Double feature: The perfect pairing for the (unofficial) last weekend of summer – “Before Midnight” and “Claire’s Knee.”  Why? It’s not just that both are set, either all or in part, during summer’s end. It’s that, in a larger sense, the two films are structured around, and brim over with, markers of time.

In “Claire’s Knee,” these markers appear as date references before “chapters” of the film; in “Before Midnight,” the markers are the protagonists themselves, and the relationship they have sustained over decades.

Saturated with sun and the natural and architectural beauties of Europe, salted with an unceasing stream of roiling battle of the sexes talk, let these films help you make sense of the summer that’s behind us, and make the most of what remains of it.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “thallium” and “Elizabeth Thomsen” at Flickr)

NLSDouble feature: If nothing else, “Nebraska” and “Late Spring” have in common the ability to serve as post-Fathers Day food for thought, inspiring reflections on the varieties and potentialities of father-child relationships. But the links connecting these two films go deeper than that.

Both explore the concept of filial duty, and provide examples of good-hearted adult children who are willing to sacrifice some of their own interests in the name of its obligations. In dealing with this material, both films quietly ask whether acts of caring for one’s parents aren’t, themselves, also in the children’s own interest, pointing to the extent to which “individual interests” become intertwined between generations. Both films depict this intertwining as a source of potential strength as well as potential tragedy.

Both of these films involve children not only telling, but perpetuating, benevolent lies to their parents – and vice versa – in the service of moving forward. Both have an air of mystery fed by their characters’ reticence, their visual spareness, and their repetitive rhythms. They stay low to the ground, these films – focused on the details. When they do pan to the skies, the direction is more outward than upward, suggesting that this life, this world, is big enough to keep us all busy, without having to think beyond it.

Sweetness and sadness, wistful humor and modest wisdom pepper both films in roughly equal amounts. If they don’t seem exactly on the same level, if “Nebraska” inspires doubts about its potential to become the classic that “Late Spring” is, chalk up the difference to the latter’s more graceful performances and less of a need to reach for cheap humor. Maybe one of the films in this pairs glows brighter than the other, but both definitely glow.

For a marathon: For another dose of semi-fraught father/son dynamics, and benevolent father/son dishonesty in the name of honor/reputation, follow up “Nebraska” with “Footnote.”

The narrative themes of “Late Spring” can harmoniously rhyme with those in films as various as “The Graduate” (the anxiety of moving forward, and alone, on the path of adulthood; the inability to articulate that anxiety), “The Night of the Iguana” (saintly spinster sacrifices), and “The More the Merrier” (yet more benevolent deception, for the cause of domestic happiness…or at least a shot at it.)

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “Fotofilius” and “sleepyneko” at Flickr)


Double feature: Swagger, casts that are an embarrassment of riches in terms of star wattage, and characters trying to tap into the power of an American dream enervated by recent history – these are some of the things that “American Hustle” and “The Misfits” have in common.

Both films offer a thrilling (if at times tiring), not un-Altmanesque mix of rambling bagginess and tight focus. Especially “The Misfits,” whose unsettling combination of roominess and compression suggests a carefully arranged diorama set down in a sweeping landscape, or a highly stylized play enacted in an outdoor arena.

Both films spin out the minor theme of wanting to believe in the power and nobility of your opponents – whether wild horses or politicians – needing to uphold their symbolic power in order to justify both the battle and the spoils of victory.

Also: swirling love quadrilaterals, faux-naif (but tack-sharp) women depicted as the root sparks of all desire, operatic histrionics (Freudian in “The Misfits,” Scorsese-ian in “American Hustle”,) and narratives that were partially inspired by true events.

If “American Hustle” wins on soundtrack, “The Misfits” wins on dialogue – and they’re essentially a wash with regard to exceptionally modulated performances, especially by their female leads.

For a marathon: Electrified by the nightclub scene in “American Hustle”? Follow it up with later, more refined disco in “The Last Days of Disco.” Want more romantic con artist hijinks? Go with the incomparably suave “Trouble in Paradise.”

“The Misfits” shares with “Kes” an animal embodiment of human struggle and aspiration, and with “National Lampoon’s Vacation” the crazy unraveling of a road trip gone awry.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “kissingtoast” and “Fluffymuppet” at Flickr)


Double feature: I’m late to the party, but I saw “Inside Llewyn Davis” about a week ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. And the more I think about it, the richer an achievement it seems to become.

For it is an achievement when a film is so tonally/aesthetically coherent and yet contains so much – not only in the story it actually tells, but also in the possibilities that the narrative could have taken. Like a panoramic picture that was arbitrarily cropped, it spreads backward to the labor-conscious ’30s and ’40s, forward to the Dylan ’60s, and diagonally to the exit that Davis almost takes, but speeds past instead.

In its existential outlook, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has many parallels to “A Serious Man,” an earlier film by the same hand(s). These two Coen brothers movies – both serious, at times ominous – each advance a theory about the “joke” of life, embodied by the arcs of their respective protagonists.

In “A Serious Man,” the joke of existence is a somewhat Kafka-esque one: that the universe is waiting for us to act in our defense, but we don’t know it, nor would we know how to advance our case if we did. “Inside Llewyn Davis” presents a variation on the theme.  Its hero tries the best he can to advance his case…but still doesn’t get anywhere, in an unsympathetic universe with skewed values and only temporary – never lasting – refuge.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man” can also serve as apt bookends for the remarkable “Diary of a Country Priest,” a film of trembling purity and anguished earnestness. “Diary of a Country Priest”‘s links to “A Serious Man” are fairly obvious: both films grapple with mystery, and thus end up imbued with the quality themselves. Both concern bourgeois characters seeking guidance from on high, both feature scenes in “Sunday school,” and neither over-explicates its conclusions.

The links between “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” might be less immediately apparent, but are nonetheless resonant. To begin with, the protagonists of both films are about the same age, both struggling to pursue their chosen calling in life, and both coming to terms with the world as it is rather than as they want it to be.  Moreover, both end on notes of radiance – in the former film, the radiance of grace; in the latter, that of undeniable brilliance (in the form of a shadowy cameo.)

In fact, there is something about the way the plot concerns of “inside Llewyn Davis” simultaneously re-animate and are themselves incarnated by the old folk songs on its soundtrack that is echoed by the other two films’ bridging of ancient texts and modern lives.

For a marathon: The tonal and narrative similarities between “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Five Easy Pieces” – road trips, burdensome musical talent, unsentimental but poignant family visits – would make for a compellingly dour double feature. The (anti)-hero of each film is a drifter caught between lyricism and scorn, decency and wolfishness, teetering on the verge of permanent bitterness.

For more in the way of musical rivalries, the simultaneous inanities and wisdoms of popular taste, and the ineluctable chasm between genius and everything else, follow up “Inside Llewyn Davis” with a viewing of the always thrilling “Amadeus.”

“A Serious Man” is an interesting case study in uncharitable but probably affectionate treatment of one’s co-religionists. For a more raucous example of the same, check out “Sallah Shabati.”

In spirit and content, “Diary of a Country Priest” has a lot in common with the luminous “Il Posto.” In each film, a baby-faced young man accommodates himself to the realities of the adult world in an absorptive, minimally judgmental fashion that flickers between passive and peaceful, without ever being resigned.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “podchef,” “khrawlings,” and “Tavallai” at Flickr)


Double feature: The prevailing genealogy of “Blue Jasmine” and its eponymous heroine involves “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the Madoffs, and the personality/mannerisms of a New York art gallery owner who came within Woody Allen’s ken. My personal theory involves the director (subconsciously?) crafting a take on the personality of, and everlastingly contentious end of his relationship with, Mia Farrow.

But there’s another film to add to this family tree: “Born Yesterday,” the sparkling theatrical adaptation which is a kind of twin to, and reversal of, “Blue Jasmine.” Both films present women reckoning with who they are and what they’re capable of – in their own eyes, as well as in others’. In both cases, such reckoning is deeply intertwined with the heroines’ relationships with the men in their lives. Both heroines are made, unmade, and remade in the reflection of a man’s light – not just who he is, but who he tells her, shows her, she can be.

Beyond their common concern with the scaffolding around a female ego, and their undeniably great lead performances, these two films also share fond, quasi-touristic portrayals of major American cities.

For a marathon: “Blue Jasmine” would be aptly followed by “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” another golden-lit, increasingly disturbing warning about believing the lies you tell others about yourself.

If you fall in love with Judy Holliday after “Born Yesterday” – which, I should warn you, is  likely – more of her unique effervescence and knowing charm have been captured in “It Should Happen to You” and “The Solid Gold Cadillac” (incidentally, both New York-based and fiscally oriented, and thus also related to “Blue Jasmine.”) Alternatively, you can watch Melanie Griffith channeling Judy Holliday in the thematically-related shoulder-pad extravaganza “Working Girl.”

“Born Yesterday” is also very much about pedagogy, which makes it an interesting pairing with “To Be and to Have,” the beautiful documentary about intentional and unintentional pedagogical methods in a rural French primary school.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “KoKong” and “Jocelyn McAuliflower” at Flickr)


Double feature:  For its soundtrack, imagery, and expression of a generation’s possibly prevailing mood, “The Graduate” deserves the adjective “iconic.”  It’s also one of several antecedents of a more recent entry in the annals of post-grad (or non-grad) male ennui: “Magic Mike.”

The inarticulate protagonists of both spend most of their respective films as the objects of rapacious (older) females’ desire. Both films present this objectification as emasculating – it disenfranchises their heroes and erodes their wills.

And in both films, the male leads are only awakened from their suspended animation by the spark of their own, internally generated desire for a hard-to-get woman (of their own age.) This desire flips their existential status from object to subject, pursued to (successful) pursuer.

Double-featuring these sun-bleached films also allows for comparison/contrast of the ambitions (put another way, appetites for “hustling”) of two different generations of young adulthood. Funny how what rated as unseemly in one decade shows up later as an accepted precursor to/given of success.

For a marathon: “The Graduate” is 106 minutes long, and it is worth sitting through its first ~103 minutes just to arrive at its spectacular last scene, with a municipal bus backseat as the setting for a sunrise of dawning realizations illuminating Katharine Ross’ beautiful face.

Make it a Double…Feature friend Evil Genius/Zack Kushner links this scene to the whip-smart, profoundly sad “Ghost World” in a characteristically insightful and entertaining post on his Stand By For Mind Control. Here’s an excerpt:

“Without giving the game away, ‘The Graduate’ finishes up like ‘Ghost World,’ on a bus. Is this coincidence — that two films about the completion of school close with their main characters riding the back seat to the future? I’m going with no. It’s an image we all can relate to, we’re growing up and going on, but only because staying is no longer an option.” (Read the full post here.)

It might be more economical to list the films that “The Graduate” didn’t influence, rather than those it did.  You could begin your exploration of the film’s many-limbed family tree by checking out the similarly toned “Harold and Maude,” featuring another mumbling, lost young man growing in on himself until he stumbles into a May-December relationship.  

A thinner, more remote branch of the family tree links Benjamin’s parents in “The Graduate” to the blithely, aggressively clueless parents in “Heathers,” another opera of alienated expectations.

Play off “Magic Mike”‘s 1980s undertones (shiny decor, grandiose music) by following it up with “Flashdance,” another story of a gold-hearted dancer grasping at a different tier of respectability, and another film whose copious surface somehow withstands deeper interpretation.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “aargh” and “Soulrider.222″ at Flickr)


Double feature: If you live in a cold climate, it’s easy to feel stuck at this time of year.  The temperatures aren’t exactly encouraging outdoor exploration. Things seem to have shrunk. The world feels reduced to a circumscribed bare minimum circuit between the same points A, B, and maybe C.

That’s where these two TV series may be able to help. Both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Northern Exposure” take place in small(ish) towns relatively isolated from the broader world.  And yet the rest of the world ends up coming to them, allowing the residents of both communities a view wider and deeper than those in bigger circles on the map.

The mechanisms behind this shared dynamic are series-specific. “Buffy”‘s town of Sunnydale, CA is built on a “hellmouth,” you see, so shifts above- and below-ground stir up a broad swath of space, time, and mythology.

Cicely, Alaska – backdrop to “Northern Exposure” – is a bit different: less a demon-free Sunnydale than, to use a metaphor from the series’ final season, part and proof of the “great mushroom” connecting a universe of seemingly separate things.  Cicely draws people to it, both to pass through and to stay. The former track the dust of the wider world through its streets, while the latter have the curiosity and resourcefulness not only not to sweep it away, but also to actively seek it out.

There is a lesson in that, one about finding an unbounded set of possibilities within a delineated space, and creating opportunities by digging deep. Watch these series when you feel stuck, even if it’s not winter.  Both have enough in them – life-forms, facts, choices, strategies – to suggest a way out.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “postbear” and “Theresa Carle-Sanders” at Flickr)


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