Things I’m watching, things I’m reading
1. Like everyone else I’m recommending ROMA, but I urge you to see it on a screen bigger than your living room wall (and if not too late, in Dolby 4K at the TIFF (#2) theatre. This is the best feature film I’ve seen on a big screen all year, no contest. Forget arty preoccupations, forget the usual movie-nerd reasons of big screen and awesome sound. Good reasons in my book, but there’s a better one for a movie of this delicate and devastating nature. In ROMA you’ve got one of those beautiful, heart-breaking films that is a meditation, in this case on the ache and beauty of life. The simple truth is like all meditative activity, this film demands a little patience, and it’s hard to meditate at home, with all our modern distractions. In the dark, looking up at the grand and stunningly beautiful picture Alfonso Cuaron has put together (he wrote it, directed it and photographed it himself, acting as his own DP), what you’re watching with your fellow audience members, well it’s like the difference between meditating alone or doing it in a room of people doing same — it just transports you that much more deeply, if such things float your boat.
2. FREE SOLO is a documentary about a young man, Alex Honnold, who wants to free solo (that is climb a mountain face with no ropes, no support, nothing but the small purple bag of chalk you can see in the picture [above] on his back) the hardest rock climbing summit on the planet: Yosemtie’s El Capitan. On watching the trailer I thought: this is just reckless. It’s downright stupid to the point of insanity and thought I wouldn’t even see the film. I’d seen the directors’ first climbing movie MERU which I loved so much I wanted to celebrate my 42nd birthday around it — but missed my chance; it was long out of theatres. But this, yet another climbing movie, and about something so blatantly bonkers, I wasn’t sure I even needed to see it. I feel very differently now. I’ve seen the film twice in theatres and will see it again when it comes back to the Annex movie theatre formerly known as the Bloor Cinema in January. I didn’t stop thinking about it for a week. I’m already considering logistics of how to get my family to Yosemite so we can camp there and experience the grand and utter beauty of an undeniable wonder of the world. The one tidbit I will share is that Honnold spent a year and a half preparing for this climb, so much so he has every move of the 3,000 granite wall climb memorized. As the co-director who also happens to be one of the world’s great mountain climbers himself, Jimmy Chin, said in an interview about making the film: To the layperson, and I paraphrase, what Alex is doing looks purely reckless, when in fact it is extremely methodical.
(But fucking mad, nevertheless, who’s kidding who?)
I’m going to do this fast because it’s embarrassing. The show is called TERRACE HOUSE. It’s a reality show from Japan. Think young men and women (not a few of whom are already working models from Tokyo - so they aren’t exactly tough to look at) all living in the same house ala The Real World or Jersey Shore, except this Japanese show now broadcast all over the world is not salacious in the least. It’s romantic and sweet and only sometimes mean (and then can be brutal, of course). Best of all is when the show breaks away each episode to a panelist of comedians and Japanese “personalities'“ set in a faux living room who take the show apart. or gush over the things we gush about in our homes. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it helps a solid article, and published on Hazlitt (pretty great site for cultural critique and the like) no less, espouses the reasons why the show shouldn’t even be considered a guilty pleasure (though I wonder).
THE WRITTEN WORD PART I: GREAT FEATURE WRITING
Anthony Lane is the film reviewer for the New Yorker. His reviews are not everyone’s cup of tea, a bit arch and ironic for my taste. But make no mistake he’s brilliant and wickedly funny. This magazine piece, as witty as it is fascinating isn’t a review of a film, however. It’s a November 2018 essay entitled “TECHNICOLOR VINCENT: Why Filmmakers Love van Gogh” (released in time with the Julian Schnabel van Gogh film AT ETERNITY’S GATE that just came out starring Willem Defoe.
Here, a paragraph that says it all, for me anyway. Lane has just been listing the variety of van Gogh types captured on screen. “If [Kirk] Douglas is the most self-torturing of van Gogh, Dafoe the most readily enraptured, and [Tim] Roth the one that you’d least want to meet on a dark night …” He goes on in this vein until we get to the paragraph about Martin Scorsese. Not in a van Gogh film he directed note, but one in which the famous Italian-American director stars(!) as the most famous Dutch painter in history.
The most unlikely van Gogh is conjured up by Akira Kurosawa, in “Dreams” (1990). A Japanese man of the present day is magically transported into a series of van Gogh’s works, trotting in bewilderment down painted roads. He spies the artist, who is feverishly drawing haystacks in a field. We know it’s him, because he sports a straw hat and a bandage round his head: the standard accoutrements of any onscreen Vincent. But who can that be beneath the hat brim? Hello, it’s Martin Scorsese! The giveaway is the eyebrows—carrot-colored now, but still as bushy as ever—and the passionate speed of the chatter, though what a wise guy from Queens is doing in nineteenth-century Provence is anyone’s guess.
THE WRITTEN WORD PART II: GREAT FICTION WRITING
LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang was recommended by a friend who knows her Chinese literature; I wanted an introduction to a cultural landscape I’m utterly unfamiliar with. The stories …. let’s just allow Publisher’s Weekly to do the summarizing: “These six stories, most available in English for the first time, were published to acclaim in China and Hong Kong in the '40s; they explore, bewitchingly, the myriad ways love overcomes (or doesn't) the intense social constraints of time and place.” Turns out Hemingway and Joan Didion weren’t the only 20th century wordsmiths to craft sentences with pinpoint precision. Chang is also an awe-inspiring, piercing observer about much of the passionate, but also the dark sides of humanity, and all this set in early 20th century Hong Kong and China
NEMESIS by Philip Roth. I’ve read some Roths I’ve really enjoyed, especially GOODBYE COLUMBUS, his very first novel, published when he was 27 (this from a guy who was publishing into his late 70s). That debut won him the National Book Award, no less. Twenty-seven. Fuck me. Pardon me. Anyway, I’m not even sure where a truth Roth fan ranks this the very last novel he published in 2010, but I went in with no expectations to a book about a young man, a leader of boys in recreational sport and as a counsellor at camp, dealing with the Polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. The novel was a slow burn that was so much more affecting than I ever saw coming. The best kind of sucker punch, in other words.