With Project Nim, James Marsh has created a documentary that feels more like a biopicâand one that avoids the genreâs usual pitfalls. He follows the life of a chimp named Nim, who was brought up to live with a human family to see whether chimps could communicate as people do. However, Nim soon showed an aggressive side; in one instance, he ripped open a womanâs face. Heâs shuffled from family to institution, including a spell at a lab that tests hepatitis vaccines. As in his previous documentaries, Marsh uses fictional recreations to fill in the gaps in the available footage. The results tell a lot about both animal and human nature.
What are the differences between domesticated animals like dogs and Nim? [Note: I asked this question because a dog was roaming around the office where I interviewed Marsh.]
A dog has been bred for thousand years to live with us. Domestic animals are very different from wild animals. Thatâs a small footnote to Project Nim, but I found that out when I was making the film.
Did you have any other preconceived notions about Nimâor more generally about human and animal natureâthat were challenged by making the film?
I came to this the way most people did. I had some ideas about chimps being cheeky, mischievous and playful, but I hadnât really reckoned with the fact that theyâre wild animals and what theyâre like in nature. The chimps one sees in films or TV are young ones, under 5. They get to be big and powerful. I was surprised how aggressive they get to be. I hadnât really given much thought to our relationship with animals. Making the film made me reflect on that. It also made me think about the fact that weâre animals too. Weâre higher primates. Some of our behavior is also expressed in chimpanzees. Weâre hard-wired for aggression and hedonism. The idea of the experiment with Nim was an attempt to get chimps to use a chimpâs natural ability to use body language, as Iâm doing now with you, and get him to tell us what he was thinking.
Your use of recreations is very convincing. Until I saw the end credits, I thought you had found home movies from the first family that takes Nim in. Are there any ethical boundaries you wouldnât cross in using recreations?
I donât have any particular rules about anything when it comes to filmmaking. I keep an open mind about storytelling. For example, when I was making Man on Wire, I knew there was no footage of Philippe [Petit] walking between the Twin Towers. I thought there was no way you could fake it. Itâs not really a question of moral principles. I use recreations because I feel like I have to. I need to do it because I have to evoke certain images to tell the story. In Man on Wire, I would never presume to have reconstructed Philiipeâs walk. Generally speaking, I donât have any rules about this issue.
I was also curious if you think about recreations at the beginning of a project or later on.
I try to figure out the nature of the motion picture and photo archive thatâs available. I donât really work on recreations until most of the film is put together. So I would encounter that problem when Iâve created the narrative and gathered together the interviews and raw material. I ask myself, âWhat do I need now to tell the story?â The reconstructions would emerge from a rough cut of the film, where I know that there are images I still want to see. Theyâre determined entirely by the structure of the film.
Did any of the people in Nimâs story refuse to speak to you or impose unreasonable conditions?
Well, two of them are dead. That was Wim LaFarge, Stephanieâs husband, and Dr. Lemon, who was the head of the Primate Research Lab in Oklahoma. Everyone else I approached eventually said yes. There was a little bit of resistance from Jim Mahoney, who you see towards the latter half of the story. Heâs obviously a figure who would upset someone by virtue of what he does. Elise Moore was hard to track down. Most people involved in the film had a very strong and emotional recollection of their involvement with Nim. They witnessed an extraordinary thing. They felt able to talk on that basis. It was worth sharing. There was a certain sense that the time had now come to tell their story.
Has everyone who was interviewed in the film seen in it now?
Everyone we can find, apart from Jim Mahoney and Elisa Moore. Jim will see it in Boston in a few weeks and we lost track of Elisa again. But all the key players have seen it. I think theyâve accepted it for what it was. Thereâs been no major problem with their reactions.
Do you agree that Nim never really learned language?
To some extent, I do. I think he never learned to be creative with language the way humans are. He never learned to use grammar and syntax the way we do. Why should he? Heâs not human, heâs a chimpanzee. So I would agree with that conclusion, that Nim and most chimpanzees donât have a desire to learn language, but that they can communicate with us, If youâve raised children, you can see that within a few weeks of learning their first few words, they can use language creatively. Chimps donât do that.
It was interesting to see the dog begging for food outside.
It was using body language. Nim is like that too. Nimâs version of that is much more strategic and sophisticated. A dog canât pretend to need to use the toilet to get out of the room. Nim could do that to fool us. He can use the tools we give him to fool us. I tried to put as many domestic animals in Project Nim as possible to show how weâve bred them to control them. A chimpanzee is much different. It doesnât have selective breeding over generations to make it an agreeable presence in our lives. Thatâs a big distinction.
It was also interesting that Nim learned the sign language for âsmokeâ and âstoned.â
When he wanted something, he learned how to request it.
Were you surprised that Bob Ingersoll turned out to be Nimâs most loyal human friend?
I think thatâs true, across the years. It wasnât surprising to me at all, knowing Bob. Itâs his nature to be this way. Not everyone can do this. He said âChimps make that selection for you.â If they donât want to be around you, youâll know about it very quickly. Bob has this uncanny ability to relate to chimps and be like them. He went more than halfway to meet Nim. He didnât expect Nim to sit in a classroom and learn language. He actually hung out with him, foraged for food and smoked joints with him. He found a middle ground to communicate with him. In that respect, heâs an exemplary character.
Before making the film, did you look at other documentaries about primates?
One always does. I looked at Barbet Schroederâs Koko, which is an extraordinary documentary about a talking gorilla, and Frederick Wisemanâs Primate. I also saw Bressonâs Au Hasard Balthazar. Those were the principal reference points.
From what I recall of Koko, itâs a bit more optimistic.
Koko is a snapshot, rather than the story of a whole life. What we see in Koko is a fully grown female gorilla. Sheâs able to communicate very well with her human companion. That also has a much more conventional documentary context, interviewing scientists. I tried to tell a story rather than getting into the abstractions of the argument.
Is the footage of Nim in the hepatitis vaccine lab a recreation?
No, that was news footage taken at the time Nim was there. That wa quite a public story. CBS did a story on it. We managed to find the rushes. Thatâs absolutely what Nim experienced. Itâs extraordinarily powerful for that reason. Itâs all genuine footage. You see Jim Mahoney. I hope youâd know that itâs real because you hear his Irish accent and also see him feeding some baby chimpanzees.
Do you think your work has benefited from going back and forth between fiction and documentary?
Itâs a real privilege. Itâs enormously beneficial in terms of your mental well-being. Documentaries are a much longer-term commitment, while feature films are quite a concentrated period of time. Storytelling techniques you can find in one are useful in the other, and vice versa. The documentaries Iâve made are stories that are unbelievable. You couldnât make them up. The fictional films tend to be more realistic. Red Riding: 1980, The King, and the film Iâm about to make are heavily influenced by real events. The presentation of my documentaries is far more baroque.
What is the film youâre about to make?
A thriller set in Northern Ireland. It takes place at the time of the peace process, in the early â90s. Itâs not about the troubles, but the way they get resolved. It has many elements of documentary.
Steve Erickson is a writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Fandorâs blog, Film Comment, and other publications and websites.
All of Quentin Tarantinoâs Movies Ranked
On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.
Quentin Tarantinoâs commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatestâa dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artistâs status as one of American cinemaâs preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-â60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.
The flash and fun of the filmâs first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We wonât spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantinoâs features. Sam C. Mac
10. Death Proof (2007)
With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephileâs mixtape of the countless films heâs absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mikeâs victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (âIâm okay!â one of them happily beams right after sheâs almost been decimated by Mikeâs muscle car) or Mikeâs, is so casually flippant that weâre denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe itâs a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp
9. Django Unchained (2012)
With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesnât transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the filmâs ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one canât escape the suspicion that this filmâs a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantinoâs allegiance to the same damn clichĂ©s that govern politer âissueâ films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen
8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Even when he isnât at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesnât put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such referencesâand in a QT film, theyâre legionâmean something to viewers other than the fact that theyâre referencing something. In other words, you donât have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance oneâs appreciation of those films more, but thereâs more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantinoâs films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie historyâentertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenreâs tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fateâs hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenterâs The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu âcourtâ is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
From a structural standpoint, Kill Billâs two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. Itâs a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantinoâs greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, itâs reminiscent of Pynchonâs nine-page aside in Gravityâs Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movieâs two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and itâs in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Billâs surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich
Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist
The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local âcurrency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.â Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who arenât already confined to it and to whom displaying the cityâin the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirsâwould amount to a perverse redundancy. Itâs a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersbyâunless one traverses its center, where a McDonaldâs and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, âunless you go to Douala.â This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. Itâs this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. Thereâs a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a âJapanese and Thai Asian CafĂ©,â and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFFâs outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but donât use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.
A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. Heâs derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (RenĂ©e AdorĂ©e). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.
The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festivalâs celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.
As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brownâs silent drama at the place where one of cinemaâs most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didnât realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with âthe peopleâ huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.
Itâs difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexualityâs mathematical logic in its simplest form: âI am your man. You are my woman. I want you.â And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: âFather, am I Cossack?â The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that thereâs a âplaceâ in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. âIs it an app?â I ask. Jalala smiles and says that itâs a park. âBut itâs dangerous,â she tells me. âItâs very exciting and very dangerous.â Because there are skinheads, she says. âDo the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?â I ask her. âI donât know,â she responded. âThatâs why itâs dangerous.â
The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, arenât unlike Londonâs Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. Thereâs also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.
When looking at the festivalâs program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalalaâs account, in Odessa more generallyâit just isnât publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja EsmĂ„r Dannemann). Thereâs something eerie about this setup even before Peterâs problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.
Whatâs uncanny about Anne and Peterâs home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent youâd only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-hoâs Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.
When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, weâre only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isnât a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.
Queen of Hearts focuses on Anneâs paradoxes: Sheâs a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anneâs stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustavâs bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. âBut you never swim,â says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force thatâs appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnauâs Sunrise to Alain Guiraudieâs Stranger by the Lake.
The affair isnât about love, of course, or passion. Itâs not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like itâs been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anneâs passage Ă lâacte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, âWith someone it shouldnât have been,â which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.
The first few sequences of Alejandro Landesâs Monos evoke Claire Denisâs Beau Travail, except it isnât only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the filmsâ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.
It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholsonâs character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter whoâs supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrativeâs surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landesâs film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over oneâs claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.
Yuriy Shylovâs Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionistâs 44-year tenure at one of Kievâs oldest movie theaters. Itâs an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentinâs own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and thereâs a sense throughout Shylovâs documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theaterâs closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonaldâs. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.
âYou think youâre loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,â Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her sonâs name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for utteringâs sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only sheâd use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that wonât be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.
Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but itâs a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our ownâa kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether heâs sewing, as heâs seen doing in the film, fixing a neighborâs straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. Thereâs pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema thatâs bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, weâre reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. Itâs a tool thatâs never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. âMen are cowards, didnât you know that?â is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the filmâs âlifeâ is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because itâs in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.
The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12â20.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasnât spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. Sheâs currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theaterâs Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Parkâs Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
Itâs the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier whoâs thrust into a highly political and governance-related situationâareas where he isnât comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesnât love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living inâit does give you pause. Thatâs what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And whatâs Volumniaâs function within the play?
Sheâs definitely the most powerful influence on her son. Sheâs the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesnât respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. Itâs true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that heâs about five years younger, and Iâm a little older. Volumnia was a single motherâno father is mentioned in the playâand she had him when she was young. So, sheâs a lioness, a tigress, about her child. Iâve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a motherâs life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, whatâs at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
Thereâs a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didnât have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mindâanother fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters itâs different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean periodâlike Coriolanusâthereâs a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winterâs Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scotsâkind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother Iâve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although Iâm very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters Iâm comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Greyâs Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. Itâs taxing but it doesnât wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! Weâre so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, itâs great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And Iâm looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrierâtwo scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line âProspero.â It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, âYes!â We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a womanâthe relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. Iâm actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine womanâjust in the way she approaches things. Sheâs not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, Iâm glad Iâve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasnât your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasnât until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasnât just that. Itâs that I didnât know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, youâre an itinerant worker. Iâd seen everythingâmy father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didnât love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. Iâm also married to Michael Ritchie, whoâs the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but heâs not an actor. We have a son whoâs an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child whoâs an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. Itâs going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, âIâm your daughter so let me find my own path.â Iâve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them itâs all about you finding your own voice, you donât want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, thatâs the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Greyâs Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Greyâs Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. Iâve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, itâs my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and itâs hot and steamy. Now Iâm playing a single character and Iâm not in any of the fight scenes so Iâm very happy! What Iâm excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasnât been done in the Park since 1979. Itâs so virulent and so vital. Thereâs a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesnât get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this yearâs recipient of the festivalâs Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japanâs cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugamiâs feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her motherâs death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoaâs father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, whoâs isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, itâs almost as if sheâs destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos sheâs been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: âYou wouldnât understand, youâre rich, you wouldnât know. Will you pay for my expenses?â In this moment, Kitaiâs triumph is making her characterâs wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star ShĆta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot theyâve been handed in life. The protagonistâs attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonistâs co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the menâs lives. Thereâs redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyakeâs style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyoneâs slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that sheâs going to regret her purchase. Miyakeâs gaze is empathetic, and thereâs truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayamaâs satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style cafĂ© that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesnât fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system heâs trapped within.
The filmâs style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere thatâs in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and itâs satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that itâs difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19â28.
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 âcomicâs comicâ 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, âWTF,â and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a âcomic who actsâ 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 filmâs 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 âmind-fuckeryâ currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that youâve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, Iâm generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I donât know if thereâs a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors whoâre 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 Iâm 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 thereâs subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldnât have the confidence to assume that my take is the ârightâ one necessarily.
Thereâs a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that Iâm not sure weâve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynnâs 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 whoâs sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I donât know if itâs heartache, but heâs definitely a broken dude whoâs making the best of whatever time he has left. I donât know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Melâs appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. Heâs not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that youâre talking about. With acting I feel that Iâve been learning on the job in a way, and over time Iâve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether itâs a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, Iâve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with whatâs around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. Itâs 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 Iâve started acting more, Iâve 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 Iâve talked to so many of them, Iâve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, thatâŠwhatâs the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get on set with people, you realize, âWell, thatâs how theyâre approaching this job,â and when you get into the ring or the scene, youâre in it.
That inside knowledge gives âWTFâ 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 donât think I ever set out to interview. Iâve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they donât. Thereâs a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally donât see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I donât 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 donât have to answer to anybody and I donât know what Iâm looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge Iâve found with interviews is that one doesnât always entirely know what is and isnât 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 Iâm not necessarily intuitive about that. Iâm not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesnât really matter what theyâre talking about. Audiences will say, âOh, wow, I didnât know that.â These conversations donât require information, but an emotional connection. Iâm 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 isnât civil and thereâs a momentum to everything thatâs based on mind-fuckery. I know for myselfâas somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a differenceâthat 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. Itâs not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what weâre telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information thatâs being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesnât take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. Itâs sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that Iâm having. Iâm 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. Itâs called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someoneâs that personally invested in something they believe in, and itâs righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, thatâs what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone whoâs long been in recovery, to play characters whoâre either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously thereâs the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didnât happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and youâve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life thatâs not in the throes of itâI mean, itâs such a common struggle. And whatâs amazing to me is how many people donât find a way out of that or donât seek help. Or are ashamed of it or donât know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but Iâm thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people whoâre isolated by this sickness. Itâs really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people whoâre struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what Iâve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context thatâs very specificâa way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ 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 Sheltonâs 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 Trustâs 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 theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ lives.
Last year on Marc Maronâs podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldnât 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 canât remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think thereâs eight. I know Iâm not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think Iâm pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. Iâve 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 donât like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. Iâm 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 weâre constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, Iâm much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because itâs not a prewritten script weâre handed. Itâs not like, âThis is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box weâve already determined for you.â Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living oneâs 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 âthis is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that planââthat feels very depressing to me. Itâs 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 Marcâs on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer âpersonaâ 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. Heâs raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and heâs 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. Thatâs why heâs such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And thatâs 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 doesnât know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, âThe next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.â I said, âWhat?! That cameraâs right there!â Heâs like, âI donât see it. Iâm not aware of it. Iâm just in this scene with the person.â Iâm like, âThat is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that youâre able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.â Heâs really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set heâs drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but theyâre 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 Iâve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then thereâs other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I havenât done since Your Sisterâs Sister. Iâve 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 laughâand let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which Iâve never let myself do before. Iâve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, âWhat if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?â I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didnât make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what weâre dealing with in society. Weâre having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. Theyâve always been around, but this is definitely where theyâve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, itâs 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, thereâs 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 OâBrien, my co-writer. Itâs so fascinating because thereâs 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, theyâre at odds and frenemies for life. Itâs insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? Thereâs a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like âumâ or âyou know.â
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. Iâll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. Youâll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if Iâm cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, itâs often because Iâm slicing out an âumâ or an âahâ or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. Itâs 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 cutâit didnât feel fat, it was funny throughoutâwas two and a half hours long. I was like, âHow am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?â And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, âThis is hysterical, this is gold, but itâs not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but letâs just hone it down to Melâs emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.â 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 wasnât. When Mike OâBrien 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 Melâs arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldnât figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasnât comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasnât going to worry about it. I wasnât 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 didnât realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
Youâve described your writing process as being âupside-down,â 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 Iâm 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. Youâre out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. Youâre at scene 35 on the first day and like, âWhatâs happened before this? Where am I emotionally?â And then youâve 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 youâre Meryl Streep! But if youâre 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, âWhat if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work withâŠâ 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, âWhat am I watching? Am I in these peopleâs lives?â And people have said theyâve had that experience where theyâll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what theyâre watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, âYes! Thatâs what I meant.â
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. Iâll bring in a few lights. I had said, âNo lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, thatâs it.â 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 itâs half them or three-quarters them and theyâve developed it with meâŠI 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 Sisterâs Sister in the theater, but I didnât 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.
Itâs funny because I want my movies to feel like youâre paratrooping into somebodyâs life. Weâre taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I donât like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that theyâre continuing to live their lives, and who knows whatâs going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, thereâs a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bellâs character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, âWhat a strange experience.â 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! Itâs all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. Iâve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel likeâŠyou couldnât write that shit!
Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction
Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.
Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen Kingâs nod of approval. Disappearance at Devilâs Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horrorâs cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.
Tremblayâs latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?
âItâs Against the Law to Feed the Ducksâ is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, âI can do this.â That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the âwhy.â Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, âThatâs why itâs a horror story,â I do feel itâs one of the more horrific things Iâve ever written. âNineteen Snapshots of Dennisportâ was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.
Thatâs interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.
I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellingsâwhether your own or your friendsâ or familyâsâeach gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you canât trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person youâre sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as âa reveal of a dark truth.â In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isnât ironclad and memories arenât safe.
The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?
Well, itâs a reflection of the time weâre living in. Itâs pretty clear that social media hasnât only changed society, itâs also changed us as individuals. Itâs scary stuff and weâd be fools not to use it in stories. And I donât just mean to have it there as background noise. If youâre going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldnât mention this stuffâthat itâs not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because whereâs the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because youâre essentially world-building.
The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of âfake news.â Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?
Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. Iâve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But Iâve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, Itâs affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.
Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You canât know whatâs real because thereâs too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.
In Disappearance at Devilâs Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that itâs easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that âthe cellphone killed the horror story.â I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.
The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.
Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?
I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. Iâm an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think Iâd have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? Iâve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon Iâll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.
So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?
In your head you imagine it wouldnât take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. Iâd probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.
Iâm not naĂŻve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.
For each book itâs slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I havenât really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. Thatâs been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devilâs Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like itâs fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I havenât spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesnât matter if the world is ending or not.
Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleakâŠ
âŠyet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. Iâm thinking in particular of your story âA Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,â where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didnât expect. Would you say you are an optimist?
I donât know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called âthe hope of horror.â It may sound pretentious but the reason Iâm drawn to horror is the same reason Iâm drawn to punk. Itâs the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but thereâs value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we canât fix it. Thatâs the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, itâs the chance to look at how other people get through this thing weâre all doingâŠthis life.
Speaking of which, youâre a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.
Thatâs my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadnât realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devilâs Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though theyâre individual books, I think theyâre a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.
You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?
Yeah, thatâs for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but itâs about infected people rather than the undead. Itâs set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.
Is there a title?
The working title is Survivor Song. Itâs due with my publishers at the end of the summer.
Thatâs quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?
[laughs] Aaah, not at all. Itâs understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadnât sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. Itâs the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then Iâm not sure how much of a say you have. I donât have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. Itâs all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.
Perkinsâs The Blackcoatâs Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?
Definitely. Heâs the perfect director for this material. Iâm really looking forward to seeing what they do. Itâll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.
As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?
House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. Iâd love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if youâre going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and thatâs easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I donât feel the need to escape. Sometimes itâs just me trying to play with all the toys.
Youâre at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?
People talk about a new golden age of horror. Thatâs a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, âHey, what weâre doing is great.â But I think itâs also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasnât been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We arenât all the way there yet, but itâs exciting and promising. Iâm happy to be playing a little part in it.
Finally, whatâs your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?
With books itâs a tie. Mark Danielewskiâs House of Leaves and Shirley Jacksonâs We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but letâs stick with those two. With movies itâs either John Carpenterâs The Thing or Steven Spielbergâs Jaws. Iâve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still canât watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and Iâm too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: âDo you even know who you are?â It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. Itâs the heart of horror.
Paul Tremblayâs Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.
Interview: Jack Reynor on His Reverse Heroâs Journey in Midsommar
Itâs been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by his character in the film.
âI wrote this when I was going through a break up,â said writer-director Ari Aster as he introduced the finished cut of Midsommar to its first New York public screening back in June, âIâm better now.â Judging from what ensues in the film, much of Asterâs healing comes at the expense of the character Christian, played by Jack Reynor. As the emotionally distant romantic partner of Florence Pughâs Dani, Christian bears the brunt of the filmâs rage once his girlfriend becomes empowered to confront her past and present traumas through the rituals and traditions of a small Swedish village they visit.
Asterâs sophomore feature certainly doesnât lack for that uneasy tension between hilarity and horrorâspawned by fraught, complicated relationship dynamicsâthat marked Hereditary. As Pughâs performance strengthens in tenacity over the course of the film, only Reynorâs fully realized portrayal of Christian stands in the way of total audience alignment with Daniâs retributive awakening. Instead of letting his character become a simplistic villain to draw our ire, he plays Christian in such a way that frustrates rather than outright antagonizes.
Midsommar has all the trappings of a major breakout for the American-Irish Reynor, thanks to his nuanced rendering of contemporary masculinity. The character fuses the sensibilities heâs honed across a range of productions from studio fare like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Delivery Man to mid-budget American indies like Detroit and On the Basis of Sex, though the 27-year-oldâs best preparation may have come from playing tortured young Irish men in homegrown fare like What Richard Did and Glassland.
Itâs been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by Christian. He and the rest of the cast first saw Midsommar just a day before A24 began screening it before crowds, and, as he expressed, some of the fervent responses caught him off guard. I talked with Reynor over the phone a week later to discuss how he approached playing such a polarizing character and what heâs learned from the audienceâs feedback. We discuss plot points from the third act in generalities, but those looking to avoid any spoilers for Midsommar might want to bookmark and return to this interview after seeing the film.
I was in a Q&A where you asked the audience if they thought Christian deserved his fate, but I couldnât see in the frame how they voted. What was the verdict?
I think almost half the people put up their hands instantly, in a very tellingly reactionary fashion. [laughs] It was really interesting.
Is that what you were expecting?
It wasnât what I was expecting, but I think I should have been expecting it. I think it says more about me that I wasnât expecting it than it does about them. Itâs an interesting one, because my feeling about this movie is that Iâm okay whether you feel like Christian deserves it or not, itâs fine. But it needs some real thought. Ultimately, the reason I wanted to do the movie was because I felt like this character was not one-dimensional. Ari never wanted him to be that way. Both of these characters represent the human condition, the things we can all relate to, in all of our relationships, be it with a parent, a family member, a friend, or a romantic partner. At one point or another, weâve all been guilty of being insensitive or emotionally unavailable to a person or self-involved in a toxic, dysfunctional way. Just as we have experienced emotional needs and those needs not being met. These are all parts of the human condition. So that, for me, was the really interesting thing to portray.
Ultimately, the purpose of something like Midsommar is to challenge people to acknowledge the fact that they can relate to both of these people. And, ultimately, we do find ourselves in alignment with Dani at the end of the movie. This is a movie about her liberation from a toxic relationship and the catharsis that comes with it, albeit that the catharsis is confusing, painful, complex and not entirely clear. Itâs very clear that itâs ultimately where weâre supposed to find ourselves at the end of the movie.
I was interested in giving extra layers of dimensionality to Christian and challenging myself to empathize and relate to a guy who, on the surface, is just an archetypal toxic alpha male. What allowed me to get into that was to follow this guyâs journey, which is the reverse of the heroâs journey. This guyâs structures, identity, and everything about him breaks down and is stripped away from him before he can even realize it. Itâs happening all around him, and he doesnât see it before itâs too late. But he finds himself literally stripped bare in this humiliating, exposing place, which is absolutely terrifying. That allowed me to get into the character, looking at him and acknowledging there are plenty of elements of that character that are in me and every single human being on the face of the planet. Itâs the human condition.
I think you also said something to the people who thought Christian deserved what he got, âGo home and take a look at yourself in the mirror.â I donât think anyone would want to be judged by their worst day or the worst thing they did. People are complicated, and they make decisions that donât even make sense to themselves.
I totally agree, dude. I might have been a little bit reactionary myself to the audience! [laughs] But now that Iâve had an opportunity to talk about it, this is how I feel.
Some scenes that supposedly showed Christian in a more sympathetic light were left on the cutting room floorâobviously, what makes the most sense for the film is what should win out, but is there a part of you that wishes people might see the fuller picture of the character you created?
Partly, but then it would have been a very different film. I think, ultimately, itâs the directorâs decision that weâre aligned with Dani. And itâs an interesting one. If the scenes where Christian exhibits more compassion and provides her with stuff she needs in the moment had been left in, the film would be even more divisive and polarizing for an audience than it is. But as I said, it was the directorâs decision to take it out.
How do you tackle playing beats in Midsommar like the one when Christian turns on a dime and decides he also wants to research the HĂ„rga in direct mimicry of Josh, his friend and colleague. The underlying reasons of jealousy and entitlement read clearly to us, but Christian himself seems a bit aloof and isnât cognizant of why heâs doing what he is. How do you approach those moments?
I looked through the script, and thereâs so much of being a dick and being aloof. But I wanted to play this guy, further to your point, on his worst day. Itâs the worst of this guy. Although thatâs pretty much all we see of the character, my baseline for Christian is that heâs a well-meaning guy. He would probably think heâs a good dude who tries to do the right thing. When you pitch the character there for yourself and allow the character to do questionable things, I think it gives context to everything. So thatâs what I tried to do, making it a case where an audience is watching a good dude do really, really dickish things. All theyâre seeing is these awful things heâs doing, but itâs all coming out of a guy whoâs largely well-meaning. Some of the stuff he does is really unforgivable, particularly the element of stealing Joshâs idea for the thesis and being so brazen about it. Itâs unbelievable. If thereâs one thing in particular I find unforgivable about him, itâs that. I think to base the character as someone who means well but is acting out their worst aspects of their character in this moment is how I got into it.
Youâve spoken about wanting to get in on the ground floor with directors and being a part of their success, not just latching yourself on when theyâre already established. How do you know or gauge whoâs going the distance and whoâs a one-hit wonder?
You never really know completely. Youâre taking a swing, and thereâs so much luck involved. Itâs a question of educating yourself as much as possible in the culture of cinema and making an educated guess from there. Ari in particular is someone who I thought his short films were visionary when I watched them, because I never got to see Hereditary before I signed on to do this movie. The script was really interesting, but what he wrote goes far beyond the words on the page. The conversations I had with him prior to signing on to be a part of the film were definitely incredibly encouraging for me. We have a common admiration for a number of quite obscure filmmakers, but some of the best filmmakers who ever lived, nonetheless. To me, that was a sign that this was something I wanted to be a part of and this was a director who valued the artistic merit of the project above all else. As long as youâre in the company of someone like that and as cultured as he is in the conversation of filmmaking, youâre probably in good hands. Iâm going to endeavor to continue down that route interrogating directors I work with.
Is that education aspect of it a part of what your new Instagram movie review account, Jack Reynorâs Cinemania, is about? Watching movies with an eye to your own development as an artist?
One-hundred percent, man. Thatâs something I started not only because I wanted to start conversations with others about the cinema I love, but because it also helps me to advise and absorb what Iâm seeing when Iâm watching it. It educates me further in the grammar of cinema, and itâs a very useful tool for me as much as itâs an outlet. I absolutely love it.
All 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked, from Worst to Best
On the eve of Spider-Man: Far from Homeâs release, we ranked the 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studiosâs films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies oneâs patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editorâs Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
23. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Leeâs Hulk is corrupted by Marvelâs ârebootâ of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrierâs intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Leeâs unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation orâgasp!âsubtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
22. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreauâs follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesnât need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchiseâs bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
21. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)âlike Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before herâgetting her own series. But if not, then, hey, sheâs at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody elseâs franchise down the road. Based on whatâs on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
20. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Thereâs some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony âIron Manâ Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machineâs at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich
19. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investmentâin all senses of that termâin Marvelâs carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. Itâs passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finishâsomething an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neuteringâitâs instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith
18. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branaghâs film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The filmâs most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thorâs main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvelâs commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, thatâs just not enough. Simon Abrams
17. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvelâs square-jawedâand squareâjingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, Ă la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female leadâs buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Manânamely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultronâs narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isnât about the intricate plot and the charactersâ mythology, itâs a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thorâs (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, thereâs a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then thereâs a plethora of other exchanges that donât seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johanssonâs Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isnât consistently preoccupied with the size of hisâŠego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration
Joey Burns and Sam Beam spoke with reverence about each other, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
From âFather Mountain,â which urges you to savor love in the face of lifeâs inevitabilities, to âIn Your Own Time,â with its shadowy images flirting with the nightmarish, thereâs a melancholy percolating beneath Years to Burn, the second collaborative album from Iron and Wine and Calexico. In a recent conversation with Iron and Wine, a.k.a. Sam Beam, and Calexicoâs Joey Burns, the musicians spoke with reverence about each other, both personally and professionally, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
As elusive as the exact source of Years to Burnâs mellowness might be, the work on the project was, to hear Beam and Burns tell it, focused and grounded. The album grew, as Beam says, âout of a determination and a willingness to work together. After we made [2005âs In the Reins], that time we spent together promoting it, and just sort of playing together for so long, formed really strong bondsâfamilial bondsâand we just really enjoy each otherâs company.â
The questions they faced were, according to Burns, âWell, where do you go next? Do you do begin where you last left off or do you just go somewhere totally different?â As it happened, they wouldnât have too much of an opportunity to ruminate about that: Their time in the studio was limited to five days, and they limited the number of musicians they used, sticking with tried-and-true band members like John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, and Paul Valenzuela. Burns describes a fairly stoic regimen: âYou show up at 10 oâclock, do some work, break for lunch, work up until dinner, finish up or just listen back, and then do it all over again. Thereâs really not much time for hanging out or doing anything else.â
These limitations ended up working to the albumâs benefit. âHaving a limited amount of time kind of forces you as an artist to make decisions,â Beam says. âYou can get really hung up on what the right choices are, and thatâs kind of an endless question. With this approach, Iâm able to separate myself in a way where I say, well, this is the best choice that weâve made on this day from this point in the snapshot of our best ideas at the moment. And to me thatâs a freeing thing. You make decisions, and those decisions stick, and you live with them, and then you can move on to the next thing.â
Remarkably, Beam and Burns and the other musicians surrounding them found room to improvise and experiment within their constraints. The most evident sign of this, âBittersweet,â is an entrancing mix of three songs. Burns says it started with his primary partner in Calexico, John Convertino, who suggested they do one song that was totally free of lyrics, chords, and rhythm. âI came up with a title for that, âOutside El Paso,â sort of connecting us geographically,â Burns remembers. âAnd, of course, there we were in Nashville. And so Sam had a song called âTennessee Train.â And I thought, hey, what if we took just one chord and we just made a â70s groove? And we wound up putting some really great trumpet solos on that. We added some backing vocals. And since it was sort of linked with the song âTennessee Train,â we started bridging those together. And then I suggested that we take one of the verses and translate it into Spanish for Jacob [Valenzuela] to sing. And then that became sort of a medley. Everything fell together really naturally and quickly.â
Burns describes other moments of productive experimenting too: âWe had John Convertino climb into this big old empty tall echo-chamber. Itâs at the studio. And we had him record the drum intro [for âWhat Heavenâs Leftâ]. And he had to carry his floor tom inside there. Itâs a very small opening. Itâs like a tiny window. And basically what you do is you put a microphone at one end of this room, and then at the other end you put a speaker. And thatâs how you get the natural reverb sound.â
Though Beam had clear ideas about how he wanted the album to proceed, he also welcomed and appreciated these gestures of spontaneity. âItâs what can potentially make music really exciting, recording music and also playing music,â he says. âItâs sort of losing the safety net and stretching out. And so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that into what we were making this time. Last time, I donât feel like we really did that, because I didnât really understand that about them at the time.â
Time has made the two bands more effective collaborators. The way Burns sees it, time has changed them, but thatâs inevitable: âWeâre just different people. Different experiences have accumulated. And so thereâs a different end result. And not only that, but if we were to record the same songs and do another album like this, a week or a month later, it probably would come out a lot differently. Thatâs the beauty of thisâit just depends on the mood and the vibe and the place where youâre at, and where everyone is at internally or emotionally.â
Beam, similarly, takes time in stride but is also curious about the changes it could bring. âIt was odd, you know, that almost 15 years had passed in between, kind of crazy to think of,â he says. âThe first time we did it, we hadnât worked together before, so I was just sort of bringing in songs without knowing what it would sound like or what the collaboration would end up being like. And this time, it was 15 years later, so I was looking over my memories, and memories can be not quite so trustworthy sometimes. But I was also working off those strengths, and then also trying some new things.â
And so what of the songs themselves? Many musical collaborations sound like they were were designed by committee. With Years to Burn, like collaborations ranging from that of Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong and reaching all the way back to Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, something just works. While you might hear traces of each individual performer in the mix, the sound created is unique.
Beam says collaboration drove everything here, starting with the track sequence: âThere were thematic elements going on in the songs chosen for the album. I think we were all really intent on there being a lot of shared singing responsibilities. And so, in putting the sequence together I really wanted to feel like we kept sort of passing the baton around. When youâre putting those things together, youâre looking for a sort of sonic feel, flow, variety. Youâre looking for different kinds of musical movements, and then also passing the baton around like a hot potato of singing responsibilities.â
And yet Beamâs process for writing the songs on the album (he wrote all but one of them) was fairly private and intuitive. âWriting songs is not a math problem,â he says. âThereâs not a right or wrong answer. So you kind of do what you feel like at the moment. Itâs a matter of what youâre trying to achieve with a song, any individual one. If you want to express an idea outside of your experience and live into that, songs and art are a great place to do that, to explore an ideal or fantasy. I donât really do that. I just talk about my experience, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. But I guess thatâs just where my mind is when I sit down to write. I get contemplative.â The album, indeed, is all about thoughts, and the emotions behind them, more than itâs about tangible things; these songs float just outside of what we might easily summarize. And yet the feelings and impressions being described in the songs are quite real, and recognizable, becoming more poignant with each listen.
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