In this edition of Marginalia, a cosy simulacrum of 1970's academic life – but where is the rest of the world?
The Holdovers, dir. Alexander Payne, screenplay David Hemingson (2023)
At sixty-two, director Alexander Payne is an acceptable age for grumbling about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. Perhaps he doesn’t make that complaint, I don’t know the man, but it’s easy to see how his latest film, The Holdovers, might be a response to that gripe. He has accepted the challenge and made a film of the kind that was made in the 1970s. For my money, though, more impressive than this technical feat is that he’s made a film that speaks so directly to the heart, by making a film with a big heart of its own.
That heart is kept beating by the interpersonal rhythms of the central characters in The Holdovers. Paul Giamatti plays a hunched, dour, yet loveable professor also named Paul, who teaches history at a private school in New England. This Classics-obsessed grump is obliged to keep his one good eye on a group of students with nowhere to go over the Christmas holiday. His cruelty towards these kids is eminently watchable and delivers a satisfying dose of schadenfreude. When a smarmy rich kid protests, “I can’t fail this class!” the film delivers one of its best laughs when Paul responds with faux solidarity, “Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze, I’m truly convinced that you can.”
Reluctantly paired with the professor is Angus (played by Dominic Sessa in his debut role), a seventeen-year-old with all the internal chaos of youth and the harrumphing, flouncing stroppiness of Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager. Initially not meant to be one of the titular holdovers, he joins the cohort when his mother and new stepfather ditch him for a holiday alone. Eventually, and for most of the film, he is the only holdover left to celebrate the Christmas season with professor Paul and school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
Randolph endeared me immediately to her portrayal of Mary, whose presence and the soulfulness of her eyes say so much about what she is suffering. Her plaintive grief for a son killed in Vietnam resounds in all of her scenes even as the actress seems to do very little. This is perhaps the definition of a great performance. There’s a scene at a party where Mary is drinking and listening to Artie Shaw, whom her son used to love. When another partygoer complains about the record going on again, Mary delivers a single line of dialogue that rises to a crescendo of pain and anger: “Don’t touch that goddamned record.” The quiet dignity that carries her grief through the film is broken, briefly, and it set my heart racing.
Giamatti’s performance is predictably great, even if there’s something initially predictable about it. Occasionally, when Paul grumbles about his “philistine” students or pontificates about private school elitism, the performance verges on excessive, like a panto version of a fuddy-duddy professor. However, authenticity bursts through in key moments, and we realise that the exaggerated version of the man is a performance within a performance: Paul feels like an outsider at the prestigious school, and he’s playing up to a role as a defence mechanism. Tellingly, it’s in his interactions with working class people such as Mary and Danny, the school caretaker, where he acts and speaks like a real person. All of this lends a complexity to his character that is allowed to simply exist in the performance.
If only such subtlety could be found in Sessa’s performance of young and angsty Angus. The stroppy teen character-type can be incredibly hard to make palatable, and here it skirts the line. A subtler performance is required in many of his scenes, and I found Sessa overly expressive, as if he doesn’t really believe himself and is trying to convince us through sheer force of line delivery. Part of the problem with Angus’ whingey disposition is that Sessa, though only four years older than his character, somehow looks like a mid-career divorce lawyer. It’s hard to be patient with someone who looks old enough to know better when he throws a tantrum, as he does in at least half of his scenes.
The way these characters interact is always charming and often disarmingly so. David Hemingson never allows his script or its dialogue to become cloying. There are notes of real sweetness that emerge out of the bitterness, and they never overpower the dish. The aftertaste of these moments lingers as the tartness of a straight-shooting observation or a failure of social etiquette balances the palate. There’s a lovely moment in a museum where Paul opens Angus’ eyes to the value of history, and Angus compliments this pedagogy. “You should try doing more of that in class,” he says, “and less yelling.” Paul seems to seriously consider the advice. Then Angus adds, “You know most of the kids dislike you, pretty much hate you. Teachers, too. You know that, right?” Paul’s silence in response is heart breaking.
Roger Ebert coined his own cliché in describing non-human elements of films as “another character in the movie” – everything from the physical attraction between the leads in Witness to the car in Starsky & Hutch. Payne has a penchant for reinventing clichés in The Holdovers, so allow me to make use of Ebert’s by saying that the period setting is this film’s silent but ever-present fourth character. The film is set in the last weeks of 1970 and the start of ’71, and this time setting pervades not only the plot but the film’s look and feel too.
The Holdovers plays with the major genres that defined much of mainstream cinema in the seventies and eighties, with hints of everything from Jaws to The Breakfast Club: it teases a teen comedy that pits a rag-tag group of kids against a sour old teacher, then pulls the rug out at the end of act one by flying all the kids but Angus out of the school, turning the film into something more like a buddy cop film, which turns into a road trip adventure, and finishes as a classic Christmas film. The Holdovers even begins with throwback title cards, digitally replicates film grain, and makes copious use of dissolve transitions. In these features, The Holdovers is a convincing, cosy, and thoroughly enjoyable simulacrum.
Yet I couldn’t help wishing for a little more. By the end of the film, I felt that it never quite met its own challenge. At a crucial thawing-out point in the relationship between Paul and Angus, the professor tells him, “History is not simply the study of the past, it is an explanation of the present.” The line is delivered with the lightness of an actor speaking naturally, but also with the weight of the screenwriter indicating a hermeneutic for understanding his film. As a study of the past, and thereby an explanation of our present, The Holdovers falls short.
The seventies evoked in The Holdovers is a sanitised version of that period. When one of the kids mocks Mary behind her back, Paul erupts in fury, slamming his hand on the table, flipping cutlery into the air, shouting, “You have no idea what that woman has been through!” It’s an affecting moment, and the way Paul can’t quite finish the sentence shows how heartfelt his rage is, but it also reveals a troubling fact: we viewers don’t have any idea what she’s been through either. We know she lost her son in Vietnam, but beyond that there’s no hint of the world Mary inhabits or how she inhabits it. She is, after all, a black woman who grew up in a segregated America, who only recently gained full participation in her country’s democracy, and who won’t have full reproductive rights for another two years.
Mary doesn’t need to be – indeed, shouldn’t be – an avatar for some generalised experience of black women. I fully agree with critic Wesley Morris when he writes, “Maybe the most important thing we see Mary do here, from the standpoint of movie history, is experience other Black people as other people, even if it’s just to resist the ardor of the school maintenance man.” That sense of individuated personhood is a strength, but it goes too far in stranding its characters in an ahistorical space where the world beyond the frame never intrudes. We have no sense that students all over the country are protesting the war in Vietnam at that very moment. Roe v. Wade was only two years away, and it didn’t emerge in 1973 ex nihilo – so where are the debates that were happening not only on campuses and in courtrooms but at dinner tables across the country?
As a result, the past in the film fails to tell us much about our present. There’s a weak nod to historical parallels when Paul explains to another faculty member why it’s difficult to teach kids in the modern age. “The world doesn’t make sense anymore,” he says. “I mean, it’s on fire. The rich don’t give a shit, poor kids are cannon fodder, integrity’s a punchline, and trust is just a name on a bank.” As a list of broad complaints made most days in our own time, it’s passable, but it feels like an Easter egg in a Marvel movie – designed to invoke a sense of recognition, an “Ah, I know what that’s referencing” moment that doesn’t really add anything or say very much. We never see how the world is “burning” in the film, never get a sense of how integrity and trust have been degraded, beyond this one sentence.
Critic Tom Adair once praised Penelope Lively’s restraint in her examination of history, writing that she “knows that the past grows more distant the more it is scrutinised”. Perhaps this is what Payne and Hemingson feared in their backwards glance at the seventies, preferring the comfort of nostalgia over a more objective and less personally satisfying reality. Maybe this is why some details – entirely anodyne details such as a tube of Preparation H left on a sink, a popular song of the time, or the jumpy, scratchy Miramax studio logo – are rendered with loving attention, while more complex realities of the decade are entirely ignored. This wary ambivalence shows up in the fact that the film was shot digitally, then rendered to imitate the tactile cosiness of 35mm; this seems suggestive of liking the idea of the past more than the thing itself.
I want to end on an element of The Holdovers that is one of my favourite aspects of it: the dissolve transitions, in which the fading ghost of a scene creates a temporary palimpsest with the new scene fading in, the emotional tempo of what we just saw haunting what we see next. In The Holdovers, Payne delivers perhaps my favourite dissolve transition of all time. Mary has gone to her sister’s house, and as she stands looking at her son’s baby clothes, her sister enters the room. They meet each other in shared grief at the loss of the son/nephew, and Mary’s sister cries as they embrace. This slowly dissolves into a scene of laughter, with the sisters now sitting on a bed as if little girls again, giggling about some shared secret.
This one transition lays bare the relationship between pain and joy, between sadness and happiness, and between sisters; it also reveals the way families somehow collapse time, so that when we are in their company we are, simultaneously, who we are and who we used to be, adult and child all at once. And I can’t even begin to talk about the fact that Mary is looking at her dead son’s baby clothes while her sister is heavily pregnant without tearing up. This is what The Holdovers does so well: even if it sometimes misses the mark intellectually, it has a big heart, and it speaks directly to mine.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe