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)


Double feature: “Felliniesque” has become shorthand for a kind of disjointed grace, with bizarre/ fantastical non-sequiturs and detours into characters’ mental landscapes, both dreaming and awake.

By that definition, “Lili” is arguably even more Felliniesque than its psychic twin, Fellini’s own “Nights of Cabiria.” A candy-colored 1950s musical, “Lili” is also chockfull of weirdness, which it serves straight up – without irony, wink, or comment.

The heroines of these two films have as much in common as the films themselves. The emotions of both play directly on their surface. Both have an admirably stubborn resilience preventing them from being permanently submerged by life’s buffetings (which, in both of their cases, are regular.) Both seem to have hit upon the right mixture of self-respect and a self-directed sense of humor.

Perhaps most importantly, both have an openness and receptivity that allow for two remarkable, rhyming scenes of the heroines taking in, and then becoming absorbed into, a public performance.

This shared capacity for absorption exists alongside a shared self-deceptive streak that keeps both from seeing what they don’t want to see – until they can no longer ignore it.

For a marathon: “Lili” is one of a number of mid-century films choosing not to wear their Freudianism lightly. For more in this vein, there’s always Hitchcock. Especially apt after “Lili” would be “Psycho” (for another case of object-mediated splitting into selves,) or even “Vertigo” (for another example of a man stage-managing his love interest.)

After “Nights of Cabiria,” check out “Chronicle of a Summer” for another (but more extreme) example of an emotionally labile young woman who lets a fair portion of her inner life spill upon her surface. Or go another route and follow it with “The Trip to Bountiful,” featuring another justifiably house-proud heroine with a belief in the essential benevolence of others.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “The Vault DFW” and “ZoomGalaxy” at Flickr)


Double feature: Goodness knows, “The Godfather” doesn’t need anything else written about it. And, of course, the natural, undeniable impulse is to follow any viewing of it with its own sequel/prequel. But for something less conventional and equally evocative, try double-featuring it with the 1970′s German TV production of Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” – another multi-generational saga with literary roots.

You want family drama writ large?  The kind arising from the effort of establishing and maintaining a “business” dynasty and enriched by the twin obsessions of image and duty? The kind epic enough to take you out of your own while simultaneously pointing to the universality of both? You’ll find it in “Buddenbrooks” just as much as in “The Godfather.”

Interested in watching three generations struggle with the burden of their family name – either trying to legitimize it or struggling to hold onto its already established respectability? Again, you’ll see it in both, in equal measure.

Both satisfy a viewer’s appetite for layers – of interior design, of history, of betrayal and loyalty, of the safety and danger of padding one’s home and one’s life with a cushion of minions.

And both are rich enough to do the rest of the speaking for themselves.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “chotda” and “ninacoco” at Flickr)


Double feature: There really aren’t that many movies featuring the Thanksgiving holiday, even tangentially.  If you’re looking to branch out beyond “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “Home for the Holidays,” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” consider a double feature of “The Birdcage” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

True, neither of these films has any literal connection to the holiday. But both feature simultaneously festive and strained gatherings of friends/relatives, at which food is served and emotions are pitched right below (sometimes above) outright hysteria.

Moreover, amid their farce and emotional tumult – swooning, slapstick, threats, and mambo – the initially desperate protagonists of both films ultimately find cause for acceptance, gratitude, and a celebration of togetherness.

Putting the holiday aside, these films are more than well-matched: although “The Birdcage” is a clear remake of the earlier, French “La Cage aux Folles,” the Spanish “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is just as much a part of its DNA, however subconsciously. Both films feature sunny climates, unflappably baroque personalities, and an attention to interior atmospherics – houseplants, tableware, the most hospitable taxicab you’ll ever encounter – that keep the increasingly ridiculous scenarios grounded in life’s realities.  Somewhat.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “su-lin” and “cyclonebill” at Flickr)


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