The Eternal Children

One of the most common themes among established big-name directors this awards season is the memoir film, with directors like James Gray (Armageddon Time), Sam Mendes (Empire of Light), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Bardo) aiming to make career-defining magnum opuses out of dramatic reenactments & distortions of personal memories.  Only Steven Spielberg appears to have emerged from that 2022 memoir scrum victorious.  The Fabelmans makes a fable out of Spielberg’s youth, tracking his fascination with The Power of Cinema from his first trip to the theater (to see the circus-themed studio epic The Greatest Show on Earth) to his teenage use of filmmaking as a therapy tool throughout his parents’ divorce.  It’s being heralded as one of the best movies of the year, if not the best of Spielberg’s career . . . and I don’t understand that praise in the slightest.  If anything, I’m terrified to contract whatever subvariant of Film Twitter Brain Rot makes critics believe The Fabelmans is “late-style” Movie Magic but Cinema Paradiso is cornball schmaltz.  To his credit, Spielberg ensures that his memoir movie isn’t entirely comprised of shots of projectors flickering behind awed audiences modeling period costumes (although there is plenty of that ready-made imagery to go around); the movie is densely packed with detailed personal memories and messy interpersonal conflicts that are supposed to distinguish it from the more unembarrassed schmaltz of Parasiso.  And yet, the whole thing rings generic & phony, barely a step above the “aww shucks” Boomer nostalgia of A Christmas Story – if you’re not as reverent of Spielberg’s prominence in the cinema canon as the director is himself.  And it turns out plenty of people are, as evidenced by the film’s success over its fellow movie memoirs.

The most frustrating thing about The Fabelmans is there is a genuinely compelling, emotionally thorny drama at its core.  Through his geeky onscreen avatar Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg time travels back to a pivotal moment in his relationship with his mother (played by Michelle Williams in Judy Garland meltdown mode, sporting a lime cat haircut).  Beyond the broad caricatures of his mother as a right-brained free spirit—explaining the magic & poetry of movies to him after that fateful Greatest Show on Earth screening—and his father as a practical left-brained engineer—explaining the mechanics of movies as a technological illusion—the movie pinpoints their separation as a painful, epiphanic moment when Spielberg first saw his parents as real, flawed people, not just faceless pillars of authority & love.  It’s too bad that brain-breaking, cinema-rattling epiphany is buried under so much self-mythology about Spielberg’s early stirrings as an amateur filmmaker.  Instead of digging into the discomfort & detail of his changing relationship with his parents, the movie runs itself ragged trying to collect as many origin stories for the greatest hits of Spielberg Tropes as it can in 151 minutes.  We see the kids-on-bikes nostalgia of his early career-defining genre films foretold by his afternoon rides with his childhood boy scout troupe; we see a D.I.Y. trial run for his prestigious war epic Saving Private Ryan met with rapturous applause as the greatest backyard movie of all time; and, in the godawful concluding scene, we see him take direct inspiration from his boyhood hero John Ford, for no reason in particular.  The emotional core that supposedly separates The Fabelmans from sentimental schmaltz like Cinema Paradiso (a film I far prefer, at least for its clarity in intent) is buried under so much phony self-mythology that it has no room to resonate with any heft.

I was much more impressed with the smaller, more intimate memoir distortions of The Eternal Daughter that joined this year’s “autofiction” pile-up, if not only for being more direct & streamlined in its mother-child drama of discomforts.  Joanna Hogg’s latest is much less ostentatious than Spielberg’s by default, filmed on an independent budget under COVID-19 lockdowns instead of working with the kind of extravagant studio funds that are afforded to the world’s most famous director.  Hogg finds plenty of room for layered artifice in her small-cast drama, though, even while never losing sight of the mother-daughter tension at its core.  The Eternal Daughter is a slippery little supernatural mystery film that defies the tidiest boxes you want to file it away in.  It’s a ghost story about memory, not ghosts.  It’s directly connected to Hogg’s autobiographical Souvenir saga, but it works perfectly fine on its own, like a long-running series’ standalone, spooky Christmas special.  Tilda Swinton plays a mother-daughter duo in a dual role, but neither of performance is overly affected, and the back-and-forth bickering between them is more subtly devastating than cute.  In The Souvenir Parts I & II, Swinton’s real-life daughter (and Hogg’s real-life goddaughter) Honor Swinton Byrne played Hogg’s Sammy Fabelman avatar, while Swinton played her fictional mother onscreen.  In The Eternal Daughter, Swinton plays both roles, aged decades into the future, as they share an especially dour vacation in an empty hotel on the ghostly moors of Wales.  None of that Russian nesting-doll artifice really matters, though.  Neither does the ghost story framing of its drama.  All that matters is the way Hogg wrestles with the passive aggressive tensions of her mostly healthy relationship with her mother, and how a child seeing their parent’s personality & behavior reflected in themselves can be both wonderful & horrific, often simultaneously.

In the emotional climax of The Eternal Daughter, both versions of Swinton bicker about what time they should eat a celebratory birthday dinner.  That sounds like a minor frustration, but it’s far more hilarious and heartbreaking than any of the life-altering divorce drama from Spielberg’s actual relived childhood in The Fabelmans.  Listening to a mother-daughter duo volley “What do you think?” & “I’m not going to eat if you don’t” back and forth in an endless shot, reverse-shot nightmare feels painfully, relatably true to how passive aggressive, self-conflicted parental relationships play out in real life – even though you’re watching two Tilda Swintons bicker in a haunted hotel.  Somehow, Spielberg is staging dramatic reenactments of complex parental & marital betrayals that actually did happen in real life, and it all feels thuddingly false, inauthentic.  As a pair, both The Fabelmans and The Eternal Daughter find their filmmakers looking back on personal, familial memories and struggling with how the good feelings of the past are jumbled with the bad.  From there, your appreciation of either is almost a question of genre.  Are you more interested in the Raised By The Movies nostalgia trips of mainstream directors mythologizing their own childhoods as historical turning points in the artform, or are you more interested in the atmospheric tensions of a haunted-hotel ghost story that plays out under the eerie mood lighting of green & blue gels?  I found Hogg’s film more thematically direct & concise than Spielberg’s, which feels like a simultaneous one-for-them-one-for-me compromise that dilutes what he’s trying to work out onscreen.  My assumption is that his is the best of the recent crop of movie memoirs from Hollywood filmmaking giants, since the people who are more interested in that kind of thing have been singling it out as something special, a cut above.  I’ll likely never find out for myself, since there’s no promise of ghosts nor Tilda Swinton casting stunts to lure me in.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Fish (2021)

As if it’s not already embarrassing enough that I’m a fully grown adult who treats every episode of the teens-in-peril melodrama Euphoria as appointment television, I have also spent a lot of my pandemic downtime watching its aughts-era prototype Skins for the first time.  Skins was an even more chaotic show than Euphoria in both its drama and its artistic quality, but I very much enjoyed catching up with its ludicrous teen-hedonist fantasies in recent months.  Maybe the most surprising thing about Skins is that—despite being a lasting cult favorite for horned-up, pilled-out Millennials—it didn’t launch many superstar careers for its revolving cast of troubled, adorable teens.  Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Nicolas Hoult are obvious major exceptions, but for the most part the Skins cast have grown up to be anonymous character actors on cable television (or, worse yet, in years-delayed fantasy movies about lovelorn mermaids).  The one omission from that list that baffles me most is Jack O’Connell, who played James Cook on the show’s second “cycle.”  Cook just felt like a star, even more so than the three lucky kids who became one (judging by their work as scrawny youths, not talented adults).

My favorite episode of Skins involves Cook winning a Class President election on a platform of pure anarchy, essentially tearing the school down in raucous celebration.  Jack O’Connell was such an infectiously chaotic screen presence on the show that it was inevitable Cook would drive the student body into a collective, decadent frenzy – a perfect tonal counterpoint to that episode’s melodrama romance A-plot.  Apparently nihilistic chaos was his default mode off-screen at the time as well, as his rampant substance abuse & party-hard lifestyle kept O’Connell in British tabloids for pretty much the entire time he was filming Skins in Bristol.  I didn’t know anything about his personal life while watching the show, but a lot of what makes Cook such a compelling character is the authenticity of his chaotic presence, so that off-screen bad boy reputation makes total sense.  That’s why it was such a relief to see O’Connell pop up in the much calmer, more cerebral sci-fi romance Little Fish from last year.  I was honestly a little worried about his long-term health after seeing him play Cook, so it was just great to see him out there doing well, getting work, looking sharp.

Little Fish is one of those eerily pandemic-appropriate movies that happened to come out at the “right” time despite filming pre-COVID – joining the likes of Spontaneous, The Pink Cloud, Vivarium, and She Dies Tomorrow.  Olivia Cooke narrates as the heartbroken lead: a young vet with an art photographer husband (O’Connell), both of whom are living through a near-future global health pandemic that causes the infected to lose their memory en masse.  It’s like a viral, involuntary version of the Eternal Sunshine procedure, where two people who are very much in love are horrified by the idea that they will soon forget each other; then we gradually watch it happen.  Little Fish is almost too grim to enjoy while a real-life global health pandemic lingers outside, since it’s the kind of sci-fi heartbreaker that asks questions like “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?”  Since it was adapted from a 2011 short story and wrapped production in 2019, you can’t fault the film too much for how bleakly it recalls life & love during the COVID-19 pandemic (although there is a morbid humor to COVID preventing its planned premiere at Tribeca in 2020).  Considered on its own terms outside that unforeseeable context, it’s a great little doomed romance with a mild sci-fi bent.

There’s a lot to admire about director Chad “Morris from America” Hartigan’s visual playfulness here.  He tells the story through a fractured, remixed timeline that evokes the slipperiness of even a healthy memory; and he subtly erases or mutates the details of replayed scenes to illustrate those memories fading forever.  He also finds ways to visually amplify the story’s romance (most notably in an intimate sex scene illustrated in De Palma split screens) and global-scale panic (most notably in the ominous military presence that rumbles outside) without drawing too much attention away from the core dramatic chemistry between Cooke & O’Connell.  For me, it’s O’Connell who’s the real draw here, but only because I was so recently fascinated with his performance as James Cook.  Like with Cook’s authentic onscreen chaos, his performance as the memory-drained husband reads as an authentic portrayal of a former addict who’s gracefully gotten his shit together, only to lose all that personal progress to a pandemic that’s out of his control.  O’Connell’s wonderfully effective in the role, so much so that I’m willing to forgive his flat approximation of an American accent.

I’ll spare everyone the embarrassment of trying to guess what future stars are currently brewing on the Euphoria cast, since I’ve already been extremely unfair in preemptively declaring the vast majority of the Skins kids culturally irrelevant.  They’re all still young; there’s plenty of time, as long as they take better care of themselves than the self-destructive characters that made them semi-famous.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Memory – The Origins of Alien (2019)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the 2019 documentary Memory, an academic evaluation of the cinematic, literary, and philosophical influences on the landmark creature feature Alien. The conversation includes a lengthy debate about how various Alien sequels rank against each other, especially focusing on the merits of Prometheus.

00:00 Welcome

01:45 Booksmart (2019)
04:26 Devil’s Path (2019)
07:30 Coraline (2009)
15:45 Pumpkin (2002)
20:00 The House (2022)
22:22 Stuffed (2019)
24:04 Douglas Sirk melodramas
29:15 Araya (1959)
31:00 Slapface (2022)
32:00 Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021)
34:00 Alison’s Birthday (1981)
35:45 C.H.U.D. (1984)
37:37 Lake of the Dead (1958)
39:45 Last Night in Soho (2021)
42:29 Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)
44:30 The Spine of Night (2021)
47:47 Bigbug (2022)
50:05 Slumber Party Massacre (2021)
53:27 Kimi (2022)

55:45 Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Stories We Tell (2013)


three star

By definition, Stories We Tell is likely to be the most literally personal project of Sarah Polley’s career. An actress since she was just a small child (picture her as the youngster in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for context), her first documentary credit is just her third turn as a director, and the very first instance I know of where her own past & familial structure were the subject of scrutiny. This kind of navel-gazing has both inherent charms and flaws. The intimacy of Stories We Tell’s revelations about Sarah Polley’s past & family structure is striking. It’s highly unusual for a public figure to expose so much of themselves & their immediate loved ones in this honest of a way and that vulnerability alone makes Stories We Tell a memorable experience. On the other hand, the story at the heart of the documentary isn’t quite as fulfilling & engaging to outsiders as it is to the people who lived it and the film has a tendency to over-explain its own intent instead of simply allowing  the story to unfold.

Without revealing too much about the story Polley tells here, I’ll just say that it’s focused on a nagging question about her paternity. Interviewing her siblings, her parents, and friends of the family, Polley looks back to her birth & childhood and retraces the steps of her deceased mother to hopefully answer lingering questions about who fathered her. Because the story of her childhood is told through many voices, it has a fractured, almost Cubist structure that calls into question the difference between truth & observation. Even though Polley is mostly interviewing her own family, she is relentless in her pursuit of “the truth”, referring to her own tactics as an “interrogation process.” It’s her unforgiving honesty & tendency to push her loved ones to their limits that make the documentary an unusual & interesting experience.

As interesting as Stories We Tell is in concept & execution, the story does wear itself a little thin in the final half hour, especially once the truth about Polley’s paternity is revealed. After the story has effectively been told from beginning to end, the documentary makes the mistake of over-explaining itself. Polley directly tells the audience that her film’s not only about that story in particular, but about the nature of memory & storytelling in general. Polley’s not giving herself enough credit there. The film had already spoken for itself, especially in its fractured interview structure & super-8 recreations of significant memories (like a critical phone call & café meeting that cracked the story wide open). It would’ve been a much better movie if it had ended once the story was over, instead of continuing to provide context when it wasn’t needed in a conclusive half hour that felt more like a DVD extra than a proper part of the documentary. As is, it’s a fairly solid documentary that shows a lot of promise of where Polley’s directorial career might go in the future, but isn’t exactly essential or even necessary either. I believe she’s got even better, more important work in her that will play much more confidently once she allows it to speak for itself.

-Brandon Ledet