Friday, December 24, 2021

Special Guest Blog: Marianna Ellenberg

Top Ten List, Film and Live Performance: Marianna Ellenberg, 2021

In no particular order, these were the flicks and live shows that wowed me during this darkest of years. These thoughts are dedicated to the brilliant artists and thinkers we lost this year, including bell hooks, Lauren Berlant, Joan Didion, Alvin Lucier, Stephen Sondheim, Greg Tate, to name just a few.

(1) “Sun and Sea”

Direction and set design by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Libretto by Vaiva Grainytė , Music and musical direction by Lina Lapelytė


An opera on climate crisis and late capitalism, Beckett meets German arthouse theater, with hints of Roy Anderson. Painful and beautiful to watch. A tableau of vacationers sing morbid songs of consumer desire on a beach tableau. There is an existential dread in their plastic joy. It made me think of “Cruel Optimism, ” by the late visionary author Lauren Berlant. Global greed leads to a Sisyphean beach holiday that slowly goes sour.

(2) “The Lehman Trilogy,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes.  

With Set Design by Es Devlin. Video Design by Luke Halls.

Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adrien Lester  and Adam Godley

Nederlander Theater, NYC

The Lehman Trilogy, as staged by Mendes blew my mind with the potential that contemporary theater (developed by the National Theater in London) can still accomplish. It was both live and cinematic, dark as the colors of Wallstreet and joyful like a Chaplin skit. What does a brilliant family of Jewish German emigres do with the American Dream? In Mendes' hands, they create it, but also suffer from its false promises and all consuming alienation. Did the playwright have a socio-political perspective? Maybe not, but what Massini lacked, Mendes provided. In Mendes’s direction and Devlin’s gray, brooding set, we get another story on top of the rise to Wallstreet success, alienated men imprisoned by their own successes and endless desires. The set, a minimalist rotating office/glass box, created by Es Devlin, alongside the direction by Sam Mendes was sublime. And each actor was a show unto itself, as they performed every character in their lives, from babies to first loves. Even while I was being seduced by the incredible video design and acting I thought, wow, another piece about smart Jews making a lot of money, oof. But, to my surprise, the writer is an Italian of Jewish descent, and potentially too removed from the harsh realities of inequality and structural racism that titans of American capitalism, like the Lehman brothers, consciously or unconsciously have been a part of in building today’s USA. Anyway, Mendes and the set design far surpassed the obtuse non-message about the ultimate model minority and the American dream. This was pre-omicron, and I was lucky enough to experience the power of the live to illuminate visions of possibility.

(3) Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans, 2004  

An Independent Black film from the early oughts weaving a coming of age tale of young, black queerness via re-enactments of Langston Hughes' inner circle, intercut with interracial dating and its various complexities in the New York liberal arts and art scene of the late nineties. The flashbacks to Black Poets and artists making a name for themselves in the early days of the Harlem Renaissance was beautifully rendered, without sentimentality. I was inspired by Evan’s  synthesis of  seventies neo-realism, kitchen-sink melodrama and authentic queer coming of age vision. Hoping Evans gets more attention for his brilliant work with this Criterion Channel Release.

(4) Succession

Why do we love watching rich white men tear each other apart? I don’t know, but Jeremy Strong’s performance in the final episode blew my mind. And Brian Cox, Matthew Mcfayden and J. Smith-Cameron take my nod as top television actors of the year. Maybe it’s masochism, British wit or a continued fantasy of being in the backseat of the foils of the 1%?

(5) The Passion of Anna, Ingmar Bergman, 1969 

Getting to see Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow mourn past relationships, the droll pain of existence on a gray, bitter isolating Swedish Island is wonderful. The stalwart pain that each actor can exercise in a gesture, look or turn of phrase is incredible to watch. The black and white and reds are like watching a 16mm Brakhage film projected for the first time: pure cinema, pure color, pure Bergman.

(6) Genealogies, Amie Siegel, 2016 

Finally I get to see a brilliant film essayist humorously deconstruct the sexism in Godard’s Contempt, with a subtle eye and brilliant editing style, connecting Pink Floyd’s concert in Pompeii with a Beastie Boys video, Sympathy for the Devil and the Malaparte Family’s indulgent mansion. 

(7) Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles, 1970 

The most brutal, caustic satire of race relations made in 1969 by the brilliant iconoclast, Melvin Van Peebles. With a searing screenplay, Peebles puts the lens on one man’s journey to accept and love his new found race. Inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with a pointed performance by Godfrey Cambridge.

(8) Ace in the Hole, 1951, Billy Wilder. 

American greed, capitalism, and “Making It”, all in beautiful black and white. The horror of capitalist hubris has never so beautifully been rendered before. Wilder’s undersung film foreshadows the media circus of the 24 hour news cycle with its tale of a has-been journalist’s cruel drive for fame and fortune at any expense. 

(9) Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay, 2021

Idiocracy for the age of climate crisis. Or a dark comedy for the age of Endtimes. Either way, Leo was sexy for the first time since The Departed or maybe Titanic! Watch out for Cate Blanchett in a scene stealing role as a Laura Ingraham type. Did I feel sad at the end? Yes, but I also felt that McKay was telling us to wake up, stop whining and fight like hell, or maybe that in endtimes, all you need is a Beatles tune?  Either way, it was surprisingly brilliant, brought up both Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) and Haynes (Safe), and contains a superb cast. 

**(Mary Rylance as the Peter Thiel villain was timeless if not Oscar worthy.

(10) The Souvenir Part II, 2021, Joanna Hogg, 

My most anticipated movie of the year, yet to see, but betting, if it’s anywhere as good as Part 1, she’s going to convince me that feminist arthouse cinema still has a few lives left.


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