Karnan (Mari Selvaraj, 2021)

After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.

Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.

Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.

There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.

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.

The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Paul Schrader is one the cinema’s all-time great dumb guys. The Card Counter features Oscar Isaac as another of his God’s Lonely Men, an ex-con gambler who meets up with a kid and tries to set him on the right path in life. It’s a noir hero conceit: Isaac is a man who did something wrong, once, with a topical flair: the wrong thing he did is torture people at Abu Ghraib. He seems to see in the kid, a young man with an extremely dumb plan played by Tye Sheridan, a chance to atone for his crimes, to put some good back into the world. Though, given the narration he records in his Bressonian journal (Paul Schrader is nothing if not a man who has watched both Diary of a Country Priest AND Pickpocket), he has his doubts whether or not his sins can ever really be expiated. Also he hangs around in casino bars with Tiffany Haddish, who likes him because he’s Oscar Isaac and she’s a woman in a Paul Schrader movie.

Much of the film plays like a variation on Rain Man or The Color of Money, Isaac and Sheridan road tripping from casino to casino, the elder teaching the younger valuable lessons about life while trying to dissuade him from attempting to murder Isaac’s old torture instructor, Willem Dafoe. These scenes, and the gambling bits, are fun and Isaac plays them beautifully, all determinedly sad introversion. The film starts and gets its title from the way he cheats at blackjack, but he spends most of the movie playing poker. Which might be a comment about how his interacting with other people is a fundamental disruption of the balanced and static way he’s rebuilt his life after prison. Or it might just be that someone liked the title, but realized that poker is more cinematic. It doesn’t really matter.

None of it really matters, because like so many Schrader heroes before him, Isaac (and Sheridan) just can’t stop themselves from being dumb. No one in film history has been so obsessed with guys who just cannot chill out and let things go. Schrader’s heroes can’t quit because they see themselves as the center of the universe: their masochistic tortures are rooted in a fundamental narcissism. And Schrader can’t resist depicting them as the doomed romantic heroes they believe themselves to be. So a movie like The Card Counter is filled with wonderful images and sequences (Haddish and Isaac in a park of light; the gray-sheeted emptiness of Isaac’s modified hotel rooms; the horrifyingly woozy distortions of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks) that add up to mere aggrandizement of men who choose to do bad things simply because they refuse not to do them. But Schrader learned from Bresson that if you add just enough inexplicable beauty to your blank, foolish world, some nut will come along and find transcendence in it.

Malignant (James Wan, 2021)

I met James Wan once. He came to the Metro for a pre-release screening of Saw some 15-20 years ago, whenever it was that movie came out. He seemed like a nice enough guy, not all the filmmakers who came through the Metro in my time there did. So, having seen him in person, I can be sure he is, in fact, real. I’m not so sure about anything else related to the movie Malignant. It claims to have been written by people, performed by actors, and filmed in places. But I do have my doubts.

I thought a lot about fakeness when watching Malignant, and about how it’s not exactly the same as phoniness. None of the environments in the movie look real, and certainly not much of it was filmed in Seattle, where its story is set. There’s a series of establishing shots midway through the movie, aerial footage of the city skyline during a rainstorm. Except it’s very obviously not raining in the footage: it’s been added digitally. Way too much of it in fact. Hollywood usually gets Seattle rain wrong, of course. Torrential downpours are rare here–it’s more that we have a constant light drizzle and overcast skies. But this isn’t just that amount of rain, it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem to interact at all with the environment that makes it look so fake. Similarly, there’s very little effort put toward making the city seem like an actual city. Sure, there are establishing shots and location name drops and even a little bit of the Seattle Underground Tour (another thing which I know is real, because I’ve been on it), but like the rain with the land, the locations don’t appear to interact with the actors or the story in any real way.

Of course, the Underground at least does interact with it metaphorically, with the (historically correct) idea that the current city was built on top of the damaged remnants of the original Seattle, which still exists, dark and forgotten, below the city’s downtown areas. What makes Malignant more than just a bad movie is that its fakery is real, whereas the fakery of something like an MCU action sequence is phony. Phony is fake that is also a lie. Malignant‘s heroine’s life (at least parts of it for sure, but I’d suggest that maybe a lot else besides, include the gorgeous house that looks like no one has ever lived in it and the mysterious haunted castle that was supposedly a hospital are fake too) is revealed to be a simulation, induced by her subconscious (or evil twin or whatever) to pacify her while it runs around doing all kinds of awful things (many of which are literally physically impossible, but not metaphorically, and look fake, but still plausible, and are therefore not phony). Her id, if you will, is released by a physical trauma (her abusive husband–reminder that head injuries are always serious and should be treated as such, especially if they’re bleeding: check for concussion, insist that your doctor order a CT scan!), but it was there all along. A fake world terrorized by a backwards monster running around creating chaos and distorting reality with reckless abandon. It’s the true story of America in the 21st century.

Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, 2021)

Cry Macho is not a great movie, but Clint Eastwood is a great director and a great star, one of the few filmmakers left in mainstream Hollywood allowed to make his own films whatever way he wants to make them and that is more than enough to make it a good movie. Eastwood plays a wizened ranch hand who gets sent to Mexico to bring back his boss Dwight Yoakum’s 13 year old son. Not much about this early part of the film makes sense: the world around the kid is more fake than the baby in American Sniper, and the mother is one of Eastwood’s more hysterically misogynistic portraits of a woman, incoherent and slutty and drunk and cruel and also somehow rich and powerful. She’s of course contrasted with the maternal Marta who Clint and the kid get sidetracked with on the way home, a loving grandmother and excellent cook who always looks at this broken down old man with bright adoring eyes.

This section of the film, where Clint and the boy hide out from the cops in a dusty town that time forgot, seems to be Clint’s ideal place. He sleeps in a shrine, helps out the locals with their various animal troubles (apparently no one else in this rural community knows how to do anything with animals??), and is fed fine food by charming and attractive women. And honestly, it is a delight to see the man enjoying his eden. Who wouldn’t want it all? The idyll ends, of course as it must, and the two make their way back to the border, though not before being waylaid by some cops who think they’re running drugs. As one of them trashes Eastwood’s car (the third one he drives in the film, a delightful running gag), he keeps up a steady stream of muttered profanities about these “asshole, idiot, loser cops”, a reminder that Eastwood’s conservatism, whatever its faults, and there are many, has always been deeply anti-authoritarian.

They’re saved, of course, by the rooster that gives the film its title (“a cock named Macho”, Eastwood helpfully explains one of the films better jokes). This pullum ex machina is one of the more artful expressions of the film’s examination of masculinity, the primary theme of Eastwood’s career, especially in its later phase (an era that’s been going on for at least 30 years now). What does being a man mean for Clint Eastwood? Does it mean telling the cops to go to hell and poking your enemies in the eye and finding a woman to bring you coffee in the morning and avoiding the cheap ones who try to seduce you? Or is all that nonsense, made-up posturing that sad lonely people build up around themselves as a defense against the terrifying, incoherent world? The great thing about Clint Eastwood is that he honestly doesn’t know the difference.

Early in the film, on Eastwood’s journey into Mexico, he camps out rather than stay in a hotel, as any real cowboy would. The camera catches him bunking down for the night in the final moments of sunset, purple sky above deep black. We only see his silhouette, it’s too dark for anything but shadow, as he sinks down to the ground, below the horizon, a movie star merging with the earth.

The Seattle Screen Scene Top 100 Films of All-Time Project

When the new Sight & Sound poll came out in 2012, Mike and I each came up with hypothetical Top Tens of our own. For the next few years, we came up with an entirely new Top Ten on our podcast, The George Sanders Show, every year around Labor Day. The podcast has ended, but the project continues here at Seattle Screen Scene.

The idea was that we would keep doing this until the next poll comes out in 2022, by which time we would each have a Top 100 list (well, 98 for Mike because he had a couple of repeats one year). That time is now. Here are our final Top Tens of the project. At letterboxd you can find our complete individual lists, as well as our joint Top 198.

Here are Mike’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2021:

1. The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)

2. The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957)

3. Private Property (Leslie Stevens, 1960)

4. That Man from Rio (Philippe de Broca, 1964)

5. Uptight (Jules Dassin, 1968)

6. Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995)

7. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

8. Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)

9. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013)

10. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois, 2020)

And here are Sean’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2021:

1. Hellzapoppin’ (HC Potter, 1941)

2. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

3. Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)

4. Renaldo & Clara (Bob Dylan, 1978)

5. His Motorbike, Her Island (Obayashi Nobuhiko, 1986)

6. Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1990)

7. Ballet (Frederick Wiseman, 1995)

8. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)

9. Throw Down (Johnnie To, 2004)

10. Claire’s Camera (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)

The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021)

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yesterday. The 14th century poem of unknown authorship that was the inspiration for David Lowery’s latest A24 fantasy film. The film isn’t really an adaptation, or, God forbid, a “reimagining” but a translation of the older epic into contemporary form. Where the Gawain poet’s world is suffused with color, courtly ritual, subversive wit, and Christian allegory, Lowery’s demands stories about flawed but ultimately righteous heroes played by recognizable but not too-recognizable performers navigating a perplexing world of desaturated colors and shadowy interiors. Modern Hollywood filmmaking demands a degree of ambiguity, in that the movies must be able to support a variety of readings, either to satisfy the needs of word-of-mouth promotion (often by inspiring outrageous takes, pro and con, online) and repeat viewings and purchases (theatrical, home video and streaming), or avoid any kind of potential political minefields from right or left by promoting either a blandly vague centrism or by merely presenting a self-contradictory and incoherent text. This applies as much to blockbuster filmmaking (the Disney complex and the films of, say, Denis Villeneuve) as it does to the pseudo-indie films of fashionable distributor A24. All of which is to say that I quite like Lowery’s The Green Knight. It’s a great example of the kind of thing that it is. Look at it as a Daniel Lanois production, swampy and mysterious, with echoes of the old and weird but not quite the real thing. The poem, though, is the thing itself. Not the patina of weird but simply weirdness that sneaks in sideways through the margins of the seemingly familiar and ancient. The Basement Tapes to the film’s Time Out of Mind.

Fitting the medieval poem into a modern idiom requires a great many changes. Gawain in the poem is an upstanding young man who strictly follows the chivalric code of honor for almost the entire story. A somewhat pompous but well-liked figure who is hailed as a hero wherever he goes. Gawain in the film is a callow youth, inexperienced in war and not especially competent at questing. The people he meets on his journey condescend to him, when they aren’t outright stealing from him and leaving him for dead in the wilderness. While the text of many a classic epic expounds of the virtue and honor and ideality of its hero-figures, they tend to be exactly the kind of dumb boys Lowery and star Dev Patel present in the film (think Achilles and his petulance, Gilgamesh and his temper tantrums, the Pandava princes continually making bad deals with their evil brothers over and over in the Mahabharata). One suspects that the true flavor of these oral tradition poems is lost a bit on the page, though in Burton Raffel’s translation of The Green Knight one can almost hear the troubadour winking at the audience as he expounds on Gawain’s virtue.

If The Green Knight is, in many ways, a very silly poem, the scenario it depicts is rife with potential meanings. It is, as they say, a very rich text. A monstrous green giant shows up at King Arthur’s Christmas celebration and challenges any of his knights to trade a blow with him. Whatever he receives he will give back in exactly one year. Gawain, out of nobility in the poem and from a desire to prove himself in the film, accepts the challenge and promptly chops the guy’s head off, assuming, reasonably enough, that a dead man won’t be able to return the blow. But when the knight simply picks his head up and remounts his horse, telling Gawain he looks forward to their next meeting, the consequences of Gawain’s rash decision become clear. His doom is now ensured: in one year he will either lose his head or his honor.

In both versions of the story, Gawain lives it up for almost a year and then heads on his way. The poet tells us he had many adventures along the way, but skips them in order to get to the end, where the knight finds a remote castle run by a mysterious man and his wife. The film fills out the story with two adventures, one in which the hapless Gawain is robbed blind by commoners and another where he helps St. Winifred regain her severed head. The former reinforces Gawain’s youthful incompetence and strips him of the privileges of class and power. The second adds to the severed head motif, fuel for essays exploring the film’s depiction of mind/body duality, or the conflict between rationality and earthly spirituality, or what have you. Mostly it adds to the dreamy vibe that Lowery hopes to establish with his long pans and eerie music, as does a brief sequence where Gawain espies a group of indifferent giants walking among the clouds. The Gawain of the film is desperate, lost, confused, and alone, sentenced to death for reasons he doesn’t quite understand but is compelled to follow nonetheless. Where the poem Gawain is aspirational, the film Gawain is relatable. He is all of us.

The castle sequence is largely unchanged, though Lowery makes a modestly perplexing decision regarding the casting of his lead actress, Alicia Vikander in a dual role as Gawain’s peasant girlfriend back home and also the lady of the castle. The casting implies that the two are possibly the same woman, or that Gawain sees all women he’s attracted to the same, or that one or both of them are figments of his imagination. The poem gives the occupants of the castle a dual role as well, but as the Green Knight and Morgan Le Fay, witchy half-sister of King Arthur who enchanted her husband in order to spook Queen Guinevere and only by accident provided a quest for our hero. The film has a Morgan as well, but makes her Gawain’s mother (Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in both poem and film, but his mother is unnamed in the poem. In many sources, his mother is Morgause, Morgan’s sister, though it’s important to keep in mind that this was all made-up stuff interweaving centuries of multicultural traditions and not designed by a corporation with a staff designated to track continuity). In the film, Morgan conjures the Green Knight seemingly as a way for her son to accrue some credibility points as a knight in order to bolster his future claim to Arthur’s throne. One can then take the story as a tale of helicopter parenting gone horribly wrong when Gawain’s rash beheading sentences him to premature death, or conversely as a mother’s elaborate scheme to scare the hell out of her boy so that he shapes up at stops being such a hedonistic fail-son.

Either way, both film and poem end with Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight and his having to make a choice about how he will face death. Gawain has been given a belt he believes will save him from the demon’s axe (whether it’s actually magical or not is ambiguous in the text, left up to how the bard chooses to deliver it). In both versions of the story Gawain flinches, despite the belt, at the first swing, but ultimately removes the belt and chooses to face his death. In the film this is preceded by a long montage where Gawain imagines how his life would play out if he cheated death and ran away, what his future would be like knowing he has acted dishonorably. It conjures memories of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and equates Gawain’s dilemma to Jesus’s own: willingly submitting to your own execution in the belief that it will make a world a better place (through sacrificial redemption of humanity’s sins or simply by not having a crummy king on the throne of Camelot). The poem ends with the reveal that it was basically all a prank, that the Knight and Morgan were just goofing around, but Gawain has proven his great virtue and honor nonetheless. The film ends, as it must, more ambiguously.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (Sotozaki Haruo, 2020)

The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.

The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.

The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?

The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.