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Half Nelson

Somehow I missed Half Nelson at both Sundance and in critics’ screenings. It’s not an easy picture, neither in terms of subject — an otherwise over-earnest Brooklyn junior high school teacher (Ryan Gosling) buys crack from the same neighborhood element threatening his students’ welfare — nor execution, which loops around the characters’ intentions and actions like a never-swept spiral staircase. But it’s worthy, in no small part because of Gosling’s strong, understated performance and the incredible generosity of his pubescent costar, Shareeka Epps, who plays the student who’s onto his coke problem partly because she’s already submerged in the perils of that world.

That Epps has already developed her chops enough to bestow generosity upon her fellow actors speaks volumes about her tremendous talent; she resorts to none of the tricks most young actors pass off as acting: no flat, unmitigated stare; no mugging. She watches instead, with eyebrows that punctuate a whole scene singlehandedly and a big grin that you wish her character had opportunity to flash more. But as Dre, the daughter of a single MTA worker (Karen Chilton) rueful about her daughter’s isolation but too mired in scraping together her bare necessities to otherwise nurture her, Epps is more of a badass who terrorizes the biggest thug in the schoolyard yet still weeps over her brother in prison, and over her teacher’s terrible folly. She is intact, in other words, which partly stems from bright lights like her smart teacher who ignores the prescribed school curriculum to teach his students critical thought — to think beyond the black-and-whites literally and figuratively prescribed by their neighborhood, their media. Their whole world, in other words.

Here’s where the film falls out, for though moralizing would do no good in a film invested on every level in the greys of life, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that the predicament of the student preyed upon by drug dealer is equal to that of the teacher buying from that dealer. It’s hard to forgive those particular trespasses in an adult entrusted with the education of teens who receive very little other support — and though we eventually sit through an evening with his boozy, liberal (with all the true-lefties’ attendant negative associations to that term) family that sheds light on his strain of inner turbulence, it ain’t hardly enough.

It’s an explanation, though, if not an excuse, and that’s all that this small, quiet triumph seeks to offer. To its credit. I’m grateful I finally did surrender to its sleepy, sad stupor.

A Few Words For a Sponsor

There are times when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill. And you don’t care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box because you don’t have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut. And there is no point in planning to save the juice from canned vegetables because they, and therefore their juices, do not exist.

— M.F.K. Fisher

Which is to say: this broad could use some extra gigs.

What I Did This Summer (A Retrospective of Retrospectives)

Changes have been a-brewing in My Own Private Idaho this summer — breakups, births (not from this broad’s womb, nay), funerals. New people I never would have expected and people I never, ever wished to bid goodbye. That is to say: life.

And though I’ve not been in the, uh, state, to talk much, I’ve surely done what I’ve always done when the going gets tough: This semi-tough broad has lost it at the movies.

Yeth, it was an inarguably dour summer at both the cineplex and the art house; how else to explain the hoo-ha generated by the nothing-to-write-home-about Little Miss Sunshine, even given its admittedly winning cast? But just as contemporary film proved too bracing for my frazzled nerves, I finally fell, limbs akimbo, appropriately enough, for the silents. It’s hard to believe I resisted their charms as long as I did, given my oft-professed disdain for the overall volume of contemporary film—the too-Klever prattle; the soundtrack over-reliance — not to mention how much I dig the physical comedy and tic-y melodrama (o Spanish film; how I love thee). Chalk it up to my stubborn resistance to black-and-whites, which, I am pleased to report, I also have finally conquered. The trick: see’em all on the big screen. Much more so than technicolors, black-and-whities require a big screen to enliven their particular geometry of contrasts. No doubt there exist cinephiles far loftier than I who could relish Grapes of Wrath’s sour pleasures on a video IPod but, sisters and brothers, count me out.

So it’s been Retrospective summer — anything screening in NYC, from the early Hitchcocks (his style-over-substance works best nonverbally anyway) to the Frank Borzages to anything starring Our Miss Louise Brooks. The gorgeous staginess, the eyebrow waggling when I least expected it, the unmitigated emotionality that animals more than humans typically exhibit (true!): herein lie this summer’s only sweet relief.

Also of note: Film Forum’s Billy Wilder series sealed the deal for me: His Royal Filmic Puck was the greatest comedic director that ever danced down the world’s aisles. I may not officially be a listmaker, but The Apartment dwells forever in my Top Ten In The Sky.

And: After enduring the bulk of the Museum of Moving Image’s Kubrick retrospective — as well as a bona-fide StanleyK lecture (talk about earning my m-fing Hoodsie points) — I’ve concluded once and for all that his chilly disdain for humanity, especially for women with their messy biology and demands, limited the value of his work. I feel about him the way I suspect he felt about beautiful women: nice to look at but not so much upstairs. Especially taken in bulk, however, his films proved so much wryer than I ever would have guessed.

God love such details. The older I get, the more heartily I believe they really are what keeps us keep-on-keepin’ on.

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