Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Queen of EarthIf you take enough writing classes, you will eventually hear the expression "following the poem." When used in relation to reading, it simply means tracing the visible path a writer has taken from the beginning to the end of a piece; when used in relation to writing, though, it means that the writer has followed the work’s inspiring impulse to its natural end, rather than trying to steer it, and that that following is recognizable in the structure of the poem. Alex Ross Perry’s most recent film, ‘Queen of Earth,’ can be said to "follow the film" as it makes an excellent portrait of a woman having a nervous breakdown that often tips into being a cross-section of a character’s mind, and does so in a way that seems effortless and seamless and wholly natural.

The reason the film might interest us and hold our attention from its outset is that its characters are, for lack of a better word, real: the rarified parts of their personalities are laid bare next to the less interesting aspects, with no narrative preference. Every trait is fair game for the filmmaker, and the story evolves from these traits, rather than from an overarching plot. Catherine has come to the country house of Virginia’s parents, following two traumatic events: her father’s suicide and breaking up with her boyfriend; while she stays in the house, she unravels. And that’s pretty much it. Watching is the sport here, and because virtually every actor in the film gives an equally strong performance, regardless of screen time, watching a natural course of events unfold is a pleasure. If I say Elizabeth Moss, as Catherine, is a "revelation," I might actually mean just that: her descent in the film, complete with snot, running make-up, some horrifyingly depressed facial turns, shows us, in a way entirely new, how far one might go into the self’s abyss. Moss’s typically straightforward delivery, each sentence announced as much as it is said, is perfect for a character in a film which seeks, eventually, to expose her. Moss seems open to us, the viewers, at first, and then only becomes more open. Katherine Waterston brings a familiar kind of negativity to her performance as Virginia; there’s a pout behind every statement she makes. It’s easy to see that she’s the more stable of the two friends, and yet her stability seems somewhat joyless. Perry includes several shots here of Waterston simply jogging, seemingly pointless but telling at the same time: she runs with the mood of someone determined to bring discipline into her life; somehow her downcast eyes tell us the exercise isn’t the point. Patrick Fugit has a brief but very memorable appearance here as Virginia’s semi-boyfriend. You’ve seen this person before. He’s the kind of gadabout male who enters a social milieu, takes advantage of it for a while, and then leaves–but not before telling Catherine off, calling her a "spoiled rich brat." His movements are sluggish, cool, and mildly creepy. We can’t be certain what his relationship to Virginia is, and this seems as if it might be because of an allergy to commitment. These characters are thrown together, and not; at times it seems as if Perry is playing alchemist here, tossing a collection of characters together in a beaker and seeing what new element arises from their combination.

Throughout the film, characters beat each other up, verbally, even in their offhand remarks. When one of Virginia’s neighbors meets Catherine near the house, he calls Virginia’s parents "terrible people." How often does such a plain statement of dislike occur in a film? During an intimate conversation, at a time when Catherine’s unraveling strands are plainly visible, Virginia remarks that this must have been what Catherine was really like, all along, even before her break-up or her father’s demise. The insensitivity is startling. And yet Perry doesn’t necessarily swing empathy in Catherine’s favor, or Virginia’s, or anyone else’s. These people’s relentless sniping at each other has an important function, or perhaps two functions. It entertains: few filmmakers do "mean" as well as Perry does. But it also stabilizes. The nastiness seems effortless, part of the film’s highly natural motion, its following of itself. This is only true to a certain extent, of course; the razor-sharp editing of the film–the close-ups, the cuts, the vaguely hallucinatory light refractions–is highly deliberate. Everything is deliberate: such a closely observed portrait of an individual, which in turn gives portraits-in-relief of other characters, must be worked out ever-so-carefully. But the driving impulse of the film is to work from within, to let lives fall where they may, with all their cruelties, sufferings, and deteriorations on full display.  

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Is an Essay on Performance

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Is an Essay on Performance

null‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s beautifully and intensely executed new film, is a hard film to say you “like.” Who wants, after all, to have humans’ latent inhumanity shoved in their face? Many viewers like the security of knowing that the expression of evil is contained within a carefully constructed plot, rather than within an account of actual events, as is the case with this film. That being said, the movie’s tale of a 6-day Stanford 1971 psychological group experiment gone wrong could be shown to visitors from outer space as an example of what debased behavior we people are capable of; within the limits of this film we witness violence, sexual aggression, and verbal abuse among people who don’t know each other, under the guise of role-playing: playacting at being prisoners and prison guards. In showing these interactions between individuals in a controlled circumstance, the film not only teaches us about human nature but about what it means, in a number of senses, to perform.

If you were so inclined, you could read the film as a distorted, souped-up revision of ‘The Breakfast Club.’ Characters’ defenses are broken down, and social leveling occurs—but not in a benign, easily digested manner. If one were looking for someone to embody “the detachment of scientific inquiry” to serve as the erstwhile chaperone/monitor of this group, you could choose no better actor than Billy Crudup. His rather blank eyes and face, since his turn as drug-addled FH in the film of Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ make him seem capable of doing or saying anything. Here, he portrays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who chose 24 Stanford students to find the answer to a question that was, to be fair, one he should have been talked out of by peers: what would happen if you recreated prison-like circumstances for 2 weeks? How would subjects interact? How would their behavior change? How does this explain prisoner guard-relationships in current houses of detention? He pursues his ends with focus that ultimately tends towards dementia. The selection of the students is handled briskly; almost all of the long-haired, effete, mellow students say that would prefer to be prisoners, almost none guards—but in the end the roles are assigned randomly. Once “inside,” the individuals fall easily into their assigned parts—almost too easily, one thinks, until you remember that their acceptance of the assignment indicates interest in its performative aspect. And yet the performance promptly gives way to an ugly reality, as the guards brutalize and intimidate their charges without restraint, and the prisoners plot small revolts against the guards—within days.

Few of the actors here are household names, and yet one would hope the film garners them the recognition they deserve. Each individual here gives a crisp, independent performance; each character’s unraveling and debasement is rendered beautifully, fascinating to watch. One prisoner gets headaches without his glasses; one won’t say the word “bastard” even when threatened by a brutal “guard”; another takes his role as prisoner so seriously that he practically collapses from nervous exhaustion. The guards, as well, show great comfort in their meanness—the guard the scientists refer to as “John Wayne” (played with strikingly persuasive confidence by Michael Angarano) issues all of his commands in a relaxed drawl, while one of his colleagues stomps impassively through the hallways, expression concealed by reflecting sunglasses. Much of the dialogue we hear in the film comes from transcripts—very little had to be fabricated to make the film gripping to watch.

And yet there’s a question lurking here, beneath the film’s impressive, headlong momentum. Why? Why the experiment? Did Zimbardo think his experiment might make a social difference, or was there some intellectual game-playing behind it? We learn something in this film, in addition to lessons about the human psyche, about the nature of performance—about the different ways performers assume their roles, and about the different effects those roles can have. We play roles perpetually–in daily life, in our relationships, in our jobs. We feel things we don’t feel, we take actions we know by rote, the meant gesture and the unmeant gesture blur. And yet we never think about the cumulative effect all of this pretending has on our psyches.

On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

nullThe places where we live shape us, and we shape the places
where we live to suit our temperaments. This truth is driven home repeatedly by
J.C. Chandor’s newest film, A Most
Violent Year
, which has been compared repeatedly to The Godfather but just as easily could be compared to On the Waterfront, Winter’s Bone, or The Truman
as a study of the way inhabitants of an environment deal with and
modify their environment. Chandor has foregrounded setting to such an extent
that the two powerful performances at the film’s heart—Oscar Isaac’s as the manager of an oil trucking company, learning how to defend himself against the aggression of his semi-criminal colleagues, and Jessica Chastain’s as his
wife, who already knows and is desperate to teach him—seem to grow naturally
out of the milieu in which we receive them. However, these figures also shape
the settings in which they thrive.

The first sight we have of Abel shows him running, nimbly,
though a modest suburban New Jersey neighborhood. The setting is appropriate
for a character like his: contained, inwardly manicured, almost frustratingly
righteous and plodding when it comes to the moral shorthand those around him
employ for survival’s sake. There is something bleak about these streets,
comfortable as they might seem; there’s a notable lack of other people in
Abel’s surroundings, a visible emptiness, that suits the story, and suits also
the story he is writing with his actions here. After he makes the first payment
on his business, huddled in a cold-seeming trailer, his partner, played with
memorable paleness by Albert Brooks, encourages Abel to take a look around his
future headquarters, and so he does: down by the river, facing Manhattan from
the Jersey side, perhaps picturesque in one sense but at this moment, in the
middle of winter, standing behind oil tanks, it seems less like a view of
dreamland than a reminder of what obstructions lie ahead. The buildings are all
the same color, they’re all huge, and they’re all a long way off. When we see
Abel’s house for the first time, its sleekness is impressive but its coldness
is telling. The impression it makes is not that Abel is cold—for he isn’t. As
confidently portrayed here by Isaac, he’s a warm person, almost warm to a
fault, naïve in his trust of ethics, good faith, honesty, and the people in his employ. The house suggests,
though, the high-flown way he believes a man of his stature should live: high ceilings, pristine
surfaces, vast spaces, off-white walls, the perfect kitchen, the perfect
library. But it’s a borrowed idea of perfection. When we meet one of his
associates, played here with semi-beefy malevolence by Alessandro Nivola, it
appears that they share this same notion of coldness, the appearance of
perfection, as an aesthetic. The colleague has a racquetball court built into
his house, pinging opulence at us with the force of the ball itself. When the
two share a drink and discuss a loan which could push Abel into career
adulthood, they sit in a space-age interior, resembling something out of an
advertisement rather than a place where anyone might live. This is fitting,
though, because the people Chandor is filming here place little stock in homes,
in domesticity; for them life is work, and work is life. Work, further, is all about the rewards you reap, and the rewards you reap are, in essence, your life.

Chandor is smart about this dichotomy, though. When we see
the home of one of Abel’s employees, a vulnerable man who, after being beaten
up by the thugs whose aggression against Abel’s drivers propels the story, shoots his aggressors and then flees, the apartment’s modesty and hominess, with its inexpensive furniture, its drawn shades, and its
lived-in quality stand in stark contrast to the other interiors we’ve seen. It’s
clear hat the employee isn’t suffering under the same preconceived notions Abel
suffers under—but when he meets a sad fate, we wonder if such illusions might
have helped him. In an interview, Oscar Isaac
recounted how Chandor had stressed the importance of the suits Abel wears in
the film, and how their presence might dictate the character’s behavior, and in
fact his entire world view. This is a profound truth, when all is said and
done: outer trappings can shape the person to which they are attached, in
greater or lesser degrees. It’s the direction that shaping takes that makes all
the difference.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow


Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), the hero of Inherent Vice,
is a hippie but not a radical. He just wants to get stoned, laid and
left alone. However, his job as a private eye, as well as his
involvement with some women he’s dated, involves him in 1970s politics. I expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, adapted
by the director from Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible novel, to be a
stoner goof, and I wondered if it would have any more present-day relevance
than Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, even if it comes from a
far more literate sensibility. On the other hand, even stoner goofs play
to a political climate in which four U.S. states have legalized
marijuana.  There’s more than a little melancholy beneath Doc’s
euphoria, brought out by Phoenix’s performance. The cultural idealism
around drugs was running low by the time Inherent Vice is set,
and it’s largely dead now. Those who advocate legalizing marijuana argue that
it’s a healthier alternative to alcohol, with fewer social costs, not
that a cultural revolution would come about if beer drinkers switched to
vaporizing kush. 
Like most of Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice is soaked in conspiracy theories. This isn’t new for him: The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow
pioneered countercultural paranoia when the counterculture was still
fresh. Pynchon’s fascination seemed skeptical yet open-minded. In the
late ‘60s and early ‘70s, conspiracy theories were mostly the property
of leftists. Now, some individuals argue that Barack Obama isn’t really a U.S.
citizen, venting thinly concealed racism. I’m sure Pynchon would hate to
think he helped pave the way for birthers and truthers. For example, the website,
which mostly analyzes music videos for their supposed hidden messages,
seems to simultaneously come from a far-left and far-right position: it
vociferously attacks the CIA, yet almost all the singers and rappers it
denounces as Illuminati pawns are black and/or female. Thom Andersen
was right to point out the conservative potential of conspiracy theories
in Los Angeles Plays Itself, yet conspiracies do happen, as in
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret plot to undermine radical American politics
in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Inherent Vice refers to it by name, and alludes to other programs as well. 
Josh Brolin, who plays straight-laced, flat-topped cop “Bigfoot”
Bjornsen, has more chemistry with Phoenix than any of the women in the
cast. This may be due to the nature of his character: picture Jack Webb
gone to seed, clearly envious of hippies’ freedom even as he verbally
bashes them. (In one of the film’s more bizarre scenes, he finally tries
pot.) In
a weirdly homoerotic touch, he’s often seen with a chocolate banana in
his mouth. The film is extremely well-cast. Even small roles are played
by actors like Michael Kenneth Williams and Martin Donovan. Yet it has a
tendency to relegate women to the level of sex objects. In handing the voice-over to
indie folk singer Joanna Newsom, Anderson seems aware of this problem,
but she sounds like an archetypal “hippie chick”—one imagines Joni
Mitchell fulfilling a similar role in an early ‘70s Robert Altman film. 
few times Anderson uses master shots, he gets some beautiful, painterly
vistas of the Southern California landscape. But he seems to shy away
from them in favor of a tighter style, favoring close-ups, putting the
focus on performance. The acting holds up, but the writing doesn’t
translate from novel to screen, even though much of it is taken directly
from Pynchon. Pynchon’s deliberate use of dated slang dampens the script’s wit—in fact, much of the film’s humor feels more theoretical than real. A
key passage about the co-opting of the counterculture is thrown away as
voice-over during a party scene at a rock band’s house. Even though Inherent Vice
is Pynchon’s simplest novel, the problems of Anderson’s screenplay
suggest the dangers of adapting such a complicated writer. The film
plays like a stoner’s version of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, with a coherent narrative getting lost in clouds of pot smoke. To some extent, that’s the point—Inherent Vice’s characters have only one foot in reality. But it doesn’t make for articulate filmmaking. 

the film’s press kit, Anderson asks, “Do we still have that sense of a
lost American promise that can be reclaimed?” For all its attempts at
humor and its characters’ hedonism, Inherent Vice is pretty
bummed-out: critic Howard Hampton described it as mapping “the
Manson-Nixon line.” However, I think New German Cinema and the ‘70s
films of Jean Eustache and Jacques Rivette did a better job of exploring
the hopes and failures of the counterculture. Part of the problem may
be that Anderson was born in 1970 and is depicting the dreams of his
parents’ generation. Films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating
offered reports from the front. From the perspective of 2014, it’s easy
to say that the hippies lost or, at best, some of their values won in a
roundabout way decades later, as the sexual revolution led to same-sex
marriage. To return to the Situationist slogan “(Under the pavement, the
beach!”) used as the epigraph to Pynchon’s novel, the distance between
the pavement and the beach seems further and further away.  Making a
movie that simulates the experience of watching film noir on pot
brownies seems somewhat beside the point, even if it has its pleasures.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

THE BABADOOK as Fairy Tale Therapy: “Committed to the monster theory”

nullThe Babadook opens
with an enigmatic, dream-like sequence depicting a car crash with one fatality: Oskar, husband and father to Amelia and Samuel, the film’s protagonists.  This traumatic event haunts them, as mother
and son try to make sense of their loss. 
Like the film itself, they have recourse to those age-old narrative
structures we call fairy tales, whose major themes run like red threads through
the often-maligned horror genre.  This is
the first film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, and with it she boldly
reclaims horror as a nuanced and imaginative structure for working through the
deepest of psychic traumas, enfolding us in an uncompromising and original
vision that is at the same time disturbingly familiar.

After the opening car-crash sequence, we see six-year old
Samuel waking his mother to tell her, “I had the dream again.” She helps him
look under the bed for his imaginary assailant, and then she reads him a fairy tale
in which the Big Bad Wolf is destroyed. 
“Did they really kill the wolf, Mom?” Sam asks.  “I’m sure they did,” Amelia replies.  Then a strange look comes over the boy’s face
as he says, “I’ll kill the monster when it comes and smash its head in.” Fear
at the unexpected violence of this outburst passes briefly over Amelia’s face
before she rearranges it into a motherly smile. 
Then Sam demands she read the story over again and Amelia wearily

This early sequence establishes the tensions in this
mother-child relationship with remarkable economy and vividness.  Intriguingly, the fairy tale is as much a
soothing force on Samuel’s psyche as it is a weapon of manipulation.  In the sequences that follow, Amelia struggles to keep it together while her boy goes from one disturbing
outburst to the next, alienating friends and family.  The ostensible cause of these outbursts is an
imaginary monster who Samuel feels compelled to slay, in order to protect him
and his mother.   At one point he speaks
to the imagined presence of his father, assuring him that he’ll protect Mum,
underlining the Oedipal dimension of this obsessive narrative. Yet, as in the
Big Bad Wolf scene, this monster narrative is used as much against his mother
as for psychic release.  “Acting out” is
how a child therapist might describe Samuel’s behavior, a cliché that
inadvertently reveals the abiding role of drama and narrative in the troubled
mental lives of children, as well as adults.

The film’s visual and symbolic hook is an evil pop-up book, Mr. Babadook, that magically appears on
Samuel’s bookshelf, and which, of course, he forces his reluctant mother to
read to him.  Both are frightened yet
fascinated by the book’s sinister, black and white images of a top-hatted, trench-coated
figure who occasionally smiles with evil, three-dimensional glee.  This dramatic figure provides Samuel’s vague
monster a more palpable identity, and his obsession with slaying it becomes increasingly
urgent and violent.  When his cousin
mocks him for believing in monsters, he pushes her out of a tree-house and
breaks her nose.  The fanciful, Goonies-like weapons he builds in the
basement to defend himself against Mr. Babadook are eventually turned on his
classmates.  When they seek help from a
therapist, he observes that Samuel is “committed to the monster theory.”

As Amelia and Samuel grow increasingly isolated, they both
become committed to this theory, and the figure of Mr. Babadook serves as both
an externalization of their fears and a weapon to be used against one another.  Through intimate close-ups emphasizing the
pair’s uncomfortable proximity, and agonizing shouting matches and screaming
fits, mother-child tension builds to the point where the horror sequences
actually serve as an emotional release.  Kent
has said that in the film she wanted “to explore parenting from a very real
perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot
of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is
anything but a perfect experience for women.” How do mothers cope with such
feelings, in a culture where they are expected to be consistently loving and

The Babadook makes
a persuasive case for horror films as a form of therapy.  Relentlessly kept awake by Samuel’s outbursts,
an increasingly insomniac Amelia seeks escape by watching television, but the
shows that seem magically to appear become visual manifestations of her mental
life.  Kent displays an extensive
knowledge of the history of horror, and of the fantastic in film
generally.  One sequence portrays Amelia
watching some particularly haunting sequences from early film master Georges Melies,
featuring dancing devils, tentacled monsters, and flying body parts.  Out of these black and white sequences from
the early age of film emerge images of the Babadook, at once an homage to one
of the director’s inspirations as well as an uncanny merging of personal demons
and public domain.  The pop-up book,
which later reappears after Amelia tore it up and threw it out, takes on a
stop-motion animated life of its own, in sequences that deftly combine the
visual styles of figures as diverse as Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Jan
Svankmajer, and F. W. Murnau. 

The Victorian-styled house in which Amelia and Samuel live gradually begins to look
more like the black and white illustrations of the book, and the realistic
elements of the narrative gradually fall away to plunge us into a realm of
utter horror.  With nods to the lurid and
dream-like European horror films of the 1970s, by directors like Mario Bava,
George Franju and Roman Polanski, Kent creates an imaginary realm in which the
commonplace becomes fantastic, as the domestic sphere draws in like a noose on
mother and child.  In a clear nod to
Polanski’s agoraphobic masterpiece Repulsion,
Amelia becomes obsessed with a scratching sound coming from behind the
refrigerator.  As she moves the appliance
away, she sees cockroaches crawling from a slit in the wall, which she worries
until it becomes an ugly gash, at once wound and vagina. 

The Babadook addresses
difficult issues from a uniquely feminine perspective, and the female-led
production is able to take us into areas where few films have been able to go
without falling back on clichés and stereotypes.  Essie Davis turns in a harrowing performance
as increasingly unhinged mother Amelia, and Kent’s careful direction just
manages to keep this character from becoming a caricature of the hysterical
mother.  At one point she watches Lon
Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera on television, and Davis shows a similar
capacity for physical transformation, at times recalling Faye Dunaway’s
exploitation-camp meets Kabuki-theater wildness of Mommie Dearest.  From mousey,
beleaguered mother to vengeful monster, Davis shows an astonishing range,
inhabiting the many personae horror films and fairy tales have to offer.

If Amelia begins as the damsel in distress of Samuel’s
boyhood fantasies, she eventually becomes the evil stepmother of fairy tale
myth.  But this, too, is only a role, and
whatever constitutes her true identity remains elusive, hidden.  The monstrous figures and harrowing
narratives of horror, like the fairy tale, can serve as a means of imaginative
self-actualization, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously argued.  But The
suggests that they can also become traps, enclosing us in vivid
fictions that cunningly replicate our repressed mental lives.  Or, in the words of Samuel’s pop-up book, “If
it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Why Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP Is the Kindest Movie You’ll See All Year

Why Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP Is the Kindest Movie You’ll See All Year

nullAlex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP, besides featuring Jason Schwartzman’s best acting job and wrestling remarkable turns from Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth Moss, performs an act of kindness for its viewers. This tale of an abusive, alienated, successful novelist’s spiral into loneliness lays out, in excruciating detail, the relationship between cause and effect that can govern the shape a human life takes. In showing us, painfully clearly, the results of novelist Philip Lewis Friedman’s poor behavior, both within his own life and in the reactions of those around him, Perry advocates strongly against such behavior, making his film the equivalent of watching a Biblical punishment unfold on film. The critical reception has focused almost entirely on Philip’s meanness, and the entertainment value therein, and not on why such a story might be told. Philip’s behavior is not, in fact, the most interesting part of the film–there is no novelty in the idea of a cruel, clever writer. That story’s been told, many times, and without such a shaky camera. There is, however, a great deal of novelty and originality in holding that cruel clever writer accountable, at length, and in so doing, prodding at viewers’ consciences. The play’s the thing, after all.

This reviewer will confess that it is a great relief to see Schwartzman out from under the thumb of Wes Anderson’s coddling genius. So deft and believable is his performance as Philip that I hated practically every nasty word that came out of his mouth. I disliked his smarmy smile. I found his walk annoyingly stridant. I was aghast that his girlfriend, played with reserve and likable cool by Moss, might find herself, for even one second, happy in his presence–unless her character was, in fact, akin to his. At some points, I hated his chin. When Philip discloses, in an intimate moment, that his parents died when he was young, and describes that as the source of "sadness," I will confess to thinking, "Cry me a river, you stupid, pathetic cliche. Are you even telling the truth?" In any event, what of the story being told here? It’s a simple one. Philip decides, upon the release of his second book, to forgo all tours or publicity, choosing instead to go upstate and lick the boots of Ike Zimmerman, a well-established and successful novelist who is Philip’s elder spiritual doppelganger: blunt, anti-social, manipulative, in search of the perfect quip at all times, vigorously dismissive. And alienated from his daughter, who, while not exactly a charmer herself, has a few beautifully executed moments of pain at Zimmerman’s hands. In so retreating to the country, Philip lands himself an adjunct teaching position–which most holders of such positions would chuckle at, given that it’s a cruel hand dealt upon Philip; such jobs are generally unglamorous, poorly paid, uninsured, and short-lived. As circumstances prove true to that latter characteristic, Philip makes no friends and finds himself bounced from his position, nevertheless managing to charm a French colleague whose initial action upon meeting him was to persuade all of his colleagues to dislike him. Throughout the film’s miserable sojourn, Philip is told off numerous times, by people from various walks of life, including a former college roommate who calls him a "Jew bastard" and a former girlfriend who responds to his request for a kiss by running away. The sad part, but the part which is the root of the film’s charity: Philip has it coming. He is arrogant towards his students in the face of open worship; he treats his agent badly (and is called an "asshole" for it); when he learns that a journalist who was supposed to intervew him committed suicide, he pines that it would have been a great piece for him. These moments of cruelty have some entertainment value, but for anyone who’s known a lot of writers, they’re unremarkable, since most writers know that, from the time of James Joyce onwards, the capacity for cruelty in literary sorts is as bottomless as the River Lethe. What’s remarkable here is what happens. And what is that? Well, Philip happens. In our last sighting of him, we see him walking down a crowded street, carrying a box of his belongings, alone, bereft of his former girfriend, who wouldn’t even open the door for him; the suggestion is that he’s walking towards more of the same. Are these his just desserts? Does he deserve to be this alone, to have all these people shouting at him, to be patronizd by a writer he worships, to be shown such anger by those around him? Yes, he does. If you have to ask why, then perhaos you should watch the movie again.

American culture, it must be understood, generally congratulates selfishness. It’s not typically seen as such, this quality, but it manifests itself that way. Slavish attention to career advancement, fierce competition with others, establishment of political alliances solely for the purpose of said advancement, dismissal of people, things, and ideas lying outside of one’s world view: these actions will, typically, make one successful and content in the world at large. The better car, the better phone, the better TV set, the better shirt, the better face: these things matter. Celebrity homes, celebrity surgeries, celebrity photos, celebrity "selfies," celebrity photo leaks: these things matter as well, perhaps more than we even think. The impact on human behavior of the absorption of these values is insidious. Talking becomes less important; a phone call becomes a rarer and rarer thing; and a handwritten letter? Forget it. The self is all. And if, one day, there’s a shooting in a mall, or a school, we cry mental illness, when in fact what we mean is national illness. It’s doubtful that Perry, in telling this story–and an old-fashioned story it is, with plenty of contrasting motivations, an antagonist, a protagonist, a climax, and a resolution (though perhaps antagonist and protagonist) have switched costumes here–intended it to be a fable, with a clear moral. It’s a character portrait, after all, an experiment as such, to see what happens if, instead of ignoring callousness and accepting it, we hold it up to a "hard Sophoclean light." The experiment, as conducted, performs a valuable service, providing a cutaway, of sorts, into a human psyche in the process of decay, or hardening; the cutaway is explicit, and gory, and eye-opening about the potential rebound effects of cruelty. It could be said that such a cutaway speaks out strongly in favor of kindness, of the opposite of Philip’s behavior. Beyond this, though, in the manner of all good experiments, Listen Up Philip points a way forward: towards different movies about writers, and perhaps different films about people, in which we take a good look at characters’ flaws and virtues, instead of waiting for them to sprout wings or replace their microchips. One might then hope that, as time passes, life might come to imitate art.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

The Silence at the Heart of a Family: The Most Offensive Thing about WETLANDS

nullWhat do you consider offensive? The dictionary definition of
the word suggests that to be offended is to be hurt, or angered, by something
one has seen, or experienced. Wetlands,
a new film from director David Wnendt, contains many scenes which might easily be
called, by this criterion, offensive. One probably wouldn’t normally want to watch them, and
certainly not in close-up, if one had a choice. You might wince. You might look away. You
might walk out. Or, perhaps, you might watch, out of curiosity. Wnendt takes us, with this
work, on a very bumpy tour of a young woman’s maturation, sparing nothing to
show us his narrator’s body, as well as her body’s functions, its wounds, and
its moments of ecstasy, all equally vivid, all equally exciting. It also shows
us the tormented relationships she has with her parents, with her family, with
men—and the sort of violence perpetrated in those spheres. The question the
film asks, quite profoundly and with such confidence that it’s hard to stay shocked
at its earthiness for too long, is: why are we so offended by bodily functions,
and perhaps less by the ills humans visit on each other?

About those bodily functions: As has been noted widely in
the film’s critical reception, it begins ear-catchingly, with Helen’s (Carla Juri)
announcement, a la Proust by way of Scorsese, that as long as she can remember,
she’s had hemorrhoids. In an instant, ointment is applied to her thumb, and her
thumb is inserted up her rectum, where the ointment is applied to a painful,
chronic, sore. Having completed this gesture, she rubs her vagina around the
toilet seat, just to test her vaginal health, and then she pauses for a reverie
inspired by a pubic hair stuck to the particularly filthy rim of the bowl;
we immediately shoot into a Delicatessen-style
journey deep into the roots of the hair (again a bit like Scorsese’s tour of
the Copa Cabana in Goodfellas); microscopic
creatures chomp and gnash; spores float like so many balloons; we see what may
be the encroachment of a virus but looks a little more like germ-on-cell rape.
It’s an appropriate beginning to the story; the film zips along with an almost
jazz-like energy, even as the soundtrack is generally gravelly
punk-inspired guitar mash. What we get here is partly a sexual history, partly a family history, and
partly the story of an anal injury incurred while shaving. Shaving has a
special meaning for Helen; in one of numerous jarringly sensual flashbacks, we
see her being shaved, naked, by a similarly naked coworker. The scene stands
out as one of the more gentle scenes in a film about different kinds of
violence, and their effects. After nicking herself in the anus, she bleeds, and
bleeds, and bleeds, and finally ends up in the hospital, under the care of
Robin (Christoph Letkowski), a male nurse with slightly shaky judgment. One would think the gore and
filth would stop here, but in fact it doesn’t. Though the hospital stay
provides the framework for the film, it serves here as a means to an end—the
end being Helen’s wrestling with her family history. We learn other things
about Helen here; for instance, she has an innocent friend, Corinna (Marlen Kruse) whom she corrupts,
takes drugs with, gets in trouble with—and, as friends do, Corinna departs. We also
learn small pieces of Helen’s daily life, get a sense of her musical taste, watch
her grow from a cleanliness-obsessed toddler into a much rougher young adult. And yet Helen’s family history looms larger and turns out to be far more offensive than any
of her displays in the film: more than her licking her vaginal fluids off her
fingers before a date, more than her leaving semen on her hands after giving a
friend a hand job, more than the sight of her own poop, all around her, when
she wakes up in the hospital the morning after surgery.

What do we know about the family? Plenty, and little. But we
find out enough to make the average viewer, as the dictionary requires, angry.
They appear, in this telling, to be willfully negligent, carrying their own
disturbance into their relationship with their child a certain degree of
immunity, at least in this telling. Karen’s parents are divorced. Her
biological father is a rough, arrogant sort who, when Helen is small,
accidentally slams the door of a car trunk on Helen’s hand. We don’t see him
apologize, or rush to her side, and we get the sense that no such reaction is
forthcoming; as an indicator of the general timbre of their relationship, the
moment is chilling. In another scene, when Helen is older, we see her father
dancing wildly by the family pool, his erection waving around so obviously in
his swim trunks that Helen makes a voiceover comment about it, and we focus on
it. And still later, when Helen is in the hospital, his recovery gift to her is
not so affectionate: a hemorrhoid cushion, which he doesn’t bother to
inflate for her. Helen’s mother doesn’t receive much better exposure here; when
Helen is very young, she does a trust exercise, asking Helen to jump into her
arms—only to back away as Helen jumps, warning her, as she lies on the ground,
not to trust anyone, even parents. Her mother’s rage manifests itself in
different ways: her adoption of religions ranging from Judaism to Buddhism to
Catholicism; her lifting her skirt and showing her crotch at a dinner party
when her drunk husband begins relating the surgical procedure necessary to
complete Helen’s delivery; and finally, a violent act which Helen stumbles on,
which has scarred the family, scarred Helen’s brother, and scarred Helen in
ways she doesn’t entirely understand.

Admittedly, because the film is a self-portrait, and because
its spirited approach animates it so much that you can almost forget the poop,
the semen and the lubricant, it would be tempting to think the portraits of
Helen’s parents presented here are biased, shaped, or even imagined—but the
real-time encounters we see, the matter-of-fact conversations in the hospital,
at home, are dry, and the outward manner each parent displays does not indicate
the capacity for remorse at dereliction, only weary tolerance of Helen’s antics;
the conversations intimate a long history of missed apologies. And so, the
final question is, is it more offensive, or shocking, to see two girls rubbing
menstrual blood on each others’ faces, or to see misguided parental behavior,
which silently presages the more outrageous aspects of the film? When the end
comes, and it is a happy one, as much as it could be during recovery from anal
fissures, one is relieved to see that it involves pushing away from her past, most specifically her family. When watching a film like this, which has banked on the shock value of its content, one wants, in a sense, to be impressed: Wow, that was really… gross. It is to the film’s credit that characters who exist primarily on the margins of the narrative provide its points of greatest offense, casting the humanity and curiosity of the film’s central figure into a curiously positive light.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Cosmopolitans. The director of this Amazon pilot, Whit Stillman, has been issuing films about the upper-upper-class
since the early 1990s, and at a time at which the country in which the films are
released continues to go through severe economic duress, and at which the
divisions between the wealthy and the non-wealthy continue to grow sharper,
viewers might well choose to watch other pilots; after all, several have been released very recently. Additionally,
one might say his characters tend to hew to the same characteristics, time
after time: disaffected, confused, fortunate, unreliable, unpredictable, and
yet also quite predictable. And the list of dissuading elements goes on.
However, when I watch his films, as I continue to do, I think of a couple of
comments I received, oddly enough, from writing teachers. One pertained to what
the teacher called “the courage to be quiet.” In context, the comment
referenced being able to resist the impulse to write loud, flashy,
attention-grabbing, surreal work, as I was doing, and challenging myself to
write in a softer register. In terms of Stillman’s films the phrase could refer
to filming stories in which no one really does
anything, if “doing something” means saving the world or fighting
10-storey-tall robots or jetting between dimensions or inhabiting John
Malkovich’s brain or seeing a double of one’s self on a weekend retreat—or
working with, and competing with, that double. In a climate in which concepts
are important in films and TV shows, and original concepts sell (and why shouldn’t they?), making a
film in which problems are local, dialogue is clever, and no one moves terribly
quickly does indeed take courage.

The pilot of The Cosmopolitans is plenty quiet. Its story,
such as it is, involves a threesome of wealthy young men who live in Paris.
It’s not clear that they have jobs; it’s not clear that they do much during the
day, besides taking language courses and pursuing women. The men are fairly
prototypical Stillman characters. Jimmy, played with considerable energy and
nail-biting nervousness by Adam Brody, is looking for love, finding it each
minute, and then losing it. His tall, thin, fair-complexioned friend Hal (Jordan Rountree), who resembles a
cross between a Russian wolfhound and a human, is similarly unlucky; his
girlfriend Clemence has left him, and he hangs on her every text message in the
hopes she might be contacting him. Their Italian acquaintance Sandro (Adriano Giannini) seems marginally
more worldly but similarly unfocused, similarly single, and comfortable in the
high-end world they live in. As you can see, there isn’t much drama here.
There’s no hook. There’s no rush to create a fraught story within the first ten
minutes. There are no twists. There’s intrigue, but all of the boring, human
sort. And yet at the same time, the pilot is very watchable, because it is, as
famous American expatriate Hemingway might have said (and indeed one of his
descendants stars here), true. Sharp as the witticisms these
characters exchange might be, and they are sharp, they are memorable primarily because
they emanate from a firm knowledge of the class Stillman is making films about.
Similarities and differences with Woody Allen have been noted, but the chief
difference is this, and it turns out to be the key to why Allen’s films have
declined in quality in recent years: Allen does not know the class he is
filming, the European artists, the young, independently wealthy protagonists,
and his is not the kind of imagination which can recreate experiences he has
not had, or had a portion of. Stillman is, to honor an ancient and shady chestnut, writing about what he knows.

Even-keeled as the dramatic topography may be in this pilot,
Stillman manages to insert some literary characters, figures with some breadth
and potential. Chloe Sevigny, in what might be her best performance since Kids,
plays a fashion journalist who radiates a mood of anger, bitterness and possible sexual
frustration from her first appearance; she says everything through clenched teeth
and what would seem to be too much caffeine, speaking truth but without caring
about its damage when spoken, criticizing the three single fellows for not
having “figured things out” yet. Freddy Asblom plays Fritz, a shifty,
bottomlessly wealthy young snot whose life revolves around cocktail parties,
philandering, romantic entanglements; he quite memorably loses his poise as he throws Sandro out of a party at his home for bringing drug dealers there, all of his previous oily delivery reduced to some barked
monosyllables. And Carrie MacLemore brings us Aubrey, a young woman on her own from Alabama, living
with a passive-aggressive boyfriend, or perhaps not living with him, or maybe
both; she’s played openly and with memorable plainness here by MacLemore, though she is a type who has appeared in
Stillman’s films before, moneyed, intelligent, not quite sure of herself, and
yet challenging enough to hold her own against Stillman’s young,
hyper-articulate bucks.

The second comment Stillman’s work makes me think of was one
I received much earlier, and which is perhaps more relevant to the work at
hand. During a discussion of class in fiction, the teacher suggested that one shouldn’t
be biased towards a writer’s work because the writer might be wealthy and might
depict people who are young, happy, and wealthy; neither the writer nor the
characters can help being that way. A sage observation: one can learn a lot by appreciating a work’s virtues before deriding it for characteristics which may set you off in some private, personal way. Stillman’s films are aggressively, steadily clever and perceptive, and this pilot is no different. They move forward less than they burrow in, one comment leading to another comment, until a final insight is reached that may be surprisingly dark but still somewhat profound. After all is through, the class of these characters, their sameness, their lack of what many people would consider to be real problems, bcomes beside the point. The wit of Stillman’s scripts, as well as the sense of introspection that wit creates, becomes sufficiently moving on its own, and the rest is just gravy, or in this case, jus.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD Recreates the Experience of Reading

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD Recreates the Experience of Reading

nullA large part of writing a review is telling what experiencing the work in question is like—the feeling one gets when reading, or watching, or listening,
or looking. This can be difficult, especially in works that reach deeply, that dig
into seldom explored territory. If I say that watching Richard
Linklater’s remarkable new film Boyhood,
which traces the life of a boy named Mason from age 6 to 18 in rapidly
changing segments, is like reading a
book, I need to clarify. The idea is not that the film could be “read” like a
book, each element analyzed to consider how it functions within the work as a whole; that goes without saying. The film, instead, acts on you the way a book
might act on you, which is to say, it doesn’t force itself on the viewer, and
in fact it asks the viewer to force itself on it, to make sense of it, to keep
going with it, and to sit with it, for a while, to see where it’s going. And the film does go somewhere which might remind viewers suspiciously of their own lives.

On the most basic level, we get to know, or at last
understand, Linklater’s characters in a gradual and highly relaxed fashion. In
many scenes, the characters, as they age together in different locations in
central to West Texas, simply sit and have conversations with each other. In so
doing, they teach us about themselves. We learn, through his introspection,
that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a thoughtful boy whose greatest spiritual investment will always
be in his own ruminations. His mother, played here with a great sense of regret by Patricia Arquette, reveals herself to be
caring but lacking in judgment, which will sadly shape her children’s lives,
causing them to move from house to house throughout their childhood, sometimes
suffering abuse from their mother’s poorly-chosen partners. In a very subtle
and moving performance, Ethan Hawke plays their father, likable on the
surface, but a near-archetype of a shady, untrustworthy dad. We notice all of
these things, and we pay attention to them, and we think about them, because
Linklater forces us to. There aren’t any exploding cars in the film. No one secretly
turns out to be a robot. There are no musical numbers. One is free, then, to
make observations, to interpret, and to absorb. One might find one’s self
making judgments, of a sort. Though the kids’ father is erstwhile in many respects, he
has far better chemistry with his children than either of the partners their mother
chooses after him.  We watch Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) developing from a
mannered, funny child into a cool adult with odd phrasing (when it’s her turn
to make a speech at her brother’s graduation party, all she says is “Uh… good
luck.”), and the difference is noticeable. She’s lost the forwardness she
had as a child, but it’s metamorphosed into something more interesting, or more
deeply rooted within her. These are nuances that are not necessarily always
brought out in films, given so many films’ debt to drama itself, which demands a
structure, a pace, which does not encourage extensive lingering.
Linklater has achieved a strange marriage of two works: one film which tells the
story of a life, and one which tries to be interesting without telling any
story at all. The elements that might interest a viewer here—family dynamics,
the effect of aging, outer and inner growth—require meditation, and they don’t
require the framework of a plot to be meaningful. This is the kind of license taken frequently in literary works–writers from Chekhov to Ann Beattie to Karl Ove Knausgaard have availed themselves of it–but not seen as frequently in film.

The structure here is a very matter-of-fact one–you might miss it if you were weren’t looking, so seamless is Linklater’s deployment of it. As has
been widely discussed, Linklater made the film over a twelve-year period,
taking the actors aside for a couple of weeks each year to film a short segment, a
handful of minutes. The development in the film is based simply upon the
passage of time, a strong reminder that nothing the characters might do could
make the years move any more quickly, or slowly. Mason’s mother refers to this, at
the end, when she cries that she thought there would be “more” before her son
left for college—but as we know, nothing makes the days any shorter or longer.
The time Linklater allowed himself for the film seems to have tinged the entire
venture with a contemplative mood. The years pass without fanfare. The only way
we know the characters have aged, or that time has passed, is by the change in
their appearance. We are forced, then to look at these people, really look at them. We watch the mother
put on weight, slightly, as she gets older; she begins to look more settled, if
not complacent. We watch the childen’s father lose his youthful spark, fill out a bit,
mellow in his mood; his laughs don’t come as quickly, there’s not as much sense
of destructive mischief in his eyes. And Mason grows larger, more
stoop-shouldered, his features increase in size, he becomes less comfortable in
his skin, more self-conscious, his voice acquires the faint rasp of someone
who’s been shouting at a concert for the last several hours. These, then, are
the events we witness, and they become as interesting as an exploding
half-human car might be in another film. This sort of motion, in which inner
changes and developments loom largest, forming the topography of a work, is an example of something a book can do that a film, simply by virtue of the medium, might not do so easily. You sit with a book,
quietly, and read it, and things such as characterization, a description of
someone’s eyebrows, a well-placed phrase, become gigantic. They become large
enough to sustain the work, in some cases, and they may be the things you take
away most from the experience. But this viewer has found that, often, films must offer a slightly greater plenitude of elements to sustain themselves.

In a sense, saying that watching a certain film is like
reading a book might seem critically useless. How can one compare two
experiences that are so radically different, and that access such radically
different parts of the brain? You can’t hear a printed book any more than you
might read a montage out loud. Also, how can one make generalizations like this? And yet, and yet:
everyone approaches artistic experiences from a different starting point. For
this writer, reading is one of the most meaningful, important experiences he
might have—there’s competition for that spot, of course, but it ranks highly, up there with love and food. And so
there’s a little voice in this writer’s head, chattering away as the Linklater
film unfurls itself: Is this as good as….? Is it up to the experience of…? Yes,
I know you enjoy it, but is that enjoyment as great as the enjoyment of…? And if the answer to these questions is yes, the experience of watching Boyhood is equivalent to the satisfaction one has after reading a wonderful, spare piece of writing, which is to say one feels moved and quieted, given a fresh awareness of one’s place in the world, then that is the highest compliment this reviewer could pay the film.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Sobering, Beautiful Lessons of LIFE ITSELF

The Sobering, Beautiful Lessons of LIFE ITSELF

nullI almost didn’t write this review. This was not because I didn’t
appreciate the film at hand, but because a question was nagging at me. It’s a
question that I ask before I write any treatment of a book or a film, and it
runs something like, What can I bring to
this piece that will both serve the work and be memorable for its readers,
personal in some sense?
In the month leading up to the film’s release, an
intimidating number of reviews have appeared of it. In the most notable of those
reviews, the reviewer has a relationship with Roger Ebert, the film’s subject, either
by dint of personal acquaintance or lifelong worship, and so the reviews
express heartfelt respect mingled with critical assessment. He was a great
nurturer of film critics, around the world, in fact—and someone who maintained
contact with a vast network of people throughout his life, right up to its end.
And so I was wondering, what can I bring to this piece that hasn’t already been
brought? Where’s my 50 years of film criticism? 25? 10? 5? Who the heck am I to be
writing this? Put more gently, the question was: what in the
film would speak to me, trigger a response that might be
interesting to both me and to readers? I might like the film, but what in it
might flip the switch, give me an entry into it?

As it turns out, quite a bit. 

To begin, there’s the pure story of it. The film starts with intensely wrenching footage of
Ebert in the hospital. As most who know anything about his life already know,
by the end of his life, due to numerous complications that had begun in 2002 with cancer in his thyroid gland, he had no lower jaw, he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t swallow, and he couldn’t speak. He was fed through a tube, and periodically he had to
undergo a painful process called “suction,” during which the look of pain in
his eyes is quite hard to watch. After this beginning, though, quite quickly,
we ease into a very different sort of film. A rolling, ambling melody on the soundtrack, with
pianos and horns and drums mingling in an easy way, pushes us forward, in a
slow and graceful manner. We’ve seen the end of his life, and now we’re seeing
the beginning. It’s a great story, told here by director Steve James at a reasonable, comfortable pace, as if to make sure he included every last correct detail–but at the same time it is never tedious or boring. As a young man, growing up in Chicago, Ebert
wanted to be a journalist, and so he become one, pursuing the career as
aggressively as he could. The earliest writings we sample are from the
newspaper of the University of Illinois, and they display the same
intensity and communicativeness that would serve him throughout his life, as he
chronicles such 1960s mileposts as the assassination of JFK and the infamous bombing of a church in
Birmingham, Alabama, among other events. Then we watch his rise to
prominence through his career as a film critic at the Chicago
lasting through different ownerships, always a stolid employee,
filing his reviews dutifully as the paper sorted and resorted itself, and then winning
the Pulitzer in 1983. Up until this point, Ebert has been a model of both focus
and of living with enthusiasm; his colleagues describe his ability to simply
conceptualize a review and write it down, often in half an hour’s time. We also
learn that, if not always a prince among men (due to heavy carousing, sleeping
with prostitutes, and other kinds of debauchery), he was someone who was always
lively, and a remarkable storyteller, not above swinging from a lamp at O’Rourke’s,
his favorite bar in Chicago. We learn, too, about his realization of his
significant drinking problem, and his subsequent abstinence after 1979.

The story shifts, then, bringing us to one of its most
poignant parts, the description of his relationship with Gene Siskel, his
longtime partner for the TV show, Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. One is Ivy-educated, the other not;
one hobnobs with Hugh Hefner, the other could never. The relationship is like
one you might find in a novel: multi-layered, storied, full of witty repartee,
theatrical, at its funniest during out-takes where Ebert mocks Siskel’s
delivery and Siskel mocks Ebert’s arrogance, at its saddest when we realize the two never fully expressed their respect for each other to each other. After many years of striving for
national broadcast, the show finally achieves it, and the two become the most
widely known film reviewers in American history. In a further personal ascent, indeed a milestone, Ebert
marries the charismatic, compassionate Chaz Ebert, at age 50. A life of hard work, then, leads to a very happy marriage. Next, though, tragedy strikes. In another kind of story,
this would be called a turning point, at which the protagonist must make a
decision which will affect the story’s outcome. Here, Ebert is given a tremendous
obstacle to handle, in the form of his thyroid cancer. Where most would buckle,
Ebert decides to take another course, one anyone could learn from.

Survival is difficult, either at the most basic level of
life or in a career of any sort. Several qualities are needed: aggression,
toughness, and patience are three of them. Also, though, one needs flexibility,
the ability to take things as they come, roll with the punches, and move
forward. Ebert certainly possessed that quality. As his sickness worsened, it’s
no secret to his fans that his review output grew, primarily through his
website. We learn that he was a huge advocate of social media, from its
earliest days forward, and that his Twitter feed was legendary; we can only
think that he understood his need to communicate, to interact, was part of his
life force, and that it fed him as he continued to work, and he used these avenues because they were readily available to him, and he recognized that he had no other choice. Even in his last hours,
he was emailing with the filmmaker; one of his last acts on the planet was a
blog post. James, throughout the film, does a wonderful job of showing the
difficulties of incapacity, both for Ebert and for those around him: the pain of
walking, after a hip injury; the awkwardness of having to write statements down
on paper, the urgency of expression sometimes making him near-frantic; and the
sadness of not being able to enjoy the things he might have once enjoyed. It’s
to James’ great credit, though, that these moments aren’t sentimental in the
least; James’ camera, indeed, his entire aesthetic skews away from sentiment.
What also helps to ward off sentimentality is a basic truth about Ebert himself,
which would make sentiment somewhat impossible: he was of a very particular
tribe, that of doers, of makers, people who put things into the world that
they’ve crafted, themselves. His illness didn’t remove him from that tribe.
Why? Because writing, projecting his thought outwards, seems to have been as natural to him as

Here’s the thing: whether you’re a film reviewer, a painter, a poet, a
composer, a ceramicist, a filmmaker, or a painter of highway signs, these
things you’ve made last, after you’re dead. Ebert’s life is a testimony to the
importance, if you have such a talent, of exercising that privilege to the
greatest of your ability, regardless of adversity. This film has been called
many things: touching, moving, inspiring, saddening, fascinating, entertaining,
and heartbreaking, among others. And it is all of these things. Almost more
than these, though, it is sobering. At the time of this writing, this reviewer
is what many might call over-extended, numbering editorship of this
publication, co-editorship of a small press whose responsibilities grow by the
day, partial editorship of a literary magazine considered by many to be a
leader in its particular arena, not to mention daily deadlines as a freelance
editor and writer, and above and beyond those, continuing to write poems, among his daily preoccupations—and yet I would not give up
any one of these things for any other. And I would especially not give them up after watching
this film–if nothing else, the film shows that the rewards of doing, of striving, are far too great to forsake.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.