Watching films is an addiction, consumed one by one, regardless of story or value, but for how they are shot – the lights, shots and edits, watching as as alien, trying to understand the language of this world through Annaud’s The Bear, Zemekis’ Castaway and Luketic’s Paranoia. Finding the moments, beautifully or ridiculously rendered: Redford’s Ordinary People, Hiller’s Silver Streak, NIchols’ Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970). And then the day is gone, lost in the confusion of make belief, and you are an alien no longer, just tired.
There’s supposed to be something like three stories, right? Boy Meets Girl. Boy Kills Father. Boy Gets Old. Whatever the number of seminal narratives, it’s all derivatives of derivatives now, exemplified by Jordan Peele’s ballyhooed Get Out. While the film is a compelling attempt to address the hypocrisy of whites pretending not being racist, the story mashes up Scream, Being John Malkovich and Driving Miss Daisy and is plodding at best. There is no character development nor even plot, nothing to consider in the individual, except that we’re just derivatives of derivatives of ourselves.20th Century Women, ironically this year’s choice original screenplay at the Oscars, represents more laziness, offering moronic short-hand for finding truth in accepting our silly old selves. Quirky, they call it.Both films fall into a blithering tradition, initiated by heralded auteurs with such films as Breathless, Easy Rider, and The Last Picture Show. Rather than offer an arc or delve into the intricacies of character, these films offer things to look at, moments to be consumed, and then we’re needing more.
a. Derived from the Greek, meaning no place or not on a map, the word was re-purposed by Sir Tomas More 500 years ago to mean paradise.
This year’s Oscar nominations for Best Live-Action Short are all European: The Woman and the TGV (Switzerland), Silent Nights (Denmark), Time Code (Spain), Enemies Within (France) and Sing (Hungary). And while all have obvious merits, most fail at the short format, striving instead to be an abbreviated feature. Aske Bang’s Silent Nights is the most flawed in this regard – cramming in a passionate on-again-off-again affair, a mugging, death of a parent, deportation and sudden pregnancy into 30 minutes. Timo von Guten’s The Woman and the TGV, although entertaining and meticulously shot, suffers from a kind of Amelie envy. Kristof Deak’s Sing and Selim Azzazi’s Enemies Within briefly focus on the key of the short format – that of a specific and intense relationship – but both lose focus in the end. It is only Juanjo Gimenez’s Time Code – the shortest of the entries at fifteen minutes – that understands the structure of short films. It delivers from beginning to end with humor and insight into the human condition while never overshooting its mark – people are happier when they accept themselves.
Ava DuVernay’s Academy-nominated documentary 13th exposes the intrinsic flaw of America’s 13th Amendment. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
While abolishing slavery is well and good – how did it ever happen in the first place?! – the amendment allows for the practice to continue through the penal system, a system that systematically incarcerates black males in America, a population that, only 4% of the overall population, accounts for 40% of prisoners. DuVernay outlines America’s dismal history of discrimination and servitude, citing Jim Crow laws as well as the systematic targeting of black leaders such as Angela Davis and Black Panther Fred Hampton.Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton are all indicted for the role in the morass as well as So-Called President Trump. Most insidious of all is the monetization of the mass incarcerations – corporations such as WalMart and Time Warner directly profiting from these policies – as well as the understanding that another iteration of the racist laws awaits us all. DuVernay’s film needs to be seen. Okay, so what are you doing? Watch it now!
While researching my Undergraduate Thesis on Walt Disney, Goodness!, I visited the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank in 1986 to view Song of the South, their only film unavailable for public viewing. Not only did they deny me access to the film, but they refused to answer any questions about it. “Have you shelved the film because of racist stereotypes like Uncle Remus?”
“We cannot comment on that.”
My thesis was not in fact on the racism (nor sexism) inherent in the Disney creed but rather in their tendency to simplify (or rather stupefy) details of story. The best example of this was their decision to keep Jiminy Cricket alive throughout the Disney version of Pinnochio as a road buddy when in fact Pinnochio kills the insect in the opening pages of the original story by Carlos Collodi. The irony is that Song of the South is not a skeleton in Disney’s closet – Uncle Tom’s and all – but an example of just another film which uses gimmicks and song – Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Zip-A-Dee-A – to cover up bland story-telling and stereotypes that have undercut many Hollywood films.
To say nothing of the country as a whole.
The film opens with an extreme close-up of a black man, Nogo, driving at night on a deserted road. The camera pulls back to reveal Nogo being followed by a full-size pickup truck, its high beams bearing down. Nogo is forced off the road. The driver and passengers, each bearing arms, lean out of the truck as Nogo leaps out, tire iron in hand.“Tolerance! You got that?” He smashes out a headlight and then the other as the driver raises a shotgun. Nogo stares back, defiant. “You better have more than that.”
Yes, just think Django Unchained meets Punch Drunk Love meets Easy Rider.