7 the Hard Way – Was That the Year That Was?

1. Everything is political. Think I’m exaggerating? Just take a look at the online reaction to one of this year’s most anticipated films, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Perhaps in an earlier time, we might have simply looked at the huge box office receipts and assumed everyone was having a good time. But thanks to the Internet, and its single biggest achievement to date, the Donald Trump presidency, we now get to watch in amazement as every pop artifact of note is filtered through the bizarro-logic of the Culture Wars. It seems that there are too many women with power(s), too many people of color, and not enough space in the Galaxy for the Straight White Men who, Trump tells us, will most assuredly own the future. Right on cue, the online legions began circulating petitions and posting anti-Last Jedi video “analyses,” as if to echo the chant of the white supremacists in Charlottesville earlier this year: “we won’t be replaced.”

2. Nothing exists outside of America for these MAGA-heads. This is fortunate, because many of the most significant films released this year came from other lands, places that have no use for this country’s hard-right turn. Some, like Fatih Akin’s In the Fade or Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, were more noble than effective, wearing their protest colors on their sleeve but losing something in the aesthetic translation. But other films got the balance right: This is Our Land, a shrewd, meticulous attack on France’s National Front (opening in the U.S. next year); Lipstick Under My Burkha, a multidimensional examination of Indian patriarchy and the toll it takes on women’s dreams; BPM (Beats Per Minute), a close procedural study of the Parisian chapter of ACT-UP and a reminder that the AIDS crisis is not so far behind us; Félicité, the story of a Senegalese mother’s desperate sacrifices after her son is critically injured; and Cocote, a film from the Dominican Republic that challenges revenge as the ultimate masculine prerogative (also opening in 2018).

3. If enough people saw these films and thought about them, they would expand our current dialogue on issues as diverse as health care, reproductive rights, LGBTQ freedom, and of course the growing tide of fascism in America. But that won’t happen. On the bright side, maybe the Internet trolls and Trumpistas will spare us their bon mots on The Post, Steven Spielberg’s worthy if workmanlike tribute to the 1st Amendment and its ability to protect the public from unchecked power. (Focusing on the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon White House at this particular historical moment is like marking the subtext with a Hi-Liter.) Hopefully, they were so dazzled by the masterful direction, staging, and editing in Dunkirk that they all got their Greatest Generation on, failing to understand exactly why Christopher Nolan chose this particular episode of World War II to dramatize. In an era when the idea of patriotism has been ground down to a mere simulacrum – displaying a flag, shouting the loudest, standing up rather than kneeling in protest – the rescue at Dunkirk shows ordinary British citizens risking their lives for their boys at war. NRA bumper stickers be damned; patriotic is as patriotic does.

4. There were scores of ordinary people going out in boats (both private and government-owned) to rescue folks endangered by the floodwaters of this year’s deadly hurricanes. (As you read this, Puerto Rico is still largely without electricity, and this is in no small part due to the current administration’s unique combination of racism and incompetence.) But as someone who witnessed some of these acts of generosity from Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I can tell you one thing. No one in a position to help was concerned with “what kind” of person they were helping. It was strictly human-to-human. No one cared who you voted for. No one cared about your race or religion. No one cared if you had a home prior to the flood. It’s been said before. The worst of human events can bring out the best of human nature. But it also speaks to an equally important issue. Who can we be, as a population, when something takes us away from the barrage of culture – not just the toxicity of Fox News, but all of it -- the pop songs and the sitcoms and the bestsellers and the billboards and bumperstickers and watercooler talk. It’s not so surprising, really, that some of this year’s most compelling releases were films about entirely different social orders – Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (out next year), even the documentary Jane – or for that matter, fantasies about obliterating everything and beginning again. Chief among those were Bertrand Bonello’s terrorist procedural Nocturama, and Staying Vertical, Alain Guiraudie’s dark comedy of social disintegration.

5. These occasionally controversial, potentially dangerous films seemed to speak to me this year much more than a lot of the consensus favorites of 2017. Films I admired more than loved, such as Lady Bird or Call Me By Your Name, struck me as being primarily about private revolutions, and this is certainly compelling as far as it goes. (That’s not to say that these films do not resonate beyond themselves, and I recognize that their characters represent the presence onscreen of figures of identification that have been sorely lacking.) On the other hand, the one film whose critical admiration utterly confuses me is The Florida Project, and I think this is because it’s the sort of film I clearly want to see more of – collective subject, alternative social arrangement, resistant form of living – but it seems to get all of those elements wrong. It’s a film that displays life on the margins as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and indicates that collectivity will always devolve into tribalism, the family, or the individual. And when all else fails, go to Disney World.

6. This has been coming for a long time. As various duties and pursuits compete for my time, I am going to have to step back from writing quite so much. I will need to do less on Letterboxd, less in the various magazines I work with, less overall. This is partly because I want to devote my energies to long-simmering book projects, but also focus on finding more stable employment. And also, to all intents and purposes, my website The Academic Hack is defunct, aside from containing my complete viewing logs.  I am by no means going away, nor am I leaving criticism behind. It is something that I will always do, and a part of my professional identity. I just feel as though I am chasing my tail and I want to find a way to chase my tail a little more slowly, so as to mitigate the dizziness that so often accompanies the futility. If that makes sense. This is not a retirement by any means, just a scaling back and slight realignment of the work that I am already doing. However, if I were planning to retire, could there possibly be a better time to do so? Satirist Tom Lehrer claimed that he stopped writing and performing after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because after that, what good is satire anyway? I sort of feel the same about our present moment, even though I'm too stubborn (or stupid) to throw in the towel.

7. With the revelations (?) that many people in the entertainment industry are shitty human beings, and that abuse of women by those in power is rampant, we find ourselves at an impasse. It is great that these creeps are being drubbed out of the public eye they so desperately crave. But we know that casting out a few bad apples is a way that the larger system can protect itself. Also, this inevitably sets us up for another tedious discussion of politics vs. aesthetics. ("ButAnnie Hall is a great movie!" etc.) My 12-year-old kid had an unexpected take on this. He told me that he didn't like music by Sam Smith or Demi Lovato until he read about them and discovered that they are "really nice people." This changed his opinion of their art, something that should seemingly be totally independent of whether or not Ed Sheeran visits his granny in the nursing home. But when you think about it, isn't this just the logical obverse of disdaining the work of Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K. (or, in my kid's world, Melanie Martinez) because they are bad people? This shows me that the post-millennials are way ahead of us on this curve. Aesthetics is going the way of the Great Awk, and we may be all the better for it. But I'll miss "art for art's sake" just the same.

Postscript: I never got to see my favorite band live in concert. That’s pretty inexcusable, since The Tragically Hip always came through Rochester and Syracuse when I lived there, and were in Houston not so long ago. “I’ll catch them another time,” I thought. Obviously I learned my lesson the hard way, with the death this year of Hip frontman Gord Downie. The most emotional viewing experience I had all year was watching their concert film Long Time Running, which documents Downie’s struggle with brain cancer, as well as the band gearing up for one last tour across Canada. It was by no means the best film I saw, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. I’ll give Downie the last word here:

“I gotta go…. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

TOP TWENTY-FIVE RELEASES OF 2017

1. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea / Germany)

2. Staying Vertical (Alain, Guiraudie, France)

3. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)

4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, U.K. / U.S.)

5. Wormwood (Errol Morris, U.S.)

6. Strong Island (Yance Ford, U.S. / Denmark)

7. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, U.S.)

8. Félicité (Alain Gomis, Democratic Republic of Congo / France / Belgium / Senegal / Germany / Lebanon)

9. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, U.S. / U.K.)

10. Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, Spain / Morocco / France / Qatar)

11. Get Out (Jordan Peele, U.S.)

12. The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France / Spain / Portugal)

13. The Work (Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, U.S.)

14. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, U.S.)

15. Jane (Brett Morgen, U.S.)

16. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, U.S.)

17. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, France / Germany / Czech Republic / Belgium)

18. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, U.S. / U.K. / Hungary / Canada)

19. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, U.K. / Belgium)

20. mother! (Darren Aronofsky, U.S.)

21. Ma (Celia Rowlson-Hall, U.S.)

22. All This Panic (Jenny Gage, U.S.)

23. The Son of Joseph (Eugène Green, France / Belgium)

24. BPM (Robin Campillo, France)

25. Lipstick Under My Burkha (Alankrita Shrivastava, India)