Archive | Film Matters

On ‘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 presupposing my taste always irks me; if it were that predictable, there’d be no point in 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-husband, Oliver Assayas, 26 years her senior and then married to another. But because I respect the film’s publicist—one of the few who only represents films she admires—and because I was embarrassed by my judgy nature, I requested a screener and an interview with Hansen-Løve. When the wrong screener was sent and its replacement arrived mere hours before our scheduled interview, I began to wonder if the 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 is about debt-ridden producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and his flailing independent film company. At first, the man is a blur of motion–juggling movies, investors, the bank, a gorgeous and understanding wife, two young children, and an ennui-struck teenaged daughter from a prior marriage. But when he gets pulled over for speeding, his license is revoked because he’s already amassed so many traffic points. Though he declares the bus preferable–“I can read scripts! I will discover new subjects!”–it’s clear a jig is up.

But reality continues to evade Canvel, who, like all of the most daring and important producers, lives only one step ahead of total, unrectifiable chaos. He continues to stammer incessantly into his cell phone even when all the responses are “no.” Finally, the bank freezes all his accounts and he freezes too. What comes next may be inevitable given that his lifeblood pumps directly in and out of the company, but it shocks nonetheless.

The second act of the film consists of the detritus 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, and mortality and immortality. But it breathes nonetheless, and encourages us to do so as well, even in the wake of the grief it nudges us into feeling about our own losses. Bathed in sunlight streaming through dusty windows, Father’s depiction of the messy, demanding sprawl of independent film is so powerfully understated that it boasts a startling lightness, like the child who dares to climb the highest tree branch 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, keen to talk with a person who could create such a work. When I arrived, everyone in the publicist’s office was still milling about except for Mia herself, who sat alone like an afterthought, sipping from a deli cup of black coffee and staring ahead. Without greeting anyone else, I quietly slipped into the seat beside her and murmured how much I liked the movie.

What followed was the most moving conversation I’ve ever had with a filmmaker, which is saying quite a lot since filmmakers are wonderful conversationalists who 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 soon after he agreed to produce her first feature. (A young male character functions as her Father stand-in.) We spoke of the spiritual underpinnings of film and filmmaking, and why they rarely are discussed. As the interview drew to a close, I found myself wishing for more, but since Hansen-Løve still had a long day of interviews looming, I exited back into the light of day, blinking madly in the bright sun.

A month later, I pulled out the tape recorder to transcribe the interview, hoping the conversation would prove as transcendent as I remembered. Instead all that was discernible in forty minutes of tape was a faint, mocking hiss.

Really, I should have known this might happen from my other line of work. It always does when I step out of the time-space continuum. Electronics break down in “kairos” or soul time, when the kerfuffle of regular life fades away 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.  Without a doubt my conversation with Mia had taken us both out of the rush of our otherwise divergent lives.

We had borne witness to each other’s grief, though hers was receding and mine was yet to come.

Weeks before, when I first had sat down to write about Mia, I had flashed on Eleanor Salotto, my first literature and film professor, my most important mentor, and a true friend of my heart. Knowing how much she’d treasure this film, I’d emailed her but the message had bounced back. I googled her in a mindless, mild reverie of procrastination, wondering if she’d left the Southern women’s college where she’d been a tenured professor over the last decade. The first hit was a local TV spot declaring her a missing person. The second was a newspaper report that a body recovered from Virginia’s James River had been identified as Eleanor Salotto.

I couldn’t breathe.

I realized that my interview with Mia must have taken place during the week my mentor’s body had been found, and suddenly saw how Eleanor had woven in and out of our whole conversation about mentors, film, and how suicide exists in tandem with all forms of creativity.


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’re willing to kill first, be it a shitty job or a bad relationship or the part of yourself you’ve been too afraid to change.

The only time I ever seriously considered killing myself 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 else for my actions, and promptly fell into a bell jar so bottomless that doctors were convinced I had a brain tumor. I couldn’t see colors, I couldn’t metabolize food (especially my mother’s); I couldn’t feel the right side of my body and was plagued by a constant headache so severe I couldn’t stand up for more than a few moments at a time. In short, I was a Freudian case study, but all I knew at that age was I couldn’t live like that and couldn’t see my way out of the tunnel.

It was Eleanor who saved me. She had been my professor the year before, and when I wrote that I wasn’t returning to school, she called immediately. In her high, fluty voice, she said, “Listen, you need to come back and study something besides your own navel.” She went on say I was going to be ok because she was going to make sure of it.

And she did. The night I returned to campus, eighty-nine pounds and shaking, she brought me to my first session with a therapist she’d found, and slowly I came back to life under the two women’s tutelage. It was a year before I could see colors again, another before I could sleep more than two hours or eat a full meal. Each week she phoned to ask the same careful questions–Have you eaten? Have you slept? Are you going to class? Are doing your coursework? She taught me how to balance a checkbook and say thank you and, more importantly, no, thank you. She taught me how to buy a dress, to eat in a restaurant, to look people in the eye, and to be prompt no matter what.

She’d be so cross if she knew I was finishing this piece three weeks after the movie’s stateside release. 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 said. 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 long-deceased mother and their father, who wore the vacant stare some men acquire when they start their first dead-end job. It just was clear Eleanor hailed from a family more alarmed than charmed by a child as inquisitive and sensitive as she must have been.

So only she could raise her, and she did so–tenderly, slowly, methodically. She worked to put herself through college and then taught young children while she studied how to shed her clan’s morbid lethargy. She was in her mid-30s when she sorted out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and landed her first tenure-track professor gig in her mid 40s. It was sheer luck that she radiated a Modigliani beauty whose timelessness made it hard to place her age, though if it made her feel even more out of step with her generation. (She was 57 when she died but widely reported as 47.) It was obvious to me that reinventing her wheel had required such hard work that she could not imagine raising someone else. She was the father—and mother!—of her self, and all those roles for one person proved burden 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 more gripping than the one that had possessed me. But I was young and seeking inspiration rather than cracks in the precious porcelain that was Eleanor, so I focused on her implicit happy ending. All I knew was she had gotten out, finished all the schooling she required, and 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, and I adored staying with her during my school breaks. We’d sleep together chastely beneath a fluffy white duvet on her bed with the ornate wooden carvings, and I’d marvel over the array of lotions and potions polished to a high sheen in her spotless bathroom and study her books, artwork, wardrobe. For my college graduation, she cooked a lamb tagine and served garnet-colored wine in generous goblets. 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 our teachers if we’re to absorb their lessons well enough to navigate on our own. She didn’t approve of how 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 of my love life ridiculous, and I suspect felt the same about my apartments– colorful sprawls of dresses and books and oddbots, punctuated by the blur of two sleek cats who leapt wherever and whenever they pleased. Her displeasure was evident whenever she stayed with me, and I found it rude.

The last time she visited I was in the process of retiling my kitchen floor, and she declared the apartment uninhabitable though she made no effort to line up other housing. 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. 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 heaved off their shabby couch, I regret I did not let go of my 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. More than that, 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 each of her visits to New York, and eventually stopped talking 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, refusing to be pulled in to what I read as a myopic self-pity.

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 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 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 death had been ruled an apparent suicide, I wondered at first if she’d been murdered, which I actually preferred to the idea of her giving up on life. More googling revealed that, mid-semester, she’d simply stopped appearing at classes and had failed to pick up a friend flying into the local airport to visit her. I might not have seen Eleanor in years but found it inconceivable that she could’ve transformed so completely from the woman who always honored her commitments, especially to dear allies and dependents.

But when I heard 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, the hush of her ordered rooms, and her students still perched at the vulnerable precipice from which she’d rescued me. All of it slayed me. A friend took me 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 in which she participated, even the oddly old-fashioned clothing she found 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. I have come to believe that when she tired of the Southern rural academic town she now called her full-time home, of the limited conversational and romantic and cultural opportunities, 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 the little girl building out her own life one last time, and feel desperately, violently ill.

It was Canvel’s and Balsan’s loved ones’ fate to inherit the mess of the producers’ failed companies. 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 her precision. But I wasn’t big enough to embrace that little girl who feared if she weren’t perfect she’d wouldn’t be loved. Instead, I was annoyed, though 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.

I think we all let her 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 caught me.

In it, Canvel and an associate producer are listening to a director rant about how he’s cutting corners. After she leaves, the associate producer 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 taking a nap, though he’s typically on 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 figures who have let them down, ones whom they scorn but petition endlessly. How Canvel would prefer to be the beloved child rather than the censorious, responsible parent—probably why he got into film in the first place. How the experience of watching a film sends us back to our childhoods, when we were still willing to suspend judgment and surrender to hope and awe. When we still hoped, in general.

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

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

At one point, I asked if she so frequently worked with kids because she herself had been a child actor. She responded that it was because kids still possessed a “purity of intent.” This reminded me of the hypnagogic segue from Canvel’s nap, and to my surprise I began to weep while describing the beautiful confusion it had triggered in me.

“It made me think about how we look to art, especially film, to redeem us, and how it sometimes works but as a means, never an end,” I said through my tears. 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 interrupted to remind us many other journalists were waiting to speak to Mia. I collected my things in a daze not unlike Canvel’s fatal fog, except mine was 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, ultimately, is what this brilliant film is about—–that connection to ourselves and each other that art can make possible.

And what remains when that which 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