I woke up this morning from a dream. The dream was sending me a message about First Man. “It’s about your father.” ‘
I knew I was dreaming about First Man. I didn’t know I was dreaming about my dad.
My dad died sometime last year. I don’t remember when. I don’t remember much about it at all except that I was the first person to find him after he took his last breath, his skin yellow from liver disease, his face tilted forward, his blank eyes staring straight ahead. He looked strangely like a puppet, just hanging there waiting for someone to pull the strings and bring him to life, “Dad?” I stepped forward, put a hand on his chest, which was still slightly warm to the touch. I already knew he was gone but I went through the ritual of checking anyway. I missed his death by five minutes.
You might say my dad’s death hit me hard, but the truth is – it didn’t. Grief is like a fast moving wave that you know is behind you. You don’t know how far behind, just that it’s coming and you’d better run fast. My dad was Jewish. Part of the burial ritual was burning a series of blue candles. My sister told me, you have to burn your candle so we can close the circle. But I couldn’t. It is still sitting on my shelf, unburned. I thought if I didn’t burn it I could somehow stay ahead of the wave, ahead of the sadness I knew I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
That same sister was in a car accident the other day. She called me to say that the first thing she thought of doing was calling Dad. My dad wasn’t a lot of things. He wasn’t so successful or good with money. He died alone. He battled depression and addiction and by the end, hard core dementia. But the one thing he was – was kind. He was the one person you count on to lend a sympathetic ear, without judgment.
I really did think I’d stayed ahead of the wave. I was going about my life as planned. Attending film festivals, watching movies, attempting to cover the Oscar race. I went to Telluride and found, as usual, the offerings very good. Then I saw First Man. Clearly, it isn’t a film for everybody. Now we know for sure it isn’t. So then Oscar pundits will dutifully downgrade it on their lists, chalking it up as another movie that was overhyped in Telluride.
No movie this year has moved me in quite the same way and now I know for sure why. It’s personal. It is a film about Neil Armstrong and the space program, of course it is. It is also a film about grief, specifically, letting go of the person you can’t let go of. It’s about getting to that place where you can at last give yourself permission to let go. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is also about grief, albeit through Cuaron’s own eyes trying to come terms with what must have happened to the woman who cared for him. That film, like First Man, is about letting go. So is Jason Reitman’s Tully. So is Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life. When I look for it, and I’m not running from it, grief is all around me, and the kind of catharsis that must follow.
I didn’t have the words then to adequately explain why I loved the movie so much. But I do now. I do because, oddly enough, it was told to me in a dream. After reading reviews where people were “underwhelmed” and “left cold” and “bored.” Some hated it because “nothing happens.” The hive mind wants you to agree. People who read you want your recommendations of movies to be trustworthy. But mostly, let’s face it, everybody just wants to be right. Right that it was a good movie after all. How do we know that? Oh, its box office, of course. Its Rotten Tomatoes score, of course. It’s Cinemascore, of course. How people react on Twitter, of course. That’s how you know and if you loved a movie that all of these elements snap back to tell you that you’re wrong – you have to ask yourself, wrong about what, exactly? Wrong that the majority of opinions would not match yours? Yes, believe it or not, that is how it works in the job I do. No one wants to be wrong because those who are “wrong” are shamed. If you put all of your chips on A Star is Born, by contrast, you are getting high fives from the hive mind right about now: Twitter, check. Box office, check. Cinemascore, check. Oscars coming down the pike? Check, check, check.
I don’t know how Chazelle, a young filmmaker just starting out in life and in art, could have made a movie that gets that feeling of trying to stay ahead of grief so right. Maybe it’s the writer, Josh Singer. What I do know is that watching this movie and then watching how other people watched this movie exposed a kind of sickness in what I do, in what we all do, in how we judge cinema. It is hard to fight against the hive mind when it comes to having broader conversations. You will get push back at every turn. I push back too. I am no better. But there is something weird about it.
It makes me wonder how this industry can survive, and what it’s future will look like at the hands of the hive mind.
Worst of all, a few critics have questioned the whiteness of the film, as though, coming off the heels of La La Land our purity village should be seeking out potential racism where it might lurk. The Apollo missions were comprised of white astronauts. Just like the reporters in the newsroom at the Washington Post in 1972 were all white. Chazelle highlights the juxtaposition of the black power movement at the time with the whiteness of the astronauts – he examines this in the film and still, it’s all about what the film doesn’t do instead of what it does do. And of course, on the right it isn’t American enough, it isn’t patriotic enough.
You never really want to say it, but one finds oneself compelled to say: it’s just a movie. When you think about it, when you think about what we do, how we do it, all so that we can somehow be right about evaluating how successful a film will be? It’s all a little silly.
I know you’re probably thinking, great, just what the world needs – another post about First Man from Yours, Truly. I figure, if I write about here, I won’t have to read about it out there.
Right before my dad died, long before I ever saw First Man, the song that reminded me of him and where he was going, after his mind had mostly vacated his body, was David Bowie’s Space Oddity. In his last days, his jazz buddies came into the hospital room with him so he could play one last time. The only thing he ever lived for was drumming.
I guess, when you put it all together, Space Oddity, bebop drumming, Damien Chazelle, Neil Armstrong you can understand why my subconscious woke me up with a message to remind me why I loved this movie so much. And why it’s such a drag to hear that other people don’t as much. In a week or so, the hive mind will be onto another movie, having crossed First Man off their “most promising for Oscar” list, as we all decide by committee whether a film is worth our time. Or not.
I will have to burn that final candle and watch it flicker into black and smoke in an empty glass case. That will have to be the real end. Thanks to First Man, and the dream I had about it, I know for sure that I will have to find a way to say goodbye to my dear sweet Pops. I hope his spaceship knows which way to go.