All Classical Radio James Depreist

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Origin’ disappoints, Oscar nominations are out, and the legacy of Dennis Nyback is celebrated

A fictionalized film adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" falls short of its ambitions. Plus: where to watch every Oscar-nominated film before the awards show.

|

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin”

As an initial disclaimer, I have not read Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling, acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. By most accounts, it is an Important Book deserving of all its accolades. Assuming this to be true, though, the limp film adaptation from writer-director Ava DuVernay arriving in theaters this week, Origin, is an even bigger disappointment than it would be otherwise.

Adapting a non-fiction book that doesn’t boast a compelling, conventional narrative or center on a single remarkable individual presents a significant challenge, one that DuVernay can’t crack. Her gambit is to tell the story of how Wilkerson (ably played by Aunjanue Ellis) came to write the book and what she learned along the way. And with a more incisive touch, one that respected its audience more, it could have succeeded. Instead, Origin the film verges on condescension as it follows an unconvincingly incredulous author and takes far more credit for the unoriginal, fairly obvious idea at its core than it deserves.

Things open with a recreation of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, an appropriate but overly familiar synecdoche for the idea that race can’t entirely explain this sort of endemic, dehumanizing violence. Asked by a magazine editor to write about it, Wilkerson begs off—she writes books now, not assignment pieces, you know. (Throughout, the brilliance and wisdom of the author is testified to by everyone around her, a trope one hopes is not derived from her book.)

Soon, personal tragedy strikes, and the death of Wilkerson’s mother and husband within the span of a year knocks her off center. It’s during this period that she’s graced by a superfluous cameo from Nick Offerman as a MAGA-hatted plumber who’s come to fix her leaky basement pipes. Before long, though, she develops her thesis, which is that, as she says, “racism as the primary language to understand everything isn’t sufficient.” In a broader view, hierarchical caste systems, whether based on race or not, are the real source for the inequality, injustice, and inhumanity that have plagued our societies for as long as we’ve had them.

One touchstone for this inquiry is Nazi Germany, and Wilkerson is shocked—shocked!—to learn that its leaders took inspiration from Jim-Crow-era laws in America. I’ve never won a Pulitzer, but I (and, I think, a good percentage of educated Americans) have been aware of this for years. (An excellent source for more on this is James Whitman’s slim but essential Hitler’s American Model, published in 2017.) Some of the dialogue is simply cringey, as when Wilkerson talks to a German woman about “our Confederate flag, which is like your swastika,” as if this upper-class European has never heard of the Civil War. She also talks at length about the single non-saluting German in the famous photograph of a crowd of shipyard workers, identifying him with certainty and telling his story despite the fact that the question of who he was remains unsettled.

Of greater interest is the story of two couples, one Black (Allison and Elizabeth Davis) and one white (Burleigh and Mary Gardner), sociologists who lived undercover in rural Depression-era Mississippi and ended up writing a 1941 book called “Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class.” The Davises had lived in Germany during the early 1930s and brought that experience to bear. Now there’s a story about a non-fiction book that might make a good movie! The book was recently re-issued by the University of Chicago press with a forward by Wilkerson.

You can’t talk about caste, however, without talking about India. Here’s another spot where DuVernay’s script talks down to her viewers: Wilkerson, at a dinner party with other ostensible members of the intelligentsia, brings up the Dalits, the “untouchables.” Another woman says, “I’ve never heard of them!,” which, okay, I suppose. But then Wilkerson says, “I know! Me neither!” Really? Fortunately, this strand of Wilkerson’s investigation introduces her to Professor Ram Kamble, an apparently composite but nonetheless delightful character who gives her the rundown on the abhorrent treatment of low-caste people in India and the halting efforts to reverse millennia of history.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

According to the Wikipedia page for “Caste,” Wilkerson explores several concepts that are, at most, only glancingly addressed in Origin. This would seem to be more evidence that trying to popularize the book’s themes in a film like this is a fool’s errand: a documentary series would surely be more effective, while a truly fictional narrative would be more compelling. While the impulse to expose a broad swathe of Americans to this crucial social construct is a noble one, splitting the difference between dramatization and explication just doesn’t work.

Margot Robbie wearing a pink sweater in "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Yes, this is not from “Barbie,” but I think it captures the mood

OSCAR NOMINATIONS

The 2024 Oscar nominations are out, and the hot takes have been bubbling through the Internet ever since. My own, briefly: (a) yes, Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were robbed, but American Ferrera rode in on the movie’s tailwind; (b) I bet 98% of female members of the Academy over the age of 60 voted for Nyad’s stars and almost no one else did; (c) Andrew Scott > Colman Domingo; (d) Julianne Moore > Annette Bening and Natalie Portman > Emily Blunt; (e) is Killers of the Flower Moon the longest movie ever nominated for Best Editing?; (f) all ten Best Picture nominees are at least good, and a few are great, so anybody who didn’t live through Chariots of Fire or Crash or Dances With Wolves should really slow their Oscar-hate roll.

And now, your annual list of where to catch the nominated films before the March 10 ceremony:

  • Oppenheimer (13 nods): in theaters, including Saturday & Sunday in 70mm at the Hollywood, rent or purchase digitally, out on Blu-ray
  • Poor Things (11): in theaters
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (10): back in theaters on Jan. 26, purchase digitally, stream on AppleTV+
  • Barbie (8): back in theaters on Jan. 26, rent or purchase digitally, stream on Max
  • Maestro (7): back in theaters on March 1; stream on Netflix
  • American Fiction (5): in theaters
  • Anatomy of a Fall (5): back in theaters on Jan. 26, rent or purchase digitally
  • The Holdovers (5): back in theaters on Jan. 26, purchase digitally, stream on Peacock
  • The Zone of Interest (5): Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21, expanding to additional theaters on Jan. 26
  • Napoleon (3): purchase digitally
  • The Creator (2): rent or purchase digitally, stream on Hulu
  • Mission Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One (2): rent or purchase digitally, out on Blu-ray
  • Nyad (2): stream on Netflix
  • Past Lives (2): back in theaters on Jan. 26, rent or purchase digitally
  • Society of the Snow (2): stream on Netflix
  • Rustin (Best Actor): stream on Netflix
  • The Color Purple (Best Supporting Actress): rent or purchase digitally
  • May December (Best Original Screenplay): stream on Netflix
  • Io Capitano (Best International Film): scheduled to open theatrically on Feb. 23
  • Perfect Days (Best International Film): opening on Feb. 16 at Cinema 21
  • The Teacher’s Lounge (Best International Film): opening on Feb. 9 at Cinema 21
  • The Boy and the Heron (Best Animated Feature): in theaters
  • Elemental (Best Animated Feature): rent or purchase digitally, stream on Disney+
  • Nimona (Best Animated Feature): stream on Netflix
  • Robot Dreams (Best Animated Feature): scheduled for theatrical release sometime in 2024
  • Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Best Animated Feature): rent or purchase digitally, stream on Netflix
  • Bobi Wine: The People’s President (Best Documentary): stream on Disney+
  • The Eternal Memory (Best Documentary): purchase digitally, stream on Paramount+
  • Four Daughters (Best Documentary): rent or purchase digitally
  • To Kill a Tiger (Best Documentary): not available
  • 20 Days in Mariupol (Best Documentary): rent or purchase digitally
  • El Conde (Best Cinematography): stream on Netflix
  • Flamin’ Hot (Best Original Song): stream on Hulu
  • American Symphony (Best Original Song): stream on Netflix
  • Golda (Best Makeup): rent or purchase digitally, stream on Paramount+
  • Godzilla Minus One (Best Visual Effects): in theaters, including the black-and-white version at Cinemagic from Jan. 26 through Feb. 1
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (Best Visual Effects): rent or purchase digitally, stream on Disney+
  • 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films programs will open theatrically on Feb. 16

Dennis Nyback

ALSO OPENING

The Nyback Show: Film archivist and Portland icon Dennis Nyback passed away in October 2022. Since then, a small but devoted army of likeminded movie nuts have been identifying, organizing, and preserving the thousands of film reels he left behind. After some private screenings last summer, they’ve put together a best-of collection, which will be projected in glorious 16mm at an event that will honor his legacy and probably freak some folks out. Dennis would be proud. And hopefully this will be the first of many such screenings. (Thursday, Hollywood.)

Charlie Sextro’s Sundance Faves: Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer Sextro curates a pair of his top picks from last year’s fest. Saturday night he’ll screen the horror flick Birth/Rebirth, in which a mother discovers that her young daughter has been brought back from the dead as part of a horrific experiment, followed by the acclaimed Estonian documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which will be preceded by a 30-minute “sound bath” from practitioner Brooke Lyons. (Saturday & Sunday, Tomorrow Theater)

The Portland Motorcycle Film Festival 2024: Let’s give thanks that there hasn’t yet been a Lime scooter film festival (that I know of) and glory in the two programs on tap this weekend celebrating motorcycle culture in all its forms. And, yes, as is constitutionally mandated, at least one of the films is narrated by Ewan McGregor. (Friday & Saturday, Hollywood)

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

REVIVALS

THURSDAY

  • 7th Heaven [1927] (Kiggins, with live musical score)
  • Black Swan [2010] (Hollywood)
  • Her [2013] (Clinton, with live musical score)
  • A Thousand and One [2023] (Tomorrow)

FRIDAY

  • Dr. Strangelove [1964] (Eugene Art House)
  • Galaxy Quest [1999] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Hairspray [1988] (Tomorrow)
  • Little Miss Sunshine [2006] (5th Avenue, on 35mm)
  • THX-1138 [1971] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill [2003] (Kiggins)

SATURDAY

  • Birth/Rebirth
  • Polyester [1981] (Tomorrow)
  • Sisters with Transistors [2020] (Clinton)
  • Stop Making Sense [1984] (Hollywood)
  • Violent City [1970] / Cold Sweat [1970] (Darkside Cinema)

SUNDAY

  • The Abyss: Special Edition [1989] (Hollywood, also Monday)
  • The Valdez Horses [1973] / Cabo Blanco [1980] (Darkside Cinema)
  • The Wizard of Oz [1939] (Eugene Art House, also Monday & Wednesday)

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

TUESDAY

  • Aloha Bobby & Rose [1975] (Hollywood, on 35mm)
  • Foxy Brown [1974] (Clinton)
  • The Man Who Laughs [1924] (Darkside Cinema, with live musical score)

WEDNESDAY

  • His Motorbike, Her Island [1986] (Clinton)

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

SHARE:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top
Sunriver Music Festival
Seattle Opera Pagliacci
Profile Theatre Reggie Hoops
PAM 12 Month
OCCA Monthly
Astoria Open Studios Tour
NW Dance Project
Maryhill Museum of Art
Oregon Cultural Trust DEC 2023
Oregon ArtsWatch holder
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.