There’s like some new age-y thing where you say stuff out loud and that helps you manifest that thing, sort of like willing it into existence, right? I’m sure I’ve half-listened to that somewhere. Anyway… MOVIE DIARY 2018 will develop a dedicated following of people with money… MOVIE DIARY 2018 will get a book deal... MOVIE DIARY 2018 will make money... MOVIE DIARY 2018 The Book will be adapted into a television series… The merchandise will be lucrative… There. Now to sit back and wait for the money and accolades.
My special guest this week is Tom McHenry! Tom makes comics that I think are definitive texts about the banalities of existing on this world with other people. It is definitely your thing.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: TOM MCHENRY
In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix, only 43, has a bushy graying beard that makes him look uncannily like Mel Gibson (age 62)’s Action Dad from Blood Father (2016), a direct-to-streaming movie about a dad saving his estranged daughter from a drug cartel.
They both seem like the kind of movie we’ve been making a lot of over the past 10 years, since Liam Neeson’s Taken (2008) discovered the scared dad market again: violent stripped-down thrillers about aging male actors protecting virginal daughters from conspiracies of cartels and Russian mobsters. Movies where daughters are everywhere in danger, and the reactionary paranoia of white fathers is always eventually justified. But Lynne Ramsay is doing something weirder with You Were Never Really Here. In it, Phoenix plays Joe, a former soldier who specializes in rescuing daughters (who didn’t listen to the fears of their wealthy fathers) from child sex traffickers.
It’s a grim joke: this movie posits an America where the trade in children from wealthy suburban families is so brisk that it can support an entire separate economy of freelance rescuer-revengers. Business is always booming, every city in the country, every hour of the day. Importantly, such a conspiracy would be so abhorrent, even a pacifist would authorize any means necessary to stop it.
American movie culture has a model of the highest innocence: a young pretty blond white girl. The further you move away from that ideal on any axis (old, homely, brunette, etc.), the less innocence the audience will assume you have, the less we will permit an Action Dad to use horrific violence to save/revenge you.
Between rescues, Joe is trying out different ideas for how to commit suicide because he has a Bad Past that keeps intruding into the present. One of the strongest choices Ramsay makes with the material, in fact, is to never give Joe a My Bad Past speech. You know the ones I mean, where a guy starts talking about Kandahar, or his old man’s mean spells, or a drove of piglets he had one summer. When a worse movie has to stop to tell us — not show us — that our hero is a good man but has pain. Everyone wants to do Quint’s speech about the U.S.S. Indianapolis from Jaws, because that’s where we learned that a painful enough story about the past will get a permission slip from the audience for any kind of behavior (I should know, I sign them all the time myself). But Joe never gets a speech like this. Instead he dry heaves from helpless confusion.
We experience Joe’s pain only through potent single images from the past that interrupt whatever he’s doing in the day. Little 6-second Vines of a single detail in an emergency, looped to his awful fascination over and over again: the way some toes flexed in the dirt, the way a plastic bag deflated, a hammer on the floor. When you see the same thing every time you remember, you can practically walk around inside a memory, resting your eyes anyplace. For example, I’m writing this but thinking about a pot of Kraft Cheese and Macaroni boiling away into mush on our stove while I stood rooted to the corner in fear.
Trauma loops just like this. You can deal with it, you can spend years in therapy and meditation and exercise and gratitude journals, but one day you are going to be in a hallway or a Quizno’s or a class and it is like you have done Nothing At All because it is so new again. Ramsay gives us Joe’s mental state in a way I’d not seen before: doting on the beauty of these loops, fixating on the single object and avoiding the awful context as much as possible. We don’t even get enough information to decode the images into narrative.
And so people hire Joe to have him rescue pretty white girls from bad places. He does all of this with a ball peen hammer. A ball peen hammer features prominently in one of Joe’s terrible loops, so each job is a chance to buy a new one and it is like he gets to reach into his Bad Past and pluck out a detail to make it real right now in a way he can control. The look on his face is ecstatic.
The client asks Joe, begs him, really, to hurt these men who have taken his daughter, and Joe plans to. Probably every single client-father asks for this. Every father wants his own pain escalated and spread out over all the perpetrators who have damaged his daughter forever. Joe has so much pain himself, he understands, in fact, he specializes in taking his OWN pain (see: the ball peen hammer above) and escalating it onto anyone he can. And about here in an Action Dad movie is where you’d normally get That Good Shit, some real cathartic violence to purge the Male Pain for Joe, the girl’s father, the viewer. An exorcism of pain once endured via pain now inflicted.
Ramsay refuses you this satisfaction. The first time we see Joe go to work with the hammer, it’s a tiny detail in the corner of a security camera feed. And once we accept that Joe is Death with that hammer, she never needs to show us again. When Joe needs to kill a man, that man is
killed. The camera is not interested, ho hum, usually coming onto the murders after they’re already over, tucking them between cuts for the more interesting stuff — the fucked up way Joe is not actually processing his pain.
This also works right back into Joe’s mindset that the film is giving us: Joe does this every day, so no matter how much he’d like it to resolve some original hurt, ultimately it’s just swinging a hammer for the boss man’s cash. Joe is freed from nothing, his pain is not resolved from expressing it onto others, any more than the father’s will be, any more than it has ever been for any man in history. The looping shards of the past are still there, and with each rescue he has to bear witness to his next metaphorical daughter constructing her own first loops: the way wet hair curls in the rain, bare feet on a concrete parking garage floor.
You Were Never Really Here as in you were never really wholly present now. You were involuntarily looping your own past, trying to solve the mystery or have the revelation that would set it free. Or maybe it’s a message of hope: who you are now was never really there, back in those loops. Your fascination with the details of your pain can be released.
Tom McHenry is a cartoonist, writer, and game developer in Chicago, Ill. He sometimes writes about movies he sees on Letterboxd (but it's no Movie Diary 2018, tbqh). He and his wife, Sara McHenry, run a Patreon together, where you can subscribe to receive zines, comics, stickers, and even cookies in the mail every month.
Black Orpheus (1959)
I know it’s ultimately a tragedy, but this movie carries this sense of joy throughout that I found really appealing. It’s a retelling of the old Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, and because of that music plays a really key role. I think throughout the entire first hour of the movie you can just hear an almost non-stop drumming going on in the background, then there’s like a ten minute break before it starts up again. They also really build up how Orfeu is the best singer and dancer and guitar player (the two kids who follow him around and idolize him, Benedito and Zeca, are convinced that his guitar playing literally makes the sun rise), and whenever he sings and dances and plays guitar it’s beautiful and so vibrant.
Maybe vibrant is the word for this movie. Everyone’s Carnaval costumes are colorful and exciting, music is pulsing through every scene, the town is packed with extras dancing and singing and beating drums — it’s a celebration, of course. But even the more sinister elements — the man dressed as Death who stalks Eurydice, or Orfeu’s journey to the “underworld” (a dark staircase that leads to the basement of a bureaucratic building where a Macumba ritual is being held) — are pulled off with such style that it leaves you less disturbed and more in wonder at this world. It feels at times like the high drama spectacle of a melodramatic soap opera. Passions are running high, every emotion is exaggerated, but it never feels like too much because the world of this movie is built to hold all of that and each actor is willing to play at that level.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
I will be honest with you, I was not entirely paying attention when I watched this movie. I’d seen it before, so I feel like I remember most of the important beats, and this time around I just wanted to get to the shark stuff. It actually kind of takes a while before we really get into the shark action (or maybe I was just impatient?), but once Stellan Skarsgård’s arm gets ripped off, it’s totally bananas! I’ll spare you a breathless blow by blow of the exciting action bits, but I will say one thing that really stuck out to me this time around was how much the suspense of this movie really boils down to whether or not these people can open or close doors in time while running around in soggy socks. Also, Michael Rapaport is cast as the go-to smart guy? I get that they were trying to go for that unexpected juxtaposition of personalities or whatever but there is no way in hell Michael Rapaport has ever said the words “given the tensile strength” before this movie. I don’t really have anything else to say about this movie, so I’ll leave you with the lyrics from the first verse of LL Cool J’s “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin),” the song that plays over the credits and summarizes the events of Deep Blue Sea.
Hungry jaws of death
Y’all don’t cross my depths
I’ll pause your breaths
I cause you to sink down forty thousand leagues
Bleeding to death with no arms and short sleeves
My world’s deep blue
Killers gotta eat too
Looking for human flesh to rip my teeth through
Other fish in the sea but Barracudas ain’t equal
To a half-human predator created by a needle
Jet black eyes baby they stare while you sleep
When your Titanic sinks I’m the one you gon’ meet
Hearing terrified screams they surround my team
All you see is trails of blood
Even God won’t intervene
Nightmares of darkness
My apetite is heartless
Even if we related, you eliminated regardless
In the deep blue, underwater walls
Half man, half shark
My jaws don’t fall
I’ve started reading Lynch On Lynch, and I wanted to try to take a look at some of the earlier work that Chris Rodley references in that book. Six Men Getting Sick is credited as David Lynch’s first film, an animation of six figures (plaster casts of Lynch himself) whose bodies fill with some sort of bright pink/red that overflows and causes them to vomit. A siren wails throughout. I find talking about this kind of thing difficult as I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to go on, but it’s interesting to see this as a moment where Lynch moves from painting to film. The animated visuals are very much characteristic of his paintings, and the siren noise that plays through the animation adds this sense of crisis and stress to the overall depiction of nausea. The idea of adding more stress via some sort of absurd mechanism to an already stressful situation is something interesting that I think shows up sometimes in Lynch’s work. It reminded me of that scene from Twin Peaks: The Returnwhere Bobby Briggs runs out to check on a gunshot in a stopped car out front of the diner and there’s that woman in a car just screaming and honking her horn the entire time. I thought the visuals of Six Men Getting Sick were really cool, but ultimately it felt a bit like those video art installations that I always kind of pop my head into at museums — I’ll check it out for a bit but once I think I’ve got the gist, I’m moving on.
This was cool. Is there anything quite as menacing as children chanting aggressively? The sound, as in most every David Lynch movie, also does a lot of the heavy lifting. I’m sure there are more menacing things, sure, but the tone of these children just chanting “A-B-C. A-B-C. A-B-C,” or that strained “whooshing” noise just kind of backs you into a corner. The animation kind of reminds me of illustrations in old elementary school textbooks. It’s very evocative of that sort of wholesome 50’s educational vibe, but filtered through that dirty sort of underground animation style. Then there’s the live action bits with the girl getting sick in her bed. It felt very effective to me, particularly in the way that it’s framed? There’s something extremely unsettling about seeing something horrible happen in off-center flashes, then the horror moves from unsettling to fully terrifying when she’s at the front and center, half hidden in the shadows, and just vomiting blood. There’s not a whole lot to go with narrative-wise, but it’s really effective at conveying a very specific kind of isolation and darkness. Maybe it’s the kind of thing where you, as a viewer, need to be responsible to fill in the narrative blanks on your own? Lynch gives you the mood — it’s up to you what you do with it.
Look maybe it’s going to be a running theme of me saying something like “I have no idea what this is actually about but boy did I feel good about feeling sick” if I keep going over these early Lynch movies, so let’s just get that out of the way. I liked this one a lot. I feel like the animation and the live action bits worked together and complemented each other in a way that felt more integrated than in The Alphabet. This is another mood piece, but at this point it feels like Lynch made a conscious effort to actually have a plot, and it’s an improvement. The look of it is so menacing, everything about that house and those rooms is so unwelcoming and awful. It makes you sick just looking at these layers of filth sitting in darkness. And, again, the sounds in this movie do so much to reflect the Boy’s feelings and situation. That awful barking noise his father makes is so terrifying. Even the movements of the actors contribute to this scary, stifling atmosphere. The movie really just sticks to the settings of the house, the kitchen/dining room, and the Boy’s bedroom and because of all the oppressive, heavy blacks on the walls, there’s this claustrophobic feeling that makes you feel like you’re trapped in here with these awful people and that even your little attempts at escapism end up being these disgusting, rotten failures.
— THE WIDE WORLD OF MOVIE DIARY 2018 —
If you’ve contributed to MOVIE DIARY 2018, let me know about movie-related stuff you’ve done lately! Here are some links to some pieces from Tessa and Fran from the Steven Soderbergh issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room. They went up like last month or something but whatever, maybe you haven’t read them yet. They’re good and good writing is, as I always say, *a gentle breeze blows through the air, punctuating this pregnant pause* timeless.