In June of this past year, I popped in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Sidney Lumet, a film I’ve seen countless times and felt like seeing again. I suppose I was in the mood to plummet into a pit of distinctly Irish despair, or something like that. I have to admit that, during my earlier viewings, I was mostly focused on Katharine Hepburn or Jason Robards, and I took Ralph Richardson for granted (a huge mistake!), and barely noticed Dean Stockwell, as Edmund, the younger of two brothers, and Eugene O’Neill’s alter ego. But for whatever reason, in my viewing this past June, all I could look at was Stockwell.
The part of Edmund is under-written (just ask any actor who’s played him on stage or screen), and except for one or two crucial monologues, and the important plot point of his creeping tuberculosis, he doesn’t have much to do. He has to sit around, helplessly, watching his family shatter. Not an easy thing to do for an actor…who has to act. It reminds me of a great line from one of my acting teachers who would say to an actor who was overly obsessed with tears, or emotion: “Remember the name of your job. It’s actor. Not feeler.” Edmund, at times, is written just to stand around and feel. It’s tough to make that part active.
But Stockwell, at least for me in this past viewing, became the linchpin, the core of that entire film. He is how we see all the others. It’s crucial that he be sympathetic and lovable, because he’s our way in. Stockwell is marvelous in that part, and since it’s not as showy as the others, he doesn’t quite get the credit that I believe he deserves. He could have just stood around in the background emoting, and feeling—being tragic and so very Irish—but he doesn’t. He somehow makes that part active. He makes listening itself seem active.
The film began my own long journey into Stockwell’s entire career. I’ve been aware of him for years, naturally. He’s always been there. I saw Married to the Mob. I saw Blue Velvet. I even grew up watching films like The Secret Garden and The Boy with Green Hair on channel 56 in New England, afternoon double-features. But I didn’t put it all together, the true scope of this man’s career, and his very specific gift, until I watched Long Day’s Journey last June and decided to see for myself, again, what this wonderful character actor was all about.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes about Stockwell:
With the TV series Quantum Leap and with his regular work as a supporting actor in movies, Dean Stockwell may never have been better known. Yet he has experienced so many stages and changes already—the piercing child; the beautiful yet not quite penetrating young lead; the wanderer, hippie, and biker; the realtor in New Mexico; and now, for a decade at least, the versatile, reliable, yet never quite predictable character actor who seems blessed to play men brushed by the wing of uncommon experience—as if they might once have had green hair.
Longevity is the name of the acting game. Survival is the name of the game. Most stars have a shelf life. They trade on their youth and beauty, they get the plum parts, and when that beauty fades, they either segue into character parts, or their career ends. Someone like Stockwell avoided that issue, although he had other issues. He was never a Marlon Brando, or a John Wayne—someone who tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment, and then had to either go with it or perish. Stockwell has worked steadily since his debut in 1945 (in Anchors Aweigh, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), although he’s taken some self-imposed hiatuses.
He was one of the most successful child actors of his time. He was under contract at MGM, and went to school at the Little Red Schoolhouse on the studio lot, where Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor were his classmates. Stockwell found acting to be an incredibly tedious thing to do, and he was known, even then, as “One-Take Stockwell,” because he hated the repetition. There are stories, from back then, about how he would request not even having a rehearsal for crucial scenes. He just wanted to get up and do it, and have the camera catch it, and have it be over. He was just a little kid.
When his contract was up, he walked away from acting for a few years. He saw his contract as a prison sentence, and he felt dominated by it. He came back to acting in his early 20s and had a spectacular decade of work, including Long Day’s Journey, before walking away again. This time, he walked away because it was the ‘60s, Flower Power was raging, and he wanted to participate in it fully. He had never had an adolescence, so he figured it was about time. He moved to the Haight-Ashbury and dropped off the grid. He did a film here and there, and then, when he decided really get back to work, found that his name had dried up in Hollywood. The doors would no longer open. Then followed a long dry spell for him. For about 15 years, he struggled. He did theater, he did television, he raised hell with his best friend Dennis Hopper, he moved to Taos, New Mexico, he got his real estate license.
The breakthrough came in the 1980s, when David Lynch gave him a crucial part in Dune, which eventually led to Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, a film that was an unexpected underground hit, with much praise coming his way in particular (he played the quiet concerned brother of Harry Dean Stanton). David Lynch’s Blue Velvet followed, and his eerie terrifying scene is one of the take-aways from that film. Who doesn’t remember that scene?
The mid-‘80s is when it all came back together for Dean Stockwell, and it came back together on his terms, bringing him satisfaction and joy. He has said that he didn’t actually enjoy acting until he was well into his 40s. You can tell, in all of these parts, that he has found a new kind of freedom and passion for his work…something that’s quite different from the truly natural ability he had as a young child. Married to the Mob got him his first and only (so far! I live in hope!) Oscar nomination, and that led to Quantum Leap, a phenom in its own right. Since then, he’s worked steadily, not in starring parts, but as a reliable character actor of the old school. (Think about his hysterical turn as the desperate screenwriter in The Player!) He still lives in Taos, he’s an artist (collages, mostly, although he’s been moving into sculpture as well), he appears as a regular on Battlestar Galactica, and age is settling well on him.
It’s hard to think of another child actor of that time who’s had such a long career. McDowall is one, but many of them lost their chops in the segue to adulthood. They couldn’t make the transition, or the public wouldn’t accept them as teens or adults. Stockwell walked away, at the crucial moment, disappeared from public consciousness at age 16, and when he returned, he was a young man in his 20s, slim, intense, with James Dean good looks. He didn’t segue to adulthood—he “quantum leaped”, so to speak. And so he survived. Thank God for that.
I wanted to pick “5 for the Day” that might be a bit off the map, since Stockwell’s career has been so varied. There are films out there that might not be as popular, but he’s terrific in them, and they’re all worth seeing.
1. Compulsion (1959); directed by Richard Fleischer; based on the best-selling novel by Meyer Levin; and starring Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles. The film is based on the Leopold and Loeb murders, although the names have been changed. The first half is devoted to the carrying-out of the “perfect” crime, and the twisted homoerotic relationship between Judd Steiner (Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Dillman). The second half shows the trial, where Jonathan Wilk (Welles) appears as the defense attorney of Judd and Artie. Wilk is based on Clarence Darrow, who in real life defended the boys with a ringing closing argument (12 hours long!) that became (to this day) an indictment of the institution of capital punishment in this country. Because Compulsion was filmed in 1959, the gay relationship between the two boys could not be made clear or explicit. But, boy, is it in their behavior. It’s amazing what they got away with here. Perhaps separately they would not have done what they did, but the combination of their two personalities, and how they continuously dared one another to go further and further, creates a murderous entity.
Strauss is the alpha of the relationship, a mini-fascist who controls Steiner’s every move. Steiner, the nervy snotty intellectual, needs Strauss’s approval and love. It’s not just something he wants; it’s something as essential to him as air or food. Stockwell is terrific in this part, just terrific. Steiner is an intellectual prodigy, a budding ornithologist (his room is full of dead birds) and a loner. Girls find him odd, kind of off-putting. There’s a scene at a speakeasy, where flappers Charleston about, bootleg booze flows, and the camera pans across the crowd and lands on Stockwell, sitting at a table with a girl his character likes and pontificating about Plato’s view of childrearing. You know, Steiner is a weirdo. But there’s something in Stockwell’s performance that’s touching—you can feel his fragility. This isn’t a well person. He has split parts of himself off, into compartments, and as the realization begins to dawn on him that he and Strauss have been found out, that their perfect crime was not so perfect after all, the terror is palpable. You can feel the knot in his gut. It’s all in Stockwell’s acting. It’s a tour de force, as far as I’m concerned.
Dillman, as the alpha, is also good, although he does a bit too much maniacal “Look how crazy I am” laughing. Stockwell never hams it up. His talent is such that it has always led him to the most truthful simple expression. Even as a child he had none of that shrill precocious obnoxiousness so common to so many child actors. He always seemed real, like a real little boy. And here, in what could have been a highly mannered actor-y part, he underplays, he hides and deceives, and yet, what he’s really playing (and why I think this performance is so good) is how much he loves Strauss, his partner in crime.
The script might have not been explicit, due to the mores of the time, but Stockwell plays it anyway. It gives the film a pulsing sense of tension and agony that would otherwise not have been there. It could have been a melodrama, and it is that, to some degree. But it’s also a twisted love story, breathtaking in its courage (if you see it in the context of the day and age it was made). Stockwell, with his twitchy head movements (very much like the birds that this character loves so much), his sensitive humorless face, his precise way of moving (this guy is wound tight as a top), and his sudden bursts of rage whenever anyone dares to criticize his “friendship” with Artie, is marvelous. Well worth seeing.
2. The Werewolf of Washington (1973); directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg; and starring Biff McGuire and Stockwell. Oh, how I love this campy movie. It was made during the dry spell of Stockwell’s career, the long decade of the ‘70s. Stockwell plays Jack Whittier, White House Press Secretary, who, unfortunately, is also a werewolf due to an encounter with a wolf in Budapest one misty terrible night. The film is obviously meant as a political satire, not just a scary werewolf movie. It was made in the early ‘70s when cynicism about the Nixon administration was reaching its peak. As they were filming the movie, the Watergate break-in occurred, and that sort of killed the satirical appeal of the film, which was pretty much dead in the water when it opened. Things had become far too serious, and a film which proposed to laugh at the boobs in Washington didn’t have much of a chance in the tense atmosphere of those days. Jack Whittier even lives in the Watergate.
The coincidences abound. Stockwell, with his slicked-to-the-side haircut, his immaculate appearance (well, except when he becomes a raging hairy werewolf, of course) is reminiscent of John Dean. But see the movie now, and see it in its original campy spirit, and it’s a blast. One of the reasons I really love this performance is because of where Stockwell was at in his life when he filmed it. He was struggling, he had become anonymous again, he had lost his cache as a star. He was job to job to job; it’s easy to be wonderful when you have the plum parts offered to you, when every decision in Hollywood somehow includes YOU. But when you are outside that charmed circle, when the material offered to you is not quite up to the level of your gifts, how do you survive then? How do you, to quote Tim Gunn, “make it work”?
Stockwell plays the part of Jack Whittier straight, as straight as can be, as though all of this is completely real. He has a big job, he has the ear of the president (who is a moron), and yet…when the moon is full…ohhhhh noooooo here it comes again…I’m becoming a werewolf again…someone help me before I kill again!!! There are scenes where he is in meetings with the joint Chiefs of Staff, and he can feel the change beginning. He tries to keep it together, tries to hold back the werewolf transformation … but as we all know, once you are a werewolf you can’t just say, “You know what? Not tonight, I’m busy…”
My favorite scene in the film is when Whittier and the president are bowling in the White House bowling alley. The moon is rising outside. Whittier, already a wreck emotionally, puts his fingers into the bowling ball, and then, tragically, his hands begin to swell up into the tell-tale wolf claws. He cannot get his fingers out of the bowling ball. Meanwhile, the president, bowling in the next lane to his heart’s content, jabbering on and on, remains oblivious. I cannot describe how funny and how awful it is to watch Stockwell try to get his fingers out of that bowling ball, while not letting on that that is what he’s doing. This isn’t an actor wink-winking at the audience, saying, “Ha ha, I know this is stupid, but let’s get through it anyway”—as so often happens in campy movies. Stockwell plays it real. You can feel the pressure on his fingers, you can feel his growing desperation to get out of there…he is going to become a werewolf in front of the president of the United States, and that just cannot happen! It’s one of my favorites of all of Stockwell’s acting moments.
3. Kim (1950); directed by Victor Saville; starring Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas, and Stockwell: Based on the Rudyard Kipling story of the same name, this movie has it all: wonderful performances, adventure, humor, and it still works today. It hasn’t paled or lessened in its appeal. Flynn plays Mahbub Ali, the Red Beard, and Stockwell, 12 or 13 years old, plays Kim, the little English boy who paints his face dark to pass as an Indian local.
Kim lives on the streets because he can’t stand school, and he knows how to survive. He runs errands for people, eavesdrops, does favors, aligns himself with the powerful, and, in general, evades capture by those who want to civilize him. Stockwell is in almost every scene. You never for once doubt that he’s who he says he is. He has stunts to do, he runs around barefoot, climbs trees, has crying scenes, he has scenes which show how precocious Kim is sexually (his lecherous wink at the Indian woman he gives a message to in the middle of the night), he’s funny, he’s touching, and also, the language he has to speak is quite flowery and poetic. Stockwell manages it all. Not once do you feel he is out of his depth.
Stockwell has spoken at length about Flynn, and how much he appreciated Flynn’s no-nonsense acceptance of him, a young boy, as a collaborator and friend. They truly had regard for one another, and it’s apparent in their dynamic on screen. I especially love the scene where Stockwell sits in a tub of soap and water, naked, and Flynn stands over him, scrubbing the dark paint off of Stockwell’s skin. They chat, they banter all the while, and sometimes Flynn scrubs too hard, and you can see Stockwell squirming, trying to get away, and there’s something so natural in their rapport, so un-selfconscious. You believe they’re friends. And you can feel Flynn’s generosity toward his young co-star. Stockwell never forgot him for that. He said, years later, “I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life—I was 12 or something—he was what he was: a truly profound, non-superficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.” Great movie, a great romp.
4. Tracks (1976); directed by Henry Jaglom; and starring Dennis Hopper and Stockwell. One of the first films to deal with Vietnam veterans and their challenges in coming home, Tracks is a small treasure. In true Jaglom fashion, there’s an improvisational feel to it. The majority of the film was shot bootleg style, on an actual train, where the crew would move from car to car, picking up shots, plopping the actors down in the middle of actual passengers to play a scene, moving on to the next car…no “professional” extras were used, just the people who happened to be on the train at the time.
The commentary track on the film’s DVD, with Jaglom and Hopper, is invaluable. Hopper plays Jack Falen, a 1st sergeant fresh out of Vietnam who’s accompanying a dead body across the country. Things are surreal for him to say the least. He’s on the train for four or five days. He circulates. He meets people. He meets a girl. He’s odd, he’s haunted, he’s trying to act his way back into being normal. He befriends a guy named Mark, played by Stockwell. Mark wears a flowery shirt and turquoise jewelry, so you might think that he would be hostile toward a man in uniform, given the feeling of the day. But that’s not the case. They click. They click as men. They sit in the dining car and chat up girls. They hang out together, and have long conversations.
Nothing happens in the movie for 95% of it, and for me, the ending—where something suddenly happens, with a bang—doesn’t quite work, but it’s forgivable. I understand the impulse, and I understand the point Jaglom is trying to make. It just doesn’t work for me because I was so riveted by the rest of the film, its aimlessness, its weird observations of human behavior, and its beauty. There are shots of Hopper, sitting alone in an empty car, dusk outside, his silhouette blue and shadowy against the twilight. We can only imagine what he’s thinking.
Stockwell is at his wittiest and most charming here. To me, the part is reminiscent of his most endearing qualities as a child actor. He’s fresh, he’s funny, he’s spontaneous, he’s responding not just to external stimuli, but to some kind of internal dialogue that we can never know. He’s always thinking, pondering, speaking out, and, of course, listening. Just watch Stockwell when he’s listening. I’ve always thought that Humphrey Bogart is best when he’s listening to others. It’s almost like he makes the other actor more interesting, just because of how he’s listening to him. Stockwell has that. He takes Hopper in, he watches, he listens—not just to the words, but to what isn’t being said. It’s also wonderful because you know what good friends the two are in real life. There’s nothing about their dynamic that doesn’t feel real and un-selfconscious. The camera is there, yes, to capture the moment. But Stockwell and Hopper barely seem aware of it. They are too engrossed in their own conversation.
5. Quantum Leap (1989 – 1993): With Rear Admiral Al Calavicci, you can sense Stockwell at the height of all of his powers. He’s said that he prefers comedy to drama. He likes to keep things light, and as a child he dreaded “crying scenes” so much he would lose sleep the night before filming. The best thing about his portrayal of Calavicci is how broad it is, how he got to include all aspects of his personality: the cynical, the macho, the lecherous, the funny, the passionate. Calavicci, a man who was missing in action in Vietnam for five years and given up for dead has a regard for the underdog, for those who may be “lost.” He thinks everyone is worth saving. And yet he’s completely lacking in sanctimonious earnestness. Imagine how insufferable Quantum Leap would have been if Calavicci had been more of a “touched by an angel”-type observer, someone who was passionate about the “greater good.” Not that Calavicci doesn’t want to put right what once went wrong. He does. But he also usually has some naked girl in his bed back home when he’s called to Sam Beckett’s (Scott Bakula) side, and so he’s obviously distracted from the task at hand. And when, later, we discover Calavicci’s secret, what it was that he once had lost, the one thing he can never get back, it all makes sense, and it packs quite a punch because we have come to care about the man.
I loved the show when it was originally on, and I have been having so much fun reacquainting myself with it. It kind of slipped off the rails in the final season (like, evil leapers? Really?), but to my taste, it never forgot its mission. And it never forgot that the strength of the series was in the friendship between Beckett and Calavicci. Quantum Leap was not an ensemble series. It was about the two of them. They are so much fun to watch together. Stockwell, in his 50s, became more famous than he had ever been as a child actor. Suddenly, his ship came in. Couldn’t happen to a better person.
In October, I flew to Taos, New Mexico, to go to an exhibit of Stockwell’s artwork. He was there, in his black hat, his bolo tie, his black jeans. A marimba band played outside the gallery, and Stockwell danced around, his ubiquitous cigar in his mouth. He chatted with friends who had shown up, he was gracious to the fans who approached him (you could totally tell which ones were Battlestar Galactica fans), and he seemed to enjoy himself completely. His art is wonderful, reminiscent of the collages of Joseph Cornell, and I walked around the gallery, soaking them all in.
I had some very odd moments when I would glance over at Stockwell, deep in conversation with a friend, or jamming out to the music, and I would see him as the little boy from Secret Garden, or The Boy with Green Hair. The ghost of his younger self hovers around him, my associations with him through the years superimposed over his 71-year-old still-vital self. What a survivor. I don’t know the man, so I don’t know what his ghosts might be, his unresolved issues, his regrets. It’s not for me to know. But from my perspective, being in his presence, all I was aware of was my overwhelming gratitude to this man for his long career, his hard work, and his talent. It seems to me that he has always been there. How lucky we are to have him.
At the end of the night, the spectacular Taos sunset gleaming in the sky, Stockwell’s art dealer, RC Israel, who had befriended me earlier in the night, took me over to say hello to Stockwell. He had already introduced me to Dean multiple times, so it was like Groundhog Day. Israel said, “Dean, have you met Sheila O’Malley?” Dean, cigar in his mouth, said dryly, “About four times now, Israel.” Looking back on the moment, I just have to laugh. Stockwell was “over” me! My life is now complete.
Stevie, my friend who had accompanied me to the exhibit, said to Stockwell at one point, when the two of us were standing there, outside the gallery, “Mr. Stockwell, Sheila just loves you.”
Stockwell grinned, gave me a kind of awkward one-armed hug, and corrected the sentiment gently, “No. She loves my work.”
Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.
The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.
Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.
This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.
Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.
As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.
No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”
Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”
Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
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Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding
About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.2
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.
Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.
Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sound of Metal Is a Tender, Singular Portrait of Addiction
Darius Marder’s film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.3
“Fucked!” That’s how Michael Gira described how his hearing is after a live show in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. Admitting to not even taking the simple precaution of wearing ear plugs while playing in one of the world’s loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, “It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite.”
At the start of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a Swans-esque noise rock band, Blackgammon, is shown in such a state of euphoria, furiously pounding away at his drums and enraptured by the wall of sound filled out by distorted guitars and the screaming vocals of his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It’s the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwined—a form of sonic transcendence that is, for Ruben, every bit as alluring as the heroin addiction that he kicked some four years earlier.
The aural assault of the band’s live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Lou’s personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But it’s seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise that’s become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Ruben’s ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, it’s not merely his professional livelihood that’s at stake, but his mental and spiritual well-being as well.
This newfound state of near-deafness thrusts Ruben suddenly into a transitional phase, and Sound of Metal is in lockstep with him, using intricate sound design to approximate his nightmare state and amplify the confusion, anger, and disorientation that grips him. Ruben’s life on the road, and thus his existence “inside the sound,” becomes a thing of the past when, at Lou’s request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And it’s here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now he’s no longer chasing the dragon, but the chance to regain his hearing, whether through his impulsive desire to lose what remains of it by immediately returning to the stage or by holding out hope for a costly cochlear implant that, despite what he thinks, isn’t quite the guaranteed quick fix that he believes it to be.
As Ruben begins confronting his current predicament, Sound of Metal risks becoming a familiar, inspirational tale of overcoming one’s disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Ruben’s dilemma with an acutely detailed portrait of a deaf community headed by the serene and compassionate Joe (Paul Raci), a former addict who lost his hearing during Vietnam and firmly believes that deafness isn’t a handicap.
As the film traces Ruben’s integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Ruben’s emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. It’s a tumultuous time for Ruben, and Ahmed enlivens the character with a restless, bristling energy that constantly clashes with the sense of stillness and inner peace that Joe tries to instill in him every day. And this underlying tension between Joe’s calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Ruben’s undying need to return to “being inside the sound” colors the rest of the film.
Later on, Joe tells Ruben that “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.” Ruben’s professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joe’s statement, but as the final act takes an unexpected turn and the perpetual push-pull between stillness and chaos, silence and sound that grips Ruben at every turn are pushed to their breaking point, his advice takes on a newfound eloquence. For Ruben, the song may be over, but the feedback lingers on. Sound of Metal sees the value of stillness, particularly for addicts, but it also captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be. In a way, it can be an addictive drug all its own.
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff, Chris Perfetti, William Xifaras, Hillary Baack, Michael Tow, Tom Kemp, Rena Maliszewski Director: Darius Marder Screenwriter: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms
The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.2.5
The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.
Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.
And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.
The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.
Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time
Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.
The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.
I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?
I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.
Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?
When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.
But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.
That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.
The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?
That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.
In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?
I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.
Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?
There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.
How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.
I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.
So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?
I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.
Review: Rebecca Unimaginatively Runs a Classic Through a Netflix Filter
The film is a pretty bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.2
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is effective at channeling elemental fears into a glossy package, but less so at crafting characters that are more than the sum of their archetypal parts. The story is little changed from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation. While staying in a posh resort on the French Riviera, an unnamed young woman (Lily James) working as traveling companion for acid-tongued, man-hunting dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), is romanced by dashing and recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). In quick order, the somewhat lost-seeming woman marries Max and refashioned as Mrs. de Winter, the new lady of Manderley, Max’s sprawling coastal estate that becomes her gilded cage.
Following the sunny, happy-go-lucky Riviera opening, the film pivots into psychodrama mode once it relocates north to the gloomier English seaside. Given Mrs. de Winter’s humble origins, she commits one faux pas after another. She’s riddled with class anxiety, not knowing when she will next offend Manderly’s icy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the platoon of servants and other staff needed to run the massive complex, or her new husband. The unspoken rules that she keeps breaking—asking the wrong questions, venturing into the wrong rooms, studying a menu incorrectly—all seem to lead back to the same source: Manderley is still in the ghostly grip of Max’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca.
At every turn, people remind Mrs. de Winter of how little she measures up to her predecessor, some more intentionally than others, from Max’s kindly sister, Beatrice (Keely Hawes), remarking about Rebecca being one of those “annoying people everyone loves,” to Danvers rhapsodizing in openly romantic terms about her late lady being “the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life,” to Rebecca’s rascally cousin, Jack (Sam Riley), making snide innuendos about Rebecca’s horse-taming skills. While Max doesn’t say such things openly to his young bride, his simmering rages and habit of sleepwalking at night to stare wistfully at Rebecca’s now closed-off quarters suggest his still being in the grip of an undying passion.
Much of the film’s middle section details what’s either a waking nightmare for Mrs. de Winter (the most effective parts of the story plug into relatable anxieties over being found out or not measuring up) or extensive gaslighting campaign. In either case, the primary instigator is Danvers, who despite being theoretically in charge of the estate appears to spend most of her time lurking in corners waiting for Mrs. de Winter to make another mistake. Thomas’s serenely imperious performance is one of the film’s highlights, stopping just shy of Ryan Murphy-esque grande-dame camp. Riley’s rakish gleam is similarly energizing, particularly when the story turns into a late-developing courtroom drama about how or even if Rebecca died.
As for the leads playing the mere mortals wriggling under Danvers’s unflinching glare, neither James nor Hammer measure up. James has the more difficult job of the two, needing to seem sympathetic even as Mrs. de Winter lurches from one clueless encounter to the next; the actress spends much of Rebecca blushing in joy or biting her lip while on the verge of tears, neither delivering much in the way of depth. And as Max, Hammer communicates a kind of stolid and unintelligent glumness that makes it difficult to comprehend how Mrs. de Winter could ignore so many warning signs of deep depression and anger.
One crucial problem with this new version of Rebecca, in fact, is that Max is reduced to little more than a repository of warning signs, from refusing to answer his bride’s questions to growling “Put that back!” when she dares to pick up a volume of love poetry that Rebecca had inscribed to him. Since Max has precious few plus-column characteristics that don’t fall under the categories of “handsome,” “wealthy,” and “smart dresser,” Mrs. de Winter’s travails after being trapped by her love for him are difficult to identify with.
At least the film doesn’t default to assuming that gothic necessitates a glum visual palette. The design of Manderley is spectacular, its classic English aristocratic grandeur seeming to stretch on for miles, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose with gorgeous chiaroscuro layering. Avoiding both the grotesquerie of some of his other work and the tight tensions of Hitchcock’s adaptation, Wheatley’s Rebecca operates instead as a less psychologically knotted and more straightforward costume drama. It’s an attractive and fairly shallow bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Keeley Hawes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Bill Patterson, Tom Goodman-Hill Director: Ben Wheatley Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: This Is Not a Movie Is a Smart, Clear-Eyed Tribute to Robert Fisk
The documentary adroitly demonstrates that Fisk is still motivated by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism.3
As a boy in the London suburbs, Robert Fisk’s career aspirations were shaped by seeing Foreign Correspondent. In 1972, Fisk got the seemingly glamorous job that Joel McCrea had in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, and has been at it ever since. But reporting from overseas is messier in real life than in scripted drama, which is why Yung Chang’s engrossing portrait of the 74-year-old journalist is titled This Is Not a Movie.
Fisk began no further from home than Belfast, but in 1976 he arrived in Beirut, which became his permanent home base. He’s covered invasions, insurrections, and all kinds of catastrophes, always taking what he calls “the side of those who suffer.” This stance has engendered many conflicts with supporters of the region’s dominant powers, as well as with editors at several British newspapers. Fisk currently writes for the now online-only Independent.
The documentary’s title, which echoes that of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, suggests an attempt to deconstruct cinematic storytelling. But it’s Fisk who’s the iconoclast here, as Chang has crafted a conventional blend of new and archival footage, without any experimental narrative strategies. Unlike his earlier Up the Yangtze, which benefited from a narrower focus and compressed timeline, This Is Not a Movie isn’t especially shapely or propulsive.
The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas. Using digital minicams, Chang and his crew follow the journalist through Syria, Beirut, and the West Bank. There’s also a foray to Serbia and Bosnia, where Fisk tries to determine how European weapons were routed to the Syrian bloodbath, which he calls “the worst reported war in the Middle East.”
“If you don’t go to the scene,” Fisk says, “you can’t get near the truth of it.” And that’s the essence of his mission, which is as moral as it is historical: “So no one can say, ‘This didn’t happen.’ So no one can say, ‘We didn’t know. No one told us.’” Although he’s lived in Beirut most of his life, Fisk is no modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. In his unironed shirts and rumpled pants, he looks as if he’s dressed to putter in the garden at the Irish cottage he says he might have chosen as his retirement home. He admits to speaking only “a bit” of Arabic. (The film shows Fisk’s reliance on translators and guides but doesn’t explain where he gets them, as Chang is more interested in Fisk’s life and ideas than the practicalities of his work.)
Fisk’s focus on the victims of Middle Eastern power plays has made him some enemies. A defining moment in his career was the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilas camps, carried out by Lebanese Christians but facilitated by Israeli forces. (It’s the only event that ever gave him nightmares, he says.) He travels with Amira Haas, an Israeli journalist he admires, to survey the West Bank areas sundered by Israel’s separation wall and to visit what Fink terms Israeli “colonies.” Inevitably, the reporter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, notably by Alan Dershowitz in a 2001 audio debate excerpted in the film.
That moment aside, Chang devotes little time to Fisk’s detractors. Notably, it doesn’t challenge his claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, Syria, in 2018. Early reports may have been overstated, but few observers support Fisk’s account of the incident. Even a reporter who prides himself on getting as close to the story as possible can make a mistake. But Chang makes a strong case that Fisk’s approach is more reliable than that of journalists whose method privileges deflection and distortion. Indeed, what Fisk has to say about that should interest newspaper readers who never turn—or click—to the foreign coverage.
Noting that war is “not a football match,” Fisk rejects mainstream journalism’s standard operating procedure, which he describes as, “First you tell the truth. Then you get someone to deny it.” In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fisk’s rebuff of journalistic “balance” could hardly be more pertinent. Fisk may be out of sync with his profession, but Chang’s documentary adroitly demonstrates that the septuagenarian is still motivated as much by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism. Dismissing the idea of that cottage in Ireland, Fisk says, “I still want to know what happens next.”
Director: Yung Chang Screenwriter: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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