I don’t watch movies often these days. Documentaries are more my go-to, but even they are far between.
This weekend, though, I was very in the mood to watch things and, in fact, to do little else. Now I’m reflecting on my viewing choices, wondering if they were in some way connected.
As you know, if I’m covering something in this blog, chances are it’s directly or indirectly linked to the theme of control (often the loss thereof). The same can probably be said for my idiosyncratic selections of long-form media.
Indeed, taken as a unit, this weekend’s picks seem to touch in various ways on the theme of control over one’s own body and mind. Including what happens when forces strip it away, and the struggle to rend it back.
My first pick was Natalie Erika James’ dementia allegory Relic, from earlier this year. I can’t endorse all James’ cinematic choices; particularly vexing to me was the lack of a clear set of rules for the movie’s universe to follow (If the rotting house and its malicious, transforming corridors are Edna’s mind, how do her relatives see and experience all the same things she does? And, by the end, what IS Edna, exactly?). Not to mention the heavy-handed, graphic denouement that, while I give it points for its radical display of empathy in the face of repulsion, took me a little further than I, a fan of subtlety, preferred to go. Flaws aside, the film will stick with me for hitting mostly the right notes in its complex characterization of a deteriorating elder. After an initial, moralizing fake-out, it served up an effective reminder: dazzling glimpses of an individual’s remaining shrewdness, sass, or sensuality (in short, their full-bodied personhood) may ignite our fond idealism as we weigh options for their end-of-life care…but we may also find these charmed moments cruelly upended (and our decision-making complicated) by flashes of their anger, bigotry, even violence. To me, this turning-on-a-dime and the ethical dilemma it posed was the principal bogeyman in Relic, and it was captured visually in a few ways I won’t soon forget.
Next came Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ stark but quirky Swallow (2019) which, like Relic, is a slow-burn with a somewhat divisive ending. My issue with this one was what seemed like a couple too-convenient plot points (the out-of-nowhere doozy of an origin story reveal, the escalation of rich hubby’s misogynist villainy – not quite from 0-60, but definitely from, like, 10-60) that were more abruptly interjected than massaged in. Also, though I have no doubt there are lots of people out there still striving to enact a hackneyed, 1950’s-esque domestic lifestyle, the whole setup with its verging-on-stock characters (heroine excluded) struck me as too contrived to be believable as anything but a fable of sorts. Still, I come away with more positive feelings than negative. Anyone who has deeply hated themselves and clenched their every muscle to behave in a way that the object of their affection approves and validates – essentially, to not “f-up” – will see themselves in this film at least once. If you do, the quiet riot of Hunter’s peculiar secret addiction will make you smirk, if only till you wince. Despite some dark sh*t, the movie is often playfully subversive; Hunter’s gradual transformation as the power dynamic slowly tips is thrilling; and her interactions with a couple of peripheral male characters were disarming (and tear-jerking) acknowledgements of human intricacy.
Finally, the unconventionally structured, deliberately disorienting documentary Meeting People is Easy (1998) follows Radiohead as they tour amid the foaming hype around OK Computer. Given that my other selections can both be categorized as psychological horror flicks, this is the one that’s “not like the others”, but it, too, chronicles a certain loss of agency: that of a commodified rock star surrounded by empty adoration that extends only as far as his monetary value. Though I’m sure the whole band felt a similar existential exhaustion, it’s the achingly retractive, mercurial introvert Yorke whom the gaze centers as he stumbles, sometimes compliant, sometimes combative, through one inane interrogation, photoshoot, and meet ‘n’ greet after another. The soundtrack to this sensory onslaught is clips of the beloved songs themselves, and the irony is thick when you realize the lyrics – all scathing social critiques and wails of longing for escape or deeper connection – are precisely what brought the band such popularity and painted them into this corner in the first place. At one point, as I watch the under-thirty Yorke unleash a rant about global economics on music journalists that probably just wanted to ask him the equivalent of the “boxers or briefs” question, I want to tell him to hang in there, that one day plugging along through the nonsense might turn out to be worth it. But, having opted for obscurity myself, I’m hardly the one to make that call.