Patron Request: ‘Naked Lunch’

I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for the sort of gonzo wackiness on display in Naked Lunch. I’ve seen plenty of films that are, however you quantify it, weirder than this one. Just in terms of breadth of imagination and bizarre imagery, Naked Lunch is nothing to write home about. I was surprised, then, at how overwhelming I found it, how tough to keep my eyes open in places. There aren’t many directors who have both a talent for base grossness along with a talent for filmmaking. David Cronenberg is unquestionably at that peak.

The real star of Naked Lunch is the effects work. I’m a proponent of CGI as a unique art form which can create imagery that practical effects can’t match; that being said, this is a film that only works because everything is practical. You need it to look real, like you could reach out and touch it. Or more accurately, like it could reach out and touch you. You need something the actors can actually interact with, and feel, and stick their fingers inside with an accompanying squelch. CGI at its best creates a deliberate disconnect between ostensibly “real” actors and the fabrications around them. It draws a line in the sand between the real and the fictional. Naked Lunch is a film wherein there is no such line.

That’s actually one of the things I found alternately fascinating and frustrating about it. In depicting the main character’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia, it doesn’t begin with any sort of grounded reality from which to descend. The film begins in a sort of Gilliam-esque world of metaphor, a writer’s construct more than a real place. By the time the first talking bug shows up, it’s less a shocking departure than another stop on the established road. What makes it partially work is Peter Weller as Bill Lee. His mumbled monotone undersells even the strangest developments. His utter lack of shock makes you wonder if he even cares that he’s hallucinating, whether or not it even matters. Naked Lunch is unconcerned with how much of what you’re seeing is “real,” perhaps because it acknowledges that none of it is, at least not in that sense.

What is real, what does matter, is the stellar final moment. Lee, asked to prove he is a writer by border guards of a country called Annexia, re-enacts the hazily-accidental murder of his wife. He shoots her in the head and tearfully cradles her body. The guards accept this as proof he is indeed a writer, and wave him through. This feels like deliberate provocation to William S. Burroughs, who shot and killed his own wife in the same way, and was thus inspired to begin a career as a writer. This plot does not appear in Burroughs’ book, and so in adding it the film becomes less direct adaptation than commentary on the author himself. It leaves Lee on a note of ambiguity, asking himself, “Was it worth it?” Did Burroughs ever wonder the same?

I liked Naked Lunch. But as a part of David Cronenberg’s canon of body horror classics, I found it a little wanting. His best films use terrible morphing flesh, the cracking of bones and the ripping of skin, to illustrate the terrible condition of having a body at all, of having to live inside this thing that you have less control over than you think. In Naked Lunch, it’s just an aesthetic.

Patron Request: ‘Hoop Dreams’

It’s hard to watch these kids keep losing. It’s hard to spend three hours watching these hopeful, nervous, talented kids keep trying and failing, hitting brick wall after brick wall. It’s hard to watch them toss and turn in the wind of adults’ expectations and desires. It’s hard to watch them subjected to obvious racism from people who are supposed to be on their side. It turns your stomach. And at three hours, there’s no respite. Hoop Dreams is a film whose pain must be endured, and whose small moments of triumph must be salvaged from the wreckage.

I’m far from an NBA expert, but I knew enough going into Hoop Dreams to know that neither of these kids achieved much at the professional level. Neither of them played there at all, in fact. No one could have known this at the time of the film’s release, but it gives the whole thing an extra air of tragedy today. All that these two children went through didn’t get them where they wanted to go. Their dreams stayed dreams.

In fact, the thing that changed their lives more than any of the hard work and anguish of their education was just the fact of their appearance in the film. They were both paid $200,000 in royalties, which helped them build more secure lives for themselves and their families. It forces us to ask the question that any documentary of this nature inspires, and a question I’m sure they’ve asked themselves: Why them? They were plucked at random from among thousands of kids in the same circumstances. They essentially won the lottery. Fifteen years after the film’s release, it was revealed that when the electricity was shut off in Arthur’s house, the filmmakers paid for it to be turned back on. Most documentarians can be precious about not interfering with the lives of their subjects. Steve James and his team took a much more humane approach. They cared more about the kids than their film. Still, we have to ask, would it have done more good to give money to a charity that helped their entire community? Would their effort have been better spent on broader causes?

The answer, I think, is to stop looking at Hoop Dreams as the story of two individual children. This is the story of all the hundreds of kids with the same stories, and the tens of thousands of kids who never even got the chances that William and Arthur did. Hoop Dreams forces us to think about them as we watch the two children who were chosen. We have to consider that they are not outliers, that their families’ suffering is not unusual, that their educational trials and tribulations are the norm for poor black families in America. William and Arthur become, perhaps unfortunately, representatives of their class and race.

But the film never plays them as merely that. It doesn’t lose sight of what makes them unique as individuals, of their personalities and character. Part of that humane documentary filmmaking style I mentioned is the depiction of the two as not just stand-ins for a broader point about social issues, but as actual people. James is a canny enough filmmaker to know when he’s getting too polemical. So Hoop Dreams never feels obnoxious in its explication of the racism and classism to which the kids are subjected. From a white filmmaker especially, this is quite the accomplishment. James never seems to be studying William and Arthur like zoo creatures, nor does he venerate them as martyrs. His documentation is simple, honest, unadorned. That is why Hoop Dreams endures so far past the point when those dreams seemed achievable. These issues still matter, and Williams and Arthurs still exist by the thousands. Hoop Dreams isn’t looking to solve the myriad problems afflicting them. It wants you to see how those problems affect real people, not statistics or research anecdotes. It makes social issues into human ones.

Patron Request: ‘Uski Roti’

Uski Roti is something of an odd duck: Slow cinema and yet not, narrative-driven and yet not, a matter-of-fact film of expressionistic images, alternately enthralling and a tough sit. I don’t tend to have a lot of patience for films like this, but there’s plenty of interest in Uski Roti.

I was taken, more than anything else, with the black and white cinematography. It reminded me a little of Begotten in its blown-out white landscapes. The lighting is so harsh that it makes the characters’ surroundings seem almost alien in their harshness. It makes a film that is on paper practically realist seem almost abstract. Where is the film set, besides a horizon line of metaphor? The people seem realer than the places they inhabit. I find that really interesting, the notion of down-to-earth characters in self-consciously constructed settings.

The film was the first directed by Mani Kaur, and one of the first shot by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. You can feel their thrill for the possibilities of cinema throughout Uski Roti. This is, and I mean this as a compliment, very much a film made by people who are new to making them. There’s such excitement around the film’s disregard for traditional narrative or typical editing rhythms. (A bit of cutting taken straight from Breathless is a fun touch.) The shot excerpted above, which shoots out of the back window of a moving vehicle such that the window decal seems superimposed over the speeding image, was my personal favorite moment. It’s the sort of thing that can only come from a mind that’s been waiting to shoot their first feature since they were young, the kind of image that could only have been bouncing around in their brain for years.

The final shots, too, of the distraught Balo wandering a desolate, pitch-black landscape, seem like echoes from Kaur’s subconscious given form, the result less of decisive thought than of freeform train of consciousness. It’s a limber film, for all its potentially deadening pacing. Even the lengthy shot of flowing, muddy liquid has a painter’s grace. This is never a film bogged down by the literal.

I should also mention how it seems to prefigure Jeanne Dielman, to the point that I was mildly shocked to learn that Akerman’s better-known film came six years after this one. I think hers is the better work, but there are parallels to be drawn. Both are, shall we say, deliberately paced films about the tedium and misogynist dismissal endured by housewives. Uski Roti is more than a bit blunter than Jeanne Dielman, perhaps because it was directed by a man, who can only understand these issues as they are presented, rather than as they are lived. Still, Uski Roti is as close as a cishet man can get to truly compelling feminist cinema, in that it’s a little too tryhard for its own good.

‘Phoenix’: The Best Imitation of Myself

She first sees herself in a shard of broken glass, laid so perfectly amid the rubble of a bombed-out concert hall that it might have been placed there for her, for this moment. She’s shocked, she jolts, she steps back, and then she stares. She stares at this face that isn’t hers, this person she can’t possibly be. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, the mute horror in her mind slowly beginning to clarify. She has to be this person now. Later, she insistently points at an old photograph of herself. “This is me,” she exclaims. And later still, defeated: “I no longer exist.”

In the late spring of 2015, the words “Am I trans?” first crossed my mind. My diary entries from that summer are frantic, terrified, furious. I wrote about how it couldn’t be true, how it had to be true, how much I wanted to kill myself, how sad it was that I never would, that I’d never do anything, or be anything, or be anyone. I was reckoning, for the first time, with the idea that I had a self. For years I stuck my self in a deep dark hole in my mind, never to be looked upon, certainly not to be examined. I didn’t live at the bottom of this pit. I lived up at the top. I lived in my performance.

I was good at performing. I was funny, likable, a good hang. I got good at saying what people wanted to hear. I could be whatever the people around me wanted me to be, without them having to tell me. I wouldn’t have called myself manipulative. After all, to whose benefit was it? They were happy, and I was safe. I thought I was safer outside of my own head than in it. And all the while, this gnawing sadness I couldn’t explain. I talked to so many therapists, but what was I supposed to say? I had no words for the real reason I felt the way I did.

In 2015 I realized I was trans. In 2016 I told myself I wasn’t. In 2019 I came out. In December of 2015, I saw Phoenix. I sat in my university library and looked into a reflective shard of glass.

Nelly Lenz (played in the decade’s best film performance by Nina Hoss) has barely survived the Holocaust. The severe disfigurement to her face requires plastic surgery to give her a new one. She is given a face that isn’t hers. She seeks out her gentile husband Johnny, despite her friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, he recognizes her, and doesn’t. She looks just like his dead wife, he says. Perhaps she could pretend to be her, so that he can collect her inheritance. He could teach her how to walk and talk and write and act like Nelly. She accepts, not just because she wants to be with him. More than that, she wants to be herself. She wants someone to tell her who she is, because she can’t see it in herself.

It’s what I was so desperate for. To be told I was trans by someone else, to be led by the hand into a new identity, a new self. I didn’t have a self before. I only had a performance. I needed someone to tell me who I was, because I didn’t have the fortitude to tell it to myself. What if I was wrong? What if this isn’t who I am? I needed to be recognized from the outside by someone who knew better. You can never see yourself except in pictures and reflections. And if I knew nothing else, I knew that the person I saw in the mirror wasn’t me.

Nelly smiles when Johnny compliments how well her handwriting matches up with his wife’s. When the whole world sees someone else, it’s nice to be seen for who you really are. She’s shocked when Johnny critiques the way she walks. “Nelly didn’t walk like that, it’s all wrong.” She second-guesses herself. She doesn’t think of the fact that her tentative stumbling comes from her continued recovery from the violence of the concentration camps. She thinks only of how he sees her, and how she can better be the version of herself that he remembers. She spares no thought to how she sees herself.

What Phoenix ends up saying, and what I was too scared to recognize at the time, is that you can’t let someone else dictate who you are. To open yourself up to that is to give yourself over to the whims of people who despise you. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly insists. Her friend Lene retorts, “You are, whether you like it or not.” The Nazis certainly marked her as one. She bears that mark on the inside of her forearm. I often think about how close I brushed against the rhetoric of TERFs and transphobes, people who would have looked at a suffering, closeted girl and told her she was just a confused, disgusting boy. I think about how narrowly I avoided buying into ideas created by people who would sooner see me dead than happy. It’s only when Nelly finally sees in Johnny that past betrayal, that desire for her to disappear, that she finds the courage to reveal herself to him. It takes her a matter of seconds to quite literally find her voice in the film’s final scene. It took me another four years.

We don’t see what happens to Nelly after she fades into a bright white blur, but I know. I know that for her, and for me, the performance never ends. She and I must spend the rest of our lives playing ourselves for people who do not recognize us by sight or sound. Nelly practices her walk, I learn to train my voice. Nelly wears old clothes, I buy new ones. I shave my legs and torso and arms and back and face, I painstakingly fight to be free of these little daggers poking out of every inch of my skin. Nelly points at the photograph. “That is me. That is me.” To be trans is to perform for the benefit of others, to know that even the most well-meaning people are only humoring you. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the self is the performance. Maybe who you are is what you show to other people. I don’t need to be recognized by other people anymore. That anxiety is behind me. If I’m performing, the only audience is myself. As Nelly sings in her true voice, she closes her eyes. No one else is there. It’s only me.

Patron Request: ‘Zodiac’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

I’ve talked in the past about how my least favorite runtime is two hours and forty minutes. It’s right at that point where you should either trim the fat or go all out, cutting thirty minutes or adding twenty. It’s an ungainly, ugly runtime. It signals a self-indulgent sloppiness. Remembering that Zodiac was this long made me a bit reticent to revisit it. But I think the film is one of the few of its brethren to actually get away with it, for one reason: Zodiac is about the passage of time.

For the first 100 minutes or so, nearly every new scene in Zodiac comes with a timestamp chyron. “Six hours later,” “7 1/2 months later,” and so on. The implied passage of time communicated by a cut is made literal by on-screen text. At one point, characters are shown leaving a place to go somewhere else, and as the film cuts to their arrival, we’re told exactly how long it’s been. We don’t strictly speaking need to know this. But it forces us to reckon with the passage of time directly, rather than in the abstract. It gives that offscreen time a heft, a weight; we are made to know it exactly.

It’s necessary, too, when cuts contain such wildly different timeframes. Editor Angus Wall rarely differentiates between a two-hour cut and an 18-month cut. It’s all the same matter-of-fact transition. The only way you understand how much time is actually passing is through those chyrons. The Zodiac investigation as depicted here is so harried that it seems everything was happening at once for those initial few years. A jump of several months may as well be a jump of several days. One day, the hunt is on and the leads are hot. The next, as Dave Toschi puts it, “they’re already making movies about it.” Time passes so quickly. That is, until it doesn’t.

After the four-year jump at the film’s midpoint (covered in the director’s cut by a neat audio montage of news bulletins and popular music), time seems to slow down considerably. The timestamp chyrons are gone. Everything in the final 40 minutes seems to happen over the course of a single night. As Graysmith gets more frantic and obsessed, the only way we know time is passing at all is by his increasingly unkempt facial hair. The arc of time in this final section loses its strictly organized structure and all starts to blend together. I find this sort of mushiness less compelling than the ordered manicness that preceded it, but I do admire making such a dramatic editorial shift so deep into such a long film.

I think I like Zodiac a bit less now. I hadn’t seen it since high school, when I was on a stereotypical Fincher kick. I was blown away by it then, but on rewatch I found it more whelming than overwhelming. It’s a perfectly good movie. I think Fincher uses his fastidious focus on process and obsession to more interesting ends in Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, though it’s been ages since I’ve seen either of those as well. If nothing else, Zodiac is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Mark Ruffalo in his predestined role as a rebooted Columbo. You’ve gotta give it up for that.

Patron Request: ‘And God Said to Cain…’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

It’s hard to come up with something to say about this movie besides “Klaus Kinski hot.” Even conspicuously dubbed over, his raw magnetism is undeniable, with those twinkling blue eyes and that perpetual grizzled grimace. He plays Gary Hamilton, a black-hatted revenge killer with a strangely blase name, who is pardoned after serving a decade on a chain gang and seeks out vengeance on the man who set him up. Kinski is ideally cast as a spaghetti western anti-hero — the mean, hard man you can’t help but cheer through his various murders. Hamilton is a bit more anti- than hero, of course. His justice is personal, rather than moral. “If innocence is repaid with prison, then I’ve earned the right to kill!” he at one point proclaims. Kinski’s charisma makes this an easy sell.

The film takes place almost entirely on a single stormy night, when Hamilton rolls into town to confront his nemesis, Acombar. And God Said to Cain plays out almost like a precursor to the John Wick films. Hamilton uses underground tunnels to secretly traverse the town and take out Acombar’s men one by one, teaming up with amenable townsfolk along the way. Hamilton is a predator stalking his prey. It’s never a question of if Acombar will win. It’s a question of when he will lose. Hamilton is a force of nature. He is the storm blowing into town.

He’s also something of a figure of terror. And God Said to Cain plays out a bit like a horror movie in places, with Hamilton as the unstoppable, cretinous villain. Whenever it cuts to Acombar and his men finding another one of their own slaughtered, the film plays like a slasher movie. Hamilton even leaves some of the bodies in elaborate traps to frighten his enemies, like Michael Myers in Halloween. That he barely says a word throughout most of the film contributes to the idea of him as more the animation of bloodthirsty desire than a human being. It’s a thrill to watch.

I’ve only seen one other film from Antonio Margheriti, that being his infamous Yor: The Hunter from the Future. And that was with the addition of MST3K or Rifftrax or some such comedic commentary. A quick look at his long filmography reveals a longer history of horror than of westerns. It also appears that he’s really obsessed with The Lady from Shanghai; its iconic hall of mirrors climax occurs in And God Said to Cain as well as in Margheriti’s Devil of the Desert Against the Son of Hercules. (That’s another John Wick connection as well.) He seems like the kind of insanely prolific guy that the Italian film industry was chock-full of in the 60s and 70s, guys who would crank out wild stuff day in and day out without stopping to catch their breath. I really admire that as a filmmaking ethos, just the relentless creative drive without any auteurist pretension. Not that I don’t love me a pretentious auteur! There’s just something you can’t help but love about a director who just directs.

Patron Request: ‘Gozu’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

Gozu is a very “Dead Dove Do Not Eat” kind of film. It’s Takashi Miike. I don’t know what I expected. If nothing else, I was surprised to find out afterwards that it was released in 2003. Everything from its look to its attitude feels very 90s. I had an alright time with it. But there are some capital-P Problems here.

The first is a tonal issue which arises from Miike getting too playful with the familiar elements of his filmography. The opening title promisingly bills Gozu as a “Yakuza Horror Theater” but the film’s beats are much closer to what you’d see in one of Miike’s broader comedies. It’s overloaded with an often juvenile silliness. This comes particularly at the expense of gender non-conforming people, which you always hate to see. It’s not as bad as it could be in that department, I suppose. It’s just disappointing to see trans people treated as wacky outre gags on the level of poop jokes.

But again, what do you expect from Miike? He’s never been a filmmaker with an overabundance of sensitivity. He works with all the subtlety of a cannon blast, and you just have to take him or leave him. Most of the time, I’ll take him. I loved his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure adaptation last year. The problem with Gozu isn’t really a Miike problem, though. It comes from how Miike tries to experiment with his own style.

As I said, this is basically a broad comedy, but it doesn’t play like one. Miike shoots it like a tense horror-thriller, replete with ominous music cues and anxiety-inducing angles. Miike keeps undercutting the tension with jokes, but he maintains the creepy tone through the punchlines, so they never really land. Gozu is a hard film to laugh at because you’re never really sure if it wants you to laugh at it. It’s also impossible to be scared by because the ostensibly frightening aspects always feel like self-parody. I just don’t know what this movie wants to be.

Still, it’s a Miike movie, and that means some astonishing compositions. Miike can toss off a brilliant image like it’s nothing, cutting away from it before you even have time to process it. Everything else aside, he’s just fundamentally a good director. Without his visual acuity, Gozu would be basically unwatchable. It’s thanks to his innate skill that it ends up more or less entertaining, if ultimately disposable. It’s definitely the weakest Miike film I’ve watched, but the bar is set pretty high there.

Defining the Box: ‘John Wick,’ ‘Hitman,’ and Systemic Spaces

There’s a shot in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that epitomizes the series’ prime fixation. It’s a tracking shot following Halle Berry’s Sofia during a chaotic gunfight in Casablanca. The camera follows behind her back as she takes shots from behind the cover of a pillar. There’s a horizontal plane on which the action operates; she is on the “bottom,” and the enemy is on the “top.” Most gunfight scenes are content to stick to such a simple axis of engagement, but most gunfight scenes aren’t in movies called John Wick. Without cutting, Sofia moves to another pillar along a completely perpendicular plane, and takes shots from cover there. She does this two or three more times in the shot, reorienting the direction of the action while further settling the geography of the space. It’s a brilliant moment.

The climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors-style art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” A loudspeaker voice describes the work as John enters, and it might as well be describing the whole trilogy: “Within this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of our perception of space, and our place within it.”

The John Wick films have always been concerned with space. It defines their beloved fight scenes as much as it does their narratives. These films always focus on defined spaces, the delineations between them, how the spaces are different, and (in Chapter 3) who gets to draw those lines. It’s one thing to say a fight scene has “clear geography.” Wick has always made that geography mean something. It matters where these fights are taking place.

The first important space we learn about in the series is the Continental Hotel, a New York respite for weary assassins to catch their breath and talk shop. The most important rule is that no “business” (i.e. murder) can be conducted on Continental grounds. The series introduces early on this idea that certain spaces have defined rulesets, and that the consequences for breaking them can be dire. It’s not just that the law exists — the space itself imposes its will on the people inside it.

It reminds me a lot of the recent Hitman games, which are a low-key twin to the Wick films. In these games, you play as the tabula rasa assassin Agent 47, whose ability to disguise himself as just about anyone helps him get close enough to take out his targets, often in elaborately designed accidents. It’s about as far from the directly confrontational action in Wick, but the two share an obsession with demarcated spaces. In Hitman, Agent 47 is prohibited from entering certain areas depending on the disguise he’s wearing. It’s a system the developers call “social stealth.” Certain floors are restricted only to bodyguards, for example. The kitchen is off-limits except to chefs. The laboratory is only for scientists. You get the picture. Each space has a set of rules 47 must appear to obey. Once he manages to construct that appearance, he can pass through unnoticed…provided he doesn’t break any of the other rules. A scientist or chef can’t openly carry a firearm, and being seen doing so in one of those disguises will cause a scene. The game can become something of a logic puzzle, with the player figuring out how to get from point A to point B traversing through various areas with different rulesets.

John Wick has no need for social stealth. He and the rest of the assassins he interacts with barely seem to exist in the real world at all. In one scene of Chapter 3, two young killers are taken out by a more experienced gang in the middle of Grand Central Station. Their throats are slit and they fall to the ground. No one around them seems to notice. A few shots later, the bodies have disappeared. In the most memorable sequence of Chapter 2, Wick trades silenced shots with another gunman in a subway station, the dozens of passersby around them none the wiser. The chaos caused in the first John Wick’s famous club scene is the outlier here. I’m willing to grant director Chad Stahelski that he hadn’t yet conceived of this aspect of the series’ wider world.

Still, Wick does follow the rules of the real world to some extent. In Chapter 3, a confrontation between him and fanboy killer Zero is halted when a line of hand-holding children cut between them. “That’s what makes you special, John Wick,” Zero says. “I wouldn’t have stopped.” Wick finds himself unique among his brethren because, having left the game for a time, he finds himself still tied to a basic social contract. He can’t float like a ghost through these public spaces like the rest of them can. He lives in both worlds at once.

The nature of Hitman’s medium means it must allow the player to decide for themselves whether or not 47 is similarly bound to the basic social laws of a public area. It does, however, penalize you for killing anyone who isn’t explicitly identified as your target. That includes people who are shooting at you, if your mission has gone especially haywire. The penalty affects your score upon completing the mission, which doesn’t really have any impact on gameplay. Once again, it’s up to the player whether or not they care about how many points they get. Hitman does what it can to nudge you in the John Wick direction, though. 47 can take very few bullets before he’s killed, so getting into a gunfight is never advisable anyway. And if nothing else, it’s just more fun to take out your targets without any collateral damage. The game is designed to incentivize obedience to simple human relational law wherever possible. Except where your targets are concerned, of course. Nothing to be done about that. They just gotta die.

Things come to a head in Chapter 3 when a representative of the all-powerful assassin High Table deconsecrates the Continental, meaning that “business” can be conducted on its grounds. The laws that held the area together completely change with a single phone call. Chapter 3 builds on the previous films’ ideas about the rules that govern certain spaces by asking: Who makes those laws, and why do they get to do so? It explores the notion that these laws are not immutable, not born of some inherent human ideal. They were created by individuals who had some incentive to make them that way, perhaps to the detriment of the people below them. And no matter how long these rules have stood, they can be taken away in an instant, because these rules ultimately aren’t for the benefit of the people on whom they are imposed. They’re there to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. These spaces don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a web of intersecting laws and guidelines, all governed by a few specific actors. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Hitman being a video game means that it can’t change the rules of its maps at random as happens in Chapter 3. However, it hits at the same theme in a similar way. Almost every target in the two most recent games are part of the upper-upper-class, the mega-wealthy and uber-powerful. They are capitalist cretins, destroying the lives of people below them for their own enrichment. When 47 enters these maps, he is entering a space dictated by class divides. The Paris map in Hitman: Season One is the most obvious example. 47 must advance up a four-story mansion to reach one of his targets, each floor becoming home to a more and more exclusive club. By the time he reaches the top, he finds himself at an auction where people are purchasing everything from fixed elections to entire islands. In the basement, meanwhile, he comes across a weeping server being consoled by her coworkers. She’s been reduced to tears by the boorish, condescending behavior of the people she’s working for. The basement is her space. It is, in the eyes of the people in charge, where she belongs.

What makes 47 unique is his ability to traverse all of these spaces. He can be a waiter in the basement one moment, and a war economy patron on the top floor another. His baseline anonymity allows him to slip into any space he desires, provided he looks the part. He is the master of these spaces, his very presence denying the power of the people who created them.

John Wick masters spaces, too, albeit through force rather than deceit. His films have him smashing through windows, charging down hallways, racing across bridges, and causing his fair share of property damage. In one especially memorable bit from the hall of mirrors fight in Chapter 2, he susses out an enemy’s position behind one mirror by looking at his reflection from afar. He shoots through the mirror next to him, and hears the thud of the body hitting the ground. Even in a space deliberately designed to bewilder and disorient, Wick is never caught off-guard. He is in full command of his surroundings at all times. He even turns them into improvised weaponry on occasion. In Chapter 3, a brawl in a library is ended when he picks up a heavy book and begins slamming it into his opponent’s head. A little later on, he’s in a stable, and he gives a horse a hearty smack to make it kick his pursuer right in the head. He always knows where he is, and that has a tremendous impact on how he fights.

In 2019, so many action blockbusters don’t seem to care about where their action is set. How many of them end in anonymous rubble-strewn battlefields, or flat open ranges, or airport parking lots? This is a major aspect of what makes the John Wick films so special. It’s not just that Stahelski’s direction makes your mental map of a location crystal-clear. It matters what that map looks like. It has narrative and thematic purpose. John Wick is using these spaces to say something about its world and the people in it, as are the Hitman games. In these works, the worlds around their protagonists aren’t just staging or backdrop to the story. They are the story.

Patron Request: ‘I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore’

Women never get to have Falling Down stories. When men are constantly aggrieved and irritated by the world around them, they are martyrs; their subsequent actions, however violent, are morally righteous. They are the avatars of every annoyed man in the universe, every man who secretly believes that he is the only person who sees the fucked-up ways of the world for what they are.

Women don’t get that. When women are put-upon, it’s normalized. That’s just how it’s supposed to be. Women don’t get to lash out, we don’t get to fight back. We don’t get to have our absurd overreactions justified by fiction. We just have to swallow our frustration and be the bigger person. Fiction so often demands women take it and shut up.

So it was nice to see in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore a story of a woman who gets to push back on her life of aggravations in increasingly silly ways. Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth Kimke makes a suitable embodiment of the pile-up of low-level annoyances so many women endure. She’s quite privileged, obviously, which is sort of the downfall of any Falling Down-esque story. Her life isn’t really that bad. It’s just irritating, and the most privileged people tend to confuse irritation for oppression. But I do genuinely think it plays better with a woman protagonist, because those irritants are genuine and systemic rather than on any individual level. When Ruth is asked what she wants and she desperately responds, “I just want people to stop being assholes,” it’s a cry for help directed not at specific people but at a world designed to make people act obnoxiously towards each other.

I really liked Elijah Wood’s character in this. Besides being a great performance (he kills as the sort of guy who proudly buys ninja weapons on Amazon), he’s used to better effect than I expected. I was worried he would be the male figure of violence and aggression who drags Ruth into his world before she realizes what a mistake she’s made. In point of fact, for all his thrill at committing revenge crime, he’s not a sociopath. He quibbles with her theft of lawn art from the parents of the kid who broke into her house. He’s also not creepily romantically obsessed with her, which was refreshing. He just wants, in his own weird way, to be a good friend to her. It’s nice that Ruth’s vengeance spree is instigated by herself and not a man, and it’s nice that she’s not made to regret trusting him.

This film was a Sundance hit and a Netflix release, truly a two-hit KO for me in most circumstances. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. It’s not as cutesy or cliched as I feared, though it doesn’t quite rise above the level of competence. I can quite clearly imagine the worse version of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, all twee in its depiction of violence and “subversion of tropes.” I prefer the version we got. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, but there’s plenty to appreciate here.

Patron Request: ‘A New Leaf’

There’s such a sharp observational quality to the films of Elaine May, as heightened as their comedy can be. You get the sense that May has such a deep understanding of people and relationships, and rather than simply recreating what she sees, she builds these hilarious concepts out of them. Her films can be ridiculous, but something about them always rings true. It reminds me a lot of the more recent work of Rachel Bloom, specifically the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The more I think about it, the more that show feels like heiress apparent to May’s comedies. Both construct elaborate comedic ideas on top of simple observable truths about human dynamics. And Bloom would be right at home alongside May as a scrappy Jewish comedienne.

If May hones in on anything in A New Leaf, though, it’s the inherent hilarity of a bourgeois lifestyle. The montage early on when a newly poor Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) says sorrowful goodbyes to all the absurd markers of his old wealth is hysterical. One bit has Graham sadly miming with a riding crop and then breaking down in tears. Just the concept of rich people seems hilarious to May, with all their silly dignities and meaningless obsessions. And she has a clear-eyed view of what being wealthy means in America. “You’re going to be poor in the only real sense of the word,” Graham’s butler tells him early on, “in that you will not be rich.” There is no world outside of wealth in A New Leaf; Graham’s first option when he’s lost all his money is suicide. It plays in the honest absurdism of the film’s comedy — the absurdity of a world where money is all there is to life, and yet the fundamental truth of that outlook in a capitalist society. The nonchalance with which one of Graham’s high society contacts introduces a couple named the Hitlers (“You’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?”) reflects the ironic detachment from decency that comes along with such highfalutin behavior. I’ve always thought that to make a good comedy about the wealthy you need to understand what wealth really means, and May very much does.

To keep speaking about May, she’s terrific as the nebbishy botanist heiress Henrietta. She casts herself in an unforgiving role; she must ride the fine line of being not so likable that Graham comes off as a complete jerk but not so irritating that Graham seems a hero for wanting to be rid of her. Her charm has to shine through, so that when Graham finds himself having fallen for her, the viewer has as well. It’s such a difficult challenge for a performer, and May just nails it. To do that on top of directing the film is nothing short of miraculous.

Matthau’s great too, as the perpetually annoyed bachelor who wants nothing more than to be alone with his money until the loss of that money forces him to seek companionship. He manages to keep you laughing at him even as his character descends further into a sinister mania. The late bit where he daydreams about all the ways Henrietta could be killed on a trip to the Adirondacks is on its face horrific, yet Matthau’s barely suppressed glee at the prospect sells the hilarity. He reminded me a bit of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, though the comedic stylings of that film are a far cry from A New Leaf and Reynolds Woodcock much more a fusspot than a grump. The way both characters describe their lifelong disinterest in women could be read as a suggestion of queerness, too. I know Matthau’s disinterest in any and all people is more than a little relatable to some friends of mine.

I read that A New Leaf was ripped from May’s hands during the editing phase and that she was so unhappy she tried to have her name taken off the final release. I can’t speak, of course, to the relative quality of her (apparently three hour) cut of the film, but I can say that the existing version of A New Leaf is totally delightful. It feels like an Elaine May film through and through, whatever butchery happened to it behind the scenes. I’d be thrilled if May’s cut ever saw the light of day, but with the final cut being as good as it is, it’s hard to feel desperate for such a release.