The Only Song in the World: Short movie notes

The Only Song in the World: Short movie notes July 31, 2016

In order of when I saw them, so this will get whiplashy.

Me Without You: Brutally disappointing. The bait: Two girls forge a best friendship (YES) in the late ’70s/early ’80s (YES) complete with druggie punk adventures (YES!) and talking about finding their “soulmate” while using their feet to share a cigarette (YES!!!!). One of them is even Jewish!!

The switch: Joke’s on you, gen-X lesbian, their friendship is holding them back and it falls apart in the face of the obvious imperatives of heterosexual marriage, but fortunately cheating and divorce give everybody a happy ending.

I am not sure I’ve ever gone so far from love to hate in the course of two hours. We’re teased with some fascinating insights or hints of insights–the more stable friend is also the more self-absorbed, for example, although then the movie takes her perspective as normative for reasons I can’t fathom. Both the girls and their parents are made deeply unhappy by their inability to even consider, for a moment, just doing their duty. Settle for loyalty! Live sacrificially! You’ll be happier! …Except that, again, the movie yanks us into a quasi-happy ending and suggests that following your bliss not only works out fine in the end, but is basically the only imaginable option.

Barcelona: Watched this instead of the RNC and boy was that a weird choice. “I think it’s well-known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence, at least in Europe.”

But so, first, this glorious anecdote via imdb: “The plot of Barcelona was first suggested to Stillman when he heard of the film ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (1982) and thought it referred to two different people.” So we have Ted Boynton, the gentleman (Taylor Nichols), who openly reads salesmanship books and covertly dances to jazz while reading the Bible. And his brother Fred (Chris Eigeman!!! and lookin’ fine in uniform, I’m usually not about that), a sort of naval catastrophe, who crashes on Ted’s couch in Barcelona as he works to prepare for the upcoming visit of the US naval fleet. They muse (“Positive thinking is fine in theory. But whenever I try it on a systematic basis… I end up really depressed”), they argue (“Well I wasn’t using ‘prig’ pejoratively!”), they woo women (“I don’t go to bed with just anyone anymore. I have to be attracted to them sexually”).

As with Last Days of Disco Stillman is great at picking the moments and ways in which characters who occupy some kind of privileged global/economic position manage to be targets, on the outs, and therefore sympathetic. The felt-tipped OTAN SI!, the shooting: It’s this combination of absurdity and vulnerability that make the film’s gentle pro-Americanism insightful and endearing instead of heavyhanded and willfully obtuse. Making the rich Americans the lamb class didn’t work for me as well here as in Disco but then, as I said, I watched this during the RNC.

I completely could not tell these women apart, which is unfortunate since who ends up where is pretty important. That might be my problem though.

This is a tender film, and I might even go so far as to say it’s a film about loyalty. About givenness. Maybe also about the paired contrast of defensiveness/humiliation vs humility/self-righteousness? It’s never too early for limbo! …Also about this brilliant thing: “You are far weirder than someone merely into S&M. At least they have a tradition.”

God on Trial: You know a play is powerful when both the script version and the PBS filmed version go to infuriating lengths to tame it.

This film is based on an Elie Wiesel play by the same name, about a real occurrence which Wiesel witnessed in which Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz put on trial the One they held most responsible for their suffering. In the play (which I wrote a bit about here) the trial is recast as a Purimspiel performed in the wake of a pogrom. Here the framing device is changed to a tour of Auschwitz that includes a weirdly saccharine old man with a pointedly Ashkenazic schnozz who gives the film its double-edged closing line.

I don’t know that I have much useful to say. If you think you want to watch an hour and a half of Auschwitz-based theodicy then yes, you do want to see this. Skip Matthew Goode’s lugubrious intro. Some very small notes:

There’s s grim echo of the most famous passage from the Book of Ruth (“Whither thou goest, I will go…”) that I missed the first time.

There’s one not very good bit, basically a less-intense version of Mark Twain’s hookworm followed by a significantly better version of Kirk Cameron’s banana. But the rest of the actual argumentation is really powerful. The very late discussion of the Moabites and the Amalekites is amazing, and probably the part that challenged my own beliefs/spirituality the most.

The passage about how the Nazis are destroying the flower of the Jewish people and only the dregs will be left is especially shocking and heartbreaking when you consider Wiesel’s own survival. (Here’s a short bio; I did not know the bits about Francois Mauriac and Mitt Romney….)

It’s always unsettling to watch films set during the Holocaust and realize nobody would have looked that healthy and clean.

Speaking of cleanliness, there’s a passage in here about the ways repression can transform someone into a stereotype. In Hans Fallada’s World War II diary, A Stranger in My Own Country, Fallada basically writes, “I’m utterly immune to Nazi propaganda, but I have to admit that in recent years I’ve seen that the Jews really are clannish and grasping.” When the diary was published after the war he added a powerful footnote to state one part of the obvious, which is that he had been far more affected by anti-Semitism than he’d acknowledged, but I think he doesn’t say the other half of what’s happening here, which is that people under attack become clannish. Moreover, people under stress can become fearful and irrational, they can cling to whatever seems to give them security. Not everybody rises to the occasion. And if you add confirmation bias to that you start to see them as Other. You see this dynamic everywhere, from American discussions of (black or white) *~*cultures of poverty*~* to the homophobic Christian thing where if gay people stick up for ourselves we’re “narcissistic.”

Okay, I think that’s all I’ve got. Really glad I watched this.

The Long Goodbye: On a very different note, here’s weirdly ’70s Philip Marlowe spending twenty minutes in humble service to his cat! I loved this movie. Gorgeous to look at, with those soaking 1977-1985 deep night-life blues, that stunning bleaching California sunlight on the surf. (I agree with Victor that you should see this on the big screen.) Cockeyed and off-kilter, funny and spooky and political (not preachy) and sad. There are all these storylines we only see in flashes, like the creepy/abusive rehab and the meditating maidens. And on Twitter (go follow him on Twitter) Victor pointed out that there’s only one song in this entire universe, which gives the whole thing a surreal, totalitarian feel, weirdly reminiscent of things like Dark City.

Triangle: Ghost ship! I love me a good ghost ship tale. This one is at its ghost-shippiest before we actually reach the main location; we spend a lot of time on a smaller boat. In the blinding sun, watching the turquoise ocean, the anchorless ocean without memory or rest. And then the ocean turns black….

Bad things: I watched this because of Kindertrauma’s review; I agree that it lags a bit in the middle, and disagree that Melissa George is excellent in the lead role. I couldn’t get behind her actressy lips-parted thing.

Good things: Any restlessness you’re feeling around the one-hour point will be blown away by the final twenty or so minutes, which are relentless. There’s a late scene reminiscent of Session 9 as well as the obvious nods to The Shining and prior ghost-ship tales like Below. Some wrenchingly hard scenes to watch toward the end, sometimes for plot-twist shock reasons and sometimes for emotional motherhood-horror reasons. The trap may take a long time to spring, but it closes with a snap.


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