David Ehrlich is the best

My favorite film critic turned an awful idea into a great one: raising money for Everytown for Gun Safety by slogging through a 31-hour Marvel Movie Marathon.

having said that, the two things i’ve been most outspoken against in my time as a film critic are the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and gun violence. it goes without saying that one is a much greater threat than the other, but both have become ubiquitous in recent years, both are distinctly American phenomena, and both would be extremely confusing for the Founding Fathers.

You can contribute to stopping either threat here.

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The failed Scorsese experiment

Earlier this week, I deleted a task on ToDoist with the name “SCORSESE MONTH BAYBAY!”

Excessive? Most definitely. But the enthusiasm for one of American cinema’s greatest living auteurs deserves some context. For the past few years, I have tried to cover as many Scorsese blindspots as I could in March.  And every time, I have failed.

(Why March? Despite my complicated relationship with the Church, Marty and Lent’s Main Month have always held a strong association — both thematically in films themselves, and through many hasty parallels I’ve drawn to Irish- and Italian-Americana; nostalgia is always at play here, too.)

My failure, upon reflection, is rooted in the unfamiliar. I can safely check off the usual suspects already: Gangs of New York. Goodfellas. The Wolf of Wall Street. Hugo. Taxi Driver. The Aviator. If it’s come out in the last 20 years, chances are I’ve seen it. And seen it and seen it and seen it. Because this past year, I only got one film into my fizzled marathon:

Despite having seen The Departed more times than any other Martin Scorsese movie, I both started and ended my run with this utterly re-watchable mess.

It is a mess. After racking up dozens of viewings, I stand by that assertion that its tone is all over the place. Broad transitional effects feel gimmicky. One actor’s performance is constantly try to out-big another’s. Soundtrack changes give Suicide Squad a run for its money. The score’s “samba of death” motive never quite gels. It’s probably too long.

And yet I can’t stop. The Departed, from this limited vantage point, already feels like lesser Scorsese by comparison but its inconsistencies and its haphazard pacing make for some kind of glorious disaster. I’ve been stuck in 2006, forever glued to Marky Mark’s accent and Dropkick Murphys and severed hands and fuck-laced rants.

There’s always next year.

Listening to this year’s Best Original Score nominees

The Academy Awards are tonight and one of the categories I always pay attention to is Best Original Score. I’ve written about the Oscars and AMPAS’s relationship with film music in the past. The operative question with this category, and really any category in any arts awards show, is not Which nominee deserves to win? but rather Which nominees are worthy of the attention?

With that in mind, I’ve broken down my thoughts on each nominee below — with the caveat that I won’t be seeing The Shape of Water until after this post goes up:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — John Williams

My patience is slim for motivic identification. “Find the theme” is a self-fulfilling exercise and not much else in my mind; folks like the co-hosts of SideShow Sound Radio do a much more thorough job of it than I could ever hope to anyway.

As always, John Williams proves to be the exception in this regard, and I truly didn’t realize how much of his new Star Wars music I loved before digging into this score. The Ahch-To music from The Force Awakens made a surprisingly welcome return for me. The burst of the Resistance March propelling Poe’s one-man distraction is absolutely energizing. Kylo Ren’s signifiers feel both evil and appropriately in complete.

The new and unexpected stuff is aces, too. Williams includes sideways references to Revenge of the Sith during the most dour moments, and there’s an early ostinato in “Battle of Crait” that recalls a sped-up version of the Hoth music. The Force theme gets a sad variation in “Old Friends” before ultimately cresting to a more peaceful place. Like The Last Jedi itself, Williams — again, as always — gets us to approach the familiar in new and rejuvenating ways.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — Carter Burwell

In my time away from professional writing, I’ve reflected on the fact that by and large film music criticism is often heavy on the “music” and light on the “criticism.” Too many writers focus on how a score sounds. Aesthetics are important in music, but film scores are ultimately functional. Full stop. They exist to aid in the telling of a story. I could go on for a dozen posts about this so I’ll get off my soapbox.

All of this is to say that Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards is a paragon of why context matters. As a body of listening, this is phenomenal, even graceful work. Burwell’s main motive has a folksy drive to it, and a second theme in cues like “The Deer” and “Collecting the Samples” has a tidy, funereal aspect. Note the woodwinds.

The problem here is intent. Were I reading Martin McDonagh’s screenplay with this in the background, I’d say Burwell checks all of his moody boxes. But like a lot in this film, McDonagh’s sloppy delivery wastes the effort. Like its unexpected protagonist Mildred Hayes, Burwell comes at us at face value, and that doesn’t work with a tone-deaf approach to the very social issues Three Billboards wants to dramatize. The music is firmly locked in several stages of grief and makes for sublime listening, yet McDonagh is determined to yank on sensibilities at all costs. If you listen to the Spotify release with its soundtrack selections, bring dramamine.

Dunkirk — Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch

Dunkirk is the polar opposite of this idea, a score that you wouldn’t throw on while chopping vegetables; it also has a clear purpose with all of its droning. Zimmer and Wallfisch pick up on their interest in time which Zimmer first teased out with James Newton Howard in The Dark Knight. Here we get more aqueous textures in cues like the opening “The Mole” and later “Shivering Soldier,” and both begin like the elevator music equivalent for a sensory deprivation clinic.

That’s not a cut, because Dunkirk is such a sonic experience. Not unlike Christopher Nolan himself, Zimmer catches an undue backlash courtesy of the zealous fanboy enthusiasm. Detractors will argue his scores are overly reliant on sound design, which places them in the unforgiving between space of gimmicks and afterthoughts. Tellingly, this is also the Best Score nominee I habitually forget about.

Dunkirk‘s sounds are so inextricable from its picture, but that’s cinema, people. In Nolan’s greatest movie in a decade (maybe ever depending on whom you ask), Zimmer and Wallfisch have a perfect marriage with the onscreen brutalism. The anxiety-laden catharsis of “Home” evokes synesthesia because the listening experience stays elemental. Dunkirk is several interwoven stories about how the ravages of war are worsened, erased even, by the ultimate ravages of time. Whereas time and space got away from Nolan in Interstellar, they couldn’t be more palpable here. Sometimes simpler is better.

Phantom Thread — Jonny Greenwood

Much has been made about how much Greenwood wrote for P.T. Anderson. Let’s parse that out. The Spotify release for Phantom Thread clocks in at 55 minutes, 9 minutes more than Greenwood’s standard release for The Master. There Will Be Blood sits at a sparse 30, but Greenwood’s slim filmography also includes Junun, an hour-long musical collab with Shye Ben Tzur. So let’s call it a draw and move on?

This overemphasis of Phantom Thread‘s length is conflated with the complexity of its cues. The title track’s variations alone are worthy of recognition. They move with a melancholy, Brahmsian lilt that’s essential for a PTA period drama. We’re left waiting for this all this dourness to slip into something happier, and we never get it. It’s Nino Rota in mourning, and boy is it good.

That’s just the interludes. “Alma” is gentle but bruised. “Catch Hold” is starry-eyed and wondrous. “Never Cursed” occupies a kind of hiccuped euphoria that pairs perfectly with the dreamy sophistication of “House of Woodcock.” It’s telling that the lightest moments feel like dreams. Greenwood’s most tangible work here is ornate and prickly. What else, right?

P.T. Anderson was an opaque director before 2017. Fussing with stuffy British sets and passive-aggressive niceties only added a few layers to the haziness, which is why the accoutrements are so crucial in Phantom Thread. The music is bursting to break free, the battered beauty behind a lifetime of sacrifice and abuse. Sublime and sickening all at once.

The Shape of Water — Alexandre Desplat

Instrumentation is the true standout for me here. The catchy title theme, both sad and sweet, features a prominent, whistled melody and plenty of nostalgic percussion choices; there’s a grand, romantic version in “Watching Ruth.” “Elisa’s Theme” operates like a waltz but with many of those same musical choices. The addition of flutes create a fine powdering of sound (love those occasional triplets throw in) against a higher-pitched harmonica this time. This is, to use an already overused touchstone, Lynchian. The Shape of Water has a distinctly middle America flavor, polka sounds with a dark, deep woods spin.

That’s also what makes Renee Fleming and Desplat’s terrific version of “You’ll Never Know” so well. Funnily enough, those porch-watching qualities pair with lax, lounge sounds, linking a legitimately great number with the broader score. (Are you taking notes, Mr. McDonagh?)

Desplat really is among the best of his contemporaries. “The Creature” teases us with something ominous. Comparisons to the Jaws theme are, if not inappropriate a little lazy. I’m actually reminded of another Desplat work and how he built up tension in Godzilla. The tour-de-force “Escape” is also remarkable, with running piano lines that put stressors on those earlier Johnny Costa, easy listening vibes. When I get to Guillermo del Toro’s latest, I’ll be curious to see if the in-film experience is as cohesive as a blind listen, because this is such varied, exciting work that still feels of the same cloth.

To reiterate, winners are the least important parts of these things, but if I’m forced to drop $50 with the bookies, my money’s on this. Best Original Score, like Best Director, has a weird relationship with Best Picture. And depending on how the AMPAS voting system makes or breaks Three Billbaords, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Desplat pick up his second statuette tonight.

Why do we nitpick?

I completed my Last Jedi podcast marathon earlier this month, crossing the finish line with The /Filmcast‘s Rian Johnson interview. It’s a fascinating listen, in addition to being a credit to how good Dave Chen is at maintaining connections over the years. One aspect of the episode struck me as particularly distracting, though, and that’s how Chen and co-hosts Devindra Hardawar and Jeff Cannata return to their habit of picking a film’s nits.

On the one hand, this is admirable for the internet age. It would be all too easy to heap praise and lob softball questions at Johnson. Instead, the co-hosts cheerily throw some of the more vocal criticisms of the film right at its creator. Why has nobody attempted the “Holdo Maneuver” before? What would have happened had the cannon fired at the Resistance base? And why does Luke’s hand disappear, too?

If something pulls you out of a movie, that impulse is no less valid than a moment that draws you in. By the same token, isn’t this missing the forest for the trees? Why do we feel the need to pick nits like this, particularly in a franchise that’s given us mystical frog puppets and retconned sibling romances.

I think part of it is driven by the current journalism model we’re experiencing as a culture. Rather than having weekly issues or monthly editions in print, digital media is a constant churn. The same Monday morning content will be relegated to the archives come Friday. That’s the nature of the click bait beast.

Not to mention the current Hollywood storytelling model is obsessed with cinematic universes. And not just Star Wars. Marvel is the OG of course, and DC Comics has been flailing about in recent years to start its own. Transformers is getting a spin-off. Even — for Christ’s sake — Universal’s still-possibly-happening “Dark Universe” fits this bill. Studios have far greater confidence in throwing hundreds of millions of dollars behind familiar IP.

The temptation to overanalyze is encouraged by both of these paradigms. We’re now constantly reflecting on tie-in novels and in-references and past films.  Or think about it in the inverse: Print journalism isn’t conducive to easter egg listicles when you could be waiting an entire season for the next quarterly to arrive in your mailbox. Imagine American Film running “How Yoda Ruined Star Wars” in their Fall 1980 issue.

Immediacy is driving “call-out culture,” even when applied to the comparatively lower stakes of media consumption. Twitter especially opens up an easy channel between creator and consumer. Whether that’s for earnest conversation or self-gratification is beside the point. Why shout into the void when one can fast-pitch their Guardians 2 issues with Kurt Russell’s character directly to James Gunn? He might even respond! The problem is that directors and their respective audiences often aren’t thinking about the same things. As /Film‘s interview revealed, even when they are, they approach the same beats from different perspectives. Where Dave Chen and Devindra Hardawar might object to Luke’s metal hand vanishing with him when he becomes one with the Force, Rian Johnson wants to avoid interrupting a poetic binary sunset with the clanging echo of synthetic fingers.

Is there a violation of internal logic here? That’s a subjective question, and this isn’t a backwards defense of sloppy storytelling. Star Wars is in an awkward spot right now, where a once-complete “Skywalker saga” is bumping up against wars of infinity and the expectations of serialized multimedia storytelling. But the value of asking about the finer details is also up for debate. I would argue that, for now, The Last Jedi is ultimately a silly space fantasy, not some rigorous encyclopedic document of a galaxy far, far away. You don’t go into a Star Wars movie for a physics lesson in the same way you wouldn’t ask Bruce Banner about urban planning. What this episode made clear is that some of the best storytellers are less focused on crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s and more focused on the proverbial sentence.

Put another way, as Johnson happily points out, it’s not like he’s the first Star Wars director to make this stuff up as he went.

Preciousness

Let’s talk about this:

1. I was at Bon Iver’s tenth anniversary show of For Emma, Forever Ago on Saturday. It was an amazing performance.

2. I can remember listening to “Flume” as a college student.

One of these statements does not necessitate the other.

All due to respect to Andrew Winistorfer, whom I generally respect for his altruistic approach to music journalism, but this is hipster preciousness. Bon Iver is a transformative, successful artist. But your opinion of him has nothing to do with finding 10 seconds to quickly Google the name of an Eau Claire bar on your phone.

Unless your sole goal is to have a chip on your shoulder, I legitimately don’t understand this take. Wisconsin and Minnesota — and every midwestern state I haven’t lived in I’d venture, too — seem to nurture this disjunctive desire to be alternately recognized and misunderstood at the same time. ‘Leave us alone because you’ll never get it’ and ‘You’ll never get it because you leave us alone’.  Self-pitying nonsense. Is there a value in telling BIG MEDIA to piss off when they pay attention? Does Justin Vernon lose something as an artist when The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk first writes about him?

This is Geographic Napoleon Complex at its worst — and a concept I am less familiar with. I had a fruitful conversation with Tone Madison‘s Scott Gordon back in 2016 about how we — as a city, state, region, etc. — can and should think about arts in our backyards. In that podcast, we explored the preponderance of  pride in community cinema. The idea that something should be shared based solely on the fact that it’s from Here. I would hope I’m simply not picking up on the tongue-in-cheek tone, but Winistorfer’s salty tweets introduce the inverse: that an aspect of art should be wedded to the place it’s from, that our viewpoints gain or lose validity by virtue of exclusivity.

Count me out.

Recapping 2017 with ‘ExtraTextual’

I can’t remember the last time I was on a podcast; hopefully the rust isn’t too obvious on this two-parter from ExtraTextual.

Culture pods are a dime a dozen these days, but Eli Steenlage and Jeremy Holiday make a deliberate effort to discuss broader themes and context in each and every episode. I was fortunate enough to be asked to recap the entirety of 2017 with them for over 3 (!) hours. Jeremy is a font of knowledge, and Eli is such a stabilizing force in his moderation. I was happy to share my enthusiasm for GLOW and elaborate on why Game of Thrones is still a satisfying show, albeit in a qualitatively different way. In part two, we discuss the year in film, and I shill for Call Me By Your Name, Coco, and The Last Jedi.

Give it a listen on iTunes, PodBean (Pt. 1 / Pt. 2), or PlayerFM (Pt. 1 / Pt. 2). And of course, rate, review, and subscribe.

 

Has PTA fallen into a toxic sub-genre?

After finally catching Phantom Thread last month, I was all too eager to see what my favorite film podcasts had to say on P.T. Anderson’s latest. And NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour stopped me mid-dish wash.

Among other their bullet points, hosts Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Wheldon, and guest Sarah Ventre suggest that PTA has fallen into his own sub-genre — with some help from an Owen Gleiberman piece at Variety

Holmes begins by claiming the 1950s drama set in London’s high-fashion world is concerned with yet another “Andersonian madman.” Let’s pick this apart. Sure, There Will Be Blood and The Master, at their most basic elements, fit such a broad bill. Those are also two movies in a career that’s spanned nearly three decades. To reduce the story of Daniel Plainview to that of a greedy oil tycoon is disingenuous, and The Master makes a point to underline Amy Adams’ er, hand in managing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Andersonian madness. Recency bias doesn’t count as apparently, nobody saw Inherent Vice, two hours of male ineptitude put to screen?

The sloppy generalizations continue courtesy of Thompson:

“In this movie, it feels so much like a depiction of Paul Thomas Anderson’s mercurial genius to the point… Paul Thomas Anderson tucked his initials into the title of this movie… Your mileage may vary about how much you appreciate the travails of troubled geniuses who must have obedient silence at all times.”

Ah yes, the ad hominem school of film theory. Auteurist theory notwithstanding, what is this based on? Does Anderson have some recorded history of petulant on-set behavior? Is there a Brandonian streak I’m unaware of?

Thompson’s overreach also undercuts a point he makes moments prior when recalling an older episode’s auteurist take on mother!:

“I couldn’t get past feeling like I was watching Darren Aronofsky make a movie about his own mercurial genius. And that was the least interesting interpretation of that particular film.”

Once again:

“And that was the least interesting interpretation of that particular film.”

Sarah Ventre takes issues with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, that the character can only attain validation by virtue of being sympathetic. Hogwash. Again, we’re in the Realm of Reductive here, which makes no mention of the very specific, unconventional lengths Phantom Thread goes to in showing its acerbic designer’s psychology. More broadly, if you don’t see the fickle sociopath as a human being, that’s totally fine. Probably even a good thing. But to suggest that something really, truly counts only if the audience can empathize with their worldview is a specious, adolescent way to process art.

Whenever present, Glen Wheldon always makes for the podcast’s perennial MVP and adds that Phantom Thread punishes Woodcock later in the film. This is essential. Films are not their characters. Filmmakers are not their films. And to her credit, Holmes rightly points out that Vicki Krieps’ Alma has little to her apart from a complicated obsession with Woodcock. In fact, both Alma and Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) exist as extensions of one man. So long, Bechdel Test.

The #metoo movement is vital to progress. And I suspect, as do Pop Culture Happy Hour‘s hosts, this is fogging the lens here. We can hope for and work toward justice and listening to diminished voices in 2018, in the now, and thereafter. But what’s the point in expecting the Western World after World War II to be woke? Doesn’t a period piece’s inherent value come by virtue of such a jarring comparison? What are we really asking for here?

Phantom Thread is stuffy, and the people in it are fussy. At face value, those cursory, second-rate readings of troubled geniuses line right up with the Trumbos and the Darkest Hours of Oscar season. But we’re not talking about a Jay Roach joint. This is P.T. Anderson. Woodcock and Alma have a messed up, abusive relationship, but it’s hardly a one-sided affair, something we’re clued in on from the get-go. We’re not in the Realm of the Reductive. We never were.