Film 2021: an experiment in questioning and trust
At the end of every year, I try to reflect on the art that helped me grow. Throughout the year, in real time, I work on assembling a playlist of my favorite songs of the year [Link], and I try to piece together a series of lists related to my favorite films of the year, too. I throw together a (loosely) ranked list of the films that meant the most to me, but I also put together a few other lists: favorite directors, favorite performances, favorite writing, favorite scenes. If you’re curious, you can jump to those lists below.
I’m trying more and more to say “my favorite” as opposed to “the best” because I don’t see myself as an authority on what is actually, objectively the best, I am only an arbiter of my own experience. Similarly, if I dislike a movie, I am trying to respond with “that wasn’t for me” as opposed to “that was bad.” And in some cases, I’m trying to push for clarity: “what didn’t I like? and why?” For example, I know many many people loved the film Licorice Pizza, which I did not really care for. I don’t think that I’m right, I just have experience interpreting my own instincts. But, I love hearing why someone else loved something that didn’t work for me. It speaks to the elasticity of art.
So at the end of this piece, you will find my lists of favorites, but I’m going to explore and question six of those films. Naturally, I thought more deeply and more critically about some films than I did about others, and I wanted to work out some of those thoughts, explore them, and get them out of my head and into a more permanent, developed form. That is what follows: a short (well, relatively) exploration into six of the films that made my top fifteen. I’m going to talk about two that challenged the ways I think about art and taste [in Blue: The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun & Bergman Island], two that challenged the ways I think about relationships, community, and the future [in Yellow: The Power of the Dog & C’Mon C’Mon], and two that challenged the ways I think about myself and how I hold my convictions [in Green: Benedetta & The Green Knight].
I also want to say a special thank you to my friend Anne for being an incredible editor and encourager! She helped me get this piece into this shape and I couldn't have done it without her!
The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
[“he could paint this beautifully, if he wanted to, but he thinks this is better.”]
Some people don’t get along with Wes Anderson, but I trust him. I trust him as an artist, and, just like I trust a friend, I let him guide me through the world he’s created and the people he’s met there. I want to draw specific attention to one specific exchange from the second section entitled “The Concrete Masterpiece.” As soon as the intrepid Julian Cadazio is released from prison (for Evadé Fiscale), he sets up a meeting with his rich, art-curating uncles Nick and Joe (the three together own and operate “Cadazio Uncles and Nephew Galerie”). He meets with them to try to convince them to sponsor his newest discovery, fellow inmate Moses Rosenthaler (in prison for Double Homicide). According to Cadazio, Rosenthaler has painted (with abandon), a bold new work entitled “Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room.” Julian Cadazio thinks Rosenthaler has more genius up his sleeve — he later describes him as “that once-in-a-generation guy that you hear about but never get a chance to discover for yourself: an artistic genius.”
To his uncles, Julian heralds Rosenthaler as a bold new voice that will forever change the landscape (pun intended) of painting and fine art as we know it. By way of providing evidence for this monumental claim, Julian produces a Rosenthaler painting of a small sparrow:
Julian: “One way to tell if a modern artist actually knows what he’s doing is to get him to paint you a horse or a flower or a sinking battleship or something that’s actually supposed to look like the thing it’s actually supposed to look like. Can he do it? Look at this: Drawn in 45 seconds right in front of me with a burnt matchstick.
Uncle Nick: “A perfect sparrow. That’s excellent. May I keep it?”
Julian: “Don’t be stupid, of course not. The point is: he could paint this [sparrow], beautifully, if he wanted to, but he thinks this [Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room.] is better.”
He then encourages his uncles to examine the abstract up close. They nearly touch their noses to it. One of them says: “why is it good?” and Julian replies “it isn’t good, wrong idea.” That exchange has given words to my evolving approach to to art: as I work on my own screenplays and continue to develop as an artist/creator in general, I grow more aware of the fingerprints the artist leaves on a project, and I become more aware of what it takes for a work of art to be created — a process that involves an initial concept, multiple drafts, choices and decisions, revisions and editing, review, collaboration, compromise, tests, failures, success, feedback, and exhibition.
And I do want to address the “intentional fallacy” because I want to make sure I’m not falling into it. We fall into the intentional fallacy when we allow the things we know about an artist, about their process, or about the culture surrounding a work to supplement and become part of the text itself, influencing our interpretation of the argument of the work. While it can be helpful to consider these things, allowing them to determine or carry the argument of a work can harm our interpretation of the work and our understanding of the artist.
The work, the text, should speak for itself. Everything we need to understand and interpret the work should be present within the work. External information can help illuminate the work, but it should not be essential. Mostly because it is not always knowable. We can’t always trust that knowledge about an artist’s intention will be preserved through time as the work perseveres. Culture changes, so we cannot rely on an understanding of the zeitgeist to persist as long as the work survives. We only have the work and what it says. Therefore, everything we need to interpret a work should be present in the work itself.
While it is treacherous to rely on external information to determine the truth or meaning of a work, I do think it is reasonable and can be helpful to allow the external information available to us to illuminate or enhance our experience of a work. It is important to discern that difference. We can allow external information to deepen our appreciation of a work or an artist’s craft, aesthetic, or sensibilities. These things shouldn’t be necessary for our understanding of a work, but they can be helpful for discerning our feeling about a work. Considering the real existence of the artist as we evaluate his/her work can lead us into error if we rely too heavily upon it; however, it can also be an exercise in empathy if we are clear about how we are using that information.
Put yourself in the position of the Uncles when examining “Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room.” I think it would be a fallacy to consider the artwork (which looks different than we expected it to look based on the title) and say “what was the artist thinking when they painted this this way? Do they know how to paint a human being? Are they a bad artist?” In other words, I don’t believe we ought to use our understanding of the world as the Control to be compared to the artist’s view of the world as the Variable. When I cling to my own, current understanding as right and true, I demonstrate great arrogance and rigidity. To think that any interpretation contrary to mine is “avant garde” or “weird” or “abstract” is at best limited and at worst close-minded.
If, instead, we allow the artist to be our guide, our friend, a shepherd, we can approach a particular work on its own terms and discover what it has for us. We can ask: “what does this perspective reveal about the world? what might the artist be trying to show me about the world, or about the way they see the world? what might the artist be encouraging me to examine about the way I see the world?”
For example: Julian Cadazio shows us that Moses Rosenthaler could go on painting sparrows perfectly — he could paint a sparrow exactly how we expect a sparrow to look (and probably any number of other things) — if he wanted to. He could probably have a very happy career this way. He could produce a painting of Simone as perfectly as if it were a photograph — we see evidence of his pedigree as a perfect portrait painter earlier in the film: he knows how to paint people. But what Cadazio emphasizes is the way Rosenthaler chooses to paint Simone.
Rosenthaler thinks “this way” is better: abstract, colorful, and formless. It may be hard to understand, it may not look like a painting of a human being, and the title of the work may confuse us, but if we push through the confusion, we might consider why Rosenthaler believes this is the best way to render an image of Simone. It would be a mistake, and generally unkind to the artist to deem his work “bad” because we do not understand. Instead, we are invited to consider that this is a better way to paint Simone and let that idea lead us to ponder what kind of person demands to be depicted this way.
Trusting the artist enables us to step out of our comfort zone, release our expectations, and approach the art with wonder, with hope to grow from the artist’s vision. This decision to trust will keep us from saying “this is too abstract, human beings don’t look like this, this is not good” and allow us to wonder “what kind of human being is Simone, that Rosenthaler feels this way about her? what is Simone like, that Rosenthaler thinks this is the best way to depict her?” This approach leads us into empathy with the artist, as we accept their invitation to see the world as they see it.
Consider the series that the Cadazios eventually commission: “Ten Reinforced Cement Aggregate (Load-bearing) Murals.” Let’s ask this together: “what would my life be like if I saw everyone as a beautiful, colorful, abstract fresco?”
Maybe I would stop trying to assign boundaries to others, I might stop trying to contain or limit them. Our bodies are containers, but our souls do not have boundaries. In physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ways, we transcend our ideas of self (and our purposes, and our roles, and our dreams) all the time. If I think this way, why would I ever expect a painting of a human being to be exactly as they appear? A painting, however accurate, is still always an image and interpretation — a photograph likewise is always only one perspective. Colorful? Of course Simone is colorful! It has become cliche, but we do contain multitudes. A fresco? A fresco is a mural, typically painted on plaster and meant to be a semi-permanent installation. Because of this, in order to observe a fresco, you need to be in the same physical space. (Okay, pictures of art that can be viewed online or in books complicate this argument, but let’s just say for now, we are only talking about the actual physical artwork.)
By painting Simone as a fresco in the prison, perhaps Rosenthaler is communicating that this particular vision that he is trying to capture is tied to this physical space — he met and fell in love with Simone while doing time in prison. By making his interpretation of her image a permanent feature of the prison, he is solidifying and setting this vision of Simone. His whole concept of Simone is bound to this environment, to this moment where he finds himself in prison, and to these materials that he must use: “powdered eggs; pigeon blood; shackle grease; coal, cork, and dung; bright yellow scullery-soap; and fresh cream of millet as a binding agent.”
This technique and the art it produces tells us something about how Rosenthaler sees Simone, but it can also illuminate something about how we ought to view one another: the people in our lives — friends, family, lovers, strangers — all exist in their own worlds. We have an understanding of a piece of them because of how we intertwine (and the more interactions the more complex that understanding becomes), but there is no way for us to fully know and understand another person. There is no way for us to own or possess another person. We ought not fully remove them from their contexts. We should learn to observe them by sharing space together. We approach others as if they are frescos, in their own worlds, and we interact with them in their contexts, then we return to our own worlds. When we leave their presence, they continue to exist independent of us.
Maybe this metaphor doesn’t hold, but: by considering others as frescos, we might learn to stop trying to force others to live in the worlds and positions we’ve imagined for them and instead learn to meet them in their own roles and the positions they have already established for themselves. The only thing we can bring to a relationship is ourselves: our presence, our attention, our desires to know and be known. If we treated everyone we come into contact with as a permanent installation, what might that enable us to learn about them? What might it enable us to learn about ourselves? If I enter a room with a permanent mural painted on the wall, it’s not going to change; I’m going to change. Why not hope, expect, and encourage that change?
A number of years ago, a mentor encouraged me to ask myself this question whenever I encountered something new/unfamiliar, or when I was feeling comfortable/unchallenged:
“I know I have been wrong before. And I believe I will be wrong again. So what am I wrong about right now?”
This willingness to examine and self-reflect — to hold my own understanding of myself, my choices, and my perspective on the world loosely, understanding that I believe what I believe for a reason, but also being willing to change my mind if a new, better way is presented to me — has fundamentally changed the way I interact with others and move through the world.
For me, this scene from The French Dispatch invites us to ask similar questions. When examining art, I’m less interested in asking: “why is this good?” and more interested in asking: “what can I learn here? what can I ask? what are the factors that led to the artist’s decision to tell the story this way? do I agree with the way they are presenting the world? If so, what depth does this version of the world offer to my current understanding? If not, can I articulate how I view the world differently and why I don’t think this vision of things is accurate? How can I grow from disagreeing?”
I believe that Art exists to help us to know ourselves and each other better. Art invites us to be aware of our own perspective, and invites us into another’s perspective — the work of understanding where they are coming from, how they see the world, and what they value. Art is a great bridge that can help us connect when words fail, when experiences are mismatched, when we are stubborn and dispassionate. I am grateful for this film because each of the four stories give the artists depicted an opportunity to explain their vision, to discuss the merits of their choices, and ultimately, even if they disagree with their beloved editor about a particular approach, and ultimately, even if they disagree with their beloved editor about a particular approach, to “make it sound like [they] wrote it that way on purpose.”
The Power of The Dog
[“It’s just so nice to not be alone”]
Everyone is alone in The Power of The Dog. Everyone is missing someone. That is established at the start. As we move along, the story that unravels is about how our four main characters — brothers George and Phil Burbank, and mother-son Rose and Peter Gordon — form relationships. We see what keeps those relationships together, as well as what tears them apart.
George and Phil have a rigid relationship. They work together, but they do not see eye to eye. The very first scene shows them on different planes as Phil attempts to be sentimental about the twenty-year anniversary of them working together. George won’t acknowledge this anniversary (or the memory of the man who taught them everything they know, Bronco Henry). Later, while George is bathing, we learn that Phil has no interest in being clean — uncleanliness is a thing that defines his character (“I stink, and I LIKE it”). When the governor comes to visit, Phil stays in the barn, alone with the animals, where his smell won’t offend. Phil is alone. In time, we learn that, while Phil may never have been married, he was in love with Bronco Henry; that love was incredibly meaningful to him, but Bronco Henry is gone.
Rose is alone. We know she was married, but her husband died before the beginning of our film. She has her son Peter, but she doesn’t have someone she can really share life with. When George shows up to woo her, at first he just takes up space — but then he does help her when he sees the need. When Peter is missing at dinner time, he plays the waiter. When he learns that she used to play piano, he furnishes the house with a beautiful grand piano. He wants to meet her needs. The tragedy of Rose’s character is that her marriage to George changes her in two ways:  it displaces her from her home and business, and  it puts her in contact with Phil, who seems to find pleasure in making her uncomfortable and paranoid. What starts out as a partnership with George becomes a prison for Rose (or at least a confinement, maybe a prison is too strong). There are external and internal factors that lead to Rose’s decline — Phil is a monster, but she drinks too much to try to cope with that. George is kind and loving, but she doesn’t know how to get him to listen.
That’s why it’s so poignant that even a small moment of connection can bring George to tears. When the newlyweds stop along the road for a picnic and a bit of dancing, he breaks away, remarking: “It’s just so nice to not be alone.” That connection is essential for George. It’s what he’s been missing. He can never have this kind of connection with Phil because of who he is and who Phil is. It’s what reminds him he is human, that someone cares about him, that he can share the world, that he can learn how to dance. Having another person by his side expands his understanding of the world; having someone to share things with makes them even more special.
Peter, our fourth main character, is equal parts hero and villain in his own way (depending on how you feel about the ending). We first meet Peter alone in his room creating flowers out of paper. Rose comes to ask for his help waiting tables in the restaurant attached to their inn. Even though he is willing to help, Peter’s isolation is interrupted. When the dinner guests (especially Phil) turn into bullies, Peter retreats outside to spin his hula hoop.
Later, we learn that Peter is in school training to be a surgeon. After Peter and Rose come to live on the ranch with George and Phil, we find Peter alone in his room again, this time dissecting and labeling a dead rabbit. He is not afraid of blood, or death, or being brutal if it serves a greater purpose for knowledge, or protection, or (in a way) kindness (as we see later when he puts an injured animal “out of its misery” in the wild).
Though Peter and Phil seem content in their isolation and introversion, comfortable with other people at arm’s length, they form an unlikely bond with each other near the end of the film. Unlikely because until he decides to befriend Peter, Phil had been especially vile toward Peter — making homophobic remarks and generally berating and nagging him. Even though Peter is wary of Phil, he also seems grateful for even this skeleton friendship. When Phil does show him some kindness (which I believe is genuine), Peter seems to believe him and begins to trust Phil. Of course, Phil seems motivated by the fact that just before this, Peter had discovered a compromising secret about Phil. Much of Phil’s “olive branch” does seem grounded in self-preservation, but I really do believe that a genuine friendship is beginning to form between these men. They begin to understand each other as they get to know one another. Together, they discover that they are both more complex and interesting than the outward versions they present to the world.
Ultimately, though, as Peter is beginning to trust Phil, Phil explodes. He goes crazy with rage against Rose. In the initial narration that opens the film, Peter tells us, “I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t save her?” Phil’s rage breaks the spell. It reminds Peter who he is dealing with: a tyrant. Peter then sets an irreversible plan in motion, essentially murdering Phil by proxy. Just how long he had been planning this action is uncertain, but when the opportunity arrives, he does not hesitate.
I believe what George tells us on the mountain is true: “it’s nice to not be alone.” But not every companion is a good companion. Not every relationship is good: if Phil was more open with his brother, they might have reached an understanding together. If Rose had shared the ways she was struggling, George might have been able to help her — and actually, if George had demonstrated that he was capable of listening, Rose might have been more comfortable talking to him. If Peter had been treated properly, he might have been more open to reconciliation, and less inclined to revenge. Humans are made to be together, but that doesn’t mean we are meant to be with everyone. We are not meant to enter into the same measure of together-ness with every person in our path.
It’s nice to not be alone, but sometimes we find ourselves alone. And while shared work, shared loneliness, or a shared sense of “outsiderness” can draw us toward others, these factors prove to be insufficient foundations for a relationship without trust. It’s nice to not be alone, but “nice” doesn’t last. For a relationship to be truly good, we have to trust others enough to let them know us. Likewise, we have to want to know them, to truly see them as they are, even if doing so challenges our plans or preconceptions.
[“I feel what God wants me to feel”]
When the trailer for Benedetta first dropped, it screamed: salacious and sensuous! It promised a film full of beautiful images, helmed by a legendary cinematic provocateur, and based on a true story of 14th century lesbian nuns. Would it be compelling, or just tantalizing?
I was not prepared for how it confronts and questions faith and defiance in practice. Upon reflection, I have come to believe that the primary relationship being explored is not the one between two women (although that of course is essential to the story and full of nuance and depth), but the one between a woman and God. The truth that I draw from the film is concerned with faith and sight, with belief and holding beliefs, and with the power of God for the people of God.
Benedetta is brought to the convent as a child. Her parents perceive that she has a hyper-sensitive connection to the virgin Mary, and therefore to Jesus himself. They are convinced that God wants Benedetta to be devoted to him completely and they deliver her to the church to be Christ’s bride. The Church is said to be the Bride of Christ, but in this convent (and perhaps in others at the time, or through time), the nuns take this literally — Jesus is their husband and they are devoted to his work and the furthering of his kingdom.
This is articulated in so many words throughout the film, especially by Benedetta. This isn’t just a frame of mind, it is her reality. Jesus Christ is her husband. There is no room for erotic expression or human-directed passion in the nuns’ lives; they are married and celibate. They are devoted to Christ. This doesn’t mean they are without feeling, or without desire, or without curiosity; it means that they resist any urge that is of the flesh and not of God.
When Bartolomea comes to the convent, Benedetta is drawn to her and the women share a connection: Bartolomea’s father rejected her and so Benedetta’s own father paid Bartolomea’s admittance to the convent — her Dowry. The mother superior encourages Benedetta to take Bartolomea under her wing. Right away, we see that Benedetta is curious about Bartolomea’s body while she is bathing, but she knows that any exploration of this desire would be against her vows.
Bartolomea is bold, however, and after Benedetta reassures Bartolomea that she is beautiful, Bartolomea kisses Benedetta. At first, Benedetta seeks to punish or at least severely discourage Bartolomea, but eventually, through a series of visions, she comes to believe that a relationship with Bartolomea is ordained by God and sacred. Benedetta’s character experiences two parallel trajectories as the film progresses: closeness with God through visions and Stigmata, and closeness with Bartolomea through proximity and permission.
The visions Benedetta has of Jesus are what prompt her parents to bring her to the convent in the first place, and once she is there, the visions only increase in frequency and depth. And with each vision, we see her relationship with God expanding and growing. These visions take her out of reality: she loses consciousness, she trips and falls and hurts herself. These things are wholly beyond her control when she is experiencing the visions, which are also beyond her control. For Benedetta, what develops hereafter are two paths that are distinct, but intertwined. Benedetta begins a physical relationship with Bartolomea, while at the same time, she also begins to experience Stigmata.
The Stigmata is a mystic experience wherein a person begins to experience and display the same marks, scars, and pain that Christ experienced on the cross due to spiritual forces at work, not external forces (such as stabbing, scratching, etc.) There have been many documented occurrences of The Stigmata throughout history, including this story of Benedetta. What follows the appearance of Stigmata is generally the belief that if a person is experiencing The Stigmata, their connection to Christ must be so incredibly profound that it is manifesting itself in the deepest evidence of his passion. Some believe that those who experience The Stigmata are Christ incarnate, or at least are endowed with the power and authority of Christ. It is easy to doubt these occurrences because they are supernatural. Verhoeven provides enough evidence for us to land on either side (whether they are genuine or fabricated). But I think we are meant to withhold judgment about whether or not Benedetta’s Stigmata are real, and instead asked to observe how the events change these characters.
At one point, after a particularly violent vision, Benedetta is placed on bed rest to recover. An attending nurse asks Benedetta, “Feeling better?” to which Benedetta responds, “I feel what God wants me to feel.” She may not understand why God is causing her such pain and confusion, but she believes that his purposes are greater than her understanding. She believes and trusts that God will guide her. Until she understands, she is meant to be confused. When the time comes for her to understand, all will be made clear. It is in many ways a blind faith, not in the sense that it is foolish (though some might make the argument) but blind in the sense that she is being led down a path that she cannot see or know, but she is holding onto God who guides her.
As part of her recovery, the mother superior orders Bartolomea to sleep beside Benedetta as a safety measure in case Benedetta slips into a violent nightmare in the middle of the night. It is when these women are in close proximity that their relationship begins to change. It is important to note that her relationship with Bartolomea does not begin as a surrender to lust or desires of the flesh. In her visions of Jesus, which she believes are totally real and absolutely true, he explicitly gives her permission to explore her desire and consummate a sexual relationship with Bartolomea. It is because of this permission that Benedetta’s relationship with Bartolomea — in all its passion and exploration — is not depicted as transgressive or rebellious, but as an act of faith, an act of obedience.
This is a profound picture of faith: rejecting societal expectations (even to the point of death), shaking loose taboos and norms because of total devotion and obedience to God. Others may not understand, but the best, most holy and true thing we can do is to fully follow our convictions without reservation. What I appreciated about this film is the way Verheoven portrays Benedetta’s choices and actions as expressions of obedience. The sex between Benedetta and Bartolomea in the film is a spiritual act for Benedetta. It is connected to her understanding of God.
The film does not ask us to judge Benedetta, or determine for ourselves if she is telling the truth, it asks us to look within ourselves: what would we be willing to do if we believed it was True, even if society told us it was wrong? What higher authority do we trust, and what is that trust worth if it is not final? At what point do we actually appeal to a higher power over a popular power? Do we actually believe in objective truth? And if so, how do we discern it?
The Green Knight
[“Tell me a tale of thyself, that I might know thee”]
I still do not know what to make of this picture. I saw it twice and came away with more awe than understanding; while I don’t actually think it is among my ten favorite movies of the year, I want to talk about it in the context of this essay because I can’t yet grasp it. I haven’t read the screenplay yet, but the dialogue is so spare and the visual aspects of Gawain’s quest so vast that I do plan to read it when it is available. The line of dialogue that struck me most was the request King Arthur makes of his nephew at the Christmas feast: Arthur calls Gawain to sit in Lancelot’s chair — the seat of honor at the King’s right hand. Gawain is young; he has not been tested or proved in battle. He’s not even a knight. Yet here he is being asked to sit in the position of power second only to the King himself before many other brave and bold and tested knights.
When he takes the seat, Arthur turns to Gawain and admits his embarrassment that, even though they are family, Arthur has never really spent time with Gawain and he doesn’t really know anything about him. Arthur says, “Tell me a tale of thyself, that I might know thee.” Gawain is touched by the invitation, but he has no stories to tell. He is not very put-together or motivated. He sheepishly replies, “I have none to tell.” With that, the Queen chimes in: “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”
Naturally, no one jumps to participate, until Gawain sees this as an opportunity to gain his uncle’s favor, earn honor and valor, and become a great knight. But he tries to be too clever. He takes Arthur’s sword and swiftly beheads the Green Knight. My guess is that Gawain thought this would kill the Green Knight and therefore release Gawain from his obligation. Instead, the Green Knight merely stands, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain that they will meet again, one year hence, for the Green Knight to return the blow against Gawain. What follows is a tale of Gawain’s treacherous travels across the land, knowing in his heart that he travels to his own death. As we watch his tale unfold, we must consider the words of the king: “tell me a tale of thyself, that I might know thee.”
And what are we to learn of Gawain? Gawain wants to be a knight: duty and honor and oaths are all part of the making of knights and legends. As he sets out on his quest, he tries to help some of the folks he encounters: he shares some loose change (not enough, apparently), he rescues the lost head of a ghost, he speaks with foxes and giants, he is seduced by ladies and lords, green belts of protection come and go. He eventually arrives at the Green Chapel.
He eventually stands before the Green Knight, accountable for his decision. He stands before him for what feels like a lifetime, patiently. But when the Knight finally approaches him to deliver the promised consequence, Gawain falters on his vow. He tries to be brave, but at heart, he is a coward. He runs back to his former life. He does not uphold his end of the bargain.
Or does he? The film presents a version of what Gawain’s life would be like if he ran away. We see him ascend the throne, sire an heir, and wield power. But we also see him in pain and ridicule, betrayal and loneliness. He lives, yes: but what is a life of retreat worth? He becomes king, yes: but what is the kingdom of a coward worth? Right as the film seems to be at an end, this vision of the future collapses and we find him back in the Green Chapel, right where we left him, under the Green Knight’s ax. The whiplash of the false ending makes it a compelling device, with other examples in cinema (such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, and more recently Damien Chazelle’s La La Land). It indicates that in reality he did not actually run from the Green Knight; he was in the chapel all along. He was given the great gift of foresight and he is now determined to answer the Knight’s challenge. He sheds his green belt of earthly protection and accepts his fate. The Green Knight smiles and tenderly says, “Well done, my brave knight. Now, off with your head.”
But we don’t actually see him decapitated, and I think the ambiguity of the true ending is important. Lowery provides no easy answers. An earlier draft of this section of the essay ended with a few neat thoughts about the value of virtue, conviction, and faithfulness, but I don’t know that a neat little conclusion serves the art or argument of this film. I think it is a film that is concerned with the distinction between greatness (vapid, vain) and goodness (altruistic, an anchor), but I don’t think the film provides a blueprint for understanding how to be good or how to avoid being “great.” I think it is satisfied with the questions and the quest.
It is ambitious, ambiguous work. The film is a loose and evolved adaptation of one of the oldest works in the English canon. The storytelling methods are modern and esoteric and if we engage with the films complexity, I think Lowery reveals a few truths about the nature of duty and obligation, and about the ways we come to know ourselves.
As an aspiring knight, Gawain likely had a sense of an ideal or standard to look toward and emulate in his ascension to this station. It’s how we know he wasn’t measuring up…he’s lazy and distracted and shoeless and seat-less. Perhaps it is Arthur’s invitation that gives Gawain the courage to enter the Green Knight’s challenge, but he enter hastily and does not consider the weight of the ax. In his journey to uphold his vow, it is evident that he feels a sense of duty; to run away from the Green Knight would make him a coward, make him unworthy, make his vows meaningless. Yet, as much as he wants to be a worthy knight, on the other hand, he is scared of the death that most assuredly awaits him. This is what he must balance: his personal fears, reservations, and misgivings against his desire for honor, glory, and greatness.
When he sees his future, he sees wealth and power, partnership and family, but all the while, he carries with him the weight of an unfulfilled oath. This spills over into his reign — we see him in battle, we see his subjects ridicule him; he is a shadow of a man, a corpse in a crown. What he seems to learn is that being alive is not the same as living. Maybe he becomes “great” in the sense of being big, important, and powerful, but he can never be good because he is rotten within.
In a way, Gawain is able to see a story about himself through this vision. The vision is a possible reality, fiction until it happens. Arthur says, “tell me a tale of thyself, that I might know thee,” and here, in the Chapel, awaiting his own death, Gawain is told a tale of his own future, that he might know himself. He is given a glimpse of a version of himself and, on the other side of that vision, he can make his actual choice. Laurence Gonzales describes the plans that we make this way: “the plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” This idea, that we make plans for the future based on our current understanding and context of the present (informed by the past), calls for wisdom: we must anticipate the needs of situations we have not encountered. The future asks us to anticipate how we will change to meet unforeseen needs and scenarios.
Gawain does not have much wisdom; he is young and afraid and his current goal, in this moment, is to avoid the ax resting above his neck. But with his new vision in mind, Gawain can make a choice. He still can’t know the future, but he has seen the possibility. He can still choose to leave the chapel and try to prevent the fate he has foreseen, or he can make good on his oath, answer for the blow he caused, and accept what he has earned.
The film ends with the question of whether or not Gawain really loses his head. We do not see it cut. But I believe that through this tale, what Gawain learns about himself is that each decision carries a consequence. He must be true to his word, despite the consequences. He might not know what that loyalty and faithfulness and honor and truth will bring from one moment to the next, but if he is unified in his resolve, he can keep his goodness. He can have a clear head, even if he is meant to lose it.
[“I’ll remind you of everything”]
C’Mon C’Mon is a listening film. I think it presents an ideal for relationships — and I mean an ideal: a perfect image of an idea of a way we could be, even if the idea itself is not perfect or final. We see brother-sister, mother-son, nephew-uncle, husband-wife, and co-worker relationships, in these relationships, the people involved are pushing for more clarity, understanding, and space.
These people care about each other, they listen to each other, they ask important questions, they make sacrifices, they process their anger and frustrations when they arise, and they put aside their agendas and plans to care for others in need. C’Mon C’Mon uses the past and the future to help balance, inform, and enact the present. It is about working through what’s going on inside your brain and your heart and how important it is to take time to find words and to be people who listen to others and receive what others have to say. Our characters care enough about each other to stop what they are doing and listen, over and over and over.
I say that this is an ideal because I don’t know that it is a realistic model of our current world — or at least we haven’t found a way to sustain it like we see in the film. Which is not to say that it’s effortless in the film — it still takes work. But I believe this kind of world is coming, with practice, in time. I believe this film presents an attainable vision for care, compassion, and empathy.
Naturally, there are always cynics along with the dreamers, but perhaps this film as a picture of the world Gen Z will create when they grow up: Gen Z is a generation that cares deeply about pronouns, about loving who they love, a generation that believes black lives matter and advocates for them with their time, attention, and money. They are a generation that prioritizes therapy and self-care and genuine apologies. This film imagines people who understand that the connections we have with each other, and the safety and meaning we find in relationships, are more important than our greatest ambitions or our largest paychecks.
The film opens when Johnny calls his sister on the anniversary of their mother’s death. Brother and sister. It’s clear that even though they have had some rough patches (we see turbulent flashback b-roll as they talk on the phone), and maybe they haven’t talked in a whole, they have a deep connection — possibly forged through trauma, but definitely forged through time. Viv tells Johnny of her struggles caring for her partner, Paul, who we later learn has bipolar disorder. She also is a mom and is trying to do her best to raise 9-year-old Jesse. Viv tells Johnny that she’s going to have to travel up to Oakland (from Los Angeles) to help get Paul settled for a few days. Johnny asks who will take care of Jesse and when Viv doesn’t really seem to have a good answer, he drops everything to fly to Los Angeles to care for Jesse.
While he does do work while watching Jesse, it’s important that he seems to be prioritizing watching Jesse — he feels a tug and a responsibility to his nephew. Johny’s assistant tries to convince him to go to New Orleans and, though he does eventually go, his first impulse is to stay in one place so that he can watch Jesse. But Jesse and Johnny’s relationship isn’t just Watcher/Watched or Chaperone/Chaperoned. Their relationship is full of questions and processing emotions and resolving conflict and playing make-believe.
Much of the film consists of conversations in which the characters ask each other to share their inner thoughts, feelings, and dreams. Johnny’s work is relational and question-focused. It’s concerned with bridging the gap between generations and between places: he is interviewing children of first-generation immigrants about their hopes and dreams for tomorrow. The film is concerned with the work of bringing out the inner life.
The way Viv cares for Paul is also an ideal — she sacrifices herself, her desires, her needs, because she realizes how much help Paul needs and she knows he will never get there on his own. She recognizes that she can’t get him there on her own, but she knows she has to help. I think Johnny’s reservations and wariness are well-intentioned, but I also appreciate how he puts his personal opinions aside to support Viv’s support of Paul. When we choose to love others, we ought to be committed to loving them, not a version of them.
Some expressions of love can be misguided or unbalanced, but understanding our capacities for love is part of learning to love. Viv realizes she’s out of her depth, but she’s willing to wade all the way up to her neck to help care for Paul. She can’t change him, but she can go to Oakland where he is, she can ask him about his meds, she can ask him if he’s slept, she can make sure he eats, she can walk the dog he probably shouldn’t have gotten, she can set up appointments with the doctor, she can leave the door unlocked in case he comes back and forgot his key. Maybe that’s what Paul needs to get better. Viv seems to think so. And I think at the end of the film we are to believe that she has helped.
Another thread in this film that I found especially moving involved questions of memory and the preservation of memory. Johnny is a radio host traveling the country asking children questions about the future. He is making a record that will be preserved for a time we can’t even imagine yet. He is capturing an honest moment in time; these children imagine the future. These aren’t just random children, they are children chosen because they have a specific past — maybe a past or a heritage they don’t even remember, but they are all from families that immigrated to America. They are the walking legacy of family members who initially asked themselves “what will the future be like” and then made something of that question. Made that question a quest.
Johnny is distilling memory. And he interviews himself at the end of every day, participating in the work. Johnny takes time to record an audio diary recounting some of the events of the day and also sharing a little bit of how he felt about what transpired. It seems like a fun outpouring of his work, but it is revealed that his (and Viv’s) mother who recently died, died of Alzheimers — or at least memory loss was part of her decline. When this is revealed, it illuminates Johnny’s diary entry practice. It’s not just a work-related practice, it’s a survival instinct. The loss he witnessed in his mother inspired him to work on his own kind of preservation.
Toward the end of the film, Johnny and Jesse realize that their time is coming to an end. Johnny asks Jesse if he thinks he will remember anything about the time that they spent together. Jesse thinks this is a silly question…of course he’ll remember! But Johnny knows how the brain works. Jesse may remember that they spent time together, and he might remember a few moments here or there, but he won’t remember the toothbrush fiasco, or getting lost on the street corner, or Johnny fainting in the middle of the parade (okay, he might remember some part of one of those things), but his version of that time spent together will be so different and incomplete compared to Johnny’s.
It’s so interesting how memory functions. Johnny is holding this recent experience of his mother dying, her memory failing, her memories being essentially erased, while at the same time acknowledging that Jesse’s memory of this time will not hold. This time, so fresh and present in this moment, will not imprint on Jesse’s brain in the same way that it will on Johnny’s.
It is a film about questions and time. It’s about understanding that we may forget the past, we only have hope for the future, and we will eventually experience the present moment as a memory (and an incomplete one at that). So, with that in mind, we shouldn’t rush through the present. And this isn’t meant to be a Ferris Bueller-esque “if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it” sentiment. The film is asking “what does it look like to fully receive and experience every moment of the present?”
What if we feel our emotions fully while we have them fresh in our minds? What if we carry them fully in our bodies? What if we release them fully with our voices? Take time to walk through the park — scream in the park if you have to.
C’Mon C’Mon situates its characters in a questioning present: between a known, shared past, and a hoped-for future. It’s a tender film. I walked away telling everyone that it feels like a hug. It models a new present and we ought to get to work making it happen. Ask the people in your life questions. Create space and time for them to answer those questions as fully as they can. Be safe and available. And when they can’t come up with the words, let them scream. Try to guess if they’re laughing or crying.
This film is about storytelling and storytellers. It is about the lines between fact and fiction, between reality and dreams (the worlds we create when we’re most awake). Chris and Tony take a trip together to Fårö, the island home of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (and the filming location for many of his greatest works). While there, they watch Bergman films in the private screening room, Tony screens one of his own films, he leads multiple panel discussions at the Bergman center, and both Tony and Chris take time to work on their developing projects (they are both writers and filmmakers). Bergman Island is very interested in examining the artist’s process and the artist’s life and the connection between art and reality.
Tony and Chris work similarly — writing by hand in hardback journals, taking individual space for themselves, going for walks or bike rides to work through details of their stories, etc. One important way they differ, however, is in their openness to collaboration and in how much they are willing to share with each other about their works-in-progress. Tony is happy to talk about finished work — we see this when he leads the panel or masterclass immediately following his film screening. He is not interested in talking about works in progress.
There is a scene when Chris and Tony are sitting down to eat and Chris is expressing frustrations with her current project. In the middle of her exasperation, she asks Tony to talk about what he is working on. He says that it is going well, and vaguely adds that it is about “invisible things that circulate within a couple,” but when Chris presses him to explain further he refuses. “Don’t want to jinx it,” he says. It reminds me of a creative writing professor I had in college who said that whenever he was working on a new project and someone asked him about the details, he would always say it was “a story about a boy and a dog” even if it had nothing to do with a boy or a dog. Writers can be enigmatic — sometimes in service of their work and sometimes in service of their image. Tony believes in Chris and does affirm her work, but when she tries to lean on him for support and ideas, he is entirely unhelpful — going as far as to suggest she stop writing altogether if it’s too difficult, instead of wading into the difficulty with her and helping her work for a solution or a path for her characters and her story.
And Chris holds her story and her characters very loosely. She is inviting. Unlike Tony, who gives a vague, reserved logline explanation of his work-in-progress, Chris fully brings Tony (and us) into the story, and that invitation is where the true magic of this film begins. Tony and Chris take a long walk around Fårö and Chris asks Tony if she can tell him what she is writing. Then, as she begins to share, the story comes to life, unfolding before our eyes — sometimes narrated by Chris, sometimes just playing as if it was the movie we were watching all along. And as it goes, Chris modifies the story, adds details, introduces alternative pathways, reveals uncertainties; it is a story of the process of a writer, told to us as if the story is waking up in the mind of Chris and we have access to the rising.
This inner story is about a couple with a long history. Chris tells us that this is “their last chapter.” They get to have one last experience together (or is it the last?) where they can ask, for a stolen moment, “what if?” And it’s a beautiful, saccharine story of fading love and of a heart breaking. Chris’ main question (that Tony does not seem interested in helping her answer) is “what happens next? How does this story end?”
In the last 10 minutes of the film, director Mia Hansen-Løve deftly and completely blends fact and fiction — or perhaps what she is doing is revealing what has been true all along: that an artist’s life is often on display in their work…sometimes more obviously than other times, but on display nonetheless. We write and create and imagine new worlds of our own experiences. We know the refrain “write what you know” and while I do believe there is truth in that statement, I was once given some writing advice regarding that adage: I was encouraged not just to regurgitate my own experiences right onto the page, but rather, to bring all of my self and my experiences and the ways I have been shaped by the circumstances and environments of my life — bring those things that I know to the page. I can create and invent new worlds and new people, but allow those worlds and those characters to be informed by the way I understand and experience the world and the way I understand people to behave. Or, conversely, I can write against the world, but only because I have knowledge of the way things are to use as a basis for the way I want things to be.
Just as The French Dispatch invited me to reexamine the intentional fallacy, Bergman Island encourages me to let the method an artist uses illuminate something about the world, rather than expecting an artist’s methods or process to reveal the argument. I believe that Bergman Island encourages us to consider the artist as a friend, someone who wants to tell us a story, who wants to know what we think of it, who is interested in our ideas about the characters and the scenario. The artist is not so different from us, and if this artwork is a reflection of their experience or of how they understand other people and the world we share, what might we be able to learn about the way we tell our own stories or perceive our own reality?
The couple in our inner story gets a chance to ask “what if” as they have one final affair together. But the couple in our container story (our original Tony and Chris) are left with some different questions of their own. While they do seem to be in love, it’s not a carefree, romantic, exciting love; it’s a weathered, grounded, sincere, collaborative love. They aren’t at the end of their time together, they’re turning the page. They aren’t asking “what if it had worked out?” They are together. They have worked out. They get to ask “if we get what we want, then what do we do with it? What’s next?”
Loosely ranked favorite films of 2021:
The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
The Power of the Dog
The Tragedy of Macbeth
West Side Story
The Last Duel
Drive My Car
The Green Knight
Loosely ranked favorite directing of 2021:
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Joel Coen, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch
Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island
Mike Mills, C’Mon C’Mon
Paul Verhoeven, Benedetta
Pedro Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers
Ridley Scott, The Last Duel
David Lowery, The Green Knight
Loosely ranked favorite writing of 2021:
Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch
Paul Verhoeven & David Birke, Benedetta
Mike Mills, C’Mon C’Mon
Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Becky Johnston & Roberto Bentivegna, House of Gucci
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy & Drive My Car
Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, & Matt Damon, The Last Duel
Tony Kushner, West Side Story
David Lowery, The Green Knight
Loosely ranked favorite performances of 2021:
Woody Norman, C'Mon C'Mon
Denzel Washington + Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Benedict Cumberbatch + Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of The Dog
Agathe Rousselle, Titane
Rachel Zegler + Mike Faist, West Side Story
Benicio Del Toro + Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Vicky Kreips + Mia Wasikowska, Bergman Island
Harriet Sansom Harris + Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
Rebecca Ferguson, Dune
Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick...Boom!
Jodi Comer, The Last Duel
Dev Patel, The Green Knight
Adam Driver + Al Pacino, House of Gucci
Favorite scenes (unranked):
"What are you going to paint?" "The Future...which is you" The French Dispatch
"It's just so nice to not be alone." The Power of The Dog
"Pearls (both at dinner, and at her childhood home)" Spencer
"McDuff's family home, and following" and "From the eulogy to the end" The Tragedy of Macbeth
"Scenes in bed (from the inner story)" Bergman Island
"I'll remind you of everything" C'Mon C'Mon
"Never ask a man 'why'" The French Dispatch
"Realizing where we are" Procession
"Looking at the childhood home, cigarette in the snow" Drive My Car
"The 'ending'" The Green Knight
"America" and "Be Cool" West Side Story