For All the Cows

Back when I had the delusion that I would have the time and energy for this (though I’ll never say never to the future), I had toyed with the idea of making a retrospective of reviews for Pride of Miami Cinema* Kelly Reichardt’s movies up to First Cow, which premiered Telluride in 2019 and was famously the last major US arthouse release this year before COVID popped its ugly head stateside and shut down theaters (a release I unfortunately did not catch). If I had been able to do so, First Cow may have very well turned out to be a much more appropriate stopping point than I expected.

God forbid that Reichardt never makes another movie again (especially if First Cow ends up maintaining its awards and critics’ circles momentum that makes me quietly hopeful that Oscar attention is in its near-future, which I imagine will boost her profile in much deserved ways), but it is kind of the prime example of all the things she’s been trying to work with throughout her career. Which is funny because the very quiet and unrushed manner in which its presents its narrative to the point that the themes are less spoken by the film so much as left there for the viewer to recognize and put together is probably one of those things it shares with all of Reichardt’s previous movies. She doesn’t particularly work with urgency, even in cases within her films where peril or stress is an active presence.

And like all but two of her other movies, First Cow gets to share the world of Oregon. Oregon that was, particularly, given an initial scene that reminds me very much of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the way it temporally divorces us from the story and characters. An Oregon that Reichardt – adapting with Jonathan Raymond his novel The Half Life – presents at the very beginnings of its 19th century colonizing. Like the last time Reichardt indulged in a period piece on life in Oregon-before-Oregon Meek’s Cutoff, she and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the environment in Academy 1.33:1. But where that one captured the frustrating hostility of the frontier in harshly washed-out colors and cracks, this time they have allowed some measure of warmth and amiability to the environment of old… capturing all the earthy colors with enough realism to prevent undermining the memory as something inauthentic while the frame fits Reichardt’s awareness of the characters’ placement in the shot relative to their relationships like a glove.

Both that spatial placement of characters as well as the comfortable soil-based color work provide an excellent enough setting for a story of two men finding each other in the world and developing a deep platonic love for another. Those two being Maryland transplant Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Cantonese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who meet briefly at first when Cookie finds King naked and hiding in the bushes from some vengeful Russians and Cookie is able to give him shelter within the tent he has separate the trapper team whom he cooks for, a team we can easily tell does not like Cookie very much and would betray King if they were aware of his presence. King of course slips away before they are any the wiser, but the two reunite later on within what appears to be the major camp in the area. From there they are able to bond over a variety of things within King’s shack on the outskirts of that society and eventually one of the things King learns about Cookie is that he has enough of a skill as a baker to take to market in the camp. Of course, the creation of their fast-selling oily cakes requires the procurance of milk and with enough caution, they are able to regularly acquire that ingredient by milking the only cow in the region late at night. This cow happens to be under the ownership of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who takes an interest to these popular baked goods.

There’s basically a lot to say about these conditions in First Cow – the obnoxious prioritizing of masculinity as a trait (introduced by the trappers’ antagonism towards Cookie), colonialism giving the image of sophistication without actually embodying that with dignity (best portrayed by Jones’ oblivious performance), capitalism’s reliance on exploitation and privilege and so many more things that even while shaping this mythic image of the beginnings of American society are observations that still remain relevant to this day. Not all of them as cynical as the ones I point out – alongside Lee’s presence as a co-lead, there is a charmingly small moment of him trying to communicate with an indigenous man that ends with the two of them finding a common language of Yiddish – and practically none of these are particularly stressed by Reichardt’s direction nor the way her and Raymond steer the story (I don’t know if Raymond’s novel is more explicit on these matters since I haven’t read it). They are just offhand elements of a world where the main source of solace is Magaro and Lee’s lovely chemistry together as friends. Not necessarily a perfectly ideal friendship – there’s the slightest implication that King is taking as much advantage as he can of Cookie’s friendship in a one-sided way – but one that feels sincere and deeply caring all the same, so that even in the most doubtful moments, we have that one early shot that transports us to this time period to remind us of how strongly bonded these two men are.

So outside of the central relationship, where does Reichardt particularly focus her energies on? Her love for Oregon, whether by the manner of the soft dark cinematography I mentioned before or the serene sound design letting us be aware of the life within the wilderness. And given that this is a place that Reichardt has spent most of her life and career in, her directorial hand at letting us live in that environment and takes advantage of its barely-present Western trappings to remind us of how the genre is at its best when functioning as synecdoche for America’s history while letting the story just shuffles along to its stopping point (maybe the one element that distinguishes First Cow from Reichardt’s other movies is that this does has a firm ending, albeit with an unorthodox placement). Reichardt’s marshalling of these skills she’s showcased before – the pacing, the aesthetics, and the thematic interests – with a confident simplicity is exactly what makes this feel like the ne plus ultra of her style to this date and I truly wonder where there is to go from here. But whatever her next movie is, I’m sure it’ll be likewise phenomenal without even trying.

*That wisely never returned to Miami once she could bail.

No World for Tomorrow

Austin-based independent animator Don Hertzfeldt has come to a point in his career where he can basically do no wrong by me. At worst, his movies are shallow (and admittedly sadistic in a hilarious way) amusements like Billy’s Balloon and Wisdom Teeth. At best, he has reached the heights minimalist masterpieces with the hand-drawn animation form from his angrily critical Rejected to his unexpectedly ambitious emotional rollercoaster ride of his sole feature* It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Even his fucking Simpsons intro is inspired. And of course, his last 5 years have been spent exploring the potentials of digital animation to translate his previously beloved stick figure style against otherwise pointedly computer generated imagery or principles communicating unexpectedly bottomless existential journeys of fears and thoughts with the World of Tomorrow short film series, the first two entries of which are not only masterpieces on the level of Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day… but may in fact even surpass them. So of course, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime was immediately my most anticipated movie of the year the moment its existence was announced and as of this writing I have watched it four times (the fact that it’s ONLY 4 times in a year is an accomplishment of serious discipline, honestly).

So like I said, Hertzfeldt can do no wrong by me. But it can take a minute for me to adjust to see what he’s doing more clearly and I have to say that if World of Tomorrow Episode 3 remains in my top three movies of 2020 when the time comes to wrap it up… it’s still something of a disappointment to me in ways I wasn’t expecting. The first area being how these shorts lose a lot of humanity by the absence of Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s Scottish niece who at the ages of 4 and 5 had been recorded by Hertzfeldt to voice the central child Emily of the first two episodes while the narrative was constructed around her aimless ramblings. By this point, Mae is now 11 years old and as wonderfully creative and imaginative as I’m sure an 11 year old could be, I imagine it loses the spontaneity of her exclamations the way that pre-schoolers have hardly any filter at all. So sad to say but understandable as it is, Emily Prime is nowhere to be seen in this entry and it is doubtful she will ever return unless Hertzfeldt decides to wildly change the course of this series a second time.

For the first time, what we have instead as a subject is David Prime (who spends most of the short silent but I suspect an uncredited Don Hertzfeldt is the voice behind a hilarious gag that I won’t spoil), a character whom we have never met but whose clones we have encountered throughout the first two episodes in several ways we knew and ways we did not know until this episode. When we meet David, he’s an already well into the cold and isolated future premonitioned in the first two movies, but when Emily 9 (as in the ninth generation clone of Emily voiced like all of Emily’s clones with impeccable deadpan by Julia Pott) has met David, he was a toddler upon whom she sent a long dormant neural message that did not activate until he reached a certain mature age and needless to say… being confronted with this deliberately packed memory is overwhelming to David. As we’ve seen in the first World of Tomorrow, one of Emily’s clones had met one of David’s clones and the two had fallen in love. Many of Emily’s subsequent clones have attempted to find ways that would facilitate a reunion between the clone’s memories and the man they remember having strongly romantic feelings for. Emily 9 is the one that landed at leaving a complex and overlarge memory/message for David that sets him off on a vast journey that ends up requiring him to sacrifice a whole lot for something that makes his compulsion feel more obligated than organic.

Which gets us far enough in the narrative to acknowledge the second thing outside of Mae’s absence that gave me a minute to be on World of Tomorrow Episode Three‘s wavelength: this is by far the most cynical and vicious of the three episodes. The first two episodes approached its cold future with more of a sad disappointment, but this one portrays David’s arduous journey across space (and not necessarily time but… it is something passed through) and within unknown planets with an understanding that David doesn’t particularly know what he’s looking for. He just frequently sees the face of this woman implying that some future version of him was a soulmate of a past version of her – a vision that already costs him literally, he has to uninstall skills to watch more of the message by way of an obnoxious HUD interface. It’s a pretty pointed tale about how dangerous and malformed love can be. Not to mention given the things David goes through to land where he and Emily 9 hope to meet, this is certainly the most jokingly sadistic thing Hertzfeldt has made since Wisdom Teeth on the basis of that cosmic romantic uncertainty.

Which is a treatment of love as a concept that I’m happy to see many movies, but it does come as a shock to the system within a series of shorts that didn’t feint in that direction before (though it did maintain a pessimistic outlook on the future and all its marvels). Just as well, since Hertzfeldt has by now stated he will continue to be making so many more of these shorts and it was going to have to shift gears at some point in order to remain fresh. More importantly, it felt to me in the span of watching the first two World of Tomorrows that Hertzfeldt had pushed the envelope on marrying his stick figure minimalist aesthetic with imagery that could only be created through computers. If this World of Tomorrow Episode 3 hoped to justify itself in any manner, I thought it would have to be in evolving that visual style further than Episode 2 ended.

It gets there and then some. Episode 3 is undeniably the most ambitious and visually complex film of Hertzfeldt’s entire career and it lands every technical leap it takes. First in its depiction of the future on an intimate level with the first scene, using its sense of depth to a frame to add more clutter to the living area of David and then compounding that through his HUD view – which also foreshadows yet another new toy for Episode 3 – as one of my favorite gag turn out to be the desktop crowding of his view by way of pop-ups (one of many prices Emily 9’s message forces him to pay). This is particularly aided by the sound design doing more than any other Hertzfeldt film to be as irritating as possible in ways that make sense within this world, whether it’s holograms that scream at you or the buzziness of David’s guidance system. Then there is the expansive way that Hertzfeldt defines the planets and areas that David and other characters live in or explore without removing any of the bold color (although another favorite gag of mine plays with the color) and defined lines that made up the previous films. This is, in any case, the most physical of the World of Tomorrows with hardly any room for abstraction in the story it wants to tell (though Taylor Barron returns as a visual effects artist and the only other crew member besides Hertzfeldt). It’s the first of the World of Tomorrows to actually interact and create this world rather than approximation of it based on the workings of someone else’s mind. Which probably ends up being why this feels so much less psychologically complex than its predecessors, but that’s a fair trade to me.

Then there’s how that depth finally gets to Hertzfeldt playing with the z-axis and the camera’s perspective to these characters in ways that give them more dimension than they ever had before. The teaser shot that announced this movie’s existence happens to give away one of the most impressive moments of character animation in Hertzfeldt’s career (with the only other contender being the climactic ballet in Episode 2) as we watch David from behind stumble during his wall on the remote planet where another piece of Emily 9’s message is and it is smooth as butter to watch his limbs swing around and his square body have more volume to it than any stick figure before. It also allows more camera angles to be utilized now that Hertzfeldt knows that he can actually animate these characters from those angles in ways that make spatial sense while still finding moments to play with their flat 2-dimensional origins.

Such a moment being a narrative revelation that I want to keep a surprise as much as possible that ends up being an avenue for shots and images to have layers that look more like filters of previous drawings from the series. We learn late in the film that there is a means that facilitates imagery that resembles cels but much murkier and unstable (similar to a technique used in It’s Such a Beautiful Day but with less motion) and how the characters play with this is one of the darker revelations within the whole story. And yet this technique is not something necessarily introduced to us that far in nor exclusively used for darkness or comic value, as the HUD point of view shots already allow us to see the world sometimes through that filtered screen with the same separation as David and particularly one of the earlier shots happens to be unexpectedly soothing and beautiful as David is faced with an old childhood nightmare on his HUD and closes his eyes. There is a lot more tonal versatility to these new techniques on Hertzfeldt’s part than expected for a short that mostly retain a certain group of emotional states.

So there is a lot that Hertzfeldt brings new to the table and practically everything about World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime does feel brand-new in a way that is exhilarating. It’s just that it did take me a couple more watches to get that and I still don’t know that I’m calibrated to love this the way that I did the first two. Still perhaps by the time Episode Four is made, the episodes will connect in a clearer way and I’ll be able to feel ready for yet another exciting divergence from the things that came before. I’ll be ready for the things to come.

*OK, it’s technically a short film trilogy but having originally watched them as separate short films… I find it just impossible to return to that presentation again since Hertzfeldt combined them into one feature. They just segue so well into each other.


And another holiday SLIFR quiz from December 2008.

1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?

Same as the last post. Tenet in theaters, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on blu-ray.

2) Holiday movies— Do you like them naughty or nice?

I prefer them nice as heck because they’re warm comfort blankets in one of my most relaxed times of year. That said, Gremlins among others remain clear reminders that I will gladly take them naughty as they come (though not too naughty if Fatman should be any indication. That one just barely passes my threshold despite enjoying a good amount of it).

3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?

Mercedes McCambridge. Johnny Guitar power, y’know.

4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks

Special Agent Dale Cooper is just the easiest answer in the world so I’ll go with Ray Wise’s performance of Leland Palmer, an extremely weird performance that feels even more horrifying in the context of what we learn later about him. Specifically avoiding season 3 to stay in the spirit of a question asked in 2008.

5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.

I feel like Stuart Gordon’s Fortress should have been a lot more memorable than it was: a dystopian high-tech multi-tier lockdown prison escape by a known action figure? That should have been Escape from Butcher Bay: The Movie.

6) Favorite Spike Lee joint.

Do the Right Thing

7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?

Scott Brady has given better performances in my eyes (Johnny Guitar gang!), even though Tierney is much more interesting as a person (and looks just like The Thing).

8) Are most movies too long?

Yes, I am both too old and I am baby so that makes me extra tired. Decided this once the actuality Arrival of a Train at Ciotat made me think how it’s taking forever to end for some reason.

9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.

Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln? Is that too basic? I could do worse and pick Abraham Lincoln.

10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man vs. Talos. I think it’s a perfect fit, to be honest.

11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?

I’ve only seen one movie of Sheree North’s and frankly Pickup on South Street is hard to beat anyway, so Peters.

12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?

The main reason is because I enjoyed it so much the first that I’m sure I’ll find the familiarity of pleasant elements comforting. But there’s also just the fact that I’m human: not only am I unlikely to get everything the first time, I’m also sure that there actually is deeper elements that reward that rewatch and the best film experiences bring something revelatory after I approach the movie as a fundamentally changed perspective down the line. You’re not talking to Pauline Kael here.

13) Favorite road movie.

Y Tu Mamá Tambien although somedays my answer is Two-Lane Blacktop.

14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture.

I’ve only seen two. I’ll pick Ride Lonesome.

15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies?

Wow, that is genuinely hard to say because I don’t really feel like there’s one person who really encouraged my appreciation of movies until the time that I was already waist deep in that. Arguably my mom by indulging the times I wanted to go to the movie theaters and often got me DVDs just off-hand but I didn’t care much for the movies she would bring. Which I guess does mean that I would explore and look for the sort of stuff I did dig. In any case, I couldn’t really find people to actually discuss movies until I got to college so I’m at least glad I had folks like Phil and Britt to talk movies with and figure what I liked from there.

16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.)

I just answered this with yesterday’s holiday quiz! Monty Python and the Holy Grail followed by Enter the Void!

Thinking of a third place answer to shake this up… maybe The Sting for being so unexpectedly meta with each title card.

17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?

John Agar, one of my favorite actors. Not particularly for his ability. More because he doesn’t try hard to hide his B-movie belongings.

18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.

Eh, I think he’s a bit of an overachiever. These days Marvel movies dominate the conversations and they are definitely meh as fuck, but the real truth behind Godard’s statement is that the mainstream critics and public have the WORST taste in documentaries (at least lately). They pick them based on subject matter rather than form and most of them lean hagiography or just surface-level wikipedia summary. RBG, Amy, Senna, Searching for Sugarman, Free Solo, The Cave, The Edge of Democracy, Icarus, Fyre, Fyre Fraud, Rat Film, Dawson City: Lost Time, Life Animated, Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, For Sama, I have to really DIG to find worthwhile documentaries because listening to word-of-mouth rarely ever pays off. I’m glad I do end up finding gems when I put in the work, though.

19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.

Stop Making Sense

20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?

Linda Blair has generally more consistency but Tatum O’Neal has the better overall performance and I just can’t pretend that Blair has ever hit that height of Paper Moon.

21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)

Spoilers for a 61-year-old movie.

Probably the entire first half of North by Northwest, really, where Cary Grant is mistaken for a man who doesn’t even exist.

22) Favorite Claude Chabrol film.

The Butcher

23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.

I don’t remember what movies everybody was talking about in 2008. Probably every movie I liked that wasn’t WALL-E or The Dark Knight.

24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?

Robby Benson for whom my entire exposure is his voicing the Beast in the Disney Beauty and the Beast films and that gives him a hell of a leg up on Dennis Christopher being in one of my least favorite Oscarbait films and a really mediocre (but beloved) Stephen King miniseries.

25) Favorite movie about journalism.

His Girl Friday, of course. Though I almost thought about All the President’s Men, the one that made me WANT to be a journalist.

26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?

Y.K. Kim and Bong Joon-ho watching Miami Connection together. Not particularly with the assumption that they’d be a good fit given that they both appear to come from ideological polar opposites (at least assuming that Kim is a capitalist, which I suspect) but they also both have an energy eager to get along and I know Bong has a bottomless love for all sorts of crazy cinema that I’d love to see where it goes and be optimistic about it.

27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

The Outlaw Josey Wales, though sometimes High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, or Letters from Iwo Jima sneak up.

28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?

Love them both but my adolescence watching Kurtwood Smith berate the kids in That 70’s Show were a great precursor to watching him get real vicious in RoboCop so I’ll always have that in my heart.

29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.

That Heath Ledger was going to win Best Supporting Actor was something literally everybody called.

30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.

I assume that back in December 2008, I was hoping that Avatar would turn out to be the best movie ever.

31) What’s your top 10 of 2008? (If you have a blog and have your list posted, please feel free to leave a link to the post.)

Again, not bothering to look at the US release dates for a year that’s over a decade in the past:
1. The Beaches of Agnès
3. Happy-Go-Lucky
4. Wendy and Lucy
5. Of Time and the City
6. A Christmas Tale
7. Burn After Reading
8. Che
9. Summer Hours
10. Hunger

BONUS QUESTION (to be answered after December 25):

32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?

I ain’t gotta worry about this one because I don’t really receive presents for Christmas. I send them to my friends instead. In any case, I’m expecting once I return home that my old co-hosts from A Night at the Opera will each have sent me a movie gift as I too sent them (as we do every year) and I’m sure I will appreciate both just the same.


Honestly, let’s just see how many of these Holiday Quizzes of Christmas Past from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule I can knock out within the 24th and 25th this year (probably only two but I might bang a few out during the rest of the weekend). This one is from December 2007.

1) Your favorite opening shot (Here are some ideas to jog your memory, if you need ‘em.)

Star Wars. Feel like I should have a more sophisticated answer than that (maybe Floating Weeds), but frankly nothing else sticks to my mind closer.

2) Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow?

Mia Farrow. I regret to say that Weld’s performances don’t stick in my mind very much (I often forget she’s in Thief) and do not ask me which directors got the best performances out of Farrow.

3) Name a comedy you’re embarrassed to admit made you laugh.

Central Intelligence. A lot.

4) Best Movie of 1947

Black Narcissus

5) Burt Reynolds was the Bandit. Jerry Reed was the Snowman. Paul LeMat was Spider. Candy Clark was Electra. What’s your movie handle?

The Misfit.

6) Robert Vaughn or David McCallum?

Neither of them make that much of an impression on me. Going by each actor’s turn under John Sturges (both of whom gave the best performance I saw from either), I’d say McCallum is doing a lot more without trying so hard in The Great Escape, so he wins. For the record, I have never seen so much as an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (only the Guy Ritchie movie).

7) Most exotic/unusual place/location in which you’ve seen a movie.

There are oh so many locations I could choose just from Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (and it makes me deeply consider one day making a worldwide trip to the locations it was shot if I have the money and free time). I shall choose the Chand Baori in Rajasthan (which was also featured in The Dark Knight Rises but not nearly as impressively).

8) Favorite Errol Morris movie.

Gates of Heaven, which came to dethrone Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control once I found myself turning for amiable Errol Morris movies over cynical ones.

9) Best Movie of 1967

The Young Girls of Rochefort, one of my favorite movies.

10) Describe a profoundly (or not-so-profoundly) disturbing moment you’ve had courtesy of the movies.

Lady I did not know masturbated next to me during a midnight screening of A Clockwork Orange and would not stop talking to the movie.

11) Anne Francis or Julie Newmar?

Julie Newmar was Catwoman. Like Anne Francis is a phenomenal pin-up, but c’mon…

12) Describe your favorite one sheet (include a link if possible)

Indiana Jones raising a whip while heads in amazement surround him and the Ark of the Covenant sits behind him.

13) Best Movie of 1987

Law of Desire

14) Favorite movie about obsession

The Red Shoes. Let’s see if one more Powell/Pressburger movie will pop up here.

15) Your ideal Christmas movie triple feature

I made the mistake of watching one of these three in a separate night, but generally: A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Chuck Jones’ version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Two tv specials that are less than 30 minutes and one feature that’s barely over 70 minutes leaves plenty of time for actual festivities.

If using short films is cheating, then replace the tv specials with Die Hard and Eyes Wide Shut. If I wanna be more Christmas spirit and less unorthodox, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Miracle of 34th Street.

16) Montgomery Clift or James Dean?

Montgomery Clift. I’ve loosened up slightly (just slightly!) on feeling Dean’s a bit overrated on the basis of his unfortunate death but Clift still remains one of my favorite actors of all time and possibly the best of the 1950s.

17) Favorite Les Blank Movie

I have unfortunately only seen the pair of movies he made about Werner Herzog rather than the charming rustic ones he made collected in that Criterion box set that I need to get some day. I will settle for Burden of Dreams as my answer for now.

18) This past summer food critic Anton Ego made the following statement: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Your thoughts?

I concur with this brilliant moment of revelation on Ego’s part: particularly how he recognizes the thrill of passionate writing especially with the allure of negativity, the fact that criticism has no presence without the existence of art and thereby the passion behind that, and the desire for new risks. And the recognition that “a great artist can come from anywhere”.

19) The last movie you watched on DVD? In a theater?

On DVD, Chuck Jones’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. In a theater, still Tenet.

20) Best Movie of 2007

I’m too lazy to care about the minutiae of release dates for a year that is 13 in the past, soon to be 14. So I’ll say Ratatouille and be done with it.

21) Worst Movie of 2007

88 Minutes.

22) Describe the stages of your cinephilia

My early infancy: Disney animation
My early childhood: whatever is popularly talked about at the time, mostly to my mental deterioration.
My adolescence: getting more into action cinema, old timey sci fi or fantasy that relies on models, and the like.
My teenage years: start trying to get into silent cinema and more foreign-language stuff, recognizing a history and world of cinema beyond me. Definitely start trying to get into Mystery Science Theater and keep my love for models.
My early adulthood: attempting to be a filmmaker, find more fascinating with the actual artifice and construction of movies, begin getting more into horror movies for the gore effects and the vibe of it all.
Mid to early late 20s (as I am currently 28): I’m just trying to watch stuff I think I will like and dream about video projects just for my own edification rather than as a career.

23) What is the one film you’ve had more difficulty than any other in convincing people to see or appreciate?

Most recently La Flor, which I swear if you’re willing to make the 13-hour (chopped into three days) commitment you will find absolutely enjoyable. If that’s too much, there’s always the 7-hour Sátántangó.

24) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth?

Gene Tierney. No hesitance.

25) The Japanese word wabi denotes simplicity and quietude, but it can also mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. What film or moment from a film best represents wabi to you?

Smug answer: Ewan McGregor having to cover his mouth to prevent himself from being seen smiling as he says “killing younglings” in Revenge of the Sith.

Sincere answer: In terms of a moment of happenstance, that one shooting star that appears behind Roy Scheider in a scene of Jaws. In terms of a film of happenstance, probably Cassavetes’ Shadows. In terms of simplicity and quietude, pick an Ozu… any Ozu.

26) Favorite Documentary

Night and Fog

27) Favorite opening credit sequence.

I feel like I should have a way cooler answer than Monty Python and the Holy Grail and yet…

Runner up I will give to Enter the Void.

28) Is there a film that has influenced your lifestyle in a significant or notable way? If so, what was it and how did it do so?

There are definitely SEVERAL though narrowing it down to one is tough. I suppose that Repo Man influenced my outlook on life having no meaning at all, but my response to that outlook is definitely different from what that movie intended for sure. I think Russian Ark – of all movies – actively instigated an interest in fine art that I maintain to this day, where no matter where I am… the art museums of that place have to be one of the stops. There’s plenty of films that continue to nourish that interest but Russian Ark is the one that lit the cannon.

29) Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews?

Dana Andrews. Clearly from this “either or” question and the last one, I’m that much of a Laura fan.

30) Make a single prediction, cynical or hopeful, regarding the upcoming Academy Awards.

Fucking hell, I can’t make this about the 2007 Oscars now. I assume that like literally everybody else in the world on December 2007, I was sure as hell that Day-Lewis was taking Best Actor and the Coen Brothers were taking Best Picture.

My hopeful prediction for the 2020 awards is that First Cow MAY be able to inch into the Best Picture slate and would probably be the only movie I root for in a very unimpressive looking race. My cynicism says that Nomadland will fucking sweep.

31) Best Actor of 2007

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

32) Best Actress of 2007

Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon

33) Best Director of 2007

Guy Maddin for My Winnipeg

34) Best Screenplay of 2007

Joel & Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men, knowing full well I’m cheating here.

35) Favorite single movie moment of 2007.

The moment just before that aforementioned Anton Ego monologue where he eats the Confit Byaldi and is transported back to a warm childhood memory.

36) What’s your wish/hope for the movies in 2008?

This is maybe a slightly easier case of “pretend I’m in the time period of the quiz” as any other time running through these. I was 15 years old when 2007 was closing out so I was obviously hoping The Dark Knight turned out to be the best movie of all time.


So, I’m pretty sure this was my first ever encounter with Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog’s quizzes and that I ended up posting my answers way back in a facebook note for my friends rather than any blog which I did not have at the time. I’m sure those answers were all very useless and stupid as I was certainly in undergrad at the time (this was originally posted in December 2006 but I’m pretty sure I encountered and engaged with it in 2012). Now that I’m out of college and a member of society… my brain has developed… it has evolved… now I’m stupid faster!

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

In theaters was still Tenet unfortunately as I am filling this out at the end of the dread year 2020. On DVD was A Charlie Brown Christmas because it’s that time of year, y’all.

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

Emmanuel Lubezki is the basic answer but he is absolutely the one I look most forward to, especially given that I don’t think I’ve seen him work on a film since Song to Song. And I’d definitely point out any collaboration with Cuarón or Malick as one of his finest achievements but I particularly think of Knight of Cups in its radical look at Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?

Never bet against Mitchell.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…)

The moment that door knocks at the end of The Public Enemy which James Cagney, I knew exactly what was gonna end up behind that door and it didn’t feel any less cold of a move when the brother opens the door and I gasped at a movie for the first time.

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.

Singin’ in the Rain. I’m that easy.

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.

M. I’m REALLY that easy.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.

In a Lonely Place when Humphrey Bogart uses two of the only people who can tolerate him to gleefully describe a murder to their discomfort.

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?

I haven’t seen much with either actor (and I think Molina’s roles that I saw were more homages rather than the actual thing), but Bouquet plays one of the most underrated Bond Girls ever in For Your Eyes Only and that makes me want to give this round to hers.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

The wrong fucking question to answer in the age of Disney buying up every nostalgic property and using it as a brand, but I’ll answer it anyway and choose Logan. And to illustrate this further, I’ll use Dark Phoenix as an example: that’s a movie that has zero emotion to it because we’re barely familiar with the characters in that manner. Logan – particularly as a sober farewell to certain characters – functions as impressively as it does because Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Xavier are as familiar to us as they could possibly be 17 years later and it actually uses that recognition as something that deepens this story of one man watching his body finally fail and die on him.

(I could have also went with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood but that would have been too easy).

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.

Jim Bouton in The Long Goodbye

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.

Harold and Maude

12) Name the first double feature you’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.

Demons and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (and in the eventual closure of that theater that would definitely happen, it would also be the final double feature).

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?

Same answer as I had the last time I did this: The Colour and the Shape.

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?

Bogie as Marlowe and as actor, though I do love me Elliot Gould and especially with his Altman performances including The Long Goodbye. I will say neither of them are as good in the role of Phillip Marlowe as the real MVP, Mr. Dick Powell.

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.

Mary Poppins, baby.

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.

Charles Chaplin in City Lights taking his first opportunity in a sound film to overdub some stately speech-making affair with absolute gibberish.

17) Pink Flamingoes— yes or no?

Yes. It was a date movie. It has sentimental value to me.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, though I do sometimes lean 8 1/2.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?

Naomi Watts. Though it is a bit unfair. Wray was the superior Ann in her King Kong movie but Watts just gets more opportunities. Wray has had to work hard to prove herself a great actress, never got roles worth her talent, and certainly never got such a silver platter role as Mulholland Dr.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?

The Birth of a Nation. This late in the game, I have failed to hear any compelling argument of its place in history besides being at the right and wrong place at the right and wrong time.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.

Best Choreography and while the years most recent would be packed to the brim of hard competition, I imagine this year only really lends itself to Birds of Prey as the most deserving winner, as would likely be the case of any movie whose 2nd unit involved Chad Stahelski.

(Which it IS, those fight scenes were the most fun I had with the movie)

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.


23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?

It specifies that each viewer sees the same thing for the same amount of time, as that’s basically what the cut – the most distinguishing element of cinema as an art – grants us: a unity of image and a duration to it. And yet it’s still able to be non-prescriptivist enough that not everyone is going to get the same thing out of the same thing. It’s capable of abstract unrealities (or reality simulcra) that communicate the same thing to audiences without dictating how to process them and that is impressive.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?

Albert Finney, with much love to Ustinov anyway for Quo Vadis and The Great Muppet Caper.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

The VistaVision logo.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb. The first textbook I had during undergrad in film that I actually enjoyed reading and it gave me a direct idea on the trials and tribulations of filmmaking and problem solving while having the context of what resulted in one of my favorite movies. Not as good a read as The Disaster Artist or as dissecting as Hitchcock/Truffaut and there are many more movie-based movies that bring me to a more exploratory or intellectual mood, but you never forget your first.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any “spoilers” in your answer.)

Ah, now “ending” is the operative word because I was pretty close to just making this Psycho and being happy with it. The Sting is probably my favorite twist ending but the best has to be The Empire Strikes Back… I can’t imagine any more heavy twist ending in a movie to date outside of that one. If I have kids, I will do anything I can to make sure that ending is not spoiled for them before they watch it.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.

Shoot the Piano Player.

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?

Olivia Hussey, as Juliet and as actor.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.

Ryan Gosling almost bumped into my friend as four of us were walking down a street during Cannes 2014 and everybody except me recognized him. Realizing that I didn’t actually look at the dude that passed us by, my friends and I ended up trying to catch up with him and what I assume were his bodyguards… as slowly as possible… down a dark street at night… in France.

We figured very early on that we were definitely stalking that guy to our embarrassment.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?

(I cribbed this one from The House Next Door. Thanks, Matt! Great question!)

I wanted to take a moment to copy and paste the answer I gave the first time I did this: “At the age of 12, I decided I wanted to act in movies (on a relevant note, I am not a good actor), but couldn’t find anyone who was making a movie so I may as well make my own. And my first thought was ‘Who makes a movie?’. I mistaked the producer’s job with the director’s (or I think I mixed their tasks together). I had been familiar with the name of Steven Spielberg, but I thought he was just the guy everybody owed money to in Hollywood.”

But that takes the question at its most literal, I presume, and I think what it really shoots for is “what moment while watching a movie made me RECOGNIZE they were directed?” And I think that may have ended up being Who Frames Roger Rabbit‘s ambitious usage of live-action and animation in one frame while mixing in noir making me recognize “Holy shit, someone actually thought of mixing these tones and actively put it all together in one.” So nicely done, Zemeckis. And I expect Back to the Future‘s whole third act also added to this revelation.


Let’s go through another one (yes, I’m probably going to go through all of these SLIFR quizzes until I run out in order to avoid the continuous writer’s block I have as a critic). This one is from July 2006.

1) Does film best tell the truth (Godard) or tell lies (De Palma) at 24 frames per second? (Thanks, Peet)

Is it too much of a cop out to say both? I think it’s essentially a little from column A and a little from column B. But if I’m going to have to pick a side, I lean with Godard and not just because I actually like his movies as opposed to De Palma but… the 24 frames per second IS the lie, really. That’s how it imitates motion without capturing it.

2) Ideal pairing of actors/actresses to play on-screen siblings.

John Legend and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Racial differences notwithstanding, they literally have the same face type.

3) Favorite special effects moment.

The skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts. Makes me feel like a kid again every time I watch it. True love and care put in each combatant.

4) Matt Damon or George Clooney?

George Clooney easily. Though this is going to be so backhanded a compliment, but I really appreciate how the best Matt Damon performances utilize his dry bland looks.

Max was a real one.

5) What is the movie you’ve encouraged more people to see than any other?

I’m confident this is probably World of Tomorrow but it may also be Mad Max: Fury Road. So, y’know, 2015 was a good fucking year.

6) Favorite film of 1934.

The Thin Man, 100% relationship goals.

7) Your favorite movie theater*

Oof, how timely a moment to answer this question. It is and will possibly always be the Pollack Tempe Cinemas in Tempe, AZ. Second run strip mall theater with a ridiculous lobby in neon hot pink populated by memorabilia and a crowd of wax statues and worthy wide auditoriums with excellent presentation. Caught midnight cult movies there and also cheap late runs of new releases that were so much cheaper. A lot of sentimentality for the beginning of the past decade developing my love of movies while juggling three jobs, 2 majors, and no money. A real miracle and given that it’s literally been a giant expense of one dude for 21 years who just wants to make an accessible state-of-the-art movie theater for us folks, I really hope it’s able to open its doors once everything is safe (they voluntarily closed down since March).

Honestly, between Pollack Tempe Cinemas, The Loft, and Harkins Cinemas (and none for Alamo Drafthouse), I think Phoenix might be my favorite city to watch movies over Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City.

8) Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne?

Irene Dunne. Holds her own better against Cary Grant and also holds her own against Charles Boyer on top of it. Plus took her awesome stage skills to the screen with Show Boat. Definitely enough to forgive Cimarron. Jean Arthur has appeared in a lot of movies I like, but feels more often a liability to those awesome movies.

9) Favorite film made for children.

My Neighbor Totoro

10) Favorite Martin Scorsese Movie

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

11) Favorite film about children

My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t count? In that case… I shall fuck us up unnecessarily with the other 1988 Ghibli picture Grave of the Fireflies.

12) Favorite film of 1954.

Johnny Guitar.

13) Favorite screenplay written by a writer more famous for literature than screenplays.

Double Indemnity, with the awesome involvement of the hardboiled icon Raymond Chandler.

14) Walter Matthau or Jack Lemmon?

Jack Lemmon. Even the most gifable of Matthau’s faces cannot compete with how much Daphne in Some Like It Hot changed my life.

15) Favorite character name.

I’m between three ridiculous 80s hero names: Matt Hunter from Invasion USA, James Dalton from Road House, or John Matrix from Commando. I think I’m leaning more Matrix because it’s the most unorthodox of all these surnames.

16) Favorite screenplay adapted from a work of great literature, either by the author himself or by someone else.

I could cheat and say Double Indemnity again but I will switch to Solaris with the way it reconstructs itself and its distribution of knowledge (even if Stanisław Lem hated that approach).

17) Favorite film of 1974.

A Woman Under the Influence

18) Joan Severance or Shannon Tweed?

Barely recognized either based on the few movies. I guess I’ll lean Severance ’cause she’s the closest to being an entity in See No Evil, Hear No Evil between that and Of Unknown Origin (the only Tweed movie I’ve seen).

Also killer steel fucking eyes.

19) jackass: the movie— yes or no?

I turned into my adolescence in the early 2000s so though I have not seen a full episode of Jackass or any of the movies outside of Bad Grandpa, I must salute them for their ballsiness.

20) Favorite John Cassavetes Movie.

Same as my favorite movie of 1974 above: A Woman Under the Influence.

21) First R-rated movie you ever saw.

It was either Terminator 2: Judgment Day or it was The Matrix. In either case, it was a result of visiting somebody else’s home with my family and in either case… because my parents were strict as fuck, I was not supposed to be watching these movies.

22) Favorite X-rated film (remember that, while your answer may well be a famous or not-so-famous hard-core film, the “X” rating was once also a legitimate rating that did not necessarily connote pornography).

I’ll split the difference between porn and feature film: Flesh Gordon.

23) Best film of 1994.

Trois Couleurs: Rouge. Quentin Tarantino was right: Pulp Fiction stole its Palme.

24) Describe a moment in a movie that made you weep

The final meeting in Brief Encounter. Probably means less outside of the context of the movie, so y’all should watch it soon.

25) Ewan McGregor or Ewan Bremner?

That’s not fair, setting someone who looks like Ewan Bremner against someone who looks like Ewan McGregor.

26) One of your favorite line readings (not necessarily one of your favorite lines) from this or any year.

This year: “You are sick of prosperity and indulgence. Cannot you invent a few hardships for yourself and be contented to stay?” from Emma.

2006 (if I’m trying to match the time this quiz was first posted): “Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.” from The Prestige

Any year: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? … And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” from A Man for All Seasons

27) What, if any, element in a film, upon your hearing of its inclusion beforehand, would most likely prejudice you against seeing that film or keeping an open mind about it?

I will confess that learning about Mank‘s creation made me braced for the adaptation of “Raising Kane” that it relievedly was not. But if I’m thinking about 2006, probably the knowledge that Douglas Adams died before he could complete or sign off on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy screenplay.

28) Favorite Terry Gilliam Movie.


29) Jean Smart or Annie Potts?

Annie Potts. Don’t even have to second guess, I love her too much.

30) Is it possible to know with any certainty if you could like or love someone based partially on their taste in movies? If so, what film might be a potential relationship deal-breaker for you, or the one that might just seal that deal?

I imagine it depends on different combinations of person to person. I definitely think I can hang and chill with people based on their tastes in movies but definitely have movies that are total dealbreakers for me – how am I supposed to trust a girl that doesn’t like Lubitsch? – while having practically no movies that “seal the deal” for me since… i dunno, I’m sure I should be having more concerns than if they have the same movies I love. Just gotta make sure she doesn’t have those movies. Like if they like my baby dog Bruno.


Y’all should know by now how this shit rolls. A poll from April 2006, but I’m too lazy to play “pretend you are in that time period” with this one as you will see by my answers. Let’s roll!

1) What film made you angry, either while watching it or in thinking about it afterward?

Michael Haneke’s US remake of Funny Games definitely was the point where I recognized what an intolerable presumptuous bitch he was. Even while I still swallow it and continue watching his movies in the hope that they provide something worthwhile, I’ve never lost that anger towards him as a filmmaker or storyteller.

2) Favorite sidekick.

Really tough to qualify Tigger by the strictest concept of a “sidekick” so I may instead opt for my homie Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. In any case, there was no way I wasn’t going to pick a Disney character for this.

3) One of your favorite movie lines.

“Remember you’re fighting for this woman’s honor which is probably more than she ever did.”

4) William Holden or Burt Lancaster?

Burt Lancaster without a second thought. Not to disrespect Holden.

5) Describe a perfect moment in a movie.

The titular dance sequence in Singin’ in the Rain. Pure happiness, maybe the happiest moment in all of cinema.

6) Favorite John Ford movie.

Now here’s a tough fucking question. I might just stay with the classical Stagecoach, but holy shit does this flip over and over. One of my favorite directors.

7) The inverse of a question from the last quiz: What film artist (director, actor, screenwriter, whatever) has the least–deserved good reputation, artistically speaking. And who would you replace him/her with on that pedestal?

Marlon Brando fucking sucked as an actor. I don’t know who I’d replace him with because actors don’t need more shit getting to their heads.

8) Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino?

Barbara Stanwyck without a fucking thought. Again no disrespect to Ida Lupino.

9) Showgirls— yes or no?

Fuck yes. You meatheads were able to quickly decide Starship Troopers was satire but somehow missed Showgirls even when it got to it by the same methods.

10) Most exotic or otherwise unusual place in which you ever saw a movie.

Caught the top secret world premiere back in Fall 2019 of a certain 2020 Sundance release in a Masonic Temple in Downtown Miami. The ambience was more rewarding than the movie, to be honest.

11) Favorite Robert Altman movie


12) Best argument for allowing rock stars to participate in the making of movies.

Never seen a rock star appear in a movie without having a shitload of screen presence, good or bad.

13) Describe a transcendent moment in a film (a moment when you realized a film that just seemed routine or merely interesting before had become become something much more).

The final few scenes of William Castle’s Macabre where they really tried to throw us into a real shocker of a reveal after an awesomely creepy cemetery sequence. Y’know how it is, Castle always wants to hit ya hard.

14) Gina Gershon or Jennifer Tilly?

Jennifer Tilly, almost exclusively on the weight of her performances in the Chucky movies.

15) Favorite Frank Capra movie.

It Happened One Night

16) The scene you most wish you could have witnessed being filmed.

The climactic morgue battle in Re-Animator. Imagine getting to watch a whole bunch of makeup effects covered naked people surrounding and attacking Jeffrey Combs, while we have a headless dude running around, a decapitated head effect acting, and that one fucking giant intestines grabbing dudes. It’d be like a kid in a candy store for me.

17) Robert Ryan or Richard Widmark?

Robert Ryan in all his muscularity.

18) Name a movie that inspired you to walk out before it was finished.

The remake to Prom Night where my friends realized that The Forbidden Kingdom was actually playing right next door. Only mildly an upgrade, but we were 15 at the time so a Jackie Chan and Jet Li movie sounded like the greatest idea of all time.

19) Favorite political movie.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

20) Your favorite movie poster/one-sheet, or the one you’d most like to own.

21) Jeff Bridges or Jeff Goldblum?

Jeff Bridges. Even with Goldblum’s addictive weirdness and even with Bridges going from originally playing every role post-1998 as The Dude to playing every role post-2010 as Rooster Cogburn, Bridges just has more performances I love.

22) Favorite Ken Russell movie.

The Devils.

23) Accepting the conventional wisdom that 1970-1975 marked a golden age of American filmmaking in which artistic ambition and popular acceptance were not mutually exclusive, what for you was this golden age’s high point? (Could be a movie, a trend, the emergence of a star, whatever)

Francis Ford Coppola winning the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar for different movies within the same movie year.

24) Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner?

Ava Gardner. Night of the Iguana made me a man.

25) With total disregard for whether it would ever actually be considered, even in this age of movie recycling, what film exists that you feel might actually warrant a sequel, or would produce a sequel you’d actually be interested in seeing?

Would genuinely like continuations of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension where a new actor plays Buckaroo Banzai each movie and my Dream Team for each one is: John Cho, Lakeith Stanfield, Kitano Takeshi, Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Steven Yeun, Maggie Cheung, Taika Waititi, and Robert Pattinson. It’ll never fucking end, baby!

A Period Film

Autumn de Wilde’s debut feature film Emma., adapted from the same eponymous Jane Austen novel as the second-to-last movie I covered (with an added punctuation to the title that de Wilde has explained by the means I alluded to in this review’s title), has a very special place in my heart for me. Outside of Tenet, it became the very last movie I saw in a cinema during its release the night before AMC shut down as part of the measures taken in the early days of the coronavirus when the country pretended to care. And it is a comfort in the following days that my last two movies in a movie theater while I refuse to step in one for the foreseeable future were among the very new releases I had seen over the past 12 months.

I like to think none of that sentimentality has a hand in my positivity towards the movie. Even if I hadn’t seen Emma. in that contest, it is certainly the case that it has retained my favorite quality of all of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations: a refusal to be nice to its characters. Including and especially Emma Woodhouse, played by Anya Taylor-Joy as the lead in a phenomenal cast that finds a way to import a much modern attitude in their performances as they can do without feeling out-of-time with the setting. That modernity is how de Wilde and her cast are able to hash out as much nasty teasing from Austen’s source material and Eleanor Catton’s screenplay adapting it from Emma’s place of extremely noted privilege with wealth and background to her ostensible new recruit as a best friend, the much lower class Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a relationship that we have enough distance to regard as pretty shitty and enough engagement to hope that Emma will recognize her snottiness and develop as a better person.

A trick that is of course at the heart of Austen’s work – as I mentioned in that aforementioned Clueless review – as her judgment of her judgmentally presumptuous protagonists and the judgmentally presumptuous social norms they engage is what animated her literary storytelling and it seems that cinema finally caught on to that with a vengeance in the mid-90s, even if Emma remains “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Well, Taylor-Joy’s Emma delivers sarcasms and snipes like a second-language and even in the understanding that she’s being mean, it ends up being absolute fun to listen to as dry comedy and restrains from foreshadowing any future thawing though it remains a believable character arc. In the meantime, Goth and Miranda Hart (as the very talkative and excitable neighbour Miss Bates) are wonderful sports as the most frequent recipients of these meddling while acting as the secret weapon for Emma.‘s humanity and bringing us to root more for the idea of Emma making amends with Harriet and Miss Bates and earn their friendship than for Emma making amends with potential suitor George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) or Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and find love. I expect it is just as much the fact that Goth and Hart are both clearly the best performances in the movie that the power of friendship is more appealing than the power of love in an ostensible Regency romance story, but it does not feel inadvertent on de Wilde or Catton’s part nor like a bug.

The cast and script are of course only one level through which Emma. was so enjoyable as a late-night watch. As expected of any period film worth a damn, the production and costume design use the Regency accuracy as an opportunity to explore the chance to act as extensions of what drama is happening inside them. Most particularly the complete polarity between Kave Quinn’s decision to make the palaces and mansions throughout feel elaborate and overindulgent in its lines and curlicues and Alexandra Byrne’s desire to restrain as much as possible in the attire of these characters. The latter seems to function all the better to define the social differences between Emma, Harriet, Miss Bates, and the rest as well as really stress that stuffy rigidity that Emma and her father (Bill Nighy) seem to embody in their style just as much as their personality. In the meantime, the whirly Englishness of the sets is particularly a starting point for de Wilde (who clearly showcases a developed eye from her background as a photographer and music video director) and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to exaggerate the fussiness with similarly rigid compositions that nonetheless lend to imbalances (especially in Blauvelt’s camera movements) and add rosy tints to even the least compatible colors while softening the focus so that everything just a tinge unnatural and off-putting (an act that makes way for a visual surprise later in the film). Which feels no less a sarcastic manner to present an ostensible time and place of pageantry than it does to use the heights of the English language to give unbecoming snipes and actions.

In any case, Emma. happily embodies all the brittleness of the time it was made to translate effectively Jane Austen’s critique of a time that was while still indulging in all the visual splendour that makes worthwhile period pieces a treat to look at. It would be tempting to claim that the latter is what makes it an easy and appealing watch while performing the former, but the fact is that the same biting attitude of the content informs a lot of how the movie looks and so it intertwines together into the sort of knowing joke on the time and place that at least this viewer loves to be a part of. And the sort of movie that I satisfied me enough as a farewell to the cinema for the time being.