyone they meet along the way.


For real? In this day and age? Well, YES. The world needs THAT just as much as it needs in-depth gravitas. Fun and Beauty can be JUST as radical.

In By the Sea, we first see the couple whipping through the French coast in a zippy silver convertible. She wears a gigantic sun-hat, even larger sunglasses, and her expression is totally flat. A mask of intimidating beauty. He is a bit more lively, glancing at her, leaving one hand on the wheel. Cigarettes nearby at all times. Settling into their Mediterranean hotel, isolated and fabulous, you learn in about two exchanges that he is a writer working on his next book (because of course he is), and she? She does nothing but stand against walls in white dresses, or black nightgowns, looking miserable and heart-achingly beautiful. Like, she doesn’t even seem real. Their dynamic is not just cold, but icy. And yet at the same time, in the first scene when they enter their room, they immediately start to move furniture around in a pantomime suggesting that this is “what they do,” they travel a lot, they know the way they like their rooms, the desk needs to be near the window. This is all done without a word spoken. But it says everything. Or, not everything, but it adds a counterpoint to the nearly-wordless static state of the marriage, where she is miserable, popping pills, unable to leave the room, and he is clearly a high-functioning alcoholic who can’t wait to get to the bar everyday to “write” (but really drink). You still remember, through all of that, the pantomime of these two gorgeous creatures setting up their room the way they liked it.

A honeymooning couple (wonderful French actress and director Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move into the room next door. They have sex all day and all night. They try to make conversation with Vanessa from the next balcony, and Vanessa is so weird she can barely say “Hello.” But then Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall through which she can peer through into the next room. Vanessa’s husband goes off to write, and Vanessa finds herself drawn to that hole in the wall, she can’t help herself, she crouches on the floor staring through at all the sex, and nakedness, and laughing, and post-coital sleeping. It is Vanessa’s secret. Her husband comes home and wonders what she did all day. She drones at him that she took a walk. But she’s still coming out of the fugue state from staring through the hole in the wall.

Finally, one day, as we knew he would, he discovers the hole in the wall too.


And when he discovers it, everything shifts. Things start to speed up, change, intensify. It gets even stranger. The couple, who has been lost, unable to reach one another at all, suddenly start to come together, seemingly. The hole in the wall is their only distraction. The respite doesn’t last long, though, because that hole in the wall is pitiless. It strips them raw of defenses.

The “hole in the wall” reminds me of the “grate” in Woody Allen’s Another Woman. Gena Rowlands, a writer working on a new book, has rented an apartment to be able to work in peace and quiet. On her first day there, she hears a voice coming through the grate, as clear as if the person were in the room with her. The voice is sobbing in a heart-rending way about her life and her husband to a man who is clearly a psychiatrist. Rowlands’ character is very disturbed by this, and needs to get work done, so she places pillows over the grate. Problem solved. Until a couple of days later … she needs to know what is happening over there with that sobbing woman … and she removes the pillows. Moving into a similar dream-fugue state, Gena Rowlands’ character is now seen crouching by the grate, listening, as opposed to sitting at her desk working. What are her thoughts about this? What is she getting from this? What is she running from? What is being stirred up?


Angelina Jolie knows her Another Woman, I’m thinking.

The plot is not “the thing” here. What is “the thing” is Jolie creating a pretty wide space (not too many distractions or requirements built into the script) so that she and her husband can behave and listen and talk, all within the confines of these two particular characters. Some of it feels like an abstract surrealist play. Or something written by Harold Pinter, who was also able to suggest malaise and dread through pauses and short oblique sentences. There’s not an “A-Ha” moment about what is wrong. I guessed about 20 minutes in, as did my friend. It’s not a thriller, building up to an exposition-monologue of “HERE is the HORRIBLE THING in my past.” By the Sea is not manipulative that way. It’s manipulative in other ways, but the kind of manipulation I find pleasing. The “primal” level of “pleasing” that I talked about earlier.

Like watching Joan Crawford step into her meticulously set-up key light, eyes gleaming. Like watching John Wayne walk into a room or walk out of a room. Or, hell, just STAND there.




These are artists who understand who they are (to themselves, AND to the public), who know how to “set themselves up” so that stories can be told, and who USE themselves (literally) as part of a larger narrative … as a sculptor uses clay, stone, etc. That kind of self-awareness is sometimes referred to as “self-indulgent” or “vain” (more so now than it was back in the day). Granted: This kind of self-consciousness in acting can also be extremely arch and annoying and worthless, yes. You have to be a real pro to pull it off. Your Persona must be Mount-Rushmore-strong. And let’s not forget the double-standard in material like this. Kevin Costner often let the camera dwell lovingly upon his own ass in Dances with Wolves and nobody called him out on it. Nobody even noticed it. Barbra Streisand did the same thing in Prince of Tides and she was excoriated for it. “She’s so VAIN. Does she honestly think she’s beautiful? Who the hell does this broad think she is??” Jolie is FULLY aware of this double standard, and instead of avoiding it (by, say, not filming herself in an objectifying way), she dives right on in. The camera moves up her body. The camera is carefully placed so her stunning profile takes up half the foreground. She is seen putting makeup on in the dressing-room mirror, cigarette clenched between her teeth, and she is as breathtaking as Bardot, Anouk Aimee, any screen goddess you want to mention. Jolie is playing with all of those criticisms, acknowledging them, up-ending them. She is a woman. It is interesting to see how she DEALS with all of that, not just in filming herself, but in filming the newlyweds next door (gorgeous and golden and laughing and free), the old guy in the bar, even all the extras who populate the area. Jolie’s eye is keen for this kind of detail, but it is when she turns the camera on herself that the film tips over into … iconography? Myth? It’s both dream and nightmare. None of it is realistic because this kind of Beauty doesn’t REALLY exist, except in our own minds and hearts and pleasure-spots.


All of this being said, I found By the Sea a total hoot, actually. There’s a lot of humor in it. Not slapstick or obvious, but from absurdity and inexplicable behavior. But the real “hoot” comes because the film hits all of those sweet spots I’ve been going on about. It has the confidence to resist conventional pacing, to let silence dominate. It lets people be weird and incomprehensible, unsympathetic and yet tragic. It lets images be mysterious and unexplained. Pitt is wonderful as a trapped man, whose original talent is now drowning in alcohol, a guy known only for his first book, when it all came easy. Once things started getting hard for him, he was at a loss how to recover that ease. And he can’t reach his wife. He takes a condescending tone with her, almost scolding her in a parental way for her attitude. She doesn’t fight back because she knows he’s right. Besides, Jolie’s character is constantly narcotized, an opiate addict of some kind. Her responses are not just subdued, but total apathetic flat-affect. Interspersed with frightening crying jags. When he tries to touch her, she cringes, her eyes flitting about like a wild animal in a trap.

Can this marriage be saved??

Honestly, neither one of these characters seems like a prize. The film isn’t about us “investing” in their relationships because how can you really invest in a couple so fabulously wealthy and devastatingly sad? Jolie wanted to create an art film. She has said the film came out of the grief following her mother’s death, as well as some of the issues/losses/feelings she experienced with her recent decisions to get a double mastectomy/hysterectomy. The film is truly strange, but it also feels deeply personal. Posing, self-indulgence, vanity … none of that matters or grates if it’s a Strong Persona doing it, because what Strong Personae can do is bring themselves to every moment. Nothing is forced. The camera light goes on and Strong Personae people open themselves up, gently, automatically. They are more intimate with the camera than they are with other human beings. The camera goes deeper, cuts to the essence of things.

Jolie, a private person (as well as very public when she wants to be), understands ALL of this. But what is really fascinating about By the Sea is what Dargis mentioned in her review: Crucially, Vanessa’s focus moves next door to the honeymooning neighbors. It’s when the movie really starts. Jolie sets herself up as the center of the film, her character lying in bed, out on the balcony, wearing amazing clothes, smoking, popping pills, crying gorgeously. But she can’t help but crouch on that floor, peeking through that hole in the wall, at a world other than her own, at a world in which she plays ZERO part. That world/life over there is appealing, it’s destabilizing. The hole in the wall is a great device and Jolie has a lot of fun exploring it. The device takes the characters to really unexpected places of intimacy, treachery, openness, loss.

By the Sea doesn’t feel like a story in the way we usually understand stories. By the Sea feels like Jolie has created an opportunity where she and her famous husband – who go to Target with their brood of children followed by an army of photographers – can PLAY with all of these ideas, fight, cry, smolder, talk, BE, with the least amount of distraction.

Even better, even more powerfully, the film allows them to put themselves on display for us. Yes, within the structure of the film, the characters behave, listen, talk, react. Both Jolie and Pitt do wonderful work. But on another level, that meta-level, the level of Beauty, the Magic Mike XXL level, By the Sea lets us LOOK at them. Gives us time to just LOOK at them and not do ANYTHING else.

This kind of reaction is usually called “shallow.”

But Oscar Wilde, often criticized in his day for being shallow, had a thing or two to say about that, my favorite one being:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.


Posted in Movies | Tagged , | 27 Comments