the candler blog

Frank Ocean’s 100 Favorite Films

Movies

This weekend, Frank Ocean released his long awaited album, Blonde. I’ve been enjoying it. I wish I could’ve gotten my hands on his short run magazine, “Boys Don’t Cry,” but none came to Austin (if you’ve got one you can part with, get in touch).

At least people are posting all the goodies on the web. My new favorite: Ocean’s list of favorite films. In no particular order (that I can make out), here are 100 of his favorite movies. (All notes are Ocean’s.)

  • ATL (ATL is not the best movie lol but ok)
  • Un Chien Andalou
  • Blue Velvet
  • Barry Lyndon
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Eraserhead
  • Chungking Express
  • Raging Bull
  • The Conformist
  • The Bicycle Thief
  • Taxi Driver
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Mean Streets
  • Gods Of The Plague
  • Persona
  • Mulholland Dr
  • Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai)
  • Fallen Angels
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Last Laugh
  • Pi
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • No Country For Old Men
  • Wild At Heart
  • Memento
  • Metropolis
  • Rushmore
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Miller’s Crossing
  • The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
  • Blood Simple
  • Rashomon
  • Orpheus
  • LA Confidential
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Eastern Promises
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Battle Royale
  • The Passion Of Anna
  • Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
  • Oldboy (Park Chan-wook 2013)
  • Django Unchained
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
  • The Godfather
  • M (Fritz Lang)
  • Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932)
  • Scarface (de Palma 1983)
  • Blade Runner
  • Citizen Kane
  • On The Waterfront
  • Annie Hall
  • Psycho
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • The French Connection
  • The Deer Hunter
  • Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
  • Fargo
  • The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • El Topo
  • The Holy Mountain
  • The Shining
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Fitzcarraldo
  • American Beauty
  • Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • True Romance
  • Elephant Man
  • Seven Samurai
  • Woyzeck
  • Jackie Brown
  • Aguirre, The Wrath Of God
  • Paris, Texas
  • Devil In A Blue Dress
  • Inglorious Bastards
  • Serpico
  • Alien
  • Ed Wood
  • Hard Eight
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Sonatine
  • Paths of Glory
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Spartacus
  • Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
  • Fight Club
  • Brazil
  • Throne Of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
  • The Master
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Phantom of the Paradise
  • Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
  • Malcolm X
  • Scorpio Rising
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle
  • Puce Moment
  • Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau 1929)
  • Basquiat
  • The King of Comedy

[Ed. note: I capitalized the titles. Ocean lists “Inglorious Bastards” without a note. This could refer to the 1978 Enzo G. Castellari film, or it could (more than likely) refer to the Quentin Tarantino film, which is spelled “Inglourious Basterds.” I left the original spelling.]

Ocean’s list is one of the best of these sorts of things I’ve seen. It’s eclectic and comprehensive. There are short films, foreign films, old films, weird films, popular films…like I said, comprehensive. It’s anything but pretentious. I’ve only seen 65 of the films on the list, and would love to fill in my gaps. I would say anyone looking to get into cinema would do well to pick a few off this list and check them out.

I love when artists do things like this, especially when it’s for a different discipline. The worlds of film and music are not without their crossovers, but they certainly have their own die-hard communities. This is a great way to bring more people into the cinema fold.

Speaking of, Ocean also shared his favorite songs, which Dean Gouskos made into a Spotify playlist. I’ll have to give those a listen.

(via Vulture.)

UPDATE: I made a page for this list over on Letterboxd. What’s nice about that is that you can quickly check off which films you’ve seen. Even better, you can filter the list by streaming service. So you can quickly file down and see what’s on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and a host of other sites. This works reasonably well in the US. I have no clue how well it works (if at all) in other countries. Some are even available on YouTube (for now), like Kenneth Anger’s films Puce Moment and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

Double Feature: Persona & Blow-Up

Movies, Reviews

Last night I caught a double feature at the Paramount Theater here in Austin. A 35mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona followed by a beautiful DCP of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Both films had somehow eluded me all these years, so it was nice to see them with a crowd on the big screen.

I sat way up close for Persona. As film prints become rarer to come by, I like to get my face close up to them and take in every detail they have to offer. Also, when a film is not widescreen, the imposing vertical space of the screen can best be experienced in the front few rows (for me, at least).

I was happy that the Paramount eschewed any form of introduction for the Bergman film. For those who haven’t been, it’s an old-school movie palace in the heart of downtown. For most of the year it’s a live music/event venue, but all summer long they run classic films. Since it’s not a movie theater first and foremost, there are no previews, no “Be quiet and please visit the concession stand” bumper to start things off.

Usually there is a curator of some sort to come out and tell you a bit about the film. Not last night, though. Instead the lights went down, the projector started, the massive red curtain opened up and suddenly we were in Bergman’s world. This, I think, made for the perfect first viewing of Persona, especially since the film’s end is an exact reverse of of its opening. In this case, that included the red curtains shutting as the projector went off.

The film is a puzzle whose pieces get increasingly more complex as time passes. Once you think you have a handle on things, another shocking revelation will come to you. Its most audacious conceit is that you, the viewer, are very much watching a film. Perhaps a film within a film, or maybe some meta-film in which you are a participant. I have trouble believing that any two people in the theater last night had the same experience. It’s a deeply personal experience.

For the purposes of my writing here, the plot of the film is irrelevant. You can find essays and descriptions and reviews elsewhere. After I publish this I plan to read Thomas Elsaessar’s essay on the Criterion website, and I will watch Richard Brody’s “DVD of the Week” video. I’d rather not cloud my own thoughts in the meantime.

Sven Nykvist’s black-and-white photography looks gorgeous on 35mm. The gradations he is able to pull out of a scene are astonishing. Together, Bergman and Nykvist make up one of the great filmmaking teams. The resulting images, the signature closeups and characters whose faces bisect one another, either through trick photography or, more often, clever blocking with exacting focus, are astounding to behold on the big screen.

I’ve only seen a few of Bergman’s films.1 Each one, though, always has a profound impact on me. Persona is no different. As I’m guessing it has for countless viewers before me, it has thrown into question my beliefs of what the cinema is capable of. There are psychological depths that remain to be plumbed by this incredible art form. In 1966, Bergman brought various styles together to show us just some of what film is capable of.

Anotnioni’s Blow-Up is also from 1966, and though superficially these films seem starkly different, they made for a nice back-to-back pairing. Colorful, modish and in English, the film starts off feeling like Hollywood, but obviously not. Something is off, and over time the film asks us to delve deeper into our own psyches. Like Persona it possesses a meta-narrative, one that asks each of us to consider and re-consider: what are we watching?

I moved my seat further back in the theater for Blow-Up. I try to avoid DCP screenings as they tend to, still, look like video to me. If I’m going to see one, I’d rather move back so the image can hold together better. Up close I start to see the pixels. To my great surprise and delight, the DCP I saw last night was gorgeous. I could tell it wasn’t film, but most scenes were extremely convincing. Nice to see that so much of the original grain and movement has been retained. DCP bitrates must have gotten better since the last repertory screening I went to.2

Blow-Up is a film about the narrative process. Do we even know what reality is? What we see? What we don’t? Can we trust our own memories to be honest with us? Does memory change? I’m glad I finally saw this one, which I’ve been meaning to see forever. A lot to unpack in it, all while being a stylish ride. It feels almost like two separate films, one about the indulgences of a playboy photographer and another that explores the existential, philosophical questions mentioned above.

Of course, the appeal is that it is not two films. Antonioni manages to bring all the strands together into one cohesive whole. We can have a film that feels both weighty and disposable at the same time.

  1. Perusing his ouvre, I know I’ve seen at least Wild Strawberries, The Touch (I interviewed star Elliot Gould when it screened in NYC back in 2011), Cries and Whispers, and Autumn Sonata.

  2. I’m pretty sure the last one was this double feature of The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim way back in 2009.

Ten Years Without Mike

Friends

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my friend, Michael Levin. Looking through my archives, it seems the last time I wrote about him was one year after his passing. This morning I revisited that post as well as my notebooks from 2006. So many details I’d forgotten came rushing back, so many memories have been restored. I wanted to share some thoughts on Mike and the last decade.

***

Ten years ago I was relaxing at a coffee shop in Milford, Pennsylvania when I saw the message on my phone. I was teaching film at a Jewish summer camp up the road and went into town to relax a bit.

I missed two calls from my dad. He left a message that gave up nothing, but I knew it would be bad news. I called him back when I heard the message.

“Hi, Jonathan. Look…are you sitting down?”

“No, just talk.” I was pacing in the coffee shop parking lot.

“Mike Levin was killed in Lebanon today.”

“I knew it.”

“How? Did someone already tell you?”

No one told me. I just knew. What other bad news could there have been?

That summer, the Second Lebanon War had been raging. A large portion of the staff at the camp I worked at was Israeli, spending the summer abroad teaching others about their home, its language and traditions. When war broke out, everyone was looking for information, waiting to hear the status of friends and relatives back home. Some didn’t know if they would be called up, cutting the summer short to go defend their country. You got the sense all of them wanted to. It was too much to be away from home during a war.

So the war was on my mind every day. As was Mike, who cut his leave short to go back and be with his unit. When my dad called it was the only conclusion I could draw.

***

After his funeral in Israel, there was a memorial service in our hometown. Friends had come from all over the country, and from Israel too, to mourn. Local strangers came out to pay their respects.

I sat with friends from the high school program in Israel I went on with Mike. Speaker after speaker shared fond memories of him. We cried. We laughed. We embraced. We remembered.

It’s strange, watching your friend become a hero. He was already a hero to a lot of us, but now the world got to know his story. Mike’s death was front-page news. A narrative sprung up around him. He was a hometown hero, a Philly boy who made the ultimate sacrifice for his people. His is a story of selflessness and courage and bravery. It has had meaning for so many people. They learn about him and visit his grave; they follow in his footsteps and move to Israel and serve in the army.

That night, at the memorial service, Mike’s memory was only beginning to do its work in the world. And when you hear so many people praise his life and his sacrifice, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.

I ran into our Hebrew school teacher after the service. We shook hands or hugged, I don’t remember. He told me Mike was an incredible person and he’s sorry he’s gone.

I said something to the effect of “At least Mike led an incredible life. He did everything he wanted to do. How many of us can say that?” My teacher looked at me in a way I didn’t understand at the time. He had a sadness in his eyes, not just for Mike, but for me.

What I’ve come to realize is that he was looking at me with the weight of experience, with a knowing that comes with age. I, at all of twenty-one, didn’t get it yet. Mike may have fulfilled the dreams he had, but he missed out on all the dreams yet to come.

Now I understand. Mike has missed so much, a thousand little victories, probably more. Births. Celebrations. Friendships. There is so much that makes up a life, and so much more that becomes important as you grow older.

It’s been ten years since Mike passed and I miss him all the time. I wish the world could have his smile back, his unrelenting positivity. But more than anything I wish Mike could have seen the last decade for himself. I wish he could know the beauty of growing older, meeting new people and building a life. You know, the boring stuff. The everyday.

Wherever you are, Mike, I miss you.

My heart goes out to the entire Levin family, Harriet and Mark and Elisa and Dara, and all the husbands and kids and cousins and friends and everyone else. I wish I kept in better touch, but know that you’re on my mind. I can’t believe Mike has been gone this long. May his memory continue to be a blessing.

Obligatory Prime Day Affiliate Links Post

Internet

Okay, it’s true: I haven’t been blogging much lately. But that doesn’t mean I forgot how! Here then, I submit my selection of Prime Day deals. And “deals.”

There are people who are much better at this than I am, and you should go reward their know-how by using their affiliate links. Here’s who they are:

But I think I bring a certain panache to this game. So without further ado, affiliate links1 for you to click on:

  • Harry Potter 1-7 Audio Collection – All the audio CDs for the US version read by Jim Dale. These babies go for $390 regularly, but come 1:00pm (central time, I guess?) they should cost less.
  • The Complete Works of Primo Levi – I’ve never read any Primo Levi, but here’s all of it, complete! Amazon reviewer “She Treads Softly” calls this the “definitive English translation collection.” $60 right now, but at 1:05pm, probably even less money.
  • The Harper Lee Collection: To Kill a Mockingbird + Go Set a Watchman (Dual Slipcased Edition) – If you remove the slipcase, you could use these two novels as bookends, much as they bookended Harper Lee’s writing career/life. At 1:05pm, it’s safe to assume these will cost less than the $33 they’re going for regularly.
  • 85 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards – Screw you, 86th, 87th and 88th Academy Awards; get your own book! Uh, actually they will in a few years when 90 Years of the Oscar comes out. I bet you’ll pay full price for that future Robert Osborne tome when it comes out. You’ll be kicking yourself because you could have just bought this one on Prime for less than $48 at 7:30pm.
  • The Giver Quartet boxed set – I never read The Giver and only just now learned there’s enough books to make a whole box set. Who knew? It used to be $18.82, now it’s only $16.38!
  • Nora The Piano Cat – This seems like the sort of thing you should rightly be able to watch on YouTube for free right now. In fact, you can. But if you must pay for a DVD of it, why not save $2? Today only!

More to come…maybe.

  1. Truly, I thank you in advance for using these links, which help me justify writing more on the candler blog.

Review: The Lobster

Movies, Reviews

When I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s breakout film, Dogtooth, I knew two things immediately: that I very much liked it and that I couldn’t find a way to describe it. I pawned the review off to my friend Sunrise Tippeconnie, whose words helped bring some clarity to the film for me.

I still haven’t seen Alps, Lanthimos’s 2011 follow up to Dogtooth, but I did finally head to the theater this weekend to catch the filmmaker’s English-language feature debut, The Lobster. While there are some little pleasures in the film, namely the performances, the film itself is incredibly bleak. Things go from bad to worse for our hero, with nothing learned except the futility of trying to escape your inevitable condition.

The premise is simple, and yet not simple enough. In the world of The Lobster, all humans must be paired off, either in a hetero- or homosexual coupling. If you cannot find a mate in the time allotted, you will be turned into an animal of your choosing. David, played by Colin Farrell, is our window into this world.

Once his marriage is finished, David is sent to a hotel with other single people of all ages. He is given forty-five days to find a new mate. In the hotel, everyone is given the same clothes to wear, the same food to eat. There are instructional assemblies on the benefits of married life. Singles are forced to introduce themselves from a stage, explaining anything unique about them. Pairings most often occur between people who share a physical trait, such as near-sightedness or having a lisp.

Meanwhile, there are revolutionaries who live out in the woods known as “loners.” They prefer to live as single people, shunning any possibility of coupling. In this society, they are criminals. The single people seeking a mate at the hotel hunt them down with tranquilizer darts, dragging them back to be paired off. Each loner you bag gets you an extra day before you are turned into an animal.

And so David goes through every strata of this world. He pairs off with the “Heartless Woman,” Angeliki Papoulia, who earns her title in spades. When their relationship goes south, he escapes to the woods to be with the other loners, where he meets the “Short Sighted Woman,” played by Rachel Weisz. They fall in love despite the dangers around them, all of which come to a head in the film’s final cringing moments.

If there is a moral to The Lobster, I would peg it as “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Either you’re forced into a loveless marriage so society will accept you, or you live a life of strict solitude. David says he enjoys being a loner because he can masturbate whenever he wants. It feels like a commentary on our actual world’s stance on those who prefer to stay single or avoid having kids, which is to say such a life is frowned upon in so many cultures. Yet the alternative, living in the woods under the strict gaze of a monomaniacal leader, Léa Seydoux, is no better. Life as a loner may be a step above being forced into marriage (or becoming an animal, for that matter), but it is equally destructive. Which is why this movie plays so bleak. There are no good options.

Colin Farrell’s David feels like the film’s weakest character. He has an almost passive role in this strange world Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have built. Things just sort of happen to him with short bursts of his motives and emotions dripping out. Farrell’s performance fits the bill. There is a quirk to him that’s implacable. Does he see this world as we do? Or is he more calculating. Lanthimos is sure to keep him a cipher. The world rolls over David. Even when he rails against it, some hideous tradeoff is lurking in the corner.

There is something much more authentic about the way Rachel Weisz portrays her Short Sighted Woman. Her whole body, especially her eyes, tell the story of where she comes from, the weight of her burden and her need to break free. It is an excellent performance that just gets better from scene to scene. Mind you, I think I’m reacting to her character, which I much prefer to David.

I thought, upon hearing the film’s premise, there was a chance it would be a work of magical realism. The main conceit, if you don’t find love you turn into an animal, sounds like some sort of wizardry. Far from it. If you don’t find a mate, you undergo a surgical procedure to put your brain into the animal you will become. It is medical, not magical, and yet another factor that keeps the film so dark and unforgiving. It’s dystopic science fiction, emphasis on the dystopic.

Perhaps The Lobster caught me at the wrong time in my life. Maybe I’m biased against it because I’m engaged to be married. Maybe there is so much bleakness in our actual world that I’d prefer to avoid it in realms cinematic. Or maybe there just isn’t that much to The Lobster after all. All of the above can easily be true.

This Porsche 718 Video Relaxes Me

Videos

I didn’t think I’d end up watching the whole thing, but this is mesmerizing and soothing in a way I didn’t think watching some guy drive up a hill could be. And I love the gloves and goggles.

(via The Awesomer.)

Medium Eats the Web

Technology, Writing

Much as I’ve tried over the years, I remain skeptical of Medium. Here’s me, two-and-a-half years ago, on the company’s then custom of paying name freelance writers to publish on the site:

What if I told you you could be published alongside writers from (but not in) The New Yorker for the low low price of free? In a nut, that’s Medium: a slick, magazine-like publishing and reading platform that writers should be so lucky to contribute to.

The paid writers bring their clout to Medium, the platform, in order to convince unwitting writers that they should contribute to Medium, the magazine, for free. The paid authors are thus pied pipers of a sort, luring not the readers but the writers out of the web and into Medium.

Now Medium has gone beyond bringing writers into the fold and has started subsuming whole websites. This week site introduced Medium for Publishers. Sites can bring their own domain, logo and content into Medium. In exchange you get a Medium-themed site built to be fast on mobile and access to “[a]n engaged network of millions of readers,” all for the unbeatable price of free. Not only will you not be charged for hosting the site on Medium, but the company is opening up a few revenue streams as well:

  • Promoted Stories (basically a #branded nom de guerre for “Native Advertising”)
  • Creative Partnerships (some word salad diarrhea that I think means “Advertorial” but I can’t quite tell)
  • Member-Supported Publishing (a paywall made simple)

I dare you to try and make sense of Medium’s explanation of Creative Partnerships. “Medium’s Creative Strategy team works with the brand to set a campaign vision, ideates the content, and coordinates production.” If you can swallow the word “ideates” and keep it down you’ve got a stronger stomach than me. That said, Medium promises “[t]hese opportunities are completely opt-in,” so let’s just pretend they don’t exist.1

I found out about Medium for Publishers the other day when Neil Miller tweeted a big update about his site, Film School Rejects. They’re moving over to Medium. Here are the reasons Neil gives:

…it breaks down to a few important points:

  1. It’s going to be a much nicer experience for our readers.
  2. The site will be free of annoying banner ads.
  3. We’ll be able to continue to operate independently, pay our writers and grow our audience.
  4. The site will be insanely fast.

As he explains the previous Film School Rejects loaded in 15 seconds, but on Medium it loads in a mere 2. I gave the old site a test using Pingdom’s speed tester and got about 5.5 seconds with a whopping 793 requests and 7.4 MB.2 Testing the same article on Medium: 1.13 seconds and a mere 40 requests totaling in 820 KB. Definitely a step in the right direction.

I think Neil’s experience and reasoning is what’s going to attract a lot of publishers to Medium. Having a slow-to-load site dependent on disruptive banner ads has long been a mainstay of web publishing, especially for upstart sites like Film School Rejects. To make a living, sites often made a deal with the devil, trading load times (and often good taste) for diminishing returns on ad impressions.

Web advertising has been severely broken for years. There are other ways for a publication to make money, but it’s hard to find something that works at your scale.3 I’m glad Film School Rejects’ banner ads have gone the way of the dodo (and I wish Neil and FSR’s stable of talented, thoughtful writers nothing but success at their new home), but it’s possible they and other publications are making a deal with a different kind of devil: Medium.

My original problem with Medium, that they used the stature of their paid freelancers to lure in writers on whose backs they could build a platform, has now been extended to whole publications. Instead of prominent writers it’s prominent publishers, namely Medium’s game-changing whale, Bill Simmons, that attract others to bring their words inside the Medium tent. Today, anyone can start a publication on Medium, but only some of them will be able to earn revenue from it.

The “Promoted Stories” ads look to be the main way sites, like Film School Rejects, will make their money. I called them “native content” earlier, and they’re by far the most native of content one can imagine. If I understand it: imagine a Medium publication that’s run by a brand. Brands can buy placement in other publications, advertising their newest content.

The initial placement of Promoted Stories will be in the footer of posts in participating publications, who will receive the majority of the associated revenue. As we develop Promoted Stories further we may offer additional placements.

It’s a different kind of banner ad. More discreet and faster loading, yes, but when you land on the brand page it’s going to look…exactly like everything else on Medium. If a reader is confused as to whose site they are reading, it’s working effectively.

As far as I can tell, the only way a publisher ever has to “pay” to be on Medium is when they charge readers for a membership. Over $10 per month, Medium keeps 20% of any subscription revenue.4 Otherwise, publications pay nothing except to keep up their domain. I bring this up because it looks like those “Promoted Stories” are Medium’s raison d’être, the company’s main source of revenue. Publications are just the delivery mechanism.

On a very basic level, I find Medium’s design bland, and in fact much more boring since they changed their editor last year. I wouldn’t be able to make something as rich as my “Digging Into The Dissolve’s 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far” anymore. While publications can bring a logo and choose a color scheme (as far as I can tell you get one color, which accents your header and links), the rest of the site is straight Medium style. I feel like whoever came up with the idea that all sites should look alike was in thinking jail.

Diversity of design is part of what makes the web great, but this isn’t just a matter of taste. The oft-repeated Steve Jobs quote, “Design is how it works,” is as true in publishing as it is in any other field. Close your eyes and think of Sports Illustrated or The New York Times, then imagine both with their designs stripped away to nothing, just a pile of black letters on white background. Would they be the same? Would the Financial Times be the same without its light salmon background, or Daring Fireball without John Gruber’s #4a525a? Maybe, maybe not. The design of a site says a lot about what’s on it. Medium asks you to throw all of that away and look like every other publication on it. That’s a big ask.

The question will be how much of the voices of the publications will be able to break through Medium’s own towering identity. Right now if you go to a story on any of the newly announced publications, like The Awl (whose most recent story on Medium is almost a year old), The Bold Italic, Monday Note or Film School Rejects, and scroll a bit down the page, they all look the same. They all look like Medium.

Today it seems like every major tech company wants to eat the web. It’s not enough to have devoted users; you have to be the Internet for people. Medium’s goal here is to become the place where writing on the web exists. They’re off to a great start. I just think publishing can be so much more than what Medium thinks it is. The only way to explore that is off Medium, on the web.

  1. I’ll note, though, that it’s important to know who you’re getting into bed with before you ideate some content with them.

  2. In the interest of full transparency, here are the results for my previous article: 1.95 seconds to load, 45 requests and 708 KB. I could strip a lot of that out, honestly. It’s just words!

  3. Me? I’ve tried different types of ads over the years, usually in a single sidebar block. Maybe I’ll bring ads back; probably not any time soon though. Of course, if you wanted to slip me a few bucks via PayPal or Square Cash I wouldn’t object. I’m lucky in that I don’t have anyone to pay. The candler blog in its current incarnation is just me.

  4. Under $10 per month, you pay a sliding scale of credit card processing fees which are waived for the first 500 subscribers; as far as I can tell Medium keeps none of this.

Thinking (And Reading) About Criticism

Books, Movies

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately. I’ve been practicing it (here, here and here), but I’ve also been reading quite a great deal of it. And not just new stuff.

I recently read A. O. Scott’s excellent new book, Better Living Through Criticism, a (relatively) concise rumination on the nature of art and the importance of approaching it critically. Having been an avid reader of Scott’s for years, I was surprised neither by how much I loved the book nor the author’s ultimate critical outlook. He is one of those critics whose work I read and often want to shout, “That’s exactly what I thought but couldn’t find the words to say!” Which is, I guess, the point, both of criticism and art.

Criticism is almost as ineffable as art, a point Scott continually comes back to, sometimes in conversation with himself. More frequently than I’d ever expected, someone will off-handedly mention, as if it were a given, that criticism couldn’t exist without art (e.g. the film, the song, the book); and I always coyly correct them that the reverse is true. If the critic is a leech, so too is the artist.

Scott, naturally, puts this much better:

It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.

That’s exactly what I thought but couldn’t find the words to say!

Whether you’re a critic, a writer, an artist, there’s quite a bit of value in Better Living Through Criticism. In fact, if you hate criticism, if you’re the type of person who seethes whenever a scribbler cuts down your comic book flavor of the month (or whatever), then this may prove to be vital reading. You could learn a thing or two, or at the very least peer behind the curtain to see what really goes on as the feeble wizard pulls his levers.

Besides that book and the James Agee criticism I was reading for inspiration, I’ve also been working my way through J. Hoberman’s 2012 meta-critical compilation, Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema. Almost everything in the book had been written elsewhere (the bulk of which are contemporaneous film reviews, usually for the Village Voice) then expanded and/or heavily annotated for publication. Hoberman effectively draws the reader a map to the cinema after 9/11 and through the Bush years. (I’m three-quarters through the book; later it gets as far as 2011.)

I forget who said it on Twitter years ago (I want to say it was Matt Zoller Seitz), but the following thought has stuck with me: the problem with some film critics is they only know movies. This rang in my head reading Hoberman, who not only knows more than movies but vociferously insists that movies are more than movies. By that I mean that the cinema is much more than escapist shadows on a wall (which, by the way, is usually how those dismissive of criticism like to defend themselves). The seminal example, from a 2008 Voice cover story, is presidential obsession with Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon:

The weary loner’s brave posture of prescient and courageous certainty in the face of public (or foreign) cowardice is the American politician’s ego ideal—or so the viewing preferences of American presidents would suggest. Eisenhower screened High Noon three times at the White House. According to White House logs, High Noon ranks as the movie subsequent presidents would most request—none more than Bill Clinton, who watched his favorite film some 20 times and told Dan Rather that he’d recommend the western to his successor as a text. Unfortunately.

Movies don’t exist in a vacuum, so criticism of them can’t. This is why any argument for objectivity in criticism is so toothless. The critic is not just writing about film, he or she is writing about everything. Hoberman succinctly pens one of the best defenses of critical churn in the book’s preface:

The 750-word weekly film review is a specific journalistic form: over a period of months and years, these topical short pieces document a writer’s attempt to make sense of the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.

I’ve never had much stamina when it comes to criticism, to my great regret. I wish I could have a library of reviews of all the films I’ve seen. One of my favorite aspects of the criticism I have written is the ability to look back, to see what I thought, which sometimes isn’t the same as what I think.

I have quite a few reviews that are half-started, mostly from this year’s SXSW. I’d like to get to them all out on the web and read them years down the line and see if they make (or ever made) any sense.

So will reading make me a better critic? Maybe. More than anything I need to write more. And that’s coming. Here it is, as a matter of fact.

SXSW Review: A Stray

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2016

What defines you? Is it the language you speak? The religion you practice? The culture that reared you? These are the questions central to Musa Syeed’s excellent new film, A Stray, which had its world premiere here at SXSW.

The film follows Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman), a down on his luck Somali refugee trying to cut his own path in Minneapolis. Adan is pulled in every direction by the characters that occupy his life. There are his friends, forever smoking hookah and shooting the shit together in government housing. (It’s clear from the film’s opening scene: these are Adan’s people, yet he doesn’t fit in with them at all.) There’s the imam who takes him in but can only do so much to set him on the right path. There’s the restaurant owner who gives Adan a job, but has trouble trusting him. There’s the FBI agent trying to turn him into an informant. (Minneapolis’ Somali population is, in the real world, under heavy surveillance.)

And then there’s Laila, a stray dog he finds while running an errand for work. Because of his Muslim faith, Adan is uncomfortable taking the animal in, but when no one else will, the two become companions. The dog makes him a pariah with the other Muslims in his life, yet every time he tries to set Laila free, she comes back to him. And so, even if it means he doesn’t have a home anymore, Adan is stuck with the dog.

A Stray brings to light a world that doesn’t get a lot of time on screen, at least in the films this reviewer watches. It’s a coming of age film but on a scale much bigger than what that term generally means. Adan experiences the growing pains not only of adulthood, but of religiosity and national identity. He wants to be a good Muslim, and yet can’t cast Laila aside. When he’s hungry and living on the streets, he takes the food that’s given to him, but when he finds out it’s pork, it is a huge offense. He’d rather go without than question his faith on that level, even if he’s already questioning it on other levels.

Syeed’s direction is excellent. The streets of Minneapolis look gorgeous, photographed with a muted realism that is sometimes broken by dream-like soliloquies. Throughout, as he wanders the city, Adan is praying, but to whom is sometimes unclear. He could be asking God for help, or he could be asking the audience to see him, hear him. The onus is on us, then, to do so.

This is not the first film about a man living on the streets with an animal while trying to put his life together. (Vittoria De Sica’s Umberto D comes to mind, and it’s strange that, in film history, this is practically a genre.) Yet A Stray proves that there are millions more stories that need to be on the screen. We live in divisive times when people would deny someone like Adan a home in America. Understanding and empathy can begin with seeing a great story play out on screen. I don’t know anyone like Adan. But I do now, thanks to Musa Syeed’s film. I hope more will see it.

My Seventh SXSW

Movies, SXSW

This is my seventh SXSW. If I were a wizard I’d be studying for the N.E.W.T.s. So, as a fourth year senior around these parts, some thoughts:

  • SXSW is, at this point, the only film festival attend. Back when I lived in New York City, Tribeca and the New York Film Festival were the other biggies on the calendar. Someday maybe I’ll make it back to Deadcenter. There are so many other fests I should check out as well.
  • Without taking the time to count up the films, this year’s slate feels really documentary heavy to me. I don’t think there are any more or less than in year’s past. My guess is that documentary publicists have proven the more tenacious bunch, and so the emails I’m most likely to read are for docs.
  • The President is speaking at SXSW. That’s bonkers.
  • I maintain that, while SXSW is one massive unified fest, complaints of it being a shit show are…not about the film festival. As big and crazy as downtown Austin gets, SXSW Film still feels like, well, a film festival. A bunch of people gathering to appreciate and discover new work. I don’t understand what actually happens at Interactive, although I love checking out the trade show floor and appreciate all the free, like, candy bars and stuff companies give out. And Music…Music is crazy.
  • I feel like I should take Mayor Adler’s warnings to stay the hell away from downtown tomorrow more seriously.
  • This map takes too long to read so I’m sure it’ll all be fine.
  • Aaron Draplin, creator of Field Notes (which I’m nutso about), will be in town. Cool.
  • The first film I ever saw at SXSW was Kick-Ass.
  • The last film I saw at SXSW was, I think, The Boy.
  • I can’t believe I just watched the third episode of the fifth season of Girls. The premiere of Tiny Furniture still feels like yesterday. Also a funny footnote: it was touted as the first feature shot entirely on a DSLR at the time.
  • For some reason the only photo from SXSW 2010 on my Flickr page is a of the team behind Annie Goes Boating, a 3D indie short that I said “feels like a painting, one you could get up and walk around in.”
  • VR in 2016 reminds me of 3D in 2010.
  • They say this is the 30th year of the fest, which means I’m older than SXSW. Ugh.

Anyway, I’m excited to take this fest on once more. I’ll be writing about it here and elsewhere. Don’t worry I’ll remind you.