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A shot of Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas in "What Happened Was..."

Where They Want To Be: On Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was…” (1994)

This is a small, understated film about power. One particular power dynamic, and the exchange(s) therein, but specific enough to be drawn out across many relationships and individuals who attempt to justify their own existences to themselves and to others, and end up misleading, and being misled, by said justifications.

What Happened Was… stars Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas, and was written/directed by Noonan based on his Off Broadway play of the same title. Having been only marginally aware of Noonan from his appearances on TV shows like The Blacklist and 12 Monkeys, I knew he cut a striking figure (who can forget such an imposing, nigh-skeletal frame?) and wasn’t a bad actor, but came away from this film doubly impressed by his acting skills and newly appreciative of his talent as a writer. And as a director – an all-around artist, really.

Of course, Noonan’s been around a long time, and has starred in some big-name flicks (Manhunter, Robocop 2, Synecdoche, New York among them), with a credible background in the theater, as well. In What Happened Was…, though, Noonan really asserts himself as a legitimate auteur – and in his debut, no less! The film won a few prestigious awards in the wake of its premiere, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but since then has sunk into relative obscurity. I’m thankful to the Criterion Channel for streaming it, as I’d never even heard of the movie before I discovered it by chance on the site. […]

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The famous "trench" kiss in Andrei Tarkovsky's "Ivan's Childhood"

A Confession of Influence: Paul Cézanne, Ukraine, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

Childhood is a personal thing. It consists of those moments, amid our early years, that serve to shape us, set our foundations into place, and create our impressions. ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,’ Aristotle said. So, what then? Childhood is a personal thing. Yet admittedly, I found myself struggling to write this essay. As an avid Tarkovsky viewer, I don’t know why this would be the case, other than perhaps the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Before Putin invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, I had already set out to write a number of reviews on Tarkovsky’s films. A beloved director, why should this not be the case? However, now when watching this Russian filmmaker, I admit to viewing his films differently. This is nothing against Andrei Tarkovsky himself, who was a sensitive, empathic man who would be outraged by this war, were he alive. But within his films, there is something there. I caught a glimpse of it whilst watching Stalker (one of my faves), but I most certainly saw it again within Ivan’s Childhood. […]

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A screenshot of the Safdie Brothers' "Heaven Knows What", featuring the two main characters in a delicate moment.

Long Concrete: On The Safdie Brothers’ “Heaven Knows What” (2015)

It used to be that films about NY tweens getting high and fucking each other were all too predictable, a paint-by-numbers indie movie. In those days it was a romantic ideal – scattered souls, moving against the flow of conformity and savings-accounts living for hedonistic pursuits, like a mangy Tropic of Cancer. Eventually Cannes and the rest of the festival circuit moved inexorably onwards in pursuit of the contemporary. But those addicts remained in the streets and parks of NYC, now not only destitute, but culturally unfashionable.

Arielle Holmes was a homeless user when she encountered Josh Safdie. Before Josh’s and his brother’s sleeper hit Good Time or their breakout Uncut Gems, they were fresh from a couple of flops and a reasonably successful sports documentary. In the course of casting what would become Uncut Gems in the Diamond District of Manhattan, they met Holmes soliciting change. They got talking, and they saw potential in her adroit way of describing her experience. The decision to not only adapt her life but also cast her is a brave move, and somehow ends up avoiding exploitation.

The most direct comparison for Heaven Knows What is the Harmony Korine movie Kids, the most well-known of this archetype of subject. It’s undeniable that Heaven is a continuation of something that Kids started – the aromantic treatment of New York as a setting, a voyeuristic sense of glimpsing into fringe experience. However, Kids faced issues of glorifying the kind of momentary satisfactions that the addict lifestyle could offer, whereas Heaven Knows What feels like a spoonful of reality caramelised on a skillet. Kids draped itself in a trendy cultural subversiveness and had a fashionable cast of ne’er-do-wells, Heaven Knows What is anything but trendy, and its cast is dishrag ratty. Holmes is the eye-of-the-storm, implacable in some scenes and then gurning and twisted in others, she’s a weathervane for the downward momentum and a superb player. […]

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A shot of Lincoln from John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln"

The Mythic Depiction of John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939)

It is always fascinating when history retells history. In fact, historical films on famous figures can be a tough tell, as too easily the film can segue into politics and propaganda. Gone goes the story, and instead we are replaced with platitude and biased ideology. John Ford’s 1939 historical drama, Young Mr. Lincoln, is not a great film, but it is a well-told fictional rendering of Abraham Lincoln’s early years (played wonderfully by Henry Fonda), as he emerges from his log cabin a young man, determined to make a difference. And Ford, rather than attempting to cover too much of one man’s life, doesn’t claim this is The Young Mr. Lincoln, but rather, an idealized interpretation.

The film, which is set a hundred years before its 1939 release (1830s), is reminiscent of other Ford films. Those familiar with Fonda’s work will remember his rendering of Tom Joad in John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and how life within Young Mr. Lincoln much resembles the Great Depression era film, even if unintentional. (We are the people that live.) Remove the costumes and carriages, and the front porches and poverty remain the same. […]

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A still of oil on fire from Werner Herzog's "Lessons of Darkness"

Artist As Illusionist: Werner Herzog’s “Lessons Of Darkness” (1992)

The first few seconds of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness provide a key to understanding the filmmaker’s approach. The picture opens with an excellent quote: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor.” The quote is attributed to Blaise Pascal, but a bit of research shows Herzog actually wrote it. In this manner, the artist seems to fill the role of an illusionist, as facts do not seem as important to him as playing with the audience’s perceptions. One could argue that all artists are illusionists because, in correspondence with the old saying, art is a lie that tells the truth, but what makes Herzog unique is that he seems hyper-aware of his nature. Throughout the film, Herzog’s narration frames the oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait from an almost alien perspective, prompting the viewers to honestly examine what is shown instead of simply projecting their biases. While a lesser filmmaker would tackle this film’s delicate subject in a clear-cut and sentimental manner, Herzog commits to showing the horrors of the setting in a more nuanced light. In his work, the ravaged land resembles a strange underworld, and the motivations of its oil workers remain mystifying. Herzog’s interest lies not in recreating reality, as it does with most filmmakers, but in reframing it, or even creating his own, to deliver insight. […]

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A stylized shot of Hart Crane, author of "At Melville's Tomb".

The World and Its Overwhelm: Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb”

The world is not a painless place, especially if one is an artist. On one hand, artists are often inundated with rejection, and so they regularly feel misunderstood. Of course, this difficulty is in no way limited to artists, but for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing solely on the artistic mind. My initial intention was to write a distillation on Hart Crane, but I found myself distracted. Such vision requires a sharp set of eyes. And so, as result, I diverted my focus to where it wished to go. Hart Crane is good for discussion, since he is not only known for his so-called ‘difficult’ verse, but for his suicide, wherein he jumped off the side of a ship and plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico at age 32.

In many respects, this is a cliché—the tortured artist who dies young, but in the case of Hart Crane, it goes further. After all, 1932 was well in midst of the Great Depression, and many were struggling to find work. Bread lines, soup lines, foods were scarce. In addition, Crane was an alcoholic, his father’s business was failing, he was continually overwhelmed by his mother’s emotional needs, his homosexuality was a battle in a time more discriminatory, and would he have a job upon his return to the States? Amid such uncertainty, one can ascertain that all this grew into too much, and so Crane ended his life just before noon on April 26, 1932. He was tumultuous, troubled. Yet most accounts from those who knew him portray a gentle, albeit struggling soul who took on the burdens of others. Yet, despite his enormous talent, still this was not enough, as talent doesn’t guarantee love. People will still come and go, and for someone like Crane, the feeling of abandonment proved more than he could take. […]

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A painting of Hiawatha in silhouette by Thomas Eakins. The native chieftain was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha".

“The Song of Hiawatha”: Simplistic Folklore?

he peace-loving side of me greatly appreciates The Song of Hiawatha, written in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for the beautiful language and its conciliatory message by Hiawatha to his Native American brethren to accept the white man and his religion. My truthful side tells me that this poem has little to do with truth. Folklorist, Stith Thompson, said, “it is non-Indian in its totality,” and “the episodes (of Hiawatha) are but superficial.” So, I think what we have here is simplistic folklore for whatever it’s worth.

The poem was immediately a success for Longfellow when he published it. He sold 50,000 copies right off. The popularity of the piece with the public was there. Scholars had questions and doubts. Although Longfellow did have connections and input from Natives, it is important to note that even Longfellow admitted that Hiawatha was a fictional character. One of Longfellow’s main sources, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, has been criticized for mismanaging Native legend to suit his own tastes.

Do we have a white-acting Native in the person of Hiawatha? If we do, does that ruin any chance for redemption of The Song of Hiawatha? That depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. To take it as historical, is probably not a good bet. However, to take it as a beautiful and skillfully written piece of fiction, you might be able to pass muster. […]

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A stylized shot from Alain Resnais's "Last Year At Marienbad"

The Murmur of Memory: Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961)

I’ve encountered many who claim to respect, albeit not necessarily enjoy, Alain Resnais’s seminal classic Last Year at Marienbad. Their reasons vary but ultimately their thoughts move similarly. ‘Yea, it sure is great but it sure is boring,’ one said. ‘I admire the cinematography, if only there was a more engaging story,’ said another. I’m not here to convince anyone of his subjective likes or dislikes, and nor am I to say what the film is not—boring, slow-moving, isolating. Viewers can make up their own minds. And I suppose my opinion resides somewhere in between. In fact, Last Year at Marienbad is not only a great film, but also one that has been highly influential. There really is nothing like it.

The tale takes place at a French chateau, where people move about quietly or they don’t move at all. Decorative ceilings are every bit as intricate as they are distant. Outside, the landscaping is so perfect that from a distance the humans look like trees, or vice versa. And this is where the separation exists. It is not merely humans, but ‘the’ humans that populate this film. We witness them, barely moving as they stand around. They appear rich, elegant, and suffering from an eternal ennui. No one has a name. If an alien were to watch, it might believe that this is what humans are like—disengaged and preoccupied with the past. The narrator gives a clue, as he speaks in a low murmur in second person. But to whom is he speaking? […]