dir: Sam Levinson
Pandemic filmmaking. It’s a genre unto itself. You could argue it’s a product of necessity and invention, or you could say “there’s something more helpful or vital that you could be doing with your time.”
Truth be told, you could have said that at any time in the past and there would have been some truth to it.
So. A director / writer, in the form of Sam Levinson, and two actors, and a crew, put together a movie during the coronapocalypse that has engulfed the States and killed half a million people to date. Minimal crew, only two actors, shot mostly at night, all at one location, in gorgeous black and white.
Malcolm (John David Washington, who’s having the year of his life) is a director, and he’s just had a film premiere, and it’s been a triumph. Marie (Zendaya) is seething from beginning to end, and goes outside of their remarkable house somewhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea to smoke.
What is Carmel-by-the-Sea? The only thing I know about it is that I remember way back in the day that Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to be the mayor of the place, which is a town in California, presumably by the sea. And it happened. And then he got bored of doing that and went back to making movies.
Malcolm is pacing and ranting, high on life, but mostly adrenalin, yelling a mile a minute about his triumph, about his conversation with a critic from the LA Times, and about the ignorance of most people about the important milestones in film, being Citizen Kane and the work of Billy Wilder, and how he hates having to be compared only to other African-American directors instead.
He’s ranting and raving, and drinking a lot, but he’s not drunk, other than on his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.
And that is some powerful stuff.
Marie is, strangely enough, making mac and cheese, though not for herself, at one in the morning. Strange thing to be doing while you’re wearing a spangly dress in high heels, but who am I to question someone else’s choices?
You see, clearly there’s something bugging her, or at least, there are a lot of things bugging her. No doubt it’s because of something Malcolm did or didn’t do. But she doesn’t volunteer the information until it’s demanded, and from then on it’s on for young and old.
And by “young” I mean Zendaya, and by “old” I mean John David Washington.
They fight for about 100 minutes. If you’re like me, and you probably aren’t, which is a great thing for you, but not so much for me: Watching people fight, even fictional characters, can be very upsetting. I find it very hard to watch intimate partner violence depicted, or domestic violence, or any other variation thereof. I find it hard to watch people yelling abusive stuff at each other as well, which sometimes, many times, is no less violent.
I found many parts of this hard to watch, but others not so much. The hateful shit Malcolm yells loudly and often at Marie are fucking hard for me to stomach, about her past as a drug user, and the far, far worse stuff he yells about her mental health, is fucking sickening.
The stuff she yells at him about his narcissism and self-centeredness, well, the thing I’ve discovered about narcissists over the last four years is that the only thing narcissists can’t stand is when you’re not yelling about them, whether positive or negative, as long as you’re yelling about them, all is well in the world. So, yeah, it’s not as wounding hearing her stuff.
For me, and this is just for me, I find it very hard to fathom that people could speak like this to each other, even fictional people, and not just have to never see each other again. If I spoke like this to anyone on this planet, never mind how close we were, never mind the justifications I served up afterwards, I wouldn’t be able to look them in the eyes ever again as long as I lived. I would have to only catch glimpses of them in reflective surfaces for the rest of both of our lives, instead of ever looking them directly in the face in case they accidentally caught my gaze.
Someone is working something out in public, in this flick, and I’m not entirely sure who it is. From the frequency and the volume of a lot of the shouting, I’m assuming it’s everyone involved, but I’m not sure at who. Washington and Zendaya aren’t a couple in real life, neither goes out with director Sam Levinson. I don’t know if Washington or Zendaya hate a particular critic at the LA Times, but it’s more than likely that Levinson does. Levinson isn’t an African-American director, but he has Washington screaming into the night both at the hated female critic from the LA Times, and at a world that only compares him to African-American directors like John Singleton or Spike Lee, and not, you guessed it, directors like Orson Welles or Billy Wilder.
And having Malcolm bring up Barry Jenkins, the African-American director of Moonlight, but pointing out twice that him not being gay somewhere ruins him winning Best Director for Moonlight? That’s just gold, that is.
The even more staggering aspect is having an African-American director fighting against having his work described as political, as if anything he has to say should only be directly credited to him and him alone, a theme that the argument keeps coming back to. I find it a bit rich. No-one has really accused Sam Levinson of having much of anything, let alone talent or something to say thus far. The political argument is one that’s never been aimed at Levinson, who’s biggest obstacle is probably not having his work compared to that of his father, being Barry Levinson.
Which hasn’t really happened so far. Levinson has made one movie which plenty more people than a white female critic from the LA Times hated – I don’t recall ever reading a positive review of Assassination Nation, the only other film he’s made that I’ve heard of. And while Levinson senior has no doubt made some shitty films, he also managed to make classics such as Diner, Tin Men, Wag the Dog and a few others that didn’t completely and utterly suck. I’m not sure how to classify Rain Man. It feels like an abomination these days, what with its baffling portrayal of autism and such, but it did get director and star Academy Awards, so, well, that’s something(?)
When I see people attacking Sia for making a recent flick called Music, with a person who doesn’t have autism playing an autistic character I feel like yelling “do you fuckers even remember Rain Man? And you’re going to grief Sia over that?” Jesus, have some perspective.
Levinson junior, if he’s known at all, is perhaps best known for the TV series Euphoria, and if Euphoria is known for anything, it’s for its teens in peril premise, and for Zendaya playing a drug addicted teenager. It’s not really celebrated for its creator and showrunner Samuel Levinson, because, honestly, it’s not a great show. But Zendaya is great in it, like she’s great in everything she does, even those mediocre Marvel Spider-Man movies with Tom Holland Spider-Man and her as MJ.
His arguments, being Levinson’s arguments, are pretty jawdroppingly lame. You have money and time and skill and a crew, and two solid actors, and the best you can do during a global goddamn pandemic is try to get revenge on the bad reviews from critics? And you feel so misunderstood and hard done by that you have to try to make a distinction between the people whose work in the stuff you make is celebrated, but in such a way that you feel slighted and want to assert that they wouldn’t be shit if it wasn’t for your brilliance?
To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know that Levinson sees himself as Malcolm in this. I don’t know that he’s using Malcolm as a conduit through which he’s yelling out his angry thoughts and feels into the world. I don’t know that there’s anyone that has anger towards Levinson, who feels like he ripped off their life story, and profited from it artistically. I don’t know what his relationship is like with his current partner or previous partners, and the truth is I don’t really want to know.
So, what are we left with? Two actors yelling at each other for about two hours about narcissism, gratitude, mental health, addiction, self-hatred, being taken for granted, not being jealous of your partner, authenticity, the auteur theory that any film or show only represents the vision of one person, and a bunch of other things. It’s an actors’ showcase. It’s a smorgasbord of big Capital A Acting. It’s shot like a Chanel commercial, with two actors in their prime.
I mostly found it fascinating. It’s hard, I think, to make something like this work. Especially since it’s something made for Netflix, the ease with which a lot of people would just pause it and never come back to it; the likelihood is pretty high. I watched it all in one go, because for the first half I was just so fucking horrified at what a piece of shit Malcolm is, and how far he was willing to go in denigrating his partner. I’m not sure the film made me believe Marie sticking around made sense, because I like to think if anyone spoke to me the way Malcolm speaks to Marie in the first half, especially with the despicable amount of gaslighting and belittling, I would leave and never look back, and probably set fire to the place. But Marie makes a compelling case that the reasons she is aggrieved are legitimate, and her wishing that she’d been thanked is about far more than just getting acknowledgement in public for existing.
And there’s a staggering, jaw-dropping bit towards the end where Marie legitimately terrifies Malcolm, and you can see that he is left in awe of her.
I am not a person interested in drama, in that, I don’t have a gossiper’s tendencies or a voyeur’s disposition. The private lives of others, except in literary fiction, to me are best left private. I don’t have an urge to pull back the curtain and see how other people treat each other horribly in relationships, so that’s not the level upon which I was interested in this flick and “enjoyed” it, if “enjoyed” is the word I’m looking for.
It was interesting, and compelling, even if it’s so wrongheaded, so fucking wrongheaded in so many ways, and I am glad I watched is, no quotation marks.
8 reasons they should definitely not stay together, though, out of 10
“What I’m saying is you spend your entire life catering to the feelings and the whims of literally everyone but me. Agents, producers, crew members, actors, fucking fictional characters get more respect and empathy from you than I do.” – Malcolm & Marie