Cary Grant once said:
“To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They’re playing themselves…but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.
“In my earlier career I patterned myself on a combination of Englishmen—AE Matthews, Noel Coward, and Jack Buchanan, who impressed me as a character actor. He always looked so natural. I tried to copy men I thought were sophisticated and well dressed like Douglas Fairbanks or Cole Porter. And Freddie Lonsdale, the British playwright, always had an engaging answer for everything.
“I cultivated raising one eyebrow and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser pocket with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn’t get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration!
“I guess to a certain extent I did eventually become the characters I was playing. I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.”
These are fascinating statements. He was box-office gold for decades, and the Cary Grant persona was a consciously created phenomenon. He did it. The studios didn’t do it, the marketing folks didn’t do it, the man didn’t even have an agent, for God’s sake. Grant, through a period of trial and error, tried things, kept those that worked, discarded those that didn’t. The fact that he seemed so easy and commanding onscreen is just one of the many miracles of Cary Grant.
It is even more startling when you watch his early roles, before he hit paydirt with The Awful Truth. Later in life, he expressed mild annoyance (in a gentlemanly manner) when Mae West would give herself the credit for “discovering” him. She had, indeed, pulled him out of the crowd to be the eye-candy in first She Done Him Wrong, then in I’m No Angel.
It’s interesting to watch She Done Him Wrong now because Cary Grant had not “found himself” yet. He’s good-looking, but in a kind of soft, generic way (or as generic as he could be). He’s there for West to drool over. There are certain hints of the persona-to-come, clearly visible in She Done Him Wrong: his strange ramrod way of walking, the miasma of crankiness that would become such an important and funny part of who he was (nobody was crankier than a cranky Cary Grant!), and then, in the last moment of the film, when he leans in to kiss her, the humorless do-gooder character he has been playing up until this point suddenly says, in a low growl, “You bad girl…” before going in for the pounce. The movie closes on that line. It’s a rather blatant example of the star power that was to come, the effect he would have on audiences, but he hadn’t yet found the “vehicle.” This is not entirely the fault of the directors or the studios. Grant said it himself. He didn’t know who he was yet. He had a lot of vaudeville experience. He was an acrobat. He had spent time being the “straight man” in comedy teams. He was handsome. He had a thick Cockney accent. He was oddly un-placeable. If he had remained in the “eye candy” roles, he would have had a short and uninteresting career.
What an honest admission to make: “I played at someone I wanted to be until I became that person.”
The most delightful thing about Cary Grant to me is that he was a goofy comedian and character actor trapped in the body of a gorgeous leading man. It adds a variety to his work (has any actor ever had as spectacular a run as he had in 1938 and 1939?), and no matter how many times I see all of those movies, he still makes me laugh out loud. Excited. That’s the word. I watch Bringing Up Baby maybe once a month, on average, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve seen it more times than I can count, I still find myself getting excited about upcoming bits: “Oh, he’s about to slip on the olive!” or “Oh, he’s about to plunge into the river!”, whatever it is. The movie just gets better with repetition.
I love him. What can I say.
Cary Grant was a cautious man. A notorious tightwad. He managed his own career, at a time when such a thing was unheard of. He did not align himself with one studio. He freelanced. Unprecedented. He negotiated his own deals, and decided what he would do next. He was his own man. Billy Wilder, a good friend, was, to the end of his life (at least evidenced by his book-length interview with Cameron Crowe), bummed out that Grant never appeared in one of his movies. It seems like that partnership would have been a slamdunk. Wilder always had Grant in mind when he planned a film. He wanted Grant for the part Bogart eventually played in Sabrina, for the part Gary Cooper played in Love in the Afternoon. Despite their long friendship, Grant always hesitated. It is a mystery as to why, and according to Wilder’s recollections, even Grant didn’t have a clear answer.
He didn’t put himself in just anyone’s hands (although, like I said, it seemed like he was meant to be in a Billy Wider film!), and once he became a gigantic movie star, he really only trusted one director to “mess” with his persona, and that was Alfred Hitchcock. Grant worked with Hitchcock four times (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest). North by Northwest is, perhaps, the most blatant example of Hitchcock not only utilizing the typical Grant persona, but subverting it, turning it inside out. There seems to be a vicious delight in how Hitchcock decimates the slick man we see at the opening of the film. “What else can we throw at him? I know! Let’s make Cary Grant scramble in the dirt under the ears of corn. Let’s give him no way out. Let’s watch him squirm.” Not to mention the fact that Hitchcock makes Roger Thornhill a kind of decaying mama’s boy, a slick smooth ad man but with a blunted emotional makeup (which, of course, is then awakened over the course of the film). If you think about who Cary Grant was at the time he made that film, the biggest star in the world, known for his elegance and handsomeness and enduring romantic appeal, you can see what a risk he took with North by Northwest. But those risks were out of character for him, and reserved for an elite few he trusted. Billy Wilder’s frustration rings through the ages. “Why won’t you trust ME?”
George Cukor wanted Cary Grant for the part of Norman Maine in A Star is Born. Grant said no. Cukor was stunned and said, “You were born to play this part, Cary.” Grant replied, “And that is precisely why I won’t play it.” Cukor never really forgave him for that, but in that moment with his old friend Cukor, you can see the intractability of the man. He would not reveal what he did not choose to reveal, and that was final. There are many great “what if” moments in Grant’s career, because he did turn down so many parts, and Grant as Norman Maine is the most compelling. I have actually spent time imagining in my head what that would have been like.
Enough. I could talk about the man all day.
I had to be brutal in choosing “5 for the Day”, because I kept getting swayed toward other parts, other roles I loved. I’m a big fan of the weep-fest Penny Serenade, for example. Even with all of the swelling violins and schmaltz, he reveals something in that character that he never had before, and never did again. He’s doing some quite subtle work there, and I love every second of it. But the ones I chose I feel show the development of the Cary Grant persona, how a bit came out here, a bit came out there, until finally, he emerged from the chrysalis, as though he had been fully formed all along.
1. Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor): What a weird little movie this is. Katharine Hepburn and her father are on the run from an embezzlement charge. To hide out, she cuts off her hair, dresses up as a boy, and somehow, they decide to form a traveling troupe of actors and acrobats, who cavort through the English countryside. Along the way, they encounter Jimmy Monkley, played by Cary Grant, a Cockney conman, who helps them put up the show, and there are great (and strange) scenes of the outdoor stages they have rigged up, with Grant and Hepburn in puffy Pierrot costumes, tumbling and somersaulting around the stage. This is early Grant here, so it’s not a done deal that he will “get the girl,” and as a matter of fact, the film does not go in that way at all. But Grant steals the picture.
Hepburn said it herself many times, that she was not particularly good here, and Grant is the reason to see Sylvia Scarlett. Up until that point (with a couple of notable exceptions), he had played the generic leading man about which Mae West reportedly said, “If he can talk, I’ll have him.” Those types of roles didn’t “release” Grant, though. He seems to be wearing an ill-fitting suit. The FACE fits the part, but the personality bucks against it. In Sylvia Scarlett, however, he got to loosen up, show his physical prowess, be a bit wacky and undignified. Grant said about that role, “Sylvia Scarlett was my breakthrough. It permitted me to play a character I knew. Thanks to George Cukor. He let me play it the way I thought it should be played because he didn’t know who the character was.” Cukor said (and I love this line): “Sylvia Scarlett was the first time Cary felt the ground under his feet as an actor. He suddenly seemed liberated. It was very exhilarating to see.” Grant is so compelling here that he tips the balance of the picture, in a way that is not quite right for the film. Monkley feels like the star of Sylvia Scarlett. He is a conniving criminal, but you sense the heat between him and Hepburn, and you want them to get together. It is how it should go. But that was not the story being told. So the film is really the “birth” of Cary Grant. Never again would he be the second-banana.
2. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks): Hawks’ manic newspaper drama represents Grant at the height of his verbal powers and comedic gift. He is on fire here. As Walter Burns, the fast-talking workaholic, every conversation is a linguistic battlefield. The script was one of the longest in Hollywood at that time (just in terms of page-length), but Hawks had everyone speaking so fast and simultaneously that five pages of dialogue would be played in 45 seconds. It was controversial at the time, because the studio heads thought that nobody would understand what was being said, since everyone kept interrupting everyone else. But Hawks knew what he was about. He crafted the dialogue specifically so that the beginnings and endings of each sentence were irrelevant filler, so if you didn’t hear them, it wouldn’t matter. Therefore, the interruptions didn’t halt the flow of the story, it just added to the frenzied mania of that newsroom. Nobody could go faster than Grant. The best part for me about his acting here, though, is what he is doing between the lines. This is why he is such a damn good actor. He has a lot to handle here, and the dialogue is complicated, fast, and intricate. But it feels like a free-fall: once a scene begins, all bets are off and he seems to be improvising every second of it. He has internal reactions to things Rosalind Russell has said, he is always sparring, dodging, listening. That much dialogue could make it difficult for some actors to remember to listen. Cary Grant never forgets to listen. The first scene between him and Rosalind Russell in his office is, yes, a masterpiece of fast dialogue. But why I love it so is because it is also a tour de force of listening. All done at breakneck speed.
3. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks): I’ve got a couple of films on my “favorite movies of all time” list, and this one has a permanent spot at the tippity-top. Everyone is awesome here, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, Jean Arthur, but to watch Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, strolling through that film at his cranky apex, is to witness “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” (to paraphrase John Keats). Pauline Kael in her essay on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City,” analyzes the importance of this particular role in the Grant lexicon. Grant was a leading man. But he was not a Clark Gable kind of leading man, who pounced on the girls he wanted. Instead, Grant held back. He felt that he should stand still in romantic scenes, and let the girls come to him. It made him more powerful. This was a conscious decision on his part, and you can see it come up time and time again throughout his career. He understood himself, and his “creation,” better than anyone. There’s a late-night scene in the bar between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur which is a perfect example of his strange passiveness in the face of romance. Not passive as in limp or ineffective, but he doesn’t move in on her. He makes a pretty blatant play: “Want to come up to my room?” he asks her. But watch how he says it. He does not smolder with intention. He’s remote, opaque, and it almost comes off as a gentle challenge: “Can you take it, dear? Could you take being with someone like me?”. There’s a sadness there, too. He would love to find a girl who could “take” being with him, but so far they’ve all let him down. It’s a beautiful moment. In Cary Grant’s long career, I have many treasured moments from him, but that scene in the bar, late at night, with Jean Arthur, is my favorite.
4. Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock): Hitchcock sensed a darkness in Cary Grant, something that sparked his imagination and made him think it would be interesting to put him in a suspenseful film. Their first film together was Suspicion, where Cary Grant plays a sketchy guy married to a woman (played by Joan Fontaine) who begins to suspect that he is a murderer. It’s a good film, with an unsatisfying ending (Hitchcock was angry about it, it was forced on him), and you can see both Hitchcock AND Grant making an attempt at subverting the Grant persona. What would it be like to have Grant come off as slightly shady, untrustworthy, potentially dangerous? Hitchcock loved to mess with audience expectations like that. Suspicion was not wholly successful, it did not have the courage of its convictions, but in Notorious, the second Hitchcock-Grant pairing, they got it right. If I had to look over Grant’s career, I would have to say that his portrayal of “Devlin” is the most revealing, the most disturbing. It stands out. He’s almost universally unpleasant here, a cold man, fearful (openly so: “I’ve always been afraid of women,” he says to Bergman), and willing to throw the woman he loves under the bus—for the sole reason that she will then not know how much he loves her. He is so chilly here.
Devlin likes to think he holds his cards close to his chest, but that could not be farther from the truth. There is an almost frightening lack of self-awareness in the guy, which Grant nails. It adds to the tension in the audience, because it’s frustrating to see a man refuse to perceive what is really going on with him. Brilliant. Because of how he has played the entire film, with an emotional distance that borders on cruelty, the last scene in Notorious, when he finally shows up to rescue the woman he loves from the Nazi mansion, is breathtaking. Devlin has suddenly understood. He knows who he is. He has stopped being afraid. He loves her. Love is not easy for this man. He is damaged. Broken. We don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter why. He has fallen in love with someone, and instead of it being a pleasant experience, it is actually harassing and annoying. You can feel him refusing to let his heart open, even though it will cost him his own happiness. When he enters the bedroom upstairs and sees Bergman, ill and near death on the bed, the tenderness that suddenly pours out of him is almost unbearable to watch. Grant has never been better. He doesn’t betray the character he has been playing in the rest of the film by easily pouring on the romance as though the floodgates have opened. Instead, he holds her close, her head flopping back in her near-coma, whispering to her urgently to stay awake, stay conscious, and when she finally asks him, “Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before?” he says, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.” Take a look at how Grant says that line. It takes courage to reveal what he reveals in that moment.
5. Charade (1963, Stanley Donen): One of the things that is interesting about this film, matching up a young Audrey Hepburn with a Cary Grant who was 59-years-old, is that Grant understood in his bone marrow that the only way this would work, the only way this romance would not be creepy, is if she were the initiator. She had to come to him, she had to pursue him. Grant was explicit in his feelings about this, in initial meetings with Stanley Donen. Grant, although he himself liked younger women in his real life, knew that an audience might have a problem with that, and so he wanted to make sure that he never pursued her. Smart actor, and also all of a piece with the rest of his leading man career, where, although he was always dominant (the man was Cary Grant after all), he hid behind a mask of passivity, standing back from his leading ladies, as they repeatedly fell all over him.
That was how it worked for him. He always remained a little bit remote—sometimes because he was playing an abstracted workaholic (Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, to some degree), or because there was something in him that was damaged, and he didn’t want to be hurt again (Notorious). Hepburn swoons over Grant. She stares up at him with gaga eyes, tracing his dimple with her finger (“How do you shave in there?” she asks, a question many of us probably have wished to ask as well), and it’s a very interesting example of how to utilize someone’s massive star-power. By that I mean, Cary Grant was always Cary Grant. Sometimes he highlighted one aspect, sometimes another, but you could never get away from the fact that the guy was a gigantic star. Charade, a movie I adore, openly admits this fact. He didn’t have to play against his giant fame, he didn’t have to pretend he was anything other than what he was: a hugely compelling still-vital still-gorgeous man, beloved by pretty much everyone. He wears that mantle with ease (not a small task), and without his subtlety of understanding of who he was in films, and what was expected of him, the film would not work. He’s nearing the end of his career at that point. Grant didn’t want to become the old guy with four lines in a movie. Charade shows, however, that Grant probably could have gone on indefinitely. The fact that he CHOSE to stop acting is just another indication of how smart he was, how protective he was of what he had created and nurtured.
Grant, as his best characterizations showed, was always his own man. He had a reason for everything he did, and he didn’t feel compelled to have to explain himself. If it didn’t feel right, he didn’t do it. That may have led to some pretty serious missed opportunities, but Grant seemed okay with that. He may not have revealed it all to us, but that’s part of his eternal appeal. The mystery remains. What is left is the work.
I’ll give the last word to Billy Wilder, because, as I mentioned, I can still feel his frustration from the afterlife, of all the movies he MIGHT have made with Cary Grant.
“On film, Cary Grant could walk into the room and say ’Tennis anyone’ like no one else. You don’t value the skill until you see a less skilled actor try the same thing. It’s pure gold.”
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.3
For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.
Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.
But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.
Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.
Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.
Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”
It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.
If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.
Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen
Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.2.5
“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.
Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.
The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.
As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.
The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.
Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.
There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny
The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.3
Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.
Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.
While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.
A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.
The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”
A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.
Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia
The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.2
Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.
For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.
From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.
This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern
Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.2.5
For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.
Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.
Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.
Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.
Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.
We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.
Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.
The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
Review: Glass Animals’s Dreamland Relies Too Heavily on the Mundanities of Reality
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen
Review: King Buzzo’s Gift of Sacrifice Brazenly Veers Off the Beaten Path
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