Category: Film

How to watch movies

Fergus asks:

Having enjoyed your posts on how to read canonical Western literature and how to get started with opera, I’d like the same thing but for film, and perhaps for architecture.

Today let’s do movies!  I am hardly an expert, but here are my tips:

1. Yes there are some movies made for the television, but for first-rate movies you really do need the big screen.  Do whatever you must, and no your home studio arrangement is not a good substitute.  Good cities for seeing movies on a large screen are NYC, LA, Paris, London, and the DC area (Silver Spring, MD in particular, AFI).

2. Choosing with whom to go is very important.  And you should see a fair share of movies alone, so you are not swayed by the views and reactions of the other parties.

3. The best prep for watching a particular movie is to have watched a lot of other movies already, and from a wide variety of sources and countries.  Knowledge of the Bible can be helpful too.

3b. If you don’t “get” a classic movie with good pedigree, 3/4 of the time the fault is yours.

4. I don’t like to read reviews before seeing a movie.  I might read just enough to see the evaluation, but then I stop.  I don’t want the movie “explained to me,” and furthermore very few critics have an adequate mix of travel, linguistic facility, knowledge of the classics, etc.  Critics can stop you from seeing what is there.  That said, after I’ve seen the movie I try to read as many reviews as possible.

5. If a movie is good, you should watch it again.  Then a smaller screen might be OK, or at the very least necessary.  You should have seen your favorite “deep” movies at least four times.

6. You want to have good peer groups to discuss movies with.  And get a movie mentor!

7. The classic movie critics — not always on-line! — are worth reading.  Buy a book of Pauline Kael essays, and then keep on buying books of essays by movie critics.  Don’t rely too heavily on Google.  My favorite movie critic used to be David Denby of The New Yorker.  Buy books on the history of movies too.

8. Now go watch more movies.

By the way, here is an interesting review of the best movies of 1931.

What else?

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.

Self-recommended!

*Don’t Look Up*

You won’t find many accurate reviews of this one, in part because it is so brutal about media, not to mention American politics.  The core message, however, is that everything is downstream of culture.  And that we are incapable of taking our own decline seriously.  Think of it as an update of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.  And Trump and Hillary blend into one character, played by Meryl Streep.

At 2.5 hours, the movie is overly long but about 2/3 of it hits the target head on.  These days it is rare to see a Hollywood movie of actual social import and insight.  Science/politics is but one of the significant themes, another is Bruno M.’s claim that America has become a “virtual society.”

The ending also shows the film has the courage of its convictions.

Elsewhere, it is hard to know what to make of the utterly failed Bergman Island.  Under what theory of the world does this cinematic outing make any sense whatsoever?  Perhaps it is best interpreted as a self-referential punishment for those who, circa 2021, still think they ought to be watching movies titled Bergman Island.  In that regard it succeeds beautifully.

Best movies of 2021

Listed in the order I saw them, noting that foreign releases get classified by their USA release year.  And sometimes you will find a review of mine behind the link.

The Dig.  Archaeology and British restraint, circa 1939.

Minari, Korean immigrant family in Arkansas.

Promising Young Woman, black comedy, wow, brutal.

Another Round, Danish film about alcohol.  Against it.

Sweat, fame, social media, and gender, but insightful rather than the usual b.s.

Old, Shyamalan, plot twists and conceptual thought experiments about the biomedical establishment.  Imperfect, but delivers in some significant ways.

Green Knight

Night of the Kings, Ivory Coast prison movie.

Nine Days.  If you were choosing who gets to be born and walk on the earth, which interview questions would you ask them and how would you evaluate their answers?

Ich bin dein Mensch” — should you date a robot?

The Many Saints of Newark

McCartney 3, 2, 1 (Hulu).  Self-recommending and consistently interesting, the best segment is when you get to hear just how much value Paul’s bass line added to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Lamb (Icelandic), one of my favorites for the year.

Dune

Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson.  Amazing and epic, my pick for best of the year.  And the whole world is responding.  And read this on the miracle of the production side.

Cinema is not back to where it used to be, but this list is way better than what last year was able to deliver.  And as always I will let you know if I see anything notable between now and the end of the year (notable films often cluster in December, though they tent not to be my personal favorites, furthermore the release schedule remains somewhat disrupted).

What else was there?

*Get Back*, I

Everything that gets done runs through Paul.  As Adam Minter put it (excellent thread more generally):

Nothing would get done if Paul weren’t there. But it’s a fine line, because he’s irritating. also – Ringo, in my opinion, has deep deep reservoirs of patience. I don’t know how he go through some of those days.

In this “prepping for a no overdubs, pure live performance” setting, the studio doesn’t matter.  And control over studio production was how Paul exerted an increasing authority over the Beatles.  “Let’s work on this more together” de facto meant “let’s give me, Paul, greater influence over the proceedings.”  Yet without his studio expertise as a Williamsonian trump card, Paul has to be more of a pain in the ass to induce effort and focus from the others.

“I’m scared of me being the boss, and I kind of have been for a couple of years,” or something like that, is what Paul says.  “I know it’s right, and you know it’s right” comes shortly thereafter (remember this?).

“Whatever it is that will please you, I will do it” responds George.  John in turn mutters something about maybe they should improvise the whole thing.

George Martin is rendered irrelevant, due to the studio production being omitted, and mostly he stands around and looks like a guy who used to do ads for bad British cars in the 1960s.

Two highlights are Paul singing a mock version of “Gimme’ Some Truth,” and John singing a mock version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  Doesn’t the film show it was actually George who broke up the Beatles?  (Or Ringo in 1968?)  Doesn’t the person who leaves first split up the relationship?

What is quiet Yoko thinking the whole time?

And from Dave Bueche:

  • It’s surprising to see them digging around for material.  You’d think they would have had a lineup of songs before they started the project.
  • Twickenham [the studio] seems like a drag.  You can tell they don’t love it either.  It’s big and cavernous and a few colored lights doesn’t change that.
  • There’s a certain sad nostalgia in them playing all the old standards they learned in Germany and Liverpool.  Like they know this the end and they’re sort of reliving the beginning one last time.
  • Paul is clearly more invested than the others.  George seems like he’s trying to just learn the songs, do his bit, same with Ringo.  John seems like he’s a good sport, but other than Don’t Let Me Down – he seems to be going through the motions.
  • It’s fun seeing them cover Dylan and other contemporaries.

The reviews are all “oh, this shows the Beatles loved working together until the very end.”  That’s a pretty superficial read of the material.  To me, Get Back is much more about “how the main value adders control small groups in a somewhat tyrannical and mostly efficient manner, and why this isn’t always stable.”  Mancur Olson remains underrated.

“All Things Must Pass” just wasn’t that good a song, and it would have been worse as a Beatles song.

Here is a very good Jonathan Freedland review.

My Conversation with David Salle

I was honored to visit his home and painting studio, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

And excerpt:

COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?

SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.

There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.

Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.

Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

And:

COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?

SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.

Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.

There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?

It is a bit slow at the very beginning, otherwise excellent throughout.

My favorite things Idaho

I used to blog “My Favorite Things…” all the time, but I ran out of new places to go for a while.  Now there is Idaho!  Boise in particular.  Today, I can think of a few “favorite things” from Idaho, here goes and potatoes don’t count:

Artist: Matthew Barney.  Filmmaker and artist, prominent in the avant-garde but much of his work is quite accessible if you don’t mind the near total absence of dialogue.  Is the nine-hour Cremaster cycle his masterpiece?  (I’ve only seen parts).  According to the internet “Cremaster is a paired muscle of the pelvis and perineum that is fully developed only in the external genitalia of males. Being located between the internal and external layers of spermatic fascia, cremaster covers the testes and spermatic cord.”  Many scenes from the movies have been turned into photos and artworks as well.

Do people in Idaho look like that?

Composer: LaMonte Young.  Is he the most underrated twentieth century avant-garde composer?  The Well-Tuned Piano is one of my favorite works, though it is a tough slog for many, being about five hours in length, here is a YouTube version.  He was even born in a log cabin in Idaho, and grew up LDS.  His career blossomed in New York, but he attributed his interest in drone sounds to the Idaho wind and other sounds from his boyhood.

Other music: Built to Spill.

Author: Jerry Kramer, who grew up in Idaho and later played football for the Green Bay Packers.  I loved Instant Replay as a kid.  But is there a “real author” from Idaho?  Is it better or worse to be a “real author”?  Marilynne Robinson has never clicked with me.

Poet: Ezra Pound, born in Idaho.  A fascist and anti-Semite, and not a true favorite of mine, but he was talented and it seems odd not to list him.  Can I name a better poet from Idaho?

Explorer: Sacagewea.  I hope she is cancel-proof.

Drum Battle: Idaho.  Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  For some reason, it reminded me of Benny Goodman’s Clarinade (not from Idaho).

Film, set in: My Own Private Idaho and Napoleon Dynamite might be the best known.  But perhaps I will go with Smoke Signals, Superman II (the one with Gene Hackman), and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.  Superman II, if I had to say.

Here is more Matt Barney:

I’ll be sure to report on my visit.

*Dune*, the movie (no real spoilers)

Score and soundtrack: A+, Hans Zimmer

Visual intelligence and sophistication: A+

Beauty: A+

Drama: I thought the first half was weak here, though the movie became progressively more gripping.  But too many of the proceedings felt stagey rather than organic or evoking of real interest.

Memorable characters: I give this award to the sandworms and the blue-eyed Fremen warrior chick.  The others were “good enough” but didn’t click for me in a huge way.

Fidelity to the original novel: Good enough, without being too slavish in its homage.

Unusual element: Huge dose of French imperialist “Orientalism.”

Straussian reading: It is trying to make both jihad and Islam intelligible and sympathetic to non-Muslim viewers.

Bottom line: I am looking forward to the sequel, and very much hope Villaneuve is on tap to direct.  It was wonderful seeing this one surrounded by the sands of Arizona.

*The Many Saints of Newark*

Much better than its reviews, though the drama only works for those with an intricate knowledge of The Sopranos proper, and perhaps of Northern New Jersey as well.  The performances are uniformly excellent and the historical detail remarkable (where did they get that Bamberger’s delivery truck?  The store disappeared in 1986.)  The younger versions of the characters are simply uncannily accurate, though perhaps young Carmela struck me as a bit too modern looking?  I view the core theme as one of unfreedom and determinism.  As a viewer, you see the characters as unfree because you already know what is going to happen to them.  As the story unfolds, you see how much they are unfree in a more fundamental sense as well.  No one talks conceptually, except for the uncle in prison, who also is the only free person in the story.  Recommended, but probably for the dedicated only.  To really follow and understand the film, you need to have all the images of the earlier Sopranos scenes, including settings and not just characters, filed away in your mind.

*Ich bin dein Mensch*

The English-language title is the somewhat different “I’m Your Man,” as Mensch is a more universal and less gendered concept.  The premise is that a researcher woman is to spend three weeks with a robot man, possibly romantically, and then report back on the experience.  I thought this was a “good enough” AI movie, better than most American reviews are indicating.  Here are some links.  The first hour was quite good, with subtle German jokes about surveillance paranoia and grammar reform, among other matters.  It is partly about the German national character, and how difficult it is to fit together its earlier and current forms.  Then for a while the movie runs out of steam, though with a nice close.  I took the final message to be that older men and those content with inauthenticity will be the big winners from advanced AI and robots.  That might just be right.

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

*Syndromes and a Century* (with spoilers, but the movie is not about suspense)

By Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this film pushes the idea that modernity is the truly strange phenomenon, not ancient religion or what we like to call pre-modern times.  The pre-modern is represented by the two monks in their orange robes, and their direct, down-to-earth manner.  The supposedly modern is represented by various doctors in their white suit coats, which look suspiciously like the robes of the monks.  Only that the orange is much more pleasant.  The monks are repeatedly puzzled by their interactions with the modernized Thai medical establishment, which, as it turns out, has taken ritual to new and unprecedentedly baroque and artificial heights.

The contemporary world is shown in ever stranger terms, from a variety of perspectives, whether the subject be power plants or artificial limbs, monks flying a toy spaceship, or a pipe sucking in steam, shaped suspiciously like an elephant’s trunk, albeit without the dignity.  The ritual dance closing the film — held in park with a boom box and people in shorts — seems senseless and without meaning.

And yes, the contemporary world is more rationalistic in a variety of ways, but why not look at the true human fundamentals — life and death — as represented by the world of medicine, to see if that rationalism holds up?  Alas.

Is there any director better at making you rethink the modern world and see its fundamental strangeness than Apichatpong Weerasethakul?  You need to try Uncle Boonmee too.

I saw this one with Nabeel!  And on the big screen (we rented out a theater).  And he sent me this interesting review of the movie.

*Sweat*

One of the better movies of this year, Sweat (or this review, spoilers in both) focuses on a female Polish Instagram star, and what she has to go through to produce fresh content each day, and how she gets hooked on the income and status of her privileged position.  At first it seems like a standard “costs of fame” production, but it quickly deepens with subtle and hitherto unexplored looks into family, friends, potential romantic relationships, and media interactions.

And are those other lives really better anyway?

“If you’re not going to share it, then what does it mean?’  Or something like that.