What I saw in 2016

Movie lists are stupid. And yet, every year around this time every newspaper, culture site, blog, radio station, shopping circular, what have you, trumpets their picks. I spent much of this year playing movie critic as one of my side gigs and thus saw more movies than any other year in memory. A good chunk of what I reviewed was utter garbage and I won’t rehash it here again (for those who are bored or have a lot of spare time, you can read all the reviews here).

Best Of lists are pointless because each book, movie, painting, artisanal doughnut, or whatever, doesn’t start out at the same point and doesn’t aspire to end up in the same place, so judging them against each other is absurd. The best any of us can do is talk about the things which moved us for whatever reason that they did. The novel complication with movie lists this year is that the definition of what a movie is is undergoing a drastic reappraisal. Much of the talent in the industry has gone over to the episodic series produced by the likes of Amazon and Netflix and away from the multiplexes. Most grownups can’t be compelled to watch anything but what can be accessed from their couches or cellphones; the only movies which make real money are gimmick superhero/product tie-in vehicles. In the last few months of the year, the requisite awards fare is trotted out to the theaters but the few who will bother to see any of these films will likely watch them at home. The era of the two-hour feature film is going the way of record-collector fetishism; there will always be a niche market for obsessives of the form but it is less and less a part of the mainstream conversation.

I can’t imagine a life without going to the movies. It has been one of my refuges from work-a-day reality for as long as I can remember and I can’t see that ever changing. But I have to admit that some of the films which moved me most in the past twelve months were ones I saw on my laptop. Louis CK’s Horace and Pete remains the thing I think about more than any other. It’s not quite a movie or a TV show or a play but it is the most eloquent statement about where we’re at in this country at this moment that I saw in the past year. Nearly as resonant, but for very different reasons and by very different methods, is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. Edelman takes an event from over twenty years ago and shows how it reshaped the country and foretold the culture we inhabit today.

Of the movies I saw in movie theaters what moved me most was a Maurice Pialat retrospective at the Film Center early in the year. In films like We Won’t Grow Old Together, Loulou, and Van Gogh, Pialat explored the thorny, often-incompatible relationships between men and women with humor, rage and despair. The Film Center also showed Chantal Akerman’s last film before her suicide, No Home Movie. It is ostensibly a portrait of her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, but it is also a last testament from an artist who found it impossible to go on.  

Hell or High Water was a really satisfying neo-Western/crime spree flick. As with some of the very best films about America, it was made by a foreigner who had the requisite critical distance to see the place for what it has become: a country where private institutions abuse the citizenry at will and we just keep coming back for more. It’s satisfying to watch the robbers seek to right the balance but also quite clear that what they do is but a pipe dream for the rest of us.  

Manchester by the Sea surprised me with its slow burn style of revealing the tragedy at its core. I wasn’t a fan of Kenneth Lonergan’s previous two fawned-over features, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, so this one hit even harder for the low expectations I went in with. I plan to see it again to find out whether knowing the plot beforehand lessens the power of the film. I’m guessing it won’t.  

Paterson is Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful ode to the poetry of the everyday (with actual poems by Ron Padgett handwritten on the screen). It’s filled with Jarmusch’s poker-faced humor and dozens of lovely vignettes. The fact that a film which celebrates poetry was partially financed by Amazon, a company bent on turning literature into a loss leader, couldn’t have been lost on one of America’s last remaining auteurist directors.

Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold was an oddly hopeful (for him) essay on our technology-glutted reality; Kelly Reichert’s Certain Women was like a short-story collection; Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was dreamy about people Hollywood is rarely dreamy about; Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen was everything John Hughes’ teenage films wanted to be but never were; and Rebecca Hall’s all-in lead performance in Christine had me right there with her, on the network news, about to blow my head off.  

Weiner seemed like the ultimate portrait of celebrity-obsessed, political hubris until the results of November. In fact the daily accretion of absurdity in the news cast a long shadow over every creative effort of the past year. I doubt Rabelais, Cervantes, Bulgakov, Terry Gilliam or any other fabulist could’ve scripted the farce we’re living in. I’m glad I work in bars because in 2017 we’ll need all the self-medicating we can afford. No piece of fiction or non-fiction stands a chance against the toupeed golem dancing across our every available screen. From his loge in hell P.T. Barnum must be laughing his ass off. 

Renewal

Last week I got an unexpected email. It was from my ex-girlfriend Shay. We broke up nearly two years ago and have had almost no contact in the past year. I wouldn’t presume to know all the reasons why this has been so, but suffice it to say that she wanted to have nothing to do with me. Her email was an invitation to have coffee. I could only speculate on her motives but set Wednesday at a coffee shop nearby to meet. I figured that if it went really badly I could just walk the few blocks back home and forget about it. 

Friday had started with the sad news that my friend Gil’s greyhound, Rufus, was gravelly ill and would have to be put to sleep. I painted this portrait and sent it off to New Jersey hoping it might provide some small bit consolation. Nothing you say when a friend is losing someone dear to them ever seems like the right thing. 

Saturday night I went to hear Marc Maron do stand-up at the Vic. His podcast has been a twice-weekly companion for several years now and I’ve seen him perform several times before. This night’s show was more scattered than others I’d been at. Like so many of us Maron was trying to grapple with the Bizarro World reality we find ourselves in in this country and coming up with no solid take on any of it. Still, I’m glad I went. The man has brought a lot of great conversations with smart people into my life and I couldn’t blame him from being a bit discombobulated. I doubt I could trust or respect anyone who isn’t these days.

Afterwards I caught a cab to Berwyn to hear my friend Kelly perform a couple Anita O’Day tunes as part of Heather McAdams’ & Chris Ligon’s annual country music calendar extravaganza. FitzGerald’s was so packed I spent my whole time there squeezed near the entrance, but it’s always a great thing to hear Kelly sing and she was gracious enough to give me a ride back to the city after. A room full of people excited about music can’t help but be a hopeful thing even amid this utter darkness. 

A block west of my place is a restaurant and bed & breakfast called the Polo Cafe. Shay and I had gone there once for their Sunday Gospel Brunch a few years ago and I had only returned one time since. But this Sunday I decided it was time to hear some hymns once again. The Polo is run by a profoundly devout Catholic gay couple. There are hymnals on all the tables and one half of the couple leads the diners in sacred song on organ, under the watchful, bejowled countenance of Richard J. Daley. It’s a unique Chicago experience which I’d heartily recommend to anyone in search of an unusual repast. 

Monday night I went to the Empty Bottle to see my old high school classmate and Coolidge Corner Theatre coworker Jason Sanford’s newish band E play. It’s great to see anyone my age still trying to do their thing and not giving in to complacency or just giving up in the face of indifference. It doesn’t hurt that Jason’s bandmate is Thalia Zedek, who’s music I’ve loved for decades. They made a beautiful racket together and I finally got the nerve to talk to Thalia. It’s always a nice surprise when someone you admire turns out to be a nice person.

At a little after 11 on Wednesday I walked over to Bridgeport Coffee and saw Shay already at the counter ordering. She smiled when she saw me, which eased my anxiety instantly. She told me that she’d decided to give herself an early birthday present by stopping being angry at people. We ended up talking for two and a half hours. I’m thankful for whatever change happened which has allowed her not to hate me any more. On our way out I asked if this meant that we could be friends now. She said that it did.

Later that afternoon I went to Bernice’s to start a drawing. I told Steve about the miracle which had just occurred to me, then went back into the garage, set up the easel and got to work. 

Some Dance, Some Don’t

I never learned how to dance. Watching others do it, especially people who really know how, is like hearing a good story. It’s rarely a straight narrative but the combination of gesture and sound can take you to places far from where you were when the dance began.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with my old art-school classmate Wendy Clinard on various projects. It’s always a pleasure and a challenge to collaborate with her. She’s got a unique mind and her own particular way of communicating. Though the jumping-off point of her choreography is usually flamenco, she takes it into far-flung places.

A few months ago Wendy moved her dance studio to one of the storefronts on Halsted Street in Pilsen. She’s been based in the neighborhood over twenty years but now passersby can watch as she puts her students through their paces.

I’ve been drawing during some of these sessions and will be hanging about ten of the better drawings on the wall of her studio, opposite the mirror in which the dancers watch themselves. I will also hang about ten recent paintings. Most of them have never been displayed anywhere but a computer screen and I look forward to seeing how they look out in the world.

—I wrote about the new Nelson Algren biography for Vol.1 Brooklyn.