Watching 12 Monkeys in a Post-9/11 World

Chris Marker’s groundbreaking short film La Jetée doubles, incredibly, as one of the most lyrical meditations on two time-honored themes: the end of the world, and time travel.  These tropes have been recycled again and again in film, fiction, and television, of course.  The Terminator is sent back in time to kill young John Connor, with the aim of neutralizing the future Skynet’s foe, the leader of the human resistance; later, the same robot is sent back to save the messianic John and his Mother Mary. Rian Johnson’s Looper features a similar seeing-yourself-die scenario as La Jetee, along with the same kind of lapidary plot. In this way, Marker’s film is almost the ur-text for apocalyptic … [Read more...]

Warriors, Rockers, and the Last Days of Rebellion in the American Teen Film

The year is 1979.  America is awash in a sea of polyester, flared trousers, and long hair, bouncing to a four on the floor disco beat. It’s all a desperate attempt to distract from what looks like a national nervous breakdown. Revolution in Iran has led to massive oil shortages, a corresponding spike in inflation, Americans being held hostage, and a flummoxed president Carter responding by giving a speech where he tells America that it has a “crisis of confidence.”  Yeah, no shit, bub. As the confused, cynical decade of the Seventies seemed to be reaching its inevitable apotheosis in a stagnant swamp of economic ruin, rudderless leadership, and America’s humiliation on the world stage, you … [Read more...]

Ingrid Goes Insane: Instagram, Mental Illness, and a New Aesthetic

Celebrity culture has always involved emulation and envy.  People wanted to be as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant or Julia Roberts; the herculean popularity of Bollywood for the masses of South Asia speaks to the allure of sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room and getting carried away to a magical place where sexy, talented people carry on lives almost unimaginable to the ordinary person.  Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo functions the same way, as a meditation on workaday poverty and romantic “escapism,” as it is somewhat derisively described by scholars and critics. Something peculiar has happened in the age of the Internet, though.  A mendacious nobody … [Read more...]

Eternal Sunshine and the Science of the Spotless Mind

I have always been frustrated by the pervasive idea that the brain is like a computer.  In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, it became commonplace to suppose that the human mind was just an information processing machine, akin to the Dell or ASUS or Apple product sitting on someone’s desktop. The mind was a repository of data, with files, folders, items, and directories, which could be mapped on to the structure of a computer’s operating system more or less exactly. This metaphor—if it’s a metaphor—has always struck me as being a little off.  For one thing, brains have been around for a lot longer than computers, and for most of human history the notion of an … [Read more...]

What Smokey & the Bandit Can Still Teach Us about the “New South”

In the summer of 1977 a movie hit the multiplexes, twin cinemas, and dwindling drive-ins of America like a storm, making over a hundred million dollars (in 1977 dollars at that!) and leaving a lasting mark on the pop cultural landscape. The film I am talking about, of course, is Smokey and the Bandit. Overshadowed in memory by Star Wars, the other big hit of that summer, it shared some DNA with that much more idolized movie-cum-phenomenon/religion. Both feature extended, masterfully executed chase scenes. Both glamorize truckers. (Admit it, Han and Chewie are basically space truckers.) Both have rural hicks as heroes. (Luke bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 is the space equivalent of … [Read more...]

The Exquisite Exquisiteness of Carol

We got this piece seven months ago and shelved it because, at the time, it didn't seem like it could be of any great relevance; the author just really, really likes a movie. And then we saw this piece in Wired on the rapid efflorescence of extreme Carol fandom online.  And we reconsidered. Go figure. Seldom has a movie so moved me as Todd Haynes's Carol. Haynes is an auteur's auteur, a throwback to the heyday of Great Directors in the 1970s.  His 1995 film Safe nearly inspired me to write a book, and his 2007 I'm Not There--a riff on the identity and iconicity of Bob Dylan--almost made me stop hating biopics. Indeed, the director's versatility and willingness to play with issues of gender … [Read more...]

Get Out: The First Great Film of the Trump Era

We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. Suffice to say this quotation was not written by a Hollywood producer looking for the next big hit.  Driving an axe into the deepest fears and anxieties of audiences is not a recipe for success—perhaps not even in the horror genre. The words of Franz Kafka will likely provide cold comfort to those who already know and understand the black American experience firsthand—those for whom the disaster and the suicide that Kafka … [Read more...]

The Best Film and Music of 2016

Our end-of-last-year series rolls on with a look at the sights and sounds of 2016. In this case, we actually did watch/hear things that came out in 2016.  Our recommendations for reading material from the last year can be found here. Best Film ASC: Moonlight, obviously--to my mind the undisputed champ of 2016 cinema. And Arrival, the best portrayal of human-alien contact I've seen, and a plea for sanity in an increasingly insane world. Then there was Anna Rose Holmer's criminally overlooked The Fits, a tense study of gender and sexual awakening, urban poverty and environmental racism that only now seems to be getting the attention it deserves: a compact gem of a film. Finally, Whit … [Read more...]

Finding Family with the Wilderpeople

Historian and legal expert Ariela J. Gross opens her 2008 work What Blood Won’t Tell with details from the life of Alexina Morrison, an enslaved person in Jefferson Parish Louisiana. In 1857, Morrison fled her master and found herself imprisoned in a local jail, where she convinced the authorities that she was actually white; she had been kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, she told them.  William Dennison, the local jailer, believed Morrison and took her into his own family, gradually integrating her into white society where she attended balls and other social functions. Eventually, her master James White sued to return her to her previous status.  The case, Morrison vs. White, went … [Read more...]

In Fits and Stops: Coming of Age in Anna Rose Holmer’s Extraordinary “The Fits”

When I first saw the trailer for The Fits, we were going to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant and mordant The Lobster at Atlanta’s Midtown Arts Cinema. Half paying attention, I assumed the tale of a Cincinatti teen who joins a dance team would be a gag-inducing inspirational sports/dance flick—Rookie of the Year or Save the Last Dance by way of Akeelah and the Bee. It’s understandable that promoters of a dark, underdog indie film would want to frame it in misleadingly appealing terms for mainstream audiences—it happens all the time—but I can’t blame the team behind first-time director Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits for playing an Entourage-style bait-and-switch with their trailer. On second … [Read more...]