Wednesday, December 20, 2017


A couple of years ago I convened another session of the SLIFR Treehouse over at my blog, “SLIFR Treehouse” being just a clever way of not saying “The Slate Movie Club” or the name of any other gathering of critical minds for the purpose of assessing the year in movies from which I stole the concept. To the 2015 edition of the Treehouse I invited three of my favorite smart people, Marya Murphy, Phillip Dyess-Nugent and Odie Henderson, to join me in the fun. (Here’s a link to the final chapter of our week-long  party, which itself has links to all the other chapters.)  I knew it would be a good, sassy, intelligent, livewire group and that a lot of smart insights and good writing would come of it, and I was right—everybody kept everybody else on their game, and it was a ton of fun, for us, and I hope for the relative few who read it.

Yesterday we got the awful news that one of the members of our treehouse club, the good-natured and generous Brian Doan, passed away from a heart attack—I almost said “unexpectedly,” but for a 44-year-old man as gregarious and vital as Brian was, could such a loss be anything but unexpected? Even in just the short amount of time since we found out there has been so much testimony put forth by those who knew him, in the flesh and, as many of us did, only virtually, about Brian’s spirit, his optimism, the fertility of his mind and he boundless enthusiasm as a teacher. (Brian was, as his bio on SLIFR attests, an Affiliate Scholar in Cinema Studies at Oberlin College, where he taught courses in film and popular culture.) But I wanted to highlight Brian the way I knew him best, as a cogent and open-minded thinker about the movies, one who could write about movies that were roundly dismissed or overpraised without a hint of self-conscious contrarianism. The joy he felt about seeing cinema came through whether he liked the movie or not.

So I wanted to give you just three excerpts from Brian’s contributions to the 2015 SLIFR Treehouse in the hopes of highlighting just why I held him in such high regard as a writer, and why I was so honored that he assented to be a part of our little gathering.


The first is Brian on the last James Bond movie, Spectre, which he knew going in was not held in too lofty a position by many critics, including some of us in the Treehouse.

“This bizarrely-maligned entry into the Bond canon was a delight--I loved the way it balanced the more humorous/extravagant feel of the Moore years with empty landscapes and a weirdly obsessive track-down narrative that both captured the existential tone of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice more than any other Bond movie (and I mean the book here, with its digressive travelogues and haunted Japanese poison flower gardens and all that, not the movie with Donald Pleasance as Dr. Evil). I've often thought of the Craig years as a Voltronesque experience in rebuilding a character-- that Casino Royale was about stripping the character of his armor to restore his humanity, and Skyfall about returning the lush style of the sixties Bonds to the franchise (the less said about Quantum of Solace, the better). Letting Craig enjoy the more comedic aspects of the franchise (because those Connery Bonds were many things, but they were *never* "gritty") feels like it completes the franchise rebuild-- he now seems capable of going almost anywhere with the character (so of course, he's making sounds about leaving him behind).

If comparing franchise movie-making to an 80s cartoon robot seems like a put-down, I don't mean it to be. This might the result of being born into the Spielberg/Lucas era (the first Star Wars was the first movie I saw, at the age of four), but one of the things I love about good, serialized storytelling is tracing out how it shifts and changes, how it absorbs from and adds to the pop culture around it, how it can be the best kind of bricolage. Sometimes you get horrors like current cycle of "No, watching overwhelmingly white groups of teens being chased through a torture park really *is* feminist!!" YA adaptations, to be sure. But I applaud the Bond films, and their 53-year ability to adapt, survive, and even occasionally surprise (let's say I was not expecting a reference to Fleming's offbeat character study, The Hildebrand Rarity, to pop up amidst Spectre’s exploding airplanes, even if its melancholy emotional tenor makes it the skeleton key to all of Craig's Bond films).

Anyway, as film scholar David Bordwell taught us all those years ago, "art house" cinema can be just as much a set of formulas as any kind of mass culture studio product, with its own strict formal and ideological precepts and rules for audience response (given the current cultural economics of film writing, it might be no accident that hipster enclave Pitchfork funded its own site for awhile). And if a movie, however well-made, doesn't set off the right bells, then I guess it's Spotlight? I'm fascinated by what Dennis, Odie and Marya note as the growing backlash to the film, which seems based precisely on a condescension to what they describe as its straight-ahead style (conversely, I'd argue the recent David O. Russell cycle gets a pass due to its general incoherence: "That sure was a big, convoluted mess-- so there must've been something going on in there!").”


Next, here’s Brian on a big critical end-of-year critical fave, Straight Outta Compton, which he went into expecting to love:

"It's actually a movie that got smaller in my imagination the more time passed, because as I turned it over in my head, I couldn't buy into the movie's paradoxical braggadocio about NWA's political stances, and its repeated insistence that "no one else is doing this" (which, having grown up with Public Enemy, the Native Tongues collective, and Boogie Down Productions, all of whom were also doing varied and genuinely radical work
contemporaneous/near-contemporaneous with the 1988 Straight Outta Compton album, clearly ain't so; it works as a character aside, but the film also wants it as its motto, even placing Chuck D's famous line about rap as a black CNN in the group's collective mouth). I also wasn't sure what to do with its ambivalent take on the group's relationship to violence, which I thought it could never decide if it was celebrating or condemning (although, in fairness, The Chronic itself--which we see the genesis of in the film's second half--also wrestles with this kind of ambivalence).

In his excellent Ebert review,, my fellow Treehouser Odie Henderson has some pertinent things to say about the film's politics vis-a-vis this contemporary moment, and re-reading his 4-star review tonight after an online exchange, it made me want to go back and re-watch the film with fresh eyes (although I suspect that's more a product of Odie's superb critical poetry, what he brings to and draws out the film with such careful grace, as much as the film itself). It's also possible--even probable!-- that there are a million things I'm missing, and/or struggling with in an obtuse-if-earnest way. But as a certain Chicago critic was fond of writing (quoting Robert Warshow), "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man," and my mounting sense of despair when watching the movie was real, and similar to my response (as we think about Bowie this week) to Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, a gorgeous, technically brilliant and often thrilling film--just as Compton is--but one whose ahistorical vision of its Bowie avatar (and by extension, Bowie himself) as some kind of sell-out to the director's adolescent dreams about what his icon should have been, is really fucking infuriating.

(Writing, re-writing, and thinking about all this for the past 90 minutes, I'm realizing that it's entirely possible I take my pop music too seriously)."


Finally, Brian’s most personal entry into the Treehouse, a moment on seeing movies in Oberlin, Ohio, where he lived, and having to stand outside the circle of conversation until the movies of the moment finally got to his neck of the woods. Even living in Los Angeles I could relate to Brian’s embracing of his situation, and these couple of paragraphs remain, outside of the countless contributions to my comments column, to, and to his own cracking-good blog Bubblegum Aesthetics, my most favorite of Brian’s words, especially the concluding sentence:

I live in Oberlin, a small Ohio college town that's about an hour or so (weather and traffic depending) from art-houses in Cleveland and 30 minutes or so from multiplexes in nearby towns. We have one theater, with two screens, which alternate out films about every two weeks or so (give or take—The Force Awakens is in its third week, while Sisters had the good sense to slink out of town after seven days). While it's not quite Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms hanging out at the Royal in The Last Picture Show, this isolation, combined with the limited viewing time created by day jobs, does mean that I'm often behind on things my big-city friends are chatting about on Twitter.

When the Ebert site asked its contributors for their Top Ten lists, I prefaced mine by addressing this supposed quandary; I guess I felt like it was something that needed to be addressed (a social/cinephile anxiety which certainly says something about me, and maybe about current trends/pressures of talking about films in a tiered movie economy whose discourses are shaped by geography as much as anything). Here's what I said, shared to give y'all (and those who read it at the blog) a sense of where I'm coming from:

'There was a long period when I was bothered by the difficulties that my geographic location presented to my staying in touch with current films; I think I even felt weirdly “guilty” about it, as if being out of the loop meant being away from my “real” movie-going self. But now, I think of it as an odd advantage: it gives me a lot to look forward to, freedom from whatever suffocating cliquishness might exist in bigger cities, and a perspective whose skewed nature (relative to everyone else’s) means that whatever else my viewing habits are, they are mine to take responsibility for and enjoy. As Roland Barthes said, “My body is different than yours.” Or, in the words of Malcolm, the lead character of Dope (one of my favorite films of the year): “ 'I don’t fit in. I used to think that was a curse, but I’m slowly starting to see, that maybe, it is a blessing.' "


Blessings received, Brian. Thank you.


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