(Editor’s Note: Three years ago, Carmen Petaccio and Taylor Sardoni exchanged 15,000 words of email correspondence about the ten most notable films of 2013. No one was ever able to determine why, and now they’re at it again. You can read Part One of this year’s exchange by clicking these words.)
Sardoni Selects 2: An Exhaustive Email Exchange: Part Two
SARDONI: Oh, Wiener-Dog. What an odd little film you are. At first glance, the movie may seem like an irreverent, silly-looking creature, waddling beside its master like its titular pup. But Wiener-Dog has more style and grace and confidence–and dare I say, heart–than almost any other film I saw this year. Though it likely won’t convince any naysayers of his talents, Todd Solondz perfectly juggles the mundane, the absurd, and the plain ridiculous; he is the owner proudly walking next to the silly-looking dog. He owns every tiny detail of this film, and his technique has really matured over the years. Each chapter tells a specific, unique story that feels singular and, at the same time, deeply relevant to the overall themes. Danny DeVito’s chapter, about a screenwriter, was my favorite, even if it hit a little too close to home.
Personally, Todd Solondz is a filmmaker that I’ve always had a hard time liking. Not because of the quality of his films, but because of the difficult feelings his work evokes. With most directors I can divorce my emotional reaction from the technique, but not with Solondz; the pathos and the craft seem inseparable. I often feel so affected that I’m left admiring his movies, not liking them. Wiener-Dog felt like a great film that I’ll never watch again. Does that distinction matter in how we rate or discuss a film? Wiener-Dog was one of the best movies of this (wretched, I agree) year, but it’s still not one of my favorites. Is that a contradiction?
CARMEN: I only think it’s a contradiction if you consider a film’s quality a function of its re-watchability, an attribute that certainly lends itself more to some films than others. I’d like to think that most directors intend their films for multiple viewings, but there are some, like Solondz, whose sensibilities are in conflict with that perceived merit, sometimes to the film’s credit. Subjectively, Wiener-Dog is the type of movie that I can watch a thousand times, uncovering new joys and complexities with each subsequent viewing. But I also recognize, objectively, how even someone who loved the movie would never want to see it again. I clearly derive some perverse psychotic pleasure out of loving aesthetically unlovable art (or presenting the image that I love it), so I’d be the last contrarian to insist that anyone so much as watch the trailer for the movies that I consider re-watchable. Like the distinction between “best” movies and “favorite” movies, you have to acknowledge the spaces where objective and subjective enjoyment diverge and overlap, and I think it’s important for critics to maintain an objective understanding of their own subjectivity, if that makes sense. My thinking that Wiener-Dog is re-watchable is probably a direct product of my suspicion that others wouldn’t find it re-watchable. Is that a contradiction? Like, I’ve watched Funny People in its entirety upwards of a hundred times, but I haven’t seen Wiener-Dog since my initial viewing. Is that hypocritical? Or is it possible that good taste is contradictory*?
(*Good taste is contradictory. I have the best taste.)
Moonlight narrowly missed out on my top ten films of the year list, but its inclusion in our discussion was never questioned. To be honest, my first reaction to the film wasn’t as positive as I’d expected, partly because of some clunky dialogue, mostly because, to me, Moonlight stunk of caucasian cat nip. For a film about black homosexuality, Moonlight was surprisingly chaste in its depictions of homosexuality, and its visual language–minimalist, handheld, indie–has always struck me as a painfully white aesthetic. (In structure and tone, Moonlight most reminded me of Boyhood, a film so white that it blinds.) During the movie, I couldn’t parse authentic progressivism from signaled progressivism, but reducing Moonlight to that binary may have been misguided. The more time passes, the more I see Moonlight as a deeply, intentionally conservative film, one chiefly about the enduring horrors of conservatism and the incapability of our structures–social, artistic, et al.–to address those horrors. Until its final scene, Moonlight denies its audience precisely what society denies its characters: an effective means of repudiating oppression. Like Elle, another one of our notable movies, Moonlight analyzes sexual dynamics in a way that may feel unsatisfying, but a more idealized dramatization would have been disingenuous. Both of their world views are distressingly conservative, which feels both unfortunate and apt for the current cultural moment. They suggest that survival in a ruthless culture demands a type of ruthless self-interest. The question is whether or not you allow that ruthlessness to become heartlessness.
TS: Well, if good taste is contradictory, and you have good taste, and I’ve always thought we had very similar taste…I completely agree with you! Now onto Moonlight. The hype surrounding a film can sometimes ruin your perceptions of it, and I was worried this would happen with Moonlight. Yes, the technique is as overused as it gets; it screams ‘indie’ importance, especially when the film explicitly addresses social issues. I had real worries that Moonlight would be the film that those Oscar voters (in their whiteness and senility and ignorance) would wrongfully raise up as an antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that has rightfully come about the last few years. I just wanted the film to be great independent from the conversation. And while the hype did indeed affect my viewing, it did so in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.
I had a different reaction to you on my first viewing, though I believe we’re arriving at the same end result. Because I enjoyed Moonlight more than I ever thought I would. There is an incredible tenderness to the film and its performances, and the world you enter (along with its sexual politics) is unlike anything else being shown in theaters, present or past. It’s such a fine film that it’s impossible for the buildup to cloud your judgment. I was ready to classify Moonlight as soapbox filmmaking, but it’s just honest filmmaking.
I never would have thought to connect Moonlight and Elle, but I’m glad you did. Elle is a little gem with so much going on below the surface, a complex psychosexual character study disguised as a simple revenge film. And what better director to toe the line between absurdity and straight drama than Paul Verhoeven? Personally, I have always loved his work, the good and the bad. Robocop was the Blu Ray in Residence of our dorm room, and anyone who calls Total Recall a guilty pleasure doesn’t know what true guilt is. But Elle is something else: just when you expect it to go one way, it goes darkly and insanely in the opposite direction. I may have seen some of the twists coming, but nothing felt lost in terms of story. The power of the film comes from seeing these characters react unexpectedly to the situation. Here’s another indicator of a great film–the actions and reactions force you to see yourself and others in a different light. Elle is the type of movie you want to watch again with other people, to see how they react. In the perverse Verhoeven tradition, I want to watch other people watch this movie. He gets me.
Moonlight will be heralded this year at the Oscars, and I think rightfully so; though the film uses past techniques, its story is completely of the now. That said, it’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t shortlist Elle for Best Foreign Film this year. Win some, lose some, I guess.
CP: There’s no silver lining for living under neofascist tyranny, but at least it makes living under the tyranny of the middlebrow slightly more bearable in comparison. If I didn’t view the Academy Awards as a sacrificial ritual at which the art of cinema is bled to death annually, the possibility that La La Land could outperform a film like Moonlight would have me in a straightjacket. It’s certainly not one of our notable movies, but the question begs to be asked: Did no one check if Emma Stone could sing?
I love your little synopsis of Elle: “a complex psychosexual character study disguised as a simple revenge film.” Here is a film that opens with its title character being brutally raped, before continuing on with her day as if she’d gotten a manicure, not been sexually assaulted. The entire rest of the film functions as an explication of Elle’s flippancy in the face of that violence, showing, I think ingeniously, how the assault is merely a symptom of a much more pernicious disease: the need for frail men to project an image of power, and how women constantly suffer, in ways small and large, as a result of that desperate need. Of all the men in Elle’s life–her impotent ex-husband, her deadbeat son, the perverted game developers at her company–the only one who seems to bring her any kind of joy or security is her rapist, a dark irony that the film goes to great lengths to reveal as a sad, recognizable reality. Like Moonlight, Elle is riven with sudden, merciless acts of violence, but both films meticulously demonstrate the passive savagery that constitutes everyday life for women and homosexuals. Neither film ever lets its message overstep its characters, though, and while all three actors who play Chiron in Moonlight deserve endless accolades, Isabelle Humbert is acting at a level that exists beyond praise. According to reports, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett all passed on the script for Elle before Humbert was cast, supposedly out of disgust. I’d argue they simply knew the limits of their talents.
Loving, in its way, is also the story of a woman dealing with incompetent men. Where does it rank in your Jeff Nichols filmography? Why did no one check if Emma Stone could sing?