I come to a lot of the movies I watch cold, or close to it. Mostly this comes because I keep endless lists of movies to watch, and by the time I get around to something, I’ve long forgotten why it ended up on the list. Requests are also like this ... someone recommends a movie, I put it on my Requests List. When I watch it, it’s brand new to me, no matter how old it is.
Quartet was recommended just a couple of weeks ago, though, so I didn’t have time to forget it. “Forget” may be the wrong word, though, because until it was recommended, I had never heard of it. Since I like being “spoiler-free” to a certain extent, when someone recommends a movie, I instantly start ignoring their descriptions ... eventually I’ll watch it, until then, details are pointless.
Despite all of this, I found, as I watched Quartet, that I knew all about it, no matter my efforts to remain clueless. Because Quartet is completely lacking in any surprises. When a brief summary tells you everything you need to know, surprises are pretty much impossible.
A who’s who of aging British actors (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon) live in a home for retired musicians. A gala benefit is planned to keep the home from going bankrupt, and the highlight is intended to be a famous quartet of opera singers (see the first four listed above) reprising their greatest hit. But two of the four are still stewing over a relationship from the past, so it looks like the reprise will not happen. Guess what? Everyone makes up, and the quartet get back together.
Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s first film as a director, and here again, there are no surprises. Quartet was originally a play, and Hoffman dispenses with the kind of “opening up” film makers often use to disguise theatre roots. Such a move would just be a lot of work for a neophyte, I guess. It’s irrelevant, since, like many actors-turned-directors, Hoffman proves himself adept at highlighting the work of the actors. None of my complaints really matter, since Maggie Smith et al get to show off their chops.
It all comes across like a reunion show of an old rock band. No one can sing or play as well as they used to, but it’s nice to see they are still trying. In every actor’s case, you can think of several better performances they have given in better movies or television shows. You would never start an examination of their career with Quartet, any more than you would start a study of The Who by looking at the post-Moon/Entwhistle era. Which doesn’t deny the pleasure of seeing these fine actors. It just means everyone, actors and audience alike, can settle for “good enough”. Surprises just get in the way.
You don’t watch Quartet to learn about opera, or about aging. You watch it for the heavy whiff of nostalgia. If this sounds like a good way to spend two hours, you will like Quartet, I assure you. 6/10.
(As many have noted, the best alternative to this film is Amour. Amour, of course, is excruciating to watch.)
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). A series of ghost stories so gorgeous it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective on the quality of those stories. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966 (it lost to The Shop on Main Street), Kwaidan demands our awareness not just of Kobayashi, but also of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and art director Shigemasa Toda. I don’t pretend to know who did what, but the result is stunning. Smartly, considering these are ghost stories, Kobayashi et al do not worry about an exact representation of the real. Instead, they use every available trick to augment the film canvas. The colors are brighter than those worn by circus performers, with the screen often particularly awash in the most dazzling reds. Often, I’ll see a movie like this and think of it as what I call a “coffee table movie”, something that looks so pretty you want to put it out on a coffee table for a friend to browse. But those movies are stagnant ... still photos as demo material. Kwaidan moves too much for a still to fully serve as an example. The format also works in its favor. As beautiful as it is to see, I might eventually get bored with 183 minutes of beauty. (There are alternate versions, including the original U.S. release, which simply removed one of the stories.) But the episodic nature of the film breaks those three hours into more manageable periods. And while this movie is slower, more patient, than the usual horror film, nonetheless the growing tension of each ghost story does mean you always want to know what is coming next (even though the plots don’t always make sense ... not sure they should, to be honest). It’s not easy for me to think of any movie that compares to Kwaidan ... at times I thought of Mario Bava’s anthology, Black Sabbath, but Bava’s style is nothing like Kobayashi’s here. Kwaidan is simply one of a kind, at least until someone points me in the direction of something similar. And I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is frequently so abstract I thought my Bluetooth earphones were broken. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is only Lynne Ramsay’s third feature as a director. This should not imply that the film has the feel of someone still on their learner’s permit, for Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals. Writing about her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote that it was “an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films.” Kevin is equally impressive, but for me, something is still missing. Ramsay is efficient and vague at the same time, leaving movies that are easy to admire but not so easy to like. (I pointed out about Ratcatcher that I didn’t think that was necessarily what she wanted, anyway.) We Need To Talk About Kevin is, in fact, very unlikeable, purposely so, which serves the purpose of forcing the audience to experience the fearful grating of the relationship between mother and son.
Kevin does need to be talked about, although ironically, no one in the movie ever actually does this. He is another one of those troubled teens who wipe out their schoolmates. On the one hand, we never get an explanation of why Kevin is a psychopath, yet even as the film seems to leave such analysis to the viewer, it points towards Kevin’s mother (Tilda Swinton) as somehow being the cause of the craziness. Whether Kevin is just a bad seed or a product of an unloving mother isn’t made clear, but both possibilities lay at least part of the blame on Mom (from what we can see, Kevin takes after his mother more than he does his father, leaving her responsible for his bad genetics).
Kevin is relatively sympathetic to Mom’s plight. Kevin is a truly monstrous kid, as a baby who never quits crying, as a youngster who refuses to be potty-trained, and as a teenage who regularly performs dastardly deeds. Mom is also burdened by Kevin’s ability to charm others into thinking he’s a fine fellow (Dad, in particular, falls for this, telling Mom “he’s just being a boy”). Ramsay pulls no punches: Kevin is sick.
But from the start, Mom is ambivalent about having a kid. If it takes her a long time to really hate Kevin (some might argue she never reaches that point), she can only pretend to love him ... all of her good intentions are constructed, not “natural”, and you get the feeling even Toddler Kevin knows that his mother doesn’t much like him.
The film seems like a mess, but it’s a studied mess, which is to say, it is no mess at all. As noted above, Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing, and the chaos of the splintered chronology of the movie reflects the inner turmoil of Mom. It also means the film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative as much as she wants to show us how Mom experiences her wretched life, an experience that isn’t any clearer to Mom than it is to the audience.
In my earlier review, I cited an excellent video essay by Tony Zhou, “Lynne Ramsay: The Poetry of Details”, which does a great job of showing one way to approach Ramsay’s movies. I remain intrigued by her work, I haven’t yet seen a movie of hers that seems a complete success. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.
If you are going to make a feel-good movie, might as well go all-in. Pride features a boatload of fine British actors, some veterans you have heard of (Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West) and others newcomers, to me at least, who more than hold their own. Based on a true story of a group of gay activists who travel to Wales to support workers during the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5, Pride milks its material in rousing ways, encouraging the audience to identify with the strikers and their gay supporters against the evil power of the state (represented by Margaret Thatcher).
Some of us resist this kind of shameless audience manipulation, but admittedly, Warchus is so good here that resistance is largely futile. You might feel like a heartless fuddy-duddy if you don’t leave the movie with the titular pride in your heart, listening to Billy Bragg remind us that there is power in a union, followed by Jimmy Somerville’s ballad for his friend Mark, a major character in the film.
It’s a bit odd, though, making a feel-good movie about a strike that failed. Which may be why the film is less about labor issues and more about getting together, Kumbaya fashion, in a celebration of the commonalities among all humans. The film offers a powerful statement about the importance of pride in the gay community, emphasized when it concludes with the Lesbian and Gay Pride 85 parade.
The miners and their strike fall by the wayside. The miners themselves are used more as props to further the story of people coming together than they are presented as complicated workers involved in a complicated strike. I don’t pretend to be an expert on that strike, but I know there’s much more to it than what we see in Pride. Whether it’s the strike’s failure, or the decline of the coal industry, or the resulting victory for Evil Thatcher that changed the UK forever, the strike deserves to be more than a backdrop for a story about emergent gay pride. And it’s no surprise that the actual political affiliation of LGSM co-founder Mark Ashton is buried (he was a Communist).
Having said all of this, there is still no denying the way Pride makes us feel good, and does so without resorting to many cheap tricks to wring emotion from the audience. 7/10.
Earlier in the week, Charlie Bertsch posted a Facebook update about a movie he’d seen that inspired, as of this writing, more than 80 replies, and led to an essay by Charlie (“Consider The Lobster”) that extended his original thoughts. (I don’t think it matters what the movie was, and in fact Charlie didn’t tell us at first. It was The Lobster, if anyone cares.) It isn’t exactly true that his update and essay inspired this post, because I was going to watch and write about Winter Light already, but the two viewing experiences fit together nicely. Here is his original update (hopefully, he won’t mind my quoting it):
Charlie Bertsch just spent two hours watching a film that felt at least twice that long. It made him miserable, much of the time. He considered leaving before it was over on several occasions. And he could not bear the ending. Yet he would definitely consider it a worthwhile experience. Certainly, he won't soon forget the film or the discomfort that it caused him.
My first response was that life was too short for such “worthwhile” experiences. But the subsequent discussion, and the essay, makes me realize there was more going on than mere discomfort.
In his essay, Charlie introduces two major points. “For me,” he wrote, “becoming a true cinephile was inextricably bound up with learning to distinguish between the experience of watching films for the first time and the experience of processing them afterwards, whether in exchanges with friends or during second, third or fourth viewings.” I certainly appreciate the importance of post-viewing processing, but I am perhaps too much a child of Pauline “I Only Watch ‘Em Once” Kael to think extra viewings are mandatory. Still, I watch plenty of movies more than once (Winter Light included), and I often find my differing reactions useful. If, as I believe, Kael is partly arguing that our personal experiences while watching a movie (see Shoeshine) enter into our evaluations, then surely watching a movie in 2016 that I last saw in 1973 will be instructive, because I am not the same person.
Charlie takes it a bit further: “I need to be able to distance myself from them once the films are over if I want to produce an analysis that doesn’t merely expand upon that initial rooting interest.” If nothing else, this explains a lot of Charlie’s writing on film (and art in general). I want to believe it, and when I would function as, say, a teacher, I would break down a movie the same way I was trained to break down a poem. Having said that, I am often a victim of my initial rooting interest, so when I saw The Road Warrior when it came out, my response was largely to pick my jaw up off of the floor, and when I saw Fury Road, one reason I loved it was because my jaw ended up in that same place. There is a tension between my rooting and my later analysis, and I am not always as diligent as Charlie about making sure to distance myself at some point.
And so, Winter Light, the second film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Winter Light was Bergman’s favorite of his films, which is believable. I saw the first film in the trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, when I was a teenager, and was much taken with the “schizophrenic” main character. Truth be told, I romanticized her illness, the way misunderstood teenagers will do. I then saw the trilogy in the early-70s when I was a film major (and, truth be told, still a teenager, being 19 at the time). I still loved Through a Glass Darkly, but I thought Winter Light was boring and The Silence ... well, perhaps it gave me discomfort. I remember writing about it for a class, and summarizing that it was “Sick. Sick, sick, sick.” (I really have to see that one again.) Well, I finally returned to Winter Light more than 40 years later, and I think I understand why I was negative about it when I was 19, and why I liked it now that I’m 62.
But first, I need to reiterate that the movie hasn’t changed over those 40+ years, I have changed, and to the extent that my opinion of the film has also changed, I am a poster child for the importance of personal experiences being reflected in the art we take in.
Winter Light is right up my alley, as it would have been in 1973. A pastor is faced with an existential crisis, finding he has lost his faith. According to the IMDB, Bergman’s then wife said, “Yes, Ingmar, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s a dreary masterpiece.” She is correct, but I am no longer convinced, as I probably was in 1973, that dreary=bad. These kinds of crises are dreary as often as not.
I could have been that pastor. By 1973, I, too, had lost my faith, but I wasn’t troubled by this the way a pastor might have been. My great hero at that point (and still) was Dr. Rieux from Camus’ novel The Plague. Rieux confronts the silence of God, and while he may never have been a believer, God’s absence is still oddly present. The plague that attacks the small town in the novel requires a response, and Rieux does his job as a doctor, trying to fight the plague because that’s what you do. While Rieux (the narrator of the novel) refuses to call himself a hero, he acts heroically. He is a role model, in my mind. When I was 19, I had no time for an unbelieving pastor who spent all his time whining about his miseries. It was existentialism without heroism, and that might be closer to true existentialism, but I was 19 and I wanted heroes to look up to. Thus, I dismissed the pastor, and dismissed the film.
Now, though, I see the silliness of my notions of existential heroism. (I still believe in them, I just know they are silly.) I’ve also lived long enough to know I am more like that pastor than I am like Dr. Rieux. So as I watched Winter Light in 2016, I was much more sympathetic to his struggles. And with that sympathy, I became involved in the film in a way I hadn’t before. If in 1973 I thought the 81-minute film must have been more than two hours long, in 2016 I saw and admired the compact nature of those 81 minutes.
I still prefer Through a Glass Darkly ... I can’t lose all of my rooting interest. But Winter Light is a good movie in its own right. “God” help me, I think I’m going to have to watch The Silence again. #470 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 7/10.
(It seems that I am incapable of talking about Bergman without including this SCTV clip)
The film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, and the first in her long association with Sternberg. Sternberg claims she got the part because she acted bored during her screen test, thinking she wasn’t going to get the part, an attitude that was right in line with Sternberg’s idea for the character. The screen test exists, and you can see in the first 30 seconds that this woman has something special. She knows how to smoke a cigarette on camera, she is completely unfazed by her surroundings, it’s all acting but she makes it seem real. Dietrich was in her late-20s and had been in movies for a decade. Some of that early period shows up here ... while with Sternberg’s help, Dietrich later became the woman we know today, that transformation had yet to happen. She’s bulky, with thighs that could kill you (and you’d die happy). The plot may be foolish, but you can certainly understand why Emil Jannings’ aging professor would fall for her.
There are at least two versions ... German-language and English-language versions were filmed simultaneously. (It was the first talkie from Germany.) I saw the English version some years ago, and remember little except it seemed stilted next to the other. I’d say the attitude towards sex was matter-of-fact, and indeed, Dietrich as Lola Lola is a part of that. Except Lola/Dietrich has something special, she knows it, she uses it, and despite Jannings being the “star”, the film is Dietrich’s. There are glimpses of a Lola who cares a little bit for the professor, but in the end, he comes off as a momentary play thing. He, of course, thinks theirs is a romance for the ages.
The latter part of the movie goes by too quickly. The lead up to the professor’s downfall is gradual, but once Lola loses interest, it’s barely any time at all before the professor is in his clown makeup, as if he was trying out for Freaks.
The look of the film is straight out of German expressionism, while the use of sound is interesting to a modern audience without seeming quite right (which is just off-putting enough to add to the distortions of the visuals).
Ultimately, we return to The Blue Angel for Dietrich. It has a place in film history, but beyond that, you have a moderately intriguing movie with a Marlene Dietrich who captures the screen in her every scene. #499 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009). I loved A Separationand The Past, the films Farhadi wrote and directed after About Elly, so my expectations were high. It didn’t quite reach the heights of those other films, but that’s not a dismissal, just a way of noting how great the others are. It suggests L’Avventura, if the characters in that movie actually cared about other people. When a key character disappears, you think you’ll see how “regular” people react to the unexpected loss of a friend. But Farhadi has a way of getting inside his characters, exposing them, helping us understand them even when they are acting poorly. To some extent, About Elly, like the Antonioni film, is less “about Elly” and more about the people who are left behind. What makes About Elly different is that we never lose track of Elly as a character ... she remains important, not just as something to thrust the narrative forward only to be gradually ignored, but as a real person. Antonioni’s movie is ironically titled ... the “adventure” isn’t really what the movie is about. About Elly, on the other hand, shows its hand in the title, without irony. #749 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016). This should really have its own post under “By Request”, since my wife wanted to go see it. But I’m behind on both my movie watching and my movie writing, so it will end up here, instead. This movie could have come out twenty years ago, for all the influence my opinion will have. Not that I have any influence, but Captain America: Civil War has been out for less than a month, and it has already grossed more than $1.1 Billion worldwide. These movies aren’t fool-proof, and it’s true that Civil War is a very good film of its type, but those people who spent that billion dollars don’t need me to tell them that. I don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... it’s a sign of the importance Marvel has convinced us resides in its concept that I feel obliged to list the things I have seen (to be honest, I might have seen a couple of others ... these are the ones I remember): the movies Iron Man, The Avengers, Ant-Man, and now Captain America: Civil War, and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones. I like the movies I’ve seen without feeling like watching them a second time, while I’ve invested lots of time in those TV series, if only because there are so many episodes. For what it’s worth, my favorite MCU character is Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and even that isn’t enough to get me to watch the first Captain America movie, in which she plays a big part. Civil War was as good as the other movies I’ve seen, entertaining for most of its 2 1/2-hour running time, with some good acting from Robert Downey Jr., and an examination of the implications of superheroes that was good to see, if not nearly as important as the cool fight scenes. As I say, this can’t serve as a consumer guide ... one billion dollars makes light of such an idea ... but, as I did with the other MCU films I’ve watched, I’m saying 7/10.
My first attempt at college life came in 1973-4, 2 1/2 years after I’d graduated from high school at the age of 16. I lasted three semesters, and was a film major. Until that point, I had no concrete learning about film. I knew what I liked (even then, it was Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather and Performance), but had no idea why. I didn’t have much of a sense of film history, and I definitely had no theory.
The history took care of itself. In those three semesters, I got a crash course, for the college I attended had the largest free film program in the country (ah, the wonder years before Prop. 13). We’d get a double-bill five nights a week, plus whatever we watched in my classes (most memorably, for better or worse, week after week of silent Ukrainian movies). It stuck with me, so even when, as a grad student in English, I would bitch and moan about the canon and the necessity to know old English literature, I was in good stead in film classes because I had the background most of the young undergrad whippersnappers lacked.
I would spent hours in the film section of the school library, reading as I stood. There was one book in particular ... I wish I could remember the name of it, it was an anthology of pieces on theory, it had a lot of material about Cinéma vérité, and whatever was current in the early 1970s world of film theory. In the meantime, of course, I was beginning my lifelong love affair with Pauline Kael, who offered a very different perspective.
Lindsay Anderson’s name came up a lot in those books. Anderson began as a critic, and helped create the Free Cinema movement. Anderson’s early years as a film maker were spent on documentary shorts, one of which, Thursday’s Children, won an Oscar. His first feature film, This Sporting Life, starred Richard Harris as a rugby player, and was very much a part of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas from England at the time. I read all about this in that college library, but often I was reading about movies I’d never seen. (I can recall a classmate who loved the movies of Preston Sturges. He could go on at length about their greatness. During one conversation, it came out that he’d never actually seen a Preston Sturges movie.)
So, I knew who Lindsay Anderson was. I have vague memories of seeing if.... when it came out, although that was before I was a film major and I knew nothing of Anderson. I never saw another Anderson film, but somewhere in there I caught This Sporting Life, which I remember liking quite a bit.
A few days ago, I finally saw O Lucky Man! It’s the second film in a trilogy (Malcolm McDowell plays the same character he played in if....). As many have noted, in the period between the first and second films in the trilogy, McDowell had starred in A Clockwork Orange, and it was hard to see him in O Lucky Man! without recalling Alex the droog. I can’t speak to 1973, but I can tell you that more than 40 years later, I watched O Lucky Man! and couldn’t get Alex out of my mind, even though the characters are very similar.
O Lucky Man! is full of innovative touches. Musician Alan Price wrote the music, and he and his band turn up throughout the movie as a kind of Greek chorus, performing their songs as commentary to the action. Many actors played multiple roles, and if you think I’m going to complain about a 27-year-old Helen Mirren turning up as more than one character, you don’t know me very well. The movie is expansive, creative, overflowing with ideas.
So why was I so bored? Perhaps it speaks well for O Lucky Man! that I stuck with it until the end of its 3+ hour running time (although I admit in the middle, I watched an episode of Outlander). But it felt episodic to me, and I was rarely taken with the episodes. There was some commentary about class, but it went over my head for the most part, when it wasn't so obvious it was beating that head into submission. I could usually see what Anderson was trying to accomplish, and someone who liked the film more than I did might say he did accomplish his intentions. But I rarely cared, and I admit I preferred Outlander. It’s unfair to a film to watch it in pieces, and I take the blame for that ... partly. But the reason I took a break is that the film wasn’t compelling enough to keep me watching.
If you appreciate artful fantasy, if you love Malcolm McDowell, if you just want to see what kinds of movies were being made in England during the great period of American movies in the 1967-1975 era, by all means, check out O Lucky Man! As for me, 5/10. #984 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Or, for a better way to spend your time contemplating the English films of the era, check out Nicolas Roeg's Performance (directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now.
We watch movies for a variety of reasons. My wife enjoys a classic as much as the next person, but she is also a knitter, and it often works well for her to have a standard TV show or movie running while she knits. She doesn’t always look up at the screen, so dialogue-heavy things are useful, and a sense of familiarity also helps, since she might not be giving her full attention.
And so we browsed through Netflix and decided to watch Survivor. It was only a day ago, and I’ve already forgotten why. Maybe it was the brief descriptive text: “He’s the world’s deadliest assassin and his next target ... is her. The cat-and-mouse game is on. The object: survival.” Maybe it was the cast: Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan were the stars, both usually reliable, and the supporting actors included Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Roger Rees in his last movie, James D’Arcy, and Angela Bassett. Since I wasn’t knitting, my expectations were pretty low ... the very things that make it a good movie for a knitter might be negative for someone actually paying attention. But it’s nice to watch a movie together, and Outlander wouldn’t be on for a few hours.
All of the above should be kept in mind, because if I was grading this on the “Knitting Scale”, I might be kinder. But Survivor is formulaic, dumb, and uninteresting in general, which didn’t quite work for me. You can see some problems in advance. The cast was fairly impressive, a B+ group. I don’t know how much they got paid, but Jovovich, star of the Resident Evil franchise, surely makes more than chump change, and while he’s not getting paid 007 money here, Brosnan was paid around $40 million for his James Bond movies. (On the other hand, Angela Bassett was “only” paid $250k for her Oscar-nominated turn in What’s Love Got to Do With It.) Basically I’m inventing figures out of thin air, but the amount of money spent on the cast for Survivor was surely more than what the actors in Sharknado were paid. Well, the budget for Survivor was $20 million, which is a lot of money, but not so much for an international thriller with some big names in the cast.
My point is that even if they spent all $20 million on non-cast items, Survivor wasn’t exactly The Bourne Identity in the budget department.
Which shouldn’t matter. I watch movies all the time with budgets far lower than $20 million that are fine films. McTeigue has made a few interesting, relatively inexpensive movies in the past, such as his debut, V for Vendetta. (He also directed a couple of episodes of Sense8.)
But for a movie like this to work, everything needs to be tight, the suspense needs to drive the film, you should feel that everyone behind the production was fully invested in what we see on the screen. And that’s just not true. Oh, the actors don’t mail it in ... Jovovich is always good when she’s running around, and Brosnan has some fun playing a bad guy. But there is nothing to make anyone care about the characters, and the action does indeed look like most of the budget went to the stars ... it is a cheap-looking movie, on the level of a TV show. And there are no quirks that show some inventiveness from the film makers. Survivor is by-the-numbers, and the numbers aren’t that interesting, anyway.
If you are a knitter looking for something to take up 96 minutes of your time while you work, by all means, check out Survivor. For the rest of us, 4/10.
Diary of a Teenage Girl has a strong sense of place (San Francisco, 1976). At least it seemed that way to me, a lifelong Bay Area resident who lived across the Bay in Berkeley at that time. The various steps that led to this film show how tied to the area it is. Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the original graphic novel, lived in San Francisco in the mid-70s under circumstances similar to those depicted in the movie and personified by the titular teenage girl, Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley). Gloeckner calls her work fiction, but it is often interpreted as a form of autobiography. Marielle Heller, who also has ties to the Bay Area (her husband is one of the Lonely Island guys who came from Berkeley, and her father-in-law is artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre), was taken by the book and turned it into an off-Broadway play. Gloeckner liked it and gave the film rights to Heller, who eventually wrote and directed the movie. Some of the above probably matters more than other parts, but given the way Heller uses fantastic elements in the film, it’s worth noting how it is rooted in a real place (and time).
What is far more important, of course, is how well Diary of a Teenage Girl locks into the life of a teenage girl. There aren’t many characters like Minnie Goetze, who is recognizably confused about life, and about her emergent sexuality, but who is also brazenly confident in some ways, not all of them “good”. As the film begins, Minnie tells us in a voiceover that she has just had sex for the first time (“I had sex today ... holy shit!”). Her excitement reflects the newness of the experience, but she already seems to have a handle on the situation. Minnie is not going to be a victim.
This is one reason that critic Mick LaSalle says the movie “is not a pleasure to sit through, not even remotely, not even by some stretched definition of the word ‘pleasure.’” Gloeckner/Heller (identifying the specific source for the material can be confusing) refuse easy answers, mostly by refusing black-and-white categorizations. The basic plot revolves around Minnie’s sexual exploits, and she is having sex with her mother’s boyfriend, who is at least twice her age (she is 15). Alexander Skarsgård plays the boyfriend as he is written: kinda lazy, actually and ethically, ruled by his dick and mostly unlikeable, yet even with all of this, he isn’t pure evil ... he is barely a “bad guy”. The reason for this is that the film (and Bel Powley) does a great job of nailing the actual mind of a teenage girl, and the boyfriend, like everything else in the movie, is presented to us through Minnie’s eyes. She gradually comes to understand what kind of person he is, but she is allowed the time to reach this conclusion for herself. It isn’t forced on us by pre-established morals. So yes, the film lacks pleasure, because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Yet Bel Powley reaches out to us, so that our discomfort is attached to her own, and we can indeed take small pleasures from her growth by the end of the movie.
We could use more movies like Diary of a Teenage Girl, told from a girl’s perspective, honest, with artistic delights in the production, all on a budget of $2 million. (No, I’m not missing any zeroes.) Powley is new to us, but the supporting cast includes Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig in major roles, and Christopher Meloni in a fairly large cameo, and everyone is solid. Given the subject matter, I can’t say this is a movie for everyone, but it is an auspicious beginning for Marielle Heller. #495 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.