This is my piece for an upcoming author-meets-critics session on Pippin’s new book on Sirk. I think it stands reasonably well on its own and it’s a decent advertisement for the book, which I like very much, and so I wanted to post it here. I won’t be reading this out at the event. I’ll speak on the same material extemporaneously.
Robert B. Pippin’s new book, Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker and Philosopher, should be an immense pleasure for Sirk aficionados. He develops a robust overarching analysis of Sirk’s brand of satirical irony, along with nuanced interpretations of three of his great Universal melodramas: All that Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. My subject is All the Heaven Allows, which tells the story of bourgeois widow Cary (Jane Wyman) contending with the disapproval of her children and social circle when she begins a romance with her much younger gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson).
The film’s narrative is straightforward. Cary lives in the posh New England community of Stoningham. She has a daughter, Kay, and son, Ned, away at college. Her friends and children coax her towards a relationship with the respectable and sexless Harvey, while she is swept up in the more exciting possibility presented by handsome, virile Ron. Ron lives in a rural setting and keeps an eclectic set of friends. He is described by one of these friends as a paragon of Thoreauvian non-conformism. He goes his own way, and doesn’t care a lick for the restrictive expectations of polite society. He wants Cary to follow the same path, leaving her social world and lifestyle behind to take up with him. Their relationship is disrupted when the incommensurability of Ron’s rigid non-conformism and Cary’s embeddedness in her social world comes to a head. Eventually, the lovers are reunited. It is—at least at first blush—a happy ending.
Pippin’s interpretation of All that Heaven Allows begins from an observation about the broader category of subversive melodrama. He points to the phenomenon that I’ll call the “double ending.” A double ending is one where an ostensible happy ending is subverted by some unsettling element, which might then prompt us to reflect on whether it was really such a happy ending after all and to reinterpret the film in this light. At the end of Max Ophüls’ Caught, for instance, we find the do-gooder doctor played by James Mason not only unfazed, but activelypleased that Barbara Bel Geddes’ character has had a miscarriage, an event which he sees as freeing her up to pursue a happy life with him. The film recently played on the Criterion Channel, and as many people watched it for the first time and logged their opinions on the film social media app Letterboxd, I was struck by the way that nearly every review highlighted the ending but was unsure of what to say about it. In an earlier review, Neil Bahadur wrote, “The ending is obviously a bit compromised but otherwise this is seriously next level, for my money the best of the American Ophüls pictures.” Reviews like this express a sense that there’s something off about the ending. It might seem as though the happy tone was something the studio forced upon Ophüls, who may have wanted to end on a bitterer note.
Pippin suggests a different way to understand this tension. He argues that the trope of the double ending is bound up with the thematic concerns of subversive melodrama. In particular, the double ending is an effective means of portraying the condition of self-blindness that characterizes bourgeois life. The unease of the viewer (“something is off about that ending….”) mirrors the blinkering self-awareness of the characters in the film. At the end of Caught, we can see that Barbara Bel Geddes is not pleased about her miscarriage, and we sense that something is very wrong. At the same time, the film’s score reassures us that this is indeed a happy ending. We walk out of the theater at one level content that Bel Geddes has been freed from Robert Ryan’s abuse and is able to move forward with James Mason, but also vaguely disturbed by what the closing moments of the film reflects about Mason’s character. We might brush this tension off by assuming that the ending must have been compromised, or we might dig deeper into what bothers us. Our unsettled condition is also, we might imagine, the condition that Bel Geddes’ character is in. She is happy to be freed from Ryan and she will move forward with Mason, but to what extent will she be haunted by her miscarriage and by Mason’s narcissistic reaction to it? If she imagines herself happy in this new life, to what extent must this imagined happiness depend on self-deception?
Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows also has an ostensibly happy ending, which Pippin claims has the same sort of dual character that we find in Caught. Cary is reunited with Ron, and the two will be together going forward. But, Pippin argues, several details should make us uneasy. At the end of the film, Cary sees a doctor who tells her that her symptoms do not appear to be caused by any underlying health problem, but rather by Ron’s absence, and that she should go to him. She drives to his house and he is out hunting, but she doesn’t even realize this because she doesn’t knock on the door. She walks up to it, has a second thought (presumably about the fact that she would have to give up nearly every element of her own life in order to be with Ron), and walks away without knocking. Ron sees her in the distance, and in his haste to get her attention tumbles over a cliff and injures himself. Cary doesn’t even learn of his injury till she is told over the phone later. Finally, we learn that his recovery will be slow and that he will need to be cared for, and that Cary will fulfill this role.
This is readily taken as a happy ending: Cary and Ron are reunited. But we should also feel uneasy; she didn’t knock, after all. She did not make the decision to enter into this relationship. Rather, she fell into it because of Ron’s newfound need for a caretaker. The primary obstacle that their relationship faced was the collision of the social expectation that a widow should be respectably sexless and the lascivious implications of her attachment to young and virile Ron. This obstacle has been removed not by a frontal confrontation with the injustice of the rigid social expectations Cary faces, but by Ron’s emasculation. Their relationship no longer has the same implications. Moreover, Ron’s cabin has been made over as a bourgeois fantasy of rustic living, suggesting that Cary’s world going forward will not be all that different from the world she’s leaving behind. In this connection, Pippin emphasizes that the Throeauvian romanticism of Ron’s world is built upon a form of self-blindness in much the same way that Cary’s world is. Ron is not some individualist ideal; he’s a Christmas tree farmer. He’s a cog in the same capitalist system that the residents of Stoningham are; he just has a nicer view.
I find this take on All that Heaven Allows largely compelling. By way of response, I want to focus first on a few relatively minor disagreements with Pippin’s interpretation of the film that lead me to think that its double ending is not as harsh as he takes it to be. But I then want to argue that its deep ambivalence—its dual character as happy ending and subversive social critique—is on this account even better suited to the theme of self-blindness.
Pippin’s assessment is grim, “Nothing we have seen suggests that the town will change, or even that Cary will change very much. What looks like the reunion of two now independent, self-reliant souls is simply one more way of compromising with the specifics of bourgeois life…. Cary, we expect, will manage to find a way, most likely through self-deceit, to imagine that what they do together will be authentic and their own, even as it reproduces the norms that we have seen enforced throughout.” (59) While I do agree that there is a sense in which we should expect that the couple’s life going forward will reproduce that norms that we have seen enforced in the film, I have a different thought about which norms are most salient.
Sirk does, I think, intend for the audience to grasp a real difference between Ron’s world and the social world of Stoningham. I agree with Pippin that the Thoreau references have a sardonic touch, and that Sirk is critical of the narrative of rugged individualism and authenticity and its role in the American imaginary. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize there are concrete ways in which Ron and at least some of his friends are freer than the residents of Stoningham and better positioned to achieve some qualified form of self-actualization. This point could be developed in several ways, but the most striking for me is the contrast between the opening party at the Stoningham Country Club and the one at Mick and Alida’s house. The first party scene focuses on the mechanics through which rigid social expectations are enforced: cruel gossip, snide insinuation, and so on. Everyone is white and well-off. Over the course of this party and the later Stoningham event that Cary brings Ron to, we see that lecherous (and in some cases downright repugnant) behavior from men is casually accepted while even the slightest hint of female sexual agency is cause for scandal. Contrast this with Mick and Alida’s party. The first guests who arrive after Ron and Cary are Manuel, a lobster fisherman with a thick Italian accent, his wife Rozanne, and their daughter Marguerita, who Rozanne introduces in Spanish (suggesting either that she does not speak English or does not prefer to speak English). Next, Grandpa Adams shows up. He’s a beekeeper and artist. Finally, there’s Miss Pidway, famed birdwatcher. Ron plays the piano and sings while Rozanne accompanies him on accordion. This is—in a non-trivial way—a much, much better party than the one at the country club. Sirk gleefully emphasizes what a hodgepodge of people this is, and how much fun they’re having. Among this crowd, diversity is not just accepted, it is embraced. No one is worried about lowering their social status by associating with fishermen or tree farmers. Age is not a boundary; the young and old dance together with festive abandon. We see Miss Pidway cutting a rug with Grandpa Adams and no one thinks her overly sexual on this account.
Pippin makes much of the shift in décor in the old mill at the end of the film. There is no question that it is a couple notches closer to Cary’s world than it might have been. I am not inclined, however, to think that it has simply collapsed into the same bourgeois world that we find in Stoningham. Moreover, to the extent that Ron has attempted to decorate the house in a way that would appeal to Cary, he has made a compromise for her sake, and in this way has softened the “my way or the highway” rigidity he expressed earlier in the film. But it is just a partial compromise, not a full assimilation to the Stoningham way. The décor we find in Cary’s house and other Stoningham locations is far posher and more opulent, with gaudy silver pieces on display and plush furniture. Ron’s decorating scheme reflects something of the bourgeois fantasy of rural living (a fantasy I know all too well, living as I do in a mountain state to which many remotely employed Californians have recently fled), and we do see a couple clear echoes of Cary’s décor (notably the silver pitcher that Cary’s coffee is served in) but it is missing most of the markers of affluence that we find in Stoningham. The curtains are shabby and the floor and walls are still unfinished wood—and I’m not talking about some fancy distressed finish; they look dirty. This is just to say that there are still clear visual markers at the end of the film that Ron’s world is not the bourgeois world of Stoningham.
The other detail I want to emphasize is the brief conversation between Cary and Alida at the end of the film, after Ron has been injured. Two earlier scenes set the stage. In one scene, Alida told Cary that she and Mick were once a part of Cary’s bourgeois world, and that what it took to leave that world behind was not just Thoreau’s influence and Ron’s leading by example, but also Mick’s being injured in the Korean War. This injury changed their perspective and enabled them to see that the things that once seemed so important—keeping up with the Joneses, managing one’s reputation with local gossips, and so on—are not important after all. Now they grow trees and hang out with Grandpa Adams and Miss Pidway and do all sorts of rural stuff that they seem to find quite satisfying. While Pippin’s point that they are all still part of the larger capitalist system is well-taken, I think it is crucially important that Sirk portrays these people as having real joy in their lives. Ron LOVES trees. When we see him slinging Douglas firs at the Christmas tree lot, he’s having a great time. Even at the beginning of the film, when he’s explaining his plan to leave gardening behind to focus on his own nursery, he’s brimming with excitement. It’s also crucially important that he does not care one bit that this pursuit guarantees a diminished social position and lower income than he might expect if he made a real effort to keep up with the Joneses.
The other scene that sets the stage for Cary’s final talk with Alida is the bit when Cary is worried about the gossip that will spread in Stoningham about her and Ron, and Ron urges her not to be afraid. Cary asks him if this is the lesson that Mick learned from him, and he tells her that this is something that one must learn for oneself, and that to do so is to “be a man.” He tells her that he wants her to be a man, but “only in this one respect.”
Both of these scenes reverberate in the final meeting between Alida and Cary. My understanding of this scene is close to Pippin’s, but not quite the same. Cary explicitly refers back to her first conversation with Alida, “You told me once that Ron was so secure within himself because he refused to give importance to unimportant things. Why did it take me so long to understand it?” Alida reassures her that it had also taken them a long time to come around to this realization. Cary goes on about how she was a coward for letting others—and herself—keep her from Ron. We can infer that Ron’s accident is playing the same role for her that Mick’s war injury played for him and Alida—it shifts her perspective and enabled her to see “what’s really important.”
But here’s the rub: who’s really “the man” in this situation? In other words: has Cary asserted her own desires in the face of pressure to conform, or has she rather conformed to a different set of gendered expectations? Ron’s refusal to conform is also a refusal to grow up and acknowledge the web of obligations that adults incur. As Pippin points out, we are signaled early in the film to be on the lookout for Oedipus complexes, and in this connection we should have noticed both the conspicuous absence of Ron’s mother and the implications of his comment “I’ve met plenty of girls” in reference to his special attraction to Cary. He doesn’t want a girl (and all the responsibilities that would come with committing to one); he wants a mommy. And at the end of the film—laid up with an injury and in need of constant care and attention—he gets one.
I find Pippin’s insight into the phenomenon of the double ending extremely illuminating on this point, but I would shift the emphasis slightly. What is unsettling at the end of the film, I argue, is not the sense that things will go on as before, but rather Cary’s self-blindness about her lack of agency in the situation. Pippin does make the point that Cary has essentially been forced into this new arrangement, but what I think he undersells is her illusory sense that she does have agency in this development—that she has finally been a man. When she asks, “why did it take me so long to see it?”, she implies that she hasseen it—that she has decided for herself that she should be with Ron, and that she has stood up to Mona and her kids and everybody else who wanted to keep the two of them apart. That is, she implies that she has finally become an independent agent.
But, in fact, she has not. She didn’t stand up to her kids, they just stopped caring, and indeed Kay—who has previously been portrayed as valuing her own intellectual development and independence—is about to enter into a marriage where she will play a supporting role to a meathead husband. I point this out because it is another way in which Sirk emphasizes at the end of the film that there is no viable path to independent agency for the women in this world. Even Alida is portrayed as following her husband’s lead into their Thoreauvian fantasy. Cary has not confronted the obstacles that stood between her and Ron. These obstacles were removed by his injury. The prohibition against her sexuality has not been cancelled. It’s just that her relationship with Ron no longer implies transgressive sexual pleasure. She’s mommy and caregiver, and it’s going to be a tough road going forward.
Pippin is absolutely right to say that we should sense on the way out of the theater after seeing All that Heaven Allows that there’s something “off” about the ending. He’s also right that this should prompt us to reflect on the fact that Cary did not knock on the door and choose to be with Ron, but rather acquiesced when the new role of caretaker was placed on her. To the extent that the ending unsettles us in this way, we can begin to see what we were initially blind to—that Cary has not gotten over her fears and become a full-fledged agent, but rather has slid into a different socially-defined gendered role that she has not actively chosen. But the parties she attends will be better, I think we can safely say, and her life will be more joyous than it was at the beginning of the film. The primary locus of her self-blindness going forward—to deepen the irony—is her false sense of having freed herself from self-blindness. It is important that the ending is indeed happy: she will be happier in her new life, but she will falsely think that she has claimed this happiness through her own agency. She asks, “Why did it take me so long to see?” But she never did see it—at least not for herself.
It is upon us! The best month! This year the streaming gruel is particularly thin, so I strongly recommend subscribing to Shudder (at least for the month). For the first time in 20 rounds of streaming recommendations, I’m not recommending a single thing from Netflix. Their horror slate right now is pathetic. They have nothing good that I haven’t already recommended more than once. Compare their piddling little horror section with HBO Max’s very fun Halloween feature, where you can click on mystery doors labeled “Not Scary at All,” “Scary,” or “Very Scary.” HBO also has a ton of children’s horror that is temptingly presented and that I’m sure will thrill my niece. I’m skipping Hulu as well. They have a better slate than Netflix, but they still have very little that I haven’t already recommended.
The Untold Story
This is one of my favorite horror films, but it comes with an emphatic warning: this is not something you should watch if you have limits. It’s one of Herman Yau’s notorious Category III films from the 90’s (Category III is like Hong Kong’s NC-17). Anthony Wong gives one of the greatest horror performances of all time.
Messiah of Evil
This is another favorite of mine that has long been very difficult to see in decent quality. It’s finally been restored! It’s a slow burn 70’s oddball dread jam. This is the complete opposite side of the spectrum from The Untold Story.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key
Peak Sergio Martino giallo with the best title of any movie ever. Edwige Fenech and Anita Strindberg: you can’t beat it.
The Whip and the Body
Extraordinary gothic horror from Mario Bava, starring Christopher Lee. This is all trap doors and secret passages and twisted secrets. Watch this together with Lisa and the Devil (also on Shudder) and be amazed at Bava’s equally stunning facility with dark tones and opulent color.
One of my favorite horror films from the last couple of years. It’s a breathlessly paced chase movie riffing on little red riding hood. It’s mean and nasty with a surprising fantastical touch.
Another favorite from recent years. Don’t even think about watching this while the sun is out. You want to watch this late at night and as loudly as possible. It’s a drug-addled LA vampire fever dream in grimy 16mm. The sound design is out of control. The music is great across the board but the use of sludgy doom metal during the most intense scenes is especially inspired.
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker
Hysterical and twisted 80’s psychosexual maternal horror bonanza with Susan Tyrell on full tilt.
Beyond the Door
Before this even starts to get weird we have a little girl who carries around 12 copies of Love Story and a little boy who constantly sips pea soup directly from the can through a straw. There’s a ridiculously long scene where a character is accosted by a trio of street musicians, one of whom is forcefully playing a nose flute. This is for real.
The Fifth Cord
Luigi Bazzoni giallo. This is a little bit of a deeper cut, but it’s one of the high points of the subgenre. It’s got cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist) and a score from Ennio Morricone. Franco Nero plays an alcoholic reporter.
Wishmaster and Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies
Funny, imaginative monkey’s paw djinn horror. I watch Wishmaster to fall asleep when I have insomnia. It is one of my favorite comfort movies.
Survival of the Dead
This late work from Romero deserves another look. It’s a zombie riff on William Wyler’s The Big Country and it anticipates the growth of tribalism in the US. It’s not his best work by any means, but it is still far better than nearly all of the zombie movies not made by Romero.
The Lords of Salem
I recommend this every year and I intend to continue doing so. It’s Rob Zombie’s masterpiece and far and away the best horror movie of the last decade.
I See You
Try to avoid finding anything out about this. It mashes up a couple subgenres in a surprising, creative way. It’s a hoot and the score is great. Helen Hunt!
The Loved Ones
Pleasantly twisted and effectively squirmy Australian horror.
Hammer Horror: The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy
This is the first wave of great Terence Fisher/Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing flicks. If you haven’t seen these, you absolutely should. Enthusiastically recommended for everyone.
A quartet of Japanese ghost stories from Kobayashi, based on folklore. Absolutely gorgeous movie, not to be missed.
Hunted, recommended above (on Shudder), is by Vincent Paronnaud, one of the directors of Persepolis. This is by the other director of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. This one is waaaaaay out there and I have deep affection for it. The Ryan Reynolds factor is extremely high, so it’s only for people who roll with RR.
This is a certified banger and one of the high points of the Conjuringverse. It’s tense and tightly constructed. Watched in the right setting, it’s properly terrifying. By the director of Lights Out, David F. Sandberg. The dude has chops.
Tony Scott’s early art horror vampire erotica. Very unlike the rest of his filmography and decidedly not for everyone. Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon (aka the best possible sexy vampire cast).
One of my favorite horror films of the 00’s. Beatrice Dalle is a singular actress, and she is at her absolute peak here. It’s a dense, relentless movie, and only for people with more extreme taste.
The Black Cat
This is like an hour long and there is no excuse for not watching it. Peak 30’s horror from Ulmer with both Lugosi and Karloff. It contains multitudes.
Another black cat. Shindo’s masterpiece, featuring some of the most exquisite B&W images in the horror genre.
When Clint Eastwood began his 50 year directorial career at age 41, he was already an icon. He was Rowdy Yates from Rawhide, then he was The Man With No Name, and in 1971 (the same year he directed his first feature), he became Dirty Harry Callahan. He set straight to work on dismantling and subverting his own iconography (High Plains Drifter, anyone?). His films reveal an obsession with dismantling his own status in the American imagination as the Man’s Man– the cop who won’t play by the rules, the tough guy badass hero who saves the day and spits on the ground, the ultimate cowboy. His Unforgiven is the ne plus ultra of the deromanticized Western. His war movies interrogate American mythologies of heroism and his crime movies find the cops lost in the same moral fog as the criminals.
If you know me at all, you know that I’m a fan of Clint’s late work. I’m a fan of Late Style quite generally: I’m deeply fascinated by the final stages of a great artistic career, where an acknowledged master has nothing left to prove and no shits left to give and just follows their inspiration where it takes them. This year in Late Style we’ve got quite a haul already: Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter and Clint’s Cry Macho. I do like the former quite a bit, but the latter is truly great.
It’s the third film that Eastwood has collaborated on with Nick Schenk. I see these three films as a loose trilogy where Clint Eastwood the man lays Clint Eastwood the icon to rest. These are complex films with multiple thematic layers, and I couldn’t possibly begin to do justice to them here, but I do want to try to develop this thought a little further and briefly explain how I see the three fitting together.
Smug philistines are fond of a particularly simplistic Gran Torino critique: racial slurs play for laughs and then an Archie Bunker-esque character gets redeemed, with the result that Fox News audiences get to laugh at racist jokes then feel unwarranted gratification at their own anti-racism due to the redemptive ending. Did it work like this for some audiences? Yes, surely. But you can’t blame Clint for lobotomized Fox News fans liking his movie for the wrong reasons. The same thing happened with American Sniper and the same thing happens every Fourth of July when Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” gets played as though it were a patriotic anthem.
Clint’s character in Gran Torino (Walt) is ostensibly a retired auto worker, but really he is Dirty Harry. Watch the two movies together and you’ll see that it couldn’t be clearer. One of the main things the film is about is the way that swaggering tough guy machismo of the Dirty Harry variety is the surface manifestation of repressed pain and self-loathing. Walt has PTSD from the Korean War, and is particularly haunted by his own acts of violence towards Korean men. He sublimates his pain surrounding these memories into ongoing racial bitterness. When the movie begins, he’s the only white guy left in a Detroit neighborhood that has slowly transformed into a Hmong community and he’s not happy about it. He doesn’t even understand who the Hmong are, but he knows he hates them.
Movies where a cantankerous white person is won over to racial understanding are admittedly not the most sophisticated genre, but please don’t confuse this with the efforts of lesser filmmakers. Clint has a strong point of view here—it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s not some cheap and easy feel-good nonsense. What the film focuses on is the way that Walt and his Hmong neighbors ultimately bond over their shared class identification. Before he’s white and before he’s American, Walt is a working class Detroit guy. He has more in common with the Hmong immigrant community than he does with his own spoiled suburban family. The film’s insistent doubling down on its use of racial slurs is provocative, but it’s contextualized by the idea (plain as day for anyone open to seeing the movie as sophisticated and self-critical) that certain ways of using racial slurs express mutual affection and shared class identification. At a Detroit auto garage where Italian, black, and Hmong mechanics work side-by-side and become close friends, the use of slurs means something very different than it does in other contexts. Read Luvell Anderson’s excellent work on slurs for a robust philosophical analysis of their context-dependence and the way they can express intimacy.
Clint’s character in the film begins as a bitter Dirty Harry-style racist and ends with a grand penitential gesture. Is he redeemed? In some sense, yes. But it’s important to highlight that the primary reward of his redemption is release from the pain of racial bitterness. That’s not a cheap and easy redemption of the sort that should bother us.
While Gran Torino is more about Clint the icon, The Mule is more about Clint the man. He casts his own daughter in the film as the daughter who hates him and explores his profound regret around the way he lost his family while he was out passing around meaningless trophies. I’ve written about The Mule quite a bit already so I’ll refrain from rehearsing my line here but I do think it’s important to see that just as he subverts the image of Dirty Harry in Gran Torino, he subverts his own celebrity in The Mule.
Cry Macho is the elegy. Some hack commentators complain about casting a 91 year old in the film’s lead role when the character in the novel is more like 40. This is such a bad take. The film is not simply an adaptation of the novel; it’s also about Clint’s iconography. Alongside John Wayne, he is the ultimate cowboy. But unlike John Wayne, he’s spent more than half his life purposefully subverting his own image. The film is blunt about the way archetypes are deployed: the boy who Mike is on a mission to rescue (Rafa) names his rooster Macho and very explicitly seeks to become a macho tough guy who can protect himself from the sort of abuse his mother has wantonly subjected him to. He agrees to go with Mike because Mike is a real cowboy. He embodies Rafa’s idea of what it is to be a man, just like Clint Eastwood does in the popular imagination. But Mike is old enough to have learned that his own macho image was hollow. For the first time ever (I believe), we see Clint shed a tear onscreen. But perhaps more importantly, we also see him express joy and bemused contentment in his old age. He smiles so much in the movie. It’s so warm (though he still finds a few minutes to spend cursing under his breath at the cops). This is important in part because Clint the icon does not smile. He’ll stare you down, but he won’t smile. Rafa hoped Mike would teach him how to be a tough guy who can handle anything, but Mike instead teaches him that this is a bullshit ideal. He teaches him that it’s okay to be emotional, both when this means crying openly and when it means earnestly expressing joy. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the film’s resolution conveys Clint’s own sense of peace and acceptance of the realities of aging. If Gran Torino reveals the pain behind Dirty Harry’s tough guy facade, Cry Macho reveals the joy of letting it all go. It’s a wonderful movie, and one that I’m grateful to have in my life.
This is the first time that I’ve ever posted my academic work as a blog post, but I think it’s appropriate in this case. This is the initial draft of my contribution to the upcoming volume Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick (ed. Steven Delay, under contract with Suny Press). These volumes can take a long time to come out and I’m excited about this stuff right now, so I want to share it. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to include pictures in the final version (probably not), but I’ve added a few here.
Malick’s run of films from 2011 through 2017 (Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Voyage of Time, and Song to Song) are among the most polarizing works in contemporary cinema. This is no surprise to me, because they are at once formally challenging and blissfully unfashionable in their lofty spiritual orientation. These films are characterized by notable stylistic continuity, particularly To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, which were all filmed without a script and edited in a similar style. Tree of Life and Voyage of Time also bear certain strong affinities, both to each other and to the other three, but are distinct in that Tree of Life was filmed with a script and has a more cohesive and legible narrative, while Voyage of Time is an experimental documentary with no traditional narrative at all.
Commentators have identified two possible trilogies among these films. Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups have been seen as an autobiographical trilogy, paring episodes from Malick’s life with spiritual themes. Roughly, Tree of Life pairs his brother’s untimely death with themes including grace and the problem of evil, To the Wonder pairs his first marriage and his reunion with an earlier love with themes including God’s silence and the way that suffering can enable spiritual progress, and Knight of Cups pairs his early years as a Hollywood screenwriter with themes including worldly temptation and spiritual awakening. Others have suggested that To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song constitute a trilogy. Commentators including Michael Joshua Rowin and Robert Sinnerbrink refer to these three films as the “Weightless Trilogy,” after the original title of Song to Song.These films are connected by their unscripted, improvisational style, contemporary setting, thematic purview, and experimental editing.
Our only clue from Malick himself is that he has explicitly denied that he thinks of the first three films as an autobiographical trilogy. His longtime friend Jim Lynch asked him directly. According to Lynch, “He didn’t like me labeling them that way. He didn’t want people thinking that he was just making movies about himself. He was making movies about broader issues.” Notably, he did not correct Lynch by telling him that the latter two films in fact belong to an unfinished trilogy. My own take is that there is some sense in which all of these films should be grouped together. Tree of Life is in part about spiritual crisis. It poses the problem of evil in reference to a staggering personal loss. The film resolves with a sense of hope, and the so-called “Weightless Trilogy” seizes upon this hope and examines various stages of the process of spiritual (re)awakening, while Voyage of Time follows a different strand from Tree of Life, concerning nature and its relationship with divinity.
As this volume illustrates, there are many fruitful ways of approaching Malick. It takes the effort and expertise of more than one person to work through these films. In this chapter, my aim is modest. I want to consider at length the relevance of Plato’s myths of Eros to Knight of Cups and Song to Song. I do not aim to give totalizing interpretations of these films (each of which could support a book-length treatment), but only to shed light on this connection and its broader significance. The importance of the passage from the Phaedrus that is included in Knight of Cups (read aloud by Charles Laughton) has been remarked on by many commentators, including Robert Sinnerbrink, who argues that the Plato’s myth of Eros from the Symposium and Phaedrus “provides an orienting allegorical frame” for To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song.He cites Paul Comacho’s observation that the lovers’ ascent of the steps of Mont Saint-Michel evokes the ascent passage from the Symposium at 210a-212c, and discusses the relevance of the Phaedrus and of Kierkegaard’s version of a Platonic theory of love. Sinnerbrink’s work is illuminating, and I do not here mean to contest it, but only to supplement it with more detailed consideration of the Phaedrus and Symposium and their relevance to Knight of Cups and Song to Song, which were filmed back-to-back and which I take to be especially closely connected.In particular, further exploring the significance of the Platonic theory of love in these films will shed light on the relationship between erotic love and spiritual (re)awakening. Also, while the connection between Knight of Cups and the Phaedrus is explicit, the relevance of Plato to Song to Song is more obscure. Careful attention to the way Platonic motifs from Knight of Cups are carried through in the subsequent film helps to make sense of a number of details that I take to be crucially important.
Knight of Cups depicts the Hollywood initiation of Rick, an up and coming screenwriter played by Christian Bale. Its narrative is divided into eight episodes, each of which (save the last) is titled after a tarot card and features a significant person from Rick’s past or who he meets along the way. Two texts function as structuring touchstones: the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Both of these connections are discussed at length in Lee Braver’s essay “Transcendence,” also found in this volume.
Nearly all commentators and critics emphasize negative aspects of Malick’s portrayal of this Hollywood lifestyle. David Sims, writing for The Atlantic offers a typically simplistic interpretation of the film’s thematic concerns:
“The point here is that Hollywood is a draining, disorienting, empty place, where even the freest creative spirits can get lost. That doesn’t feel quite as profound or revelatory as some of the insights into the human condition Malick has made in the past, but it’s a message fully received as viewers bounce from party to photo shoot to bedroom escapade.”
Indeed, portrayals of the soul-sucking emptiness of Hollywood are a dime a dozen. Malick’s film would not be very interesting if that’s all it were about. But what Sims and other commentators misunderstand—and what a closer look at the Platonic context can help to illuminate—is that the film portrays most of Rick’s Hollywood escapades as positive steps in a process of spiritual awakening. In many of Plato’s dialogues, including notably the Phaedo, he is pessimistic about the prospects for attaining divine knowledge during a mortal life. In the Symposium and Phaedrus, however, not only do we find a more optimistic perspective, but we find the idea that erotic attraction is a crucial step in the process of attaining such knowledge. Before discussing this aspect of the film, however, it will be helpful to consider in detail the Phaedrus passage that is directly quoted in the film, along with relevant passages that provide important context.
Early in Knight of Cups, during the segment labeled “The Moon,” we see Rick driving a convertible while a woman, Della, spreads her arms and mimics flight. They visit an aquarium where we see rays spread their wings and “fly” towards the light, and we hear Charles Laughton reading an elided passage from the Phaedrus:
“Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven where only creatures with wings can be. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth, ere it took on an earthly body. (. . . ) [W]hen we see a beautiful woman, or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven and (. . . ) the wings begin to sprout and that makes the soul want to fly but it cannot yet, it is still too weak, so the man keeps starting up at the sky like a young bird that has lost all interest in the world.”
If another filmmaker included this passage in their film, we might assume that they simply took a few lines that they liked out of context and did not read the rest of Plato’s dialogue or think about the broader implications of the passage. But this is surely not an assumption that we should make for Malick. Indeed, we can safely assume that he closely studied the Phaedrus and thought carefully about the context in which this passage is imbedded.
This passage clearly signals that we should take some or all of Rick’s amorous encounters in the film as reminders of the beauty that his soul “used to know in heaven,” and as catalysts for his spiritual (re)awakening. As Naomi Fisher discusses in her chapter in this book “Tending God’s Garden: Philosophical Theme’s in Malick’s Tree of Life,” this passage references Plato’s ideas about the immortality of the soul and what’s known as the “theory of recollection.” This theory, developed in the Meno and Phaedo, holds that the soul possessed knowledge of the true nature of reality before it was incarnated in a human body. In the Phaedo, Socrates characterizes this knowledge as knowledge of the Forms. The Forms are eternal, immaterial, immutable beings that are perfect and unmixed. The Form of the Beautiful is not one beautiful thing among many. The Form is, as it were, the true essence of beauty; other things are beautiful only to the extent that they resemble it or share in some way in its nature. The Forms are what ultimately ground the world of experience that we access with our senses. Things in the world appear big or small according to the extent to which they share in the Form of the Big and the Form of the Small. The world of Forms is the true reality; the world of experience is its illusory refraction.
In the Phaedo, Plato is pessimistic about the possibility of gaining any true knowledge of the Forms during a mortal life. The needs of the body distract us while our senses mislead us. We are prone to confuse appearance for reality and deny the existence of anything beyond the reach of our senses. At Theaetetus 155e, Socrates describes a class of people he calls “the uninitiated” as those who “believe that nothing exists but what they can grab with both hands.” In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that our senses cannot lead us to knowledge of the Forms and that the path of the philosopher is to try as far as possible to separate the soul from the body by shirking the temptations of worldly pleasures in favor of activities of the soul that are necessarily imperfect, but that at least are a way of striving toward the realities that the soul knew before it was embodied.
In the Symposium, we find a stunning reversal. In Diotima’s speech—which is conveyed by Socrates and which is standardly taken to express Plato’s own views about love (eros)—not just sensory experience, but erotic attraction is presented as a legitimate path towards knowledge of the Forms. At 210a, Plato writes, “A lover who goes about this matter correctly must begin in his youth to love beautiful bodies.” Diotima goes on to describe the lover’s ascent from love of one beautiful body, to love of all beautiful bodies, to an appreciation that the beauty of souls is superior to that of bodies and thus to love of the laws and institutions that make the soul beautiful, to love of abstract theoretical knowledge, and finally to love of the Form of the Beautiful itself. Ascent imagery (e.g., walking up a hill or set of stairs towards the light) is everywhere in late Malick, but it cannot be understood in purely Platonic terms. The higher reality that Malick’s spiritual seekers strive for must also be understood in reference to Judeo-Christian scripture and a range of other references and mythologies.
Near the beginning of Knight of Cups, before the Phaedrus passage is read aloud, we see a black-and-white stop motion video being played in the background at a Hollywood party. We cut to this video and see a woman with two X’s on her back, suggesting the spots where the soul’s wings have been cut off (as described in the Phaedrus). We also see this woman wearing a mask of her own face on the back of her head. This also seems to be a Platonic reference. In Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium, he describes an earlier time when human beings had two faces, four arms, and four legs. This earlier form of human was powerful, and their power made them arrogant enough to challenge the gods. As punishment, Zeus cut them in half and turned their heads around so that they faced forward. Eros, according to this myth, is a desire to be returned to be reunited with our other half—to be whole again. The image in Knight of Cups of a woman with a mask of her face on the back of her head suggests this desire to return to our original nature.
After the stop motion segment, we see a mountain crowned with light, and then we cut to Rick in the midst of a literal earthquake, suggesting a jarring awakening from spiritual slumber. He walks through empty studio lots—a pilgrim in the land of illusion—and then we see him from behind, sitting and watching images of the sky on a television set. This is another Platonic allusion, suggesting the famous cave allegory from Republic VII. The denizens of the cave are stuck watching shadows of puppets, which are themselves imitations of a higher reality. This allegorizes the epistemic condition that human beings are in by default—we confuse our sensory experiences for true reality, when in fact they are a reflection of an imitation of the Forms themselves. Rick is drawn towards the light—but at this stage of his development it is merely an image of the sky, which is itself merely an image of the divine light.
With this context in mind, it is easier to see that Rick’s series of romantic and sexual entanglements in Knight of Cups should not be understood simply as a critique of the shallowness of the Hollywood lifestyle. It’s just the opposite; at least some of the beautiful people who Rick is drawn to should be understood as leading him towards a higher way of being.
This interpretation needs to reconciled with the prominence in the film of the Hymn of the Pearl, which suggests that the people Rick meets in LA fill his glass with intoxicating drink, so that he is lulled into a waking sleep where he has forgotten the path of the spirit. I certainly do not mean to suggest that everyone Rick meets helps him further along the path of his ascent. There are a number of clearly negative figures in the film, including the producer Herb (anticipating Cook in Song to Song) who offers him a Faustian bargain: if he writes whatever junk they ask him to, he can have it all. Malick emphasizes throughout the film that Hollywood is a land of illusion where it is easy for the pilgrim to be led astray. The point, I take it, is that amidst this setting, some of the people who he meets lift his spirit rather than bogging it down. One of the recurring motifs in the movie is that we see the women who Rick is involved with walking away from him and looking back towards him. These shots suggest that they are leading him along his path.
Antonio Banderas, who is featured (as “Tonio”) in the segment titled “The Hermit,” is usually taken to be a negative figure in the film. He is the wealthy host of a debauched party that is staged in the style of Fellini. He tells Rick, “Myself, I didn’t want to get a divorce. I never stopped loving them, but the way I loved them changed. They are like flavors. Sometimes you want raspberry, then after you get tired of it, you want some strawberry.” Of course, it’s natural that Tonio’s horrifying comparison between women and fruit flavors would be taken negatively, but having the Symposium in the background changes the inflection of this line. The first stage of the lover’s ascent is love of one beautiful body, but then in the next stage, “…he should realize that the beauty of one body is brother to the beauty of any other and if he is to pursue beauty of form he’d be very foolish not to think of the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. When he grasps this, he must become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he must think that this wild gaping after one body is a small thing and come to despise it” (Symposium 210a-b). Tonio’s other most significant line is, “The world is a swamp; you have to fly over it.” This is a clear reference to the swamp of Pilgrim’s Progress, a negative location where the pilgrim gets mired in worldly muck. This line points strongly to the thought that Tonio is in fact an ambivalent figure. Love of all beautiful bodies is not the final stage of the ascent, but Plato does understand it to be a progression from the love of one beautiful body. In the highest stage of the ascent, the lover’s object becomes the Form of the Beautiful itself. The earlier stages are progressions away from the attachment to particular terrestrial manifestations of beauty and towards its divine essence. Fixation on one beautiful body conflates an instance of beauty with the thing itself, and shifting from “wild gaping” after one object of love to the realization that all beautiful bodies are equally worth of love is a progression towards love of the Form of the Beautiful. Tonio emphasizes that he didn’t stop loving the women he divorced; he rather expanded his love to something more general. While Plato’s ideas about love may be jarring in a culture that emphasizes monogamy (this is, after all, the same thinker who argues in the Republic that reproduction among the rulers and soldiers of the ideal city should be done by lottery, with children being raised in common), the most likely interpretation of Tonio’s significance in the film is that he is a lover of beauty who has only progressed to the second stage of the ascent. This is not very far, but it’s farther than most people. He is a shallow man in the grand scheme of things, but he is still higher up than almost everyone around him, and so he can “fly over” the swamp that they are stuck in.
Returning to the Phaedrus, it’s worth taking a moment to unpack the context in which the passage referenced in Knight of Cups is found. It is part of the second speech that Socrates gives about love in the dialogue, standardly referred to as the palinode. A palinode is an ode that doubles as a retraction. In this case, Socrates is retracting his initial speech where he argued that is better to spend one’s time with a lover than a non-lover, because a lover wishes for their beloved to be hindered in various ways in order to increase their dependence on them. At 242d-243a, however, Socrates corrects himself and argues that because Love (Eros) is a god and nothing divine can be bad in any way, his earlier speech must have been mistaken. He presents the palinode as a rite of purification that he must conduct in order to cleanse his earlier offense.
Socrates begins the palinode by diagnosing what led him to his earlier mistakes about the nature of Love. He had thought that because the non-lover is sane and the lover is mad, one should prefer the company of the non-lover (244a). But he now recognizes that not all madness is created equal. At 244d, he argues that madness sent by a god is finer than human self-control. After a lengthy discussion of the nature of the soul and related topics, Socrates describes the kind of madness that characterizes the lover as “…that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below—and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad.” The passage quoted above that is read by Charles Laughton in Knight of Cups is actually cobbled together from passages that are separated in the text, including part of this one. The recording elides Plato’s reference to madness, but there is a clear allusion to this notion in the same segment of the film (“The Moon”). Della, the woman that this segment focuses on, says, “You think I could make you crazy. Crack you out of your shell. Make you suffer.” Like Ben Affleck’s character in To the Wonder, Rick is presented as distant and withholding on account of his fear of transcending the safety of his illusory world and letting himself be carried away by erotic longing for something higher. She also says, “You don’t want love; you want a love experience.” Again, in Plato’s metaphysics there is a division between true reality and the illusory world of experience, and Della sees Rick as someone who is afraid of authentic love and is only open to a pale imitation of it.
Throughout the film, Malick repeatedly incorporates images of wings and of flight, particularly at moments when Rick and others can be understood as being “reminded of the beauty their souls once knew in heaven.” Once you’re looking for it, you’ll find that it’s everywhere. For instance, at the beginning of the second segment of Knight of Cups (“The Hanged Man”), Rick asks “how do I begin?” and we pan up to a flock of birds flying in a V-shape. In Chapter IV (“Judgment”) Rick and his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) watch planes taking off and soaring over the desert. In Chapter VI (“The High Priestess”), Rick visits Las Vegas and is transfixed looking up at an aerial dancer. In Chapter VII (“Death”), featuring Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, we see the lovers holding out their arms on the beach in imitation of flight. This is far from an exhaustive list. As I will discuss in the second part of this paper, this motif carries over into Song to Song.
The thought that all of these observations build towards, again, is that the many commentators who have thought that Knight of Cups is a movie about the way the people Rick meets in Hollywood drag him down and stunt his spiritual growth have it backwards. As Brian Dennehy (playing Rick’s father) narrates near the end of the film, “Find the light you knew in the east as a child. The moon, the stars, they serve you. They guide you on your way. The light in the eyes of others. The pearl.” This line—arguably the most important line in the film—ties together the Hymn of the Pearl, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Phaedrus. Rick is a pilgrim stuck in the swamp. He’s a prince who’s forgotten his quest. The light in the eyes of others is here equated with the pearl that he must remember in order to awaken and resume his quest. In the final chapter of the film, titled “Freedom,” Rick becomes involved with the most positive figure in the film, Isabel. Interestingly, “Freedom” is the one chapter that is not named after a tarot card. I’m not sure what to make of this except that it was evidently important to Malick that the final chapter title convey the specific idea of freedom. This idea could have been signaled by several different tarot cards, but these cards might have resonances that he did not want to convey. The last line of Knight of Cups is a single word, spoken by Rick: “Begin.” He presumably means that he is finally prepared to begin the process of spiritual reawakening—the quest for the pearl that he has now remembered. He has gained the freedom to do this in part through the influence of his amorous adventures. Far from bogging him down, the beauty in the eyes of others is the beacon that has led him to begin his ascent.
The concept of freedom is at the center of Song to Song, and I think that we can make better sense of the importance of this concept in Knight of Cups by turning now to the later film. Like Knight of Cups, Song to Song is heavily referential. Whereas the two primary sources for the first film are Pilgrim’s Progress and the Hymn of the Pearl, the second film draws heavily on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Jonathan R. Olson, in his paper, “Milton’s Satan in Malick’s Song to Song,” has already done the work of reconstructing these references, and so my main focus here will be the relevance of Plato’s theory of love.
The surface narrative of Song to Song is very simple. BV (Ryan Gosling) is a talented songwriter in Austin. Cook (Michael Fassbender) is a powerful music mogul who has his hands in everything. Faye (Rooney Mara) has worked for Cook as low-level staff since she was a teenager, and is now sleeping with him. In a Faustian bargain, Cook offers BV success, but under exploitive terms. BV and Faye meet at party at Cook’s house and start a relationship. She doesn’t tell BV that she has an ongoing sexual relationship with Cook. Cook meets a young waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and becomes smitten with her. He showers her with money and gifts and convinces her to marry him. Rhonda is religious, and feels deeply alienated by the world of sex and drugs that she now feels trapped in. She eventually commits suicide. Meanwhile, BV realizes that Cook was taking advantage of him, backs out of their arrangement, and finds out that he’s been sleeping with Faye all along. Faye and BV split up and have relationships with other people. Eventually, they reconcile and leave Austin and its music scene behind to live a simpler life out west, focusing on family and other responsibilities that they had previously sought to avoid.
There is decisive evidence that Cook, Michael Fassbender’s character in the film, is a Lucifer figure. Malick directly told Fassbender that his character is Satan from Paradise Lost. The film is full of references to both Milton’s poem and Doctor Faustus. At one point, Faye as narrator refers to him as “Devil.” When he offers to help Rhonda and her family out of financial trouble and asks to marry her, we cut briefly to a shot of him holding a horned skull in front of his face. We see him making an effort to attend church with Rhonda (who is religious), but he is visibly uncomfortable and leaves her there alone. Soon after, he gives her hallucinogenic mushrooms dipped in honey, and the dissonant score and abrasive cinematography suggest that she has entered a worldly hell. During her trip, we see a tattoo that reads “Empty Promises,” and Cook narrates, “Open your eyes. You won’t die. Here I reign. King.” This is a clear reference to Satan’s third speech in Paradise Lost. Shortly afterwards, Rhonda and Cook meet a man who has used various forms of body modification to make himself resemble a snake. There are also other narrative connections to Milton. For instance, the ending of the film, where Faye and BV forgive each other and recommence their relationship, mirrors the reconciliation of Adam and Eve.
Interpreting Song to Song holistically requires attending to the interplay between its layers of literary reference. My limited aim here is to elucidate the relevance of the Platonic theory of love. This is only one layer, but it is an important one, and its importance is less obvious here than it is in Knight of Cups. In particular, considering the relevance of the metaphysical dimension of Plato’s theory of love illuminates the significance of Malick’s depiction of Cook/Satan as a deceiver, and also the way in which Platonic love can remedy such deception.
Given that there are no explicit, direct references to Plato in Song to Song, this connection may seem far-fetched. If we take Knight of Cups and Song to Song together, however, the continuing relevance of Plato is obvious. The motif of wings and flight from Knight of Cups is continued very strongly in the subsequent film. At one point, Faye and BV take a trip to Mexico on Cook’s private jet. The two of them spend a half hour alone together at one point, and Faye thinks of this experience as the point where she fell in love with BV. As narrator, she tells us, “Everything came out of that half hour.” The lovers see a flock of birds during their whirling romantic stroll on the beach and meet a man who uses a bird to read their fortunes. Faye references this later in the film when the two of them are separated and she is longing for him, “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you. Because you saw them with me.” With Knight of Cups as context, we should take this as an allusion to the notion from the Phaedrus that erotic love reminds us of the time when our soul had wings and restores in us the urge to fly up above the world of experience towards a higher reality. The birds are reminders to Faye of the glimpse of something higher that she experienced with BV before being dragged back down to Cook’s world.
BV and Fayre’s ethereal birdwatching experience in Mexico is contrasted with their flight home on Cook’s jet. The plane flies in a pattern to give the passengers the experience of weightlessness. They revel in it. This extravagantly expensive imitation of the experience of flight—which is itself an imitation of spiritual ascent—is a form of deception. What BV and Faye experience in their transcendent half hour is a glimmer of authentic spiritual elevation. They are reminded of when their souls had wings. Their ride on Cook’s plane substitutes an illusion for the thing itself. The motif comes up again when Faye finally admits to BV that she’s been sleeping with Cook all along. BV and Faye have sex on a table while a string of wooden birds (a mocking imitation of the birds they saw when they fell in love) hangs down above them. This encounter is less tender and more violent than their relationship has been up to this point. We cut briefly to BV in a field with a shotgun, bird hunting (!), before cutting back to him as he narrates that he became cold towards Faye and decided to leave her.
Song to Song develops a dichotomy between Cook’s world—the urban music scene—and the world of family and obligation. Faye and BV have both left their families behind to live in Austin. Faye feels ashamed that she hasn’t been as pious a daughter as her sisters, and BV has only recently escaped a chaotic home situation where he has been estranged from his father (who is insinuated to have been abusive or neglectful), his mother has been struggling with depression, and his brother has been acting out in troubling ways. The music scene is seen by Cook, BV, and Faye as a locus of freedom. BV mentions getting “free of this man,” in reference to his father. BV and Faye are described both by themselves and by Cook as desiring freedom. Cook offers BV, Rhonda, and Faye each a Faustian bargain in the film. For BV and Faye, it is a record contract and a pathway to making a living in the music industry. For Rhonda, it is financial support that will enable her to stop working low-paying jobs and fretting about how to take care of her mother. In all three cases, what Cook offers is explicitly related to the concept of freedom. This must be of course understood in reference to Paradise Lost, where Satan’s variety of freedom is contrasted with the authentic freedom of obedience to the divine will, but the Platonic context is also relevant. Cook’s freedom is merely an illusion of freedom—an image of the real thing. In the early stages of seducing Rhonda, he takes her for a drive in his Ferrari and asks her, “Do you like physical things?” The choice of words here is telling. Malick is drawing attention not simply to the emptiness of the satisfactions afforded by material luxury, but more deeply to the way that Cook’s illusory brand of freedom is tied to a focus on our embodied condition rather than our spiritual nature.
Faye elaborates what she understands freedom to be, “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.” At another point, she says, “I wanted to escape every tie, every bond.” Cook’s freedom is a form of rootlessness, where one can leave behind obligations and responsibilities (financial, familial, and otherwise) and stay blissfully immersed in the moment. It is a “weightless” way of being. We see intoxicating images of music festivals where revelers are enthralled in a Bacchic frenzy. After taking a chainsaw to an amplifier on a festival stage, cutting his own hair off with a knife, and throwing fake uranium at the audience, Val Kilmer soliloquizes over the PA, “The music’s all about feeling free—so you don’t have to do nothing to be free!” This is as clear a statement as we could hope for of the Platonic significance of Malick’s dichotomy of freedom. It could even be taken in connection with the Platonic concern expressed in Republic X that poetry and other forms of mimetic art are dangerous in the way they can lead the soul to confuse an imitation for the real thing. Not long before Rhonda’s suicide, she has a conversation with a sex worker who Cook has hired to join them in bed. The sex worker explains, “I sell a fantasy, not my body. I sell an illusion.” Rhonda quietly asks as narrator, “is that me?” Cook’s world is nihilistic. When he appraises his estate, he admits, “This—none of this exists…. It’s all just free fall.” Cook’s freedom stands to true freedom as the experience of weightlessness in his luxury jet stands to authentic spiritual ascent.
Ultimately, BV and Faye will find true freedom not in Cook’s world, but in the practice of mercy and the embrace of spiritual love and the obligations and responsibilities that it grounds. BV has a much easier time leaving Cook behind than Faye does. From the start, he imagined himself writing songs based on his own painful experiences that would lift other people up and bring them joy. Once he sniffs out Cook’s exploitive intentions, he bails straightaway. Faye, on the other hand, is more ambivalent. She delivers the first line of the film as narrator, “I went through a period when sex had to be violent. I was looking for something real. Nothing felt real. Every kiss was half of what it should be.” We see Cook gripping her by the throat. She is not merely sleeping with Cook as a means to professional success; she is existentially adrift and searching for some form of authentic experience without being willing to accept the obligations and responsibilities that such experience would entail. Violent sex, in Faye’s self-understanding, substitutes intensity of experience for authenticity. It’s a form of self-deception not unlike the experiences that Plato labels as “false pleasures” at Philebus 45a-47d, because they create the illusion of being more pleasant than they actually are due to their admixture with pain.
Faye is more willing than BV is to knowingly immerse herself in illusion. “I wanted experience,” she narrates, “I told myself any experience is better than no experience.” Unlike BV, Faye explicitly thinks of herself as embracing something that is base—she is in this sense less deceived than he is. In one of her most striking lines, she admits, “I love the pain. It feels like life. Sometimes I admire what a hypocrite I am.” She recognizes and acknowledges her hesitancy to embrace the flickers of divinity she experiences with BV, but is not motivated straightaway to change. Plato explains in the Phaedrus what causes wings to fall away from the soul, “By their nature wings have the power to lift up heavy things and raise them aloft where the gods all dwell, and so, more than anything that pertains to the body, they are akin to the divine, which has beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort. These nourish the soul’s wings, which grow best in their presence; but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (246d-e). Using language that evokes this metaphor of flight from the Phaedrus in connection with the myth of Icarus, she says, “I pulled you down in the car. I didn’t believe enough in love. I was afraid it would burn me up.” She relates her hesitancy to embrace a more authentic form of experience with her attraction to the physical world, “I’m low. I like the mud. I don’t deserve you.” The world is a swamp that one must fly over (as Tonio put it in Knight of Cups), and Faye self-consciously embraces its foulness.
Faye’s condition is conveyed by an unidentified painting that we see briefly during Rhonda and Cook’s mushroom trip. The painting depicts a woman with wings and a mask, lying on her back as she looks into a small handheld mirror. Cook narrates, “The world wants to be deceived.” This painting could not have been more perfectly chosen. Human nature is made for something higher—our souls in their original state had wings—but, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we are too fixated on ephemeral reflections to look towards a higher reality. The figure in the painting ignores the vast sky above and neglects her ability to soar into the heavens. What she attends to instead is not even a reflection of her own face; it is an image of the false mask she shows to others. It’s a distorted reflection of a distorted imitation.
I take this contrast between BV and Faye to be central to what the film is about. It’s a love story between a Satan sympathizer and a spiritual seeker. She signals her allegiance when she narrates, “I revolted against goodness. Thought it had deceived me.” Much like Knight of Cups, Song to Song is about the way that erotic love can lift the spirt and reorient us towards something higher, but while Knight of Cups is about the onset of spiritual awakening, Song to Song is about what such an awakening looks like in action. The earlier film ends with the word “begin.” Song to Song shows us a beginning.
At the end of the film, Faye leaves Austin to start a life with BV, who abandons the music business to work in the oil fields and mend his family relationships. In a scene that I find so powerful I can barely stand to watch it, he visits his sick father, who he has previously said he wouldn’t forgive and who he no longer prays for. His father appears to have had a stroke, and BV breaks down and weeps as he wipes crumbs of food from his shirt. Living in Cook’s world entails choosing rootlessness over the responsibility that comes from genuine connection with others. BV’s choice to leave Cook’s world behind is also a choice to do the difficult work of being part of a family, and to follow the way of grace introduced in Tree of Life.
Wonderfully, the angel figure who nudges Faye back towards BV after their falling out is the great Patti Smith, playing herself. She tells Faye about her own great love affair, which ended many years earlier when her spouse passed away. She urges her to fight for the man she loves. In the film’s climactic moment, as Faye makes the decision to return to BV, we simultaneously hear Patti Smith singing and Faye reading William Blake’s “The Divine Image.” Smith’s performance, in contrast to the sort of performance Cook favors, is the type of music that BV wished to create: music that lifts the spirit. Blake’s poem includes these thematically crucial lines:
Human beings—for Blake, Plato, and Malick—are mortal in one way but divine in another. Blake’s poem highlights that human beings reflect the divine image, and that “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” are essential to the nature of divinity and to the expression of the divine aspect of human nature. As Elisa Zocchi explores in her paper, “Terrence Malick Beyond Nature and Grace: Song to Song and the Experience of Forgiveness,” this moment brings Malick’s cycle of films full circle, evoking Tree of Life and the way of grace.
As Faye works towards her decision to return to BV, she narrates, “I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me. I’ve always been afraid of myself. I thought no one’s there.” Faye’s embrace of Cook’s world involved a denial of her nature as a being with a soul. When she goes on to say, “I forgot what I am” we see an image of BV holding a string of paper butterflies up while a young girl smiles in wonder. This image evokes once again the idea from the Phaedrus that love reminds us not just that we have a soul, but that our soul once had wings. We see another image of birds. Faye recognizes at last what the soul’s wings are for. She narrates, “There’s something else, something that wants us to find it.” We cut to figures ascending a spiral staircase. When she returns to BV, we see a winged statue and she narrates, “It was like a new paradise of forgiveness.” Faye’s return to BV is more than a decision to return to a romantic relationship; it’s also the beginning of her own spiritual seeking. She is at much the same place as Rick at the end of Knight of Cups. Early in the film she narrates, “I love your soul.” Once she comes around to embracing this love, she moves past the material stages of the Platonic ascent.
The theme of mercy and forgiveness is not as prominent in Knight of Cups as it is in Song to Song, but it is there. During the “Hanged Man” section of Knight of Cups, we learn that—like Malick himself and the character of Jack in Tree of Life—Rick has two brothers and one of them has tragically died. Wes Bentley plays Rick’s living brother, Barry. Barry is troubled, and like BV in Song to Song, Rick feels conflicted about leaving his brother behind.
We can infer that Rick’s path towards authentic freedom, like BV and Faye’s, is to follow the way of grace. How, though, can the way of grace be understood as freedom? This is a vastly complicated question that requires introducing a great deal of theoretical apparatus beyond Plato to properly address, but we can sketch the basic idea. Weightless drifting without a higher purpose (“living from song to song”) is the antithesis of genuine freedom. If one has no commitments, one has nothing to unify one’s self and so one’s actions are free only in the sense of being aimless and disconnected from a robust locus of agency. Obedience to the divine will is not passive; it is an active embrace of a system of value organized by a unified conception of the good. Weightless drifting as a way of avoiding obligation and responsibility is not freedom, but rather a dissolution of the self. As Rick’s father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) narrates in Knight of Cups, “I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.” True freedom for Rick would first entail becoming a self, unified around a sense of purpose. Becoming one’s true self entails following the way of grace and emulating the divine image.
On my interpretation, these films are in part about the way that erotic love can prompt spiritual awakening. In Song to Song, we see such an awakening depicted in more practical terms. I take the key to understanding the relevance of the Platonic myths of Eros to the ending of Song to Song to be the dichotomy that Malick draws between Cook’s world and the world of family and obligation. Cook’s world embraces illusion. As Cook himself says, “None of this is real, it’s all just freefall.” Living in Cook’s world entails suppressing a fundamental aspect of our nature. We are not just worldly beings; we are also divine. The path to our higher nature is through mercy, love, and spiritual seeking, which express the manner in which humanity is an image of divinity. The way of life that BV and Faye set out upon at the end of the film shirks Cook’s world and embraces their real condition as beings with the capacity for grace, embedded in a network of human relationships that generate meaningful responsibilities and obligations that they willingly embrace. This is genuine freedom.
 Sinnerbrink, Robert. Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and Philosopher.
 ‘The Promise of Love Perfected: Eros and Kenosis in To the Wonder’ in Theology and the Films of Terrence Malick, edited by Barnett and Elliston, 235–6.
 I agree with Sinnerbrink that the Platonic theory of love is also in the background in To the Wonder, but my impression is that this film is more distinct from the other two than they are from each other.Aside from its obvious difference in setting (the latter two films both being set amidst the entertainment industry), To the Wonder is notably distinct in its emphasis on themes that are specific to Catholicism (e.g., the Church’s understanding of Marina and Neil’s relationship as adultery, which forces them to hold their marriage ceremonies first in civil court and then in a Protestant church, and the connection between spiritual love and openness to new life). Because of the complexities that these differences introduce, and because of limited space, I prefer to focus on Knight of Cups and Song to Song in this chapter and punt on the question of how To the Wonder fits into my analysis.
 Aside from the Phaedrus passage read by Laughton, which uses Christopher Isherwood’s translation, all quotations from Plato use The Complete Works of Plato, ed. John M. Coooper.
 Some commentators critique Knight of Cups on feminist grounds. See, for instance, David Ehrlich’s review: https://slate.com/culture/2016/03/terrence-malicks-knight-of-cups-starring-christian-bale-reviewed.html). A feminist critique may indeed be valid and important, but at least in this case it is premature. Before we can think about whether feminist consideration raise issues concerning Knight of Cups, we first need to understand what the film is about and how the relevant content functions. Ehrlich hasn’t even really attempted this. His critique begins from his initial impressions of the film’s surface content. I do not dismiss the importance of a potential feminist critique, but I set it aside in order to first try to understand what Malick is trying to do on its own terms.
 NB, The Laughton recording uses a translation by Christopher Isherwood, which is somewhat looser than the Nehamas and Woodruff translation that I quote here
 It is also present in To the Wonder, though my impression is that it is considerably less prominent in that film.
 Here at least/We shall be free; the almighty hath not built/Here for his envy, will not drive us hence/Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition though in hell/Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.
I normally exclude IMDB TV titles, which sometimes (but not always) play with commercials, but that’s where a lot of the good B-movies are, so I included them for this round. They are unmarked, but anything I selected from there is in my opinion able to withstand commercials (in some cases it’s arguably kind of nice: it adds to the late night cable feel).
Freeway and Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby
Peak 90’s exploitation sleaze. Part 1 is Little Red Riding Hood with Reese Witherspoon in the lead and Kiefer Sutherland as serial killer Bob Wolverton. Part II is Hansel and Gretel with Natasha Lyonne and the INCREDIBLE Maria Celedonio as the leads and Vincent Gallo as the treacherous witch. It’s hard to believe in retrospect how popular these were. Matthew Bright’s brash style is easy to enjoy for exploitation fans, but DO NOT WATCH THESE if you are concerned about content warnings. ESPECIALLY do not watch part II. Every imaginable content warning applies. This is only for people who are into that.
One of Cage’s most important early performances and also very high level Matthew Modine. This is probably my favorite Alan Parker movie? It’s about an intense friendship between a swaggering high school alpha male (Cage) and an asexual social pariah obsessed with birds (Modine), before and after the trauma of war. Few movies are able to pull off this level of tonal swing.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Excellent latter-day western from Tommy Lee Jones, taking its cues from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
One of the most important movies of my childhood. It holds up. Totally fun to revisit if you grew up on Cannon Group ninja movies, and a real treat for any action fan who hasn’t seen it.
Josh watched every Joel Schumacher movie recently (and came up with a whole auteurist reading of his filmography), and this was his favorite. I haven’t revisited it but I loved it when I came out. The script is by the great Larry Cohen.
Really fun PM Entertainment trash, with Gary Daniels as an undercover cop and THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR as the heavy. The premise involves counterfeit HIV vaccines and an underground fighting circuit.
After Joe Lara recently died (he was the star of the Tarzan TV show I grew up watching), I watched every B-movie I could find that he starred in. Several of them are very good, including this. It’s a bargain basement post apocalyptic western with an impressive range of references.
Mountains May Depart
One of my favorite movies of the 10’s. It’s meticulously constructed, formally ambitious and (for me at least) absolutely exhilarating. It’s a triptych about Jia’s grand theme: living through massive cultural transformation.
Like Someone in Love
Also one of my favorite movies of the 10’s. It’s pretty esoteric, and people who have some familiarity with Kiarostami will get more out of it, but I think it would be fine to go in cold if the word “esoteric” rings positive for you. It’s primarily concerned with two of Kiarostami’s main themes: 1) the many roles of women under patriarchy and 2) failures of understanding across social barriers. It follows a sequence of events involving a young Japanese student/sex worker, an elderly professor who hires her for the night, and a jealous young man who considers her his girlfriend. This is especially rewarding upon multiple viewings (as for most Kiarostami).
A Perfect Getaway
This has a cult following but still isn’t very well known. It’s a terrific thriller with a great cast. If you like thrillers and you haven’t seen this, you’re welcome.
How Green Was My Valley, Grapes of Wrath
There are embarrassingly few core canon titles on Hulu or Netflix, in case someone happens to want to edify themselves without subscribing to Criterion. But here you go: two of the best and most important John Ford films, ripe for a double feature.
Big Beach Rats fan over here. I’ve recommended it before, but I want to mention it again because I complain a lot about the state of American independent film and Eliza Hittman is one of the people who stand above the pack for me. It’s about a young, closeted gay man in a rough neighborhood and the negotiation between his public and private selves. Hittman’s frank eroticism and impressionistic style do it for me.
Top-notch horror-thriller. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it executes its premise very effectively. I would avoid learning too much about it in advance, but it’s a Misery-type plot with excellent performances from Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen.
Joe Versus the Volcano
I submit that this movie has aged extremely well. I saw it a million times as a kid and never felt the need to go back and rewatch it, but wow, it is way better than I ever realized. I didn’t understand its formal ambition as a kid, nor did I have enough awareness of neoliberal malaise to get what it’s about.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Recent Guy Ritchie convert over here. I’m sure it’s very easy to dislike this, but I genuinely feel sorry for people who do. It’s wild. My mouth was hanging open when I realized that he did a whole bonkers Guy Ritchie chronology, complete with whiplash editing, rapid-fire expository dialogue, and an obvious anti-Brexit allegory. This is one of the only big budget studio movies in recent memory with real stylistic panache. I love it.
The Stunt Man
Worth seeing for the Peter O’Toole performance alone, but it’s got a lot more to offer than that. Strange and captivating death drive/male psyche 1980 pulp.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
This is about as good as one could reasonably hope for. It’s much more satisfying as a remake than the actual remake. The key to the aesthetic here is the use of sunlight. There are lots of low angle shots where the blinding sun enters the frame. It approximates the sun-baked rotting armadillo feel of the original. And then in the indoor scenes the sun just pours through every window and door. The one significant issue I have with it is that the sepia tint is too warm. The light should feel grimier and less like a Mediterranean sunset. But overall this is very legit latter day Chainsaw.
Punisher: War Zone
This has a devoted cult following, but I don’t think it ever really caught on with a larger audience? It’s a shame, because it’s easily the best Punisher movie (Dolph is certainly a better lead, but the movie around him is nowhere near as good as this), and especially given the dearth of female directors in the action genre, Lexi Alexander deserves recognition for her fine work here.
Netflix is very bad right now. Most of what’s good on there I’ve already recommended. I included a couple repeats that I want to highlight.
Streets of Fire
Classic Walter Hill rock musical. Always a joy to revisit, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the best things on Netflix.
I keep stanning for this year after year. Its one of the only good latter-day ninja movies. I keep bringing it up because it still annoys me that no one at all seemed to care that SHO KOSUGI IS IN THIS MOVIE. He is the most legendary screen ninja, and he came out of retirement to swallow this thing whole. His performance is just great, as is the movie’s concept: this is what happens when ninjas fall in love. Would I have preferred practical effects? Of course. But the CGI here is at least imaginative.
Excellent Milkyway Image paranoid thriller about a hitman who specializes in faking accidents.
Every now and then I put this on at 1am, and it always cracks me up. It’s a tribute to the R-rated sword and sorcery movies that played on late-night Cinemax throughout my childhood. If you enjoy bawdy humor, it’s hard to beat. Between this and No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman is underrated as a comedic actress.
My dog is on death row today. I’m sitting here waiting for the 2:30 PM euthanasia appointment I made for her. She has a tumor in her bladder. I didn’t know about it until a week ago when she went out to go to the bathroom late at night and came back in obvious pain. The next day was a nightmare. It was impossible to get her in to see a vet that has an ultrasound on short notice. I had to wait until the emergency vet opened at 5pm. They said they couldn’t determine if there was a blood clot in her bladder or a tumor that had ruptured the night before. They said to try antibiotics and hope it’s not a tumor, but if this doesn’t work then there’s little they can do for a dog her age. I held out hope, but I was pretty sure right away that it was a tumor. I knew from a urine test she had done earlier in the day by a different vet that she didn’t have the level of white blood cells in her urine to indicate a severe UTI. She did seem a little better the next day (thanks to the painkillers she was on, no doubt), but then she started to deteriorate. The pain in her abdomen is so severe that she is having trouble walking and I have to pick her up to get her on the couch or to help her get down stairs.
Making the decision to euthanize her was extraordinarily difficult. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. It’s still difficult. I keep having to check in with people to reassure me that it’s the right thing to do. She does still seem to enjoy a plate of chicken livers or some good cuddles, but I know very well that dogs hide their pain from their owners. If she’s in enough pain that she’s struggling to walk on her own, it’s better for her to go peacefully than to continue to deteriorate.
I underestimated how hard this decision was going to be. I believe in euthanasia. I teach Intro to Ethics every year and I think about it a lot. I am not conflicted in theory. But when it comes to making decisions about my own animal–who has been my near constant companion for more than a quarter of my life–wow, did my confidence crumble. She can’t tell me what she wants. She can’t tell me how bad the pain is. She can’t tell me if it’s worth it to her to spend a few more nights in pain in order to eat more chicken livers and get more cuddles. I have to decide, and I have to decide on the basis of inconclusive evidence. If I waited for the evidence to become conclusive, that would guarantee putting her through extreme pain.
I did not have a bad year last year when so many others did. I have always harbored the fantasy of really and truly settling in to watch as many movies as I want to, and last year that fantasy came true. This year, on the other hand, is hot fucking garbage. My dad died, our evil university administrators are preparing to rain hellfire on the humanities, and now I’m losing my dog. I am managing to hover above the abyss of self-pity, but it takes a lot of effort. I don’t ever hesitate to cry. I call all the time. But this year is a new record for tears shed, and it’s not close. When Cry Macho comes out in October, I’m gonna be there for the first showing with my tissues ready and I’m gonna cry some fucking more.
I moved to Missoula in 2008 with nothing but a Subaru, some books and dvds, and six months of sobriety. It was an absolutely momentous time in my life. I had lived in Upstate NY for 21 years and Princeton NJ for 5 years and here I was, heading out west to make my own way in the world. I had one old friend in town and while it was nice to know SOMEONE, he and I didn’t really jive the way we used to when we were both drinking and it wasn’t enough of a friendship to fill up my whole social life, even for a little while. Before long I made a couple more friends on my own initiative, but there is no question that those first few years in Missoula were the loneliest time of my life. Adjusting to life without alcohol was not easy, and the combination of loneliness and no booze compounded the challenge, especially given how outrageously drunk Missoula’s social scene was back then (it’s still pretty drunk, but it’s gotten tamer as the town has been yuppified– you should have seen the Top Hat on a Wednesday before they made it all bougie). I made some efforts at online dating and that generally made things worse rather than better (though it was at least not boring!), and after about a year of that I was ready to become more emotionally self-contained and get a dog to keep me company. I went to the pound to scope out the scene and see if maybe there were some cool dogs. It was love at first sight.
Every dog in the place was barking wildly except Cleo, who was sitting politely, looking pretty and smiling. I took her for a short walk and she was so good right away! She didn’t pull on the leash or anything. When we got back to the shelter I let her off leash in the courtyard and sat down to see what she would do. She sniffed around a little then walked right over and started licking my face. I was like “okay, I’ll take you home, you win.” But I had a landlord at the time. I drove straight over and asked his permission. He was cool about it, and within an hour she was mine.
She was 1 year old and we had a solid 11 years together. The story is simple: we lived in Montana and she had a great time being a dog. Many of my friends got to know her well and everyone who’s not a monster completely loved her. She could be clingy and stubborn, but she was the most affectionate dog I’ve ever known. One time she cornered a bunny and I panicked. She licked the bunny gently. That’s how she was with cats as well. She absolutely loved little kids and was always so careful and gentle with them.
When my dad died, Cleo helped me more than I could possibly say. My wife Angela goes to bed a lot earlier than I do. While she goes to bed at like 8pm, I stay up till more like 1 or 2am. Those 5 or 6 hours alone in the night might have been unbearable if I didn’t have Cleo taking care of me– licking tears off my face and keeping me company.
I learned a lot about grief this year. I’ve lost plenty of people in my life, but no one anywhere near the level of my dad. I always imagined that the hardest part would be missing him and longing to see him and talk to him again. And it’s true that those things are huge. But they are not the main thing. The main thing is how incredibly easy it is to put out of my mind for a little while that he’s gone and how utterly crushing it is each and every time I am reminded. I get back into the flow of life– running with Cleo, getting some work done, cooking Thai food, rewatching Fast and Furious movies– and then suddenly I hear a Bob Dylan song on the radio and remember him playing his guitar and singing “Lay, Lady, Lay” and it just knocks me over. I become vividly aware yet again of this new reality where my dad is just gone. Every time I put the loss out of my mind, I am setting myself up to experience it anew.
I’m not looking forward to adding grief about Cleo to the mix. Grief fucking sucks. It is in the running for my least favorite emotion. There are moments when it’s beautiful and poignant and I feel the full weight of life in a way that puts everything that doesn’t really matter into perspective and reminds me to call my mom and tell her I love her. But it’s also just an extraordinarily brutal thing to mix into one’s daily life. I’ve gone for a run with Cleo nearly every morning for MANY YEARS. I will now be going for runs alone. I can tell you right now that I am going to have to avoid the busier sections of the trail because I’m just going to be sobbing and I won’t want to have to nod and smile at strangers. And what do you do with the spot on the floor where your dog’s bed has been sitting for the entire time you’ve owned the house? You don’t leave the dog’s bed there, that’s for sure. But do I put something else there? Do I leave it empty? Either way it is going to be a spot on the floor that causes me a huge amount of pain on a daily basis. If it’s empty, it will be palpably empty. If there’s something useful there, it will be a punch in the gut every time I use it. If there’s something not useful there…. I mean what’s not useful that I might have a reason to put there and that I wouldn’t worry about breaking? If I think of something, I’ll put it there.
I learned this year that grief is something you just have to take on the chin. The dilemma about what to do with the spot on the floor hits me so hard because I know in advance that I am going to have to go through a long series of emotionally difficult episodes relating to that spot on the floor. Distracting myself from it just sets me up for even more pain when it finally does intrude into my awareness, which it will. Many negative emotions involve a sense of hope that they will come to an end. When I’m afraid of something, for instance, I often have an impulse to “get it over with” so that I don’t have to be afraid anymore. Grief isn’t like that. Grief doesn’t promise shit except that it’s not going anywhere. It might slip into hiding for a little while, but for the rest of my life certain things will reliably remind me of my dad or sweet ol’ Cleo, and every time I will feel a renewed sense of loss. Fucking sucks. To my friends who loved Cleo: she loved you, too. Please don’t worry about me and please don’t take this post as a request for condolences. I’m all condolenced out, to be honest. I know y’all care, and it means a lot.
I’ve wanted to visit New Mexico for a long time. A few years ago, my dear friend Marianne and her husband John dropped out of the hustle and bustle of big city livin’ to open a brewery in Truth or Consequences. I knew basically nothing about the town except that it sounds like the best possible place to fight a duel to the death (which appeals to me). I was delighted to learn that it’s a soaking town and Marianne and John have a hotspring in their yard. Angela and I greatly enjoy soaking and it seemed like the obvious choice for a much-needed post-vaccination road trip. Here was the plan: 1) Stop at Thi and Melissa’s house in SLC and get an espresso at D’Bolla (these are the first items on my agenda for any trip south). 2) Stay at an inexpensive hotsprings resort in Truth or Consequences for a few days and explore the area. 3) Get an Airbnb in Santa Fe for a few days and explore a different area.
It was a good plan. Southern New Mexico is huge and empty and sublime and we found a lot of really good food both in tiny little towns and in El Paso and did a ton of peak soaking. We also got to hang out a lot with Marianne and John and their two-year old son Hank, who instantly became my BFF.
We stayed at the Pelican, which I highly recommend. The rooms are funky and big and very reasonably priced and you can use the private indoor soaking tubs 24/7. I soaked in the middle of the night after Angela crashed and played Jon Hopkins’ Meditations and had the whole place to myself.
We also soaked a couple times at Riverbend Hotsprings, which is a little more upscale and rents out picturesque private soaking pools overlooking the Rio Grande. It’s amazing. We especially liked soaking there after dark.
But what you really want to hear about is the food. My expectation was that Southern NM would be a bit rough for food, El Paso would have good standard Tex-Mex, and Santa Fe would be great. I had it totally wrong. By and large, the Santa Fe food scene sucks. There is good food to be had, but it takes some searching. Southern NM and El Paso, on the other hand, both held unexpected riches.
The first delight, though, was the fucking Breaking Bad hot dog place in Albuquerque. During the years the show was on the air, every time they showed that hot dog stand I thought, “I wonder if the food is good. I bet it is.” It turns out—I shit you not—they serve the single best chile dog I’ve ever had in my life. And I say that as a lover of chile dogs. The red chile is intensely aromatic and very hot, so they only need to use a little and the whole thing stays stuck together in the bun like the perfect little present it is. Not one bit of chile got on my shirt, which is borderline miraculous. The dog itself is locally made and extremely good. The frito pie is also superb. I overheard someone ordering green chile, which I hadn’t seen on the menu. It will haunt me that I didn’t try it. The next time I go to New Mexico, that green chile is the first thing on my agenda.
Truth or Consequences does not have the best food options. In fact, the only things we ate there were a couple ready-made salad bowls from Walmart and a cubano I got as a sample from a friend of Marianne’s who is opening a new sandwich shop called The Portly Pepper. He is from Miami and the sandwich is proper. I was delighted to be suddenly eating a surprise cubano.
Without question, the food treasure of the area is Hatch, the chile capitol of the world. I wasn’t sure if it would be a tourist trap or a chile Mecca, and it turns out to be the latter. I bought a fucking garbage bag of dried chilies from a guy on the side of the road. There are only a handful of restaurants in town and from what I could tell they are all great, with the exception of Sparky’s. Sparky’s is the famous roadside attraction and they sell a green chile burger that shitty magazines like Maxim or Food & Wine always pick for their “The Best Burger in Every State” listicles. The burger is fine but in no way special. They are stingy with the chiles and the chiles themselves are not as flavorful as the ones we found elsewhere in Hatch.
Our favorite food in Hatch was the Christmas-style chilaquiles at the Pepper Pot. Both their red and green chile are peak examples of the category. We regretted ordering machaca, not because it wasn’t good, but because it didn’t come with chile.
The quick stop burrito place was also great. I had bean, chicharron, and lightly roasted green chilies in a fresh flour tortilla and I am still fantasizing about it. The tortilla was perfect and the flavor was dominated by the chilies, with the beans providing substance and the chicharron adding a textural contrast. Angela had a chile verde burrito and it was equally good. Even the food in the gas station looked good in Hatch.
El Paso was a big excursion that we paired with White Sands. My strategy was to join the El Paso food discussion Facebook group a few months in advance and keep my ear to the ground. As with any public forum for food recommendations, one has to wade through a lot of garbage, but I did pick up some tidbits that helped make it a successful trip. We fasted for about 20 hours and then ate four consecutive lunches. This is my favorite way to do food tourism. First we ate at Elemi, which is a buzzy upscale place downtown that does regional Mexican food with a twist and a flourish. They clearly have not been able to restaff to adequate levels and it took forever, which I normally have no trouble forgiving but was non-ideal coming off a 20 hour fast.
The food was a little disappointing overall. The Brussels sprouts appetizer was delicious, though it’s hard to fuck up fried sprouts with a sweet, sour, and spicy glaze. The tortillas were fluffy. The fish taco was crunchy and very good even by California standards. But the other tacos we had—suadero with chorizo verde, carnitas with chicharron, and duck al pastor—were just ok. The problem in each case was that in order to achieve a refined presentation they cut all the garnishes up into a tiny little brunoise or thin little strips that lost all textural distinctness. Even the chicharron was crushed nearly to a dust. All three tacos were soft meat on a soft tortilla with no contrasting textural elements.
We also hit up Flautilocas for Juarez-style flautas and The Little Diner for gorditas. The flautas were great and the gorditas were worth trying.
But the real gem was Birria Chaparral. I caught wind of this place from a comment deep in a recommendation thread in the El Paso Facebook group. The comment just said “Search Google for Birria Chaparral,” but it sent my spider sense a’tingling. I googled it, and it turned out to be open only for short stretches three days a week, including RIGHT NOW. This was definitely a bit of a wild goose chase. Chaparral is a suburb in New Mexico and we drove about thirty minutes into a purely residential area before finding this sign:
Angela was HIGHLY skeptical. “Wait, this just looks like someone’s house. Where are you taking me?” “Just chill, the sign says Birria.” But yeah, it was totally someone’s house. They have a Birria restaurant in the garage.
They were extremely nice to me and when I told them it was my first time they immediately gave me a generous sample of the only thing they sell: birria tacos with consomé. “Holy fucking shit,” was my reaction to tasting it. “Um yeah we are going to want a whole bunch more of that.” She suggested adding cheese to the tacos. “If you’re recommending it, I’m saying yes. And two lemonades.”
It was transcendent—possibly the best Mexican food I’ve ever had north of the border. The homemade tortillas were crunchy and aromatic, the birria was tender without being mushy, the cheese was gooey, and the consomé was intense and complex. Oh, the dunking! I doubt I will go a month for the rest of my life without thinking about this meal. It was the culinary high point of the trip.
And so we pushed on to Santa Fe. It’s a beautiful town, but wow is it bougie. It’s like Aspen-level bougie. The main downtown area is just repellant, with an oxygen bar and a few dozen art galleries that will sell you a painting of a coyote for six thousand dollars. The safety theater of outdoor mask-wearing was in full effect and some dipshit pottery boutique wanted me to give them my personal information for contact tracing before they would let me walk around inside and make snarky comments. I politely declined, but felt my first glimpse of how a “Karen doesn’t want to wear a mask” public spectacle gets started. Y’all, if you don’t understand why people hate the liberal nanny mentality, you may need to work on expanding your imagination. I’m more or less a liberal. We are an annoying people.
I had a food agenda worked out from internet research and the Santa Fe food Facebook group, but after we ate our first meal at a highly regarded brunch spot called The Pantry, all bets were off. Especially coming from Hatch, where every drop of chile is precious ambrosia, the chile they served us at The Pantry was like a slap in the face, and they served it over greasy, salty hash browns. This was a sudden paradigm shift: shit, we can’t trust Santa Fe. If people think this is good (and they do—the place opened a couple additional branches and it comes up all the time in the Facebook group and other recommendation venues), then we can’t believe anything they say. Then we walked into a little shop downtown and found the exact same bracelet that Angela had bought at Rockin’ Rudy’s in Missoula for 35 bucks on sale for 175. “Uh oh, let’s just go trawl the strip malls.”
So yeah, we rethought our agenda. Everything expensive was off the table. In a place like this, the more expensive something is, the more likely it is to be bad. I had a highly regarded upscale dosa place on my list but then I scrutinized the menu and found this:
Oh HELL no. That’s not food. I’m not eating at a place that sells that. Instead we ended up eating at an Afro-Caribbean place in a strip mall called Jambo and a nearby spot called Tibet Kitchen. Jambo had an amazing peanut stew and the rest of what we had was solid, but it wasn’t a remarkable meal. Similarly, Tibet Kitchen had really good momo but nothing remarkable. De Valle Panderia was great and so was The Paleta Bar. The latter applies the high-end frozen yogurt formula to the paleta and it was really delightful. I wonder what other cities this sort of paleta joint exists in? I got a taro paleta with dark chocolate, pine nuts, and pistachio and it was dank. They give you a huge mound of strawberries on the side drizzled in chocolate and I was feeling it.
After a day to cleanse our palettes after The Pantry, I convinced Angela to give Santa Fe chile another try and we ate at La Choza, which is always the first place that comes up for chile. I was not prepared to adopt a harsh stance towards Santa Fe without trying it.
Getting in was a whole ordeal. You pull in and a security guard tells you there’s no place to park and explains which streets in the neighborhood have spots where you won’t get towed. Then you drove around for a half hour till you find a spot. We got there at 6pm on a Tuesday and they gave us an hour and fifteen minute wait time. In for a penny, in for a pound. But it better be good.
And it was good! Not amazing, but solid. The most exciting part might have actually been the mocktails. I had a Tamarind Mule and it is a peak mocktail. Angela was equally excited about her salt and lemon thing. The enchiladas with pork adovada were good and the chile relleno was outstanding, but the red and green chile were both a little cooked out and mild for my taste. The tamale was not good.
We also tried Tia Sophia’s, the long-standing breakfast institution downtown. This is the first place that always comes up as a breakfast recommendation. It’s got a fun, divey vibe with paper towel napkins, terrible coffee, and the scent of mildew in the air. I’ve gotta say, though, it goes a little too far with the mildew and coffee. It’s almost hard to eat there and the coffee is not “so bad it’s good,” it’s tolerably gross. BUT the chile is on point. It’s fiery and fresh and not overcooked. Wish they didn’t give me a room temp store-bought flour tortilla on the side but otherwise I was happy.
As far as I can tell, though, the only truly extraordinary culinary opportunity in Santa Fe is the Kakawa Chocolate House. (My salivary glands exalted just now when I typed that.) We went twice and I wish we had gone again. It is esoteric, challenging chocolate and it is mind-blowing. They do have a lot of approachable, straightforwardly pleasant offerings but they also have a lot of stuff that is downright aggressive. In particular, their historically-informed Mesoamerican elixirs (served in three ounce portions) are *wild*. It’s not something everyone will enjoy, but I was so enthused that I mildly embarrassed Angela. The women who run the place, though, were delighted that I appreciated what they are doing and just kept giving me samples. Their offerings rotate daily, but they had some unsweetened drinking chocolate with nuts and flowers that made me yelp, and there’s this:
If you go there and they have this, GET IT. This is not your friendly neighborhood Mexican hot chocolate. This is like the chocolate equivalent of late Coltrane. Another woman ordered one at the same time as me and we bonded over it while her husband made faces and said things like “Oh god that is not for me. Oh god. Oh god what is that. Can I have a glass of water?”
Angela was obsessed with the ice cream, which had an absurd percentage of cacao. She got it twice. The truffles are also amazing. The prickly pear truffle is frickin’ weird, in a good way. The goat cheese and sage truffle is genius. The truffle itself is flavored with goat cheese and the sea salt on top is infused with sage. I directly told them, “no food that we have found in Santa Fe even begins to approach what you’re doing here.” They were like “yeah, that’s the idea.”
The other places I would recommend going out of your way to try are the Santarepa Cafe and Craft Donuts. The former is a Venezuelan joint dowtown and it’s hard to imagine you’re going to find a better lunch in that area. The woman who owns the place is fantastic. I made a boring order to try some representative classics and she refused to accept it. She was like, “no you don’t want that, you want sampler number 1. What do you want in the empanadas? No, you don’t want that. Just let me pick.” “Omakase.” I failed to take a picture but it was an excellent and fun plate of food. Craft Donuts is a food truck within walking distance of downtown that makes donuts to order and has a lot more topping options than a typical hot donut place. We went twice. The sweeter donuts were too sweet for me but the plainer ones and the ones with something salty or tart to cut the sweetness were great. It actually might be the best maple bacon donut I’ve ever had, with big proper chunks of bacon. I could not refrain from biting it long enough to snap a pic.
Let’s see, we also had an early morning pastry expedition where we found very good croissants at a place called Clafoutis but then I embarrassed Angela when we walked into this Slovak-Hungarian place called Dolina and I took one look at the pastry case and insisted that we leave without buying anything.
We intended to eat at Fiesta Oaxaca our last night. They have both a boring menu section and an interesting section with mole and a couple other regional dishes from other parts of Mexico (tbh the juxtaposition of radically different regional foods on the menu seemed a little jarring but it looked worth giving a chance). They changed their hours, however, and were closed Wednesday, so we went to the last place on my list: Taco Fundacion. And it was terrible. Reviews were good, so I’m glad I didn’t try it till last or I would have lost all faith in local opinion and skipped La Choza and Tia Sophia’s. The fried oyster and shrimp tacos were innocuous, though the tortillas were worrisome. But fried seafood is hard to mess up and everything else was bad. The lengua was straight up gross, and lengua is my favorite taco filling. Avoid!
Culturally, we were disappointed that the SITE art space was closed and the O’Keefe museum was sold out by the time I realized they were selling tickets a month out, but Meow Wolf was a blast. Definitely do it, and don’t read anything about it first. We were underwhelmed by the art galleries in general, which are full of cliched southwestern art and the occasional sideways Rothko, but the Russian art gallery is a gem. The woman who owns it has a large personal collection of Soviet propaganda she’s willing to haggle on.
We did take a couple scenic drives and we were especially impressed by the old Spanish church at Chimayo. There is a little hole in the wall you squeeze through and then there’s a pit of holy dirt where a priest found a miraculous cross buried a couple hundred years ago. And you are allowed to dig in the holy dirt!
So to my friends in the ASA who will visit Santa Fe in July, my recommendations are: go to the Kakawa Chocolate House more than once if you do anything, eat lunch at the Santarepa Cafe, do Meow Wolf, go to Chimayo if possible, avoid The Pantry and Taco Fundacion, and be very skeptical of all food that is expensive and/or near the city center. On Saturday and Sunday there’s a food truck next to Craft Donuts that does menudo. If I were around on the weekend, I would try that. There’s some Mexican and Guatemalan food out by the airport that I would try if I could do over again.
Overall it was a great trip. The soaking was exactly what we both needed. It was wonderful to see Marianne and John and meet their son. Main culinary takeaways: Birria Chaparral is a peak experience. Kakawa Chocolate House and The Doghouse Drive-In (aka the Breaking Bad hot dog place) are both exceptional. Hatch is the place to go for New Mexican chile, but you’ll be fine if you skip Sparky’s. Santa Fe is not my favorite town and I don’t need to go back (Kakawa sells drinking chocolate online, thank god). Next time I’m staying in Albuquerque and getting that damn green chile at the Doghouse.
Its a chaotic time but we managed to get lists together in time for a very late Oscar Sunday. The order this time is Matt-Angela-Josh-Isabel. Matt and Josh did full recaps of the year while Angela and Isabel turned in top ten lists with commentary.
In the past I’ve ranked and commented on every title on the list. Due to pandemic viewing conditions and the late Oscars, I watched a lot more this year than usual: 167 titles (which is considerably less than Josh watched). I have a clear idea of what’s at the top and bottom but everything else is a big mush. I’ve revised my format: the top 25 are ranked and everything else is sorted into categories. I chose one or two titles from each category to comment on. Rules for what counts as a 2020 film are loose, because it doesn’t really matter.
25. Shithouse (Cooper Raiff)
Shot on a budget of 15k, this is a really fantastic example of DIY independent filmmaking. It reminds me of Linklater, but cringecore. It is very sweet and sincere, and it does an incredible job conveying the social horror of freshman year.
24.Hubie Halloween(Steven Brill)
It’s not going to win a lot of awards, but there is no question that the 2020 movie I will watch the most times in my life is Hubie Halloween. It’s the movie I watched on election day when we were all freaking out waiting for the results to come in and it’s the movie I watched when my dad died and I couldn’t sleep and it’s the movie I watched every time I was feeling down and wanted something that would effortlessly cheer me up. Thanks for this, Happy Madison crew. It’s a gift. And thanks to Netflix for giving the people what they want. Namely, six Adam Sandler movies.
23. Greyhound(Aaron Schneider)
A very tight and focused naval procedural. Tom Hanks is a Christian, he values human life, he doesn’t have time to eat, and he loves Elisabeth Shue. Other than that, this is wall-to-wall sea battle. Schneider always keeps us oriented: we know where the u-boat is (or where it might be, in the suspense scenes), where the convoy is, where we are, and what we are trying to prevent or accomplish minute-by-minute. The most impressive thing about this is the way it reveals how military discipline plays out in the heat of battle. Nearly the entire movie is a tightly-coordinated dance of information and orders being relayed and carried out.
22. The Outpost(Rod Lurie)
Another immersive military procedural. This one sets itself apart with its vivid sense of the rhythms of life at the outpost of doom. It burrows deeply into the mindset of a deployed soldier. It feels extremely authentic (friends who have served in the military confirm this) and the big set piece at the end is the most incredible action sequence of the year.
21. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
Vigorous, creative horror that doesn’t pull its punches. I’ve been very bummed out by the direction that the genre has been going in general, but this was like a breath of fresh air.
20. The Golden Glove(Fatih Akin)
Supremely grimy portrait of a serial killer. It is one ugly movie. Impressively so. I still haven’t completely shaken the rancid emotional residue months later, nor have I gotten my mind around the fact that it is by the same director as Soul Kitchen.
19. Palm Springs(Max Barbakow)
I loved this the first time I watched it and thought, “Oh I am definitely going to teach Palm Springs along with Richard Taylor on the meaning of life.” I went ahead and did that and it helped me like the movie even more. I previously felt like it sort of petered out in the last act, but thinking about this part of movie in connection with the essay is very illuminating. When Sarah says, “A speech isn’t going to fix this,” I take that to be an explicit rejection of the Groundhog Day principle where one escapes a time loop by achieving moral perfection. She is rejecting the notion that there’s a point in life when we are “done” with self-overcoming. Understood as a response to Groundhog Day, the ending of Palm Springs is brilliant.
18. Undine(Christian Petzold)
A strange and alluring riff on the Undine myth in the context of industrial diving and urban planning and development. Gorgeous underwater imagery is woven through a contemplative Berlin city symphony.
17. Alone(John Hyams)
John Hyams is one of the strongest genre directors working today and this is a masterfully executed thriller. I’m really glad to see someone doing this sort of “back to basics” genre work at a high level.
16. Hunted(Vincent Paronnaud)
Hunted goes hard for 85 minutes and then gets out before you can catch your breath. I didn’t pause it. I didn’t look away. I am very amused that *both* directors of Persepolis went on to make bizarre horror movies (the other one is The Voices with Ryan Reynolds). This Little Red Riding Hood update has a slick visual style, but it is mean and nasty. It’s also laced with absurdist black humor and fantastical folk horror. I had never heard of the actor Arieh Worthalter before, but wow does he put himself out there in this. This is a man who is not afraid of getting typecast as a villain.
15. Guest of Honor(Atom Egoyan)
This grew on me steadily in the weeks after I watched it. It’s a deeply weird movie. I really admire the way Egoyan keeps doubling down on his most distinctive tropes and themes even as his movies have gotten less and less popular. You do you, Atom Egoyan. David Thewlis is immense in this.
14. Gretel & Hansel(Oz Perkins)
In a dark room with the volume cranked up, this is just a delicious experience. I am all about Perkins’ atmospheric, refined, sparse approach to horror.
13. The Salt of Tears(Philippe Garrel)
This is probably not going to appeal very much to people who are not already interested in Garrel. The material is roughly in the register of Pialat and at the stylistic level it forsakes the pleasant lyricism of Lover for a Day. It’s a gut punch.
12. Joan of Arc(Bruno Dumont)
Respect to Dumont for not repeating himself. This movie is just overflowing with ideas. Everything is creatively staged, and not in the same way as Jeanette. I’ve generally liked Dumont’s absurdist comedies more than his dramas and I was fascinated by the way the trial material (which Michael Sicinski points out is like the Madonna and Child for French Cinema) goes as far as it does in the direction of comedic absurdism without quite breaking through to become comedy. The gallery of inquisitors is brilliantly acted.
11. City Hall(Frederick Wiseman)
I appreciate the balance that this film achieves. It has a strong point of view about the successes and failures of big city government, but Wiseman allows it to wander off on humane, cinematically rich tangents when they present themselves.
10. The Kid Detective(Evan Morgan)
Adam Brody is perfectly cast as a kid detective of the Encyclopedia Brown variety grown up into a depressed 31-year old. When his first big case in ages lands on his desk, it becomes a quest for redemption and self-understanding. It’s a funny movie, but also disarmingly bleak and disturbing.
9. To the Ends of the Earth(Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa was invited by the Uzbek government to come make a movie in Uzbekistan to promote Japanese tourism. They told him he didn’t have to make an advertisement for the country or even depict it favorably, they just wanted him to make the best movie he could make set in their country. He agreed to do it and took the approach of just traveling to Uzbekistan with a crew and looking for inspiration. The film ends up effectively taking its own method as its subject matter. It’s about female travel show host (Yoko) and her crew who travel to Uzbekistan to film an episode of television. The narrative is loose and episodic. Much of the focus is on the anxiety Yoko feels as a foreigner exploring a strange country. There are a number of wonderful suspense scenes that Kurosawa based on his own experiences of getting irrationally freaked out while traveling and then later realizing that the situations were actually quite mundane and not objectively frightening. You can feel this personal perspective in the movie.
8. Capone(Josh Trank)
Best score of the year goes to El-P for this and it’s not even close– it’s straight nightmare fuel. This is an aggressively ugly movie that reeks of death. Tom Hardy goes all the way with his performance.
7. Liberté (Albert Serra)
Let me be clear that I am not recommending this. I love it, but if you choose to watch it, that is not my fault. You cannot blame me.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
I complain a lot about contemporary topical slam dunks that only exist because they have a built-in audience of people who want to see their worldview affirmed. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is proof that a topical drama can still be done well. It doesn’t go for big mic drops, but rather focuses on the subtleties of the way the characters experience sexist power structures. It’s all graceful nuance. Sidney Flanigan is just phenomenal. The way she lets emotions bubble to the surface in glimpses and then swallows them back down reminds me of Liv Ullmann. Hittman’s impressionistic visual style is gorgeous and well-suited to the material.
5. Days(Tsai Ming-liang)
Definitely not for everyone, and probably not the place to start with Tsai, but those who have acquired a taste for what he does should relish it. It’s a lot more legible than most of his films: it’s about the way sex interrupts the flow of life. But it complicates the subject matter by focusing as much on continuity between sex and the rhythms of the mundane as on discontinuity. That sounds depressing, but Tsai finds romance in the material.
One of the most striking and distinctive features of Tsai’s work is the omnipresent use of ambient noise. Fans, air conditioners, rain, dripping water– background sounds in the diegetic world become the foreground of the film’s audio. There’s a moment in this when the otherwise pervasive white noise drops out and the sudden silence just feels miraculous.
4. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
This might look like a lightweight 77 minute piece of hangout fluff, but it has an exceptionally dense structure along the lines of A Christmas Carol. Gam-hee visits three different women living lives that could be hers or could have been hers, all while having the space to reflect for the first time in ages on how she really feels about her marriage. There are many, many symmetries between the three segments and there are somewhere between 3 and 6 Hong Sang-soo stand-ins among the male characters. Also, this has the single greatest cat scene of all time.
3. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
It’s the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the first high-ranking member of the mafia to turn informant. This might sound like worn-out subject matter for a worn-out genre, but Bellocchio’s approach is pure old master bravado. This thing slaps. It is astonishing that he managed to film COURTROOM SCENES in a cinematically exhilarating way.
2. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
Tommaso is about the stage of recovery where the threat of relapse is well in the background and the primary challenge is navigating day-to-day life without the crutch of substance abuse. I think it’s the single best movie I’ve ever seen about long-term recovery (something I’m familiar with). Indeed, the movie itself can be understood as part of Ferrara’s own recovery project. It’s also a profound display of intimacy between actor and director. Dafoe and Ferrara have made six films together. In this one, Dafoe plays an obvious Ferrara stand-in, with a few bits of Dafoe’s own life and personality mixed in. This was shot in Ferrara’s apartment, with Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Ferrara said in an interview that he didn’t direct Dafoe at all. He trusted him to represent the truth of this utterly personal material. I find that very moving.
1. The Wild Goose Lake(Diao Yi’nan)
This is completely and totally my shit. It hits so many buttons for me: Wuhan as City on Fire (viewed in 2020!), Langian paranoid thriller, nocturnal death odyssey, men and women clinging to principle as the world burns down around them. I watched this late at night, stood up breathless when the credits rolled, announced ‘holy shit that was good!’, and then got up first thing in the morning and watched it again (and then wrote an enthusiastic review).
Cut Throat City (The RZA)
This is a big, ambitious hot mess of the best kind. It has many faults, but I love it. The character acting is out of control: Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke, and Wesley Snipes are highlights, but the MVP has to be T.I.. The soundtrack is what you’d hope it would be.
Let Him Go (Thomas Bezucha)
An excellent neo-western with a vivid Montana/Dakota setting. Lesley Manville (from all those Mike Leigh movies) is the villain and she devours this thing whole.
Also: Hunter Hunter, Synchronic, Straight Up, Unhinged, Monster Hunter, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Deerskin, Rogue City, Bad Boys for Life, The Witches, Run,The Dark and the Wicked
Other stuff I solidly liked:
The Croods: A New Age(Joel Crawford)
Believe it or not, this is the Nicolas Cage movie of the year.
Wolfwalkers(Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
This is the sort of thing Elizabeth Warren supporters force their kids to watch, but the animation is very good and it’s refreshing to see 2D druid werewolves as the heroes of a kids’ movie. The authoritarian theatrics material is sharp.
Also: The Mercenary, Black Bear, The Man in the Woods, Vitalina Varela, VFW, On the Rocks, The Truth, Kajillionaire, Antebellum, The Wolf House, Skylines, The Jesus Rolls, Psycho Goreman, Kindred Spirits, Sputnik, Beanpole, Swallow, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Beach House, Lovers Rock, Freaky, Tenet, Young Ahmed, La Llorona, Fatale, Love and Monsters, The Wrong Missy, Deep Blue Sea 3, The Empty Man, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Seized, Fatman, The Twentieth Century
Sure, why not:
Willy’s Wonderland(Kevin Lewis)
This will only appeal to the very smallest of niches: Cage diehards who value his quiet side. The action is totally worthless; the only scenes of value in this movie are the ones where a mute Cage is cleaning the kitchen and playing pinball. (That’s actually enough for me. I am certainly in the relevant niche.)
Bloodshot (David S.F. Wilson)
Vin Diesel has robot blood. That’s all I needed to hear.
Also: Saint Maud, First Cow, Sorry We Missed You, Greenland, Fourteen, The New Mutants, Ham on Rye, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Jiu Jitsu, Welcome to Sudden Death, The Grudge, Extraction, Debt Collectors. The King of Staten Island, Collective, The Invisible Man, Disappearance at Clifton Hill, Color Out of Space, Bacurau, Legacy of Lies, Zombi Child, Ladies in Black, Judas and the Black Messiah, Yes, God, Yes, Holidate, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, 1BR, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, Genus Pan, Bad Hair, Relic, Butt Boy, Blood Quantum, The Grand Bizarre, Guest House, Come to Daddy, Becky
I’m at least not mad at it:
Max Cloud (Martin Owen)
Everything outside the game is terrible. The kids are terrible. The video game nostalgia is terrible. BUT Scott Adkins’ physical acting as he legitimately kicks ass while maintaining a rigid retro game character posture and a set of moves pulled directly from retro games is worth the price of admission all by itself (at least for Adkins connoisseurs).
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)
A lifeless demonstration of technical proficiency. Really, it’s more of a job application then a standalone movie. But it does successfully demonstrate technical proficiency.
Also: She Dies Tomorrow, Iron Mask, Emma., Chained for Life, Anything for Jackson, The Babysitter: Killer Queen, Body Cam, On a Magical Night, Ammonite, Money Plane, Da 5 Bloods, Fast and Fierce: Death Race, Mangrove, Fantasy Island, His House, The Craft: Legacy, Honest Thief, The Wretched, Host, Wonder Woman 1984, Bit, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, Sonic the Hedgehog, Rogue, The Rental, Miss Juneteenth, The Whistlers
The product placement for The Avengers and neutral depiction of labor in an Amazon warehouse tell you everything you need to know about this. It’s a Prestige Picture– a romanticization of poverty packaged by a corporate juggernaut and sold to bourgeois consumers as Certified Authentic. It’s a two-for-one: you get to support the very same corporate capitalism you are softly bemoaning. The end result is that Disney gets to later advertise an Avengers movie as “From the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland….”
Also: After Midnight, Another Round, May the Devil Take You Too, Force of Nature, Violation, The Climb, Scare Me, The Hunt, Birds of Prey, Sound of Metal.
Promising Young Woman(Emerald Fennell)
I’m sure no one who knows me at all is the least bit surprised that I hate this, but WOW DO I HATE IT. It is the absolute peak example of a venerable exploitation subgenre drained of its lifeblood and rewritten by an artificial intelligence trying to remix feminist Twitter’s greatest hits but getting everything backwards. Clancy Brown has never been so dismally wasted. Carey Mulligan is in the running for least convincing depressed person of all time. I want to avoid spoilers but if I were more prone to take offense nearly everything about this movie would offend me. And it’s like two hours long!
Guns Akimbo(Jason Lei Howden)
I think this is actually worse than Promising Young Woman? I didn’t finish it. I didn’t even come close. Imagine the worst possible edgelord Harry Potter Neveldine and Taylor imitation. It’s that.
Also: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Tesla, Mank, The Assistant, Underwater,The Platform, The Lodge, The High Note, Beneath Us, Corona Zombies, Enola Holmes.
10. The Wild Goose Lake
This is an excellent thriller with a dark, urban visual style that I find appealing.
Continuous tension from start to finish. I was literally on the edge of my seat for the entire movie.
8. Joan of Arc
I actually like this a lot better than the first one. It takes itself more seriously, in a way I appreciate.
7. The Salt of Tears
It’s just a joy that we are still getting new Philippe Garrel movies.
A very unconventional, deglamorized gangster movie that focuses more on the mundane details of Capone’s last days than on his mythology. It’s raw and sad and gripping from start to finish. Tom Hardy is amazing.
5. Gretel & Hansel
Dark and beautiful. It’s the right kind of disturbing for me.
4. Folkore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (Taylor Swift)
This documentary brought the album to life in a new way. The personal context she provides for the songs makes them even more dear to me.
I appreciate the serious approach to the material from Moorhead and Benson. It’s a very creative movie. The production design is interesting and imaginative. I was blown away.
I’m the biggest Christopher Nolan fan in the Strohltopia family and I thought Tenet was absolutely thrilling.
I love Petzold. This fantastical romance moved me to tears. I loved fairytales throughout my childhood and Undine brought me back to that in a way that felt at once magical and melancholy.
Honorable mentions: Emma., Sputnik, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, The Traitor.
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
Abel Ferrara has been one of my favorite artists for most of my life. He started out in dark territory: addiction, self-loathing, debauchery, and grime. Films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York made deep impressions. It’s poignant now to see him navigating his life in recovery and finding grace notes for himself in his own films– making a personal movie with his wife and cute little daughter and his best buddy Dafoe about spiritual growth. It’s an essential film in his body of work and it fills me with hope to see Ferrara continue to face down his demons.
Capone (Josh Trank)
It’s about really ugly and unpleasant things: dementia, incontinence, death. I’ve been living with this stuff for a long time as my dad’s health deteriorated (we lived in the same house). This hit me harder than I could even convey. Tom Hardy is incredible in this; he is playing the long game. It’s performances like this that will be remembered when later generations look back over his career, even if they are ignored in the short term. I said last year that The Irishman closed the modern gangster movie cycle. Capone is the epilogue. It takes the lineage of anti-gangster movies that began with The Godfather III to its furthest extreme.
Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)
This is a movie I can really vibe on. I used to find Bruno Dumont unapproachable but after watching this I went back to his early works and found that I really love them. His oddball absurdist sensibility runs through all his films, and this one is perhaps the best balance of comedy and drama in his filmography. There were a number of high profile movies this year about women coping with male-dominated power structures and this one was wrongly left out of that conversation. It tells that story in striking images.
Guest of Honour (Atom Egoyan)
A dreamy labyrinth of misperceptions, false memories, health inspections, sexting and rabbits. Like many of Egoyan’s films, it’s about the way that small events can reshape our entire lives and impact others. It feels very true to me. When we ask ourselves how things really got to be the way they are, the chains of explanation tend to be as convoluted and bizarre as the ones in this movie. It’s at once rigorous and poetic and a powerful examination of the ripple effects of trauma. David Thewlis turns in one of the finest performances of the year.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You (Thom Zimny)
I’m biased. Bruce is my favorite recording artist. This moved me at a deep level. It’s a movie about death and loss in the year when I lost my dad. The Boss feels like a father figure handing down the wisdom of a lifetime. There are few people I look up to like Bruce Springsteen and I take his words to heart. Also, The E Street Band is a machine in this and seeing these guys create the album in the studio together at this stage in the game is a joy. An all-time great music film.
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
I’ve been shooting, editing, and directing local news for a decade, so I am very familiar with filming the sort of material that Wiseman is concerned with here. His approach is extremely unconventional. He approaches something like a budget meeting with uncommon patience, sticking with wide shots where another director would have zoomed or cut and letting people finish talking instead of editing down their statements to a soundbite. The cumulative result is a humane, observant tapestry that is appropriate to the massive subject matter.
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
I was surprised by how moved by this I was. It was jarring; it caught me off guard and made a deep impression. It’s a compassionate and transcendent film. The last scenes featuring a music box playing the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight are startlingly beautiful and melancholy.
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Another year, another Hong Sang-soo banger. He is often accused of repeating himself, but I don’t think that’s fair at all. Although his movies have some elements in common, they all have their own little mystery to unlock. They are treasure boxes and I love them all. Hong’s Hill of Freedom and Yourself and Yours were also released in North America this year and they are also some of the best films released this year.
The Traitor (Marco Bellochio)
The Traitor is the antidote to all these Trial of the Chicago 7 non-movies. It’s called mise-en-scène, Sorkin.
On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola deserves more credit as a comedic director. This appeals to the Bogdanovich/Ashby fan in me. It’s effervescent and playful and I fear that we’ve unfortunately gotten to a point where a lot of people think that’s not enough. Bill Murray hasn’t been this good in a long time.
Psycho Goreman (Steven Kostanski)
Not for everyone, but definitely for me. It hits me in my sweet spot. The effects are great and it is dead on for my sense of humor. I would have loved it as a kid and I love it as an old man. “I do not care for hunky boys! ….or do I?”
Hubie Halloween (Steve Brill)
Love the Sandman, love Hubie Halloween, no reservations.
Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins)
The Truth Hirokazu Kore-eda)
The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan)
Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg) Brandon Cronenberg does right by the family name with this freaky sci-fi movie.
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yi’nan)
The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
The Projectionist (Abel Ferrara)
Greyhound (Aaron Schneider)
The Whistlers (Cornelius Porumboiu)
Straight Up (James Sweeney)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Let Him Go
Monster Hunter Cinema lives! This is Hell in the Pacific with Milla Jovovich as Lee Marvin and Tony Jaa as Toshiro Mifune.
The Golden Glove I had no idea Fatih Akin had this in him. Unforgettable.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches
Bad Boys for Life
Let Them All Talk
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Liberté I watched this at like 7am, which was kind of perfect in a strange way.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Ladies in Black
Tenet This put me in the unfamiliar position of defending a Christopher Nolan movie.
Family Romance, LLC
The Wrong Missy
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds Just when I think I’ve seen everything from Herzog he starts waxing poetic about the CGI effects in 1997 disaster blockbuster Deep Impact.
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Da 5 Bloods Not one of Spike’s best joints but it still has a lot of interesting things going on, particularly his riffing on Sam Fuller.
Lovers Rock I thought all five of the Small Axe movies were interesting and had a striking sense of setting and strong production design.
Kindred Spirits Glad to see Lucky McKee doing something interesting again, this time in the form of a literal Lifetime movie.
David Byrne’s American Utopia I enjoyed this but it’s no Stop Making Sense.
Unhinged Trashy fun with a great villain turn from the Russell Crowe,
Red, White and Blue
The Empty Man
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
Love and Monsters
The Cordillera of Dreams
The Croods: A New Age I watch a lot of kids movies and animated movies and this is a cut above. It’s bright and imaginative animation and Cage does incredible voice work here.
The Father I was prepared to slam this movie if it didn’t come correct in it’s depiction of Alzheimer’s/dementia. It’s a bit heavy-handed in some ways but I found it to be very accurate and haunting and Hopkins puts on a tour de force performance. It’s the only movie that is up for best picture that I thought was solidly good.
The Dark and the Wicked Brutal and bleak movie. I respect it more than I like it.
The Jesus Rolls
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
American Murder: The Family Next Door
The Invisible Man
The Beach House
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Disappearance at Clifton Hill
We Can Be Heroes
The Wolf House
Yes, God, Yes
Deep Blue Sea 3
Malcolm & Marie
Anything for Jackson
The New Mutants
Color Out of Space
The Man in the Woods
The Twentieth Century
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Blood and Money
News of the World
Judas and the Black Messiah
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm I thought this was funny but overrated. Cohen did much better work recently with his Showtime series Who is America.
First Cow I’m generally a big Reichardt fan. I don’t think this is her best work, but it’s memorable.
Wonder Woman 1984
The King of Staten Island
Sonic the Hedgehog
Cut Throat City
Like a Boss
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
On a Magical Night
The Way Back
The Vast of Night
An American Pickle
12 Hour Shift
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find
Come to Daddy
The Craft: Legacy
Tales from the Hood 3
The Tax Collector
You Should Have Left
The High Note
Ammonite Forbidden lesbian romance, fossil edition. I’m into the genre but Winslet overacts and takes the life out of the movie.
Trolls World Tour Starts like you just ate 50 pixie sticks and chugged a liter of Jolt cola but can’t keep up its mania and runs out of steam pretty early.
Scoob! I’ve seen this 300 times.
Underwater Starts interesting then starts ripping off Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea at every turn and finishes off with a terrible CGI monster.
The Prom This is so jaw-droppingly bad and cringey that I kind of got a charge out of watching it.
Force of Nature Not enough Mel Gibson.
The Little Things
Jiu Jitsu Cage bait and switch.
Sound of Metal
The Rhythm Section
The Personal History of David Copperfield
After Midnight Bad movie with a good ending.
Tesla I was into some of what was going on here but by the karaoke scene I was rolling my eyes.
The Photograph A movie I completely forgot the moment it ended.
The Call of the Wild CGI dogs are lame AF but this movie has a singular ability to make my daughter take a nap so it has that going for it.
Ham on Rye
She Dies Tomorrow
Standing Up, Falling Down
Saint Frances This kind of movie is a dime a dozen and this one was particularly uninspired.
The War with Grandpa I thought this was gonna pick up when Christopher Walken showed up. It did, but nowhere near enough.
Onward One of the worst Pixar movies. I’m getting a little tired of their formula and “dead parent” kids movies in general.
Hamilton I know that this is beloved but it is not for me at all.
One Night in Miami… Is Civil Rights icon fan fiction a thing? This movie is so weird about it, especially the way it puts these awkward, excruciating platitudes in the mouths of people like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Maximum cringe. It also fails on a technical level with its bland production design.
Promising Young Woman I thought some of the casting was interesting, and it’s maybe a little entertaining as a bad movie, but it’s really silly and the script is ridiculous.
The Assistant It has one point to make and it just makes it over and over and over again. It doesn’t work as experiential cinema in the way that Never Rarely Sometimes Always or To the Ends of the Earth does because its imagination is so limited, and it doesn’t work as minimalism because it doesn’t go anywhere interesting with the rhythms it establishes. It’s dull and tedious.
Mulan First of all, there’s no Mushu. Also, it pretty much sucks.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 This a new low water mark for prestige pictures in terms of production design, cinematography, costume design (how they messed this up with this subject matter is beyond me) and period detail. It looks cheap and is poorly directed. The schmaltzy Sorkin dialogue is unbearable and wrong for the material.
Brahms: The Boy II The title was so appealing to me that I went back and watched The Boy in order to watch this. It turns out that The Boy is sort of a gem, but then this sequel wrecks its mythology more fully than I imagined possible. It really is an amazing title, though.
Guns Akimbo People who are really into this movie are probably people who I don’t want to know.
Sadistic Intentions The intentions are nowhere near sadistic enough.
How to Build a Girl I rented this for 99 cents against my better judgment and I had to pause it every five minutes to pace around and groan. Every now and then my wife walked in and asked “what is this annoying movie you’re watching?” Beanie Feldstein is baaaaaad.
Valley Girl I was curious to see how bad this would be and it is shockingly bad. It’s worse than a bad episode of Glee. This is an insult to Martha Coolidge’s original, and surprisingly regressive.
Mank A train wreck of a movie. It’s worse than I thought Fincher was capable of. Even aside from the anti-Wellesian garbage, it’s incredibly boring, it’s ugly, Gary Oldman is horribly miscast, and I hate it. I’m hard pressed to understand why anyone would have wanted to make this movie. The Bernie Sanders parallels are unbearably cloying.
Downhill Every now and then you come across a movie that you just despise deep in the core of your being. For me, Downhill is that movie. I don’t believe that there is a single person alive who likes it (a real person, not a critic). If there is, I wouldn’t judge, but I would be very curious to find out who this person is who likes Downhill.
We don’t see many animated movies that are this thoughtful and unique. It’s really magical and we loved watching it with Sky. It’s a very special mother-daughter movie.
9. Straight Up
Cerebral, thought-provoking neurotic asexual rom com that is delightful in its chaos.
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Powerhouse movie with an incredible performance from Sidney Flanigan.
A docu-thriller for journalists. I loved it.
6. Let Him Go
This movie completely worked its magic on me. Totally riveting.
5. Small Axe (in total)
It’s like a great album of movies. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. It veers off into subjects and stories that you don’t normally see depicted in historical movies.
4. Sorry We Missed You
Keeping your head above water as a working parent, coping with fear of the unknown, emotional exhaustion— this movie’s dignified depiction of the every day struggle is devastating.
3. Monster Hunter
Obsessed. Milla Jovovich has the credibility to play a grizzled female action star.
This is extremely true to my personal experiences with dementia and death. It’s comforting to see it depicted well, with humor and darkness and vivid sensory details. Josh and I felt seen.
Claire Denis’ L’Intrus was a foundational film in the development of my taste. It wasn’t the first of her films that I saw, but it was the one that really pulled me into an intense long-term relationship for her work. When I first saw it 15+ years ago, I thought it was one of the most stunning, enigmatic, alluring films I had ever seen. I recently watched Metrograph’s HD release and I felt the same way. It is my favorite Claire Denis film and in the running for my single favorite film of the last twenty years.
Most of Denis’ work has an elliptical quality; she forsakes the usual connective tissue of exposition and instead shows us evocative shards of narrative. L’Intrus pushes this tendency to its far extreme. At one point, we see the film’s unsympathetic protagonist, Louis Trebor, go to sleep in Geneva, Switzerland and then we see him wake up in Busan, South Korea. Further confounding the narrative, surreal waking events are juxtaposed with dreams in a way that unsettles the distinction between the two. But it would be a mistake to treat L’Intrus as an unsolvable riddle, as so many critics have. It’s not merely inscrutable phantasmagoria that we should let wash over us like a psychedelic lightshow. It’s presented as being inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “L’Intrus,” and we ought to take that connection seriously and think about the direction it points us in for engaging with the film. This is easier said than done, however, since Denis’ film is connected to the essay only in the most esoteric ways (Nancy himself said that he didn’t see the connection after his first viewing).
Nancy’s short essay relates the concept of the intruder to his own heart transplant years earlier. Denis’ film does involve a heart transplant and includes a number of intruders of various sorts, but extrapolates far beyond the content of the essay. At the beginning of the film, we meet Trebor, a mysterious old man living in the Jura mountains with two dogs. He is played by Michel Subor, the actor most famous for playing Bruno Forestier in Godard’s Le petit soldat. He has only appeared in a handful of films since 1990 and most of them are by Denis. Fascinatingly, this is one of two movies by her where his backstory is supplied by another movie that she did not direct. His character in Beau Travail is Bruno Forestier, the same character he played in Le petit soldat. In L’Intrus, our only glimpses into Trebor’s past are clips pulled from Paul Gégauff’s unfinished 1965 film Le Reflux, where he played a sailor in colonial Polynesia. In both Beau Travail and L’Intrus he is a lingering vestige of the colonial era. He also appears in Denis’ Bastards and White Material, in both cases a sort of dark apparition of the previous generation. White Material again has a colonial context while in Bastards Subor’s character is part of the aging generation of rapacious capitalists. Taking all this together, we can see that Subor’s place in Denis’ cinema is as an avatar of past sins living on in the present. In L’intrus, this avatar is the protagonist rather than a menacing peripheral character.
We never learn exactly what Trebor did for a living, but his vast illicit wealth and penchant for bloodshed suggests that he was some sort of mercenary (this is the standard interpretation, at least). We see him early in the film basking in a forest with his dogs in a sequence that resembles Straub-Huillet’s idyllic forest compositions (I’m not sure what to make of the connection but I point it out because it is an unusual point of reference for Denis):
We also see him struggling with chest pain while swimming in a mountain lake. We will later learn that he requires a heart transplant. After pulling himself ashore, clutching his heart and catching his breath, he finds a cigarette butt in the sand… evidence of an intruder in this idyllic space. He looks towards the forest. We are shown a woman slinking through the trees, out of sight.
This woman is listed in the credits as “La sauvageonne” (“The wild child”). She is one of three mysterious, unnamed female figures we encounter early in the film. The first is “la jeune femme russe” (“The young Russian woman”), who speaks the first words of the film: “Your worst enemies are hidden inside, in the shadow, in your heart.” The third is Trebor’s neighbor, played by the great BéatriceDalle. She is listed in the credits as “La reine de l’hémisphère nord” (“The queen of the northern hemisphere”). She lives alone with a whole brood of sled dogs but obviously hates Trebor and his dogs and considers him an intruder.
We also meet Trebor’s lover, “The pharmacist,” one of the few film roles of French model and singer Bambou (the longtime partner of Serge Gainsbourg). While basking in post-coital glow with her, he hears an intruder downstairs and gets up to investigate. We don’t see exactly what happens, but the intruder is La sauvageonne and Trebor apparently kills her with a knife before going back to bed. This is very possible a dream, but I think the film is ultimately unclear about this. We see him dispose of the body later, but we also see her alive later in the film (though that scene may very well have taken place earlier than the other events of the film, and there is some indication that it did– one can see why many consider L’Intrus an unsolvable riddle).
It’s becoming clear at this point that La sauvageonne is operating at a metaphorical level — we aren’t going to learn who she is or what she wants. We can find hints, however, in the text of Nancy’s essay. He writes, “My heart was becoming my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside. Yet this strangeness could only come from outside for having first emerged inside. A void suddenly opened in my chest or my soul—it’s the same thing—when it was said to me: “You must have a heart transplant. . . .”
The intruders appear for Trebor just as he has this realization– he must have a heart transplant. The flipside of accepting that one must have a heart transplant is accepting that someone else must lose their heart. The estrangement from one’s own heart is coupled with opening oneself to receive a strange heart. Strangers out in the world become possible donors– possible intruders. Later in the film, we learn that Trebor is particularly concerned that he not receive a woman’s heart, because he does not want to lose his character. At the same moment that Trebor experiences his own heart as an intruder, he apprehends himself as an open wound waiting to have his own intruding heart removed and then the cavity filled by the fresh intrusion of his future heart. The most apt way to understand La sauvageonne as Trebor’s projection of the unknown strangers who could provide his new heart. His killing of La sauvageonne can be understood as a ruthless step to prevent a woman’s heart from intruding into his body. She sneaks into the house in the dead of night to emasculate him while he lays naked with his lover. If this sequence is a dream, it’s a dream about his fear of receiving a woman’s heart.
When Trebor kills La sauvageonne, we also see the young Russian woman who delivered the opening lines of the film standing outside, watching and judging. Soon we see Trebor log on to an old computer and send an ominous message in Russian. He wants to take the “emergency option.” He is told he’ll need to bring money. We can infer that he is purchasing an illegal heart transplant on the black market. The person who responds to his message–we soon learn after Trebor travels to Geneva to retrieve cash from a safe deposit box–is the young Russian woman. He pays her a large wad of cash and also buys himself an expensive new watch. In a clear dream sequence (clear because we see him wake up from it), Trebor is dragged through the snow by the young Russian woman and another figure on horses. He protests “But I’ve already paid!” Her response is the apex of existential torment in the movie: “YOU’LL NEVER PAY ENOUGH.”
From here we see a post-transplant Trebor contracting with a South Korean shipyard for the construction of a large vessel. We don’t know exactly how large, but we know that the executives at the shipyard investigated Trebor’s finances and found that he has vast assets and the backing of a bank before they agreed to build the ship. He explains that it is a gift for his son, a sailor who loves the sea. They ink the deal and drink to celebrate. For the last section of the movie, we see Trebor in Tahiti, ostensibly searching for his lost son. This is the point of the movie where we see flashbacks to his youth pulled from Le Reflux. I haven’t mentioned this but earlier in the film we met another character who is evidently Trebor’s son, Sidney, played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin. Sidney is portrayed as an exceptionally empathetic and nurturing man– the polar opposite of Trebor. His wife is a border agent (someone who protects the border from intruders) and in a moving early scene we see him talk her through a sort of guided meditation after she returns home from work in obvious distress. In another earlier scene, we see Trebor meet Sidney’s wife on the street with her two young children. Trebor is surprised to see that they now have a girl in addition to the boy, but he is wrong. He’s told that not only is the younger child a boy, he’s even named after his grandfather: his name is Louis. Meanwhile the young Russian woman is seen looking on in judgment.
Does Trebor have two sons, one in France and one in Tahiti? Or does he only have one son, Sidney, and is his journey to Tahiti in search of his son a purely metaphorical element of the film? Perhaps Sidney was originally born to a Tahitian mother? The film provides no answer to these questions, though many critics assume that their are two sons. I do not think we are entitled to this assumption, especially in light of the ending, which I will not spoil here (but my point should be obvious for those who have seen it).
He explains that he wants to find his son in part because “everything I own is his.” But he cannot find his son anywhere, and islanders insist that he has become theirs, not Trebor’s. But Trebor finds his old hut and starts fixing it up to take up residence there (prompting the memorable image of he and a friend carrying a mattress through the shallow ocean waters).
What’s most striking to me through this section of the film is Trebor’s sense of entitlement to redemption. He is wealthy, therefore he is redeemed. Passing his wealth to his son– and gifting him a ship–redeems his actions. His previous words “but I’ve already paid!” gain a new resonance. “You’ll never pay enough.” Whether Sidney is his only son or not, his journey to Tahiti can be seen as a Gauguin-esque quest of selfishness. He has left behind a son who loves him. If Sidney is his only son, Denis’ surreal narrative gambit is doubly brutal. He brusquely passes on genuine redemption in order to pursue a grandiose romanticized version that serves only himself. It is he who is the sailor; it is he who loves the sea, not his son. It is he who is drawn to leave his family behind to despoil the southern hemisphere. His son waits faithfully in Europe, with a son of his own named after a grandfather who doesn’t care at all.
There is a large body of academic literature on L’Intrus and most of it focuses on the post-colonial dimension of the film. Trebor’s past in French Polynesian and his journey to Tahiti in the film must indeed be understood against France’s colonial history. This is a theme that pervades Denis’ work. But I think academic commentators make the mistake of downplaying the more personal dimension of L’Intrus in favor of its world-political dimension. The political dimension of the film is just one layer, and it is not a privileged layer. It is the macro-dimension of the personal story that the film is more closely concerned with. The ultimate intrusion is that of the northern hemisphere into the southern (which casts different light on the naming of Dalle’s character “the queeen of the northern hemisphere”). I will not discuss this dimension further here, but there is a large body of (not very exciting) scholarship on the topic waiting for anyone who cares. I prefer to take the colonial context as background rather than as foreground. It inflects the foreground, for sure, but it doesn’t supplant it.
To return to Nancy’s text:
“This was always, more or less, the life of the infirm and the aged: but, precisely, I am neither one nor the other. What cures me is what infects or affects me; what allows me to live causes me to age prematurely. My heart is twenty years younger than I am, and the rest of my body (at least) a dozen years older. So having at the same time become younger and older, I no longer have an age proper, just as, properly speaking, I am no longer my own age. Just as I no longer have an occupation, although I am not retired, so too I am nothing of what I am supposed to be (husband, father, grandfather, friend) unless I remain subsumed within the very general condition of the intrus, of diverse intrus that at any moment can appear in my place in my relations with, or in the representations of, others [autrui].
In a single movement, the most absolutely proper “I” withdraws to an infinite distance (where does it go?; into what vanishing point from which I could still claim that this is my body?) and subsides into an intimacy more profound than any interiority (the impregnable recess wherefrom I say “I,” but that I know to be as gaping [béant] as this chest opened upon emptiness, or as the slipping into the morphinic unconsciousness of suffering and fear, merged in abandonment). Corpus meum and interior intimo meo, the two together state very exactly, and in a complete configuration of the death of god, that the truth of the subject is its exteriority and excessivity: its infinite exposition. The intrus exposes me, excessively. It extrudes, it exports, it expropriates: I am the illness and the medical intervention, I am the cancerous cell and the grafted organ, I am the immuno-depressive agents and their palliatives, I am the bits of wire that hold together my sternum, and I am this injection site permanently stitched in below my clavicle, just as I was already these screws in my hip and this plate in my groin. I am becoming like a science-fiction android, or the living-dead, as my youngest son one day said to me…..
The intrus is no other than me, my self; none other than man himself. No other than the one, the same, always identical to itself and yet that is never done with altering itself. At the same time sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-equipped, intruding upon the world and upon itself: a disquieting upsurge of the strange, conatus of an infinite excrescence.”
Nancy isn’t the sort of writer who goes out of his way to make sense, but there is a relatively clear thought in this bit of the essay. His transplant represented a sort of intrusion of the other into himself, but at the same time the strain of going through it aged the rest of his body. He ends up with a younger heart than before but otherwise feels older. He is, at the end point of the process, composed entirely of parts that he experiences as intruders, and therefore is himself “the intruder.”
I take this passage to be the lynchpin connecting the film and the essay. The film begins by chronicling a series of intrusions as experienced by Trebor, but it ends up with the realization that he’s been the intruder all along. You may find this a cryptic closing thought on my part, but it is appropriate to such a wonderfully cryptic film. L’Intrus doesn’t simply hand itself over to any viewer who stumbles in. On first viewing, it’s hard not to experience the film itself as a sort of intruder. Like most of Denis’ work, it takes more than one viewing to even begin to unearth its riches. My aim here is just to offer a sketchy map pointing towards a way of engaging with it that I’ve found fruitful.