Decoding “Licorice Pizza” (With an Epilogue)

Forewarning: after the jump, I will be diving into almost every significant start-to-finish plot point in this film.

One way you know a movie is very special is if you can’t stop thinking about it weeks after you’ve seen it. And no 2021 release gave me that feeling as much as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.

I went in inclined to like it. Anderson is one of a select few directors whose name on a project guarantees it’s a must-see for me. (Others on this list are Greta Gerwig, Steven Spielberg most of the time, and Quentin Tarantino.)

But during my watch, I kept going “WHAT?” time after time, not the incredulous “whats” I get when watching a nonsensical mess like The Rise of Skywalker but the “whats” of overwhelmed surprise as character beats and details kept emerging out of Anderson’s richly atmospheric recreation of the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Despite its brightness and humor, it’s not the easiest movie to get into. There isn’t a plot as much as there is a series of frequently outrageous situations which our characters get into and out of, pausing only for a brief rest, if that, before the next one. And the dialogue is less a means to advance the action and more a succession of screwball banter between the two leads, posturing, obscenity, and incredulous reaction.

When I walked out of the Music Box, I had no idea what the hell I’d seen but I also knew that whatever it was, I’d strongly, deeply connected with it.

I kept dwelling on the movie and playing its key moments back, over and over, and then, from his review in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Ethan Warren wrote this sentence that made me stop in my tracks.

“Anderson has for the first time managed to produce a film distinguished not merely by his characteristic fascination with the world but by a deep love for it.”

That’s the key. LOVE. And that insight is the foundation for what you’re about to read, and why I think Licorice Pizza, while not Anderson’s best film (in addition to a few other problems I’ll write about, there’s a bit of slack in the picture, a slack I think emerges from Anderson’s deep love of the story, that isn’t present in Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and Phantom Thread), is his most emotionally resonant and moving, and the perfect culmination of this phase of his career.

WEST SIDE STORY: How to Retell a Masterpiece and Make Another Masterpiece

What’s Talia Ryder doing in 2022? Because for the second straight winter, I’m going deep on a movie I consider one of the best films of the previous year, if not the best, and she’s the common denominator. (I darn well tried to spot her in The Dance at the Gym but no such luck.)

As I mentioned in my Year in Review, one of my works in progress is my first attempt at a musical. And as someone who’s always tried to learn from the best every time I endeavor at something new, you can’t get much better than West Side Story, which also happened to be my high school’s class production during sophomore year, when we opened a new auditorium. For two months of rehearsals and performances, you could have seen me at my bass in the orchestra pit, struggling with Leonard Bernstein’s fiendishly difficult music and playing soft enough to not overpower Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.

I fell in love with West Side Story. And when I finally saw the 1961 Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film, in 70mm as it should be seen, I fell in love with that, too. So when Steven Spielberg decided he was directing a new film version, I was…intrigued, because of both the “Why?” everyone seemed to be asking and that Spielberg, one of the integral parts of my artistic life, was coming off the disaster of Ready Player One.

I now ask myself, “why was I only intrigued?” West Side Story (2021) gave me goosebumps seconds into the film and then kept my hair standing on end, my eyes widening, my tears trickling down more than once. BenDavid Grabinski tweeted that no film had made him feel this way since Mad Max: Fury Road and from the point of view of “here’s all the great things movies can do,” that is an apt comparison!

A Year in Review: 2021


Here’s the absurd, bizarre way the universe works: when I began outlining this essay in my head a month ago, I was thinking about Joan Didion, not knowing that by the end of the year we would lose her. Because part of why I love writing is figuring out HOW stories work, what kinds people tell and how the different narrative choices get made and what the point of them is. And as 2021 turns to 2022, Didion’s maxim “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” has become, I think, deeply important, because more than ever, not only are we telling ourselves stories, but also, thanks to social media we are getting inundated with everyone’s stories that they tell themselves and the sometimes extreme subjectivity thereof, and all of that is on my mind as I finally, FINALLY, and excitedly talk about my past year.

(The “finally” is important. I’ll get to that.)

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Thoughts on a Post-COVID Cinema (and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)

Usually (a key word, there, usually!) around this time, the Oscar nominations are out and I’ll have an essay on this site about my top ten movies from the year before and other things which caught my eye. But February 2021 isn’t a usual time…it’s been eleven months since I set foot in a movie theater and the nominations won’t be announced until next month! Even more to my shame, even though there’s several films that are available right now for free that will be legit Academy contenders, the amount and variety of choices you get from streaming sites…and between all of us in the Rostan family we’ve run the gamut…often results in my saying “screw it” more often than not. I look at all my options and then throw on The Great British Baking Show or Top Chef again.

(Note: Season Ten/Collection 7 of TGBBS is one of the most comforting things anyone could watch now, a dramatic show where part of the drama comes from how everyone genuinely cares about each other from the first episode and no one wants to see somebody else lose. It’s NICE PEOPLE doing COOL THINGS.)

That being said, I have seen more 2020 new releases than I have for previous years (in part thanks to splurging for a CIFF pass) as well as more old movies than I’ve seen in a long while…you can find my reviews on Letterboxd, where I’ve gotten pretty darn active! Doing so, combined with living on my own and thus having lots of time to think when I’m not writing or cleaning the house, has led me to consider what the movies will be like post-COVID.

I hadn’t even realized this was a thought of mine until September, when the rumination began under special circumstances. Part of what’s kept me even-keeled during the pandemic is I ended up becoming part of a circle who watches a film together every week in curated series like you’d get at a repertory house. There’s never been people I’ve loved diving into movies with more, and in our series we mix flat-out masterpieces with the occasional stinkers…that we didn’t know at the time were stinkers but we wanted to check out because they fit a theme.

What happened in September was I watched one of the single worst abominations trying to pass itself off as a movie I’d ever seen. I won’t even give these 90 minutes of unpleasant or thoroughly bland characters saying words that someone allegedly thought were jokes the courtesy of a name. But while processing my thoughts, I wrote this:

It astonishes me that Columbia Pictures thought that this film would appeal to anyone at all (Yes, this was a major release)…and it makes me hope that post-pandemic, as the studios gear up again and have to think more seriously about what they’re investing their money in for a changed world, we might not have unconscionable dreck like this anymore.

Of all the things, right? But that was what got my train of thought rolling. As soon as Biden and company have us all vaccinated and we can resume normal life or something like it again, there’s going to be so many factors going into how the movies carry on. Streaming is, again, a bigger deal than ever, and after a year people have gotten used to not going out to the point where the business of actual, physical theaters is on the brink. (Drive-ins were a fun substitute, but you’re also gonna get movies like Ammonite which aren’t designed for that sort of projection.) Moreover, production of movies is moving in two different directions. While the major Hollywood concerns shrink more and make less, with an emphasis on existing intellectual property with a few exceptions for awards season (The Walt Disney-Fox behemoth being the key here, as the MCU and more roll on with no end in sight), the democratization of film…the very aspect which defines all I love most about the medium…hasn’t stopped either. Judging by the reactions to Sundance last month and most of the pictures that are cleaning up at the critics’ awards, small-scale production is alive and well, maybe in even more of a position to thrive than ever as the responsible among us ease back into group activity.

I don’t see either of these trends slowing down, especially as theaters reopen and the industry wants to get people back into seats. Spectacle, of course, is one way to do that. And I, person whose favorite director of all is David Lean, who sweated through all my clothes seeing Dunkirk in 70mm, who considers Avengers: Endgame and Into the Spider-Verse Warholian-level pieces of pop art, isn’t going to turn down the return of mega-filmmaking.

But in rereading my Letterboxd diaries, I’ve found that for 2020 and now well into 2021, there’s a kind of story I’m drawn to more than ever. More than any of the above examples.

Which leads us to Never Rarely Sometimes Always.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature film from writer-director Eliza Hittman, is hitherto the only 2020 release I’ve considered worthy of a five-star rating. Those who know me won’t be surprised when I say that it’s extraordinary. That I cried multiple times while watching it. These are what garner five stars from Andrew Rostan. But I want to talk more about what makes this film stand out for me, why it should stand out for you, and how I think it has a role to play in the future of cinema.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about Autumn, a seventeen year-old living in Pennsylvania who discovers she’s pregnant. Autumn’s home life is far from the best, the crisis pregnancy center she goes to is (unsurprisingly) no help, and state law is draconian. The one person she can confide in is her cousin/best friend Skylar, and the two of them embark on a covert journey to New York City so Autumn can have an abortion.

That’s the plot. But as Ebert would say, a movie isn’t about what it’s about (although especially now what this film says about being a person who can get pregnant in America speaks volumes) but how it’s about it, and what Hittman does in showing the how is remarkable. Her gift at invoking the atmosphere of a location is one of the finest I’ve seen in years; for the first part of the picture, when she shoots schools and restaurants and big box stores and standard homes you could find in any suburb or small town in Pennsylvania, nothing looks artificial and nothing looks touristy, or filmed through a filter that Hittman is putting such places down. There’s a detail, a usage of color and editing and shadow, that makes everything feel so real you’re there in a way that someone with a pre-judgment of the location could never achieve. When Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, their journey begins at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Take it from someone who’s had to navigate it at 11:30 at night: there’s no better way to immediately feel the biggest city in the nation’s askew than to wander through the Port Authority trying to figure out where you need to go. There’s nothing romantic about Hittman’s New York but again, there’s nothing where she’s saying it stinks either. It’s a place full of endless streets and starkly lit rooms and divey corners that would overwhelm any newcomer but especially two teenagers.

But besides giving us atmospheres, Hittman excels at showing faces. There’s not much dialogue in this movie, and that dialogue is more given over to snatches of conversation and casual remarks than exposition. This is a movie that respects an audience in letting us know from a single look on a person’s face…and not a melodramatic look either…how they think and feel. It’s from those looks and not as much what they say that we learn Autumn doesn’t like her mom’s partner and doesn’t trust the people giving her information about her options, and that Skylar has a vague dissatisfaction with the way her life is now that makes doing something different an enticing prospect.

None of it would be possible if Hittman hadn’t cast Sidney Flanigan (who’s also a punk rock bandleader) and Talia Ryder (who’s also a Broadway dancer) as Autumn and Skylar. Flanigan and Ryder are really good actors, on the verge of greatness, and their chemistry through the film is so believable. But they have the gifts of supremely interesting faces and being able to do so much without words. I watch Flanigan and Ryder’s expressions and know I’m in the company of intelligent people operating on instinct, conveying the sense of being in the moment, of convincing you this is real life and not merely something from a script.

This work builds to the scene that most shattered me: Autumn meeting with a truly sympathetic social worker (wonderfully played by Kelly Chapman) before her procedure and being asked about her history with sex and relationships. It’s a long scene, the dialogue at the barest minimum, but in the intersection of Hittman’s camera, Flanigan’s reactions, and what we’ve seen come before, we get an entire, heartbreaking history of a girl’s growing up. It could have been a short film of pure genius all by itself, and that it’s a flowing part of a long, engrossing narrative is artistic spoiling.

It makes me think of my greatest takeaways from the film; Autumn and Skylar as figures of quiet desperation in an age where so much is uncertain the world over, but also quiet strength. There’s an unspoken potential that their lives in their hometown could go nowhere, and a spoken one in terms of cinematic language that those lives are full of heartache, and they’re ultimately headed towards more heartache to come. But the story unfolds to show Autumn, a private, quiet person, show more vulnerability and emotion than she has before, and Skylar, due to interactions with unexpected “ally” (and I use that word and the quotations with reason)  Jasper, played without guile by Theodore Pellerin, realizing what she’s capable of doing for someone she loves and what limits she will set for herself in the future. Hittman’s implication is that they can—not that they always will, but they can—overcome the obstacles in their way, and they now know they can overcome them and have learned more about themselves, and this is a powerful, earned victory. Between that message (which is 99% of this combo) and an unexpected shoutout to Gerry and the Pacemakers, this film won over every bit of my heart and soul.

Best of all, this film doesn’t have the classical stakes Hollywood would insist upon it having.

SPOILER ALERT: The trailers I saw in January during my last ventures to movie theaters (Again, remember those?) implied that there would be suspense from the girls losing all their money or getting stranded in a place with no assistance. These things don’t happen! And the film’s better for it!


All of this is to say that in giving Never Rarely Sometimes Always my highest praise and then looking back on what I’d also valued in my 2020 movie watching, I found that what I’m most drawn to now are not giant, sweeping epics, as much as they may help escape the unsettled life around us all, but stories told on an intimate scale. Stories where the conflicts aren’t traditionally major but the real dilemmas we go through every day. Stories that could come across as quiet and are always observatory…and that make us care about life more

The grandmaster of this type of filmmaking for me will always be Agnes Varda; especially with her masterpiece, Cleo From 5 to 7, but also in films like La Pointe Courte and Vagabond, she showed there was something revolutionary…and still revolutionary…in telling a micro-observed story of life, especially from a non-masculine point of view. And there’s so many more examples I could name. Kathleen Collins’s recently rediscovered early 1980s film of rare genius, Losing Ground. Stephen Cone’s beautiful, touching, occasionally hilarious tales of growing up and the intersection of the secular and spiritual, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and Princess Cyd—the latter one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Demme at his most down-to-earth: Melvin and Howard, Rachel Getting Married, and the first part of Something Wild. (The second part of Something Wild is freaking great too but veers into a new tone more conventional trappings, while the first part, like the aforementioned films, revels in random, plotless, anything-can-happen quality). The works of David Gordon Green up to the deeply underrated Snow Angels. And most recently, Joanna Hogg’s inventive, dazzling The Souvenir.

What I want to believe is that films like these and Never Rarely Sometimes Always will in a post-COVID world find an audience; probably not one on the scale of Disney but one enough for them to play for long runs in theaters and have the best platforms pick them up. Again, I will never turn away from the gigantic that feels all the more awesome due to the big screen and the lights going down in a big theater. But the pandemic has reinforced for me that my soul craves movies where the stories are more intimate. Dare I say it…more everyday and commonplace. Because we’ve been missing out on the everyday and commonplace for so long that we’re being reminded how special it is. And one person or a few people’s self-discovery and transformation can and does carry all the impact of uniformed heroes or a plucky woman with a lightsaber saving the universe…and I’ll take the first over the second, with more of a chance to learn something about me, every time.

(But rest assured that as I praise intimate drama/comedy, I’m not including that new film where a man annoys his girlfriend and in all likelihood his neighbors by yelling about Barry Jenkins and William Wyler until sunrise.)

Considering SHE-RA

THERE really is no way for me to be able to write a single, unified take concerning She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which concluded on May 15th. My thoughts are too giant, too varied. So consider this a start.

And there’s going to be massive spoilers for the entire series.

If I could summarize the entire show in one frame, I’d pick this one.

TO begin with, I was just little enough that I missed the heyday of She-Ra: Princess of Power and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (I do remember my cousin had the Crystal Castle playset.) By the time I was old enough to get into Saturday morning cartoons and action figures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the apple of my eye. That said, I’ve never not been conscious of She-Ra, especially in nerd culture circles, where it’s treated with alternatively ironic appreciation and deep, heartfelt love. (I have friends who grew up with the original show and they have zero interest in the new show.)

In the midst of my complete series watch, I looked to Wikipedia to read about the 80s cartoon and watched several episode of that same show. Apart from all the characters being female except Bow and Hordak…it was basically the same as every 80s action-adventure cartoon. A whole lot of people with magic and weapons fighting each other, with an explicit moral lesson at the end.

That’s maybe the first of many things I appreciate about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. We’ve witnessed so many attempts to resurrect beloved bits of pop culture that try to add weight and grandeur to them, and usually we get things that spin out of control and collapse under their own weight or self-seriousness. She-Ra adds weight and grandeur (and keeps teaching good moral lessons while thankfully not having a magical creature to sum it up for us) but does so by telling one complete story in 52 episodes and filling it with a tone that mixes seriousness and humor in a perfect balance, and also never tips too far into darkness. For that, Noelle Stevenson and her writing team deserve so much credit. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends since college with Josie Campbell, the story editor who also wrote some of the show’s best episodes, so I’m a touch biased here.) But credit also goes to…

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Caring Hurts

There’s a quote by Reverend Dave Barnhart that’s gone around Facebook lately in conversations about the continuing battle over reproductive health and the basic rights of humans to have control of their own bodies, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. This is a slightly edited version.

“’The unborn’ are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated…they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct…they don’t ask you to question patriarchy…they don’t need money, education, or childcare…they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage you dislike…they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating and maintaining relationships…and when they are born, you can forget about them because they cease to be unborn. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, and privilege, without reimagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone.”

I think this statement is true and also goes beyond the unborn.

A few days ago, I had a very long-overdue dental check-up. The CTA trains all stopped running at Sheridan, so I walked thirty-five minutes to get to the office. The CTA trains and buses have been halting service a lot these past weeks as Chicago, like so many other places, has had protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

After my cleaning was done, I called a Lyft and stood on the sidewalk…thankfully a long sidewalk with plenty of ways to keep six feet apart from others…and waited.

And I saw an entire march pass by. In the front were police officers on bicycles. In the back were a row of officers on foot and twenty or so cars. In the middle was a mile and a half, two mile long line of people. Almost all of them looked under thirty-five. The vast majority wore masks. They held up every Black Lives Matter sign under the sun.

I stood on the sidewalk giving them a raised fist.

There’s two things here.

First, I’ve been having deep conversations with people the past week about what’s happening in America now. And since 2014, I’ve been a part of protests, rallies, and marches that blocked the streets and had uncertain, confrontational endings. For BLM, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, in support of federal actions, the March For Our Lives in 2018 in Washington. I love being one small part using my body and voice to support something I believe in. And the only reason I didn’t get off the sidewalk and join in was that after two and a half months, I also looked at that crowd and had the same thought come into the back of my mind. “Is COVID spreading here? And if it is, would I get sick or get someone else sick? Especially since I was just around a whole bunch of strangers?”

No one I’ve talked to about it disagreed with me. And I’ve been sending money to Chicago bond organizations and Black Lives Matter for the past week. But in all my writing, I need to be honest. I felt a bit like a coward.

So I’m going to work on changing that. Most of my life in Chicago has been about me putting myself in uncomfortable places. Even if I don’t end up on the streets this time, I’m going to make sure I do what I can.

Second, I know people who were fed up from the start by Black Lives Matter. Who thought Colin Kaepernick should never have spoken up. Who thought peaceful protests were wrong. Who wish all of this would go away…although they had nothing to say about the other set of protests this year when people with guns rallied in state capitals against COVID restrictions and police did nothing. And who have shown more comfort and concern for the police officers, the ones who have militarized gear and weaponry, than any protestors who were hurt or killed.

For me, that attitude is like what Reverend Barnhart says about caring for the unborn. It’s a show of compassion that allows a person to not challenge themselves.

While the people, including great friends of mine, who are out on the streets are risking something more than ever. Risking getting sick. Risking getting hurt.

Caring hurts.

It’s a lesson I learned shamefully late in my life but I’m glad I learned it.

Caring hurts on every possible level you can care about something or someone from the moment you make that commitment.

If you have deep, great friendships, if you have a true and strong love for another person, to care means to feel their pain alongside them, and to know that what you have could end in heartbreak.

If you have something in your life that’s a vocation which means everything to you, it’s going to involve the pain and sweat of hard work and a lot of failures and efforts that might never be seen by anyone but you.

If you’re part of a social movement that wants to change things in a city, in a state, in a nation, in a world, even within your block or on a school, there’s going to be personality clashes, the frantic tedium of organizing and making plans, the weariness of arguing with people who oppose you, setbacks, reversals, sometimes watching things slip away while you try to stop them and can do nothing.

You realize you all by yourself can’t change the world…you can’t will things into existence…you can’t keep a relationship that’s dead together…you can’t do these things simply because you care.

It’s easy not to care.

It’s easy to hate, of course. Hate is something that doesn’t require you to think.

But not caring is different from hating.

It’s easy to shrug off concerns and write a check. And plenty of people don’t even write a check!

It’s also easy to care about something sincerely and then assume that anyone who doesn’t share the same belief, or is earnest about something else for different reasons, is someone not worth caring about. Easy to take whatever goodness and ideals you stand for and ignore or twist them.

And one of the lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can’t hate in the end. I can argue with people, and I will (I’m getting better at standing on matters of principle too), but when I really think about it, it’s hard on an intellectual level to begrudge people who choose not to care. Why would you open yourself up to being hurt, more and more?

But we aren’t living in a world driven by intellect. We live in a world where our very existence itself is driven by emotion, by desire, by beliefs, where facts can and hopefully, usually should be the basis for such emotions and desires and beliefs, but not always.

And I like that it’s “not always.” We need to let our emotions take the front seat now and then, and to imagine. It’s what makes us truly alive.

Because as soon we imagine something, be it a work of art we want to develop or an idea for a better world, or we let our emotions out and talk to the person who becomes our best friend or our deepest romantic love, we’re going to care. And it’s going to hurt.

And yet, we still do.

I use art to make sense of the world.

Recently, I’ve been reading books by amazing writers like Roxane Gay so I can further understand this moment we’re in.

And I’ve been watching stories. Stories about lots of things. About people who grow into something beautiful together but come apart because they can’t agree on how people should care. People who push themselves to every limit imaginable and are ready to die for the sake of caring about others, even those who oppose or betray them. People who grow increasingly cruel and destructive, pushing everyone in their lives who get close to them away, and are responsible for so much death and near death.

And these stories have such beautifully happy endings. Endings with what Gay would describe as “the smooth surfaces of idyll.”

Real life doesn’t guarantee happy endings the way writers can. That’s no surprise. And I never expect them to happen.

But what I do know, and I know writing this I am going to sound corny, is that while caring about something isn’t enough, it’s always at the beginning. The first time you make yourself vulnerable, or sign up for a cause, or join a crowd speaking out, and every other time, knowing you will probably get hurt and doing it anyway…

Over time, that can lead to a happy ending. Maybe for yourself. Maybe for others in a future you don’t live to see.

Only happens when you care.

See you out there.

The Altar of the Dead

For the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

I designed this website so I could share thoughts I have about writing and creating art from time to time, but this doesn’t seem too out of line with the topic.

Death, after all, is something I have lived with my entire creative life.

An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, for instance, is a book where the title character spends the bulk of it dying and it ends at her funeral. The most difficult parts of Form of a Question, which was a very difficult book to write to begin with, were about my grandfather Joseph Kacenga and his passing. And every single work in progress I have going now involves at least one character biting the dust in a pretty dramatic way.

So I’ve never stopped thinking about death.

But for the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

2019 ended with me losing two people—my grandmother, Kathryn Rostan, who lived to be 98 and never lost a shred of her mental acumen and gargantuan spirit, and my oldest uncle, Thomas Rostan, a veteran who I know is somewhere feeling very happy that I am thinking of him a LOT on Memorial Day—both of whom, in different and irrevocable ways, shaped the person I am.

And since March 17th, I’ve been working out of a three-room apartment while a variation of existence passes by my window, a variation premised on the idea that we could well be transmitting a new way to die.

My current lifestyle makes me feel like one of my heroes, the man whom I consider the greatest novelist in American history, Henry James. James was also a bachelor who designed a quiet life for himself, alternating between time spent with the close friends whom he valued more than anything and a rigorously controlled solitude where he had nothing to do but write.

One of Henry James’s finest short stories is “The Altar of the Dead,” which would one day be turned into a movie by no less than Francois Truffaut. The story is about George Stransom, an artist who spends years grieving over the death of his fiancée, until one day he reads of the death of an old friend who betrayed him in an unspecified way. This causes Stransom to realize death as something universal beyond his personal loss and obsession. He begins a meticulous ritual of tending to a church altar and lighting candles for everyone he’s ever known who has passed, but he never lights a candle for the ex-friend. In the course of time, he meets a woman who goes to the same church, and a closeness develops between them that might turn into something more…until Stransom discovers that she lights a candle each time in memory of someone she cared about: his ex-friend. From there, the story builds to an emotional finish in which, at the least, Stransom achieves an internal reconciliation and sense of grace.

There’s a lot packed into “The Altar of the Dead,” which is typical of James, but what affects me the most is how driven (another quality typical of James’s protagonists) Stransom becomes with the act of mourning. It’s twofold: the mourning shows that the dead, including the ex-friend who dominates his mind, are not forgotten by the living, and it is through mourning that Stransom is himself able to mentally and emotionally change.

Death and mourning are supposed to change you.

I can recall when death changed the entire world…when I watched an airplane fly into the second tower of the World Trade Center on live television, and how decisions were made because of that which to this day reverberate.

And I can recall the mourning, in every corner of this nation, for 2,977 people—2,977 parents and children and spouses with rich lives we can only imagine—who died needlessly.

They were us, as a New York Times header declared.

Except that header wasn’t published in 2001.

It was published yesterday, when the Times listed the names and minute biographical notes for 1,000 people who died of COVID-19 on American soil.

(One of my best friends said that she’s going to remember certain parts of that list for the rest of her life. I understand that so much.)

Right now, 97,720 people in the United States are confirmed to have died from COVID-19. That number will top 100,000 in the next few days, and I am not sure where that will end.

I spend some time every day reading about COVID, considering it deeply, but it was as we approached that round number—because, and I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, there’s something about certain numbers that weighs on the mind and brings things into focus—that my own sense of grief, which was present from the start, itself grew into a deeper form, leaving a heavier impression.

I see a tragedy unfolding around me on three different levels.

The first, foremost, and highest is this: the deaths themselves, a loss I increasingly feel with every passing day.

The other two levels of tragedy…I am not sure which one is worse.

The people in charge of our country knew COVID was coming. There is no way we could have saved every single life, no matter who was running the government, but there was definitely a way we could have instituted procedures to keep the disease as contained as possible, developed a testing program to better track it, and keep that plan going until a vaccine could be found.

This did not happen because the government was focused on keeping the economy at a high level in hopes of a re-election, and doing anything to diminish economic activity would have been, in their eyes, a disaster.

So instead we were given a haphazard series of guidelines which were continually changed and reversed and now seem to be fully abandoned. Almost nothing was done to increase testing and tracing. New outbreaks are occurring on a daily basis. And the economy still collapsed…as this writer who lost his job can attest.

That is the second tragedy…that there was a significant number of people who didn’t have to die and did, and there are living people who lost so much that they might not reclaim.

Finally, there is the third tragedy…and that is the near-total absence of a sense of mourning.

Again, after September 11th, mourning was de rigueur. It was inescapable. And we were asked to make something of a sacrifice, to support giving things up in the name of honoring the dead and an ideal of freedom and safety…a smaller-scale version of the sacrifices made during World War II, a time so many people I know still point to of collective action, of doing something and giving up in honor of the dead and those who could die.

Today? With nearly 100,000 dead and that number rising? There is so little mourning. There is so little sacrifice. When I look at my windows to the outside world, I see footage of people in Florida, in California, in the Ozarks, in New York City, communing en masse without masks or distance. (And full disclosure…at the very beginning I was a touch too cavalier about it myself but that changed quickly.) I see people wishing others might get COVID-19, sometimes applauding when they do.

I see that President Donald Trump is far, far more concerned with the death in 2001 of one of Joe Scarborough’s aides than the deaths right now of the people he is supposed to lead and serve.

And I see that so many of our elected officials prioritize a working economy and a sense of normalcy, neither of which they did anything to put us closer to, over the health and safety of others, with an attitude of “well, people are going to die anyway.”

That so many who will carry on about the sanctity of life are so cavalier about death is not lost on me.

But that’s the thing at the end of the day, isn’t it? Pretty much since 2008, I’ve watched so many aspects of my existence that were supposed to be givens be proven terribly wrong. That those, on every end of the ideological spectrum, who speak of certain ideals and values—who speak of freedom and sacrifice and a society of respect where all people count, where all people have a chance—those ideals and values can be discarded so easily. That people don’t have the need to pretend anymore.

It’s enough to make one fall into cynicism and despair, on top of all this sadness.

So what is to be done?


One part of my life which has managed to carry on is the part given over to worship.

Church isn’t the same of course, without being in the pews and taking communion…

But on Sunday mornings, I log online for a virtual service where we read, we sing (and oh, does my voice sound bad without a crowd around me), and we pray together.

And on Sunday evenings, my church’s youth group checks in on each other, and these brilliant people half my age talk about their fears and uncertainties of this time but also show the same spirit of my grandmother, one completely irrepressible.

I do not write this—I never write such things—as a way of urging people to find faith, because God know that might not make sense for you.

I write this because the past few weeks, as the tragedy and the pain grew within me, I found myself paying attention more to these meetings, and the power (as my wise ministers put it) of prayer as a collective experience.

The kind of experience I desperately needed.

But it is not only prayer…when I have my facetime conversations, when I gather with people spread out across the city, the nation, to watch the same film or read the same book and we discuss what that means…these are collective experiences.

And what happens when you have a truly great collective experience, spiritual or secular, is that it ends up translating into more of your own life. That you take it and have a new sense of mindfulness of the personal level.

What that has come to mean to me is an even stronger form of something I already possessed: a love for those in my life.

And a love for the living easily gives way to a longing and a mournfulness for the dead. All of them. Maybe especially, as James’s story urges us to consider, those we might not even feel inclined to mourn.

When I was very little and going to St. Matthias’s Church in Youngstown, I would light votive candles at the altar. For the sheer childish delight of playing with fire. What it truly meant…what it would have meant to the real George Stransom and those like him…was a flicker in my perception.

Now I look back and want to be a real George Stransom…lighting candles and not caring in the end if the person you lit them for did some great wrong, because we are all in this together, and in the world I dream of, death would be felt with that in the forefront.

I may not be lighting candles. But I know I can take what I have from my collective experiences and turn it into something meaningful.

To think upon the dead, so they are not merely statistics or something to be used.

To act for the dead, so that just maybe no one else has to suffer loss in this way.

And hopefully, a little bit or a great deal, now in some ways as we keep muddling through this time of uncertainty, more on a day I cannot yet foresee when we have more confidence in how to live and deal with this age, all of us will be thinking and acting, each in our own way, for every living thing.

Top Ten Movies of 2019

2019 was a strange and wild year for the world, and that includes the world’s movies. I saw films from all the corners of the earth, telling stories I had never heard told before, or stories I’d heard before in ways I never expected them to be told.

It may have been the best moviegoing year of my life.

Even in a year that included Joker (the less said, the better) and High Life, a movie whose opening sequence locked me in for greatness and then proceeded to lose me as few movies ever have before in a mess of disgust and confusion.

To pick ten prime examples from this year was no easy feat, and I had to recalibrate the list several times, but this is how the chips fell for me in the end…and of course, I’m going to try to comment on the art of storytelling itself as I go because that is my thing after all.


  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma’s tale of a painter and an aristocrat who fall in love in the mid-eighteenth century is, on the surface, a very simple story, a few intense moments in two lives. What makes it special is how Sciamma (who wrote and directed) creates a chamber piece that fits with the masterworks of Eric Rohmer. Four characters (with a few intrusions from other societies), all women, with problems they care about solving so much that we would be heartless not to care. (The subplot involving the maid results in the funniest moments but the gravity is never lost.) Moreover, Claire Mathon’s cinematography received universal acclaim for a reason. This is a masterclass in composition, arranging every shot’s elements and lighting and how the actors move to create an effect that is never showy and always impactful. (I’m serious: teach this in film schools!) And in the cast, I have to single out Noemie Merlant as Marianne the painter for one of the performances of the year. Merlant is laconic, sardonic, and has a penetrating stare like few others, all of which make her more emotional moments believable as a release of great energy.

As a final, SPOILER HEAVY note, I had a conversations with female friends of mine about Portrait in its aftermath, specifically about the nature of the lesbian love story in general. Some are upset by how it continues the trope of queer romance ending unhappily. Some were deeply moved by how the story played into the realities of the time. It’s a situation I find myself unqualified to comment on but one where I see both sides of the coin. I want to see positive representation of everyone in film, but a story’s end also has to feel natural in relation to how you told it.


  1. Avengers: Endgame

I often say that one reason I love cinema is that it’s for the masses, and there is something wonderful when a piece of pop art does everything it’s supposed to do unbelievably well while still surprising you and throwing you for an emotional loop.

Endgame is pop art on the level of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and that’s a high compliment.

Endgame is one of two movies this year, 1917 being the other, that I don’t think anyone will successfully emulate. Pulling off a resolution after 21 films of set-up should be impossible, and I give credit to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for realizing the finish shouldn’t be the biggest battle of them all but a series of long character moments full of interplay, humor, and reckoning with the past, including long intellectual and emotional speeches from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Rene Russo…and then 45 minutes of the biggest battle of them all. The production values feel more expressive and present than many CGI fests, the dialogue crackles, and the set piece, despite its gargantuan size, is staged so well that I know where everything is and what’s happening at all times. Is it goofy? Yes. Is it corny? Indubitably. Is it as great as Spider-Verse? Hell no! But it was also three hours of me sitting in a theater with a giant smile, feeling others as they gasped, applauded, and had a collective reaction. If we’re going to live in an age where the Walt Disney Company is going to ply us with nothing but elaborate spectacle, that’s a problem in itself, but a bigger problem from an aesthetic point of view is that they gave us a standard they might never be able to meet again.

Kudos to Kevin Feige for making the MCU work, and to Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, and Ruffalo for making us care about these characters. Especially the first two: Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans put so much of themselves into being the heart and soul of this ridiculous project and whatever lows of theirs are forgiven by this one.

And speaking of Chris Evans being terrific in a genre film…


  1. Knives Out

I saw Knives Out with a row full of friends and we got yelled at for laughing too loud (especially me) when Benoit tells Marta nobody’s read Gravity’s Rainbow. Reading over that sentence again makes me realize how weird a line that is for a murder mystery. But everything about what Rian Johnson and his incredible cast does in Knives Out is out of the ordinary. I never thought a film could accomplish what Clue did, but this one gets into that territory.

It all starts, of course, with the script, clearly the work of a man who has steeped himself in mysteries his entire life. Knives Out begins as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, then inexplicably becomes the greatest Columbo episode never made, but as that stretch played out, I elbowed my friend Asher Stuhlman and whispered “this can’t be it…after all they’ve done, there has to be one more twist.” We got that twist. It left my jaw on the floor. And suffice to say that Johnson delivers the most incredible climactic surprise in a murder mystery since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and he plays perfectly fair in doing it.

It’s also no surprise that the man who made The Last Jedi imbues the Thrombey house and grounds with detail and shoots it all well. But a murder mystery lives and dies (pun intended) by its cast. Johnson creates memorable modern-day versions of the Christie archetypes, then gets a cavalcade of outstanding actors to play them. In such an ensemble only a few people can necessarily stand out, and three key figures get a lot of screen time. Chris Evans as Ransom may have garnered attention for that sweater, but he nails the rapscallion who might have a bigger heart under a foul-mouthed surface. Ana de Armas is the breakout: she plays Marta, the nurse who might know more than she tells, with total sincerity and winning empathy, and nails her lighter notes…especially in the best cut-to-black shot of the year. And Daniel Craig gives a comic performance for the ages as Benoit Blanc of the undefinable accent, the beautiful analogies about donut holes, and the analytical mind that knows how to solve this case because it’s no spoiler to say he solves the case. That’s what master detectives do, even when they have to be in the stupidest car chase ever to do it. (Lakeith Stanfield walks away with the best line in the film as the Japp to Blanc’s Poirot.)


  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Fair warning: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends with a scene of violence so visceral, disturbing, and long that my entire body shook.

That said, it’s the most beautiful and warm movie of Quentin Tarantino’s career.

Rarely have I seen a movie that I wanted to just live in forever. Tarantino’s screenplay with how people talk and think and act, Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design, Robert Richardson’s grand cinematography…they all combine into a picture of 1969 and an entertainment industry about to permanently transition, bursting with the life of variety and the period detail that’s present in every Tarantino film.

But the story told within this world is surprising. Always fixated on traditions, tropes, and more recently on the possibility of changing the past, Tarantino contrasts the aging, perplexed Rick Dalton, a would-be leading man at the crossroads of his career, and his best friend/stunt double/general assistant/man with a mysterious past Cliff Booth with Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate, a rising star whose every muscle and bone pulses with vitality. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio (never better), Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, they are figures to remember and get close to.

The idea hanging over the film was that Tarantino would tackle Charles Manson, his Family, and their murder spree, but that isn’t what Once Upon a Time is really about. Ethan Warren wrote of this far better than I could in Bright Wall/Dark Room, but Tarantino uses the Manson/Tate era to comment on the shifting nature of existence and challenge the idea of how the past determines our future, and with that future our perception of the past. It does not leave you with the triumphant spirit of his recent attempts to rewrite history, but nor does it conclude with the nihilism of The Hateful Eight. It leaves one sad with a nostalgia for what was lost yet ecstatic over visions of how people lived through what was lost and, more importantly, the possibility of what could be. It is Tarantino at his most complex and mature and, despite all his usual signifiers, his least indulgent in terms of giving you what you want, which is great in and of itself. It’s a film that makes you feel good, and feel weird about feeling good, then simply feel good.

A few other observations: Tarantino casts the Manson Family perfectly, with Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham being startlingly good. The sequence of Cliff at Spahn Ranch is one of the most well-shot moments of his or anyone’s career. Kurt Russell is delightful. And the entire soundtrack, particularly a part that cuts from The Royal Guardsmen to Vanilla Fudge to Maurice Jarre, is all killer, no filler. What more do you want?


6.The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell should have been a holiday release. Thanksgiving or Christmas weekend. It’s a picture full of feasts, celebrations, and family that you actually can take the whole family to. Apart from one scene in which a character comes across a room full of sex workers and their clientele, there is nothing to worry about.

It might have gotten more people to see The Farewell, a movie that should have been seen by everyone. It has an original hook that’s, incredibly, based on a true story: a Chinese-American writer discovers her grandmother is terminally ill and the entire family is keeping it a secret due to cultural norms. The writer, at her own personal crossroads, pushes back against this, but ultimately goes along after her grandmother gives her some valuable life advice, and it all builds to a surprise ending. (Yes, there’s a surprise ending!)

Wang finds all the humor in family gatherings: the gentle bustle of feasts, the arguments in bedrooms and hotel rooms, the rituals at cemeteries and old haunts, the cacophony of weddings, the little things you do with your grandparents and those outside the immediate family. There is an honesty and realism to this which is captured in Wang’s colorful but unflashy direction. She fills every frame with wonderful imagery and actors, then steps back to let them work their magic, all set to Chinese pop and Alex Weston’s score providing a lovely backdrop.

The Farewell is a picture that, like Lady Bird, has little actually happen but depicts everything happening; we firmly believe Billi will have a transformed existence based on these days with her loving but ineffectual parents, clueless relations, almost idiotic cousins, and very wise grandmother.

Awkwafina is perfect in the lead role, and Zhao Shuzhen is magnificent as the grandmother, cheerful and domineering in every scene, but the supporting cast is crucial to this movie in how they never overplay a single moment. As someone with a complex family himself, The Farewell is a fantastic depiction of how we’re able to love and co-exist despite any differences.


  1. Parasite

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is one of the definitive movies of the decade. It is a story deeply rooted in modern society that says something about said society. It is by turns hilarious and terrifying. And, with one exception, represents more than any other movie on this list what movies can do.

For this film, Lee Ha-Jun, who should now be counted as a god amongst production designers, built a mansion and its street and designed a multi-layered city to represent the divide between the haves and have-nots in the late capitalist era. Joon-Ho’s direction, more assured than anyone else’s on this list, navigates these spaces perfectly for maximum dramatic impact.

And the story Joon-Ho and Han Jin-Won tell in their screenplay! I earlier wrote about how Parasite suffers from the problem of coincidence and so many plot points happening so fast, but the story is gripping in that it turns the meaning of the word “parasite” in every possible way, as all the characters in one way or another serve as parasites sucking off some quality of a host that can give what they need. Yet—and this is where the screenplay shines—despite the despicable moments given to most of the characters, Parasite successfully convinces that none of them are true villains, and their acts of desperation are the result of the system they live within. To create empathy for your entire cast in a story hinged around crime and death, and which includes the most unusual sex scene I’ve ever seen, is a work of genius. It is Bong saying that this way leads to death and there is an alternative.

I don’t want to write too much about Parasite since it depends on surprise, but I will say the cast is extraordinary. Song Kang-Ho has deservedly gotten the lion’s share of his praise, since his part requires a rare form of subtle transformation, but I want to single out Cho Yeo-Jeong as the matriarch of the wealthy Parks, whose total cluelessness proves surprisingly endearing, Park Myung-Hoon for his ability to go for it, and Park So-Dam for her beautiful Machiavellian quality.


  1. The Irishman

Martin Scorsese has another movie in production right now. I am delighted because this world needs all the Scorsese it can get. But The Irishman would have been a perfect valediction. It is an old man’s movie, and a movie with no fucks left to give.

The Irishman is an old man’s movie in that it is told as such, the rambling saga Frank Sheeran relates to an unseen audience at his nursing home…but within the digressions, the travels, and the possibly insignificant details piling up is the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. The two men Frank loves most, Jimmy Hoffa and mob boss Russell Bufalino, destroy each other and the world they create through their violent stubbornness, while Frank, caught in the middle, suffers because while these two powerful men each believe they are the heroes of the story of existence and let that pride lead to tragic consequences, Frank is a man who has no idea what the story even is. He lets the sweep of a history he participates in pass him by and finally can only partially realize that his life in service to Hoffa and Bufalino has ended in him alone, widowed, and with no family he can relate to. Passivity to forces larger than himself has robbed his life of meaning, while whatever success and good Hoffa and Bufalino accomplished has been wiped away. For a tragic story of human existence meant to serve as a warning, one couldn’t ask for better tellers on all accounts.

Scorsese’s confidence is unmatched, and though Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography pales in comparison to early work (in part thanks to the CGI), Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as assured as ever, and Steven Zaillian writes a confident, ironic, ultimately powerful screenplay.

And what a cast to enact it: Robert De Niro, quietly at his heights (something I think the awards bodies didn’t recognize because De Niro peaks during the final ninety minutes), Al Pacino, never more restrained, and Joe Pesci, who mixes real deadliness with a longing for love, are all unimpeachable. (Harvey Keitel, the other paragon of classic Scorsese, also shows up to deliver the film’s most hilarious line.) Anna Paquin, in the most controversial part, only speaks six words but carries weight on her shoulders as few could. Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and Stephen Graham excel.

But this is Scorsese’s movie above all, a story that can only be the product of someone questioning the meaning of existence itself, a weight brought home at the end as Frank faces his own death and realizes all he worked for was forgotten. This message, and the length, and the white male-dominated cast, may turn viewers away. I hope it does not. The Irishman says as much about our frail lives and, in the words of Matt Zoller Seitz, asks “what do we want our lives to be?” as few movies ever could.

TheSouvenir (1)

  1. The Souvenir

At Emerson College, I took the step from being able to figure out I loved certain stories—in film, literature, elsewhere—to being able to articulate in detail why I loved them and learn how they worked. A bellwether for me was taking David Kociemba and Maurice Methot’s classes in freshman year. Watching everything from Wong Kar-Wai to Douglas Sirk to David Lynch expanded my artistic horizons, and more importantly gave me a feeling of wonder and surprise, of seeing things I’d never seen before or in ways I’d never expected to see them.

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is the first film in a long time to continually, delightedly surprise me.

Joanna Hogg makes films about the most intimate moments of life, and the dynamics we have with those closest to us. The Souvenir is her fourth film and the first to get major international attention, thanks to the backing of Martin Scorsese and A24. In it, Julie, an earnest, well-to-do film student in 1980s London trying to make her talent climb up to the level of her ambition, meets Anthony, a sardonic older man who works for the Foreign Office. A relationship begins. But Julie’s insecurities collide with Anthony’s addictions, and eventually she must decide whether she should stay the course with her passion or move on.

A tale of a relationship gone bad and a person coming of age isn’t new. But in every single scene—this is not an exaggeration—Hogg does something that astonishes me. She picks a particular angle. She moves in on an object or body part or detail with close-ups and focal tricks. She creates tableaux where placement of people and things becomes important. She uses a constantly shifting sound design. And in the midst of all of this sensory onslaught, she makes it clear how much every aspect of Julie’s life matters and how it’s all tied into her emotional state in a way few filmmakers would have the talent or originality to do.

It’s little short of a miracle what happens here, something on the level of Roma. The cumulative effect of this piling up of details is to dramatize how meaningful and important this is for Julie, her longing, heartbreak, success, failure, and coming of age, and it serves as a reminder of the dramatic struggles everyone around us is going through all the time that we may not notice; the point driven home by two absolutely perfect final shots which soar to heights the rest of the movie did not.

It helps that Hogg’s screenplay is a fantastic mix of the tragic and comic, and the cast is impeccable. Honor Swinton Byrne, only 22 at the filming, is note perfect as Julie—never forced, never straining, but living into every moment and feeling so natural all the while. It’s one of the finest debut leading performances I could ask for, and it is helped by Tom Burke playing off her as Anthony with a roguish arrogance which keeps slipping so we see what Julie sees in him. Julie’s mother is played by Swinton Byrne’s mother Tilda, of whom nothing but perfect things can be said, and as a bonus treat, we get the best one-scene part of the year from a full steam ahead Richard Ayoade.

These last films, which were coincidentally made by a real-life engaged couple, are awfully hard to rank at numbers one and two. I think number one wins out just a bit by being completely original. But they are basically interchangeable and should be treated as such.

Little Women

  1. Little Women

For those who follow me on social media, I picked Lady Bird as the best film of the decade, and I expected Greta Gerwig tackling Louisa May Alcott’s American perennial to be great. I did not expect it to be one of the greatest adaptations I’ve ever seen, on par with Doctor Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shawshank Redemption, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. What Gerwig does, as those films do, is not only retell a story with her own personal spin on it, but also capture in cinematic language how the experience of reading the story feels.

Much has been well-said by others of Gerwig’s telling the story on two crosscutting timelines, complete with masterfully-chosen visual and oral parallels, as well as two distinctive color palettes courtesy of the underrated Yorick Le Saux. What I would add is that upon rewatching Gillian Armstrong’s superb 1994 film (which, like this one, I saw in the theater with my mother), I was struck by how Robin Swicord used almost no dialogue from the novel. Gerwig lifts at least half of her screenplay from the book verbatim, and her additions are mesmerizing. While Armstrong and Swicord inserted second and third-wave feminist loftiness, Gerwig, taking her cue from Alcott’s own life and diaries, makes her Little Women about the harsh reality of how women can, if possible, succeed in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Her March sisters are aware of social limitations and financial prospects, and their hard work is spent seizing as much control of such prospects as possible within the lives they all contentedly choose for themselves. It’s a flinty, straight to the gut take on the story that still builds to a singular and fully earned happy ending…which Gerwig manages to leave open to interpretation, no small feat for a story more than 150 years old!

The entire time, though, Gerwig also to me recreates the world Alcott wrote about and how she experienced the March sisters’ emotions. All these little touches create that sensation: Jo racing through the streets of New York City after selling her first story, Jo and Beth embracing on a beach as the tide changes, Amy walking through slow motion refinement in France, Meg transitioning from crowded society functions to a plain, dimly lit house and ultimately finding contentment, girls in multi-colored coats and scarves against a white backdrop, and the golden hour glow and loving detail of the final scenes. I could go on, but it has to be witnessed.

Gerwig also works with a cast for the ages. Her four March sisters are Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlan, and Florence Pugh. Watson and Scanlan must settle for merely being great. Ronan cements her place as the greatest actor of her generation, the natural successor to Daniel Day-Lewis for that title (when she plays opposite Meryl Streep as Aunt March, clearly having a ball, it feels like a torch passing); her Jo goes places I’m not sure any other person in the role would have gone, with the fiery spirit and the need to be loved working in constant tandem. Pugh, wrapping up a breakout year, is a magnificent Amy, bringing out all the qualities that make Amy a little bit of a piece of shit as well as her longings and her quiet wisdom, and both her ability to play Amy as young and old and her wry voice are delightful. Timothee Chalamet (equally divine, and capturing the playful gravity of Laurie), James Norton, and the amazing Louis Garrel, a man who lets his eyes do the work, are terrific as the men who love the women and are simply happy to be in their company, while a steely, loving Laura Dern, a heartbreaking Chris Cooper, and Bob freaking Odenkirk are terrific as the parental figures. You couldn’t ask for a better cast. (And Alexandre Desplat composes a score that almost equals Thomas Newman’s perfect 1994 score.)

So what could be better?

Marriage Story

  1. Marriage Story

I tell people, with embarrassment in this day and age, that Annie Hall was the work of art that made me want to be a writer. One thing I’ve realized is that if Noah Baumbach had made his canon two decades earlier, he would have taken the space Woody Allen holds in my life. Like Allen, Baumbach at his best tells stories so outstandingly written it isn’t fair about the lives, loves, and vicissitudes of people who live lives just a tad outside the ordinary; artists, professional and would-be intellectuals, eccentrics, combinations thereof. Unlike Allen, besides not being a disgusting human being, Baumbach isn’t constantly seeing his characters as people in need of deep psychoanalysis or figures to look down upon and scorn or combinations thereof. He has a sense of empathy, of love even, for his broken people trying and often succeeding to put something back together, that Allen never possessed. This sense fills Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). And it definitely fills what I think is his crowning achievement thus far, Marriage Story.

Marriage Story is a truly hilarious movie. It had more laugh-out-loud moments than any film I saw this year. It also made me burst into tears about six times. (Take that, Charlie!)

What drives Marriage Story is a remarkable convergence of two elements. One is the central figures of Charlie and Nicole, how their love for each other has not overcome the reasons why their divorce is necessary, a net positive even, and how they both want to do what they think is best for their son Henry. This is a story of weight and subtlety so great it provokes all of the feels, all of the sobs. Simultaneously, Baumbach creates a world of attorneys, family members, friends and colleagues and random people you hook up with, then situations ranging from Halloweens to ridiculous TV filming sets, that are so over-the-top and appropriate for a screwball comedy. The tones fit together, one balancing the other, to create a story that feels so natural and working perfectly, one mood never overwhelming the other, like life itself. And the production, with its sterling locations and unobtrusive camera, is quietly perfect, taking a backseat to the actors and their words, with only a beautiful Randy Newman score to fully intrude on the goings-on.

That cast by the way…they just keep setting up jokes and knocking them down. Wallace Shawn basically playing himself, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s mother and sister, and the power trio of Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Laura Dern (the latter simply extraordinary and delivering a speech about the Virgin Mary that exemplifies why this movie should have won every award under the sun) as the divorce attorneys. And then little Azhy Robertson as Henry gives one of the more unaffected child performances imaginable.

But this is Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s movie. Johansson has never been better; this year, between Endgame, the fantastic JoJo Rabbit, and this film, she has shown that getting older has revealed an excellence at playing maternal figures as one of the strongest weapons in a formidable arsenal. Her five-minute speech about why she wanted a divorce is one of the moments you realize she’s been done a disservice by not getting such material her entire career because she’s beyond words. That Driver could be better seems unimaginable…yet his performance is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. He is understated, quiet, and able to convey tempests within those moments…and when he breaks, it’s more affecting than you could picture an actor being. His anger, his contrition, his growing sense of how Nicole changed and he needs to change as well, his singing voice, all of it comes together perfectly. (Regarding the latter, the idea proposed by Filmspotting is that the title represents Nicole and Charlie needing to tell their stories. Nicole speaks her truth to a sympathetic ear, and Charlie sings his to the world, but both are equal.)

Marriage Story is the kind of film the world does not make as much these days and feels more necessary than ever; something a bit more erudite yet accessible, made without pretension, and speaking to the heart of the human spirit rather than provoking sensation. I hope it gets watched for ages to come.

In conclusion, it bears repeating how many remarkable movies came out this year, and how much they can shine a light even in times of darkness, and remind us of values worth fighting for, and teach us how to be better. I have loved moviegoing in 2019…

But I would be remiss to overlook how the calendar year ended with me seeing these two images on the big screen and not being able to tell which was more ridiculous…a reminder that that there’s a whole lot of headscratching, WTF?, what-am-I-even-freaking-watching-help-me moments out there to counterbalance the gold.

Until next time, friends!

PARASITE, The Question of Storytelling Time, and a Brief Note on MARRIAGE STORY

I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo and seeing what might happen to my comic works in progress, but in a pause from this beautiful madness, I have to talk about something I’ve realized about how storytelling works…at least for me and possibly for you!


Sometimes—most of the time—you learn lessons in how to be a better writer from utter failures (including your own) and mediocrities. (Paul Johnson has a great line that a committed writer reads the second-rate as much as the first.)


But sometimes I learn from a great piece of art that has something a little bit off.



On my birthday (my actual birthday), I went to see Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite. Parasite is outstanding. It’s impeccably filmed and beautifully designed. The cast is great. It says something truly powerful about the menace of unregulated capitalism. I went in taking everybody under the sun’s advice to see it without knowing a thing about the plot, and the surprise factor made the finale hit me in so many of the feels.


And yet…I didn’t love Parasite the same way everyone around me seems to love Parasite. Not in the same way I loved The Souvenir and Marriage Story (which I’ll be touching on later). During the second half of the film, when the twists start accumulating one on top of the other, the entire experience felt off. Only Joon-Ho’s mastery and the commitment of the actors kept me invested enough to overlook a tickling sensation.


I felt annoyed for a while, trying to deduce why Parasite wasn’t fully working for me.


Then I found the answer. It came from, of all the things, a tweet I casually tossed off a few weeks back during the “Marty v. Marvel” debate that rocked Film Twitter to its core.


One of my twitter acquaintances was saying how if you love Martin Scorsese, it’s okay to admit that Gangs of New York isn’t one of his best movies. There’s a lot of debate about GONY, but I agree with this. It may be due to Harvey Weinstein’s editing, but GONY is for me a film that’s working great for two hours and then utterly collapses in the last thirty minutes.


It happens because the tempo changes.


This is where I will refrain from making a J.K. Simmons joke and say that my mind is always subconsciously alert to tempo in storytelling. If events suddenly start speeding up or slowing down without inherent reason given by the story itself, then I feel myself being pulled out and confused.


With Gangs of New York, the film very carefully documents the relationship and ultimate rivalry between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher for the bulk of the running time, until the rivalry takes over. At that point, everybody starts making decisions which compared to the rest of the movie seem hasty and overly dramatic and the step-by-step storytelling leaps into a final battle we have no groundwork laid for.


And in Parasite…




After meticulously going through all the elements that lead the protagonists to the place they want to be in for maximum conflict to occur, a chain of events that happens over an unspecified but consistent amount of time, the second half of the film has all of the plot twists gain critical mass over a period of less than 24 hours.


This is not to say that the twists weren’t a) individually effective, b) individually moving, and c) fit in with one of the film’s ideas which is so important a main character says it out loud and I don’t even get annoyed by it, but at the same time, the thing nagging at my brain was “this multitude of accelerating and unrelated events is all happening practically simultaneously with no warning? In what I am to believe is a realistic structure?”


Last year there was another great movie, Sorry to Bother You, which used genre (absurdist comedy) to comment on the destructive nature of late capitalism much the same way as Parasite (Hitchcockian thriller) does. But Sorry to Bother You is for me the better movie in part because its twists, reversals, and character revelations are equally plentiful, but moved along at a pace where I believed Cassius Green’s problems would accumulate this way, each problem peaking at the right time, with the subsequent resolutions logically building off those problems. Parasite’s speeding to the finale does not work the same way.




What I’ve discovered is that temporally consistent storytelling makes for effective storytelling.


If you keep the action moving at the same tempo throughout, with a few exceptions, then the conflicts, problems, and resolutions hit harder—at least they do for me. I think it’s because when the tempo is consistent, the dynamics of the story both hit harder (as deviations from the established norm) and they feel logical, not like a cheat.


In reading this over, I realize I might not be making what I mean by tempo clear. So let me use as an example one of my favorite movies of the year and one that’s in contention as the BEST film I’ll see in 2019: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.


Marriage Story tells the story of protagonists Charlie and Nicole deciding to divorce and working towards a resolution that works for them and their child. After an opening montage which reflects their interior monologues at a mediation session, the film moves straightforwardly through a series of scenes, in chronological order, each capturing a few minutes of a different day.


This is a very common structure for a story’s tempo, as opposed to literal minute-by-minute action (Cleo From 5 to 7) or a specific timespan such as one day or night (Can’t Hardly Wait). It’s a structure my favorite writer, Anthony Trollope, used in his novels.


What this does for me is it creates a predictable framework in which all else is unpredictable. It signifies to the audience or reader, that each thing we’re watching is important except we won’t know why until the scene ends. In an expertly-written story like Marriage Story, the consistent tempo cements how the characters (Charlie and Nicole in this case) are changing and growing over time, making new decisions, and building off things that happened in the past in clear ways. Consistent tempo makes this feel natural, logical, and thus real.


And this works for science fiction, fantasy, or any genre that may dip into the unreal…consistency sets a tone for how we take the information in for the duration. To reference two authors I talked about in my last entry, Paul Kreuger uses this style in Steel Crow Saga, even leisurely lingering over the action pieces with the same style he employs to describe a good meal. Ashley Poston, both in her space operas and romance novels, works with an accelerated version of this tempo where action and detail fly thick and fast; we’re always aware of a goal to be reached and the perils of a situation that must be resolved within a specific timeframe.


All of the above is a concept it’s hard for me to explain without sounding like a dry theoretician, but it’s also a revelation to me that I’m still working out!


A couple more notes:


There are some stories where genre convention necessitates a tempo shift, such as when the story is building up to a big event and we know it’s building up to a big event…then we expect the tempo to slow down and focus on all the action and detail of said event much more than what leads up to it. My immediate example is the heist story, but it also works for stories with, say, a sporting event or a source of family drama (weddings, funerals, etc.) at the core.


Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and experimental structure do NOT negate the idea of consistent tempo. Two of the finest graphic novels I’ve read this month, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes and Jarrett J. Krosozcka’s Hey, Kiddo both involve time jumps where months or years pass between scenes, but each scene plays out at the same tempo. (Other examples would be David Lean and Robert Bolt’s masterpieces, which play out like Trollope’s Victorian novels in skipping time to focus on what’s important to the story, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which leaps millennia into the future but keeps its pace.) Similarly, Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films—Pulp Fiction, Death Proof, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—have structures where two or three days are explored in microscopic detail. They can be out of sequence or have months pass between them offscreen, but the tempo remains the same.


Finally, one might ask if keeping a consistent tempo breaks the rule of variety in your writing. I do not think so. Within the basic structure discussed above, a scene can be a few lines of dialogue in a single shot or an extended set piece full of editing, but both represent the same “few minutes of different days.”


I’ll also add that in terms of practicing what I preach…my own major works in progress adhere to my idea of keeping a consistent tempo. Both my novels and comics are divided into scenes that represent continuous action on distinct days. Two of the only exceptions are my heist story, which slows time down for the 30% of the saga devoted to the crimes themselves, and the giant “nine drafts and counting” novel, in which the finale allows for one day to stretch over two chapters so elements hinted at in the beginning (structure again!) can come back in the ending.


Those are my thoughts. They might mean not a damn thing but I felt like getting them out there. And you all should see Parasite. And Marriage Story




I don’t want to talk dispassionately about Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach has written and directed a picture of stunning extremes. I went from hysterical laughter to uncontrolled sobbing within minutes on constant whiplash. Baumbach is this century’s Woody Allen in some ways, using very urban characters with unusual lives to tell witty, emotional stories that tap into the deepest reservoirs of humanity…but Baumbach doesn’t have Allen’s neuroses and does have extra levels of love for his characters that I don’t know if Allen ever fully showed. (This has become especially apparent since 2012’s Frances Ha, the start of a joint professional and personal merging with one of our greatest humanists, Greta Gerwig, whose presence is clear in Marriage Story.)


What makes the picture work besides Baumbach’s script and editing are Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in the leads. Both of them are very funny and very heartbreaking, but what makes them work is how low-key they are compared to the rest of the cast, especially the murderers’ row of actors playing the lawyers and family members, as well as Wallace Shawn basically playing himself. The supporting cast goes so big that Driver and Johansson can stay smaller, more natural, more getting through to everyone who’s had heartbreak and moments of decision and resolution. Johansson gets more dialogue and plays it very well, but Driver, with less to say, brings forth a performance that’s angry, tortured, and winning…a man who knows when his behavior tips into toxicity and walks it back immediately, and someone who’s committed enough to those he loves to fight and principled enough to know when to give in. It’s one of the finest pieces of work by a male actor—and a great movie star—I’ve seen in a long time.

My Stories of the Summer — and a New York Comic-Con Signing!


Over the past week, I discovered that Paul Krueger is a serial harasser of women. Our friendship is now over. I am not going to pretend I did not write the below, and I stand by my purely aesthetic criticism of Steel Crow Saga — to use an analogy by my friend Ursula Wagner, it’s akin to how Roman Polanski, of all people, made Repulsion, one of the greatest films ever made about the terror of being a woman, and turned out to be the way he is. That being said, I withdraw any overt recommendations of acquiring the book.

Hello, friends!

I wanted to post something during these last days as September turns into October. Mainly because on October 4th and October 5th, I’ll be back in New York City for my ninth consecutive New York Comic-Con!

But more than that, I’ll be at Boom! Studios headquarters on Friday morning (10-2:30) and Saturday afternoon (2:30 – 7).

If you stop by TABLE 1828 during those times, I’ll be there to sign Form of a Question or An Elegy for Amelia Johnson and have plenty of time to talk!

But because I can’t simply self-promote, I also wanted to take some time to write about art I’ve experienced lately. I’m currently handling a surfeit of different Works in Progress over a multitude of media, and as I plan out the rest of my writing year, singling out some movies, television, and literature that made me think about how I tell stories seems appropriate

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