It’s my last dispatch as this year’s Movie Club West Coast correspondent. So that you New Yorkers don’t miss me too much, I’m just going to blurt that I like rats. I’ve never seen them in the wild. They’re abstract to me, little fluff balls in pet shop windows. I cooed when I sat down to watch Theo Anthony’s experimental documentary Rat Film. My boyfriend, an ex–New Yorker, held up a finger and said he woke up one morning in Harlem to a rat gnawing on it. He knows not to think they’re cute.
Rat Film is a head trip. It’s almost more montage than movie. Most of the segments take place in Baltimore, where locals hunt rats with blow darts and fishing poles. That’s for fun. The city’s solution for Baltimore’s rat problem, especially in the redlined areas—so named for the literal red line on maps that circled the neighborhoods so broke that banks refused to give residents loans—wasn’t to improve the area’s sanitation and invest in cleaner, healthier lives for the poor. The powerful just scattered more poison. Anthony never says what he’s thinking out loud, but this quirky documentary is quietly furious about a century of government “fixes” that don’t fix anything, even when lab rats have shown us the social risks. Have you heard of the behavioral test where scientists made, essentially, a tenement block for rats to study the effects of overcrowding? The beta males went insane. Sounds familiar.
As Dana said in her first dispatch, this year, reality stalked us into the theater, lurking over our shoulder like the white-clad killer of It Follows, or sometimes holding up a tinted window between us and the screen. I feel like I’ve traded escapism for a third eye. Even in Barry Jenkins’ hilarious, bourbon-soaked tweetstorm this week about watching Notting Hill on a plane, he sobered up and said, “BTW: what kind of bookstore owner has a flat like THAT in NOTTING HILL? This one actually isn’t a joke, what we’ve done to our neighborhoods, to property values and the VALUE of certain jobs is so damn sobering, depressing.”
Kameron, my first film of the year had the coldhearted sex of Eyes Wide Shut, minus Tom Cruise in a mask. I ordered Chinese and put on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, a 75-year-old French film about, essentially, a Twitter troll who spams a small town with letters calling the philandering local doctor an abortionist. The anonymous writer calls themselves The Raven, which today would be @Raven365296 [AMERICAN FLAG EMOJI]. Clouzot made Le Corbeau in 1943 and never once mentions the Vichy government, the right-wing, anti-democratic, authoritarian Borg that had temporarily taken over France. He didn’t have to, just the way our filmmakers don’t have to today—it’s there in every frame, the misery on the townspeople’s faces and the collective fear that’s exhausted their civility. And it’s there even when we think we’re vanishing into a classic but instead keep thinking about the news.
We have a protagonist problem. Movies are detoxing from two decades of orderly good-versus-evil stories about superheroes or guys like Liam Neeson who are functionally superheroes without the tights. Especially now, when people are staring at the news and asking, “What on Earth do we do?” We need more films that show the truth about heroism: that you can do good without being good, like Three Billboards’ Mildred Hayes, or conversely, you can claim you’re good without actually solving anything, like The Last Jedi’s Poe Dameron. At best, most of us might be like Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham in The Post, happy to ignore trouble as long as possible, but when finally tested, we quaveringly summon the courage to act.
At the same time, to pick up on Kameron’s point that movies like Call Me by Your Name must “make up for a history of lack,” now that we’re finally seeing all kinds of faces and characters represented on the screen, there’s this need to say that these films—and the people in them—are perfect. Should Get Out really win an Oscar? I like it a lot, but I mostly like it for the promise of what Jordan Peele is going to do next. Get Out feels like a fantastic first film, which is exactly what it is. I won’t be mad if it wins an Oscar, but I’m fascinated by the urgency that it should, that a film can’t just be a great little horror film without a statuette. Or the way that people this summer were insistent that Wonder Woman get a Best Picture nomination. Wonder Woman is solid. I’m thrilled it made money. But really?
If we’re planting movies about these characters on an all-or-nothing, best-ever peak, the characters themselves are walking an even narrower ledge. Audiences want them perfect. Both Diana Prince and Get Out’s Chris are flawless. Their only problem is naïveté. By contrast, people haven’t stopped arguing about Mildred and Poe, or about how angry they were when The Bad Batch’s Arlen, the dismembered heroine they’d been rooting for for several reels, murdered a quasi-innocent woman and reminded us why she’d been sent to this cannibal hellscape in the first place.
To be honest, I prefer squabbles. Passionate disagreement—the space to see a character from different angles—gives you more ideas to wrestle. When I first moved to L.A. a million years ago, I spent a few falls screening submissions for the Sundance Film Festival. Nothing glamorous. I was one of the people who watched everything, even the VHS tape where a woman followed her cat around with a Handycam. But a programmer said they always took a second look at the movies that scored a zero on our sheets. Those movies got us screeners mad, and that fury meant something.
The Room would have scored a zero. In fact, I saw a lot of films like The Room that could have also become infamous works of outsider art if they’d had Tommy Wiseau’s mysteriously flush bank account, which kept that film alive until audiences caught on. There are a lot of Tommy Wiseaus in the world, and James Franco is the luckiest mutation. Dana, you acknowledged that Franco’s “directorial reach has oft exceeded his grasp,” pointing to his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’d add Franco’s versions of The Sound and the Fury, in which he did what Tropic Thunder’s Robert Downey Jr. warned actors never to do, and his take on John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, both solemn, ridiculous historical epics I saw at a film festival and never heard from again.
Franco’s ambitions to conquer Faulkner and Steinbeck aren’t much different than Wiseau’s efforts to become his generation’s Tennessee Williams. Both filmmakers wanted to be taken seriously—and were mocked for trying. I think that’s where the compassion stems from in The Disaster Artist, and why the saddest scene is when Seth Rogen’s script supervisor gives up and settles for garbage. And maybe there’s also Franco’s own middle-of-the-night fear that if he hadn’t lucked out landing Freaks and Geeks, he, too, could have gotten stuck like Greg Sestero as just another struggling pretty-boy Hollywood face. He and Sestero both ping-ponged around L.A. in the late ’90s looking for a break. Once, Sestero even beat him out for the lead in a shot-in-Bulgaria horror flick, Retro Puppet Master. What if they’d scored each other’s first big roles?
I started off this year’s Movie Club wondering whether we’d lost all our movie stars. Maybe the lesson of The Disaster Artist is that we’re all worth a film. We just have to pay attention—and take turns holding the camera. Some of my favorite films of the year were minute-long-or-less shorts on Twitter. There were nature docs (this starfish!), physical comedies (that guy sliding down an escalator!), and even Lynchian-level surrealism (the orc from Bright on a Zamboni!). In the past few days, millions of people have watched a chef in San Diego chop cilantro. Hollywood prefers people who can sing and dance—although, as Hugh Jackman knows, even that’s a challenge. But there’s so many people, and so many talents, that deserve a round of applause. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes prediction has been sliced to 15 seconds. As we head out into the wilds of 2018, I’m going to be looking out for those little bits of wonder that make me love this weird world we’re living in. If we’ve got to bring reality into the theater, at least we can beam that movie magic outside.
You guys are my favorites. It’s been a joy.