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Altman & Coppola in the Seventies: Power & the People

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Altman & Coppola in the Seventies: Power & the People

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.”

“No.”

“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.

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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.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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!

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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.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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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

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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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

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

3

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

2

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment

Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.

2.5

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Sword of Trust
Photo: IFC Films

Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.

Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.

Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.

Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.

Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.

Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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