Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 11/26/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor). This article is being cross-published with Parallax View.
Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the two pivotal figures of American cinema in the 1970s, both rose from the turmoil of the transition from studio-based to independent production, to emerge as leading forces in film production as well as film style. Each eventually formed his own production company—Altman’s Lion’s Gate, Coppola’s American Zoetrope—and patronized the work of aspiring young film-makers (such as Altman’s nurturing of Alan Rudolph and Coppola’s of Caleb Deschanel).
Though Altman’s films compare with Coppola’s as chamber music does with grand opera, their work in the 1970s exemplifies what ultimately became the prevailing style of American film direction in that era: maverick resistance to studio-imposed time and budget constraints, insistence on directorial authorship, reliance on location shooting, use of improvisational acting, an emphasis on ensemble playing rather than star performances, Fordian gatherings—weddings, church services, parties, dinners—as exponents of group character (both Altman and Coppola had Catholic upbringings), and a revisionist approach to the mythic archetypes of the Hollywood genre film.
Each in his own way overhauls, even debunks, the generic conventions of the war film, road film, crime film, screwball comedy, and private eye film established in the heyday of the moguls. An important part of that overhaul is the rejection of the star system, and the consistent suppression of the very notion of “star”—and often of the star himself: Altman’s radical alteration of Paul Newman’s screen image is as crucial as Coppola’s of Brando’s. Moreover, more so than most of their contemporaries, both directors rely on supporting characters and unknown actors to carry the burden of a film. Altman distributes attention among so many players that there is no clear “star;” or he discredits the very idea of stardom or screen heroism (The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians). Coppola acts directly on the star to evoke a self-effacing, even self-abusive performance (most memorably Gene Hackman in The Conversation and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now).
The relation of star to supporting players, of mythic hero to the community, and, of course, of the artist to his public is manifest in Altman’s and Coppola’s abiding concern with the workings of power. In each director’s films of the 1970s, character is defined in terms of the individual’s response to the temptations and demands of power. Altman is interested in the relation between power and performance. For him, power imposes, as in Greek tragedy, the dilemma of a choice between equally painful courses of action (the forced service of the doctors of M*A*S*H, the sell-or-die option offered John McCabe by Harrison Shaughnessy); but the choice carries with it the opportunity to assert a higher kind of freedom (the doctors of the 4077th save lives and subvert military authority; McCabe founds a community as much through resistance and death as through entrepreneurism). Coppola is more concerned with the struggle between power and traditional morality. In his world, the free man is nothing (Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather, Harry Caul throughout The Conversation, Captain Willard at the opening of Apocalypse Now) until he adapts to the demands of power, even embraces power for its own sake.
What happened in the world of movie-making between the Hollywood of the 1950s and that of the 1970s was not a weakening but a redistribution of power. Not coincidentally, the redistribution of power is exactly what Altman and Coppola, in different ways, made their most enduring films about.
“I wonder how such a degenerate man ever attained a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps?”
“He was drafted.”
– Conversation between a military nurse and a military chaplain, M*A*S*H
For the theatre full of GIs with whom I first saw M*A*S*H in 1970, that reference to the draft was the high point of the film. This was clearly a Vietnam-era movie, the dilemma of the surgeons a neat metaphor for the one each 1970 draftee had faced. The draft is the moral basis of M*A*S*H: It is the arbitrary, faceless intrusion of power that forces the free man to choose between undesirable alternatives (in 1970, prison, expatriation, or forced service and the face of death). The surgeons’ assertion of freedom and humanistic values in the Korean War of M*A*S*H parallels what happened in the Vietnam era when a like-minded generation of draftees, pressed into service of a cause most of them opposed, forced the military to adapt to them.
At the height of anti-Vietnam protest from within the ranks, a dissenting army psychiatrist wrote that military psychiatry is a contradiction in terms, since psychiatry aims to help the individual realize himself, while the military depends upon conforming him to the group. The same kind of collision makes rebels of the doctors and nurses of M*A*S*H. Stealing a jeep turns military structure against itself: When everything is “issued,” what is theft? Where war itself is justified, anything can be justified.
Religious values are crudely perverted (the self-defeating fanaticism of Major Frank Burns) or utterly lost (the charming ineffectuality of “Dago Red” Mulcahy). “Military chaplain” is also a contradiction in terms, and Father Mulcahy seems to realize it. The Last Supper parody, from Buñuel out of Da Vinci, stresses the absence of substantive religious values in the formalized wasteland of the military at war.
Altman has peppered M*A*S*H with reminders of the popular “snafu” war-comedy films of the 1940s and 1950s. This is very much to the point, for in its revision of the prevailing trend of Hollywood comedy, away from plot contrivance and toward the spontaneous, improvisational comedy of individual assertiveness, M*A*S*H attacks that worn genre and the values that created it. “War comedy” is the biggest contradiction of all.
“I don’t make deals.”
– Dog Butler, bearhunter, McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Contempt for authority and embrace of moral absurdism color all of Altman’s films of the 1970s. Subjectivism is the only reality in such internalized fantasies as That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud, Images, 3 Women, and Quintet. In the pre-civilized world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a primitive ethic prevails. Kathleen Murphy perceptively noted that there is no need of law, lawyers, or enforcers until the faceless, relentless firm of Harrison Shaughnessy enters the film. In California Split, a post-civilization film, the exemplar of power is money, and once its mystique fades, so does the whole complex structure of contemporary American values. Ultimately, nothing matters: The staggering amount Bill owes, his job, the women, his overwhelming winning streak, his friendship with Charlie—all conventional cares give way to the apocalyptic anarchy of M*A*S*H and the elevated liberation of Nashville’s “It Don’t Worry Me.”
“I got poetry in me! I do!”—John McCabe, businessman
There is a peculiarly Joycean sensibility in much of Altman’s work. Nashville’s satirical optimism, from “We must be doin’ somethin’ right” and “Yes, I do” to “It Don’t Worry Me,” is an ironic but joyous refrain like Molly Bloom’s “yes i will yes.” Nashville is, in fact, remarkably reminiscent of Ulysses: Witness the long, episodic design; the mixture of the satirical with the nightmarishly painful; the layering of mythic archetypes over the comings and goings of small characters through a real city over a well-defined period of time; the revelry in the possibilities of cinematic style (like Joyce’s festival of literary parody and typographical experimentation); and the celebration of human frailty over the strictures of society.
If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus evokes Daedalus the designer of the labyrinth, Brewster McCloud evokes Daedalus the builder of wings. But Brewster fails as Daedalus, and is destroyed like Icarus because he reached too high. A quieter variation on the same idea is the visual metamorphosis of Sueleen Gaye into a caryatid on the stage of Nashville’s Parthenon.
Altman’s best examination of the tension between spiritual ideal and fleshly reality that informs all myth is McCabe and Mrs. Miller. John McCabe and Constance Miller build their business on appeal to the flesh: whoring, drinking, gambling. The ironically-named town of Presbyterian Church grows around their industriousness, while its namesake remains unfinished and empty. The church’s outer shell is completed with the placement of a spire by the preacher, while McCabe’s chippies arrive to the tune of “Sisters of Mercy.” As long as McCabe and Mrs. Miller flourish, the church stands empty. Constance cautions John not to give his whores time to relax or they’ll surely turn to religion. The preacher is placed in tacit opposition to McCabe—an opposition that becomes explicit when McCabe seeks shelter in the church during the climactic gun battle: The preacher drives him out at gunpoint.
A moment later, Dog Butler, gunning for McCabe, shoots the preacher instead, and a dropped oil lamp sets the church ablaze. The fire, fought by the villagers, is extinguished only after the three hunters and their prey—McCabe—are dead. Mrs. Miller, who has seen the futility of McCabe’s stand and has failed to comprehend his self-image (perhaps because she does not understand America), loses herself in a deeper commitment to opium.
Brewster McCloud, John McCabe, and Nashville’s Barbara Jean are pioneers of the human spirit, transcending and transforming the society around them. They represent the best the human race has to offer.
“Freezin’ my soul, that’s what you’re doin’, just freezin’ my soul.”—John McCabe, poet
Power in Altman’s films tends to destroy people or turn them into symbols—or both. Even in their raucous assertion of freedom, the surgeons of M*A*S*H become symbols of defiance. Their distance from their own identities is slammed home in the shock-cut of a docking troopship and cheering crowd inserted into the silence following the announcement of Hawkeye’s and Duke’s transfer home. The significance of Brewster McCloud and of John McCabe is more enduring than the men themselves. Quintet transforms the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller into a frozen world-soul, proposing a quietly violent parlor game, with a name from chamber music, as a metaphor for life. On one level, 3 Women is about people who make symbols of themselves: Millie is the archetypal American consumer, Pinky turns herself into an image of Millie, Willie is the kind of mystery-creature she paints, and Edgar’s studied adoption of the trappings of the B-western gunman indirectly authors his own demise. The progress of Nashville is a process whereby its characters, objects, and events contrive to become symbols.
“You don’t belong in Nashville!”—Haven Hamilton, country star
For his mythic statement, Brewster McCloud usurps the Astrodome, home of football. Nashville’s Opryland is a forum for the musical equivalent of football, and its Parthenon a metaphor for both the endurance of America and its overhaul of the Athenian principles of democracy. When Barbara Jean sings “My Idaho Home,” a paean to what she—and America—have lost, singer, song, and stage are metamorphosed before our eyes and those of the kid with the gun. Kenny fires not at an individual but at a symbol—and thereby steals the scene. He’s a performer, too, with a gun in his fiddle case.
“Do you want to go see Nine to Five?”
“Who’s in it?”
“Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton.”
“But I thought you liked those people.”
“I liked them when they were entertainers. I don’t like them now they’ve become Statements.”
—Conversation with my wife
How do the people, the mass, the audience deal with the power inherent in their heroes? What are real heroes (as opposed to “stars”) like? Altman is always asking these questions. His most direct approaches to the tension between person and symbol—his 1970s “showbiz” movies Brewster McCloud, Nashville, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians—deal with the difference between person and star, between entertainer and statement. Casting Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill, the living lie who is always more comfortable with made-up history than with real identity and responsibility, Altman attempted a definitive statement about show people that, unfortunately, mixes uneasily with Arthur Kopit’s definitive statement about the American Indians.
In the Nashville airport there’s a poster of singer Connie White, and someone has slapped a Hal Phillip Walker campaign sticker across it. Tom, Bill and Mary hurry past, but Bill stops long enough to observe, “Wait a minute! Hal Phillip Walker looks exactly like Connie White!” This mock-confusion of star with politician is an early preparation for the grimmer confusion of star with politician that climaxes the film.
Since the Romantic revolution, western society has increasingly placed the mantle of priest on the shoulders of either the politician or the performer, and in the 1970s, Altman was already commenting on this cultural confusion. In true Altmanesque fashion, at the end of the decade the United States would elect a former movie star to the presidency.
In Nashville, Barbara Jean’s importance as both celebrant and victim of a ritual sacrifice is prepared by the film’s methodical use of religious imagery. Altman cuts from Mary’s quiet adoration of Tom in bed to a stained-glass Christ; her upward glance echoed by the upward angle from which the camera begins a slow descent along the church window. The cut contrasts the contemporary mythos of Saturday Night with the Christian mythos of Sunday Morning, while comparing two kinds of worship and love. The montage continues through three different church services, ending with a humble tableau of wheelchaired Barbara Jean in the hospital chapel, singing, “He walks with me and He talks with me …”
She’s an unlikely Christ, but a Christ nonetheless, with a Palm Sunday processional (the airport), an Agony in the Garden (the outdoor concert), a public crucifixion, and an exuberant resurrection. Less appreciated is Brewster McCloud, a pagan priest who falls because he has given up his virginity. Brewster is an unacceptable offering to the gods.
“When it’s over, it gets real sad.”—The end of a wedding, and a marriage, in A Wedding
The title sequence of Brewster McCloud is a tilt-down from blue sky to band and singers rehearsing the national anthem. At the end of the film, the movement is echoed in a fast downward swish-pan to Brewster’s crumpled body, almost under the feet of the circus parade. Nashville, by contrast, begins with the camera still as the door of the Walker-Talker-sleeper rises; and ends with the world holding still as the camera rises, lifting us for the first time above those singers and that massive flag, then stopping-down to bring blue sky into proper exposure before fade-out. The two films, in all their remarkable imagistic similarity, describe a fall from the divine to the depths of fleshly failure, and an ascent through Purgatory to Paradise regained.
Too often Nashville is discussed in terms of Altman’s “bleak view” of America at the Bicentennial. For all his cynical satire, Altman infuses the film with much that is positive about Americans, and climaxes with an exhilarating reaffirmation of life in the face of death and despair. Both Brewster and Barbara Jean become symbols of the aspirations, struggles, successes and failures of the American Dream, and are destroyed at the peak of their identification with all that is most typically American. Society destroys its heroes? Perhaps. Maybe the People participate vicariously in the fall of the hero, then revel in the passing of the myth. Celebration of the enduring community is the province of the People, not of individuals. Altman’s is a Fordian sort of populism: Brewster McCloud’s circus parade and Nashville’s “It Don’t Worry Me” both evoke resurrection, but of the community, not of the fallen hero.
The people of Presbyterian Church put out the fire while McCabe dies: The moment of the little guy’s destruction is again the moment of reaffirmation of the community spirit. Insofar as the community survives the hero, it may be said to participate in his destruction. Yet this is not a matter for mourning, for the hero’s legacy makes survival of the community possible, and that is worth celebrating.
The central conceit of Nashville, and of all Altman’s work in the 1970s, is to blur, even obliterate, the distinction between performers and their audiences; between entertainers and their statements about the community; between individuals and society; and, of course, between movie-images and movie-goers. In Nashville, Altman picks his characters out of crowds, and puts them back there; follows one, then another; watches them or leaves them alone (a conceit that he would later exaggerate in the self-satirical and Welles-lampooning opening shot of The Player). They attract our attention from within the frame more often than they conspicuously enter it. In A Wedding there are twice as many characters to keep track of in the same way, too many of whom, in mid-shot, look like too many of the others—which is of course part of the point of both A Wedding (as it is, much later, of Gosford Park).
Altman’s use of a resident stock company of actors, à la Bergman, gives his world a hermetic, mythic property, while stressing his underlying populism. Every time an Altman hero is ritualistically destroyed, like the Fisher King (Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville), or punctured and debunked (The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet), or dispersed among so many characters that no more distinction exists between lead and supporting player (M*A*S*H, Nashville, A Wedding, Health), the star system and “old Hollywood” are subverted, along with the top-down capitalistic hierarchy that created them.
“We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia.”—GIs confront the limitation on human behavior, and imperceptibly cross the line, Apocalypse Now
The Fisher-King is celebrated and destroyed. The individual is replaced by the community, just as families and friendships are replaced by alliances in Quintet (and, by the way, in The Godfather). Power is transformed, redefined, redistributed; the People survive; and it remains for the Poet to chronicle the passing of the Hero. The centrality of this timeless mythic experience to contemporary life and art is insisted upon in Apocalypse Now, where we see conspicuously displayed copies of the poems of T.S. Eliot, Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and the omnipresent spectre, however disturbed, of Joseph Conrad. Altman’s world borders, and minutely overlaps, that of Francis Ford Coppola.
“Michael, we’re bigger than U. S. Steel!”—Hyman Roth, The Godfather, Part II
The two Godfather films of the 1970s form a sweeping parable about the decline of the family in America. They are built on a series of formalized, family-based rituals central to the Italian-Catholic mythos: Baptism, First Communion, wedding, feast, festival, funeral. The “family”-centered world of organized crime is a metaphor—perhaps an equation—for the ruthless, dehumanizing practice of American capitalism (of which the making of movies is inescapably a part). Based first on family structure and the need to protect interests closest to home and heart (Vito), corporate enterprise ends by dehumanizing (Sonny), denying (Fredo), and alienating (Michael) its own foundation.
Yet that top-down capitalistic hierarchy, in whose face Altman continually flies, enjoys a less assailable position in Coppola’s world. It is the preeminent reality by which all individuals are defined. Throughout the Godfather films we are reminded of the close connections among the business of crime, the workings of government, and the protective role of the military. The emphasis placed on Michael’s uniform, and on the important day he enlisted in the army, speaks as much to the military’s place in the overall capitalist picture as to the impossibility of true heroic gesture in the world of The Godfather.
“Save me, Don Corleone. Pull a few strings.”—Consigliere Cenco on his deathbed, The Godfather
The absence of heroes—even artificial ones—distinguishes Coppola’s world from Altman’s. Genco’s plea to Vito Corleone to save him from death illustrates the limitations of temporal power, even as it reflects human unwillingness to recognize those limitations. Instead of heroes ritualistically sacrificed to the betterment of the community, Coppola presents power gods, in whom all authority is vested and all trust placed by the mass. Unlike Altman, Coppola eschews close shots in crowd scenes. The wedding party in The Godfather is shot without close-ups, contrasting starkly with the ferocious ECUs of the intercut scenes in the Don’s office. Close-ups in Coppola’s films are reserved for the dark confessional zone where power meets morality head-on. Chiaroscuro cinematography clashes shadowy half-light with the blinding glare from windows to the outside world—a brightness that intensifies the interior dark with which it collides, while blurring the outlines of the characters themselves, who melt into light when not hidden in shadow. They become their milieu.
“We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator. But never think that it applies to my family.”—Don Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part II
Michael’s willful separation of himself from his family signals the collapse of family altogether—inevitable in a world where the word “family” has become a euphemism. Michael is as cool and as capable an administrator as Vito, unlike the hot-headed and impulsive Sonny. Yet Michael differs crucially from Vito: The all-consuming love and family feeling that inform Vito’s actions are paid mere lip-service by Michael. Vito’s empire is built not on money, fear, or force, but on favors. “Just remember I did you a favor” is the Don’s appeal to personal honor, whose bond builds him a vast network of loyal supporters. Vito’s approach is to Michael’s as barter is to corporate commerce. Michael, not Vito, is the herald of big business and its dehumanizing objectivity.
Michael’s rejection of his family to Kay at his sister’s wedding (“That’s my family, Kay—it’s not me”) betrays his lack of the kind of love-inspired solidarity that Vito and Sonny have in spades. For that reason, Michael’s later acts must be seen as a drive for power, his love and protection of his family a mere posture, even as Senator Geary says it is.
“By being strong for his family, can he lose it?”
“You can never lose your family.”
“Times are changing.”
—Conversation between Michael and Mama, The Godfather, Part II
At the end of The Godfather Michael condescends “this one time” to let Kay ask about his affairs, then lies to her. The gap between the Don and his family widens, stressed by lens distances and the repeated motif of closing doors and gates. By the end of The Godfather, Part II, Kay has become something like a good Sicilian wife, kneeling at prayer and lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
“You can kill anyone.”—A lesson from history, The Godfather, Part II
Michael, meanwhile, in an almost Hays Code justice, ends up alone, bitter, cautious, unhappy, his “plans for my future” irrevocably altered, the ranks of friends and family decimated along with those of enemies. Yet he remains an imposing power: He owns a senator, commands the loyalty of a few good men, and has a son, to whom will pass hereditary leadership of the family, or what’s left of it—and therein lies the rub. Coppola, the individualist, in many ways the anti-Altman, stresses Michael’s lost soul and underplays the survival of his empire. And he does this not only to moralize but also to alert us to his real interest: not the achievements of power, but power itself. Coppola in the 1970s is already the man who would make Tucker, The Godfather, Part III, and Dracula.
“You’re not supposed to get involved.”—Credo of a wiretap and a prostitute, The Conversation
Michael Corleone’s coolness epitomizes the suppression of emotion and personal involvement in the face of the naked brutality of power. In The Conversation, wiretap Harry Caul is as alone as Michael, but at the other end of the scale: powerless. “I don’t have any personal property,” he says, “nothing of value.” Moran calls him “Lonely and Anonymous.” He tells Meredith, the hooker, “I don’t need anyone.” Michael postures love to mask its absence; Harry boasts of professional detachment (“I don’t care what they’re talking about; I just want a nice, fat recording”) to hide the depth of his sensitivity (“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”). To a huge ear, glimpsed dimly through a screen, Harry gives the confession of his life, then quickly disclaims, “But I’m not responsible…”
Concluding on the face of the evidence that he is once again an accessory to a murder he is powerless to stop, Harry hides from the act, and from his own guilt, by covering himself with blankets and turning the television up full-volume. His freedom is increasingly limited by moral compunction and the spectre of his own responsibility. He is Kurtz before the horror.
“Have you ever considered that the greatest freedom is freedom from the opinions of others, and from your own opinions?”—Colonel Walter E. Kurtz
Through the transference of power from Harry Caul to his tormentors, and the transition of Harry from bugger to buggee, tool to victim, Coppola’s sympathies seem to be with him, and against the cold-blooded practitioners of power who, like Michael Corleone, survive only by emptying out the world. Yet The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II betray a growing fascination with the process whereby conventional morality, and even private morality, is totally suppressed. Coppola begins to take a certain delight in witnessing the corruption of the incorruptible, seeing the embrace of power as liberation from responsibility for men like Michael Corleone, Kurtz, and Willard. The offer is made to Harry Caul, who becomes instead an eternal victim because of his inability to renounce guilt. Michael and Willard are more willing wearers of the mantle of power. Even though the theatrical release and the redux version of Apocalypse Now no longer end, as originally planned, with Willard’s accession to Kurtz’s profane throne, both Willard and Coppola are irrevocably impressed with the denial of moral responsibility that Kurtz’s vision of freedom-as-power offers. A significant change from Conrad is Coppola’s emphasis on Kurtz’s son as the proposed recipient of his jungle reminiscences, replacing the quite different implication of Kurtz’s references to his “intended” in Heart of Darkness.
“Never get out of the boat.”—What a crewman learns from a tiger, Apocalypse Now
Coppola takes a back door into the war, and uses it as metaphor and milieu, never as subject. In reiterating Conrad’s long, slow, relentless journey from the bustling center of civilization to the primitive limits of human experience, Coppola has recourse to one of the most often-remarked and psychologically shattering aspects of Vietnam: the high speed with which men were taken in and out of the war, from safety to harm’s way in minutes—almost as if “the war” were a place. “Disneyland,” Lance Johnson calls it.
At one end of Captain Willard’s mission to the primitive is a roast beef dinner, where a comically grotesque, self-important G-2 type maps out the strategy of passing food around the table, while another spills a top secret file and mutters “Shit!” At the other end is Cambodia, the arbitrary but emphatic limit to acceptable behavior (“We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia”). Cuing off the kaleidoscopic shifts from civilization to primitivism that scarred so many Vietnam veterans, from tape decks and Playboy bunnies to elemental confrontation with violence, atrocity and death, Coppola adopts a surreal approach to his subject. No titles open the film, and the first words heard are “This is the end,” a joke that signals both the apocalyptic intent and the disorientation of the film to come. A burning helicopter in a tree is not the only reminder of Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, another long river-trip in which the primitive swallows the civilized and reality fades into its own denial.
But Coppola employs his surrealism inconsistently. The uncompromising realism of his depiction of atrocity and violence strikes a discordant note with the farcical portrayal of the perpetrators of outrage—the cardboard Colonel Kilgore, the motley riverboat crew, the wild-eyed photojournalist, the larger-than-life Kurtz. The atrocities seem real, but the people who commit them are cartoons. It is as if Coppola—the man who wrote Patton—wants to indict atrocity, but not to assign (or accept) responsibility for it.
“Don’t look at the camera! Keep moving ahead, like you’re fighting!”—A movie director, Apocalypse Now
Coppola’s cameo in Apocalypse Now as an agitated film director determined to get good footage whether anything is happening or not is a nod to the role of the news media as a controlling force in the war. But it’s also a telling metaphor: the film director as general. Coppola first seems to identify himself with Willard, who says in voice-over, “To tell his story is to tell my own, and if his is a confession, I guess mine is, too.” But Coppola is more Kurtz than Willard, and finally more Kilgore than Kurtz.
“It is judgment that defeats us,” says Kurtz. “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.”—Coppola to his critics? Kurtz is less like Chef’s judgment of him (“He’s worse’n crazy—he’s evil!”) than like Nietzsche, struggling to live beyond good and evil. To violate one’s own moral sensitivity out of sheer will—that is what Kurtz stands for here, a rather more explicit “horror” than Conrad was willing to present. Kurtz confronts and accepts the savage in himself, bows to the “genius” of primitive, violent willpower. “He is clear in his mind,” says the photojournalist, in a line straight from Conrad, “but his soul is mad.”
In a land and an experience from which there is never any real going back, Kurtz alone has gone all the way. For both Coppola and Conrad—but in distinctly different ways—the height of madness, and of power, is to make oneself a god. Apocalypse Now is Coppola’s most personal and stark confrontation with the question that has obsessed him all along: What dark vision makes a man abandon his moral ideals and embrace power for its own sake? The departure from customary morality—both that imposed by social norms and that dictated from within—is seen by Coppola not as a degeneration but as a liberation, freedom as unabashed flirtation with raw manipulative power—the kind of power that, at its worst, is marked by arrogance and contempt; the power once wielded by the Hollywood moguls, and was now, in the Zoetrope 1970s, wielded by Coppola’s own production system over his actors, his investors, and his public.
When Apocalypse Now first appeared, a friend remarked to me that the film’s voyage into the heart of darkness is less intense than the novel’s because Coppola, unlike Conrad, had not made that voyage in himself. I agreed then. Today I think differently: Coppola did make the voyage; but unlike Conrad he had not returned.
Where Robert Altman—cynical but hopeful populist who rose from television to become a new voice—insists upon the rejuvenation of the people through a ritual death signifying the redefinition and redistribution of power, Francis Ford Coppola—cynical despairing realist who rose through the studio system to become a new mogul himself—is very nearly his opposite, reasserting the solidification of power in the individual. If, in this backward glance, Altman and Coppola seem to emerge the Trotsky and Stalin of Hollywood in the 1970s, it only emphasizes, in that crucial decade, both how much and how little the business of making movies had changed.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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