What do you know about art, kid?
I think I want to be a famous artist when I grow up.
Photography was always a way to walk through fear. Taking a picture is kind of protective.
Viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion of motion. Illusion of life.
This piece was not born into aching tragedy. It was born into young love.
You are much more beautiful than the rest. You are special.
You don’t become a star. You either are one or you ain’t.
You have to able to analyze the music in one glance, evaluate the danger… and jump in.
The only real discovery for me is in the rehearsal, never the performance.
I’ve always wanted the people in the pictures to be proud of being in the work. People have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was that beautiful.’
Cut, cut, cut. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. But you’re not the one to put the pieces together.
I made you look like you could fly.
This is a copy, and it’s not the assignment.
These assignments? They don’t matter. This course doesn’t matter. College doesn’t matter. These amazing, honest things you wrote? They matter.
What kind of criteria would you hope they use to do this? Your score reading and stick technique, or something else?
She’s getting so famous now. Fan letters! Telegrams! Flowers from strangers! It’s so strange…
Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out and leave you lonely.
The author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.
This whole place is for people who want to escape. People who don’t belong anywhere else.
I know it hurts. No one asks to be left behind. But in a hundred years, when you and I are both long gone, any time someone threads a frame of yours through a sprocket, you will be alive again…
“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles.”
It starts with a party. It always does, in Hollywood. Somebody meets somebody else, they get to talking, and even though they couldn’t be more different — he’s a polite immigrant from Mexico, a hard worker, a problem solver; she’s a crass Jersey girl, effortlessly ebullient, going places — there’s a spark. Not love, not sex — not exactly. A passion, shared. A dream projected onto a bare white wall that they both can see so clearly. All they have to do is say yes.
Babylon is an all-nighter of a movie, and also the morning after. It weaves in and out of plot threads, encompassing so much that, after it ends, you struggle to remember exactly how it began (as with any good party). When it’s over, you’re meant to dig through the blackout and put the pieces together, grasping at hazy remembrances — wait a sec, didn’t I see someone fighting a snake at some point? — to reassemble a narrative that makes sense. Only the joke’s on you — Hollywood is a mirage in the desert, and always has been. Try to understand this industry’s madness at your own peril. You’d be wiser to just enjoy the ride. (But do buckle up. It’s bumpy.)
Seven years back, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was crowned winner of the industry’s top prize, the Academy Award for Best Picture — for approximately two minutes. That film was swoony and starry-eyed, a throwback to classic movie musicals like An American In Paris (itself a Best Picture winner). It might as well have been concocted in a laboratory with the express goal of winning the top Oscar, but the night’s actual winner turned out to be Moonlight, which signaled a significant shift in the kinds of movies the Academy has been honoring. Chazelle’s new movie feels like it was born in the two minutes of that chaotic Oscars fuckup — one minute you’re the king of the world, the next minute, Bonnie and Clyde are prying that precious golden boy out of your clammy clutches — a film about having glory in your grasp, and watching as it slips from your fingers. Babylon is inspired by classic musicals, too — it’s Singin’ In The Rain, but evil.
In Babylon, Damien Chazelle invites audiences to a very exclusive shindig. The biggest, brightest stars are in attendance — and they’re dying. It’s a truly epic Hollywood hangover, the kind few mere mortals will ever suffer. What a treat, then, to be given such access! If La La Land was for the fools who dream, Babylon is for the ones who didn’t get any sleep at all, and are starting to get a little punchy; the ones who went from the party to the afterparty to another undisclosed location and then directly to set for a 6 AM call-time; the ones who, against all odds, are still up and at ‘em, fueled by cocaine and coffee and desperation.
The movie is populated with feral creatures — rattlesnakes and alligators and elephants, oh my! – to highlight how its human characters are really just wild animals, too, ids on display at the Hollywood Zoo. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the leading man, who is afforded a long career in front of the cameras on account of being male, but is acutely aware that the lights are just a little dimmer every time he steps on a new set. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is the “it” girl, who burns bright and burns hot and burns out very, very quickly. Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) is the behind-the-scenes dreamer who makes a meteoric rise from production assistant to studio executive. He starts in the industry with such passion, a willingness to do whatever it takes to play his part in getting the shot, and then finds that idealism curdling as rises higher and higher, and the money starts mattering more than the magic. Around these three orbit a number of supporting players — gossip maven Elinor St. John (Jean Smart); Chinese-American immigrant Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a cabaret singer and intertitle writer; and, because this is a Damien Chazelle, jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who gets discovered and then discarded when music becomes part of the movies. In the long party sequence that makes up Babylon’s first act, Nellie and Manny first bond over a mountain of cocaine, waxing poetic on how magical it must be to be on a movie set. Neither of them has been on one yet, and neither is yet aware that they’ll both be employed on the same set the following morning. Everything is about to happen for them, but not all will be so lucky.
In the medium’s early days, no one knew yet what a juggernaut “moving pictures” would be. Everything was experimental before film became an industry. Babylon begins in 1926, just before Al Jolson’s sync singing in The Jazz Singer ushered in demand for “talkies.” It’s the tail end of the era when women were able to create opportunities for themselves to direct and produce, as Chazelle shows us through the character Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), who directs Nellie in her star-making turn in her first movie. A couple years later, Ruth and Nellie are making a sound picture, beset by all the early production problems filmmakers faced during that transition — squeaky shoes, immovable mics, sweltering sets. A studio exec visits set, and sees Ruth struggling to keep everything under control. Assistant director Max (P.J. Byrne) gets confrontational, shouting obscenities and threats at the crew in order to get the job done. And with that, we witness the birth of the abusive male director archetype, a hint at how so many female filmmakers got sidelines over the next few generations. A crew responds to a shouting, swearing man differently than they do to a shouting female — and so does a studio exec.
Manuel, whose family immigrated to California from Mexico, eventually starts claiming that he’s from Spain. He insists on being called “Manny” to lose the ethnicity inherent in his full name. Soon, his superiors are asking him to sell out Fay and Sidney, his fellow people of color. Manny’s not happy about it, but he does so, because making the powerful white men with money happy is the only way to stay alive in Hollywood. Taking a stand would only throw his career under the bus along with theirs. Babylon’s messiest section tells the story of how Hollywood became a white male’s playground, of all the talent squandered by a system that saw diversity as a liability rather than an asset. (Notice how Fay — triply damned as female, Asian, and lesbian — is shunted aside first.) Jack Conrad, the sole white male of the film’s core cast, is probably the most tragic figure, dismayed to discover that his stardom doesn’t translate from the silents to talkies — his time in the limelight is over. But he still has has a place in Hollywood, it just isn’t as prominent as the place he used to be. As a handsome straight white movie star, he thought he’d be sprinkled with stardust once and get to keep his name in lights forever. The other characters in the film are more practical, knowing they were lucky just to hold it in their hands for a little while.
Hollywood’s promises never live up to the reality. There’s no magic in the actual making of movies. There’s a lot of hard work. Sexism. Racism. Homophobia. Abuse. Broken dreams. Selling out. A lot ugliness goes into creating a thing of such beauty. When 1930s moviegoers see Sidney Palmer’s big band film, they won’t know he’s been forced to smear shoe polish across his face so the blackness of his skin matches the rest of the band. They’ll just enjoy the show. When we watch scenes from The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Jurassic Park, we aren’t privy to the pain and struggle that went into the crew’s long day’s work, what compromises were made in order to appease the studio, what the cast was really feeling the day they shot our favorite scene. It’s all an illusion. Jack, Nellie, and Manny hope to live in the dreamworld that Hollywood promised, only to realize that it’s a mirage. The magic isn’t for the people who make the movies. It’s for the people who watch them. Manuel finally discovers this is the final scene of Babylon, when he happens into a crowded theater and sees a version of the painful story he’s lived through made into the tender, touching, joyful, funny hit musical Singin’ In The Rain, all that ugliness made beautiful for our entertainment. Every story we know is made up of thousands we don’t — toil, betrayal, heartbreak, all lovingly swept out of frame and brushed aside before the camera start rolling. The dreams are up on the big screen. Behind the scenes are nightmares.
The real Babylon was once the center of civilization; the word “babylon” means “gate of the gods.” Babylon’s characters are best viewed this way — as mythic, mighty and doomed, with arcs as inevitable as Hermes or Athena’s. (You don’t ask for nuance or rationale from a god.) Nellie defines herself this way: “You either are a star or you ain’t. You don’t become one.” Her fate is predetermined. Babylon brings the ecstasy and agony of filmmaking to life so vividly. It’s extreme and excessive — but that’s Hollywood, baby! (And also Greek mythology, baby.) Several sequences play out as mini-movies — the bacchanalian party that begins the film, Ruth and Nellie’s aggravating first foray into shooting with sound, a nightmarish trip into Los Angeles’ underground afterhours scene with ghoulish Tobey Maguire as our tour guide — and those are a whole lot of fun, but it’s the anguish that leaves an aftertaste, even when it’s not entirely clear whether Chazelle himself intended his film to be an anthem or a requiem. Chazelle lingers on the way his invented stars fade out and die, a way of dwelling on the impending demise of Hollywood as we know it. In Babylon, and in real life circa 2022, this 120-year-old titan suddenly seems ephemeral, very raw and very vulnerable — a monster that’s suddenly become a mouse. La La Land was the rise, Babylon is the fall. (At some point, the car will go flying off the rails completely, so make sure you’re wearing your seatbelt.)
Babylon borrows so heavily from Singin’ In The Rain, it almost feels like a remake (even before the 1952 musical makes an extended cameo at the end). Both films return to the era that marked the death of the silent film, and killed off a lot of careers, like Jack’s, and Ruth’s, and Nellie’s, that couldn’t quite make the leap to talkies. Movies didn’t die in 1927 — if anything, they only became more dominant in popular culture. The marriage of sound and picture made them more immersive and mesmerizing, and allowed them to finally be considered as much an art as a diversion.
But it’s fair to wonder if cinema is dying in 2022, and that’s what Babylon is really about. Chazelle’s film is willfully anachronistic, because it’s not really about a particular moment in time. The invention of the “talkie” is probably the biggest sea change the medium ever saw, but it’s far from the only technological innovation that threatened to end cinema. The advent of television. Cable TV. VHS players. DVD. HDTV sets. Streaming. All of these called into question why moviegoers would go to movies anymore when they could get the exact same product at home for less hassle. Now, in 2022, we might have finally reached the point where the answer is: “They won’t.” Babylon’s finale is an orgy of innovation that pauses longer on major breakthroughs in CGI than it does on earlier marvels. (Hello, again, Avatar!) In the moment, it seems like a loving tribute to movie magic, but it might also be the death of cinema flashing before Manny’s eyes. All the movie stars of the 1920s are dead, though many live on in legacy, as Elinor St. John predicts with uncanny foresight when offering Jack some tough love wisdom. Manny’s vision of the future makes moviemaking seem similarly eternal and ephemeral at once.
Most of 2022’s best-reviewed awards contenders have been reported as duds at the box office. Just before the Oscar nominations were announced, Tár and The Banshees Of Inisherin had grossed less than $10 million apiece. Spielberg’s Golden Globe-winning The Fabelmans had still made well under $20 million. Babylon was the season’s biggest failure of all by the numbers, also under $20 million. None of this is because the movies failed, exactly; it’s the audiences who failed to show up for the movies. Hollywood is in the midst of growing pains that, at least right now, feel as urgent and apocalyptic as The Jazz Singer’s arrival did 95 years ago. There’s no question that something called “movies” will continue to be made for the foreseeable future, but whether they’re anything like Babylon is very much in doubt.
Chazelle’s previous films felt overdetermined. You could sense the director himself just out of frame, determined to get everything just right. Babylon sees the wunderkind finally cede control and embrace chaos (how much of that was intentional, it’s hard to say), though his ambition remains firmly, gloriously intact. Some critics have compared it to Boogie Nights and The Wolf Of Wall Street, and, superficially? Yeah. Sure. But Babylon is more spiritually akin to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, or even Francis Ford Coppolla’s notorious folly-flop One From The Heart — a production purchased with a get-out-of-jail-free card, a movie with nothing left to lose. It is young and wild, fast and loose, and very, very indulgent. Babylon risks being abhorred, as many of the great ones do. There’s a fearlessness to to it, a willingness to be wildly, bombastically wrong. It harkens back to an era when nearly every major motion picture was a risk, artistically and commercially; when movies were shot out of a cannon without a safety net instead of placed gently into a crib. Babylon is much too much at a moment when most big movies are nothing at all. With this, we see Chazelle chucking his Oscar back into the void, because who needs an Academy Award when there aren’t really even movies anymore?
In its final moments, Babylon nakedly, desperately poses the age-old question — perhaps even a challenge — to the current moment’s audience for entertainment:
“Are you really willing to let all this die?”
In 2022, the masses formerly known as “moviegoers” answered: “Yes.”
9. RETURN TO SEOUL
“I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.”
Not everybody’s born where they belong. Not everybody belongs where they’re born. One young woman might spend her whole life seeking answers to the simplest question: Where do I come from? She might even track down every answer, but it’s never the revelation she’s looking for.
Frédérique Benoît arrives in Seoul without a plan. She doesn’t speak Korean. Her mother keeps calling, wondering why Freddie is in South Korea when she was supposed to be in Tokyo. “How long do you want to stay?” asks Tena, the French-speaking young woman who works the front desk at the hostel. Freddie doesn’t know, exactly; she isn’t even sure she wants to be here in the first place. Freddie befriends Tena, if only because she’s one of the few people Freddie can communicate with here, and she could use a tour guide. She doesn’t know a soul in Seoul.
In an early scene, Freddie (played so strikingly by Ji-Min Park) recklessly gathers a group of disparate Koreans at a bar, knowing nothing about these people or this culture, but assuming her Frenchness is exotic enough to lure them into having a drink with her. It works. Freddie has the face of a “long-time Korean,” as one local woman puts it, with “pure Korean traits” from ancient, ancestral Korea. She is, in this way, biologically the most Korean person in this group, while in every other way, nothing could be further from the truth. Freddie is French through and through. Her Western attitude is both alluring and off-putting to the Koreans she meets, though it’s not just her foreignness that challenges them. Her brusqueness could offend in France, the United States, or anywhere else. She takes pleasure in making others uncomfortable — especially when she’s feeling vulnerable herself. The most intimidating person in any room is often the one who is most afraid. Freddie’s apparent fearlessness is just a way of masking how terrified she is.
Freddie eventually reveals the reason for her impulsive visit — her Korean birth parents gave her up for adoption when she was an infant. She left Korea before she could form a memory of the place, and though she won’t admit it, she yearns to know where she came from, hoping the answers can help her make sense of the woman she’s become.
It’s a well-worn setup for an independent drama — the bruised loner hunting down a lost parent in the quest for identity. These stories tend to go one of two ways — either the movie is a journey of reconciliation, with the parent along for the ride, or a journey toward a reunion, in which the parent shows up at the end. In most, the journey is more important than the destination.
Return To Seoul is neither a linear journey of discovery nor a two-hander between parent and child, however. Freddie meets her father in the first third of the film; he’s a washed-up fisherman who gets sloppy when he drinks, but he’s also a loving family man. His mother, sister, wife, and daughters don’t just welcome Freddie with open arms — they already consider her part of the family. Freddie’s absence, it turns out, left an even bigger void in her father’s life than it did in hers. He’s spent these decades wondering where she is, imagining who she must be, longing for her return. Oh Kwang-rok is totally heartbreaking as the father. He’s a bit of a fool, completely misreading Freddie at every turn, and coming on way too strong. He tries to fast-forward them to a closeness they might feel now, if he’d raised her; of course, she doesn’t this man at all, and needs time if she’s going to feel anything for him. Her instinct is to pull away. But Oh’s open-hearted desperation to rekindle this familial love can’t help but be endearing, even if Freddie’s coolness toward him is perfectly understandable, too.
This storyline would make up the entirety of most movies. Return To Seoul has a lot more on its mind, though, and takes a more meandering path in reaching an ending, of sorts. Freddie resists being cast as Yeon-Hee, the good little Korean girl who finally found her way home. She wants to know where she came from, but refuses to be defined by it, or retroactively inserted into a life that stopped being viable for her the moment she was given up for adoption.
Return To Seoul resists letting the answers to the adoption mystery provide any answers to who Freddie herself is. The closer Freddie gets to uncovering her lineage, the further from self-assurance she seems to get. Unknown parents have loomed so large in her imagination; disappointment in their true identities was probably the only possible outcome, but even so, the sloppy drunk fisherman only makes her existence on this earth feel more like a mistake, not less. The more Freddie learns about her biological parents, the more she feels like damaged goods — and the more determined she is to exact revenge on any Korean she can find.
In Freddie’s heart, it’s not just her parents who abandoned her — it’s a whole nation. She learns that she was just one of thousands of babies who were sent abroad at a more precarious time for South Korea. Everybody Freddie meets treats her with kindness, but she can’t help viewing them as conspirators in a nationwide rejection. If she’s had to reckon with this wreckage all her life, she figures, shouldn’t they have to, too?
Freddie’s aggressions are mostly small, but they hit their marks. Return To Seoul is filled with tiny, painful moments the way life is. When Freddie looks into the mirror, she sees shards instead of a complete reflection; she wields these jagged pieces of her fractured self against anyone who thinks they see her more completely than she sees herself.
She’s brutally cold toward the Korean boy who falls hard for her after a reckless night of passion. She attempts an ill-advised and terribly timed kiss with Tena, equally out of misplaced longing to connect to the kind of girl she might have been if she’d stayed in Seoul, but also with the certainty that this desperate act will sabotage her closeness with the only Korean friend she’s made so far. “You’re a very sad person,” Tena tells her as a way of saying goodbye. Tena’s right. Freddie thought she’d hidden it better, dancing aggressively alone through a bar where no one else is dancing.
Freddie returns to Seoul more than once over the course of the film, with years separating each visit. We don’t ever learn much about what Freddie’s life is like elsewhere, but the differences in her are stark with each visit. (In the midsection, with slicked-back hair, dark red lips, and head-to-toe black leather, she definitely isn’t someone you want to fuck with.) Even starker, though, is the throughline — the same pain she’s always felt, and the way she channels that into hardness, recklessness, and, in her lowest moments, cruelty. Years after her first visit, Freddie has become friends with Lucie, a fellow French-Korean adoptee. Some women might find solace and camaraderie in this companion; Freddie mostly just sees it as further proof that there’s something persona; in the way she was ostracized from her home country. Lucie has been smarter about her return to Seoul. She spent months learning the language and the culture before contacting her birth parents. She didn’t just show up one day demanding answers with the implication that her Western upbringing makes her superior to every single person she meets in the land that abandoned her. Freddie encourages Lucie to make out with her own boyfriend on her birthday. A sexy threesome? It could be, but Freddie seems to view it as further proof she isn’t wanted here, even though she instigated it.
Later in the story, Freddie draws her biological father and his family together with Maxime (Yoann Zimmer), her French boyfriend, for an experimental dinner. She’s finally ready to merge her French identity with her Korean roots — or so she thinks. Freddie, at this point in her life, is an arms dealer working for André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an older Frenchman she had a fling with years earlier. Freddie’s biological family is confused. Freddie seems to think arms dealers keep the peace; they see it as a threat. Looming war. It’s the perfect career for the disarming Freddie — powerful, persuasive, with a hint of menace just below the surface.
In one of the film’s most startling moments, an outwardly at-peace Freddie signals that she’s about to self-destruct all over again, telling her handsome, attentive, intelligent boyfriend that she could erase him from her life with ease. It’s not because he’s done anything wrong — far from it. It’s because she sees herself settling down with him and starting a family of her own. Freddie chooses to terminate this shot at a happy marriage, an echo of what her parents did to her — taking what could have been the beginnings of a beautiful family, and decimating it on sight. Perhaps she’s just now realizing she doesn’t want that for herself, or perhaps she isn’t ready. Either way, we witness this adult woman become a frightened child again, smashing her dollhouse out of spite. But maybe she’s right. Maybe it won’t ever be possible to meld these two pieces of herself back together — the Korean child who could have been, the French woman who is — and it’s best not to waste lives trying to make them fit.
For all these little moments of emotional violence, Return To Seoul never allows Freddie to become truly noxious. She’s disarming but utterly captivating at every turn, and whenever she does damage, it’s clear that the inner pain that drove her to do it hurts worse than the pain she inflicts. Ji-Min Park, an artist whose enthralling lead performance marks her debut as an actress, is unforgettable in the part.
Return To Seoul’s transitions are intentionally jarring. In each of the film’s segments, we’re reintroduced to Freddie and made to wonder how she got where she is now from where she was when last we saw her. Each Freddie looks distinctly different, is surrounded by different types of people, is on a different career track. She’s full of surprises, a constant seeker who never sits still for long. (But she always manages to return to Seoul, sensing she may eventually find what she’s looking for here.) One segment takes place during the pandemic; it’s uncommented upon, but everyone’s wearing masks. COVID has now become a marker of an era. N95 masks will be to the early 2020s what flapper dresses are to the 20s, bell-bottoms and bandanas are to the late 60s, flannel and torn jeans are to the 90s. By “checking in” on Freddie at these distinct intervals, writer/director Davy Chou reflects upon what changes in us over time, and what doesn’t. Jobs change, friends change, boyfriends change, fashion changes, but Freddie’s yearning doesn’t change, even when she’s found what she’s looking for. A girl who starts out in life feeling lost may never truly find her way home.
In an early scene, Freddie talks about sight-reading music. She was a musician, she stresses. Not anymore. Her biological father, the goofy fisherman, later also reveals an unexpected knack for songwriting, playing a simple but haunting composition for her. And given what happens afterward, it’s quite possible Freddie’s life would have turned out drastically different if he’d never played it for her.
In the end, that’s as much of a connection as we can ever draw between who we are and where we came from. Something unspoken and incomprehensible, a feeling that can’t be translated but transcends every border, a bond that can never be put into words.
8. EMPIRE OF LIGHT
“It’s just static frames, with darkness in between.”
It starts with a party in Hollywood. It ends here, in darkness, months or years later, thousands of miles away. In a movie theater. A woman who is not glamorous or especially beautiful — who never has and never will be invited to a raging cocaine-fueled orgy in the City of Angels — takes her seat, soda and popcorn in hand. She is alone here. Maybe it’s the last showing; a matinee on a Thursday, or perhaps a very late screening the night before a new film opens and sweeps this one away. It might be raining out, and no one wanted to leave the house, or they tried to, but couldn’t find a sitter. Whatever the reason, she is alone here — but only until the lights dim and an image appears in motion on the screen in front of her. She was alone here, but now she’s reliving a dream. Not her own dream. This dream is not one she would ever have dreamed herself. This dream was dreamt by a stranger, years earlier, who met the right person at the right party and that was that. She doesn’t know this man, doesn’t know anything about him — probably not even his name, until it appears on the screen. In about two hours, though, she’ll know everything that’s worth knowing about this stranger, having just seen the world through his eyes. She was alone here. Now, she’s among friends.
Sam Mendes won an Oscar for his feature film debut. American Beauty swept the 1999 awards season, winning coveted Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. Subsequent films like Road To Perdition, Revolutionary Road, 1917, and even Skyfall — a James Bond movie! — have also been major players in their respective awards seasons. His new film, Empire Of Light, is his most personal to date, and his second as a credited co-writer. It stars Oscar darling Olivia Colman, is beautifully shot by Oscar winner Roger Deakins, and features a stirring score from two-time Oscar winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It certainly looks and sounds like a Best Picture winner, but it is highly unlikely to be nominated. The film was tepidly received by critics and died a quiet death at the box office in December, earning just over $1 million. Nearing Empire Of Light’s conclusion, Hilary, the movie theater manager played by Colman, sits down to watch Being There after the theater has been closed to the public for the night. She’s alone in there. So, too, are those of us who loved Empire Of Light.
All that prestige raised expectations much too high for an intimate story like Empire Of Light, which certainly looks like the kind of majestic, sweeping drama that rakes in awards, but lacks an “important” theme that can be latched onto to justify all the kudos. Mendes’ previous success makes him an easy target when one of his movies doesn’t have the heft required for awards season. Empire Of Light is the kind of film that would be embraced if it had been shot on a shoestring budget, by a first time filmmaker, featuring performances that were just as strong (but not from an actress we know is going to nail it). Somewhere in the multiverse, Empire Of Light is sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards this year.
Like The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time, and a number of other recent prestige releases, Empire Of Light sees a respected filmmaker returning to his own past for inspiration. Unlike those films, there’s no “Sam Mendes” character in Empire Of Light. The year is 1980. The season is winter. Hilary is a mid-level manager at the Empire in coastal England. The movie theater had its heyday in an era long past, and now is half-dilapidated. It has four screens, but only two are open for business. So the Empire is only running at half-capacity — and so is Hilary. Hilary suffers from a not-totally-defined mental health disorder. She feels her feelings too deeply, and expresses them too much, in ways that make her appear crazy to those around her. When the film begins, she’s on lithium to manage her illness. Her tiny pleasures include reading a book with a bottle of red wine in a restaurant and taking ballroom dance classes, but she’s far from happy.
Hilary spends New Year’s Eve working, planning to go home alone — until she’s joined by an unexpected companion, the Empire’s handsome young new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward). Empire Of Light follows the ebbs and flows of an unlikely friendship between these two. Their relationship is sexual from the outset; it results in petty jealousies and something resembling a breakup, but it’s never exactly “romantic.” There’s never a sense that Hilary and Stephen think they’ve found “the one” in each other. The connection is fleeting, as far as sex goes, and lifelong, in terms of the impact they have on one another, and the feelings of tenderness they’ll share (even if only from afar). The brief bursts of passion between them are nice, but the way they show up for each other later on is more meaningful. Not many films even attempt to capture relationships like this one — more than friendship, less than love, a connection between two people who are aware that they aren’t quite right for one another, but let themselves enjoy some steamy time together anyway. (Critics who dismissed the film may have mistakenly believed it missed the mark as a love story.)
Empire Of Light’s greatest sin is that it sometimes feels like a jumble of three potential movies — one focused on race and the political climate in Britain circa 1980, one focused on a middle-aged woman’s mental health and sexual relationships, and one ensemble piece about running a movie theater — but there’s more connecting these storylines than it may at first appear. Emotion is dangerous for Hilary. It threatens the carefully managed life she’s built for herself. It can make her spin her out of control. Her orderly life is unfulfilling, but at least it’s safe; her loveless trysts with her married boss (Colin Firth) are ideal because it’s so clear that he’s just using her for his own gratification — there’s no chance she’ll fall for him. Her feelings are kept in check. When Hilary meets Stephen, however, she’s hit with a rush of optimism and euphoria. She suspects this is her last chance at reckless passion, and she takes it. He wakes her up to the potential for more, seeing true happiness as a possibility for her again. She takes the elation she feels as a sign that her mental health is improving. She stops taking her lithium, because she’s finally feeling good. Then, as the relationship starts to run its course, her mental health goes awry again. She retreats into madness, sabotaging her career and personal relationships. It’s not the first time, and there’s no reason for her to think that it will be the last. Stephen leaves. The lithium returns.
But Stephen doesn’t give up on Hilary, even when he justifiably could. She tries pushing him away, but he fights back. Stephen reminds Hilary that she has real value and deserves happiness. Gradually, she begins to care less about what he does for her and more about what he needs — to pursue his dream of being an architect rather than giving into the discrimination he faces because he’s Black. Hilary herself has blinders on when we meet her; she doesn’t really understand how a rude customer’s condescension toward him is racially coded. Stephen is at risk of hate crimes as white supremacy rises in the Thatcher era; an act of violence awakens Hilary to her own privilege, allowing her to step outside her own concerns and care for Stephen as a true friend, wanting the best for him even when that’s likely to take him away from her.
In Empire Of Light, Hilary undergoes an invisible transformation. Nothing in her life technically changes that much, but Hilary finds a way to experience joy, laughter, horror, heartbreak, and love in a way that won’t send her off the rails again — through the movies. She’s spent so much of her life alone in the dark with her demons already; now, when the lights go out, she can be amongst friends, feeling all the feelings that are forbidden to her in real life. She’s finally found a sanctuary where emotions are safe.
Stephen goes off to pursue his own passions; he’ll have a promising career, marry an age-appropriate woman, start a family. Hilary is left behind at the Empire, the same place she’s always been. She will probably not have another great love in her life, both because she’s a middle-aged woman without a lot of prospects, and also because of the way love can throw her mental health out of whack. So Hilary finds a substitute, one that was hiding right under her nose at the job she never considered more than a means to an end. Suddenly, her mundane workplace takes on a bit of magic. She finds passion there. It may not be as exciting as a torrid affair with a handsome young coworker, but it’s better than nothing, which is what she had before. She’s found a way to feel something again.
Maybe in another year, I too would look cynically at yet another major filmmaker making yet another film praising the power of cinema, and join the critical consensus in thinking Empire Of Light is nothing more than a failed feature-length adaptation of Nicole Kidman’s AMC ad. (At least Empire Of Light explains why she’s all alone in there!) This year, though, the heartbreak didn’t feel so good. Most of the world has bounced back from the pandemic, but movie theater attendance is still way down, especially for the kinds of movies (like this one) I go to see. The two best theaters in Los Angeles, the Landmark and the Arclight, are still shuttered. The Arclight never reopened after the pandemic. The Landmark on Pico closed last spring. I went to its final showing on its final night, watching eventual Oscar frontrunner Everything Everywhere All At Once with a crowd that had clearly come for the same reason I did — a partly celebratory, mostly melancholy farewell to this place that we loved. Somehow, even in the cinema capital of the world, it’s getting increasingly difficult to have a decent moviegoing experience. (AMC does not, in fact, make movies better, I can assure you. What I wouldn’t give for a projectionist as passionate as Toby Jones’ Norm in every single theater.)
Empire Of Light didn’t strike a chord with very many people this year, but it sure resonated with me. I watched a movie in the theater 68 times in 2022. I’m grateful that I was able to, after missing out on this in most of 2020 and half of 2021. I see a lot of movies on my own, sometimes totally alone in the theater. The crowd is thinning. A lot of people go to the movies for spectacle — to see action and special effects blown up big. They call this “escapism.” But I, like Hilary, go for the opposite reason. Not to escape, but to feel, and to connect. For many of the reasons other people go to church. Yes, it’s corny, but movie theaters are my sanctuary — except it’s starting to look more and more like my gods will abandon me. Not everybody gets to have a great adventure or a great romance in their actual life, but for about $15 in my house of worship, you can feel whatever you want to feel for a couple of hours. When you spend a lot of your life feeling like you’re alone in the dark, it’s nice to have a great film to keep you company once in a while.
Though almost everyone in Empire Of Light works in a movie theater, the only true film aficionado in the bunch is Norm, the projectionist. He teaches Stephen about the phi phenomenon, how still frames with darkness between them can be viewed by the human eye as having an illusion of motion, or “illusion of life.” At the beginning of film, Hilary’s life is a similar illusion — she’s only going through the motions, not really alive. The darkness she faces goes unnoticed by those who observe her, the same way the darkness between frames is invisible to a movie audience. But by the end of the film, the magic is working for her, too. The light projected up on the big screen — introducing her to new people, taking her to new worlds, restoring what mental illness and Lithium have stolen from her — is just enough to provide her with the illusion of life.
Fortunately for Hilary, she still has several decades ahead of her to keep enjoying this experience — probably the rest of her life. It is only 1981. The world has nearly 40 more years until the movies begin their rapid descent toward oblivion.
7. ARMAGEDDON TIME
“Make the most of your break and do not look back.”
Ronald Reagan is dead. The world is still here. Clearly, our 40th president was wrong when he hypothesized that his generation might be the one to experience Armageddon, which he did in an appearance on Jim Bakker’s show in leadup to his election. The 80s were a relatively quiet period in American history, free from war and radical social upheavals, though the threat of a nuclear holocaust loomed large. Reagan, one of the only men with the power to use atomic weapons, wondered often if End Times were near.
They were — but not for him. He failed to respond to the AIDS crisis, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to die without comment. He dealt arms to foreign paramilitary groups to aid in toppling leftist governments, escalating deadly conflicts abroad. He cut back environmental regulations, opening the door for climate change to wreak havoc upon future generations (like us). His “War On Drugs” and infamous disdain for “welfare queens” were coded attacks on Black Americans, a way of reorganizing white racism now that Jim Crow-style bigotry was out of fashion. And he beefed up the United States military, ensuring that if doomsday was on the horizon, it would at least feature a lot of cool American explosions before we were wiped off the face of the planet.
Reagan never saw Judgment Day, but he sure judged a number of human beings who didn’t fit into his vision of a straight, white, Christian USA. He envisioned the end of the world as something that might happen to him, rather than something he could inflict upon the world — which is a ridiculous stance to take when you’re the most powerful man in the world. He was obsessed with the idea of Armageddon before, during, and after his presidency; this belief explains his myopia, setting the tone for a decade that was all about getting as much as you could as fast as possible, future generations be damned. Ironically, his short-sightedness stuck around; conservatives have adopted his vision of a perishable America and are now gleefully pushing us to the brink of apocalypse themselves. If there is an Armageddon headed for us, Reagan might be pleased to know he played a big part in making it happen.
James Gray’s Armageddon Time begins in the third quarter of 1980, with Reagan’s presidency lurking in the shadows, ready to strike. Summer is giving way to autumn, disco is ceding to hip-hop, and the free-spirited 70s are passing the baton to a decade that will be remembered by Gordon Gekko’s catchphrase “greed is good.” Reagan appears on the Graff family television in an early scene, blabbering about Judgment Day.
The film’s title is a nod to Ronny’s doomsday fixation, as well as the reggae song “Armagideon Time,” recorded by Black musician Willie Williams in the late 70s. The Clash covered “Armagideon Time” as the B-side to their iconic hit “London Calling” in 1979. Of course, the reproduction by the white punk band would be more widely listened to than Williams’ original. Armageddon Time is framed by a young white boy’s friendship with a Black classmate, and his slow-growing awareness of the different directions their lives are headed in due to his white privilege. In a just world, both boys would have the same opportunities, and the better-known version of “Armagideon Time” would be the original recorded by the Black Jamaican reggae artist. Gray’s film attempts to reckon with the fact that we don’t live in that world.
Paul (Banks Repeta) is the problem child in the tight-knit but frequently confrontational Graff family, headed by perpetually striving home repairman Irving (Jeremy Strong) and harried PTA mom Esther (Anne Hathaway). Paul’s older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) picks on him, but gets away with it because he’s the favored son. No one expects much of Paul, a budding artist, undisciplined but bursting with creativity and raw talent. The Graffs are middle-class Jews living in Queens. They have enough money to send their kids to private school, but not enough money to not worry about the money. Esther likes to drive down the streets with the expensive houses and dream of owning one, though she’s aware that it’s a fantasy. Irving believes providing for his family financially means more than offering stable emotional support.
The Graffs are not as privileged as other families at the boys’ private school (including, lamentably, the Trumps). They strive after the old fashioned American dream, buying wholesale the lie that everyone has an equal shot of making it come true, if only they pull those bootstraps hard enough. Maryanne Trump drops by a school assembly to preach that common conservative refrain, typically oblivious to the advantage her family’s wealth afforded her. (Jessica Chastain’s two minute cameo as the future president’s sister is delectable.) “Both our kids will get a seat at the table,” the Graffs tell themselves, still haunted by the Holocaust that hunted Paul’s great-grandparents and prompted the family’s migration to America in the first place. Money will buy respectability, they think, and respectability will provide safety from that kind of discrimination befalling them again. Someone’s got to be on the bottom rung, though. So whose turn is it here and now?
Armageddon Time is about as autobiographical and personal as a film can be, despite names and small details being fictionalized. Writer/director James Gray looks back on his childhood with clear eyes, the way a lot of us have in recent years. The 80s looked a lot different to us then than they do right now, even if you favored Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, like Paul’s family. The Graffs are a liberal bunch, by the standards of their day, but they are not immune to the materialism that will come to define this decade, nor the casual racism of the 1980s. As first or second-generation Jewish immigrants, the elder Graffs know inequity all too well; as white Americans, they feel entitled to turn their backs on those still suffering from it and do for themselves.
Armageddon Time ends at almost the exact moment in history that Empire Of Light picks up, one ocean away. Both stories touch on blind privilege while conservatism is on the rise, with Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in the UK less than a year before Reagan took to the Oval Office. In both stories, a relationship that crosses racial boundaries is challenged by the conservative mores of the day. Armageddon Time’s central focus is the friendship between Paul and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of his few Black classmates. Both boys are troublemakers. Their sixth grade teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), hates them both. Slyly, though, Gray observes differences in the way Turkeltaub hates each boy; his exasperated dismissal of Johnny as an “animal” is a borderline slur. Paul’s private school peers express even more overt racism. His parents try not to admit that they don’t want Johnny hanging around too much, because saying so reveals prejudices they’d like to think they’re too enlightened for. When Paul and Johnny get busted for smoking pot in the bathroom at school, it’s easy for Esther to claim her son is the innocent party, insinuating that her poor white son has been corrupted by the troubled Black kid. The white administrators are prone to believe it. Later, when Paul and Johnny get into even more trouble, Irving lectures his son: “Sometimes some people get a raw deal, and I hate that.” He doesn’t hate it enough not to take the better deal for his own kid, though, leaving Johnny stuck with the raw one. The Graffs’ upwardly mobile position in America’s middle class is still too new and precarious for Esther and Irving to take any risks. In their eyes, one Black friend could send the whole family toppling back down the ladder, forced to start the game all over again.
Certain politicians trade on dividing us down arbitrary lines — race, sex, class, religion, and so on. It’s such a part of the fabric, children are made to accept it as the status quo before they’re even aware it exists. Armageddon Time is the story of a wedge, driven slowly but surely between two boys who are similar in all the ways that matter and different only in the ways that shouldn’t. The boys fight back, but what use is that when they’re up against an escalating series of authority figures — parents, teachers, policemen, Trumps, and Ronald Reagan — as well as the looming apocalypse that their president has promised them? Gradually, Paul realizes that two young boys are no match for generations of entrenched white power in the United States; this unstoppable force is determined to divide them, and little by little, it does.
“Do not look back,” Irving warns, knowing on some level that “looking back” just means “seeing what an asshole you’ve been.” (It’s the same advice Freddie hears from a French arms dealer she has dinner with in Return To Seoul: “You have to be able to not look back.” It’s good advice for those aiming to avoid taking responsibility for collateral damage.) It’s only in recent years that white Americans have been forced to look back and consider the compromises and concessions that have been made on our behalf. (Of course, some will live and die refusing to see what’s back there; a wide swath of Americans avoid self-examination like the plague.) Only Paul’s world-wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) suggests doing more than nothing to combat injustice. He’s old enough to have seen the true horrors that stem from turning a blind eye to a minority group’s marginalization — but this generation is dying out. The lesson will, eventually, need to be learned all over again.
Gray, obviously, stopped heeding his dad’s advice at a certain point, because Armageddon Time directly confronts the past, warts and all, with an honesty that doesn’t flatter anyone. There’s a lot more than “white guilt” here; white guilt is about reckoning with what other white people have done, while Gray’s willing to put his own past mistakes on the line, and reveal his entire family as a major part of the problem. It’s easy to illuminate the evils of slavery and segregation. Many films do. White filmmakers don’t risk much that way, saying “that was wrong” instead of “I was.” Armageddon Time sets its sights on a much murkier thread of America’s racist past, a bigotry so benign it was invisible to many who called themselves liberal. It’s recent enough to still feel raw, subtle enough that some who watched Armageddon Time still didn’t really see it, and were left wondering what the point was.
Armageddon Time ends with the implication that Paul is opting out of the cushy conservative future his parents and grandparents wanted for him. He has earned his seat at the table, and decided it’s not a seat worth having. In telling this story, Gray makes a similar choice, opening the door for uncomfortable conversations that start with looking inward and go from there.
Armageddon Time may look and sometimes feel like a gentle coming-of-age film or a good-natured family drama. Deep down, though, it’s about fear — a generation of Americans who have been terrorized and don’t even know it. The Graffs, like most Americans, see success as a zero-sum game; they think the biggest threats are coming from behind them, instead of standing up front (because they’re on the board of directors, because they bought their way there). Reagan helped to stoke that fear. Like Reagan, the Graffs are always on the defensive, braced for an attack; they’re so obsessed with stockpiling more, they don’t even realize they’re already winning the arms race by a mile. They don’t understand that, when they rescue their son from the cops and leave the parentless Black boy to fend the law off for himself, they’re the ones who’ve just launched an attack. How many doomsdays doled out to Black Americans were invisible to white ones? How many invisible Armageddons have we looked past?
The Graffs think they’re struggling to survive. To the Black boy hiding out in the clubhouse in their backyard, it looks like they’re thriving. When can a stressed out mother stop fearing that her child is going to be left back? When can a hardworking father rest, knowing his family is finally secure?
When is enough enough? Never. It’s always Armageddon Time in America.
“You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.”
I’m on Tár’s side.
Let’s just get that out of the way right now.
I know — choosing “sides” is entirely beside the point. The most wrong-headed, reductive way to approach Tár is to pass a judgment on whether Lydia deserves to be canceled. If you feel strongly one way or the other, and you believe new evidence would be unlikely to sway you in that stance, then you’re almost certainly watching this film wrong (but have at it). I don’t necessarily like Lydia Tár. I don’t even really admire her. But she hasn’t raped or killed anybody (that we know of), so she has that in her favor. I don’t know if she truly earns the outrage that heads her way or not, and I don’t really want to. I’m comfortable living in the uncertainty, a place more people should live in more cases like this. I’m not on her side because she’s right, or because she was wronged. I’m there because I recognize myself in her, in both her fatal flaws and her aspirations toward greatness — and, most of all, in her concern about what happens to art in a world where it’s better to be squeaky clean and sanitized than it is to be brilliant.
Cancel culture is the great equalizer, dragging the powerful kicking and screaming out from under their immunity and punishing them at long last. No one should be above the law; everyone, no matter how rich, successful, or powerful, should be accountable for their actions. At a certain point, though, the famous become targets not because they’re worse than the rest of us and getting away with it, but because they’re the same as us and much more visible. Celebrities can be marched through the town square, naked and humbled, to set an example, because everyone will look. Some believe talent like Lydia Tár’s makes her innately superior; some believe that makes her exempt from following every rule. Do we permit the greatest of great auteurs to be a little bit abusive toward their cast and crew in order to produce a masterpiece? Is transcendent art even possible if not created under some duress? Tár doesn’t ask such questions directly. It only hints. It’s probably 2022’s sliest discussion piece, one you could deliberate about for hours and then watch again and pick up a whole new argument. I think Lydia’s onto something when she says her detractors are just jealous, as self-serving and simplistic as that argument is. Isn’t cancellation also a way of stripping talented people of what made them better than us in the first place?
Cancel culture is also about bad actors getting their just desserts. We feel a certain smug sense of satisfaction when someone we think is monstrous becomes persona non grata in mainstream culture. But once you clear the worst of the worst out of the way, it gets harder to tell where the line is. Writer-director Todd Field tackles this ultra-relevant topic head on; it’s impossible to watch it without your favorite (or least favorite) high-profile cancellation popping into mind. But Field views the spectacle at a remove, without the rapid-fire ferocity and keyed-up tribalism that accompanies such scandals in real life. Real cancellations unfold in the blink of an eye, with such ferocity, in the worst possible forums for rational, nuanced discussion. Often, it’s someone we’re already prone to really like or really hate, so we’re coming in with a bias. It’s rare to watch it happen to someone like Lydia Tár, who we’ve never heard of before, and to see cancellation coming for her long before she sees it herself. Usually, we’re admitted to the spectacle just as it reaches fever pitch, the same time everyone else is. We’re rarely permitted to see it up close.
Tár introduces us to a woman who needs no introduction in the world of this film. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a renowned conductor and composer (and EGOT!) who also happens to be a deeply flawed human being. Field’s film is tightly tethered to this current moment, explicitly taking place post-pandemic, with flourishes that make Lydia seem like a real celebrity (such as the lengthy Q&A with Adam Gopnick that opens the film). Fake celebrities often seem fake in narrative films, because star quality is enigmatic and hard to replicate. Tár, though, could easily pass for a biopic; Lydia is more like a flesh-and-blood human being than Shirley, Harriet, and Judy combined.
Her eminence has also made her somewhat naive. We see scandals gunning for her long before she does. She thinks she can will her transgressions to disappear. She assumes she has that power because she did have that power — once upon a time, when adulation was a shield. But things have changed. Lydia believes her accomplishments outweigh her indiscretions in the grand scheme of things. She might even be right. But that’s not good enough in today’s town square, accessed via Twitter and TikTok. The knives are out, and Lydia’s baton won’t fend them off for long.
In Tár’s showcase scene, Lydia eviscerates Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a Juilliard student, for “cancelling” Johann Sebastian Bach, who fails to live up to Max’s 21st century ideals. Bach died in 1750. How will any of us look 272 years from now? Probably not great. “Don’t be so eager to be offended,” she tells Max. “The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity.” There’s a discussion to be had about where we draw the line between admiring and abhorring figures of the past merely because they lived in their moment. But on the whole, she’s right. The past is where we came from. It’s all we’ve got to go off of. If we junk everything that came before us because it’s “problematic,” based on the mores of this moment, what have we got left? Is a world without Bach’s music a better world, just because it’s more correct?
Of course, Lydia Tár’s defense of Bach is also self-serving. In her plea not to “cancel” what’s old and out of touch, she is essentially making the case for her own legacy. It’s a battle that’s playing out all across pop culture right now, on seemingly every front. We need to look back at the past and reckon with it, the way James Gray does in Armageddon Time. There’s a lot of problematic stuff back there. We can’t continue to let powerful people continue to get away with everything — even if they’re as talented as Tár is. Lydia has some privilege, being cis and white; as a queer female, she’s probably faced some discrimination, too. We’d have an easier time locking her up and throwing away the key if she were a straight male. But perhaps that’s a problem, too. As Lydia tells Max, discarding Bach because he was white and straight might seem like sweet revenge for a while, but it’s ultimately just a perpetuation of the same old game, putting artists into boxes that art should transcend. What purpose does the kind of categorization serve when it has nothing to do with the actual music? Does a great artist need to be a great person in order for their art to endure?
Lydia’s Gen Z students are in an enviable position. They haven’t been around long enough to make mistakes. It’s easy to judge when your slate is still blank. But live long enough, and you’ll see, success and spotlessness rarely go hand-in-hand.
If Lydia’s greatest gift is in music, surely the runner-up is the way she’s able to cut her enemies down to size so articulately. Even a grade school girl who crosses her will know her wrath. “Unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media,” Lydia Tár says to Max. It’s biting and brutal and best of all, true. Not just of Max, but of everyone, the way our culture is headed. Tár the person isn’t social media-savvy. She doesn’t spend much time online. She seems to believe that merely deleting an email will wipe it from her permanent record. But Tár the film is very much about internet culture, even if the internet itself only makes a couple of quick cameos. The film opens with a snarky text conversation between two unknown individuals, presented out of context, quite possibly out of time. Is this her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), gossiping with a friend about her boss? Is it Krista, Lydia’s spurned protégée? Or maybe Olga (Sophie Kauer), the talented young cellist Lydia’s about to take under her wing for not-entirely-professional reasons?
The answer, I think, is yes and no. The simple back-and-forth represents the discourse around Tár en masse. It’s everybody and nobody. Our anonymous informant simultaneously worships and disdains her, in awe of her soaring talent while intent upon dragging her back down to earth. Their words provide the first information we get to know about Lydia Tár. We believe something in them must be true. But who is this? And if we don’t know the answer, why should we take anything they say at face value? Right away, Todd Field baits us with the kind of anonymous, nothing-risked gossip we tend to be suckers for as a culture, even when it comes out of nowhere, without credentials. Lydia’s later downfall is instigated by footage of her berating Max, filmed on a variety of smartphones throughout the room, edited out of context to make her look like a total tyrant. This doesn’t comport with the scene itself, during which we can clearly see that the class is not filming. Is Tár so immersed in Lydia’s point of view that we don’t see the students filming merely because she fails to notice them? Maybe. But I think Field is consciously choosing to show us that there’s something very wrong with the way the evidence in the Case Against Lydia Tár is being presented to the jury.
The internet has flipped stardom on its head, turning our entertainers into modern-day gladiators. It’s not the ruling class putting peasants into the ring anymore; it’s the commoners watching the elite fight to survive in the court of public opinion. The bloodlust is the same as it’s always been, however — it’s no fun unless someone gets hurt. If there’s a villain in this story, it isn’t Lydia Tár. It’s this faceless “nobody” who cuts her down to size while she sleeps. It’s whoever took the time to compile a bunch of cell phone videos of her tirade against Max and cut out all the parts that put her comments in context. An unseen manipulator who is weaponizing social media, a distinctly 21st century instrument, against a woman who doesn’t know the score. Lydia Tár, for all her flaws, has put herself out there. Those who judge her from behind the safety of a screen have not. Words on a screen risk nothing.
Krista haunts Lydia like a ghost throughout the film. This is Tár’s subconscious, telling her she has something to feel guilty about. We don’t know enough about what happened between them to make any clear judgments. Maybe Krista was a total psycho, and Lydia was right to expel her from the rarefied music world. Maybe Lydia’s vendetta was completely personal, and she sabotaged a promising musician’s career out of pettiness. The answer probably lies in a gray area between. “Krista, We Love You!” signs crop up outside one of Lydia’s public appearances, which is patently ridiculous, but so true to how polarized culture is these days. Tár is a demon. Krista’s a saint.
Tár unfolds almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. We come to know her incredibly well. But Tár is not really about Tár. It’s about our perception of her. We’re the unseen character, simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by her. We want to believe in her greatness, for every culture needs its gods. But once we’ve deified her, we question whether or not she really deserves her eminence, and soon we’re gunning for her plunge from the pedestal. We love to build her up. We love to watch her fall.
With Tár, Todd Field makes his welcome return to the director’s chair, following two films that made past Top Ten lists (2001’s In The Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children) and a long, decade-and-a-half hiatus during which he was sorely missed. Tár was worth the wait, presenting us with one of the most fascinating screen characters we’ve seen in years in a film that is remarkably sure of itself (just as Tár herself is). Tár is Tár. Tár is Tár. Neither gives a fuck.
The first time I watched Tár, I was on the fence about whether Lydia gets her just desserts or not. The second time, I started to side with her. It wasn’t because she looked any better upon further examination, just that she looked more human. The culture that wants to rip her to shreds? Less so. We’ve been trained to seek and destroy on social media. That served a purpose for a while, but now we can’t stop.
Tár ends up in one of the last places we’d expect to find her. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, conducting an orchestra for a crowd of cosplaying gamers who, apparently, will pay to see a performance of the Monster Hunter video game soundtrack. Embarrassing, right?
Maybe not. Blanchett doesn’t play Tár as dejected in the final sequence. She’s skittish, still disturbed by her bout with the fuming masses, still haunted by subconscious guilt. But there’s no evidence that she’s actually humiliated, or even chastened, by where she’s ended up. She’s doing what she’s always done. She’s conducting an orchestra. The film sends us out with words from the game: “If any of you have lost your nerve, then step away now, and let no one judge you.” Lydia Tár has been stripped of her greatness, but not her passion. Is it insane that, upon a second viewing, I thought Tár went out on a note of… hope?
In the Q&A with Gopnick, Lydia describes her talent as controlling time: “You cannot start without me. I start the clock.” She prepares extensively in rehearsal, getting it just right — there is no room for discovery or improvisation during the performance itself.
Lydia has taken the same approach to her own celebrity persona — she rigidly, rigorously constructed herself, starting with only her raw talent. Everything else took hard work. Now she hopes to rest on her laurels — but greatness isn’t what it used to be, for better and worse. She’d be wise to try a little improvisation if she wants to survive the flash judgments of social media. Tár tells Gopnick that Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5,” dedicated Mahler’s wife Alma, can be interpreted via young love, when the relationship was new, or aching tragedy, once Alma had abandoned him. Love runs seven minutes. Tragedy? Twelve. A person is subject to the same kind of revisions in perception, especially these days. At one point, the world looked upon Lydia Tár with love. Then, it reinterpreted her as tragedy. The notes didn’t change; the perception did. Today’s discourse will not obey the command of her baton. She can’t conduct us.
Lydia Tár once learned to master time itself. But times change, and time’s up. Tár is an investigation of talent — not talent itself, but the way talent is perceived by others, and how that gaze has shifted in recent years. She claims she’s willing to obliterate herself to achieve mastery, as any musician must, but that isn’t quite true. Her “self” has its hooks in her workplace, her sexual attraction to talented young women thwarting her authority at last. It’s today’s youth culture that ends up obliterating her, on their terms, not hers — not a very dignified way to go for a force like Lydia Tár.
In the end, it makes no difference whether Lydia Tár deserved her cancellation. In the minds of the next generation of musicians and tastemakers, she’s as passé as Bach. And she is still alive to watch her legacy crumble, to hear her artfully rendered melodies drowned out in a cacophony of 21st century outrage.
She starts off so big, and ends up so small — from sharp to flat, from major to minor. What’s the point of her expulsion from the limelight? Will those who rise to replace her be any less flawed? Is there such thing as an artist who can pass muster? In the end, a fallen Tár loses everything she has except her talent, and the world loses Lydia Tár. Ours might be the greater loss.
5. THE WHALE
“Tell me the truth… do you find me disgusting?”
Step right up and see “The Whale,” folks! Weighing in at a vomit-inducing 600 pounds, the appalling man-beast from the dreary gray depths of Idaho has been captured on film for your perusal! Gander as he lugs his lugubrious frame from room to room in his apartment! Gawk as he laughs, cries, showers, sleeps, and watches television just as if he were a real person! Groan as this ghastly being dares to insert even more food into his bulbous body! You may even lose your lunch, too, at the sick-making sight of the hideous Whale-Man binge eating for two continuous hours without interruption! Renowned sadist Darren Aronofsky has finally outdone himself, transforming beloved thespian Brendan Fraser into his tub-of-lard whipping boy for the audience’s perverse pleasure! No indignity or cruelty will be spared on this pathetic whopping wretch as the maestro of misery torments him without mercy!
This man is so fat he does not deserve to exist! A movie about a man this fat should be banned, burned, and wiped from existence! And yet here it is! Hurry, hurry, hurry to see “The Whale” while you still can, ladies and gents!
No, that isn’t an accurate description of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, starring Brendan Fraser as a severely obese man confronting mortality in what will likely be the last week of his life. But it is, more or less, the movie many critics described in reviews and essays that revealed a perplexing, Ahab-like fixation on taking down The Whale. The film’s true content and tone, as well as the intentions of its filmmakers, were distorted to fit a shallow narrative that cast The Whale as an awards season villain months before there was even a trailer to watch. Some people really had their harpoons out for this one.
There’s nothing wrong with disliking The Whale, of course, if that’s how you feel, but it’s not just disdain that a vocal minority of viewers expressed. It’s contempt. The Whale, like the sensitive, overweight gay man at its center, is an easy target for bullies. Aronofsky’s film is about empathy; rather, the distinct lack of empathy Fraser’s Charlie sees from his estranged daughter, bitter boozing ex-wife, and a persistent missionary from New Life, a nearby church the secular describe as a “cult.” The backlash its detractors lobbed at the film echoes the superficial judgment Charlie faces in the film, predetermined and underthought. The negative discourse focused almost entirely on appearances — Charlie’s looks, size, eating habits —while ignoring the man inside, and all he’s grappling with. (Discussing The Whale without mentioning his sexual orientation is not discussing it at all. That’s an essential part of what’s driving his self-destruction.)
The film’s laziest critics project a lack of empathy onto Aronofsky, which doesn’t even make sense. The only way to create an earnest, emotional drama like this is to try to deeply understand and feel for the character; Samuel D. Hunter’s play is very personal, stemming directly from his own experiences on several fronts. Aronofsky’s films don’t offer easy outs for their characters, which can make them seem punishing, but that’s only in hopes that the audience feels more invested in and aligned with his characters, not less. Aronofsky isn’t allied with the gods, raining torment down upon his protagonists. He’s with them, in their agony, every step of the way. Aronofsky makes a good scapegoat, though, for viewers who don’t want to do the emotional heavy-lifting of feeling what Charlie feels, or confronting the shame and stigmas the film is wrestling with. They pass the blame onto the director, claiming he didn’t do his homework. Well, he did.
The real problem with The Whale, for those who failed to engage with it, is that it doesn’t fit into the trend of the times, bending toward triumph. We’ve only just emerged from the dark shadow of social distancing during the pandemic. It’s a lot to ask audiences to spend a whole movie trapped inside an apartment feeling hopeless again. A long, slow, and particularly unglamorous suicide is not everyone’s idea of a fun Friday night. Living in Charlie’s skin for a couple hours is emotionally taxing, but that’s what drama is — or at least, what it used to be. Before so many movies offered portals to everything, everywhere, all at once, they used offer portals to one specific place; for example, the drab living room of one man we’ve never met because he never leaves his apartment. We would come to know this man, and come to care for him, just by spending a couple hours in his company. That was enough. We didn’t need him to win, or even necessarily to fight. We didn’t ask him to represent every other fat person, or every other gay person, in the universe, or judge him if he didn’t do so perfectly. I’m still drawn to films that deeply — and, sometimes, messily — engage with what’s wrong with the world and prompt me to think critically about it, more than I am to the ones that just run away screaming in the other direction. How about you?
The Whale does have a few fantastical touches, but it confronts some ugly truths about our world so head-on that it convinced many critics it was somehow part of the problem. Religious intolerance never went anywhere, but in 2022, it still managed to stage something of a comeback. Across America, state lawmakers introduced well over a hundred bills aimed at diminishing gay and trans rights, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which has signaled a willingness to put “religious liberty” ahead of equality. Prominent Republicans, like presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, have made anti-gay stances a major part of their political identity. Drag queens are the unlikely boogeymen du jour in their circles. All of this has a negative impact on suicide rates for LGBTQ people.
The Whale is about a man who dines on that hatred. He ingests and ingests and ingests it until he becomes what some would call monstrous. And why wouldn’t he? He’s already been branded a deviant, a pervert, and a sinner by the conservative majority in his community. In their eyes, he’s a monster — whether he’s 600 pounds or not. In contrast to 2022’s most lauded movies, The Whale is about as far from escapism as a film can get. Its protagonist can’t leave his apartment; he knows, and we know, his next outing is likely to be postmortem. When the film begins, intolerance has already claimed the life of Charlie’s partner Alan, a result of his New Life-worshipping family’s refusal to accept him for who he was. Charlie left his wife and daughter to start a “new life” of his own, hoping his love would be enough to counteract the contempt Alan faced. It wasn’t. Alan committed suicide, and Charlie was left alone to grieve alongside his only champion, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau) who also had emotional ties to Alan.
Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play, The Whale is set entirely in and around Charlie’s apartment, with a quartet of characters who come and go while Charlie remains more or less stuck where he’s always been. Ellie (Sadie Sink) is his troubled daughter, who thinks she can use her well-read doting dad to write essays for her; Mary (Samantha Morton) is his ex, who felt jilted when her husband left her for a man, and responded by making sure he never saw his daughter again; Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is the young missionary who sees an opportunity to “save” the dying Charlie from an eternity roasting in Hell, if only he can repent for his “sins” before he finally expires. Charlie dangles his life savings, roughly $100,000, in front of Ellie in exchange for her company as his expiration date draws ever closer; he’s adopted the curious outlook many American patriarchs have, believing that passing wealth down to his kids when he dies is his duty, his penance, his reason to live — maybe even his path to redemption.
Charlie teaches college classes remotely from his living room, claiming his webcam is perpetually broken so his students won’t see (and, inevitably, judge) him. The film’s title comes from an essay about Moby-Dick Charlie keeps reading to himself. The essay isn’t exactly “good” in an academic sense, but it is full of personal observation, written by someone who engaged emotionally with Herman Melville’s text. Above all, Charlie wants his students to be truthful in their writing, even when that means throwing academic analysis out the window and just admitting they hate the book. He doesn’t want them to be “right.” He doesn’t even want them to be brilliant. He just wants them to be honest.
Moby-Dick provides a few potent metaphors that surface throughout. Melville’s villain demonizes the titular sea mammal, rather than understanding it as a part of nature. So, too, does New Life preach that homosexuality is an unnatural aberration. Ahab is maniacally obsessed with destroying the white whale, a quest that makes little logical sense, and only ends up causing a lot of needless collateral damage. Charlie is similarly made out to be a feral beast by his ex and daughter, and especially the church. Mary and Ellie show little to no understanding of how Charlie’s actions were in pursuit of his own unavoidable true identity, preferring to view Charlie’s queerness as something he did to them. New Life, like many religious institutions, also treats homosexuality as a threat — a choice, an act, something abnormal, like calling a whale a monster instead of a mammal. But churches don’t have to hunt queer people the way Ahab targets Moby-Dick; preach hate, teach generation after generation that homosexuality is a one-way ticket to Hell, and the whales may very well exterminate themselves.
In this way, Charlie becomes not just the titular whale, but his own Ahab, too, singularly focused on annihilating himself. He doesn’t realize that he, like Alan before him, is doing the conservative right’s work for them, having internalized so much scorn for so long, coming from so many angles. (The 2015 Republican primaries unfold on TV in the background. Charlie’s world is only about to get more toxic with the impending rise of Trump.) Thomas arrives, preaching the same “End Times” bullshit Reagan was peddling in the 80s (as seen in Armageddon Time). Charlie doesn’t believe that all sinners are about to be sucked into Hell unless they repent and bow down to Jesus, but the oddly apocalyptic worldview does comport with his own bent toward doomsday. He’s bringing on an Armageddon for one.
Parallels to The Whale can be found across Aronofsky’s oeuvre, but this new film forms a particularly fascinating trilogy following The Wrestler and Black Swan. Charlie, like washed up wrestler Randy the Ram and timid ballerina Nina, has reached what he sees as the end of the line. Nina and Randy bet everything on their careers, sacrificing personal happiness for professional excellence; they burn bright, knowing things will go dark fast once they start to burn out. The Whale’s Charlie made a similar bet. He sacrificed his relationship with his daughter, amongst other things, for companionship with Alan. He bet everything on his personal truth — and lost, because a world of hate was stronger than one man’s love.
Charlie doesn’t want to live in a world where he won’t be loved, just like Nina didn’t want to be a has-been ballerina and Randy refused to leave wrestling behind. Instead of accepting obscurity and the stigma of failure that lies ahead, these three pull their respective finish lines closer, deciding to end their stories on their terms. Charlie (the whale) joins Randy (the ram) and Nina (the swan) in self-sacrifice and self-destruction, in the grand tradition of many fascinating film protagonists who obliterate themselves for our entertainment.
But The Whale struck a nerve, for some reason, that most other movies about self-destruction have not. The miseries of alcoholism and drug addiction are often portrayed on screen; there’s no reason a film that (briefly) depicts extreme binge eating should be held to another standard than swilling vodka or shooting up. When was the last time you saw a movie about a raging alcoholic that never showed her taking a single drop of drink? To not show Charlie overeating is to not show a major part of Charlie’s daily life, the story of how he came to be what he is. Yet, according to its detractors, we’re meant to see The Whale as sadistic in a way that other addiction stories are not, because Charlie is fat instead of drunk.
Those who find the film offensive are quick to point to the few brief scenes depicting his binge-eating as problematic, but they never say what a film about a six hundred-pound man should depict. Does Charlie need to strive to physically better himself in order to justify his place on the big screen? Is he only worthy of our attention when he’s training for a marathon, and dining on sensible salads? If not that, then what? As uncomfortable as The Whale is to watch, this is Charlie’s reality. To say a character like Charlie doesn’t deserve to be seen in a film like The Whale implies that he doesn’t deserve to be seen at all.
Ultimately, though, The Whale isn’t a film about obesity any more than Black Swan is a film about a shard of glass. Overeating is the instrument Charlie chooses to end his life with, a weapon of self-destruction. The suicide isn’t immediate, but it is effective — his new physical form all but guarantees he’ll be left alone to rot. The Whale brings depression to life starkly and singularly. The claustrophobic setting mirrors our protagonist’s mental state; people come in and out of Charlie’s gloomy apartment, never staying long enough to make a real dent in his loneliness. The unappealing dreariness of the world outside doesn’t offer a hopeful alternative. Charlie has gotten so big, he couldn’t really leave his apartment now, even if he wanted to. He’s trapped inside himself. Despite the cloud of doom that hangs over the film from the first frame, though, The Whale is only kind of depressing; it’s also unexpectedly lighthearted, nimble, and frequently funny. Much of this is owed to Fraser’s astonishing performance, centered mostly around his eyes because Charlie can’t move too much. As pitiable as Charlie’s situation is, he’s upbeat and relentlessly positive; he’s especially determined to give his daughter the benefit of the doubt, even though Ellie’s own mother describes her as “evil.” (For the record, I’m on Mary’s side on this.)
Charlie is a Christ-like figure, eating blame and bigotry until his physique reflects the way the world already sees him. His kindness clangs against all the ugliness that’s directed at him; we want him to fight back. The Whale is too complex to be a mere parable, but it does reclaim some of the tenets of Christianity that have been twisted around to preach hate instead of tolerance over the years. “People are amazing,” Charlie says, because they’re incapable of not caring. The Whale presents us with a whole lot of evidence to the contrary, though, so it’s hard to parse whether Charlie is a saint or a fool. A pizza delivery guy comes to Charlie’s apartment every day, leaving dinner on the doorstep; one night, he introduces himself through the door, a seeming gesture toward friendship — but when he finally lays eyes on the man himself, he’s disgusted. Thomas the missionary might be well-meaning, but he tells a grieving man that his partner is in Hell. Ellie might be a secret altruist, or she might just be a terror. So is Charlie wrong? Was Jesus?
It would be reductive to say that The Whale recasts Jesus as a quarter-ton gay man to insist once and for all that queer people are not the damned. Christianity plays an important role in the film, but Hunter’s script is too skeptical of religious institutions to end up singing their praises. Religion kills, Charlie knows; it claimed the love of his life. Meanwhile, Thomas turns out to be a fraud and a hypocrite, the film’s least redeemable character, despite his self-proclaimed holiness. In the end, though, Hunter and Aronofsky do put Charlie up on his own kind of cross; the film’s final moments unambiguously denounce despair and insist upon some form of redemption for Charlie’s soul, be it eternal or otherwise. Religious intolerants have used simple fables to chastise and shame all who don’t comply for centuries; with The Whale, Aronofsky uses the same tool to reply-all a message of love and tolerance, a reminder of Christ’s original purpose. The Book of Charlie preaches finding one’s individual truth. It celebrates the way people are, not the way a bunch of long-dead guys thought they should be. The Whale is intentionally undecided on whether characters like Thomas and Ellie are worthy of redemption. But fat, gay Charlie? Love him or hate him, he will be saved.
The Whale is very much still beholden to its theatrical roots. Time is condensed. Some characters are a bit over-the-top. Some plot beats feel like contrivances. It doesn’t play out like real life, but as an allegory. Within that, though, is more truth than most movies ever aspire to reach. Hunter’s screenplay withholds the easy catharsis we’d feel if Charlie were to turn the anger outward instead of inward and fire back. When Charlie refuses to take a stand for himself, we’re forced to sit with his pain the way he does. He’s a thoroughly unusual screen character, so full of light and hope for others, so despairing and lacking hope for himself. In this way, The Whale strikes a curious balance between darkness and light, becoming something of a Rorsach test for its audience.
I happened to watch both Tár and The Whale for the second time back-to-back, and was struck by how they intersect. Both are downfall stories about gay teacher/mentor figures who are harshly judged for pursuing younger pupils. Lydia ascends, then crashes and burns; Charlie steadily devolves. She feels zero culpability; he takes on much more blame than he deserves. Lydia Tár rails against manufactured “hot take” outrage on social media; The Whale suffered from exactly that. In ways, Aronofsky and Field’s films are polar opposites — one earnest and melodramatic, the other clinical and removed — so it’s not entirely surprising that they were received quite differently by critics and audiences. But it’s also telling about what kinds of protagonists audiences want to identify with in the current moment, and how deeply they’re willing to feel for them. (It’s a lot easier to live vicariously through Lydia, and feel no shame, than to identify with Charlie and feel all of it.)
The Whale’s leading man is so big he’s impossible to ignore. So is the enemy he’s facing. The character is a reflection of the way queer people have been made to feel about themselves for centuries. As hideous. Monstrous. Disgusting. So contemptible, they are unworthy of life. To look upon him is to be confronted with centuries of denial, repression, misinformation, and vilification at the hands of conservative politicians and religious institutions. If you hate The Whale, Charlie can take it — he’s been taking it for years — but the film is clear about where you should aim that contempt. Moby-Dick isn’t the villain in Moby-Dick. The Whale isn’t the enemy, either. It’s a red herring. Charlie’s size reflects the enormity of a societal problem we’re still very much grappling with. Those who don’t want to engage recoil and disregard it, the way a snarky eighth grader might sneer at Melville’s tome and turn to Wikipedia for an easy-to-stomach summary instead. Some have branded it “grotesque.” To each their own, I guess, but if you find yourself disgusted by Charlie, it’s probably a poorer reflection of your feelings than it is of Aronofsky’s. But it is possible to watch The Whale without cringing even once. It is possible to look at Charlie and feel nothing but love, see nothing but beauty.
4. ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED
“They were running away from America, and they found each other. They didn’t think, ‘We’re pioneers. We’re rebels.’ They just were.”
Barbara Goldin committed suicide in 1965, when her younger sister Nancy was just 11. Barbara had been in and out of institutions for years, even though doctors had a difficult diagnosing anything that was specifically wrong with her. By the time she was 18, she’d had enough. She laid down on the tracks in front of an oncoming train, leaving a printed quote from Joseph Conrad behind amongst her possessions. It read: “Droll thing life is, that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for futile purpose. The most you can hope for is some knowledge of yourself that comes too late — a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”
Laura Poitras’ blisteringly brilliant documentary compiles a long list of regrets, both inextinguishable and prematurely extinguished. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed locates the precise intersection between art, commerce, love, and death. There’s never been a film so aptly titled as this — vibrant lives cut short, death becoming art becoming retribution. The beauty is exquisite, the bloodshed is excruciating, and it does seem, somehow, that Poitras captures all of it. It’s one of the most massive films I’ve ever seen, clocking in at just over two hours.
What was wrong with Barbara Goldin? She was moody. Outspoken. Rebellious. Sexually curious. An embarrassment to her parents. In other words, she was a teenager. Nancy saw clearly what had happened to her sister — she’d been branded “mentally ill,” when in reality, she just wasn’t docile. Her middle-class Jewish parents were in over their heads. They had children for the wrong reasons, and didn’t know what to do when these little people they’d created started turning into adults. They sent Nancy away into foster care, even though she wasn’t an orphan. But in a way, she was.
Soon, Nancy met a young gay boy named David who dubbed her “Nan,” and took up photography as a creative outlet. They moved into an apartment together. Nan began documenting the lives of people around her with the camera. The pictures weren’t “pretty.” Many of her subjects were queer and trans, unemployed and broke. Not the sort of people the art world was interested in in the early 70s. In the photos, they were drinking, laughing, having sex, doing drugs, dressing up, making art. They were living.
Nan Goldin was a pioneer in chronicling the New York City underground scene of the 70s at a time when these subjects, photographed in this raw, all-too-real way, were far from fashionable. She worked as a stripper and a prostitute. She palled around with John Waters’ posse. Her first collection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, included pictures of Nan and her friends doing drugs and having sex, all very raw and unglamorous — but honest. Eventually, though, sickness came to the party, uninvited. The people in her photographs, whose lives once looked so free, fearless, and joyful, took on an unimaginable burden. Parties became funerals. Ecstasy became agony. Bodies in pleasure became bodies in hospital beds. They were dying.
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is a biography of Nan Goldin, and a portrait of the way AIDS ravaged a community of artists in the 80s, each of which could make for a fascinating full-length documentary feature on its own. But Poitras’ doc isn’t exactly about either of those things. Its most urgent concern is the opioid crisis; in it, Nan speaks candidly about her own addiction, which nearly cost her her life, and her ongoing recovery. Poitras follows Nan’s efforts to hold the absurdly wealthy Sackler family, founders and owners of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, accountable for the epidemic. When Poitras begins filming, the Sackler family’s name is synonymous with art; Goldin’s work is displayed in many museums that have wings named after the billionaires whose company created and aggressively marketed OxyContin to prescribing physicians, lying all the while about its addictive properties to maximize profit.
This, of course, is also worthy subject matter for a documentary. Poitras’ genius is in how her film transcends being “about” any of these discrete subjects in particular, and instead manages to be about a network of tragedies so immense, it can’t really be defined by words. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed covers a series of epic battles spanning sixty years (and counting) between commerce and art, wealth and need, establishment and fringe, indifference and desperation, privilege and survival, courage and silence.
The opioid crisis didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Neither did AIDS, and neither did COVID. In Poitras’ eyes, these mass killers are all part of the one big story, one villain changing masks just often enough to avoid detection. It’s all one big pandemic that ebbs and flows throughout modern American history. When a new disease hits, those with money and power stand back and save themselves. They make a buck where they can, and let those without means rot. (Part of Nan’s efforts coincide with the rise of COVID. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed doesn’t explicitly draw parallels to this most recent pandemic, but the connections are conspicuous enough.)
In the 1960s, a middle class family sent their rebellious daughters away in order to save face with their neighbors. They called it mental illness, but it was the parents, not the children, who’d been afflicted with a terrible disease. They knew calling a young woman “sick” would strip her of her agency; no matter what she said, she would be silent. In the 1980s, the wealthy president preached upward mobility and let the sick — few of whom were likely to vote for him — die off without uttering a word to mark their passing until shortly before he was on his way out in 1987. Barbara Goldin was a victim of the same epidemic that killed actress Cookie Mueller, Goldin’s friend who appeared in several Waters films of the 70s and died of AIDS in 1989, as well as the son of a woman whose scream is captured on a 911 call played during a court hearing attended by the Sacklers. The stigma of mental illness sealed Barbara’s fate. Those same stigmas convinced Americans to turn a blind eye to AIDS, and to view the opioid crisis as “someone else’s problem.” These diseases strike different people in different ways. What they have in common is that many, many lives could have been saved if the people who were responsible acted responsibly, and those who were accountable actually held themselves that way. Time and time again, though, those in power bury their heads in the sand and remain silent, praying that the cocoon of privilege they’ve built around their families all these years is fortress enough to keep the truth out.
Amongst all the other things it does so adroitly, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is a damning investigation of the sick relationship between billionaires and the art world. Most great artists don’t start out wealthy. They’ve lived a little — you can see it in their work. Art is borne out of struggle, pushing back against the privileged. Then, when they’ve achieved some notoriety, the art is bought — by the rich. The wealthy stamp their names on galleries and museums, knowing artists have something they, for all their means, can never possess. Money can buy many wonderful things, but it can never purchase that ineffable creative cachet. Artists have empathy, insight, humanity, that billionaires like the Sacklers can only own by proxy. Artists speak the truth — that’s something the rich can never afford to do. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed chronicles the controversy over 1989’s Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, curated by Goldin. Artist David Wojnarowicz was demonized for being a little too honest in his work, critiquing conservative legislation that discouraged safe sex education. The establishment pulled support of his work; another marginalized voice is silenced for speaking uncomfortable truths, just like Barbara’s.
The wealthy create pain. Pain creates art. The wealthy buy the art. And, with Nan Goldin at the helm, P.A.I.N. fights back. The impetus of Poitras’ doc is Goldin’s Prescription Addiction Intervention Now advocacy group, founded in 2017 with the express goal of taking down the Sacklers. This adds some intrigue to an otherwise sobering and sorrowful tale, even a bit of triumph — especially as we witness the Sacklers confronted directly (from the comfort of their own homes, on Zoom) by loved ones of the people whose lives their drugs wasted.
But Poitras spends plenty of time on Nan’s development as an artist, too, which is what makes All The Beauty And The Bloodshed much more than another inspirational chronicle of activism. After her boyfriend brutally beat and nearly blinded her in 1984, Goldin took a self-portrait displaying the bruises, staring directly into the camera. There is, perhaps, no better distillation of the relationship between an artist’s work and an artist’s pain than this.
Goldin’s work is presented as a slideshow, as it was originally displayed, complete with the clicks and whirs of changing slides. This works surprisingly well on film. I think I would have been perfectly content if the film were nothing but a slideshow with Goldin’s voiceover, taking us through the highs and lows of her one-of-a-kind life.
Nan Goldin’s activism has been tremendously impactful — but so is her photography. It’s another brand of activism, and, Poitras knows, of equal importance in the forever war between power and truth. Photographs speak the truth, even (or especially) when that truth is too difficult or dangerous to put into words. Her photos tell us what history never could about the people who lived with AIDS — what those lives were really like, when the government just wanted them to die in silence.
History would tell us that these lives didn’t matter. Art shows us they did.
Chronologically, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed begins with Barbara Goldin’s suicide in the 60s and ends with several achievements in Goldin’s activism to combat opioid addiction amidst the COVID pandemic. Its essence lies is in the years between, though, and the particular stronghold conservative politics had over the 1980s and the AIDS crisis. These events unfold at the same time conservative politics are wreaking havoc in Armageddon Time and Empire Of Light, two other films in which the protagonists take shelter in art when the world around them is at its bleakest. These themes are resurfacing now for good reason. It’s looking more and more like 1980 out there. Art will have a job to do. Again.
We move in circles, making art out of pain and activism out of art. The wealthy aim to hide. The camera seeks the truth. A photograph is a kind of courtroom, too, and the judgment it hands down might be more impactful in the long run. We look at photographs long after the people in them are gone. We see who lived, and how. Art records history the way history itself refuses to.
How many artists lost their lives to AIDS? How many voices have opioids silenced? Who, if not the artists, would ever tell these stories? How much longer would the powers that be remain silent if art didn’t get the truth out?
The Sacklers are still billionaires. They won’t be held criminally liable for the staggering number of deaths left in their wake. (Over half a million — and counting.) In the eyes of the courts, and most other institutions, they’re blameless titans holding onto every perk and privilege they’ve ever known. There’s only one place they were held accountable — in the art world, the only place where truth triumphs above all. These days, that might be the only place where justice can prevail.
We’ll probably never fully wrest free from the vicious cycle. The billionaires will kill us, the artists will make art about it, the billionaires will buy that art. Nan Goldin’s sister died young, but not before imparting a lesson she may not have even intended to teach. That fighting back is an option. That fighting back is a necessity. We are changed by what we witness.
Artists die, but art survives. In pictures, Barbara Goldin lives on.
“She’s trapped in delusion. But where does dreaming end and madness begin?”
Every awards season has one. A film that becomes a lightning rod for fervent criticism and then passionate defense, hot takes all around. It makes perfect sense that this year, it’s Blonde, which resurrects Hollywood’s premier poster girl as we’ve never seen her before, all the while luxuriating in the iconography that’s kept her star wattage lit brighter than the rest for over sixty years now, with no signs of dimming.
Marilyn Monroe spent her short career feeling misunderstood by the public, the press, and the entertainment industry. Few have acknowledged the irony of Blonde suffering the same fate. As with The Whale, the persecution of the film in certain corners of social media mirrors the indignities suffered by its lead character. Blonde has been denigrated, by some, as an empty-headed tart, all provocation and no art, aimed at nothing more than male titillation. Pornographic. Exploitative. An assault on all that is decent and good. Its power to offend is seen as dangerous; its most contemptuous critics don’t just dislike the film, they want to exterminate it. Blonde should be wiped from the record, they say. It shouldn’t even exist.
It sounds an awful lot like the moral panic Monroe herself encountered back in the day, when she was the face of some then-provocative art (and even more provocative publicity stunts). The actress’ private pain was hidden away to preserve the image of the smiling sex symbol, so alluring she could hardly be real, that fueled public fantasies. Men wanted to be with her. Women wanted to be like her. And the moguls who held the purse strings wanted to sell lots and lots of tickets to these smitten masses. Complicated, conflicted Norma Jeane Morstensen wasn’t a crowdpleaser. Beaming, beautiful Marilyn Monroe was.
Now it’s happening all over again.
Blonde hurts. That’s not in question. Perhaps the only thing its most ardent fans and harshest detractors agree on is that it’s painful to watch. The question is whether or not this brutality is a valid approach for a film about fame’s underbelly.
Marilyn hurt. That’s not in question, either. Why should that pain be swept aside all over again? To appease her fans’ fantasies of a flirty, empowered sex goddess who was in complete control of her career and romantic entanglements? That sounds an awful lot like 1955, if you ask me. “Hasn’t Marilyn suffered enough?” some bemoan, as if movies about long-dead celebrities have an obligation not to upset their ghosts. “Protecting” Monroe isn’t possible anymore, but some are trying, claiming Blonde victimizes the icon from beyond the grave — a strangely conservative reaction from an audience that is otherwise, mostly, not. Blonde can’t do anything to Marilyn Monroe; it can only hurt us. So if Blonde makes you feel uncomfortable, or even unsafe — good.
If we all agree that the real Marilyn Monroe can no longer be rescued 60 years after her death, then it must be her image — her reputation — that critics claim is in under assault. Those who claim to want to “protect” her now are actually protecting an idea they have about who Marilyn Monroe was. They’re sparing themselves from seeing what they don’t want to see in her legacy, and having to feel bad about it. In other words, protecting themselves.
It’s this exact brand of fandom — the ownership we claim over our favorite stars, the feelings of intimacy we develop with illusions, the assumption that we can come to know a person who died decades before we were born — that Blonde seeks to investigate. Those who feel the film does damage to Marilyn only end up revealing that writer/director Andrew Dominik, faithfully adapting the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is onto something here.
In Blonde, many men attempt attempt to take ownership of Marilyn Monroe, both in her career and personal life. The film’s defamers have tended to do the same thing, claiming to hate it in her name. Implicit in that line of criticism is the assumption that Monroe would be absolutely appalled to see herself depicted in this way. But why? Monroe studied method acting. She hungered for juicier dramatic parts. She was longing to suffer on camera, to channel the raw turmoil she felt inside through a fictional character who nevertheless looked like her, sounded like her, and represented her in many ways. The studios wouldn’t let her. If they had, she may not have died the way she did.
Monroe felt tremendous pressure to be the carefree sex kitten the public saw on screen. Having to conceal her complexity in order to live up to that image contributed heavily to her depression, substance abuse, and eventual suicide. Now, her “defenders” would prefer that the ugly bits get covered up all over again, because they aren’t flattering to her — and worse, aren’t flattering to them. Blonde’s Marilyn may not aspirational, but that doesn’t automatically make her inaccurate. The “Marilyn Monroe” under attack here is the grinning wax figure she’s remembered by, the glamour-puss ghost that outlived the flesh-and-blood woman. Blonde punctures our mass delusion of who this “Marilyn” was — a role model for women, a fantasy object for men, a cash cow for movie moguls, a poster girl anyone can slap up on the wall to add a touch of class to their living room. The polarized responses to Blonde are yet another facet of the effect she always had on us, the contrast between who she was and who everyone wanted her to be. Do we accept Marilyn Monroe as a deeply flawed woman in pain, or do we just want the fantasy?
In an early scene, Norma Jeane screams during her method acting class, unleashing all the raw pain that’s been kicking around in her since childhood. Someone at the studio likens her audition to “watching a mental patient.” She’s all nerve, no technique. Dominik celebrates her unpolished passion for the arts, preferring a more primitive emotional truth to the more refined and “respectable” version. Blonde is the method version of Monroe’s life, digging deep into real trauma and lived experiences to find emotional truth in a performance. An actress doesn’t play every aspect of a character in every scene; Blonde doesn’t give us every angle on the real Marilyn. It hones in on the dichotomy between her private pain and her public image, channeling all its energy into telling us about that, which is more than enough for one movie. It’s a killer part, with all the screaming and tears the actress always coveted.
As Dominik sees it, this Hollywood legend’s greatest performance wasn’t as the blowsy musician in Some Like It Hot or the diamond-adoring gold-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was her role as radiant movie star Marilyn Monroe, a woman who wasn’t any more real than Sugar Kane Kowalczyk or Lorelei Lee was. It’s funny to hear critics point to the film and protest: “But that isn’t the real Marilyn!” That’s the point. Blonde’s Norma Jeane says the same thing, over and over again. Regarding her photo in magazines: “She is pretty, I guess. But it isn’t me, is it?” While reading fan mail: “Some of them love Marilyn, some of them hate Marilyn. What’s that got to do with me?” To her manager, on the phone: “Fuck Marilyn! She’s not here!”
No, the “real Marilyn” is not here, because she was never anywhere. She doesn’t exist. Blonde is the biography of a woman who was only ever a work of fiction to begin with, born when the projection hits the screen, dead once the lights come back up. (Until the next showing.) Fans through the ages would claim to love her, but how? Who is it that they really love, if this person they claim to love was only ever just a dream?
Blonde’s Hollywood burns the way a child would remember it, like in a disaster movie. A favorite stuffed animal from Norma’s childhood reappears when she’s an adult, as if by magic. These are not the experiences of Norma Jeane Mortensen as they really occurred, but the way they might have felt. Blonde’s Marilyn may be weaker and more deranged than she was in truth, but aren’t we often more exposed, more insane, more childlike in our nightmares than we are in waking life? Don’t our dreams magnify and distort the weakest, ugliest parts of ourselves in order to make their point? Blonde isn’t Marilyn Monroe’s life. It’s Marilyn Monroe’s nightmare, a horror story flickering through the troubled star’s head as she drifts off to sleep for the very last time. Her fears and sorrows are blown up larger than life, like she was.
Blonde is a film about how pictures lie, the sour side of sex appeal, and how pain fuels performance. Ana De Armas makes for a mesmerizing Marilyn. Sometimes she’s a dead ringer for the legendary actress. Sometimes she’s like an alien wearing the skin of one of our best-known icons. In either mode, she’s fearless. (It’s not an easy job, being the face of a film this widely scorned.) Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting score alternates, suitably, between mournful and excruciating, one of the year’s best. Meanwhile, Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin conjure up some of 2022’s most incredible screen images, many framed and lit like famous photographs that are so cemented in our collective consciousness, and have done so much to shape our idea of who she was. Marilyn looks happy in these photos — she’s smiling, of course — but Dominik reimagines what might’ve been going on in the margins of these frozen moments, and it isn’t always pretty.
In this story, Norma Jeane is our damsel in distress. Marilyn Monroe is the villain. She’s our heroine’s evil twin, a hellish mirror image she created herself, in hopes of being loved. Norma Jeane wasn’t loved by anybody; Marilyn Monroe is loved by all. But she soon learns that this “Marilyn” they worship only looks and sounds like Norma Jeane — it’s impossible to really be her, living up to a million fantasies all at once. The more everyone demands of Marilyn, the less space there is for Norma Jeane to exist. Who needs Morstensen when the world’s got Monroe? So Norma Jeane bows out, and the world keeps Marilyn. We consider it to be a fair trade.
A lot of the outrage aimed at Blonde was centered on its sentient fetus, which some critics claimed makes Blonde staunchly anti-abortion. Of course, this is just one of many fantasies Norma Jeane has in the film; it’s not the fetus who’s actually speaking. This would-be baby represents the love she always wanted to give, but has never been able to; the choices she wanted to make, but wasn’t permitted to. Blonde’s abortion sequences are horrifying, but not because she’s having abortions — it’s because she isn’t making the choice. In all the film’s most harrowing scenes, Marilyn is no longer in control of her own body. Men treat her as a plaything, someone who exists merely for their amusement, then discard her like trash when they’re finished. In these sequences, she goes limp like a rag doll. She attempts to speak up, but she’s never heard. She’s powerless in a man’s world.
That’s quite a statement to make about a woman who certainly looked like she had all the power in her movies, making men’s eyes (and crotches) bulge and tongues (and drool) dangle. The real Norma Jeane Mortensen probably never felt as powerful as “the girl” on the subway grate looked to be. (I’m not being coy. The female lead in The Seven Year Itch really didn’t even have a name.) At one point in the film, Norma Jeane looks up at the night sky and the stars become sperm, a symbol of male dominance over everything, far and wide, including her own star power. It’s gross, sure — but accurate.
Blonde’s Marilyn has massive daddy issues, another major point of contention for the haters. A common refrain from critics is that this makes her seem weak and pathetic, perhaps even dumb. (They tend to ignore the scenes in which she proves herself to be well-read and very articulate in discussing art.) But her paramours Cass and Eddy, sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, are no less damaged, no less destroyed by their absentee fathers than Norma Jeane is. Blonde’s Hollywood is an orphanage, a place for broken children to meet and commiserate. When Norma Jeane imagines her aborted fetus speaking to her, it’s in her own young voice; it’s Norma Jeane who was unwanted, actually, and who is now trying to recast the role of her mentally unstable mother by playing her herself. (The mommy issues are just as prevalent as daddy issues, though no one complained about them.)
Fittingly for a film about the world’s most famous actress, Blonde is all about casting. Norma Jeane’s mother casts a man in a photograph as Norma Jean’s father, claiming he’s a Hollywood bigwig. A headshot is the only dad she knows, though the man probably isn’t even her father. Later, her mother also casts Norma Jeane as the reason he left her. Cass and Eddy cast Marilyn as a whore, insisting she’s more feral and sex-crazed than she really is. Joe DiMaggio casts her in the opposite role, as the virgin saint. He blows his top at the idea that she has a sexual identity of her own. Arthur Miller casts her, literally, as the resurrected Magda, a former flame he’s never gotten over. Marilyn auditions for men, over and over again, trying to fulfill their fantasies and be who they want her to be. It’s impossible, because what they want is a figment of their imaginations (just as she in ours). Meanwhile, she keeps hoping someone will “discover” Norma Jean, the real person inside the celebrity. No one does.
Blonde offers a strange kind of hope to the hopeless. If even the most gorgeous, glamorous star of all time can feel so helpless, then no one is immune to the darkness. It’s refreshing to an ostensible “biopic” depict someone so famous so messily. Many films depict a celebrity’s downfall, but the collapse always feels so controlled. Blonde is a true descent into madness, blurring fact and fiction so adeptly, we’re forced to wonder, “Is she going insane… or am I?” Blonde’s Marilyn isn’t a walking Wikipedia page that earns a gold star for getting the facts right. But all biopics flatten human beings in order to fit a storyteller’s subjective idea of who they were. They follow a formula, condensing characters, rearranging momentous events, omitting any information that doesn’t fit neatly into a linear narrative, and they generally end on a high note, even when the life in question did not. They’re rarely anywhere near accurate. Few, if any, narrative surprises are in store, because we already know these stories. Biopics are comfort food, delivering audiences an old favorite they already love. They reassure audiences that their favorite celebrity’s life really did play out exactly as they’ve been told it did. That this is a true story.
Blonde dares to go in the opposite direction, not by telling the truth — which can only be guessed at — but by setting the very notion of a celebrity biopic on fire and inviting the audience to watch it burn (along with the rest of old Hollywood). This may not be the “real” Marilyn, but is she less valid than the one we can catch strutting up and down the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard? Whose likeness you’ll find alongside Judy Garland and James Dean on a diner mural, hawking cheeseburgers? It’s a film about legend, not facts, demythologizing Marilyn Monroe, only to build a different, darker myth around her. Blonde haters would prefer her story to be triumphant, but that’s absurd, given how her life ended. So is Andrew Dominik really the one who’s trying to distort the truth here?
No, it’s not really truth that Blonde’s detractors want. It’s a lie they can feel good about. An empowered Marilyn would be the biggest fiction of all. Would it trigger the same virulent outrage, though? Not at all. In 2022, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis received mixed-to-positive reviews, a Best Picture nomination, and no widespread backlash. Was it more factually accurate than Blonde? Or did it just stick closer to a lie everybody’s comfortable with?
In 2022, movie audiences increasingly demand that every story be given the Tarantino treatment, where the slaves rise up, the Nazis are brutally assassinated, and Sharon Tate gets to live on and have her baby. But not every movie can “Once upon a time…” its way through Hollywood. We can’t consume so many Disney fairy tales that we forget all about the Grimm version. Fantasies are fine, but it’s a problem when they’re the only game in town, and the ugly truth starts getting chased out with pitchforks. Neither dreams nor nightmares present us with the blatant truth, but between them, we arrive at an approximation of it. If we allow the “dream versions” of true stories to exaggerate and distort the facts and tell us the truths we like, we must also allow for the nightmare versions to exaggerate and distort the facts and tell us the truths we don’t. No matter how badly you would have liked it to, Marilyn Monroe’s life did not have a happy ending, and Andrew Dominik isn’t obligated to rewrite history just so you can feel okay about that. Blonde is brutal. So was the torment Marilyn Monroe felt near the end of her life. It was a real part of her. An important part of her. A part of her so consuming, it swallowed the rest. What was left was a gimmick — the smiling sexpot she created to hide behind, because she didn’t believe the public wanted to see all that pain, and she was right. They still don’t. They prefer to call it Blonde assassinating Marilyn, instead of Marilyn assassinating herself.
Blonde and The Whale were unpopular with roughly the same audience for roughly the same reasons. They were targets for misplaced outrage, case studies in the zillennial neutering of bold art that Lydia Tár tried to warn us about. They’re evidence that something’s broken in the way we think and talk about film these days. Above all, these films were accused of not being empathetic — by people who don’t seem to understand what empathy is. Ignoring, concealing, or minimizing a screen character’s pain is not empathy. Attempting to understand and share that pain is. Every frame of Dominik’s film means to put us in Marilyn’s shoes, to force us to feel what she feels, because once upon a time in Hollywood, she was made to feel it, too. When the film utilizes the male gaze, it is to weaponize it — making us, the viewing public, complicit in the abuse. We all are, in a way, as part of a culture that obsesses over celebrities. The more Blonde and The Whale get kicked around this awards season, the more empathy I dredge up for these poor, bruised souls who so desperately want to be loved, but are not. My two favorite big screen protagonists this year — the most beautiful woman in the world and the fattest man in Idaho. Much abhorred, much misunderstood.
Time may not heal all wounds, but it does make us feel okay about forgetting them. We’re used to watching biopics from afar. Blonde depicts the past with the rawness of the present, rendering the story of Marilyn Monroe — which we tend to encounter from a safe distance— as urgent as the story of the women Harvey Weinstein preyed upon, still near enough to ache. It pushes back against the Hollywood ending we’ve rewritten for one of its most beloved stars, and offers a painful reminder that this same adulation might be what killed her. A lot of people hate Blonde, but not for the reasons most will point to. It’s not because it disrespects the dead. It’s because it reminds us she was ever truly alive to begin with.
Cinemas are shuttering. Audiences won’t show up for anything that isn’t part of a franchise they already love. There are no movie stars anymore. We keep asking if the movies were dying. (I do, anyway.) If so, Blonde is the ideal death rattle, for Marilyn Monroe is Hollywood, and Blonde strips its shiniest star of every last shred of tinsel. Dominik’s film ends with a smiling, sexy Marilyn superimposed over Norma Jeane’s corpse, like a ghost. The real woman is dead; before long, there won’t be anyone left who knew her. Its the apparition that lives on and on and on and on.
If I were to pick a single scene out of the film to whittle Blonde down to its essence, though, it would have nothing to do with cinema stardom. It’s Norma Jeane tearing her house apart, frantically hunting down a single dollar to tip a delivery boy with. She’s trying so hard to make this one small thing happen, to do something good. It’s a moment no one on Earth will ever know about, because she is all alone. This simple gesture of real humanity will turn out to be a mere fantasy, because she can’t find the money. It’s just something she wanted to do.
We try awfully hard to make things happen, but we fail frequently, so no one will ever know. Blonde is all about that chasm between fantasy and reality — on the red carpet, on the big screen, but also behind closed doors. Like any of us, Norma Jeane Morstensen had an image in mind of who she wanted to be. It’s different than the version we saw, the one we claim to know. What her version was like, who she believed she was, we’ll never know.
An icon was once just a person. A shining star was really a woman in trouble. For Marilyn Monroe, the gulf between fantasy and reality was as wide as it could possibly be, but she was also like the rest of us, striving to be her best and coming up short.
The delivery boy is long gone. She has the dollar at last. It’s too late.
“What happened between you two?”
Close your eyes. Picture your best friend from childhood. The person you shared everything with in those years leading up to middle school. The person you spent as much time as you possibly could with, the person you couldn’t wait to spend even more time with. You talked about girls, or you talked about boys, or maybe you didn’t — you just talked about toys. Your favorites were their favorites. You found the exact same things hilarious, and the exact same things frightening. At one point in time, it would have seemed impossible that you would ever not want to be near this person.
Now open them. Are you still friends with that person?
Lukas Dhont’s Close is about the end of a friendship between two thirteen-year-old boys. Rémi (Gustav De Waele) and Léo (Eden Dambrine) are inseparable, riding to and from school on their bikes together. Léo sleeps over at Remi’s house more often than he sleeps at his own. Remi’s mom Sophie (Émilie Dequenne) jokes it’s like having two sons. The boys are starting a new year at a new school, and fortunately, they’re placed in the same class together. They sit at their desks with their shoulders touching. Remi lays his head on Leo while napping on the lawn at recess. It’s not long before some classmates pop the question: “Are you together?”
These girls aren’t trying to be cruel. There’s nothing inherently judgmental about their tone. But they also won’t take “no” for an answer. Remi and Leo explain that they’re best friends. They don’t kiss or hold hands. They’re just close, the way young female friends are, often. Young girls aren’t afraid to show physical affection for one another at school. Why should it be different for boys?
But it is different for boys, as they’ll soon see.
The idea spreads. Male classmates start using words like “sissy” and “faggot.” It’s relatively mild as teasing goes, never crossing the line into real bullying. But the effect is equally brutal. Suddenly their every action is scrutinized, and even the slightest display of friendship can be misconstrued and used as evidence to flame the gossip. Kids love a scandal, just as adults do. That bloodlust for public shaming that takes Lydia Tar down? It starts right here. So does the prejudice and segregation that cause a character like The Whale’s Charlie to become a self-loathing recluse and eat himself to death. Close introduces us to two boys who are meeting mainstream society’s cruelty for the very first time. They’re on the precipice between innocence and adulthood; they’d rather stay, but their classmates are so eager to shove them off. No child is ever really ready for what awaits on the other side. A lot of pain, a lot of confusion, a lot of humiliation, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of judgment, no matter who they are. If you’re not still friends with the friend I asked you to think of before, why is that? What got in the way? Was it one of you? Or some external force? We often say we “lost touch,” or “drifted apart,” but what are these currents carrying us away from each other? How can they be stronger than these bonds, which seem stronger than anything? Here’s proof that cruelty is mightier than kindness.
Dhont doesn’t give us any insight into whether Rémi and Léo are straight or gay or anything else. Rémi might turn out to be gay. Léo might be turn out to be gay. Maybe they both will. Maybe neither. Whatever their sexuality may end up being, it’s likely they’re too young to have it all figured out yet. The boys aren’t being scrutinized for being gay; they’re scrutinized for being close. That’s what Dhont is investigating here. In societies across the world, men are taught at a young age not to be too affectionate toward one another. Homosexuality is something to be feared and shunned, even before it really has anything to do with sexuality.
The stigma can turn the closest friends into bitter enemies. It can be so punishing, a boy might rather die than live with the disgrace. It doesn’t take much to set it off — just a few small words, an innocuous inquisition: “Are you together?” That alone is enough to drive a wedge between boys who, up until now, shared everything together. On the other side of shame is the masculine ideal. Stoic and strong, he doesn’t hug and he doesn’t cry. We’ve tried and tried as a society to rip him down off the pedestal, and say that women and gay men and all types of other people who don’t live up to that antiquated standard are just as ideal. But we haven’t succeeded. Not even close.
For Rémi and Léo, the effect isn’t immediate. It’s a slow-working poison that infects the friendship in dribs and drabs, so subtle you might not notice it at first. Rémi tries to carry on as before, insistent that nothing needs to change just because a handful of mean kids are going to laugh at them. Léo silently withdraws from the friendship, seeking camaraderie with other boys who do fit a heteronormative ideal. He takes an interest in more masculine pursuits, joining an ice hockey league. He’s uncomfortable with the idea that the baggage of Rémi might follow him here. He’s trying to assert his own identity, apart from what he knew in childhood, as teenagers do. He chooses conformity. He has that option. Rémi doesn’t.
Close opens on Rémi and Léo playing a game of pretend. The soldiers are coming for us! They’re right outside, ready to attack! The boys are getting a little too old for this kind of child’s play, but they haven’t realized that yet. They indulge in the fantasy — for a little while longer. But reality is coming for them, the way it comes for us all.
Frank van den Eeden’s sumptuous cinematography makes the primary colors pop, emphasizing these hues most associated with childhood. Léo tends to be seen wearing serene, non-confrontational blue or white, while Rémi is most associated with the intensity of red. Dhont’s screenplay, co-written with Angelo Tijssens, keeps things simple, honest enough to risk being obvious. Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine, both making their acting debuts, are called upon to do a lot of emotional heavy-lifting, and they’re utterly believable at every turn.
Close follows Armageddon Time in depicting a close friendship between boys on the cusp of their teen years. There’s no inherent conflict between them. But in both, the friends are ripped apart because the relationship doesn’t conform to conservative standards. Paul and Johnny are sabotaged because their friendship crosses acceptable racial boundaries in Reagan’s America; Rémi and Léo are ostracized on the assumption that their physical closeness means they’re gay. None of these boys have the ability to stand up to the oppression that’s pulling them away from each other, because centuries of hate and fear ingrained in our society is so much stronger than any two kids could be.
There are no toxic males to be found in this story. Masculinity itself is the toxin — that is, “masculinity” as its been interpreted and adopted by Western societies over the years. Young boys are forced to play along, or pay the price. To go against the grain, especially at this critical age, often means accepting loneliness and vulnerability.
In some ways, Close is a very specific story about the way even the gentlest expression of homophobia invades and destroys one young male friendship. This is far from an isolated incident. Dhont is well aware of that, inviting us to wonder how many millions of close male friendships have been extinguished over the years, exactly like this. Love between men is so terrifying that it must be eradicated before boys even know what it is. The loss we witness as a result is painfully honest and distinct.
In another way, though, Close is about what happens to us all. Adulthood has nasty surprises in store for everybody, sooner or later. We’re all forced to let go of who we used to be; often, we’re also made to let go of the person who used to be there with us. (Or we “drift apart.”) Few movies of 2022 offered a real response to the global pandemic we only really came out of this year. We have not yet had the opportunity to unbrace for disaster and take stock of what happened to us, what happened to everybody else, what we lost, and what we’re going to do. Close has nothing to do with COVID, but it does give its audience a chance to grieve for what is lost, and cannot be recovered. Most of us have seen friendships change over the past couple years. Many lost friends, one way or another. I’m fascinated by Dhont’s examination of how easily and early homophobia can chip away at an otherwise ideal male friendship, but I’m equally floored by how universal this story is, offering its audience a chance to reminisce upon any friend they’ve lost for any reason. Close is about a moment we all face — being ripped out of childhood, and shoved into the adult world. Sometimes it’s gentle, sometimes it’s violent. Sometimes we’re willing, sometimes we’re not. But it happens. In Close, Léo mourns the end of a friendship, but equally also mourns the loss of the child he used to be.
Close’s perfect final moment is about looking back and moving on, not just on one friendship but on everything we’ve left behind us. One boy says goodbye to innocence, not because he wants to, but because forward is the only way to go. A mother and a child realize they’re both hunting down a why they’ll never find. Life starts hurting at a certain point, when you’re about Rémi and Léo’s age. It lets up sometimes, but it doesn’t ever stop for good.
Saying goodbye to childhood is particularly painful for Rémi and Léo, but we all do it. It always hurts. Sometimes the pain happens slowly, over a number years, so we may not even notice it unless we know where to look. For others it happens suddenly and mercilessly, all at once. If we’re lucky, there’s someone there we can talk to about it. A mother. A teacher. A friend. But it’s not possible to go through it together. There are some things, like leaving childhood behind, that we can only ever do alone.
All boys become adults, if they live long enough. We carry our memories forward, and our knowledge, and certain likes and dislikes. Maybe we even get to bring a friend with us. But no child ever really survives. Something that used to be essential is killed off, to make room for what will be. A man steps forward. He resembles the child, but he is not.
There’s a hole in the world where a boy used to be.
1. THE FABELMANS
“It’ll be our secret movie, just yours and mine.”
It starts at a party. The ingenue meets the executive, or the star meets the up-and-coming producer. They have your people call my people and set up a lunch. The deal is made. Kiss kiss, bye bye. Everybody shows up on set. They shoot. They wrap. They cut. Out rolls the red carpet. In rolls the money. That’s show business.
We forget that it actually begins much earlier.
But when, exactly?
A year or so ago, The Fabelmans seemed like a safe bet as a Best Picture frontrunner. The Academy loves movies about movies, and everybody loves Steven Spielberg. We had every reason to believe that Spielberg was coming for that Oscar.
Of course, that awards season narrative ended up being too easy. The movie year had quite a few surprises in store. The Top Gun sequel nobody thought they needed not only handily trounced a Jurassic Park reunion, James Cameron’s sequel to the biggest movie ever, and every Marvel movie at the domestic box office, it also became a major player at the Oscars. A three-plus-hour Telegu-language action-musical from India grossed about the same as Damien Chazelle’s lavish ode to Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. A movie about googly-eyed rocks, raccoon chefs, and lesbians with floppy hot dog fingers will win Best Picture. I think I might have landed in the wrong universe by mistake.
Fantasies about fighting oppression were all the rage in 2022 — as seen in The Woman King, RRR, and Women Talking, to name a few. Characters who “win” were widely embraced; characters who succumbed to the world’s cruelties, or were left still struggling, headlined many of the “also-rans” that looked like stronger awards contenders than they ultimately ended up being, including this list’s Blonde, Babylon, Armageddon Time, Empire Of Light, and The Whale. The Academy’s Best Picture lineup is heavy on escapism and happy endings, light on stark reality. Even the contenders that sound bleaker on paper, like Triangle Of Sadness or The Banshees Of Inisherin, have a satirical or fable-like quality that distances us from having to take their more brutal bits too seriously. Only the war film All Quiet On The Western Front really dwells on darkness without offering a fantastical escape hatch. (Notably, it is a German film, not American; Americans are leading the charge in detachment from reality lately.) Apparently, only in war films is misery still “allowed” anymore.
It’s clear what’s driving our hunger for escapism — the downbeat Trump era, capped off with COVID, a lot of seemingly insurmountable crises ever-circling on social media. People want to be everywhere all at once — or wherever, as long as it’s anywhere but here. This year, movie audiences revealed that we do, indeed, have an empathy problem in culture at large; they’re only willing to empathize with the characters who end up feeling good. The public has grown tired of films that depict the world as it was or is; even “historical” films must take place in alternate realities where women and minorities are stronger and more outspoken than they actually were. And there’s nothing wrong with those, as an alternative to the one that grapple with what did happen. But those are dying out. I guess it’s our turn to start believing in “alternative facts”? Of course, it’s not a new phenomenon that mass audiences gravitate toward happy endings — but their contempt for the films that risk making them feel sad, angry, uncomfortable, unsafe, guilty, or even despairing might be. The year’s most celebrated film, and the frontrunner to win Best Picture, is the upbeat Everything Everywhere All At Once, which let viewers vicariously live out wild and wacky alternative realities across multiple universes— and left me feeling like I’m alone in still caring about this one.
Not many of the films I loved this year got their due. My Top Ten lists often showcase movies that aren’t critical darlings or Oscar players, but I’ve never felt quite so out of step with the direction film culture is headed. Subtlety isn’t working anymore. The films audiences need to think through and sit with came and went from theaters. If they weren’t scorned, they were shrugged at. There’s been a lot of backlash to films that challenge the audience and take creative risks. Viewers are unwilling to watch movies that don’t soothe and sate them. Movies are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert said. But the machine is supposed to make you feel all kinds of things, not just… good.
Where the hell did this mass yearning for escape through the big screen come from? How did it come to completely dominate popular culture? Who is responsible for this outrageous phenomenon? If only there was some way I could identify the man responsible, and locate the origin of all this madness!
In case you haven’t noticed yet, my Top Ten films of 2022 are not the most light-hearted films of the year. Six of the films on this list concern suicide. Seven are about people who self-destruct. Close, Empire Of Light, The Whale, Armageddon Time, and All The Beauty And The Bloodshed are about how closed-minded, conservative ideals and institutions destroy friendships, ruin lives, and get people killed (or come close). They’re a pretty devastating bunch.
A part of me didn’t want to put The Fabelmans up top, because it was just so predictable for me. I was passionate about cinematic storytelling from an early age. I went to film school. I took an entire course on the films of Steven Spielberg. I’ve seen every one of his movies — more than once. Several of his films are amongst my very favorites. The Fabelmans was pretty much made for me, so thank the gods I liked it. But loving Steven Spielberg movies is not bold or unique — or particularly “cool.” Putting The Fabelmans at #1 on this list is just so obvious for me. It doesn’t risk anything, except for looking a little bit dorky. But this year, it’s how I escaped.
Like I keep saying, movies are in a bad place right now. Streaming has upended the business. COVID killed the medium’s momentum, and it still hasn’t really recovered. A lot of stupid mistakes were made by the major studios and streamers, mostly in concession to Wall Street. My favorite movie theaters in Los Angeles are gone. Most of my favorite films of the year underwhelmed or utterly flopped at the box office. I’m pretty disappointed with the direction the Academy Awards have been heading. Some of this will get sorted out in time, but there’s no question that the cinema landscape is in for some major changes. Blonde and Babylon had rather cynical takes on “the power of cinema” this year; even Empire Of Light’s somewhat more hopeful climactic moment had Olivia Colman sitting alone in a theater. So I’m glad I could count on Steven Spielberg to provide me with what he’s provided me all my life — a transportive big screen experience, into a world where the movies still matter as much as they always did. That’s my alternate reality.
It’s hard to make the case for The Fabelmans as an exquisite work of art to anyone who’s not interested in filmmaking, especially the filmmaking of Steven Spielberg. It’s gotten a fair amount of flack for that. “Who cares about this one guy’s boring childhood?” they sneer. “Are we supposed to care just because he’s famous?” (It stems from a similar place as the case against Bach in Tár.) And I don’t know — what’s wrong with caring about a nice kid making movies with his friends in suburbs of Arizona? Why wouldn’t you?
No, reality isn’t good enough for the moviegoers of 2022. Steven Spielberg brought aliens to the suburbs, sharks to summer vacation, and dinosaurs back to life, and the only reason any of it worked is that it felt like it was happening to real, ordinary, everyday people. Indiana Jones was no superhero — he was your dad, but much better with a whip. The Fabelman family might as well be Roy Neary, Ellen Brody, Lex and Tim, Elliott and Gertie. Is it really such a stretch to follow these same characters that we already love in a brand new big screen adventure? The adventure of real life?
The Fabelmans won’t blow anybody’s mind. Not the way Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan did. Spielberg, so good at making jaws drop, did not live a jaw-dropping life himself. Ever humble, he doesn’t ever insist in The Fabelmans that he did. Everything in it is a version of something that really happened in his own upbringing, but he’s remarkably restrained in not overdramatizing it. The stakes are low, by Spielberg movie standards, but also as high as they are for any of us. Family. Love. Career. A dream he’d like to see come true someday. That’s it.
The Fabelmans isn’t the story of how Steven Spielberg became famous. Its final moments tell the beginnings of that story with a wink, but mostly, that’s saved for The Fabelmans’ Last Crusade, or whatever. Spielberg certainly could have printed the legend in this film, and given us a standard biopic littered with Easter eggs, beginning with a twenty two-year old kid directing Joan Crawford in Night Gallery and ending when he finally won his first Best Director Oscar for Schindler’s List, perhaps. I suspect that wouldn’t be a very good movie. (Though if Tony Kushner wrote it, and Spielberg directed it…?) This Steven Spielberg origin story is much less direct in its ambitions. It’s a tribute to Spielberg’s parents, represented here by Michelle Williams’ Mitzi and Paul Dano’s Burt, who loom larger in this story than young Sam Fabelman does. But co-writers Kushner and Spielberg are also genuinely curious about where, exactly, Spielberg’s talent truly came from, and when, exactly, his path became inevitable. The great thing about The Fabelmans is that they don’t know, and spend every scene of the film wondering, “Is this it? Is it here?”
The Fabelmans opens with Mitzi and Burt taking young Sammy to the cinema for the first time. The movie is The Greatest Show On Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s extravagant circus spectacle that went on to win Best Picture and become the highest-grossing movie of 1952. (Spielberg would deliver this same “art and commerce” one-two punch 41 years later, in 1993, but he did it with two different movies.) Sammy is in awe of what he sees on the big screen, and his future is set in stone right then and there — right?
Not so fast. DeMille’s then-astonishing train wreck sequence haunts Sammy. He’s given a camera and begins making his own rail disaster movie, demolishing the toy train over and over. Mitzi eventually works out the reason why. He wants to control this awesome horror, because then he doesn’t have to fear it anymore. Throughout the rest of The Fabelmans, Sam will be confronted with danger and chaos — no great white sharks or velociraptors, just the sort of danger and chaos a normal kid might encounter in the suburbs. School bullies. A crazy uncle. The looming threat of his parents’ divorce. They all collide with his growing passion for filmmaking in some way. He finds that real life is unpredictable and non-compliant, too big to get his arms around. But making movies? That’s danger and chaos you can control. (Barely.)
Where does cinematic artistry come from? If we can find out anywhere, it should be here. The formative years of the world’s most popular, successful, cherished filmmaker. The Fabelmans attempts to locate the essence of Hollywood’s most beloved hit-maker, the man who changed movies many times over. Those who didn’t like the film actually wanted the answer. Those, like me, who loved it are so fascinated by the question that they don’t care.
In The Fabelmans, we see how Sam’s talent is nurtured by his mother, who encourages him to pursue his passion at all costs. We see how it ran into resistance from his father, who insists that he put this childish hobby aside and focus on something more practical. We see how Sam was granted access to the right tools at a young age, which helped him get a jump on developing his skills as a filmmaker. We see how his productions were made possible with help from his friends and siblings, without whom he’d be shooting empty landscapes. We see that Sam put in the work, spending his free time mounting increasingly elaborate productions, or editing alone in his room, instead of doing whatever his peers were doing. We see that he found an audience who showed up and liked what they saw. We see a bizarre pep talk from a distant uncle that feels like kismet coming down to ensure he follows through on his dreams. We see that he was in the right place at the right time to get a crucial bit of wisdom from an old master. We saw that he got lucky, more than once.
So which is it? Good fortune? Good advice? Access? Assistance? Persistence? Divine intervention? Undeniable talent? Mother’s nurturing? Or pushing back against father’s limits?
It could be any of these, or a combination of all of them. The only certainty is there’s no formula. Sam Fabelman might be destined for greatness. But if any one of these things had been different, perhaps he would have spiraled off course. If Sammy doesn’t get his camera early on, maybe he grows up to be an accountant instead. What’s so special about Steven Spielberg? Nothing and everything. The beauty of The Fabelmans is in how all of these mundane moments add up to make magic. We’ll never know how or why or even when, exactly — but we can still be very grateful that it happened the way it did.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the art of film, I’m fascinated by a film that seeks to locate its origins. To actually find that in The Fabelmans wouldn’t have worked. We’ll never know — but there’s so much wonder in the wondering. The mad excess of the silent productions in Babylon. The ever-enduring fame of the medium’s most iconic star in Blonde. The magic moment when a woman sitting alone in the dark recognizes the reflection of her own loneliness projected up on the screen in Empire Of Light. None of this happens without the ineffable spark of inspiration that comes out of nowhere, from… somewhere.
Spielberg could have used The Fabelmans to glorify himself, or his past. His resurrection of his parents isn’t quite as dark or searing as James Gray’s in Armageddon Time — another lightly fictionalized origin story about a Jewish family — but Mitzi and Burt are complex, flawed, and seen quite clearly, not from a son’s perspective, but from a filmmaker’s. Mitzi is an artist, too — or at least, she wanted to be. She was a talented pianist, but she sacrificed that for her husband and children. Her ensuing dissatisfaction is what leads her to break away from the family years later — a solid testament to the necessity of following dreams. In an anxious moment, Sam imagines himself filming his family instead of as part of it; one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that speaks volumes about how artists sometimes live outside of reality, turning life into art even as it’s unfolding. Later, he uses his filmmaking prowess to make a common bully look like a dashing hero instead. Why? Possibly to get the bully to like him. Possibly to make him feel bad for the bullying. Probably because it’s the crowd-pleasing choice, and Spielberg has always put his audience first. It’s the same night that Sam takes a stab at being the suave romantic lead with his girlfriend, and ends up getting dumped. Sam would love to be the handsome, heroic leading man. We all would. He isn’t, though. It’s only behind the camera, off screen, that he has any control.
Steven Spielberg didn’t invent escapism. That’s always been a big part of what movies are. But he did revise escapism and usher in the blockbuster era, his signature style becoming the definition of “childhood” on screen for multiple generations. Spielberg made so many movies for the masses. This time, he made one for just one person. The man has given us so much — there’s not much that’s popular in film and TV today that doesn’t in some way have his stamp on it. Why not permit him to entertain himself for a change? I’m not a bit surprised that The Fabelmans is too intimate and personal to live up to early prognostications that it would dominate this awards season. I don’t blame those who don’t relate. I saw the greatest show on Earth when I was a kid, too, except by then it was called Jurassic Park. Just as Sammy did with his train, I played with plastic dinosaurs and Laura Derns in miniature, recreating what I’d seen, and eventually, dreaming up new stories. My path has gone in a very different direction than Steven Spielberg’s, but for me, at least, the movies of 2022 couldn’t have offered me a better escape hatch from my reality than being him. Is my ultimate fantasy just Steven Spielberg’s reality? Guess so.
Lydia, standing up for great art with such intense passion it get her canceled in Tár. Charlie, begging his students to write something honest in The Whale. Freddie, listening to a tinny recording of a song her father wrote, revealing depths in him she never noticed in Return To Seoul. Hilary, discovering a cure for loneliness in cinema in Empire Of Light. Léo, inventing a silly story to send his best friend drifting off to sleep in Close. Marilyn, desperately hunting down a dollar in Blonde. Manny, hallucinating his way through cinema future in Babylon. These and other moments from the films on this list will be the ones I return to, over and over again, when I think about the year the movies died — or almost did.
But if there’s one that speaks to me the loudest, it’s probably young Sam Fabelman editing his home movies together, and finding something he didn’t expect in the footage. His mother, grabbing a family friend’s hand. Innocently? Playfully? He plays it back. And plays it again. Looking closer, drawing nearer to learning something he isn’t sure he’s ready to know. He watched this footage before, but he didn’t see this. Suddenly, it’s not just this one frame that looks different to him — it’s the whole film. This one barely-there snatch at a hand has recontextualized the entire narrative, everything his mother has ever told him, the story he’s always told himself. These two people who created him, who he thought were madly in love. Suddenly, the story’s bigger. Suddenly, the story’s darker. Domestic bliss has become chaos, simplicity has given way to disorder. He’d like to deny it, but he can’t, because it’s right there on film. And Sam realizes that in witnessing this, he is now seeing his mother more clearly than his father ever has, more clearly than she can see herself. He now knows her in an uncomfortably intimate way, as a woman instead of a mother. A woman who wants more than just her husband and kids. Her story opens up, and suddenly, he sees that there were other possibilities for her besides the requisite husband and kids. Sam Fabelman is not an inevitability, he is an outcome, here only because she made a choice. Film is capable of transporting us to so many places. It allows us to be anyone we want to be. But it is at its very best when we see ourselves, and the people we love, up there on the big screen, truer than we’d ever see them in real life.
A lot of people love Steven Spielberg movies. At least, they say they do. But a much smaller crowd cared enough to go see his most personal story in movie theaters, and that’s fine with me. The Fabelmans is just for us.