For Whom The Zell Tolls or: I Ren/I Ren So Far A-Née

Academy Awards 2020

[Published on Substack, Letterboxd and The Completist]

The Oscars are a good excuse to throw a party. (If you come by, I plan on cooking a ham.) That's about the extent of my regard for this annual orgy of self-congratulation — though I'd love it if Banderas won and Zell de Jour didn't. To that end, pain will surely outweigh glory.

A good time, still, to play catch-up with several of the nominees (or not, in one case) that I have some first-time or additional thoughts about.

I'm already on the negative review record with the three Js: Joker, Judy (aka Scary Stories to Zell in the Dark) and Jojo Rabbit. The latter, one of the worst movies ever made, is well on its way to a Grolsch People's Choice-portended upset, and I'm sure it will take gold just to spite me. Rest assured that my two (!) FYC screeners will be getting gleeful, Silence-like foot stompings throughout the ceremony.

I also previously published a very positive take on The Irishman, a movie that only grows in my estimation. There's an essay to be written on the F/X work alone and how the unconvincing nature of some of it (and not just the digital shellac; see the Dick Tracy-esque prosthetics on Dominick Lombardozzi as "Fat Tony" Salerno) illuminates the themes of regret and loss. Of realizing, even if only subconsciously, that you've lived your life in exactly the wrong way. Photorealism is the party line when it comes to special effects. I much prefer it when discernible seams are a large part of the intent.

Of Marriage Story I can only say that it's the less disagreeable production in which a major emotional beat is constructed around Scarlett Johansson tying a child's shoelaces. Justin Chang is quite right that the other film in which this happens (okay, it's Jojo Rabbit — which, again, is one of the worst movies ever made) hoists the resultant heart-tugging to a Rivette-on-Kapo grade of offense. Baumbach and I don't get along. Nor do I take well to the Brothers Safdie, whose Uncut Gems I found monotonous and empty-headed. When it received zero nods from the Academy, I savored the snub.

Gems plays like a cruel extension of the scene in the siblings's previous film, Good Time, when Barkhad Abdi is forced to guzzle an LSD-infused soda. That was the moment when the Robert Pattinson character's at-any-cost sadism became the filmmakers's, and they've quadruple-downed on that here. My Bill Wattersonian level of indifference to organized sports (which informs a lot of Gems's frenetically paced plot), as well as my severe allergy to Adam Sandler and all that he stands for, certainly doesn't help matters. I suppose time will tell if I'm being Manny Farber to the modern-day Jerry Lewis, though Farber's harsh thoughts about Jer' from 1951 are wholly applicable to the man behind Billy Madison and ilk: “…sub-adolescent, masochistic mugging. Lewis has parlayed his apish physiognomy, rickety body, frenzied lack of coordination, paralyzing brashness, and limitless capacity for self-degradation into a gold mine for himself….” In Uncut Gems, Sandler is doing the same lazy, puerile shtick as always, but with the patina of respectability that comes from hitching your horse to the wagon of the anarchic auteur(s) of the moment.

To mine eyes, the Safdies are just the Duplasses on amphetamines, and they're well on their way to becoming as irritatingly ubiquitous. In Uncut Gems, they write racially-charged checks they can't cash, paralleling modes of exploitation in Africa (an Ethiopian mine built on slave labor) and America (a circa-2012 NBA that similarly utilizes black bodies for profit) in the transparently "subtle" ways of artists calling attention to the thing they're most certainly not calling attention to. They also subscribe to a turned-to-11 intensity — in terms of both performance and audio-visual interplay — that aligns with the current vogue for movies as cudgel. I guess being so constantly pummeled reminds us that we feel something? This is the kind of sensory cinematic bludgeoning from which I recoil; no wonder the "moment of silence" in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood felt like such a tonic.

The only scene in Uncut Gems that has anything approaching what I'd call a personal touch is the Passover seder overseen by Judd Hirsch, and featuring much of the main cast. For a few fleeting minutes in this two-hour-plus migraine-in-motion, the Safdies draw on experience as opposed to influence. Then it's right on back to what critic Sean Burns aptly termed "James Toback Karaoke." The film's sins are legion, though high on my personal list of offenses is the Brothers's hiring of one of the great modern DPs, Darius Khondji, to do what effectively amounts to a Sean Price Williams impersonation.

1917 is a Roger Deakins highlight reel. There are worse things. (Say, the 'Wegers Banquet that is Judy. Or Richard Jewell: Please, people, believe the face that Clint showed you at the 2012 RNC. That's all he is now.) I'm also one of those weirdos who prefers the goofily didactic Bong Joo-hoo of Snowpiercer to the slickly venomous pop-perfectionist of Parasite. Little Women, meanwhile, presumes familiarity with its source text to a damaging degree. The emotions land, if they do at all, by proxy, or through the exhaustive (and exhausting) efforts of its admittedly winning cast. Quite evidently a passion project for Greta Gerwig, though her radical reordering of the narrative (I recall someone somewhere deemed it a Christopher Nolanization) acts as an additional neuter on the strived-for poignance. Ford v Ferrari. Uh. It's not Knight and Day? Low bar, admittedly, but then the most pleasure I've ever gotten from James Mangold is the name of his 2006 MoMA retrospective, "A Work in Progress." Aren't we all?

I did a little Letterboxd-ing about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood during the summer, over three entries of varying length. I'd intended to say more, though I ultimately stepped back, not wanting to poke some hornet's nests that felt like they were forming. Risking some stings, here's what I'd add now to sum up:

I like the Lancer scenes with their Mulholland Drive-esque sense of play, though they lack the depths of insight and empathy that David Lynch and Naomi Watts achieved in MD's spectacular audition sequence. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have a magnetic rapport that I still think lacks the homosocial qualities of the truly deep male friendships. The queerest straight moment in QT's filmography remains the lipstick traces left on Robert Forster's mouth by Pam Grier in Jackie Brown.

I don't have any problem with Margot Robbie's mostly silent Sharon Tate or Mike Moh's exaggeratedly arrogant Bruce Lee as they're the two characters through whom I feel QT's gobsmacked cinephilic affection, the very same quality that made me fall in love with everything from Reservoir Dogs through Death Proof. I swooned here during the brief scene in which Lee trains Tate in some basic martial arts on the set of The Wrecking Crew. (The only time that happened.) I also wish Tarantino had gone full Vivre Sa Vie and had Robbie-as-Tate weep while watching "herself" onscreen. That would have been a nice bit of multifaceted dissonance.

Unfortunately, most of OUATIH is "Big Statement" Quentin. It's a retrogressive commentary on the dream factory he feels has been lost to time. (Let it friggin' die, say I. Or at least see Hollywood for what it is, has been, and likely always will be: horrors and delights enduringly imbalanced and intertwined.) Much more dubiously, the film is a narcissistic rumination on what place QT and his Self-Aware Exploitationist ethos have in our current moment. The scene in the car between Pitt and Margaret Qualley where the former rebuffs the latter's advances is key. QT is fully into the contrived moralistic thrust of their interaction ("of course I'm not gonna fuck a barefoot, nubile teenager"), even though Pitt's Cliff comes off as exactly the kind of guy who would take such libidinous liberties.

Given where the story goes, it would be a great test of QT's artistry to put us fully with a character whose ethics are blatantly compromised. But keeping Cliff's transgressions (e.g. the Robert Wagner-esque maybe-killing of his wife) in the whispery shadows actually has the effect of diminishing him. His two dimensions are burnished with a virile glow that is alluring yet insubstantial. I found this especially irritating during the distended Spahn Ranch scene, which aims for a sun-dappled, slow-burn sense of horror, but instead dissipates into hippie- and youth-disparaging tedium, the apparently ageless Pitt an effective onscreen embodiment of "Old Man Yells at Cloud." OUATIH is a movie that portrays past and present wrongdoers/wrongdoings (all the way down to the meta casting of recently accused and convicted assaulter Emile Hirsch), then proceeds to right all the bad vibes in the glibbest way possible. "None of this is as awful as the Mansons!" QT is saying. "And let's fix that while we're at it."

Ugh, that climax. Innumerable least-favorite elements, chief among them the flamethrower that, in one fell, fiery swoop, both alludes to and elides Vietnam. (QT here seems to be aping the De Palma of Carrie and Casualties of War, sans the searing sociopolitical consciousness.) Equally offensive is the pearly gates finale in which Robert Richardson's camera assumes a heavenly POV as DiCaprio's Rick Dalton meets Tate and the other souls he and Cliff have "rescued" from their bloody real-world fates. I suppose one could read the distance QT keeps from Dalton and Tate's first encounter as an aesthetic choice that emphasizes the moment's fairy-tale falseness. To me, it feels like Tarantino is reveling in his egomaniacal ability, via the power of movies, to play God. To avoid responsibility by pretending to take it. That's some bullshit. And I hope time is unkind to his smug, shallow and crude film.

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