drug war (johnnie to, 2012)
revisiting vengeance (johnnie to, 2009)

by request: 20th century women (mike mills, 2016)

Greta Gerwig is an indie Queen. I admit this is only the third movie I've seen with her. When I wrote about Damsels in Distress, I didn't mention her name once, which in retrospect seems odd. She was much harder to avoid in Frances Ha, where she not only starred but co-wrote the film. I bring this up because she seems perfectly cast in 20th Century Women, placed in the middle between Annette Bening and Elle Fanning. Truthfully, in saying that I'm admitting that all three women are perfectly cast. What helps make the film successful is that such care is taken to make everything seem "real". The characters interact, the actors fit their parts, the writing is great (Mills got an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay). Mills admits it's autobiographical, which explains the feeling of accuracy ... no one should know these characters better than Mills.

Mills pulls off an interesting trick, hinted at in the title. It may be autobiographical, and Lucas Jade Zumann adds his name to the list of fine performances as Jamie. In some ways, Jamie is at the center of the film. But Mills isn't quite writing about himself, he's writing about his mother. It's not called "My Teenage Years", it's called 20th Century Women. Jamie grows as a character to the extent that his understanding of women grows.

Annette Bening's mom is a combination of middle-aged cool and middle-aged unconnected to the current lives of the young. It takes place in 1979 in Los Angeles, and there is a scene where she and Billy Crudup try to understand the kids music. Conclusion: Black Flag no, Talking Heads yes. (That scene includes on of my pet peeves, when vinyl is used ... Crudup put the needle on the first track of a side of More Songs About Buildings and Food, but the song we hear, "The Big Country", is the last song on the side.) Better is a scene where the kids explain the music to the mom:

Mom: What is that?

Abbie: It's The Raincoats.

Mom: Can't things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

Mom: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

(For what it's worth, Mills says he drew upon an essay by Greil Marcus to inform this scene.)

The biggest problem with the movie has nothing to do with what's on screen. I just struggle with moms in movies. Bening's mom is great, not perfect but who is, eccentric in good ways (which could be said for all of the characters). But she gave me a slight case of the heebie-jeebies ... I imagined my own mom in the same situation, which made me uncomfortable.

I can't go without mentioning Elle Fanning. She first appeared on these pages in 2001, when I said, in a discussion of Super 8, "(Oh, and Elle Fanning is really, really good.)" I'd like to say I was on this before anyone else, but in fact Fanning has gotten good reviews for many years. Her role in 20th Century Women could have been overwhelmed by the Oscar-nominated Bening and the indie Queen Gerwig, especially since when Gerwig is on the screen, it's hard to pay attention to anything else. But Fanning holds up her end.

I liked this a bit more than the other Mike Mills movie I've seen, Beginners. Call it a vote for the cast. #886 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.



Not a big enough Talking Heads fan to notice that, but that's funny. (See also Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Royal Tennenbaums.) Fanning didn't make a big impression on me in Somewhere, but I may have missed a good performance because of my general indifference to the film--she's great here. (Still get the two Fannings confused, though). I think the closest mom-son scenes to my own life were in Six Feet Under, although sometimes it was the mom-daughter scenes I was relating to.

Steven Rubio

Royal Tenenbaums is the #1 example for me of how they screwed up the vinyl:


As an example of how director Wes Anderson is clever to no apparent purpose, I point to the soundtrack, which is a wonderful melange of mostly-60s buried treasures like "These Days" by Nico and "She Smiled Sweetly" by the Stones. (He even throws in a cut from Dylan's Self Portrait; what is this shit, indeed.) While each song is welcome in my house any time, their purpose in the movie is never clear. They're good songs, a real wet dream for 60s people, because he doesn't choose the same ones everyone else chooses, and their lyrics generally fit the scenes in which they appear. But he treats them as fetish objects. The scene between Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson in the tent is the best example. "She Smiles Sweetly" is a great, forgotten song that fits perfectly in the scene, and "Ruby Tuesday" is an excellent tune to close the scene off. But the whole business of her playing vinyl on an old record player ... and setting the needle down so that she is picking the song ... fetishizes vinyl and record players and draws attention to the act of playing as much as it does to the song itself. Since she chooses the song, it must be important to her. But why? When the song came out, she was a toddler if she was born at all. There's nothing in the characterizations of her parents to suggest that in her formative years, they played Between the Buttons for their kids, so there's no reason for her to know the album, nor is there a reason why her "brother" even owns the damn thing on vinyl. It's all precious artifice, and when "Ruby Tuesday" comes on, it's fake artifice, because that's not the next song on the album, which is being obsessive but I think the scene invites it. Why a movie taking place in 2001 would use minor classics of the 60s is left unexplained. It does show Anderson's good taste in music, and perhaps that's it: everything about The Royal Tenenbaums demonstrates the excellence of the filmmakers, but precious little convinces me I'm watching a movie that lives up to that excellence.


It doesn't involve vinyl, but even more egregious to me is Damon's "5-Point Plan" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, his admonition to Ratner that "When it comes to making out, whenever possible put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV," followed by an immediate cut to Ratner and Stacy in the car, listening to "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti.

Maybe Ratner was just hedging on Damon's advice and couldn't fully commit.


Getting it exactly right: inner label, position of tone arm, everything.


Steven Rubio

Good call!


This is now officially my running Movies-with-Turntables list.

I'm rewatching Six Feet Under. In the sixth episode, first season, Nate finds out about the secret room his father kept for meditation, debauchery, and the Amboy Dukes (skip to 1:20).


Checked the original track listing and "Journey" is the first song on side two, so they get that right. But the back cover you see is clearly not the back cover of the original LP:


So they either get the tonearm placement right and the back cover wrong, or it's some other album--a Nuggets-type compilation--and they get the back cover right and (who knows?) maybe get the tonearm placement right. Or they just completely make it up in both cases.

Steven Rubio

Good catch, my fellow obsessive!

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