[Editor’s Note: B Role is an ongoing exploration of the films, artists, and genres shaping the dimly lit universe of the B movie.]
Film discovery isn’t business; it’s personal. It defines every chapter of a cinephile’s life, mapping a unique process of spectatorship that grows and develops differently depending on the individual. This lifelong journey creates an expanding universe of preference and taste with constantly shifting borders, instilling salient reminders of nostalgia collected along the way. A small moment, an inspiring recommendation, a stellar review, or a mention in a textbook, becomes something equivalent to a first itch we spend a lifetime scratching. When the floodgates do open, the possibilities and processes swirling around in the sublime whirlpool of cinema threaten to overwhelm us. Whole subjects and genres are ripe for conquering, yet discovery is not about completion but evolution, developing an appreciation for nuances that ground films within a specific historical and social context. The only way to breath underneath so much material is by slowly, calmly addressing one film at a time, always with the understanding you won’t see them all. So, like Mother said, choose wisely.
My own obsession started in familiarly bright corners, with rampant forays into the films of Spielberg, Kubrick, and Tarantino, paving the way for Sayles, Jarmusch, Lee, Rafelson, Penn, and Altman. After exhausting myself on American cinema, I pushed outward to the national cinemas of Iran, Italy, France, and beyond. As horizon’s expanded, my viewing mimicked an inverted historiography class, constantly looking backward to see what historical elements influenced those I had just studied. Eventually, as it happens with most students of film, the muffled, haunting echoes of Hollywood’s underbelly known as the “B movie” began calling my name, screaming out of the past with a pitch so edgy and piercing I couldn’t resist. The writings of Sarris, Rosenbaum, and Hoberman provided names and faces for these daring filmmakers working on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood, men and women creating textured and scathing entertainment from whatever monetary breadcrumbs had fallen down the assembly line. It didn’t take long for Fuller, Ray, Sirk, Lapino, Mann, Boetticher, and Lang to construct a special church of subversion, a place where substance and style took dead aim at those in power and pulled the trigger. These were the ciphers of American film history, and I was hooked on their mystery and danger.
Over the years, my raging affair with the B movie has only grown more passionate and all consuming, but there’s so much more to be discovered. I’ve written occasionally on the subject, but never within a dedicated close-knit study to the social, political, and aesthetic patterns driving these potent works. So it’s extremely exciting for me to introduce a new bi-monthly column here at The House Next Door, entitled “B Role,” an ongoing exploration of the films, artists, and genres shaping the dimly lit universe of the B movie. The goals of this column are two-fold: expand my own film discovery process even further into the dank corners of the B movie, while bringing a critical light to specific directors, actors, writers, and cinematographers burrowing beneath the pressurized surface of mainstream Hollywood film history. It should be a wild ride.
My first entry delves deep into the bayou with…Dark Waters
Mood dictates narrative in Andre de Toth’s Dark Waters, a hallucinatory jigsaw puzzle set in the deep swamps of 1940s Louisiana that becomes a perfect breeding ground for nourish shadows and deceptive wordplay. Fading pencil drawings of the marshy locale give way to newspaper headlines documenting the sinking of an ocean liner by a Nazi submarine, juxtaposing a textual overlap between trauma and memory. The print becomes superimposed over the face of one survivor, a young waif named Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon), who worriedly looks into the camera and confesses some of the horrible events she’s witnessed. Leslie’s ravings don’t quite add up, but they introduce a sense of fragility so important to the trajectory of de Toth’s narrative. “You ever go to a funeral where the minister forgot the service,” Leslie screams, showing the failure of faith and hope during an ordeal where she helplessly watched her parents drown in the icy water before being saved. Mental self-destruction is imminent, and Dark Waters masterfully establishes Leslie’s shattering vulnerability as a double-edged sword, partly self-imposed, partly influenced by threatening external forces.
Alone and panicked, Leslie reaches out to her only living relatives for support, an elderly aunt and uncle she’s never met who’ve recently taken up residence at a family plantation in the deep South. De Toth uses pinpoint fades to glide Leslie from her cramped hospital bed to an empty train station where the young woman waits for some kind of Southern hospitality. That she finds only isolation is an excellent indicator of the degenerating experiences to come. The economic editing style begins a long pattern of elliptical moments that parallel Leslie’s psychological ebb and flow. As Leslie sits alone at the train station, the extreme environment once again overwhelms her, and she passes out from exhaustion only to be revived by a handsome young doctor named George Grover (Franchot Tone). Their meeting is classically melodramatic, but de Toth bases the flirty “damsel in distress” introduction within a cramped interior space bursting with pulp dialogue. “You’ll be all right once I get you out of this slab-sided oven,” George says, trying to impress the city girl with his charm. Leslie confesses that it wasn’t just the heat, but “the fear of being alone, of having no one to turn to” that promoted her extreme panic. De Toth sets the stage for a fabulously evocative struggle between characters jockeying for control of their own destinies, even when questioning each other’s sanity.
The romantic notions simmer in the sweltering heat, then placed on the back burner as George drives Leslie out to the plantation to meet her curiously absent family. When they arrive, the aura of the plantation is immediately suspect, and something about Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter), Uncle Norbert (John Qualen), and their manipulative family friend Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) immediately feels out of place. “Forgive the mess. We’re camping out,” Emily annoyingly says, evoking a wealthy sense of entitlement that feels altogether forced. As Leslie sets in for the long haul, her benefactors begin casually inquiring about her difficult experiences, seemingly pushing her toward a devastating mental break. But is Leslie’s paranoia caused by a worsening sense of guilt and delirium or by other menacing factors at play? The genius of Dark Waters stems from the initial ambiguity to this question, with the film exploring the possibilities of either explanation through languishing strolls in the swamp, densely compacted dialogue sequences over dinner, and tense nighttime set pieces filled with ghostly sound effects. De Toth constantly blurs the line between perception and reality by withholding specifics from Leslie’s past, forcing the girl into a shadowy corner where she begins to question her own self worth. “Why did they pull me out of the water? That’s where I belong, under the water with my mother and father,” Leslie screams in one of the film’s most diabolical moments. Aunt Emily just watches calmly, offering false modesty as her only comfort. The pattern of entrapment gets worse, and Leslie’s fearful existence begins to force any hope for emotional connection to the perimeter, guarding against the thought of being left alone once again.
Even though Dark Waters shows its cards soon into the third act, the film achieves so much tension through subtleties of sound and image it’s easy to forgive the more familiar thriller tropes at work. De Toth conducts long, winding camera moves to accentuate the perforated conversations that slowly undermine Leslie’s confidence, until every one of her jabs at the truth become stuck in aesthetic quicksand. To compound this sense of collapsing space, interior scenes are dissected by crisscrossing lines in the architecture and on clothing, deepening the strangeness and potential brutality wavering in the character’s facial expressions and movements. A scene in a dark movie theater, where Leslie sits between Sydney and plantation boss Cleve (Elisha Cook Jr.), is especially disturbing for its inhumanity. The two watch Leslie squirm at a newsreel about the sinking of a ship by a German sub, the flickering light of the projector restaging her entire trauma. De Toth holds on the three shot as Sydney and Cleeve revel in this shrinking violent morphing into a hot mess. In this sense, Dark Waters repeatedly conveys the idea that survival is just another form of death, something to be manipulated by those who can. Throughout Dark Waters, Leslie slowly gasps for air long after her life should be out of danger.
In terms of social and political elements, de Toth deals with issues of racial inequality quite literally in the form of the farm hand Pierson, a longtime worker who was abruptly fired by Sydney and actively seeks an answer to his termination. He teams up with Leslie to uncover Sydney’s devious motivations, and their partnership is a progressive example of sidestepping race in order to find the truth. Pierson acts almost like a detective, becoming a multidimensional character that takes his life into his own hands. It’s hard to imagine this representation being found in a mainstream Hollywood film of the time. The politics of Nazism and fascism are mostly left out of Dark Waters, replaced by the danger of serial murder and heinous criminal activity. But the traumas of wartime violence are the root of Leslie’s fractured condition, so de Toth is obviously concerned with how these elements impact the film noir and thriller genres.
Dark Waters ends with multiple dead bodies sinking into the bayou and Leslie directly confronting what one character calls her “persuasion complex.” The bravura finale through the oozing locale is a stunner, and despite some surface romance that feels a bit forced, the film stays true to its mystically dark mood, a slithering distant cousin to Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie. The screams of the swamp are supposed to echo those Leslie heard while drifting on the high seas, but this time she has found a man to solidify her future. George is the driving force behind their collective survival, but Leslie’s belief in her own sanity makes it all possible. While the gender politics are nothing radical, De Toth has constructed a temple of doubt out of the extreme location, an uneasy hybrid of B-movie genres that changes with the tides. For a long time, Leslie wades through physical and psychological canals of trauma only to find more doubt, and Dark Waters punctuates her journey by stripping the safety net of romance and compassion until the very last frame. The world can be a shifty, insidious place, and sometimes “home sweet home” and “the perfect guy” only offer a façade of protection from the growing insanity lingering just beneath the surface.
Glenn Heath Jr. lives in San Diego, CA. He writes for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, GreenCine, and In Review Online.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself
Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.2
David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.
That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.
Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.
A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.
Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.
Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.
Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.
These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Little Woods Is a Thriller That Thinks It’s Too Good for Thrills
Nia DaCosta indulges one of rural quasi-thriller’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.2
Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods belongs to a subgenre of American indie cinema concerned with poor people trying to hold on to the stability they’ve managed to carve out for themselves in forbidding places. This subgenre of film bears the influence of the western and the procedural character studies of the Dardennes and the Romanian New Wave, and it often treats disenfranchised populations as exhibits in a kind of zoo. The characters in these films are often seen only in terms of how they affirm a political thesis statement, as their individualities are eclipsed in the filmmakers’ minds by their social neediness. No matter how well-meaning such theses may be, the films usually feel incurious and condescending.
Unlike, say, Frozen River, Little Woods isn’t exactly condescending, but it lacks the poetry of the respective films of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, masters of what can be called the rural quasi-thriller. Reichardt and Granik offer punishing visions of America that are nevertheless attuned to the incidental moments that enliven even fraught existences, while DaCosta often falls prey to the clichés of the subgenre. She familiarly presents lower working-class men as hairy and drunken brutes who talk only of their inherent misery, and women as living in perpetual reaction to these men’s hostilities. DaCosta, then, indulges one of the genre’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters, via Ollie’s adoption by Deb’s now deceased mother, who live in an oil boomtown in North Dakota. The sisters are defined in terms of their desperation—through the dictates of a thriller structure—and DaCosta doles out their involved and stereotypical backstory in dribs and drabs. Ollie is the good sister, who stood by her mother while Deb was involved in her own personal calamities, having a son she can’t afford to raise with a drunk and absent father, Ian (James Badge Dale). Ollie turned to selling OxyContin on the black market, with Ian’s help, to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Eventually caught running drugs back from Canada, Ollie is now on the verge of finishing her probation as supervised by her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). And, of course, on the eve of getting a respectable new job, Ollie will be pulled back into the classic Final Score.
DaCosta has a fine feel for the texture of her film’s boomtown setting, particularly in the evocative scenes in which Ollie sells the poor oil workers coffee and sandwiches at cheaper prices than the local restaurants. But the characters are dully familiar. Ollie is a saint with no apparent inner life, with no opinions or desires that don’t immediately bolster the plot. Thompson gives the role her usual intensity, though Ollie is stubbornly defined by the steadfast earnestness that’s common of protagonists in this sort of film. She refers to taking pleasure in selling black market drugs, but we never see that emotion in her face, which might’ve given Little Woods an ambiguous sense of exhilaration. And a significant detail of Ollie’s identity is pointedly ignored: that she’s an attractive woman of color who appears to live in a place that’s populated mostly by undereducated and oversexed white men. Though Ollie is harassed by men in sexualized altercations, the effect of her seeming dislocation on her identity is pushed aside. Deb, meanwhile, is a MacGuffin: a device for returning Ollie to the drug business in a fashion that doesn’t sully the latter’s unimpeachable principles.
Whenever DaCosta appears to be on the verge of staging a scene intent on surprising the audience, the writer-director nips it in the bud to move on to the next preprogrammed narrative beat. This tendency is especially galling during a scene where Deb tells Ian that she’s pregnant again and that she intends to have an abortion. We’re primed by the formula of the rural quasi-thriller, which is often intensely critical of machismo, for Ian to have a disgusting outburst. Instead, Ian gets down on his knees and puts his head between Deb’s legs, as if praying, and weeps. Unforgivably, DaCosta doesn’t treat this moving moment with the respect it’s due, cutting away from it after a second or two so as to keep the film moving along at an impersonal pace. Little Woods is concerned with topical “relevance” at the expense of drama—or, more bluntly, it’s a thriller that thinks it’s too good for thrills.
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw Director: Nia DaCosta Screenwriter: Nia DaCosta Distributor: Neon Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Hail Satan? Is a Jolly Takedown of the Powerful and Foolhardy
The documentary shrewdly illustrates how media savvy can turn a fledgling protest into an international cause célèbre.2.5
As a parade of presidential candidates attempt to come up with uniquely anodyne messages of hope and unity, Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? provides an interesting counterpoint, proving that a grassroots movement founded with an oppositional mindset can be both optimistic and politically productive. It helps, of course, to have an image as provocative as the devil on your side, and Lane’s documentary shrewdly illustrates how media savvy can turn a fledgling protest into an international cause célèbre. Like Our Nixon and Nuts! before it, Hail Satan? is an effectively jolly takedown of the powerful and foolhardy.
A fleet blend of original, borrowed, and archival news footage, the film takes a wry and generous approach to the Satanic Temple, the interrogative in its title scanning as a good-natured “Why not?” Lane begins Hail Satan? in a richly comedic vein, as Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, orchestrates a protest outside the Florida state capitol in 2013. As one member calls the media to promote the event (“The Satanic Temple. S, as in Sam.”), someone in a grim reaper outfit passes by and walks up a staircase. This strain of irony continues at the scantly attended rally, where a hired actor representing the group repeatedly yells “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott,” referring to the Florida governor who was then supporting a bill allowing schoolchildren to share messages promoting their faith during assemblies.
This meager public display yields an outsized impact in the media and in local politics, a theme that Lane hits repeatedly, and with impressive restraint. After the rally, Greaves fires his fake spokesman and reluctantly becomes the face of the Satanic Temple; though he claims that he didn’t want to be the face of the group (he may have suspected that his goth aesthetic and one clouded-over eye belied the appeal of his message), Greaves needed to be its voice. In “supporting” a bill intended to bolster the place of Christianity in public life, Greaves asserts his freedom of religion to support the devil in kind.
In some cases, this terrifies the religious right enough to force them to backtrack legislation that would serve to blur the separation between church and state. This is, for Greaves and his flock, a remarkable feat of activism and rhetoric, and Greaves’s calm, clearly argued statements rile up the media and attract tens of thousands of followers. Some are disillusioned Jews and Christians, others are merry trolls, and still more are drawn to the Satanic Temple’s broader efforts to promote religious pluralism and combat other strains of extremism (protests at women’s health clinics, various local efforts to install images of the Ten Commandments in public buildings). As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes says in one of the film’s many cable news clips: “You open the door to God, you open the door to Satan.”
Lane documents the temple’s growth in a string of talking-head interviews (a few, amusingly, feature horn-wearing members blacked out in silhouette to preserve their anonymity) and visits to burgeoning local chapters around the country. Most provocative is the Detroit church, led by Jex Blackmore, who takes the group’s adversarial nature to feminist extremes. Greaves isn’t above bold antics, gaining attention by setting up a protest of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps wherein same-sex couples make out over the grave of Phelps’s dead mother, but as the group’s membership grows his instincts become more cautious.
The innerworkings of the Satanic Temple are unfortunately left a bit oblique, and the film too often feels like an advertorial for the group. Late in the film, Blackmore is excommunicated from the temple after calling for the assassination of Donald Trump. Lane uses this rupture to reveal how many large movements must moderate to preserve their popularity, but Hail Satan? avoids depicting any of the Satanic Temple’s internecine debates, just as it neglects to discuss how the group is financed. (Lane does contextualize the Satanic Temple within the history of Satanism, using public-domain cartoon, film, and news clips to chart the rise of Billy Graham, God’s creep onto our currency and pledge of allegiance, and the “Satanic Panic” of the 1990s.)
After a merry and lively first half, Lane’s film effectively resets itself to organize around a single, factory-issued right-wing public representative, Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert. While Rapert attempts to install a monument of the Ten Commandments on capitol grounds, Greaves and his flock propose an accompanying statue of their patron saint Baphomet, a winged goat sitting on a throne while two children gaze at him admiringly. Like her ideological brethren the Yes Men and Nathan Fielder, Lane slyly reveals how both provocateurs play to the media’s appetite for extreme imagery and diametrical debates, but her film drags as it rehashes the ideas and themes it covers which such efficiency in its early stages.
Director: Penny Lane Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019