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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

A. Scott Berg, longtime friend of Katharine Hepburn, and author of the wonderful and thoughtful biography Kate Remembered, once asked Hepburn, near the end of her life, why she thought she had flourished professionally for so long when most actors and actresses have only a good decade or two. He reports that this was one of the only questions he asked where Hepburn had to pause before replying. She thought a bit and then answered, “Horsepower.” It is not just talent that helps one succeed.

An acting teacher of mine once said, “Those who are successful are not the most talented. Those who are successful are the ones who are most fanatical about success.” Hepburn’s gifts as an actress are extraordinary. It is a sweeping career, with many facets and phases. But what really strikes me, when I try to look at it as a whole, is not her talent, not her artistry—but her “horsepower”. She had it from the start. She was always in this thing for the long-haul.

My “5 for the Day” focuses on that aspect of Hepburn. Rather than specific films or performances, I have chosen five anecdotes that show, to my taste, what it was that was so special, so positively great about this American icon.

1. In 1930, Harold Clurman, director, producer, dramaturg, big-wig at the Theatre Guild, then the most important theatre group in America, began to hold informal get-togethers for the New York theatre community. His interest was in creating new work, work that was relevant to the times (this became especially important after the stock market crash), as well as forming an ensemble along the lines of The Moscow Art Theatre. Clurman, a brilliant and verbose man, felt that commercial considerations were important, but that they also had the potential to kill really good work. Would it be possible to form a theatre group that could resist those pressures? The people he invited to join these informal get-togethers (which was really an excuse for him to expound on his theatrical theories—he apparently he could go on for hours at a time) were not just unknowns, but stars of the day. Producers, actors, playwrights, people appearing on Broadway at that time, young hopefuls who had shown promise in small roles … Clurman wasn’t interested in a top-down organization, like the Guild—he wanted to create something entirely new. A collective. (And, eventually, he did. Along with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre was born. It had a decade of success before folding. A few of the Group Theatre alums eventually went on to become some of the most influential teachers in American theatrical history: Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner. And then, of course, there were folks like Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets who began with the Group.) Clurman’s ideas about theatre attracted many who were disappointed in the typical Broadway fare of the day. There was an economic depression on. Why wasn’t that fact being addressed by the playwrights of the day?

Katharine Hepburn, a young and unknown actress at the time, was invited to come to one of Clurman’s talks. She sat. She listened. Wendy Smith, in Real Life Drama, the encyclopedic book about the Group Theatre, describes the moment:

“The ideas Clurman propounded were intoxicating, but not everyone was convinced. An oft-told story concerns a pretty young understudy who attended a few meetings with her friend Eunice Stoddard. Asked what she thought of the Group Idea, she replied, ’This may be all right for you people, if you want it, but you see, I’m going to be a star.’ Then, as always, Katharine Hepburn knew what she wanted.”

It is not that her goals were better than theirs. They were as successful, eventually, as it was possible for them to be. It is that “know thyself” is one of the most important qualities an actor can ever have.

2. While rehearsing for Bringing Up Baby, it became quickly apparent (to Hawks, to Grant, and to Hepburn herself) that she was in a bit over her head. She was by now a star, but she had never before played a screwball comedy and wasn’t sure how to do it. She suffered beautifully as an actress—had the Oscar to prove it. But Susan Vance, the wacky insane heiress of Bringing Up Baby, was daunting to this seemingly undaunted actress. Cary Grant, whose sensibility was naturally comedic, had no problem submitting to the screwball nature of the thing. But Hepburn struggled. She was telegraphing to the audience, “I know that I’m in a comedy. Watch me be funny,” And it wasn’t working. In a sense, she was condescending to the material. Not out of any malice, but out of insecurity. She was used to drama with a capital D after all.

Grant was very close to Hepburn, so he was able to speak frankly to her. He said, “Listen, dear, every time I fall, I am just going to look more and more depressed.” Meaning: we don’t have to “act” how funny it is that I just fell on my ass. What is funny in the moment is how embarrassed I am, how devastated I am that once again I look so foolish. But Hepburn still wasn’t quite clicking in to the energy of the thing. Howard Hawks understood the problem and said later, “I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them … Cary understood this at once, Katie didn’t.” [excerpted from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy]

So Hawks enlisted the services of a friend, Walter Catlett—an old vaudevillian warhorse who had major comedic chops. Hawks showed some of the rushes to Catlett, and Catlett immediately grasped what the problem was in Hepburn’s performance. Hawks wanted Catlett to talk with her about it, but Catlett hesitated. He said he would “coach” Hepburn, but only if Hawks set it up with her beforehand. Hawks set up a rehearsal with Cary Grant, Hepburn, and Catlett.

And here is the genius of Hepburn. Here is, for me, the reason that her acting and her work ethic touches me so much: Catlett, during this rehearsal, read through some scenes with Cary Grant, with Catlett playing Hepburn’s part. He was basically showing her how to do it. So many other actresses would balk at such interference. Not Hepburn. Within 2 or 3 exchanges between Catlett and Grant, the light-bulb went on over Hepburn’s head. Hawks describes what happened:

“Walter played a whole scene of hers out with Cary Grant, played it with every mannerism of hers, very serious, and she was entranced. She said, ’You have to create a part for him in the picture.’ And I did.”

Catlett played the buffoonish sheriff of the town who puts everybody in jail at the end, before being bamboozled by Susan to let them all out.

What I love about this anecdote was that Hepburn, a huge star, realized where she was lacking. She was still learning, and still open to learning. She could have been completely resentful of the “interference” of someone like Catlett, showing HER, the Oscar-winner how to play the scene. But no. She watched, agog, soaking it up, pores open, mind open … and look at the result. Bringing Up Baby was not a hit at the time, but history has obviously vindicated everyone involved. The film is a classic. Hepburn allowed herself to be in the position of student—and she allowed people who “knew better”, people like Hawks, and Grant, and Catlett—to show her the way. This is a true survival instinct at work.

3. Another example of Hepburn’s willingness to learn, to take direction, is this anecdote from the chaotic bug-ridden filming of The African Queen. Hepburn, in her book The Making of The African Queen, describes her initial frustration with John Huston on that shoot, how he never wanted to sit down and talk about the script with her. She loved to have script conferences, to talk about the story … but Huston was always putting her off, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll get to it … tomorrow … we’ll talk about the script tomorrow …” Tomorrow then came and again it was, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll talk about the script … tomorrow …”

Now at this point in her career, it may be assumed that she knew how to act. Of course she did. But what this anecdote shows is, again, her flexible mind, her willingness to give up her OWN idea about playing the part, and recognizing when someone has given her a gem, a “way in”.

After the first day of shooting, Huston came up to her. He obviously had a sense of HOW she was planning on playing this part, and he needed to gently steer her in another direction. Hepburn describes their conversation in her book. Watch how he handles her. And watch how she lets herself be led.

Excerpt from The Making of the African Queen, by Katharine Hepburn:

John came one morning to my hut.

“May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, of course—what?”

“Well—I don’t want to influence you. But incidentally … that was great, that scene, burying Robert. And of course you had to look solemn—serious … Yes, of course—you were burying your brother. You were sad. But, you know, this is an odd tale—I mean, Rosie is almost always facing what is for her a serious situation. And she’s a pretty serious-minded lady. And I wondered—well—let me put it this way—have you by any chance seen any movies of—you know—newsreels—of Mrs. Roosevelt—those newsreels where she visited the soldiers in the hospitals?”

“Yes, John—yes—I saw one. Yes.”

“Do you remember, Katie dear, that lovely smile – ?”

“Yes, John—yes—I do.”

“Well, I was wondering. You know, thinking ahead of our story. And thinking of your skinny little face—a lovely little face, dear. But skinny. And those famous hollow cheeks. And that turned-down mouth. You know—when you look serious—you do look rather—well, serious. And it just occurred to me—now, take Rosie—you know—you are a very religious—serious-minded—frustrated woman. Your brother just dead. Well, now, Katie—you’re going to go through this whole adventure before the falls and before love raises its … Well, you know what I mean—solemn.

“Then I thought of how to remedy that. She’s used to handling strangers as her brother’s hostess. And you ’put on’ a smile. Whatever the situation. Like Mrs. Roosevelt—she felt she was ugly—she thought she looked better smiling—so she … Chin up. The best is yet to come—onward ever onward … The society smile.”

A long pause.

“You mean—yes—I see. When I pour out the gin I—yes—yes—when I …”

“Well,” he said, getting up to go. He’d planted the seed. “Think it over .. Perhaps it might be a useful …”

He was gone.

I sat there.

That is the goddamndest best piece of direction I have ever heard.

4. The fact that at the top of her game, at the top of her film career, Hepburn decided to go back to the stage and “work on Shakespeare” is indicative to me that, with all her stardom, all her ambition, Hepburn was interested mainly in the work itself. Shakespeare scared her. Therefore, Shakespeare must be tackled! She toured with Shakespeare productions for years. She toured the world with As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew. She writes in her autobiography (with the unceremonious title Me):

“Looking back on my notices, which I had not read at the time, I have the impression that I was irritating to the critics. They liked me in Philadelphia Story, but in Shakespeare—well—it was sort of ’she has a nerve to be doing this.’ Well, I don’t know. I did study and work hard and Constance [Collier] was a great help and it was exciting. At least I enjoyed it.”

Hepburn was a woman who made risk-taking part of the game. So many actors, when they become stars, begin to make choices based out of caution, and self-protection. Perhaps at the beginning they took risks, when they had less to lose, but once the peak is reached, some actors lose that fearlessness. They are afraid of being “found out”. Hepburn never gave a crap about all of that. Her entire career is a testament to that courage.

5. And I’ll end with yet another anecdote of Hepburn and a director. Sidney Lumet was at the helm of the film version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A young man, a phenom, he was not at all lacking in ego. But the prospect of directing Hepburn was a bit frightening to him. She was a legend. A grande dame. How would he handle her? Would she test him? Would she be difficult? At first she was. She struggled to dominate. She wanted to hold rehearsals at her house in Connecticut. She told him point-blank that she needed to know more about the script than he did. Lumet knew enough to back off at first. He writes about this experience in his book Making Movies.

These stories bring tears to my eyes. The bravery, the willingness to NOT KNOW, to still learn, to be okay with failing, to get up and try again.

Excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies:“During the first three days of rehearsal I said nothing to her about Mary Tyrone’s character I talked at length with Jason [Robards], who’d played his part before, with Ralph [Richardson] and Dean [Stockwell], and, of course we talked about the play. When we finished the run-through reading on the third day, there was a long pause. And then, from Kate’s corner of the table, a small voice called out, ’Help!’ From then on, the work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed, she won. She built that character stone by stone. Something was still tight about the performance until the end of the second week. There’s a moment in the script when her youngest son, trying to cut through her morphine haze, screams at her that he’s dying of consumption. I said, ’Kate, I’d like you to haul off and smack him as hard as you can.’ She started to say that she couldn’t do that, but the sentence died halfway out of her mouth. She thought about it for thirty seconds, then said, ’Let’s try it.’ She hit him. She looked at Dean’s horrified face, and her shoulders started to shake. She dissolved into the broken, frightened failure that was so important an aspect of Mary Tyrone. The sight of that giant Hepburn in such a state was the personification of tragic acting.”

Sheila O’Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.

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Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies

The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.

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Miranda July
Photo: Focus Features

Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.

July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.

While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”

You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?

You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.

Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?

Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.

As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?

I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.

The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?

I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.

Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?

Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”

I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?

I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.

Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?

Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.

You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?

When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.

I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?

Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.

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Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.

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Beginning
Photo: New York Film Festival

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.

The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.

The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.

Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.

The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory

It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.

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Tragic Jungle

Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.

The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.

This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.

As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.

Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.

Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz

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Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.

Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.

This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on. We’re only given glimpses of their internal conflicts, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.

Indeed, the financial precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban eccentricity and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and necessities progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.

Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).

Toward the end of the film, there’s some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the soul-searching aphorisms that usually pepper July’s dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child honesty is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

3.5

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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