Into my heart an air that killsFrom yon far country blows:What are those blue remembered hills,What spires, what farms are those?That is the land of lost content,I see it shining plain,The happy highways where I wentAnd cannot come again.
In these insane times, the normally awful National Review – of all places to turn for sanity and basic human decency! – may have here boiled down the matter at hand to its essential moral core and put it best, most expressively and sharply.
A Day That Will Live in Infamy
I was supposed to fly to Israel (a place I've been fascinated by and longed to visit for as long as I can remember, a feeling that only deepened as I worked toward a career as a professional historian specializing in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages) today for an academic conference in Jerusalem. Suitcase packed, credit card issuers notified, arrangements made for the classes I'm teaching, a day-trip bus tour of the West Bank booked and plans with a close friend for after the conference. Instead, I stayed up most of the night toggling among live updates on news websites and refreshing airline flight status pages, and now I'm spending an unseasonably warm and sunny autumn Saturday, disappointed but safely on the ground in serene and peaceful Vancouver, glued to CNN, watching in horror and disgust a shocking tragedy play out grimly in real time, worried sick for good friends in Israel, where a serious and significant war – perhaps the worst there in a half-century – now seems sadly inevitable. All my thoughts today are with good, reasonable, and peace-seeking Israelis (Jewish, Arab, or otherwise) and Palestinians; hoping against hope that cooler heads prevail and conditions for peace and calm present themselves in very short order.
[Edit – addendum: This op-ed piece is squarely, precisely on the mark when it comes to some of the most morally repugnant and utterly hypocritical tendencies of the lunatic fringes of the Western far Left. Essential reading as ostensibly credentialed representatives of said lunatic fringes come out of the woodwork to justify unambiguously and unapologetically Nazi-inspired exterminationist terrorist groups by means of naïve and ill-informed Vive la révolution! romantic rhetoric, the pseudo-historical logic of Lebensraum and Blut und Boden, and/or Both Sides false equivalencies that sound an awful lot like post-Charlottesville Trump, afraid of alienating the "side" that thinks Hitler was very much on the right track. How come these "progressives" call everyone Nazis as a catch-all pejorative except the groups who explicitly declare that they want to kill all the Jews?]Completely aside from this terrible news but compounding the all-around awfulness of October 7, 2023, one of the world's greatest filmmakers and one of my all-time favourites, Terence Davies, has died, gone from us at the very height of his powers as a singular cinematic artist, maker of some of the most beautiful and truly humane movies we have. And the last thing we need right now is a further depletion of beauty and humanity from this world. Sic transit gloria mundi.
VIFF 2023: Best of the Fest
03. A Cooler Climate
05. Les filles du Roi
06. Anatomy of a Fall
07. The Birthday Party
08. Last Summer
09. Snow in Midsummer
VIFF 2023, pt. 3: Gods and Monsters
Kidnapped From the Red Brigades to Signora Mussolini to the Sicilian mafia trials of the 1980s, Marco Bellocchio has in his later career become Italian cinema's greatest national historian. Here, at 83, he charts the progress of the Risorgimento in the construction of the modern Italian nation-state (culminating finally with the 1870 taking of Rome, formerly a papal possession, as the new country's capital), but in an inspired stroke of historical storytelling, Bellocchio keeps the complicated politics of the nationalist movement in the background while placing at the fore the Church's abduction of Jewish children who have (supposedly, often surreptitiously) been baptized as Christians. It's a fascinating, and horrifying, chapter of ecclesiastical and Italian history, vividly recounted by a sure-handed old master.
The performances (with the major exception of Paolo Pierobon's Pope Pius IX, who is by turns menacing and magnetically charismatic), however, are rather one-dimensional. That 'dimension,' as it were, is High Melodrama, heightened further by a histrionic score that leaves no room for subtlety. Yet this is, after all, a genuine historical tragedy, and it's powerfully presented and sumptuously envisioned; melodrama has its place, to be sure.
Monster A third of the way in I was confused. Two-thirds in I clued in to what Koreeda was up to here and thought this might be a great one. The last third or so crosses the line from poignant, humane, and sensitive (i.e., Koreeda at his best) to obvious, overly neat, and sentimental in the extreme. And once Monster had crossed that line, near-constant use of a supremely treacly piano score certainly didn't help matters. That said, there is a lot here that is good and interesting, and it's all very heartfelt. But it's a middling addition to Koreeda's oeuvre.
The Birthday Party A memory piece, ca. 1999, wherein a kids birthday party somewhere in Alpine Italy is recalled as a disturbing menagerie of indelibly strange and disturbing sights and sounds, adding up to...well, what exactly? The young protagonist (/presumable adult rememberer) isn't quite sure what he witnessed, and it's that hazy uncertainty and lack of full intelligibility, despite the sharp and vivid quality of the memories themselves, that lend this 17–minute short a surreal, oddly haunting quality. And so now I too will continue to wonder in vain whatever happened to that wheezing, wandering nonna!
Bitten What an amazing surprise! Knowing nothing going in apart from that it sounded potentially pretty fun from the festival programme blurb (and that I was going to be out tonight anyway, after seeing what turned out to be a kinda minor and 'meh' Koreeda film), I found myself totally under the spell of this weird and wonderful debut feature, a kind of French gothic Ghost World meets Trouble with Angels (!) meets Serra's Story of My Death, with some Giallo and early Polanski and Rob Zombie tossed liberally in to the pot.
Although the ingredients and influences are, bite by bite, easy enough to identify, Bitten is far more than the sum of its parts; finally, this is quite an original and distinctive concoction (okay, belaboured cooking metaphor done now!). *Everything* here works terrifically: performances large and small (although the lead turn by Léonie Dahan-Lamort, who will surely be a star very soon, is on another level entirely), production design, cinematography, editing, musical choices, mood and atmosphere – all superb! I would say that horror debuts don't get much better than this, but, more to the point, horror movies (one of my favourite genres) period don't get much better than Bitten.
[addendum – viewing #2: A great coming-of-age picture. A poignant, unexpectedly touching reflection on female friendship. A perfectly realized horror(-adjacent) movie, propelled unhurriedly by dream/nightmare logic. Definitely a knockout. Definitely my favourite film of VIFF 2023.]
VIFF 2023, pt. 2: Summer, Fall, and Riot Revisited
Last Summer I was a bit confused when I heard that for her first film in a decade, Catherine Breillat, now 75, decided to remake a very recent Danish movie (which I haven't seen). Huh?
Then I watched Last Summer and all was made clear. This premise has Breillat's name written all over it. Rather like the underrated Fat Girl meta follow-up Sex Is Comedy, this is an essentially pornographic premise turned inside out, reduced to its basic elements, and narrativized as an inconvenient mess of emotions, bodies, and Real Life. It's all pretty icky and squirmy, willfully prurient and perverse – but that is, after all, precisely Breillat's comfort zone.
Anatomy of a Fall This has been an exceptionally strong year for films thinking through, patiently and seriously, the challenges, rewards, and peculiar emotional mysteries of marriage: Past Lives, You Hurt My Feelings, in a cringier mode Last Summer, and in a darker, murkier sense Justine Triet's Palm d'Or-winning domestic drama cum legal thriller.
In the former respect, this is a searingly specific case study, brilliantly acted and staged; Sandra Hüller's performance will surely stand as one of this year's very best. In the latter respect (i.e., as a courtroom procedural), it's highly engrossing, yet, upon just a bit of post-screening reflection, rather too dependent on some far-fetched plot contrivances – essentially the kinds of intricate twists that would immediately precede "To Be Continued" at the end of a multi-part TV episode.
I'm Just Here for the Riot Although this documentary was made, presumably, with television in mind, it was even better on the big screen – the riot scenes more visceral and intense, the emotions on faces filmed in tight close-ups more poignant and affecting. And with the boost of theatre-quality sound, the recurring use of Handel's stately and majestic Sarabande – such an inspired soundtrack choice (though one can't help but think immediately of Barry Lyndon, a decidedly very different film!) – felt powerful and appropriately mournful, rather than ironic or parodic, as I'd initially (mis?)judged from small-screen viewing.
With the topic of sports rioting a 30 for 30 Trojan Horse, this is ultimately a film about Cancel Culture avant la lettre, as it developed in real time and not just to the famous and high-profile but here to ordinary kids or young adults who got drunk and/or stoned and caught up in an irrational, adrenaline-charged public spectacle, very publicly screwed up – to a serious degree to be sure, though not quite planned-insurrection-attempting-to-lynch-the-Vice-President-and-Speaker-of-the-House-level serious – and then had the next dozen years of their lives very significantly altered, with impacts extending far beyond the official legal consequences of their specific actions.
I'm Just Here for the Riot is about hockey fandom the way Tar was about classical music. All that is there on the surface, but just below that there's more difficult and thorny topical matter with which the filmmakers are reckoning. Is the Wild West vigilante justice of the social-media age – sometimes seemingly well-intentioned, other times laced with misogyny, racism, hateful vitriol, and threats of violence – justice at all, the film asks its audience? In a more truly just world, the film carefully and cautiously suggests, there would be room for context and measured consideration. In a more just world, there would be some recognition of grey areas and individual circumstances. And in a just world too, Kat Jayme and Asia Youngman would follow Ezra Edelman (OJ: Made in America) as the next 30 for 30 directors to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
VIFF 2023, pt. 1: Local, Global and Points Between
Twelve years later in my capacity as a History instructor at a local university, my usual first-day ice-breaker, when teaching small enough classes that it's feasible, is to ask students to name their 'earliest historical memory.' Going back to my grad school time as a TA, I remember getting answers like the OJ Simpson trial or death of Princess Diana. But this term the most common I answer I heard from students who grew up in Canada (especially but not only British Columbia) was the 2011 Stanley Cup riot (or that in conjunction/contrast with the 2010 Olympics). I will strongly recommend that they go see I'm Just Here for the Riot to learn more about that faintly recalled 'earliest historical memory.' It is now essential viewing.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Finding Big Country and The Grizzlie Truth, I was not expecting Kat Jayme's latest excursion into Vancouver's quirky/inglorious professional sports history (this one made for ESPN's consistently stellar 30 for 30 series and co-directed with Asia Youngman) to be one of the most powerful and provocative documentaries in recent memory. But this is a film that sneaks up on you; a film that you think is telling one rather obvious story, but then adroitly, stealthily switches tracks to another, one with more profound stakes and expansive reverberations.
It is bona fide masterpiece. And I really don't think it's hyperbolic (nor a parochial local bias) to go one step further still and call this is one of the most important and thoughtful artistic statements concerning contemporary culture and society (ca. 2011–2023), perhaps second only to the multi-part OJ: Made in America among 30 for 30 docs. In particular, I'm Just Here... captures the decidedly tragic loss of context, nuance, empathy and forgiveness that has been a nasty, insidious symptom of our digital age. This is documentary filmmaking – sports-related or otherwise – at its best and most urgently vital.
A Cooler Climate How did I never know that James Ivory was American? I guess I always assumed he was from, like, the Home Counties or somewhere like that, not a small town in Oregon where he might well have been the lone E.M. Forster fan. His early USC film school projects were funded in part by his father's lumber mill – a factoid that places Ivory closer to David Lynch, say, than Terence Davies, notwithstanding other biographical affinities with the latter.
Like Davies' resplendent Of Time and the City (and, in a looser, more abstract sense, also Lynch's The Straight Story), this is a film about, as Ivory himself puts it, "vanished worlds," including the mid-century America of the now 95-year-old Ivory's precarious adolescence as a gay young man with artistic proclivities. Yet also, and more strikingly, it's a time capsule of Afghanistan before the Taliban regimes, before US and Soviet occupations, when an early 30s Ivory shot a lot of (truly incredible) footage for a shelved film. He wrote to his parents reporting that Kabul was an unattractive, run-down city, comparing it unfavourably to towns set amidst similar landscapes in Arizona, Colorado, or New Mexico. But through his reading of the memoirs of the Mughal emperor Babur, for whom Kabul became a Proustian lost Eden of sorts after relocating his imperial court to Delhi, together with Forster's writings on Babur's world and age, Ivory was able to imaginatively reframe his surroundings (which he doubts have changed much since the fifteenth century) in more romantic and expansive terms.
Ivory remembers reading Proust's own Swann's Way in a tent pitched near the Bamiyan Buddhas, world-historical ancient monuments demolished as vulgar idols four decades later by the Taliban, agents of irreparable damage/change that inevitably makes Ivory's memories/footage all the more poignant.
For his part, Davies blamed The Beatles.
Les filles du Roi A Vancouver local-theatre success story (full disclosure: I am slightly/informally acquainted with somewhere around a third or quarter of the people involved in making this movie) that may now find a wider audience in film form. The only trouble is, it never quite makes up its mind as to whether it's meant as a distinctly cinematic filmization of a stage musical, as a filmed stage musical with some exterior scenes, or some Dancer in the Dark- or Dogville-like Brechtian in-between thing. Yet, this formal ambiguity notwithstanding, it's an altogether brilliant example of translating a complicated, not-very-well-known historical moment into a dramatic popular register while preserving and maintaining an essential historical verisimilitude. It's vividly shot (some light-infused compositions clearly quote Malick/Lubezki, esp. The New World), well acted, and beautifully sung. I suspect –– as both a practising historian/History instructor and lifelong fan of good musicals –– I'll return to it again and again; and might even in future assign it to a class studying Nouvelle France and settler-Indigenous relations.
Union Street A good answer to a question oft-asked by visitors or newcomers to Vancouver, posed in the film by a transplant from Kenya: "Where are all the Black people?" As an historical doc, it's interesting but unfocused. As a doc about contemporary Black culture in Vancouver, this "Telus Original" feels, at times, a bit too much like cable-access programming promoting local businesses. More sustained attention paid to the little-known history of Hogan's Alley and less highlighting of present-day entrepreneurs/artists would have helped to ground and solidify this interesting but unfocused documentary.
Snow in Midsummer Speaking of little-known histories (at least in the West), and of movement between past and present, Keat An Chong's film captures both the immediate terror and the intergenerational trauma and tragedy of Malaysia's "May 13 (1969) Incident," in which members of Kuala Lumpur's Chinese-Malaysian community were attacked and their properties destroyed in the explosive aftermath of a contentious election. Chong's film is a vivid, powerful, and purposefully subtle exploration of that event and its still-problematic legacy in Malaysia. It is locally (or nationally) specific, but speaks also to present tensions and outbursts of violence from the US to India to Canada, the Lower Mainland in particular. Incidentally, I watched this film the same day Trudeau announced to Parliament that evidence strongly suggested India's involvement in the assassination of a Metro Vancouver Sikh activist outside his Surrey, BC gurdwara and then learned from a friend who lives in Surrey (Vancouver's largest suburb, in some respects more culturally diverse than the city proper) that tensions between sectarian and political camps within BC's Indo-Canadian diaspora and student population have become much more heated of late.
Ken Burns, Auteur
It is an odd mystery why, when film critics and serious cinephiles discuss the most significant American filmmakers working today, and particularly the best documentarians, one rarely if ever hears mention of Ken Burns. Over four-plus decades of expertly crafted work, Burns has aided us tremendously in better understanding and appreciating his subjects, ranging widely from Jefferson and Franklin to the US Civil War to jazz to baseball to the creation of the National Parks system. Stylistically and thematically, his filmography is thoroughly cohesive and uniformly solid. Burns' signature style is as instantly recognizable –– and ripe for parody –– as any filmmaker ever.
Yet while Burns' stylistic approach has seemingly changed little over his prolific career, his extended explorations of what is distinctive and peculiar and interesting and inspiring and troubling in America's cultural and political history have become more incisive and provocative in his excellent recent work, especially Ernest Hemingway and The US and the Holocaust. The former (directed with longtime collaborator Lynn Novick) is both a rigorous deconstruction of one of American literature's most (self-constructedly) "mythic" figures and a very timely reflection on how to deal with "problematic" public figures who produced brilliant, vital art but also said and did some pretty terrible things. The latter film (with Novick and Sarah Botstein) seriously challenges much of what we think we know about what (and when) the United States and its leaders knew and did during the years of the Third Reich and the Second World War.
At what appears to be nearing the end of the age of US global dominance, with the "genius" and "dream" and purported exceptionalism of America more embattled or rejected (within and without) than perhaps ever in its tumultuous history, Burns is creating patiently drawn portraits at once wistfully elegiac and soberly critical.
At the risk of some unpopular opinions...
02. Taylor Swift
Stolen from Our Very Eyes
Sinéad O'Connor meant as much to me as any person whom I've never actually met.
And from spending many hours listening to her music plus reading her excellent recent memoir, I feel in some sense like I know her better than many of the people with whom I'm personally acquainted.
That extraordinary immediacy is a tribute to the raw power of her voice, her words, and the tremendous (personal and political) courage of her art. She was – in my subjective estimation – the greatest singer of our time and one of its most distinctive and expressive songwriters. If your familiarity with her work doesn't extend much beyond "Nothing Compares 2 U" and the Saturday Night Live incident, please do watch these video clips, above.
O'Connor's first two albums, The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, are two of the finest ever recorded. "Troy," off the former album but best in its more austere live form (e.g., the video posted at top), was written when she was a teenager, inspired by a Yeats poem engaging with Homer and shot through with memories of profound trauma and abuse. Yet it is resilient and cathartic, invoking the Phoenix as its central image –– a decidedly haunting image on this very sad day.
"Troy" was already, quite arrestingly, the work of a fully formed and singular artist of the highest order, while also that of an emotionally fractured and troubled young person who would spend her adulthood trying to seek out stability and peace. Such solace of spirit, at which she was grasping from her earliest songs to her last and from Catholicism to Rastafarianism to Islam, seemed tragically to elude her, save perhaps for brief, fleeting periods of her life.
If pressed to choose, "Troy" is my favourite song – not just from O'Connor's catalogue, but of the whole pop/rock era. Its lyrics are given in full below.
And Dublin in a rainstorm
And sitting in the long grass in summer
I'll remember it
Every restless night
We were so young then
We thought that everything
We could possibly do was right
Then we moved
stolen from our very eyes
And I wondered where you went to
Tell me, when did the light die
The Phoenix from the flame
You will learn
You will rise
being what you are
There is no other Troy
for you to burn
I swear I didn't mean
those things I said
I never meant to do that to you
Next time I'll keep my hands to myself instead
Oh, does she love you?
What do you want to do?
Does she need you like I do?
Do you love her?
Is she good for you?
Does she hold you like I do?
Should I leave?
I know you're always telling me that you love me but just sometimes I wonder if I should believe
Oh, I love you
God, I love you
I'd kill a dragon for you
And I will return
The Phoenix from the flame
I have learned
I will rise
and you'll see me return
being what I am
There is no other Troy
for me to burn
You should've left the light on
Then I wouldn't have tried
and you'd never have known
And I wouldn't have pulled you tighter
No, I wouldn't have pulled you close
I wouldn't have screamed
No, I wouldn't have pulled you to me
No, I wouldn't have kissed your face
You wouldn't have begged me to hold you
if we hadn't been there in the first place
Oh, but I know you wanted me to be there (oh, oh)
Every look that you threw told me so
But you should've left the light on
You should've left the light on
And the flames burned away
but you're still spitting fire
Make no difference what you say
You're still a liar
You're still a liar
You're still a liar
Oppenheimer is an unwieldy mess of competing styles and incongruous technical flourishes.
Oppenheimer is overly tidy and schematic.
Oppenheimer is a three-hour movie without a single scene that is allowed to breathe and not propel the film's convoluted plot.
Oppenheimer is a biopic that seems to think someone's whole life can be neatly styled as a 'thriller.'
Oppenheimer is JFK directed by Ron Howard.
Oppenheimer is A Beautiful Mind directed by Oliver Stone.
Oppenheimer is a wholly superficial imitation of late Terrence Malick.
Oppenheimer is a fairly dumb movie about exceptionally smart people.
Oppenheimer is a few truly spectacular sequences, several appallingly bad scenes, and lots of 'blah' and 'meh' in between.
Oppenheimer is a marvellous actors' showcase done a rude disservice by pointlessly frenetic editing.
Oppenheimer is a tediously over-scored throbbing headache.
Oppenheimer is history as a series of okay-ish Wikipedia pages.
Oppenheimer is a very long trailer fruitlessly in search of a much better movie that might have existed but doesn't.