“Above all, in my anger, I was sad. Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying — valiantly, fruitlessly — to eradicate.”
― Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
If you had your gun
would you shoot it at the sky?
"If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy. But before we take up arms, we shall try the power of words."
We by Zamyatin
This is not the end
I have no idea what Dallas Buyers Club is about. And I’ve sat through all two hours of it, checking my phone only every other time that Matthew McConaughey, looking like a skeleton even before we learn his bad-mouthed and hard-partying Texas cowboy is HIV-positive, snorted a line of cocaine or later admonished his HIV-positive cohort to stop snorting cocaine because, like, it’s bad for you.
Does my tangle of confusion and hypocrisy give you any sense of the film’s moral muddle? The narrative’s particulates — McConaughey’s arc as a bigot who finds himself impaled by moral transcendence, like it’s something he’s stepped on, like a trap; or the sociohistoric reality of all of that happens to McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof, how the American medical industry struggled to effectively treat an epidemic-by-any-other-name — rub together, ground by the film’s aesthetic of rawness, its distaste for sentimentality.
The failure is reach. Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story that hasn’t often been told, but the moral urgency here is all cliche. A white, straight man saves the LGBT community, kind of. After more than 30 minutes watching him snort and drink and howl, Ron gives that all up and encourages his fellow survivors to do the same. He’s trying to lead by example, like any other savior.
McConaughey’s triumph is all decrepitude; it’s the affectation of slumming it. Notice Ron’s charms, which are qualified only insofar as they are miserably prejudicial and small-minded. But Ron still sounds like McConaughey. His smiles still catch the camera in the same way. Once, out to dinner with Jennifer Garner, who plays his love interest while pretending to play a righteous doctor, McConnaughey leans back from their table and he smiles and his eyes burn like candlelight and I felt a thrill — Yes, here is some new reality.
Alas. Ron’s flaws get burnished by his better works — when, in the course of fighting to survive a death sentence, he ends up fighting Big Pharma and Big Homophobia and Garner’s best instincts not to date a man who would steal her prescription pad in order to get himself drugs. I wanted to know so much about everyone Ron found himself having to befriend and work alongside. I wanted to know so much more about the work they did. The script, by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack, has earned some heat for futzing the truth. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, should earn more for his resounding obviousness. So much of this collaboration can be distilled with shorthand (straight white man learns about discrimination through a twist of fate that forces him to suffer at its hands) and then dismissed.
And what of Jared Leto? The actor plays Rayon, Ron’s business partner, with a honeyed snarl that soothes you unfairly: She’s a transgender woman who cannot conquer her demons (unlike Ron) for reasons the film doesn’t feel like expressing (unlike Ron); she is repeatedly misgendered by the narrative and only partially probably. Then she dies, which only sounds like a spoiler if you haven’t read the rest of this review.
"There are snows made of clock faces and circular slide rules of maps to undiscovered countries, of the shattered breath clouds of those who have cried for help unheard on a clear winter day."
Some of the ways in which Stiles’ possession arc can end
- Like in Buffy, with a yellow crayon
- Like in Angel, with death
- I was trying to make myself feel better
- It didn’t work
- dammit Joss
You watch me (just watch me)
More than two-thirds the way through Her, Scarlett Johansson tells Joaquin Phoenix that she loves him. His face crinkles at the news; he looks like he might cry. “I don’t need an intellectual reason for it,” she says (basically), it meaning the act of loving someone else. He is a middle-aged writer living in the near future and she is an operating system who lives in a small, cigarette holder-sized red box that he carries around in his shirt pocket. This is the only moment in the movie that moved me at all.
Her is written and directed by Spike Jonze, a filmmaker of surprising, often startling, sensitivity. But Her isn’t alive to new nuances of feeling; it sees people platitudinously — half the cast talks in fortune-cookie couplets. This, maybe Jonze’s worst film, follows his best, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, which just seems like bad timing. But the difference can be instructive, because Jonze’s new work has no wildness in it, no strange secret heart, not like Wild Things — which is weird, since Her is consumed with the process by which two people, and then one person and one program, and then a lot of people and a lot of programs, fall in love.
This is the future, or its nearest simulacrum. Phoenix, who is never not wearing a pair of high-waisted, beltless pants and a mustache, works at a .com firm under the name Theodore Twombly. He writes letters for other people to send to other people. The company’s name is beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Many characters frequently cite Twombly’s heartfelt writing, his empath’s silvery pen. No one interrogates this basic premise — that paying a third party to write something that by its definition undoes its label of sincere and real — which is probably the movie’s first cardinal sin. Stay with me: If you buy into that, into Jonze’s near-future idea of a successful new editorial industry that also conveniently says things about The Way We Live Now and Might Live Soon, you may buy into everything else without a pitch.
Not me. Her is a vision board: This world is built only on ideas of itself that keep projecting onto each other without something stronger (sharp-toothed satire; heartsickness or its near-future twin, classless greed) to cut out any definition. The city, Los Angeles shot with some Shanghai bits for scale, is teeming; Theodore’s apartment is gorgeous, although he seems to keep a lot of things in boxes on the floor. Much of the background is shot in shallow soft-focus. The light most often pools. When Theodore lays in bed, it’s impossible to separate his hairline from the shadow against his pillow. Conversations happen between snaky bits of memory, which flicker through the spaces between two people saying difficult and necessary things to each other. How nice! They never actually say those difficult things; Phoenix’s second-favorite face in the film is a stricken one, like a half-formed thought has wandered suddenly down, or up, his throat. I wanted to throttle him — stop swallowing your consonants!
So anyway, the movie: Theodore buys an exciting new invention, an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Johannson), which names itself Samantha. Johansson voices her in ripples of curiosity, appetite and self-possession from which Theodore could learn a lot.
The two become friends, and then lovers. Theodore learns from his friend, a documentarian played by Amy Adams, that the relationships between people and their OSes are exciting new sociological phenomena.
This becomes more complicated, because narrative filmmaking conventionally requires complications and because Her is two hours long. Theodore, who sometimes acts like a very self-serious baby, seems to think he is having a lot of serious thoughts about love and commitment and the mysteries and true size of the human heart. Jonze seems to think this, too. No one shrugs their shoulders at the wonders of it all, man but I mean basically. Sitting in bed, Theodore plays Samantha a ukulele and tells her bad jokes. If Her doesn’t sell you soon, it will sour. Is it valid to criticize a film for being too easily mocked?
And anyway: there’s that scene, somewhat near the end. Theodore, a cipher to himself and parched for love, finds something of it. Does he learn anything? Will anyone come knocking at his office and tell him that his life’s work only propels the same falsities that have turned him into a mumbling monster? “I don’t need an intellectual reason for it,” Samantha says (basically), it meaning the act of loving someone else. His face crinkles at the news; he looks like he might cry. That’s a small miracle. With time, I do not know if it will seem smaller or bigger.