Sleeping on Buses with the Stars: Short movie notes

Sleeping on Buses with the Stars: Short movie notes October 17, 2022

A cornucopia!

Benediction: Terence Davies’s experimental, time-shifting Siegfried Sassoon biopic. The elderly Sassoon’s conversion to Catholicism happens early in the film, and then we flash back to his experience as a soldier protesting the prosecution of World War I, which leads his superiors to order him into a mental hospital. Various gay but not happy things follow, and he gets married and has a kid and that’s not great either.

It’s an odd film which felt unbalanced to me. Davies is so experienced, he really knows how to tell a story in ways it can only be told on film: the central framing of several scenes (it’s especially noticeable in everything having to do with Sassoon’s confrontation with authorities), the use of color to parallel characters, the wild inbreaking of newsreel footage. Maybe the most memorable scene is Sassoon alone in a church while “Ghost Riders in the Sky” plays on the soundtrack: music as a way of representing mental state, or even prayer, but in a bitterly absurd key.

On the other hand… what is the point? I don’t mean, like, “what is the message,” because who cares, but why are we here for this story? So much of the movie is about Sassoon’s postwar romantic conflicts and disappointments, a swerve into the brittle silk-lined lacerations of like The Boys in the Band, and then he becomes a bitter curmudgeon. Neither his love affairs nor his religion (nor his marriage and fatherhood) seem to allow the kind of inbreaking or mystical experience, the surrender of the guards around the soul, that his wartime grief provoked. Maybe that’s the point but… it means that the bulk of this movie is about unpleasant things happening that gradually harden Sassoon’s carapace and make him pretty unpleasant in turn, whereas the opening promised a movie about the shattering of that carapace under the pressure from something outside.

Viva Zapata!: Elia Kazan made a movie starring Marlon Brando as a hero of the Mexican peasantry! There’s a reason you haven’t heard of it.

No, I mean, there are startling moments: Zapata’s uneasy wedding night is pure film noir, the assassination of Madero is genre horror, and several scenes with the peasant armies, both early and late, are really well-shot and stirring. Actually, now that I’m writing it up, I remember a lot of great moments from this film, and maybe I’m turning around on it–the scene where Zapata trades proverbs with his wealthy bride’s family is very funny, for example. (The film makes Zapata much more of a stereotypical peasant than he was IRL.) I mostly didn’t care for Brando’s performance or the execrable, preachy script by John Steinbeck, and these actually good scenes felt like punctuation marks rather than the substance of the film. Still, I’m finding myself thinking you guys should check it out.

WALL-E: Clever and endearing. I would not call this essential viewing but I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The Woodsman: Kevin Bacon plays a child molester released on parole. There’s a plotline, but tbh that feels like an excuse to explore the main character’s post-release life. I watched this because it was recommended as… not actually a portrayal of restorative justice, more like a parable or a story that would explore some aspects of restorative justice.

As a film it is very tense. It’s hard to watch and I absolutely would not recommend it if the subject matter makes you hesitate. (No child is harmed onscreen but that isn’t the only way to disturb people.) As a way of using the alphabet of restorative justice to tell a story, it is fairly blunt: people who harm others tell themselves stories about that harm, and being confronted with rage and contempt doesn’t alter their story, but being confronted with a victim’s story about the harm can provoke genuine change.

It’s well-made and haunting, and I’m glad it wasn’t longer. Kyra Sedgwick plays a coworker with her own damage, her own reasons to stick by Bacon’s character.

Collateral: Jamie Foxx is a cabbie who picks up Tom Cruise… never a great idea. Cruise is fun, he’s very good at playing rich people who are kind of dead behind the eyes; Jada Pinkett Smith is (as always) better than she had to be as the lawyer our hero drops off right before picking up Cruise; Michael Mann directs, so there’s a pretty great car crash, but this was not quite Mann enough for me.

Class of 1999: Not actually a sequel to the brilliant, brutish Class of 1984, though it has the same director and shares at least one star*. 1984 was a hemidemisemirealist take on youth violence, a nice big hit off the pipe of Boomer disillusionment, with great punk fashion and absolutely no taste. 1999 is… a trashy action flick about cyborg teachers. Pam Grier plays a villain, the teen fashion is a hilarious mix of sub-Mad Max punkery and Heathersesque scrunchies and hairspray, etc. 1984 has a certain grim conviction in spite of its soapiness; this felt more soulless, and the action bored me, but I admit I’m not really into that kind of movie as a rule.

* ETA lol no, I managed to mix up Roddy McDowall and Malcolm McDowell, who are not even related /o\ That’s why this stuff is free, folks….

Coal Miner’s Daughter: A badly-paced, somewhat self-justifying biopic in which Sissy Spacek plays the late country star Loretta Lynn. Spacek is great, and the first half of the film really builds up her environment, the bleak ’70s cinematography of West Virginia coal country and the hot, lonesome ’70s sun baking the highways and back roads. Tommy Lee Jones in aggressive makeup (maybe that’s just how his eyes and lips look???) is her husband, who courts her when she’s like fourteen; I’m glad his character arc isn’t the film’s focus, but I like it a lot as a series of surprises percolating along in the background, as he struggles to support his increasingly-famous wife.

Unfortunately the back half of the film is rushed and overstuffed. We needed (I needed!) more of Lynn’s friendship with Patsy Cline; they get one riveting scene where Lynn confesses that she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to have the baby, and Patsy, not blithely but uncompromisingly, just blows right past that and gets her planning to go shopping for baby clothes. There’s an unexamined thing, which is in the real Lynn’s songs too btw, of dealing with her husband’s adultery through contempt directed at the “trashy” women he sleeps with. Like, you guys may want to exult in the tough-girl posturing of “Fist City,” but it’s very high on its own supply, no?

Anyway, Spacek is so committed that she always keeps Lynn likable. My favorite moment was the happy shock on her face the first time she performs in public and people like it.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A rewatch, and initially I wondered why I’d given this two stars on Netflix. “Oh, you only did that because you watched this when you were drunk!” It’s got a great premise–In A World where people can erase one specific other person from their memories, two exes mutually erase one another… but can’t stay apart. It’s got a fun cast: Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, the Fluffalo, Jim Carrey I guess. It’s got a real willingness to let surreal, horrific, or perverse possibilities uncoil with visual inventiveness.

But dang, I did not care about these people and their problems even one tiny bit. Winslet plays a manic pixie dream girl slash literally just an alcoholic (this specific character defect is never, ever addressed honestly even though it’s extremely clear, lol I do not think these two crazy kids are gonna make it). Carrey plays a depressive pixie nightmare boy with zero personality. These people have quirks where their souls should be! The B-plots also assume we will be interested in events merely because they are heterosexual. Boo! Boooo!

Monsieur Vincent: Much-awarded postwar French hagiographical film (hagiograpic? sorry) about St. Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay). Starts slow, never quite reaches the heights of something like The Song of Bernadette, but this movie is genuinely interested in what it means to serve the poor. There are some great scenes involving the ways charity can become a forum for vanity, self-righteousness, or complacency. The last line is searing.

ETA: No, “starts slow” is just wrong–it starts with unseen locals pelting Vincent with rocks in a town that believes it’s been visited by plague, and that scene is unsettling and so well-shot. The casual way Vincent talks about his time as a slave, and the scene where he performs the town’s first funeral since the loss of their former priest, are also evocative and moving. But I did think the movie didn’t quite find its footing until Vincent starts founding institutions. A tighter first hour could’ve left more time for the many plotlines that get evoked and then dropped in the back stretch.

There’s also a sharp Foucauldian throughline here, about the rise of institutions: the reasons they emerge, and the slippage between charitable and punitive institutions. This movie actually cares about the question, How do you tell the hospitals from the jails?, giving the question its full due while also proposing a real answer. Nowadays it’d be one of those films that wins the Oscar for costuming (if it were American, I mean), but it is better and smarter than that.

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