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.

Let's talk trash: Toy Story... 4-ky!

This is Part Two of Looking Closer's review of Toy Story 4.
Part One was posted previously. Note: Part Three concerns the ending of the film, and includes spoilers.

Forky might have just become another piece of plastic polluting a park or an ocean.

He began as a spork, after all—that most disposable of utensils. But then Bonnie, during her first day of kindergarten, asked that most dangerous question—"What if...?"—and gave him an extreme makeover. Thanks to her creative genius, Forky was born. He's not the handsomest toy in the world—he looks like a cross between the flabbergasted fellow in Edvard Munch's The Scream and a high-anxiety spoon critic in an apocalyptic Todd Herzfeldt cartoon. That doesn't matter. What matters is this: He's alive... he's alive! 

But will Forky stay alive?

In the early stages of Toy Story 4, this seems to be the plot's primary question. Forky, believing he's nothing but a spork, believes he's destined for nothing but the trash. But Bonnie loves him and needs him. And Sheriff Woody, who knows a thing or two about bonds between children and toys, and who values nothing more than a child's happiness, is determined to make this work. Whatever magic brought Forky and Bonnie together, well... Woody won't let anything tear them asunder.

And so, these Pixar storytellers have discovered an inspiring redemption story. In their gamble to enhance the already miraculous Toy Story world, they've stumbled onto one of its greatest inventions. Voiced perfectly (and with remarkable restraint) by Tony Hale, Forky spends much of the movie wrestling with his existential crisis — and in doing so, he becomes the funniest member of Woody's community yet.

And what a relief that is!

Watching trailers for Toy Story 4, which made Forky look like the movie's main character, I feared two likely outcomes: that he'd become for Pixar what Jar-Jar Binks was for Star Wars, or that he'd end up serving as little more than a prompt to talk about identity politics. (Being unclassifiable by the binary categories of fork or spoon, Forky looked custom-made to serve an LGBTQ spokesperson.)

Note: If you're bothered by what I've just said, check the Footnote at the end of this post.

Forky, thank goodness, is not the propaganda I feared he would be. He's an honest-to-goodness Toy Story character who earns his place in good company.

This scene about Woody and Forky ends up resembling a music video for U2's "One": "We've got to carry each other...."

Moreover, Forky expands this franchise's vocabulary about the nature of creativity and play.

Assembled from a spork, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, Forky's been loved into life by a child who can envision unlikely possibilities. Suddenly self-aware, he panics, knowing only that sporks are meant to be disposable. He doesn't understand what he has become: a new creature, designed to delight his Maker, capable of more than he knows. "I'm trash!" he repeatedly and smilingly asserts—and he'll amount to nothing more than that if he refuses to consider larger possibilities than he's known. To become his "best self," Forky needs to slow down, pay attention, and discover that he is loved.  

When I laugh as Forky lunges madly, again and again, for any nearby trash can, I'm laughing in recognition. If you're feeling down about yourself, self-destruction can become a compulsion. I suspect that most of us have experienced this to some degree. When I'm feeling low about myself, I'm prone to wasting time with mindless distractions. For others, it might be more drastic forms of self-harm or even suicidal impulses, demonstrations that suggest we believe the worst things that have been said about us. Perhaps Forky can remind us of the absurdity of our baser impulses and the possibility that we might have more potential and value than we ever dreamed.

I encounter an alarming number of students whose insecurities are the result of conditioning—they've been taught, through neglect, abuse, and other love deficiencies, to perceive themselves as trash. (If I'm meeting this many of them in college, imagine how many more, believing themselves to be trash, see the possibility of education as a waste of time and resources.) As hilariously absurd as this combination of plastic and pipe cleaners appears, Forky gives us an outstanding opportunity to talk about a person's confidence and self-knowledge can be transformed by love.

But even this meaningful metaphor does not sum up what I love most about Forky. Above all, I love him because he's a plastic utensil glued to popsicle sticks, wrapped in pipe cleaners, and decorated with googly eyes.

To explain, I have to tell you a story:

When I was a kid, I coveted Star Wars figures, and spent most of my allowance on Star Wars figures. In the early 2000s, as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films arrived, I had a second childhood and bought Middle-Earth action figures with enthusiasm. But the action figure that means the most to me—the one that I've kept within reach from early childhood to this very day—is a cheap Fisher Price figure of a scuba diver.

Here's why: One afternoon in the early 80s, as I was playing with two neighbor kids—a ten-year-old named Lauren and her younger brother Scott—we decided to round up all of our action figures and stuffed animals and dream up a story that would involve all of them. (This was a decade before the first Toy Story.) Right away we decided that these toys needed a leader, a captain, a boss. Since our priority in everything was to make each other laugh, I announced that the leader should be this arbitrary, fish-out-of-water character: this blue-suited scuba diver, whose features had been so cheaply painted on that they had rubbed off years earlier, leaving him faceless.

Here's an image from Collectors.com of the same simple toy that changed my childhood.

"Why should they follow him?" asked Lauren. I answered, "Because he survives anything. Watch." I grabbed a baseball bat, tossed this meaningless toy in the air, and struck him like a slugger. Pieces of this action figure soared and scattered over the roof of the house. Laughing, we dashed from the backyard around the house to the street. And, by sheer luck, we retrieved his pieces, one by one—all except a tiny chunk of his shoulder. Believe it or not—we reassembled him. And we realized that he was, now, more than just a leader for our community of toys. He had been destroyed, and yet he lived again! He was a legend! A mythical hero! A god-man!

"What shall we call him?" I asked. Scott, the youngest (and also the funniest), did not hesitate with his answer: "Jim!" he announced.

And thus, a legend was born. We told stories about Jim. We sang songs about Jim. We illustrated homemade comic books about Jim. Jim became an icon for us. And though I may not have fully understood it at the time, he became more valuable to me than any and all of my Star Wars figures: He represented inspiration. Just as a sock puppet came to life as Kermit the Frog in the hands of Jim Henson, and thus the Muppets were born, so I learned that a whole lot of something can come from almost nothing—that entire worlds can be spoken into existence, even with only a few ridiculous words.

That's why I felt tears sting my eyes more than once during Toy Story 4. I was reminded again of how one crazy little question—"What if...?"—can not only change the world, but it can also create new worlds.

Jim the Scuba Diver is the incarnation, for me, of the power of the imagination. Bonnie doesn't know it yet, but Forky is that for her.

I predict that, by the end of Toy Story 4, you're going to find that Forky an essential new star in the Toy Story galaxy.

But Toy Story 4 isn't just about Forky, as the trailers led me to believe. No—this movie's meditation on the connection between love and identity goes so much farther.

I'll look at that tomorrow, in Part Three. But before you move on to that post, know this: There will be SPOILERS.

Move on now to Part Three, but only if you've seen the movie, as it includes spoilers about the end of the movie.


Regarding my note about fearing that Forky was a prompt to discuss identity politics... don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to addressing questions about sexual identity in art.

We need art that challenges us to move beyond simplistic and harmful binaries that have been naively established and cruelly enforced for much of human history. As someone who ignorantly and arrogantly endorsed a destructive prejudice well into adulthood, I'm grateful that experience has taught me otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated and fluid in their nature than I was conditioned to believe when I was growing up, and the Gospel's summons to love has taught me to favor grace over legalism. As a teacher (and thus, reluctantly, a counselor), I find myself frequently hearing testimonies from students about the harm they've suffered from the prejudice and presumption in their communities, churches, and families. They reject the rigid categories into which so many, for their own comfort and convenience, seem eager to force them. We need stories that lead all of us into a more nuanced, empathetic, and loving understanding.

Having said that, we don't need sermonizing or propaganda about anything from our art — especially from movies made by Pixar, a studio that has wisely avoided any proselytizing so far. As the novelist Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia) once said in a Books and Culture interview,

“Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad. … But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you’ve done something wrong to the story. You’ve violated the essence of what a story is.”

So, again, I'm relieved that Forky turned out to be so much more than the Toy Story 4 trailers suggested.

Well played, Pixar! Thoughts on Toy Story 4

This is Part One of a three-part series. Don't forget to read Part Two and Part Three.

Early in Toy Story 4, Little Bo Peep, returning to the screen for the first time since Toy Story 2, mentions her faithful sheep — Billy, Goat, and Gruff — and Woody gasps, "They have names?!" She laughs and replies, "You never asked."

It turns out that there's a lot that Woody still doesn't know about his own Toy Story world. There's quite a bit that we still don't know, too.

And that's fine with me. I like unknowns. I like stories that haven't filled in all the blanks, that leave room for me to wonder. (I wish Star Wars  had remained a single trilogy — Episodes 4, 5, and 6 — for the ways in which the limitations of that story inspired imaginations and made that galaxy far, far away seem full of boundless possibilities. Prequels and sequels have reduced that universe to a cosmic round of "It's a Small World.")

Bo Peep has a lot to teach Woody in Toy Story 4. (Disney)

For that very reason, I didn't want Toy Story 4.

I didn't want Toy Story 4 like I didn't want Blade Runner 2049.

Two very different stories, sure. Two entirely different genres. But my objection to the announcement of both sequels was based on the same principle: The Toy Story trilogy (1995, 1999, 2010) and the original Blade Runner (1982) have that rare status of having classic status by satisfying their audiences with something close to perfect storytelling. By fulfilling the promise of their ambitious concepts, by developing compelling characters and meaningful narratives, and by achieving a brilliant balance of closed story arcs and promising loose ends, these movies left almost all moviegoers saying "Let's watch that again!" instead of "Make more!" Both were the fruit of ideal collaborations of innovative imaginations. Adding another chapter to either world, screenwriters would probably propose answers to questions that were a strength of the originals.

Buzz Lightyear and Woody in “Toy Story.” Disney — Pixar, 1995.

It happens several times a year: I find film critics arguing over which franchises are the greatest, and what the proper ranking of the episodes might be. The Toy Story trilogy almost always places near the top of the list, and critics seem to separate almost evenly into camps in choosing which of the three is best.

The secret to the trilogy's consistent quality? Curious, I signed up for a Pixar "Masterclass" in storytelling several years ago, and I was impressed. They know what they're doing, and I bring a lot of their strategies into my own fiction-writing classes.  Their three-film Toy Story series, imagined by an innovative dream team of storytellers, is Exhibit A when it comes to gold-standard all-ages entertainment. In concept, context, and characters, it's a perfect three-part progression.

But for all of their talk about architecture, I'm being serious when I say that it was love. Pixar's best artists lavished attention on every detail of these stories, slow-cooking them over fifteen years to near perfection. (That's a longer calendar than the original Star Wars trilogy!) They took their sweet time, and that time yielded sweetness. Together, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 cohere into one epic story about cultivating a faithful and inclusive community; about finding purpose in being who you were made to be; and, about the meaningfulness of dedication to serving someone else.

You remember it well, I'm sure: The floppy-limbed Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) served his child Andy loyally and kept his toy-box community focused on their people-pleasing priorities. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) learned to be a team player. The supporting cast—Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex, and the rest—learned how to use their distinctive talents in complementary ways; how to make meaningful memories for the children who played with them; how to resist the temptations of becoming collectors' commodities; and how to overcome their fears—even their fears of annihilation by incinerator!

In an unexpected and deeply moving denouement, Toy Story 3 concludes with a vision of a perfect future for the toys beyond Andy, the boy whose love had given them life. We watched Woody and the gang find a new home with a new child—Bonnie—where they would be preserved, loved, and well-played-with. The band would stay together... forever, or something close to that.

The life-and-death stakes of Toy Story 3 made a successful sequel difficult to imagine. What could top that?

Why press your luck and go further, Pixar? Why start a new story when the first three form an ambitious arc that satisfies so completely?

And why not learn from the mistakes of other Pixar series? Remember how Cars 2 and Cars 3 seemed to make a lesser thing of the original? Or how Finding Dory and Monsters University became shrug-worthy footnotes to the classic status of Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc?

So, that's why I responded with dismay to the announcement of Toy Story 4's development. The teaser trailer didn't encourage me—in fact, it upset me. (More on that later.) In short, I've been dreading this movie's arrival.

But then came Blade Runner 2049.

Ryan Gosling dares to follow in Harrison Ford's footsteps in Blade Runner 2049.

Surprise, surprise — somebody figured out how to do this well.

Our return to the world of Philip K. Dick's dystopia and the renegade Replicants turned out to be a strong standalone experience. While I do feel that the original Ridley Scott masterpiece, arguably the pinnacle of '80s sci-fi cinema, is somewhat diminished now that we cannot talk about it without talking about its lesser sequel (I especially cringe at how the humble heroes I loved in Blade Runner returned as icons of religious significance in the sequel), I'm surprised to find myself grateful for director Denis Villeneuve's vision of a larger Blade Runner world. His narrative wisely focuses on new characters, new locations, new and upsettingly relevant questions about a frightfully plausible future.

Best of all, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't do anything that forces us to re-interpret the original or experience it any differently when revisiting it. I watched Blade Runner: The Director's Cut again recently, and if anything it seemed even more enthralling, its hand-crafted special effects proving even more astounding in view of the extravagant digital animation that was used in the sequel to recreate that world. The two films don't really feel like a series—they're separate stories set in the same world: more like The LEGO Batman Movie is to The LEGO Movie than Avengers: Endgame to Avengers: Infinity War.

The strengths of Blade Runner 2049 have made me second-guess my anti-sequel inclinations. Still, I resisted the idea of bringing new imaginations, new ideas, and new risks into the Toy Story series—the only Disney animated series in which three episodes stand shoulder to shoulder among the greatest animated films ever made for anybody.

Now, after a lot of hand-wringing and lament among film critics, here's Toy Story 4.

And, lo... it seems to have shut down cynics like me and given us yet another reason to rejoice that Pixar still has some genius in the house.

"Yes we Canada!" The triumphs of stunt motorcyclist Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) are just a few of this movie's many flashes of good old-fashioned Pixar genius.

Toy Story 4 is, like Blade Runner 2049, an adventure that takes place adjacent to, rather than within, the world of the first three stories. Sure, Sheriff Woody is the leading man, but his role as Community Organizer is no longer the central point of conflict. In fact, the original trilogy's community is almost sidelined in this episode—Buzz Lightyear has surprisingly short screen time, making room for a fantastic new cast characters, all of them matched with an inspired supporting cast of voice actors—including Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Ally Maki, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele.

What's more—this is the funniest Toy Story yet. And it launches us in a whole new narrative direction, suggesting that this could turn out to be the beginning of a new trilogy. I end up reassured that there are still plenty of meaningful stories to tell in the Toy Story universe... so long as the writers don't circle back to revise our understanding of the original trilogy.

Pixar's achievement here is even more impressive when you look at how many cooks were working in that kitchen. The final screenplay was composed by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, but the story was pieced together by no less than eight collaborators: Stanton and Folsom with John Lasseter, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones (!!), Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, and Josh Cooley, who has moved up from Pixar storyboard artist to directing this episode.

A writer list that long is usually a bad sign.

But there's a sense in Toy Story 4 that the whole team was well aware of the stakes.

In fact, there's something clever going on in the opening scene, when Woody and the gang work together to rescue a toy car from drowning in the rushing muck of a storm gutter. It's as if they're admitting up front that, thanks to their talking cars, they're going to have to pull their reputation for sequel-making out of the mud.

And they do. I hope Andrew Stanton, in particular, feels great about this movie. After being unfairly punished for the record-setting box-office failure of John Carter—which was a failure of marketing, not a failure of filmmaking—he's more deserving of a substantial "comeback" than any filmmaker I know. And with the help of an inspired team, he completes a stunt here that few would have thought possible (not unlike one of the jumps completed by Duke Kaboom, the stunt motorcyclist perfectly played by Keanu Reeves in this episode). Can we restore Stanton now to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Family Filmmakers?

Instead of focusing on Woody's community and their chemistry, Toy Story 4 is the first story in this world to focus on the children as much as the toys. And in this, it finds three important new questions to explore:

First: What happens in this world when a child goes beyond loving the toys she's been given and applies her imagination to making toys of her own?

Introducing... Forky!

It's surprising to realize how little attention was given, in the original trilogy, to what a child brings to imaginative engagement with toys. In the first three movies, Andy and Bonnie played with what they were given. But my memory of childhood was all about improvisation,  repurposing what I was given into crazy new inventions. With the introduction of Forky, Bonnie's first homemade toy, the Toy Story universe has exciting new questions to consider.

And that leads us directly to this story's second important question: Can someone who has been taught they are trash be redeemed and given a sense of their true value by someone else's love?

Third: Is a person's value ultimately defined by having found someone who loves them, or is their value defined by finding a way of showing love?

In Part Two, we'll dig into some trash-talking.

And then, in Part Three, I'll consider a major complaint against Toy Story 4 that's been voiced by my favorite film critic.

Stay tuned...

Girl on a leash

What would you do if you discovered a girl kept on a leash?

If you're troubled by that imaginary image, you'll be ensnared as I was by  I Am Not a Witch, a film that most moviegoers overlooked in 2018. But you'll also be enchanted and impressed by this feature from Zambian writer/director Rungano Nyoni.

(You can rent it for a couple of bucks on Amazon and other streaming platforms.)

In what some critics are calling "an absurdist comedy" (but is it absurd?), you'll see not one but many Zambian women who, convicted — on hearsay, not evidence — of practicing witchcraft, have been sentenced to communal imprisonment in a camp, each one bound by a long white ribbon to a large spool. The ribbons are tethers, lines that will prevent them (we learn from a tour guide addressing wide-eyed tourists) from flying around over Zambia and casting curses down on the locals.

But that's just a whimsical hook. The bright light that shines at the center of this movie is the mute 9-year-old orphan who, much to the dismay of the longtime spool-bound prisoners, is the latest to bear this cruel sentence.

Her name is Shula. Played by the radiant Maggie Mulubwa, Shula gives us no clues about her origin, unless her name is one of them: it means "uprooted," and it's likely that she comes to this town because she has survived some kind of trauma or abandonment elsewhere.

Photo: Film Movement

At the beginning, we see her making her way into a village, startling and upsetting a woman who is carrying water, which prompts a wildly unnecessary accusation that she must be a witch. The trial is a joke, with a local policewoman begrudgingly honoring local traditions and listening to others invent crazy stories about how they saw Shula flying overhead and disrupting them. (You may find yourself recalling the famous "Burn the Witch" scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Shula's conviction makes no sense. It's maddening. But then it gets worse in a way that makes all kinds of sense: Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a local who knows a good moneymaking ploy when he sees one, takes this convicted orphan on the road as an attraction. Shula, decorated in outrageous costumes, is forced to pick criminals out of lineups and even appear on a talk show, where a few in the audience dig for the truth only to be deftly deflected by Mr. Banda's dismissals. All the while, she stays bound to a spool, and often finds herself jerked violently backward out of a conversation and dragged a long distance on her back.

Photo: Film Movement

Yes, the leashes that bind these women are imaginary. But they're tied to real-world suffering: Nyoni prepared to make this movie by dwelling among "witches" kept in camps in Zambia and Ghana.

Is there anything here for American moviegoers? Or is this fictional Zambia — this strange world of wild costumes, bizarre traditions, and superstition — just an exotic spectacle?

Well, yes — let's begin with aesthetics: This is a beautiful movie. I watched it on a laptop screen, and I was enthralled by the performances, the beauty of the faces, the rich colors of the cinematography (by David Gallego, who filmed Embrace of the Serpent), and the stirring musical score. I wish I'd seen it on a big screen.

But I was also gripped by a sense of urgency. Will we Western moviegoers see ourselves represented by the foreigners in the opening scene who visit the prisoners the way they'd visit an exhibit in a zoo, and who treat Zambia as an exotic tourist destination?

Photo: Film Movement

I'd argue that there's a great deal for us to consider. You will find relevance here in your own ways, I'm sure. You might find that it's not really fantasy — not much, anyway. You'll remember the reality that many women in the world are still denied an education. You'll remember that many — even those a short road trip from your home — are fleeing persecution and violence only to find greater violence and injustice here, in "the land of liberty and justice for all."

Me, I laughed in bitter recognition at the darkly comic moments in Shula's story of being exploited by her patriarchal culture — and, specifically, by a political con man. Women are exploited, abused, oppressed, and trafficked all over the world, and America has more in common with Zambia in this than our current administration would ever admit — especially in these days when a Republican-led Congress excuses — yea, enables — an unrepentant sexual predator in his relentless attacks against women.

Photo: Film Movement

And remember, there's a young woman named Reality Winner held in solitary confinement for the crime of trying to warn the American people about efforts to corrupt our democracy: She told the truth, and Republicans sentenced her to prison for exposing their corruption. She's still there, on a leash, branded as a witch, even after everything she sought to reveal was proven true. Liars go free while a young truth-tellers suffers, with even her Bible taken from her for punishment.

Am I off on a political tangent? Or am I responding to art exactly the way I should — by considering how it illuminates fundamental truths of the world around me, and by finding in this experience the motivation to do what I can about what's in front of me? I can't save Shula, and I'm unlikely to influence what's happening in Zambia. But what can I do about those being branded here at home? What can I do about those criminals who cry "Witch hunt!" even as their crimes against humanity are exposed?

Despite the drastic differences between Shula's experience and my life of white male American privilege, I find that the more I think about this movie the more I feel its call for me to make a difference where I am. This is not a fantasy. It's not even a foreign film. It's about here and now — you and me.


Giving a grade to Booksmart

The praise party thrown for Booksmart had me wondering if Olivia Wilde's directorial debut might be the first high-school sex comedy to earn a Best Picture nod.

Then came the second wave: cries for critics to settle down, peppered with a few dubious complaints that Wilde's idea of high school was "unrealistic," especially in its idea that maybe we can all get along.

That sparked some snarky comebacks, but I'm not sure "the backlash to the backlash" ever became a thing.

So, the joint is almost empty now. Argumentative cinephiles have moved on, getting worked up about whether Jim Jarmusch's zombie movie is a work of genius or inexcusable laziness. And here I am, conflict-averse, and taking an hour-long break from grading finals for college freshmen. Why not step up to the Booksmart mic, long after the opening-weekend professionals have moved on, and share my thoughts with anybody who might still be listening?

I'm not here to stir up excitement: I won't hail Booksmart as a game-changer in its genre, nor will I dismiss it as derivative. But since I'm in grading mode, I'll go ahead and turn in a report card on several points: the movie's strengths and weaknesses and its most distinctive contribution to the genre.

Booksmart's Box-Office Blues

First, for the record: a few thoughts on Booksmart's box-office sufferings. I don't think this is "wilde" speculation:

Streaming media has made so much accessible — and free — that it takes a lot to get kids to leave their rooms (or their campus) and buy big-screen tickets. They smile at me politely when I serve up details about opening weekends, streaming options, and rental fees. "We know how to find it," they say. "We have our ways." And that, of course, is their way of saying they can find the movie for free on illegal back channels.

Few of my freshman undergrads buy good-old-fashioned movie tickets more than once a month, and when they do they're unlikely to see anything that doesn't have a big star in the lead. I asked 80 undergrads this quarter how many of them have seen Lady Bird, and only seven raised their hands. Many said they'd never heard of it.

What does inspire them? The promise of screaming at jump-scares with their friends. (A Quiet Place did huge opening-weekend business with my students.) The promise of revelations in a big-budget, special-effects-saturated franchise that they really care about, like Marvel or Hogwarts. (They buzzed about Endgame on a daily basis during the months before it opened, then went surprisingly quiet as soon as it arrived.)

So even though Booksmart seems custom-made to become their new favorite comedy, I don't expect to see many hands raised when I ask about it in September.

And that's a shame. It's better than so many movies they will see. It's about them and the things that matter to them most. And it would give us all so much to discuss.

Disclaimer: I'm Not Booksmart's Target Audience — and I Know It

I don't dislike teen comedies. I was a huge Better Off Dead fan in the '80s; I saw Heathers enough times in 1989 to be able to quote the dialogue as it played; I became an Emma Stone fan when Easy A arrived; Sing Street strikes me as very nearly perfect, a film I recommend to everybody all the time; and The Edge of Seventeen — while more of a drama than a comedy — is just outstanding.

Nevertheless, I approached Booksmart as I approached any teen comedy that advertises a focus on sex: with extreme caution.

I was hopeful. Nothing gives me more hope for the future of cinema than the increasing leadership of women in filmmaking and the increasing representation of neglected perspectives across culture, ethnicity, and gender. I was intrigued by the praise for Wilde's direction and by notes on Beanie Feldstein, who memorably made so much of a minor role in Lady Bird.

But I was also deeply skeptical. I'll talk about why, so stay tuned.

Here's my report...

What Works...

I was impressed from the opening scene by this endearingly enthusiastic duo. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Bernie Feldstein) are naive and bookworm-ish, but they're not boring: they're irresistibly charismatic besties, and we want to see their bright lights get caught up in the swirl of their senior-class kaleidoscope. That's the premise: They're discovering, just before graduation, that they've made a terrible mistake. By focusing solely (and, perhaps, snobbishly) on academic excellence, they've missed out on fun.

And I'm rooting for them. My high school and college experiences were both joyously unpredictable adventures, full of academic rewards and the hijinks of hilarious relationships. I spoke at graduation and I planned my graduating class's irreverent and unsupervised talent show. I obsessed over my grades and I cornered my impossible crush in a moment of wild ambition to declare my undying love (to disastrous results). I want Amy and Molly to learn about more than earning good grades. I want them to laugh themselves sick at parties, to improvise their way out of trouble, to take risks and make moves on their first fierce crushes, to cast off their inhibitions and seize the karaoke microphone.

It's rare enough to see a female friendship in such sharp cinematic focus. It's even rarer for lead characters to be more interesting themselves than their supporting cast. Don't get me wrong — in Booksmart, we're witnessing the introduction of a whole new menu of young talents who will show up in great movies for years to come. The whole cast here is outstanding. But usually it's secondary characters and villains that make the strongest impressions in movies like this; they get to go to extremes, while heroes have to be stable and, um, "relatable."

As Amy and Molly, Dever and Feldstein could carry a franchise. They're dynamite.

Wilde celebrates all of it with consistently compelling cinematography and a perfectly pitched, carefully curated pop-music soundtrack. This movie is a fireworks show for the eyes and ears. As Amy and Molly pinball from one point in Los Angeles to another, we navigate their various vehicles, parties, disorientations, erotic entanglements, and awkward encounters with teachers and law enforcement without ever losing our place or struggling to sort out the large cast of characters. Each one arrives fully-formed, with a distinctive personality and amusing idiosyncrasies. While the highly praised pool party scene isn't nearly as affecting as the one in Eighth Grade, it's captured and choreographed with a gorgeous and delirious grace.

What Doesn't...

Here's where I'm uncomfortable with the film's fundamental premise:

It seems to suggest that the fun Amy and Molly have been missing equals sexual adventurism and very little else.

Yes, there's a karaoke scene about casting off inhibitions. Yes, there are encounters in which the girls and their classmates discover how much they've underestimated each other. But Amy and Molly's determination to find the biggest most popular party in town is quickly revealed to be a quest for sexual rites of passage. And, whether that was typical of your high school experience or not, that seems like an unfortunately simplistic aspiration for this otherwise extravagant and imaginative motion picture.

I've never had patience for films that take sex lightly — especially films pitched as entertainment for young people who (like adults, let's face it) too easily confuse their hormones and their heart. (And then there's wisdom, which neither hormones nor the heart are inclined to embrace without first making mistakes.) I saw too many young people who scoffed at the idea of restraint end up learning hard and even life-altering lessons. Socially awkward as I was, I wasn't dating in high school — not yet. Nevertheless, because of strong examples in my family, ideals illustrated in literature and art, and convictions cultivated by faith, I had come to hope for something more substantial, generous, and holistic than hasty carnal engagement. And I hated to see any of my close friends in high school treated as trophies or conquests, just as I hated seeing those who exercised restraint mocked as cowards or snobs.

Fortunately, I don't have many memories, good or bad, about sex being a major priority or a major problem among my classmates.  Most movies about romance, sex, and love that were marketed to my generation seemed to have been imagined by writers who didn't know what they were talking about. Perhaps Booksmart's characters will seem familiar to you, perhaps not. I remember that my close friends and I were aware of that sex-obsessed-teen stereotype and made fun of it; we were just as interested (if not more so) in movies, music, and sports. And if were obsessed with anything it was a particular variety of comedy-one-upsmanship.

Whatever — it's one thing to represent typical teenage appetites; it's another thing to confuse those appetites with a moral compass. Insofar as that goes, there are aspects of this movie's conclusion that I can tell I'm supposed to celebrate, but instead I end up disappointed and less-than hopeful about these characters' future happiness.

Worst of all, the film's preoccupation with sex crosses a line when it draws teachers into its tale-spinning. I'm always happy to see Jessica Williams, and she's perfectly cast as Miss Fine, a Cool Teacher, here. At first she gives the film an admirable adult anchor: she seems wise, stable, and insightful about her students (much more so than the awkward but affable principal played by Jason Sudekis). But I'm not so happy to see Miss Fine become a punchline by giving in to the sexual proposition of a smitten male student.

Do I have to point out how audiences would have righteously rioted if the teacher had been male (and played by Kevin Spacey)? Maybe you'll find this particular twist amusing. I did not. But even if it makes us laugh, we need to note that we're being goaded into taking lightly a dynamic that, in the real world, leads to serious consequences.

Realistic? "Relatable"?

Don't get me wrong: I laughed a lot at Booksmart — more than I expected to. No, I can't join the hallelujah chorus: It doesn't have anything that inspired me as much as the non-conformist rage of Heathers or the contagious joy of Sing Street. But I don't find much cause for complaint, either: I enjoyed the company of Booksmart's characters, and I especially appreciate how generous and gracious it is with all of them. It has a refreshing lack of villains and a smart avoidance of scapegoats and stereotypes. (I've never seen Superbad, so I have no opinion about how this film measures up to it.)

Did I find it relatable? That's a word being thrown around by some of its critics, and it's also a word that my students use more than any other term to explain why they like something. The fact is, I don't care: I don't go to the movies to find something relatable. I go to the movie to experience other perspectives, other contexts, other ways of being in the world.

If the audience reaction I witnessed at my matinee of Booksmart is any indication, this is obviously familiar ground for most, and my high school experience qualifies me as a visitor from another planet. The only moments in high-school comedies that have ever felt even fleetingly familiar have come from the awkward social bonds formed between outsiders in Napoleon Dynamite; the joy of extracurricular creativity cultivated by the young musicians of Sing Street; and the struggle for spiritual authenticity in a context of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in Saved! So, no — I don't relate much to the characters in Booksmart. They're too cliquish, too sex-obsessed, and — in most cases — too wealthy for me to recognize their world.

But I do relate to it in another way. I love the way this movie loves its community.

Me, I loved high school, I loved my classes, my classmates, my curricular and extracurricular activity. I enjoyed the company of almost everybody in my (very small) class (of about 60). And when I graduated, I didn't want to say goodbye to anybody. In the video of our final moments, we are celebrating in the hallways with wild abandon. But we are also in tears, our arms around each other, distraught at the thought of going our separate ways.

So I guess that I'm grateful that, for all of these characters' preoccupations with getting laid as if it's the Meaning of Life, Booksmart plays with such heart, such an inclination toward empathy, and such a determination to liberate each and every teen character from the constraints of typical categories and stereotypes. Like Napoleon Dynamite, this is a movie full of individuals, of human beings, not types.

And while the movie prioritizes delivering a kind of sexual "graduation" for its characters so highly that I found myself getting impatient, I'm glad that it ultimately ends up caring most about its central friendship — much the way that Lady Bird (which I find much more rewarding than Booksmart) ends up caring most about its central mother/daughter bond.

I can only hope this movie will inspire this kind of inclusivity, welcome, and grace — not only in future stories told in this genre, but in its target audience, the one growing up in a world that is increasingly dividing into judgmental, vindictive camps. After all, I learned to value grace by burying my nose in books. I hope more movies will make it possible for upcoming generations who show an alarming disinterest in reading.


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Beware of Elisabeth Moss as a reckless rock goddess

Walking SeaTac International Airport earlier this month, I heard the voices of rock-music legends on the intercom issuing cautions about airport safety. For example, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains told us that no smoking is allowed in the airport. And then — I am not making this up — somebody from Guns N'Roses instructed us in how to navigate the airport escalators safely.

With quick-draw reflexes, I reached for my phone and reported this travesty on Twitter:

Hey, hey... my, my...
Rock-and-roll just up and died.

Perhaps my reaction was too harsh. It was certainly hasty. But it hurts when icons of bucking the system become, well... the system.

My love of that early-'90s Seattle sound lives on. Of course it does. It was the hometown soundtrack of my college experience. It was the rebel yell of those most formative years. Since the grunge wave, I've heard a hundred rock bands rip off Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff, and every time the imitation is both obvious and annoyingly inferior. But my aggravation with the copycats isn't driven by nostalgia — it comes from a longing to hear new ideas and authentic voices. The heart of any great rock-and-roll beats with a legitimate longing, a distinctive vision, a righteous rage against hypocrisy, a demand for something more real than pop-music superficiality.

I feel like I found a pure dose of the real thing — a cinematic equivalent of Nirvana's Nevermind —this week.

Her Smell, the new film by Alex Ross Perry, flips the Kurt Cobain coin to show the other side, revealing the woman behind the throne — or, rather, the woman who owned a throne of her own and demanded (yea, deserved) to reign alongside her Prince Alarming. But Courtney Love was a She, and so her public refused to attend to her intense volatility with the patience that they showed her similarly mercurial male contemporaries. She was an "emotional mess," according to the press — but Cobain was a "tortured artist." Okay.

Ah, but I'm misleading you. Her Smell isn't about Courtney Love — not exactly. Perry conjures a character named Becky Something who, while obviously inspired by Love's famous attitude and antics, is better for being a fiction. We are released from the burden of arguing about historical accuracy, set free to imagine a  mythical diva, a tempest in a t-shirt. Played with hell-bent fury by Elisabeth Moss, Becky looms like a representative spirit of so many women in rock, so many troubled icons, so many who somehow evade the many possible Deaths By Recklessness that seem imminent and even invited.

And, fortunately for us, the movie is also more than an invitation to witness a great actress indulge in self-destructive behavior. What could easily have just been another unpleasant exercise in what I like to call Stunt Acting — the kind of awards-bait performance that suggests Most Intense Acting equals the Best Acting — becomes instead something surprisingly substantial: a soulful examination of a whole community — the network necessary for the making of a Rock Goddess.

Her Smell, giving generous attention to a solar system of supporting characters all caught in Becky Something's orbit — longtime bandmates Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin); potential next-generation collaborators (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula); a husband (Dan Stevens) trying to save both Becky and their daughter; Becky's mother (the great Virginia Madsen) — is an outstanding ensemble piece. It takes a village to raise up a Star, but if the village isn't careful, that Star might come crashing down like a meteor and leave a smoking crater in their place.

Her Smell asks if we dare empathize with a woman so self-immolating, disrespectful, egomaniacal, and dangerously intoxicated. Rebecca Adamczyk — that's the name Becky Something is trying to put behind her — is an open wound that bleeds hard rock gold — but only on occasion, and, increasingly, only when it seems she's alienated everyone that matters and pushed her agent (Eric Stoltz, excellent) to the edge of his patience. She craves the stardom, and when she gets it, she believes the hype — perhaps because there's a smoking hole in her heart left there by...


While it's clear that Becky Something, who provides an energetic catharsis for so many, exists at great cost to those around her, it's also clear that her animating energy is a response to betrayals, abandonment, and abuse. The film's most notable ghost is Becky's father, who is rarely mentioned, but whose absence thunders like the bass through the ceiling and walls in these purgatorial nightclubs. She's turned hurtful because she suffered formative hurt at the hands of someone she should have been able to rely on, and she won't risk giving anyone that kind of dangerous influence — the power to hurt her — again.

But the movie never devolves into a blame game. There are moments mid-tantrum when we fleetingly glimpse Becky's awareness of what she is doing and her helplessness to stop herself. It's obvious that the band's ship is sinking, thanks to Becky's sabotage. And her behavior suggests that she'd rather throw her her shipmates overboard then allow them to run for the lifeboats — which is to say, she'd rather fire them than allow them to quit.

Nevertheless, all might not be lost.

After we weather Hurricane Becky through the storm of the film's first 90 minutes, we might come to believe that even an imperfect community — one as prone to exploiting her as it is to helping her — might be enough to save her from herself. Much to my surprise, the film's last act dares to entertain the idea of hope. It isn't an implausible happily-ever-after hope; it's a hope that scares everyone involved, given its fragility and unlikelihood.

If it weren't for the uniformly remarkable cast (Deyn and Rankin are both extraordinary, and even Amber Heard is impressively convincing), and the masterful choreography of complicated scenes in claustrophobia-triggering clubs, corridors, and studios, I might not have made it through this movie.

But in the end, I'm glad I did. As I was watching, I had to ask if the horror I felt was an aversion to the film's merciless ferocity, or if it might instead be a kind of discomfort with the challenges that the film was posing to me:

Could I find a way to love someone so recklessly dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive as this?

What does love require in such a scenario?

Would I be willing to stick with her, one way or another, during this downward spiral even if there were no hope of her recovery?

God have mercy on the Becky Somethings of the world.

May they outlast their own kamikaze impulses.

May they be granted the grace to survive the trials that wring such vivid music like blood from their guts.

May they live long enough to leave us recorded testimonies about how to ride our own escalators safely.


Thanks to the Looking Closer Specialists — including Timothy Grant and Winston Chow — for their ongoing support of my endeavors on this website. I could not afford to write and publish these reviews for you without donations like theirs. If you are grateful for my work on this site, consider making a donation of any amount here:

Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, Sam Phillips: Three New Concert Films

I’m under headphones above 10,000 feet, and Aretha Franklin is flying the plane.

At least it feels that way. Anne and I are headed to what we call “a homecoming,” an annual gathering of authors at the edge of the Frio River in the Texas hill country — inspirations, influences, kindred spirits. I’m feeling a familiar anticipatory buzz of gratitude and hope. I will see so many of my favorite writers in person there. Oh, I can read their profound manuscripts all year long, but there’s nothing like being in their company. It is medicine for my weary heart.

So it feels right that I’m listening to Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, an audio record of a homecoming in which “the Queen of Soul,” at the apex of her ascent to pop-music celebrity, suddenly returned to the context of a community church — New Temple Baptist Church in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, to be exact — to sing among fellow believers the songs that had lit a soulful fire within her when she was a child.

I’m hooked on this sound. I’ve been flying high since my discovery of a new documentary — also called Amazing Grace — about those two nights of live music in 1972 when director Sydney Pollack set up cameras and microphones to capture this convergence of songs and sermons inside New Temple. It’s such an unlikely big-screen experience: Footage of these legendary hymn sings has been unreleased for almost half a century due to technical challenges of matching image and audio, and Franklin herself apparently opposed its release. But here it is, in theaters. And when you see it, when you hear it, you’ll know why it’s an unexpected arthouse hit. You’ll know why I returned to the theater to see it twice in one weekend.

This movie may look at first like an invitation to worship Franklin herself, but that’s not the nature of the experience: Amazing Grace is about the ecstatic play of Franklin, the Reverend James Cleveland (her childhood friend), the Southern California Community choir, the congregation, and I daresay — for those with eyes to see and ears to hear — the Holy Spirit. They show us a community finding release from the weight of prejudice, from the trauma of the recent Watts riots, from the frustrations of an emancipation promise proclaimed but unfulfilled. And they find that release through music about God’s longsuffering faithfulness. It’s clear that thought their hearts, though bruised and beaten, have not been overcome.

If you, like me, have felt weighed down in recent years by emboldened forces of hatred in this country and the world — open attacks on any American vision that values “liberty and justice for all” — then this homecoming will bless and console you, too.

The timing of this release is interesting. Though these early-70s echoes are significant — as a vital historical artifact, as a crucial cultural testimony for black Americans, and as unparalleled expressions of Gospel music — they’re not the only sounds elevating me.

While the airplane hums, I’ve enhanced my “homecoming” playlist with tracks from two more concert films. Both reveal singer-songwriters at their peak; both spotlight women of singular artistic vision; both document highlights from multiple shows with career-spanning setlists.

Just this week, I’ve witnessed, with slack-jawed amazement, Homecoming: the new Netflix film capturing the colossal spectacle of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performances. So I’ve downloaded the 40-track album that accompanies the film to relive that excitement.

And I’ve also been enchanted by the intimate art onstage in Sam Phillips: Live @ Largo at the Coronet, a film of my favorite songwriter performing with an all-star ensemble of musicians at the top of their game.

An outdoor arena, a nightclub, a church — these three events couldn’t be more different.

[To read the rest of this essay,
visit Good Letters at Image.]

High Fidelity (2002)

Lately, I've been blasting the new album by Said the Whale during my morning commute. And this track has made me nostalgic for the endless hours I used to spend browsing record shops.


It's also made curious to revisit a movie set in a record shop that I admired almost twenty years ago now: Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity.

Before I do, I'm revisiting my review, just to refresh my memory about the conversations and arguments that went on in the hours and days after the film's release. And I'm amused by several things:

  • I identified Jack Black as "an ever-present supporting actor in Tim Robbins' films." Little did we know that he would become a comedy superstar on a variety of stages.
  • I really believed that we'd get a sequel to Grosse Point Blank. I still wish we had.

Here's the original review:

[This review was originally published at The Phantom Tollbooth.]

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable?" Rob Gordon (John Cusack) asks, "Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

Good question.

Rob is a thirtysomething record-store manager and part-time DJ in downtown Chicago who has reached a point of introspective crisis. Yet another girlfriend is breaking up with him. He doesn't know why, he's broken-hearted, and worse, he's fed up with being rejected. When his live-in lover Laura (played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle) packs up and ships out, he decides to get to the bottom of this perpetual misfortune once and for all. He sets out on a journey back through the infidelities and disasters of his romantic history.

The journey has two parts: a swim in the sea of self-pity as he listens to the music that formed the soundtrack to his love life, and a frantic interrogation of past girlfriends in hopes of reaching enlightenment.

I get the impression Cusack made this film chiefly so he could advertise his favorite records to the world. Music—specifically, vinyl—is Rob’s life. From the first moment of the film, the records are spinning. His apartment walls house thousands of LPs in plastic sleeves, carefully organized autobiographically, in order of their significance through the course of his life. He's a walking pop-culture encyclopedia, also a master of the fine art of making compilation cassettes, and an obsessive list-maker. He is unable to carry on a conversation about anything or anybody without referencing the music he associates with the subject. He lists for us his Top 5 heartbreak songs (yes, he talks to the camera between chapters, and even during scenes) as he describes his Top 5 breakups. Katrina and the Waves, the Pretenders, Pavement, Bruce Springsteen, Marvin Gaye, Massive Attack—endorsements of his favorites shout out from the screen at every turn. You can expect a run on the recordings of The Beta Band after this movie opens; Rob plays their stuff in the store and stands back to watch the customers (and the audience) catch on.

Music is the one thing Rob understands, and so he’s most eloquent (and understood) when he’s with others who speak the same language. Thus, while he wishes it were otherwise, Rob’s closest confidants are his slacker Championship Vinyl co-workers. Through long and feverish debates about personal taste, we come to know Dick (Todd Louiso), a small, softspoken, and sensitive guy who listens to Belle and Sebastian; and Barry, a Chris-Farley-like Tasmanian devil who likes obscene lyrics and thrashing guitars (Jack Black, an ever-present supporting actor in Tim Robbins' films). Barry's crass sense of humor and explosive temper win him arguments with everyone but Rob, who calls his bluff when things look to turn violent.

The storytelling slows to a standstill in these scenes, and Barry’s over-the-top behavior gets too much screen time. But the chemistry of these three is certainly entertaining, and audiences are sure to leave with a title or two to look up next time they visit a music store.

Aside from his search for enlightenment in musical nostalgia, Rob hopes to get some answers from the experts themselves. His ex-girlfriends (played by Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter) are a gallery of extremes. And perhaps they have more to say on the subject of his incompatibility than he bargains for. Flashbacks show us Rob "on the make" at all different ages. Of the three exes, Carter struck me as the most convincing, while Zeta-Jones is cold and glamorous and Taylor merely spooky. Lisa Bonet, in a performance that should win her an invitation back into the Hollywood spotlight, arrives as a possible new romantic adventure, but serves in the end only to demonstrate just how selfish and reprehensible Rob can be. After all, here’s a guy who’s broken up because his girlfriend might be unfaithful, and he worries about it while he himself sleeps around.

Not that Rob's precious Laura is a paragon of virtue. In fact, she has teamed up with a new man—a grotesquely Yuppified neighbor named Iain (Tim Robbins). Robbins makes Iain the most memorably disgusting character since John Turturro's hyper-arrogant bowling champion in The Big Lebowski. As his only function in the story is to provoke jealousy and grand romantic gestures from Cusack's Rob, Robbins has a lot of room to embellish his character, and what he does earns the biggest laughs in the movie.

Rob's pursuit of Laura and his pursuit of self-awareness lead him to some hard realities, and he sinks deep before his climb to understanding. These characters, as winning as they are, strike some frightening and mean-spirited blows to each other. We learn about all manner of infidelities and even an abortion. The days of the cute Cusack dating comedies are over. But the story does not get sidetracked by melodramas that would have proven irresistible to other directors. It stays focused on Rob, on what it is that disqualifies him from long-term relationships.

John Cusack was born to play a self-defeating champion of unrequited love. He's walking a career path within shouting distance of Woody Allen there. And he's got that sarcastic but well-meaning voice down so well that he's writing his own scripts. He wrote his best film, Grosse Point Blank, with D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, and that same team adapted High Fidelity. (He’s also talking about a sequel to Grosse Point Blank.) In my opinion, only Woody Allen has mastered the art of "knocking down the fourth wall" and addressing the audience directly. It's tricky. Here, Cusack's persistence makes it work most of the time, and his monologues give him a chance to show off Chicago’s scenic spots. But characters that interrupt an otherwise convincing scene to explain something to the audience only remind the audience that this is a movie, and the intensity of a real situation gets spoiled. I wish there had been less talk and more show. The music explains enough as it is.

There is also far too much rain in this movie; it arrives like clockwork whenever Rob gets rejected, just so he can walk home looking like a wet dog. I kept expecting to hear the classic Police refrain—"I've stood here before inside the pouring rain / it's my destiny to be the king of pain." That, at least, would have been clever.

But these are small complaints. This film is what they call "a return to form" for director Stephen Frears, who showed us a corrupting combination of lust and power in Dangerous Liaisons and found wry laughter in painful circumstances in The Snapper. His ability to make something meaningful and memorable out of such different explorations is truly impressive. (Maybe audiences will now forgive him for Mary Reilly.) He helps Cusack and Company transplant Nick Hornby’s novel from London to Chicago quite successfully. And by refusing to glamorize Rob’s romantic antics, he steers clear of romantic comedy conventions without sacrificing relevance.

Best of all, Iben Hjejle makes Laura the strongest, most interesting leading lady in many a romance. She's fiercely intelligent even though she makes rash and hurtful decisions. Most importantly, she's immune to grand gestures of romantic superiority from the leading man. The leading ladies in most romantic comedies exist to exhibit weakness so a man can come along and save them with intelligence, cleverness, or brawn. Laura is flawed and vulnerable, but she’s also formidable, and if she goes back to Rob it will be because she has come to that decision on her own terms, and for that she wins our respect.

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realized just how much convention the film defied. It's a comedy, so of course things will turn out okay, one way or the other, in the end. But High Fidelity refuses to tell you why things will turn out alright. Laura's "womanly wiles" are as mystifying to the males in the film as they would be in real life, so Rob never discovers any big secret to winning her back. He just keeps wrestling with his personal demons. And that itself is a worthwhile story. While he may never come to understand or change his girlfriend, he can certainly learn to change himself. Instead of "happily ever after," we’re left with a new beginning, a possibility of renewal. Even as I wondered why a smart girl like Laura would be interested in a slacker like Rob, I knew that guys throughout the audience were nodding and smiling, quite familiar with such unanswerable questions. And the women were smiling too, keeping to themselves the reasons that they are sometimes drawn to thick-headed, oafish, and insecure men. C'est la vie.