The Curtain #34: The Decade in Review 🤔

And the merging of aesthetics and activism.
To:
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From:
Gus Cuddy
Issue:
S01-34 (Issue 34)
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Hi friends,

Hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend, whatever you were doing.

December seems extra surprising this year, like it popped up out of nowhere. And now, all of a sudden, we’re about to enter into the 2020s. OK then.


# Thinking About the Best Movies of the Decade

I’m a huge list nerd. Ever since I was little I would make lists and devour others’ lists in a never-ending effort to catalog every movie, album, song, book, or play I experienced or wanted to experience. I’m a bit more wary of ranking things now (am I?), but I still love list-making, in all forms. (There’s something satisfying about organizing things, content, thoughts, knowledge into bullet points on a list.)

Creating art is inherently personal, and so is list-making. It’s important what’s on a list, and sometimes (but not always) it’s important what’s not on a list.

When I think back on this decade in culture, the only medium I feel comfortable making a list for is movies. I saw plenty of theatre and listened to lots of music, but as I matured from High School to College to “Adulthood” over the last 10 years, movies have been the most consistent, overarching art form in my life, and my tastes and interests have changed and evolved rapidly.

The most significant thing I have learned artistically this decade—which applies broadly across cinema, theatre, music, and all art—is the importance of merging activism and aesthetics. It’s no longer OK to separate someone’s politics from their art, and I think that is for the better. I have learned that, to create great art, one needs to be totally vulnerable, introspective and personal, all while keeping one eye on the visible world (politics, society) and the other on the invisible (the unconscious, the unspoken, the uncanny).

As Richard Brody put it in his decade recap:

Yet this decade has also seen, in surprising ways, the convergence of these two currents of activism and aesthetics in ways that I hope will continue in the next decade and beyond**.** Many of the substantial changes in the industry have come from the new generation of filmmakers—yes, mumblecore**. Its creators put into bold artistic action the fundamental premise that promises to turn minor shifts in the industry into a sea change: namely, the idea that the personal experience of filmmakers and a film’s participants is inseparable from the film’s process, its subject, its contents, and its style**.

On a personal level, I have had to interrogate my own early teenage tastes that slanted towards art from straight white men. I’m in an ongoing process to diversify and decolonize my intake of art. But favorite movies of the last ten years do not necessarily reflect that, and I hope that that will change.

That all being said, these are the 22 movies that stand out the most to me from the 2010s (excluding 2019, because I’m still processing). The bolded ones are my favorite favorites:

  • American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)

  • Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

  • Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)

  • Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)

  • First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader)

  • Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)

  • Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

  • A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)

  • Good Time (2017, Josh and Benny Safdie)

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

  • Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)

  • Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)

  • Madeline’s Madeline (2018, Josephine Decker)

  • The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)

  • Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)

  • OJ: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman)

  • Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

  • The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

  • The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

  • Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

  • The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)

If I to choose one movie to keep it would be Frances Ha, which features one of the most original artists of the last ten years, Greta Gerwig.

Another list I liked: K. Austin Collins.


# The Best Theatre of 2019

These are my ten favorite productions of the year.

An interesting note: not a single revival on this list. I think this is a sign of the poor quantity of truly interrogative and searching re-investigations of classics in New York, and the fact that this year I did slant towards seeing new theatre. We are truly in an exciting moment of great playwrights in America.

I missed (I’m sure) a lot of great theatre this year, but the ones I’m most regretting off the top of my head: the new David Byrne show, Marys Seacole, Octet, and Soft Power.

And I saw Derren Brown’s Secret when it was at The Atlantic in 2017. It’s playing on Broadway now and would probably be among my favorites of the year.

My list:

  • A Play Titled After the Collective Noun for Female-Identifying 20-Somethings Living in NYC in the 2010s (Haleh Roshan, dir. Lauren Zeftel // Corkscrew Theatre Festival)

  • Ain’t No Mo (Jordan E. Cooper, dir. Stevie Walker-Webb // The Public)

  • Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Will Arbery, dir. Danya Taymor // Playwrights)

  • How to Defend Yourself (Lily Padilla, dir. Marti Lyons // Humana Festival)

  • I Thought I Would Die But I Didn’t (Bailey Williams, dir. Sarah Blush // The Tank)

  • Is This a Room (Tina Satter, dir. Tina Satter // Vineyard)

  • Lunch Bunch (Sarah Einspanier, dir. Tara Ahmadinejad // Clubbed Thumb)

  • Plano (Will Arbery, dir. Taylor Reynolds // Clubbed Thumb @ Connelly Theatre)

  • Slave Play (Jeremy O. Harris, dir. Robert O’Hara // New York Theatre Workshop)

  • A Strange Loop (Michael R. Jackson, dir. Stephen Brackett // Playwrights)

  • The Thin Place (Lucas Hnath, dir. Les Waters // Humana Festival)

If I had to choose one show, it would be Heroes of the Fourth Turning.


# Notes from the Week

# Robert Bresson

Lately, I’ve been diving back into film, and I’ve been really into Robert Bresson. I’m fascinated with how different auteurs differentiate theater from film (something I’ve thought of in the reverse for a while).

Some quotes from his book/diary Notes on the Cinematograph:

  1. “The point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself.”

  2. “Nothing rings more false in a film than that natural tone of the theatre copying life and traced over studied sentiments.”

  3. “An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours.”

  4. “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water”

For a starting place with Bresson, I recommend Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar, or Mouchette.


# Egyptian History

We went to the Brooklyn Museum over the Holiday weekend and walked through their Ancient Egypt section, which has an interesting exhibit on gender fluidity.

But I was really dismayed by the idea that there’s been a false history of Egyptians being light-skinned, until recently. This was taken from the text in the exhibit:

Egyptologists no longer maintain the false hypothesis that lighter-skinned outsiders created Egyptian culture.

Nineteenth-and early twentieth-century historians largely interpreted the archaeological evidence on the African continent through a racist filter that rejected the notion that Africans could create a high civilization.

History, and how we construct and interpret its narratives, is always political.


# Werner Herzog: “You are cowards.”

This tweet by @kateyrich has been deleted. You can try this internet archive snapshot, though!


# Explaining New York Theatre

A brilliant, niche thread:

MTC: Rich aunt who doesn’t understand why you don’t just buy a Classic Six like hers instead of renting a studio

CSC: Friend who still thinks Blue Man Group is edgy downtown theater

MCC: Friend who quotes Fight Club and thinks he’s an edgelord despite his corporate job

Roundabout: Your racist grandfather who you tolerate because he breaks out the good booze

TFANA: Weird Cousin you forget about until she brings up some random esoteric book at holidays

Second Stage: “Woke” friend who loves “ethnic” food but only dates other white guys

Public: Lawyer friend who constantly virtue-signals but spends his days defending megacorps for top dollar

BAM: Creepy friend with the bad apartment who’s really into foreign films

Atlantic: Your mom who just loved Green Book and refers to your same-sex partner as your “friend”

Lincoln Center: Aunt who’s a little distant but gives you designer clothes for your birthday

NYTW: Sister who’s always dating a new guy and talking about how much better NYC was in the 90s

Vineyard: Grandma who always has candy and makes fun of your parents with you

New Group: Friend who thinks maybe you just don’t like the same things he does because you just don’t “get” them, dude

Signature: Friend who lives in a gorgeous loft her parents pay for and throws great parties but asks you to Venmo her money for the booze


# Recommendation of the Week

Frownland (2007, Ronald Bronstein)

This week’s recommendation: The very weird, disturbing and gnarly Frownland, directed and written by Ronald Bronstein (a longtime collaborator with the Safdie Brothers). Self-described by Bronstein as “a rotten egg lobbed with bad aim at the silver screen”, which is what got me to watch it. It’s hardcore strange, nasty, and hard to watch. Apparently fights broke out at early screenings. Available for streaming on The Criterion Channel, with an extra of Josh Safdie interviewing Bronstein.

++

# End Note

That’s all for this week—thanks so much for reading!

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See you next week!

-Gus

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