Sardoni Selects: An Exhausting Email Exchange: Part Three

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(Editor’s Note: Taylor “T” Sardoni is currently in Russia, which complicates recording a podcast that no one will listen to about movies no one saw. To “simplify” matters, we decided instead to collect an endless email discussion of our favorite 2013 movies into a blog post. This is the third part of that three-part, 10,000-word blog post. (Part One can be read by clicking these words, and Part Two can be read by clicking these words.) Part Three concludes the ordeal with chats about The Great Beauty, Spring Breakers, Nebraska, Upstream Color, and “T”‘s favorite movie of the year, Dallas Buyers Club.)

CARMEN: Since absolutely no one wants to hear any more of my thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street, I’ll talk about The Great Beauty.

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While Wolf is a great point of comparison (both are preoccupied with ruling class excess, both are movies whose scope expands beyond the parameters of their protagonists’ story to include their society’s story), there’s another movie–not on our list, though it easily could have been–that offers contrast: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Like Great Beauty, Nebraska deals explicitly with the decay of a once powerful society, with the people left to attend to the ruins. The methodologies of the two movies are certainly dissimilar, yet not altogether different, more like inversions of each other. Where Nebraska empties a space, Great Beauty clogs it; where Great Beauty invigorates and excites, Nebraska sighs and bores. But both hurtle at equal speed toward the same, horrible truth: these are people and places of former greatness, and that greatness will never be reclaimed. America is a delusional old man, doddering toward death, convinced fortune awaits him. Italy is a party thrown night after night to distract from a millennium-long funeral. For both societies, the end isn’t nigh, the end is already past. Yet there is still beauty left to be found.

What elevated The Great Beauty above Nebraska, personally, was the goals it set itself, how it went about accomplishing them. Basically: Nebraska exceeded its modest goals; Great Beauty achieved its far-reaching goals, did so in ways I wasn’t sure I’d seen before. The Fellini influence hits one over the head so hard that the skull ends up somewhere around the crotch, but I also felt Gaspar Noe in the visuals and Almodovar in the interactions and, to circle back, Scorsese in the movement of Sorrentino’s shots. For all its indebtedness to the Italian cinema before it, Great Beauty felt much more “of the moment” to me than Nebraska did. A lot of that could be novelty, my unfamiliarity with the director. A lot of it, too, could be how it recasts its established, tent pole themes (ascetics, art, religion, civilization, death) and does so with such reckless verve. Its indebtedness is obliterated by how irreverently it co-opts what it is indebted to. For all is visual complexity, its message is simple: life will afford you, at best, a handful of moments of beauty; that is enough to sustain you, move on. It seemed to move dangerously toward the future. Nebraska just felt stuck, safely and contentedly, where it was.

Spring Breakers doesn’t just pop the familiar, indie-film bubble in which Nebraska places us; it shoots it with a grenade launcher. I never felt comfortable during a single second of its run time, which is about the highest praise I can bestow on a movie. In bursts, it felt like a much scarier window onto the American capacity for evil than 12 Years A Slave, a more pointed commentary on appetites and consumption than Wolf of Wall Street. At other times, it felt like sexist, racist, stupid, utter nonsense. Which is exciting for me! Like my favorite works of art (Kanye West rants, weird Twitter, Pynchon), it straddles the line between unimpeachable genius and incoherent stupidity. Of course, incoherence and overload are the intentions of each of the aforementioned; the messiness is rigorously planned. Most of the time, this intentionally messy approach makes for horrible, horrible art. This time it didn’t.

Best James Franco performance ever? Or is Pineapple Express still the high watermark of acting?

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“T”: So do you like True Detective? I can’t tell. If you love it so much, why don’t you just marry it already?

And nope, definitely Franco’s best performance ever. It may be the best performance by a human being, ever. Case in point:

Just look at all of his sheeyit, Carmen. He’s got shorts. He’s got designer T-shirts. He’s got gold bullets, for chrissakes!

I agree, there was no other film this year that made me want to run out of the theater screaming, and at the exact same time, make me want to watch it again right away. I still hear Alien whisper: “Spring Break, bitches…” from time to time. You want to talk about never-born zombies? There is something so haunting, the way that Korine edits together the party scenes into one massive, ugly, beautiful monster of naked tits and asses (male and female alike). The casting is inspired, the use of repetitive voice-over injects a paranoia over the whole thing, the violence feels fresh and new and exciting. This is a movie that dares to go beyond offending. It dares to offend you and then punch you in the gut. And then shoot you in the head. And then dance to Britney Spears in nothing but a skimpy bathing suit over your dead body. And it pulls it off. Is that the smell of Calvin Klein Escape mixed with Calvin Klein Be? Because it smells oddly, terribly beautiful…

Nebraska seems like it’s a left-over Jack Nicholson film from the late 90’s. Unlike Spring Breakers (obvi), the last thing it wants to do is offend the viewer or the residents of the state or anyone in general . What it wants to do is invite you in for a nice cup of tea. I know you’re a huge fan of Payne, and though I do admire his patient, subtle filmmaking, I was not a fan of his last film (I’m still holding out for the Louis C.K.-starring version of The Descendants). Here, however, I think he got the casting just right, and I think it’s easier to root for Dern’s comeback, than it is for the film itself. I do give props to June Squibb, for being one of this year’s unsung heroines of film. She makes the movie. Also, the other Bruce:

In the end, it’s a “performance film” in a different way than something like American Hustle is. The story allows them to show their stuff but not necessarily flaunt it. Honestly, I find it hard to say anything bad about Nebraska. It’s fine filmmaking with good performances that, as you’ve said, lives inside a little bubble of its own making, kinda like the place itself.

Oh no, are we nearing the end?

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CARMEN: To the dismay of everyone everywhere, this trial is almost over. Every blog post dies, Taylor, that’s a fact.

Before we talk about the last two movies on the docket, I must perform my civic duty and advise anyone who is reading never to see the bourgeois treacle porn known as The Descendants. Emphasis: never. The mixologists at Nitehawk couldn’t mixologize my Reanimators fast enough during that disaster. If a future dictator wanted to justify genocide against white people, The Descendants would leave little room for argument. Just watch About Schmidt instead, readers. Out of all the advice I’ve offered up, heed none before this: Watch About Schmidt.

Which brings us to Upstream Color. Like Spring Breakers (the year’s closest thing to an analogue), this is a movie that delights as much as it frustrates. And when it comes to my personal brain, movies that delight and frustrate equally tend to please me doubly. Upstream Color certainly did, both in-theater and on-iPad (a claim that fewer and fewer movies can make). In a cinematic climate hellbent on scrubbing movies of their edges to the point of blobfish resemblance, Upstream Color was a sea urchin, utterly refreshing in its spikiness. To read reviews of this movie is to hear/see horizontal choo-choo steam shoot from the ears of movie reviewers. It put an insane amount of faith in its audience, an act so unheard of today that audiences couldn’t comprehend it. Yet much of Upstream Color was fully comprehensible to me (or at least it was comprehensible relative to an astronaut doing the Macarena on a spacewalk in 2013). What’s incomprehensible to me is how anyone can deem this incomprehensible, watch Sandra Bullock play eenie-meenie-minie-mo with a Chinese spaceship HUD, and call that comprehensible. But you can’t expect people who lack subjectivity to enjoy a subjective experience, you can’t ask a baby to cry. All you can do is snuggle in your bathtub while the world falls apart.

The above was my favorite shot from this movie, probably the year, and I think it functions nicely as an entrance point to and metaphor for Upstream Color. On the one hand, this is a scene brought on by the drowning of the two protagonists’ piglet trauma avatars. On the other, it’s two scared people making each other less scared in a bathtub. The ludicrous-weird appearance of this movie is always working in the service of a simple emotional or visual core, as this shot is. Like the shampoo rack corrupting the shot, it’s not as artsy as anyone wants to believe; it’s quotidian and everyday and, frankly, realist in its essence, even when it screams the contrary. Chill loofa, too.

You, I think, disagree with this assessment. Like, what are you thinking?!?

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“T”: No, no, no, quite the contrary, Car-Car, I agree with most of your sentiments regarding this year’s most baffling, hypnotic film. Upstream Color feeds off its marriage of delight and frustration. And I couldn’t agree more with you about the year’s most overrated film, the dumber than a toolbox, Gravity. Where one is a dazzling, visually-satisfying yet offensively dumb Disney-ride, the other invites you underneath to see how the mechanics of said ride work. Upstream Color celebrates film, its rhythms, its vibrations, the power of sound and image combined. It invites multiple viewings, nay demands it. In my personal opinion, the first section of the film really works on both an abstract and narrative level — I couldn’t get enough of the kidnapper-victim relationship within the story and how they are framed in the shots.

The second part of the story, or the love/sound/bugs/pig part, I just couldn’t hold on to, despite seeing the film three different times (though not on an iPad, I’ll have to try that). In the end, I don’t know if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But that doesn’t matter. The best thing about a film like this is that everyone sees something different, everyone experiences something different. It wants to be criticized, it wants to be debated. And although it may be a cop-out, Upstream Color, in my opinion, is almost impossible to “rate” in the fruit-metric/star rating system we indulge. Like Tree of Life or anything Lars von Trier does (or says), it’s a film that is hard to really put your finger on. That is what makes it great.

Unlike Gravity. There’s no denying the sheer talent and skill one must possess to make a film so visually brilliant. Yet, if the time and energy that went into the directing instead went into the writing or the story, the film would have been light years (Editor’s Note: Nice.) better. It’s really a shame. Gravity represents the industry’s welcoming of the digital age, but it does so with overwhelming emphasis on the technique and not the story, the flare and not the heart. But if I have to talk about Gravity anymore, my forehead veins will explode. It’s definitely my pick for overrated film of the year. My pick for underrated? Dallas Buyers Club.

How is it an underrated film, when it has such critical and industry support? Because that’s what it wants to be. It’s a meditation on underdogs in general. Is it the most perfectly-crafted and executed film of the year? No. Is it Oscar bait disguised as a character study? Kinda. Does it feature the best performances of the year? Arguably. Sometimes a movie takes on a life of its own, and DBC has done that over the course of almost twenty years, dozens of drafts, and multiple director-actor combos. The movie stands for all of those stories that went through similar ordeals and are still in development hell. I actually got to work for a producer who was once attached to the film, and I remember him saying that the reason it wasn’t getting made was because people were scared. Actors were nervous to step into a role that was so challenging. Producers were cautious of putting up money for a film with little box office lure. Does it mean that the many people who were part of the film but backed out are less courageous than the ones who didn’t? No. It says that anyone who was a part of this film, at any time, was brave. Just like Ron Woodroof.

I’ve had arguments with people who say that the characters in the film, especially Woodroof, were a dime a dozen at the time. They say that it was a bit stereotypical. To me, that’s the point. Taking the stereotypes of the masculine, cowboy antics of yesteryear and flipping those concepts upside down. Woodroof speaks for many. I’m glad that a film with such brave directing, subtle writing, and bad-ass performances is the soapbox Woodroof screams from.

Cue the sad music (maybe more Bruce, we didn’t have enough Bruce)…

2013 was another incredible year for film. Years like this make it truly fun for us to keep track, to rate, to critique and to discuss every minute detail of every movie released. We had films that caused arguments. We had films that created debate. We had films that celebrated life, ones that celebrated death, and some that celebrated both…

Looking forward to 2014. You’ve got big ole cowboy boots to fill.