Wrote this a while ago but someone never got around to posting it. With If Beale Street Could Talk, the first cinematic adaptation of a published James Baldwin story, currently gracing the screen, I decided now was as good a time as any to share.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is revelatory precisely because of how little it reveals, or at least how little it reveals through the traditional pathways of film documentary revelation. By this I mean two things: what it reveals about its subjects, race in America and James Baldwin (in that order), is polyphonic, and the pathways of revelation – the film’s way of revealing – are ever-elusive, fragmented, drawn as much to the fissures in documentary form as its capacity to crystallize interpretation. To explain by example, the most immediately striking aspect of Peck’s film is how it rescinds the offer to rely on institutionalized experts, arbiters of truth, synchronized appraisals of Baldwin’s value, and professorial orifices scrubbed relatively clean of the stench of action in the trenches. I Am Not Your Negro is disobedient to these edicts, more interested in Baldwin’s and its own diffuse uncertainties than in crystallizing a portrait of a man who the film appraises as more of a bricolage, even an exquisite corpse: a collection of restless energies and stylistic vulgarities pulled from many sources and idioms, a life as vigorously asymmetrical as the film’s presentation of that life.
Or, at times, its seeming willful refusal to present. Baldwin’s most disobedient gesture, and the film’s greatest consecration of Baldwin (by way of a refusal to consecrate), is how he seems to evaporate from his own picture, to resist whatever form the film might impose upon him, to retain his opacity even to the point of severe frustration. In its disownership of conventional documentary form, in fact, I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t even seem to be consciously presenting Baldwin as an enigma in the studied, now-all-too-common modernist-biography sense of willfully presenting a self-alienated human who doesn’t even know themselves or who has replaced their soul with a pictorial approximation of some concept, e.g. “celebrity”. No, the vaporous Baldwin disowns even that psychological solution for the problem of depicting character; it never sacrifices Baldwin’s prickliness to calcify him as a “concept,” nor does it necormance an image of a man who self-consciously transfigured himself into one. Sometimes even resisting edification entirely, the film fingers the subject of James Baldwin quite like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial “jagged grain”. Continue reading
Although easy to theorize, to analyze as a thesis mounted and then proven over 90 minutes, David Lowery’s new film is more infernal, more rule-breaking, than any such academic beast. It’s a sensualist masterpiece best understood not in reference to its prescriptive logic, but to its descriptive tangibles (or intangibles): as a canvas of embryonic moods and free-floating shudders, improvised shivers and pregnant, primal feelings costumed as both a horror film and a poetically impenetrable work of high-art theory. And a film as sinister as it is sad, and often for the same reason. Like all of Lowery’s films – including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon – it cannot be solved or deciphered, its holes plugged up by meaning or answered with solutions that tie it down.
But any argument that this film is completely impenetrable is already unnecessarily enrobing itself in the itself-impregnable logic of theory. Although rife with mediations on circular time and existential belonging (a bookshelf provides key insights, and the film doesn’t always do itself favors in its more self-consciously intellectual back-half), A Ghost Story is primarily a tone-poem, not an argument to unpack but a gloriously beguiling, metaphysical menace that seems to exist in perpetual detour from its answer, yet finds truth in its own errancy. This ghost story is a liquid-solid work, slow-going but always in drift, hard-hitting but diaphanous, thematically united but essentially resistant to completion. Continue reading
As a rule, Spike Lee’s best films come in three registers: the fiery and rhapsodic poetry of a Baptist minister (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chi-Raq), a self-conscious, ostensibly oneiric cool (25th Hour) that sometimes belies a deep reservoir of anxiety about the weight of its own images for “blackness” (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), and somewhere not so much in the middle as feverishly and flagrantly ricocheting between polar opposites, pinching the unpinchable and thinking of cinema not as a tonal spectrum but a whirligig that shuttles us along many often disagreeing moral and modal registers. Lee isn’t as irreconcilably wacky as John Boorman, for Heaven’s sakes. But his best films, and his worst, are somewhat freakishly committed to their own energies, curious about their own tangents, cinema-crazed and hyper-literate at once, and above all essentially (self and socially) disruptive.
Frequently, this sense of disruption is to their detriment. But even at their worst, Lee’s films seldom want for inspiration, and we can certainly trust a Spike Lee joint to either light the building on fire, silently smolder with sustained intensity, or generally make you loopy, severing step A from B and hop-skipping to C in a gleefully personal, argumentative idiom that eschews reason for slantwise verve and often finds its own arrhythmic logic in the latter. Which is why BlacKkKlansman, the first universally appreciated Lee film in at least 15 years, is such a wonky, lopsided achievement, a truly peculiar success and failure in equal measure and often for all the same reasons. Continue reading
Whatever else is true of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, it is above all flagrantly, abominably obvious that Boots Riley has never written a screenplay or directed a feature film in his life, and I for one hope that increased opportunity does not dull his wiliest and most flamboyantly idiosyncratic cinematic proclivities, vexations, and turnabouts. In this case at least, the refinement of cinematic diction so often sought within conventional education would only channel his wild mane of cinema into a too-coiffed package. Although his film Sorry to Bother You obviously travels in the wake of last year’s Get Out, inverting many of its metaphors, Sorry to Bother You replaces Jordan Peele’s conspicuously practiced and eminently skillful horror show, specifically sculpted for comparatively clear readings, with a spasm of wonderfully unpracticed cinematic bliss.
All of this is to say: at a deeply foundational level, Sorry to Bother You is obviously the work of a filmmaker who is not a schooled or learned but a born, intuitive filmmaker. Or rather, perhaps not a born filmmaker, or a man who knows a single thing about making a film. But if Sorry to Bother You is any indication, his education in the formal arts or in screenplay-structuring is an apocalypse we can all do without: Sorry to Bother You is idiomatic in the best sense, a truly undomesticated work that disfigures any Screenwriter’s Guide with the improvisational gusto and sketch-like ambition of a social-issue jukebox. It has one finger firmly on our social pulse, and another nine flying madly in many directions. I know not Riley’s career until this point, but if his music is as deliciously harebrained as his cinema, that will not remain true for long. His persona with a pen is a withering wit crossed with a sober observer, like a double helix of Jonathan Swift and Buster Keaton, but behind the camera, he’s a hair-raising hare with a mischievous smirk courtesy of Bugs Bunny. Stylistically, morally, and narratively promiscuous, and all with a gleeful indifference to logic, his film throws caution to the wind and twists any reality principle to oblivion even as he wrings dry a film which imaginatively attunes to everyday tensions and paradoxes that propagate in daily society. Continue reading
If the “set-piece” as a concept ultimately drives the latest in the surprisingly durable and, more surprisingly, quite malleable Mission Impossible genre, Mission Impossible: Fallout unfortunately is not quite as dexterous with its operatic set-pieces as its predecessor Rogue Nation, entry five in the franchise, nor as deliciously droll in its elastic, Looney Tunes momentum as Ghost Protocol, number four and two films before this new 2018 offering. That fourth film in the franchise legitimized the whole affair after fifteen years of mucking about in Cruise’s dimming star power and alternately playing sub-Bond and super-XXX, much as I do admire Brian De Palma’s truly egomaniacal, knotty inversions of Cold War memory lane in the franchise originator. If Brad Bird’s entry was a course-correct, allowing the franchise to finally stand tall only by turning its legs to string, asking it to wobble around in a spontaneous, comic fracas, the fifth entry, the first from Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie, gilded it in a peculiar mixture of avant-garde classicism. Each set-piece recalibrates the film, ricocheting it around to many alternate registers while simultaneously assimilating ballet, underwater dance, and pop-art alike into its combustible cocktail. Continue reading
Armando Iannucci achieves new heights (lows?) of disquieting nihilism in the murderously vicious The Death of Stalin, his much-delayed follow-up to his decade-defining, Bush-era-capping In The Loop. That earlier film was a trans-national, Pond-hopping comedy of (foul)manners, both exceedingly timely and essentially timeless in 2009. (Visualizing Western politics as a dangerously out-of-control carousel, it remains the quintessential Iraq War film, and, to my mind, the sharpest commentary on the Bush era). In 2018, The Death of Stalin may be no less timely in an era of sudden Russian ascension, even if the particular brand of relatively gun-on-its-sleeve totalitarianism depicted and mocked in The Death of Stalin is less than truly applicable to either modern Russia or America’s brand of oppression which compresses classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and totalitarianism into a 21st century stew. Still, while making fun of this relatively “explicit” brand of totalitarianism is not the most cutting in 2018, The Death of Stalin is obviously a scorching, bracing, extremely obstreperous film nonetheless. And for all its gravid, ghoulish potency, Iannucci’s film is also a sage refuge for cinematic comedy, not only almost unmanageably uproarious but piquant in its observations on the depths of human selfishness and the intercommunal pandemonium of the political sphere at its foulest. Continue reading
Steven Spielberg’s The Post, furiously filmed and edited while the director’s Ready Player One was in the waiting room, lives and dies on the dialectic tension between its directors’ childlike enthusiasm for the newspaper industry and his curiosity for the realpolitik which both deflates enlivens the dream of an easy or natural democracy. Spielberg, even the liberal, is essentially defensive about democracy’s ability to surpass itself. He introduces himself into the strand of Enlightenment thought which approaches democracy’s thought-project with tempered appreciation, exposing its limits and its strengths and ultimately emphasizing the social contest and progressivism which stems from within the democratic liberal tradition rather than outside it.
Which is to say: Spielberg’s cinematic project is possibly at the expense of more radical forms of social critique which might come from outside the pall of mainstream democracy or ask more complicated questions about the nature of freedom of the press and its capacity for social change. The Post is Oscarbait entertainment, meaning that it does not seriously engage with the meaning or nature of freedom within liberalism or the US, nor does it expose the contradictions of democracy which oppress and liberate often in tandem. But the vivaciousness with which Spielberg believes in his framework inflates democracy all the more so, at least momentarily convincing even the most stalwart of skeptics that there is, however mediated and however staggered and however imperiled and however complicit with oppression, some sense in which the US political and social framework exposes the open wounds that fester within it. Continue reading