What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Keep this under your hats, but next week is 1997 Week at The A.V. Club. One of the features we’ll be running is a staff reappraisal of that year in movies, so I’ve been rewatching some of my favorites from 20 years ago, trying to figure out if my taste has evolved at all since middle school. (So far, apparently not, as I still think Face/Off wuz robbed of a Best Picture nomination.)
I’ll be writing at least a few words about a lot of these old-but-still-good favorites next week. For now, let me say that two decades has done little to dull the pleasure highs of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, even if it’s clear in retrospect that this was just a pit-stop in the party pit on the way to a much chillier career. It’s very much the work of a young, hungry, eager-to-impress artist, one still treating the whole filmmaking process like a sandbox where he could try out the sweet moves of the swinging-dick directors that inspired him. Just look at that opening scene, which seems to lay out, with one extended introductory Steadicam take, Anderson’s worship of both Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman; it’s simultaneously the nightclub tour in Goodfellas and the backlot tour in The Player (two great, winding, showboating classic movie moments with their own shared antecedent: the unforgettable opening of Touch Of Evil).
Of course, most great artists start out mimicking their influences, before synthesizing them into something new, which is exactly what happened with Anderson a few films later. (He was fully “himself” by The Master, the first of his movies that doesn’t seem specifically steeped in anyone else’s style.) Anyway, maybe it’s apropos that a movie about the halcyon days of the 1970s would borrow so freely from some of the New Hollywood giants that flourished during that time. Or maybe I just don’t mind Anderson nodding to Marty and Altman so overtly because Boogie Nights is one of the few films to approximate the buzz of their shit-hot heyday.
A couple years ago, Owen Gleiberman (then of Entertainment Weekly, now of Variety) wrote a piece about falling out of love with Anderson’s work. Can’t say I agree: PT, at this point, controls mood and sensation better than almost any of his peers; in ambition and craftsmanship, he has few rivals in contemporary American film. All the same, Gleiberman’s sentiment resonates. PT never made anything like Boogie Nights again, and for those who found its decade-spanning rock ’n’ roll bacchanal as intoxicating as a drug, seeing him willfully transform himself into some towering Kubrickian visionary has to be bittersweet. A good comparison, especially given Anderson’s ongoing collaboration with Jonny Greenwood, might be Radiohead. Yes, the OK Computer stuff and beyond is innovative and challenging and mind-bogglingly accomplished. But there are those of us who still mourn the stellar, straightforward arena rockers that were. (In this equation, The Bends is Boogie Nights.)
Much of my time has been consumed with catching up with work-related screenings and their subsequent write-ups in recent weeks—following up Fantasia with Comic-Con was a real whirlwind—so I haven’t been able to devote as much time to watching films that don’t feature dogs in sports jerseys as I’d like. But there’s one genre that I reliably turn to when the day is over and it’s time to unwind for a little while, and so here are some documentaries I’ve been watching over the past week or so.
Like Mommy Dead And Dearest, which our own Josh Modell recommended as a staff pick a few months back, what’s riveting about There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011) isn’t the accident that killed Diane Schuler, her daughter, and three nieces on the Taconic State Parkway on July 26, 2009, but the backstory behind it. On the one hand, the film is quite sad—how could it not be? Eight people total were killed—especially the way Schuler’s husband continues to insist that toxicology reports saying his wife had been drunk and high the morning she went barreling the wrong way down the freeway had to have been wrong, even when additional evidence eventually proves that they weren’t.
On the other hand, as director Liz Garbus—who was nominated for Oscars for her films The Farm and What Happened, Miss Simone?—starts peeling back the layers of Schuler’s life, the film turns pointedly critical of the subtle misogyny and deeply ingrained familial patterns that could lead a seemingly perfect suburban mom to take refuge in booze and drugs. Not only was Schuler responsible for all of her family’s physical needs, from food to clothing to transportation, she was wholly responsible for their emotional well-being as well, with her husband more of a third child than a real partner. No one will ever know exactly why Schuler did what she did, or if it was intentional. But the film does make a compelling argument that she wasn’t the monster the media made her out to be, just a overworked, overstressed, fearful woman coping the best way she knew how.
Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press was also chilling, but in a different way. The legal battle between Gawker and Hulk Hogan directly led to the company’s purchase by Univision, the same media company that owns The A.V. Club, and so the idea of talking shit about the wrong billionaire on the internet eventually bringing your entire company to its knees had me squirming under my blanket curled up in bed after a long day of, well, talking shit about billionaires on the internet. Nobody Speak is not as well-made of a film as There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, and while it gets its core moral question—what happens to free speech when a billionaire with a grudge can throw money at a media company until it goes away?—across clearly, it loses some of its punch in its meandering back half. Peter Thiel’s floating libertarian utopia is totally the new Bohemian Grove, though.
I love when the Turner Classic Movies cable channel features a star a day in its Summer Under The Stars programming. I gleefully scour the TCM website to find out when my favorites are due so I can TiVo accordingly. Lucky for me, next Friday, August 11, is Ginger Rogers day, and the lineup is stellar. I have committed all her movies with Fred Astaire to memory, so I was hoping for my under-the-radar favorite, Vivacious Lady, to appear: her only film with Jimmy Stewart, who she was dating at the time. But there are still a variety of great options on this TCM day, especially 1939’s Bachelor Mother, a light romantic comedy with dashing David Niven. Rogers is a shopgirl who somehow winds up with an abandoned baby, causing no shortage of assumptions about her past and who the father is, even for those family-friendly times. I would also save space on your DVR for Kitty Foyle, Rogers’ surprising Oscar winner after all those musicals, and Once Upon A Honeymoon, a too-rare pairing with Cary Grant: He’s a secret agent who tries to rescue her from her aristocrat Nazi husband. Ginger Rogers had such a hypnotic effect on screen: As pretty as a postcard, with a street-savvy demeanor, she boasted considerable charisma with a variety of leading men almost as explosive as her chemistry with Astaire. She’s worth seeking out even when she isn’t focused on dancing backwards and in high heels.