In July two of my favorite movie bloggers- Anna at Film Grimoire and Rob at Movierob– ran a blogathon centered around movies that are 90 or fewer minutes long. I contributed a review of Millennium Actress. You can find all the essays here.
“What does the key open?”
“The most important thing there is.”
Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.
Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.
Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.
Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.
If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.
If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.
With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissecting a moment from our past, trying to explore it from every angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.
*for any Hawaiian or Alaskan readers I might have
At several times during the 2 hour and 57 minute runtime of Hard to Be a God, I considered putting the rest of the film off until tomorrow. It’s one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It is gross in that word’s most primal sense. It swims beneath layers of mud, feces, piss, spit, and mucus. It is an endurance test of vile imagery.
Yet every time I paused it, I realized that I had to finish it, in one sitting. Beneath the scum and shit is one of the most astonishing nightmare visions I’ve ever seen in a film. If you could get a glimpse of a horrifying, totally alien civilization and do so from the safety of your home, behind a screen… well, wouldn’t you?
Maybe not. Perhaps if the world is so dire, so grotesque, so utterly without redemption, that might not be something you want to see. And that is completely understandable. But one of the joys of watching movies for me is when a director gives us a completely unfettered vision of a world that can only exist in film. Hard to Be a God is one of the most complete, astonishing visions that you’ll see in any movie.
Hard to Be a God was the final film by Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. It took him six years to film and he died before it was was finally released. The plot is both straightforward and beside the point. It takes place on an alien world called Arkanar. It resembles Earth, and is populated by a very human-like species. The main difference? They are about 800 years behind Earth, still in their own Medieval period. A group of scientists journeyed there to observe the unfolding of what they hoped would be Arkanar’s renaissance. They blended in with the populace and pledged to not interfere with any of the planet’s sociopolitical developments.
The renaissance never came. The population of Arkanar turned on its intellectuals and artists, executing them en masse. Now stuck on a planet that is stuck, willingly, in its own Dark Ages, we meet our protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik). He goes by the title Don Rumata. He rules a small fiefdom, aided by the tall tale that he is the descendant of a god. The film is essentially a day in his life. It is an aimless day. He ostensibly has a goal: to find a doctor who has been kidnapped by a rival baron. But Rumata wanders from place to place in a haze of disillusioned stupor. The wandering becomes the point of the film. Plot points do emerge, but they do so with little warning or sense of an arc. Only near the end, when an act of violence becomes a personal matter for Rumata, does he become energized.
Yarmolnik’s performance is one of remarkable endurance; not only does he lead us on a tour of this hellscape, but he so convincingly plays a man worn to total indifference from having been trapped here. The fetid squalor is unrelenting. Everything drips. Everything. Everyone is filthy. The sound effects consist heavily of the sort of human noises that sound editors normally try to edit out. We hear every grunt, sniffle, cough, and squelch. The worst squelches are the mysterious ones.
My description of this film might seem like an attempt to make people not see it. That is not the case. I’m trying to be clear: Hard to Be a God is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It made me nauseous. It might simply bore some to tears. But it is not simply a self-indulgent film. The disconnect from any plot made sense to me early on. It helps us more quickly feel submerged in German’s world, and what a world he has created here. It contains horrors that would make Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel proud. Nothing here is vile for the sake of it. German grosses us out to immerse us in his creation, not to repel us. Some might still be repelled. I almost was. But there is something so fascinating about this film. If I could take a tour of the world within Bosch painting with the assurance that I would face no danger, I would do so in a heartbeat. Hard to be a God is as close as I’ll get to that.
Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is a perfect song. It’s one of my desert island songs. On its surface it’s a simple appeal of love. But between Ben E. King’s aching vocals and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s spare, gorgeous production, it always feels so grand to me. It feels like the end of something. Like someone deeply frightened calling out for help. It’s the one song that captures the feeling of total trust and love of someone else.
It’s the perfect choice for the title of this film.
Stand By Me might be Rob Reiner’s best film. He had a hell of a run in the 1980s. From 1984 though 1989, he made This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. While the last film on that list hasn’t aged well for me (its view on friendships between men and woman is one of the worst bits of pop philosophy to go mainstream), the first three all have something rare and wonderful in common. They are all great films that also seem to stand alone and, when you watch them, feel nostalgic and yet completely original. This is Spinal Tap was a breakthrough in the mockumentary genre, in being both hysterically funny and yet completely convincing. The Princess Bride is an ode to children’s fantasy and a devilish subversion. It mines the genre for jokes so well that it might be the most quotable film every made, and yet its heart is completely earnest. And Stand By Me is a coming-of-age film that feels like no other. Its characters are not the film’s attempt to encapsulate the adolescent experience. They aren’t metaphors. They are simply four kids trying to find a dead body.
Rob Reiner is a sentimental director, but he has a knack for dramatic pacing and timing. He can make the most of a good script, identifying and amplifying its strengths. The script Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon wrote for Stand By Me is often perfect. Their ear for dialogue, for the sort of competitive vulgarity that 12-year-olds can speak in, is spot on. The performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell never falter. The story told here is not a universal one; most people watching it today did not grow up in small-town Oregon in the 1950s. But the feeling of summer ending, of clinging to moments before they get away and you’ll never get them back? That is something anyone who has been 12 in the summer can relate to. It’s a deeply confusing age. The characters in Stand By Me grapple with issues that overwhelm them. Gordie (Wheaton) lost his older brother. Chris (Phoenix) is poor and his family is scorned by the neighbors. Teddy (Feldman) was horrifically abused by his father, who is now in a mental hospital. Verne (O’Connell), bless him, seems to have the most stable family life, but he did lose his jar of pennies.
Reiner, Evans, and Gideon resist the urge to be on the nose about the growing up these characters will do in this movie. They hear that a boy’s dead body is somewhere, a day’s hike away. They want to find the body and be heroes. That contrast between grave seriousness and childlike zeal continually comes up throughout the movie. At one point Chris and Teddy nearly fight after Chris stops Teddy from a dangerous, almost suicidal stunt. Both are grappling with powerful emotions that they can’t easily express, even if they wanted to. Then Chris calls a truce: a low-five. A child’s ritual ends the conflict. For now, at least.
The contrast between childish ritual and the looming feelings of adolescence is a far more elegant way of telling this story than filling it to the brim with metaphor. These characters are still children. Children who are aware that growing up is impending, but they aren’t there yet. They aren’t going to suddenly be “men” by the end of the movie. They’re still going to be children. Watching the film again for the first time since I was a teenager, I was struck by how worried I was about them seeing the dead body. It’s not a coming-of-age moment, but a collective loss of innocence.
I was also more aware of the film’s concessions to commercial expectations. Richard Dreyfuss’s narration is so distracting that at times I wished I could turn it off. The occasional comic insight is dwarfed by how often the narration intrudes on a quiet moment, telling us things we already know, or ruining moments of lovely ambiguity with on the nose nudging.
The gang of teenagers led by Kiefer Sutherland are also unnecessary. They are so comically one-dimensional that their artifice becomes apparent: they exist solely to create a tense standoff at the end, a scene that is completely at odds with the quiet soulfulness of the rest of the movie.
But those are quibbles. Stand By Me is one of those films that expresses a seemingly ineffable feeling; the of desperation of the last few weeks of summer, and the intense loneliness of feeling things without knowing how to talk about them. It’s about the steadfast bonds of young friendship, and all the rituals and rules and confidences that make friendships during childhood take on an importance that is almost inevitably lost with maturity. Bonds are stronger when you are staring into a vast unknown together, and there are few times with more unknowns that your last summer before you’re a teenager.
Stand By Me is one of the finest coming-of-age films, because it never seems to be about growing up. It understands that there is no narrative of growing up when you’re 12. Life comes fast at all times when you’re 12. But damn if it doesn’t happen faster in the summer.
At first my biggest complaint about Stranger Things is that I almost wish it had come out closer to Halloween. Three years ago Over the Garden Wall came out in September and the timing, coupled with that show’s sense of nostalgia, made it feel like I was watching something that was already an Autumn tradition.
But I think Summer was right for this show. There is something about summer that has a spooky vibe all its own. Perhaps its the coupling of freedom from school and lazy days with nothing to do but dream whatever one is compelled to dream that makes trees seem more sinister and full moons like beacons for things unthinkable.
Reviews of Stranger Things tend to talk about its nostalgia for the 1980s up front, so I’m going to veer away from that; my frame of reference is a bit too late to appreciate all the homages and nods, though there are undoubtedly many (enough for me to pick up on quite a few). Besides, nostalgia alone has never once been the difference between a good and a bad show, and Stranger Things is a very good one.
Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are deft storytellers. They begin with a story that could be a one-shot fable: a young boy named Will goes missing in the woods in his small hometown in Indiana. From there, they mix in elements both familiar and fresh, creating a cocktail of plotlines that feels like it truly ought to be muddled. A monosyllabic girl with a buzzcut and the number 11 tattooed to her forearm appears out of nowhere. A government agent with white hair pursues her, flanked by a neverending stream of lackeys. A strange creature keeps popping up in shadows and on the edges of photographs. There’s even a John Hughes nod with a romantic triangle involving three teenagers. That plot is pretty disposable, though I credit the Duffers for resolving it in a way that is as surprising as it is entertaining.
Much credit goes to the cast. Every major character is splendidly cast. Good chemistry can bring perfunctory scenes to life. Consider the opening of the show, when we see a group of four boys, all about 11 or 12, playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is an establishing scene, yes, but the dialogue sounds perfectly authentic and the young actors bring these characters to life. Right away we get a sense of their personalities, the emotional weights and balances in this group. A scene that was likely purely expository in the script becomes a window into the bond these characters have; a bond that is crucial for the show to make the leap from silly entertainment into realm of pop delight that it reaches. It’s not enough to simply get to know these characters. We need to feel like they know each other.
This group of friends who form the show’s heart. Will (Noah Schnapp) is quiet and kind-hearted. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the Elliot to the show’s E.T., his reserved nerdiness masking a deep well of resolve. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlan) is righteous to a fault, but the sort of person who you know from the start will rise to the occasion when needed. Dustin (Gaten Mararazzo) is the jolliest, most unabashedly nerdy of the group. Like any good summer tale, all of them will get a turn in the sun. Dustin’s moment to shine was the most entertaining for me, as he talks a science teacher and mentor into helping MacGyver a sensory deprivation tank when they need one (and yes, they very need one, very badly).
After that first scene, Will goes missing in the woods. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, God it’s good to see her again) becomes convinced that his disappearance is not as simple as it seems. However, the town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is refreshingly aware of his surroundings. Far from a stock bureaucrat, Hopper searches relentlessly for answers until he finds them, no matter where that search takes him. He begins to see the shape of the patterns that Joyce insists are there. Part of that pattern is the emergence of a monosyllabic girl (Millie Brown) with a buzzcut and a trail of bodies in her wake. The girl, nicknamed Eleven because the number is tattooed on her arm, eventually runs into Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as they launch their own search for Will.
Ryder has always been a whirlwind of an actress, balancing between scenery chewing and a sort of heightened brilliance. She gets to play a very short role here, and at times I think she was the only actress alive who could pull this material off. Joyce is a difficult character. We need to believe in her completely while understanding why everyone else thinks she’s losing her mind.
But my highest praise goes to Millie Brown. Eleven could so easily have become a cross between a MacGuffin and a walking Deus Ex Machina. But time and time again Brown, often speaking only a handful of words at a time, makes her into the show’s most fascinating character. To watch her perform is to understand how much an actor is responsible for a character being “shrouded in mystery”. We don’t need her to talk much to see the confusion and horror and power and fleeting moments of joy and discovery in Eleven’s face throughout the show.
The Duffers never lose control of the story. The plot never feels bloated. One storyline might spin its wheels for an episode or two, but no plot is ignored or left to flounder entirely in cliche. Even the show’s most generally disposable plot- a love triangle involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the town’s stock charming bad boy Steve (Joe Keery)- takes a turn right when I was ready to zip through it that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Much of Stranger Things alludes to its inspirations, but the Duffers are not here simply to praise their idols. This is their story and they tell it well. It is much more than a barrage of homages. Its roots are not just in movies and books, but in hot summer nights, when the shadows of trees are tall and the dark seems full of mystery and possibility.
I’ve been gone too long, readers. If you’ve read my blog at all in the last six months you’ll understand why. But I can’t let grief derail me. Not from movies, which have been so important to me for so long. My mom would want me to keep watching, keep writing, keep doing what I love. So I’m trying out a new feature to get the writing juices flowing again.
I’ve always felt a strong connection between certain movies and the seasons. I’ll step outside on a warm summer day and it will feel exactly how it feels when I watch Stand by Me or Floating Weeds. Winter can summon the warm nostalgia of Little Women or the ice-encased paranoia of The Thing. Certain movies encapsulate the seasons for me. As the seasons progress, I’m going to write reviews of movies that feel, well, how it feels at that moment.
It’s all in the opening. Whisper of the Heart kicks off with one of the warmest, and gentlest of opening sequences. A shot of the Tokyo skyline at night. A chorus of children singing John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads. A slow pan into one neighborhood, zeroing in on the film’s protagonist, 14-year old Shizuku, as she exits a store. Finally, following her home. It’s one of my favorite openings to any movie. I’ve talked before about the brilliance of this sequence. (As I said, I write about it a lot) This time, I just want to bask in its coziness.
It’s not just a cozy opening; it’s a welcoming, gentle, perfect one. We feel like we’re home within minutes. Whatever happens next in the film, we’re home.
Whisper of the Heart eschews most of the tropes of the “that one summer” genre that we expect. There’s romance, yes, but it’s not the center of the film’s plot. The center of the plot, really, is how Shizuku realizes how quickly time moves when you get older. The movie’s sense of time closing, especially toward the end of summer vacation, is one of its canniest insights. Shizuku perpetually has something pressing on her mind, whether it’s cramming for exams, figuring out her blossoming romance with Seiji (the boy who shares her exact taste in books), or simply finding the time to enjoy the sunshine. As summer draws to a close, you always feel like you’ve been wasting it.
Yes, Whisper of the Heart transitions out of summer and into the school year, but this is always a summer movie for me. It’s gentle, always warm, almost always true. Every time I watch it, I am transported. Not because its events resemble much of anything in my life. But because that chill that runs down my spine is a time machine to how the end of summer felt when I was 14. It’s about warm sunbeams that feel like heaven and scorching hot days that feel like forever. It’s about a particular feeling that no other movie has captured: how summer really winds down for a teenager who is looking warily at the future for the first time. In reality, there is almost never That One Summer, the one with all the answers, adventures, and “coming of age”. There is, however, the anxiety of coming days that will come whether you’re ready or not. And there are warm nights that wrap you up and comfort you like a blanket, and views of the city that make you forget everything for a moment, and books that are the only thing that seem to freeze the inexorable march of time.
I don’t sleep easily anymore. It’s 3:45 am as I write this sentence. About 20 minutes ago I decided that if I wasn’t going to sleep easily tonight I might as well try watching The World of Tomorrow, a 16-minute animated short that I kept seeing pop up on my Netflix recommendations. I can safely say that it was a good decision. This is a rapid reaction to a very short movie, but I don’t think 2015 produced a better movie than this one.
The World of Tomorrow was created in its entirety by animator Don Hertzfeldt. His style is spare, as always. He has always used his stick-figures to make films that deep dive into absurdity. The cute style of his characters seem at odds with the black humor of his shorts. Here, however, there’s plenty of sincerity in the designs. The World of Tomorrow tells the story of two Emilys- one a young girl, the other her adult clone visiting from hundreds of years in the future. Clone Emily is continuing a tradition that repeats itself every generation: in the future, people with the means cheat death by preserving their memories and identities and passing them on to clones. She explains to her toddler of an ancestor, calmly and with little emotion, how the world will change.
The World of Tomorrow is most obviously a commentary on the inevitable digitization of everything. But its approach is deep and humanistic; this isn’t a screed against technology but a clear-eyed look into how things might be, for better or for worse, because despite its inevitability human beings fear death most of all.
To delve into the journey young and older Emily go on would be to deprive you of this film’s riches. There is a bounty packed into these 16 minutes. There is some of Hertzfeldt’s signature gallows humor, but he also celebrates childhood innocence, and imagination. The voice of young Emily is Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s niece, and the film at times whirls around what sounds like totally unprompted dialogue, building around a child’s world without an ounce of cynicism.
And Julia Pott, as clone Emily, spends most of the film speaking in functional, clinical monotone. But what a performance she gives. With the slightest alterations in her voice and timing she shifts from incredibly funny to heartbreaking.
The World of Tomorrow likely won’t help me get to sleep. It’s 4:15 am and my mind is buzzing. I don’t know if watching The World of Tomorrow at any other time would have led to the same impact. As I said, I don’t sleep easily. Since my grandmother died, sleep became difficult. Since my mom died, there are nights when it simply doesn’t happen. My mind buzzes with worry, with anxiety, with the total fog of grief.
But right now I feel good. I’m sitting at my computer, alone in the wee hours of the mourning, writing a record of myself. I imagine Hertzfeldt has done the same over the years, cataloguing his sadness with a paper and pencil. The World of Tomorrow about that feeling, about the deepest and most ineffable human needs. My mind buzzes right now with this film’s warmth, humanity, imagination, its understanding of sadness, and its love of the human spirit. I’m glad, for once, I that I’m awake at this hour.
Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns you somehow.
I thought I understood this song before. I had no idea.
Sufjan Stevens released “Carrie and Lowell” last year and I went through the usual cycles of album appreciation. Repeated listens, changing rankings of favorite songs, long considerations of where it ranked in his repertoire, and finally moving on, returning to it once in a while but trying not to listen to it ad nauseum.
Carrie and Lowell feels new now, because before now I could not begin to understand it. The above lyrics used to strike me as poetic. Now I realize: like the best poetry, it is a description of real feeling, not a metaphor. I always assumed grief would be a single swing into despair. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve been through. Since my mom died, some days go by and I realize I haven’t felt terrible and that feels triumphant. Car rides, dinner, and the routine of finding my mom every morning to greet her, to seek her out to say goodnight, are when I most notice she’s gone. That, and every single time I look forward to something and realize that I’m not sharing it with her.
Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.
There are no stages of grief. If I didn’t know that was a myth already my experiences would have confirmed that anyway. Clearly delineated stages are far too neat to resemble life. At times “The Only Thing” is the only song- not just on this album, but ever sung- that feels true. But the disorienting haze of grief inevitably dissipates. I move on. And I will return to it, and then move on again. Grief has no stages. It’s not a path, but a whirlpool.
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch
My mom died four weeks ago today. “Surrounded by her family” is how the obituary reported it. Obituaries typically attempt to paint death as something resembling idyllic. But the truth is, the last few hours of my mom’s life will haunt me forever. There is no softening that trauma; there is only not allowing it to paralyze me. The most vivid and difficult part of grieving for me has been realizing that there are no true comforts when someone you love dies. The best I can do is move on, and to be there for my family.
There’s another Sufjan Stevens song I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot lately. It has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with memory. The horror of the memories of my mom’s death are countered only by memories of her life. “The Only Thing” is the truth of grief. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is the truth of memory.
Yes, it’s about children at a summer camp and first love and heartbreaking nostalgia and it has nothing to do with anything in my life. In the past I’ve always loved it for its sheer beauty.
But it’s the one song right now that truly comforts me. It is about feelings and moments and fragments of time long ago, so vividly rendered that I can place myself in them. And that is what I cling to. Someday the dark cloud, still so thick after four weeks, will dissipate enough that I will feel again the sunlight on the days I walked with my mom to the Dairy Queen in San Diego as a child, the evenings spent listening to her stories of growing up in the Philippines, of sharing our love of stories and telling them as I followed her footsteps into journalism school. Someday I will tell those stories myself, and if I can find a shred of the clarity and honesty that this song has, I can make sure my mom’s story continues to be told. Perhaps not today. Four weeks later, the sadness still sits heavily. The trauma, the horror, are still raw. But someday. Never trust anyone who says words don’t matter. Words have the ability to bring memories to life like nothing else. And my memories of my mom are what I have to hold onto right now. Someday, I will do them justice. That is my source of light.