Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021)

Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the San Fernando Valley of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: it’s about California in the early 20th century. The Master is another prequel, about mid-century Californian metaphysics. Magnolia moved the timeline into the 90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former is more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love, at least for now.

Alana Haim plays a rudderless 25 year old named Alana who, when working for a company that shoots high school yearbook photos, is spotted by 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, looking eerily like his father), a precocious go-getter who has just about grown out of being a cute child actor. He falls for her instantly and walks right up and tells her so, beginning the first of several lengthy walk and talk camera movements that form the spine of Anderson’s approach to the film. Alana and Gary are always moving laterally, sometimes walking, often running. All the kids in the movie love to run—they have to, they’re in a hurry. Alana, sensibly, rebuffs Gary’s romantic advances, but the two have an obvious connection and the two strike up a friendship. 

The rest of the film follows their various career schemes while deftly negotiating the fact that these two characters are obviously in love but really should not be. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have gone on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the 70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. Alana and Gary meet vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allow to discuss openly. 

There’s Bradley Cooper’s gross John Peters, who hits on every woman he sees and is the definition of an entitled Hollywood hanger-on (a hairdresser and a producer, the real John Peters was a child actor as well). There’s Sean Penn’s aging star actor who reads with the starstruck Alana during an audition, takes her out for drinks (at Gary’s favorite restaurant “The Tail of the Cock”), then loses interest as he and an old director buddy (Tom Waits) recreate a scene from one of their Korean War movies (Penn’s character is named Jack Holden, and is apparently based on William Holden). There’s John Michael Higgins, who plays a the owner of Gary’s other favorite restaurant, who hires Gary’s mother’s PR firm to advertise the place, a Japanese place called The Mikado. Higgins and his Japanese wife listen to the proposed ad (which does everything it can to downplay the food and up the Orientalist appeal), and Higgins “translates” to his wife by adopting a grotesque caricature of a Japanese accent (think Mickey Rooney’s ghastly Breakfast at Tiffany’s performance). He does the same thing in a later scene, now with a different wife (they’re apparently interchangeable for him) and admits that he doesn’t speak Japanese. The performance is too absurd to be based in anything but reality. Finally there’s Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs, a city council member whose campaign for mayor Alana joins as a volunteer. Wachs is a closeted gay man (he came out in 1999, after decades of accomplished service). It’s Alana’s realization of Wachs’s sexuality, and the pain having to hide it causes him and his partner, that sends her back to Gary. Because theirs is a world when all the cultural norms are completely wrong: men as debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man has to call in a beard to a restaurant because his political enemies might find out who he’s really dining with and why. Because in such a world, when you find a true friend, you really have to stick with them.

Or, taken another way, you can see it as a story of integration. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish (one agent keeps coming back to Alana’s “Jewish nose”, a potential boyfriend is kicked out of the house for refusing to give the blessing at dinner because he’s an atheist) and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds (inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s father) or pinball machines or making campaign commercials. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything (contrast with failed boyfriend Lance, the atheist). Most of all he believes in Alana. This differentiates him from Higgins’s racist restauranteur. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it (like that rich asshole John Peters). He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, the movie ends while there’s still hope.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (Robert Weide, 2021)

In recent years I’ve taken to reading literary biographies and autobiographical books about writing by famous and important authors. I’m in the middle of big books about Chaucer and Dickens and Emerson, I’ve begun but made little headway into ones about James Joyce and William Wordsworth, the other day I started a new one about Stan Lee. I’ve read two books about Neil Young and more books about Bob Dylan than I care to count. I’ve read a book about George Eliot that’s also about what it’s like to read George Eliot, and I’ve read books about writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury and John McPhee and Robert Caro that are more about being Le Guin and Bradbury and McPhee and Caro than they are about anything else. I don’t know why I do this, surely my time could be better spent reading the actual books these writers wrote than reading about their lives which are, in the end, more or less ordinary lives following traditional patterns of joy and tragedy, success and failure, work and betrayal and loss. I suppose what I’m looking for is an explanation as to why anyone bothers to write anything at all when they could be reading, or listening to music, or watching a movie, or god forbid, talking to other human beings.

Near the end of Robert Weide’s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, we hear archival footage of the author explaining that people are terribly lonely because we’ve evolved to be social creatures with large extended families, networks of people we can interact with on a daily basis, but modern society has isolated us into ever smaller nuclear units. He exhorts his audience to create a larger network for themselves (they don’t even have to be good people, they just have to be there). I suppose that’s what’s so addictive about social media, it creates the illusion of interaction in the same way a narcotic can create the illusion of happiness. We read a book or watch a movie or hear a song or see a funny ten second video clip and share it with the internet and, when someone responds, however meaningless the interaction, for a brief moment we get the rush of feeling like we’re not alone in the universe. I suppose that’s what all writing, all creating really is anyway, and the best artists are the ones that are most fully able to express their own lonely humanity, such that when we read their work we can say, “ah, here’s a person who is just as screwed up as I am.”

I suspect this accounts for much of the enduring appeal of Kurt Vonnegut, and Weide’s film is admirable in its ability to foreground the essential humanity of such an iconic figure. It comes out in the way Vonnegut’s family and friends talk about him, in the home video footage Weide has unearthed, and in the many speeches and interview clips of the writer himself. The old footage is especially poignant—I don’t know that I’ve ever been so moved by home movies in an otherwise pretty standard biographical documentary before. I don’t think there’s anything special about the footage itself, or its editing, but rather the stories around it, the way his children talk about their father, the way he talks about his sister, or his mother, that make it almost unbearably bittersweet. 

I don’t know Vonnegut well. I’ve read some essays and speeches, but none of his novels. I did read his short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, but I don’t remember much about it. I read on my kindle every night before falling asleep, which helps me get to sleep easier but also means that much of what I read comes in a state of only semi-consciousness, so I often remember very little of the actual content, but nonetheless can sometimes develop a strong emotional connection to the material. I remember the feeling of reading the book more than the book itself. Monkey House is one of my favorite late night reads (others include Train Dreams, Big Sur, The Dubliners, Annals of a Former World, and the first half of Against the Day). But after watching this film, I think I understand his work a little better. At least, I know the structure of his final novel, Timequake, because Weide somewhat brazenly adopts it for the structure of his own film, at once a typical biographical documentary and also a film about the difficult (but not impossible) process of making a biographical documentary. I should probably read more. In the daylight.

Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021) and Venom: Let There be Carnage (Andy Serkis, 2021)

The Eternals stand in a line.

I went out to the mall last Friday to watch a self-made double feature of superhero movies at the AMC. First up was Eternals, the latest in the on-going saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by the Oscar-certified Chloé Zhao, whose Nomadland and The Rider are notable for their location work, focus on small details of performance and process in everyday lives, and twilight-gray color palettes, she was maybe the worst possible choice to adapt the work of four-color genius/cosmic weirdo Jack Kirby, whose 1970s series of the same name was his third (at least) attempt at creating a new kind history myth of the universe, after the initial creation of the Marvel Universe and then his New Gods series at DC. The comic book Eternals is a massive epic, encompassing the whole history of humanity and the wider universe beyond, marked by Kirby’s densely packed and luridly colored panels and splash pages. Zhao’s Eternals, on the other hand, is very very beige.

A group of super-powered beings are sent to the Earth 7,000 years ago to defend humanity from big CGI lizard dogs who show up sometimes and start eating everyone. They each have special powers and colored suits (all the colors of the rainbow: blue-grey, green-grey, red-grey, white-grey, etc). Most of the powers involve yellow lines of CGI (why is it always yellow?) that allow them to punch stuff really hard or set things on fire with their eyes or have a sword. One of the guys looks exactly like the evil Super-man from a Zack Snyder movie. He’s not the leader, but everyone acts like he is because he can fly and he’s a handsome white guy. The actual leader is Salma Hayek, who can heal people, but she’s dies early on and that’s what sets the plot in motion. 

The new leader is Gemma Chan who plays Sersi. She’s dating Jon Snow, and her ex is the flying guy, Ikaris, played by Robb Stark. This is funny because those two actors were on the same show with a main character also named Cersei and they also look exactly alike: they can’t get away from Circes (like Odysseus I suppose) and also they’re totally interchangeable in every way. Sersi tracks down all the other Eternals, who have spread out across the globe for the last 500 years and don’t have phones or internet or any way to communicate other than showing up in person at each other’s house or place of business. They argue about whether or not they should do something (most MCU properties are about people with superpowers arguing about whether they should do anything at all), and Zhao intercuts flashbacks of what they’ve all been up to for all of recorded history (mostly stuff like brainwashing indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest or taking thousands of years to realize that sometimes humans do bad things with technology). One of them, Kingo, is a Bollywood star. We’re introduced to him filming a musical number that seems to be conceived as an homage to a much more vibrant cinema, but literally pales in comparison and might be in slow motion. More action happens, secrets are revealed, there’s a big showdown on a beach, Kingo wanders off and everyone forgets about him, Ikaris flies way too close to the sun.

It’s baffling how low-energy Eternals is. It looks like a film made by people who work in an office. Zhao’s intimate approach is swallowed up by the demands of the epic story and Disney house style, and the result isn’t satisfying on either a personally expressive or corporate synergy level. It’s a marked contrast to the next movie I saw, Venom: Let There be Carnage, the second film about the alien symbiote that possesses Tom Hardy and tries to eat people and talks in a funny voice. The villain is played by Woody Harrelson in a disastrous red wig, a serial killer who accidentally becomes a host of a different, much meaner symbiote named Carnage. Woody and Carnage break his old girlfriend out of superpower jail (she breaks stuff by screaming) and go on a Natural Born Killers style rampage, and only Venom can stop them.

Like the first Venom, Let There be Carnage is crude and tasteless and very funny, with more physical comedy than all 20+ MCU films put together. Deeply black and red, in both humor and visual scheme, it flies along in seemingly half the running time of Eternals. If in Zhao’s film, everyone looks like clockwatchers, in Carnage, everyone involved appears to be having a tremendous time. Great Actress Michelle Williams returns as Hardy’s estranged love interest for some wide-eyed shenanigans—she plays the straight-man girlfriend role, but with an energy that demonstrates that she wouldn’t mind chomping some heads off either. Naomie Harris dusts off her Pirates of the Caribbean performance and chews up the screen with aplomb, every bit a match for real-life lunatic Harrelson. Motion capture actor Andy Serkis takes over as director, and keeps things rolling delightfully free of backstory or moral lessons, moving from one frenetic action sequence to the next with only quick breathers for oddball asides like a sequence where Venom hangs out in a club, or one where Hardy explains Don Quixote to a pair of chickens named “Sonny” and “Cher”. An Eternals/Carnage double feature is a textbook example of the white elephant/termite distinction in comic book movies. Or at least as close as we are likely to get, considering that even Carnage is a product of huge corporations (Sony and Disney have split rights to the characters), and is now directly connected to the larger MCU thanks to its cliffhanger ending. It’s possible that we’re going to see more of this split in the future, with more diversity of filmmaking and storytelling approaches within the larger corporate umbrella. As the MCU enters its second generation of characters and actors, we can only hope that our content overlords allow us a taste of the wild breadth of the medium their movies and TV shows are based on.