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Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

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Alfred Hitchcock

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master. Any sensible person will tell you so. On the subject of cinema, there is probably nothing more foolish and outright uncool than to question Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t question Hitchcock; you shut up, listen and learn. The man didn’t just revolutionize the medium, he wrote the official Book of Rules. Every filmmaker since, especially those with dread on the repertoire, builds on the foundations Hitchcock left behind. Steven Spielberg, Alejandro Amenábar, M. Night Shyamalan, Hideo Nakata: they all owe the one who is commonly referred to as the Greatest Director of All Time.

Like I said: it’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

Wish me luck…

Anticipating the bang: the Suspense Formula

Why bother telling a story if no one’s interested? Surely, attention is the first thing a filmmaker demands from an audience. It’s easy enough to grab spectators by the collar, but how do you keep them intrigued? A movie must push them to the edge of their seats and gain momentum without running out of steam. Because no one could seduce audiences better than Alfred Hitchcock, his formula for storytelling has been studied and followed over and over. According to Hitchcock, the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer’s attention is suspense.

There it is, the magic word: “suspense.” Whisper it in a room full of cinephiles and watch them get all misty-eyed. Suspense! François Truffaut described it as “the stretching out of an anticipation.” Dictionaries define it as “a state of uncertain expectation,” “a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen” or “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.” If there is one guarantee for audience involvement, suspense is it. Just trust the Master of Suspense. Whenever he was preparing a script, Hitchcock always put himself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. Whenever there’s a pause in the mother’s narration, the child will always ask: “What comes next, Mommy?” Hitchcock knew that nothing is more fascinating to us than the Next Thing and he taught filmmakers how to dangle that carrot in front of our faces, barely out of reach. That is the essence of suspense: a tantalizing and often threatening hint of what’s to come.

Even though Hitchcock was no stranger to shock (he used it to memorable effect when he killed off his beloved leading lady, Janet Leigh, a third into Psycho), he always thought surprise was the lesser alternative to its twin brother suspense. In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”). Although critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than figure out a “whodunit,” and were quick to remark that the director had broken his own rules of dramatic tension by ruining the mystery, Hitchcock reasoned:

“To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock compares the two complementary dread-inducing techniques of surprise and suspense, and makes a convincing plea for the latter. To properly illustrate his argument, he used the setting of the interview itself as starting point:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

A lecture like that makes a strong point about the limitations of surprise as a means to thrill an audience. Surprise is overrated, so it seems. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that decades later, Hitchcock’s argument for the superiority of the Suspense Formula still stands. Critics and academics alike continue to find it nearly impossible to punch holes in this mentor’s rock solid reasoning, backed up by a legacy of some of the most forceful films in the history of cinema. When it comes to keeping an audience alert, suspense is simply more bang for your buck, to use a fitting phrase.

So why bother questioning its lonely status at the top? Bear with me, please. Let’s not declare the element of surprise bankrupt just yet. And hold on: let’s not exclude alternative ways of building tension either. There’s no doubt that fear in the face of impending evil, otherwise known as dread, is unique in its way to fuel our immediate interest, but suspense is only one approach. Has Hitchcock’s groundwork really been so all-encompassing that he left no area unexplored for the generations of filmmakers following in his footsteps? I think not. The Dread District went through a couple of interesting changes since a few non-commissioned officers took over the reins. Yes, you heard it right: changes. The fact that Hitchcock practically invented the grammar of the modern thriller cannot stop a language from evolving.

Inside the bang: the Hidden Threat

When Roman Polanski’s Repulsion came out in 1965, it was heralded as a staggering work of suspense. It’s fairly obvious that his film about a young beautician’s descent into madness was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a classic that paved the way for all psychological thrillers in its wake. But is Polanski’s film really a work of suspense? To adequately answer this question, we may have to ask ourselves what suspense is not: Let’s listen to the Master himself:

“It is indispensible that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.”

According to this assertion, obscuring the facts rules out the very possibility of suspense. If we take Hitchcock’s word for it, as I suggest we do, how is Repulsion able to generate suspense by consistently withholding the facts from its audience? Polanski doesn’t achieve tension by supplying detailed information. On the contrary: Repulsion is all about surprise. A typical example is the scene where Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is walking around the apartment that she shares with her sister, unable to sleep. A minute passes by. No anticipatory music, no creepy camerawork, no manipulative cuts. Just the sound of a dripping tap. Suddenly, without a single warning, the wall cracks open with a thunderous sound. That’s it. The scares come from nowhere and catch the audience off-guard.

Hitchcock might have seen the implicit nature of scenes like these as a missed opportunity. Chances are he would have looked for another way of staging its dramatic potential, concrete enough so he could let his audience in on what’s going on and stretch out a few lousy seconds of shock to fifteen fat minutes of anticipation. Yet Repulsion almost categorically refuses to take this route. The only time a genuine moment of suspense comes along is when the audience is offered a glance at the knife that Carol hides behind her back while the landlord tries to come on to her; but this moment is strangely understated, and we are so “repulsed” by his sexual advances that we’re more likely to cheer Carol on to stab the bastard than to fear for his life. So, strictly evaluated from the suspense school of reasoning, Repulsion doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t explain, however, why the film is such a jolly effective nailbiter. How did Polanski pull it off?

Carol’s emerging insanity is the real threat in Repulsion. Much like Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, she is a danger to herself. We care for Carol’s safety, but cannot predict where this situation will take us, leaving us helpless. Since Polanski forces us to experience the narrative in first person, through the prism of Carol’s psychotic mind, the cause of our dread is not under the table, but all around us: we are inside the bomb. And trapped as we are inside Carol’s head, we lack a clear overview. Our anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect: a Hidden Threat. Under the blinding spell of subjectivity, we don’t know what will trigger the bomb. We’re left with no clue as to when precisely it will explode, because even when we do hear the clock ticking away in the background and nearly smell the skinned rabbit carcass rot in the living room as days pass by, time is nothing but an abstraction, a metaphor for mental regression. The irrational fractures in its dramatic flow give Repulsion a trippy, unnerving mood that gradually breaks down the securities of the audience in perfect sync with the protagonist’s twitchy sense of paranoia. The only thing that becomes clear to us is that we need to get out of that apartment quick, as soon as we realize it is a reflection of Carol’s crumbling state of mind.

When Madame Denise says to Carol: “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” she also articulates the reason behind the audience’s sense of unease. It is confusion and a lack of information, as opposed to Hitchcock’s abundance of it, what gives Polanski’s elliptical horror its edge. Repulsion is obviously shocking and masterly executed, but suspenseful it is not. Come to think of it, probably the most suspenseful thing about Repulsion is the chance to watch French goddess Catherine Deneuve in see-through nightgown. What a sly move to make a frigid woman so insanely attractive!

Polanski was the first to follow his own example, with the bastard child Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as the diabolical result. Slowly, other directors followed: Nicolas Roeg personified a couple’s sense of loss over their drowned daughter in the shape of a mysterious dwarf in a red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), Paul Verhoeven surreally depicted the Catholic revelations of an alcoholic, bisexual writer in De Vierde Man (1983), Adrian Lyne blew life into the paranoid hallucinations of a dying Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Christopher Nolan turned time backwards for a brain-crushing representation of amnesia in Memento (2000). No one has explored the twisted territory of the Hidden Threat more thoroughly, however, than David Lynch. While Repulsion carefully balances on the line between fantasy and reality, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) blur the same line into a shadowy region of its own. Lynch even dares to sacrifice his own story logic and leaps back and forth between present time, flashbacks, wish fantasies and foreboding nightmares to submerge the senses in the subconscious. If little Alfred would ask his Mommy “what’s next” two thirds into Lost Highway, I’m not sure the answer would clear things up. After all, his mother isn’t really telling him a bedtime story. She’s just talking in her sleep…

Facing the bang: the Revelation Response

The opposite to a threat lurking in the shadows is the kind that taps you on the shoulder and thrusts its tongue in your mouth. In the suspense camp, this kind of frontal assault is seen as more or less a dead end. “There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock experimented with subtle gore in his time, but as a rule he believed suggestion had greater impact. What could be creepier than one’s own imagination?

Well—maybe a lack thereof. A new breed of filmmakers was less convinced of the public’s ability to form their own picture and filled in the gaps for them. And it has to be said: some of all time’s most terrifying movies could not for the love of God be typified as “less is more” material. The tolerant spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s opened up the door to new levels of carnage and exploitation, spawning a wide range of cinematic subgenres, from the zombie flick and the splatter movie to the Italian giallo and the occult thriller. Some of them were grounded in harsh realism, while others delved deeper into the fantastique for some old-fashioned grand guignol. Unapologetic nasties like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) pretty much put aside the idea that implying is more effective than showing. Across the Atlantic, European shock maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento dispensed with suggestion altogether by serving piles of gore on a platter. No anticipation there: the audience is thrown before the wolves barely halfway into the first reel. Just the grueling details—on the double please!

Whereas Hitchcock usually chose to keep his audience in the know at the cost of revelation, this radical movement excelled in what Clive Barker, writer and director of Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990), called “the Revelation Response”: the appeal of the morbid and surreal. “Appeal” may seem an odd word in reference to horrors designed to appall, but this paradox is integral to a concept that no longer strictly revolved around throwing the monster out, but embraces the monstrous as a part of ourselves—or in the case of Barker: invites a bunch of them over for an orgy in the dungeon to celebrate “the intricacies of perversity.”

This time, Hitchcock’s bomb under the table is exploding right before our very eyes and we’re forced to witness the anatomy of destruction. Hell unfolds in slow motion as we face the biggest threat of all: the Bitter End. We see body parts twitching, we smell the stench of burned skin and we hear the victim next to us utter his last breath. This is as close to a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper as we can get without actually having to stop living for it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is just the introductory scene. If our stomach is up to it, we can stick around to watch the decomposing corpses transform into flesh-eating creatures of the night…

Needless to say, this no-holds-barred mentality could not count on a lot of affection from the refined critical establishment: hence the generalization that an inordinate application of the gross and grotesque indicates an incapacity for building tension. That’s about as crude a statement as saying that pornography is unable to arouse. What it all boils down to, like it frequently does, is taste. There is plenty of tension left in the explicit, and the tremendous anxiety these graphic confrontations generate in the spectator can be attributed to our ambiguous response to the question: How much farther will this movie go, and do I really want to go there? Sure I do! Like hell I don’t! The Revelation Response taps into our darkest hopes and fears and beguiles and disturbs in equally extreme measures. Exactly the kind of push-pull attraction that keeps the hardcore crowd coming back for more. For recent evidence, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and James Wan’s Saw (2004).

Echoing the bang: the Pavlovian Minefield

The element of surprise made an unexpected comeback in 1976, when audiences around the world were treated to the mother of all shock endings in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It is fascinating to see how different De Palma’s surprise tactic was to the way suspense is achieved. Instead of building tension by feeding expectation, it sets the viewer at ease until it seems there’s nothing left to fear.

After a bombastic climax in which Carrie subsequently unleashes her full telekinetic powers at the high school prom to quite deadly effect, causes a fatal car crash, impales her God-fearing mother with a set of flying kitchen knives and gives up the ghost during an apocalyptic inferno, things finally seem to calm down. The night fades to black and sunlight appears, introducing the obligatory epilogue. Composer Pino Donaggio lays over one of his most soothing adagios as good girl Sue Snell, played by the angelic Amy Irving, strides towards us in a slowed-down pace. Sue is dressed in white, lensed in soft-focus, with her long, wavy hair lit up by magical backlight. Tears well up in her almond-shaped eyes as she bends down to lay some flowers on Carrie’s grave. We’re almost completely reassured: the nightmare is over… And just when a sigh of relief escapes our lips, Carrie’s bloody arm shoots out from the gravel and grabs Sue by the elbow. Then we wake up. And just like our reminiscence of an actual dream, it is only in hindsight that we recognize the surrealism of the scene.

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that surprise fully emancipated itself from the degradation it got from Master Hitchcock and evolved into a technique that deserves a category of its own. Halloween (1978) was danger stripped down to its bare essentials and taken to its extremes at once: Michael Meyers, a faceless, unstoppable murdering machine without a motive, was out on the loose. Turn the wrong corner and he’d be there to slice you to threads. Like Carrie, Halloween had its feet firmly planted in classic suspense, but it had more up its sleeve. While De Palma saved the best for last, John Carpenter was in a generous mood and perforated his narrative with “popcorn flyers” from beginning to end. He multiplied Hitchcock’s bomb under the table and changed it into a minefield, where every step you take can be your last. The trick payed off. Whereas Hitchcock mainly concentrated on the period leading up to the bang, Carpenter exploited the aftermath of the explosion. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he explained his method as such:

“I always thought that you could also have another effect on the audience if you blow the table up suddenly. If you do it suddenly, everything after that is changed a little bit. You won’t trust the movie anymore, and you will have doubts about what you think it will do. So you have a different level of suspense.”

Here is an example where suspense is generated by the apprehension of surprise. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. The repetitive use of meticulously timed jumps as a tactic to evoke a nerve-wracking atmosphere has a lot in common with the famous way that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov got his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, just because it was the sound they heard each previous time food was served. In the course of just one movie, Carpenter conditions his audience to recognize repeating patterns, like a catchy yet creepy musical cue or a slow crawl of the camera followed by a shock appearance of the killer, to elicit a trained reflex. By echoing what led to a bang before, the Pavlovian Minefield stimulates a feeling of dread that turns spectators into petty little Pavlov puppies, masochistically awaiting the next jolt to give them that much-expected rush of adrenaline. It is this roller coaster aspect that has made the Pavlovian Minefield so commercially lucrative. Halloween spawned not less than seven sequels and became the definitive blueprint for the slasher genre, resulting in highly popular franchises like Friday the 13th (1980-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994), Scream (1996-2000) and countless others.

Beyond the bang: the Cerebral Spiral

The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining—the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis—what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery—the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”

It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people… that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense. Identification? With these people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony—the boy that lives in his mouth—freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him…

It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.

Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.

True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King’s fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.

Kubrick’s creation is open to an infinite number of readings, of course, but it’s fair to presume it is less about an all-American family being torn apart by a malevolent supernatural force than it is about, say, the trappings of social convention or one man’s struggle with his own insignificance. Jack suffers from some good-old existential angst, doomed as he is to aimlessly wander the inscrutable paths of Destiny’s maze, forever and ever and ever. Who can blame him, really, with the evil Overlook as his hermetically sealed universe. In nearly every shot, the hotel and its surroundings loom large over the Torrances, at once intimidating and claustrophobic. Kubrick frames the lobbies, rooms and corridors with an obsessive eye for realism and geography, consistently showing both the floor and the ceiling of each area through wide-angle lenses, as if we’re looking into a kid’s diorama. In sharp contrast with the almost reassuring use of darkness, shallow depth of field, skewed angles and subjective points of view that have become stereotypical of the Gothic haunted house flick, Kubrick disorientates the viewer with labyrinths bathed in broad daylight, crystal clear symmetry and curiously objective camerawork, evoking a distanced, Brechtian feel that in a substantial way discourages emotional involvement—the very purpose of suspense!—, and urges us to focus on the grander scheme of things. Meanwhile, page after page of dialogue is recited in long, lingering takes that would make Andrei Tarkovsky blush, giving the spectator oodles of time to contemplate the Big Picture. When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it’s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it’s not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn’t notice it moving.

Kubrick’s The Shining is constructed like a Cerebral Spiral that draws the spectator in with the kind of slow-burning tension that gets under your skin in retrospect, exactly because it appeals to sluggish thought processes rather than immediate instincts. By using our minds to trigger emotion, its scare tactic is considerably less direct than others, but those who are willing to take the detour are in for a long and bumpy ride. The thing about Kubrick’s bomb is that it’s not under, but on top of the table, where everyone including the protagonists can see it. We can try to defuse it, but we don’t know which wires to cut. We can try to escape the building, but we’ll get lost in its mazelike architecture looking for the Exit. And what’s more: that bomb on the table… it never goes off. Whereas the wicked in King’s novel comes from an external factor blown to pieces in the last act (along with the lost soul corrupted by its power), Kubrick’s film doesn’t offer such relief. Jack and the Overlook Hotel are not purged and destroyed in a climactic resolution, but literally frozen in time. There’s no release to the tension, no re-established status quo; Kubrick guides us all the way into his maze, offering endless possibilities for speculation, and then leaves us alone in a permanent state of uncertainty. Are we safe now or is the bomb still ticking? The epilogue only amplifies this lack of closure. When the camera closes in on Jack Torrance’s smiling presence in a group photograph taken in 1921, hanging in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, does that mean he has found in reincarnation an escape route to the past, that his spectre has been absorbed by the hotel, or does Kubrick imply that time is of no relevance in purgatory? (Remember the words of Delbert Grady: “You have always been the caretaker.”) No matter what the answer is, the characters in The Shining are caught inside a perpetual loop, and each time we revisit their story, we enter a little lower on the downward spiral.

Few filmmakers had the balls to pick up on Kubrick’s groundbreaking experiment in fear, but some names should be mentioned. David Cronenberg’s filmography shifted from visceral to cerebral in the ‘80s and ‘90s, although the Canadian director never turned his back on the fetishistic body horror of his early work, which typically falls under the aforementioned Revelation Response category. Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) flirt with cold existentialism in their own bizarre ways and share The Shining’s distancing storytelling techniques. So does the austere and highly disturbing Safe (1995), in which Todd Haynes terrorizes Julianne Moore as well as the viewer with a thought-provoking concept called “environmental illness.” To this day, the Cerebral Spiral remains the most easily misunderstood alternative to suspense. During a press-screening at the Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical Birth got booed by an audience that took its risqué subject matter at face value. Seasoned auteur Paul Schrader went through the humiliating process of having his finished film Exorcist: The Beginning rejected and completely remade by Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin, for being introspective and cerebral instead of fun. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Morgan Creek executive James G. Robinson told L.A. Weekly about his odd decision, “this is the entertainment business.” Coming from the man who brought us Freejack and Soldier, this is a notion decidedly scarier than the released end result.

Augmenting the Dread Palette

Fair enough: In the realm of audio-visual pyrotechnics, it is doubtful that filmmakers will ever discover a better recipe for gun powder than good old suspense. On the other hand, with a larger variety of alternative recipes to mix and mess around with, the door to a more lethal combination is still wide open. Hitchcock spent an entire career pioneering and developing devious cinematic devices as a means to thrill his audience in the most effective way possible. The thought of four daubs of extra paint on his Dread Palette might not have been so disagreeable to the Master of Suspense after all.

Alternative tension-building techniques like the Hidden Threat, the Revelation Response, the Pavlovian Minefield and the Cerebral Spiral do not undermine the strengths of the golden suspense formula, but they do enrich the filmic vocabulary. It is precisely this enrichment—a wider range of choice rather than the individual potential of said alternatives—that can be seen as progress. And progression is what this medium needs, for as any Latin professor can assure you: a language that stands still is a dead one.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source

Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.

Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.

The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.

The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.

As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.

Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions

The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.

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Psychomagic, a Healing Art
Photo: ABKCO

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.

Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.

Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.

One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.

What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

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Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

3

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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