What Got Me Through 2020

A year like no other, 2020 negates the traditional “Best of…” year end lists when it comes to movies, books, music and art. Instead I’ll leave you with a simple sampling of what spoke to me the most. Whether it was through escapism or reflection, here is what got me through this helluva year…

This Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and THAT CLOSING SCENE!

Completely transportive and oozing art in all the best French ways, I said of Celine Sciamma’s searing tale of once-upon-a-time forbidden romance…“Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory…”

This Music: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and let me tell ya something, ladies, ladies, ladies…

Has there ever been a more serendipitiously timed release than when Fiona dropped this bomb (leaving shrapnel permanently embedded in me) at the height of the Spring Pandemic Lockdown? Gobsmacked upon its release, I said…Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…”

This Photograph:

At the height of the civil unrest and heated protests in the summer, Julie Rendleman’s photograph of ballerinas Ava Holloway and Kennedy George striking a pose in front of a graffitied Confederate monument in Richmond, VA spoke a thousand words.

This Book: Overboard by Ivy Ngeow

This indie novel came out of nowhere. I met the author on Twitter and I downloaded the book on a lark…and this globe-hopping thriller miraculously checked all my boxes. I swooned…

“Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior. Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.”

This HBO Limited Series: The Undoing

Oh, man, where do I even start? The first episode seemed like it might be just another Gypsy-style tawdry therapist-with-bad-boundries psychological melodrama, but it quickly pivoted into a murder mystery, legal thriller, and domestic drama all rolled into one. I loved every aspect of it: the strange accents, the Euro-pall hanging over the Manhattan setting, director Suzanne Bier’s eyeball piercing cinematography, the emo-acting, the David E. Kelly elitism, all the histrionic twists and turns. It turned into the best thing HBO has done since Sharp Objects and a perfectly entertaining distraction from all the post US election drama.

Special Shout-outs to…

  • The binge-worthy laughs of Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place, two shows my wife and I probaby would’ve never watched otherwise but happily binge-watched during the pandemic.
  • Laurie Metcalf – the unsung hero of character-driven comedy. We just discovered the exceptional (and painfully funny) Getting On, and her work on The Conners (which has re-emerged from the ashes like a modern day Norman Lear sitcom) has been exceptional as always.
  • The recently discovered novels of Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and William Gay (The Long Home and Provinces of Night).
  • The HBO docu-series The Vow…oh the fuckery of Keith Ranier, may he rot in jail forever (and he will).

List Compiled by D. H. Schleicher

Classical Romance and Feminism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire in our current day pandemic and masks environment. There are some accidentally eerie scenes on a beach early in the film (as opposed to the deliberately eerie scenes later in the film where ghostly visages of a bride appear in dark hallways) where our main characters, a female painter and her female subject, wear masks to protect their faces from the wind and stay for the most part six feet apart or more. Here the social distancing is a function of repression and social mores, the masks another costume accessory.

The costumes, setting, and social mores on display in this very French film are beguiling. Sciamma uses them, along with how she places and moves her characters in frame, to build tension. The film is deliberately quiet with no music score, so that the tension builds its own rhythm, and so that when music does appear au naturelle (like women breaking into a chorus chant on a beach at night, or during that bravura closing scene where the camera fixates on a woman’s reaction to a particular piece of music performed by an orchestra) it’s like a jolt of emotion. Others films have made this bold choice before, but Sciamma employs it in a most novel way. Likewise, nods to, and techniques used in, everything from other feminist yarns like Jane Campion’s The Piano (the opening at sea), to Scorsese classics (that “hands reaching for each other” scene transition from the campfire to the cliffside is immaculate), to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (that closing shot!) are combined in some strange and beautiful alchemy as if they are being used for the first time. The characters echo this as their affair begins, musing about how every lover must think they’ve created something new.

But there’s nothing truly revolutionary here. It’s all very classical and romantic. It just moves the viewer in a novel way through the sheer force of Sciamma and her actresses’ wills. The performances are fantastic. The side-stories (like the maid’s unwanted pregnancy) are presented with a humanist bent. Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory, maybe second only to Nina Hoss singing “Speak Low” in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.