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The Cinema of Self
This review appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
Written and Directed by Joanna Hogg
In 1939, when film was at its peak of popularity and cultural influence, a population of about 130 million Americans bought 80 million movie tickets per week. Hollywood’s leading practitioners had the talent, resources, and to a considerable degree the freedom to make work of the highest ambition, work that could reflect and define the national experience. Novelists like Faulkner and Steinbeck might stake their claims to speak for and to America, but Gone With the Wind had a hold on the popular imagination that Absalom, Absalom! could never hope for. The Grapes of Wrath would come closer to achieving its artistic and political ambitions as a movie than it ever could between the book’s covers.
Eighty years later, the movie business is by some measures bigger than ever. Annual ticket sales may be a fraction of what they were in 1939, but aggregate revenue is more than robust and drawn from a global, not just a national, audience. More movies are being made than ever before and consumers are watching them everywhere: on their televisions, on their computers, on their phones.
But there is a difference. By far the most popular commercial releases these days are comic book and other franchise offerings, which are structured not so much like traditional films but as components of larger “universes” that fans have invested with mythological significance. A consumption-based community is being formed, in which the collective imagination is outsourced to corporations like Disney. Yet it is not analogous to the national communities that monumental popular art defined in the past.
If film no longer facilitates communal storytelling, that doesn’t mean it is obsolete. Rather, it is following the path literary fiction has already trod, becoming a more personal, and therefore more elite, form. The communion that remains is individual, connecting the teller and the discerning audience, soul to soul. There may be few if any films like The Wizard of Oz or The Godfather these days, but there should be plenty like The 400 Blows or Slums of Beverly Hills, diamonds worth sifting through the muck to find.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco and The Souvenir are two such films that sparkled particularly brightly this past year. Highly personal, more poetic than novelistic, they aren’t for everyone because they aren’t trying to be. But they are worth engaging with precisely for that reason.
* * *
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the first feature from writer-director Joe Talbot, announces with its title that it deals with “issues”: gentrification, inequality, race. But it is the furthest thing from the kind of message movie that Hollywood reliably churns out around Oscar time. This is not a story about oppression, nor even really about disappropriation. It’s about love, and the transcendent value of even misplaced love.
The film’s protagonist, Jimmie Fails, is obsessed with his family’s lost patrimony: a gorgeous pile of Victorian gingerbread now occupied by a middle-aged white couple. Convinced that they are not taking adequate care of the house, Jimmie and his constant companion, Montgomery, sneak onto the property when they believe it is empty to make small repairs. For his trouble, Jimmy gets pelted with croissants and peppers by the owner when she returns from shopping to find him painting the trim beneath the windows.
Shortly thereafter, the residents are forced to move because of a property dispute; the grocery-pelter’s mother has died, and the surviving children are fighting over who will get the house. Jimmie and Montgomery take this opportunity to move in and furnish the place with all his grandfather’s old furniture and knickknacks, all lovingly preserved by Jimmie’s aunt. In his fantasy, Jimmie has finally come home. He spends much of the rest of the film futilely willing that fantasy to be real.
While the economics in the background are brutal, the film is not foolish enough to invest in a narrative of personal villainy on the part of those who stand in Jimmie’s way. We feel Jimmie’s frustration when he can’t get a loan to buy the house, but we also know that his promise to pay back every penny of the loan should avail him no further than it does. This is a $4 million home, and Jimmie’s only employment is as a part-time aide in a nursing home. The people with money and power in this San Francisco may not be particularly caring, but neither are they gratuitously cruel. The owners of the house never call the cops on Jimmie, nor does the neighbor whom Jimmie greets too ostentatiously as he moves in after dark, nor does the real estate agent to whom he inadvertently lets slip that the property could be on the market. Any of them could have done so, and taken the story in a very different direction.
Moreover, the house was not lost because of predation, but because Jimmie’s parents, who had become drug addicts, were unable to hold on to it. They weren’t even able to hold on to Jimmie, who spent some of his youth in a group home, and as an adult barely speaks to his father. When his mother, whom Jimmie hasn’t seen for years, makes a surprise appearance late in the film, she’s like an apparition wreathed in improbable sunlight, gone as suddenly as seen.
Jimmie knows all this. But he also knows that his grandfather built that house with his own two hands after World War II, mimicking the hundred-year-old houses around it. That story is what grounds Jimmie’s attachment, his conviction that he has to reclaim the place, that he can’t give up.
Except the story is false, as Montgomery learns when he foolishly threatens the real estate agent for misrepresenting the property. Montgomery is a kind of auteur-surrogate: a writer and pencil-sketcher, deeply shy, very likely in love with Jimmie and very unlikely ever to say so. He notes the world around him, apes snippets of conversation, inserts himself awkwardly into people’s lives seeking to capture their essence. The climax of the film is a play Montgomery stages in the attic of the house, a montage of the faces and languages he has absorbed, their lives and sudden deaths, culminating with the revelation that the house is just like the other Victorians on the block. Jimmie’s grandfather didn’t build it. He just lived in it. Now his descendants don’t.
As Jimmie admits shortly after this revelation, he used to tell the story about his grandfather to make himself feel special, at first knowing it wasn’t true. But he repeated it so often that he came to believe it was true. He needed to have a reason not to give up.
The world is full of stories like that. Every deep and abiding love may in fact partake of it, and every community may be grounded in a similar myth. The film is wise to that. One snippet of passing conversation that the film grabs is a pair of Fruit of Islam–looking types affirming that “Alexander the Great was a black man.”
Yet man cannot live by myth alone. Jimmie loves the house, loves the city, but his love is doomed. He needs to let go of it to live, even though that means the house, and the city it represents—even his beloved friend, whom we see, alone and forlorn in the film’s closing montage—are going to die, spiritually, without him.
The film loves San Francisco the way Jimmie loves the house. This is a truly gorgeous film to look at, and The Last Black Man is about looking and listening more than it is about telling a story. It shows us a San Francisco of beautiful losers: a black soapbox preacher railing to an empty street; a naked white man carefully putting down a liner before sitting at a bus stop; Bobby, an old family friend who sleeps in a car festooned with Christmas lights that he may or may not have stolen from Jimmie’s father; and Jimmie’s father himself, sitting bitterly at the window of his SRO, watching the city below as he packages bootleg DVDs, the last gasp of a dying hustle, but still willing to dress to the nines to visit the old house for his son’s friend’s play. That play is ultimately the same as the film, because this is Jimmie’s story, and he is played by himself: a man named Jimmie Fails. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
They’re all dying, peeping through the cracks of a city that has no room for them. The filmmaker wants to hold on to them, to keep their essences alive by making them into this film, something that can be preserved and owned. But Bobby’s is the truer wisdom: “You never really own shit.”
* * *
The Souvenir is another story of misplaced love, and another extremely personal one. Like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it fools us into thinking it is concerned primarily with social conscience. In fact, it’s about the impossibility of making real art looking from the outside in, while also serving as a warning that what is most personal may turn out to remain maddeningly opaque even after you’ve trained your camera’s eye on it and resolved not to look away.
Set in London in the 1980s, with IRA bombings thudding in the background, it follows Julie, an aspiring filmmaker. Brought up in a landed family that pays for her light-filled apartment, Julie is starting film school, slumming among fellow artists of lesser means and looking for a subject that will get her out of her bubble of privilege. She intends to tell a story about a poor boy with an ailing mother in the depressed northern town of Sunderland, but her instructors discourage her from working so far from her own experience.
Shot as if the camera were spying on her world, with dialogue that feels improvised and often barely overheard, one might assume this will be a film concerned with social reality. And it is that, just as The Last Black Man in San Francisco is partly about gentrification and economic inequality. More than class, though, The Souvenir is about how an artist finds her subject. That subject—the character’s and the film’s, since Julie is a transparent stand-in for writer-director Joanna Hogg—is a disastrous love affair. This misplaced love is the most important event in this young woman’s life and the reason, we surmise, that she is eventually able to become the artist she wants to be.
The man she comes to love is Anthony, who—and I think this is important for the film’s effect—is not obviously appealing. When we first meet him, on a date at a fancy tearoom that might be in the foreign office building where he works, he comes off as an arrogant toff, casually undermining Julie’s confidence in her work. He worms his way into her life and her bed more with an air of easy entitlement than with any sustained effort at romance.
We learn early on that this way of presenting himself is carefully constructed. Anthony comes from humbler circumstances than Julie. He even has family up near Sunderland, where Julie hoped to make her film. He presumably got his spot in the foreign office by acing his A-levels, but the posh accent and appearance were likely of equal importance, as he undoubtedly knew. In a way, Anthony is also an artist who creates a fictionalized version of himself. Perhaps that’s part of his appeal to her.
There’s a fine line, though, between being skilled at self-creation and being a confidence man. Anthony crosses well over that line. He has to, because he’s a heroin addict.
This is information the film drops, as it does nearly all information, casually, as though everyone but Julie (and us) already knew it. Watching Julie roll with the revelation, going from incomprehension to trying to hide the fact that she not only didn’t know but didn’t even understand what was being revealed until it is made blatantly clear, is worth the price of admission. But what follows is almost bewildering in its perversity: Julie’s resolute refusal to protect herself from Anthony and his illness. She will lie to her parents to get money for him, she will accept his lies when he steals from her, and he will take everything with only the barest acknowledgment of the enormity of his behavior.
The entire affair feels horribly real and makes the viewer’s inner parent want to shake this poor girl into sanity. But it also makes you want to shake the filmmaker, because while the film never flinches from showing the depths to which an addict will sink, it also never indulges the impulse to frame Julie’s decisions in terms of moral progress, of something she learned, about love, or about herself.
Because this isn’t a film about progress toward sanity. It’s a film about finding a subject for art. That’s what Julie—and Hogg—found here. Though I wonder whether Julie understands that, I’m sure Hogg does, and that she’s saying something, implicitly, about the insanity of devotion to someone who takes and takes, but also about the necessity of that insanity. After all, isn’t that the stance of an artist before a subject she must surrender to, let consume her, so that she can take away a souvenir that can move an audience to pity, terror, and our own love? ♦
Noah Millman is a filmmaker and a columnist for The Week.
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