A Week In The Dark
With Oscar approaching, our intrepid deadbeat ducks into seven cinemas.
Fun, right? A different theater, a movie I haven’t seen, by myself, every day for a week.
I have the time, I love going to the movies, and I’m a willing guinea pig, since this marathon will be far less demanding than a weeklong meditation retreat, or a foreign language immersion.
There’s plenty of films to pick from, old and new, including a rarely shown documentary by Michelangelo Antonioni, Chung Kuo — Cina, playing for one week only at the Museum of Modern Art– running time three hours plus. Hmmm, maybe.
Scrutinizing this morning’s New York Times, I see a dozen possibilities, easily reachable by subway.
Could this get tiresome? A few months ago, I set out to hear live music for seven consecutive nights. After a few shows I threw in the towel. What am I, twenty? Thank god for matinees.
Before I can choose to start with either The Post or The Shape of Water, a wrinkle– an email from The Metrograph, with a slew of movies to consider:
Canners, a documentary about people who survive in New York City by redeeming bottles and cans; In Transit, about Amtrak’s Empire Builder train route; L’Enfant Secret, starring breathtaking actress Anne Wiazemsky, who I saw first a few months ago in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
Plus another French New Wave (now old hat) title, Le Rayon Vert, starring a fetching actress who, the website explains, created the character she portrays. Spontaneously? During shooting? Or did she work on the script with the director? The website doesn’t say.
There’s more: The Reagan Show, an all-archival footage film about America’s first delusional entertainment star-turned-supreme leader; Black Coal Thin Ice, which is already moving to the bottom of the list, since the description includes a severed hand on a factory conveyor belt.
This might be more work than I thought.
Day One — The Post
A solid start. The most convenient theater is hereby retired for the rest of the week, and I’m reminded of the New Rules of Moviegoing, especially at theaters that have hauled away the regular seats, bumped up the price, and installed enormous, reserved La-Z-Boy style loungers: buy your ticket ahead of time.
A noon show, on Third Avenue opposite Bloomingdale’s on a wintry day before New Year’s, was filled with old people (like myself, and even older). Feeling virtuous, I foolishly skipped popcorn or Junior Mints. Compounding this blunder, I blithely ordered an Americano at the concession stand for a few cents shy of $4. Swill.
A trailer for Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time made me want to reread the book, and Oprah in the cast list guarantees I will never, ever, see the movie. (Suffice it to say I worked in Chicago for her O-ness decades ago.) The Spielberg feature began, with a John Williams score and a bunch of people I recognized from TV shows surrounding Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
E.T. it’s not, but what is? It’s increasing strange to see events that I lived through (wasn’t this just a few years ago?) portrayed as A Critical Moment In American History, which is what The Post wants to be. I was tempted to read Peggy Noonan’s takedown of it in the Wall Street Journal before I left the house, but her column’s headline, “The Lies of ‘The Crown’ and ‘The Post’” did its job. This is a Hollywood picture, not a history lesson.
Washington was little, New York was big, the big city paper was Goliath, the paper with the lady publisher was David, Meryl Streep is Our Finest Actress, Tom Hanks is So Likeable, and it was impossible for me to get worked up about whether they’d both be tossed in the slammer for standing up to Nixon.
The evocation of 70’s counterculture, crowds of young extras gamely pretending to be outraged by the Vietnam War, a hippie chick in Hallowe’en quality flower power garb dropping off copies of the Pentagon Papers in the newsroom and peacing out, the cartoonish evocation of an era I myself stumbled through was annoying, but how could it be otherwise?
The Post felt like a TV show, which isn’t the dig it once was — there’s more challenging storytelling, with great acting and expensive art direction, on TV than ever before — but I left Cinemas 1 2 3 the same way I turn off the flatscreen at home, without a lot to think about.
A friend who works at the New York Times said her colleagues were in a snit about The Post until they actually saw how the movie portrayed their august Paper of Record. And it was quaint to see a period portrayed when journalism was taken seriously, and to be reminded that once upon a time the Supreme Court voted 6–3 to defend the First Amendment.
The lights came up and I lurched out into the snow, knowing that Americans hate politicians and journalists with comparable fervor, and hate the voters they disagree with more than ever before. It’s a downer to consider that the national outrage generated by the revelation that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon had all lied about the Vietnam War was possible, despite ones political leanings, before the Post-Truth period we now occupy.
Day Two — Call Me By Your Name
I may have seen the best movie of the project, on day two.
I can’t recall a film that better captures the solemn passion and disorienting confusion of one’s erotic/emotional awakening. Elio, a beautiful seventeen-year-old, idles around an idyllic Northern Italian estate, circa 1983, with his classics professor father and Italian-born, multilingual mother, joined by a twenty-something grad student, there to assist for six mid-summer weeks.
Enter handsome Armie Hammer as American Oliver. Too handsome. Elio, too beautiful. The professor and Oliver debate the Arabic underpinnings of the word “apricot–” or is it Greek? — making me afraid I’m too uneducated for this movie. Elio was already threatening my self-esteem, moving from English to French to Italian without working up a sweat, reading literature for fun, tinkling the piano and plucking the guitar like a shirtless prodigy, but somehow I forgave him for it all, and while I was at it, I forgave Hammer for being tall and handsome and confident.
Elio is an only child, with ridiculously smart, attractive parents, engaged in their own lives, and quietly devoted to their son, who they leave alone. The father encourages his son to have sex with the girlfriend, and when it’s apparent that his teenage boy is smitten with the tall American, he is gently encouraging. In what world is this possible? Ah yes, it’s a movie.
The Italian countryside is a co-star in the film, as attractive as either of the young men or Elio’s willing young girlfriend, who laughs prettily after Elio loses his virginity to her. This does not cause him to kill himself. There are no adults who have any problem with this sex stuff. Ah yes, it’s a movie.
I needn’t recount the plot any further; there are starry- and steely-eyed reviewers for that. I expected I’d enjoy the film, because the critics and my sweetie pie loved it (sweetie pie is more reliable, but the professionals provide reinforcement), but I’m always surprised when I love a movie as much as I did this one, because I’ve seen a lot of movies, and it should be harder to surprise and delight me.
The Union Square 14 is a multiplex that could be anywhere in America, save for the fact that it was showing a film about a sweet romance between two young men, across the street from Union Square, where Emma Goldman was arrested more than once more than a century ago for stirring up trouble on behalf of workers and women.
Waiting on line, a lady behind me volunteered the virtues of a miraculous card that allows her to see a movie a day each month for less than the ticket I’m buying. This is New York, for God’s sake — why are people talking to me? She seemed cogent, around my own age, and maybe like me unemployed or retired or mildly deranged but harmless. In any case, I’m going to Google that magical card…
After two days, I’m ready for the plunge: a three hour Italian documentary about China.
Day Three — Chung Kuo-Cina
I could make up anything to tell you about this film, because unlike the first two, you have not and will not see a forty-year-old, three and a half hour made-for-Italian TV documentary about China. C’mon now. The main reason I went is so I could tell you about it.
Around hour two, I considered bolting — who would know? — but I didn’t have anything better to do, plus everyone would notice as I was sitting in the front row, next to a guy who went to sleep about fifteen minutes into it. I took my own little nappy at some point, but I’m sure I didn’t miss anything crucial.
The Museum of Modern Art on New Year’s Day was jammed , so after an hour jostling with an international mob to read wall cards, I was ready for an Italian take on an already disappearing version of modern China.
Antonioni himself provides the spare, ironic subtitled narration. Luciano Berio gets credit for music, but I think Antonioni put him on the payroll to help out a fellow avant-gardist; everything I heard was diegetic, part of the captured reality, whether a song to spur on adorable children in open-bottom pants marching around classrooms, to tinny propaganda music pouring out of public loudspeakers, to the most touching, theater music that accompanied the people’s entertainment, first a puppet show, later a troupe of acrobats and jugglers.
Hours of faces. Of toddlers, soldiers, farmers, teachers, bashful women, unselfconscious men, appearing like characters out of central casting, nearly always in a crowd, pedaling a million bicycles, jammed into the backs of trucks, and outside of the cities, standing in shock at seeing European faces for the first time, pointing a movie camera at them no less. By their discomfort, it might just as well have been a rifle.
I scanned for a face that looked eighteen, my age when the film was shot. That young man would be as old as me today, and no doubt in good shape; everywhere the camera looked, it found people exercising: pre-teens, adults, old people, in the country, in the city. Prepubescent backbends like it was nothing.
Over shots of people in a restaurant, Antonioni admits that the food he wishes were Italian was actually invented here. “Even fettucini,” he says, sadly.
In the final hour, a feeling came over me as his camera explored Shanghai, as if I’d seen something like this before. I had — the movies of Fellini, with his lingering adoration of faces, his romance with expressions.
I took the subway home, and noticed a Chinese woman getting off at my stop with a MoMA shopping bag. No doubt she’d been in the theater with me, as had many other Chinese people, I’d noticed, some alive when the film was shot, some too young. They wanted to see where they came from, a place hidden from easy view when I was a teenager, hidden even to those whose parents and grandparents were born there.
Tomorrow, it’s back to non-reality.
Day Four — The Shape of Water
First let me own up to this — I haven’t been eating popcorn and candy, despite my promises. Without a companion to suggest, “what about popcorn?” it seems a little pathetic to be sitting alone in the dark, consuming a giant bag of peanut M&M’s. Plus, there was the traditional holiday overeating in the past week or two.
The Angelika, like the Film Forum or the Quad or the IFC Center, is a theater I’d risk going to without knowing what was playing. It’s one of the benefits I take for granted in New York City, where film nerds program movies I’d surely never see in most of America. And today, without a friend in tow, I can sit up front.
The Shape of Water stars one of my favorite English actors, Sally Hawkins, the chief draw for me, along with American Michael Shannon, who I just started noticing, years after he got on your radar, probably. I’m slow. It’s okay.
I’m glad this isn’t a review, and you should be, too. After yesterday’s time travel to the real 70’s in China, it was freaky to visit a magical realist version of the American 60’s, with prehistoric cathode ray tube TV’s showing “Mr. Ed” and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” The director, Guillermo del Toro, wasn’t old enough to have seen them, unless they were rerunning in Mexico where he grew up.
Who doesn’t like an adult fairy tale, replete with interspecies lovemaking? I have an unfortunate habit of testing reality when none is required, but I was able to resuspend disbelief each time it cropped up. (“Hey wait a minute — what about all that water pouring into the movie theater downstairs?”) When I got home I called my sister and told her she’d probably like it. “We never get anything too arty around here,” she reminded me.
I’ll go see whatever del Toro makes next. Logic and realism do not necessarily great cinema make — a love story where the good prevail, where love wins, and Mr. Ed’s on the TV, now that’s entertainment.
Day Five — Le Rayon Vert
Why Le Rayon Vert? I’m thinking of you, dear reader, mixing it up to keep you entertained. Furthermore, I’d been wanting to check out The Metrograph since it opened. It sends nicely designed, snappily written weekly emails, so a très French film by a très French director featuring a character created by the sultry Marie Rivière was intriguing.
I took the subway to Chinatown, and entered a newly built, smartly conceived, largely empty art house theater. In the New York afternoons around a holiday, when it’s arctic outside, you don’t have to worry about snagging a seat in a revival house. The people who work at such places remind me of the people who worked in record stores, back when there were record stores — cultural rebels tolerating squares who don’t get it, but whatever. The tall, bearded, surely well educated white fellow behind the ticket counter explained that at the hour of my arrival, no senior discount was needed, and while The Metrograph usually sold reserved seats, the place was deserted, so I “could pick whatever seat I want.” Grazie, Federico!
Art houses have less over-the-top trailers than the movie chains, but they can be equally challenging. Before today’s feature, I saw lithe Chinese women dancing, then a gaunt soldier surrounded by dead comrades, now a dancer spinning naked in the shower, now a soldier with braids jumping from a truck, all of it punctuated by vague graphic platitudes about “states of mind,” “boundlessness of vision,” “the vigor of emotion-“ wha? Umm, probably not going to see that one.
Eventually Le Rayon Vert began, and soon I was reminded why French New Wave Cinema is the butt of jokes by American troglodytes like myself. Bien sûr, the film of course it is interesting, radical in its day, ah oui, but non, I won’t be marking up my schedule for the next Rohmer festival.
The lead character is oh-so French, good looking, yet sad, a secretary, and in crisis — no one to go on vacation with. She mopes around with some friends, who tell her to cheer up. She fends off advances by different men, attracted by her good looks and undaunted by her stern visage. Nobody can cheer her: not her married sister, not her adorable niece, not the good-looking Parisian friends in nubby sweaters, not the topless beach-going Swede who offers a master class in flirting with a couple of mouth-breathing locals. Our heroine feels worthless, uninterested, confused.
In the last of a series of get-me-outa-here scenes, our cheerless protagonist is leaving one more heavenly spot where friends put her up gratis, yet where she has found no meaning or peace, when a fellow rail station traveler, tall, handsome, clearly classier than the previous guys giving her the eye, gazes at the book she’s reading, and, voila, she smiles hesitantly. He’s visiting a nearby seaside town, and she invites herself to join him. Ah yes, it’s a movie.
Soon enough, she’s sitting watching the sun set, crying at, well, whatever she’s been crying about for the whole film. But wait — she sees Le Rayon Vert, a green flash of light that she overheard other vacationers talking about, described in Jules Verne’s book of the same name. I myself saw no green flash, but she did. Grainy print? Hallucination? She perks up. They embrace. Finis.
Glad I went? Sure, why not? Not so bad, really, and far shorter than the Italian doc about China.
I knew a couple of professional movie reviewers in a previous life, who were sick of hearing how good they had it, watching movies and pontificating about them on TV for money. “There’s an awful lot of terrible movies I’ve had to watch, so you don’t have to,” one of them told me, once. Poor baby.
It’s snowing like crazy outside, but god willing the subway will take me to the IFC Center for tomorrow’s entertainent.
Day Six — The Square
I was struck by Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous feature Force Majeure, which tells a deadpan story of a husband fleeing an impending disaster during a ski vacation, leaving his wife and children behind. The disaster is actually a controlled avalanche, but the man’s reasonable, shocking reaction becomes a slow-motion bomb in the family dynamic.
Despite a windy storm that’s introducing the term “bomb cyclone,” a new scare tactic for the local news, and New York’s mayor imploring me and everyone else to stay inside, the mini theater screening The Square, tucked away in the rabbit warren that is the IFC Center, had quite a few weather rebels in place for the afternoon show. The ticket lady was downright friendly, and asked how my commute to the theater had been. Pleasantly taken aback, I asked about her commute to work. “It was fine. I took an alternate route,” she explained cryptically. I wished her luck getting home and went in.
Like Force Majeure, The Square takes its time, leaving it to the viewer to make sense of what’s going on. The movie takes some good shots at contemporary art and the self-important, self-involved society that uses art as proof of intellectual bona fides, weaving the plight of the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless into the story.
It’s pretty easy to mock post-modern art, the identical piles of gravel arranged on a gallery floor, an enormous film projection of a beefy man impersonating a great ape, the donors party with graying patrons in formal wear dancing gamely to aggressively loud techno music. Still, it was funny.
Some familiar faces show up, Elizabeth Moss, now in everything, and Dominic West doing his convincing American accent (always so much fun to hear an accomplished British thespian reveal that his real voice is posh and sophisto — hey, that guy can act!). I noticed the critics were a little put off by the movie, perhaps because some of it is obvious and some of it is confusing, and I must admit, on my sixth and penultimate day in the dark, I checked my watch at Hour Two. Maybe those whining movie critics had a point… But this one falls decidedly in the “glad I saw” pile, because more than once, the film made me uncomfortable with a scene I expect to think about for a while.
It’s amazing how easy it’s been to find a movie I want to go to day after day, but I’m in a bit of a quandary for the tomorrow’s big finish.
Day Seven — I, Tonya
“Cute–“ the one-word review a friend texted, having seen what I was about to watch, in an enormous, overheated, nearly empty chain cinema in the Chelsea neighborhood of bloody freezing Manhattan — gave me pause.
Is “cute” how I want to conclude my week-long movie immersion? I settled on it instead of Annette Bening’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” which threatened to be mawkish, and “Phantom Thread,” Daniel Day-Lewis’s swan song or so he says, because I wanted some fun, goddamit. Maybe my mouth won’t be stuffed with Junior Mints, but I’m willing to have Hollywood give me a good time for my movie ticket dollar!
However, the stylized bio-pic of the infamous figure skater disgraced for her part in attacking rival Nancy Kerrigan didn’t leave me laughing. It went along at a good pace, and contained every element of a satisfying modern movie. But after it was done, I felt a little sad, and a little mad. And embarrassed.
All the characters are mean and/or stupid, save stunning Margot Robbie’s Tonya, who longs for love and acceptance, and instead gets brutalized and humiliated, yet keeps getting up and skating on. Only when clips of the real people ran during the closing credits, the real Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s real, awful mother, the real Tonya, did I consider, well, maybe they really were all mean and/or stupid.
Shot pseudo-documentary style, we’re addressed by Bobby Cannavale as a Hard Copy reporter recalling the fun he had covering the story. In a wry aside he says that all the news has become tabloid news. And ain’t it the truth?
Tonya and her bitter, always-drinking-and-smoking mother, Gilooly and his scheming, rotund, idiot pal — everybody’s cash-strapped, everybody’s deluded, and nobody’s getting out of this with any dignity. In our last glimpse of Tonya she lifts herself from a freshly blood-stained boxing ring, her final career move, to get back to work, taking more punches.
I was working in the promo department of a competing tabloid show, Inside Edition, when Harding’s story was making headlines. Competing for the latest juicy details was what was important. I was proud to promote our lurid versions of what happened, to drive my tabloid show past ahead of the others — we were the best! We had the biggest ratings!
I didn’t care back then, and I didn’t care today when I walked into the theater, about the actual facts of the story. I knew pretty Nancy Kerrigan had been savagely attacked by an accomplice of Harding and Gillooly, and that Harding’s career was destroyed, and Gillooly, if remembered at all, was forever immortalized in the All-American Idiot Hall of Fame.
During the end credits, the screen flashed “where are they now” data: Harding’s a good mother, she insists; Gillooly changed his name and is happily remarried. Tonya and her mother have no contact.
Maybe this was the perfect way to end my marathon, with a modern movie, very aware of itself, detached and observational, blending entertainment and pathos. A group of talented actors adding light and shadow to a sensational, ridiculous moment in American pop history. Cheesy, bombastic corporate rock music, in case we might miss the rich helping of irony being served up.
But satire and a modern self-awareness isn’t what propels me out of the house, ticket money clutched in hand, seeking a couple of hours of escape into another world. I’ve seen a lot of movies by now, more than I can remember. I’ve gone to be titillated, or educated, or chastened by facing some dark truth about war or violence, that I imagine is going to improve my outlook and better my capacity for joy. But mostly I go to the movies to be entertained.
And what I love is the look on the face of a seventeen-year-old boy, bewildered in love in Call Me By Your Name, because I feel in my chest what he’s feeling in his. I see Sally Hawkins’s mute, sensual character smitten by an otherworldly being she longs for in The Shape of Water, and I want someone to love me with that same wild silence. I recall the faces of the curator’s daughters in The Square, sitting, frightened but wondering, in the back seat of his Tesla, and I think about my own daughters, and whether they looked at me that way when I sat in the driver’s seat years ago. I peer at the composed, painted faces of earnest Chinese acrobats gazing shyly at their applauding audience, their culture foreign to me, the moment now history, but the feeling these faces evoke, so immediate and rich, and deeply shared there in the dark.
That’s why I go to the movies.