February 9, 2017

Art by Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress

Will Schube never got a Christmas card from a hooker in Minneapolis.

I. Down By Law (1986) – Directed by Jim Jarmusch

“America is a melting pot. When you bring it to a boil, all the scum rises to the top,” says a prostitute to Jack (John Lurie) in the early minutes of Down By Law (1986). Some things are always true. 31 years old and Jarmusch’s third feature hasn’t aged a bit. The black and white film sizzles and burns—looking impossibly crisp—while Jarmusch lets Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni play loose parodies of themselves.

Lurie and Waits play men in trouble with the law—named Jack and Zack—eventually joined in their jail cell by Roberto (Benigni). In an interview for FilmStruck, Bill Hader aptly notes that Down By Law seems like Jarmusch simply wanting to see these three actors share a confined space. It works really, really well. Perfectly. They chant for ice cream and Roberto reads American poetry from the 19th century transcendentalists. It’s beautiful. Jarmusch’s love of poetry is real, as is evident in Paterson (2016), and serves as a nice counterpoint to his sparse, often-clumsy dialogue in Down By Law. His lines are slick, but grossly so; the poets say it much better.

In the film’s beginning, Jack and Zack are brought to jail thanks to bad relationships with females. Roberto has his life restored due to the compassion of one. He’d probably be deported in Trump’s America. “He’s a bad tipo,” says Trump, having learned the Italian word for ‘dude’ for this specific moment.

The Coen brothers rip most of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) from Down By Law’s escape scenes, and Jarmusch stole his from Sullivan’s Travels (1941), it seems. Can you blame any of them? Great movies steal from great movies. That’s why they’re great.

II. Julieta (2016) – Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

I imagine the Alamo Drafthouse retrospective on Almodóvar is some sly way of promoting his latest, Julieta (2016). Guess what? It’s working. I’m knee deep in Almodóvar and it’s an excellent time.

Critics are saying that Julieta is his best feature since Volver (2006). I haven’t seen an Almodóvar film between Volver and Julieta, so I’m inclined to agree with the lyin’ media. In all seriousness, Julieta is a wonderful movie. If you’ve been reading The Drive-In since its reincarnation in early 2017, you’re probably thinking that I’m a very bad critic and that I like every movie I write about. This is true. What’s also true is that I choose to watch nearly-unanimously praised movies because, well, it would be stupid not to. So stop thinking out loud. It’s creeping everybody out.

While Almodóvar traditionally dabbles in high melodrama, Julieta is a straight-up heartbreaking story. Older Julieta (Emma Suárez) and younger Julieta (Adriana Urgate) take turns reigning as the supreme Julieta, and both are excellent. The film is elegantly told through flashbacks, and the two actresses look strikingly similar. One particular cut melds the two together in a shockingly profound way. Julieta’s flashbacks are triggered by a chance encounter on the streets of Madrid, and the film uses its hour-forty runtime to explore what we owe (and don’t owe) to the ones we love. Most movies end up being about family, because that’s all we are. Julieta is no different.

III. Law Of Desire (1987) – Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

This one is freaky! Once again starring a sex-crazed Antonio Banderas, Law of Desire is a nutso story featuring Jealousy! Murder! Intrigue! Sex! It’s really a romp in the strictest sense of the word. The tale centers around Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) and his sister’s attempt to save his failing memory (Carmen Maura) before it’s too late. See, these things are always about family.

The film, like a lot of Almodóvar’s work, is about the process of creating art, and the film’s central tension is tied up in creation and sexual desire. It’s a complicated story with layers, subplots, shadily motivated characters, and a lighthouse. This is perhaps Almodóvar’s most “Hitchcock” film, with death and desire being catapulted to chief importance. And damn, if Almodóvar’s not right. His movies are about fucking and dying for a reason. That’s sort of all we think about. Oh yeah, and family, too.

IV. Chungking Express (1994) – Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Here’s something I read in Roger Ebert’s review of Chungking Express (1994). According to Roger, Tarantino cried a lot during Chungking. Not because this movie is sad or anything—it’s not—but because he had no idea he could love a movie this much. I’m not buying it. That’s the sort of thing I do all the time because I’m constantly thinking about anecdotes for future podcasts I’m invited to be on. Quentin was probably chopping an onion and started tearing up. ‘This is good. I’m crying,’ he thought to himself. Maybe he can channel some of that emotion into his gory schlock.

Chungking Express
is a very good movie. People say it’s an unofficial sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000), a movie I prefer to Chungking. There are like, six or seven different movies in Wong Kar Wai’s discography that people claim as the definitive spiritual to Chungking. So goes the mythology of the early-career hit.

Chungking has too many moving parts to accurately describe in a brief synopsis, but I gleaned two key things from this movie:

1. Living in Hong Kong would be amazing because there are seemingly noodles everywhere. At stands, in restaurants, everywhere. People love noodles. As do I! We need more noodle stands in America.

2. More important to the integrity of a film column, I suppose, is a theory I have. Namely, Wong Kar Wai’s movies work better when they’re simple. I’m sure there is a huge contingent of Wong Kar Wai fans (Also, sidenote: Wong Kar Wai is my favorite director simply because critics either love him or are perplexed by him. That, to me, is the sign of a truly important artist.) who would choose Chungking over In the Mood. I’m on the other side. I love the way Wai uses In the Mood’s narrative to explore other filmic issues. Chungking has breathtaking moments (the jumbo jet scene), but it’s hard to fully embrace its technical flexing (strong) when you’re trying to untie the narrative knots.

V. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) – Directed by Raoul Peck

This is a hard movie to write about for many reasons. When I first left the theater, I was expecting something far different than what Raoul Peck presented. I wouldn’t necessarily call my feelings underwhelmed, rather, I wasn’t quite sure what I Am Not Your Negro aims to be. After thinking about it a lot over the past few days, I’ve come to understand this project more and more, although I still have some issues with it, so let’s get those out of the way. I found the way Peck broke down the film into several sections with large, title cards in black and white font, to be unnecessary. He uses these cards to divide the film into fragments related to Baldwin’s ideas, but the film flows fluidly without these intrusions. While the film is based around Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember this House, I think it would have been extremely useful to include more of his film criticism from The Devil Finds Work in the final product. Peck hints at these writings again and again, but engaging with the project in a more fully-formed manner would have contextualized I Am Not Your Negro against the movies Baldwin despised for their misguided-intentions. Because, after all, I Am Not Your Negro’s intentions are likely the strongest you’ll witness in a movie.

I Am Not Your Negro does everything else just about perfectly. There are too many excellent aspects of this film to discuss here, but one of my favorites is perhaps the way the tone of the film reflects Baldwin’s oratory style in his fight for human rights. The film isn’t understated, but it picks and chooses its moments of ecstasy brilliantly, in the same way Baldwin would patiently wait for the perfect time to raise his speeches to a delivery both desperate and economical, or in the way he would wait for the ideal moment in which his debating antagonist to slip and then bludgeon him or her with impenetrable reasoning.

This film is also really, really weird! It’s a documentary, sure, but it’s also a re-imagining of an unfinished novel set to photos, videos, and testimonials from last century. It’s a goddamn work of art. It blends genres and art forms in a brilliant way. It’s a messy, heart-on-sleeve ode to one of America’s greatest thinkers.

I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t have grand aspirations. Like Baldwin, the film lays out the injustices placed upon African-American people and implores its audience to not only understand and digest these systematic atrocities that have spanned generations, but to activate and mobilize in the face of it. Baldwin was so excellent at holding a mirror up to White America’s face and unflinchingly leaving it there. No one is innocent until justice is secured for all. We’re all implicit, it’s that simple. James Baldwin came back to America from Paris to ‘pay his dues’ in supporting and fighting for the black community. It has been too many years for us to have not already done the same. I Am Not Your Negro succeeds because it makes its audience realize how little has truly changed.

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