All in the Family at its Peak: The Year 1973 (50th Anniversary)

Drum roll, please… 2023 is the 50th anniversary of one of the best years in American history. (It’s also the 40th anniversary for one of the worst years in American history, but that’s a story for another day.) It was certainly the best year for All in the Family, the social-satire sitcom which ran for nine full seasons (1971-79) and did more to change American attitudes than most legislature. The high point of that run was the stretch of episodes in the second half of season 3 (Jan-Mar 1973) and the first half of season 4 (Sept-Dec 1973). They were loud — really loud — and riled viewers with crude language and socio-political clashes that pulled no punches. In 1973 it was the most popular TV show for embracing every controversy, framing debates through dialogue that was equal parts argumentation and ad hominem. The same controversies rage on today.

This post also honors the 100th birthday of show producer Norman Lear (which was last July, and yes, he’s still alive). Robert Lloyd summarized perfectly what Lear intended with All in the Family and why a show like this would never air in today’s age of woke purity and polarized politics:

“Lear’s method was to put characters with clashing worldviews in close quarters. What distinguishes their arguments from our current flavor of polarization, in which debate is impossible because everybody knows everything, is that they lead to (at least temporary) understanding. (And you are laughing at home, hopefully.) All in the Family began with a printed disclaimer, noting that it ‘seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.’… The satire is spread around, more or less equally distributed. Maude and Mike the Meathead can be doctrinaire, pompous, in their liberality; everyone is an idiot sometimes. But most characters can be as admirable as they are aggravating; they have heart, even if buried or deformed by circumstance. As noisy as they could be, the sound and fury signified not so much dysfunction as health. Disagreement, the very possibility of unshackled argument, is in Norman Lear’s world a form of patriotism.”

One quibble: I don’t think “more or less equally distributed” is accurate. The show’s liberal bias is like a sledgehammer; Archie is used in every other frame as a mirror for toxic conservative attitudes. But yes, it does also take wonderful opportunities with Mike — to underscore liberal hypocrisies (see my #2 pick below) in ways that catch the viewer off guard. If I were writing an “All in the Family” series in the 2020s instead of the 1970s, I would reverse the proportion somewhat, and satirize the left more heavily than the right. The left has lost its way since the ’70s.

These are my ten favorite episodes from the twenty-five that aired in the year 1973. Watch them and celebrate them in the upcoming year.

1. The Battle of the Month (S03, E24; March 24, 1973). Surely the loudest episode of the nine-year run (which is saying a lot), the season-three finale is a non-stop argument that escalates and escalates until you think the Bunkers and Stivics are literally going to kill each other. (Well, maybe not Edith.) It starts with Gloria having her period, and Archie letting it rip on the divinely-ordained nature of a woman’s woes. His retelling of Adam and Eve is his most hilarious bible-butchery and makes Gloria apoplectic with rage, prompting her to shit on everyone in the family, not just her father, but Mike, and even (no: especially) her poor mother whom she calls a “nothing” for letting Archie walk all over her. In the bedrooms that night, Mike and Gloria continue tearing each other apart, Archie listens through the wall and starts screaming at them, and then everyone meets back down in the living room for Pajama World War 3. This is the best All in the Family episode because it’s the purest, doing what the show does best on zero plot and ceaseless yelling. It’s brilliantly scripted, though I imagine a lot of the dialogue came spontaneously from the actors. It’s hard to imagine rehearsing an episode like this, where the argumentative momentum never flags. It must have been fun as hell for the actors to perform. [Watch the episode here.]

2. The Games Bunkers Play (S04, E08; November 3, 1973). Almost tied with Battle of the Month. The Bunkers (minus Archie) get together with Lionel and the Lorenzos for a board game called “Group Therapy”; they take turns drawing cards and sharing their feelings and opinions about each other. If the other players think the card-reader is being honest, they vote “with it”; it not, they vote “cop out”. The game is Mike’s idea, but he sorely regrets suggesting it, as he gets voted down by the group every time it’s his turn. I always admired the way All in the Family occasionally skewered the hypocrisies and prejudices of the left, and here Mike is skewered sixty ways to Sunday: for patronizing Lionel (Mike basically sees Lionel as a “black person” to stick up for and make himself feel good about), for being an anal-retentive jerk to Gloria when she uses her card to ask Edith a question instead of himself, and for throwing obnoxious temper tantrums when everyone else calls him on his bullshit. As in Battle of the Month, the yelling and screaming is carried on a momentum that makes it impossible to look away, until Mike finally goes nuclear: “I thought we could have a nice game without Archie, but as it turns out I’m playing this game with five Archies, and every single one of you is worse than the real one!” Rob Reiner deserved an Emmy for this performance. I consider The Games Bunkers Play to be the most revealing episode of the nine-year run, because we see how seriously flawed Mike is, and flawed in a way that (as Lionel says) makes him worse than Archie, because Mike at least knows better and is equipped to be a better person. [Watch the episode here.]

3. Archie Goes Too Far (S03, E17; January 17, 1973). When Archie denies Mike and Gloria the privacy of their bedroom, and Edith the privacy of her diary, they get so fed up with him that they leave the house, refusing to live under his roof. They don’t depart as a unity though; they exit one by one. Mike and Gloria are as pissed at each other as they are at Archie, which of course is Archie’s fault, for exposing a love poem that Mike had written to a former girlfriend. So after 53 episodes, this is what it finally takes for Archie’s family to walk out on him. It ends the way it only can, with Mike, Gloria, and Edith each having the grace to admit fault in some way, and Archie refusing to admit that he was wrong in any way. And so they come back for six and half more seasons of abuse. The first half of the episode is the great part and very loud; the second half sees everyone making their way to the home of Gloria’s friend who’s hosting a pizza party. Archie finds the place last, and his outrage at everyone having a good time without him is priceless: Edith (wearing a kimono) runs to him and gives him a kiss, and Archie, indignant, tells her to “Take off that Chinky bathrobe.” Today you couldn’t get away with writing dialogue like that for a TV series, unless your name is Trey Parker or Matt Stone. [Watch the episode here.]

4. We’re Having a Heat Wave (S04, E01; September 15, 1973). The season-four premiere is the second loudest episode of the series (after Battle of the Month, the season-three finale), and definitely the nastiest. The racial slurs are off the scale, as Archie dumps on the coloreds, the Japs, the Chinks, the Krauts, the Micks, the Wops, and the Puerto Ricans (the one group he doesn’t have a slur for). Tempers are high to begin with in the Bunker household (with a heat wave and no air conditioning), but when Archie learns that the next-door house on his block is being sold to a non-white couple, he goes through the roof and helps circulate a petition to keep the newcomers out. Henry Jefferson learns of the petition and wages war on Archie — until it comes to light that the non-whites moving in are Puerto Ricans, not blacks, at which point Henry joins forces with Archie and his friends to keep the Hispanics away. Mike and Gloria are furious at them both, and the screaming doesn’t let up. There are so many classic lines from this episode, including Mike and Archie’s argument about Watergate, Edith and Archie’s argument about swearing, and Archie trying to persuade Irene and Frank Lorenzo to buy the house that the Puerto Ricans put a deposit on. Irene thinks it wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do. Archie: “It would be the most Christian thing you ever did. All we’re trying to do on this street is separate the white from the chaff.” [Watch the episode here.]

5. Everybody Tells the Truth (S03, E21; March 3, 1973). This is a popular fan favorite, in which Mike and Archie tell contradictory versions of a black refrigerator repairman. Mike paints Archie as a hyper-racist screaming at the guy over the slightest provocation, and with a repertoire of racial slurs, while Archie counters with his version, in which he appears calm and reasonable, and was yelled at and scolded by everyone in the family for no reason at all. Archie claims that the man pulled a knife on him; Mike says there was no knife. Then Edith clears things up with her version of the story, showing how Mike and Archie equally distorted things. I’m a sucker for Rashomon-style stories (like Ridley Scott’s Last Duel) and All in the Family is perfect for it. The guest actor (Ron Glass) is brilliant portraying three different versions of the repairman — an Uncle Tom (as Mike tells it), a rude thug (as Archie tells it), and an everyday normal guy (as Edith tells it). [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

6. Archie and the Kiss (S04, E04; October 6, 1973). One thing about Archie is that he comes by his prudishness honestly. He’s not the sort who frowns on lewd jokes and obscene images while stashing Playboys under his bed. He’s genuinely unsettled by nudity, and so when Gloria brings home a sculpture of Rodin’s “The Kiss”, Archie loses his mind and tells her that it’s pornography and has to go. She refuses, and Archie tells Frank Lorenzo to take it back (it was a gift to Gloria from Frank’s wife Irene, but Frank doesn’t know that, and Archie lies to Frank, saying that Irene only loaned the statue to Gloria). Frank takes the statue back, and Gloria goes ballistic on Archie, refusing to speak to him ever again. The rest of the episode shows Archie cluelessly trying to make amends with his daughter — buying her a ridiculous gift, his prudishness manifesting in hilarious ways. Great lines in this episode, like Archie’s declaration that the Rodin sculpture belongs in the men’s room as a fountain, if anywhere at all. There is also the hilarious bit at the beginning where Archie keeps slamming the front door to spite Mike and show his anger. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

7. Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig (S04, E11; November 24, 1973). In which Mike demands that Gloria wear her new wig when they fuck, and Gloria goes ape-shit: “I’m not going to be the other woman in my own marriage!” All in the Family left not a stone uncovered, and this was a great issue to tackle, though I suspect it would be handled differently today. As presented in the episode, the question is: Is it possible for someone to be unfaithful to a marriage partner when having sex with that marriage partner? Today the issue would probably turn on the objectification of women (treating one’s spouse as an object or thing), but in the 70s, objectification theory wasn’t the rage yet (it gained traction in the PC-age of the 90s), and indeed the writers of this episode seem to have no problem with a certain level of objectification that is natural to a healthy sex life. Pornography, fashion modeling, attractive clothes, wigs, etc. all simply highlight a particular aspect of beautiful people. The issue isn’t one of objectification but rather fidelity. Is Mike in love with a dark-haired fantasy figure? Mike assures Gloria at the end that’s not the case, that it’s only Gloria in the wig that fires his libido. The problem is less that Gloria is being “reduced to a sex object” and more that she’s being supplanted in Mike’s imagination. It’s a brilliantly scripted episode, and one of Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers’ best performances ever. Archie is in the second half, and he’s just as hilarious, offended by Mike’s fetish for conservative puritanical reasons. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

8. Archie Learns His Lesson (S03, E22; March 10, 1973). You feel for Archie in this one. He’s taking night classes so that he can get a high-school diploma, which will qualify him for a work promotion. In the end he gets the diploma but not the job (which goes to the boss’s nephew), but the plot isn’t what the episode is about. It’s about Archie’s revision of American history as he hates what his textbooks tell him, especially about manifest destiny, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, and the Native Americans. He insists that the Indians don’t vote, and when Mike says the Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, Archie says he knows that, “but the Indians don’t use their right to vote: they sell all their horses for booze and then they can’t ride into town”. The argument goes downhill from there until Mike is ready to kill himself over Archie’s stupidities. Then Gloria has a conniption over Archie’s crib notes and his plans to cheat on his test. He rationalizes cheating as being honest with himself (that he wouldn’t be able to pass otherwise), though Edith foils his plans in this regard, and he ends up passing anyway. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

9. Henry’s Farewell (S04, E06; October 20, 1973). A momentous episode which sees the departure of Henry Jefferson and the introduction of George. Prior to this season-4 episode, George Jefferson was mentioned by name only. The reason given in the show is that he refused to set foot in a white man’s home — especially a white man like Archie’s — and so remained off-screen for three whole seasons. The real reason is that the actor Sherman Hemsley had been cast to play George from the start in ’71, but had another acting commitment until late ’73. Norman Lear didn’t want to replace Hemsley (thank the gods; no one could have played George like Hemsley) and so he hired Mel Stewart to play George’s younger brother Henry, who would serve as the “black foil” for three seasons until Hemsley became available. This all worked out well for the show. Henry was no George but was one hell of an entertaining prelude. He ended up getting the best seasons of All in the Family (1-4), while George only got the tail end of the glory era. These two men were as racist as Archie (believing that people should stick to their own kind) and also just as sexist (holding that women belong in the home), and a lot of that mutual bigotry is on hilarious display throughout Henry’s Farewell. [Watch the episode here.]

10. Hot Watch (S03, E19; February 17, 1973). The most underrated episode of the nine-year run has a rather forgettable plot: Archie comes home with an expensive watch that he paid pennies for (not at a store, but from a guy he barely knows), and almost right away the watch breaks and everyone fears that it’s stolen merchandise. Archie then schemes to find a jeweler who will fix the watch with no questions asked. There are plenty of episodes in which Archie tries to cheat to come out ahead; in season 3 alone are the following: Archie’s Fraud (he fails to report income on his tax return for driving a taxi cab), The Locket (he tries to collect insurance for Edith’s missing jewel so he can buy a TV set), Edith’s Winning Ticket (he tries to cash in on “Edith’s” winning ticket, even though it’s really Louise Jefferson’s ticket, and not Edith’s). They’re good episodes but not exceptional… except for Hot Watch where the family bickering goes into overdrive and the dynamic between the actors yields top-notch performances. And Archie is utterly shameless. At one point he uses the watch to time Edith setting plates on the dinner table, and she’s literally running around the table losing her breath. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]

Looking Ahead: The 50th Anniversary of 1973

Last spring I posted an exercise:

“If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be?”

I chose the years 1925 and 1973, and we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the latter. I plan on a series of special posts throughout the year 2023, to celebrate and analyze certain events of 1973. Here are some to expect on the dates listed.

January 1 — All in the Family: The show hit its peak during late season 3 (Jan-Mar 73) and early season 4 (Sep-Dec 73) and had a lasting impact on the social fabric of America.

January 22 — The Paradox of Roe v. Wade: Abortion made a constitutional right. Weak ruling, good result, now nullified.

March 1 — The Dark Side of the Moon: A watershed for rock music.

March 27 — The Godfather: The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

October 1 — Birth of TSR (Tactical Studies Rules Inc): Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson create Dungeons & Dragons, which will be published the following year.

October 13 — Selling England by the Pound: The best album by the most important prog band.

December 15 — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

December 25 — The Exorcist: A cinematic masterpiece that couldn’t have been made any time else. Its like will doubtfully be seen again.

Poor James Cameron: He tries to be woke and even the wokes hate him (AKA: Why Avatar 2 is trash)

Around the holiday season thirteen years ago, I reviewed the first Avatar film. I still think it’s one of the shittiest films I’ve ever seen, and I have no intention of seeing the second one. I am 100% certain that my favorite critic Mark Kermode is 100% right about it, when he says to Simon Mayo:

Avatar: The Way of Water is staggeringly boring. It’s so long, so ponderous, so utterly without wit or artistic merit. It’s a big thundering, lumbering, tech-driven, borothon. Two hours in, I was losing the will to live. It’s so dumb… I came out of the film, and the reviews were embargoed, though you were allowed to post reviews on social media. But I’ve come off Twitter because Elon Musk is an asshole. So all I did was text you some of my alternative titles for this film: Jurassic Water Park. Lord of the Water Wings. Rising Damp. Finding Emo. Ava-Sleep: The Way of Torture. Das Poop. Shite-anic.”

I’m sure that’s accurate, and the high critical approval on RT (78%) — and even higher audience approval (93%) — shows that all it takes to awe people these days are special effects. But special effects aren’t special or impressive in and of themselves. They’re simply to be expected as a bare minimum in a well financed action film. What matters is the story, and as I mentioned in my review of Avatar, the story was boring drivel, and so it only stands to reason that the sequel is as bad as Kermode says it is.

Then there’s the elephant — not mentioned by Kermode but by other critics — which I wrote about at length in my review of the first Avatar: the white savior trope. The first Avatar basically recycled the plots of films like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. A moon was being mined for a priceless mineral, while the indigenous humanoids (the blue-skinned Na’vi) resisted the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem, and one of the colonials came to see the error of his imperialistic ways, joined the natives and went bad-ass on his former friends. The idea that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives has been overworked to death in Hollywood, and it’s really just a hollow guilt fantasy about giving up one’s whiteness without really doing so. In the year 1990, granted, Dances With Wolves was a refreshing antidote to the conservative trash of the ’80s, and old racist movies like White Buffalo (1977), but it hasn’t aged well. It’s an unrealistic, patronizing, romantic depiction of the Sioux that practically glorifies them as saints, and it does so out of liberal white guilt. I hate to give wokes any credit — and I have no patience with those who see racism everywhere — but you don’t have to be woke or a flaming lefty to recognize the problems with white-savior narratives.

What about the sequel film? Cameron seems to have gone out of his way to pander to the wokes. He describes Avatar: The Way of Water as an environmental allegory about the perils of colonialism. While promoting the film he decried the “evils of testosterone”, and indeed (wait for it), that “testosterone is a poison that should be purged from your system”. He boasted that his film sets a new standard for feminine empowerment, because it features a six-month pregnant female warrior. (How this is empowering is unclear; a six-month pregnant woman should be taking care of herself for Christ’s sake, not throwing herself in the thick of battle.) This alone is enough to make an anti-woke like me avoid the film.

But shockingly, many wokes hated the film. Some have demanded a boycott for cultural appropriation. Of all the woke stupidities, the supposed sin of “cultural appropriation” is one of the silliest. But what about the white savior trope? Keeping in mind that I haven’t seen the sequel (and never will), the reviews suggest that Cameron side-stepped the white-savior trope this time (for the most part), but went even deeper into the pitfall of romanticizing the Na’vi as “ecological natives”. But the original-environmentalist fable is as problematic as the white-savior, reinforcing an image of native Americans that’s unhistorical and condescending. Like the white savior narrative, that can become a form of racism, however well intended.

Thus the tragedy: Cameron wants so desperately to be woke, but he (a) will never please the wokes whose purity standards rival those of religious fundies, and (b) blows it in ways that even anti-wokes like myself end up half-agreeing with the wokes (when it comes to white-savior and ecological native tropes). When you add to this that he is utterly incapable of telling a good story and can only serve up tech-driven spectacles, I say, please James, retire, and leave film making to your betters.

What to watch during Christmas season

Even to a curmudgeon like myself who looks less forward to Christmas than I did as a child, the mystery surrounding the holiday still pulls at me. Behind the crass commercialism is something powerful, ineffable, gleaned through imagery, decor, festivity, and song. My picks are unconventional, and you probably won’t find them on most Christmas-film lists; but they do have ardent defenders whom I have cited where relevant.

1. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, Swedish, 1982. If there’s one film only I could recommend for the Christmas season, it would have to be the Great Swede’s magnum opus. The first hour of Fanny and Alexander presents the most ecstatically joyous version of Christmas I’ve seen in a film. Not in a particularly “Christian” way, but in a family way, and the extended Ekdahl family is huge. The home is resplendent with shimmering decorations, ornaments, greenery, candles, crimson rugs, and sumptuous platters heaped with food. Everyone runs through the house singing a carol; there’s flirting and groping; and an old dude farts to entertain the kids. These scenes of warmth make it all the more tragic when the kids’ father dies, their mother remarries to an austere bishop, trading a lavish and warm lifestyle for the barren and cold interior of a repressive domestic hell. She and the kids are allowed to take nothing with them from their past, not even clothes, and the kids are over-punished and beaten for infractions. The film is a Dickens-like wonder — for my money, better than anything Dickens ever wrote — populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him cope with an abusive stepfather and the loss of joy. The Christmas party of the first act encapsulates joy in its purest form, and I enjoyed watching the film again last night (for my third time) in celebration of its 40th anniversary. (It was released in Sweden on December 17, 1982.) It’s being screened in UK cinemas this month, and you can watch the special trailer here.

2. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, American, 1999. Why on earth did Kubrick set his film about sexual infidelity during the Christmas season, and fill so many shots with colorful lights and trees? According to Aquarium Drunkard: “Kubrick is using our notion of Christmas as a comfortable and familiar time of year – perhaps the most wonderful time of year – as a tool to disrupt us. The contrast between Christmas as a universally joyous occasion and the foreboding events that the Harfords find themselves in creates an uneasy juxtaposition. While the film deals with the complications of marriage and family, it does so by presenting us with backroom drug overdoses, child prostitution, and secret Illuminati orgies. We see Christmas trees and lights everywhere. But most of these seasonal decorations are within the confines of dark places: an after-hours jazz club, a prostitute’s dingy apartment, a seedy costume shop where a father sells his teenage daughter’s body. These are not places we associate with the joyous spirit of Christmas.” The critic also suggests that Bill Hartford journey is similar to archetypes like George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge. Just as Scrooge was shown alternate versions of what could’ve been and what will be based on his actions in a single night, Bill Hartford spends an evening in a sexually charged reality that seems like a dream, as he tries to find a way back to his wife Alice to reclaim the love that has been lost.

3. A Christmas Carol. Steven Moffat, British, 2010. Most of the Doctor Who Christmas specials are terrible, but there are two exceptions which place on my list. This one is a masterpiece of modern TV. It retells the Dickens classic better than most adaptations. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as Kazran (the tormented Scrooge character) is one of the best guest performances of the series. As for the Doctor, he’s a wonderful bit of asshole as he tries to save Kazran’s soul by rewriting the man’s life. There’s no reason he couldn’t have simply gone back in time to prevent the Starliner ship from taking off in the first place, instead of jumping through hoops to alter a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind and indeed his ways. But the Doctor will do things the hard way to bring out a little more kindness. And while he can’t stop Abigail’s foreordained tragedy — she must die — she at least gets in a final sky-ride with Kazran after preventing the devastating ship crash by singing.

4. Carol. Todd Haynes, American, 2015. If you won’t accept either Fanny and Alexander or Eyes Wide Shut as the best Christmas film of all time, then you should go with Carol, for reasons offered by the AV Club: “For anyone who likes to be horny and sad at the same time, Carol is like having a bit of a cold while laying in a room that’s a bit too warm and looking at a vintage snow globe, all while being a little bit gay. In other words, it feels like Christmas. Its first half takes place during the pre-Christmas bustle, dreary or dreamy depending on your mindset. What the movie understands, much better than time-honored classics like Planes, Trains And Automobiles or Home Alone, is the joy and the sadness of carving out a little moment of holiday cheer separate from the non-holiday drudgery of normal daily life. Carol tracks two lovers [lesbians in the 50s, no less] across the season, into the post-Christmas week where Carol and Therese’s relationship has gone past their first sexual encounter and into the real problems of life. Their love truly lives within the unbearable sadness of the day the Christmas tree comes down. Make no mistake about it, Christmas wants to hurt you.” Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time at just the right time of year.

5. Inside. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, French, 2007. Here’s the horror film of my list, and I give the floor entirely to Ghouls Magazine: “No horror film better epitomizes the spirit of Christmas than Inside (À l’intérieur), a movie about a widowed pregnant woman who is stalked by a mysterious intruder hellbent on removing and kidnapping her baby on Christmas Eve. It starts with death and ends with birth. Sarah is a young pregnant woman who has lost her husband in a gruesome car accident. On Christmas Eve, she tells her loved ones, ‘I don’t give a shit about Christmas. I’d rather be alone.’ Unfortunately, she doesn’t get her Christmas wish. The unnamed home invader breaks into Sarah’s home, and the two women battle for Sarah’s unborn baby. There are pregnancy films, there are horror films, there are even many pregnancy horror films, but Inside combines the mysteries of pregnancy and the female body, an unorthodox and complex villain, and the visceral shocks of The New French Extremity movement to create an unforgettable blood-spattered Christmas movie.”  If you want Christmas horror, forget all the American crap like Bad Santa, and instead come Inside to be truly terrorized.

6. Last Christmas. Steven Moffat, British, 2014. The other exceptional holiday special for Doctor Who, and a story that’s both terrifying and heartbreaking. You don’t expect it from the first ten minutes, which seem childishly absurd as Clara confronts Santa Claus on top of her roof. But this is indeed the “real” Santa Claus (not a robot or alien), and he works perfectly: as a manifestation created by the subconscious to wake people up from their dream prisons. This allows Moffat to stay true to the stereotype of Santa Claus while also poking fun at it through the thoughts of the dreaming victims. And those victims, including the Doctor and Clara, need every ounce of sympathy and outside help. Even though 98% of what we see in this episode is a dream (Clara’s dream, to be precise), it’s a dream that kills unless the dreamer succeeds in waking up and throwing off the face-hugging crab. The dream crabs are, to me, the scariest aliens seen in Doctor Who since the weeping angels. Visually, they are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as they feed on the host’s brain — until Santa appears and encourages them to wake up. The juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with lethal horrors tumbles into a work of sheer emotional artistry. At heart the story is about Clara: the death of her boyfriend who she can’t let go of, and her attachment to the Doctor who she still needs.

7. Batman Returns. Tim Burton, American, 1992. The Batman films of the 80s and 90s haven’t aged well in the post-Nolan era, with the exception of this one. Burton’s sequel is so weird and hyper-demented, and the fact that it’s set in the Christmas season accentuates the perversity. We get a Penguin who lives in the sewer and schemes to dump kids into toxic waste. We also get the treat of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best Catwoman of all time, who reeks of perversity with every hiss and sultry breath. Some have called the film an outright assault on kids, but it’s really about broken adults searching for peace and acceptance. Burton painted a canvas of such hurt and pain — going well beyond what he did in his ’89 film with Jack Nicholson’s Joker (who definitely hasn’t aged well) — that it’s still too much for some people, but I think it speaks in the way a Batman film should.

Between Two Fires: A Girl, a Knight, and a Priest in a France Gone Literally to Hell

I’d never heard of Christopher Buehlman but I won’t forget him after Between Two Fires. The novel was recommended by a library coworker, and the blurbs describe it as a blend of historical fiction, horror, and fantasy, which are the genres I mostly read. It’s mostly the former two (with a dash of fantasy), taking place in medieval France taken over by the Black Plague and Hell itself. Think Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant — hostile lands in dark times traveled by characters seeking some personal redemption — and you have an idea of what you’re getting into.

When I say that Hell has come to earth, I mean that literally and quite graphically. The devils have decided to test God and see how much shit they can get away with, and so they punish the world with famine, war, and bubonic plague. People are dying everywhere, societies collapse, and to feed yourself you’re lucky if you can cobble together some grass, worms, and acorn paste. But it’s how the devils use France as their dramatic playground that yields some utterly profane and shocking scenes. I’ll get to those in a moment.

The main characters are three — a young girl (Delphine), a knight (Thomas), and a priest (Matthieu) — who make a 500-mile journey from northern France to Avignon, so the girl can meet the pope for some mysterious purpose. [Historical note: Avignon was the seat of the papacy from 1309-1376. The novel is set in 1348.] Delphine can’t reveal her purpose, but the priest trusts her and the knight feels protective of her. As a character she’s not always compelling; she seems more like an avatar than a real person, since angels speak to her and she’s apparently the spiritual key to whatever may thwart the devils on earth. It’s the knight and priest who feel real, in all their sordid flaws. Thomas is sort of like Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones, but more refined, in the way he’s become an outlaw doing bad things, but has a slow turnaround when he meets his “Arya” (Delphine) and becomes her guardian, but can hardly utter a kind word to her. Father Matthieu, meanwhile, is a sodomite consumed with guilt, and a genuinely nice guy. One of the these two men will die on the road to Avignon (there’s a sort-of spoiler for you), and frankly it’s a wonder that any of them, including the girl, makes it to their destination.

For there are threats everywhere, most of them life-threatening. The countryside is ravaged, and the villages, towns, and cities full of desperate and vile people. (See map to the left where I trace their trek from Normandy to Provence, “S” (start) to “F” (finish).) It’s a two-month journey from August to October, five hundred miles of redundant starvation, sickness, piles of corpses, mistrust, betrayal, and — worst of all — snares set by devils who attack in unexpected ways. The devil confrontations are worth detailing, and I will now examine them, but if you haven’t read the book you may wish to stop here. Major spoilers follow.

The Castle: When the Revelers Start Reveling

The first is the snare set in Normandy by the devil Belphegor. Having departed the awful village of Rochelle-la-Blanche (where starving mobs kill each other over a religious relic), our trio spot a castle on a distant hill, with an open drawbridge and men-at-arms patrolling the walls. Wondering if the plague has somehow spared this place, they check it out — despite the warnings of Delphine, who refuses to enter. To the reader, that’s an obvious cue, but I probably would have done as Thomas and Matthieu do, had I been starving. The two men are invited in for a banquet of unbelievable food, music, dance, and sex; and a night tournament to cap it off, in which Thomas jousts.

The castle interior a phantasmagoric “paradise”, where Thomas and Matthieu begin by feeding their faces from courses like these:

Pastries in the form of a small tower were shared out until a breach formed that revealed, within the tower, a painted almond-paste statue of a nude woman tied to a stake amid “flames” of crystallized honey and ginger that were to be broken off and sucked. Fruits and cheeses came next, served in bowls painted with images of men and women copulating. Then the main course: a huge platter piled with venison and other exotic meats, and several boats of garlicky brown gravy. Peacock and pheasant feather accented it artfully, and topping it were three large roasted monkeys sitting on cedar thrones, wearing capes of ermine. They wore golden crowns, which the cook, a man with narrow eyes and very long fingers, proudly tipped back, letting steam rise from their open skulls, into which he placed elegant spoons.

The monkey brains and spoons evoke the famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but there is nothing cartoonish in the way this unfolds, and the lure of the nightmare is impossible to resist.

The lord of the castle is described as a “stunted but ferocious leonine man with little black eyes” and it’s obvious there’s something off about him from the get (he’s really the devil Belphegor). When one of the castle knights cracks a homophobic joke, the hurdy-gurdy player joins in the laughter and momentarily stops turning his handle. The lord rounds on him:

“Did I tell you to stop playing? Your job is to keep the plague out of this castle, not stand there and laugh at our jokes like they’re meant for you to hear. Turn that goddamned thing. And make it pretty. Or I’ll break your hands. Is there anything sadder than a hurdy-gurdy player with broken hands? Maybe a Jew who sneezes at the sight of gold.”

A few pages later, the lord makes good on his promise, seizing the hurdy-gurdy’s hands and smashing them with a pewter mug. The festivities proceed as if in a David Lynch film, and after fucking one of the castle ladies — who stinks of “garlic, fecundity, and rot” — Thomas realizes the castle is literally from Hell. He and Matthieu continue as a willing participants though, and I suppose one can hardly blame them.

Paris: When the Saints Come Knocking

The next diabolical attack comes in Paris. It sort of reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village, in which forest creatures come knocking at night and splash red paint on the home doors of the villagers. In this case, those who come knocking don’t always stop at the door, and they would rather draw blood and kill than throw paint around for a few scares. Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine are taken in as guests in the shop/home of a woodcarver named Jehan, and his sweet wife Annette who practically wants to adopt Delphine on the spot. She doesn’t get the chance. Both man and wife pay dearly for sheltering their guests when an animated statue of the Virgin comes knocking the following night, in a truly terrifying scene:

The door opened on a six-foot statue of the Holy Virgin with a high crown, holding a scepter in one hand. But where the Holy Infant should have been cradled in the other, her stone hand held the ankle of an infant who dangled upside down with the purplish skin of a plague victim. He had been dead for some time. Flies buzzed around them. His milky eyes saw nothing. And yet he opened his mouth and cried.

“Help my baby,” the statue said, its mouth moving jerkily. It ducked its crown and stepped into the room with the sound of a millstone grinding, and everyone recoiled from it. Now it flung the infant at Thomas so hard it knocked him backward. Delphine gaped at it; when it moved, it somehow seemed like a statue seen in glimpses; it moved fast, but choppily. It was impossible.

The fight was awful. It was hard to see in the near-darkness of the candlelit workshop. Delphine shook her head, trying to wake up from what couldn’t be happening. The unholy Virgin had Annette by the arm. The arm broke. The Virgin bit something off her face and spat it at Jehan. Then it stove her head in with its scepter.

“No!” Delphine tried to scream, but it came out like a kitten’s mew.

Matthieu pulled Delphine behind him, saying a Pater Noster, but she looked around his robes. Thomas had flipped his sword, holding it near the point, bludgeoning the living statue, making sparks and chipping at it, but he could not stop it. It wanted the woodcarver now. Jehan’s mallet knocked a point off the crown, but then it lowered its head like a bull and gored him against the wall, again and again, shaking the building with the force of it.

Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine barely manage to escape the fate of their hosts, with the Virgin-parody croaking after them, “You didn’t help the baby.” (Said she who just threw the goddamn baby like a rock.) As they flee Paris they are accosted by many more statues — “saints, kings, and apostles, their limbs and faces spattered with blood” — and poor Saint Paul has been co-opted in quite an obscene manner: “holding his stone book in one hand, and, with the other, dangling a limp boy-child aloft by the head as if the saint were being fellated.” The apostle then unloads a deluge of shocking vulgarity on Matthieu, mocking the priest’s lustful desires, and it’s amusing to imagine what the historical apostle would make of this.

Auxerre: When the Dead Start Rising

The trio eventually come to Auxerre, where the devil Raum and a German boy are stirring up mobs with incendiary preaching and obscene miracles. Everywhere this preacher duo come to (they began their itinerary in Germany), they convince the town to crucify one of their citizens in order to appease God. The boy, to me, is one of the novel’s most entertaining (and tragic) characters, and his accent has a lot to do with it:

He was quite credible as the herald to a prophet, with his eyes of northern ocean blue and his dimpled smile. Even his German accent, normally a hindrance in these xenophobic times, lent him an air of exoticism; after all, if some holy cure were to come to Auxerre, it would not come from Burgundy. Why not the piney forests of the north?

“Wait!” he said, capturing his audience with an up-pointed finger and a theatrical tilt to his head. “I believes I hear them. But perhaps you will hear them, too, if you make der Alleluia.”

Nobody spoke.

“Children of Gott, make der ALLELUIA!”

“ALLELUIA!” they cried, and a drum began to beat a simple march.

And with that, a mob of self-flagellating Penitents appears, marching up the street into view:

Threescore farmers, carpenters, wives, and daughters who had all been converted by the beautiful boy. They were naked from the waist up, like the boy, all wearing simple skirts that had once been white but had been marched in and bled on until they were the color of earth and as stiff as leather. The crowd gasped at the sight of them; the women’s bare breasts, the old blood drying, the new blood trickling. Some of the Auxerrois even fell to their knees wailing, thinking Judgment Day had come, here, now, and soon Christ himself would split the sky and part the damned from the saved.

The preacher’s miracle follows. He calls himself Rutger and looks like a muscular Saxon, but he’s really the devil Raum. He beats his drum faster until the Penitents “bloodied themselves with their whips and branches in time to the rhythm, ending in an orgiastic frenzy that actually sprayed droplets into the crowd”. The madness catches on, and makes more Penitents on the spot, and then Rutger raises a man from the dead — a perverted Lazarus-like resurrection that’s more like reanimation, since the corpse comes back with an evil mind. At this point Delphine makes a surprising intervention, revealing power that she has, by kissing the man and returning him to death. She also kisses the preacher-boy (who had been a victim of the plague in Germany until “raised” by Rutger), and he too is granted the mercy of release. Rutger is furious and things get even more nasty.

Avignon: When the Pope Speaks

At first I was worried that the papacy was going to be caricatured, and my bowels almost burst when Pope Clement VI reversed his historical attitude towards Jewish people. In two papal bulls, Clement had condemned attacks on the Jews and exonerated them from causing the Black Plague, and while in the novel that is acknowledged, Clement now retracts those bulls, declaring:

“Our late words in defense of a certain quarter were, we now believe, in error. Many men, wiser men than we once thought, have said that we cannot drive the rat [Muslim] from the granary while the mouse [Jew] steals in the pantry. I tell those of you who wear crowns to ready yourselves and your kingdoms in secret; soon we shall recall our bull Sicut Judaeis, in defense of the Hebrew race, and issue another which shall grant any Christian whatsoever the right to turn his hand against any Jew, and to take from such whatever goods he desires, even his house and chattel. Very soon now, from the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours [Nov 12], the murder of the Hebrew shall no more be a sin than the hunt of a stag.”

Sicut Judaeis was the bull issued by Calixtus II over two centuries earlier, in 1120, in response to the slaughter of Jews during the First Crusade (1096-99). The bull stated that the Jews are not analogs to the Muslims; they are God’s chosen and thus Christians are forbidden, on pain of excommunication, from harming Jews, forcing them to convert, taking their property, and disturbing their festivals. This bull was reaffirmed by countless popes all the way through the 15th century, including Clement VI. In Buehlman’s fiction, however, Clement plans to nullify that bull and his own two recent bulls, as he summons a perverted form of a crusade. I thought this was a cheap shot — that the author was trying to malign Clement VI, or he just didn’t know his facts — until I realized how stupid I was being. For this isn’t the real Clement, of course, but a devil impersonator; the devil this time being Beelzebub, the worst of the lot.

Beelzebub’s agenda is to incite hatred and violence against the Jews from the chair of St. Peter, and he keeps a plantation across the river in Villeneuve where animated corpses toil in the vineyards, making wine that causes people fall under his spell when he speaks.

The Apocalypse: When the Lord Gives Answer

The devils’ war in heaven and on earth finally breaks out at Avignon, ignited when the real Clement is rescued from his imprisonment (by Delphine) and confronts the false Clement. Literally all Hell breaks loose, and God responds by sending his angels led by Zephon, Uriel, and Michael. It’s a climax of (again, literally) biblical proportions, and a most satisfying scene involves Thomas splitting the false Clements’s head down the middle. The fly-head of Beelzebub grows and replaces it immediately, and at this point I was thinking more than ever that Between Two Fires needs to be made into a film.

I can’t finish without addressing Thomas’s fate. Not only does he go through hell (figuratively) all throughout the story (his legs are broken at one point and he is tortured close to death), and gets a taste of Hell in the places described above, he goes to Hell for real when he dies in the apocalyptic showdown. Aside from Dante’s Inferno, I’ve not read a more compelling view of the afterlife of the damned:

He went from one torment to another, starting with bodily pain and going on to heartbreak. He was skinned and then made to drag his skin behind him, and then made to sew his skin back on himself, with the dirt and gravel it had picked up now under it. He was shredded slowly, crammed with thorns and made to eject them, crowded in with naked thongs and scalded, made to fight for cool water or a glimpse of sky, and when they saw that he liked fighting, they made him fight again and again for everything, for years, until even his rage was broken, and he wept and succumbed when confronted. He was murdered and betrayed by those he loved, and then made to murder and betray them, then desecrate them, cannibalize them, regurgitate them.

Nothing was left out. No weakness was overlooked.

For pride in his strength he was made a plaything. For his carnality he was rendered sexless.

He was made to live each oath he’d spoken, no matter how ridiculous, lapping Christ’s wounds, drowned with Christ in shit, boiled in Mary’s sour milk, sodomized by the cocks of the Apostles, until he had been stripped of his capacity for laughter or even the capacity to disbelieve the outrageous. They took his humor from him not because they themselves were humorless — they most certainly were not — but because it so offended them that man had been given this too.

Hell was mutable and hard, banal and shocking, painful and numbing, burning and frozen, but mostly it was real.

Hell was real.

I don’t know that Hell is real, and I tend to doubt it. But if it is, and if it’s anything like what’s presented in Between Two Fires, then God help me and probably us all.


Between Two Fires is one of those novels you’ve never heard of and wonder why. Buehlman has an arresting imagination, and he can write, unlike many novelists who make the bestseller lists. I’ll surely read the book again at some point. It’s a bleak story but not nihilistic; there’s a redemptive arc suggesting a glimmer of hope in a world where disaster and evil too often get the upper hand.

Rating: 8 ½ stars out of 10

Websites vs. Wedding Cakes: The Supreme Court Again

Here we go again, sort of. A graphic designer in Colorado is claiming a free speech right under the First Amendment to refuse to create websites for same-sex couples. The case is 303 Creative v. Elenis, and it’s is a variation on Masterpiece Cakeshop. v. Colorado (2018), which was the case of the baker who refused to bake cakes celebrating same-sex unions. The Supreme Court heard the oral arguments yesterday. I’m not entirely clear on the details, but on a first pass the case seems different from that of the baker. The baker was in the right, but the graphic designer may not be. Let’s review.

What happened before: Masterpiece Cakeshop. v. Colorado (2018)

I made my position clear with respect to the wedding cake case. The majority (7-2) was correct in upholding the right of a private business owner (a baker) to refuse to design one of his products (a cake) in a particular way (that celebrates gay marriage). But the majority copped out by ruling on the narrowest grounds imaginable — that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission during its consideration of the case had shown an anti-religious bias, and in speaking contemptuously of religion violated the Phillips’ rights to free expression. So they reversed the Commission’s decision in favor of the baker on this technicality, emphasizing that this case should not provide future guidance for courts that will face similar issues. They should have settled the issue once and for all, and there was one justice who did that in his concurrence: Neil Gorsuch.

Gorsuch took the baker’s case on its merits and rightly argued that Phillips was justified period in refusing designs for cakes — regardless of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s attitude towards him. The Commission had not only showed religious hostility; it had failed to recognize the more substantive point, that private business owners cannot be compelled to create a product that they object to on religious or moral grounds. Stunningly, the Commission had already acknowledged this very principle in its own treatment of three bakers who refused to bake cakes with anti-gay messages on them. The Commission, said Gorsuch, should have found in the Phillips’ favor, just as it had found in favor for the other three bakers. All four bakers were in the same situation. The three bakers refused to sell a cake that denigrated same-sex marriage, just as Jack Phillips refused to sell a cake celebrating same-sex marriage. Most crucially: The atheist bakers in the first case were happy to sell to persons of Christian faith, just as the conservative Christian baker in the second case was happy to sell to gay people. In both cases, it was the kind of cake, not the kind of customer, that mattered to the bakers. Gorsuch’s reasoning was correct. Business owners should not be compelled to artistic design, only to provide equal access to whatever they create. Whatever they sell, they must sell impartially and without discrimination. But they aren’t obligated to create something in the first place that goes against their religious or moral convictions. That’s what Gorsuch was saying in his concurrence, and that’s what should have been the unambiguous ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop.

What’s happening now: 303 Creative v. Elenis

If Lorie Smith were a Jack Phillips analog, she would be objecting to the idea of creating a wedding website designed explicitly for a same-sex couple. But no one, least of all the state of Colorado, is requiring that of her to begin with. The law only says that once Smith has designed a wedding website, she must allow anyone, including same-sex couples, to purchase that product. She is not obligated to create a new template or speak or express in any way her support of same-sex marriage (just as the Supreme Court said the baker didn’t have to create cakes in such celebration). For that matter, she is well within her rights to create templates that condemn same-sex marriage, according to her religious views.

So what’s the problem? I don’t see her as having a case. (1) Jack Phillips was very clear that he sold his bakery products without discrimination, including to LGBT people (as he should), though he would not design or create products celebrating LGBT unions (as is his right). The Colorado Civil Rights Commission was forcing him to do the latter, and so the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. (2) Lorie Smith is saying that she refuses to design wedding websites for same-sex couples, but what does she mean by that? Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) doesn’t require this of her to begin with. That law is modeled on the public accommodation law of the Civil Rights act of 1964, which requires

“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

The CADA (state) public accommodation law extends this privilege to protect those of any gender or sexual orientation, meaning that LGBT people have the right to buy products, but not to demand that those products be tailored in a special way for them. So Lorie Smith isn’t being forced to “design websites for same-sex couples”, as she claims. What she really means is that she doesn’t want her template used by same-sex couples, and so she is simply not going to sell her product to them. But that’s wrong; a clear violation of public accommodation law. How consumers use or modify website templates on their own is their business.

So why is the Supreme Court even hearing this case? Or am I misunderstanding it?


UPDATE: I may have misunderstood the case, as I explain below in the comment dated December 10.

Self-Censorship: Why ’80s Films Are So Awful

Breezing through Quentin Tarantino’s new book, I stumbled on his perfect, absolutely perfect, summation of everything wrong with ’80s films. This is stuff I’ve been saying for years, though it’s often fallen on deaf ears to those who maintain that the ’80s were actually a great time for movies. Tarantino spoke briefly to the issue on Bill Maher’s show last year, but in his new book he expounds at length, and I will cite him at length:

“After growing up in the anything-goes seventies, the eighties marked a play-it-safe decade, like that other horrible decade for Hollywood movies, the fifties. But the eighties were even worse. In the fifties you could claim that it was a repressed society that imposed restrictions on Hollywood, their movies, and their artists. But in the eighties the restrictions Hollywood imposed on their own product were self-imposed. The harshest censorship is self-censorship. And it doesn’t always come from the big bad studio either. Many filmmakers watered down their own vision right from the beginning.

“When it came to artists whose film work was of an uncompromising nature in the eighties, you had David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, Abel Ferrara, Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma (sometimes), and David Cronenberg. And that’s it. Yeah, there were one-offs. John Carpenter’s The Thing. William Friedkin’s Cruising. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. Jim McBride’s Breathless. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. But, Hellraiser aside, these directors were usually punished for their perceived transgressions, by the press, the public, and the industry.

“The curse of eighties cinema wasn’t just that they wouldn’t let you shoot somebody jerking off to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. It was that the complex and complicated lead characters of the seventies were the characters that eighties cinema avoided completely. Complex characters aren’t necessarily sympathetic. Interesting people aren’t always likeable. But in the Hollywood of the eighties likeability was everything. After the seventies, film went back to the restraints of the fifties. Back to when controversial films had to be drained of life, changed, or turned into morality plays… And if you did make a movie about a fucking bastard, you could bet that fucking bastard would see the error of their ways and be redeemed in the last twenty minutes. Like, for example, all of Bill Murray’s characters.” (pp 118-121)

For the exceptions to the rule in the second paragraph, Tarantino uses some examples I’ve used (Lynch, De Palma, Cronenberg, Bigelow, Friedkin, Barker), and I find the omission of Martin Scorsese to be telling. Even Scorsese watered himself down in the ’80s. The director of Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) wouldn’t return to that kind of form until the ’90s, with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), etc. Instead he pumped out comedies and the godawful Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The only decent thing Scorsese did in the ’80s was the black comedy After Hours (1985).

I would even add qualifiers to the legitimate exceptions. Take David Lynch. Yes, he made a masterpiece with Blue Velvet (1986), but it may betray a bit of self-censorship. For all its unremitting darkness and shocking perversity, it ends in a way that no other David Lynch film does: with a happy ending. Almost a fairly tale ending, in fact, with the bad guys dead, Jeffrey and Sandy in each others arms in the parents’ home (see more below on the theme of the nuclear family), and Dorothy Valens liberated from terror and abuse, happily reunited with her little boy who had been held hostage.

None, absolutely none, of Lynch’s other films has anything close to a happy ending like this (not even the G-rated Straight Story), and many of them are downright nihilistic. Eraserhead (1977) ends with Spencer breaking under pressure and killing the baby he never wanted. The Elephant Man (1980) ends with Merrick dying in bed. Wild at Heart (1990) just ends on craziness. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) ends with Laura Palmer being brutally murdered by her father who had raped her repeatedly. Lost Highway (1997) ends at square one, with Fred trapped helplessly in a cycle of crimes for which he is falsely blamed. Mulholland Drive (2001) ends with Diane hating and killing herself. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) ends on that final shot of Laura Palmer screaming, terrorized out of her mind, when she realizes who she is. If Blue Velvet is a dark film, it at least gives the audience an exit massage.

I’m not suggesting that Blue Velvet’s ending is deficient or lame. Happy endings can work when they feel earned, and it certainly feels earned in a film as suffocating as this one. I’m just not sure that’s how Lynch would have ended it had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Maybe it was self-censorship on a subconscious level. But I suspect that even a pure artist like him may have wanted to throw his viewers a bone in an era when subversive films were widely frowned upon.

Other Points

I would add two points to what Tarantino says. First, I would extend his list of exceptions to include a bunch of films from the early eighties (1980-82), which are essentially seventies films at heart: The Shining (1980), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raging Bull (1980; good Scorsese), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982). All of these films are excellent, and may as well have been made in the seventies — unlike some of their sequels in the mid or late 80s (Return of the Jedi, Evil Dead 2, Mad Max 3, Conan the Destroyer) which were feces.

Second, I would point out the paper written a decade ago (2011) by Chris Maltezos, The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s. He writes:

“As the 70s progressed a notable shift in cultural perception would occur: a growing antagonism toward the liberalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s: hippies, anti-­war protests, sex and violence on television, sex education in schools, forced busing, welfare spending and legalized abortions… [leading] to a dissatisfaction which precipitated Reagan’s more nostalgic, optimistic vision for the 1980’s. This political and cultural shift veered away from the countercultural movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, harkening Americans toward patriotism, unity and traditional family values.”

That’s basically where the 80s self-censorship (that Tarantino speaks of) came from. The importance of the nuclear family in particular seeps through even in the exceptions. I already mentioned Blue Velvet. Take also Near Dark (1987). I still think it’s the best vampire film of all time, but it does have an “80s happy ending” that rubs me wrong: Caleb and Mae are given blood transfusions by Caleb’s father, which reverses their vampirism and makes them human again; the implication is that Mae will live happily ever after with Caleb, under the same roof with his father and little sister. That ending rings false, and I doubt Bigelow would have written it if she had made Near Dark in the ’70s or ’90s. Caleb and Mae would have remained vampires, tragic loners, and never seen again by Caleb’s family.

Then there is Aliens (1986), which I don’t count as exceptional though many people still (incredibly) hold it up as a superior sequel. It has aged poorly for many reasons, one of which is the happy ending of Ripley and Hicks and Newt escaping alive — Ripley clearly functioning as a maternal figure for Newt. Contrast this with the ’70s Alien and the ’90s Alien 3, both of which have a nihilistic edge and certainly no “family values” baggage. Aliens is really just Alien on steroids, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Anyway, Tarantino’s book is worth reading cover to back. It’s film criticism by an actual filmmaker, with the wit and snap we love him for. He writes much as he speaks, in a free-associative manner, going from one topic to the next sometimes without warning, but always keeping you engaged about films you know and those you’ve never seen.

Film Picks of 2022

My end of the year roundup. Tár is the masterpiece; The Northman my adrenaline rush; Pinocchio a revision that moved me to tears; Kimi a sleek paranoid thriller; The Batman a comic hero dipped in Se7en; Enola Holmes 2 my guilty-pleasure rom com; Emily the Criminal a solid effort from a first-time director; Glass Onion pure fun; X a ’70s-style exploitation-slasher; Vortex my suicide pill; Prey my surprise from an otherwise rotten franchise; and Operation Mincemeat the hidden gem.

TÁR - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters October 7 - YouTube
1. Tár, Todd Field. 5 stars. Field hasn’t made a film since Little Children (2006), and as excellent as that one was, Tár is a masterpiece. It’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance (even better than Carol), as she plays a maestro in Berlin who rises high and falls low. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen since There Will Be Blood (2007). There’s so much to unpack (I examined the cancel culture scene), and I respect Field for engaging identity politics and power imbalances without preaching to the audience. Tár is artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues and with Lydia Tár. She has given me my quote for the year through her ridicule of a woke student: The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. And another one on top of that, which is as much a self-indictment: In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Trailer 'The Northman' Tampilkan Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy hingga Björk dalam Pertempuran Viking yang Cadas - Semua Halaman - Hai
2. The Northman, Robert Eggers. 4 ½ stars. There’s no compromise in this Nordic adaptation of Hamlet, which drowns the viewer in codes of revenge and family honor. Here we have Prince Amleth intent on avenging his father and saving his mother, only to find in the end that his mother wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn of his efforts. He does find some salvation in a slave-woman named Olga, who happens to be a sorceress. Myth-wise this film is the inverse of The Witch, in which pagan beliefs were marginalized by the Puritan Christianity of 1600s America. Here in the 900s of northern Europe, Christianity is an outlier mentioned only in passing, and Nordic polytheism is the norm. That sense of Nordic doom — that Ragnarok is what everyone lives for — never lets up. If you want Hamlet meets Conan the Barbarian, then this film is for you.

Pinocchio' review: A reimagined story is beautiful but comes with too many strings attached | CNN
3. Pinocchio, Guillermo del Toro. 4 ½ stars. This rewrite of Pinocchio is extremely liberal but far more in touch with the dark spirit of Grimm than anything Disney and the copycats cranked out. (And it certainly puts to shame the other Pinocchio film that came out this year directed by Robert Zemeckis; avoid that one at all costs.) Del Toro sets Pinocchio in the time of fascist Italy, completing his “trilogy”, as he calls it, of fascist-themed horror fantasies. It’s no accident that those three films — The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and this one — are his very best, as he blends the following themes in the context of childhood terror: Europe between the two world wars, the rise of fascism, and the land of the dead. Pinocchio is killed quite a bit in this version, and returns to life (only to watch his loved ones eventually die), and it’s a very moving film that deals with the question of death, underscoring how life only has meaning once you realize how fleeting it is.

Kimi, an Entertaining if Minor Slice of Pandemic Life – Film Epoch
4. Kimi, Stephen Soderbergh. 4 ½ stars. The best Rear Window-like film I’ve seen in a long time and Soderbergh’s best film since Contagion (2011). The first half keeps us inside the apartment of an agoraphobic woman during the Covid pandemic. She works for a big tech company by reviewing audio files from the incoming data streams from Kimi devices (like our Alexa devices) and making corrections to the software when Kimi doesn’t understand what the customer is saying. One day she hears a woman being murdered in one of the audio files, and tries to tell the big-tech bosses, but it turns out they want to sweep it under the rug — and kill her to keep it all quiet. Once that second half kicks into gear it doesn’t stop for a moment, turning the compelling bottle-drama into an equally compelling thriller.

The Batman (2022) | MUBI
5. The Batman, Matt Reeves, 4 ½ stars. This is Batman meets Se7en, with the serial-killing Riddler we deserve after Jim Carrey’s slaughter-job in the ’90s. The cinematography is stunning (the best in any Batman film) and the score genius (the best music in any Batman film), and the ugly clandestine world of payoffs, informants and rank corruption is just what a superhero film needs to be taken seriously for a change, especially after the absurdity of Ben Afleck. No doubt this film is setting us up for even more — and I am dying to see what kind of Joker Reeves will give us. After Chris Nolan, I didn’t think there was any point in more Batman films, but this proved me wrong.
6. Enola Holmes 2, Harry Bradbeer. 4 stars. Enola’s first outing was dull and unfocused. Her second is solid and moves at a fluid pace. Even breaking the fourth wall (which I normally hate as a cinematic device) works; it makes us feel like we matter to Enola, and Millie has just the right chops to deliver these lines effectively. The mystery is rather convoluted, and it’s easy to lose sight of how the mystery is being solved (my public service cheat sheet may be of assistance here), but you may want to watch the film twice, and it definitely rewards repeat viewings. Not just to wrap your head around the clues and details, but to savor Millie’s performance. (Some of her reactions and facial expressions are utterly priceless.) Sherlock is also used quite well. If this turns into a franchise that repeats the spirit of this sequel rather than the first film, then I’ll probably become a fan.

Emily the Criminal - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle
7. Emily the Criminal, John Patton Ford, 4 stars. Shades of Victoria (2015): a decent woman gets pulled into a world of crime by a genuinely charming guy, and as much we hate what they do, they are easy to warm to as people. That says something even more so for Emily. Victoria helped rob a bank; Emily participates in credit card fraud. The former is a victimless crime; the latter really hurts people. But there’s more of a point to Emily. Namely, that if it’s impossible to enjoy life through respectable means, people will chase it by other means. Victoria was happy and just got caught up in something she naively volunteered for. Emily lives under the weight of unpaid student loans, an unfortunate criminal record, and a shitty job as a contract employee that she can’t escape; her other job interviews go nowhere. This is my edge-of-the-seat thriller for the year. It’s a suspenseful, thoughtful, and honest effort for first-time director Ford.

Glass Onion' Is Actually About Living in the Age of Musk, Ye and Trump - POLITICO
8. Glass Onion, Rian Johnson. 4 stars. Knives Out was a tough act to follow, and while Glass Onion doesn’t measure up it still is very good. The mileage comes from contemporary relevance: powerful loathsome billionaires. Says a Politico reviewer: “The rich are not only evil; many of them are preternaturally stupid, their legitimacy propped up only by the deference of those around them. The result is an allegory for all of us living with the omnipresent Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos.” Ed Norton plays the role of a stupid undeserving billionaire (Miles Bron) to perfection, that it actually ruined the mystery for me. I knew in my gut from the start that whoever was about to be killed on his private island, this piece of shit would be the murderer. Yet it didn’t matter. The fun of this film, unlike Knives Out, is less in the mystery solving, and more in watching Benoit Blanc lecture all these over-privileged jerks while secretly working against Bron with the sister of his victim.

X | Ti West On His Thoughts On 'Elevated Horror' And On The Making Of X And The Upcoming Pearl [Exclusive] - LRM
9. X, Ti West, 4 stars. The great Ti West has landed a feast of slasher sexploitation that I was pleasantly surprised by. A group of young filmmakers go to a remote cabin to make a porno film. Things start well; there’s fun and sexual advance; then a homicidal sex-crazed hag has other ideas for the group, and everything explodes into mayhem and slaughter. West understands the technique of slow build and how crank up a mighty uncomfortable tension. It’s set in the year 1979 and is a throwback to the hard-core horror films of the 70s, though the themes of female sexuality and empowerment are better done and less cliche. In the hands of most other directors, X would have been probably just okay, but West elevates X into something quite exhilarating.

Vortex review: Gaspar Noé's split-screen dementia drama is a grind
10. Vortex, Gaspar Noé. 4 stars. I follow Gaspar Noé’s films religiously, because whatever subject he tackles (extreme violence against women in Irreversible, out-of-body experiences in Enter the Void, acid trips in Climax), he really makes me think, since he never pulls punches and always taps into an arresting style. In the case of Vortex he use split-screen to portray a Parisian elderly couple concurrently suffering the indignities of old age — He in denial, She losing herself in dementia. If you love Noe, you’ll love Vortex, and if you hate him, well, you may hate him more than ever this time around. The film is dedicated to “all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”, and it’s as depressing as it sounds.

Predator' Prequel 'Prey' Gets 2022 Release Date - Variety
11. Prey, Dan Trachtenberg. 4 stars. The Predator franchise is awful (I never even liked the original), but Prey redeems it by thinking outside the box and sending the alien after Native Americans in the early 1700s. A young Comanche healer wants to be a warrior, but as a woman she’s saddled with healing duties to the ridicule of most of the men. The film of course is about her proving herself against the alien predator where the men fail abysmally, but never once does it feel like woke or gender preaching. It’s a great film, and if you’re new to the franchise, you may even enjoy it more than I did, having no baggage from the other garbage installments.

Operation Mincemeat' review: Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen star in a delicious true tale of World War II espionage - CNN
12. Operation Mincemeat, John Madden. 3 ½ stars. In the stew of World War II dramas and thrillers, is it possible to do anything new? Yes, actually, and Operation Mincemeat does it by portraying a British intelligence operation that was so absurd in its conception but historically accurate, so you know what you’re watching is largely real. The Brits took an anonymous corpse, invented a character for it — “Captain William Martin” — with a detailed and romantic backstory. They filled the corpse’s jacket with “confidential documents” suggesting that the Allies were about to invade Greece and Sardinia (as opposed to Sicily, the actual target), and then arranged the body to wash ashore off the coast of Europe, where hopefully “Captain Martin” would end up in Axis hands. The film’s success lies in focusing on the romance between two of the intelligence officers, Ewen and Jean, which is filtered through the intricate love story they invent for their corpse; Operation Mincemeat ends up being an unrequited romance as much as an espionage thriller, and I must say a pretty damn good one.

Tár: Film of the Year

Earlier this year I named The Northman the film of the year, but that was premature. The honor goes to Tár, which I managed to see over Thanksgiving week-end, and then watched it again two days later. It’s Todd Field’s best effort as a writer-director; it’s Cate Blanchett’s best performance of all time (yes, even better than Carol); the kind of film you indulge by losing yourself in for two and a half hours, wishing for five more. It’s also a film that’s very easy to mistake — as I did on first viewing — as being based on a true account. So I’ll say upfront that Lydia Tár is a fictional character. You don’t need to wonder about what liberties have been taken for sake of drama. Her sociopathy is built from the ground up.

Lydia is a maestro — the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic — who rises high and falls low. Her story is essentially about what greatness does to someone who achieves it. The cost of ambition and power is depicted on an epic scale that I haven’t seen in a film since There Will Be Blood (2007). A Vox reviewer noted the comparison as well. Oil tycoon Daniel Plainview ended up alone and miserable, much as Lydia does when she’s finally ousted from the Berlin orchestra and can only get a job teaching and conducting in the Third World:

“Their lives aren’t perfect matches, but the same principle applies: that they’ve clawed their way up a mountain composed of dead and wounded bodies, and perch atop it with a shiny, composed facade. It’s only through cracks in the veneer that you can glimpse the real person. They are ruthless and bitter and brilliant. Their teeth are always on edge, their jaws always grinding. That Lydia is a woman only adds to it all; she’s not meant to have gotten here in the first place.”

There’s so much one could say about Tár, but I’ll look at one particular scene that has gone viral. People are calling it the “cancel culture scene”, in which Lydia instructs a woke student (named Max) to let go of the ego in service to the music. His problem? He resents (wait for it) having to learn Bach, because “white male cis composers aren’t his thing”. To which Lydia derisively says:

[Lydia] “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity.”

Max sputters that he does like Edgard Varèse. Lydia’s scorn continues to roll over:

[Lydia] “Oh, well, then you must be aware that Varèse famously stated that jazz is a negro product exploited by the Jews. That didn’t stop Jerry Goldsmith from ripping him off for his Planet of the Apes score. It’s kind of a perfect insult, don’t you think? But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissonant is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours. Now, someday, Max, when you go out into the world, and you guest-conduct for a major or minor orchestra, you may notice that the players have more than light bulbs and music on their stands. They will also have been handed rating sheets — the purpose of which is to rate you. Now, what kind of criteria would you hope that they would use to do this? Your score reading and stick technique or something else?”

Max says nothing.

[Lydia] “All right, everyone. Using Max’s criteria, let’s consider Max’s thing, applied to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Now, can we agree on two pieces of observation? One, that Anna was born in Iceland. And two, that she is a super-hot young woman. Show of hands? All right, now let’s turn our gaze back to Max and see if we can square how any of those things possibly relate to him.”

Max gets up and leaves, calling Lydia a “fucking bitch”.

[Lydia] “And you are a robot. I mean, unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media. If you want to dance the mass, you must service the composer. You have to sublimate yourself — your ego and, yes, your identity.”

If only more teachers had this sort of backbone. But while Lydia’s scoldings are appropriate — especially her parting blow about the ego — the irony is that she will end up letting her own ego destroy her. Her colossal ego is established in the opening scene: in an interview on stage she declares that as a maestro she has the power to stop and start time. (“You cannot start without me, I start the clock… Sometimes my hand stops, which means that time stops.”) Her woke students may be morons, but that doesn’t mean she’s a hero or “good guy”. You’re not supposed to cheer for anyone in Tár, even those you may want to cheer for in the heat of the moment. You’re supposed to be unsettled by everyone; think Little Children (Field’s last film), in which every character is pathetic. Tar‘s characters aren’t that bad, but they are full of mess, and Lydia most of all. Her habit of grooming female students for sexual favors finally catches up to her.

Field is able to engage identity politics and power imbalances without lecturing the audience, and that’s a rare feat in film these days. He has no interest in favoring a particular side or viewpoint, which makes Tár artistic, not political, and lets the viewer wrestle with the issues. It doesn’t judge Lydia or any other character. It trusts the viewer’s intelligence. I’m still drinking glasses of wisdom from it, but I’m taking these two Lydia-lines as my quotes for the year: (1) The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity. (2) In order to better ourselves, we must sublimate our ego and even our identity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5