Why do we watch movies? Why do we care about them? Why do they matter? Cinema has been facing an existential threat ever since streaming picked up steam, and the pandemic and ongoing strikes have really pushed the medium to the brink. When I write about movies and when I talk about movies, I find that mostly I focus on story and characters. Even with documentaries, my focus is on what they’re about. And you don’t need movies to tell stories. We’ve got books, and podcasts, and shows, and miniseries, and TikTok. So why do we need movies?
Society is in a weird place with streaming. Just look at the strikes in Hollywood going on right now. Writers and Actors used to get residuals when movies and shows were re-aired on TV or re-released on DVD and basic cable. Now everything is fucked. Movies or shows can just disappear like that and we’re all the worst for it.
What I appreciate about the Criterion Collection is their goal of preservation. I can’t vouch for their policy towards residuals. For all I know, that policy varies from film-to-film. Regardless, it’s clear there’s a passion to protect art. Take today’s film, Jaro Bustamante’s 2019 Guatemalan Horror film La Llorona.
It’s funny that the last post I wrote was about an Asian film that was later remade by a legendary American director, because it really feels like I’m doing it again here. David Fincher’s 2007 true crime thriller Zodiac may not be a direct remake of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but in terms of style and substance it’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other. Both are based on yearslong investigations into serial killings, both depict detectives who are complicated, flawed people, both resolves in a deliberately unsatisfying way. But you’ve got to hand it to Bong, Memories of Murder has way more scenes of people getting dropkicked.
One of my guiding principles in life comes from John Hodgman, who after toying with this idea for years laid it out in his book Vacationland:
Nostalgia to be a toxic impulse. It is the twinned, yearning delusion that (a) the past was better (it wasn’t) and (b) it can be recaptured (it can’t) that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox news. At worst it leads to revisionist, extremist politics, fundamentalist terrorism, and the victory-in Appalachia in particular-of a narcissist Manhattan cartoon maybe-millionaire and cramped-up city creep who, if he ever did go up to Rocky Top in real life, would never come down again.
But even Hodgman admits that nostalgia feels good. So I’ll come out and boldly admit: there’s a lot of Eighties and Nineties a e s t h e t i c that I’m really into. Movies like Chungking Express and shows like ER really tap into that for me. I know I wouldn’t like going back to a world without smart phones or our beloved AI overlords (please spare me) but it’s fun to look at. And while I’ve tried to kind of embrace that in an attempt just to feel good, there’s another idea I’ve been toying with lately. And that is that I have no nostalgia for the 2000s. In fact, as Infernal Affairs reminded me, this aesthetic sucked.
Last year, quite by accident, I had a chance to write about legendary director Orson Welles inventing the video essay in 1973. This summer, I’ve given myself a similar opportunity by choosing to watch 2000’s The Gleaners and I, in which legendary director Agnès Varda invents the vlog. Armed with a digital camera, septuagenarian Varda went all over France talking to to people on the fringes of society. What she found were chefs, artists, and families that quietly challenged global consumer culture. And she found out about herself too, a person with wrinkled hands and gray hair who may have more in common with these gleaners than she thought.
One of my favorite video essayists, KaptainKristian, released a video last January called, “The Melancholic Comfort of Late 90s Horror” and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (although not strictly horror) reminded me of this video. There was a “vibe” that was unique to late 90s horror. As KaptainKristian points out, we were nearing the end of the Millenium and there was an underlying sense of dread. A somberness to films like; Ringu, The Sixth Sense, and The Blair Witch Project. A mournful age for the lonely with seemingly no… cure.
Say what you will about inflation, I think it’s really cool that this weekend two movies opened to over $80 million each for the first time in history. I think the Barbenheimer phenomenon was really fun, and I’ve enjoyed continuing to read about it as this week begins. Some people are calling Oppenheimer Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece… I’d call it his best movie in a while. It’s really good. It’s another in a long line of his movies that probably don’t pass the Bechdel test, so we’re all lucky Barbie came out on the same day. Mainly I want to talk about Oppenheimer‘s divisive third act, so spoiler warning for everything that follows.