Archive | Film Matters

Of The Father of My Children, and the Orphans We Carry

For a month people had been telling me that I would “just love” Father of My Children, a phrase I am sure they did not intend as the kiss of death. But others presupposing my taste irked me; if it were that uniform, I thought, there would be no point to my reviewing film. Also I was irked by the prospect of the film’s director, Mia Hansen-Løve. Only 28, she had made a name for herself as a young actress in films directed by her now new-husband, Oliver Assayas, 26 years her senior. But because I respect the film’s publicist—she’s one of the few who only represents films she genuinely admires—and because I was growing embarrassed by my terrible inflexibility, I requested a screener and an interview with Hansen-Løve. When the first sleeve I received contained the wrong DVD and the second one arrived only hours before our scheduled interview, I began to wonder if perhaps my cynicism was merited, if the whole endeavor was ill-fated.

Then I watched the film.

Loosely based on the life and death of French film producer Humbert Balsan, The Father of My Children’s central character is an independent film company manned by debt-ridden producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). At its start, Canvel is a blur of motion, juggling movies in various states of production and postproduction, investors, the bank, his gorgeous and gently understanding wife, his two young children as well as his ennui-struck teenaged daughter. But when he gets pulled over for speeding, he’s informed he’s already amassed so many traffic points that his license is revoked. Though he declares riding the bus is great (“I can read scripts and met someone I am going to produce!”) it’s clear that Canvel has reached a saturation point. The jig is up.

But the reality of his predicament continues to evade Canvel, who, like all of the most daring and important producers, leads his professional life only one step ahead of total, unrectifiable chaos. He continues to stammer incessantly into his cell phone even though the only phrases on the other end are now “I need” and “no.” Finally, when the bank freezes all his accounts, he freezes as well, and his sudden stillness is scary. What comes next may be inevitable given that his lifeblood pump directly in and out of his company, but it shocks nonetheless. The second act of the film consists of his family and colleagues numbly sifting through the detritus of his company in the wake of his suicide.

This is not an easy movie. It tackles big stuff– the biggest, really, like the precarious balance between present and future, family and work, business and art, mortality and immortality. But it breathes, nonetheless, and it encourages us to do so as well, even in the wake of the grief it recalls in our own lives. Bathed in sunlight streaming through dusty windows, Father’s depiction of the messy, demanding sprawl of independent film is powerfully understated. Like Canvel himself, it is so grounded in film history that it boasts a startling lightness, like the child who dares to climb the highest tree because he’s sure someone will rescue him—until one day he realizes they won’t.


After watching the screener, I hurried to my interview with Mia Hansen-Løve, suddenly anxious to talk with the person who could create such a work. Since I was her first scheduled interview that day, everyone in the publicist’s office was still milling about in preparation when I arrived. Mia herself sat awkwardly, almost as an afterthought, sipping from a cup of black coffee. Without first greeting anyone else, I quietly slipped into a seat beside her and said how much I liked the movie. We started from there.

What followed was the most moving conversation that I’ve ever had with a filmmaker, which is saying quite a lot since filmmakers are wonderful conversationalists. They tend to be curious about everything. We spoke of the influence of the Nouvelle Vague on her work, and of how Humbert Balsan committed suicide after he agreed to help make her first feature. (A young male character functions as her stand-in in Father) We spoke of the spiritual underpinnings of film and filmmaking, and of how rarely it gets discussed. In fact, I found myself wishing for much more, but since Hansen-Løve had a full day of interviews still looming, I exited back into the day— reeling, blinking madly in the bright sunlight.

A month later, I finally pulled out the tape recorder to transcribe the interview, almost afraid of reliving the conversation lest it might not prove as transcendent as I’d remembered it. But I found nothing. Nothing at all, save a mocking, barely discernable hiss.

Really, I should have known from my other line of work that this might happen. It always does whenever I step right out of the time-space continuum. Electronics tend to break down when everything else falls back and all that can be heard is the sound of another person’s voice in that Winesburg, Ohio “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other” way.  Certainly my conversation with Mia had taken us both out of the rush of our two, otherwise divergent, lives.

Suffice it so say we bore witness to each other’s grief, though hers was receding and mine was yet to come.

For it was when I initially had sat down to transcribe this interview that I suddenly flashed on how much Eleanor Salotto, my first literature professor, my most important mentor, and a true friend of my heart, was going to treasure this film. The email I’d sent her recently had bounced back, and so I googled her in a mindless, mild reverie of procrastination, wondering if she’d left the Southern women’s college where she’d taught for the last decade. The first hit was a local TV spot declaring her a missing person. It took another ten minutes before I ascertained that a body recovered from Virginia’s James River had been identified as Eleanor from her dental records.

I couldn’t breathe.

I knew then that my interview with Mia must have taken place during the week that my mentor’s body was found, and I saw suddenly how Eleanor had woven in and out of our whole conversation. We had probed at the topic of mentors, and of how suicide exists in relation to the act of creating. Makingart; writing, directing.

I’ve never understood suicide. I’m a big believer that if things are so bad you’re willing to kill yourself off, you should consider what else you’d be willing to kill first—like a shitty job or a bad relationship or the part of yourself that you’ve been too afraid to change.

In fact, the only time I ever seriously considered it was during the summer of my 19th year, which too closely resembled Sylvia Plath’s 19th year. That was when I realized that no matter how poorly my parents had prepared me for anything resembling life, I could no longer blame anyone but myself for whatever happened next, and fell into a depression so bottomless that my doctors were convinced I had a brain tumor. It was Eleanor who saved me then. She had been my freshman English professor the year before, and when I wrote her to say I wasn’t going to return to school, she called me immediately. In her high, fluty voice, she said, “Listen, you need to come back to school and study something besides your own navel.” She went on tell me that I was going to be ok because she was going to make sure of it.

And she did. I had my first session with the therapist she found me on the night that I returned to school, and I slowly came back to life under her tutelage; it took a year before I could see colors again or sleep more than two hours at a time. Each week she carefully phoned to ask the right questions–always light, always pointed. She taught me how to balance a checkbook and how to say thank you and, more importantly, how to say no, thank you. She taught me how to buy a dress, how to eat in a restaurant, how to look people in the eye and how to turn in a paper on time no matter how tumultuous my personal life might have been.

She’d be so cross with me if she knew that I hadn’t finished this piece three weeks after the movie had already opened in New York. When I knew her, Eleanor turned everything in on time, no matter what else was going on in her life. That was the only way to reinvent yourself, she suggested. When I met her family, I understood. It wasn’t that they were awful. She was actually close with her sister, though they had nothing in common but their father, who wore the vacant stare some men acquire as soon as they start their first dead-end job, and their mother, who’d died when they were far too young. But it was clear Eleanor had come from a family bound to be more alarmed than charmed by a child as inquisitive and sensitive as she must have been.

So only she could raise herself –and she did, tenderly, slowly, methodically. She worked to put herself through college and then taught young children while she studied how to live as an adult separate from her clan’s mortal coils. She was in her mid-30s when she sorted out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and started graduate school shortly after; landed her first tenure-track professor gig in her mid 40s. It was lucky that she radiated a Modigliani beauty whose timelessness made it hard to place her at any age, even if it sometimes made her feel even more out of step with her peers. (She was 57 when she died but was widely reported as 47, which seemed entirely physically plausible.) Certainly I understood that reinventing her wheel required such hard work that she could not even imagine raising someone else. She was the father—and mother—of her own self as child, and all those roles for one person proved more than enough.

After I got better, I learned that the therapist she found me had also been her therapist, and that she had been saved from a depression even more gripping than the one that had possessed me. But I was young and seeking inspiration rather than fissures in the precious porcelain that was Eleanor and her old-world Italian complexion, so I focused on the implicit happy ending. All I knew was that she had gotten out, finished all the school she needed to attend, lived on her own terms with no family or man to tell her what to do. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

She inhabited lovely, well-appointed spaces decorated with small prints and pink and mauve antiques that were surprisingly luxuriant to sit upon. I adored staying with her during my school breaks, when we slept together chastely beneath her fluffy white duvet on her bed with its ornate wooden carvings. I marveled over the array of lotions and potions polished to a high sheen in her spotless bathroom and studied closely her books, her artwork, her wardrobe. For my college graduation, she cooked a lamb tagine and served me a generous glass of garnet-colored red wine in a large goblet. At my setting at her tiny, heavy table she placed a box so beautifully wrapped that I didn’t want to disturb it, though I felt immeasurable pride and pleasure when I fingered the stiff silk scarf it contained. What I remember most about that evening, though, is the tagine recipe, carefully cut out of a magazine, lined up on the kitchen counter next to another article describing the wine she’d selected for our evening. Even then, my heart filled for the little girl relishing her grown-up dream. It still does.

Over the years, we grew apart. I wanted to raise myself, finally, and it is my fervent belief that we must at least temporarily leave all our teachers if we’re to absorb their lessons well enough to navigate on our own. She didn’t approve of where I’d diverged from her path, anyway. Though I loved English literature as much as she did, I’d foresworn graduate school and declared New York my university. She deemed the dramatic fits and starts I called my love life ridiculous and messy, and I suspect felt the same about my apartments– colorful sprawls of dresses and books and odd bots, punctuated by the blur of my two sleek cats who leapt wherever and whenever they pleased. Her discomfort was more than evident when she began to stay with me on her schoolbreaks, and I found it rude.

The last time she ever stayed with me I was in the process of retiling my kitchen floor, and she declared the apartment uninhabitable. She ran up a long-distance bill that seemed huge on my yoga teacher salary, and listened to classical music loudly on her Walkman all night in the narrow bed we shared while I struggled to sleep. Finally I bequeathed the apartment to her entirely and didn’t creep back from my boyfriend’s until she’d already left for the airport. My cats were enraged.

Although I don’t regret the chasm that widened between myself and my parents after I finally got off their shabby couch, I regret that I could not release my petty grievances with Eleanor while she was alive. We stayed in touch, especially after she was appointed the director of a university film studies program and I became a film critic. She remained a beacon for me as a single, childless woman. But we were never close again. We slipped from a domestic intimacy into friends who met only once during her visits to New York, and eventually stopped talking even on the phone. Once she tried to tell me how disappointed she was by the distance that had grown between us, but I responded coolly, refused to be pulled in.

Like Canvel’s filmmakers, I had made her into something she did not ask to be, and then punished her for not living up to it. Yes, she was fussy and, yes, a greater flexibility might have helped her when she became disappointed by the life she’d worked so hard to achieve. But she loved me fiercely when I was at my most unlovable, and she raised me the best she could. More to the point, she saved me from myself, and it will haunt me for forever that no one, including me, saved her from herself in turn.

Though Eleanor’s had been ruled an apparent suicide, I wondered at first if she’d been murdered, which I found I preferred to the idea of her ending her life. More googling revealed that, one day mid-semester, she’d simply not appeared at her classes or picked up the friend who’d flown into the local airport to visit her. I might not have seen Eleanor in years but it was inconceivable that she could’ve transformed so completely from the woman who always honored her commitments, especially to herself. But when I heard back from the few people we still knew in common, they confirmed a suicide note had been found.

I imagined the velvet and lace finery she must’ve left behind, the pages of notes in her round, precise cursive for her next book of critical theory, the hush of her ordered rooms, the students still living at the vulnerable precipice from which she’d rescued me, and it slayed me. A friend took me out kayaking in Red Hook’s harbor to cheer me up but I found myself shaking as the sun set on its dirty waters, imagining the will and misery required to plunge herself forever into the dark mystery of a river.

I suspect that in the end it was the work that failed Eleanor, as it failed Canvel and Balsan, for it was the work that always lived at the center of her life. Every painting she observed, every film she attended, every meal she enjoyed, every conversation that took place, even the oddly old-fashioned clothing that she managed to find no matter how modern the boutique, always came back to her own world of critical literary theory, where Hitchcock and Zola and postmodernism and the Brontes shimmered together in a hypnotic, spidery gossamer.

Only 2 percent of modern suicides occur by drowning but such deaths were more common during the 18th century, the literary period Eleanor claimed as her academic field. And when the world outside her studies failed her, I believe she wrote herself into her work, fabricating her own death as the kind of gothic detective fiction that she had written about so cleverly for years. I can imagine her admiring the symmetry of the death, its neatness, and I both love her as the little girl building out her own life one last time, and feel desperately, violently ill.

As Canvel’s (and Balsan’s) family, friends and colleagues must have felt though for opposite reasons. It was their fate to inherit the mess of his company, which he abandoned rather than solved. It is my fate and the fate of everyone who loved Eleanor to inherit the legacy of her unexpressed anger, an anger I now realize I always sensed beneath the precision. But I wasn’t big enough to embrace that little girl who feared that if she didn’t do all her homework exactly the right way she’d lose her ticket out. Instead, I was annoyed by her. She deserved to know she was lovable not despite those qualities but because of them, as they’d helped her survive as long as she did. Instead, I think that we all let that rigidity keep us at arm’s length, even those of us who should have known better, read her better. Wrote her better.
When I watched Father of My Children I was still groggy, nursing my first coffee, combing the film for possible interview questions. Less than ideal circumstances for full immersion, and yet one instance of the film especially caught me.

In it, Canvel and a colleague are listening to a director rant about how they’re cutting corners. After she leaves, the colleague explodes as well: “I work seventy hours a week. I get home at 12 am too! I’m killing myself here!” Shoulders slumped, Canvel shuffles into his office and mumbles he’s going to take a nap, though he’s typically a man on line in every sense of that word. He falls asleep instantly, and the next shot is of a mid-20th century young boy, playing wordlessly. For a second, we’re disoriented. Is Canvel dreaming of his lost youth? Is the film itself jumping back in time to a scene from his childhood? Then the shot widens to reveal the screen on which the image is projected, with Canvel only half-watching what must be a rough cut or dailies.

It’s a segue that distills so much. How artists invariably transform patrons into the parental figure who has let them down, whom they scorn and rail against but petition endlessly. Of how Canvel would prefer to be the beloved child rather than the censorious, responsible parent—probably why he made film in the first place. Of how the experience of watching a film sends us back to our childhoods, when when we were still willing to suspend judgment and surrender to awe. Expected to be awed, even. When we still hoped.

And at that instant, a text comes through on the cell Canvel is idly thumbing in the dark: “Accounts frozen.”

I may not recall some of the details of this conversation with Mia Hansen-Løve but I remember that fluty voice not unlike Eleanor’s in which she struggled to speak English. With her colorless features and neat but unremarkable sweater, she did not seem like the French husband-stealing vixen I’d imagined though did she seem very French. More like a big thinker– a perpetual student, in an unaffected, endearing way. I saw that what she and Assayas shared was a serious, old-soul empathy.

I had asked her if she so frequently worked with kids because she herself had been a child actor and she’d responded that it stemmed from the purity of intent they still possess. This reminded me of the segue from Canvel’s nap, and to my surprise I began to weep while I described the beautiful confusion that it had triggered in me.

“It made me think about how we look to art to redeem us, especially film, and how it sometimes works but only as a means, not an end,” I said through my tears and she began to weep as well, nodding, as did her translator who had seen the film only the night before.

At that moment, the publicist reminded us gently that many others were waiting to speak to Mia. I collected my things in a daze not unlike Canvel’s, except mine was the daze borne of the joy art can help us attain. It was the joy of communion, both with others and with our true, timeless selves. Which is what, ultimately, this brilliant film is about—that connection to ourselves and each other that art can make possible.

And what remains when what saved us becomes that which fails us most.

By George

I have come to the entirely un-revelatory conclusion that George Clooney is the new Sydney Pollack.

Pollack came into the public eye in the ‘60s and effortlessly bridged a burgeoning counterculture movement with big-studio Hollywood; he produced, directed, acted; he worked nearly equally in TV and film and he even bridged the never-narrowed divide between European and American film, appearing in the French Fauteuils d’orchestre only two years before his 2008 death from stomach cancer. With zero fanfare, he shifted between indie and big-budget films to produce some of the best films of the last decade, including Ira Sach’s Forty Shades of Blue, Michael Clayton and the underrated Breaking and Entering, directed by the also recently deceased Anthony Minghella, with whom he exec-produced No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And let’s not forget his pivotal cameo in the last season of The Sopranos, which I prefer to pretend was his last role. (His actual last role was in the one-for-them Made of Honor.)

I cried when he died. He was my kind of tall, gravely-voiced hero: a cool nerds who was so comfortable with himself that he made you comfortable. We need more people who don’t get distracted by the us vs. them game if standards are to truly improve.

And now there’s George Clooney, with whom he often worked. True, George is distractingly, suspiciously pretty. Couple those good looks with the tics that distinguished his early acting (the lowered lid gaze; the eternal head-rolling) and it’s no wonder he once seemed the unlikeliest of candidates to take up Pollack’s mantle. He languished forever in TV: Facts of Life, Roseanne and then as Dr. Ross, the rake with the Roman haircut, in ER. (Amusingly, he also had an early stint in an ‘80s sitcom called E/R.) But late blooming lent him the complexity that those good looks never could–his real-deal clan also may have helped along those lines—and suddenly the way he worked his jaw spoke of longer, more compelling shadows.

So while he floundered in the franchise-halting Batman & Robin and painful Michelle Pfeiffer romcom, he made his celluloid name in less likely projects: the QT-written Robert Rodriguez genre-fucker From Dusk Til Dawn and in Out of Sight (to date, my favorite Steven Soderbergh movie). These days he works in TV and film; speaks both indie and big-budget; produces, directs, acts; plays nicely with both the boys and suits; wags his tail and his brows; shifts beautifully between comedy and drama; and serves as a regular player for nearly every interesting American director. He’s a secret nerd, someone who relishes roles that render him the butt of the joke, whether it’s as the wheeler-dealer who’s no longer doing either effectively, or as the handsome buffoon whose vanity keeps landing him in hot water to great comic effect. He also channels a downtrodden watchfulness in roles like Michael Clayton. But the serious side—the gravitas as opposed to aw-shuckness—emerges best when he’s behind the camera, when his only real flaw can be death-by-earnestness. And let’s not forget his politics, as in: He actually has them. Not knee-jerking grandstands, but long-tail, deeply considered values that he brings to bear in a grip of projects. Like Pollack, Clooney seems to believe in the power of the medium to not only move people but to stir them to action. Is he the best actor, producer and director around? Not yet, and he may never make the robust, nearly infallible crowd-pleasers that marked Pollack’s career. But for all the clatter that always surrounds Clooney, the breadth of his contributions still go oddly unnoticed. Along with a handful of others, he is steadily laboring to raise movies’ bar, and arguably ours in the process. He seems to hold America itself to standards that we’ve largely scrapped or, worse, forgotten.

And speaking of swoony Clooney, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is so much better than I had hoped, largely because of baby George. Based on its surrounding flap—the reputed crew animosity toward their largely invisible director; the ridiculously masturbatory New Yorker profile (naturally, since Anderson shares its twee sensibility)– I had feared it would be a self-involved jumble. It’s not. It’s clever and endearing. Stop-motion may be the ideal medium for detail-obsessed Wes, and the voice actors do a wonderful job, especially Streep, whose voice proves downright sensual separated from her hyper-gesticulation. But the real star is Clooney. Disembodied from his actual physicality, he is easier in his skin, freer to express a rakish, indeterminate sexuality that falls in step with an old-Hollywood tradition of the impossibly dashing leading male. Ahem.

The film’s only real weakness is that, even at 88 minutes, it lags near the end. Ever since Anderson started cowriting with Noah Baumbach, his films never have a decent third act. That is because Baumbach simply cannot write a good script. He can hatch a decent premise with well observed characters, but he cannot actually plot. Words I never thought i’d utter: O Owen Wilson, where art thou?

Of the Gold Standard Set by The Wire and, Yes, I’m Not There (Another Rosmanic State of the Union)

I’m up early today, already digging on the different quality that a mere extra twenty degrees imparts to winter air, because, really, I never fell back asleep after I screamed at the kids partying on the first floor of my building.

Rest assured I loathe the word “party” as a verb, but that’s the word for the loathsome activity that had been holding my entire apartment building hostage last night. The coked-up Alexander Dumbasses in 1R had been blasting their mediocre dance music and scrabbling around in the hallway on audibly cheap heels, repeatedly slamming our heavy front door and screaming to each other in MySpacese. I’d been lying in my bed, simmering and then seething, reminding myself that at some point that might have been me. Another voice kept hissing, though: Dude, you taught yoga in your 20s and went to Quaker college. At least you would’ve given your neighbors a heads-up that there was going be a party and I know you would’ve tapered it off before the older Italian couple on the second floor started dressing for church. Not to mention you would’ve been blasting music that actually got you laid.

At 5:45 am I finally lost my shit. Threw a robe over my hideous nightgown and thumped down two flights of stairs, hair standing on end in an uncultivated way that might’ve looked cute when I was, say, my neighbors’ age. But now: just pissed-off hair on pissed-off me.

I banged on the door as hard as cops do and when a girl opened the door — her eyes glassy, her nose rabbity, her skirt Robert Plant-short — I balled my fists and barked in a voice I’d almost forgot I had: “What is it going to take to get you to shut the fuck up?”

The girl stared at me, entirely blank, and whispered, “Okay.” The music went off immediately. Five minutes later a mass trampling in the hallway was followed by one last, weakly defiant slam. Mama had ended the party.

I tromped upstairs, and lay back in bed, heart thumping in my throat, Max and Ruby’s tails swishing furiously. Nearly 37, a cat lady alone on a Saturday night, and still I thought I was better than those douchebags sowing their seemingly endless wild oats. Let them do this for two years, I thought, and then rush back to the suburbs that spewed them once NYC seemed so dang safe. Let them have two more years of bad sex and overpriced meals and dumb outfits in histrionically overdocumented spaces. Give them two more years of something to blog about and then, just as they’re rounding 30’s corner, let them scurry back to 401ks and their expensively reproduced DNA that they’d freak if they didn’t have to remind them to grow up. Let them pretend they’re city dwellers but never really learn anything from or about the very place they live. Let them live in this fabulous, dreadful quagmire for two more years without once silently nodding at someone whom they’d never run across in the cushy world from which they emerged. Let them be hipsters; I’m a bohemian who never wants to return to the mostly dark muddle that spawned her. Fuck’em if they can’t shut the fuck up.

That’s right.

I blame the whole thing on the Wire, honestly. For five months I’ve been in Wire boot camp and it doesn’t exactly teach you to suffer fools gladly. Yancey and I watched the first three seasons together, but after the split I couldn’t bear to watch Season 4 when it aired. Eventually I got over that silliness and realized I needed to start from scratch before Season 4 came out on DVD. The last five months’ free time — which has scarcely existed, save for certain trips to Massachusetts — has been spent in the following way:

1. My Wire buddy Kristal comes over or I skulk over to her East Village joint.
2. We eat a meal that one of us prepared with more care than we’ll ever admit to the other.
3. We drink a bottle of something strong while we silently watch as many Wire episodes as we can.

We barely talk about anything not Wire-related. If we do talk about anything else, it’s mostly comprised of the famous Fucks, Bunk and McNutty style. Mostly we just sort out the show and let it sort us out. To extol its virtues here would be radically redundant: you’ve either already surrendered to its brilliant articulation of power theory or you will. As well, since the show is finally reaping a modicum of what it’s due, much has been written about it elsewhere.

But I will say this: what the show most thoroughly achieves is perspective. It throws into high relief how overstated everything else is — not only onscreen but in daily life and conversations. This show possesses heart and brains and balls and yes, mofo, pussy, and it does so without once laboring to make sure you know. God knows it doesn’t cater to those baby tomatoes who can’t catchup. And it sure as hell doesn’t fall prey to the Klever with a K meshigos that I apparently will never resist. It just tells an untold story with wit and empathy, and leaves it to you to keep track of its bits and pieces. This may be the only TV show that not only teaches you something in particular but makes you generally smarter. It coaches you to really pay attention. Gives you what they call in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division “soft eyes.” Goes on to show that every cog matters — especially the ones that have been officially erased because they can achieve that much more since no one’s looking. Any self-aggrandizing just falls against the natural order this show lays out. Vanity is a luxury ill-afforded; egoism the true crime. That’s what idiot-savant McNulty’s rise and fall and rise and fall teaches us.

Which is why, going back to my neighbors, I’ve become less tolerant as of late. I moved to Brooklyn 15 years ago not because I thought it would be a lark but because I never thought there’d be another place for me. I didn’t just come here for some stories to tell later; I came here to finally live amongst people who weren’t all like me or each other, and didn’t aspire to be. I came to Brooklyn, not Manhattan, and even then I was aware I was part of the very gentrification that we’d all come to bemoan. But back then we did it differently. We planned (or at least I did) on sending our kids to NYC public schools, and involving ourselves in improving them. We smoked dope; didn’t do bumps. We worked in Community Gardens, got involved in local causes. We got to know our neighbors. I always picked up litter — and yelled at kids for littering. (Still do.) I was aware of my tendency to pat myself on the back for mixing with what I still viewed as local color, but I hoped I’d grow out of that shit, and I mostly have. Hell, these days, as a late-30s woman who’s hung on to her rent-stabilized pad even during the years that crackdealers and a real-life brothel also inhabited the building, I think I’ve actually become part of the local color. I’ve been doggedly un-upwardly mobile because I just couldn’t bear the kind of job I’d been programmed to seek, but I was at least conscious that my poverty was a choice rather than the inescapable reality experienced by many in my chosen city and my family of origin. And when I finally did surrender to that stable gig — which, yes, I did this fall — I became another taxpayer, as they say on the Wire. Someone who wants her stoop nice.

So it’s going to take more than those punks on the first floor to get me to give up on my sleep. Not only because those kids don’t bode enough real danger, Bodymore style, for me to steer clear, but because, hell, I can’t respect how they just can’t shut the fuck up. And if Omar and Keema and Bunk and Lester and Daniels and Rawls and Stringer and Avon and Prop Joe and Marlow have taught me anything, it’s how to back somebody down with a silent stare followed by a few well-chosen words that pack a punch no one knew was coming.


Of course that leaves me in a funny place as a film critic. During this fall that I’ve been immersed in the Wire, all cinema has seemed so damn spelled out. Yes, I’ve still been sitting in on tons of screenings — I’ve been writing for Flavorpill more than ever and even writing up some mainstream ditties for my mainstream mag — and am more than willing to admit that 2007 was the best year US cinema has seen in at least five years. I have even concocted my top-11 list (quel Spinal Tap, I know):

11. Romance & Cigarettes
10. Michael Clayton
9. The Host
8. Knocked-Up
7. The Bourne Supremacy
6. Broken English
5. Persepolis
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
3. Away From Her
2. There Will Be Blood
1. I’m Not There

But most of this list overlaps with those of my colleagues and what doesn’t I haven’t been in the mood to discuss. I’ve held every film and every conversation to The Wire‘s tremendous economy and long view, and what can live up to that? I suspect, for example, I might not have hated films like Eastern Promises or Gone Baby Gone quite so much if I hadn’t been watching a show that made Scorsese seem incredibly overdone.

I wasn’t surprised by this year’s trend of wildly violent Westerns — both withholding and overdrawn — given that the US impulse of Manifest Destiny is currently tearing the entire Middle East an unnecessary new asshole. (There Will Be Blood is by far the best of this lot.) I took to Away From Her and Broken English but knew their grown-up, terribly feminine sadness would drop like a thousand trees in an unpopulated forest. And I loved I’m Not There in such a personal, fierce way that it hurt to argue about it as I did whenever the subject was broached.

Suffice it say that it was the first successful music biopic ever made because it wasn’t so much about Dylan as it was about the ’60s that bore him — the state of mind that really sprawled from Guthrie’s ’40s to the Vietnam ’70s. It was about the last time Americans thought that not only they could change but that they could love their country and still seek to change it. It’s about how much artists can reasonably be expected to owe their audiences and how much influence they can reasonably expect to wield. About whether art can really impact social change, and whether it should be expected to. It is even about the mutability of identity, and the impermeability of soul. Lofty stuff, for sure, and I’ve been accused whenever I’ve attempted to discuss this of being everything from fake-populist to elitist, but I think that big ideas beget big ideas and it’s okay to expect our film and even our television to aspire to such levels and it’s okay to try to talk about them. Even fake populist to not try. Certainly a loss. With all apologies to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, Todd Haynes created in I’m Not There easily the most original film of this decade, which renders it the most original film of the millennium. And he did it by achieving a cinematic expression as variegated and ragged and unhappily gorgeous as his subject(s).

But more than that, this movie feels like home because it nails so many moments and emotions that carve at the loneliness I carry. It channels what I love about my borough and The Wire, too. The willingness to acknowledge (as Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns suggest over and over in interviews) that no one is solely a saint or a sinner. That human nature is so complicated that unnecessary embellishments are at best whistling in the dark and at worse a disavowal of the richness that already exists on every corner. That sometimes a new language must be manufactured in order to communicate what we don’t normally say, even to ourselves. And that learning a new language doesn’t exactly entail easy listening.

I cannot wait for The Wire Season Five premiere. But I’m going to try, just like I’m going to try in this new year to not hold every other show as well as myself to its impossibly high standards. Otherwise, I may never write more than 200 words of criticism at a time again.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy