- A Secret Love (2020): An intimate family documentary about the challenges of aging and care for aging people, packaged in a story about a romance between two women that spanned much of the twentieth century, and the baseball history best known from A League of Their Own (1992). I found it beautiful and affecting, and it hit very close to home. I would have said that this was the best Netflix original I’d seen yet, but of course it’s not a Netflix original! It’s a Blumhouse production with Netflix distribution. So instead I’ll say that the promotion of small, cheap indie films like this is the best case Netflix makes, to me personally, for its own value in a post-streaming-fragmentation world.
- Modern Times (1936): I haven’t studied Charlie Chaplin; this might be the first of his films I’ve ever seen, and for sure the first of his features. The set design and prop work hold up really well four-score-and-four years later! And it’s interesting to see this as a last gasp for silent films—it was both the final Tramp movie and the first one where he has a voice. I can see why the Tramp series was so popular, but I’m not especially driven to watch more of them, in part because…
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): … of this movie, which I’m juxtaposing with the previous entry even though we watched that in May and this in July. This was the first Buster Keaton feature I’ve seen, and it too came at the end of an era, as the last movie he got to make with his own team and creative control. Functionally it has a number of similarities to Modern Times: hapless man does his best to deal with circumstances of industrialization while pursuing romance with a spirited young woman; set pieces and physical comedy ensue. Keaton’s mournful deadpan is itself a clear contrast to Chaplin’s mugging, and is more in my preferred flavor of comedy. But I think the reasons I preferred this movie go beyond that (and also beyond certain formative influences).
- Moonstruck (1987): This movie has an opera performance at its center, and I don’t think that is just because it’s about Italian people. It functions like a romantic comedy, but there aren’t many outright jokes, and the cast plays it various degrees of straight. The exception is Nicolas Cage, whose performance is high Nicolas Cage with extra Nicolas Cage on top. My hypothesis: this movie was not written as a romantic comedy; it is itself a light opera. Cage is the one who saw that and decided to just fucking go for it. It’s fun!
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): Rewatch, of course. A decade has been pretty kind to this movie! There is a random unprompted r-word (from Kim Pine, of all characters) right before the first party scene, which jarred me, and which I am glad to report did not reappear in the recent and delightful benefit table read. I am less glad to report that neither did my favorite throwaway bit maybe ever.
- Furie (2019): This was another 36 Cinema livestream, with commentary from Lady Sensei (founder of the Women’s Martial Arts Network) and Warrington Hudlin, a longtime film professional now working at the Museum of the Moving Image. They’re both a bit older than the commentators from previous showings, and in a very charming way, both clearly got caught up watching the movie and forgot to talk about it for long stretches. That’s understandable! It’s a gripping movie! It looks like it should have cost about ten times its actual budget, and its producer-star Veronica Ngo is magnetic and makes the hits feel very legitimate. In writing this, I learned that she subsequently appeared in The Old Guard (2020), which increments my interest in seeing that too.
- Palm Springs (2020): Emotionally intelligent and fun! If you’d like to see it and are one of the four remaining inhabitants of Earth who do not have my Hulu password, let me know.
Hamilton (2020): I know I’m linking to a lot of videos in this post, but I do think this talk between Daveed Diggs and Anthony Mackie is worth watching as a complement to this adaptation. Diggs is quite clear that the frame of reference for, as he says, “centering brown people at the birth of our economy” is very different now than it was in 2015, even if the underlying nature of our world is not so different at all. One quote that I’m still thinking about:
“Every piece of art is viewed through the lens of the time that you are looking at it in. … There is such a hopefulness in [Hamilton] that, in this particular moment, reads even more–maybe revolutionary, or maybe fictional.”
“I don’t think it’s wrong in any era, it’s just that the lens keeps changing. You hope that you are part of something that can continue to be in conversation with the era that it’s viewed in. That’s how timeless things work.”
The lens of the present moment is of course a moving river, but I think Diggs’s concept there is a lens that bears repeated use. Sometimes you watch a movie from 2010 that has a slur in it, and it hurts to hear, but the principles behind the work can still stand up: an argument with flaws on the surface. Sometimes you watch a movie from last year where the language is fine but the takeaway isn’t: an argument with flaws at its core. With consciousness of my privilege, I am much more willing to hear out the former, in most conversations.
Diggs also throws in an aside about how, despite his increasing celebrity, he has tried to maintain a normal profile in his day to day life: “people don’t expect you to be walking to the store, so I walk to the store, and nobody really bothers me.” Four and a half years ago, waiting outside the stage doors with Sumana and Kat and Rachel and Claire and Julia and a lot of euphoria, Diggs was the one cast member who popped out to kindly give my playbill an autograph. That kind of continued and thoughtful integrity is something I admire very much.
All that said, the work of adaptation here is very skillful. Agile camera work, dynamic shot length, and an intimate knowledge of what angle to use when, as you might expect from Tommy Kail. He also directed the Fosse/Verdon miniseries, which I haven’t seen, but it seems clear that his practice making that (and Grease Live! (2016)) made for an adept transition from theatrical to film direction. IMDB tells me that he worked on the former with editor Jonah Moran, who then edited Hamilton, and the result of that collaboration is excellent. They combined multiple live performances, some with an audience and some without, into a seamless whole with solid continuity that knows just when to include laughter or applause and when to sit with silence.
The Tramp is a figure of audience empathy contending with superiors and forces beyond his control, but because he’s a clown persona, he’s also the butt of the joke. He dodges both the crackdown of the factory boss and the backlash of the union, and once he’s thrown in prison, he’s happy to indulge in contraband and latch onto the privilege granted by turning snitch. He can be a trickster figure, poking authority in the eye, but it rarely comes across to me as getting one back for the underclass: the motivation is that the eye-poke is a reliable gag for clowns.
Keaton’s eponymous Bill Junior is sympathetic, but he plays that sympathy against his own privilege—he’s been spoiled, he’s a dandy, he’s ineffectual and he can’t seem to stand up for himself until… well, you know. He’s a kicked dog, but one who’s only just been dislodged from the lap. So when he makes his character the butt of the joke, it comes across to me as punching up. When Chaplin—who, by 1936, was an international icon at his peak, granted ready audience with world leaders—draws a greasepaint grin on the face of the Great Depression, it seems to me like punching down.
I mean, obviously the people actually living through the Depression did not agree with me here; Modern Times was a hit and Steamboat Bill, Jr. was such a flop that it cost Keaton his artistic autonomy. I think both are worth watching. The latter is in the public domain and not terribly long. If you don’t already know about it, please indulge me: during the final act, try to figure out how they pulled off its special effects before you check Wikipedia. I couldn’t! It is rare that I get to feel that kind of sustained astonishment. This wasn’t just pre-CGI, this was two decades before the invention of the transistor. Buster Keaton was a goddamn magician.