The Movie Club

Against serializing every movie and TV show.

Entry 13: Must every piece of storytelling be serialized?

Peter Sarsgaard in Wormwood.

Zach Dilgard/Netflix

Dear Kameron, Mark, and Amy,

Documentaries had their work cut out for them in a year that featured an actual person in the headlines named Reality Winner. (It’s OK if you forgot her surreal sprint across the news landscape. As everyone on Twitter is always reminding each other, life comes at you fast.) In the contest between which could be stranger, truth or fiction, reality, if not Reality, often seemed to be winning. But the branch of filmmaking that looks at the world around us and seeks to convey the truth of what it sees—the earliest task of the medium, ever since the Lumière brothers’ employees walked out of the factory at closing time—remained as vital and necessary as ever.

Kameron, I’m glad we’re leaving open the border between movies and TV enough to discuss Errol Morris’ Wormwood. (If a wall must be put up between the two mediums, let’s make sure it’s transparent to allow for falling bags of drugs. Safety first.) Morris is a documentarian whose lifelong commitment to both truth-seeking and storytelling I revere—and with whom I once conducted my most awkward interview ever, as the new voice-recording app I’d diligently downloaded to tape our conversation kept making the call drop every minute or so. Morris would just get engaged in making a point—he’s a prodigious and enthusiastic talker, a quality that’s rarely on display in the many films in which he so prodigiously listens—when the line would cut out and I’d have to call him back, a maddening glitch he handled with graciousness and good humor. When you’re talking to a filmmaker who invented an entire machine just to put his interview subjects at ease, allowing them to talk to a camera lens with the same degree of psychological nuance they would bring to addressing a human face, not knowing how to work your lousy $1.99 iPhone app is more embarrassing than usual.

But the 240-minute-long, six-episode Wormwood doesn’t put its main interview subject in the fabled Interrotron. Instead, as Kam notes, Morris uses multiple cameras and proliferating split screens to show himself and Eric Olson—the son of a biochemist who fell or jumped to his death from a hotel window under mysterious circumstances in 1953—talking about truth, memory, governmental cover-up, and Hamlet-style fixation on the patricidal past. As with Amy’s No. 1 movie of the year, Casting JonBenet, this doc’s layering of one form onto another—collage, talking-head interview, period drama, true-crime re-enactment—gets dizzyingly intricate, like one of those Joseph Cornell boxes that’s part shadowbox, part miniature theater, part shrine. Wormwood mesmerized me with its deliberately overdesigned period segments, the audacity of its multimedia storytelling, and the sheer tragedy of the story it told.

But I confess to finding its length a little … padded (and you’re talking to someone who once happily sat through all 7½ hours of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó in a notoriously uncomfortable theater, with only a half-hour break or two to scarf down a bag of peanuts). Though there are several TV shows I lovingly follow—I’m awaiting the return of Better Call Saul like a widow staring out to sea—a part of me resists the mass episodization of storytelling in this vaunted golden age of television. Does everything have to be ladled out in doses calibrated to make us want to binge the next one without hating ourselves for it? Can an interesting fictional world—or even an uninteresting one!—be created and exist in space-time for a minute without someone scheming to build it out into an extended universe? Do we need a second season of American Vandal, which could have lived on forever as one small, perfect thing?

I understand and regularly submit to the pleasures of serialized narrative, but there’s a compact satisfaction in the one-and-done quality of a truly accomplished movie of whatever length. It struts and frets its hour upon the stage (or the screen, or, God help it, the laptop window) and then is heard no more. It doesn’t ask you to have watched all its seasons in order, or to remember to set the DVR to tape it, or to debate the quality difference between early and late seasons. You can go back and watch it a second time if you feel it has more to give you, but it’s not like it’s going to come begging.

Since this will be my last real installment in this year’s Club except for a short valedictory post, I’ll end not by quibbling with a master but by saluting a couple of movies that did that thing to me, sending me home in a happy daze, wanting to write and talk and read and, I don’t know, draw about them. I’ve already reviewed, podcasted, and written a Top 10 list blurb and program notes about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, in addition to seeing it twice and discussing it with a friend over dinner, but I don’t yet feel done with it. Mark calls it a work gloriously unmoored from contemporary relevance, and it’s true that you don’t think about a thing outside that lush 35 mm frame for the length of the movie’s unfolding. (I’ve given up trying to write about Phantom Thread without falling into textile metaphors. Best to cut with the grain of the fabric, right?) Still, this film’s story, about a woman who rejects the role of artistic muse by reshaping its contours in her own wickedly creative fashion, does have a ghostly outside-the-theater afterlife in the time of #MeToo, or whatever we’re calling the crisis of conscience our culture is undergoing with respect to gendered power and sexual violence. The debates about whether this film’s central relationship is an emotionally abusive one—and thus, I guess, whether the movie advocates for said abuse?—seem to me to miss the point so completely as to be unengageable. There’s not much about the cruelty, the exploitativeness, and the destructive folie à deux of Reynolds Woodcock and Alma Elson’s bad romance that Anderson doesn’t lay right out there on the screen, with a psychological acuity worthy of Hitchcock and a cinematographic fluidity reminiscent of Max Ophüls. (Ophüls is a hero of Anderson’s. In this wonderful clip from a Criterion DVD extra, he describes the camera movement in the opening shot of The Earrings of Madame De … with a passion that makes you wish he’d take 2018 off to record audio commentaries for more of his favorite classics.)

The last movie I want to mention before I hand off the mic to Amy is James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, another film that performed the generous service of allowing me to forget everything else for a funny, moving, technically impressive two hours. I have friends I can’t convince to let their guard down long enough to see this, people who reflexively roll their eyes at every new project James Franco undertakes. In the past, it’s true, Franco’s directorial reach has oft exceeded his grasp (As I Lay Dying? That’s a no) and his puppylike excess of energy can get in his own way both as a director and an actor. But The Disaster Artist, based on the excruciatingly hilarious memoir of the same title by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, is a made-in-heaven marriage between subject and filmmaker-star. Franco’s adaptation, scripted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, could so easily have been a flimsy vanity frame for a grandstanding, look-Ma-I’m-acting performance—Franco in over-the-top Spring Breakers mode, playing Tommy Wiseau as a shallow narcissist, an obnoxious oddball, or a sad clown. Instead, Franco seems instinctively to understand something that not even longtime Wiseau watchers have grasped about the man: his deep well of inner motivation, whatever it was that drove him to expend enormous amounts of time, energy, money, and the rapidly depleting goodwill of others to create a cinematic artifact that will be remembered uniquely for its awfulness. Yet at the same time, in a beautifully detailed and compassionate performance, Franco withholds something from us, leaving Wiseau the melancholy air of seedy mystery that’s part of his personal legend. He also turns a sprawling, star-filled cast into a real ensemble, giving all of his actors, especially his younger brother Dave, a chance to make us laugh. I still do when I think of Seth Rogen as the doomed movie-within-a-movie’s script supervisor, his expressionless face silently begging the heavens for one more minute of patience. That’s me every time I open a newspaper.

What movies made you guys forget the world outside the theater existed and then sent you out looking at it in a new way? And did anyone familiar to you from another context—actor, director, cinematographer, writer—slip the bonds of whatever frame you used to put around them and make you resolve to watch their future work with fresh eyes?

Missing you all already,