David, your story about watching The Intern with your newly grief-numbed family and noticing, even more keenly than you would have under ordinary circumstances, that movie’s fatuous emptiness reminded me of two things: a) You are a thoughtful and humane writer, one I’m glad is taking the critical reins here at Slate while I’m on book leave. And b) as Mark says, movies are more than aesthetic objects for critics to rank and evaluate, or expensively produced and marketed products competing for global market share. They’re also experiences we administer to ourselves almost like medicine (or, in some cases, like recreational drugs) at moments of need. Sometimes that need is for escape or release; sometimes it’s for something like the opposite, an enhanced awareness or understanding of our own lives or the lives of people we may never have considered before.
A lot of the time—as was the case with Nancy Meyers’ opus, playing to a shuddering, snoozing audience in your family’s Connecticut living room—the attempt to self-medicate with cinema goes way south. But then there are those moments when a movie you didn’t know you needed arrives like a healing balm, sometimes even serving as an antidote to the damage inflicted on your soul by another movie. The very first movie I reviewed this spring on my return from a sabbatical was Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which, as superhero-crammed, aggressively marketed, fan-service-providing Marvel franchise entries go, was dope enough. (Linda Cardellini’s spousal reassurance to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye that “you know I totally support your avenging” remains one of the year’s great movie lines.) But in conjunction with those depressing interviews Whedon was giving, Ultron had me wondering: What’s it all about, Alfie? If the most we can hope for are flashes of humor and humanity injected into our pneumatically inflated world-conquering blockbusters—placed there, mind you, by a writer-director who’s already tightening his sneaker laces for a sprint in the opposite direction—what are we going to the movies for? Is a brief chuckle in between collapsing skylines the most we can hope from these two-hour-long bundles of image, sound, and meaning?
And then, a few weeks later, along came Apu—the restoration of Satyajit Ray’s mid-1950s Apu Trilogy. The simple fact of this restoration’s existence is a miracle, given the 1993 lab fire that all but destroyed the original prints. (You can watch a video chronicling the laborious 4K restoration process on Criterion’s website.) But the movies themselves are much greater miracles. Pather Panchali was Ray’s very first film, made after a period he spent working in London and falling in love with Italian neorealism, and it has a simplicity of expression and a degree of cinematic sophistication that are still mind-blowing 60 years after its creation. I had seen the whole trilogy on screen years ago, in Paris (where, as an exchange student in a year when the entire university system was on strike, I was using my reduced-price student ID to fall in love with movies of all kinds). Revisiting those joyous, funny, sad, and profound films had the effect of defibrillator paddles on my faltering movie mojo. I thought about putting the Apu restoration on my 10-best list, but it seemed too backward-looking. The energy that trilogy charged me up with is best trained, not toward rediscovering lost classics (though I wish more of that for all of us in 2016), but toward discovering those already among us.
One of them this year, for me, was indubitably Carol, a movie I may unwisely put myself into competition with David for loving the most. (Not tweeting about the most, though—he’s got that record in the bag.) I’ve adored Todd Haynes since the moment my eyes met his long-withheld Barbie-doll-animated Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar. Among contemporary directors, Haynes’ style is completely distinctive, maybe because no one else marries form quite so completely with content. Carol is, unashamedly and even brazenly, an example of the swooshy-camera “pure cinema” Mark made reference to; like the character of Carol herself, the movie is well aware of its own beauty, and the power that beauty gives it. But the movie also—like Carol herself—has something to offer beyond its shimmering surface. Haynes doesn’t impeccably pastiche the style of a classic Hollywood melodrama just because it will make his movie look cool as hell (though I’ll be surprised if the Oscar red carpet doesn’t include a few gowns inspired by this movie’s divine costumes, designed by Sandy Powell). Instead, Haynes deploys the cinematic conventions of the past to suggest the social constraints that governed same-sex affairs like the one between Rooney Mara’s lovelorn shopgirl and Cate Blanchett’s unhappily married matron. Then as now, our ideas about what’s possible between people were shaped by the images we surrounded ourselves with on screen. When Haynes cites film history, he does it to communicate that idea visually, not just to gather sparkly doodads for his magpie nest. (Those gray-green leather gloves, though. Want.)
Mark, don’t worry—for all my Hateful Eight ambivalence, I won’t let that movie be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tarantino tasks me, Wrath of Khan–style, and I will have him. I am waiting for him to take that huge talent (how does he fit it in there with the film-history knowledge and the ego?) and make something truly transcendent with it, as he has in the past (maybe? Pulp Fiction? Jackie Brown?) and surely will again.
In the meanwhile, can we have a word about The Revenant? Mark has been such a Mary Sunshine about the year’s releases and the state of the cinematic union that I think I need to hear him in crotchety-old-man mode. And any of you, whether you cottoned to it or not, are invited to help me understand why it was that (much like Iñárritu’s previous movie, the vastly overpraised Birdman) The Revenant, for all its graceful editing, sublime cinematography, and jaw-dropping action—that bear mauling, Jesus!—felt less like a movie than like a well-designed ride. As a barely healed Leonardo DiCaprio crawled literally out of his grave to take slow but inevitable (but slow) revenge on Tom Hardy, I was at times moved to tears, my eyes shielded in dread of the next blow this man’s poor tattered body was about to take from fate, nature, or his fellow man. Yet the minute The Revenant ended, I was done, not tempted for a moment to line up for another spin. What does it mean when a movie does this to you? Was I watching it wrong?
In full support of your avenging,
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