Frame 3: Unlearning to Read Along My Commute

The streets are lined with people shouting all at the same time. As I propel my insulated capsule along my 30-minute commute, my armor does not muffle the shouts — countless voices in a clamor, everybody casting bated hooks at every passerby. I hear each loud word distinctly.

Shouts, printed on billboards. Shouts, flashing neon in windows. Shouts across storefronts, emblazoned. One shouts from a flag unfurled behind a propellered plane. They seek to persuade me that I am needy, and they're quick to offer happiness. They illustrate mystical experiences, guarantee sexual adventure, tease salivation with sweet and sour lures. Some promise justice after asking if I’ve been wronged — and maybe I have been, let me think. These might seem friendly, but many are mere flattery and false promises — and they're all intent on the same thing: my money.

All of these are messages preached from a pulpit, verses in a liturgy for a church I have rejected. This is the Faith of the Self, a creed that complicates every expression of freedom and justice in the foundational American script. It's the constant insistence that I am incomplete and that I can be made whole if I just buy what they're selling. (And look — is that an Empty Billboard to an Unknown God!)

You need. You need. You need. We will make you happy, hiss the serpents of a thousand fonts, these seducers in a thousand stock photos.

But you know this.

And you might also know what I am only now beginning to learn. I learned the value of reading at a very early age, and the value of seeking out a bargain at the very same time. Ever since my eyes have had their own voracious appetite for text, compelled to seize upon anything that might give me the satisfaction that I got something I wanted or needed for less than the advertised price. So my eyes take it all in, scanning every sign, seeking an advantage. All of it. By habit. Unconsciously. I'm not aware of it as it happens, but if I stop and think about it I can feel the toll it takes. I might just look at the road as I drive, but I'm exhausted after driving through the city. It isn’t just the traffic — it’s the text, the endless assault of attention-seeking adjectives and claims. Every sign is angling to persuade.

Reading every sign, I do not see the more substantial thing: the gift offered outside any urge to advertise. I do not see the necessary, nourishing beauty in its indifference. I do not receive the heavens’ declarations, for I cannot hear the still small voice that translates their announcements. I do not read the sign language of trees in breezes. I do not tune in to the transmissions of birdsong, or their gestures of graceful suspension. Invisible goes unseen, the space that is offered, the moments between notes — the sigh, the pause, the occasions for a Word not bound by letters or punctuation. Instead, it’s bumper stickers and billboards for suckers.

So I crave corridors of trees that quiet all of the clamor. Like those that shelter the path around Green Lake from the roar of the city: paths crowded and busy with people, busy with their talk — but such talk. Human voices in earnest conversation, not competitive agents of consumer culture, not the seductive invitations of saleswomen, not the urgent appeals saying Fear! Fear! Take what we offer and your fears, those we have just kindled in you, will cease! Instead, intimacy. Storytelling. Questions.

So I choose these corridors and practice prayers, weaning myself off the titillation and terror of text. Text. Text. Text. Turning attention to the origin of images, to the things that are diminished by the exploitation of imitators, I receive the light, I read the scents, I taste the textures, I attend in ways that awaken all of my being into eyes and ears. I attend to the indifferent creation, where Christ plays in countless spaces and waits for me to discern a dance.

But it isn't so easy. I've been conditioned by the constant stream — the blaring and the subliminal — that has made Self-Awareness my Default position. Runners that pass me spark surges of insecurity, jealousy, even anger at how they remind me of how far short I fall of any physical ideal. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” says the hummingbird tattoo of a friend at the top of her class; even she, in what others measure "success," in the adoration of fans and the applause of crowds, suffers that flinch. It's an American right: the pursuit of happiness. And yet, in framing our experience that way, happiness is always out of reach, and so we are always striving. Joy, by contrast, is always freely offered, a reassurance, a contentment, found only in what is given with no expectation of return.

Road trips are, for me, no longer about a point at which to arrive. They are a search for the sigh of an open road — a road, open. Open to trees. Open to sky. Open to hills and to space and to birds. Roads unlined with alphabet signs, and obscuring walls, and the self-consciousness of mirrors. Roads that allow for signs of life. I've become a slower driver, quick to move aside for those who suffer urgency. The journey is the reward.

Is this why I am reluctant to wake after sleeping? In dreams, I rarely read signs. I rarely hear an advertisement. And I am rarely ever still — I am moving, often through landscapes. Moments after waking, when I’m grasping at fading fragments of a world that felt charged with meaning, I am dragged back down into the urgent, the tyranny of messages, calendars, reminders, and alarms.

I do not read in the shower. So, of course, I want to stay in that stream of elemental sensation. It is a stronger language. It asks nothing of me.

I rarely read something during a movie, except during trailers and ads. I love being lost in the film. Especially if it knows the language of pauses, of spaces, of sky.

This tree before me now, as I rest here on this park bench, it tells a story here in a thick web of stories. Somehow, burdened early, it grew horizontal to the ground, warped for years, and then suddenly released to answer light's call. It grew straight, tall. I marvel at how the weight of such a skyscraping tree is held up by that bend at its base. Somehow, in that season of suffering, it grew strong enough to defy the pull of the earth and to support a weight of years beyond most others around it. A living word for me, I suppose, if I consider it. If I know how to read. I recall a song: "Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?"

I look up through the branch-weave of birch and aspen and cottonwood, through windows: one frames a mountain of snowdrift cloud, and blue clouds of fog are burning free of that somehow, wisping away. Another frames pale blue, another bolder blue. I hear bald eagles; they're soaring out of frame in a larger, fuller world.  I look down into the undergrowth and see tiny pink ribbons tied around tiny stalks. Generous children and their guides have been here planting, striving to ensure that this stand of trees along the lake line continues to speak, the manuscript always revising. I receive shade, surprise, suggestion, all in the color and ease of the gossiping leaves. The only investment I've made is to go, to be, to receive.

Someone strides through, between me and the trees and the glitter of the lake beyond. They stare, of course, at the tiny glass frame in their hand. I see, for a moment, myself in most hurried journeys. I see myself driving. I see myself in the supermarket. I see myself scanning the shouts. And I'm reminded of all I'm not seeing. I want to leave town.

When I drive north the I-5 corridor from Seattle through Mount Vernon, I rise into a winding span just before the descent into Bellingham. High hills, dark with evergreen. Fog rises and tumbles and dissipates, turning all the world to rumor. Light surprises. Shadows suggest. This is music I was meant to receive. It goes on playing whether I attend to it or not. It loosens me from the tethers and tensions of self-awareness. I breathe more freely. I become permeable, half-suspecting that this is what it will feel like when the last buckle snaps and I rise into an offer I cannot refuse, no strings attached, no bill brought to the table.

Guest review: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Today, I'm handing the microphone to my friend Damian Arlyn, whose views on cinema I seek out, and whose comments on Quentin Tarantino's latest film got my attention on Facebook. I asked him if he would mind saying a few words about this film for Looking Closer, while I continue arguing with myself and setting up a review of my own.

Take it away, Damian!

For a while now, I've found Quentin Tarantino to be one of the most dynamic and yet simultaneously frustrating filmmakers working today. Dynamic because he tells stories with such passion, directs with such panache, and makes immensely entertaining movies filled with wit, intelligence, charismatic characters, and endless movie references (some would say rip-offs) for the amusement of his fellow cinephiles. What I find frustrating, though, is the fact that all that talent and enthusiasm is always in the service of shallow, empty narratives. Tarantino's films are primarily surface: all flash and sensation. No real meat, no ideas to chew on (outside of whatever ethical questions he's courting through his usual controversies like extremely brutal violence, liberal use of the N-word, or troubling abuse of female characters... the last of which is certainly not going to be quelled by this movie).

His pictures are immensely enjoyable to watch (repeatedly) and dripping with style. This was more than enough for me when I was a twenty-year-old in college first discovering a whole new world of film, but over the years, as I've become (I hope) more sophisticated in my tastes and more demanding of my cinema, I've found Tarantino's work, while still hugely entertaining, regrettably shallow. I grew up, but his movies didn't. A Tarantino joint rarely says anything outside of "Isn't this cool?"‚ and when he does attempt to say something through his art — see his three most recent "historical" movies — it's been rather trite and simplistic. Tarantino has an adolescent worldview, essentially, and his movies betray that. They may be very "adult" in terms of content, but they are not very mature. I have long felt that if Quentin were to finally grow up, he might realize his full potential and produce something truly great.

Tarantino lovingly recreates 1969 Hollywood in his latest film. But are we down with everything he loves about this time and place? (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

Well, having just seen his latest opus Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, I can report that Tarantino still hasn't grown up... but something very interesting has happened. He has grown old.

Quentin Tarantino is not a young man anymore. Now in his mid-50s, he has achieved a level of success, celebrity, and adulation afforded to very few filmmakers. He has said many times that he plans to retire after 10 films (referring to this one as his 9th... counting the two Kill Bills as one apparently) because he doesn't want to become sad or pathetic trying to hold on to something long after it should have been let go, a theme that is central to this particular work. Thus, while his films typically just reveal Tarantino the film geek, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood actually reveals Tarantino the man far more than any film he has made yet. He is much less reliant on his usual bag of tricks (his quick-zooms, for example, are never used this time, except for a "movie-within-the-movie," and his signature "trunk shots" are nowhere to be found... even when there is an opportunity for one). His filmmaking is uncharacteristically restrained and subtle. Despite how bright, colorful and generally joyous the film is, there is an elegiac tone to it that is new for Tarantino. He has always looked back in his films, always romanticized older formats, songs, genres, etc. Every Tarantino film is infused with nostalgia, but Once Upon a Time is the first one to carry with it a tinge of melancholy, a yearning, a longing to return to a time and place that he has known mostly through TV and motion pictures... and which, in fact, never really existed at all.

Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), feeling like "a has-been," gets a pep talk from stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

The time and place is Los Angeles in 1969 and the level of detail here is stunning (if this movie doesn't win the Oscar for art design, I'll pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe), achieved, as I understand it, with very little CGI. Tarantino recreates this era of Hollywood beautifully, right down to vintage clothes, old cars and gorgeous posters for movies both real and imagined. It is convincingly authentic (or at least it feels that way; I don't know from personal experience as I was born in '76) as are his simulations of old TV shows and B-movies... all of which star an actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton isn't a "has-been" so much as a "never-was": a handsome but aging leading man-type who never quite got the big break he needed to become the A-list movie star he always wanted to be. He was the lead in a successful western program called Bounty Law, but now is being forced to play walk-on villain roles in someone else's show. At his side is his friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a driver and former stuntman who gets even less work than Rick but seems a lot more content with his lot in life.

The movie primarily focuses on Rick and Cliff over the course of several days that prove to be seminal in their lives. This has been referred to as a "hang-out" movie and that's a fitting moniker aa it doesn't really have a plot. There is a sort of story, but it mostly just follows these two men as they struggle with their impending irrelevance in their changing world. There is a laid-back, leisurely quality to all of their scenes that is very intoxicating (although it does, on occasion only, cross over into being a bit lethargic). The dialogue has the usual Tarantino-eqsue polish but is sharper and less indulgent than it has been lately. Tarantino started his career writing memorable dialogue that just crackled with wit and intelligence (Who can forget the "Royale with cheese" or "I don't tip" exchanges?). Somewhere along the way, though, he seemed to become enamored with the sound of his own "voice" and his dialogue became unwieldy, redundant, tedious and forgettable (particularly in Death Proof and The Hateful Eight). The dialogue here is something else entirely: it smart without being smug, it is concise without being taciturn, it is interesting and yet still believable. There are fewer speeches and far more give and take between the characters. It's the best dialogue Quentin has written in a long time.

Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — icons in Tarantino's temple. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

There may not be a plot, but there is, however, a ticking clock in the form of the film's third major player, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). While Rick and Cliff are fictional creations inspired by real Hollywood figures, Rick's new neighbors on Cielo Dr. are the very real Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Tate. The film frequently cuts from Rick and Cliff's storyline to the Polanskis living the high life and the audience's knowledge of the impending brutal murder of Tate, her unborn child and several friends of hers at the hands of the Manson "family" lends these scenes an uneasy, haunting quality that only grows more ominous and suspenseful as the movie goes on. We even catch glimpses of Manson himself and his gang of girls throughout the film, always on the margins, never really brought center-stage until the third act.

Cliff investigates strange goings-on at an old friend's ranch, where a fellow named Charlie Manson is cultivating... a cult. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

The movie builds to a climax that is... well, it's a lot of things, most of which I can't discuss without dropping huge spoilers, so I'll say as little as possible. It is — not surprisingly, given that this is a Tarantino film — very violent, and it threatens to undo the very delicate spell that the rest of the film manages to cast. (Whether it actually does or not will no doubt prove divisive for audiences.) It is shocking, it is arguably in bad taste, and it is a bit out of character from the film as a whole. And yet, at the same time, I will admit that it does seem like a fitting conclusion to a movie that is about the end of a very specific era of the entertainment industry (one touted as a more innocent time) and the beginning of a new uncertain one. The film's final shot is a very telling one indeed about the director's vision of what a fair and inclusive Hollywood circa 1969 would look like.

One of several controversial scenes: Cliff spars with an egomaniacal Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). (Image from the traler / Sony Pictures).

While I still have issues with it, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood might possibly be Quentin Tarantino's best film (though, at this point, I'm still inclined to go with Inglourious Basterds). For me, it's definitely his most cohesive work since the tragic loss of his friend/editor Sally Menke (whose absence is still felt even now as the film, like QT's other recent movies, is a bit too long... although it's almost understandable this time as Tarantino clearly just wants to spend as much time in this world as he can), but what I think is undeniable is that it is by far his most personal film yet. Yes, we get his usual obsessions and fetishes (still with the gratuitous shots of bare feet), but we also get some of his hopes, dreams, and, I think, regrets. Just as one of my favorite films of last year, Spielberg's Ready Player One, showed a director dealing with the complicated legacy of own creations, Once Upon a Time is Tarantino facing into the inevitability of his own time passing. It is him (finally) allowing himself to be present in his work as more than just the "god" pulling the strings on everything and everyone else. This is Quentin Tarantino at his most vulnerable and contemplative.

Overstreet note: I recently heard a critic describing the gasps throughout the theater at this exact Brad Pitt moment, when the results of intensive training and dieting are revealed. The power of cinema, I guess. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

Its title may have been inspired by Sergio Leone epics like Once Upon a Time in the West or Once Upon a Time in America, but I think this movie is more like Tarantino's own personal Wild Bunch, a eulogy to a bygone era that never was, a fairy tale that mythologizes a land of princesses, knights and dragons. One felt the sadness in Peckinpah's meditation on the vanishing West and its code of honor... and one can sense the wistfulness in every frame of Tarantino's love letter to the City of Angels in the last gasp of the studio system, a place where dreams were made before the place itself turned into a waking nightmare.

Damian Arlyn is a Dallas, Texas resident who divides his time between his job, his lovely wife, producing short animated videos, watching/reading/writing about cinema and listening to music. 

Trailer of the year?

Perhaps they should re-title the new Terrence Malick film: Timely and Relevant.

Wild Rose rises above star-is-born clichés

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace. Beyonce in Homecoming. Elizabeth Moss in Her Smell. 2019 is proving to be a big year for movies about women standing at the microphone, raising their voices, and transporting audiences.

And sometime soon — this year, perhaps, or next — actress Michelle Williams will play Janis Joplin for director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene). This could be huge. Major talents have been lining up for years to play what should surely be a demanding and sensational role, but project after project has fallen apart before cameras could roll — even one that was to star Amy Adams. Durkin's Joplin film, though, seems like it might have some traction. If it happens, an actress whose career has continued to impress and improve looks poised to step into an Oscar-style spotlight.

As a fan of Joplin, Durkin, and Williams, I'm hopeful. But I know who I'll be thinking about when the theater darkens and that movie begins: I'll be thinking about an unexpected newcomer who has just rocked my world with her lead performance as a Joplin-esque country singer in Wild Rose.

When it comes to dream-come-true stories about performers, I'm rarely moved. Case in point: I was more annoyed than impressed with the recent remake of A Star is Born. Bradley Cooper's big crowdpleaser kindled a few scenes in which characters resembled human beings, and Lady Gaga's performance was engaging, sure. But the star's rise seemed too fast, too furious, too easy. The film seemed intoxicated with glamour and money, accepting without question that celebrity status, big stages, and big audiences equal "success." (And its director seemed awfully eager to style himself as an object of worship.) What's more, too many of these films take severe dramatic turns merely for the sake of insisting that we feel things — like the embarrassingly contrived onstage humiliation of Cooper's Jackson, the gobsmackingly severe tragedy that follows, and the way in which these crises conveniently set up Gaga's major Oscar-hopeful moment.

But I'm exercising restraint in praising Wild Rose as one of the best times I've spent in the theater this year... with a suspicion that I might enjoy it even more the second time. For all of its formulaic turns, Tom Harper's fairy tale cut right through all of my skepticism and made me a fan.

Rose-Lyn (Jessie Buckley) is released — or, rather, unleashed — from prison. Look out world! (Neon)

That has a great deal to do with actress Jessie Buckley, who is everything you've heard about and more. She rules the screen as Rose-Lyn Harlan, a Glawegian 23-year-old who, released from prison, immediately launches herself into a mad pursuit of her dream to conquer Nashville as a country music star.

Buckley, who apparently took second-place in 2008 on a BBC talent show I've never seen (I’d Do Anything), is absolutely convincing in every aspect of this complicated character. Rose-Lyn radiates recklessness, convincing us that she was rightfully incarcerated. She implodes under the pressure of crushing anxiety when she looks at two children she has somehow introduced to the world, children she must raise at the risk of her dreams. She clashes spectacularly with her well-mannered and understandably exasperated mother (Julie Walters, in top form).

Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) may have the connections to get Rose-Lyn's voice on the radio. (Neon)

And — most importantly — she burns the house down whenever she sings, the microphone unlocking an irrepressible charisma. Some rising stars wear their hearts on their sleeves, but Rose-Lyn's is not a mere accessory: Her whole body—from her golden throat to her furrowed brow to her dancing feet in those white cowboy boots—is a heart, red-blooded and passionate and vulnerable.

(Buckley might have struck me as too energetic, too supercharged in her performances... but I know better. I know a performer name China Curtiss Kent, lead singer of the band Alright Alright, who could easily have been the inspiration for Rose-Lyn's onstage persona. Those she doesn't speak with Buckley's Scottish brogue, she looks a lot like her, and her friends joke about how it's almost impossible to snap a picture of her in which she isn't just a blur of motion.)

For Rose-Lyn, housecleaning is rehearsal. (Neon)

My admiration for Wild Rose also comes from its smart casting for supporting roles. Sophie Okonedo is outstanding in the role of Susannah, a posh and perceptive woman who takes a chance by employing Rose-Lyn as a housekeeper. Her extravagant home becomes a stage upon which the ankle-tagged singer dances and sings when nobody's looking: think Patsy Cline playing the role of Mary Poppins, singing her way through her chores. Inevitably, those private performances will be discovered — that's hardly a spoiler. And Susannah, her sweetness perfectly contrasting with Rose-Lyn's whiskey sour, will reveal another level of generosity.

I mentioned Julie Walters. I need to say more about her. As Marion, Rose-Lyn's mother, she's charged with playing this formula's most familiar (and typically limiting) role: the disapproving parent, the doubter, the nay-sayer — and yet still surprises by creating a convincing, complicated, and ultimately endearing character. How often have these movies been all about brushing aside the one who dares to question and reprove the rising star? How often have they been merely an obstacle, a villain, an example of How Not to Be? As Marion, Walters carries off one of the film's most satisfying twists: Mother knows a thing or two. And the best possible outcome is for the movie to acknowledge her wisdom.

Julie Walters is given a richer role than the disapproving parent usually plays in stories like these. (Neon)

But Wild Rose's victory over my deep-set skepticism has even more to do with its final act. I was actually nervous, stressed out in my seat, during the the film's last 40 minutes, fully expecting the spell to be broken, betting that these filmmakers would blow it. Movies about juggernaut talents can go wrong in so many ways. Some kind of deus ex machina will catapult the hero to automatic fame just when all seems lost. The big final number that is meant to be a showstopper will turn out to be mediocre. The screenwriter will steer the protagonist off-road for some cringe-worthy calamity, hoping to send us home in sobs.

But Wild Rose doesn't go wrong in any of these ways. To the credit of writer Nicole Taylor, it demonstrates wisdom far deeper than almost any road-to-stardom story I can think of. It's more about how a soul is saved than how a star is born.

What's harder than becoming a Nashville star when you're an ex-con in Glasgow? Parenting two children who barely recognize you when you're released from the joint. (Neon)

And the finale's big closing number is strong enough to send us out eager to pick up the soundtrack — which features Buckley's own performances, thank goodness. I'll be turning up the volume on her voice for the rest of the year, hoping she sings her way to the kind of Oscar-stage moment that Rose-Lyn herself might have dreamed about — not because that would signify success, but because I love this movie and I don't want it to disappear unnoticed.

Frame 2: Another Psalm 12

As I recently read, ruminated upon, and prayed Psalm 12 aloud, I found that oh-so-predictable Bible magic happening again: The scripture proved itself a living word. The words seemed to revise themselves upon their canvas. That is to say, they applied almost too perfectly to the world I'm living in, the troubles happening all around me... and within me.

Here is how this particular psalm, as I read it in the ESV, sang itself like a new song. The italicized words here are those that seemed to revise themselves as I read.

Save the world, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful — yes, those who are truly faithful to the Gospel of "love your neighbor" —  have vanished from among the children of man. Well, it certainly seems like they're vanishing, anyway.

Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. (And by the way, Save me, Lord, for I know you know that I do this, too.)

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips (and all flattering tweets), and cut off the tongue that makes great boasts — whether they be about himself or his self-interested supporters — those who say, “With our slogans and our red hats we will prevail, our nationalist propaganda is with us; who is master over us?”

"Because the 99%, the immigrants, and the refugees are plundered, because the needy groan — especially those African Americans still waiting to experience equality, and those children who are suffering inside American cages, stolen from their parents, traumatized for life, sick without their medication — I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

Remember, then, your promises, O Lord! You told us that these we have treated as 'the least' and 'the last,' they shall be first, and no white-supremacist agenda will go unnoticed by your omniscience or escape your justice.

You, O Lord, will keep them — all my neighbors, brown and black, Jew and Muslim, Mexican and South American — you will guard them from this [hateful, cruel, hard-hearted, "Christian"] generation forever. Even if they die under this oppression, you will be ever faithful to them, and they will not fall beyond the reach of your grace.

On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted — on the news, in the White House, and beyond.

God, do bless America ... but bless America just as America blesses those who come to it for help. If such suffering is what it will take to wake up American hearts, let it be.

And to those with eyes to see, those with ears to hear, Lord, send comfort, hope, and swift relief from this fear-poisoned nation, this hypocrite, Anti-Christ church.

Let this present darkness only amplify my exaltation of your love, O Lord. Let it not darken my heart into any loss of compassion or grace.

[This personal revision is based on the English Standard Version of Psalm 12.]

Of course, the Psalms give us examples of all of the thoughts and feelings that God allows us, even invites us, to raise up to him. In praying words like these, we are not guaranteed that God will act as we would wish him to. It's more likely that, in the act of praying, we might discover our own weaknesses and blindspots. And so I offer this as a sincere prayer, but also expecting that I will, in time, see the flaws within my own fervor, my own heart.

And I am finding other psalms, more contemporary laments, that suit these circumstances beautifully as well. Consider this, my favorite song about America, my own National Anthem, composed and sung by Joe Henry:

[Comments are welcome. I will read them. But I will only post the comments I'm grateful to have read. Mean-spirited comments will not only be rejected — the senders will be blocked.] 

My 'Nai Nai' ... and why I don't care for The Farewell

What I am about to say about The Farewell, which is currently enjoying an almost 100% positive showing on Rotten Tomatoes, is likely to make me sound callous, hard-hearted, and mysteriously immune to whatever has touched so many critics so deeply. It's a "perfect movie," they've said. It "delivers powerful emotional blows"; it's "poignant and funny"; and is, for one Rolling Stone critic, "one of the most genuinely moving films I've ever seen at Sundance."

It may also sound dismissive toward a film that carries particular significance for American immigrants, particularly Chinese-American immigrants who have family on the other side of the globe.

To moviegoers deeply moved by the film's adoring portrait of a charismatic grandmother, and by how it reminds them of the grandparents they have loved and lost, my response might seem downright heartless.

My response may be most surprising and disappointing of all... to me. As a Chinese cinema enthusiast, and as a teacher who seeks every opportunity to introduce American students to movies depicting cultures beyond their borders, I was eager to see this film even before that Tomato-meter heated up.

In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina, center) can't understand why her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) have decided to lie to her grandmother.

So, let me preface my comments by encouraging you to go see The Farewell for yourself. You're unlikely to experience the movie the way I did. It's inspiring a rare moment of near-unanimous praise. What's more, it's easy to feel, as the movie unfolds, just how personal the story is for director Lulu Wang. (You can read about that in David Fear's Rolling Stone interview.) The cast is a gifted ensemble, all of whom show remarkable restraint where so many actors would have aimed for big Oscar moments. It illustrates a scenario that will inspire many to recall some of their family's most poignant and painful experiences. If you see The Farewell, I think you'll find your time at the movies well-spent. And if you go with friends or family you will have much to talk about afterward.

I recommend it.

My description of the film in the upcoming paragraphs describe only my experience of it, and my best assessment of why I found myself unmoved.

And, lest you you mistakenly assume from my experience of The Farewell that I must have never loved a grandmother, let me tell you: Elizabeth Rydman, "Mama," my grandmother, was an American ideal in the role.

When I think of her, I breathe in aromatic memories. I remember Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter — all of the holidays that mattered — as waves of smells both savory and sweet, as she, in the house that her husband had built, hosted lavish multi-course meals. She'd scoff when we called for her to join us at the table; it was her choice to remain busy in the kitchen, setting an example that my mother would follow, so committed to serving, and so highly praised for doing so, that she could not rest even for a moment to join the conversation at the table. (I felt guilty for sitting and eating in her absence, and I absorbed at a very young age the idea that total self-denial was godliness. It troubled me. The fellowship at the table seemed important.)

As she always aimed to look her best, her bathroom's Aquanet hairspray haze stung my eyes, overpowering the perfumes of decorative soaps. How I feared the chemical tang that meant Mama, my mother, and my aunt were "getting permanents" (they rarely said perms).

In which my grandmother presents me with two hand puppets for Christmas.

I loved her. She always greeted my brother Jason and me with hugs. Whenever my parents announced that Jason and I would be staying with Mama and Papa for a weekend, I received this as a gift; I never understood that this was a convenient excuse for my parents to break free from the burdens of parenthood. I took it as an opportunity to play in the wonderland of her backyard, with its berry vines, fruit trees (plum, pear, and apple), and surprisingly successful rows of Portland-grown corn.

My family was quiet about the details when she was dying. Even though I was in my late teens, I did not know what exactly was happening. But I did grieve. I still do, for I lost not only the grandmother I loved but the world that she made possible. Living at the intersection of strictly conservative Republican politics and legalistic evangelical Christianity, fully inhabiting the role prescribed for her there, Mama somehow moved with grace and generosity. In spite of the not-so-Christian values of that time and place, I still remember her as a saint.

And so, I am ready to be moved by great films about grandmothers.

Not just American grandmothers, mind you — there is something about the benevolent warmth of a grandmother that transcends culture, country, and era. In fact, when I think of movies that have gripped me with grief at the loss of a grandmother, the first that springs to mind is Yi-Yi, Edward Yang's last and greatest film, which showed us a family taking turns at the bedside of their matriarch and speaking to her in hopes of awakening her from a coma. Yi-Yi is a rich, complex portrait of a Taiwanese family at a crossroads. And I thought about it a lot while watching The Farewell.

The PR synopsis describes a film in which Billi, a Chinese-American who has been striving in New York to win a Guggenheim fellowship, rushes back to Changchun to "fellowship" with her family as they assemble around Billi's dying grandmother. There, the press release tells us, she has "a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child."

Billi (Awkwafina) really, really loves her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), and can't bear the thought of losing her.

I don't see much about Billi's cultural "rediscovery" here. Sure, she's back in China. And she's baffled by the Chinese inclination to conceal terminal diagnoses from dying patients. But she is focused almost entirely on that one thing in every scene: her family's troubling determination to hide from Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandmother”) the doctor's belief that lung cancer will take her life in matter of days. This decision is common, we're told, so that the family can "carry the emotional burden" and allow Nai Nai to enjoy her last days in blissful ignorance. Billi, influenced by her American upbringing, spends almost every scene emoting despondence and frustration, too busy sulking and angsting to concern herself much with a reawakening to the wonders of her country of origin.

The closest thing to suspense in this movie comes from what we've been conditioned to expect by more conventionally dramatic films: we're constantly teased with the possibility that Billi might violate the charade and blurt out the truth. Most sequences attend to her struggle to hold back, or her family members' crises of conscience under the burden of their decision.

While the family suffers from the doctor's diagnosis, Nai Nai would rather play matchmaker between a handsome bachelor and her granddaughter. (Thank goodness that idea doesn't become a major plot point.)

This simple but dominant narrative focus fails to engage me for the simple reason that this family is terrible at concealing their dread, and even worse at staging an extravagant event as a distraction.

In rushing Billi's young cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) into a wedding that he and his fiancee Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) are clearly unprepared for, simply to have an excuse for assembling the scattered relatives and surrounding Nai Nai, they ask the audience to believe that such a ruse could work. I spent the movie feeling sorry for the anxious and unromantic couple whose tenuous connection is being exploited for the sake of protecting an old woman's feelings. In a broad comedy — and, strangely, some of the reviews seem to think it is a broad comedy, when the film, for most of its running time plays somber and even sullen notes — we could have laughed the family's strategy off as absurd. But that's just the thing: The movie struck me as too serious to shrug off the scheming. It's unbalanced, occasionally overplaying some of its one-note characters for laughs while also asking us to experience it as a somber meditation on cultural differences between East and West on the subject of death.

I laughed out loud only once. Mostly, I just sat quietly waiting for surprises or complexities that never came; the movie unfolded for me as a progression of obvious chords, played repetitively and softly. I'm grateful that for Wang's inclinations toward quietness; I'd rather a movie like this whisper than shout. (I find many Korean melodramas difficult in their tendency toward emotional hysterics.) But there's a difference between artful subtlety and dullness.

Nai Nai — isn't she too bright to be fooled by her family's conspiracy?

If I'm to consider whether The Farewell is an observant commentary on cultural differences, sure — Billi wrestles with how the West's focus on individualism and independence clashes with China's focus on the family. And that's a subject well worth exploring. But I felt this film only scratched the surface, never offering more than its own trailer had offered on the subject, and allowing characters to point out the obvious at almost every turn. And I certainly didn't learn anything about China.

Nor did I ever experience the admiration for Nai Nai herself that many critics are celebrating. Sure, as played by the spirited Shuzhen Zhou, this grandmother has some gumption. But she also seemed confoundingly oblivious in the midst of her family's unpersuasive charade. The ad copy promises a film about how Billi realizes "her grandmother's wondrous spirit." Hmm. A scene in which this two of them move through some exercises, breathing and rejoicing, and asserting life, is not enough to earn that description. And Billi doesn't seem surprised by how her grandmother is taking the family reunion.

At times, I began to think the movie could take an interesting turn if we began to believe that Nai Nai knew all along, and was choosing to feign ignorance for the sake of saving her family from the discomfort they would experience if they knew that she knew. Some may argue that the film is doing just that, but I never saw enough evidence. The film is too preoccupied with Billi, whose whole purpose in this film seems to be to worry about Nai Nai. As the protagonist, and one through whose eyes we are supposed to experience everything, Billi never becomes a three-dimensional character; her life outside of this crisis, outside of these feelings about her grandmother, don't have enough presence for me to find her interesting.

In a rare moment, Billi shakes off her doldrums to join her grandmother's workout.

And this brings me to Awkwafina's celebrated performance. As a comic actress, Awkwafina nearly stole Crazy Rich Asians right out from under its own extravagance. On the way out of that movie, she was the one most moviegoers were talking about. Flamboyant, quick-witted, bouncing around the screen, she was hilarious. It made me resent Ocean's Eight in retrospect for neglecting her. In The Farewell, she gives one of those performances that critics celebrate for how they prove an actor's range. And yes, she proves here that she's just fine in a dramatic role. But this performance didn't strike me as particularly complicated or nuanced, probably because the screenplay ties her down; I think a lot of people are mistaking contrast (with her Crazy Rich Asians performance) for complexity.

I'm pleasantly surprised to find A.O. Scott (with whom I often disagree) voicing some of the same frustrations in his New York Times review:

... [T]here is also something hesitant about the way Wang turns this beguiling family story into a film, an unwillingness to push too hard into potentially painful emotional territory, which also keeps the comedy in check. ... Aside from the irrepressible Nai Nai, who gets all of the good lines and most of the best camera angles, the other family members are thinly drawn.

That includes Billi herself, whose life outside the family is barely sketched in and whose inner life rarely emerges into view. Awkwafina ... vanishes into Billi’s moods rather than illuminating them. Her performance seems cautious and defended in a way that characterizes “The Farewell” as a whole. Its affection for its characters feels protective; the film is reluctant to spill any secrets or cause any embarrassment.

But finally, it's the film lack of complexity as a motion picture, above all, that leaves me unmoved. One of the measures of a great filmmaker is the extent to which they treat the screen as a canvas and tell a story with pictures, rather than merely filming people as they talk or emote. Imagery in The Farewell is almost entirely matter-of-fact, offering very few flourishes that I'd consider to be suggestive or poetic in any way. Its lack of close-ups is an effective method for underlining the story's emphasis on community. But the only flourish of visual poetry that I noticed arrived abruptly at the end, which seemed strikingly out of step with the style established in the preceding — was it only 90 minutes? With its redundancy and lack of surprises, the movie felt so much longer than that.

I spent my time looking for nuances that would make me believe. But in the end, I didn't believe in this family any more than I believed in Billi's big moment, when she's supposed to be channeling all of her frustration and passion into a spirited performance at the piano, and Wang blocks the image to conceal Awkwafina's forearms and hands, utterly failing to hide the fact that she's not actually playing at all.

As I departed the theater, feeling out of place in a crowd of sniffling and exuberant moviegoers, all I could think about was how eager I was to watch Yi Yi again.

Maybe this movie's reception has more to do with the intensity of the memories it stirs up in its audience than it has to do with the quality of the movie itself.

Or maybe my soul is dead.

I don't know. Go see it.

Frame 1: Intersection

Journal pages.

July 24, 2019

The sun has bent down to peer beneath the heavy blanket of a cloud-shadowed day. We cannot see her face — the drama breaks behind a stand of evergreens just west of the house — but we know by the luminous evidence, by how the clouds are warmed to gold by her surprise.

As if feeling relief and permission now to rest, our windows begin to forget their concerns about the screaming fire station next door to the east, our immigrant neighbors' newly painted home (strangely empty) to the west. The day's dramas begin to fade from the large front window above my antique writing desk — the rumble of traffic and the murmur of pedestrians down our street, still busy behind the permeable barrier of branches, our lethargic Japanese maple, our stealthy ivies (a large-leafed "Crimson Glory" intimately entwined with a grapevine that is already exploding with firm green clusters of promises).

We are quiet together, Anne and I. We are weary. Everything feels like an echo, distant, in this new hollow of a recent harrowing: a father whose sudden departure we have only begun to grieve.

We've raised a few of the old vintage panes in their rickety wooden frames so we can hear the evening breathing through this house. But we pull the shades now, drape a string of white sparks — Christmas lights — across our western window above the dinner table, and turn on two tower lamps in the living room whose warm glow recalls the sunset's fleeting flare.

Our focus turns to what's indoors, a space that is, itself, streaming with currents.

Anne is on the burgundy couch, the pink veins of her earbuds heartbeating her music from the laptop that shines like a bright morning window beside her. I can't see what she is seeing in that frame, but she is smiling.

Behind the screen, framed by stacks of freshly folded underwear and socks, the large black cat, Mardukas, all muscle and twitching, is deeply in dreams.

I'm in high-backed red chair, the one that might feel like a throne if I did not still vividly remember the humiliating spectacle I became for the whole neighborhood as I awkwardly wrestled it home from an estate sale a few blocks away. Slumped in its forgiving arms, I write with my back to the writing desk and the front window. I am trying to bring something to the page, and it, too, is unwieldy — I won't know what it is until I set it down.

Between the chair and the desk waits our long blue suitcase, its canvas frame already half-packed with clothes in stacks, books, pill bottles, a zipper case full of blu-rays and DVDs for our upcoming trip to Santa Fe — only four days from now.

On the big screen, the film 24 Frames is playing, a sequence of still photographs teased into subtle life by imaginative digital artists: views of landscapes, weather, and animals as captured, imagined, enhanced, and dreamed by Abbas Kiarostami, who recently passed. Each view, for almost five minutes, is blessedly free of talk, opening and closing uncertainly, like a prayer. We have traded our windows for someone else's.

A breeze from the Pacific has come up the hill to cool us, while wind from our TV's sound bar testifies of past storms in Iran, while we dream of sipping smoked sage margaritas and savoring the Santa Fe monsoons to come.

I pick up the new collection of Scott Cairns poetry and read of a memory of a boy who, standing at the Pacific Ocean's edge, looks into the distance with a sense of something yet to be revealed.

"Ave Maria," sung in a soprano's reverie, fills up the open space like wine.

Zooey, our lean and anxious tortoise-shell cat, skulks into the room, springs onto Anne's lap, settles, perches, hunches on her knee, and scowls at me. In all of these crisscrossing currents of light and air and sound and thought and memory and dream and attention, she is fixed on the one thing that angers her: the sense that we are leaning — slow, quiet, intent — toward departure.

Why I need Terry Gilliam's Quixotica

Here it is — at last! It’s 2019, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available for rent on Amazon Prime and elsewhere.

I admit, I felt a little guilty paying only four bucks to watch it, knowing how much the movie cost its maker. I was also nervous.

Would it be any good?

Would Gilliam, bruised and beleaguered, deliver a satisfying motion picture based on inspiration that was more than three decades old?


And the answer is…

... published at Good Letters over at Image.

Georgia O'Keeffe and others review The Lion King (2019)

This observation from Georgia O'Keeffe may be all I need to explain why I'm not particularly interested in director Jon Favreau's new version of The Lion King.

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

I agree.

If an artist's primary goal is to make something "lifelike" — that is, if they're just trying to produce something that matches what we see in the "real world" — they are reducing art to a paint-by-numbers game, a chance to show off their ability to duplicate the details that they perceive.

That's not art. Art is an interpretation. As the great novelist Chaim Potok said in a Mars Hill Review interview, art is “a relational experience. Art happens somewhere along a relational arc, between what you are and the object of creation."

That is to say — art is made up of imaginative decisions, decisions that reveal the artist's human experience of something, and that goes beyond the mere facts of the information registering in the device of the eye.

The Lion King, if is to be remade, opens up an opportunity for a thoughtful new experience of ideas we've encountered before.

Like Simba stepping into Mufasa's footprint, this remake reportedly has a long way to go to equal the impact of the original.

The original Lion King is not a film I particularly like. I find its storyline to be made of some of myth-making's most familiar and basic beats, and I don't find a lot to admire in the distinctive details of its story — especially in its uninspiring "hero," who are are led to root for primarily because he has been harmed, not for any remarkable aspects of his character or convictions. However, there is some beauty and artistry in some of its animation, some personality in its voice work, and some catchy (but also blandly commercial) characteristics in its Broadway-boilerplate songs.

So, no — I'm not hurrying out to see this new Lion King. I invite you to challenge me, to change my mind. Tell me what I'm missing that was worth the $15 ticket. Otherwise, I'm going to save my time and money for more interesting cinema.

To borrow a word from one of my favorite critics, the greatest threat against little Simba isn't a predator. It's "taxidermy."

And I really am open to having my mind changed.

After all, I wasn't particularly interested in seeing Jon Favreau's remake of The Jungle Book, and I ended up enjoying it very much — as did Steven Greydanus of The National Catholic Register, who ventures to explain why that remake is so much better than Favreau's new Lion King movie. (See the link below.)

If you're looking for a more detailed review from someone who's seen it, I recommend the following:

Steven D. Greydanus at Decent Films:

[T]he programmatic decision to follow the original virtually shot for shot and line for line — more slavishly even than Beauty and the Beast or this spring’s Aladdin — forces us to constantly gauge the diminished emotional impact of each line and moment, if we know it well, against the original.


The melancholy thing is that, of the three Renaissance cartoons adapted to date, The Lion King was the one I felt had the most room for improvement — and, after The Jungle Book, Favreau was the one guy I would have liked to see take a shot at it.


Alas, the mission wasn’t to improve The Lion King, only to mount it as realistically as possible. Favreau wasn’t hired as a creative, but as a taxidermist.

Justin Chang at NPR (listen below):

The [movie] plays like a Hollywood blockbuster disguised as a National Geographic documentary, or perhaps the world's most expensive safari-themed karaoke video. The movie feels both overwhelmed by its technical virtuosity and shackled by its fidelity to the source material.


I've never been the biggest fan of the original Lion King, which beneath its brightly entertaining surface has always struck me as too emotionally calculated by half. But that film feels like a triumph of form and content next to this movie, because its story about a fictional animal kingdom feels so vividly and gloriously cartoonish in every detail. The new Lion King is so realistic-looking that, paradoxically, you can't believe a moment of it. And although it was directed by Jon Favreau, who previously shepherded a wild menagerie in his recent remake of The Jungle Book, it has none of the imagination that made that movie more than just a high-tech retread.

And then there's David Ehrlich at indieWire:

... [T]he animation is just bland in a way that saps the characters of their personalities. Scar used to be a Shakespearian villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he’s just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor. Simba used to be a sleek upstart whose regal heritage was tempered by youthful insecurity; now he’s just a lion who sounds like Donald Glover. Watching them come to blows against a realistic-but-dull background suggests that Favreau was so busy trying to figure out if he could, that he never stopped to consider if he should.

On a conceptual level, “The Lion King” betrays the power of the hand-drawn artwork that once put the wonder into Disney animation from its earliest features. Favreau’s movie fails to grapple with how the unreality of the studio’s lush 2D artwork unlocked kids’ imagination and made it so much fun to suspend disbelief; the digital wizardry denies our minds the permission they need to dream. Julie Taymor’s award-winning Broadway adaptation is so transportive because it celebrates its artifice, not in spite of it.

Sean Burns at WBUR writes,

Even the vocal performances are strangely subdued, as if everyone were trying to keep from sounding too much like they’re in a cartoon. The wild oranges and purples from the original film are replaced by gloomy shades of beige. (I could be heard loudly complaining in the lobby afterwards that at the climax you’ve got two beige cats fighting in front of an oatmeal rock with some brown grass on the ground.) Every aesthetic choice here has been made to tone down the material, making it less vivid, less expressive, less animated.

I didn't go looking for four harmonious complaints. I just read the first four reviews that I could find by critics I regularly consult.

Toy Story 4 and the Gabby Gabby problem

In Part One of my (yes, long-winded) response to Toy Story 4, I wrote about how much I'd dreaded this film — and then about how it surprised and impressed me.

In Part Two, I wrote about one major storyline — the introduction and redemption of Forky — and how it substantially expands the Toy Story franchise's exploration of childhood, imagination, and the meaning of life.

But now, in Part Three, I need to address that other major Toy Story 4 storyline: the one about Gabby Gabby, the movie's antique pull-string antagonist, and her ventriloquist-dummy henchmen (all named Benson). Alas, I cannot write about this without without revealing certain knots that complicate this narrative thread.

So, in other words, I'm going to get into details best categorized as

Major End-of-the-Movie Spoilers.

If you haven't seen Toy Story 4, I advise you to abandon this post and preserve the surprises.

As Woody tries to save the day when Bonnie (the child to whom Woody and the gang belong) and Forky (Bonnie's first homemade toy) are separated, he stumbles onto an old flame: Bo Peep, with her sheep—Billy, Goat, and Gruff—in tow.

It turns out that the flirtatious Bo (voiced here by Annie Potts) was given away earlier in the saga; she didn't end up in Bonnie's toy box with the rest of the familiar heroes.

Still, she's remained in Woody's heart. And when he rediscovers her in an antique shop during his far-from-home adventure with Forky, he enlists her help in reuniting Bonnie with her prized plastic invention. But then Woody and the rest of us discover that we're dealing with Bo Peep 2.0: a strong-willed, independent hero obviously inspired by Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road.

This isn't the Bo you think you know, Woody.

Woody doesn't anticipate just how this reunion will complicate matters. Long story short, Forky is taken hostage by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who, stuck in an antique store for years and longing to be loved by a child, spends her days being treated like royalty by her voiceless dummy henchmen. Don't worry about Forky: he's too oblivious to understand that Gabby is using him to bait Woody into a trap. It's Woody we need to worry about.

Why is Woody in danger? Gabby has rather unsettling ambitions here: She was defective "right out of the box," and she knows that Woody contains the piece she needs: an old-fashioned pull-string voice box.

And so Toy Story 4 also becomes a movie about how we cope with the many and varied ways in which we are "broken"—or, at least, how we perceive brokenness.

In this sense, Gabby Gabby's narrative reminds me of the classic children's story Corduroy, about a department store teddy bear who loses a button and spends the night searching the store to get it back. Remember that story? Corduroy  tries too hard, seizes upon the wrong solution, and ends up back on the shelf—unsold, unloved, and despairing.

But Corduroy does find wholeness—not from finding a button, but from realizing that there is a love in the world big enough to embrace us for who we are... in spite of our missing pieces. He is eventually repaired, but only as a gesture of kindness after learning that Love doesn't count our pieces and find us lacking.

Gabby doesn't have the patience to learn that lesson. Not yet anyway. She's determined to take what she wants, even if she has to dismember a stranger to get it.

Don't let those baby-doll eyes deceive you: Gabby Gabby wants to tear Woody apart.

If it sounds upsetting, it is.

In fact, my friend and my favorite film critic Steven "SDG" Greydanus of The National Catholic Register and Decent Films—whose area of expertise is the realm of art and entertainment intended for all-ages—is particularly upset with how Gabby's part in this story plays out. The fact that Gabby wants "wants to forcibly steal an organ from Woody" and that she finds "kidnapping and hostage-taking ... acceptable means to that end" create, in SDG's mind, certain obligations on the part of the storytellers.

In his review for The National Catholic Register, Greydanus laments that after Gabby's selfish agenda is made clear, "the movie seamlessly transitions into quasi-redemption for poor Gabby, who has never been loved by a child and blames her defective voice box. And Woody, moved to pity despite himself, but still under duress, surrenders his voice box to get Forky back."

He finds it "horrifying" that, after this disturbing deed is done, "[Gabby's] story ends happily—all with no sign of real contrition or making amends to Forky or Woody."

I confess that I read Greydanus's review before seeing the movie (and suffered some spoilers as a result). So I was prepared, going in, to agree with him—as I almost always do. I was ready to be distraught and perhaps even a bit, um, furiosa.

I understand Greydanus's objections. And I do think the film would have been stronger if it had given this particular twist a bit more attention. But as I watched the film, I experienced this sequence of events somewhat differently.

I found Gabby Gabby's initial violence in trying to steal the voice box alarming—no doubt about it. And, in the back-and-forth, the push and the pull, Woody rightly resists her. But then (bless his cotton-stuffing heart!), Woody finds compassion for Gabby. He determines to treat her not as an enemy, but as a potential blessing for a needy child. He finds empathy for her. Just as he has counseled Forky that he can become more than trash, he sees the same potential in Gabby Gabby. The only difference is that she, unlike Forky, has always aspired to be loved.

Woody dissolves the conflict between them. He listens. And then, in an act of astonishing grace, he willingly and generously gives her the voice box.

This is significant for all kinds of reasons. Here are two:

Woody's fears come out of the antique-store woodwork: These dummies want to take the stuffing out of him.

First, Woody's sacrifice affirms what others have observed about Woody's virtues. Bo herself defends his character, declaring, "He's always trying to do right by his kid." Bo's tiny sidekick Giggle McDimples (who looks and sounds a lot like Peanuts' Lucy in Angry Mode) responds, "That kinda crazy loyalty?" Bo, who seems likely to scoff, instead answers with deep admiration, and maybe even a bit of a crush: "You gotta love him for it."

Second, Woody's sacrifice reveals that he is turning a corner. He is beginning to accept that he is no longer the Top Toy. Andy doesn't need him, and Bonnie seems almost indifferent to him in view of her new love of making toys. Woody has already learned to do what he can with whatever is in front of him to "do right by his kid." But Woody doesn't really have a kid anymore — not really. Bonnie doesn't seem likely to notice if he's gone. He realizes that the thing to do at this moment is to donate — to contribute a missing piece that only he can provide — so that another toy can have an experience he's already had, and so that another child can find her perfect imaginary friend.

Greydanus argues,

The only way Gabby’s redemption could possibly have worked would be if she had a change of heart before taking Woody’s voice box, unconditionally liberated Forky, and perhaps made some effort to help reunite them with Bonnie, leaving Woody free to voluntarily donate his voice box without duress.

The idea that we’re meant to root for Gabby’s happiness with a child after her unconscionable actions, with no actual redemption on her part, is just bizarre.... especially given Pixar’s stellar track record on flawed characters taking responsibility for their actions.

But that's just it: Gabby's actions end up as something different than the theft that she endeavored, at first, to perform. The conversation changes. A contract is reached. Gabby isn't dismembering a stranger and stealing from him. Instead, she makes a desperate plea — a plea that, while still brusque and self-centered, comes from a place of genuine longing. Woody, while uncomfortable, agrees. He makes the sacrifice. And he does it with the belief that it will be good for both a kid and for Gabby Gabby. It's a revelation of his heart expanding, an increase in his understanding of the shapes that love can take.

Then what happens? As if to emphasize that this exchange is no longer coercion but consensual, Gabby Gabby thanks Woody. Repeatedly.

And Woody, smarting from the surgery, replies, "You're welcome."

What follows is a stroke of Pixar genius: Forky encourages Woody to stay and watch the big moment when the sacrifice is rewarded and the fully-functional Gabby is recognized as worthy of a child's love. But instead of seeing Gabby, now technically "repaired," receiving the love she's always wanted, Forky and Woody are witness to a painful rejection. The child (her name, Harmony, turns out to be ironic) isn't interested in Gabby. And Gabby learns that no self-alteration, no surgery, makes her any more worthy of love. (After all, if material perfection is what makes us lovable, how do we explain Forky?)

Woody could seize this moment and get loudly and rightfully righteous. He could demand his voice box back. He could launch into a sermon and seize this "teachable moment." But he doesn't. He sees the more immediate and urgent need. He sees Gabby in her desolation. Sure — we might all feel a surge of smug piety if this became a moment of reprimand. But that wouldn't help anybody. When Gabby insists that Harmony was her "only chance" at, well, harmony, Woody assures her that it wasn't. "A friend once told me, 'There are plenty of kids out there.'"

And he's right. While the whole ordeal seems to have been for naught, there is, in fact, a little girl nearby who needs to cope with her own dismaying experience of family separation by loving someone else.

All things, even the mistakes, end up working together for good. Gabby is shown mercy. And Woody sacrifice is blessed.

I'm reminded of another Disney story: "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," an animated featurette included in the film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Do you remember this story? When a windstorm blows Owl's house down from its tree, the Hundred-Acre Wood gang is distraught. Eeyore, however, happens upon a house that he announces as a solution. Everyone follows him and discovers that that gloomy donkey has mistaken Piglet's house for an unclaimed domicile.

What to do? Should Eeyore be reprimanded for not paying attention? Should his mistake be announced? Should he learn a lesson about knowing what he's talking about before creating a situation that's awkward for everybody?

That's not what this story is about. The community is careful not to embarrass or punish Eeyore for his ignorance. The real lesson here is in what comes next: Piglet, in an extravagant act of generosity, decides to congratulate Eeyore, give up his house to Owl (who really does need one, after all), and to move in with his friend Pooh. Pooh consents, and the Hundred-Acre Wood becomes a better place altogether for the remarkable exhibition of generosity on Piglet's part.

Granted, Gabby Gabby's behavior early in Toy Story 4 are selfish and wicked, where Eeyore's are merely block-headed. But the folly of her disordered priorities becomes clear. And the moment becomes, like Eeyore's mistake, an occasion that reveals another character's large-heartedness.

Woody, having already known the ideal joy of a perfect child-and-toy relationship, accepts that those days are over, and invests in an opportunity for a neglected toy to become what she was meant to be. He sacrifices for someone else's joy.

As we learn at the end, Woody's decision was just a prelude to an even bigger decision indicating a shift happening in his heart: He's determining not to go on as just another toy in a toy box. He knows he can do better than to sit forgotten in a closet longing to be Someone's Special Someone again.

He sees that Bonnie's engagement with toys is different than Andy's. Forky is her #1, and the gang doesn't really need Woody's leadership the way that they did. He has to acknowledge, and wisely so, that he has better options than being the toy left in the toy cabinet (although that experience did inspire his capacity to feel for Gabby Gabby, who's been left in a cabinet for many years).

Choosing to go with Bo, for whom he is a Special Someone, and too experience new adventures with her — adventures that are, in fact, shaped by her care for other toys and for children — strikes me as a brilliant new frontier for this ex-Sheriff. Like a father who realizes that his life won't always be primarily about parenting, Woody is taking steps toward an adventurous retirement... with Bo.

And thank goodness that Woody isn't rewarded for his heroics with the trophy of a female toy who can't be complete without him. Woody doesn't need a romantic accessory or an assistant, and neither does Bo. They choose an equal (and, yes, romantic) partnership that will increase the joy of their experiences beyond the parent/child... I mean, toy/child relationship.

Listening to Bo Peep, I'm reminded of how many women I admire who have escaped the ridiculous but prevalent notion that their value is determined by their attractiveness to men, by their capacity for motherhood, or other meaningful but limited avenues of identity. I'm also reminded of young people find the confidence to overcome feeble notions of inadequacy they've been taught by unloving families.

As Jessica Chastain's character taught her children in The Tree of Life, "If you do not love, your life will pass you by." How we interpret this wisdom depends on the largeness and versatility of our definition of love. In this surprising story of Bo Peep's influence in Woody's life, we see that love can take all kinds of shapes.

And maybe our favorite Sheriff is more versatile, more flexible, than he knew. At the end, he's reaching for the sky.

Why complain if The Greatest Trilogy of All Time can expand to become a Tetralogy, one that, in taking some impressive risks, leaves characters in a place that you prefer to the place they end up at the end of Chapter Three?

What if it expands and deepens the poetic vocabulary of what the relationships between the toys and the kids who love them into life can really mean?

What if it's the funniest chapter of the franchise so far, and—animation-wise—the most visually impressive?

I've come around. I've changed my mind. I'm willing to take more chances now with sequels, so long as storytellers know what they're doing, and so long as they respect the integrity of the giants whose shoulders they're standing upon.

But wait... what's this?

There's a new TV series coming that adds all-new chapters to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings? And it's being run by the guy who made Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom?!

No! This is too much! Make it stop! Why would anyone be so foolish as to mess with perfection? I'm against it. Don't do this. Please. Nothing good can come from it at all.