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.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

John Carpenter seems to be the most prominent living horror director, even if he hasn’t made a film since 2010. His presence in the modern landscape of the genre is mostly due to his legacy, and the permanent mark he’s left behind with his films, from classics like Halloween, which defined the slasher genre, to cult films that have marked generations like They Liveand Big Trouble in Little China. His presence is unavoidable on the landscape of horror to this day, from his constant touring in support of his fascinating musical abilities, to his more active association with films associated with his brand, like the new Halloween, a continuation of the original, directed by David Gordon Green, for which he served as executive producer and score composer.

Although his fourth theatrical outing, The Fog, was commercially successful (more due to the very low budget it had), it was far from being critically well-received at the time, and even if it warranted a lackluster remake in 2005, it still remained one of the least discussed films in Carpenter’s filmography until recently. Now, thanks to a restoration done by Studiocanal in 4K and a re-release through Rialto Pictures, there’s a way to re-experience or enjoy for the first time on a big screen the Lovecraft-inspired and Stephen King-flavored horrors that are still completely owned by Carpenter.

The film opens, fittingly, with an old man telling kids some ghost stories, which fits the overall tone of the film, which follows the events of the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay, a coastal town in California. In the same way as the old man tells these old tales, we are introduced to a voice that seems to narrate the life of the town, DJ Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau), who has a radio station at the lighthouse that she also commands. Her tone, verging on eroticism while at the same time assured of her position of power (she’s “above” the town, as she’s on the lighthouse, and at the same time separated from it), accompanies various characters that will eventually come together under the threat of the fog.

And it’s the DJ, from her vantage point, who is the first to see the threat of the fog, as it approaches a nearby ship, just as midnight strikes. Through clever parallel editing, all of it linked through her voice, we see many supernatural events happen around the town, from the discovery of an old diary written by one of the original settlers of Antonio Bay, to the shattering of all the windows on a truck, all of which builds up to showing what’s behind the bright fog that envelops the coast: vengeful ghosts that a hundred years ago were killed by the founders of the town, and not only that, were robbed from the gold they carried on their ship, which eventually was used to build the church and the rest of the structure of the village.

So, the film becomes more an exploration on the subject of moral living, which resonated with me in ways that I wouldn’t suspect. What’s our responsibility to our ancestors, colonizers who killed or displaced people that originally lived there? Is there any moral dwelling possible in colonized territory? Now, of course, in the story of The Fog, the vengeful ghosts weren’t actually living in the territory of Antonio Bay, but it’s as if it were the cause. We see the next night a massive event in which the founders are honored on the 100th anniversary, and knowing what we already know, we can feel the rage of these ghosts as they maim and kill and gut people, maybe not strictly related to the founders, but it’s their way of exacting revenge on a town that doesn’t know on which crimes it was founded, and even celebrates those who committed the murders.

Visually, the film is a treat, and even with the low budget it manages to create a chilling atmosphere that goes beyond the idea of just pumping lots of fog onto exteriors and interiors. There’s a blue tone that, I assume, the new restoration will hinge on to bring forward the spooky imagery of the shadowy figures that in a brute manner slit throats, decapitate heads and dismember bodies. Much like in Halloween, Carpenter conjures a sense of dread out of the emptiness of the frame, devoid of human figures–we often just see empty streets, houses and the church from outside, slowly being surrounded by the bright fog, just as we see the sea, flowing, coming and going. We only hear the tones of Carpenter’s magnificent score, as if it were the fog itself, creeping into the frame, slowly building toward the final confrontation.

What one appreciates more about a film like The Fog is that although it is only 85 minutes long, it seems to live beyond the opening crawl and its final frame, the town exists beyond this horrifying event, and what helps build that is a sense of place, which is built through the landscape shots as well as the assured nature of the performances, where we seem to know everyone from the moment they open their mouths and that’s because they know each other beforehand. The only progression the film has, as it barely even has what one could call a character arc, is with the two characters that meet each other on the midnight of the anniversary, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins.

Beyond their travels, in which they first find each other (him, a truck driver, her, a hitchhiker looking for a ride) and then find out what’s happening in the town, the film is pretty much free-form, as it seems to be made out of patches of lived life in town, a special day that is, but one that is given its sense of normalcy through the voice of the DJ that keeps on commenting through the night, through the attacks and even is confronted with the ghosts themselves as she is both at a point where she can give information to others, but at the same time is alone and isolated, incapable of defending herself. It’s that lived-in quality what gives the supernatural a child-like wonder that makes it one of the most fascinating horror films of the 1980s.