Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
The place is southeastern Kentucky, bordering Virginia. The time is the early ’70s, an era when there was turmoil to spare in the United States. The story is simultaneously specific and one that has been told time and time again. Since there was wealth to be had and labor to take advantage of it, the rich have exploited the poor. In Harlan County, USA, the poor are coal miners hoping to unionize, while the executives of the mining company they work for are willing to resort to increasingly brazen violence to stop them.
Barbara Kopple was just 27 years old when she lead her camera crew to Kentucky to cover the strike by miners at Brookside Mine, who were hoping for better wages, safer conditions, and benefits. They sign a contract to join the United Mine Workers of America. The Duke Power Company, which owns the mine, nixes the contract, triggering the strike.
Simply as an account of the chaotic events of the strike, Harlan County, USA is electric. Some of the footage Kopple gets is astonishing. The cameras sometimes pick up shouted threats from armed mercenaries and police, ordering her to stop filming. The methods used by strikebreakers, hired by Duke to manhandle the picketers and shuttle scab workers into the mines, grow increasingly violent. Kopple doesn’t provide a lot of names, but we grow accustomed to and even attached to a lot of faces. The wives and mothers of the miners are the primary force of the picket lines, defiantly standing up to guards who start by dragging them out of the lines and into jail cells into the dark, escalating to gunfire.
Kopple makes no attempt to remain detached. This is full-throated activist filmmaking, but unlike the work of Michael Moore, which can often turn into overwrought and didactic, Kopple keeps the cameras swiveling around, documenting whatever they can. One remarkable shot captures an infamous strikebreaker pointing his gun at the crowd. The shot ends up being evidence that forces the county sheriff to arrest the man, something he clearly has no desire to do.
Harlan County, USA is a reminder that progress has only ever been achieved through relentless effort, often in the face of seemingly overwhelming force and institutions uninterested in holding the powerful accountable. At one point, a miner at a demonstration in New York City (where they hope to tank Duke Power Company’s stock value) has a conversation with a cop, who is aghast at the conditions the miners face. The cop’s basic benefits and wages are modest, basic but compared to the miner, it sounds like a bounty.
The films ends with a mix of sadness, hope, and ambiguity. The miners get a contract, but only after one of the strikers is murdered on the picket line. They’re pleased, but one of the older miners point out that it doesn’t help those whose careers don’t have much time left to reap the benefits. And within a year, another conflict arises, putting the contract in jeopardy. The fight continues on, as it always has, as it always will.
Only two more and I’ll be ready to move on to my 2017 Blindspot!
Yi Yi (2016, Edward Yang)
Howard Hawks once defined a good film as having three good scenes and no bad ones. There are many, many good scenes in Yi Yi, and not a single bad one. Perhaps that’s why its 173 minute runtime feels a good hour shorter than that. Edward Yang, in this his last film before he died in 2007 of cancer at age 59, uses every minute of that runtime wisely. He paints a complete portrait of a family’s life over the course of a year, little by little, never rushing headlong into drama. Yi Yi is a bounty of a film, every scene rich with truth and feeling. Yang so fully understands these characters that he can simply show them being. In doing so he finds a truth that that I have long believed: that any life story, no matter how seemingly uneventful, is worthy of being told.
Yi Yi doesn’t adhere to any core plot other than ups and downs of regular life. Yes, it opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral, but these events feels matter of fact, instead of narrative bookends. Edward Yang leaves room for plenty of heartache, melancholy, amusement, joy, and ambiguity. He gives scenes time to breathe. There are few close-ups, but many long shots, or even scenes where he lets the camera look at the landscape as characters speak out of frame, or are tiny figures dwarfed by their surroundings. The closest thing Yi Yi has to protagonists are NJ (Wu Nien-jen) and his two children: his teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). The film opens at the wedding of NJ’s brother-in-law, A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen).
Weddings are a splendid way of introducing a big cast of characters (see: The Godfather), and the wedding here beautifully sets up the cast. A-Di’s bride is visibly pregnant, and family members argue about whether are right for each other. NJ’s mother-in-law is deeply melancholy and seems disinterested in interacting with anyone. An ex-girlfriend of A-Di’s breaks down sobbing that she should have married him when she had the chance. These might seem on the surface to be superficial touches at first, but each element comes back in to play. The film’s story runs along how people feel inside, about each other, and how they present those feelings. In this film, as in life, these feelings are fluid and sometimes far more important to us than we realize until we voice them. There’s a terrific moment when NJ runs into his first girlfriend, Sherry- they broke up decades ago- as she exits an elevator. They exchange pleasantries and part ways. Then she sudden emerges again into the frame and angrily tells him that he broke her heart and she never really got over it. Yang plays the moment seriously, because the moment is serious for Sherry. Neither does Yang linger on the moment. He recognizes that emotions aren’t fleeting, that this is story he can return to later in the film. Life doesn’t pause for feelings. They can be addressed in the flow of things. Life goes on.
Early in the film, the children’s grandmother has a stroke and falls into a coma. Throughout the movie, many characters use the doctor’s instructions to talk to her as if she were awake as a means of deep self-reflection. NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), breaks down sobbing at not having more to say to her mother. Ting-Ting things she somehow caused her grandmother’s stroke and quietly asks for forgiveness. Yang-Yang is frightened to talk to her at all. All the while, life goes on for everyone.
I haven’t hooked you on this film, have I? Simply describing the events doesn’t capture its beauty. Watching Yi Yi is like getting wrapped up in a good, four-hour conversation, where there are highs and lows and raised emotions and tears and laughter and you come away feeling enriched, more knowledgeable about life, more attuned to humanity.
Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
To call Stalker existentialist, as many a take on the film I’ve see has, is tempting, but I think it runs the risk of being reductive (a term rarely used to describe existentialist art). Stalker is a masterclass of minimalist worldbuilding. The film takes place in a place called the Zone. For reasons no one can seem to explain, the Zone no longer follows the rules of space and time. It constantly changes, weaving a perpetual maze that traps those who wander in.are easily trapped and lured to their deaths. Only a select few people, known as Stalkers, can instinctively navigate the narrow, safe path to the end of the Zone, where there resides a room that will supposedly grant anyone their deepest desire.
Tarkovsky takes this premise, one that feels like it could easily make for a conventional adventure, and mines it for the effect the Zone has on its characters. As I said, his worldbuilding is essential. The film opens on the Stalker (most of the film’s characters go by titles, not names) lying awake in bed beside his wife and daughter. Their apartment is damp and spare. The world they live in is drab and heavily militarized. Tarkovsky doesn’t show us more than we could glean from the few moments we spend in this world, in this home, but it’s enough. Things are desperate. And still the Stalker risks his life- despite his wife Zhena’s desperate protests- to take people into the Zone.
The argument they have is telling. The Stalker doesn’t say he needs money. He doesn’t give his wife a reason for his leaving at all. There seems to be real love between them, so what gives? Why does he risk a job that drove his predecessor and mentor to suicide?
The Stalker sees the job as a calling, a blessing he can provide for others. In talking about the Zone with his customers- the Professor and the Writer-, he sounds almost priestly. The Professor and the Writer are more cynical, trading barbs with one another about their differing worldviews and speaking forthrightly (supposedly) about their hopes from this journey: the writer is hoping for inspiration, while the professor thinks his studies of the Zone might win him a Nobel Prize.
It goes without saying that none of these three men are entirely honest about their motives, whether they know it or not. Their journey through the zone, and their long conversations about the state of the world and their true desires, are reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett play. It’s in the world itself that Tarkovsky frames the story and builds mystery. He uses locations that look like they’ve long been there but are not quite recognizable. Dilapidated wooden buildings give way to beautiful, water-filled groves that look like tide pools filled with the remains of a ghost town. Tarkovsky vividly crafts a place that lulls you into a slumber of familiarity even though nothing makes practical sense and everything feels just a bit off. At one point, the three men end up in a concrete building that looks like swiss cheese. There is a phone on the ground and it rings, and the writer immediately picks it up as if it’s the thing he ought to do.
I can’t deny, the craftsmanship and tone of Stalker stuck with me more than the dialogue, but that’s not a knock on the movie. This is rare film where the chaos comes from deep within the characters themselves; the world around them seems just fine, at a glance, until you yourself look a little closer, and that’s when you realize where that chaos is coming from.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Like Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story, The Battle of Algiers is one of those films with such a towering reputation that I knew quite a bit about it long before I watched it. Well, not the story and characters so much, but certainly how influential it is. It was screened by the Pentagon during the Iraq War and by numerous revolutionary groups. It was banned in France for five years after its release. That sort of history lead me to assume it was a sort of fly on the wall docudrama. What I didn’t expect was a film that manages to be both frank about the horror of war while still maintaining a passionate anti-colonial point of view, all without succumbing to preachiness. The Battle of Algiers is about the horror of violence begetting violence, yes, but there is so much more to it than sterile both-siderism.
This is not to say that the Gillo Pontecorvo picks and chooses which acts of violence are evil and which aren’t. There is no “good” in violence. No side in the film is depicted as deliberately villainous. But in battles between colonizers and their colonies, history has shown us that powerful nations will sometimes go to brutal lengths to subjugate those who don’t want to be subjugated. The sides in this story consist of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the government of France, which had occupied Algeria since 1827. Over the course of the film, both sides will kill scores of one another. Many unsuspecting, innocent civilians- French and Algerian alike- die in the crossfire. It’s all awful and, well, if there’s no morality in to any killing in war, there can be differences in motive for waging it. That is the subtle crux that Pontecorvo balances on throughout the film: as both sides escalate the carnage with no quick end in sight, is there at least a solution that has the plurality of moral weight?
The film opens in media res, as one of the FLN’s leaders, Ali La Pointe, cornered in a hideout with nowhere to run. The FLN’s resistance looks to be over. It then cuts back two years to the days before Ali joined the FLN, as the resistance is in its infancy. After he is recruited, he soon joins the ranks of the group’s leadership. Pontecorvo is matter-of-fact about their operations, as they carry out guerilla killings of police in broad daylight. Pontecorvo doesn’t glamorize the FLN or their actions; this, he seems to be saying, is how revolutions operate. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, nor does he sympathize with the occupying power. His sympathies are largely reserved for the civilians who end up inevitably caught in the crossfire. The French police chief has an apartment building blown up one night, killing numerous civilians, including children. As the survivors pull bodies from the rubble, it’s one of the few times Ennio Morricone’s music turns mournful.
That attack leads to greater violence from the FLN, who start bombing civilian establishments in retaliation. The police respond by calling in an elite paratrooper unit, lead by Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin). Col. Mathieu is cold and merciless, and makes it clear that he will use any methods he deems necessary to put down the rebellion. As newscasters celebrate Col. Mathieu’s arrival, they pointedly mention that he was part of the French Resistance. His most recent job? The war against Vietnam that preceded the USA’s own disaster there. The film makes pointed irony of a man who made his reputation fighting invaders is now leading them.
The documentary style, reminiscent of neo-realism, only even more convincing, gives the film a crucial sense of objectivity. This is not to say that Pontecorvo lacks a point of view; his style simply lets him make his points without being heavy handed. The film is anti-war, but also anti-imperialist, and it doesn’t feel contradictory. War is evil, but so is oppression, and sometimes only one side is guilty of both. God help everyone caught in the middle.
Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)
There is no mental agony quite like waiting for a diagnosis. The relief that comes from good news is scarcely worth the nightmarish speculation, the sense of total doom. “Waiting to hear back on the results” is one of those experiences that turns just about anyone into a totally anxious wreck.
Agnès Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 covers two hours in the life of a woman waiting to hear back on the results of a stomach biopsy. In one sense, the film covers very little. We see Cleo (Corinne Marchand) do about as much as one can in two hours when they are trying to distract themselves. And yet by the end I felt such an affinity and closeness for her, and all her foibles and faults that she displays, because this is one of the most recognizably human of movies that I’ve ever seen. We don’t see Cleo do much, but if you’ve ever eavesdropped on a interesting conversation, well, you can learn quite a bit without much happening.
The film is essentially an act of eavesdropping. We learn about Cleo in little chunks of time that the film marks off as chapters. It opens with her visiting a fortune teller, and the cards are decidedly not in her favor. Cleo begins to weep. She is convinced she has stomach cancer and that her doctor is simply going to confirm her doom in two hours. There is a splendidly observed moment where the fortune teller sternly asks Cleo not to show any despair in front of other customers, lest they be put off and cost her business. Cleo puts on a stone face until she gets downstairs where she takes solace in her reflection in the mirror. When you’re worried, you take any distractions you can get. Vanity doesn’t soothe her for long. She meets with her assistant Angèle (who recommended the fortune teller) at a cafe and breaks down sobbing again. The film is full of brief spans of time that expose human multitudes. In 90 minutes, director Agnès Varda covers more mental and emotional territory than films twice its length, all without being about much more than waiting for bad news.
It’s intoxicating how deftly this movie unfolds. A little at a time, we learn more and more about Cleo and the world she inhabits. Cleo is a singer. She’s not quite a pop star, but her songs are on jukeboxes and the radio and people turn their heads when they see her, perhaps not recognizing her but certainly thinking they’ve seen her from somewhere. She has a boyfriend who she no longer seems to sleep with or even talk with anymore. She meets with several friends over the course of the film. Varda frequently plunges into the minds of the characters in internal monologues, revealing the truths they wouldn’t around one another. Angèle is devoted to Cleo but privately dismissive of her feelings. Cleo is far more vulnerable than she wants to let on, not miserable but certainly not happy, even outside of the whole “waiting on a potential cancer diagnosis” thing.
Other members of her circle include her songwriters, two bespectacled fellows who enjoy her company, and she theirs. However, they don’t take her seriously as a person or an artist and she belittles their writing when it doesn’t pass her muster. Their moments together reveal the misunderstandings that arise from not being able to speak openly with someone. She meets them for a rehearsal session, and while singing one song she falls into a reverie. The song is as despairing as she is, and she ends up storming out of her apartment, deeply unsettled, dismissing the song harshly, as one of the writers calls her a spoiled brat.
Cleo From 5 to 7 is episodic on its face (the film consists of 10 chapters, each counting down to her conversation with her doctor at 7 pm). It defies conventional plot synopsis, because the plot’s all in the title. The film’s magic lies in Varda’s eye for constructing scenes that feel completely spontaneous and alive. Her camera constantly wanders during scenes, catching smatterings of conversations around Cleo that we never hear to their end, and other times blocking out everything except Cleo’s face and the voice within her heard. That rings true to me; when something is overwhelmingly worrying, sometimes all you notice are your surroundings and sometimes all you notice is your own mind.
Varda also paces the film beautifully. Scenes flow naturally into one another, following only the path of however Cleo feels at that moment. When she storms out of her rehearsal, she seeks out an old friend named Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) who works as a figure model for a sculpting class. The film doesn’t simply run from place to place; it saunters. It takes in the surroundings. It notices architecture, interesting faces, pauses in conversations. Cleo walks in on Dorothée posing nude and is embarrassed; Dorothée couldn’t care less. Later, they talk about Cleo’s embarrassment and their differing views on modesty. The conversation feels totally natural, flowing out from the events, which Varda transitions to so smoothly from what came before. Nothing in the film feels forced or contrived.
Early on it feels like Cleo’s impending diagnosis is going to be a MacGuffin- an arbitrary device that moves the plot forward. But by the end of the film, I realized that Varda was onto something much more insightful. We don’t learn much about Cleo biographically. We don’ learn all her faults and merits, but we get a sense of her as a person at a fundamental level: flawed, confused, desperate for happiness and someone to communicate deeply with. We know her the way you can sometimes connect deeply with a stranger in one conversation. Corinne Marchad’s performance is essential. She is remarkably consistent in conveying that tone, subtly altering and coloring every interaction we have with Cleo. Circumstances can alter perception. She doesn’t simply play a person consumed with worry; her fears bubble under every scene, sometimes bursting out loud but usually simmering quietly, always there but not always the most prominent thing in the scene.
Cleo From 5 to 7 is one of the very best films I’ve seen out of the French New Wave. It has the freshness and energy of films like Breathless and Jules and Jim, and yet I think I liked it even more than those films. It has an energy, a curiosity about its world, and a sense of observation all its own. Its scenes buzz with the frazzled jumble of emotions that come with anxiety. Moments of calm flow seamlessly like soothing melodies. Every scene contributes something. Not a moment feels wasted. At the start of the film, Cleo is all-consumed with fear of her diagnosis. When it finally comes at the end, she realizes that, like most things in life, it’s just another moment.
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
One thing I love about Dario Argento films: their stories slot easily into other genres. He then drags them into horror, kicking and screaming with buckets of thick, red blood. Suspiria is essentially a gothic fairy tale, for example. It was inspired by tall tales that the grandmother of co-writer Daria Nocolodi told her as a child. The result is a film that has the trappings of something comfortably familiar, told through set pieces of operatic violence.
Deep Red is a whodunit in its heart. The plot and story beats aren’t too far removed from Agatha Christie. But in Christie novels, murders are simply plot devices. The likes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are unflappable in the face of death. Murders are an excuse for them to showcase their brilliance at solving them. But when the killings happen in Deep Red, they aren’t a means to advance the plot; they are Argento’s arias, thrusting violence and horror to the forefront, forcing both the audience and the film’s obligatory amateur investigators to recoil from the carnage.
Deep Red opens with a murder and segues into another soon thereafter. In between, we meet a psychic named Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), who gives a lecture in Turin about her abilities and initially wows the audience by pointing to a random man and correctly saying that he is fiddling with his keys. She is then overcome with a vision of murder and begins to panic. Later, she is murdered in her apartment by an unknown assailant.
Helga’s murder is witnessed by a pianist named Marcus (David Hemmings), who runs to investigate and finds her dead, and the assailant fleeing the scene, wearing a distinct leather raincoat. He becomes obsessed with investigating the case himself, teaming up with a journalist named Gianna (Nicolodi, who starred in five Argento films in addition to co-writing Suspiria with him). Their relationship is strained but playful. Marcus voices some dismissive sexism to Gianna, which seems rooted in his own self-consciousness about masculinity. In response, Gianna challenges him to arm wrestling, beats him, and he complains that she cheated.
Scenes like that aren’t simply Argento awkwardly addressing feminism and masculinity; as Deep Red unfolds almost every scene hints toward answers without giving anything away. At the end of the film, I realized that the answers to the plot’s questions were all laid out before me, in suggestion, in the mise en scène, in the character’s writing. There is a crucial scene where Marcus has a conversation with his best friend Carlo, also a pianist, but far less successful. Carlo is drunk, and they talk across opposite sides of a huge Roman statue. The dialogue, the conditions in which it is spoken, and even the statue itself all play a part in piecing together the mystery, even though none of that is spelled out in the scene.
All of this is simply to say that as a murder mystery, Deep Red works splendidly, which means that as horror, it works splendidly, because horror is always best, the scares more resonant, when it’s motivated by something more than simply scaring you.
Dario Argento is a master of grisly, horrifically beautiful horror set pieces. The violence in this film is bloody, yes, but as always with Argento there’s a choreography to it. I think (and this is not simply the setting of Suspiria talking) that Argento films would translate easily into ballet without becoming comical. When the killer strikes in Deep Red, there’s a sense that everything in the frame is exactly where Argento wants it, but the scenes also never lack for energy or chaos.
Deep Red plunges into its mystery head on, and much of the fun is in the surroundings, the sets, and the characters Marcus runs into along the way. Unlike an Agatha Christie novel, however, Marcus often seems deep in over his head, needing Gianna on more than one occasion to survive, never mind solve the murders. He’s an unusually well-rounded horror protagonist. He’s not entirely likeable, but his flaws are recognizably human, and Argento builds the case he’s pursuing into such an intoxicating fever that we understand why he keep pursuing it even after the killer whispers a promise to kill him through a closed door. Terrified, he calls Gianna for help. “There’s someone in the house, absolutely trying to kill me, you know?” he says, his voice rising in alarm.
As a horror fan, Deep Red was a delight, a prime example of the bloody delights of both giallo and whodunits. But Argento’s direction will also demand future viewings, just to study the visuals and admire the craft. It’s damn good entertainment, yes, but like a great painting there is something to admire on every inch of the frame.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
I’ve never liked assigning human emotions to animals. Animals have worlds and a perspective that is all their own. One of the joys of growing up with both dogs and cats is appreciating what they both bring to the table. Cats are unpredictable and delightfully odd. Dogs are abjectly sincere. Either way, there’s a purity to how animals express themselves, one that movies often muddle. The beauty of Au Hasard Balthazar, its point of focus that sets its tone and makes it so compelling, is that it views the world through the eyes of an animal, and never once tries to humanize it. Balthazar the donkey goes through his life with the simple nobility of an animal that has no real control over its destiny.
Au Hasard Balthazar opens with the music of Franz Schubert over the opening credits, cheekily interrupted by the braying of a donkey. In the opening scene, two children plead with their father to let them adopt a baby donkey. In the following scene, they baptize him, mimicking, with total earnestness, the baptism rites of the Church. Already I think I was under Bresson’s spell; the film’s spareness and simplicity invite speculation over symbolism. Is a scene of a donkey being baptized a gentle jab at the Church? Is it a statement about the innate innocence of animals? I think I prefer to take it at face value: it’s the sort of thing children would do with a new pet with total conviction.
Conviction pulses through this film. Balthazar grows up and his ownership changes hands repeatedly. The children who adopt him give him to friend, a girl named Marie. Her father is a farmer, a decent man with monumental pride that threatens to undo him when neighbors accuse him of cheating them out of their money. A young man named Gerard, who is infatuated with Marie in the worst sense, stops by her homes sometimes and beats Balthazar sadistically. Needing money, Marie’s father sells the donkey to Gerard’s mother. Eventually, Gerard’s mistreatment of Balthazar causes the animal to go catatonic. On the verge of being put down, a local drunkard named Arnold seems to take pity on Balthazar and takes him off their hands, nursing him back to health.
These story beats don’t follow a plot. They follow the path of Balthazar. The story consists of little revelations of these characters, in how they treat an innocent animal, and in how they treat one another. Everyone in the film is flawed. Gerard is diabolical; he is the one character who treats the donkey with total contempt. He also sexually assaults Marie and savagely beats Arnold. When police visit his mother asking about a murder they think he might have witnessed, she assumes he committed it and tells him to flee the country.
The question, then: why is Balthazar the film’s eyes and ears? I think it gives every scene a clarity of vision. We aren’t being asked to pick apart human actions for meaning. Balthazar can only observe without imposing motives. With him as the lens through which we watch the film, we are forced to see the people around Balthazar through their acts and nothing more. Is Gerard pure evil? We don’t know, but he certainly acts evilly. Likewise, Arnold is not a saint, but we understand how thoroughly alcoholism has derailed his life and how he still has a capability for goodness in taking in Balthazar.
Watching Au Hasard Balthazar I began to experience a sort of reverse Kuleshov effect. That refers to the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who demonstrated how you could change the meaning of a shot through simple editing. He would show a shot of a man looking intensely into the camera, followed by a shot of a bowl of soup. Audiences perceived the man as being hungry. When Kuleshov replaced the second shot with an image of a young girl in a coffin, but kept the first shot of the man, they now thought he was grieving.
In Au Hasard Balthazar, there are not shots or edits that suggest what Balthazar thinks about his surroundings. Bresson never infers anything about Balthazar’s state of mind that a donkey can’t express perfectly well on its own. And I think we respond with greater empathy for the animal, as well as for the characters on screen. Balthazar provides the lens through which we observe all the actions of the film, how various people treat him as well as one another.
No character is as close to Balthazar as Marie, and it’s her story that’s the most heartbreaking, her scenes with him that are the most moving. When she dresses his head in a crown of flowers and holds him close, it looks like a sacred tableau. And in those moments, Balthazar finds quiet contentment. In his simple, animal happiness, we can sense something holy.
For a whole bunch of reasons I only got to three of my Blindspot films in 2016. I’m going to try to finish up the last 9 over the next two weeks, complete with reviews. Pray for me.
Wings of Desire (1987, Wim Wenders)
I’ve always loved old things. Old objects that were once held by someone centuries ago. Old homes that have seen ages pass. Old letters, pieces of personal correspondence that become time capsules for thoughts and feelings. I love objects that stand as sentries for the passage of time, that connect us to our ancestors and will do so for our descendants. There is a beauty to the inexorable creeping of time, and how inextricably it is connected to change.
The angels in Wings of Desire are this sort of sentry. They are the opposites of agents of change. Since the dawn of time they have walked the Earth following a simple set of rules: Keep to yourself. Let things happen. Always remain serious. Do no more than look, gather, testify, verify, preserve.
An angel named Cassiel (Otto Sander) recites the rules of their great endeavor with a weary wistfulness. His fellow immortal, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and have have just finished going back and forth with their favorite fantasies of the wonders of mortal life. Damiel waxes about what it would be like to tell a lie, or to take his shoes off, or to eat a meal. There is a bittersweetness to their words, but it falls short of true malaise. Damiel and Cassiel take their work seriously. They wander Berlin, watching, observing. Children can see them, and they smile and wave. Adults can’t see angels, but angels can still attempt to comfort them, to gently influence them. We see Damiel whispering positive intonations into the ear of a depressed man on a subway, until the man stops repeating the downturns his life has taken and resolves to start anew. On another occasion, he cradles a man who has been seriously injured in an accident and helps him stop panicking, until a passerby comes to help. The angels can hear what people think, and we hear them to, in whispered, disjointed interior monologues. It’s jarring at first, but I quickly fell into the film’s trance; I write a lot about how much empathy matters in movies to me, and one of the great notes of this film’s empathy is how it finds meaning in the profoundly understandable stresses of day to day life. Every day Damiel and Cassiel encounter countless people experiencing every range of emotion, and there’s now way for them to truly interact for better or for worse. All they can do is empathize.
Damiel is clearly interested in one particular human, though: a woman named Marion, who works as a trapeze artist at a local, two-bit circus. Marion is French, and we get only hints about her life. We sense that angels lack a god’s omnipotence, that they can only glean from a person what that person thinks. Marion is troubled but not despairing. She enjoys working for the circus and is upset and lost when she hears that it is being forced to shut down early for the year. She goes back to her trailer and listens to music. Damiel follows her and observes her. He has clearly fallen in love with her, but Ganz injects an innocence into Damiel’s longing. He knows all about humanity but he is limited in what he is able to feel. His feelings more Marion are most acutely clear in a scene when she spins on a rope high above the ground for a paltry audience of schoolchildren. She is overcome with the joy of performing, and Damiel is absolutely mesmerized.
That scene is one of many demonstrations of the film’s constant humanism. We know the angels have witnessed the highs and lows of humanity, but they- and Wenders- remain enthralled by the simple joys and sorrows of life. Peter Falk plays himself in a key (and splendid) role. He is on set, working on a film, and we hear his thoughts as he sketches the portrait of an old woman working as an extra, or as he meticulously picks out a hat that he thinks suits his character. Later, Falk reveals that he can sense Damiel’s presence, and has a one-way conversation with the angel about the pleasures of having a smoke and a coffee, or of rubbing your hands together to get them warm.
This is not a film with much of a plot. It observes the characters as the angels observe humanity, patiently and with a touch of warmth and sympathy. In the film’s second act, Damiel makes a decision that would be a huge plot turn in a more conventional film, one that could easily segue into melodrama. I won’t spoil it, on the off chance you’re both reading this review and haven’t yet seen the film. But like all the rest of the movie, it leads more to observation and conversation than melodrama.
Wings of Desire is a quiet film, gentle and warm. I watched it last night and enjoyed it, but it has stayed with me these last 24 hours like a good cup of tea. It is lovely in its simplicity. It makes no attempts to make grand statements about humanity. I imagine anyone who observed people at an individual level from the dawn of time would be unable to make blanket statements about all people, after all.
It made me wonder, would I consider trading places with one of these angels, with the rules they have? I don’t think so; I’m with Peter Falk on this one, that the joys and pleasures of living are worth mortality, but I think Wim Wenders also makes the case that there is value to the sort of wisdom gained by the angels, that by knowing and observing and trying hard understand, we can also gain greater appreciation for the small pleasures that come our way. In a film full of monologues about the meaning of our individual lives, the longest, and the last, comes from Marion. Having worked through her a fog of loneliness and indecision, she makes a declaration of love:
Loneliness means at last I am whole. Now I can say it because today I am finally lonely. No more coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if destiny exists, but decision does exist. Decide. Now we are the times. Not only the whole city, but the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are more than just two. We personify something…
Marion’s monologue is, I think, as thrilling an ending as this movie could have had; a declarative moment of clarity, for one’s own happiness, in a film that observes how often we find ourselves lost in hazes of indecision, about characters devoted to a cause that renders the concept of “happiness” irrelevant in the face of the passage of ages.
As bad as 2016 was for so many, it was also a nightmare for me on a personal level. I’m still grappling with the deaths of my mom and grandmother. The despair I fell into caused huge setbacks for my mental health. Simply put, there’s been sadness to spare.
But my mom wouldn’t have that. She did not allow hopelessness. That was ironclad with her. Never did she waver from her belief that there was always hope, no matter how bad the situation. Her personal mantra, one I hear her say countless times in my life, was “lean into gratitude”. Clinging to that without her here to help has been my greatest test. I waver constantly. My family helps. My friends help. And, well, so does art.
An odd irony of this year: as grief sapped my will and desire to consume art, especially films, at my usual speed, I did all the more appreciate the art that I did love. I wanted badly to write a summary of my favorite films of this year, as I did last year, but simply put: I haven’t seen enough. Instead, I’m going to write about art across the spectrum that lifted me in my darkest hours, that gave me hope when I was most in need of it. These are the artists and works of art of 2016 that I’m grateful for.
Coloring Book, by Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book came out almost exactly two weeks after my mom died. Listening to it gave me the first real sense of joy I’d felt since that day, from Chance breaking into laughter with gratitude for how good his life is in record’s first few seconds to the literal come to Jesus moment in the final track as he sings with a chorus, over and over again “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”
Never had I needed to hear words like that so badly. For a solid month, I listened to Coloring Book in its entirety, every day. It’s one of the most joyful, earnestly spiritual albums I’ve ever heard, and I’m so grateful that Chance the Rapper dropped it when he did.
In June, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I watched the Tony Awards. In my younger, theatre kid days, the Tonys were required viewing. They were an invaluable way of keeping up with the year’s notable Broadway productions. As I got older, I sort of fell out of keeping up with theatre and the Tonys fell to the wayside as well. But last year, I was caught with my whole family in the spell of Hamilton, the megahit musical that needs no more explanation from me. So we were all gathered in the living room to watch the Tonys, to watch a show we loved win awards, and to see the cast perform. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Hamilton swept the night, and their performance of “Yorktown” (one of my favorite tracks from the cast album) lived up to expectations. But the highlight of the evening for me had nothing to do with Hamilton. A tiny woman from London with a voice clear and powerful as a winter wind completely stole the show. Performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo completely captivated my living room and, given the huge ovation she received, everyone watching her live. From the first note she sang I was breathless with astonishment and by the end of her performance there were tears falling down my face. God bless live theatre. No other medium so easily allows one person to level crowds with sheer talent and artistry.
The Invitation, dir. by Karyn Kusama
I didn’t see many movies this year. I’m going to go out of my way to see more in 2017, but I simply lacked the energy most days. One thing no one tells you about grief: it completely drains you of energy, physically and emotionally. But I did see one film in 2016 that is going to stay with me for a long time, and that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s no mistake that it’s a movie that understands that point about grief. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in a long time, a work that shows the emotional scope possible within a genre that is so often unfairly dismissed as trivial. As someone with anxiety and who has spent most of this year grappling with grief, The Invitation was a rare film in any genre to tackle both of those topics head on, with honesty and deftness. It builds to a climax that is genuinely chilling, all the more so because the horror is the logical endgame to this story, and not simply an excuse for wanton bloodletting. The Invitation isn’t simply a scary film, it’s a heartbreaking one.
From a design standpoint, I could endlessly praise Overwatch to high heavens for how thoroughly it eschews everything about the first person shooter genre that I’d grown weary of. It’s so lively, so colorful, so unabashedly goofy and fun. But beyond all that, Overwatch was the perfect distraction for me in a year when I needed one badly. No matter how bad my anxiety would get, no matter how sad I might be on a given day, Overwatch was there to give me a burst of color, a quick endorphin rush, something I could count on to lift my spirits in a year that was so relentlessly trying.
I played all of Inside in one late night rush, finishing at about 5 in the morning. Although there were many points where I thought time to go to sleep, I couldn’t pull away. Developers Playdead took the basic mechanics of their first game, Limbo and refined them beautifully. They also crafted a haunting world in which the game takes place. Inside is a thrilling, disturbing, altogether astonishing experience. Its gameplay is fluid and intuitive; the puzzles are ingeniously designed so that we understand immediately what we need to do without breaking the narrative flow. The story is wordless and captivating, saying all it needs to say with what we can see. Inside is an unforgettable experience, the sort of game that will inspire future developers to continue to seek increasingly creative ways to use games to tell original, beautiful stories.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
I wanted to keep this post to things released in 2016, but I’m making an exception for this extraordinary book, which was published in August 2015. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel as original as this one, which takes place in one of the most extraordinarily realized worlds that I’ve read in fiction. The Stillness (the planet the novel takes place in) is a chaotic wilderness dotted with cities of astonishing architectural detail that Jenisin describes vividly while never slowing down its propulsive narrative. Once every few centuries, the world is struck by apocalyptic events called Seasons, which are prevented by beings called Orogenes, who have the power to control the earth at a tectonic level. The Fifth Season is inspiring reading, and I can’t wait to begin on its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which came out this August.
“8 (circle)”, by Bon Iver
22, A Million is a splendid album, but sometimes the power of one song is worth highlighting. Bon Iver has long been one of my go to musicians for meditation and calm. No matter the period of my life, there seems to be something in their music that reaches into my soul and connects at a level that is almost spiritual. This plaintive, gorgeous song aches with uncertainty, sadness, and a desire of hope. It is the most simply beautiful song I heard this year.
As I said, I didn’t see many films this year. But I felt like I couldn’t miss this one. There is something still pure and healing about the animated musical to me. The way it transports me back to my childhood, when nothing could be more enchanting than a darkened theatre and a Disney movie. Moana delivered as much as I hoped it would, which is to say that its music made me cheerful, its story made me smile, and I got easily caught up in the sweep of it. Its simplicity was a welcome relief from the more madcap plotting of recent Disney films, whose plots often seem to be playing catchup to their worldbuilding. Moana didn’t reinvent the Disney musical, but as the holidays approached and I prepared for a series of firsts without my mom and grandmother, watching something simple and joyful with my siblings was what I needed. For that, I think I’ll always be particularly grateful for this film.