Dear Mark, Amy, and Kameron,
Last year, at the beginning of the 2016 Movie Club, I made some wisecrack (aka a barely disguised cry for help) about how, rather than a gathering around a festive holiday table for sparkling conversation, that year’s encounter more closely resembled a group of apocalypse survivors rubbing their hands together for warmth over a fire in an oil drum. Little did I know that in comparison to the ambient mood in the last days of 2017, that memory would come to seem like chestnuts roasting on an open fire. No metaphor comes to mind to encapsulate the last year, in part because none of us has experienced anything like it before—unless one of the three of you, unbeknownst to me, has previously experienced living day-to-day in a democracy in free fall. Speaking for myself, I can say that the reality of 2017 made itself felt at the most mitochondrial level: Being alive this year made my bones ache at all the places they’d ever been broken, and a few they hadn’t. It made my thinking foggy, so I hope I can be forgiven over the course of this week if I at some point mix up the titles of Logan, Lucky, Logan Lucky, Wonder, Wonder Wheel, Wonder Woman, or Wonderstruck, all of which came out in this unlucky, Alice-in-Wonderland year. Living through 2017, as we all kept saying and got sick of hearing ourselves saying but couldn’t stop saying because it was so true, was like being trapped in a bad movie. Or being an unwitting contestant in a reality show hosted by you-know-who—there’s only one reality show host left standing, it seems, and we’re all stuck inside his awful, boring, increasingly scary but impossible-to-turn-off show.
Much as I would love to declare this year’s conversation a Trump-analogy-free zone, I need to speak his name at the outset both to dispel the negative energy (I’m burning some sage in honor of the New Year and our cleansing week together) and to acknowledge that we could only see movies this year, new or old, through the eyes looking out of our current heads. In my case at least, those eyes filled up with tears a lot, inside the movie theater and out. Our current president not just induces but, some days it seems, is a nationwide epidemic of depression and anxiety, from low-grade to clinical level, depending on your temperament, physiology, and history. He makes our every bowl of cornflakes less enjoyable. It’s inevitable that a conversation about the year we’ve just spent at the movies will in some way also be an evocation of the atmosphere of acute political and cultural crisis we had those experiences in. This isn’t glib allegorizing or an attempt to be “topical”; it’s just the natural and—at least in Movie Club!—welcome overlap of the real and fictional, the personal and political, the eyes doing the seeing and the images being seen.
When it comes to the movie part, though, an interesting phenomenon occurs: Because virtually everything we saw over the course of this year was conceived if not filmed before the 2016 election, the films arrived to us at a slight time lag, like the infinitely regressing mirror images of herself that The Last Jedi’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) sees on her solo day trip to a mysterious and, I’ll say it, frankly vaginal space-cave. Though the films of 2017 may have come to us from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, some of the best dispatches from pre-Trump America arrived with a time traveler’s urgency, as if to prepare us or warn us or somehow arm us for what was to come. How could Jordan Peele’s debut feature Get Out, released in February not only to critical and box-office success but to instant status as a much-quoted zeitgeist staple, have come to us as providentially as it did without some kind of time machine? (Fodder for a possible spoiler-laden upcoming round: I would like to talk about the alternate ending of Get Out, which I found a more narratively satisfying conclusion than the one released in theaters, but which is also far grimmer.) Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, with her piercingly righteous gaze and magic lasso of truth, arrived just in time to leave us armed for #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, and a still-marching parade of male malefactors who make that movie’s already so-so lineup of villains, played by Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, and David Thewlis, seem as easy to conquer as so many Nerf bowling pins. Though Star Wars’ basic good-vs.-evil, scrappy-rebels-vs.-sleek-autocrats cosmology hasn’t changed much since teenaged Luke first gazed up at the two suns of Tatooine, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with its portrait of a much-battered, wildly outgunned, but fiercely resilient Resistance, also had that quality of arriving right on time.
Have my critical faculties regressed to sheer fandom if, whether meant for such purposes or not, some of these images and quotes and heroes helped me to keep getting out of bed in a year when unconsciousness was frequently preferable to being awake? As many critics have observed, Steven Spielberg’s The Post—which he rushed into production after observing our new president’s hostility toward the free press—may be the first post-Trump big-budget film release. In another year, Spielberg’s ample, heroic vision of a team of truth-obsessed political reporters armed only with typewriters and payphones might have seemed like a lovingly crafted but superfluous piece of print-journalism nostalgia, especially after the recent best picture Oscar win of the much tighter, more conventionally suspenseful investigative-journalism thriller Spotlight. But opening in a season when women everywhere are coming forward with painful truths that date back, in some cases, to the pre-Watergate days the film documents or further, The Post, too, seems to come in the nick of time, its stately pacing and wide vista of repertorial subplots all coming down to that kaiju-style showdown between the greedy, lying patriarchy and Meryl in a caftan. OK, she only wins only one long-ago and lightly fictionalized battle, not, by far and away, the endless and too-real war between the sexes (or as it’s felt often this year, the war one sex refuses to admit it has always been waging on the other). But at least Meryl wins, and looks sensational—not to mention extremely comfy—doing so. In 2018, I’m only throwing large, catered house parties while wearing gold-embroidered floor-length garments.
This will be the last year in which we get the satisfaction of seeing movies that were made in the time-space continuum most of us wish we still occupied, so let’s get to appreciating and celebrating and interrogating them any way we can. Mark, you’re next. You’re free to talk about whatever you want. (I’m burning sage, remember? Take a cup of this healthful hippie tea I’m offering you. TAKE IT.) But here’s one thing I’d love to hear you on, since you spent part of this year writing a series for Film Comment about revisiting seminal movies released exactly 50 years ago: What was it like to live through 2017 while reliving 1967, another year of radical cultural upheaval whose movies, intentionally or not, writhed to the era’s own weird rhythm? How many Rey-style time-staggered reflections of your image did you have to confront in time’s mythic mirror?
A last word to all of you before we start: Thanks so much for being willing to spend some of your precious holiday time kibitzing with me about movies. You three constitute a dream lineup—you’re among the handful of critics I turn to most throughout the year to figure out movies and, by extension, life. If we have to start another year trapped in this awful reality show, I’m glad I get a bottle episode this week with you.