I Want to Be in America

©Shawn Triplett. You can donate money here for toys for the kids of tornado-torn Mayfield, Kentucky.

Rita Moreno, 88 at the time of filming, starts closing her shop and a familiar tune swells underneath her. I remember “Somewhere” as a softly and slightly uncomfortably crooned Tom Waits song from his 78 album Blue Valentine, a record I listened to a hundred times as a moody teenager. It was a peculiar existence. Consuming every piece of degenerate literature I could, watching gore films and sensitive boy arthouse by the truckload, listening to sad music, despising my country, living mostly at a boarding school, performing on stage, dancing and singing and playing villains, drinking hundreds of cups of coffee, feeling like I was being pulled apart, getting kicked out of girlfriend’s houses by their parents. If I’m nostalgic for any of it it’s that there wasn’t a ceiling, really, I felt free. I didn’t feel poor though I was, I didn’t feel hemmed in, but I was angry all the time and it wasn’t seen as weird or even novel. Every teenager is angry. But that anger didn’t go anywhere, try as I might to live a life free of it. I’m still mad that the cinema is ruled over by charlatans with deep pockets who should be selling cars, I’m still mad that the untalented seem to reproduce like the monster in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). I’m mad that though there is more art than ever the ratio of good to bad has gotten worse. So why don’t I quit criticism fully, why don’t I just refuse to get my hopes up? Because sometimes Rita Moreno sings “Somewhere” and you’re in tears. You’re not 16 anymore, you never will be again, but Rita Moreno sings and there’s still light, there’s still something to turn off the anger.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story (2021)

Movie release calendars, right around 2013, became promises that need to be kept or there might be a mutiny. We go the year with a couple of great films as bait before suddenly the American cinema drops everything in our lap at Christmas, suitably. If good movies didn’t show up by the barrel full a year of dregs and doldrums might seem even more like an insult. Everything studios want to win awards come out in the same eighteen seconds, right as critics are making lists and critics groups are giving out prizes. Mostly this just makes people who don’t live in major cities feel left out, but it also disproportionately spotlights a lot of the worst movies of the year. Feel good dramas, issue docs, and biopics, the occasional risky-ish genre film with a big cast. It’s when the year’s themes get cemented because inevitably a movie by a real director will come out and refashion the whole slate in its image. Steven Spielberg is as big as the movies get and so when they released West Side Story (2021) it suddenly whipped the whole dreadful year into shape. Nostalgia, curdled. Singing, dancing, running, planning for a future that won’t come. There’s even a sex pest in the lead role, like a government plant to make sure you can’t ever have too much fun with the indelible images and incredible choreography.

It’s a tonic for a hundred reasons (it’s one of the most carefully made movies of the year chief among them, the edits mean something, the images speak to each other, it’s what film should be) but mostly because it doesn’t fit into any of the ridged and soul-draining binaries that rule film culture. If you have problems with its politics, you can blame the source material, even though screenwriter Tony Kushner has improved on that, too. It’s not a stone you can lodge into any of the slingshots lying around from the last pointless debate about the state of the industry. When I think about the abysmal start of this year I feel like I was given a stay of execution. Right in a row a dozen movies that were “political” without ever having to take a stance. The thoughtless whining of the absurdly privileged attempting to make Urban Outfitters Instagram posts out of hooky headlines. I am still truly staggered that the increase in creative freedom has stunted the emotional intelligence and the sheer ambition of hundreds of people. John Boorman followed up Deliverance (1972) with Zardoz (1974). This year we got a new adaptation of Dune (2021), without an interesting second and no colours. We also got a new King Arthur film without a single striking sequence, iconoclastic in name only. Boorman is gone. Actual psychedelia has become a component of a kitschy B-movie repackaging. Even movies I enjoyed like Censor (2021) or In The Earth (2021) confirm that the only place for visual imagination is in the margins of a movie set in the past or nostalgic for dead formats.

The French Dispatch (2021)

The best films this year are also stuck in the past in their way. West Side Story creates a new visual language to replace an existing one. The French Dispatch (2021) has to create fake stories to tell in two different existing styles. The Card Counter (2021) is the 27th movie Paul Schrader has made on the theme of god’s lonely journaling man. No Sudden Move (2021) recreates warped cinemascope frames for its tale of scrapping strivers trying to grab the brass ring. Licorice Pizza (2021) is about the 70s as a time of lawless youth, but of course when kids are allowed to do anything it’s because they don’t have the love that comes with boundaries. This is a nostalgia that is warped and ugly. A promise delivered already broken. That time came and went, along with the adolescence, the golden years, of each of the filmmakers. As Rufus Sewell loses his mind in Old he’s transfixed by a haunting non sequitur. What is the movie with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson? Brando and Moreno dated for a bit there. She’s got her own documentary, though it’s just one more piece of content. Everyone is looking into the same well.

Auteurs are subjects now. It doesn’t matter what a movie’s about (or how it’s about it, per Ebert, to run that down) anymore, it has finally become a world where we’ve turned Andrew Sarris’ ideas into something like the bastardised social Darwinism, and it’s the law of the land. Stars have always sold movies, so it’s not surprising that The Rock somehow makes seventeen dreadful movies a year (though he scored a run by accident by hiring Jaume Collett-Serra this year for one of them) but now we’re selling a terrible kind of director to the public. Megan Ellison’s parting gift to us before she vanished from the public eye. Martin Scorsese is a bigger name and a bigger public spectacle than anyone he could hire. A24 is trying to turn its stable (“A David Lowery Picture”, “from the visionary mind of a man who has never dreamt up anything half as interesting as ten minutes of Planet of the Vampires.”) into a starting line up. Netflix can’t afford to anymore. They gave David Fincher that deal and it’s gotten them a show they don’t like, a movie that doesn’t appeal to kids, and a dreadful video essay series they can’t promote because one of the authors is a rape apologist who believes conspiracy theories. She’ll run for president in a few years and she won’t be their problem anymore.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

After high school I went to two film schools and saw the seeds of the movement towards this new kind of auteur theory, where the kid with the coolest camera is the best director. The old adage goes that you don’t win oscars for the “best” of anything but for the “most” of anything. That’s *almost* true of the new relationship between fans and directors. The school of directors that gets all the oxygen (what little is left after superhero films suck most of it up) aren’t interested in human emotions, except as they complicate spectacle and look nice. Obviously you’ve got the A24 bench, but Denis Villeneuve, Chris Nolan, Cary Fukunaga, Edgar Wright, and Taika Waititi. Guillermo Del Toro, like Fincher, is also one of these guys, but he’s a real filmmaker when he wants to be, but he is one of the guys everyone talks about and there’s no denying that he’s positioned himself like an upstart Walt Disney. He could have just remade Nightmare Alley (1947) 20 years ago and it would have been ok if it flopped because there weren’t stakes. Now he’s up against Spiderman 68. Hurts more when you fail next to gold-plated shit. Peter Jackson made the right choice and became a weird tinkerer rather than keep making fiction while he was at his most publicly scrutinised. Pablo Larrain, with his Kubrickianisms, is almost there, too. When I was in college these guys became the vanguard, I saw it happen in real time and it was a bummer but I didn’t think it’d end like this, where a handful of people can get films greenlit in which not a single authentic emotion is documented, but the pictures are clever, which is different than good.

I don’t see much changing this state of affairs, but man it’s bleak. In 20 years when the makers of most of the year’s best films are dead, we’ll be inheriting “the biggest nothing in history,” per Francis Ford Coppola, who we also cut adrift before his time. We’re about to see a generation of filmmakers who were raised on distortions and cover songs become the only purveyors of spectacle. When you grow up with City of God (2002) instead of Mean Streets (1973), the history is gone. Suddenly cinema is just a pile of images directors half remember from their childhoods. You can subvert all you want, provided you’re still making a Star Wars film with a happy ending. Everyone is entirely too anxious to play by rules coined and enforced by people who don’t remember what the point of a movie is, if they ever knew. Steven Spielberg is a useful counterpoint. He has always made nonsense but it didn’t used to feel like it belonged to anyone else. It was his nonsense through and through. Jurassic Park (1993) and Minority Report (2002) don’t feel like other’s people’s work. What good does it do us to have distinctive stylists if they’re all content to make Star Wars? Our best image makers in America used to feel this in their bones. There wasn’t ever a wrong shot in a Scorsese film. Spielberg introduced you to new sounds, sounds you’d never heard before! Francis Coppola found the humanity in the worst people, inventing all our modern TV shows in the process. Elaine May made comedy into nerve-shreddingly tense action. The improvised feeling made her movies seem dangerous. Did she really like these people enough to not kill them?

The danger is gone. I’m still mad. I never decided to love movies. It just happened. I used to rage at the lows to which I thought Hollywood had sunk. Now, decades into my Stockholm syndrome I want them to make a better class of film because I don’t like feeling like I’m gearing up for draught. I don’t like that public opinion comes with so much scorn for actual artists, that we have to hear the same morning DJ M. Night Shyamalan jokes every time he makes a new film, as if he isn’t the most interesting man at his budget level making genre. It’s all so dully predictable. Dave Kehr (and my dad) said that all movies are about other movies now. That’s depressingly true these days. “The people” broadly speaking don’t care about the image but I’m cursed to. If I could simply enjoy the unimaginative I would, not that it seems to make people any happier to have constantly crow about how much artistry is in the average episode of the Marvel show that’s been clogging American movie houses for the last 13 years. Script logic, relatability, political affiliation, all of it now seems to drive people further and further from the purpose of the moving image: true freaks working out their fetishes and neuroses using beautiful people. The image should always speak louder and more truthfully than the characters. And our nostalgia for the movies we liked is simply not enough. Spielberg himself comes through with the most damning update of West Side Story, courtesy of his writer the brilliant Tony Kushner. Moreno says to the Jets fifteen minutes before the climax “I watched you take your first step…and you’ve grown up to be rapists.” What good is our history if we don’t learn from it, if we don’t see what was really happening, if we don’t keep the image, but know it was never to be trusted. Loved, sure, but never trusted. The language has to change but it can’t reflect the times too carefully it’ll be old before it’s come out of anyone’s mouth.

When I was in high school I was so excited to go to film school, to join this accursed system, and boy did that not happen. I never really tried, I didn’t move to LA and get an internship, I was furious at the kinds of kids who did. The whole thing just ate at my sense of self like a corrosive cleaning agent. Sell out? Be like them? Make Die Hard 5 or whatever? I’m obviously extremely jealous of anyone who’s had success in the American film industry but I can honestly say that the movies I’ve made and the writing I’m proud of aren’t compromised. To do things your way you have to be shrewd, lucky, rich, or willing to compromise. Or all of the above. I was neither. I felt old when I was 16, I feel ancient now. But sometimes Rita Moreno gets to sing “Somewhere,” Stephen Sondheim’s death hanging like a long shadow, and the years fall from you like the tears you can’t help. Sometimes you remember why you love movies, you remember watching Last Crusade (1989) on VHS as a kid, stunned that movies could be this fun. You’re out of time, you’re floating there in the theatre. Nostalgia isn’t enough and it wouldn’t have saved West Side Story were it bad. But it’s not. It’s the greatest American film of the year and against all odds it had stiff competition. Your memories aren’t any kind of shelter from a present going to dark places. Good art can be. “A place for us…somewhere…”

This Essay article was published in December 2021