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Hereditary (2018); Where Have All The Horror Movies Gone?

June 12, 2018

The horror genre has become pretty muddled over the years. Never truly accepted and praised as a genre, critics today—and in the past for that matter—seem to be attempting to reshape horror films into something they haven’t been historically. Body horror, slashers, gruesome blood-lust, tales of the paranormal and others of this ilk don’t receive their just praise from the major media outlets that employ critics whose opinions water the Tomato Meter of Rotten Tomatoes. These days, critics only seem to be giving shine to thrillers or psychological dramas masked as horror. This misrepresentation of the genre seems to be the culprit of why truly good horror films are disappearing from the big screen only to be picked up on the small screen.

I postulate that the reason for this shifting focus within the horror genre isn’t because there’s some larger conspiracy against the genre, but because a large number of critics, and cinephiles in general from my observation, just aren’t really fans of horror. There’s nothing wrong with being an average moviegoer with your preferences set but critics who aren’t fans of the genre are the problematic ones. This lack of care for the genre as a whole results in high praise for arthouse films that wear the cloak of horror but inevitability end up being disaffecting and boring to watch. These days, the horror genre is littered with heady, art dramas masked by creepy themes instead of a cut and dry horrific situation, killer, attacker, or being that hardcore horror fans look to for fulfillment. That’s not to say that the films that receive the praise within the horror category today aren’t good, it’s just to say there is a distinction in the genre that is currently blurred.

The release of Hereditary is a prime example of these blurred lines. Marketed as “The Exorcist of this generation” and “a modern-day classic,” Hereditary is one of the few horror films (along with The Witch, Get Out, and The Babadook) that casual horror movie watchers flock to. I had more friends tell me how excited they were about this movie than I was—kudos to the fabulous marketing and that creepy ass trailer for that. “I can’t wait to hear what you think!” was the trending expression I had been hearing for weeks before finally seeing it. Immediately I tried to taper my expectations. If for nothing else, I’ve learned in the past few years that when critics fawn over a horror film, I likely won’t enjoy it. Sure, there are exceptions to this but as a horror fanatic—the dark, grungy, affecting, creepy—I recognize that critical praise over a film means it has obviously sidestepped its way outside genre as I know it.

Don’t get me wrong, Hereditary is creepy as hell. There are some truly chilling, ghastly moments that can haunt you especially if you see it in theaters. The mood and atmosphere alone is exceptional but as a story, it’s not scary in the least. Hereditary runs off the rails during its final act with little to no explanation of the events that unfolds. Fragments of horror are sporadically peppered throughout this drama about the psychological breakdown of a family already affected by mental illness. Grief and isolation are the running themes throughout that manifests into uncomfortable, chilling moments and if there’s one thing that writer/director Ari Aster does well, it’s perfect the uncanny. Aster’s work isn’t one to be downplayed. Any fear or shock that is experienced by watching this film is thanks to Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s mastery of light, color, and shadows.

Hereditary’s ending unfortunately falls into sheer “what the fuckery” but it’s so beautifully shot overall—with it’s perfect match cuts, drifting camera, and saturated colors— that it’s magnetic to watch, and for a second you don’t mind the dump of random, underdeveloped occurrences until the credits begin to roll. This is the bamboozlery that I believe the critics fell for: shiny, pretty, and tension heavy films in which the director and cinematographer have perfected an encompassing menagerie of color theory to make us feel even when we’re unsure why we feel. These types of films have taken over the market and proven to be much more respectable winners of the genre, even if they aren’t really “horror.”

So far, the top-rated horror films of 2018 are Hereditary, The Endless, A Quiet Place, and Upgrade. While I admit each film is good in its own right, if not just merely decent (Upgrade is amazing btw), I argue that none of these are horror films. I’d compare Hereditary to the likes of a psychological drama akin to Ordinary People or “scary movies” that focus on familial psychosis like The Babadook and Sinister. That’s not a slight. I personally enjoyed The Babadook and thought Sinister had potential (although the family drama outweighs any sense of horror).

For people who aren’t fans of the genre, sure these films may fit the mold but what about us permanent horror fans? Where are the horror films that are nods to us and not the visitors of the genre? Our films are waiting in the crevices of over-gorged options in Amazon SVOD. Ours are on platforms that are illegal. Ours are hidden in the recesses of video stores (if your area still has one that is), or plainly hidden from the masses. Hereditary is a great film but I wouldn’t say it’s a good horror film. It’s effective and enjoyable but as a horror fan forever chasing the next high of a film that will shake me to my core and give me nightmares, where is that movie in theaters? Will it be the upcoming Halloween reboot that severs the family ties of Michael Myers and return him to brainless killer out for blood? My fingers are crossed in hopes of yes because the horror genre is in desperate need of a revival.

SEE IT. But if you’re looking for a truly horrific film look elsewhere. Horror fans, what’s been your favorite horror movie in the last few years?

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For the Love of Black Panther (2018)

February 18, 2018

*This post contains spoilers. You should only read this if you have seen the film*

The experience leading up to and concluding my screening of Black Panther has been one for the books. Never before has the African diaspora had a film of this budget or this stature, with a predominately black cast (not all-black, mind you) about a story told from our origins that goes into the damning effects of colonization on our people. Black Panther, as a film and an event, is a first for members of the African diaspora, and I can’t imagine another piece of work coming together in my lifetime that will have the same impact. But the success of it all makes me overjoyed at what the future may hold for black-oriented cinema. Before Black Panther, we’ve never been able to see ourselves glorified on screen in our varying shades of melanin looking amazing, kicking ass and being diplomatic leaders on this scale. If for nothing else, Black Panther is a sight to behold for providing this experience to the black community.

The resulting clamor and excitement around Black Panther has been electrifying. For the past month or so my friends and I were passing memes back and forth on how we planned to roll up to the theater together. Outfits and dashikis had been planned in advanced and tickets were bought weeks ahead of the film’s opening. When I finally showed up to theater Friday night, it was an emotional experience to see how all of it came together. I stared in awe at the throngs of black people gathered together laughing and chattering in unison having either just seen the film or leaving from it. The women in the crowds were decked out in vibrant head wraps or with their hair in its most natural state, and every man I saw looked oh so fresh and so clean. Everyone in the crowd had on some type of African inspired print that peppered my line of vision with a rainbow of beautiful colors. It was a magnificent sight to see, and I grinned in my own colorful dashiki the whole way to my seat.

Everyone in the theater buzzed with excitement and lively chatter until the movie started. Gasps and scattered claps happened on and off for a few minutes in between loud shhs at the noise during the opening sequence. These reactions were the results of pure fandom at play and it mirrored the reactions I’ve noted from classic movie fans whenever I attend a film festival: for example, at the most recent Noir City Festival in San Francisco. Fans of the noir genre show up to these festivals in droves, dressed to the nines in their best vintage 1940s gear. They clap when the title credits reveal the names of the production company and the director, and various levels of cheering takes place whenever the name and first appearance of particular actors grace the screen (Elisha Cook Jr. consistently gets the loudest claps). This reaction has always been limited to white-oriented films, where if a black character is present they are servants or workers relegated to a few lines. So, naturally it’s an overwhelming experience to see my people get the chance to partake in this ritual for people that look like us with stories related to us.

Following Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong), and his loyal Wakandan people was an absolute pleasure. I loved being sucked into the world of Wakanda: a rich, technologically advanced African city cloaked to appear like an improvised country to the outside world. Even better was how Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script allowed us to get to know Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s “villain”, who turns out to have a viewpoint on life much more thought provoking and worth exploring than T’Challa’s. See, T’Challa is a Prince whose father is killed, so now he must rise to the ranks of King in spite of feeling unequipped to do so. Wakanda is in flux with some of its people wanting the country to spread its wealth to surrounding parts of Africa, while others want to keep their wealth to themselves. “If you let refugees in, you bring in their problems,” T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) warns. Erik is an outsider who stands for the former argument and plans to use Wakanda’s wealth for his people by any means necessary. Why should Wakanda have all these resources and not spread it to its people outside of the Wakanda walls? Therein lies the battle of the film in its simplest form.

Coming out of Black Panther—after the laughs had been laughed, the cheers had been experienced, and the energy simmered—I mused on the two hours that just took place. I enjoyed every bit of Black Panther but there three main gripes I just couldn’t get past:

  1. The cinematography: Every technical aspect of this film was breathtaking: the set design, production design, costumes and makeup, hair, special effects, and its dope ass soundtrack (all hail King Kendrick)! But the cinematography was its weakest element. I say this in regard to the handful of night scenes, most notably the first few minutes of the film. Rachel Morrison’s lighting of black skin during darkly lit scenes is disappointing, especially when comparing it to James Laxon’s beautiful work in Moonlight or Toby Oliver’s in Get Out. It’s possible my theater did something “wrong” when projecting the film, but barely being able to see action and faces during darkly lit scenes was frustrating.
  2. The defeat of Erik Killmonger: Arguably the best character in the film, Erik is intelligent, passionate, and doing his cause for the good of his people. T’Challa’s fight is for Wakanda. Regardless of ideologies, by the end of the film Erik is given two options, prison or death. His decision to take death reminded me of the bad guys in the classic Hollywood period who have to pay for the crimes because the Hays Code was in place. It felt like Erik had to die because Disney ultimately owns this film and its story…which made me question whose lens is this film really being told through, Ryan Coogler’s or the almighty bank of Disney? It didn’t make sense that T’Challa, who just spent the last half of this film distraught over the fact that his father’s selfishness is ultimately the reason Eric is hellbent on destruction, would allow this man to die or even be enslaved without an attempt to rehabilitate him. My frustration over Erik’s death was largely because he was such a wonderful character (shout out to Coogler/Cole’s meaty script), but also because of the shelf-life other Marvel villains of Erik’s intelligence possess: Thor’s Loki and X-Men’s Magneto in particular. It felt like Erik had to be punished because he was too radical. T’Challa ultimately ends the film announcing that Wakanda will share their resources with the world, never mind that most of the world he’s addressing is already wealthy, developed nations. There are no reparations or specialized aid given to those who suffered the most from colonialism. T’Challa wanted diplomacy and to share Wakanda’s resources with everyone, so he’s the good guy. Erik wanted black liberation and black power, so naturally he’s the bad guy. I didn’t particularly like that they couldn’t somehow work side by side, that one ideal had to defeat the other. You can have black liberation and power without colonizing others based on race, but that wasn’t the discussion to be had here because…well Disney.
  3. Everett Ross: Am I the only one that felt super uncomfortable with how big of role this character had? Everett (Martin Freeman) is a CIA agent who becomes a key puzzle piece in the story that without, T’Challa can’t succeed.…i.e. a white savior. This character was originally only supposed to be present as comic relief. It’s evident in many of his earlier scenes and Wikipedia told me. But then you blink and he’s a major player in the story and ultimately a hero. Again, it felt like a larger studio hand trying to appease certain moviegoers. But how many action films have people of color given our money to over the years just to see ourselves as mere background fillers, if we are even present at all? Even 1940s all-black films stuck to the major players being all black.

Nevertheless, I’m not saying that these gripes make Black Panther any less of an amazing spectacle with an engrossing story and great performances. It’s still an incredible film that I can’t wait to revisit again! These gripes are just constructive criticisms and a means to always demand that creators of these types of stories get full control and say over all aspects of it. I recognize that although politics are laid on heavily in Black Panther, it’s not up to this film to fix everything wrong and questionable in our society. Coogler definitely deserves the credit and celebration for trying though. Of all the super hero films I’ve watched over the years, this is among my favorite for its story and aesthetics, as well as seeing hairstyles that I can try, colors that are flattering for my skin tone and scenarios I that I can put myself in. One of the simplest joys of movie watching is being able to see yourself in a picture for means of escaping into that world. Thank you, Black Panther, for letting us get to do this!

SEE IT. For the culture. 

I, Tonya (2017); And a Superb Screenplay That Got Snubbed

January 24, 2018

With Oscar nominations in, I’m surprised that for once I’m not completely put off by what the Academy has deemed “award worthy” this year. The lack of snubs are relatively few and far between but there was one snub this year that shocked and disappointed me, and that’s Steven Roger’s glorious screenplay for I, Tonya going unrecognized. But hey, you can’t please everyone. I can’t seem to get I, Tonya off my mind since seeing it last weekend. It was a striking movie-going experience that completely smashed my expectations of what a film of its type could be. Initially I was trepid going into it. Did I really need to see the story of person that potentially had something to do with a career-defining attack on an opponent for personal glory? Why should she have a story about her life when Nancy Kerrigan doesn’t? I’m supposed to have sympathy for Tonya because she was poor and troubled? I, Tonya addresses these interrogations with a resounding “well, yeah.”

I, Tonya doesn’t glorify Harding nor does it make you feel sorry for her, at least that’s not the intention of the text at hand. Instead it empathizes with the former figure skating champion. Through a mockumentary style of storytelling, it gives her and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a chance to tell their side of a complicated story, something that didn’t happen during the sensationalized incident and subsequent trial. Harding never had a chance to be American’s sweetheart or a respected champion despite her talent and the hard work she underwent to overcome poverty and years of abuse to achieve in her field. Most of Harding’s decline was due to her personal life spiraling out of control and the fact that her “white trash” persona didn’t vibe well with judges.

For as far back as I can remember, Harding has always been guilty for the attack on Kerrigan in 1994. I grew up during the wall to wall coverage of the case and remember Harding constantly being the butt of SNL skits, late night segments and reality television. I even remember her attempted comeback as a women’s boxer years later. Since those days my reaction to Harding has been one filled with callous indifference much like most of the country. She was a joke. And why shouldn’t she be? She was responsible for, if not aware of, the attack on Kerrigan. A character in the film sums this assumption up pretty perfectly when he stats that if you let some people tell it, Harding was right there bashing Kerrigan’s knee in herself on that fateful day over 20 years ago.

While it’s a little too on the nose at times, Roger’s screenplay serves as a reminder of how heavily influential the media coverage on Harding indicted her before she was ever put on trial. The film’s intention isn’t to say that Harding was completely innocent, on the contrary, it highlights her inconsistent stories, vulgarity and her own self-destructive behavior. It also merely reiterates that no one knows 100% what she did or didn’t know except those involved. Harding wasn’t found guilty of committing the crime. Her guilty verdict was for conspiring to hinder the prosecution itself. Regardless, I, Tonya doesn’t seek to portray her as an innocent bystander but it does indict the American public for continuously eating up sensationalist bullshit slopped on our plates without ever thinking to ask what it’s made it.

Roger’s script is a marvelous piece of dark comedy that presents the topic at hand with unmitigated levity, so much so that it reminded me of a pre-code film from the early 1930s, in which you’re shocked that you’re laughing at the brutality of human behavior. Robbie is a knockout as Harding and presents the figure skating icon in a sympathetic light without selling us an image of a “good girl.” Harding made poor decisions in her life and found herself clawing up for air when those decisions proved to hold too much weight. Robbie perfectly captures these character flaws while the script reminds us of Harding’s age and the influences around her, like her abusive mother and husband.

Robbie slides delicately between meek vulnerability and fierce gruffness. The screenplay gives Robbie her moment to shine as an actress and she rises to the occasion. But it’s the ensemble cast that truly makes this film as gripping and entertaining as it is. Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn completely steal the show by mastering the complex dynamics in their characters through natural performances that truly sell the incredulous sequence of event that unfold. Janney delivers one of the better performances of her career as Harding’s hard-nosed, abusive mother LaVona, who justifies her behavior by convincing herself that her brutality is out of care for her daughter. Janney is so good that it’s believable.

What struck me the about I, Tonya is how it conjures up thoughts of all of the other poor schmucks whose faces and names become staples on 24-hour news cycles until the next story takes hold and pushes it off. While the world moves on to the next case or hot story, the real-life person who has just been dragged around piece by piece must figure out how to navigate their life in a society that has now deemed them “undesirable” despite what the court of law has ruled. The most poignant scene that drives this point home come when Jeff explains how one day the media just left like it was all a bad dream after being camped on his front lawn for weeks. We watch as he crosses to his window to see a silent front yard and single news van packing up its last bit of equipment before driving off, while his television shows O.J. Simpson being surrounded by cameras the day after the death of Nicole. It’s funny how we detach a person’s humanity from them once they’ve become a staple in the media. And when I say funny I mean fucked up. Some people may watch this film and not see the importance of it under the veil of its straightforward plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed I, Tonya. In fact, I think it’s one of my favorite films of 2017.

SEE IT. 

An Open Letter to Coco (2017); and How it Connects with My Own Journey to Finding and Honoring My Ancestors.

January 17, 2018

Dear Coco,

       I really enjoyed watching watching your story unfold the other night. You stirred something deep inside of me that made me ugly cry hard in a theater full of people; a cry so guttural and visceral that I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to get my shit together. I was speechless after seeing you and it took effort to process all of the emotions coursing through me afterwards. I deeply appreciate how you worked against my expectations while still confining yourself to the typical arc of an animated story of your type. Who knew that an animated movie about a boy grappling with his love for music in a family that despises it (because a great, great, great grandfather walked away from the family for a musician’s career) would actually be a reminder to honor our ancestors, respect our heritage, and appreciate our culture. Coco you managed to be simple on the surface in order to outline more complex themes that are all too relevant in our society. You set your sights on reminding us of the harsh reality that families are broken up every day because of a lack of I.D. or policies made by isolated politicians who don’t see your story as plainly as you laid it out. You reminded us of border walls, of DACA, of parentless children who grow up with a warped sense of their heritage because an important piece of there life is missing or left behind. And yet, you still somehow spoke to me on an individual level.

       I’ll let you in on some personal insight, Coco: I just recently traced my DNA back to the mother land. Before Christmas I took the Ancestry.com DNA test and since receiving my results, I’ve called multiple family members to ask them about our family tree and any great, great grandparents that they may know. My father, mother, and great aunt provided me what they could but the tree does branch out beyond slavery just yet. Since childhood, when I first started asking where my family derives from more than two generations back, I’ve been met with uncertainty at the answer and admittance that my family just never thought to ask about those things before—no doubt the result of growing up in country ruled by white supremacy that often broke up the Black family and didn’t bother to keep records of early African American family history.

       But that hasn’t stopped the excitement that rises from each family member when they hear what I’ve learned during this process. Everyone seems giddy, anxious even, to discover members of the family we never knew about. There’s an innate desire to find the ancestors we didn’t know existed, or remember those we haven’t thought about in years. And Coco, you came at the right time to serve as a nice bookend to the pages I’m attempting to fill in about my heritage. I’m not going to lie to you Coco, I had some some issues with your storytelling methods and there’s a gaping plot hole that you practically fall through by the third act. There are also some existential, religious qualms I had, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss that because I recognize you are an animated film that just wanted to put your people and Mexican culture on your back. And you did a fantastic job of doing so. You were insightful, introspective, and beautiful to watch, and for that Coco I thank you.

Sincerely,

The Cinehpiliac

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Processing My Feelings About Phantom Thread (2018)

January 15, 2018

I just finished watching Phantom Thread… and hmm. I’m still trying to pinpoint how and what I’m supposed to feel walking away from it. This review serves more as a personal workshop for me to formulate those ideas for a final consensus. I don’t have strong emotions towards the film either way, but I’m not necessarily indifferent to it. This listless confusion is either the result of watching a physically beautiful yet strongly underdeveloped story unfold or just a typical reaction to Paul Thomas Anderson being Paul Thomas Anderson. I can’t decide. Phantom Thread is a simple tale of a woman (Vicky Krieps) who falls in love with a complicated man: Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), London’s premiere fashion designer. Their romance moves along swiftly without notions of time after their meet cute takes place while the woman, Alma, is waitressing. Seemingly drawn together by fate, Alma serves as a muse of sorts for Reynolds while he in turns grants her a life of luxury and elegance. Alma becomes enthralled with being Reynolds’ partner but soon vies for all of his attention; a complicated want of a narcissistic man with obsessive tendencies. But Alma soon proves she’ll do anything to keep Reynolds’ attention no matter how messy things may get.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s patient camera movements paired with Johnny Greenwood’s decadently classical score makes for a hypnotic story that flutters along; and while Alma and Reynolds’s relationship is the film’s centerpiece, audiences are treated to gorgeous sequences interspersed throughout of cutting, sewing, designing, and presenting the lovely gowns that Reynolds and his older sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), oversee. Day-Lewis, in his final performance as we know it, is wonderfully subdued more than usual here. He plays his character with considerable delicacy that adds an extra layer to an already rigid man with crystallized thoughts about the world outside of his own head. Day-Lewis’ on screen presence pairs sensationally with Manville, whose character’s own sanctimoniousness is worn on her sleeve. Manville is without a doubt the film’s MVP. She commands attention whenever she’s on screen and humorously delivers some of the most stinging blows from the script.

But there’s something missing from Phantom Thread that doesn’t make the events of the story add up or make the characters stable enough for me to feel one way or the other by the end. There seems to be a thread missing if you will that ties this story together. Characters are motivated by their own greed, their own egotism, their own delusions of grandeur and even fate but there’s still a surface level motivation missing from the text to truly understand why these characters accept their fate. Alma serves as the film’s narrator as she relays the saga of her relationship with Reynolds to another character. Yet it still feels like we don’t know anything about her. In perhaps the only bit of insight into Alma’s motivations that we get, she admits to feeling that if Reynolds were to die he’d be waiting for her in another life and the life after that. She says this line with a somber delight which further confuses her true intentions as the film progresses.

Alma and Reynolds’ relationship is one built on toxic co-dependency. Though the glow of soft lighting follows Alma and Greenwood’s score screams romance, Phantom Thread isn’t a romantic story. Their relationship doesn’t conjure up feelings of hope or good will. It feels sullied. It’s two lonely people who aren’t good for each other putting up with the other’s shortcomings for reasons that aren’t fully detailed. So maybe Paul Thomas Anderson delivered a cynical romance that I wasn’t prepared for– perhaps that’s where my confusion stems from. Or maybe the story just isn’t fleshed out well enough for this film to work. It’s not on the level of Magnolia in its convoluted pretentiousness but it’s also not as profound as The MasterPhantom Thread follows the same motifs of Anderson’s work but it feels less accessible to a larger audience. That’s not a good or bad thing, it just makes it hard for me to convincingly recommend it to more people.

SEE IT. If you’re a fan of PTA’s most recent films and are used to him creating interesting stories that don’t really make sense.

Call Me By Your Name (2017); And How a Fabulous Cinematographer Can Make A Mediocre Film Award Bait

January 2, 2018

Call me by Your Name is the type of film that feels like a sentimentalist’s wet dream in cinematic form. One that’s complete with tantalizing images coated in warm natural light that radiates a feeling of contentment back to its viewers. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeproom is largely responsible for this effect and any sense of tenderness that audiences may feel. Shot on 35mm and possessing a keen eye for atmospheric detail, Mukdeeproom’s work allows the images on screen to gush in rich, deep-tones that holds on to fragments of lint and dust floating around. Mukdeeproom is a magician of his craft, transforming the  artificial light used throughout the production of Call Me by Your Name into a soft and sensual lighting source that feels natural to the environment. This feeling of authenticity affects how viewers relate to these characters. Unfortunately, Luca Guadagnino’s weak direction prevented me from heralding this as an impressive piece of art or moving in any sense of the word.

Don’t get me wrong, Guadagnino is a competent visual storyteller able to conjure realistic performances from his subjects on screen. Together with James Ivory’s script, Guadagnino captures tender moments and hanging glances during emotionally charged scenes of dialogue. For instance, a beautifully captured scene in which Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) proves he’s dad of the year by meeting his heartbroken son with love and understanding encouraging him to revel in the passion and pain that love brings. It’s scenes like this that tug at your heartstrings and pulls you into the film. Too bad Guadagnino can’t grasp how to capture moments when nothing is being said.

Audiences follow Elio (Timotheé Chalamet), a teenage Jewish American in 1983 spending his summer in the Italian countryside with his family. The son of wealthy intellectuals, Elio spends his leisure time reading books and composing music. His summer gets shaken up when an American graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), joins his family as a personal research assistant to his archaeologist father. What begins as a contrarian relationship between Elio and Oliver soon develops into a sexual attraction, despite Elio’s blossoming relationship with a friend Marzia (Ester Garrel). The two men embark on a seemingly secret fling that grows more passionate as Oliver’s days with the family wanes creating complications in matters of the heart.

But Call Me by Your Name is too inconsistent in its filmmaking style and character development—which were largely responsible for snatching me out of the film— to prompt any pure emotional connection from developing. I’ll even go out on a limb to say that any feeling of romanticism felt toward this film is due to Mukdeeprom’s wash of nostalgia and love over these dry, underdeveloped moments. By the time the film comes to its meditative and extremely personal ending, I felt confused by the sounds of sniffles around me in the theater as I couldn’t understand how anyone made a connection to these characters.

Guadagnino makes thematic decisions that serve little to no purpose or make sense (the insertion of vocal tracks halfway into the film’s score for one). He has a penchant for focusing on objects and moments when these objects and moments don’t possess a clear purpose to the story. In one scene, a deadline is given to Elio, a deadline so important that all day he continually checks his watch and asks for the time (the bright sunlight during these scenes already answers his inquiries). As the deadline approaches he is shown entertaining guests while the camera focuses on his watch, which is off. This happens multiple times throughout the sequence leading to a heighten sense of tension as we anticipate the likelihood that Elio will miss his deadline. But that’s not the case and time becomes absolutely irrelevant to the scene. Multiple times this happens throughout the film with Guadagnino zooming in here and focusing for longer than usual there adding a false sense of tension to scenes only to reveal continuous monotony as the story drudges on.

Which leads to my biggest gripe with Call Me by Your Name. Nothing happens. The little tension that does exist comes from the relationship that develops between Elio and Oliver in a very Sam and Diane—will they, won’t they— trope. The film’s sole focus is the sexual awakening of Elio and his blossoming love affair with Oliver. But it takes time for the story to get there which leaves much of the first act and a chunk of the 2nd hanging on quick glimpses into this family’s laid-back summer. On one hand, it’s an aesthetic Xanax that makes you warm and fuzzy over the feeling of serenity that is ever present in the beautiful landscape of the Italian countryside. On the other, it’s a snail-paced build up to a relationship that feels forced and shallow. Oliver’s aloof arrogance throughout the first half of the film doesn’t explain his sudden passion for Elio by the middle, while Elio’s passion for Oliver feels more like a confused admiration rather than love or even lust.

Call Me by Your Name tends to feel too art-house and elitist at times. We are surrounded by these intellectuals who all feel the need to one up each other in the realm of sputtering out facts for no reason other than to show their superiority. The family realize that Olivier will fit in when he matches wit with the father correcting a statement on the origins of the word “apricot” (it derives from German instead of Arabic as the father assumed). When Oliver requests that Elio repeat the beautiful tune he’s strumming on a guitar, Elio responds oddly by showboating his talents as a musician. He takes Oliver to the piano room and proceeds to play various versions of the tune as if *insert classic pianist here* were to play Bach. These moments ramble on for too long from a stable distance and never adds anything to either character except their own sense of self-importance.

I contend that this prevents Call Me by Your Name from being inviting or accessible to a larger audience. It’s a film that inflates the ego of the creators and pats those intellectuals, who unironically enjoyed those moments on the back, since naturally intellectuals and artists will ultimately serve as this film’s core base. Because of this it misses the opportunity to be a sensual coming of age story that’s relatable to anyone who’s fallen in love. Call Me by Your Name lacks the proper tools to be an effective coming of age tale as Elio doesn’t learn anything except heartache. He uses a friend for his own pleasure ignoring her wishes to not get hurt by him. He in turn hurts her without a second thought and there is no atonement for his deed or for any of his truly selfish moments in the film. Neither Elio or Oliver comes of age, they just fall into a sexual relationship filled with passion but no heart. I’d rather this have been a film that leaned into its sexuality instead of playing it in the back and pretending this is a love story when it’s clearly not. But thanks to Mukdeeprom’s tasteful cinematography, I understand why many will think it is.

SEE IT. With reservations and if for nothing else but it’s beauty.

Race, Gender, and Cinematic History: Ramblings on Aida Overton Walker and Clara Bow

November 15, 2017

I don’t intend for this essay to degrade all men or shame them. That’s not my job nor do I care to do so. Anyway, I think our current climate is doing fine taking care of that. This is just a means to further extrapolate on the struggles that women, Black and non-Black, endure strictly because of our genetic makeup. Beyond that however, this is just an excuse to write about two amazing women that I feel aren’t heavily touted in history the way they deserve. I’ll start with an anecdote:

Over the weekend I went to a bar and began making small talk with a male stranger. Somehow, per usual with my conversations, the small talk turned into a deep political conversation teeming with complicated topics like race, crime rate, confirmation bias, and the current deluge of sexual assault allegations coming out of Hollywood and within the political sphere. In response to this part of the discussion in which myself and another woman sitting with him explained just how common aggressive sexual advances can be, the man responded to our explanation by saying that he knew of men that were raped and sexually assaulted too. “So women,” he said with his hands up in earnest sincerity, “I get it.”

While his assessment that sexual assault knows no discrimination is correct, what this guy could not comprehend in his drunken arrogance and privileged views on the world was one simple truth: no, you don’t get it and you never will unless you’ve personally endured it. The recent window of allegations that has opened may give us all a deeper look into the imbalance of power in the world—despite women comprising of half the global population—but it certainly doesn’t allow any of us to truly understand what women who come forward to reveal abuse, and those who don’t, are grappling with. I think it’s important that we all remember to not confuse sympathy with empathy because to do so is a fallacy that makes us believe we are able to handle the weight of someone else’s tragedies.

Our individual struggles are too nuanced and loaded to be written off as a simple “I’ve never encountered your pain, but I get it.” Similarly, women will never understand the weight of sexual assault endured by a man; nor will white people understand being Black and navigating through America; nor will able-bodied citizens grasp what it’s like to be a lifelong disabled body citizen. Even financial destitution can never be truly understood by someone who hasn’t endured it. Hypothetical mental gymnastics don’t solve these issues. However, I believe it is our duty as human beings to validate one another’s experiences and commit to making this difficult existence we are all born into easier for each other. If for nothing else but for the simple fact that we have all consciously agreed to take part in a society that places you at a disadvantage based on non-controllable forces and occurrences.

This realization seized me the next night after that bar talk when I fell into a rabbit hole of history. These days an internet spiral is more of a chore than a pleasure, but the other night I possessed a laser like focus when revisiting the lives of two women in the early 20th century: Aida Overton Walker and Clara Both. Both are idols of mine that have appeared in my life years ago through synchronicity. Bow during a silent movie obsession I possessed in my youth despite having never watched a silent film at that time, and Aida appeared during my research on Black women in cinematic history, although she’s never appeared in a film. On this night, while spending the better part of 3 hours deep diving into each woman’s life, my heart broke repeatedly at how their careers were eclipsed and their histories almost erased because of the times the lived in.

Aida possessed an arresting glow that went beyond physical beauty. She currently decorates my cubicle at work as a constant reminder of the glamour and resiliency held by Black women during the turn of the century, an era of unbridled determination and self-awareness that many aren’t aware existed then. Growing up, I was privileged enough to have countless Black women to admire. During my childhood, there was a boom of Afrocentrism that swept over the Black community and bleed into the mainstream culture. I had television, movies, and music to remind me of the beauty of my people, of our creativity, of our place in American society and our culture. We were fierce then, unrelenting. Most importantly we were multifaceted. We were nerds, thugs, models, cool kids, smart, intelligent and we knew our history. The exposure was short-lived. It seemed by the time I grew into my adolescence all of this disappeared. Our representation got squandered once again forcing us into one-dimensional caricatures: video girls, rappers, strippers; mammies, toms, and coons.

That knowledge of history was no longer present in my life within pop culture. I had to search for it and there was little encouragement to do so. That is until I watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in high school. Lee’s biting commentary about a television producer finding unwanted success when he reverts to coonery shook me to the core. I was struck with an unshakable need to truly know the history of my people and not just our capture, enslavement, and civil rights achievements. Blacks have made profound contributions to American culture but most of us grow up only learning about 5% of it. Little white boys that I knew in middle school used to regurgitate the poisonous beliefs that Blacks hadn’t contributed anything to America. They thought we only made rare achievements now and then. This thought process was so prevalent that it began to leech into my subconsciousness. Though I luckily shook free of that belief, it taunts thoughts of Americans all across the country. Bamboozled helped teach me the importance of not only knowing my culture’s history but communicating that education so that it’s not rewritten by the wrong hands.

Aida Overtone Walker was aware of this over a century ago when she lit up the stage and captivated both American and British audiences with her talents. Considered the “Queen of the Cake Walk” (the electric slide of its day), Aida was a vaudeville triple threat. She didn’t seek to become merely successful on the stage, but she worked to change the hearts and minds of those who witnessed her. She wanted to uplift the Black race and refused to partake in the status quo of performing demeaning roles and donning black face even though her stage partners, husband George Walker and stage actor Bert Williams, did so. Aida’s fight for proper representation seeped into her performances and dance numbers which guided her overseas to London where she taught elite, high-class society members these lessons as well.

by Cavendish Morton, sepia glossy print on printing-out paper, 1903

At the height of Aida’s fame, a popular, often salacious dance was trending in the theatre world. The “dance of the seven veils” or “Salomé’s” dance, was a sexually charged number that Aida wanted to reexamine. Oscar Hammerstein, I invited her to perform her version of Salomé on his famed Rooftop Theatre. Instead of given audiences what they expected, she performed the dance with emotion, modesty, and creativity. From records of the performance, Aida delivered a truly feminist inspired performance that pissed off some because they wanted eroticism and impressed others. Aida was sick of seeing Black women be the object of sexual desire while being stereotyped as deviants. She showed that this dance, salacious in nature and usually written by men, could possess emotion and intention.

Aida became one of the only Black performers to showcase her talents in exclusively white New York theaters and is known for evolving her career into an artistic, highly influential one. Nevertheless, Aida’s career was short-lived and she died from kidney related illness in 1914 at 34 years old. It hurts me to my core that her beauty and talent managed to just miss the mark of getting crystallized on film. The same year that William D. Foster, one of the first African American filmmakers, completed The Railroad Porter in 1912, Aida and her longtime partner Williams cut ties over creative differences. A year later, Williams would star in Lime Kiln Field Day, the oldest surviving all-Black film. Although the film was abandoned during its post-production, the Museum of Modern Art recently restored and premiered it in 2014.

Two years after Aida’s death, Noble and George Johnson founded The Lincoln Motion Picture Company and produced socially conscious Black films setting the stage for Oscar Micheaux to follow in their footsteps making history as the most recognizable Black filmmaker of the early 1900s. Lack of funding and plain old racism prevented these companies and directors from continuing on, but imagine— just for a few seconds— how great it could have been had all these pieces fallen into enlightenment. Perhaps Aida would be arm in arm with Williams in the publicity stills for Lime Kiln Field Day. Perhaps her success and clout could have helped float the Black film companies of the time. Maybe America could have seen proper representation of Black women earlier than Hollywood allowed. It’s a silly fantasy, but as a classic film lover it’s one I’ll revisit for years to come.

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Now let’s talk about Clara, shall we? An actress that blessed the screen during the 1920s and 30s, Clara Bow possesses perhaps the most tragic tale of an attempt to break into the business as well the most inspirational story of how hope and determination can grant anyone the power to change their own destiny. Clara wasn’t supposed to be a star. She knew that and everyone around her knew it. She was a mealy little tomboy from Brooklyn who felt more comfortable hopping trains and playing baseball in the streets with the boys in her neighborhood. By her own accord, she never fit in and the girls at her school reminded her of this on a consistent basis. Clara grew up in a household with a mentally unstable mother, a father who worked relentlessly with bad luck on his side, and a house filled with painful memories and death. Clara found solace in the moving pictures which rustled a deep awakening in her soul that made her feel destined to be on the screen.

Doors tend to open when you’re determined and desire something. It’s up to you to walk through them when they do. Clara walked through, only to have subsequent doors repeatedly slammed in her face but she clung to the dream of being on the big screen to provide the hope for someone else that way the movies did for her. At 16, she heard of a contest for a bit part in a movie. She jumped at the opportunity although everyone made sure she knew what little faith they had in her attempts. By this point she was virtual outcast. Puberty had made her a young woman and to her despair all the boys she once called friends now treated her differently seeing her as a sexual object. She was regularly made to feel like the punchline of a perfect job by peers. Even when her own father attempted to defend her decision to go into acting to Clara’s mother, he told shat she may not be pretty but she was different.

Still, Clara tried. She won the contest and landed a role in a film. But life didn’t make anything for easy for Ms. Bow. Her part was cut when the film made its way to theaters. She dropped out of school having already missed multiple days commuting for the film. She spent the next 3 or so years hanging around studios and taking scrap parts. In that time, her mother attempted to murder her, had a nervous breakdown, then eventually died which sent Clara into depression. But just when her lips met the grainy refuge of rock-bottom she was offered a lead part. Her ambition and hard work was paying off and she continued receiving bigger roles but worked for hours on ends while her selfish agent manipulated her into thinking her career would fold at any moment.

The insiders of Hollywood kept the talented actress at arm’s length finding her tomboyish nature and honest candor off putting. Although she had become a huge star and a box office success by the late 1920s, she was struggling to stay sane as rumors about her private life clouded her reputation. She was made more of an outcast after baring her soul to the public through a short autobiography printed in Photoplay Magazine. The Hollywood elite recoiled at her brazen honesty. They steered clear of the tomboy from Brooklyn who was their equal. They excluded her from their inner circle as the press continued to hound her and fabricate atrocious stories about her life.

Bow was successful well into the Talkie Age and her talent continued to stay prevalent but her renegade personality left her on the fringes of what has been deemed worthy to be written about the same way the Hollywood elite scoffed at her in her heyday. With every inch of success that Clara achieved, scandal and hard times rocked her world. Before long the silver screen beauty with the expressive eyes and girlish charms retired from the business at 33 then spiraled into mental instability. After spending time in a sanitorium where she was given electric shock therapy on a regular basis, she left her husband and two children opting to live with a nurse until she died at 60. History attempted to erase Clara and many “authorities” on classic cinema history left her out of serious conversations on the silent era.

Bow’s initial treatment and Aida’s erasure from the conversation of important Black figures in history are examples and symptoms of a society that doesn’t value women or people of color. Thankfully, our cultural fabric is currently ripping at the seams and going through a massive shift. Thought most Americans aren’t aware how to respond to it, our status quo is changing and it’s for the best. Maybe now we can see prolonged peace and prosperity for those who’ve been given the short end of the stick for centuries thanks to racial inequality, gender bias, ableism, socio-economic discrimination, and ageism among the few. The unbalanced scales that have barely held us together as country are finally being recognized. To equalize the playing field and ensure we end the age of gender discrimination and white supremacy, we must first recognize the humanity in one another and respect each other’s history. We must stop treating the achievements of minorities as if they are one off, rare exceptions and instead properly give credit where it is due.

Perhaps it’s because the internet has made us impervious to ignoring our history. Perhaps we’ve just hit that inevitable point in the spiral where progressive tendencies are reaching out before conservatism makes its return. Either way the tides are changing and the struggles endured by minorities who fought to make a difference deserve their time in the spotlight so that we can all begin to empathize. If Aida and Clara’s own struggles taught me nothing else, it’s resilience in the face of resistance. It’s self-assuredness in spaces where others are unsure of you. It’s listening to that crackling fire within that drives you to believe in something more than yourself. I didn’t have to walk these women’s paths to understand their struggle. All I had to do was listen to their stories, validate their experiences, and promise myself that I will do what needs to be done to correct the problems they endured rather than contribute to it.

Perfect Blue (1997); And Our Complicated Relationship with Celebritism

October 9, 2017

Watching Perfect Blue was intense, gripping even—so much so that I’m still processing my way through it. As a story, it does many things right in the realm of being an effective psychological thriller, and yet I still feel slightly unsatisfied and partially gypped. Perfect Blue is an anime that I suggest every cinephile that’s ever said or thought the phrase, “I’m just not into anime” watch, especially if films among the same vein as Jacob’s Ladder and Fatal Attraction piques interest. It’s a beaming example of how animation can stand toe to toe with live action film and even heighten a story’s tension in ways that live action can’t. Satoshi Kon’s cerebral thriller follows Mima, a pop star that’s grown tired of her suffocating lifestyle as a singer and yearns for a change in trajectory. Having received praise for a previous acting gig, she sets her sights on becoming a thespian hoping to shed her good girl image with a role in a television drama akin to Law & Order.

However, not everyone is happy with Mima’s decision and she becomes just one of the many attempting to adjust to her career change. Unbeknownst to her, an adoring fan is vexed with Mima’s pop idol persona and angered by the shedding of her status as a singer. That disdain begins to be expressed in sinister ways. Meanwhile a website known as “Mima’s Room” appears online documenting the day to day feelings and actions of “Mima” the pop star to the complete shock of the real Mima. The resulting events cause the former idol to fall into a world of hallucination and depression as she begins to question if she’s even the real Mima or a fraud.

Don’t let the cartoon nature of this film turn you off if you aren’t savvy to the world of anime. Perfect Blue is a chilling thriller that foretold the dark side of internet impersonation at a time when computers were still a novelty. In one scene, we watch as Mima is taught how to open a browser and search the web when she first hears about Mima’s Room. She adorably hunts and pecks at the keyboard upon initial use and finds delight in reading the silly diary entries that seems to have her persona down to a T. It’s only when she begins to recognize private thoughts and unconscious patterns sprawled out in this online diary that she grows uneasy. We then take a hard turn into the uncanny and unreal sending viewers and Mima down a rabbit hole of delusions as we experience her nervous breakdown unfold in dreamlike ways.

And perhaps this is why I felt largely frustrated when watching Perfect Blue and completely unnerved by the ending. Not simply because of the reality that people can become truly unhinged by the status of a celebrity. It seems like human nature to fawn over someone that has been deemed “famous.” Humans tend to develop a physiological reaction to another human being that is socially adorned, or one that we admire: we excrete sweat, the heart starts to race, the senses heighten, outbursts of crying can happen, fainting, and simply losing any sense of “chill” one may possess. Some fans take this reaction a step further by wanting to become their idol or inflict harm on their idol or others because of this obsession. These are all things I’m aware of. My own reactions to celebrities and the movie/show Catfish alone have been a reminder of that. What struck me most was the all to real social responses to Mima’s decisions as well as having to watch her struggle in dealing with the pressures of the spotlight alone.

What Mima experiences is an unfortunate scenario that many talents thrust into the spotlight have dealt with and many more will suffer from. This coupled with the blatant disregard for her mental health shook me to the core. I found myself angry throughout the film. I victim-blamed Mima throughout by barking at the screen how she should stand up for herself against doing things she didn’t want to do. It took a humanizing scene in which we watch Mima fall to her bed sobbing in frustration for me to remember why this young woman—or any woman in a business that is willing to throw you away for the next hot commodity— refused to put up a fight.

It’s the same reason that movie producer Harvey Weinstein and countless others like him have been able to abuse their power and sexually harass women for so long. Mima fakes smiles when her agent tells her to because she doesn’t want to appear unhappy or ungrateful. She takes on a challenging, unpleasant role in the drama series because she doesn’t want to disappoint the people who worked hard to give her extra lines. She continues to work on set because she feels pressured to, even after two co-workers are murdered and she feels responsible for it. She carries a mountain of guilt and uncertainty on her back that is only made heavier by a string of harassments thrown her way.

And not once does anyone in her team offer her a shoulder to cry on or suggests that she take a break. As Sadayuki Murai’s script reveals, society as a whole refuses to sympathize with celebrities. We instead treat them like work horses who are supposed to grit and bear whatever tragedy or hurdle is thrown their way because they’re making lots of money: You’re in the spotlight, so smile; Don’t whine about politics, you’re a millionaire; Don’t complain about how hard it is to be a woman or a minority, be happy you made it; Get over your “bad day”, you’re rich; Get your shit together because I’m paying you and you should be grateful; Never mind that you’re a human doing a job.

Mima begins to suffer memory loss, depression, fainting spells, delusions and all the other telltale signs of a nervous breakdown and though everyone around her sees it, no one responds. No one is there for her and instead they further gaslight her about the very real fear that she’s experiencing forcing her to suffer alone. This element of Perfect Blue is all too real and more chilling than the creepy villain and the heart-pounding venture that ensues. Perfect Blue reflects on where we were in 1997, far worse but virtually the same as we are now. When I think of the people whose lives succumbed to the fact that those around them didn’t reach out because they had something to gain, I’m infuriated all over again that the we as a society have trained ourselves to let people suffer alone instead of being empathetic and caring.

Murai’s adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel traps viewers into a web of scenarios that feel out of place only to act as a thread that connects us to a scene before or after. The colors are wonderful, the animation is tight and clean, and the ability to capture fear and tension within the story is tastefully done by Kon. It possesses all the best elements of a slasher film while being smart enough to present a social critique on how we turn a human being into an image, an avatar if you will, that we then project our own thoughts and beliefs onto. The most enlightening and tragic realization after watching Perfect Blue is that the true villain in Mima’s life is show business.

SEE IT. Then think of your favorite celebrity or persona. How would you react if they went against everything you thought you knew about them?

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