Never have movies needed each other quite so much. At least, some of the most prominent films in the seasonal mix seem to need other movies, fortunately available, to fill in the spaces, stretch the edges, provide context, or otherwise complete themselves.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk needs Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, and vice-versa. One has all the battlefront action of a British evacuation of its European force in May of 1940; the other portrays political agonies of that operation in the halls of government back home. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit burrows into the horror of police brutality and killing in a hotel room on the night of July 25 and 26, 1967, as rioting in the city peaked; Brian Kaufman’s 12th and Clairmount, a modest documentary that didn’t make the list of 170 feature docs qualified for Oscar consideration, is packed with reportage and reminiscence that could help a viewer comprehend the ugly moments. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, released this weekend by A24, is about a young woman who finds herself by abandoning California for an education in New York. Oddly, it has a companion piece in Joseph Kosinski’s Only The Brave, about young men who find something bigger than themselves, and mostly die, fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in neighboring Arizona.
All those films are about something real. And each could be helped by a pairing that adds a bit more reality, whether by framing the soldier’s terror against the politician’s doubt, or police crimes against the chaos of a disintegrating city, or feminine determination to abandon the West against a masculine insistence of saving it.
Of course, films no longer come in pairs. The pay-one-price double feature is largely a thing of the past. Which is too bad, because movies, even the really good ones, are becoming smaller and narrower in their focus, as film follows televised entertainment, political journalism, and even sports down the demographic rabbit hole.
Film dramas, once broad and seemingly universal in their values (granted, it was always an illusion), are now more narrowly tailored in approach and appeal. War-time epics like Midway, Lawrence of Arabia, and even Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor ranged across time, or back-and-forth between battlefield, boardroom and bedroom, trying to make human sense of seeming inhumanity. Yet Dunkirk, a fine film, is much narrower. It leaves its characters wondering aloud about decisions that, in fact, are minutely explained in Darkest Hour. Watching Detroit, it is hard to comprehend a real horror of the riot that is readily apparent in 12th and Clairmount: That blacks and whites alike lost not only their city, but a certain comity that had aligned them in the Motown era, even when their neighborhoods were mostly kept apart.
As for Lady Bird, it is, of course, a lovely film. But those of us who have spent time in and around Gerwig’s Sacramento (my parents are buried there; two sisters have raised families in that Gerwigian milieu) might find ourselves yearning for a little more. Another point of view. Maybe an appreciation for the raw power in these Western places. Some of that always lurked in the work of Joan Didion, a quote from whom opens Lady Bird. It’s certainly in the forefront of that other out-West coming-of-age film, Only The Brave.
So this is a year for unintended duets.