I love January. I love new-year-new-you energy. I love the quiet of Melbourne as many of its residents are away for the summer holidays. I love movie-award season. And I love reading new books and essays. Here are six films, two books, and the many essays that filled my January.
Coco is a Disney-Pixar film set in a Mexican village. The story follows Miguel, a boy who wants to be a musician though music has been banned in his family for generations. On the Day of the Dead, he is accidentally transported to the land of the dead, where he seeks the help of his ancestors to return him to the world of the living.
Coco became the highest-grossing film of all-time in Mexico and has received many accolades. It’s Pixar’s most gorgeously animated film and it tells a thoughtful, warm, and moving story. I’m not Mexican, but as a Hispanic person Coco resonated tremendously. The themes of this movie – family, identity, forgiveness, and healing – are close to my heart, and it’s a great example of how to respectfully tell a story of a culture other than your own.
I, Tonya is a mockumentary-style film on the life of American figure skater Tonya Harding. In 1994, Harding’s main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was bludgeoned on the right lower thigh with a police baton after a practice session. The attack was planned by Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard. Harding’s role in that plan is unclear, but she pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. After its own investigation, the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) concluded that she knew about the attack before it happened.
Little of “the incident” makes it into the movie. It’s mainly about Tonya’s childhood, her relationships with her abusive mother and abusive ex-husband, and her struggle to be accepted in the figure skating world. Tonya may be the best skater, but she’s also poor, white trash. She can’t afford elegant skating costumes. She lacks grace and willow proportions. She wear scrunchies, paints her nails blue, and skates to ZZ Top and Tone Lōc instead of Tchaikovsky. She doesn’t have the wholesome American image that the USFSA wants to present to the world at the Olympics.
The violence, class issues, and institutional discrimination are the most interesting parts of the film, but they are not deeply explored. I, Tonya never quite figures out what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes it’s glib, there are giggles, but then there are black eyes and bruised cheeks. The soundtrack is very distracting. Perhaps the stylistic wrongness is designed to parallel its character.
Margot Robbie is superb as Harding and so is Allison Janney as her mother. It’s a sympathetic portrayal: Tonya as victim. And it works. I felt sorry for her, but keeping in mind that she’s also a perpetrator.
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age comedy-drama about a high school senior named Christine, who prefers to go by Lady Bird. I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. Lady Bird is fresh, quirky, and funny. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is familiar. It’s turbulent and harsh, but also warm and full of love and sacrifice and a certain friendship that mothers and daughters have in between arguments about where you’re going, with who, what time you’ll be back, what you’re wearing, your grades, and what you’re doing with the rest of your life. Around all that are boys, friends, and the yearning to escape. Lady Bird is a sweet and bittersweet film that captures the honesty of late adolescence.
The Shape of Water
If you’re familiar with Guillermo del Toro’s work, you know you’re in for something special. Set in Baltimore in 1962, The Shape of Water follows Elisa, a mute custodian at a government laboratory who forms a relationship with a captured humanoid-amphibian creature. That plot description sounds silly and doesn’t do much to sell this movie. It is a fantasy, but it’s much more than that.
It stars Sally Hawkins, who is captivating as Elisa, Richard Jenkins as her neighbour and best friend, Octavia Spencer, who is underused as Elisa’s best-friend-at-work, Michael Shannon, and Doug Jones as Gill-man. The Shape of Water is stunning and absorbing. You can watch this film, stay on the surface, and take it in as a fantasy, but you’ll be further rewarded if you dive into it.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother who rents three billboards to call attention to the her daughter’s unsolved murder. The film also stars Woody Harrelson as the police chief and Sam Rockwell as a police officer. I enjoyed this film while I was watching it, and critics love this movie, but I found it problematic.
The trailer is going for black comedy and maybe tries to recall the work of the Coen brothers, but Three Billboards is not funny enough or weird enough. It introduces important social issues such as domestic violence, racism, and police brutality, but never does anything with them. Mildred is very angry, but not about any of these things, which affect her life and the lives of the people around her nearly every day. It’s strange that a small town wouldn’t be shaken to its core by a gruesome murder and be more supportive of Mildred. There’s also an odd and undeserved redemption arc. There more I thought about it, the more I thought there’s a lot here that doesn’t make sense. McDormand and Rockwell are fantastic though. With lesser actors, I doubt Three Billboards would have garnered such positive critical response.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is less a book of instructions and more a collection of stories, anecdotes, and jokes. It is good writing about writing. The inspiration for the book’s title, which is at the heart of Lamott’s writing advice, captures it.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who as ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
In Bird by Bird, writing is about writing. It’s about quiet grit. It’s about shitty first drafts. It’s about observation and neurosis. It’s not about publishing, fame, or fortune. Writing is about giving freely.
The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
The Museum of Modern Love is inspired by the life and work of Marina Abramović, a Serbian performance artist. From 14 March to 31 May 2010, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held a major retrospective of Abramović’s work. She performed The Artist is Present, a silent piece in which which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while visitors were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Abramović sat during the opening hours of the museum for 75 days, for a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes. Her former collaborator and lover, Ulay, made a surprise appearance at the opening night of the show.
This is the setting for Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The main character, Arky Levin, is a self-absorbed film score composer. His wife, the famed architect Lydia Fiorentino, is dying. Arky is drawn to MoMA’s atrium every day. He watches and meets other people drawn to the performance. He slowly comes to understand what the work is about and what he must do.
This book did not grab me from the start. I thought about putting it down, but something told me to stick with it, that it would reward me, and it did. When I got into the second half, I couldn’t put it down. Abramović is the vehicle for profound observations about life and art; you don’t need to be familiar with her work to enjoy this novel. I struggle with modern art. I struggle with performance art, but Abramović, or Rose’s interpretation of her, is inspiring. The Museum of Modern Love is novel is for artists. If you struggle with your identity as a creative, with imposter syndrome, with the courage to create, read this novel.
One more film and many essays
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
In October, Netflix released Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about Didion’s life and work. I can never decide if I want to know about the personal lives of artists. I’m afraid that if they turn out to be awful people, I’ll be unable to enjoy their art. At least, I’m likely to feel guilty for enjoying the art of great artists who are terrible people. I’m not interested in celebrity gossip, but I am interested in the minds and processes of creative people. Thankfully, The Center Will Not Hold gives us an intimate and affectionate portrait of Joan Didion.
Directed by her nephew, the actor and filmmaker, Griffin Dunne, The Center Will Not Hold covers the whole of Didion’s life, but it doesn’t offer thorough examination of her work or insight of her creative process. The best way to gain that is by reading her work and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with a number of her essays. Didion has recorded American life since the 1960s with sharp observation and literary techniques rather than, despite her apparent detachment, dispassionate journalism. It’s not her subjects that interest me, but her style. She writes as if she were working her thoughts out on the page. Heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, she is economical with her words on the page and in this documentary. Her command of language is extraordinary.
The Center Will Not Hold is not masterpiece and it’s not as fascinating as its subject, but its glitters as good as gold.