Lost in the Movies: 2019

Inside Out (The Unseen 2015)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Inside Out was #3 for 2015.

The Story: Eleven-year-old Riley Andersen's (Kaitlyn Dias') mindspace is as bright and colorful as it is safe and orderly. Her five primary emotions, presented in color-coded, personified form as the red Anger (Lewis Black), blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), green Disgust (Mindy Kaling), purple Fear (Bill Hader), and effervescent yellow pixie Joy (Amy Poehler), run a well-regulated command center distributing glowing balls of visual memory through giant tubes (shades of Twin Peaks!). The strongest core memories power magical lands that exist across a canyon from these headquarters: Family Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, and Honesty Island. The film delights in imaginative worldbuilding (Pixar-clever at its Pixar-cleverest), but also quickly develops its main plot: Riley's loving family is relocating from Minnesota to San Francisco just as their daughter begins to tiptoe into adolescent confusion. Traumatized by her removal from familiar touchstones, humiliated when she cries in front of her classroom, and eventually driven to run away from home after fighting with her parents (Diane Lane and - speaking of Twin Peaks - Kyle MacLachlan), Riley is no longer sure who she is. This chaos is reflected both in her external life and the now-upside-down interior world that Inside Out has lovingly crafted.

This scenario is meant not only to give the film an emotional grounding, but to test the limits and provide a conduit through all the nooks and crannies of Riley's mental landscape: the literal Train of Thought, the towering stacks and endless aisles of Long-Term Memory, the creampuff pastel aesthetic of Imagination Land, the trippy gauntlet of Abstract Thought (in which the cartoons become Picassolike cubist forms and even two-dimensional dots and lines), the show-biz shenanigans of Dream Studios (where the filmmakers delight in the gap between production process and immersive end result), and dreaded Memory Dump from which there can be no return - or can there? For these scenes, our ensemble becomes a bickering buddy team: Joy and Sadness traverse this landscape in an effort to restore Riley's personality after an emotional shutdown and get themselves back up to the command center after being accidentally ejected. Their companion Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley's long-abandoned imaginary pachyderm-ish friend, accompanies them part of the way but mostly the two (and especially the overconfident Joy) need to figure out how to help one another, because Riley can't go through life high on happiness: sometimes you have to sit with your sorrow too.

The Context: Pixar dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century film industry with a truly astonishing run of titles - Monsters Inc., Finding NemoThe Incredibles, Ratatouie, Wall-E, and Up - dominating not only the box office but year-end, decade's end, even all-time critics' lists (Cars wasn't quite so beloved by critics but became the de facto "favorite film" of everyone under five for at least a dozen years). As Hollywood became more reliant than ever on bloated franchise adaptations and grimdark action spectacles, these ostensible kids' movies were celebrated for delivering well-rounded entertainment that adults could enjoy more than just about anything else on offer. If anything upheld the Golden Age traditions of classical storytelling, while coupling these timeworn satisfactions with clever conceptual hooks and cutting-edge technology, it was the relatively recent start-up linked to, but still scrappily independent from, the Disney empire (and co-owned by Steve Jobs, one of the most lionized individuals of the zeroes).

By 2015, however, the studio's star had begun to dim, with only Brave standing out during a slower-paced, sequel-heavy period of years. Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, came to the rescue during the interim; shortly after the last of that triumphant run (with the massively popular but not exactly original Toy Story 3 still to come), Docter was inspired by his own daughter's growning pains to conceive a story about what goes on inside our heads. For years, the difficult project was assembled, with struggles to work out the complex, abstract visualization and plotting (for a while, Fear rather than Sadness was going to accompany Joy's odyssey, but a melancholy Docter switched sidekicks during a period of creative struggle). Inside Out was accepted far and wide as a momentous comeback, not simply a reiteration of Pixar's imaginative pleasures but an advance in terms of conceptual bravery and emotional resonance. The film earned over $850 million at the box office, near-perfect review averages, the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Animated Film (with a number of bodies recognizing not only its animation but its original screenplay) and has become a teaching tool in school in the years since. Rumors of a sequel - perpetually denied by Pixar - continue to circulate, with fan "trailers" on YouTube constantly confusing the matter. Not everyone's a fan; the filmmakers were sued by a psychologist who claimed that they stole her pitch about similar "emotion" characters dubbed "The Moodsters," but the lawsuit was dismissed since the claimant had already made these characters public.

My Response: To the extent I could share Inside Out's - and maybe aspects of the broader zeitgeist's - spirit of optimistic, productive engagement in June 2015, it was because of my immersion in video essay work. I'd finished Journey Through Twin Peaks earlier in the year and just begun creating semi-regular videos for Fandor Keyframe (a couple days after the Pixar film's premiere, they would post one of my favorite videos, on eye contact in Satyajit Ray's film The Big City - another psychological study of a character learning to navigate challenges in a new situation). On the other hand, my primary work was in flux as was my living situation: within a year, I'd move across the country. As summer wore on, there would soon be a dramatic, unfortunate onslaught of deaths of family friends (and some extended family); so the more troubled, unstable side of Inside Out could have been relatable too...if I'd seen it at the time! My reason for missing it was the same as for most of the late films on this list: I just wasn't going to movies much anymore (in fact, when I attended a Jacques Rivette/David Lynch retrospective at the end of the year, I realized that I was watching more films in theater in a theater that week than in the past year and a half). But this has also been a consistent pattern with Pixar too.

After the studio released its iconic Toy Story in 1995, when I was in sixth grade, I usually went to see these films on family outings, but beginning with Monsters, Inc. in 2001 I almost always skipped them in the cinema. This could seem perfectly explicable given that - despite their broad appeal - the films are targeted at children, but that never stopped plenty of my peers, cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike, who were keen to catch them all on the big screen. The only exceptions for me have been Ratatouie - a roommate who was a chef himself was really keen that we all go see it - and The Incredibles 2, which a friend's family was planning to see when I happened to visit. On my own? I almost always wait for home viewing a year or two later (Inside Out was an unusually long wait). It's not intentional but I wonder if there's an subconscious inclination at work, as I have a tendency to be initially skeptical in the face of universal acclaim. I am usually thoroughly entertained when I finally catch up with these movies (unlike, say, Armond White, who caused the Internet to melt down by nuking Toy Story 3's perfect Rotten Tomatoes score) but I do understand some of the holdouts to Pixar's charms.

There is a whiff of self-satisfaction to the studio's output and overall image, as it effortlessly knocks out audience- and critic-pleasing hit after hit without really challenging its audience too deeply: a child prodigy blessed with amazing facility but lacking a certain hard-won maturity. Expectations for family-friendly material set the bar low enough that, with an assist from a particularly rough period for Hollywood escapism, solid old-fashioned entertainment feels like more than enough. But if the hooks are frequently clever and brilliant, the actual dramatic action seldom expands storytelling conventions, and the animation - following the groundbreaking development of a CGI feature in the mid-nineties - stays within certain bounds. Pixar has wholly supplanted Disney's hegemonic presence in the world of big-budget cartoons (under the aegis of that very media empire, of course), and that comes with a certain trepidation. The brand cultivates the image of a "perfect student" who gets everything right without breaking a sweat, the sort that's easy to resent. All duly noted - and we'll return to the subject of the studio's broader cultural identity in the "Signs of the Time" section - but part of Inside Out's particular appeal is its hint of wry self-criticism (perhaps spurred by the perception that Pixar had fallen into a rut after its golden age).

As the film's heroine, Joy is both contagiously enthusiastic and more than a little annoying. Her ear-to-ear smile and cheerful management of personality crises within the command center slide easily into a bossy control freak persona that refuses to yield other emotions their place, reminding us that the tyranny of forced happiness can be as grating as any other domineering mode. And the film is well-aware of this tendency, sending her and us on a journey precisely to discover that both mindful practice and movie drama need multiple emotions in play in order to function in a healthy manner. Sadness is the perfect partner for Joy in this endeavor, and Docter's decision to shift away from the light-hearted buddy comedy of Joy and Fear to the more profound implications of this duo was a brilliant stroke, easy to take for granted in retrospective. Although we never get to know Sadness quite as well as Joy, Smith's dead-on voicework and the excellent character animation lend the character an amusing, and relatable, pathos. Pixar has always displayed this penchant for melancholy alongside its bright, shiny techno-cheer (the Toy Story protagonists always fear obsolecence while Up and Wall-E, both engage with fear of, or reaction to, loss - the latter inspiring my short reflection "Why are kids' movies sadder?").

I also loved the revelation - during a family dinner - that everyone's mindscape is structured differently, and that often we perceive each other through our own mental hierarchies. After Riley's control room leads us to assume that every individual's Joy runs the show, we learn that Riley's father is ruled by pent-up Anger while Sadness dominates Riley's mother. What's startling here is the hint of entirely different movies unfolding if we view the same material from a different angle - movies with a darker, more adult edge.  If there's ever another Inside Out, I'd love to see this momentary tease played out in an extended storyline, moving from exploration of a single character's emotional transition to interactions between two or more different emotional landscapes. The film establishes a template that could easily fuel an endless variety of individual stories, both for a particular character or as an anthology of different characters. Inside Out would make a great television show - perhaps the first real fusion of prestige TV and children's entertainment - if Pixar ever decided to branch out; given both this brand's and that form's synchronizations with the early twenty-first century zeitgeist, it's surprising they haven't made that move yet (how many times have the sentences "Cable TV is the new art cinema," or "Only Pixar carries on the classic Hollywood tradition," been written or spoken?). At the very least, Riley's Big Mood would make a hell of a Saturday morning cartoon.

If I recognized some of my broader reservations about Pixar onscreen and was occasionally exhausted by the onslaught of cleverness, I couldn't help but love the movie overall. For someone enamored of allegorical worldbuilding (I've touched on the idea of psycho-geography in both Twin Peaks and The Wind in the Willows), Inside Out is an utter delight start to finish. The ability to assemble abstract ideas into a physical cityscape feels like the logical conclusion of one of my favorite moments in Pixar, a brief glimpse that has stuck with me since I saw it twenty years ago: in A Bug's Life, the hero arrives at a "city" that is composed of odd little knicknacks tossed away in a field somewhere. If, as I'll continue to explore momentarily, Inside Out feels very meta-Pixar, it's also rather meta-Disney, reorganizing the neural pathways of the brain into colorful, friendly, if poignantly impermanent "lands" each with its own distinct character and design, positioned around a towering central hub. If Pinocchio predicted Disneyland with its literally clockwork attractions, bustling Alpine village layout, and hyper-themed Pleasure Island layout, then Inside Out exists as a bookend on the other end of corporate history. 

Signs of the Times: Like La La Land, Inside Out weaves together a of contemporary reality and an idealized past, in this case more Anaheim than Hollywood in its utopian sub/urban planning. Of course, the film also stretches far beyond the insular (if increasingly ubiquitous) culture of Disney in its ramifications - for one thing, the perfectly-cast emotions read like a veritable who's who of popular late zeroes/early teens ensemble comedy: Kaling and Smith from the Office crew, Black from the Daily Show crew, Poehler and Hader from the Saturday Night Live crew. This is, by the way, the first film on our list not to involve millennials in any notable capacity: Doter is peak Gen X and aside from early boomer Black and late boomer MacLachlan, the cast are all Xers as are the onscreen parents. As for Riley, both the character and the slightly-older voice actress belong to whatever you want to dub the generation following millennials (Gen-Z is surely as temporary a moniker as Gen-Y was, and demographers seem to be leaning toward iGeneration - like it or hate it).

There's something - maybe a few things - distinctly "Obama era" about Inside Out. From the cheerfully pragmatic nature of the story's psychology to the smooth, rounded iDesign aesthetic of Riley's headspace, from the dad's occupation at some kind of tech start-up to the relatively mild nature of the protagonist's crisis, the entire world of the film speaks to professional-class liberal confidence on the eve of Trump. As a love letter to flexible, thoughtful technocracy, Inside Out is naturally a flattering self-portrait of the creative culture at Pixar itself: collaborative but hierarchical, efficient but still soulful, envelope-pushing within tight structures. It really is difficult to find a studio whose ethos was more in sync with the zeitgeist of the early to mid-teens even if, ironically, the majority of its successes occurred under the cruder, more chaotic Bush administration (as such, in a sense Pixar and its ilk birthed Obama rather than vice versa).

Of course, the bourgie comfort of these years rested on the groaning foundation of widening economic inequality, growing racial turmoil, the advance of the global right, vicious partisan entrenchment, and an unchecked climate crisis, so beyond the more glib aspects of Inside Out's synchronicity, there may be a deeper resonance to the message that it's dangerous to suppress the deep truths of Sadness for too long. And within a couple years, the studio itself would experience a blow to its own comfortable public image - but also a vindication for hardworking employees who felt marginalized under that corporate persona. Founding figure and chief creative officer John Lasseter, whose bubbly behavior and cheerful confidence personified Pixar to many, was ousted during the #MeToo movement based on years of physical and verbal sexual misconduct; this sort of entitlement could no longer take its own power for granted. Given the way that the studio's culture is often echoed in its own movies, one wonders how future Pixar movies will reflect this shift in self-image.

Other Films: As is often the case with Pixar, Inside Out made an unusually strong showing for an original story, reaching the #4 spot in the U.S. In fact, it took some true titans to beat it: at the end of the year, The Force Awakens replaced Jurassic World, from earlier that summer, as the biggest worldwide hit of all time, with both of those edging out Avengers: Age of Ultron (like World and Awakens, a sequel to a movie that had once held the all-time title itself). Rounding out the domestic top five was Furious 7. See a pattern? The eighth Star Wars, fourth Jurassic Park, second Avengers (and eleventh MCU), seventh Fast and the Furious, third Despicable Me, and fourth Hunger Games surrounded Inside Out on either side. While franchise films dominated the box office, there were plenty of memorable standalone films for viewers to explore: The MartianBridge of Spies, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, The Witch, Carol, Joy, BrooklynStraight Outta Compton, Ex MachinaRoom (for which Brie Larson won Best Actress), The Revenant (for which Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor) and and the year's Best Picture winner, Spotlight, which traced the thirteen-year-old story of the Boston Globe's groundbreaking report on the Catholic Church sex scandal.

That said, with both The Force Awakens and Jurassic World leading the way in terms of audiences, 2015 was definitely a year of old franchises reinventing themselves. Two other examples bear mentioning: one for its triumphant linkage with the zeitgeist across many decades, the other for its faceplanting failure after just a few years. Perhaps the most beloved movie of the year was a reboot helmed by a seventysomething auteur, combining breathtaking action with a feminist, social-justice framing. Mad Max: Fury Road both epitomized and transcended its era as effectively in its own way as Inside Out, while its raging sense of resistance and eco-collapse perhaps also lends itself to the impending epoch more readily than Pixar's thoughtful, clean-scrubbed optimism. On the other hand, beloved zeroes HBO show Entourage returned for a big-screen spinoff following the series finale a mere four years earlier - but the film's cavalier womanizing and frat pack bro comedy was scorned by critics and many viewers as a relic from a long-gone era. Boy, had the cultural moment changed quickly, at least as far as the media discourse (which once praised the show as hip and edgy) was concerned. A celebration of Hollywood louts, whose macho swagger and lavish wealth-flaunting defied not just feminist critiques but post-recession resentment of the 1%? Who would buy that? The coming year would demonstrate that perhaps this vision was not so obsolete as its would-be gravediggers wished.

Next month: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Last month: La La Land (2016)

Mad Men - "Meditations in an Emergency" (season 2, episode 13)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 26, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Kater Gordon; directed by Matthew Weiner): When Don returns to New York after several weeks in California, he enters a whole new world. The Cuban Missile Crisis hangs over everything but closer to home, Duck Phillips' merger plan means that Don made a fortune during his absence - that is, if he can stand the reduced role for creative that Duck (the new president) envisions for the company going forward. Sneering about "the artistic temperament" as he demands that Sterling Cooper focus its resources on purchasing air time and ad space over fancy campaigns, Duck believes he has Don in a bind. He doesn't realize, and is humiliated in front of the British buyers when it's revealed, that Don doesn't have a contract to break; he can leave and go work for any other agency if he chooses, a major loss for the prospective new owners (and a major setback for Duck's power grab). Don is ready to parry Duck's dagger not only because of his own fortunate situation and confident temperament but because Pete helped prepare the ground. Informed ahead of time about Duck's plans when the cocky incoming boss promises to promote him, Pete has every reason to keep his mouth shut. But for reasons he can't quite explain, he warns Don.

Pete's life has been full of upsets lately, including his father-in-law's removal of Clearasil, the adoption crisis, and of course his shocking discovery at episode's end. Terrified by the prospect of Russian missiles, Trudy heads to her parents' home on the beach - a futile gesture as Pete cavalierly assures her, insisting that he prefers to die in Manhattan. "If you loved me, you'd want to be with me," Trudy asserts and Pete acknowledges she's right - an admission she apparently mistakes for an apology. If the world survives, their marriage probably won't, and against this apocalyptic backdrop Pete struggles to break through to Peggy: he doesn't truly connect with his wife, and he wishes he'd chosen her instead. That's when Peggy drops her bomb about giving birth to a son that she turned over for adoption, confirming the suspicions of the audience while astonishing an unsuspecting Pete. And "Meditations in an Emergency" delivers another pregnancy reveal as well: Betty is going to have a third child. Or is she? Even in this more conservative era, her doctor and friends know exactly what she's saying when she insists she can't have a baby right now; they all quickly drop their Ward and June banalities and in an even-toned voice allude to, without directly identifying, opportunities for abortion.

After dropping the children off in Don's hotel for the night, Betty visits a bar and picks up a young man (Ryan McPartlin) with whom she has sex in a backroom, without a doubt her first marital infidelity (and, quite possibly, the only other man she's ever slept with). This may unburden her of some feelings of resentment; "It must be nice to just go off like that," she jabs at Don when he shows up at her stable in the opening scene, returning from an existential adventure he enjoyed while she kept taking care of his household. Finally Betty receives a moving letter, composed by Don while the children watch TV in his hotel room (and while she was embarking on her own mini-odyssey), in which Don acknowledges, "I understand why you feel it's better to go on without me. And I know that you won't be alone for very long. But without you, I'll be alone forever." With no small symbolic significance, on the night that Kennedy and Khrushchev finally reach an agreement, Betty invites Don home and shares her momentous news over their kitchen table.

My Response: 

November 2019 Patreon podcasts: LOST IN TWIN PEAKS #10 - Season 2 Episode 2 and LOST IN THE MOVIES #61 - Twin Peaks Cinema: Lost Highway & Updates on Journey Through Twin Peaks (+ Duelle, Twin Peaks Reflections: Ed, James, Hawk, the cemetery, Sparkwood & 21, Cocaine in Twin Peaks/Part 6 & more)


For the first time since January 2018 (when I offered an extended exploration of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks side by side) my podcast is comparing David Lynch's TV show to one of his films. Lost Highway offers a rich field for this study, both backwards (the use of Bob and the James and Evelyn saga, of all things) and forwards (Part 18's long drives and the Mitchums as all-American gangsters). It also provides an opportunity for me to preview some of the audio from my upcoming Journey Through Twin Peaks video, along with a general update on how that project is going. And because I've covered the film quite a few times before, Lost Highway leads to an extended "Opening the Archive" reading series, covering three reviews (including a comparison with Jacques Rivette's Duelle), clips from video essays and podcasts, and other highlights. There was so much going on this month that I had to delay a few sections until December (the listener feedback and podcast recommendations) and split November's main podcast in two.

Meanwhile, for $5/month patrons, my Lost in Twin Peaks rewatch reaches an intriguing David Lynch/Harley Peyton collaboration, perhaps his most underrated episode which offers a motherlode of mythology...



The first part of the Lost in the Movies podcast is a mini-episode sharing my recent work, both published and upcoming - starting with the general Journey update...



The second part is dominated by Lost Highway, although it also includes "Twin Peaks Reflections" using Laura's funeral episode as a springboard to explore characters, locations, and a subplot (related to an episode of season 3)...



And here's the Laura funeral itself, the rewatch episode published in May now open to all patrons...



Added 11/28:

Mad Men - "The Mountain King" (season 2, episode 12)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 19, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner, Robin Veith; directed by Alan Taylor): For an episode that feels particularly focused on a few big events, the narrative is surprisingly sprawling in "The Mountain King," with at least six storylines unfolding over many scenes. And that's not even including Paul, who returns from Mississippi boasting of his noble endeavors only to be deflated by co-workers who mention that his girlfriend dumped him a few days into the trip. So much for the slice of early sixties civil rights I thought we'd be glimpsing in the tail end of season two - if Mad Men has anything to say about race relations, perhaps the major issue in the first half of the decade, it will have to wait for later seasons. As for one of the other big crises of the time? Cleverly playing on the title of the Frank O'Hara collection introduced in the season premiere, the next episode is called "Meditations on an Emergency," and I harbor stronger suspicions than ever of what that particular emergency will be.

What does unfold in this episode? Betty catches Sally smoking in the bathroom, scolds her severely, and then - reconsidering after Sally replies with straight fire ("Daddy left you because you're mean and stupid") - buys some riding boots to soften the blow before informing her daughter that she fought with Don and doesn't know where he is. Don, of course, is still in California, visiting the woman introduced several episodes ago in the car dealership flashback. Anna Draper, as the name suggests, was the wife of the man whose identity Don assumed and we see them interact in two timelines in episode 12. In the fifties, she confronts Don - well, Dick Whitman - and quickly gets him to concede what happened; though bewildered, she doesn't seem especially grief-stricken about the fate of her husband. Another scene shows the chummy duo in Anna's Californian house; Don asks for an official divorce (since he's still technically her legal husband) so he can marry the "beautiful, happy" Betty whom he's just met. In 1962, Don is pensive about the state of his life and Anna offers warm support. They have an open, honest connection so distinct from all of Don's other relationships; as he said on the phone, he's Dick Whitman to her and the lack of pretense is refreshing.

Back in New York, Bert, Roger, and Bert's sister Alice Cooper (Mary Ann McGarry) agree to sell Sterling Cooper, disregarding Don's minority share since it's an insignificant factor in the decision. Pete aggressively resists Trudy's desire to adopt (losing his father-in-law's Clearasil account retaliation) and informs Peggy that Don may not return ("He's done it before"), Peggy gets Freddy's old office as a reward for landing the Clearasil account, and Joan brings her fiancee Greg to the office. A nice excursion turns brutally sour when Greg, who's been having trouble with his more advanced lover in bed and grows jealous , convinces Joan to let him into Don's office. He proceeds to rape her on the floor, growling, "This is what you want, isn't it?" Not that Joan has the words to describe what happened to her in those stark terms: tentatively listing his virtues to Peggy in a later scene, she's told "he sounds like a keeper," and the traumatized young woman - who has always seemed entirely sure about the rules of any given situation - looks lost and confused. A global crisis may be on the horizon, but there are plenty of personal emergencies to go around as one episode remains in the season.

My Response: 

"Twin Peaks was awfully busy that night, wasn't it?": discussing the Season 1 finale w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped (+ Lindsay & Aidan of Bickering Peaks)


It's been a year and half since I last appeared on a Twin Peaks Unwrapped community rewatch episode (since they're planning to end the podcast at the end of next year, they'll be picking up the pace for season two). I think as far back as that recording, I requested the season one finale as my next endeavor. I knew that Mark Frost's solo venture - the only time a single person wrote and directed an entire piece of Twin Peaks - would provide much fodder for conversation, and it did. I was particularly delighted to share guest duties with the Bickering Peaks co-hosts, Aidan Hailes and Lindsay Stamhuis (whom I just discovered inspired the best BuzzFeed article of all time). Over the past couple years, they covered almost all of Mark Frost's film/TV work; having done a deep dive myself into his films, shows, and books this past year, I was really eager to discuss how his vision impacts this hour of television.

Now, seriously, go read that BuzzFeed article!


By the way, here are the photos from the event where I met Ben and Bryon, as discussed on the episode:

Mad Men - "The Jet Set" (season 2, episode 11)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 12, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): The motto for "The Jet Set" may as well be "You can do that?" Way back in the pilot, Don expressed his belief that the rules don't really exist, but now that belief is moving from theory into practice. At Sterling Cooper, Roger flatly tells Duck that he's not going to make partner based on the lackluster business he's drummed up. Duck responds by using Roger's personal troubles to pitch his former British employers on buying out his current American ones. And he does so while taking first a deep breath and then his first, savoring sip of liquor in several years. Somehow the things that men have worked hard to achieve - be it marriage or sobriety - don't taste nearly so sweet as indulging the momentary urge to throw it all away. Elsewhere in the office, Peggy is invited on a date (perhaps?) to go see Bob Dylan by Kurt Smith (Edin Gali), the eccentric German half of "the Smittys," those quasi-bohemian young admen who were brought in a while back but whom I haven't had much reason to mention yet (that's about to change). When their co-workers tease the nascent couple, Kurt matter-of-factly corrects them: "I'm a homosexual." You could hear a pin drop as he calmly leaves the room, and while no one's particularly comfortable, few are less comfortable than Smitty Smith (Patrick Cavanaugh), who has probably just had his own cover blown, or perhaps especially Sal, who never knew such thoughts could even be humored, let alone spoken aloud. The episode even starts off with an expansive surprise, as Jane reveals to a clearly caught-off-guard Roger that she's a talented, deeply intelligent poet.

Of course, the character most egregiously subverting expectations, abandoning professional restraint, and ditching social norms is Don. He wasn't even supposed to be on the trip to California but thanks to a last-minute switch-up, he jets across the country with Pete and stands awkwardly by the swimming pool in his gray suit. Though of course the whole series is shot on the West Coast, the filmmakers really let us know that we're supposed to be in Los Angeles now; that warm light suffuses everything and there's an openness, a sense of restless freedom in the air. And then Don meets Joy (Laura Ramsey), a strangely irresistible young woman whose father Willy, a count, initially appears to be pimping a high-priced call girl (when Don finds out Willy is her father, he's sitting in bed with them and Don is visibly creeped out). Initially Don resists the odd appeal, but the second time she encounters him he's just come from a deeply unsettling conference, in which a confident defense contractor boasted about the total annihilation of the USSR possible with a singe missile. So Don takes up Joy's offer to go swimming, abandons Pete poolside (when Pete returns to New York, he hardly seems to realize that he never saw Don again), and has some very strange times with Joy's family. Passing out after taking a drink (there are repeated hints that he's being drugged), regaled with tales of the family's seemingly carefree, globe-trotting, and highly sexed-up lifestyle, and exposed to a milieu he never even really knew existed, Don doesn't exactly appear to be enjoying himself - but the long strange trip is clearly too fascinating to abandon, as if he's been hypnotized.

If so, he's not assuming a new identity so much as shredding the one he worked long and hard to construct. When he calls someone unseen from Joy's phone near the end of the episode, he announces himself so matter-of-factly that it's shocking: "It's Dick Whitman."

My Response: 

La La Land (The Unseen 2016)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). La La Land was #1 for 2016.

The Story: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) "meet (kinda) cute" three times, on each occasion following a musical performance and laced with bitterness. First, they flip each other off in Los Angeles' seething morning traffic after a spectacular dance number (the drivers all leap atop their cars to sing about making it in the city of dreams). Then, Sebastian is fired as a restaurant pianist for playing a personal composition rather than an innocuous holiday song (Mia, wandering downtown after bad auditions and a towed car, is drawn to the restaurant by his music but brushed off when she tries to compliment him). Finally, the arrogant jazzman is stuck playing keyboard in an eighties cover band at a pool party Mia is attending, where she makes humiliating requests and stares him down mockingly. From this point on, however, music's ability to bring them together will supersede its ability to tear them apart: they tap on a park bench at magic hour, overlooking the purple-hued valleys below; they literally float into the cosmos inside the Griffith Park Observatory; and they fall in love amidst a musical montage as they riding the Angel's Flight funicular railway, cross the Colorado Street Bridge, and gaze at the Watts Tower.

As a modern-day musical, La La Land juggles a grounded if affectionate view of the creative type's struggle to survive the film and music industries with a gleefully romanticized depiction of this lifestyle's charms (in this universe, not only can people spontaneously break into song and dance, but the old backlot style of movie magic is still alive and well, with Hollywood the global phenomenon still rooted in Hollywood the physical location). Sebastian and Mia both consider giving up their dreams for one another, and giving up one another for their dreams. Is it possible to hold onto both? The movie's most memorable sequence unfolds as a coda, when their paths cross after some time apart; drawing particularly from An American in Paris, La La Land crafts a wordless musical fantasy, spooling an alternate timeline that stylizes touchstones of life's passage through motifs like stage performance, home movie, and big-screen rapture. Where the film chooses to demarcate fantasy from reality, within an already fantastical environment, is fascinating to note; La La Land is ultimately less interested (or at least, not much more interested) in being a picaresque travelogue than in depicting the tricky battle between ambitious dreams and pragmatic compromises.

The Context: La La Land was hyped as Damien Chazelle's ambitious passion project following his more conventional breakthrough Whiplash (since then his scope has only grown, with an epic Neil Armstrong biopic as his next film). Unlike previous hot-shot directors' Icarus-like forays into an outmoded genre, La La Land soared right into the sun and kept on going, scoring a whopping $450 million worldwide on a shoestring budget. Critics celebrated the young filmmaker, a rarity at a time when new careers were mostly being redirected into the constraints of the tentpole franchise factory, for his old-fashioned affections and strong personal voice. However, La La Land - instantly destined for Oscar buzz - also experienced the requisite backlash: the leads weren't very plausible hoofers or belters, the elephantine high concept of the film steamrolled any possibility of lighter charms, and (especially) the racial politics of the film were problematic, especially since John Legend was cast as the sell-out foil to Gosling's white jazz savior.

Was La La Land a bold auteurist adventure in the midst of a barren blockbuster landscape, or just another example (think The Artist) of a cute but hollow concept, a Faberge frivolity divorced from the zeitgeist, Oscarbaiting its way to awards season victory only to be forgotten in the long run? Having swept the Golden Globes (winning every category it was nominated for, including Best Musical/Comedy, and collecting more trophies than any film in history), La La Land entered the Academy Awards race with a record number of nominations, and won big with awards for Stone and Chazelle at the ceremony. But this familiar tale ended with an unforgettable twist: now recast as the Goliath-like mainstream Hollywood juggernaut, the low-budget, idiosyncratic La La Land was announced by the aging Bonnie and Clyde themselves as Best Picture of 2016...only to have the awards literally snatched from their hand onstage when the envelope was checked a second time. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had misspoken: the actual winner was Moonlight, the quiet little character study with an all-black cast and black writer/director.

My Response: As we slide a little further into the past, perhaps I should begin dwelling on where I was when these "Unseen" selections came out and I didn't watch them. In the fall of 2016, I had moved back to New Hampshire, near where I'd grown up, after several years in California. Friends and family who saw La La Land in late 2016 or early 2017 reported back that it was impressive but didn't quite satisfy, confirming my suspicions based on the nature of its buzz and potential preciousness of its concept. I was intrigued, and knew that its scope called for the big screen, but I was hardly seeing any new movies at the time (or since) so I skipped out on catching it in a cinema. My free time was mostly absorbed in following politics (La La Land was released in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's shocking election) and creating work for my site and for Fandor Keyframe, where I was still submitting video essays. In fact, in late November I watched Damien Chazelle's debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) and created a montage video called Ode to Boston. This was no coincidence; Fandor was stressing the importance of tying video essays to current releases and I was struck by the difference between how Chazelle apparently used L.A. in his newest film (from the title to the setpieces, the city itself was front and center) and the more subtle, low-key way he used Boston in his debut, shot shortly after he graduated from Harvard.

I also have a strong connection to both cities, as I observed in my write-up for Ode to Boston; indeed, I even have strong connections to the cities during those particular periods when each film was shot, and I'm the same age as Chazelle (he was born about a year and a half later). Guy and Madeline was filmed around the time I moved to Malden, working in bookstores in Cambridge and downtown Boston. Its chilly, monochrome, almost mumblecore-musical vibe fits my memory of living and working in the city at that time. La La Land was produced while I was technically still living in Pasadena (although I spent the weeks of its production out of the state, earning a living elsewhere) and premiered a few months after I had permanently moved away. This too suits the mood: La La Land is as much about the Los Angeles of imagination (or memory) as the Los Angeles of reality, and the fact that I was drifting away from the city added a pleasingly bittersweet sensation to the familiar but glamorized locations in its trailer. These including the Colorado Street Bridge not far from where I lived, as well as the Santa Monica pier and Angel's Flight rail car that play significant roles in my own, ahem, slightly more modest 2013 production Class of 2002.

So when I finally viewed La La Land for this series, it was the L.A. element that held more potency for me than the musical aspects. Maybe it's unfair to say so after a single viewing, but I couldn't hum any of these songs from memory - they're more competent than catchy, and that's okay. The sense I get from La La Land as well as Guy and Madeline is that, and I mean this only as a relative proposition, they're more in love with the idea of being a musical than with the process of being one. Perhaps paradoxically, however, the musical component is more decorative than essential - at heart, La La Land is more about the appeal of dreams, coded through a mixture of life experiences and historical cultural phenomena, with genre trappings as just one among several devices to convey this sensibility. Although far grander and less grungy than Guy and Madeline, La La Land's strength is a similarly structured tension between longing and letdown. In this sense, the critics who take Chazelle to task for indulging nostalgia are being unfair; the film is unabashedly nostalgic and romantic but there's a significant ambivalence embedded in the material. Chazelle appears to perversely savor disappointment, recognizing in it an emotional anchor that flights of pure fantasy may lack. There's a certain bracing warmth to the bonfire of dreams, or at least to the lingering embers once the harsh conflagration has died down.

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of La La Land is its uncertainty about its own idealized ambitions. For all the criticism of its depiction of Sebastian as a jazz savior and Keith as a jazz sell-out, the film itself is skeptical about that dynamic, or at least encourages the viewer's own skepticism. Several critics observed this ambivalence, and Legend himself argues that his character has a point (and that Chazelle wanted to make this case). Rather than characterizing their tension as the noble purist vs. the cynical hack, Legend presents Sebastian in a sympathetic but somewhat dismissive light: "You're just not gonna go down as one of the greats. You're gonna go down as a guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience for people. If you're not doing anything innovative, you're not gonna go down as one of the greats." Anyway, Sebastian frequently comes off as a dick; his character is far more tolerable once he lets that self-righteous chip slide off his shoulder and accepts his more modest role as part of Keith's pop ensemble. (I find this is often the case in stories that depict the slow, sad decline of youthful dreamers - for all their wistful tributes to the lost fire of youth, these characters appear more human and complex once they've left that callow arrogance behind.)

The film's ending offers a compelling half-empty/full-glass reflection of its dual trajectory. There's a sense - probably the most obvious way to read the movie - in which the character's withered relationship could be held up as a noble sacrifice, a poignant tribute to the costs of achieving greatness. One could also wonder, pace Legend, if in fact their narrowly circumscribed regressive dreams simply represent ephemeral, unimaginative self-indulgence. Is Mia the type of capital-M, capital-S Movie Star goddess that exists only in gauzy, empty visions of a glamorous but cardboard-facade Hollywood past? Is Sebastian, well, precisely that "guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience"? Perhaps the most compelling take on the film comes from Kareem Abdul-Jabber, who (after wading into the jazz/racial controversies) questions the entire thrust of the "Great Artist" cultural narrative. "The artist as Christ-like figure sacrificing herself to give her art to the people is a childish notion that is just bedazzling one's self-promotion. As Mr. Antolini says in The Catcher in the Rye: 'The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.' Had Mia and Sebastian chosen to live humbly, they might have had their success — or not — and been happy together."

Signs of the Times: Onscreen, La La Land mixes its nostalgia for bygone eras with touchstones of the present: Mia auditions for gritty cop and inner-city teacher roles and then returns to her apartment with its gigantic Ingrid Bergman mural; she works in a very au courant Starbucks-esque coffee shop in the midst of a never never land Hollywood studio lot; the nascent couple wander hillside streets with an electronic keychain to find their missing vehicles but then break out into a throwback musical number to express their dawning romance. The young stars of La La Land have their feet in the 2010s but their heads in the 1950s - not entirely divorced from the experiences of the millennial generation, the film nonetheless positions them in relation to a broad vision of midcentury pop culture mythology. The longing itself might be generalized, but the position from which the longing springs is localized. Perhaps surprisingly, given how underrepresented my generation has been behind the camera compared to earlier eras, this is at least the second, arguably the third film in my "Unseen" series to be helmed by a distinctive thirtysomething millennial filmmaker (Get Out's Jordan Peele, born in 1979, is the possible exception - depending which demographer you ask, he could be a late Gen-Xer or a very early millennial). As we move backward, it's doubtful there will be more any more auteurs from this age group.

More to the point, as far as many were concerned, is the cast's status as "citizens of the present," in A.O. Scott's words. "They are better at acting than the other stuff," the New York Times critic observes, "able to express emotion in nonmusical scenes with candor and conviction, but a little stiff-limbed and wobbly-voiced when the moment arrives for hoofing and chirping. In this, they’re pretty much the opposite of those earlier performers, who were vaudevillian troupers before they were thespians." Indeed, the critical discussion around La La Land very much hinged on the film's place in history, both past (its distance from the era when musicals were a mainstream staple) and present (the depictions of race and nostalgic desire to make something old - jazz, the Hollywood musical, earnest romance - "great again"). In the same newspaper as Scott, Manohla Dargis raved, "Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero clichés or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the dos and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat."

On the other hand, Geoff Andrew in Paste magazine demurred from the glowing reverie, even citing Dargis' interview: "'La La Land' Makes Musicals Matter Again' beat[s] the reader about the head with Trump-ish sloganeering." Titling his own piece "The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land", he wrote, "White fantasies of the past are not innocuous, it turns out; they link to discrete economic and political policy. Even in the platitudinous past tense of 'Make America Great Again,' Trump’s red hats told a truth of a kind: Their way forward was back. [Zadie] Smith rejects the image of white, regressive time-space with the succinct, 'But neither do I believe in time travel.' How could a person of color long for a past bleaker than the already admittedly bleak present? Many white viewers of La La Land may well consider nostalgic escapism as a horizontal unifier—something with which everyone identifies—but longing for the past is itself a political act."

Other Films: Domestically as well as globally, La La Land was a big hit - but of course it was still kept out of the top ten, and nearly the top twenty, by megabudget sequels, prequels, and franchise entries, all fantasies (mostly superhero tales and/or family films). The top five grossing films in the U.S. were Rogue One, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets, and The Jungle Book. Other notable blockbusters included Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad. That said, there were plenty of unique, acclaimed films beyond the reach of the tentpoles; perhaps most memorably, Denis Villeneuve's subtly timebending Arrival, about a depressed scientist learning to communicate with amorphous extraterrestrials. That sci-fi art film, as well as - obviously - Moonlight and La Land Land, was nominated for Best Picture, alongside Lion, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, and Fences.

Meanwhile, Moana was Disney's big hit of the year, not approaching Frozen's numbers but surpassing Tangled. Also released in 2016 were Sully, Clint Eastwood's film about the alcoholic airline captain who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson River, the all-female Ghostbusters which caused a social media meltdown on the alt-right (and got Milo Yiannopolous banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones), and 13 Hours, Michael Bay's sensationalist adaptation of the Benghazi crisis, whose most significant legacy may be the birth of the wildly successful left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House (the soon-to-be hosts first came together on a Street Fight episode dedicated to savaging the movie, and they hit it off so well they decided to launch their own show).

Next month: Inside Out (2015) Last month: Get Out (2017)

Mad Men - "The Inheritance" (season 2, episode 10)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 5, 2008/written by Lisa Albert, Marti Noxon, Matthew Weiner; directed by Andrew Bernstein): "The Inheritance" most obviously takes its title from Pete's fraught relationship with his mother; she threatens to cut him out of the (unbeknownst to her, practically nonexistent) estate if he and Trudy adopt a child. Pete later informs Peggy, in yet another awkward office interaction, that he hates his mother and grouses that everything's "so easy for" Peggy. Undoubtedly, the two will eventually collapse under the weight of irony this thick. Pete's two-way parental problems don't get a lot of screentime, but that title stands in for a lot of what we end up seeing in the very family-defined episode 10. Betty's father has suffered a stroke, and the pretense that everything's fine, actually, collapses when he berates Don for being untrustworthy (tellingly, for having "no people") and twice mistakes Betty for his wife, harmlessly at first (he simply calls her by the wrong name) but eventually with immense discomfort, as he makes a coy remark and touches her breast. Don at least is able to be some small comfort during this uncomfortable weekend visit; although Betty exiles him to the floor of their guest bedroom, she eventually descends there to make love to him one night. When they return home, however, she won't even let Don take a shower inside the house.

Young Glen Bishop fares better when Betty discovers the child hiding in her backyard playhouse; he's run away from home and spent several nights in the same clothes, so she sends him off to be washed and lends him one of Don's t-shirts. They even sit together on the couch, watching cartoons and sipping Coke as the boy looks at his much older crush admiringly (at one point, he slips his hand into hers and begs her to run away with him: "I came to rescue you."). What Betty doesn't do - at least not until Carla comes home with her own children and interrupts the odd reverie - is call Glen's mother. When Helen finally shows up to express her worry and take Glen home, he glowers at Betty and declares, "I hate you." Helen returns to the Drapers' to reprimand Betty, but the demure housewife holds her own against the brassy divorcee with surprising firmness and no wonder - as she reveals, she may soon be joining that exclusive social club herself. Admitting she's not a very good mother, Helen sighs: "The hardest part is realizing you're in charge."

My Response: 

October 2019 Patreon podcasts: LOST IN TWIN PEAKS #9 - The Season 2 Premiere and LOST IN THE MOVIES #60 - Twin Peaks Cinema: La Dolce Vita (+ favorite films archive #1: Masculin Feminin & Twin Peaks Reflections: Johnny, Sylvia, Mike, the Red Room, the room above the convenience store & Nadine's drape runners/Part 13)


At first glance, the bursting cornucopia of early sixties Fellini and the enveloping fever dream of early nineties Lynch couldn't be further apart. Yet I've always been drawn to the structural similarities between La Dolce Vita and Fire Walk With Me. This month's podcast gave me an opportunity to linger over this thread, as well as other correspondences and counterpoints between the two works (and the TV series which more closely shared La Dolce Vita's meteoric, flamboyant success).

For $5/month patrons, my Lost in Twin Peaks rewatch celebrates Lynch's memorable return to his own show with a two-parter, one of my longest podcast episodes so far...



The "Twin Peaks Cinema" coverage of La Dolce Vita, my longest yet, is bookended by another sixties Euro icon, since the climactic entry of my favorites series is Jean-Luc Godard's multifaceted New Wave treasure Masculin Feminin, and more Twin Peaks reflections: on the legacy of Nadine's drape runners in Part 13 of The Return, three characters who were (temporarily) swallowed up after making a mark early in season one, and a couple spiritual locales...


On the fifth anniversary of Lynch and Frost tweeting "That gum you like is going to come back in style" to announce season three, I opened my Lost in Twin Peaks coverage of the original Red Room episode for the $1/month tier...

bonus: NOW AVAILABLE: Lost in Twin Peaks #3 ("Episode 2") open to all patrons


Podcast Line-Ups for:

Mad Men - "Six Month Leave" (season 2, episode 9)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 28, 2008/written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton & Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Freddy's gotta go. When he pees his pants in front of Pete, Sal, and Peggy, and then passes out in his chair, the whole office quickly learns of his indiscretion and Roger makes the unfortunate call, much to Don's irritation, Peggy's sorrow, and Pete's delight. His soft firing and the Drapers' great drift are what give the episode its core and, at their intersection, prepare us for the surprise ending and retrospective purpose. The initial push for the narrative, however, is rooted in the real world. Having already hinted, rather laboriously, at the Port Huron Statement, and with the Cuban Missile Crisis no doubt providing the backdrop for the finale or penultimate episode, "Six Month Leave" nods to another significant event of '62: Marilyn Monroe's overdose. Don sees the story in the morning paper as he leaves the Manhattan hotel he's been exiled to and Betty hears the news on the radio as she aimlessly roams her empty suburban home in a nightgown; both have more immediate matters on their minds. At the office, however, most of the female employees (except for the mostly matter-of-fact, business-minded Peggy) can't imagine anything more immediate. Joan even snipes at Roger that he'll understand her pain someday when he loses someone very important to him.

Roger does lose something at episode's end, but we'll get there in a moment. For much of episode 9, the boss is cleverly situated as a supporting player in both Freddy's and Don's dramas. The trio goes out for drinks, and then more drinks, and then more drinks, cushioning Freddy's fall by indulging the very habit that got him there but also making it clear that they like the guy, and the whole situation's unfortunate but necessary. Freddy takes his downfall remarkably well, though his final farewell to Don is poignant, leaving an underground gambling joint and climbing into a cab on his way to an uncertain future. "What will I do?" he sighs, and when Don offers a goodnight, he responds - no illusions - "Goodbye." Roger and Don continue on to another location, Don mostly dodging his friend's needling inquiries about his marital situation (Jane, earlier, revealed that she had deduced what's going on), at one point by striding from the bar to punch a conveniently-placed Jimmy Barrett in the face. Finally he concedes that they're separated, and that he's mostly relieved. Parrying Roger's half-hearted counterpoints (which, fixated on "another woman," are subtly not about Don's situation at all), Don inadvertently convinces him to make his own move. The next morning, Mona Sterling storms into Don's office and dresses him down for his "advice." Turns out Roger is sleeping with Jane, took Don's self-analysis as a pep talk, and has decided to leave his wife.

My Response: 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film inside of a film inside of a film. It encloses its various narratives, nesting them inside other narratives using a particular kind of dramatic twist - one that demolishes our initial context  - as a method of disorientation. Filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to M. Night Shymalan and David Lynch (who will definitely come up a couple more times in this review) walk the same crooked path this silent German Expressionist horror film paved. The power of the twist-trick, a gimmick at worst, an epiphany at best, is that nothing is the same afterwards: it doesn't only change our perception of whatever particular detail it skews, it makes us question everything - including the twist itself. Caligari is not the neatest use of the device, and at times it can feel clumsy, incomplete, or on-the-nose. But it is one of the most ambitious deployments of the twist (there are several twists, in fact) and one of the most deeply rooted in a profound historical moment.

Mad Men - "A Night to Remember" (season 2, episode 8)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 14, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Betty's encounter with Jimmy has pushed her already shaky confidence in Don (and herself) over a cliff, so it only takes a relatively innocuous incident (a couple, perhaps) to trigger the Drapers' incipient marital crisis. When Betty hosts an "around the world" dinner party and selects Heineken as the drink of choice, Duck - the guest who almost didn't make it - chuckles. He and Don had a dispute at the office over whether housewives would be drawn toward a display highlighting the beer's refined aura, and he's amused that Don was proven correct in his own home. But Betty is offended that Don thinks he knows her so well (and perhaps more offended that he nailed it), and this insult finally pushes her to confront him with the Bobbie situation. Don, of course, adamantly denies the affair and after Betty fails to find even the slightest piece of evidence, she seems to agree with Don that they "don't want to lose all of this." The next day, however, sitting on the couch and watching sitcoms with her children, Betty encounters the Utz ad featuring Jimmy talking about "a night on the town turned ugly," and "Am I crazy? I don't think so!" It's the final straw. She calls Don to tell him not to come home and he spends the night at the office. This is clearly the most important plotline of the episode, but there are a couple significant shifts for other characters too. Peggy is pressured into crafting a pro bono pamphlet with a church dance; the blue-haired ladies don't like her tagline and Father Gill not only fails to back her up but, after taking advantage of her office space, obnoxiously presses her on spiritual matters. Joan, meanwhile, is enlisted into Harry's TV department, reading scripts for soap operas. She realizes that she loves the assignment before being disappointed to discover a not-nearly-as-talented young man filling her spot a few days later.

My Response: 

Get Out (The Unseen 2017)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Get Out was #1 for 2017.

The Story: When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) leaves his comfortable city apartment, decorated with his own arresting black-and-white photographs, for the country estate of his hip girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), he is anticipating an awkward weekend. The genial, talented young man is reassured by Rose that her family will be welcoming - goofy perhaps, but well-intentioned. However, something inside of him knows better. She's white. He's black. It shouldn't matter, right? Chris tries to believe this ideal but after his first day at the estate, he's earned the right to shake his head, look Rose in the eye, and sigh, "I told you so." Rose's dad Dean (Bradley Whitford, a knowing reference to the pious liberalism of The West Wing) presents a curious mixture of overbearing gregariousness and barely-concealed resentment. Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is some kind of Salingerian psychopath, whose jovially uncouth manner quickly slides into domineering threats of violence. Rose's mother Missy (Catherine Keeler) mostly scolds the male Armitages with an ominous serenity that suggests she's biding her time. And indeed she is. When she hypnotizes Chris that first night, it's the film's rawest moment of entitled aggression, veering from pushy invitation to rude castigation to shockingly invasive interrogation to...a genuine example of psychic abuse. Stirring a spoon against the edge of a teacup in a horrific take on ASMR, Missy sends Chris to the sunken place.

Chris wakes up in his own bed the next day, but he's been marked as prey and the wolves are circling. At an excruciating yard party, old white folks (and one inquiring Asian) verbally poke and prod Chris, fetishizing him with their racialized "compliments." The black servants and the one black guest are no better, speaking in a stilted manner and behaving awkwardly despite occasional flickers of recognition. Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), whom we met as Andre Hayworth in the film's opening sequence (he's lost in a suburban neighborhood where a car stalks him and the driver knocks him out before dragging him away), breaks character when a phone-camera light flashes in his eyes. He grabs Chris and screams the film's title as a warning, before being dragged away. From a stilted reminder of racial difference to a more deeply alienating social experience to an increasingly unsettling dive into paranoia, the Get Out weekend finally reaches its destination: confirmation that Chris has been trapped by a racist medical cult that literally strips black people of their humanity, transplanting the brains of wealthy white individuals into the bodies of black ones, whose own consciousness sinks back into a "passenger" role. This is visualized as "the sunken place," a pitch-black void where Chris falls through space, while life unfolds overhead in a distanced screen he's unable to affect.

Even Rose erases her nuanced, empathetic "character" when it's no longer convenient to fool her boyfriend; she becomes a blank, ruthless killer with a closet full of photos of black men and women she entrapped with her "I'm one of the good ones" shtick. One by one, Chris kills his would-be captors, destroying the family as they attempt to destroy him (not only through direct physical attack but through manipulation of his psychological vulnerability: guilt over not protecting his hit-and-run victim mother when he was a little boy). Finally, he's saved by Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howery), a friend whose over-the-top conspiracy theories about a sex cult turn out to be closer to the mark than the skepticism and mockery of "sensible" characters. He's also one of the few other black characters in a film dominated by white people - every single one of whom has malicious intent.

The Context: Get Out was a sensation, perhaps the sensation of 2017. The timing didn't hurt; although written during the Barack Obama administration, the film was released several months into Donald Trump's presidency, as many people of color - already skeptical of the claim that America had entered a post-racial phase - were confronted once again with the unvarnished reality of a white supremacist society. Indeed, the self-deluding phenomenon is represented in the film itself as Dean repeatedly boasts that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could (Kaluuya has since noted that the new "I would have voted for Obama again" is, in his experience, "I watched Get Out three times"). Described by many black viewers as a refreshing confirmation of a deep-seated feeling they'd never seen represented so forthrightly in a movie before, the film's slow-burn reveal also resonated with white viewers who finally experienced a dawning realization of the post-civil rights era's persistent racism (and their own complicity in a range of hostile activities from microaggressions to deadly policing) through the Black Lives Matter era. The film turned "getting woke" into a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense, terror, and discomfort.

During an era when conformist corporate blockbusters dominated the box office, Get Out scored heavily, ranking #1 its opening weekend and proceeding to earn over $200 million worldwide, with the lion's share coming from American audiences. The film shattered all sorts of records as the debut of Jordan Peele, a comedian whose Key & Peele sketch show provided a surprising prelude to his mastery of the thriller format. Social media perpetuated the movie's status as a cultural event, crafting memes around its images, dialogue, and concepts (a year later, when Kanye West praised President Trump, Twitter was abuzz with "sunken place" references). Receiving near-unanimous praise (literally - off by just one review in over a hundred on Rotten Tomatoes), Get Out appeared on numerous year-end top ten lists and was nominated for Best Motion Picture...Musical or Comedy subdivision; a surprising categorization for a satirical but deadly serious film, and a source of much indignation and/or confusion. The Academy Awards nominated what was clearly the sensation of its year in four categories, and Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay. Having not yet seen the film, or even many clips or images (though I'd heard a fair amount about it via podcasts and tweets), I watched the montage used to illustrate it during the ceremony and shook my head: there was absolutely no way a film this subversive was going to win the top award. And it didn't.

My Response: If I made any effort to go see movies in theaters in 2017 this would have been near the top of my list. Even during award season, however, when I borrowed someone else's screener, I was too preoccupied with other work to watch it. So here we are in the "Unseen" series, reviewing a film that was #1 of my Letterboxd guide list for the second time in two entries (there will only be two more in the remaining ninety-eight) - the present, much more than any past era, is my cinematic blindspot. Nonetheless, I did listen to a lot of podcasts during this period, and also spent a lot of time on Twitter, so it was impossible not to hear quite a bit about this film. I didn't go into it knowing quite as much as I knew about Black Panther beforehand, but I had picked up that the Armitages were transplanting white people into black bodies, that there would be a video presentation/exposition of this project, that eventually even Rose would betray him, and that the film would end with Chris killing the entire family. That's a lot of information, especially for a film whose twists were kept under tight wraps until it was released, helping to build anticipation and word of mouth.

Perhaps for this reason, I didn't expect Get Out to foster much suspense or visceral anxiety, even as I hoped the film would sweep me up in its storytelling (it did) and knew that I would be engaged with and compelled by its premise and political implications. I'm also not always terribly frightened or provoked by horror movies. To my surprise, however, the genre aspects of the film had a powerful effect on me. A sense of unease creeped into the movie from the early scenes, recalling not just the obvious antecedents of Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter but also more surreal filmmakers like David Lynch or Lars von Trier (the slow zoom - as I recall the shot - into the deer's head left me half-expecting it to look up and hiss at Chris, ala Antichrist). Richard Brody's review also cites Luis Bunuel, an apt comparison as much for Get Out's sly but seething, absurdist portrayal of the self-assured, preposterous, yet dangerously destructive bourgeoise as for any uncanny symbolic flourishes. Aside from The Stepford Wives, which Peele has repeatedly cited (and which I've never seen), the clearest classic parallel to Get Out is Rosemary's Baby, another iconic entry into what Peele calls "social horror." Peele's work shares not only Polanski's fondness for striking point of view shots and a subtly unsettling wide lens, but also that film's extension of existing social tensions and power dynamics into territory that could seem simultaneously over-the-top and all too rooted in actual historical exploitation of bodies (in Rosemary's case forced pregnancy, in Get Out's case chattel slavery).

Of course, where Peele differs from these other directors - most of whom conveyed women's perspectives with sympathy and sensitivity alongside some lingering identification with the subjectivity of their male exploiters (in Hitchcock's and Polanski's cases, even ruthlessly exploiting and abusing female victims in real life) - is his direct identification with his protagonist, in this case a black man threatened by a white world. This affords the film a sharp, unambiguous sense of purpose: Peele isn't empathizing here, he's communicating his own experience. Get Out's very premise, emphasizing not so much an enclosed elite's desire to exclude or persecute blackness, but the ingrained colonizer's instinct to actually dominate and even inhabit people of African descent, is radically offset by Peele's control over the material itself. The more I reflect on this film, the more revolutionary it seems: revolutionary because it embraces its own power without for a moment thinking that this compromises its integrity (in other words, it does not settle for the sly liberal trap of fetishizing victimhood and implicitly condemning liberatory, self-defensive empowerment), and revolutionary because if it addresses white viewers at all, it isn't with a flattering plea for inclusion but a bold assertion of autonomy.

As a white viewer myself, I can recognize the truth in Peele's statement that "By the middle — or even earlier in the film — everyone is Chris. Everyone is looking through the same set of eyes. The movie was bringing people together instead of tearing each other apart. It’s the power of storytelling." I definitely identified with him as the circle of conspirators drew closer, encouraged by the genre conventions and immersive mise en scene as well as Kaluuya's self-described "everyman" relatability to cheer him on, sweat when he sweats, and breathe a massive sigh of relief with every blow he strikes against his vicious captors. However, I don't think the film - to its credit - lets me off the hook as easily as that. This is thanks to both to the provocative foregrounding of its genre subversion (making us conscious of the racism inherent in the very tropes it's subverting) as well as its identification of the myriad subtleties by which white cultural hegemony, particularly the form characterized by facts or perceptions of wealth, profession, education, and taste, polices black identities. For anyone whom society has ever placed in that position, however approximately or conditionally, the mirror in Get Out is not only located in the hero, but in the monsters. This individualized characterization is both the film's strength (lending it a visceral power and a place inside the narrative canon it subverts from within) and a potential limitation, as some (usually still sympathetic) radical critiques have noted: Get Out identifies specific characters rather than an entire society as the enemy. That said, a systemic critique is implicit precisely in the film's refusal to offer a white character who is "one of the good ones." Rather than slice itself off from the larger world, the film's narrow focus helps it feel more like an allegorical microcosm.

Both narratively and stylistically, perhaps Get Out's most striking, innovative quality is the subtlety of its exaggeration. The whole film exists as a kind of extended sketch, in which we're economically provided just enough crucial context to establish the premise. We never get a real hold on which city Chris lives in or where Rose's family resides (the film was shot in Alabama for convenience, but avoids pinning this upper-class estate to a specifically "Southern plantation" vibe). The film is sparing in its anecdotes and background detail: the grandfather's Jesse Owens gripe, Logan's history with Chris and Rod, the blind gallery owner's lament - all tell us exactly what we need to know without indulging in any extended worldbuilding. Most notably, Chris' trauma with his mother stands alone without any further biographical context, elegantly providing narrative hook and character motivation in order to move the plot forward rather than flesh out individual idiosyncrasies. Yet the film never feels like a sketch in the moment; only afterwards did I realize how many details are left purposefully vague.

I can see a bit of this quality in my few glimpses of Peele's sketch show, in which the situations are absurd but the delivery is casual and low-key, elegantly eschewing the arch, purposefully crude quotations-around-it quality of Saturday Night Live. This has been in trend in comedy for a while (most widely perpetuated in the pseudo-documentary style exemplified by The Office), but I've never seen it used quite like this, particularly since Get Out embraces not an on-the-fly verite format but a classical Hollywood storytelling style - what Mark Cousins calls "closed romantic realism" in his film history The Story of Film. For a long time the film avoids emphasizing its satirical aspect, never winking at us, which makes the slow unveiling of its most over-the-top conceits that much more unnerving - and less easy to dismiss. Take the way Rose transforms from a nuanced portrait of a well-meaning but naive, privileged progressive young white woman into a cartoonish villain with nearly supernatural powers of manipulation. Beneath her socialized mask lies a terrifying sociopathy and so this shift toward "caricature" and "exaggeration" feels more like exposure than simplification. Mystification is shattered, a deeper, more brutal truth is revealed, the crude, bare-bones white supremacist base is laid bare beneath the arty "we're all complex" superstructure.

I've written before about four fundamental ways of making and watching cinema: immersion in a plausible but carefully-crafted illusion (most Hollywood filmmaking); the patient unfolding of a moment within time captured through long takes and wide shots (the path of many great European auteurs, as celebrated in Andre Bazin's What is Cinema); an often overtly Marxist exposure of the artifice of both Hollywood illusion and European realism by foregrounding the "manmade" qualities of the medium (achieved not just through overt Brechtian artificiality but also something as stylistically foregrounded as Sergei Eisenstein's montage); and a Jungian immersion in a deeper reality (think David Lynch or uncanny moments in Jacques Rivette). It's rare to find films that shift so deftly between different modes, but I think Get Out moves subtly from the first category to the third with subversive ease, using the context/expectations of the horror genre as vehicle rather than camouflage.

Signs of the Times: Subject matter and public reception are already enough to identify Get Out as a product of the late teens; while black horror films, including those that foreground racial context, are nothing new, the directness and popularity of Get Out indicate its existence in a post-Obama, post-Trayvon Martin, post-(or rather ongoing) police violence context. And for all its persistent discrimination and exclusivity, only a film industry and culture pressured by popular demands for diversity and representation would be willing to both facilitate and reward such a project. Stylistically, the film's depiction of the terrifying sunken place has a distinctly twenty-first century digital flavor, similar in its ominous, inky emptiness to the psychic space of the contemporaneous sci-fi show Stranger Things, both of which seem inspired by one of the signature designs of this era: Jonathan Glazer's and Chris Oddy's haunting work on Under the Skin (2013).

There is a classical assurance to the film's tight editing, immersive movements, and symmetrical compositions that have been aesthetic hallmarks of many of the most celebrated, accomplished auteurs of this period (one critic compared and contrasted Get Out's subject and social relevance to Gone Girl, but its assured formal vision, especially in its last third, also has a Fincheresque flavor). And the video that Chris is forced to watch is notable for the goofiness of its nineties look (both in terms of the picture quality and the family's fashion), suggesting that the last decade of the previous century is far enough in the past to emphasize its dated qualities. Although at this point it's more of a ubiquitous touchstone than a zeitgeist-indicating novelty, the importance of a cell phone to the story is also worth noting as we slowly journey into cinema's - and society's - past through this series. Indeed, part of the movie's terror (sadly resonant in an era when cell phone videos draw frequent public condemnation but only rarely judicial consequences) is the realization that Chris' technology won't save him.

Other Films: Get Out was a surprise hit, turning one of the largest profits of 2017, but the top five domestic box office hits of the year tell a different story. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 incidate audience interest in familiarity, with only Jumanji (still an adaptation of a beloved children's book that had already been a hit movie in the nineties) standing outside the realm of mega-budget name brand franchise/property. Other important films of the year include Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk, the remake of Stephen King's It, Edgar Wright's stylish crime film Baby Driver, the lush, romantic Call Me By Your Name and Greta Gerwig's highly acclaimed Lady Bird. Although nominated for Best Picture, Get Out lost to The Shape of Water, another highly original horror film with a message about racism - albeit one apparently more abstracted, heartwarming and optimistic than Get Out's sharp, terrifying satire.

Next month: La La Land (2016) Last month: Black Panther (2018)

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