What A Film Critic Didn’t Expect When He Was Expecting
As a film critic, I’m used to the pressure of constant deadlines. But right now I’m living under a very different sort of ticking clock; a biological one.
I’m having a baby.
If all goes well (knock on wood [poo poo poo]), my wife and I are expecting our first child — a girl! — on December 18 (Yes, the same day as the release Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because apparently my kid loves insanely on-the-nose symbolism about putting away childish things). Apart from packing up my office so it can be turned into a nursery (R.I.P. Spider-Man shrine), things haven’t changed too much yet. But they will — and not just my weekly trivia night with friends or my tendency to sleep at least six hours a night, but the very core of how I do my job writing and thinking about movies. And Fantastic Fest 2015 was the place I realized it’s already starting to happen.
Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the United States, dedicated to presenting the cutting-edge in horror, sci-fi, comedy, animation, and action from all over the globe. If you like your films bold, bizarre, or taboo-busting, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin Texas is your Mecca for one week every September. I’ve been coming to Fantastic Fest since 2008; for eight years, it’s been one of my favorite annual rituals. There are more prestigious and important film festivals than Fantastic Fest, but in my experience, there isn’t a more pleasurable one. It’s cinephile nirvana.
This year is no exception. Through the first four days of the festival, I saw 15 movies, including a handful of out-and-out masterpieces, like Charlie Kaufman’s glorious Anomalisa. But even as I’ve been having an incredible time, my thoughts keep drifting back home — and I’ve caught those thoughts about my daughter coloring my interpretations of movies, both positively and negatively.
A year ago, for example, it probably wouldn’t have irked me so much that there wasn’t a single genuinely interesting female character in Too Late, a formally ambitious neo-noir comprised of five long takes (each the length of a reel of 35mm film stock) about a private eye (John Hawkes) on the trail of a killer. A year ago, I may not have ever noticed that almost every single woman in Too Late falls into one of two categories — strippers and former strippers — or that none of these women ever wear pants onscreen (or that one of them spends at least 10 minutes — and carries on several long conversations — completely nude from the waist down while the camera slowly follows behind her at butt-level).
As a great admirer of the female form, that sort of thing should be right up my alley. But while there were things to admire about Too Late — Hawkes’ intense and darkly funny performance; a jumbled timeline that turns a linear story into an anthology about the lives of a group of interconnected characters — I really struggled with its treatment of women as a series of martyred sexpots. On several occasions, I found myself wondering what my daughter would think if she watched this — and what I would say to her if we saw it together. The prospect of that conversation honestly made me a little uncomfortable.
On the other hand, I had fantasies of a future where my daughter and I could share the delightful anime The Boy and the Beast. The latest feature from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosada is a gorgeously animated fable about Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), a young orphan on the streets of modern-day Tokyo who stumbles into another world populated by man-animal hybrids. Lost and alone, he reluctantly agrees to become the apprentice to an unruly beast named Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), whose arrogance and poor manners have kept him from inheriting the throne of his magical kingdom.
Ren and Kumatetsu’s relationship is immediately contentious, but it soon becomes mutually beneficial as the two — both outsiders in their respective societies — find strength in their makeshift family. As Ren grows older, he begins to rebel against his surrogate father — as all teenagers inevitably do — leading to an intense series of disagreements and reunions that thread through the ongoing subplot of who will inherit the kingdom’s lordship.
A couple weeks before I left for Fantastic Fest, my wife and I were driving to visit her family when John Legend’s “All of Me” came on the radio. The song doesn’t have any particular significance in our lives, but it suddenly turned my wife into a blubbering mess. Overcome by the melody and the sentiment (and, I can only assume, an overdose of pregnancy hormones), she burst into tears and then couldn’t stop crying. “It’s just such a beautiful song!” she repeated between sobs through the ballad’s four minutes and 29 seconds.
I spent those four-and-a-half minutes chuckling at her and asking if she wanted me to change the station (she did not). It wasn’t quite as funny when the final act of The Boy and the Beast gave me my own “It’s just so beautiful!” ugly cry moment. The grand finale of this epic adventure about what fathers leave to their children (and vice versa) broke me in an intense and cathartic way. I was glad the Drafthouse had given me some napkins with my dinner; I needed them to blow my nose and clean up my face.
This seems like an ideal movie for parents to share with their kids; it imparts viewers with just as many lessons as Kumatetsu and Ren give each other amidst their incredibly thrilling and brilliantly designed adventures. During the heroes’ quest for knowledge and strength, a wise master instructs them that “an illusion sometimes has more truth than truth itself.” The same could be said of The Boy and the Beast, which left me a tear-stained mess. Immediately after the screening, I recreated my reaction to the final act on Instagram:
A few hours after drying my eyes, I was back at the Drafthouse for a screening of Klown Forever, the sequel to the 2010 Danish film Klown about a pair of philandering comedians (Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, playing outlandish versions of themselves). It’s basically Curb Your Enthusiasm set in Denmark with additional awkwardness and a lot more male frontal nudity. (Like, a lot more.) In the new film, Casper decides to try his luck in Hollywood, endangering his partnership with Frank right on the verge of publishing their first book together (appropriately, it’s titled Friendship Through Storms). Terrified of a future without his buddy and collaborator, Frank follows Casper to Los Angeles, where the two get into even more trouble than usual, some of it involving sex, some of it involving hilariously random celebrity cameos, and some of it involving sex witnessed by hilariously random celebrities.
So it’s a bawdy comedy about a couple of serial cheaters trying to hook up with exotic women around the globe. Here, at least, I thought I would be safe from my still-tender emotions. Nope; five minutes into Klown Forever, Dadtastic Fest struck again. Part of the reason Casper and Frank are drifting apart is because Frank, now a father of two kids with his wife Mia (Mia Lyhne), doesn’t have time to party anymore. Frank’s mission to bring Capser home also means reckoning with his own desires. Does he really prefer hanging out with Casper to playing with his kids?
Frank’s answers to those questions would surely be different than mine. But something about his dilemma — and the way Klown depicts all men as well-intentioned idiots — struck a chord with me. Being a guy means being a screwup. Being a dad means being a screwup — but trying your best to at least be less of a screwup.
I’m still getting a handle on these proto-dad feels; they’re currently as unpredictable as they are volatile. I just walked out of a Turkish film that featured graphic shots of babies getting slaughtered by vikings; for some reason, I didn’t bat an eye at that. And while I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought by the colonial New England horror of The Witch, I wouldn’t say the fact that it’s about a father who is not very good at protecting his children from unholy evil necessarily made it scarier than it would have been otherwise. But just looking at the picture from The Boy and the Beast at the top of this article made me heart beat a little faster.
I’ve always believed there’s no such thing as an objectively great movie; context is everything. No matter how hard they try to preserve an air of all-knowing superiority, film critics are people. And whether they want to admit it or not — and whether they realize it or not — their opinions are shaped by the accumulation of their life experiences. That’s what makes film criticism such a beautiful art form unto itself. When someone tells you how they saw a movie, what they’re really telling you is how they see the world. Clearly, the way I see the world is changing very quickly. And that clock just keeps ticking.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look at color swatches for the nursery.