I used to do these fairly regularly at the tail end of 2020, and then I stopped. This was during a period when I stopped doing a lot of things I previously had enjoyed, and had previously used to plot the constellations of my personality. Cinephilia, especially, took a hit during this period, disconnected as I was from (duh) going to the cinema, but also the social circles with which I went to see and talk about films with, and the prolonged break-up from a shatteringly disappointing masters program in film studies. Anyway: I’m doing it again now, not least of all so I can cease using Letterboxd, A Bad Website!
To celebrate the improvement in weather and the confirmation of my vaccine appointments, my immune system decided I should catch a cold. Thankfully on this, day two of my very brave struggle, necking echinacea and cold and flu tablets like they were fun drugs, the weather stank and so I didn’t feel too bad about being trapped inside. Between the thick head of illness and the fogginess of pharmaceuticals, I hadn’t the clarity to pay attention to anything that might benefit from a prolonged period of enforced inside time. It was like a lockdown in miniature: provided with an entirely blank canvas which might be populated with all the writing projects I’ve dreamt up, the numerous hardbacks I’ve been hoarding, and the very important cinema I’ve added to my MUBI watchlist, I instead did…not that. I definitely fall down on the Dr Buckles side of this Adam & Joe Show sketch that pushes its way through from my memory banks to the front of my mucus-muddled brain whenever I get sick.
After numerous false starts — trying to pick back up where I left off with Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, which I started during a bout of insomnia earlier in the week, or finally getting round to some Angela Shanlec, whose work I suspect I’ll love under the right conditions — I settled on The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996). Yet another film I’ve been meaning to get around to for years, having known the title and poster art for a good long while, as well as its reputation as a foundational work of New Queer Cinema, but little else. It turned out to be exactly right for my current state of mind: intellectually nourishing, energetic in its rhythms where the languid/torpid quality of my other options would have sent me nodding off, and repeatedly surprisingly delightful! It has an ouroboros element to its cinematic autofiction: Dunye writes, directs, and stars as “Cheryl,” a frustrated aspiring filmmaker working at a video store in Philly, disenchanted by the flotsam of the local dating pool.
That’s until she is energised by the twin enchantments of a new project and a new relationship. The former is an investigation into the titular eponymous actor, a Black star of early cinema seemingly forgotten to the sands of time, cinephilia, and the archive. The latter is a too-good-to-be-true hook-up with a conventionally attractive white woman (Guinevere Turner, later screenwriter of American Psycho!) who picks her up at work. The two narratives mirror one another as Cheryl finds out that the actress, later identified as Fae Richards, had a not-so-clandestine lesbian relationship with her white director/co-star. On top of that, The Watermelon Woman was made during a period when the real Duyne was in a relationship with the film’s white producer, Alexandra Juhasz, a point of racial tension she explored in several of her early shorts. The first feature directed by an (out) Black lesbian filmmaker, Duyne’s willing of such a milestone into existence is similarly paralleled by the story of Richards, who isn’t real either. She was made up for the purposes of the film; frustrated by her inability to find any evidence of Black queerness in film history, Duyne decided to invent it.
I could write shedloads about The Watermelon Woman, which does so much — disrupts the already-shaky “reality” of the film further by switching between stunningly-restored 35mm footage and video for the scenes of Cheryl’s documentary, includes hilariously self-aware cameos from Camille Paglia and Sarah Schulman as gatekeeping white feminists, returns an eroticism to the desexualised role of the “mammy” in early American cinema, is a really fucking funny comedy, a forensic investigation of a romantic relationship fraught as much with social/racial tensions as individual neuroses — within a ninety-minute runtime, managing to feel both brisk and full, a proper flavoursome meal that doesn’t leave you feeling bloated.
You can read analyses of the film by smarter, more qualified people than me elsewhere, but I’ll just share the thought I had partway through: would I, and others of my ilk, have been better of seeing this, rather than Clerks (which it shares nominative similarities, being a low-budget debut feature of a similar period, partially set in a video store, savvy to pop culture signifiers and exploring modern young relationships) at a formative age, or would it have just made us a different kind of insufferable?
My effusive reaction to Duyne’s film was to my next viewing’s detriment. After procrastinating by scrolling through the watchlists on the umpteen streaming services to which I subscribe, I settled on Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013), which is…fine. At its centre is an well-acted burgeoning romance between Julie Louise-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini, playing middle-aged divorcees tentatively feeling their way into something new, bruised and cautious and unsure of their lovability. Which would be enough, really, but there’s a mid-film twist (given away in the synopsis on Disney+, excellent work lads) that Gandolfini’s uptight ex is the self-same pretentious poet (played by Catherine Keener) Louise-Dreyfuss has recently befriended.
Enough Said is funny, warm and light, even when the farcical element is introduced, even when the respective neuroses of the central couple — those accumulated over a lifetime of heartbreak, internalised social pressure, concerns about the “right” way to act, body shaming — appear as if they may snuff out their spark before it’s fully lit. It’s also visually uninspired to the point of being offensively televisual. The “offense,” I suppose, for this Tysky socialist is that Holofcener’s film shares the concerns and negative aesthetics of peers Judd Apatow and Nancy Meyers. I’m put in mind of an excellent piece for Blood Knife by RS Benedict I read recently, where she writes more broadly about the desexualised “hot” bodies of blockbuster cinema/Instagram, but spares a couple of paragraphs for the similarly lifeless homes featured in both these sorts of films and, presumably, the actual homes of the rich and famous, comparing them unfavourably to the haunted house of Poltergeist:
“The house looks real…There are toys and magazines scattered around the floor. There are cardboard boxes waiting to be unpacked since the recent move. Framed pictures rest against the wall; the parents haven’t gotten around to mounting them yet. The kitchen counters are cluttered and mealtimes are rambunctious and sloppy, as one expects in a house with three children. They’re building a pool in the backyard, but not for appearances: it’s a place for the kids to swim, for the parents to throw parties, and for the father to reacquaint himself with his love of diving.
“At the time, this house represented an aspirational ideal of American affluence. Compare this to homes in films now: massive, sterile cavernous spaces with minimalist furniture. Kitchens are industrial-sized and spotless, and they contain no food. There is no excess. There is no mess.”
It doesn’t help, either, that a key subplot revolves around Toni Collette being unable to bring herself to fire her Latino maid. The warmth, humanity, and sexiness of the coupling central to the film is at odds to the world it exists in, and the dismissiveness it has towards anyone who is part of that world, and it doesn’t feel like that’s the point. A shame!
Still unable to concentrate long enough to read anything too involved, I made no progress with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (which I’ve enjoying immensely), and instead slowly worked my way through Nick Pinkerton’s essay on IRL streamers. The despondency of being ill for the third day in a row mixed with despair at the contents of the gutter Pinkerton gamely documents for those of us morbidly curious enough to be interested, but without the requisite gumption to rubberneck. Bummed and worn out, I managed to complete half my tasks on the house cleaning rota before I retreated back to bed exhausted. Struggling to decide on how to fill the day, I swiped through my YouTube “Watch Later” playlist, the weight of which fluctuates as videos get taken down and I realise that, in all likelihood, I’m never going to watch a fifteen-minute Sid Caesar skit I saw link on a subreddit for “Obscure Media” six months ago. I did, however, watch a fair amount of stuff from it — mostly in the background, whilst playing the excellent 2000 AD-styled roguelike Void Bastards — before giving my full attention to Guardians of the New World (Flo Laval, 2014).
I’m not sure how I came across this documentary. I’ve a dim memory of looking over someone’s shoulder when they were watching it, in some public setting, but when in the past year or so would that have been?Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It uses the case study of Paris-based hacktivist collective Telecomix to survey hacker culture more broadly, but especially the past decade: the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, Anonymous et al. While it doesn’t do anything radical formally, I appreciate its localised centrepoint, from which larger discussion can emanate, rather than the slickly packaged Netflix style which proposes itself as a definitive, authoritative source, and winds up resembling nothing more than a Wikipedia article, complete with multiple sources whose motivations for appearing and backgrounds outside the film are opaque but for a chevron with their job title.
Mostly I’m enraptured by the film’s depiction of the politics underpinning such groups, which are so often deliberately left out of or else purposefully mangled by filmmakers such as, say, the hacks behind The Great Hack. Telecomix is a proudly anarchistic, collective organisation, one which believes in decentralising the internet, divesting oneself from corporate interests and building an alternative through supporting and educating others. They’re the polar opposite of the 8chan-born alt-right, whose insurrections into elections and individual’s private lives alike are motivated by nihilistic hate and enacted using tools which, by and large, were pre-made. The trolls simply had to provide a connection from which to launch them. These groups, meanwhile, are curious tinkerers, sharing knowledge and working on solutions together, in pursuit of a better, alternative tomorrow. Then again I’m cucked to the point that any on-screen depiction of solidarity between seemingly disparate groups rends me a blubbering mess, so maybe I’m being excessively sentimental about the whole thing.
Also on my list, along with a video essay on Taskmaster and existentialism (the algorithm gets it troublingly bang-on sometimes) and a series of Real World-spoofing ads for Animal Crossing, is Untitled: New Blue (Paul Schrader, 1995). Again, I can’t remember how I came across this one, and it’s a genuine curio in Schrader’s already-eccentric filmography. Apparently produced for the BBC, it’s a short film about an artwork displayed in the filmmaker’s home, created and gifted by his former mentor and legendary movie critic Manny Farber. I don’t know if it’s the result of who it was made for, or Schrader “putting on airs,” but it’s peculiar to see Schrader working in the mode of the academy, rather than the autodidact in the dirty mac shaking his fist and ranting outside of it.
There’s a studied and not entirely convincing style that has more in common with a BBC Four documentary presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. It’s soundtracked by tasteful piano music, the camera pans gently across the canvas and its placement in Schrader’s apartment on a smooth dolly, portions of Farber’s voice talking about the piece are rendered as naff-looking on-screen text. Farber is best known for his widely-quoted and oft-misinterpreted essay “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art,” and Schrader’s film goes to great pains to insist that “Untitled: New Blue” is an example of the latter. “Termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity,” he contends in the piece which (to put it reductively) champions the qualities of B-movies and low-art above the bloated, pompous high art which says comparatively little. This section is quoted as the camera highlights sections of the canvas, an abstract piece which is splattered with found objects — fruit, canes, scribbled notes — suggestive of this more sprawling, detritus-strewn form of artwork. Yet this argument is put forward by a short which operates in the style of white elephant art and, as with the similar tension in Enough Said, unconvincingly so. Odd!