Charles Taylor was dismissed from his duties as a Salon critic in February, 2005. At the time, Salon editor Joan Walsh chalked up the decision to simple economics: their publication had just 22 editorial employees and could not justify employing three film critics. This was disappointing news for regular Salon subscribers and a harbinger of declining standards. Although Taylor’s colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Andrew O’Hehir continue to offer insightful cultural analysis and film criticism, a casual perusal of Salon post-Taylor reveals feature articles that are elaborately disguised press releases pandering to the studios. Gossip, box office reports and hype don’t address whether a film has merit as art or entertainment. The latter was Taylor’s specialty; he called it like he saw it, often employing the sorts of provocative turns of phrase that spark arguments in parking lots.
He trounced Clint Eastwood’s Academy award-winning Million Dollar Baby: “A compendium of every cliché from every bad boxing melodrama ever made, [it] tries to transcend its cornball overfamiliarity with the qualities that have long characterized Eastwood’s direction—it’s solemn, inflated and dull.” And he stood up for Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars when other critics were lumping it in with sludge like Red Planet. “Mission to Mars is not what people expect from a mainstream science-fiction extravaganza,” Taylor wrote. “It’s intimate and tender and hushed, done in long, quiet takes that not only allow the actors to establish a rapport but also allow us to feel as if we’re floating in space with them.” Such vivid commentary affords readers a pathway into movies. He’s gotten to the heart of Robert Altman’s films as eloquently as anyone, and his review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an example of how to write about a work that “permeates you” without falling into adjective-strewn hero worship. “Emerging from [the film], I always feel like the town drunk who attempts a jig on the ice in one scene: drugged, unsure of my footing, as if one step would send the whole enterprise crashing to the ground,” he wrote. “I try to clutch the images to me even as they seem to evaporate like smoke.” But as with contrarians like Pauline Kael, sometimes Taylor’s brazen wit felt like a swift kick to the solar plexus. “A critic who can’t recognize the visual rhapsody of [Mission to Mars] is about as trustworthy as a blind dance critic,” he wrote. When opinions are stated so forcefully, it’s bound to piss off some readers. His loathing of The Thin Red Line exclaimed that through “incompetence or willful perversity [it] dispenses with plot, characterization, dramatic structure and emotional payoffs in favor of the sort of painstakingly composed pictorial diddling that invariably gets critics frothing about the director’s ’indelible’ images.” Some Terrence Malick fans have never forgiven him, though frankly I don’t think he gives a damn. Like all critics who are worth reading, Taylor does not demand agreement, only engagement.
It’s a shame not to be able to hear such a strong critic week in and week out. But an account of Taylor’s fate is more than just a story about an unlucky guy who got fired, or a readership denied his distinctive voice. It’s a chance to explore why particular decisions got made at major publications, and understand why behind-the-scenes forces (be it the editors or their corporate bosses) are inclined to resist opinions that go against consensus.—Jeremiah Kipp
How did Salon begin and when were you brought aboard?
My first professional writing job was at the Boston Phoenix. I started there in the fall of 1985. A bunch of people from the Phoenix, Joyce Millman and Scott Rosenberg among them, went to the San Francisco Examiner. When there was a newspaper strike in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, those people and others from the Examiner were involved in putting out an online version of the newspaper and that evolved into the online magazine Salon.
At that time, my wife Stephanie Zacharek and myself were living in Boston. We each had other jobs. Even though we were writing for good places, they were small, didn’t pay anything, and our writing wasn’t really getting seen. We felt we were batting our heads against the wall, and were thinking about throwing in the towel as writers. That’s when Joyce Millman called us and said, “I want you two to write for Salon.”
Our attitude walking into this was, “The Web?” But as it turns out, online writing has more of a life than newspapers. You write something online, and three or four years later you get people who have found it and write to you about it. There is a never-ending dialogue, and you get feedback, which you don’t in print, or at least you didn’t when writers didn’t have an e-mail address listed.
We started contributing to Salon regularly. In 1999, we moved to New York. Stephanie was put on staff and I was put on contract.
Can you explain the difference between being on staff and on contract?
In my case, my contract gave me a weekly or bi-monthly set fee. I was expected to do a certain amount of work for that: seven or eight pieces a month. It’s like being a regular freelancer. In the spring of 2000, I was let go from the contract because that was when the dot-com bubble burst. There were a lot of layoffs. I was one of them. But Salon said, “We want to keep you on freelance, paying you piece by piece.” I did that for a while. I was put on contract again about two years later, I was put on staff in April 1, 2004, and I was fired in February 2005. That’s pretty much the chronology.
What would you describe as the tone of Salon?
Then or now?
Let’s say then.
Apparently, there’s this phrase in consulting circles: “Personality Driven Publication.” The personality was David Talbot’s. He was the founder and chief editor. I will always be grateful to David Talbot for starting that magazine and giving Stephanie and I a place to write. There was an enormous amount of freedom. The attitude was, “We want people to write about what they’re interested in. We don’t care about the prevailing whims. We want to know what turns you on, and we want you to deliver on that.”
Little by little I was pushed, and not in a bad way, into writing in other areas. I started covering music, then movies. I had these wonderful editors: Dwight Garner, who is now at the New York Times Book Review, and Laura Miller. Every writer should have an editor like her once in their life, or more than once. But she would prod me to write pieces on books I didn’t think I’d be interested in, and say, “Do this!” Later, I had Andrew O’Hehir and Suzy Hansen as editors, both of them just great to work for.
On one occasion, Talbot called me up. He knew the whole Bill Clinton impeachment process outraged me. On the Friday before Clinton’s grand jury testimony was being broadcast, he said, “I want you to watch this and write about it as if it were a performance. Not as if Clinton is lying, but just tell us how he did.” I watched it. It was on from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I had to get the piece in by six, and I sat down at 2 and had 4,000 words by 6 p.m. From there, they asked me to start doing political stuff, which I did whenever something caught my fancy.
That’s a long-winded way of saying they encouraged your interests and tried to bring out things in you that you didn’t know were there.
How did Salon change?
It did change. They had to reconfigure themselves to a certain extent to stay afloat, and they decided that it [had to be] a news organization. While Talbot was still at the helm, there was a realization of the intimate connection between the prevailing politics of the day and the social tone of the culture. It was all part of this mix. As he started to hand over the reigns to others at Salon, a news mentality took hold. It was a mentality that deemed culture secondary.
The new Salon became very concerned with what Daniel Okrent of the New York Times once called, in an excellent phrase, “the overwhelming meaninglessness of being first.” They wanted to be timely, which I can understand for a publication, but it became very reactive and there became less and less of a chance for writers to reflect on subjects. In terms of movie coverage, Salon fell into line with a certain mindset: if a movie opened, and you didn’t have your piece in, it was a dead issue.
How did that problem specifically relate to you?
In the spring of 2004, I was told they wanted me to do less reviews and that they wanted me to write about the zeitgeist. But you cannot predict the zeitgeist. You have to see what happens and how it shakes out. A movie might open, and two weeks later connect with something in the culture, and that’s the time to write about it. But they didn’t want to wait. They wanted it right away. I think that was one of the ways it changed. Another change, especially in the last year, was they began squeezing criticism out, and expressing their displeasure with some of the criticism there was.
Can you give an example?
Yes, and this has never been stated publicly. When Stephanie was assigned to review Fahrenheit 9/11, and they realized she was turning in a negative review, they quickly assigned a positive review to balance it. I want to be very clear about this. They got Andrew O’Hehir to do the positive review. Andrew did not write anything he did not believe in, and he would not do that. He has a great deal of integrity. He liked the movie and he said that. But Salon used him to get the opinion they wanted because they were unwilling to stick by a critic’s negative opinion. I was told at various times that there were people I criticized in pieces who should not be criticized because they were “friends of Salon,” in one case because one person I criticized was the friend of a specific editor. That is part of the context of what happened. It wasn’t like I was told, “You can’t say that.” But it was being told after the fact that you had done something that displeased Salon, which is just as bad in a way because it makes you wonder when you sit down to write, “Oh, who the hell am I gonna offend now?” It puts the writer in a state of apprehension.
You’ve had time to get philosophical about this. What are the repercussions of the editor telling the film critic, “Don’t write this?”
It makes the editor a pimp for the publicist. We wouldn’t have a problem with the celebrity-driven or publicity-driven culture if we had editors who were either gutsy enough to stand up to it, or if the ones who had guts to stand up to it had support from their bosses.
What were the reasons given when you were fired from Salon?
There are two sets of reasons: the reasons given me, and the public reasons given. The reason given me was the person who fired me was carrying out the wishes of Joan Walsh, who had succeeded David Talbot as editor about a week before. I was told she believed the cultural coverage was too “criticism centered.”
I read that and never truly understood what they meant.
They meant there were too many reviews and not enough features or trend pieces. That’s what I was told. I believe that is essentially right, if you go past the euphemisms and if you look at the type of features they are running now. They felt I was a critic and wasn’t giving them the features or the pieces they wanted. So I was rather surprised to read Joan Walsh’s response to Roger Ebert’s querying her on why I was fired.
When I was fired, I immediately sent out an e-mail to tell people what happened because rumors inevitably spring up. I didn’t want anyone wondering why I was fired. Ebert, who has been very kind to me over the years, immediately wrote a letter to Salon expressing displeasure. Salon never made a public announcement that I was fired. It became comical when Stephanie went to a company meeting in San Francisco the next week and some people were asking her, “Where’s Charley?” She was the one who told them I was fired, not management.
I received many kind responses from my colleagues, and one of them was Sheila Benson, who I have never met. But she was incredibly kind. She wrote a letter to Ebert’s online column asking why would Salon do this, and Ebert called up Joan Walsh. Joan’s response was inventive to say the least. She said it was a question of marshaling resources because Salon had three full-time film critics.
The facts are different. Salon had three film critics when Andrew O’Hehir was the arts editor and he and I and Stephanie did the film coverage. But Andrew was made books editor in the spring of 2004 and stopped doing regular movie reviewing. He now does the “Beyond the Multiplex” column every couple of weeks. [Editor’s note: Salon’s book editor is now Hilary Frey.]
At that same time, the spring of 2004, Stephanie was told there was to be no more than three film reviews a week. I was told I was to do no more than three film reviews per month, and that number was raised from two at the behest of David Talbot who went to bat for me. So this claim that in February 2005, Salon was operating with three full-time film critics is bullshit. Whether Joan Walsh knows that’s bullshit or whether she’s convinced herself that it’s the truth, I cannot say. But the idea that there were three full-time film critics at Salon is absolutely false.
Does this illustrate a difference between a “news mentality” and a “culture mentality”?
To speak about this generally, in 90% of the cases it’s a real problem when a news person is put in charge of cultural coverage. In my experience, news people think that culture is frivolous and so, if they have pieces about how great America’s Next Top Model is, they think that’s what criticism is. The coverage of that show was the only piece of cultural coverage that Joan Walsh mentioned when she wrote a letter to Salon subscribers about what they could expect from her. People from a news background often think that critics are no different than journalists—and they are journalists, to a certain extent.
I’ve heard people say that if a critic has a professed dislike for someone’s work, someone else should review it so the artist gets a fair hearing. Well, we already have that. It’s called publicity. It’s not a critic’s job to go in concerned with being positive. But news people are trained in that journalist’s way of thinking, “You get the facts. You report them. You provide evidence to support the position.” Critics take imaginative leaps, they employ hyperbole and that makes the reportorial mindset very nervous, and they don’t get it. It all comes back to that line Truffaut said about how no one at a newspaper has less respect than the movie critic. No one is going to tell the dance critic or classical music critic how to do their jobs. True story: A friend of mine at a major metropolitan daily got called into the editor’s office and asked, “How dare you pan Men in Black II, because my daughter loved it!”
No one is going to say to a reporter who has been on the scene he or she is writing about, “Oh, you don’t know what’s happening there.” Of course, they know what’s happening; they’ve been on the scene. Like a reporter, the critic is the one going out day after day, seeing movies, thinking about how they fit into the culture. Editors, for the most part, sit behind their desk saying they heard buzz on this or that. But all that usually means is they heard publicity from somewhere, often from publicists who are calling to pitch them on getting coverage for their movies, or from other editors who’ve been pitched by publicists, or in magazine pieces which resulted because some editor was successfully pitched to by a publicist. They’re not relying on the people who are actually out doing the footwork. That’s a real problem. I’m not saying critics don’t need editors or guidance, but their instincts have to be respected. They have experience and knowledge about what they’re doing, and the ability to say, this is important and this isn’t. They have to be able to say to their editor, “No, we don’t have to cover House of Wax because Paris Hilton is in it,” which is why an editor at Salon insisted it be covered.
What is the cultural obligation of a film critic?
The critic should reflect the culture as honestly as he or she can. If you’re a regular critic and you’ve got that weekly outlet, you’re essentially writing a diary of the culture, and not in the stupid think pieces sort of way. You’re reflecting the tone of what’s going on week in and week out. A portrait of the culture you’re dealing with can’t help but emerge from that. If you’re honest about what your response is, you’re serving your reader whether they agree with you or not.
You’ve frequently cited Pauline Kael as a major influence.
I got a paperback copy of Deeper Into Movies by Pauline Kael when I was in eighth grade. That was a major influence. I still think she’s the best film critic that is ever going to be. She was the best influence and the biggest influence. It was about trusting your instincts, which was always the line about her. This is what I loved. This is why all of the “I Was a Former Paulette” articles I’ve read are all, to a one, simply wrong on the facts. I had countless disagreements with her, even arguments. I was never excommunicated. Some of the critics she liked were people she didn’t agree with. She wanted people to be honest. Art should be pleasure, not work. You have to bring your life experience to it, your experience of the other arts to it, you have to be well read, and no one should tell you what you have to like or what you should be interested in. The job of the critic is to help you formulate your own thoughts. Articulate them. Not to tell you what to think, but to get you to think. There was a freedom in her.
Of course, the world is different now than it was during the heyday of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.
I came in to this professionally in 1985, at the tail end of the atmosphere people like Kael and Sarris created. When I started writing for the Boston Phoenix, films were still covered at length, thoroughly, not just in capsule reviews. My first editor there was Owen Gleiberman, who remains one of the best editors I ever had. He has a really good ear for how things should sound. He had come of age in the film culture with the same antecedents I had. Obviously, the audience that came out of the counter-culture is not there anymore. It is a younger audience that has grown up not knowing movies can be anything but spectacle, and disposable because something is knocking off the Number One spot every week. An old movie to them is Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not trying to make fun of them, but the limits to the kind of movies they know is the inevitable result of that accelerated pace. Audiences are not as adventurous in what they will go see. Foreign film distribution is as bad now as it has probably ever been, if you’re living outside of New York and Los Angeles. And sometimes in those cities, great movies play for only a week or so. Tropical Malady, by one of the most exciting new filmmakers around, plays for two weeks. In Boston, where I came from, a city that had an enormous repertory and art-house scene when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there is now one first-run art house in Cambridge. In terms of mainstream movies, there are movies I look at now that would have been huge hits [back in the day] and now they don’t do business at all.
Ray is a perfect example of a film that maybe not 15 years ago, but 20 to 25 years ago, would have been a big hit, and now is almost considered specialty filmmaking. Movies like Devil in a Blue Dress, The Russia House, or What’s Love Got to Do With It, which is a melodramatic star bio, were not hits. You see something now like A Very Long Engagement and I remember when it would have been a hit because it’s a big romantic mystery. In some ways, this is even more worrying than what’s happening at the art houses because it represents the withering of movies as a popular art form. What we think of as art films find a way to get made, they find a way to get shown, they may be playing to a small audience, but it really worries me when we have a mainstream audience that doesn’t care for mainstream cinema…That scares the hell out of me.
Do you think this is because the movies are getting geared towards a younger audience?
Yeah, I do. It’s not to blame young people, but it’s what they’ve been targeted with and have grown up watching. I think the place that is grown-up is TV. It’s not self-contained anymore. When I think of the television equivalent of the mainstream movies that might once have been hits I think about Alias, 24 when its good, Veronica Mars, or Lost. I see good writing, performances, and good storytelling, week in and week out on those shows. If you’re going to watch those over time, you can’t have an abbreviated attention span. Now, people are watching them on DVD and digesting them in these huge bites.
Where have you landed now?
I’ve been doing stuff for the New York Times Book Review, some things for the New York Observer, a monthly pop culture column for the Newark Star-Ledger called “High & Low.” My editor there, John Hassell, absolutely understands cultural criticism and has been great to work for.
The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)
These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.
It’s been a very long year—and we’re only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so far—almost all of them created prior to the crisis—reflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arca’s kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple’s prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels’s electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes’s boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, or—in the case of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?—an escape. Sal Cinquemani
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple’s legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson
Arca, Kick I
Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral “Safaera” is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like “Chinese Satellite” and “I See You” evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. “I’ve been running in circles trying to be myself,” she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisher’s closing track, “I Know the End,” is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgers’s voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh
Dogleg’s Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, “Kawasaki Backflip,” bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group’s loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” he frantically yells at the explosive climax of “Fox.” Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on “Cannonball” splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while “Ender” closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the album’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” On “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond
HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
While there’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—HAIM has created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM’s instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd
Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she’s emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. Winograd
Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B
A defining feature of last year’s Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen’s embrace of her sexuality—a topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime “Heartbeat” and the anthemic “Solo” were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. “I’m at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,” Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative “Comeback,” demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp
The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)
Making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming.
There are various reasons why the games on this list are our favorites of the year so far, but the key one is how many of them are so strikingly illustrative of how the old ways of gaming are increasingly evolving into something resolutely new. Doom Eternal and Streets of Rage 4 showed that small tweaks to well-established gameplay modes could breathe new life into beloved franchises. Countless technological advancements made in the 13 years since the release of Half Life 2: Episode 2 have allowed for the world of this iconic series to be realized anew, and in virtual reality, with Half-Life: Alyx.
Elsewhere, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only shows how far games have come graphically in 23 years, but also how storytelling sensibilities have shifted. Yes, the game’s battles are more active and strategic than ever, its characters more well-rounded, its environments more breathtakingly expansive, but it’s most impressive for the way its narrative engages with our memories and interrogates our expectations of what a remake should be.
Indeed, making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming. But sometimes what’s new today is simply what was unseen, or unheard, yesterday. An eraser is the dominant mechanic of If Found…, and how a trans woman from the west coast of Ireland is pushed toward erasure is its dominant theme. And The Last of Us Part II not only centers the experience of the queer surrogate daughter of the first game’s prototypical white male protagonist, it evinces a hyperawareness about the nature of violence in games and the world at large.
For those of us who’ve been playing video games since a young age, there’s something comforting about sitting with a great game and realizing that the medium has grown with us. Like a best friend, such a game sometimes even gives you a gentle ribbing, as in the way Lair of the Clockwork God addresses our evolving tastes and the medium’s growth head-on, constantly breaking the fourth wall to point out how it’s updating platformer and adventure conventions. And in 2020, when the world is continuing to predictably and catastrophically disappoint us, that this industry is still surprising and delighting us feels like a salve. Aaron Riccio
Alder’s Blood (Shockwork Games)
Alder’s Blood’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, this game shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of Alder’s Blood. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. Here, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics game, implying that a godless world should not be coveted. Jed Pressgrove
Desperados III (Mimimi Games)
This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members. While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. Riccio
Doom Eternal (id Software)
Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw. Throughout, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Steven Scaife
Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)
Final Fantasy VII Remake is directly in dialogue with the player about what a remake can and probably should be, about how much of a waste it might be to proceed past the endpoint of this particular story—essentially the moment in the original where you’re allowed to freely explore the world outside Midgar—and realize that the journey and the outcome has remained the same. You’re given the chance to choose a different path, to face a literal hideous embodiment of the hands of fate in the game’s climax. It’s a forceful, kinetic statement—that this remake should not be bound by what we already know. And as monstrous as it can be, the symbolism of that gesture is incredibly daring. The game flips the script on the very idea of nostalgia being the only guiding creative force behind a remake, making it another enemy to be slain. The final hours of this game constitute an extraordinary act of subversion, actively challenging us through gameplay to expect more. Justin Clark
Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)
Creating a sequel-slash-prequel to an iconic video-game series 13 years in cryosleep is just as an unenviable a task as launching a big-budget title using new technology that might evolve the entire medium, yet Valve delivers with Half-Life: Alyx. Returning fans to the sci-fi nightmare of City 17, a young Alyx Vance fights the omnipresent alien invasion alongside other members of Earth’s resistance, pulled into a plot to rescue a mysterious individual who disappeared some 20 years earlier. While Half-Life: Alyx’s core gameplay doesn’t deviate too far from that of other VR titles, Valve has refined the exploration, shooting, and physics puzzles that this series is known for into something that isn’t played as much as it is experienced. In Half-Life: Alyx, fighting the Combine is just as compelling as exploring the derelict buildings of City 17, and being able to lift and inspect and throw any object contributes greatly to the game’s feeling of immersion. Guns are reloaded by physically putting a new mag in and pulling the slide, marker pens draw on whiteboards, and liquid even sloshes around inside bottles. Boasting visuals that border on the photorealistic and intuitive 1:1 controls that feel entirely natural, Half-Life: Alyx pushes virtual-reality gaming to new heights. Ryan Aston
If Found… (DREAMFEEL)
DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Scaife
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)
Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife
Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)
“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio
The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)
The consequences of Joel’s stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the game’s sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellie’s eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joel’s surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellie’s vendetta, as she’s barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of “adults” playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well we’re doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this game’s grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned war’s crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston
Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)
Wacky mechanics and obstacles abound throughout the game’s 50 levels, from Dread Manor’s haunted floating chairs to the Flamethrower Factory’s titular deathtraps. Each level adds another zany complication to your job. While at first your biggest challenge may be manipulating large or oddly shaped furniture through tortuous hallways, the increasingly outlandish assignments soon become full-on obstacle courses that not only require players to optimize their routes, but to nimbly move in unison across collapsing walkways. All of these various challenges make Moving Out overwhelming in the best possible sense. Even better, accessibility options allow players to modify things like the number of hazards in or the maximum time for each level, which is nice if you want to play with friends of differing skill levels—and stay cordial with them after a failed level. While the game takes pains to differentiate itself from real-world moving, there’s one area in which it remains the same, and that’s in the way it nails that feeling of accomplishment where, at the end of a move, something that once seemed impossible has nevertheless fallen perfectly into place. Riccio
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk
There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.
In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.
What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.
The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.
Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”
Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.
The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.
The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.
There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.
Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.
The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.
When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.
Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.
Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.
At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.
Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.
The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)
It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.
It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or—most likely—both. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and June’s biggest release wasn’t a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.
Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, it’s clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workers—whose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio Guzmán finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—images of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about women’s experience in Trump’s America, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.
Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps we’ve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Patterson’s enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque story—which is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networks—about an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema can’t help but reflect our world, because—even in the absence of theaters—it remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown
The Assistant (Kitty Green)
With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)
Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson
Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund
The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson
Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)
Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund
Liberté (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.
Four years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: “Say their names.” New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. “These,” as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell urged his viewers, “are the names to remember.”
The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael to Todd Haynes’s Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical acts—acts of becoming (Sally Potter’s Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. “My name is Harvey Milk,” the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. “And I’m here to recruit you!”
The cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the culture’s largest, brightest mirror. There’s rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we aren’t erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan
Editor’s Note: The prior version of this list, published on June 7, 2019, can be found exclusively on our Patreon page.
Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)
Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoret’s (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson
Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, 1931)
An early landmark of queer cinema, Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform sees youthful desire as fluid, disorienting, and rebellious. Sagan sensitively regards the female camaraderie within the confines of a strict German all-girls school, as well as the burgeoning lustfulness of the teenage Manuela (Hertha Thiele). The young girl’s affection for her sympathetic teacher, Fraulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck), is expressed and reciprocated through furtive glances and brief sensual gestures that hint at an underlying and forbidden passion that can never come to fruition. Released just prior to the rise of the Third Reich, Sagan’s tender portrait of unrequited love in the midst of oppression both excoriates the regressive ideals of the school’s, and by proxy, the nation’s, power structures and advocates instead for compassion, tolerance, and the normalization of all forms of desire. Derek Smith
The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)
Enrique Rivero’s shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isn’t merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the film’s effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard
Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Much of Beauty and the Beast’s deep magic comes from Jean Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role—as the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be—the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)
Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Anger’s own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Anger’s parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being “different” in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce
Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet, 1950)
Jean Genet’s overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker’s flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but it’s Granger’s poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcock’s gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan
Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
There’s a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Dearden’s masterful Victim, a scathing examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath
Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)
Flaming Creatures was Jack Smith’s first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen
The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
If gayness remains figured as a malignant force in The Servant (a half-acknowledged deviance here mobilized in the pursuit of manipulation and personal gain), there’s also something undeniably thrilling about watching it wind its destructive path, vivified by Joseph Losey’s taut pacing, stylish formal play, and distressing-as-ever atmospherics. A film such as this probably couldn’t be made now without cries of protest over its representational politics, which is probably a good thing. Matthew Connolly
Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1964)
Scorpio Rising merges Kenneth Anger’s fascination with rough trade with his burgeoning interest in the Dark Arts, at least as it applies to the standard “sex, drugs, rock n’ roll” scene. What begins with references to James Dean and the soaring beefcake photography of Bob Mizer ultimately ends in a whirl of skulls, swastikas, the spiritual sacrilege of pissing on the Catholic altar, and the societal blasphemy of rubbing mustard into the crotch of a stripped leather geek. This is the Gospel according to Anger. Henderson
My Hustler (Andy Warhol, 1965)
The commodification of desire (and the desire in commodification) have rarely been examined with the cool wit of Andy Warhol’s landmark film. Whose hustler is Paul America, the blond stud whom we first see lolling about on a Fire Island beach? Men and women of various sexual orientations spend the film’s 67-minute running time lusting after, bitching about, probing into, and yearning for this midnight cowboy. Throughout, America remains a lanky libidinal enigma, or maybe just a chiseled blank slate. He embodies a distinctly Warholian vision of queer erotics that’s tantalizingly ambiguous, achingly aloof, and always connected to that essential bulge in your pants: your wallet. Connolly
Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
In Portrait of Jason, Jason Holliday’s waning lucidity becomes a clever rhetorical weapon against Shirley Clarke’s occasional attempts to turn him into an icon of the gay black experience. But she wins out overall, and quite devilishly. As Jason sinks into disorientation, the clarity of the skull perched on the bookshelf behind him increases. When he breaks down after being harangued by off-screen voices, his tears feel nearly funereal. Jason exposes his self-destructiveness to Clarke because he intuits that the resulting object will outlive him—and that it will allow him to outlive himself, and his self-destructiveness. He’s correct. But the film is a conversation between two disadvantaged artists with indelible personalities, both of whom are unabashedly manipulating their way into at least the esoteric side of the everlasting. Clarke’s portrait immortalizes Jason in the same sense that a death mask—one covered in its sculptor’s quick, pithy fingerprints—might preserve its subject’s uncanny likeness. Lanthier
Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses takes the thematic and stylistic template of Hiroshima Mon Amour—traumatic memory, documentary interests, elliptical editing—and further layers it with reflexive elements related to the nature of identity as it pertains to a group of queens in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Matsumoto’s Oedipal tale has influenced directors from Stanley Kubrick to Tsai Ming-liang, but the film remains a singular work on the ways gender performance, whether in sexual practice or art, ubiquitously informs human behavior and interaction, right down to a trick who asks Eddie (Pîtâ) if she likes his muscles before lifting a chair to narcissistically show them off. Dillard
The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970)
Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, whose melodramatic act-two truth-telling owes a significant debt to the bitter gaming of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, isn’t a great one. Shot in the year of Stonewall, William Friedkin’s film adaptation is indeed a time capsule of its era’s mores, but if Crowley’s limited palette of self-loathing and camp-drenched cattiness made the play an instant “period piece” per Vito Russo, the notion that it blames these men for their fears and lies (which sat well with moralists viewing it as a cautionary tale) seems a clear misreading. The dishy wit and behavioral truths of its late-‘60s demimonde of sophisticated New York homos doesn’t dilute the unnerving shame and emotional warfare that explode in its scabrous second act. The partygoers are caught in the tragedy of the pre-liberation closet, a more crippling and unforgiving one than the closets that remain. Michael’s (Kenneth Nelson) final wish—“If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much”—has been largely fulfilled. Not quite so very much. Weber
Trash (Paul Morrissey, 1970)
With her googly eyes, a nest of burgeoning dreads atop her head, and a pronounced overbite that turns her lips into a pair of string beans, the transgender Holly Woodlawn’s untraditional sort of glamour lends a surprising poignancy to the wrenching scene when she unleashes a volcanic tantrum of violated trust, festering jealousy, and, ultimately, wounded pride at the realization that perhaps it’s her and not heroin that keeps Joe Dallesandro’s cock flaccid in bed. The frazzled, cracked-glass-Cassavetes close-ups that Paul Morrissey bequeathed to her talent caught the eye of none other than George Cukor, who started an ultimately unsuccessful petition campaign in support of an Oscar nomination. Oscars, schmoscars. To call Holly’s performance in Trash one of the very greatest in all of cinema would be an understatement. Henderson
Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)
An aging composer, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), takes refuge in a resort to recharge his intellectual energies, only to be completely unsettled by the beauty of a blond adolescent boy who’s also staying at the resort. Luchino Visconti’s masterful Death in Venice tackles complicated notions of idealization, adult-child affection, and the virtual impossibility of reciprocity with a philosophical depth that never feels immaterial. It also features a grand finale set to Gustav Mahler’s magnificent “Symphony Number 5” where beauty, and the desire it begets, is proven to not stand a chance before man’s propensity for annihilation. Diego Semerene
Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971)
At this point in American underground cinema, gay directors were celebrating those sweet sticky things in contexts cerebral and performative (Flaming Creatures) and matter-of-factly declarative (Wakefield Poole’s bawdy of work). Photographer James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus transcends any niche descriptor that applies—queer, camp, avant-garde, softcore, documentary expressionism—and plunges into the deep end of consciousness-annihilating erotic desire. If Cate Blanchett’s Carol marveled, to her romantic conquest, “I never looked like this” (a pretty hot line in its own right), Pink Narcissus flips the equation to explore the electric sexual charge of finding in others the things that are also available at one’s own fingertips. Henderson
Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971)
Though it depicts an eventful week in the lives of two semi-swinging Londoners—Daniel, a gay doctor (Peter Finch), and Alex, a divorced civil servant’s scion (Glenda Jackson)—who begrudgingly share the affections of an aimless bohemian named Bob (Murray Head), Sunday Bloody Sunday is almost naïvely nonpolemical. No one needs to fight for the right to screw who they want, when they want, and with whatever paucity of adjoining obligations. It simply happens, with very little effort. Even the sex act itself is continually viewed as a compromise between two passive bodies; here director John Schlesinger foregoes the carnal thrusting that forced an X rating upon his previous film, Midnight Cowboy, instead showing blemished layers of flesh curled delicately and forgivingly up to one another. This calmness is never titillating, and thus never exploitative. But we soon learn that the characters are treating themselves and each other with such quiet unfairness that to exploit them visually would be crude and redundant. Lanthier
Interview: Shannon Murphy on Charting the Wild Emotional Terrain of Babyteeth
Murphy discusses how she steered the film away from weepy clichés and toward an authentic portrayal of teenage experience.
Feature-length directorial debuts typically trade in big tonal swings, but most do so without the intentionality of Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth. The work buzzes with the restless spirit of its protagonist, Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a precocious 15-year-old who must reckon with the sobering reality of losing her body to cancer just as she begins to gain her sense of self as a young adult. Murphy’s aesthetic choices mirror Milla’s turbulent mental state, and the film remains in a constant state of reinvention before our eyes for two hours as it unfurls “a story about how good it is not to be dead yet,” to use Murphy’s own words.
Babyteeth’s generosity of spirit extends not only Milla, but to a full ensemble of characters navigating all sorts of ups and downs on the interconnected rollercoasters of illness and addiction. Milla’s volatility and vulnerability ripple outward to her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), depressed pill-popping mother, Anna (Essie Davis), and the drug dealer turned passionate flame, Moses (Toby Wallace), who crashes into her life. Murphy’s emotionally astute direction harmonizes this quartet as they grapple openly with the joys and tragedies they endure both collectively and individually—often times out of sync.
In a conversation with Murphy this month, we discussed how she imposed order and control on the wild emotional terrain of Babyteeth as well as how she steered the film away from weepy clichés and toward an authentic portrayal of teenage experience.
You’ve said that your ambition for the film was to find a language that matched the uniqueness of the script. How do you go about moving from idea to action?
Yeah, I think it’s a combination of things, but particularly picking the right heads of departments for this film. And we spent a lot of time talking about how that duality of comedy and tragedy needed to be in every frame. A good example of that is at the birthday party with Milla. There’s obviously so much joy and playfulness in those frames, but there’s also really subtle decorations from the Day of the Dead everywhere. Always, even just for ourselves, knowing that we had blended those two ideas constantly into the work and making sure that we were always doing something that was juxtaposing what was going on at the time. Like making sure that, if we were going to use music, it wasn’t just necessarily doing what was already in the frame and trying to pinch ourselves to constantly capture the incredible energy that these young characters had, but also it’s a very stressful time of crisis for a family. The performances, the way that we would do that was to always give ourselves a range of options of how the scene could play out and not only be wedded to one idea. That was both from me and from the actors. We would have our decisions, and we would capture those. But then, after that, we would give ourselves room to be experimental so that in the edit, I could play with when a moment might seem comedic that could become more dramatic or vice versa.
So the tone was both worked out on set and in the editing room?
I think it was definitely done beforehand, like it was on the page to begin with. And then it was something that was discussed at length in pre-production before we even arrived, so that everybody organically had it in them ready to go. But I do like having the option in the edit. I don’t want to think that I’m arrogant enough to know exactly how this should play out. I want to be able to challenge myself in the editing process.
You’ve said that you didn’t consciously try to clean up the sound and leaned into some of the messiness of the production. Did you have a method for balancing the some of these more chaotic elements with the control that we end up seeing in the final edit?
These days, everybody wants to clean up sound perfectly, and I think it’s actually kind of tipped into a territory where it doesn’t sound real to me. I like more of a documentary-sounding world because it makes you feel like you’re much more embedded in that story as an audience. And also with this particular story, because it’s set in Sydney in the middle of summer, we have very loud birds and cicadas, and it’s an intense, oppressive noise. I wanted to capture that precisely because it was 100% in every single guide track that we recorded, but also because I just think if you’re going to make something authentic, you do have to lean into what you captured and work with that. It was a lot of that. Also, I watched Breaking the Waves, which is a film that I love, and that sound world is so messy. But I do think a big part of that is responsible for making you feel so much, and I don’t want to manipulate people too much through music or dialogue. I prefer to do it in ways that give you a more of a holistic experience. And I think sound design is a really incredible way to do that.
Not until the very end did it really sink in that this is an “illness movie.” Were you conscious of tropes around films with a sick protagonist and having to fight to make cancer something that might challenge and threaten Milla but not define her entirely?
Yeah, completely. And I think that also came from talking to professionals who work with children in those circumstances. They read the script, and they felt like it was overall really accurate. Because rather than these young people wallowing in what’s going on, they’re still wanting to push back and rebel and live their lives at a really intense and rapid pace in many ways. But I’m not someone who really sort of enjoys those films that you’re talking about. I do feel they’ve got a place and an audience, and that’s excellent. But it’s not my reality of how people behave and how the world looks. To me, I am always striving to capture something that is, of course, entertaining and, to me, often theatrical because my background is in theater, but that still feels deeply authentic and relatable. Because it’s so real and messy and honest.
And also, I made this film for teenagers. I hope that they do watch it and really feel like they’re incredibly well represented. But I did make this with an adult audience in mind.
When you’re making a film that might have two audiences like that, do you think about talking to them on two separate tracks? Or do you think that they can watch the same thing and just get something different out of it?
I mean, I think when I was a teenager, I wasn’t watching teen films. I was watching adult films because, like most of us, you don’t want to be talked down to, and I think that’s what’s really important. And in many ways, I do think teenagers could watch this because I’m not underestimating how much they know and how intelligent they are. Their lives are really complicated. I watched a play many years ago called Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen by a Belgian performance company. I remember standing up into that play just like wanting to scream. I was so excited to watch something that really captured my feelings as a teenager. I did think about that quite a lot when I was directing Babyteeth. I wanted it to feel real so that people could be transported to their teenage years, or teenagers could go, “Yeah, that’s honest, that feels like me. It doesn’t feel like a film that’s made by someone who’s a lot older and doesn’t understand.” I used to teach teenagers acting for a long time, and I hope that that I’ve connected to that. It helps having two really amazing young performers, and that you’re also scrutinizing you know whether this is believable or not. And then Eliza and Toby believed in these characters.
I’d seen Eliza in projects before, but I had never seen Toby in anything and was shocked to learn that he wasn’t a first-time actor that you picked up outside of conventional casting channels because he had this raw, almost animalistic kind of magnetism. How did you go about channeling that energy? Because it’s such a vivid portrayal of the teenage infatuation that you get in that emotional rush you’ve been referring to.
Toby’s got that energy. You meet him and you’re very quickly wrapped in his aura—that kinetic, animalistic energy you’re talking about. He’s also a very smart, soft, and gentle man. And I knew that Moses was really complicated in this way. He was very generous, lovable, yet incredibly flawed—and, at times, extremely aggressive. With Toby, he’s actually been acting for a long time. I mean, he’d been to the Venice Film Festival before this film, and he’s done a lot of television. He’s been acting since he was a child. It’s so great that you felt that he was almost street-casted because I think that’s just a testament to what an exceptional performer he is. He really gets it. He’s very in the moment, very spontaneous. He and I share a real love of the way that we like to work. It’s so freeing. [He’s] constantly playing with ideas in the take, he really likes to stay fresh and in the moment. And, actually, Ben Mendelsohn is really similar. He also loves directing himself, so he’s got a real understanding of what I’m doing when I’m talking to him. He’s just a really amazing, malleable performer.
In most teen-centered movies, we don’t really experience adults in any capacity other than how they relate to their children, so I was surprised at how much time we get to spend with Milla’s parents here. Why was it important for you to keep their perspective so prominently in the film, and how did you go about balancing their arcs in the story?
As a teenager, you’re a product of these people who’ve really helped craft who you are in many ways. So it was very important to understand where the parents were at. They’re in incredible emotional turmoil. And also, how does it affect their relationship [to their children]? How do they start treating Milla differently as a result? I really wanted to explore this triangle of three people that have such an intense relationship, and to have an only child in this in this circumstance. It always really fascinating to me because it was more of an ensemble piece. With Anna and Henry, I think maybe sometimes we don’t delve into that because you don’t want to think too much about what happens afterwards when the parents are left alone. But for me, that’s what the most amazing and also harrowing part of the story. You need to know those people to really understand what that means when it’s just them and what the future really does look and feel like. Will they survive it?
The 100 Best Dance Songs of All Time
Dim the lights, pump up the volume, and join us as we imagine a future where we won’t be dancing on our own.
When we published the original iteration of this list back in 2006, dance music had been pushed unceremoniously underground, relegated to discotheques and niche radio stations that were increasingly incorporating hip-hop into their playlists. Of course, hip-hop can be traced directly back to ‘70s funk and disco, and the origins of dance are firmly rooted in black music—a circle that’s impossible to dismiss. But we lamented the apparent slow death of dance music’s popularity while holding out hope for its inevitable revival.
Be careful what you wish for. Just a few years later, EDM exploded, with artists like David Guetta dominating pop radio with garish bangers more interested in pounding you into submission than luring you to the dance floor. More than a few gems emerged from the rush, though, including a handful of instant classics: Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” and Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind” among them.
Eventually, the EDM bubble burst, but dance music seems to be on the upswing yet again, with disco throwbacks like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” bumping and grinding their way to the top of the charts. So it’s ironic that Billboard has paused publication of its club play tally for the first time in almost 50 years due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now seems like the perfect time to dust off our record players and celebrate that most enduring of genres—even if it’s just in the privacy of our own homes.
We’ve added songs, both old and new, but we’ve also shaken up the entire list to reflect our evolving taste as well as the durability of some songs over others. So, dim all the lights, pump up the volume, and join us as we imagine a future where we won’t be dancing on our own. Sal Cinquemani
Editor’s Note: The original version of this list, published on January 30, 2006, can be found exclusively on our Patreon page.
100. Yarbrough & Peoples, “Don’t Stop the Music” (1980)
Recorded by childhood sweethearts on the cusp of taking both their careers and love lives to the next level, Calvin Yarbrough and Alisa Peoples’s “Don’t Stop the Music” is probably the most carnal, lusting set of marriage vows ever preserved on vinyl. Making Ashford and Simpson’s tasteful love songs look milquetoast in comparison, it’s a synth-gritty, pumping slow jam with a walking bassline that doesn’t so much strut as it does play Chutes and Ladders up and down the well-greased procession line and a steamy synthesizer wash that sounds more like a rush of blood to the tip. Because no marriage can sustain this type of sexual momentum forever, the song even comes with its own contraceptive device: those irritating chipmunk voices (be they sperm or the resultant rugrats) that interrupt every break with “You don’t really wanna stop? Nooooooo!” Eric Henderson
99. Stacey Q, “Two of Hearts” (1986)
Madonna copycat Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” was a fun, hi-NRG response to the Material Girl’s “Burning Up.” Madonna says, “Don’t put me off/’Cause I’m on fire/And I can’t quench my desire.” Stacey says, “My body’s burning/So come on heed my desire.” Neither song is empowering per se, at least in the sense that Madonna and Stacey Q hadn’t discovered masturbation like Cyndi Lauper had on “She Bop,” but less is more and the love-in-my-heart Stacey Q has Madonna beat, telling us her burning snatch needs hosing down in infinitely less words. I still don’t know if “When we’re together it’s like hot coals in a fire” is the stupidest or greatest lyric of all time, but “Two of Hearts” is still the quintessential white-chick-in-heat cheese anthem. Ed Gonzalez
98. Brass Construction, “Movin’” (1975)
One of Guyanan composer-musician Randy Muller’s string of train-centric tracks (he was also the man behind the chugging string arrangements of B.T. Express), Brass Construction’s “Movin’” is eight solid minutes of concentrated disco-funk synergy that surges like a runaway locomotive. Muller lets his band cobble together the industrial jam’s rising action with blue-collar professionalism, keeping one ear toward whimsical production effects: clanking percussion suggesting the sound of pennies under steel wheels, otherworldly autoharp glissandos, and a trendsetting, octave-leaping string arrangement. And there’s only about a line and a half’s worth of lyrics holding the song together, but the way they hold back devilishly on “Gonna get h-i-i-i-i-i-g-h” before reverting into Sly and the Family Stone/Sunday school mode with the suffix “-er” is playfully naughty. Henderson
97. Lisette Melendez, “Together Forever” (1991)
What better way to convey Latin freestyle’s telenovela-esque big, broad emotions than with a big, broad stream of clichés? (“Together forever, yours/Together forever, mine/Facing what we feel inside/Ready to stand the test of time,” goes the chorus.) It’s delivered by East Harlem native Lisette Melendez, whose nasal voice wasn’t nearly as heinous or happily off-key as many of her peers (here’s lookin’ at you, Lil’ Suzy). “Together Forever” helped indoctrinate freestyle’s new-school revision; by 1991, it was more rhythmically layered and complex than it was during its early days of tone-deaf melodies over electro beats. Producer Carlos Berrios would go on to recycle this style for the likes of Corina (in her inferior but infinitely more popular “Temptation”) and Jammy (in “Walk Away”—if you aren’t from Jersey, you can’t be faulted for not knowing that one), but Melendez’s bond with this beat is eternal. Rich Juzwiak
96. Lime, “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” (1982)
The hi-NRG “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” is all tease. Its infectious intro melody suggests a na-na-na-na-na-na schoolyard taunt, and every subsequent beat ladled on top evokes a teasing tickle or poke. With her giddy, Minnie Riperton-esque vocal, Joy Dorris gets to play out a shy creature pulling away from busy hands. It sounds ridiculous, but it seems like the only reasonable response to Chris Marsh’s at once earnest but disconcerting bullfrog-in-the-throat come-ons. Gonzalez
95. Sounds of Blackness, “The Pressure Pt. 1 (Classic 12” Mix)” (1991)
R&B’s gospel influence is so vast, it barely needs explaining. Because so much of house is derived from disco, which itself came from soul, the combination of full-on gospel elements (gigantic choirs, never-ceasing organs, Jesus praisin’) with house seems like a no-brainer. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis didn’t get that the first time around (they serviced “The Pressure” with a new jack swing production), but that’s okay—the late Frankie Knuckles was more than capable of doing the job. Outfitting the 40-person choir’s caterwauls with a frenetic bassline, giant four-on-the-floor beats and hip-house rattling, Knuckles could have blown the stained glass out of a church and make it seem like an act of God. Juzwiak
94. Bedrock featuring KYO, “For What You Dream Of” (1993)
A grandiose, perpetually oscillating stream of synthesized sounds and thumping bass, Bedrock’s prog house anthem “For What You Dream Of” is impressive not only for its many unpredictable ups and downs but also for the sheer force of its soulful vocal (by ex-Staxx of Joy singer Carol Lemming, appearing here as KYO), which posits dance as a form of spiritual healing. It sounds as if John Digweed and Nick Muir haven’t left a single button on their synthesizers unpressed, but “For What You Dream Of” scarcely feels synthetic. Gonzalez
93. Underworld, “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1995)
Who’s that boy? He’s dirty and numb but also capable of angelic poses. He’s also terribly fond of lager, chemicals, and blondes. Sounds a bit like the libidinous bugger Ewan McGregor played in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the film that made this dark, long, chest-puffing techno anthem ubiquitous for a hot second back in 1996. Like Benton’s craving for smack, the beats are frantic, dizzying, ravenous, even pained, rippling outward like ginormous waves or cascading ribbons made of steel, grasping for the sort of ecstasy that seems to only come with absolute annihilation. Such is the gnarliness of Underworld’s music. Gonzalez
92. Inner City, “Good Life” (1989)
Before techno was “techno” (thanks to Juan Atkins’s sci-fi theorizing and subsequent dubbing), it was known as Detroit house, and before house was house, it was disco. But if distinctions were made to be blurred, consider Kevin Saunderson a supreme smear on the dance music landscape. Inner City’s “Good Life” clanks like techno, pumps like house, and features disco diva vocals from Paris Grey. “Let me take you to a place you know you wanna go/It’s a good life,” she belts, creating the clearest picture of dance floor halcyon since Chic sang about 54 and its roller skates, roller skates. The good times emanating from the track landed it on Top 40 stations around the country, giving all involved a tangible taste of the real live good life. Juzwiak
91. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love” (2003)
Beyoncé’s simultaneously calculated and fresh “Crazy In Love” made producer Rich Harrison the go-to boy for urban crossover success in the mid-aughts. Harrison composed similar-sounding tracks for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and protégé Amerie but failed to match the across-the-board sensation that was Bey’s breakout solo smash. A slice of retro-stylized ‘70s funkadelia including a show-stopping guest spot by then-DL boyfriend Jay-Z, a horn-y Chi-Lites sample, some go-go-influenced breakbeats, a proud, bottom-heavy, hip-pop posterior, and a hook so infectious that it permanently branded “diva” to the singer’s, uh, résumé, the song positioned the curvy bottle blonde as an MTV-generation Tina Turner. Temporary insanity never tasted so sweet. Cinquemani
90. Run-DMC vs. Jason Nevins, “It’s Like That” (1997)
Don’t be fooled by the slick bassline of mixmaster Jason Nevins’s awesome 1997 remix of “It’s Like That,” which doesn’t try to disguise Run-DMC’s blunt, bracingly honest polemic about black disillusionment. The original song’s sarcasm was coded in its spare design, but its effrontery was still palpable. It was an anthem blacks and the racially enlightened could all rally behind. (One wonders where modern rap and hip-hop would be had the song never been released.) Nevins updates the sound but doesn’t allow us to lose sight of Run-DMC’s embittered lyrics. The new sound gives the brutal discontent of 1983 a changing-times context, making the original’s disdain accessible to a new generation—if mostly to hipsters and ravers. It’s more danceable but still every bit as confrontational. Gonzalez
89. Cathy Dennis, “Touch Me (All Night Long)” (1991)
It’s ironic that a singer who carved out a second act for herself by writing iconic hits for other artists, including Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” initially made a name for herself with someone else’s song. But Cathy Dennis made Fonda Rae’s disco trifle “Touch Me (All Night Long)” her own by completely rewriting the song’s throwaway verses, imbuing a fleeting physical connection with the weight of manifest destiny. DJ extraordinaire Shep Pettibone likewise put his signature on the track by amping up the melodic hook and distinctive Roland 909 house beats, propelling it into the stratosphere of early-‘90s house-pop. Cinquemani
88. Jody Watley, “Looking for a New Love” (1987)
“Looking for a Love” was the first in a long line of hits for former Soul Train dancer and Shalamar vocalist Jody Watley, who, by the end of the ‘80s, seemed poised to join the same league as dance-pop icons like Madonna and Janet Jackson. Like the latter, Watley aligned herself with a Prince cohort, Revolution bassist Andre Cymone, who whipped up some of the most defining dance-pop confections of the era for his muse. “Looking for a New Love” features jazzy piano, a portentous synthesized whistle, and Watley’s original stark 8-track demo vocal—“Hasta la vista, baby” was a calm, cool and collected sayonara long before it got cheesed up by the Terminator himself. Watley’s follow-up, “Don’t You Want Me,” might be more danceable, but it’s nowhere near as iconic. Cinquemani
87. Metro Area, “Miura” (2001)
Metro Area’s foot-thumper “Miura” is nothing if not all-inclusive, ladling economical spoonfuls of tribal beats, Latin drums and funk grooves across what may be the hottest eight-minute bassline in the world. It was released in 2001, when all eyes were on Moroder for dance revivalism. Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, instead, chose to infuse their techno sensibility with disco strings and boogie keyboards, providing a much-needed alternative to electroclash. Others tried to convince us that what they were doing was new (even if “new” meant “injected with irony”), but the sound-for-sound’s-sake craftsmanship on this and virtually every other Metro Area offering bespoke a love for its source material so profound that it wasn’t afraid to make its throwback nature blatant. Juzwiak
86. Hercules and Love Affair, “Blind” (2008)
DJ and once-Butt magazine model Andrew Butler’s Hercules and Love Affair outfit paid poignant homage to the queer man’s feelings of yearning, wish fulfillment, and survival on their sensual, vaporous, and bittersweet self-titled debut album. A fabulous experiment at looking at the present from some kind of beyond, their splendiferous “Blind” was like a post-mortem address by “Queen of Disco” Sylvester, reminiscing on libertine days gone by through the gender-bending voice of Antony Hegarty. A groovilicious, undulating foot-stomper that continues to stir the soul. Gonzalez
85. Todd Terje, “Inspector Norse” (2012)
It could be said that the world of dance, a dozen years into the new millennium, was just ready for a little unabashed brightness amid the proliferating subgenres of EDM, grime, trap, vaporwave, and post-dubstep. (Just a single spin of Blawan’s homicidal 2012 hit “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” would be enough to make one run screaming from the dance floor to never return again.) And if that’s the case, it should’ve surprised no one that that much-needed dose of uppers came from the Land of the Midnight Sun. Norwegian DJ Todd Terje (yes, that’s a riff on Todd Terry’s name, and yes, that’s what all Scandinavian humor is like) was already a rising figure thanks to “Snooze 4 Love” and a series of quirky re-edits, including Chic’s “I Want Your Love.” But the world reacted to the release of the knowingly absurd loping synth riffs of “Inspector Norse” like a group of preteen boys coming in from a game of touch football to a tray full of Sunny D. And when critics said his music was fit only for strandbars (Norwegian for “beach bars”), Terje turned around and called his next relentlessly chipper disco-house release, “Strandbar.” That’s some A-grade Norwegian passive-aggressiveness right there. Henderson
84. The Knife, “Silent Shout” (2006)
Pac-Man and his red-bowed honey’s wedding song? The metronomic production—minimalist but intense beats chasing each other as if in and out of love, or nightmares—is perfectly and surreally married to the equally disquieting lyrics, which recount a flashpoint in a person’s life when their sense of complacency is shattered by a dream of falling teeth. Is that love or death on their horizon? Like much of the Knife and Fever Ray’s music, or a Luis Buñuel film, the song seduces as it frightens. Gonzalez
83. The Flirts, “Passion” (1982)
Bobby Orlando became something of a disco pimp in the time between 1979’s “Disco Sucks” blowout and house music’s takeover. Representing New York, he released an unending stream of hi-NRG records in the early ‘80s, which varied wildly in quality. Among his best production work, though, was what he did for the Flirts, a trio of women with an almost constantly rotating lineup. Maybe it’s just that his pimpishness was never more lucid. Certainly, his girls more than held up their end: 1982’s “Passion” is a sleazy romp of gushing synths and a bobbing erection—I mean, bassline. The title isn’t trying to twist love with sex, it’s just describing work ethic. Juzwiak
82. Björk, “Big Time Sensuality” (1993)
Björk’s got the turtleheart of a bona fide boogie monster of the hardest order, as anyone who’s watched her jam out to LFO’s “Freak” while performing “Hyperballad” live can plainly see. But even at the height of her mixtape era (namely 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post), she seemed to perpetually intellectualize herself out of simply reveling in, to borrow from Deee-Lite, just “a good beat.” Nellee Hooper’s original production on “Big Time Sensuality” had the bones of a great dance song, and Björk’s lyric appropriately harnessed her “big feelings” to match that message up. (If “I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to” doesn’t sum up that most eternal 3 a.m., nothing does.) But it took Fluke’s scope-widening remix of the song to bring its anthemic potential into full bloom. It takes courage to try to best Björk, but in this case it paid off big time. Henderson
81. Armand Van Helden featuring Roland Clark, “Flowerz” (1999)
The resolutely hetero B-boy Armand Van Helden (the same dude who would later rap “I’m looking for them female ejaculates, spreading that koochy with the masturbates”) was probably the least likely house producer this side of Green Velvet to provide the resurgent disco-house craze of the late ‘90s with a swoony anthem. Surprise, surprise. He offered not just one, but two. His Carrie Lucas-sampling “U Don’t Know Me” was the overtly flamboyant club smash, a euphoric swirl of disco strings and an almost preternaturally perceptive approximation of just the sort of “Fuck you, I’m fabulous” soundtrack drag queens love to step off to. But, truthfully, it’s not all that difficult for straight guys to fake fierce. They “get” that aggressive aspect of gay culture. What’s trickier and more elusive is replicating the guileless, hedonistic abandon of total, submissive rapture. Thanks to a lush, spangled sample from Donald Byrd’s classy “Think Twice” and aided by Roland Clark’s astonishingly unbridled, almost Philip Bailey-esque falsetto, “Flowerz” is the gayest filtered disco record that doesn’t suck, executed without a trace of misguided testosterone. To be overwhelmed by the overdubbed vocal harmonies on the chorus is to experience the excitement of walking up that ramp to the Paradise Garage all over again. If you listen closely, you can even hear the tambourine from that club’s logo quivering in the background. Henderson
Interview: Composer Terence Blanchard on Upping the Ante with Da 5 Bloods
The jazz trumpeter and composer discusses the evolving nature of his collaborations with Spike Lee.
“It was totally by accident.” That’s how Terence Blanchard describes how his first collaboration as a composer with director Spike Lee came about. Blanchard was working as a session player on the orchestrations for Mo’ Better Blues when Lee, after hearing some music that he was working on, used it in the final film. Not long after, the filmmaker called Blanchard out of the blue and asked him to compose the full score for Jungle Fever. “We’ve been working together ever since,” says Blanchard.
Their latest collaboration is Da 5 Bloods, about four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam to look for the remains of their platoon leader, as well as a load of buried gold. The film is an at once hilarious and moving study of the complicated nature of patriotism, and it benefits Slant’s as Chuck Bowen put it in his review of the film, “from the wrenchingly serendipitous timing of being released in the midst the largest civil unrest in America since the protests of 1968.” While politicians remain busy trying to make America great again, the soldiers of the film dare to ask: “When was America ever so great to begin with?”
On the eve of Da 5 Bloods’s streaming release, I spoke with Blanchard about matching his score to the tonal complexity of the film, the evolving nature of his collaborations with Lee, and why he considers the film to be the director’s very best.
Having created film scores for numerous filmmakers over the past three decades, how does working with Spike differ? Having worked together so frequently, have you developed a shorthand for how to communicate what it is he’s looking for?
Working with Spike is totally different. When we first started working together, he told me what he liked and what he didn’t. He doesn’t like underscoring scenes, but he likes strong melodic content. We have a common, shared sense in music, so I know what he’s looking for. Nowadays, before beginning a new project, we have a conversation about what we’ve done in the past and how we can move forward and try something different. Spike will send me the script before they begin shooting, and then after production is finished and I’ve seen the film, I’ll start compiling thematic ideas. Once I do that, Spike goes through them and assigns them to different characters or situations related to the film. After that, we meet up in the studio.
When you first get the script, are you making some notes for yourself about where orchestral music might be needed?
I did that earlier in my career and it wound up being a catastrophe. When I did that, I soon realized that what I was scoring in my head was my movie, not Spike’s. While the script is helpful in giving me a general idea of the story, I now try to wait until I can actually see some of the finished film before beginning my process. When I’m reading the script, it’s to my pacing, my cinematic vision, the colors I see in my mind. There was a scene in the Summer of Sam script where John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino’s characters are arguing in a car. I read the scene and got a sense of the dialogue and knew that they were having a fight upon returning home from Studio 54. But when Spike shot the scene, we see Mira get out of the car and then, all of a sudden, Spike keeps the camera on the empty seat. That’s not in the script! It’s its own moment. That’s a drastic example, but those things can and will happen to varying degrees, so I try to wait until I can actually see something before starting my work.
Da 5 Bloods is both a film about the Vietnam War and a film about movies about the war, both an action movie and a contemplation of the long-lasting aspects of mass carnage and destruction. Were you looking toward other Vietnam War films to provide you with a roadmap? And in your score for Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, did the period of that particular war influence what you brought to it?
That’s a good question, because I don’t know if it’s due to the specific period or if it’s due to war in general, you know? Red Tails was a different thing, Miracle at St. Anna was a different thing, and Da 5 Bloods is a different thing. There’s certainly a sound that I associate with these films, and that consists of a lot of brass and percussion. What I try to bring to it is a different viewpoint, as each of the war films that I’ve done have been told from the viewpoint of African-American soldiers. As a result, I’ve always tried to incorporate a certain type of self. Spike does a great job, in the source material, of giving you a sense of the flavor of the period, and in the case of Da 5 Bloods, that’s Marvin Gaye. When you hear those Marvin Gaye songs, it sends you right back to that time period. I don’t necessarily think that the score needs to do that, but we tried to make sure that those timeless songs could speak to everyone.
Did you and Spike discuss Marvin Gaye before the shoot?
We did. Spike wanted to take the music from What’s Going On and make it a character in the film. Spike is really great at nailing down his source material, his script, before he hands it over to me. Those ins and outs can be kind of tricky, musically, and we tried to make those moments as seamless as possible. I’m not sure there was ever a moment in the film where I had to really think about what Gaye song was either coming before or after what I was scoring.
Did Spike note in the script that Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries must be included? That theme is, of course, most famously used in Apocalypse Now, a film that Da 5 Bloods acknowledges several times…
Yeah, that’s part of Spike’s reverence for film history. He’s a film historian, man. He loves the war genre quite a bit and he’s always trying to pay homage to certain aspects of them.
The film often toggles between scenes in the ‘60s during the war and the present day, with soldiers returning to Vietnam. Did that provide you with opportunities to experiment a bit with thematic and time-based shifts that might match the story?
Yeah, and I’ve grown so accustomed to that when working on Spike’s films. For example, Miracle at St. Anna is similar to Da 5 Bloods in that it’s a serious drama that happens to feature some very comedic moments. The comedy isn’t based on something silly but rather on real-life situations, and so I’ve grown accustomed, musically, to going back and forth between the drama and the comedy. Generally, what I try to do, honestly, is stay out of the way. Spike always has great performances in his films. The only thing I need to do is enhance them. I don’t need to help them tell a joke. I don’t need to help them be more dramatic. The only thing I need to do is be their support. That’s the beautiful thing about working with Spike.
Are there certain instruments that jumped out as most appropriate for this story? There are a few moments in the film where we hear the soft pattering of drums and it feels inherently patriotic, like we’re attending a solemn military funeral.
You hit on it right there: the drums and the brass. In Da 5 Bloods, the soldiers are battling the Viet Cong. In Miracle at St. Anna, they’re battling the Germans. As a result, I illustrated the distinction between the soldiers and their enemies by incorporating contrasting snares. For the Americans, we used nice, fat-sounding snares, and with the Germans in Miracle at St. Anna, we used lightweight, tight-sounding snares. We didn’t have that same contrast on Da 5 Bloods. For the Viet Cong, I decided to incorporate a duduk, and for the Americans I used full-sounding snares, percussion, and brass. The thing that stuck out for me on Da 5 Bloods was that our main characters were going back to Vietnam and, as a result, you might sometimes forget that these guys were ever real soldiers. I didn’t want people to forget! These are military guys who come back to Vietnam after many years removed from the war’s conclusion.
And given that the film is about a specific war and its long-lasting effects in the country in which that war was waged, were there influences specific to the culture of Vietnam that found their way into the tone of the music?
Yeah, and I tried to pick up on the little things, as that music has a certain type of melodic and harmonic structure to it that’s a bit more pentatonic. I’m pretty sensitive and careful, as I never want it to sound like I’m trying to appropriate something from a specific culture. I want it to sound like I’m paying homage. That’s why we brought in a really great duduk player for Da 5 Bloods. Sometimes we would give him things to play that were already written and other times we would let him improvise. It worked to great effect.
One melodic theme in the score that really jumps out comes when the men turn on the radio and learn of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The music takes on an innocent quality, or an “innocence lost” quality, that illustrates the soldiers’ internal pain.
Exactly, and it has a denizen quality too. For that composition, the thing I kept thinking about was, given everything we’ve gone through in this country, what does it feel like to put your life on the line for a country that doesn’t give a shit about your life? What does it mean to be a professional, to do your job, and then find out that the one person who’s fighting for your rights back home, gets killed? And not only does he get killed, but the Viet Cong starts to take advantage of his murder by trying to get inside your head. That is, why would you even fight for a country that doesn’t care about you? And those are legitimate points!
I kept thinking to myself that those guys had to be questioning quite a lot at that moment. It had to be a very sensitive and volatile time for them, filled with anger and filled with pain. As a result, I wanted to write something that was inherently innocent, as that’s how I understood the mindset to be. I’ve had uncles that were in the Navy and in the Army during that time and I’ve listened to their stories and it’s both riveting and heartbreaking.
The first flashback sequence, where the soldiers get their chopper shot down and are thrust into combat, serves as the first big moment of action in the film, and the score swells accordingly. The stakes go from zero to one hundred in a matter of seconds. Does that affect the music you write to accompany it? Where things have to get amped up very quickly and match the dangerous predicament the characters find themselves in?
Dude, you have no idea. I think that sequence is a film class onto itself. I think it’s going to go down in history as being one of the great scenes of these types of movies. I even told Spike that. It took me five days to write the score for that sequence. I took my time with that scene because there’s so much detail in it, so many shifts in emotion. Once the action starts, it doesn’t let you out of its grip for damn near five minutes. I had to make sure that the music never bogged down. It took me five days to fully plot it out, two or three of which I just sat at the piano and plotted out the orchestrations before structurally enhancing them. I’ve thought a lot about that sequence, and the analogy I’ve been using is that it’s like being on a basketball court with Michael Jordan and he passes you the ball, because you’re wide open, and you drop the ball. You cannot drop the ball when you’re given filmmaking like this.
When does silence matter? The extended sequence where the men unwillingly discover active landmines is a great example of “less is more.” We hear the sounds of nearby cicadas, but that’s within the scene itself. Do you discuss with Spike when your score should pull back and let the tense, diegetic sounds speak for themselves?
Yes, and that’s a part of our process before we even go into production. We have discussions about that. Sometimes Spike chooses to have music where I probably wouldn’t have music or, on other occasions, I want to place music in a scene where Spike doesn’t think there should be any. Over the years, I’ve learned that the beautiful thing about our collaboration is that Spike may have something else stored away in his mind that he’s not telling me.
When Spike told me he was going to make Da 5 Bloods, I was like, “Okay, but you just made a great film, BlacKkKlansman, and maybe you should take a small break. I don’t know how you’re going to step up.” And then, when I saw the finished film, I was blown away. That’s been our working relationship. He ups the ante with every film, and it makes me have to up the ante for myself on every subsequent project. I honestly think this is the best film he’s ever made and I’m proud to have been a part of it.
It goes without saying that every Spike Lee joint feels prescient and topical regardless of the era in which it’s released, but perhaps there’s no greater example of a film for this moment than Da 5 Bloods. It’s being released at a period in time that may bring about sustained social change for African-Americans long wronged by their country.
I want to tell you what I think is most important about the film, in the context of its relevance to current events. When we talk about these social movements in time, these pivotal moments in our history, we usually hear about them from the viewpoint of a person who has somewhat aged, who has a few years on themselves. What I love about Da 5 Bloods is the fact that you have Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis as part of a collective unit with Chadwick Boseman and, for whatever reason, when I first saw Chadwick, it made me realize how extremely young all soldiers are when they’re first thrown into action. They have to be very responsible and very thoughtful at such a young age. This is something I reiterate to my students all the time. Given the pandemic, I’m teaching my students online for the time being, but I let them know that this is their time, their moment. This is their time to make their mark. Don’t think that it’s going to come around, that there will be another moment down the line that you can speak on. Don’t be afraid to step out and make your statement now.
Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked
Artists understand violence as a transmission of energy that’s repulsive yet hypnotic.
Artists, as opposed to sensationalist technicians, understand violence as a transmission of energy that’s repulsive yet hypnotic. There’s a reason people slow down to watch highway accidents and street brawls, or reliably patronize gory blockbusters and TV series. No contemporary American filmmaker grasps—or channels—this conflict of the rational (moral judgment, or superior pretense thereof) and the irrational (fearful animal urge to get off on annihilation) more vividly than Spike Lee, who’s in the midst of a fertile creative cycle that began with 2012’s Red Hook Summer.
Now working with lower budgets, Lee has refined his aesthetic into a kind of hothouse poetry of compacted excess. His cinema is presently a series of contrasts and frictions: between large and small scale (the latter often symbolizing the former), and reverent and irreverent tones. The chief ambiguity of the filmmaker’s work, though, is his attitude toward violence, and its intermingling with the sexual tension existing between the over-charged men and manipulative women that populate his cinema.
On the occasion of the release of Lee’s new joint, Da 5 Bloods, which is being released in the midst the largest civil unrest in America since the protests of 1968 and benefits from this wrenchingly serendipitous timing, we look back at the filmmaker’s feature-length theatrical releases. Chuck Bowen
28. She Hate Me (2004)
She Hate Me begins with a montage of dead presidents capped with a shot of a three-dollar bill that links George W. Bush to the Enron scandal. This “all about the Benjamins” sequence sets up what begins as a promising critique of our greed-driven corporate culture. Spike Lee contrasts corporate and familial responsibility, and though he doesn’t seem to see a difference between what happens in the workspace and what happens in the bedroom, his barely articulate theories are undermined by his laughable notion of what lesbians want and how they want it. Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), a rich brother working for a firm that’s on the brink of releasing an AIDS vaccine, becomes a whistleblower after stumbling upon evidence of financial malfeasance. His higher-ups then turn on him, and once Jack’s bank account is frozen, the film transforms into a whack-off fantasy in which every lesbian in the world wants to get some of Jack’s “man milk.” Most contracts are negotiated with John Hancocks, but in She Hate Me, deals are sealed with hot lesbian action. Ed Gonzalez
27. Girl 6 (1996)
Spike Lee is plain out of his element here, and it’s no wonder he falls back on stunt casting (from a post-Erotica Madonna as the boss of an illicit “no rules” phone sex ring, to Quentin Tarantino as, well, his own questionable self) and a ceaseless handpicked playlist of his favorite Prince songs. Girl 6, the story of a girl and her stint in the phone-sex biz, is a sloppy and problematic film, no diggity. But the opening audition scene and its thematic reprise at the film’s end aren’t among its mistakes. Actually, they’re among the film’s only signs of cognitively dissonant, Godardian life. Girl 6’s screenplay was written by a woman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Theresa Randle’s disrobe-under-duress is, in actuality, Parks’s own built-in reminder to everyone who’s actually telling the tale. Tarantino and Lee aren’t so stylistically exclusive that most wouldn’t recognize the former’s obvious function as a stand-in. (Only the racial difference between them confuses the metaphor.) So, what Parks demonstrates by forcing Lee to force Randle into the dressing-down room is exactly what QT says: “It’s what the role requires.” Or rather, it’s what every current role for young black women requires. Eric Henderson
26. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
A dollop of Saving Private Ryan, a dash of Letters from Iwo Jima, and a sprinkle of Italian neorealism characterize the style and sentiment of Miracle at St. Anna, a generally ludicrous and—at 160 minutes—punishing saga meant to be Spike Lee’s bid to memorialize the heroism of African-American soldiers during WWII. While Lee’s joints often benefit from excellent performances from first-rate actors and clever visual design, these positives are often overwhelmed by an over-the-top narrative style that works to kill the inherent intelligence and poignancy of the material. The film is strewn with betrayals—sexual, political, familial and otherwise—all the way to the requisite, Saving Private Ryan-like gun-battle climax, in which soldiers try to evacuate the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema as Germans storm in. Amid the obligatory pell-mell of screaming and gunfire, Lee wedges in a seemingly miraculous intervention—call it deus ex machina or Hollywood contrivance—on which the whole of this production hinges. For every decently observed scene, there are a dozen dull, asinine ones to be endured, awash in over-orchestration and silly visual choices. Jay Antani
25. Oldboy (2013)
It’s difficult to see any real precedent for this kind of pulpy material in Spike Lee’s prior work, and it’s perhaps as a result that he’s at his most anonymized and restrained here, plugging along in hired-gun mode. Josh Brolin floating along atop the dolly for a few short seconds acts as one of the few instances of self-reference, which is odd for a director who usually packs his films with as many signature touches as possible. Working off Mark Protosevich’s script, Lee does push up one interesting angle, flirting with a post-9/11 parable in the style of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but the metaphorical implications of a man whipped into a frenzy by his thirst for revenge are undercut by the restorative properties of a too-neat conclusion. Where Park Chan-wook’s original imagined the wronged sibling taking revenge on the protagonist as a buttoned-down maniac mogul, the villain here takes the form of an obscenely wealthy, mustache-twirling British blue-blood (a tedious Sharlto Copley), a choice that, combined with some other absurd touches, pushes the last act into full-tilt farce. In this and other instances, Oldboy seems to be responding to the sillier qualities of its source material by ramping up the ridiculousness, adding heightened violence to spice up the broth. Jesse Cataldo
24. Pass Over (2018)
Where many filmed plays attempt to “open up” their source material, Pass Over doubles down on its theatricality. The film was shot at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and filmmaker Spike Lee worked in close collaboration with stage director Danya Taymor, sporadically wedding theatrical restrictions with cinematic compositions. With a few notable exceptions, the film is set on the Steppenwolf’s stage, which has been abstractly dressed to resemble an austere Chicago city block. Audiences may wish, however, that the mediums of theater and cinema had been more playfully merged, as Pass Over can use all the variety it can muster. Based on a play by Antoinette Nwandu, the film is concerned with restriction, which Lee and Taymor embrace with a purity of intent that’s remarkable and actively stifling. Bowen
23. Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man is so thoroughly crammed with symbolic undertones that virtually everything contains allegorical culture-clash potential. For instance, is there some hidden meaning behind Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) thieves entering the Wall Street bank in white painter’s outfits, but then changing into gray jumpsuits later on? And what does it say about Denzel Washington’s persecuted detective Frazier Keith that he ultimately, triumphantly, dons a dapper cream-colored suit? In Dalton’s forcing his prisoners to wear matching, identity-negating outfits, Lee seems to be critiquing racial profiling by challenging Washington’s hero to distinguish criminals from innocents without the benefit of knowing his suspects’ skin color. Yet despite its leads enthusiastically breathing life into their sub-Sidney Lumet characters, the languid Inside Man offers few insights into modern societal discord and provides only scant cops-and-robbers kicks. Perhaps not Lee’s dullest joint, it’s nonetheless one of his most sloppily rolled. Nick Schager
22. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Spike Lee’s tribute to jazz may not stand shoulder to padded shoulder with Do the Right Thing, but it represents cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s masterpiece. The visuals give you life through a jazzman’s night-owl eyes, starting with an opening credits sequence that bathes a solitary trumpet in a sumptuous, shiny metallic blue light. Dickerson’s vibrant reds also dominate his canvas and are synonymous with sin: It’s in the bright red light that bursts forth from the open door of the jazz club as a man is dragged out to be beaten in the street, and in the same red dress that both of Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) women wear to a meeting at which they weren’t supposed to simultaneously appear. Dickerson treats those cool blues and hot reds like the proverbial angel and devil on the characters’ shoulders. If only Lee had trusted these images more, instead of bogging them down with clunky dialogue and exposition. Because when he lets his directorial visions speak for themselves, the film’s flaws are temporarily forgiven. Odie Henderson
21. He Got Game (1998)
Considering Spike Lee’s courtside reactions at Knicks games, He Got Game’s fanatical regard for basketball is entirely believable. The film even has a savior named Jesus (former Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen), whose athletic prowess practically guarantees his ascension into the holy ranks of the NBA. Lee’s parable demands unshakable faith in the plotline that a warden (Ned Beatty) would spring Jesus’s estranged father, Jake (Denzel Washington), from jail so that he may convince Jesus to sign with the governor’s alma mater rather than turn pro straight out of high school. Jake has a week to make this happen while trying to re-establish a parental bond with his son. This plays out against a frantic quest by coaches and colleges for Jesus’s b-ball miracles, and Lee pulls no punches in showing the ruthlessness that accompanies billion-dollar sports organizations’ seduction of poor black kids with athletic promise, but that strength is undermined by the script’s reductive depiction of women: Jesus’s girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) is a manipulative, calculating gold digger and Milla Jovovich’s hooker with a heart of gold exists solely to provide Jake with some forbidden nookie. Washington gives Jake a hint of the meanness that would later fuel Training Day. His performance, along with Mayik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography, help the film achieve a small form of grace. Odie Henderson
Interview: Odessa Young on the Intuitiveness That Fuels Shirley
Young discusses Josephine Decker’s unconventional processes and what she will take from the film to future projects.
Odessa Young’s character, Rose, in Josephine Decker’s Shirley functions crucially as both a foil to Elisabeth Moss’s eponymous character and as an entry point to understand the erratic presence of Shirley Jackson in the film. The doe-eyed wife of a new Bennington postgraduate fellow, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), Rose arrives to her new Vermont environs with the intent to enroll in classes herself, only to wind up tending less to her studies and more to traditionally domestic matters in the home of Fred’s mentor and Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Placating Moss’s Shirley proves just as grueling as the upkeep on their creaky dwelling, all of which Rose must manage alongside her unexpected pregnancy. Though the clash of Rose’s innocent outlook with the harsh reality of her circumstances provides fodder for Shirley’s latest work, Young never allows her character to slip into the role of wallflower or passive muse. One of the film’s chief pleasures stems from watching Rose evolve from a spectator to Shirley’s process to a co-conspirator—and even mirror—of it.
When talking to Young about her work in Shirley, there’s a playfulness with which she describes her collaboration with Decker and Moss, who Young calls “Josie” and “Lizzie,” respectively, that stands in sharp contrast to her anything-but-casual performance in the film itself. At just 22, she already knows how to hold her own opposite a titanic screen presence, nimbly navigating her own relationship to the director’s free-roving camera. Our conversation touched on how Young relied on her intuition to bring her performance to life within Decker’s unconventional processes and what she will take from the film to future projects.
The film’s cinematography is such a forceful presence. How do you go about your process when the camera is moving about so freely and often getting quite close to you?
I was a big fan of Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen, director of photography] before we started working together on Shirley. I loved Victoria, which he shot. It was also a testament to how far he was willing to go, and to how curious he was about the limitations of cinematography and pushing those boundaries. I was really welcoming to the experimental attitude that he and Josie took to shooting this because the perspective of the camera becomes another character.
As an actor, you try to keep your “third eye” on the camera, understand where it is at any moment and just be generally aware of it. But I was struck by moments that I saw in the movie where I thought one thing was happening but a totally different thing was happening, and the camera had drifted off to another room or something. It’s an incredible testament to how their minds work together. I think that Josie and Sturla are a bit of a match made in heaven creatively because they’re both just willing to be completely intuitive with camera and movement. They disregard, in a really good way, the rules of how a scene is meant to be put together, which sometimes can be a little frustrating for actors. But, ultimately, you have to give up your trust into their vision, and I think it really paid off.
The illusion of spontaneity often comes as the product of meticulous planning. Were you all blocking things in advance? How aware were you of where the camera would go, and how you would move around in the space in relation to it?
It was, similar to Victoria, pretty meticulously planned. Or, at least, the dinner table scenes. Those scenes where you have pretty big and important chunks of dialogue were quite meticulously planned because the dialogue in the story itself is so theatrical. We decided to approach it as though it were little fragments of a play. The challenge, obviously, from an acting perspective was to keep up the grand trick of spontaneity in film.
I think that it was pretty easy to do, particularly because Lizzie Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg are such incredible actors that they can do different things with their performances one second to the next, and it’s just incredible to watch. You don’t know where they’re going next, and that kind of spontaneity married with Sturla and Josie’s penchant for just going with their gut and doing something different with the camera in each take.
And I think that Josie in particular was pretty clear from the start that a lot of her process happens in the edit. She likes to collect material, and she doesn’t shoot to edit. She will build moments in the editing room, and you can see evidence of that where there are these exciting nonlinear moments where you don’t know which part of the scene is occurring. Somehow, it all comes together in this beautiful braid of story. There were these little moments of grace that happened throughout the movie to create this feeling of [spontaneity] because it’s a trick. Everything’s rehearsed, everything’s planned, but you have those kind of God moments.
Josephine and Sturla shared their visual lookbook in a session at the Berlinale this year. Were you privy to how they were designing the look and feel of the movie? Is it helpful as an actor to tune into that frequency of something that’s superseding you in terms of how the movie is coming together and being made?
I was aware of Josie’s style having watched her prior work. I was let into that mood board, or that concept of subverting a traditional image of the ‘40s lifestyle, with that darkness or the blurriness at the edges of the frame where you don’t really know what’s lying there. I was let into that as much as I could have been being an actor. But, at some point, you do have to just do your job, and it was just really helpful that I knew that I was in good hands and [could] just tune that out. But in saying that, the camera itself and its perspective become a character. That character was very present in the room. And that character, that camera, would be eating at the table with us. And it would be dancing with us. And then it would also be wandering into the other room to get some food. And it would be directly in our faces, or maybe we’d even be holding it. I remember one scene that we shot where Josie operated the camera, and we had the lens baby on—the little kind of blurry tiny lens—and she was operating the lens while I was holding her as the camera, but also as Lizzie. The character of the camera was extremely present. And it was hard to ignore that presence in the room. We were also watching monitors all the time, and we could see what was going on and were definitely aware of those blurry bits, the darkness and the unknown seeping in. It was really exciting to watch it all come together.
Michael Stuhlbarg has said there were times where Josephine suggested throwing out the language of the script and a scene altogether and trying to find it physically. Were there moments where you found your way into a scene in such a roundabout fashion?
Any scene, for example, where Rose is alone or just with Fred—all those scenes were entered really physically. I remember there was one scene—it occurs toward the beginning of the movie—where Shirley insults Rose at the dinner table by asking about her shotgun pregnancy, and we cut to Rose and Fred upstairs. Rose is writhing around on the bed in frustration, and I remember that came out of my general frustration that I couldn’t figure something out in my mind. I couldn’t reconcile something. The scene wasn’t coming easily to me, and I just kind of put my body down on the bed and writhed around a little bit in frustration. And Josie was like, “Well, you’re doing it, that’s it, just do that!” Exploring the physicality of what frustration is, not just the language of it. Because the language is so powerful, it’s tempting to just simply rely on it. But for Josie, she’s extremely visual and symbolic. If you’ve seen Madeline’s Madeline, you know her process of coaching as a director, coaching the animalistic tendencies out of the character. And there were very often these moments where she really encouraged us to just be completely fearless with our physicality in it, and it really paid off.
How did you calibrate opposite Elisabeth Moss given that so much of your performance is relational to the level that she’s going to go for in a given scene? Would you be aware of how she was going to play something beforehand, or were you in the same situation as Rose, reacting to her every whim in real time, uncertain of where she would go?
I really love the word “calibration” to describe that because it does feel like that. Lizzie will do something different every take, which is extremely exciting. And it very much played into the Rose’s purpose at the start of the film: to simply observe and let the audience in through her observation. It was pretty self-explanatory. When you get into the room with Lizzie, you simply want to watch her. It was definitely leaning into that awestruck observation of what she was going to do. You don’t know what Lizzie’s going to do next as an actor, and you didn’t know what Shirley was going to do next as a writer or as a disruptive person.
Using that curiosity as an entry point into the character was really helpful. There’s this mood throughout the film where you’re pretty sure—or, at least I see it this way—that if you say the wrong thing to Shirley in any way, she might just go upstairs and kill herself. Or kill you. There’s that trepidation that the characters have to take around her. Relying on the optics of what that looks like as a young and bushy-tailed, bright-eyed character coming into this dark world is self-explanatory. They just fold into that.
Josephine has mentioned that Shirley and Rose are somewhat akin to kind of two sides of the same personality. Were you and Elisabeth working in tandem or collaborating to explore your characters, or were you all more siloed in developing them?
When Lizzie was there, she was there. But when she wasn’t, she was working on something else. She had just come off Handmaid’s Tale and was shooting Jordan Peele’s Us at the same time. Lizzie and I talked as much as we needed to, but I think both of us work primarily through intuition. And I think that was really helpful for the situation because sometimes we didn’t have complete access to one another. We’d just get on set, and I knew she’s brilliant. She was gonna come in and know exactly what she was doing and just fucking do it, and that was it. You just had to be ready for it, pull up your bootstraps and give it your all so as not to waste anyone’s time. I’m really lucky that it seems like our intuitions just hit a really similar wavelength, and we were able to just fall into stride with each other. It just felt supernatural.
You’ve said that you learn by osmosis rather than through formal training. What did you take away from working with Elisabeth, Michael, Logan, or any actor in Shirley?
Each of them has very different backgrounds, upbringings, philosophies, and methods—whatever you want to call it. With Lizzie, because she was going back and forth doing all these jobs at once, I remember asking her one day, “How do you do it?” And she just said, “I dunno, you just do it.” And that was a nice thing to hear because, yeah, you do just do it. It doesn’t matter what happens, you just have to trust yourself to get through it and do it.
As for Michael, he’s had a lot of training. He really came in approaching the project like a play, being very meticulous with rehearsal. I remember him mentioning that he would rehearse the dinner table scene by himself around his living room table, laying it all out like it was going to be in the movie. He would rehearse and put imaginary people at each chair. It was the first time that I’d ever seen such a theatrical process on film, and it was really inspiring because you watch it in the film and he’s so pitch-perfect. He doesn’t drop a beat. His performance is so tight and sleek. You can see the work that he’s put in, but it’s not overbearing. It feels natural, so lived in. To see something like that and the process of it made me want to work harder and take it seriously because you can get comfortable with your intuition. Intuition can get you far, but it can only get you so far. At some point, you have to start putting some blood, sweat, and tears into it. Watching Michael work through his process, it’s like, “Oh, that shit does work!” You can really use that training, and it was a joy to watch.
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