In 2020 we mostly had to watch films at home, and the most exciting possibilities still emerged from independent cinema. By Christos Tsiolkas.

A year without cinema

Jessie Buckley in a scene from I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Jessie Buckley in a scene from I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Credit: Mary Cybulski / Netflix

Early on in Melbourne’s second lockdown, I spent a wonderful day putting records I hadn’t heard for years on the turntable and leafing through old film magazines. They included the British publication Sight & Sound and American periodicals Film Comment and Cineaste. Flicking through the pages of the magazines – some dating back to the 1990s – was a salutary reflection on film culture’s recent history.

I was struck by the glaring absence of female directors, and by the lack of attention to the work of non-white filmmakers. If feminist work was surveyed, it was in “special editions”. The same went for non-European directors, or for the work of queer artists. Cineaste, possibly the finest English-language film magazine in the world, is unapologetically left wing. Even so, it was sobering to be reminded that, for all my aversion to the corporatisation of the term “diversity”, the white male gaze has indeed been the default for most of the history of English-language film criticism.

I was also reminded of a period when the formalist experimentation of filmmakers was seen as just as important as their political and ideological concerns. It was bracing to read critics responding excitedly to the radical reclaiming of Neorealism in the first works of Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, or a critic trying to communicate how electrifying it was to discover the work of the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien and comprehend that there was a rigorously disciplined cinema that undermined the rigid exclusion of Realism from Expressionism.

In one magazine was an interview with Fatih Akin, a German filmmaker of Turkish descent. His 2007 film The Edge of Heaven had just been released, and he was being asked about that film and his earlier work Head-On, made in 2004. I have a DVD copy of Head-On and that night I played it, not having seen it since its release. It’s brutal and uncompromising in essaying the struggles of immigrant second-generation youth in navigating racism, as well as the suffocating patriarchal obligations of their family culture. A few weeks earlier, as part of the 2020 online Melbourne International Film Festival, I had watched another German film about second-generation youth, Faraz Shariat’s No Hard Feelings. In the strange temporal pocket created by the lockdown, where the ubiquity of the domestic screen made the past and the present constantly abut against each other, I couldn’t help but contrast the two films.

No Hard Feelings is about a young queer German man, the child of Persian immigrants, who falls in love with an Iranian refugee. Shariat has an obvious sympathy and affection for both his characters and for his actors, but the direction is largely uninspired. I stayed with the film, for I was captivated by the dynamism of its young cast, but I wanted to like it more than I did.

Watching Akin’s hard-edged and morally complex film soon afterwards underlined the unsophisticated mawkishness of Shariat’s film, particularly its reductive tendency to stereotype characters as positively virtuous or irredeemably negative. Such sentimentality undermined my pleasure in many of the key works that have been lauded this year, from narrative films such as Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow or Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela to documentaries including The Social Dilemma.

It’s as if the filmmakers’ political commitments can only be expressed in a deliberate earnestness, as if wit and irony must be suspect. Too often this year I found myself missing the audacious jolt of outraged humour that animated so many of the New Queer Cinema films of the 1990s, or that made Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) such an exciting work.

I didn’t laugh once in David Fincher’s Mank. But another pleasure of lockdown was re-reading Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane”, her masterly essay on Herman J. Mankiewicz and his writing of Citizen Kane. Published in 1971, the essay was immediately controversial for its argument that Mankiewicz was as pivotal in the success of that film as the direction of Orson Welles.

The Mank that emerges from Kael’s essay is a deeply compromised man. He possesses a formidable wit and talent for wordplay, but is also given to immense self-loathing that fuels his alcoholism and gambling addiction. Like so many drunks, his clear-headedness could be undermined by sentimentality, and it was Welles’s brilliance to subvert such pieties with the dazzling possibilities of the art of film.

None of this is in Fincher’s unrelentingly turgid film, a hagiography that attempts to make Mankiewicz an anti-Trumpist avant la lettre. Structurally Mank is a mess, with an incapacitated Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) dictating the script to Citizen Kane while housebound in the Mojave Desert in 1941. The flashbacks that emerge from the stilted dialogue are dumbfoundingly pedantic and obvious. But at least these sequences include snatches of Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg, the only actors in the whole production who are allowed to sparkle.

Every time we returned to the present-day scenes, with Gary Oldman chewing the scenery even while bedridden, I think my soul died a little. There is no joy and no pleasure to be had in Mank. It’s two-and-a-half hours of penance, with Oldman as chief saint leading the self-flagellation. It’s a truly terrible movie.

Even so, I wish Fincher had been the director on Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As he showed in Seven and in Zodiac, Fincher has a real talent for revealing the menace in the quotidian.

Kaufman is a screenwriter of undoubted talent. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have effervescent and fascinatingly intricate scripts that permitted their respective directors, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, to accomplish some of their best work.

However, Kaufman directs this new film himself. Unlike the bold subversion of his scriptwriting, his instincts as a filmmaker are much more cautious. The best parts of I’m Thinking of Ending Things are two sequences that take place on a long drive to and from a visit to the parents of one of the main characters. The dialogue is genuinely uncanny and both leads, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, are superb. We are never sure if what we are witnessing is occurring in real time, or whether we are flashing between past and future. Buckley in particular is riveting, remaining faithful to the depiction of her character while at the same time juggling a central conceit of Kaufman’s script: how a century of American cinema has undermined the agency of female characters.

In one genuinely exhilarating scene, Buckley recites Kael’s critique of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, embodying both Kael and the lead actor Gena Rowlands, before effortlessly snapping back into her character. Later scenes self-consciously mimic David Lynch’s work, but Kaufman doesn’t have Lynch’s flair for the dreamlike and fantastical. There’s no sense of provocation or danger in the weirdness, and so it just seems badly staged.

As befits this strange year, summing up cinema in 2020 can only be tentative. Over the past couple of years, streaming services and home viewing have challenged the distribution and consumption of cinema, and the pandemic has accelerated this development.

Given this, I am so very glad that I got to see Terrence Malick’s elegant and thoughtful A Hidden Life on the big screen at the beginning of this year. It was a reminder that the language of cinema doesn’t need to be linear and dogmatically realist. The physical space of cinema – at once personal and collective – is bound up with my appreciation of films. That, more than anything, is what I missed most this year.

I was glad that the last film I saw at the cinema before lockdown was Lucio Castro’s beautiful End of the Century, a film that played with notions of time and memory, but did so without excess. The first film I saw after the lockdown ended was Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster commercial release Tenet. This was a major disappointment, bombastic and lazily written, with extravagant CGI and special effects seemingly tossed onto the screen in a vain attempt to generate excitement. Nolan is notoriously humourless and that seemed to have affected the whole cast.

I think it clarifying that Castro’s and Nolan’s films bookended this pandemic year. Both deal with time, but the thoughtfulness and restraint of the Argentinian film suggests that for those of us seeking a filmmaking culture that can still generate excitement and possibility, we need to seek it through independent and personal films. The tedious bloat and self-importance of recent English-language blockbusters means they are failing even in their remit as entertainment.

This year the Academy Awards announced that films had to comply with diversity guidelines in their production and casting to be eligible for prizes. Long-time readers will be aware of my cynicism of both Hollywood and the Oscars. I’ll leave the last word on that subject to a friend, who on hearing about the new rules, wisecracked, “That still won’t stop shit like Green Book getting awards.” Or, for that matter, Mank or Tenet

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "A year without cinema".

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