People seem eager to speak about what peaceful protest should look like, about which political appointees should be protected from hearing from the people and where, about which freedoms are “deeply rooted in our history”, about who should have power and control over women’s bodies, over trans bodies, over LGBTQIA+ lives, over people of color’s lives and prosperity, over what is appropriate history, or gender expression, or love, or a family.
Since a lot of people are doing it, I wanted to get down my own thoughts on Peter Jackson’s masterpiece THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which I had the wonderful privilege of watching with friends this weekend. I wanted to start by noting that I was born in November of 1970*, a few months after Paul McCartney announced that The Beatles had broken up, after the subsequent release of LET IT BE, to a pair of parents who were not really fans of The Beatles— my dad and The Beatles shared a passion for the earliest rock and roll of the 1950’s and both my dad and mom sat out the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, and especially the music it produced. I don’t know when I first heard The Beatles, but it was certainly as a little boy; I do remember hearing GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE for sure— probably in 1976 when the ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC compilation was released (I likely heard it on the radio)– but my first recollection is not even The Beatles, it is Wings’ BAND ON THE RUN album which, again, I probably heard on the radio in the summer of 1974 when I was three years old. The only copy of an album by The Beatles in my mom’s house was and remains MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, which I listened to sometimes.
I also came of age at a time- the early 1980’s- when the music of my parents generation (old time rock and roll on my dad’s side, adult contemporary on my mom’s side) was not something I cared very much about. I can remember all of it, mostly fondly, but my personal musical exploration began, as it always should, when I began making my own choices— metal, then jazz (and prog), then college rock, and then outward from there. As part of that outward expansion, I came back around to The Beatles, who remained ubiquitous on radio throughout the 70’s and 80’s, especially in Michigan, influenced by Detroit’s radio, which was heavily marketing “classic rock” and Motown/ soul to different audiences. In Flint, where I grew up, you had the contemporary rock station WWCK 105.5, the contemporary R&B station WDZZ 92.7, the adult contemporary station CARS 108 (107.9), and then you maybe could pull in WLLZ or WRIF from Detroit. In the early 1980’s, Flint’s local independent station WFBE 95.1 began airing Ben Hamper’s TAKE NO PRISONERS show on Saturday nights, which focused on punk and local bands, and that became the definitive show of the 1980’s for me— I would hide under my blankets and put the radio next to my ear so my parents wouldn’t hear me staying up super late, listening to the radio. On a clear night, you could grab BRAVE NEW WAVES drifting over the border on CBC radio in Canada, another big touchstone for me.
So, I never had a childhood steeped in The Beatles and their songs were, for me, from another time. I also have never had a sort of Road To Damascus moment with The Beatles music where I became an obsessive convert or did a deep dive into every single aspect of their music and production history (which gauge of strings did George use on his guitar for AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING? I literally could not care less).
All of that said, I completely get it. Having been a listener to pop since 1970, the dominance of The Beatles’ songs in shaping contemporary music is beyond staggering to even consider— people who love and make music look at that unfathomably great body of work as sacred, a sort of contemporary Sistine Chapel which is to be poured over, examined, a set of problems to solve to figure out how it was done because, in the end, as music, it is breathtaking. Anyone who can’t appreciate what The Beatles created is likely either resentful of their ubiquity or annoyed by the giant shadow they cast over the work of so many others, and I also understand that. But I don’t blame The Beatles for that— they have come to mean so many things to so many people, but what we are left to grapple with are the songs and records which stand both as a towering achievement in contemporary pop music, but also, a narrative, a story, an artistic path from LOVE ME DO to THE END in just eight years, almost impossible to comprehend. Yet there it is, that body of work, and it remains an object of deep fascination and scrutiny because, as music, it means so much and only a very few people have ever achieved anything that comes close**.
The collaborative, interpersonal creative process that allowed The Beatles to happen is essentially the subject of THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which captures just a single month in the life of the band as they record the LET IT BE album, first as a concept for a TV show/documentary/ live concert event which is eventually abandoned, then as the documentation of the recording of the album itself, culminating in the band’s justifiably (and more on this in a minute) legendary final performance on the rooftop of Apple Studios.
There are some very big choices made here by Peter Jackson, and they were all fine by me: The voluminous footage, which was used to create the sour documentary LET IT BE (which sensationalized the sessions as rife with turmoil, a clear sign of the end, of the band’s impending demise), has been not only restored but “contemporized”, creating images and audio that were impossible with the film technology of the time. This has the effect of creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy for modern audiences that is unlike anything I have ever experienced with footage from this era. Look at Pennebaker’s work on films like DON’T LOOK BACK and ZIGGY STARDUST (both amazing) to see the typical visual and audio limitations of most shoots of the era. While those films achieve intimacy with smaller cameras and crews, THE BEATLES: GET BACK uses the scale of its production to an unprecedented advantage. Say what you want about the film’s cigar-smoking, Libya-obsessed director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but the man made some massively important choices that allowed this film to happen, and at the top of the list is his decision to go all in on coverage; there were cameras and invasive microphones everywhere, and while that may have been a huge pain the ass for everyone involved, THE BEATLES: GET BACK would not have been remotely possible without the hours and hours and hours of coverage Lindsay-Hogg’s footage provided to Jackson and his superstar editor Jabez Olssen.
Olssen’s work here is by far the most crucial in reframing this footage and, frankly, re-writing the history of The Beatles. First, by taking footage out of its original linear, temporal context and cutting it into scenes where the audio was from another moment, THE BEATLES: GET BACK leans into the emotional content and heavy interpersonal subtext of the band’s decisive, creative moments. A glance, a smile, the image of a restless hand— these images supply meaning that has been historically unavailable. What this allows, more than anything else, is for Jackson to find the real story here, which is about the love between these artists who, at the apex of their fame and creative flowering, reached an understanding they could not yet articulate that their time together was coming to an end. This is the moment when, just over the horizon, The Beatles will become an impossibility for them, with three incredible songwriters, all of them bursting out in different creative directions that were only made available to them by the fact of their collaboration, unable to articulate the full meaning of what they understood about what was next.
The deep humanity of this specific choice by Jackson puts the film in a class by itself for me— it is a movie that at once shows the jaw-dropping brilliance of what The Beatles were able to create together and makes their dissolution as a band both heartbreaking and comprehensible. One of the most interesting things about experiencing the film for me was orienting myself in the narrative— while I have seen many people reporting that they were deeply moved by watching unbelievable moments in the film’s early episodes, especially intimate moments of creation of songs that are now part of the contemporary music canon (Paul working out LET IT BE in the background while the group chats around him, Paul strumming his bass and just pulling GET BACK seemingly out of thin air, George sharing amazing songs from his masterpiece ALL THINGS MUST PASS to general indifference)— for me it was the interpersonal moments that kept me deeply engaged; the band navigating Paul’s notes to George and Ringo about their playing, John and Paul on secret microphone (hello again, coverage!) discussing how to piece them all back together again, Paul constantly chewing his nails and going slack jawed when things aren’t going his way, John’s use of humor and his emotional intelligence in seeing multiple perspectives, Ringo’s easygoing professionalism, George’s kindness and diligence covering up his wounds.
For me, all of these moments culminate in the rooftop performance sequence, when the band, unshackled, free from the studio after years of not playing live, finally get to cut loose and everything we’ve seen boiling beneath the surface is cast aside for an all too brief moment of joyous connection between four artists, young men, lifelong friends, who put away the all of the choices that lead them there— the film, the business plans, the recording process — and just let it all go, together. This is the moment that brought tears to my eyes— the storytelling that got us all to that rooftop, knowing what had come before, what it meant to them, the love between them, and the knowledge that, as a simple title note tell us, it would never, ever happen again. A final experience of joyous connection when you see and hear everything, all at once. Like a great, fleeting romantic moment that will never exist again, you look back on it and you understand, you forgive. And then? The end.
*I know some people say Altamont was the official end of the 1960’s, but I always like to outline this chronology of 1970 as a way to frame my birth year:
April 1970- The Beatles announce their break up
May 1970- The Kent State shooting
September 1970- Jimi Hendrix dies
October 1970- Janis Joplin dies
November 1970- I was born
**For me personally, the nine year run Prince had from PRINCE in 1979 to SIGN O’ THE TIMES in 1987 is as close as anyone has ever come.
I was incredibly anxious in making plans to go to Cannes; with the global response to COVID-19 in a constant state of flux, travel requirements changing from week to week, and a great deal of work required at my own Montclair Film Festival, I wasn’t sure I how the trip would go. As the festival grew closer to launching on July 6th, things remained up in the air; the screening schedule hadn’t been announced, the status of vaccinated Americans like me and our access to the festival was undecided but optimistic, and the process for how we would all get tickets to films remained a mystery. Because of my travel requirements, I had to book a flight through London, which I was assured would be fine, but which ended up adding a layer of complexity, COVID testing (despite my vaccinated status), and even more anxiety. There is something powerless about air travel, especially on an international level, where every customs officer has the power to make things difficult, enforce an unforeseen rule, end any plans on the spot. The more people and portals with which I had to interact, the more I feared an insurmountable problem. This much uncertainty? Not my forté.
But from the moment I left JFK on the 4th of July, until the moment I started writing this from a café in the Nice airport in France, everything went perfectly. My planning for COVID requirements was not only correct, but allowed me to move quickly through the system; checking in and customs were a breeze, and my bag was waiting for me on the other side. I grabbed it, hopped the train that runs along the Gold Coast of France, past mansions, beaches, and massive condos, to Cannes, standing against the Mediterranean Sea, hot and steamy under the relentless sun. I walked to my condo, unpacked and settled in, before walking out the door to get reacquainted with the Cannes Film Festival.
I had been to Cannes before, in 1999 and 2000 which, in my estimation, was one of the greatest Cannes programs of all time. Since that time, my festival work, which for decades had been situated in the April-May timeframe, made a trip to Cannes irrelevant and impossible. But those early trips were formative for me, creating a version of the festival that lived on in my memory; jet lag, packed screenings, familiar faces in the crowd, but mostly, the premieres of great films, a program bursting at the seams with the most important and interesting international titles of the year.
It is funny to think about, but I am almost certain that everyone who programs films looks at the Cannes program with extreme scrutiny and, if they’re honest, a sense of jealousy; with 74 years of institutional work put into creating an event that provides a global launching pad and sales platform for films while elevating the work of film directors into the highest levels of the contemporary arts, this unique blend of glitz, raw business, and extreme artistic seriousness provides Cannes Director Thierry Fremaux with the ability to, for the most part, have his pick of films and talent to attend the festival. It is hard to think of any film or film company that wouldn’t deeply desire the imprimatur of the iconic gold palm imposed over the words Official Selection Festival Des Cannes.
And so, year after year, Cannes reclaims its position at the center of the film world, with its program defining the state-of-the-art in the same way the autumn festivals herald the launch of awards season in the United States. Cannes is far more global than the Oscars, and features its own, highly coveted awards, given by small juries of acclaimed artists, serving as an international counterweight to the Academy. In this way, the festival best serves a certain type of film and film lover; it is driven by and the exemplar of global cinephilia, where the artistic ambitions of the form are placed above (and yet alongside) the business of box office. Typically, Hollywood and Cannes are not aligned , but sometimes, these two worlds come together; Bong Joon-ho’s PARASITE won the Palme D’Or and the Best Picture Oscar in 2019, but that overlap is incredibly rare.
This year, in the midst of planning for the 10th Annual Montclair Film Festival and working to launch our very own six screen cinema in the fall, our own changes in planning and schedule made me believe that a trip to Cannes would be worthwhile again; in the wake of the pandemic, Montclair Film moved our festival to October in 2020 and provided a huge transformation in terms of the films we were able to access, with Best Picture winner NOMADLAND serving as our Opening Night Film, and multiple award winners and nominees participating in the festival. In the wake of the success of that program, which we had worked carefully to position on the calendar in a way that would give us impact without competing with other, more established fall festivals, we decided that October was the right spot for us, and as we began planning for October 2021, Cannes seemed like a good opportunity; I wouldn’t be able to attend my traditional fall festivals (Toronto, the New York Film Festival) because their proximity to our new dates, and with the announcement of our new cinemas, the time was right to go scout films, meet with distributors, and see what a trip to Cannes would mean.
So I went.
From the moment I walked into the small tent where my badge would be printed via a touch screen kiosk in a matter of seconds, to the COVID testing tent I was required to use to gain access to the Marché and certain theaters, to the line of badge holders all eagerly awaiting our first film (Mark Cousins’ delightful retrospective of contemporary cinema THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION), Cannes felt relatively effortless. I never waited more than one minute to get a COVID test and after an early hiccup, my results arrived in time for me to use them (I was negative. Get vaccinated everyone.). No one ever dismissed my clothes or my ticket or did anything more than smile, say a polite word of greeting, and send me on my way. Cannes is known for being finicky, building procedures and processes for attendees— lines, hoops through which to jump, arbiters of what is and is not “acceptable” attire, etc— but the radical change this year that switched off so much frustration was the online ticketing system, which eliminated waiting in line for tickets and allowed everyone to apply for a seat at films by going online.
With attendance down (huge swaths of the world who typically attend were unable to participate this year because of COVID, others chose not to attend because of the overwhelming uncertainty and COVID concerns, all of which is completely understandable), the doors to the cinemas were more accessible than ever before. This was part of my strategy in going; hopeful I could find tickets to screenings because attendance would be more manageable, I found myself granted a ticket to literally every film I could schedule. It was unbelievable. The only struggle I had was making sure my phone had enough power at the end of the day, so I could make my final screening and show my digital ticket to get into the theater.
As each new morning arrived and I applied online for future screenings, as each e-mail confirmation rolled in after that, as each COVID test retuned a negative result, as I washed and pressed my tuxedo shirt over and over again, I settled into the rhythm of the festival. I took a few meetings, attended a party (outdoors and unmasked, and regretted it immediately), had a lunch here, a coffee there, a dinner with colleagues, but mostly, I dove into film screenings, surrounded by appreciative audiences who, as far as I could see, politely followed the mask mandate and acted with overall courtesy toward the staff and one another.
Once the lights went down in the Grand Lumiere or Salle Debussy (the festival’s largest theaters, where I spent most of my time), everything else- the uncertainty, the anxiety- melted away and I found myself completely absorbed in the films, my long relationship with theatrical viewing instantly re-established. As the program began to reveal itself, right away, an overall mood became clear; the films began addressing human connection and the need for kindness, from romantic and familial relationships to institutional interactions, a cinema urgently advocating for compassion and understanding. The humanist power of movies was on full display right away; maybe it was having been away for so long, maybe I was really tired, but sometimes, the films seem to be in dialogue with one another, pulling me in and framing my thinking as they go.
For me? It was the love affairs that broke the screen wide open again.
Joanna Hogg’s THE SOUVENIR PART II was the best film I saw in Cannes, and it played in the Director’s Fortnight section (which was typically outstanding), and I have to say, it is a huge shock to me that this film was not in competition in the main program. The film picks up immediately after Hogg’s achingly beautiful THE SOUVENIR, in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, as the film’s protagonist Julie (played brilliantly again by Honor Swinton Byrne) shifts her focus from her loss to discovering her voice as a filmmaker. It was a powerful statement of becoming, a self-portrait of a young artist by her masterful later self, and one that reflexively examined that tension within the structure of the film itself. THE SOUVENIR, as a single film project made up of both parts, is a triumph, and I am eager to watch both parts again, together, in one sitting. Straight onto my personal favorites list.
Right behind Hogg’s film on my list was Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s VERDENS VERSTE MENNESKE (THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD), starring a Norwegian actress previously unknown to me, Renate Reinsve who took to the Cannes red carpet (which is broadcast on the screen inside the Palais and provides a ton of pre-show joy to the awaiting audience) as a whirling, twirling burst of bright energy and carried that obvious charisma straight through the film itself. She is a movie star, arriving seemingly fully formed on screen, a modern European actress who seems to be filled with optimism and feeling. The film capitalizes on her performance with a melancomic story of a young woman named Julie who can’t settle into her romantic relationships, but one who clearly imagines herself as the type of person who does. Funnily, I am seeing reviews calling the character “unformed” or “childish” or comparing her to Frances Ha, but for me, that’s very wrong. She’s alive and justifiably uncertain about who and what she wants to be and be with, and just goes about the business of trying things out, like we all do. This movie felt very much like real life to me; real, wonderful characters alive to the continuing possibilities of life. It is judgement-free, compassionate, and a joy. I didn’t see every eligible movie, but if Reinsve doesn’t win the Best Actress award, it would be a crime.
Trier’s co-writer on THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, Eskil Vogt, wrote and directed a film at Cannes as well, and it was one of the few genre films I was able to see. THE INNOCENTS, playing in Un Certain Regard (the festival’s section for official selections not selected for the main competition), is the story of a group fo small children, living in the same apartment complex, who come to learn of a supernatural connection they share, one which gives them extraordinary powers of communication and destructive force. It also features some heavy duty staged violence against animals and children, which had the audience gasping in surprise, and draws on the relationship between adult power and the way in which kids misunderstand that power when they interact with one another and the world, often turning the tyranny of the adult world into acts of cruelty that Vogt captures with prowling, long lens shots that call to mind recent horror classics like IT FOLLOWS or LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, reminding me that I need to watch more contemporary horror.
Also in Un Certain Regard and also grappling with childhood cruelty, Laura Wandel’s UN MONDE (aka PLAYGROUND) is the story of a pair of siblings enduring the daily degradations of life in a Belgian elementary school. Shot in a social realist style (think the Dardenne Brothers making SON OF SAUL) that never diverges from the point of view of Nora, a kindergartener whose older brother suffers constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of his classmates. It is very rare to see a film perfectly grasp the emotional life of young kids, but PLAYGROUND absolutely nails it, tracking the mistakes, the attempts at kindness, the meanness and exclusion, and all of the emotions that follow through the beautiful, powerhouse performance of young Maya Vanderbeque, who carries the entire movie on her shoulders and never delivers a single false beat.
Another film about the emotional isolation of systemic abuse, and also in Un Certain Regard, was Sebastian Meise’s GREAT FREEDOM, the story of Hans Hoffmann, a gay man in Germany repeatedly imprisoned over violations to the nation’s infamous Paragraph 175 law, which made homosexual activity a crime (and was utilized by the Nazis to send LGBTQIA+ people to the concentration camps). Franz Rogowsky is an actor who never fails to fascinate with his ability to seemingly haunt the frame, and his work here is yet another in a recent string of outstanding performances, here showing the complex relationship between freedom and the past, and how trauma informs the experience of persecution.
Arnaud Desplechin’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s DECEPTION is a film I have been discussing with Desplechin for many years, one that he had long been seeking to make, and once it began playing, it was clear why; Desplechin has returned to the themes of his best films with this story of Roth’s extra-marital affairs, here presented with such tenderness that I was shocked; Roth’s reputation as an irredeemable misogynist was here transformed through the lens of his equal, a lover played by Lea Séydoux, who understands his desire for her and meets it with her own understanding and power. Of course, the film also proposes that maybe the entire proposition is a fiction invented by Roth to help him understand and invent women as fictions, but that doesn’t distract from the film’s power for me. As always with Desplechin, the spiritual side of his work is boiling beneath the surface of his images and characters, here represented by Roth’s outsider status as a Jewish American abroad. I can’t wait to see this again, a top-tier Desplechin film for me (and I love them all for my own, selfish reasons).
Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH arrived with expectations that can only be compared to a new album by a well-established rock star; Anderson’s visual and storytelling style is so consistent, so unique, and so wonderful, there is a fear that any major changes to the director’s signature approach might be alienating or somehow dishonest. Anderson is who he is, a visual stylist unlike any other who relies on the bespoke details of his image making to create a symbiotic relationship with his writing, together creating films that serve both as cinematic homage and something truly unique. THE FRENCH DISPATCH is no exception, a love-letter to the long form journalistic essay writing that shaped the mid-20th century glory days of THE NEW YORKER and other prestigious literary magazines. But the film is also filled with cinematic nods to the French New Wave, films noir, 1930’s comedies, and more. It is an absolute joy to watch, twinned to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS for me, both films adapting a certain era of the written word that captures the spirit of the times and subverts nostalgia by creating something new.
And finally, speaking of new, Julia Ducournau’s TITANE was my final film of the festival before heading home. The story of a young woman named Alexia (played with unbelievable power by Agathe Rousselle) who suffers a traumatic head injury and develops into a sociopathic murderer before passing herself off as a young man who had disappeared years ago, TITANE is also the story of radical, physical transformation of the female body into whatever the fuck it wants to be. And it is radical; did I mention the car that impregnates Alexia, in the form of mechanical parthenogenesis that drives (see what I did there?) the story to its almost unbearably moving conclusion? Ducournau’s control of the film’s escalating tensions, purposeful gender confusion, male vanity, and found family is flawless, making TITANE a film that deserves multiple viewings in order to unpack its narrative and visual strategies.
I could go on and on, and already have; I watched 28 films and for the most part, found something compelling and thought-provoking about each. And there were so many more I didn’t see but wanted to see; festivals are always filled with regrets. As I sit here, having departed Nice, passed through Heathrow in London, and now flying home over the Atlantic Ocean, I’m thinking about how much this festival means to me in the ongoing world of COVID. I know I am landing back in the reality of family life, work, and responsibility, and I can’t wait to replug into my real life. But there is something about Cannes that will continue to frame my inner-life, the interior version of myself that adores sitting in the dark with strangers and giving myself permission and room to think seriously and passionately about cinema, a word I use without reservation. For me, that is the ideal of Cannes, which has once again replenished me and lead me to try to continue to find ways to honor that part of myself in the other areas of my life. I hope to be back soon.
Sparks, the endearingly enduring pop duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have created a monumental body of work together for over 50 years, a sort of parallel history of contemporary pop music that exists both within and outside of the structures of genre, style, and stardom. Leos Carax has been operating in a parallel world as well, explicitly so, a master of creating tangible, physical images that are driven by his profoundly visual imagination. ANNETTE, their collaboration in the form of a cinematic opera, is an expression of these synonymous outsider visions, and the tension between the desire for acceptance and the embrace of rejection.
ANNETTE operates as a sort of narrative history of what I can only imagine is the tension at the heart of Sparks as an artistic project; the serious musical ambition and mastery of form that is embodied by Marion Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved soprano whose work in the opera brings her global renown, and the dark, confrontational comedy of Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry, who prowls the stage as a form of self-analysis and truth-telling that calls to mind Bo Burnham’s confessional storytelling mixed with Andrew Dice Clay’s intentional, absurdist bomb of a masterpiece THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED. The couple, united in love for one another, embody the paradox of mastery and humor, the embrace of the serious and the lowbrow that has both limited Sparks as a commercial project and has given them a profound and sustainable creative career.
Carax, whose films have consistently addressed the complex dance between love, personal integrity, and creativity, seems to be in familiar territory, having created wonderful musical sequences like the classic moment built around David Bowie’s MODERN LOVE in Carax’s 1986 MAUVAIS SANG, the incredible fireworks sequence from 1991’s THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, or the thrilling, accordion mob cover version of LET MY BABY RIDE from 2012’s HOLY MOTORS.
With ANNETTE, however, Carax takes a different approach, seeming to transform the Mael’s ideas into a set of creative constraints. Carax’s touches are still there, primarily in Adam Driver’s performance, which seems to have taken on the physical requirements in Carax’s films that usually fall upon Denis Lavant, one of the most gifted physical actors of our generation. Here, though, Driver’s physicality is intentionally hemmed in by Carax, who frames the film far more theatrically than the anarchic naturalism we are used to, taking his cues from melodrama and classic cinema to create a more controlled world for his musical fairy tale.
The Maels seem to have also taken the film, which brilliantly lampoons the musical formalism of opera and modern musical theater, as a way to try something different. One of the great things about Sparks is that they use the conventions of pop music- form, length, instrumentation, style, genre- as a playground, infusing their music with humor (both lyrically and musically), repetition (think of BALLS or DICK AROUND), and stylistic wanderlust. But here too, outside of the film’s opening song SO MAY WE START, the Maels put aside expectations, instead sticking to the project, delivering music that relies on full orchestration and lyrical repetition, character themes and reprises; there is hardly a pop song in earshot, and barely a hint of the propulsive electronic instrumentation that shapes much of their best work.
Here, a quick * SPOILER ALERT* for those interested in seeing the film with fresh eyes (as I always say, it is impossible to talk about a film without talking about it):
But transformation through constraint seems to be precisely the point, and ANNETTE absolutely sticks the landing. In the film’s final sequence, Annette (to this point played by an intentionally artificial puppet) is transformed into real girl (played and sung beautifully by Devyn McDowell) and Driver’s Henry is also transformed into a stand-in for Leos Carax. In an inversion of the finale of PINOCCHIO, Annette becomes a real girl, not because she finally tells the truth, but because her creator does; Henry stops lying to himself at last through his rejection by his daughter. Long in denial of Annette’s full humanity, and seeing her now as a person and no longer as an extension of himself or Ann, he understands that he has created his own isolation all along. Here, the film’s slow moving evolution of Henry into a simulacrum of Carax himself— first the sunglasses, then the hat, and finally the hair, mustache, and world-weary eyes—arrives both visually and in the form of a song (which, for me, was the highlight of the film), a lament between the newly human child and the director’s Geppetto, who at last gets what he always wanted through the act of creation, only to remain in the prison of his own making, watching the only true thing he ever made carried away from him forever.
One year ago today, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived as reality.
With New York City headed into lock down, and everyone panic buying toilet paper, I decided to head out to the grocery store. I stepped out of my house and the neighborhood was buzzing- lines out the door for restaurants, the outdoor patio at the bar next door full with Happy Hour Friday folks, the grocery store jammed, a huge mixed message of people stockpiling AND out and about and having a good time. Not a mask to be seen then because of the disastrous response of the government in preparing PPE for the pandemic. In fact, they had already started lying about masks in order to help secure enough masks for frontline workers, a lie whose impact would never be fully reversed.
And so, today, the second Friday in March, 2020, is the exact moment I FREAKED OUT, because it was clear I could not be safe in Park Slope. So, we packed up and headed to our small place on the shore the next day, where we stayed for six months. Jessica’s job wouldn’t re-start for six months, school went remote and we decided to stay remote, we had *just* postponed the Montclair Film Festival. Everything that was normal, stopped. Time moved on, sometimes grindingly slow, but sometimes, super fast, days piled upon days, but for all practical purposes, we are still living suspended in that moment, hanging between how we used to live and how we live now.
Soon, states were scrambling to compete with one another on the international market to get the resources they needed to fight the pandemic, because there was NO NATIONAL PLAN to stop it and, facing that devastating reality, the administration decided to pass the buck to the states and cities to manage the crisis– undermining their efforts every step of the way, confiscating PPE, outbidding states for ventilators, demanding political ass kissing in exchange for Federal support– while shamelessly denying reality and making everything much, much worse.
And so, in concert with the transformational horror of trying to figure out how to live with an invisible disease that was taking thousands of lives every day, the obvious, overwhelming trauma of the country was met with an unending stream of lies, lies intended to tamp down any dissent, any criticism, lies that defined a shamelessly criminal administration that had absolutely no plan, no response, a disdain for science, as psychopathic disregard for human life, and a relentless demand that the nation instead spend its time in fealty to bullshit. We didn’t get a chance to truly deal with what was happening to us – to properly acknowledge our reality- because we had to fight a war for the truth at the same time. That war culminated in a clownish attempt to overturn the seating of Joe Biden after his election, from lawsuits argued in the parking lot of a regional landscaping business to a mob storming an under-defended Capitol building to stop the certification of the vote. No consequences. For any of it.
Even today, one year later, the right would rather kiss the ass of a petty, tyrannical buffoon that address the massive damage they have caused. States throughout the nation are undertaking massive efforts to disenfranchise voters so that they can entrench right wing governance for a generation, and hey, I don’t know if you heard, but Texas is open to 100% capacity.
Here we are, one year later, likely still a few months away from some semblance of collective safety, and we remain voiceless, hoping for our collective health. We have barely had the chance to grieve, so many of us have held so much inside, gritting our teeth for one year, waiting for our collective reality to be properly acknowledged, for justice for this absolute fiasco. #OneYearAgo
Tonight, I finished the second part of Volker Ullrich’s incredible biography of Hitler. I finished Volume I: ASCENT 1889-1939 last April, and had to wait until this past fall to get my hands on Volume II: DOWNFALL 1939-45. Both volumes are very different; the first focuses on the political rise of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi party) and the second covers Hitler’s day-to-day management of the “war of annihilation” that was WWII. As such, this book is a parade of delusional expectations that almost came true, and a never-ending carousel of military leadership changes, dumb decisions, lies, self-deceptions, and, most troubling, an arms-length distance to the absolute insanity of incalculable human loss.
The book wisely refuses to spend time psychoanalyzing Hitler (let me summarize: psychopath), and instead presents his actions within the social and historical framework in which they took place, with a strong understanding of the man’s duplicity and performative nature as being less symptomatic of some personality disorder and more a toolset deployed, consciously, to manipulate his allies and enemies. The book’s approach makes sense, because as a leader focused on the tactics and strategy of waging war, the tangible, physical reality of the regime’s previously unimaginable crimes were kept at a psychological remove in his life- and so they are in this book. He believed every action was justified, and while Ullrich details those justifications and gives them much needed context, it would be useless to read chapter after chapter with the author arguing with Hitler’s self-justifications. At the same time, it would also be immoral to present them without challenge, so the book does a great job of balancing these impulses and questions.
We stay with Hitler and his routines, travel, and the palace intrigues that he enabled. Huge catastrophes like the Battle of Stalingrad, D Day, and The Battle of The Bulge are covered, but this book is not a book about the individuals on the battlefields, executing the tactics on the ground, although we learn a LOT on a macro, tactical level about how the German Army (aka The Wehrmacht) won or lost battles. No, this is a book about a psychopathic, racist, fanatical anti-semite whose prejudices informed the disaster he made, always blaming others for failure and taking personal credit for success. In that way, it’s a bit of a hard read, because the man was an absolutely giant, self-satisfied asshole, and you get a heavy dose of that, alongside the groveling fealty of men like Joseph Goebbels, whose diaries frame much of the book(s).
There is a powerful section on the Holocaust, which is the scaffolding of the entire book for me, and which frames the massive crimes of not just the SS and the concentration camps, but the extrajudicial murder that, once normalized, was committed by all of the German forces in the Soviet Union, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and beyond. The unfathomable civilian and extrajudicial murder is discussed as being Hitler’s responsibility but also mentions there is no documented “direct order” from Hitler to enact the mechanics of the Holocaust because, as the book makes plain, his stance was de facto in favor of it, and his underlings knew it was what he wanted. In this way, despite innumerable mentions of “a solution to Jewish question,” the unconscionable act of genocide seems to have had little impact on Hitler’s psyche; his entire plan relied upon the death and removal of millions of people from Eastern Europe.
And so, faced with confronting the reality of the Holocaust, if there is one man about whom I wish the book had more to say, it is Heinrich Himmler, who, despite remaining somewhat elusive in the books, was an absolute piece of shit. I could have used more about the mechanics of his actions, but since he was involved in so many massive crimes, many of them undocumented by the official accounts of the regime, I’ll need to figure out how I can find out more and digest the idea of learning more about him.
I was interested in reading these books to give context to the past and to the present and I have to say, I cannot recommend them enough. Combined, not even counting the footnotes, it is a massive read, but I learned a ton I did not know and feel like I have a much better understanding of the era, of the scale of horrors in Europe leading up to and during WWII. What really resonated for me was learning more about The Red Army of the Soviet Union, who essentially saved the world through an absolutely unbelievable amount of sacrifice and loss.
Anyway, I wanted to document why reading these brilliantly written books about so much horror felt necessary, and why, during the pandemic and the second half of the Trumpist years, they gave me so much to consider. So, I’ll end this long post that likely no one is reading, with the final sentences of Volume II:
“Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teach us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.“
Bravo to Volker Ullrich for an unforgettable reading experience.