Here are some thoughts on the last three movies I’ve seen. I suppose they’re brief reviews. I’ll try to avoid spoilers in any specific terms, but you could probably deduce some things about where the films are going if you see them after reading this. If that’s a concern of yours, then perhaps you won’t want to read them.
The patriarch of a wealthy family, from whom all the family’s wealth sprung, is found dead of an apparent – albeit somewhat extravagant – suicide. Famed private detective Benoit Blanc is brought onto the case by an anonymous client, and the mysterious circumstances of the death start to seem more sinister. Everyone has a motive, but no one has a convincing one.
In my idle time I’ve read most of Agatha Christie’s work and watched through most of Columbo so I guess I’ve stumbled my way into being something of a mystery buff without realizing it. Benoit Blanc is a rather traditional mystery story detective, complete with outlandish accent – to, like Poirot, put adversaries off guard – and rumpled appearance – to, like Columbo, lead them to underestimate his perception. Taking these comparisons further, he proceeds in the manner of Poirot to understand the psychology of all potential suspects, their methods and beliefs and predispositions, and like Columbo ends up digging right into class divides and becoming the impartial champion of the working class that justice is so often lauded as being – while so seldom actually being.
It’s a movie about the people who think they’re the main characters of the story and the people who think they’re unimportant side characters, and both being proven wrong. The members of the wealthy Thrombey family almost seem like a microcosm of America – old wealth falling on hard times, certain in its own righteousness, dismissive and condescending towards those they consider interlopers – even as those ‘interlopers’ put in most of the actual work towards keeping things running. Every person has a different perspective on what it means to be part of the family and who really belongs in it, and this all comes to a head as the specifics of the inheritance come into question – and, though money is what’s at stake, it becomes clear that what this is really about is who takes control over where the family is headed in the future.
This film is hugely imaginative in some ways but then has almost no imagination where it matters most. It envisions an extrapolated future where technological progress has, unsurprisingly, been matched by further intrusion of capitalism and consumerism, the infinite majesty of space becoming a finite travesty of ad space. All of this is well expressed and realized, but isn’t really commented on in any substantial way – this presentation is added to create a sense of verisimilitude, and mentioned in a vague and abstract way as being a real downer for the characters, but the film doesn’t really have anything in particular to say about it. It just is.
At the same time as it makes these intimations and incisive observation and satire, it harnesses the same sorts of lazy narrative that feed into the systems it’s supposedly taking aim at. The main character is attacked by moon bandits, there to steal their moon resources – why there are bandits on the moon, what these resources are, and how they can possibly be worth the risk to life and limb and presumably rather expensive equipment is never explored. It’s just taken as a given that there’s resources, and we need them, and bad men will try to take them if they’re not fought away with violence. Moon violence. Of course, traveling away from all of this greed into the depths of space is presented as similarly hazardous, since anyone who escape from moon bandits will soon come face to face with space madness. There’s not really any safety or security to be found anywhere, just the savagery of civilization and the savagery of the wilderness butting up against each other.
These themes are, again, not really commented on in any particular way, but they form the bread for the sandwich whose filling is the actual theme of the film. Which is overcoming isolation and abuse without becoming isolated and abusive oneself – in other words, defeating toxic masculinity. This is actually a pretty interesting theme, which makes it unfortunate that so little time is actually spent exploring it.
Space sure is pretty though.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
A beautiful and repugnant film, which creates an indelible sense of time and place which serves, as nostalgia sadly often does, to be a container for a form of reactionary juvenile wish fulfillment that borders on fascistic. The almost-completely monochromatic cast, combined with the ahistorical characterization of Bruce Lee to serve as comedic punching bag to Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, combined with the elision of the white supremacist beliefs underlying the violence of the Manson cult paint a troubling picture of the beliefs motivating the construction of this fairy tale. Tarantino’s retro Hollywood is a place where, unlike in Ad Astra, toxic masculinity is good and just because even though it might make you murder women and beat up minorities that’s just what it takes to save the princess – because, in this vision of the world, this is all the victim of a murder might be, something to be saved. It’s the same argument forwarded by Team America, World Police, about how only dicks can save us from assholes, without even the thin veneer of satire to ameliorate it.
It’s like traveling back in time – both in that the world represents a bygone era of glamour and longing, but also a bygone era of racism and erasure and chauvinistic cruelty – and, in its broad conflation of the Manson family with the broader hippie movement, argues that in the end it was those who might agitate for change who were wrong, who were evil, especially because of but regardless to the methods they worked to achieve this. Nazis and murderous cult members and hippies are, from this perspective, all fundamentally the same, are all unamerican, the worst of all possible sins, and the only way to approach any of them is by way of murderous violence handed down by only the manliest of men.
Perhaps it is of note how much all three of these films are preoccupied with fear for a future – near future, distant future, and a future we left far behind long ago. It is may be unsurprising that it is the one closest at hand that deals with these fears with the most kindness and humanity.