A Selection of Things in a Few Places at Discrete Times: Short movie notes

A Selection of Things in a Few Places at Discrete Times: Short movie notes March 23, 2023

Brought to you by: pneumonia!

Let the Fire Burn: Fantastic, twisty and layered documentary about the deadly 1985 police siege at the MOVE radical compound in Philadelphia. Feels like every scene shifts your perspective on the scenes that came before. People who get only a few minutes of screen time emerge with vivid individuality. Basically a must-watch if you’re interested in Black American history, post-1968 city governance, or documentary craft. I watched it on Kanopy, for free with my library card.

Losing Ground: 1982 groundbreaking indie drama by Kathleen Collins, about anxieties and jealousies within a Black artistic couple. Seret Scott as wife Sara hides sensuality beneath a schoolmarm exterior; there’s a movie-within-the-movie which works sort of like “The Mousetrap,” and occasional weird touches like Sara’s caped co-star. It didn’t quite work for me–felt smaller than the sum of its parts, somehow, less weird than it promised, tilting somewhere between kitchen-sink and myth and never quite satisfying my desires for either. But others may vibe with it more. Another Kanopy selection.

Pray Away: Documentary about Protestant ex-gays and ex-ex-gays. I obviously am down for exposing the evils of conversion therapy, but as a work of art, this is pretty pedestrian, and as reportage, it’s mostly done better elsewhere. I really wanted to like this because it features Julie Rodgers, someone whom I like and respect a lot, and what we get of her story is quite powerful–probably the strongest element of the film.

There’s a secret subtext here about the blurred line between witness and celebrity: So many of the people here basically had their personal testimony weaponized, and a better film would explore whether and how any of them fully broke away from that model of Christian storytelling. In other words, becoming a poster child isn’t necessarily good for your spiritual life, even if the poster has a slogan far better than I’M NOT GAY AND SO CAN YOU! This is something I’m thinking a lot about, as I and others try to help gay etc Christians become mentors in their communities. How do we avoid tokenizing people? How do we protect their privacy and their relationships (while maintaining accountability)?

And finally, Pray Away begins and ends with someone who still runs a group for people who have been “delivered” from homosexuality and transgender identity. Or like, I don’t remember if he uses the term “delivered.” Which is something I should know! This new group seems to be drawing from a different set of Protestant traditions than the people we met earlier; everybody interviewed at length is white, but this new group seems to be majority-minority. Its worship style is different from the megachurchy stuff we see earlier, and its members seem way more comfortable acting, idk how to say this, swishy: They are, or seem!!!, comfortable being perceived as gay. Those all seem like differences worth exploring! Either this group is tiny enough that it just isn’t relevant in the way that Exodus is relevant (this is probably my own judgment tbh), or it’s worth talking about, and therefore its religious lineage is worth taking seriously.

Everything Everywhere All at Once: Oh man. I love splashy, willfully bizarre movies where people’s emotional state is signified by the color of their feather boas. I am extremely down for pastiche, and for stories of racial and sexual minorities. I loved the acting, esp Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and even Stephanie Hsu despite the fact that she’s given exactly one lugubrious note to play. A lot of the ingredients of this film should have worked for me. Instead I just think it is not good. You know how with Losing Ground I was like, “You might vibe with it though,” and I know that sounded like a cop-out, but actually I did mean that other people might see things in the movie that I missed? Intellectually I know that might also be true of EEAAO but in my heart, I know I’m right: no.

There are basically three problems here imho, and all of them are huge. The thing I noticed first is that every single emotion and thought gets explained. It is all talked out! And in the most prosaic terms. It’s like one of those awful contemporary musicals where the lyrics are like, “When you ignore me/Then I get mad!/Because anger is my coping mechanism/When I feel sad.” Justin Chang says the movie “practically does all your emoting for you,” and even that understates what happens here. We’re never given a chance to intuit the plot elements, just told, “I think when she does something strange, she can jump to another universe!” (or whatever the line is, I didn’t take notes.) We’re never given a chance to intuit relationships and emotions, just told, “You made your daughter into your enemy by putting too much pressure on her.” Shut up and let your story breathe!!!

The second thing is that the film tells so many stories that it often ends up gesturing at emotional resonance–creating a resolution that should make me feel something, so I try to feel the thing, but I’m just not there because these specific characters have speed-walked through the outline of a story rather than telling a story. The rescue of Raccacoonie, the love between the hot-dog finger ladies, these are not stories but synopses; and so what I feel is not the real emotion but a memory of feeling this emotion in response to other, better movies.

And the third thing is that the movie explains its philosophy at length and it is, “Nothing matters so be kind.” Like… okay. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on internet forums where sad lonely people try to understand how to keep going when they don’t believe that life has meaning, and I know that many things that aren’t persuasive to me can be life-saving insights for someone else. But the philosophy in EEAAO struck me as noticeably more banal than anything people on these forums have said to one another in encouragement. Maybe because EEAAO doesn’t really grapple with the problem that lots of people have tried that? Lots of people who find themselves in the nothing-matters place wind up there because they’ve tried reaching out, and been rebuffed again and again. EEAAO could have been a story that acknowledged that hard truth–maybe if it had cared more about the central couple’s divorce?–but instead it forces a triumphant sequence of reconciliations, none of which play out in unexpected ways. Idk, even something like, “Nothing matters, but you matter to me; this is what it looks like when you matter to someone” would strike me as defensible and potentially artistic, especially if there was some insight into “what it looks like.” Like, I obviously don’t believe that, but you could make art and even poignant and challenging art out of it. I have no idea how you turn “Just imagine that the people attacking you are really kissing, and then everything will turn out all right! Will your way to a happy marriage! Have you tried just trying a little harder????” into a compelling vision of kindness, let alone a reason to live.

There were a couple moments that really worked for me emotionally. Which shouldn’t be too surprising, given that this movie is an absolute flop sweat waterfall in its desperation to work for you emotionally! The moment when Evelyn, having seen the countless lives that the multiverse can offer her, rejects it all with, “I’ve always hated this place,” destroying the laundromat as a synecdoche for not just her one life but every life she ever could have had; most of the Wong Kar-Wai neon rain scenes. I think you could make a fun movie in which multiverses, martial arts, and Wong Kar-Wai pastiches were how an estranged and financially-struggling couple rediscovers their love for one another: It’s a Wonderful Lives, kind of thing. Instead, the filmmakers try to load the entire weight of life, the universe, and everything onto their movie. This is too many things on a bagel.

Googly eye on a hammer by Lenore Edman, via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.

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