geezer cinema/film fatales #95: dick johnson is dead (kirsten johnson, 2020)

Cameraperson consisted of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson putting together 25 years of leftover footage to create what she called "her memoir". Her innovative sense of what might make a good movie hasn't left her. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie about her aging father Richard, who is gradually falling into dementia. She suggests to her dad that they make a movie filled with scenes of him dying in various silly/cinematic ways, and he thinks it's a fine idea. At this early point, he seems fully capable of agreeing to the project.

We see an air conditioner fall on his head. We see him fall down stairs. We see him get stabbed in the neck, as blood spurts onto the street. In each case, we also see how things are done, with a crew and, especially, stunt men on hand. It's hard to explain why this seems so amazing ... it sounds like she's exploiting her father, but he's in on the joke and having a great time. When he finally gets too sick to really offer consent, she quits the fake deaths.

The relationship between father and daughter is both moving and funny, as is the movie as a whole. Johnson the daughter also concocts scenes of her dad rising up to heaven, and even gives us a fake funeral, which is so well done that one of Dick's great friends breaks up in tears as he gives a eulogy. Like Tom Sawyer, Dick gets to watch his own funeral, finally making a triumphant appearance to a standing ovation.

Kirsten Johnson was working as a cinematographer back in 2001, but didn't direct her first theatrical feature until Cameraperson in 2016. With that film, and now Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson has shown the ability to put remarkable, idiosyncratic ideas on the screen. Her recent movies are so interesting, you can't help but wonder what she might have come up with in those years she worked solely behind the camera. I found myself thinking about all of the people behind the scenes in movies ... how many of them might be holding onto something as unique as Johnson's films?

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

50 favorite movies revisited

It's been nine years since I took part in a Facebook project where three of us chose our 5o Favorite Movies. (Here's a Letterboxd list of my choices.) Of course, I'd do a lot of different things now ... Tomorrow Never Dies didn't belong (I chose it because of Michelle Yeoh, but then she was in another of my choices later, so the 007 movie was unnecessary). And I was too devoted to older movies ... the most recent movie in my Top 20 was The Godfather Part II from 1974, and there were only 4 movies from the 21st century on the entire list.

So here are my favorite movies (as of this moment) for the years 2012-2020, the years after I made that 50 Favorites list. I'm have to think a few of these would make the list if I made it now.

2012: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

2013: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

2014: Boyhood (Richard Linklater) (a pattern emerges!)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

2017: Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

2018: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

2020: Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

geezer cinema/film fatales #94: babyteeth (shannon murphy, 2019)

I'm a sucker for tales of teenage girls, so this combination of coming-of-age story and possibly fatal disease worked for me, even though the latter isn't my favorite genre.

The team behind Babyteeth have worked under the radar. This is director Shannon Murphy's first feature, and I didn't know her, but she's been directing series television since 2013, so she's no amateur. This was also the first writing credit for Rita Kalnejais, although again, she's no amateur ... Babyteeth is based on her stage play. Not sure it means anything, but as of this writing, Kalnejais doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, which can also be said for Toby Wallace, who plays "the boyfriend", and Eugene Gilfedder, playing a music teacher. And once more, these aren't amateurs ... Gilfedder has acting credits, mostly in TV, going back to 1993, and young Wallace also has plenty of TV credits. So, unknown to me, sure, but they weren't hired to give the "authentic" feel an amateur offers.

The female leads, though, are people I know, although in both cases, they snuck up on me. Eliza Scanlen was Milla, the teenager with the terminal illness; she looked familiar, and at first, I thought it was because she kind of resembles Alison Pill. But actually, she's been in a couple of recent things, the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, and Greta Gerwig's Little Women (she was Beth). As for Essie Davis, who played Milla's mom, all I knew about her was that she was in The Babadook that I love so much, and I commented early on that I didn't remember her in that movie, that in fact, all I could remember from The Babadook was the mother and the son. Imagine my embarrassment when I finally realized Davis was the mom in Babadook! (Hey, her hair was a different color.)

Just about everything works in Babyteeth. Scanlen impressively goes through a lot of different emotions. Toby Wallace is believable as the "dangerous" boyfriend (someone mentioned that they were reminded of Valley Girl). Davis has a stereotypical role (middle-aged mom with a drug problem) ... actually, much of what happens in Babyteeth reminds us of standard weepies, but it feels fresh just the same ... anyway, like Wallace, Davis is believable as a character you don't usually see outside of movies (and she gets the movie's best line: "This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine"). Toss in Ben Mendelsohn as the dad, and you've got a very capable cast. Murphy is unafraid to step slightly outside the lines in her direction, and whatever Kalnejais did in the transfer from stage to screen is seamless ... not once did I think, "this is based on a play". As many critics have noted, Babyteeth is familiar enough to trick us into thinking we know what is coming, and quirky enough to frustrate our expectations just the same.

And it's funnier than the above might suggest.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

film fatales #93: you were never really here (lynne ramsay, 2017)

Another Lynne Ramsay movie. She is one of those consistent directors where I can often cut-and-paste from other reviews and it will make sense. About her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote, "Ramsay is an uncompromising filmmaker ... she isn’t necessarily looking to narrative ... it is images that tell her story." Morvern Callar: "Samantha Morton has to carry a film that doesn't seem to care much about narrative." We Need to Talk About Kevin: "The film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative". I added, "Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals."

While this isn't my cup of tea ... I'm too stuck on narrative ... the truth is, I liked all of those movies. There is something intriguing about what Ramsay is up to, and if she falls short of perfection, well, I don't know that she cares.

You Were Never Really Here is the first time where the negatives overshadowed the positives for me. Joaquin Phoenix is on the screen for virtually the entire movie, and I'm not sure I understood his character any more at the end of the film than I did when it began. It's not that Phoenix is bad ... on the contrary, he is excellent. But his character is so internalized, we never really figure out why he is traumatized, or why he takes a job (a hitman) that seems to disturb him so deeply. You Were Never Really Here was successful with critics who didn't seem bothered by the things that threw me off, so YMMV.

Ramsay takes an interesting approach to the brutal violence in the film. We don't usually see the acts themselves, but instead the effects of that violence on the hitman. We are distanced from the violence, which works into the distance we feel from the character. It's hard to think of a film where we got so much into the head of a character without ever understanding him. But again, that may be inherent in Ramsay's approach.

She also effectively uses sounds and music to produce a soundtrack that is almost like a horror film, with startling moments and a generally ominous feel (Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood did the music). If I sound undecided, that's because I am ... Ramsay is capable of some great moments, but I'm still waiting for that "perfection".

#236 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #92: crip camp (james lebrecht, nicole newnham, 2020)

Crip Camp is a spirit-lifting documentary about disabled people, that takes a few interesting turns while remaining a fairly typical film of its type. It comes from Higher Ground, the production company started by the Obamas, who won an Oscar for their first film, American Factory. That movie was solid, but too set on taking the middle of the road. Crip Camp tells a more radical story, for the better.

The film seems harmlessly positive at first, showing us Camp Jened, near Woodstock both geographically and philosophically, in 1971. Camp Jened was a summer camp for people with disabilities that drew on the loose structure of the hippie community. While pleasant, I didn't see how the film makers would get 106 minutes out of the camp.

But they soon showed their intentions, by telling the stories of some of the camp goers later in their lives. And some of them became activists, and as their stories unfold, Crip Camp moves beyond the centrism of American Factory. The key figure is Judith Heumann, who went on to co-found the Disabled in Action organization. Later she moved to Berkeley and became a leader at the Center for Independent Living (about which more in a bit). In 1977, she led a sit-in which resulted in what later became the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

When the film moves to Berkeley, things became quite familiar for my wife and I. The Center for Independent Living has long been a force in Berkeley life ... the first place we lived in Berkeley after we married was only a clock or two from the Center. We can remember the fight to put wheelchair curb ramps at street corners, something you take for granted after all these years. It was good to see the beginnings of those fights. Also, during the footage from the 70s and 80s, we kept recognizing people and places. Irrelevant to the value of the movie, but it made an impact on us.

We also learn near the end that another of the "stars" of the old Camp Jened footage, "Jimmy", was in fact James Lebrecht, the co-director of Crip Camp and the person who came up with the idea for the film.

A movie that simply documented the life at Camp Jened would have been nice, but by using those scenes as a starting point for a continuance of the story was a big improvement.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

film fatales #92: merrily we go to hell (dorothy arzner, 1932)

As you might guess from the title, Merrily We Go to Hell is a Pre-Code movie, directed by Dorothy Arzner (Craig's Wife), which adds a bit of historical context. But it's a good movie in any event.

It's hard, when watching Pre-Code films in 2020, not to spend all your time noting what wouldn't be allowed only a few years later. In the case of Merrily We Go to Hell, the biggest example is that adultery is common throughout. Fredric March plays a reporter and budding playwright, Jerry, who marries rich girl Joan, played by Sylvia Sydney (You Only Live Once). Jerry is an alcoholic, and not a charming one ... this isn't Nick and Nora Charles. After the success of his first play, Jerry falls into the arms of an ex-girlfriend. Nothing is covered with vagaries ... it's clear that he moves in with her and that they are sleeping together. Joan decides their marriage has become "modern", and she starts hanging with a handsome young fellow played by a ninth-billed Cary Grant. There's one party where everyone is paired off that, while not an orgy, is nonetheless clearly something that wouldn't fly once the Code arrived.

It's hard to know if the film has a happy ending. Joan and Jerry are reconciled, but they come back together due to the death of a baby. March and especially Sydney are very good, and Sydney wears some dresses with cleavage that wouldn't even be noticed today but which would likely have not made it past the censors a couple of years later.

For a long time, Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director of note in Hollywood. Her work was rediscovered by feminist scholars in recent times. The character of Joan is an interesting case within this context. She is mistreated by her husband, but she refuses to let him ruin her life. And when reconciliation comes, it's Jerry who comes begging to Joan, not the reverse.

I sense this was meant to be partly a comedy, but as noted, the drinking equates to alcoholism, not charm. It's like The Awful Truth but serious.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #91: lost girls (liz garbus, 2020)

Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) is a documentary film maker, and Lost Girls is one of those "based on a true story" movies, which makes it an interesting choice for Garbus' first fiction film. And sure enough, Lost Girls plays a lot like a documentary, except for the obvious fact that there are actors like Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) rather than the actual people. Ryan is perfectly cast ... well, anytime Amy Ryan is on the screen, she is perfectly cast, because she's a great actress ... she can make you forget she's an actress, which is appropriate for this kind of docudrama.

Which isn't to say that Ryan is low-key here. Her anger throughout is palpable, and it drives a movie that we know from the outset will have no closure (we are informed at the beginning that Lost Girls is "an unsolved american mystery"). Her Mari Gilbert is a mess, but when her eldest daughter disappears, Mari persists in searching for the truth, most often by pressing the police, who aren't good for much. If this were a different story, Gilbert might be plucky ... at one point, a detective calls her "feisty", which amounts to the same thing. But Mari is a bit deranged, which is partly why she is so dedicated to finding what happened to her daughter, but which doesn't really match with a stereotypical pluckiness. But, there is no avoiding the conclusion ... in real life, the culprit has never been found ... and whatever resolution Gilbert achieves must remain philosophical at best.

Stay for the brief words at the end which, in good true-crime fashion, tell us what has happened to the characters since the film's conclusion. There, we learn of one person's closure that is unexpected and unsettling, to say the least.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #90: the assistant (kitty green, 2019)

Writing about the TV remake/prequel of Perry Mason, Sarah Marrs explained:

Something has happened in prestige dramas over the last few years: shows have stopped being ABOUT things. Spectacular performances and writing abound, but ask me what these shows are ABOUT, and I draw a blank. Plot has replaced story as the engine of good drama (plot = what is happening, story = why it is happening), and Perry Mason perfectly exemplifies the trend.

I read this the day before watching The Assistant, and the distinction between plot and story had extra resonance. When it is my turn to pick in our weekly Geezer Cinema, I take my wife's taste into my decision. I won't watch something unless I want to see it, but if I've narrowed it down, I might pick a movie I think she'll like, as well. She liked the trailer for The Assistant, and it seemed like a safe pick, although as is usual for me, I knew next to nothing about the movie going in.

For more than half the movie, it seems as if nothing is happening in The Assistant. My wife likes plot, and I sensed The Assistant wasn't doing anything for her. So, when our viewing was interrupted for a moment, I took the opportunity to talk about Marrs' notion of plot and story. Our movie lacked for plot, but we were learning about the title character, which passes for story. She liked the concept, and we continued with the film.

Eventually, a plot emerged, and if I watched it a second time, I suspect that plot would be obvious quite early. As is usual for us, my wife figured out what was going on long before I did. But it may be a step too far to say The Assistant ever got around to a plot. Instead, there was a situation, a situation that illuminated the film ... we learn the Why.

It's possible that Kitty Green, the documentary filmmaker who makes her fiction debut here (she also wrote it) may have made The Assistant too good. The largest part of the film shows an office assistant (Julia Garner) dealing with the drudgery of her job. We see how she is ignored ... she does things without which the office would fall apart, but no one notices her. Garner is excellent, and Green certainly makes us feel the awfulness. But she is so successful that my attention wandered. As Mick LaSalle noted, "The film is worthy and ages well in memory. It was definitely worth making and is almost as definitely worth watching. But it must be admitted that this movie, which is about someone in an office assistant job, is sometimes as stultifying as actually being in such a job. In a sense, boredom is part of the director’s strategy, but boredom is a dangerous substance and must be employed carefully."

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

double feature: the killers (robert siodmak, 1946) and film fatales #89: the killers (marika beiku, aleksandr gordon, and andrei tarkovsky, 1956)

It used to be a big deal to try and make movies of the works of Ernest Hemingway. I feel like that time is past ... a quick look tells me there hasn't been one since 2001, although I'm sure I'm missing something. Most critics seem to think Hemingway's style doesn't translate well to film. In a story that may be apocryphal, Howard Hawks told Hemingway he could make a movie from the author's worst story ... the result was To Have and Have Not.

"The Killers" was a short story Hemingway wrote in 1927. (You can read it here.) The first movie to be based on the story came out in 1946, with Burt Lancaster in his film debut, and Ava Gardner as the femme fatale. It's an interesting extension of Hemingway's story. The film opens with a scene that closely follows the short story:

Since the movie runs 103 minutes, something has to fill in the remaining time. So we get an insurance investigator (played by Edmond O'Brien, who later spent a couple of years on radio as "Johnny Dollar", also an insurance investigator). His job is to figure out what really happened in a murder for which the company he works for is paying a beneficiary. This allows for several flashbacks that rebuild the story, effectively showing us what happened to Hemingway's characters before the story began. The screenwriters (Anthony Veiller and uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks) do a good enough job that the characters feel close to the story.

This version of The Killers is now considered a classic example of film noir. The supporting cast includes people like William Conrad (his first credited role) and Virginia Christine, better known to Boomers as Mrs. Olson. The cinematography by Woody Bredell deserves a lot of credit for the film's success.

When I referred in the title of this post to a double-bill of The Killers, most people were probably thinking of the 1964 version, which included Ronald Reagan in his final role (he gets to slap Angie Dickinson). But I was thinking about this one:

It's the first student film of Andrei Tarkovsky, who made the 19-minute short with fellow students Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon. It's fascinating, partly because, like the first scenes in the 1946 version, Tarkovsky et al followed Hemingway's story. In fact, if the English subtitles can be believed, this Russian version is an almost word-for-word translation of Hemingway to the screen. If Tarkovsky films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker are too long for you, The Killers is a brief way to get started on his work.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

film fatales #88: leviathan (lucien castaing-taylor and verena paravel, 2012)

I can imagine this experimental film appealing to some people, so take this with a grain of salt. I did not find it appealing.

The concept is interesting: a documentary on commercial fishing off the coast of New Bedford, where parts of Moby Dick took place. Credit must also be given to the directors for not just taking the easy route of most documentaries. The film eschews things like linear narrative, dialogue or narration, or any contextual moments to help the audience find its bearings. It is perhaps best described as psychedelic, and I wish I'd taken some edibles before watching.

Wikipedia offers some insight into the production. "Over the course of filming Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor got seasick and Paravel went to the emergency room numerous times.... While filming, the director's first camera was lost at sea and they had to resort to their backup cameras, Go-Pros. The images produced by the Go-Pros created afterimages of haunting qualities due to the lack of clarity within the lens. According to Castaing-Taylor, 'It activated the viewer’s imagination much more.'"

It all sounds fascinating, but I barely survived the 87-minute running time. For me, the key was the total lack of context. I was rarely able to figure out such basic things as what am I seeing, or where is this scene, or why is this important. As I say, it may work on some abstract level, but I'm not sure I have 87 minutes of abstract in me at this point in my life.

There was a scene that summarized my reaction, far too easily, in fact. I actually knew what I was seeing for a change. One of the fishermen is sitting at a table in what looks to be an eating area. There is a jar of mayonnaise on the table, and a tin of chewing tobacco, among other things. The fisherman appears to be having a chew ... he occasionally spits into a cup. We hear what sounds like a television show, although we don't see it, and I'm not sure how they had a TV out on the sea. It's a one-take scene, with a stationary camera. It lasts for around 4 1/2 minutes. We watch the man ... we hear the TV ... the man spits ... he stares in the direction of what we assume is the TV ... he spits ... we watch him ... and gradually, after about 4 of those minutes, his eyes gradually close and we realize he is falling asleep. Everybody's a critic.

Some critics didn't fall asleep ... it's #83 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)