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2019 Flashbacks: Despairs and Delights

Thursday, January 16, 2020

 

Dear Katie,

 

Year-end ‘lists’ (I can’t resist the scare quotes!) have always struck me as inherently optimistic. I also find that reflecting on beloved content from the previous year reminds me of all the media I wished I’d engaged with — books left unread, tabs reluctantly closed, screenings missed, and exhibitions that ended before I got my shit together! (TBH, I often find that reading other people’s year-end lists inspires FOMO.) 

 

In the spirit of confronting insecurities, then, I should admit that I’ve been binging Gossip Girl. I’ve been watching the series as I recuperate from surgery. While it’s possible that painkillers are dulling my senses, I also think I might be rekindling a love for teen dramas (kinda exciting!). Speaking of which, have you seen Euphoria? I haven’t, and I wonder if it might exist on a special sublist of series I’ll low-key regret not watching in 2019, because their appeal is so intrinsically bound to the contemporary moment.  

 

Year-end lists often seem to be about categorizing highlights as either AMAZING (and therefore potentially ‘timeless’) or AMAZINGLY RELEVANT RN (but perhaps less likely to resonate in a year or ten). For instance, I thought Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story was pretty snore-y. However, if you’re going to watch it, you might as well now, because you can bet that some colleague is going to bring it up as back-from-the-break-and-steeping-the-tea (literally? figuratively?) fodder for office chat! 

 

Okay, so on that note — is there anything you think I should see/watch/read/hear ASAP, so as to better understand the year of our godexxe 2019? 

 

Xo,

Esmé

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Esmé,

 

I commiserate with the feeling that the avalanche of lists is overwhelming. I love to feast on the list maker’s choices, but they also make me feel thoroughly unartistic or not up to snuff. 

 

At the beginning of the year, I somehow found myself in theatres for the CGI extravaganza that was Aquaman. My aching brain wobbled between the spectacle of waste that making films like this necessitates and, as is on brand for me, its feverish homoeroticism. How utterly lame! A superhero movie? Even my attempt to find a queer way in was half-assed. I mention this because I feel a kinship with your mention of Gossip Girl, which is a delicious mess but also raises some very 2019 feelings about surveillance, being photographed, and being watched. These concepts also come up in Euphoria (which I did watch — the eye makeup alone is a reason to). It is much darker than GG. I liked it, but each episode hollowed me out in an intense, unpleasant way, which seems to match the mood of a politically fraught year. 

 

To me, The Good Fight’s theatrical third season captured the tones and textures of US politics by incorporating formal risks, campy performances, and animated sequences about, say, troll farms, NDAs, and impeachment. It was unlike anything I’d seen on television before and, because of this, I liked it even better than the allegorical operatics of Succession. I guess it’s worth mentioning that this was ‘the year of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’. Did you watch Fleabag? Did you find the Hot Priest hot? What about Killing Eve? I think both are good sick-in-bed shows from this year — pleasurable and critical. So are Derry Girls and Good Omens, which express tender sweetness while giving you something thoughtful to hang on to. 

 

We were at TIFF together (it’s currently freezing cold and I’m nostalgic for our patio conversations) and we both saw a lot of films in 2019. I’m going to watch Marriage Story, but I’m scared! What did you notice about film this year that felt exciting or particular to 2019? 

 

 

Anticipating your Baumbach reads,

Katie 

 

 

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Courtesy TIFF.

 

 

 

 

Hey Katie,

 

Firstly, “feverish homoeroticism” made me laugh! It reminded me of your recent piece, “Exploring Queer Desire in HBO’S Succession”, which helped me contextualize several of the unspoken (and sometimes spoken!) dynamics that gave that show such oomph. Succession functions like elevated reality TV — the jarring, handheld zooms, melodramatic soundtrack, and the lack of context and characters beyond the immediate family feels akin to the annexed, bubble worlds of The Bachelor or Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

 

Okay, that may have seemed like a digression, but I do think a detached or loose hold on what constitutes ‘realness’ or ‘authenticity’ (dreaded words!) relates to my thoughts on Marriage Story and why it’s getting so much buzz. I watched Baumbach’s latest on Netflix. (I note the viewing platform because the stakes of simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases are still somewhat opaque to me, but I assume this shift will intensely reshape how viewers consume and value ‘cinema’.) My impressions were basically: here’s a decently engaging film that a) isn’t a superhero movie and b) is mostly comprised of white folks having conversations, so OF COURSE it’s receiving praise for being “bold,” “stripped down,” “honest,” and “vulnerable”. I think viewers may be pining for a less politically-compromised Woody Allen. Maybe Baumbach and Richard Linklater will have to duke it out.

 

On the flipside, a film that I really appreciated as a dialogue-heavy two-hander was The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn. This film packs emotional wallops without seeming stagey or self-conscious (in comparison perhaps to Baumbach’s excessive theatricality). Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft was another invigorating, character-led piece about a psychically fraying young woman, played magnificently by Deragh Campbell. 

 

Did you see any artwork this year that achieved emotional depth through restraint or simplicity? Those are the projects that stay with me and I’m hankering for your recommendations! 

 

Xo, 

Ez

 

P.S. Yes, dammit, I thought Hot Priest (from Fleabag) was a QT! ;)

 

 

 

Dear Esmé, 

 

I like what you said about emotional depth, which I found most frequently this year in genre film. Us made me literally shiver. Other movies kept making me squirm in my body, in a good way: Midsommar was all about emotions, and then there was Parasite, In Fabric, and The Lighthouse! The ghostly, lingering Atlantics, wow. Softer dramas also sung to my soul and my eyeballs. The Farewell, Invisible Life, and more locally, Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers come to mind. There are also movies coming out before or soon after 2020 that made the festival circuit which I’m yearning to see, especially, Clemency, Uncut Gems, and Beanpole.

 

Your piece on The Body Remembers made me quite hopeful and excited about movies — a frisson of zest to combat superhero fatigue. In response to your question about art, I am sad to say that I didn’t see much. One glorious sun splattered day I stumbled upon Jennifer Murphy’s show at Clint Roenisch Gallery. Her kaleidoscopic collages of animal cutouts and swirls of seashells were magical and really moving. They brought to mind the big year it’s been for climate action. When I saw her exhibition I couldn’t help but recall the heartening and heartbreaking feelings I had at the Climate Strike and the artistic creativity of some of Extinction Rebellion’s demonstrations. 

 

I am hungry for your thoughts on art and documentaries. These are the empty craters in my year. I know you watched/saw a lot, because I read all of your writing and we’re good friends.

What sung to you? 

 

So much great art, so little time — but also I need to organize my time better,

 

Katie 

 

 

 

Dear Katie,

 

Wow, yes, the Climate Strike reminded me of a wake (or at least my romanticized vision of a wake on a rugged Irish cliff or something) — that rare feeling of gravitas when humans come together to simultaneously express fierce joy and face the abyss. Fuck. 

 

With regards to the pending apocalypse, I’ve been curious (and semi-skeptical) about emerging aesthetic codes for representations of climate change. Jayne Wilkinson wrote about this topic compellingly for Canadian Art in relation to Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier’s Anthropocene Project. This year, when I interviewed documentary filmmaker, Astra Taylor (Examined Life and What Is Democracy?), she expressed related misgivings about shiny, hyper-saturated, and drone-favouring representations of climate change, which cemented some of my concerns. Like, what constitutes ‘proof’ of ecological devastation?

 

I do think showing devastation in clear and dramatic visuals (photos of the burning Amazon and Australia come to mind) is important, but I’m also intrigued by less sensationalizing approaches. As such, I feel obliged to cite Brett Story’s The Hottest August as a more discursive climate doc from this year. I recommend Christina Battle’s recent piece on the film. 

 

In terms of documentaries more generally, I loved Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham, a 3D film about legendary choreographer, Merce Cunningham, which premiered at TIFF. Though technically from 2018, I was also thrilled to see RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening in 2019 at Cinema Moderne in Montreal. I’m digging the movement toward hour-long, essay-style documentaries. For instance, I loved Ute Aurand’s Rushing Green with Horses, which might be better categorized as an art film and similarly applies the memoir-steeped approach.

 

At the beginning of our correspondence I mentioned that lists inevitably remind me of things I regret missing. Art-wise, I wish I’d seen Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell’s Killjoy’s Kastle at Icebox Project Space, Eric N. Mack’s Lemme walk across the room at the Brooklyn Museum, Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design (I want to see more textile art and design shows!!) at the ICA Boston, and Eve Tagny’s Lost Love — Saisons futures at Gallery 44 in Toronto. I was also curious about Peaches’ Whose Jizz Is This? at Kunstverein in Hamburg (it looked fuuun!). I’m longing to see a live Victoria Sin performance! What art did you hate to miss this year? About climate change or otherwise?

 

Xx,
E

 

 

 RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Courtesy TIFF.

 

 

 

 

Dear Ez,

 

When we were working together this summer, I remember there was one week where we just sunk into a hopeless pit of climate grief and couldn’t bring ourselves to write. For me, this has been the ebb and flow of the year — a kind of mourning that sometimes edges towards the activating energy of, as you mention, a wake. Then, of course, there’s all the other mounting chaos in the world catalyzed by misogyny, racism, transphobia, colonial violence, and big data — it’s a tangled net of horrors. I guess I have to ask myself — what did I engage with that helped me to understand this web better? 

 

Definitely not enough. I did love the TIFF series Sui generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema, which included Guillermo del Toro’s first feature, Cronos. I lamented missing Brian Jungen’s show at the AGO, Junji Ito at TCAF, Deanna Bowen at Hart House, and a number of great author talks that took place across Toronto. Speaking of which, even though I read thirty books in 2019, I feel that I could have read more. I wasted so much time scrolling. Still, to share some poignant reads — Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir of queer domestic abuse In the Dream House was achingly good. It paired well with Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests. All of these titles share fresh and honest thoughts on the experience of art and the subjectivity of the artist. The standout for me was Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise, which directly responds to the #MeToo movement by focusing on the life trajectories of teenage students at a theatre school.

 

I’ve started reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s 'Thick and Amy Fung’s Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, though it’s now early January and I won’t be finished both until the end of the month. Alongside, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, I’ve definitely felt more pulled in by non-fiction (and fiction) that’s pointedly present or that refreshes my thinking about cultural criticism (what we do, part-time haha) in some kind of way. 

 

I’m leaving the year holding all of the chaos with a new set of anticipations. Going forward, I want to collect myself. The feeling I want to focus on is ‘urgency’. What provides new angles on the current moment or imbues it with vitality? Who, or what, can help me think outside myself? How do I look critically inwards so that I can organize a way forward? 

 

At the close of 2019 perhaps a 2009-era Beyoncé said it best — it’s been a “sweet dream and a beautiful nightmare”.

 

 

Love and solidarity as we navigate the next,

Katie

 

 

 

 

The above is a recap of the past year in cultural highs and lows told through letter exchanges. It was conducted between Esmé Hogeveen and Katie Connell with editorial support from Shauna Jean Doherty. Hogeveen is a writer and editor based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Connell writes about film and culture and currently a staff writer for the feminist film journal Another Gaze. And Doherty is an art critic and independent curator, based in Toronto, primarily interested in the impacts of technology on aesthetics, artistic production, and the art market.

 

 

 

 

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