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When Gareth Higgins talked with Debra Granik, David Lowery, James Ponsoldt, and Alissa Wilkinson, the compilation of this special image of Image was drawing to a close. It was a perfect time to ask three contemporary filmmakers and a critic to reflect on the current moment. Granik, the adaptor-director of Winter’s Bone, is as much at home in the world of documentary as fiction; she is committed to telling, without stereotyping, the stories of those we don’t usually see on screen, and she was preparing a film set in the Pacific Northwest. Lowery was awaiting the release of his film A Ghost Story, while also scouting locations for his next movie, his second with iconic actor-director-activist Robert Redford, after his remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and the Malick-influenced romantic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Ponsoldt was weeks away from the release of his privacy satire The Circle, following the lovely The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. Wilkinson, a longtime friend of Image and the Glen Workshop, had just begun her tenure as lead film critic for The conversation began with the premise of this special issue, that the purpose of art is to help us live better.


Alissa Wilkinson: I like this idea. The best thing a movie can do for me isn’t just to reiterate arguments about what it would look like to live well, but to show me how other people conceive of living well. A great movie puts me in other people’s shoes and gives me a sense of how they think. If I watch a film and don’t agree with its conclusions, I can still have an experience of understanding. It has to start with understanding that we all have different conceptions of living well, and that mine is just as limited as yours. Bringing them together helps us start to make sense of the world together.

Gareth Higgins: Can you give an example of where you think that has happened in a film recently?

Wilkinson: I will never know what it is to be a black man in America, but Jordan Peele’s Get Out helped me feel, in visceral way, what its main character was feeling, and through that I learned a lot about what people mean when they talk about being black—which is kind of remarkable for a horror film. The fact that it made me uncomfortable was a good thing.

A lot of films try really hard to make a case for something. A documentary often makes a case that you ought to think this way, or believe this, or get involved with that—and we get excited for three days and then move on to the next thing. It just doesn’t stick with us. I can think of certain documentaries that I admired but that never really became part of my experience. They just became mental assents. But Get Out in particular helped me feel uncomfortable in a way that I hope translates into something more. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it a few weeks ago.

James Ponsoldt: My son is about to turn three, and he hasn’t seen a movie yet. I’ve been thinking about what his first film should be—so much that there is probably an undue weight on it. This has been a tough year for me and my family; I had two friends pass away, and also my father-in-law, my son’s grandfather. My wife and I weren’t even sure whether to tell our son about it. Some friends said a two-year-old wouldn’t even understand what it meant. Other friends said that whether or not you believe in an afterlife, the idea of heaven can be very comforting to a child of that age.

I have been thinking a lot about narrative and the idea that it can create structure or meaning in a world that can seem indifferent or chaotic. When Ray Charles died a number of years ago I heard Quincy Jones being interviewed on the radio by, I think, Terry Gross, who asked him if there was a formula to a Ray Charles song. It seemed like an impossible question, but he answered it very astutely: “In a simple measure he could transform misery into joy.” As I think about the film I am going to show my son—and the film after that and the film after that—I am excited to have a tool with which to create meaning for a child in a world that might seem cruel or indifferent, one I hope can provide joy and escape and entertainment and all of those good things.

Debra Granik: That comment about coming to a greater understanding of what other people might even feel is a route to living better, that goes deep. To understand what makes someone else’s life interesting calls for a dialogue, especially if their lifestyle is really different from yours. And that ends up broadening the narrow path you are born on. We are all born in a certain class, of a certain race. We only have those experiences that are really indigenous. When you meet someone who was born on a different path, at first blush, things they are into may seem caustic to you, or cause anxiety, or pit you against them. There is always risk involved: you risk a dialogue that might be meaningful or might yield nothing. To risk being curious about another is to risk being profoundly alienated.

That discussion is all around us in this era we’re now living through. What happens if we have meaningful dialogues and image exchanges and even romances with people who we think are very different from us?

To do that requires a structure, an architecture, and I think film can provide that. If I’m making a documentary, I can’t just go up to someone’s house and say, “I thought your lawn ornaments were extremely unusual. Is there any chance I can photograph those?” unless I can explain what I’m doing and what has attracted me. But the documentary form, with its impetus to chronicle things, emboldens me to approach. I wouldn’t go into a part of the woods where gun rights are a big deal unless I was actually seeking out a discussion, and then I would say to someone local, “I am out of my range. Would you come with me to approach this individual? I’d like to have a discussion if he is willing.”

Film has always been a tool that creates dialogue and connection. Take, for example, transgender issues. The other night I was talking with a trans man and afterward I sent him a list of films from way before his time that looked at trans issues. Film has looked at trans questions with great sensitivity for a long time, since long before the internet. It was like passing on a treasure.

Having said that, I don’t think film can make life better, but it gives us a platform to probe and ask questions, to strive to see things as less black and white. To me, film is the architecture for the word “and.” Somebody might be this and also this. We can ask that about Trump. What about all the “ands” that are in that bundle? His brother who didn’t make it, or maybe the brutal dad? So many “ands” compose someone’s psychology and behavior. There is so much we wish we could know. There is no cheap ticket, right? But I do think that film, both documentary and narrative, always raises the bar on our understanding of Homo sapiens.

Higgins: You’re reminding me of one of my first experiences with film that changed me. Watching Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, I was struck by the notion that there is always one more piece of information you don’t know about the person you hate, and that if you knew it, you would empathize with them.

David, turning to you, how do you feel about the idea that the purpose of cinema is to help us live better?

David Lowery: Though I agree with facets of what everyone has said, I think it’s dangerous to put cinema to an aspirational test. If it needs to help us live better, in empirical terms, what defines better? It’s helpful to take a step back. One of the things that troubles me is whether what I am doing as a filmmaker is useful, whether it’s going to make the world better in the grand scheme. I often come back to a line from Roger Ebert, through whose writing I grew to love cinema. I grew up not being allowed to watch movies very often, so I learned about them through him. He once wrote that movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” and I love that concept. I love the idea that a good movie, whether it is popcorn entertainment or high art, can generate empathy with someone you previously may not have considered worth your attention. That can have a tremendous effect on culture and society and, though I hesitate to say it, the world—but when I am feeling optimistic and thinking grandly I do let myself go there sometimes.

Like Alissa, I have been thinking about Get Out quite a bit lately. I am so happy that it is doing so well at the box office and that people keep telling their friends to go see it. What sort of effect is that going to have on things? It certainly isn’t going to change policy of any sort. It’s not going to change the culture overnight, but I think it could give some people a new perspective and a sense of understanding, even on a subconscious level, that we can carry into our day-to-day lives and interactions. I think in a small way it does make the world better. By “better” I mean more empathetic. I mean a world where we can understand where someone is coming from even if we do not agree with them.

Higgins: It’s easy to see that empathy is one of the things the world needs right now. We have more opportunity to feel frightened and angry because we are being bombarded by the visceral nature of what happens when human beings don’t measure what we say to each other or about each other. David, what are the kinds of movies that are needed right now?

Lowery: That is a big question. There is a great argument for good populist entertainment. I might wish everyone would rewatch Tree of Life or Black Orpheus or some great work of cinematic art that inspires empathy, but I think right now we need things that everyone is going to see together. Populist entertainment is a great way to do that, not as propaganda, but in the way a film like Get Out gets a crowd of people to experience a scary, funny, engaging piece of entertainment that also presents serious ideas. That is incredibly valuable. People go see that movie to have a good time, and they come out having had that good time, but also having experienced collectively a set of ideas that they may not have considered before.

As filmmakers right now we need to consider what breadth we can reach, the size of the audiences that we can reach with our stories. There is a great argument for making things that are rarified and exclusive, and I don’t want those movies to go away—I love them—but I do think that when a movie hits and hits well it can have such a strong effect.

Higgins: A film that did that for me last year was Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a story about people who are “other” to the average American experience, but whose narrative arc is so accessible—and also far more realistic and credible than the typical sports movie. When I asked her about the frontiers of cinema, Nair said she wants to see more balance between tent-pole spectacles in which conflicts are resolved by blowing shit up and stories that help us see life through the eyes of someone different.

Wilkinson: I have been thinking about this a lot because I have been doing a lot of work on nonfiction film. Recently there has been an explosion of change in that genre; we are living through a revival of nonfiction. It used to be that there were people who watched documentaries, and then there was everybody else, but there has been a lot of morphing in what fits under that umbrella. I just got back from True/False a couple of weeks ago, which is a wonderful festival in Columbia, Missouri, that programs only fairly envelope-pushing nonfiction films. Every theater was crammed with mostly locals who were coming to these very challenging films that are either about provocative issues explored in an unusual way, or true stories told in ways that put the viewer in another person’s shoes. I think radio shows like Serial and This American Life have made some space for those. People are into true crime these days. What if all those stories weren’t about true crime but were about difference?

A number of films in True/False were about neurodiversity issues, which I thought was interesting, and the fact that Life, Animated did so well last year is part of that phenomenon. People connect with real stories. They respond to engaging films that can change their minds, that don’t feel like they were written because someone had an agenda, but that feel like real life.

I also agree that movies that get more people into the theater are a good thing, especially if we can figure out how to do it without bending to too many homogenization pressures from studios. I loved Queen of Katwe, and I told my mother to go see it, and she loved it, and she told everyone she knew. I also felt Hidden Figures pulled that off in some unexpected ways.

At the same time, I love these small films. I love that Moonlight had a 1.5 million budget. A Ghost Story was my favorite movie at Sundance this year. I can see people who maybe wouldn’t expect a film like that to be their cup of tea loving it because it is quirky and lovely and plays like a fairy tale.

I’m hoping that more films like these will get made and written about and seen and streamed, and not just in New York and LA. I think this makes a difference. We are at a crucial inflection point for cinema.

Lowery: Moonlight has become such a cultural touchstone, even for folks who haven’t seen it. On November 10, like many people I was feeling pretty bummed out, but as I drove by my local theater, the fact that Moonlight was still playing on three screens in Dallas, Texas, made me feel like all was not lost.

Higgins: I agree. There’s more to this moment than who happens to be president.

Debra, I wanted to ask you, in the era of “alternative facts,” is there a different demand on documentaries, a different invitation? For a long while now the documentaries that most interest me are the ones in which it is clear that the filmmaker discovered something while she was making the film, rather than knowing it all in advance. Are you thinking differently about nonfiction in this moment?

Granik: I do think people want to engage in the process of asking these questions, not just looking to media for answers, or for confirmation of something they already believe. Film critics are talking about a national craving for a conversation about the way we feel so divided—red and blue, Christian and not, coasts and inland. But we had these divisions long before the Trump—I won’t call it the Trump era: the Trump nanosecond. When I see us retract into ourselves, when I hear people saying there’s no way to have a dialogue, does it amp up a desire to disprove that? Of course it does. It is not clear how to do that, and how to avoid bringing your agenda with you, but usually, as you pointed out, you are surprised. You might think you are going out there to get one or two things that you observed from the edge of the yard, but once you are inside the house, there is a lot more there. As an American, I feel a strong emotional draw to try to keep the other person on the line, not to let them hang up on me. That’s how I keep viewing it, like an urgent call.

Higgins: How do you hold your nerve when you are in a conversation and you hear really troubling or offensive or painful things, when you know the higher goal is to keep the conversation going?

Granik: Sometimes there is nowhere to go, and then you have to back out gracefully. Sometimes with a person you’ve already connected with a little bit, it can help to talk to that person in the presence of their peers. They might say things that don’t give you any route of entry, but then their peers will pitch in and decipher a thought in a way that lets you briefly live outside your own zip code, and that is a pretty special moment. That comes into play with discussions about class and race. If you don’t know the world you’ve stepped into, you need informants, local diplomats, bridge-builders, introducers, fixers, for when the conversation gets troubling.

Higgins: James, your new film, The Circle, has what could be perceived as a Trumpian character in it. I’m wondering if you were tempted to tweak the film to more explicitly address Trump.

Ponsoldt: It’s interesting. The film is based on Dave Eggers’s novel which came out in fall 2013, and which was marketed and perceived as speculative fiction or sci-fi about a hypothetical technology company: if Apple absorbed Google absorbed Facebook, the logical conclusion of a lack of antitrust regulation. As I was adapting the book, spending a lot of time doing research in northern California and elsewhere, the world completely flipped on its head, with Brexit and then Trump.

The movie is a satire, and at its core it is not about any particular company. It’s not about social media. It’s about privacy and human rights and the right to not be documented, the right to be unseen. In an age of conglomeration of power over the way people perceive information and truth, you can manipulate anything from an election to a stock price. I wanted the film to be even-handed and to have a sense of humor, and even to advocate for those who find a lot of meaning in their gadgets.

I guess the world feels crueler now, and truth got obliterated. You would have to reconceive how you would even make classic satires like Dr. Strangelove or Network at this point. It was one thing at the height of the Clinton administration when Saturday Night Live tried to parody oral sex in the Oval Office. It felt like that was the end of satire, because things just got tragically absurd, but now I’m not sure where you go.

So yes, there was definitely a temptation to tweak, but you have to know your target. I think the stakes got higher. The film which had felt speculative and hypothetical now feels less so. When I first contemplated making the film, I thought about how as a child when I would screw up I would get sent to my room to think about what I had done. As I’d think about the shame that I had brought on myself or my parents or God, if there was a God, I was developing into an autonomous, self-sufficient human being. I was able to do that in isolation, and I don’t know if that is the same anymore for kids. There is a level of group-think and a sense of always being observed. The idea that the first president my kids are going to know is Trump makes me angry. The anger behind the film’s humor and satire feels more necessary now. Events brought it into focus.

Higgins: In the last three or four months I’ve often wondered how Sidney Lumet would feel about the fact that Network came true—and with the wrong Howard Beale.

Lowery: Another interesting corollary is Bulworth, the Warren Beatty film. When I saw it back in 1998, I thought, “This is great. I love this dude.” I no longer love him, now that we are seeing him in the flesh. It recontextualizes what you actually want when you say things like, “Yes, Howard Beale, we need someone like him,” or “We need someone like Bulworth in politics.” It is an interesting conundrum to find myself in.

Ponsoldt: A Face in the Crowd, another story about media and politics, is sixty years old, and it feels radically fresh and spot on. We like the idea of democratization of information and giving a voice to the voiceless, but it can quickly slide into demagoguery. The tough thing is that I feel myself getting numb. I was really angry the night of the election. When I woke up my children the next morning I cried in front of them. I want to seek solace, and I want to look for it in film, but I’ll just dabble. After dinner I’ll sit down intending to watch ten minutes of CNN or Rachel Maddow, which will quickly become four hours, because the narrative of the world is so nihilistic or Dadaist or chaotic that it eclipses any other narrative I can find in a two-hour film right now.

Higgins: David, it looks like you are alternating what might be called more commercial movies with ones that have more of a niche audience. Is that an intentional strategy, or is it just the way things have shaken out?

Lowery: I wish I had enough foresight to say that I strategize about my career, but I don’t. I operate on gut instinct as much as possible, and if a movie feels right, I’ll make it, and thus far I have not made the ones that felt wrong. I do feel that there are opportunities out there that I want to pursue. As a little kid obsessed with Star Wars, I wanted to make big movies, and that has not gone away. I’m still excited by the idea of making big, adventurous, populist pieces of entertainment. At the same time, I love smaller films that really challenge and provoke audiences, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one or the other. Because of the way these movies work out and the time it takes to make a bigger film versus a smaller one, it probably will wind up feeling as if I am doing a one-for-them, one-for-me pattern, but that is not how I am looking at it. They are all for me. They are all stories I want to tell. They all have different ideas at play, but they are all equally personal to me. I have no overarching strategy.

Earlier I was talking about how it’s important to us as filmmakers to make things that matter. When you were asking James just now whether he was inclined to make any topical changes to The Circle, I bristled at that thought. I think the attempt to be topical or to make a movie that Matters-with-a-capital-M is folly. All one can ultimately do is do what’s best for the story and hope that it resonates with audiences. I’m glad James didn’t tweak the movie for the era in which he is making it, because ultimately I think it will last longer and have a greater impact without that degree of specificity.

When I am making a film—whether it’s a big movie for Disney or a tiny movie like A Ghost Story—I am not going to use one of those mediums more than another to try to convey something to the audience. I am putting my all into each one, trying to convey something that matters to me. I won’t do the Disney movie to try to get something by an audience or exert my point of view or my politics just because it’s a bigger film. I am going to make all of these pictures with the hope that they can reach everybody and not exclude anybody.

Higgins: I have heard that the television broadcast of Kieślowski’s Dekalog: A Short Film about Killing was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. By the same token, when I saw Pete’s Dragon last year I had an experience of wonder and honesty about trauma that was just as meaningful to me as anything I have ever seen in a Kieślowski film. That is not to blow smoke so much as to affirm that a so-called big film and a so-called small film can be equally powerful.

Lowery: I agree, and I appreciate hearing that. It reaffirms my conviction that just because a movie is made for everybody by a giant studio with a bottom line and a board of directors to be satisfied doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive cultural effect and a positive individual effect on each audience member.

Ponsoldt: One of the versions of the Dekalog DVD includes footage from Kieślowski’s state-run press junket. He had come back from Cannes, where he had shown A Short Film about Killing, and the journalists who were all essentially appendages of the state are all asking these baiting questions, and he is so good at evading them. One of them asks, “Do you think your films can change the country, can change the world?” He demurs a little bit: “No, no, no, they are just stories. They can’t change anything…but I can see where maybe someone would believe that something I made would be in a position to be some minor instrument of change.” Which, as you pointed out, was certainly the case in Poland.

Higgins: I think he understood that the stories we tell are so close to the instruments that shape our lives that they are indistinguishable from them. Story can be a shelter or a prison, and I think he was in the business of showing where the prisons were—and if not of opening the doors, at least telling people, “Hey, there are some bars in front of you.”

Alissa, in approaching this conversation, Scott Teems and I both noticed that your writing has gotten more political lately. What’s going on?

Wilkinson: I moved outlets! I went from Christianity Today to Vox, and I’ve got a different audience there. I try as much as I can to not be a knee-jerk political cultural writer, because there is a lot of that out there, but you sometimes have to acknowledge the political element and just try not to be polemical. A lot of films coming out right now have really important implications for our politics. I just reviewed Malick’s latest, Song to Song, and I don’t think I mentioned anything about politics there, since the film didn’t call for it, but it would make no sense to write about Get Out, for instance, without politics. When I was watching the Lego Batman movie, I thought, “Gosh, I have to go there.” I wrote two different pieces about it, one with a more political bent and one that was more of a straight review.

We actually talk about this a lot at Vox. I feel that films have to be taken as films first of all, but then they are not just films. They exist in a world where politics is happening and is on everyone’s mind, and movies and TV are the lingua franca of our time, and so if there are any cultural objects around which we might have a productive political conversation, I think those are films and television shows. I have always written about politics and culture, but I have done it from a political philosophy angle rather than a political science angle, and when you write about philosophy people often don’t pick up on the fact that you are making a political argument.

Our readers are interested in politics; that’s why they read Vox to begin with, so I want them to understand that politics doesn’t just erupt in a vacuum, but is a segment of a whole culture. What we watch feeds into what we do on the political stage, and maybe more importantly how we watch does that. Are we watching thoughtfully? The fact that we consume politics as entertainment today means that when we write about entertainment, we have to take into account that entertainment shapes our politics and is shaped by our politics. I am happy when I watch a movie that doesn’t want to be read through that lens, but I have no illusions about the fact that for the next three years it is going to be increasingly hard to find movies that don’t want us to make political statements about them.

Higgins: One of the questions will be, how can you write about them in a way that invites curiosity rather than shutting people down? Can you be intelligent and nice at the same time, generous in spirit and also credible?

Wilkinson: Critics have a great opportunity to connect what’s happening in culture today to the past, to draw parallels and teach lessons in ways that filmmakers themselves can’t and shouldn’t be bothered with. That is a time-honored tradition in film criticism. Film criticism has always been a political venture, no matter who you were reading, and doing it well means engaging with all parts of politics, even the parts that may seem dull. When the healthcare bill came out, it was a great moment to recommend the Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a movie not many people saw, but that brings back a human angle that had been stripped out of the debates.

Higgins: My last question is for all four of you. Is there one film that represents for you the kind of movie the world needs right now? What would you like people to watch?

Mine is Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s film from 1995, Smoke, where Harvey Keitel owns a cigar store and he, William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, and Forest Whitaker are just telling stories and moving in and out of each other’s lives. It’s a film about the necessity of not being alone, and it dramatizes that if you don’t learn to ask for help, you are going to be forced to ask for help by circumstances, and that people, whatever their politics happen to be, will ultimately help when they see need in each other’s faces.

Granik: One of the themes I’ve been ruminating on through this whole discussion is the question of how to disrupt business as usual. This has been brought up by Adam Curtis and others: how do we resist normalizing the continual attacks on democracy and pluralism? I am a sledgehammer person, I always have been, and that’s why films are made collaboratively: you need colleagues who can say, “You could go a little lighter there.” The film that sledged me recently, in a positive, inspirational way, was Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. The genius of Lois Vossen at PBS to program that! I love the use of archival footage that none of us had ever seen. We have all seen Malcolm and Martin, but none of us had seen the footage of those guys talking to each other and then talking to the Kennedys. As a person who had grown up during that era, I loved that my jaw was dangling. I was thrilled that that archive had been mined and brought out to the public view in such an alarming, rough-edged way.

I could pick Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, or the films of the forties that dealt with class, about the lives of ordinary Americans. The seventies did some of that as well.

Higgins: In a word or two, what is the outcome you would want from this positive bludgeoning?

Granik: To ask us to look again. For five thousand years, there have been people fiddling while Rome burns. That is a huge part of human history. But it is honest and raw to acknowledge what is happening. I thought Peck did such a good job of showing what was happening throughout the twentieth century, in terms of America clinging to its oppressive caste and race systems—systems we’re taught to pat ourselves on the back for very slowly questioning. We’ve all seen devastating images of civil rights protestors being mauled, but when he juxtaposes them with the films and ads that were coming out at roughly the same time, it’s a cultural mash-up that astonishes you. I don’t think we have ever really noticed the way the Marlboro Man just goes riding on, oblivious to everything around him, not taking responsibility for anything, but juxtaposing that ad with footage of a lynching makes the ad—and our obliviousness—suddenly shocking. I thought it was great and daring that someone had the cojones to do it, and it took an outsider like Peck (who is from Haiti).

As for disrupting business as usual, what would happen if, during the regime of Trump—a person who has perpetrated for-profit sexism such as big-business beauty pageants—women did not take off their clothes in a movie for one year? It would give us time to think, to consider. What if filmmakers committed to not using firearms to solve a conflict in their films for one year? There are many films like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood that bring together engrossing, entertaining narrative and new talent, but not in a business-as-usual way. We need to talk about the inclusion and portrayal of working-class Americans in ways that are not degrading. Easier said than done. This would be another rupture with old norms, because entertainment in the US favors the rich, and when the poor do appear, it’s on shows where they’re degraded.

Higgins: James, is there a film you would recommend?

Ponsoldt: Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami, which I saw when I was in film school. It’s an Iranian film based on a true story about a man who impersonates a film director and persuades a family that he is going to feature them in his next project. James Schamus showed it to us in a small seminar class called Seeing Narrative, which was an interdisciplinary class about narrative and storytelling. We watched two films: Deep Red by Dario Argento and Close-Up. Close-Up melted my brain. It blurred the distinction between fiction and documentary. It’s a story about identity, reality, compassion, crime and punishment, irreverence for cinema, and the ways that stories deeply affect us on a spiritual level and provide meaning. Close-Up is a movie I go back to all the time, now more than ever as we debate what is truth and what is essential.

Lowery: You brought up Kieślowski. I recently reread Kieślowski on Kieślowski. In the dark month of November, it helped me to read about him making films under a somewhat oppressive regime. The fact that his great works come out of that period in Poland was comforting to me. I didn’t know then where we were headed, and I don’t now think we are headed there, but just knowing he was making those films while the Workers’ Party was in control of Poland was helpful to me.

Anyway, in the book he relates a story about receiving a letter from a mother who lived with her daughter, and they hadn’t spoken in years. They went to see one of his films—I believe it was The Double Life of Veronique—and at the end they embraced tearfully and spoke with each other again for the first time. It was the film that brought them together, the mother wrote. For Kieślowski that was the best achievement he could have with film, and I agree. On a micro-scale, you can make the world better by making those connections occur.

When it comes to films that I would encourage people to watch, I’d mention The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke. I also feel people should also rewatch Mad Max: Fury Road more closely. There is a lot going on in that movie that is applicable and inspirational and hopeful. I have been imploring people to watch Louis C.K.’s web miniseries Horace and Pete, which is so good and meaningful. It is not a movie, but it is developed more cinematically than most movies I saw last year and certainly had more of an impact on me. It’s one of the most beautifully human pieces of storytelling I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It is all about communication, or lack thereof, and the ability to empathize, or not, with people who have done or are doing horrible things. The level of empathy on display, not necessarily in the characters but in the perspective of the show itself, I found quite humbling. It made me want to make better work as an artist, and be a better husband and son and person.

Wilkinson: I loved last year’s Paterson, a film about how poetry can stitch together lives and also how it forms a kind of fabric that covers a whole community. It’s also about how a good poet, and by extension a good artist, is a listener. When Adam Driver is on the bus listening to people’s conversations, that becomes part of his interior life, and part of his poetry. That is very moving to me. It’s one of those movies where I thought, if I watched this every week of my life, I would probably be a better person. It is just such a lovely film on top of it, well made and well acted. Poetry isn’t the most natural topic for an interesting film, but Paterson definitely is.

Higgins: I read someone, maybe it was you, who described Paterson as a utopian film. What touched me so deeply was that its vision of utopia is a white American military vet happily partnered with a Middle Eastern Muslim woman, in a multicultural community, living forty minutes from Ground Zero. That’s utopia.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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