Capsules: September 2018


Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years.

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

Such an expansive, disorienting, mesmerizing blend of elements that I had to sleep on its ending before concluding that yes, this is indeed some kind of masterpiece. The martial arts plot at the center is familiar intrigue and superheroics. But framing it from the point of view of a definitive non-superhero and finishing it on acid turn this action film into a haunting spiritual journey. Tidy? God no. But its elemental, mysterious nature is forever.



The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942)

Clouzot’s debut is a charming whodunnit with a morbid sense of humor and only the frivolity of its genre to quell a nagging dissatisfaction at how the plot wraps up. But already you can see signs of a pungent cynicism, a distrust of people both as individuals and as groups, coloring the caper and pointing the way to his future hits Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and his masterpiece Le Corbeau. So much fun that when he stopped being charming, it was clearly a choice.



Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

Cheers to Pathé for restoring this gem and to the Aero for showing it! You know the racket: a plan, a gang of thieves, and the mistakes and chaotic X factors that can foul up any “perfect crime”. But this one does everything right, giving the double-crosses and misunderstandings the ironic wit they deserve. Essential for people who’ve exhausted Melville, so hopefully it will get more play. Don’t discount the women, and remember to use the hidden exit.


State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

Mamet-the-writer is more distinctive than Mamet-the-director, but he manages a fine comic juggling act whose appeal isn’t so much an attack on Hollywood but a failed breakup with it. Pointing out that the Hollywood system produces immoral out-of-touch assholes is old hat and easy—more intriguing are the twists, nuances, ambiguities, and self-reflexive contrivances that allow the film’s Mamet surrogate to enter the Hollywood system, get everything he wants, and somehow stay clean.



Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

I was once asked by a European to explain the appeal of baseball. I failed, naturally, because baseball is as much a part of the quintessentially American mythos as George Washington and the cherry tree, only a lot more fun. The further down the rungs you get from the majors, the closer you are to the heart of it. Which is why this perspective from the minor leagues is so meaningful, and executed with such bittersweet, humorous regard for what it means to be a success.


2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

The immortally suppressed desire of In the Mood For Love erupts into a dangerously seductive erotic fantasia—and though this B-side to that 21st century arthouse staple takes a different, even opposing approach, it lets you realize that the two stories can’t exist without the other. As a fable about failed attempts to replace impossibly idealized love, it couldn’t be simpler. But it luxuriates in details, characters, and meta games, as if Wong’s ambitions ballooned to where reality alone couldn’t contain them.




Yes, video stores still exist in LA, and they have a purpose, both as a repository for films abandoned by the streaming boom and a forum of ideas for the geeky, the devout, and the reprobate. At one of them, I mentioned to the clerk that, with First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader seemed to be having a moment again for the first time in years. He agreed, then asked me about Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. “Did you see Winter LightFirst Reformed is basically 70% Winter Light.”

Having seen both, that number sounds correct, and I’d add that a lot of the remaining 30% belongs to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. (Schrader, in his life as a critic, literally wrote the book on Bresson, before writing the script for Taxi Driver and having a directing career of his own). Schrader’s country priest takes the form of Ethan Hawke, who enters humbly as the pastor of a dwindling church in upstate New York. He is a sickly, solitary individual who hides most of his thoughts from others, as if he’s determined that his convictions must require loneliness. And his crisis of faith—not in god so much as in mankind—intensifies when one of his parishioners, distraught over environmental pollution, loses the will to live and leaves behind a widow. (In Bergman’s telling, it was fear of the atomic bomb).

There is a certain audacious reverence in lifting so much, particularly in a year when Bergman retrospectives have been touring American rep houses. But then, America makes a fertile and rewarding place to move the religious traditions of arthouse past, where Schrader’s anti-hero can serve as a soulful counterweight to megachurches and so much Christian kitsch. In a year when Wes Anderson pastiched Kurosawa with stop-motion dogs for the inner-children of twenty-somethings everywhere, the un-hip, anachronistic man-and-god sincerity of First Reformed not only has its own distinct power, but is something to be treasured. Schrader is a terrific storyteller, and don’t miss how much his style can contribute. The look of the film plays a muted color scheme, shot in the Academy ratio and lit like Dreyer (another Schrader favorite), against unnatural neon colors that feel sickly and toxic in comparison—like the sight of a cloud of Pepto Bismol in a glass of liquor.

Hawke is wonderful and against-type, though so recognizable that you can see why Bresson wanted unfamiliar faces to play his modern-day pilgrims. I’m not sure Schrader sells the environmental theme as more than a plot device—but then, committing suicide over nuclear anxiety always struck me as a bit histrionic, and Winter Light is safely considered a classic. The part of First Reformed bound to be most divisive is the ending, which deserves controversy not over whether it’s too bloody, too shocking, or too lurid, but whether it comes across as silly. (Surely a doomsday sign that the world is more jaded now than it was in Bergman’s 1960s, or even Taxi Driver‘s 1970s). But it’s the film’s own. And it sells—or, to use a more deservedly pure word, it offers—an idea worth pondering: that in the face of spiritual and psychological hopelessness, desperation and carnality are what keep you going. And what’s more, they may not even be sins. A theme that Bergman would have appreciated.



First Reformed is currently available on home video and video-on-demand. For what it’s worth, the clerk liked it too.

Hall of Mirrors, House of Horrors: Spike Lee and BLACKKKLANSMAN


Cinematically speaking, 2018 began with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, whose runaway success occasioned think-pieces, analysis, praise, and/or criticism from everyone from Slavoj Žižek to random bloggers (including an after-the-fact one by yours truly). It’s certainly worth considering what that movie and its phenomenon mean, because no matter who its superhero is named after, Black Panther is not a film with radical politics. Almost none of it is truly confrontational, a lot of it is the opposite, and that’s part of its reason for existing. It’s not anti-establishment; it just wanted, and scored, a seat at the establishment’s table.

For Spike Lee, however, confrontation has typically been on-brand. And while it would be reductive to ignore the less overtly political trademarks of “a Spike Lee joint”—film school cinephilia, theatrical performance, sexuality, musical numbers, a hometown boy’s love of New York City—it would also not be unfair to say that for the last decade or so, Lee has drawn more attention for the public tiffs he’s landed in than for the actual movies he’s made.

BlacKkKlansman is being hailed as a career highlight and return to form, and rightly so. Jordan Peele, on hand as producer, pitched it to Lee in what Lee called “very high-concept” terms: “black man infiltrates KKK.” The man was Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police officer who made contact with the Klan in the 1970s. John David Washington plays Stallworth, who is at first assigned to investigate black college activists before turning department resources to the local KKK chapter. Adam Driver plays the white officer who serves as his in-person front. And, in a fine touch of casting, an appropriately milquetoast non-ubermensch Topher Grace plays Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

The result is a fittingly brash approach to docudrama: part comedy, part cop movie, and part sociological horror show. But I fear that it isn’t just that Lee and his collaborators have been inspired to make a terrific film, but that mainstream American political life has given them the context in which to do so. This is 2018: our public discourse has long since blown passed preaching to the choir and is focused on galvanizing it instead. Into this rabid media landscape comes Lee, with a younger man’s passion and, crucially, an older man’s wariness. And it seems to me that of all the unsubtle statements for our unsubtle time, BlacKkKlansman has the distinction of being one of the subtler—or at least, one with some of the richest ideas. It’s not a masterpiece, for those keeping score. Yet no other American film so far this year is as worth talking about.

It certainly doesn’t hold back its thoughts on our era. And, as a (white liberal) cinephile, I have less use for the redneck villains’ explicit Trumpisms—”America First”, returning the country to “greatness”—than I do for the comparatively nuanced dialectic between the hero and his radical student girlfriend (Laura Harrier), who spend the film in an unresolved and unresolvable argument about whether or not the system can be peaceably reformed from within. (One scene references the term “super-predators”, a racially-charged quote that you may remember haunted a 2016 candidate—and it wasn’t Donald Trump). Those are the politics, but then there’s the scope and the method. This is all “based on a true story”, and not often does that phrase so shrewdly or brazenly contextualize itself.

That is, in addition to being a comedy, a cop movie, and the best script Lee has gotten his hands on in years, BlacKkKlansman is something else. It is a movie about movies, from the rose-tinted Confederate nostalgia of Gone With the Wind to the racist frenzy of Birth of a Nation to the complex legacy of blaxploitation. As a comedy or cop drama, it’s solid. As a pastiche of where pop culture and politics overlap, it achieves a lucid agitation, mixing the Old Hollywood canon, contemporary documentary footage, genre kicks, an Alec Baldwin comedy sketch (hello, Trump-era SNL), and a debate about Shaft vs. Superfly into a clash of history lesson and self-conscious cinematic fictionalization. It’s vital, then, to see Lee not just as a storyteller but an archivist. The use of Birth and Wind can suggest that if the white villains of BlacKkKlansman seem like inhuman caricatures of white hicks (and they are), it’s not as if Hollywood has historically done right by the black community. When Washington and Harrier hit the dance floor to the tune of “Too Late to Turn Back Now”, it’s the film’s most beautiful moment not because it’s their love affair with each other, but because it’s the movie’s love affair with a space they can call their own. And when Harry Belafonte appears in an extended cameo, the instant gravity comes not from who he plays—a fictional composite of civil rights leaders—but from who he is. This is the American screen as a hall of mirrors, some ostensibly clear, some proudly idealized, and some grotesquely distorted, with the insistence that each reflection be taken seriously.

So the best way to view this “very high-concept” movie is that it’s a movie that knows it’s a movie, and that certain pleasures and dangers are its heritage. It wildly embellishes its true story with scenes of made-up suspense and crowd-pleasing comic triumph—and tellingly, the liberties that have drawn criticism as such also got applause from the theater I saw it at in West LA. But the whole experience, particularly the controversy-inviting ending, asks you to be careful where you try to draw the line between what’s “just a movie” and what’s something more. BlacKkKlansman is structured literally as connective tissue between Hollywood myth and your online newsfeed, and you should beware, because anything that’s “just a movie” can be quickly taken away.

What is the film’s agenda? Not having Trump in the White House would be nice, but BlacKkKlansman is under no illusions that the problem began with his political career or will end with it. Considering what a target it has in President #45, the film’s perspective is expansive rather than narrow: its subject is a continuum, and Trump, Stallworth, Duke, the black power movement, the modern police force, and the movie business are all just parts of it. The film saves its key image for the end: Washington and Harrier moving down a hallway with their guns drawn, one in the name of the law, one in the name of her community, and both confronting a threat that might only go into remission for so long before it comes back again.

This places Lee back in the place where the political side of his cinema is at its most rewarding: confrontations and contrasts without easy, simple solutions. Solutions are close to reassurance, and no provocateur worthy of the name would peddle such a thing. BlacKkKlansman‘s accomplishment as cinema is to make visceral what might otherwise be removed into the world of history or theory. And if its tactics rub you the wrong way, run with that feeling, because dismissing it would be even worse. It starts close to the edge of what’s comfortable for laughter or suspense (or even choir-preaching), and by the end has gone so far beyond that that you should feel shaken and a bit conflicted at how you got there. And it says, among other things, that laughing at an Alec Baldwin skit won’t do a damn thing. A clarion call for its audience if there ever was one.



BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters around the country.



Claire Denis’ new film, Let the Sunshine In, is irritating. I don’t mean that as a criticism—at least not entirely—but rather as a simple statement of fact, because I gather that a certain degree of irritation or frustration is what it’s going for. The story follows a middle-aged French artist (Juliette Binoche) as men come in and out of her life in a pattern of hope, sex, love, and caprice. In one scene she’ll be happy with someone, the next scene she won’t. She’ll insist she isn’t looking for a fling, then immediately dive into one. She’ll deny that something bothers her, then turn around and say that it does. Most of all, she deserves better: of the men on her platter, none are particularly vivid or different from one another. Anyone who’s been in the dating world and is over thirty (hell, twenty-five) might recognize that this all sounds very true to life, even profound—at least, in theory. In practice, it can be a 90 minute slog in the company of characters whose behavior wavers between complex, which is good, and incoherent, which isn’t. This means that, even while it offers the surface pleasures of Mme. Binoche (as glowing as ever) and cinematographer Agnès Godard (making the city glow with her), theory is still where its principle appeal lies.

So if you’re familiar with Claire Denis’ films, you could be forgiven for looking at the first act and thinking that she’s actually given in and made an expected kind of straightforward bourgeois art film. Let the Sunshine In is neither elliptically edited (like Beau Travail or The Intruder) nor transgressive (like Trouble Every Day or Bastards). But it reveals itself as a structurally mischievous work, a film of such circularity and loose ends that it’s a middle without a beginning or an end. The film’s saving joke is its last one, where we suddenly dip into the lives of new characters who’ve had their own unseen version of the movie running parallel the whole time, and where the whole farrago of romantic confusion continues even as the credits roll, as if this routine can outlast not only your patience but even its own movie. These ideas still rolled around in my head the day after, alongside magnificent sights like Binoche, Denis, and Godard venturing out onto the dance floor. So after some irritation and a good night’s sleep, I can safely say that I’m glad I saw it, and that if you follow the festival circuit, I think you will be, too. Theoretically.



Let the Sunshine In played at Cannes in 2017 and opened in American theaters this spring. If you’re new to Denis, please start with Beau Travail.