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Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

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Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.

The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.

Filmic universes

The specificity of cinema is an expression of its inherent characteristics, its unique way of representing reality, its technologies, its implicit structure. The unique features that comprise filmic representation are powerful tools in the hands of a skillful director: for instance, the complexities of editing, the varied uses of sound and music, the control of cinematography, or the application of special effects. Perhaps the most peculiar and important of these filmic specificities is point of view, or more specifically, the manipulation of the camera, of its position and movement. Cinema is the only fictional and photographic medium over which the artist (in this case, the director) has total control of point of view, unlike painting, comics, and photography, that deal only with still images.

Another essential characteristic of cinema is its explicit formal boundaries. A film is a very delimited work of art: two-dimensional, it has specific boundaries in space (i.e., the screen) and time (i.e., a continuous experience generally of 1-3 hours), and is ideally experienced in a specific architectural space (i.e., the theatre). Furthermore, a film is a relatively fixed and reproducible object: we can see it as many times as we want, and, in one sense (but not every sense), it is always the same.

That’s why a movie is such a powerful tool for representing reality: it is, indeed, a finely delineated microcosm with a powerful tendency toward objectivity, yet is simultaneously open to various levels of subjectivity and vision. A movie is a mandala, a hologram of reality, of the artist’s vision and conception of reality. Like a miniature universe, it has a structure, a geometry, a continuous interaction of forms on an indefinite number of planes, texts and subtexts; and, above all, an insistent meta-commentary derived from its various points of view. As in Wagner’s Wort-Ton-Drama, in which the music realizes a meta-structure that comments and gives meaning to the theatrical action, so in movies the sum of the camera’s points of view and its movements provide interweaving levels of information, emotion, beauty and meaning. Not every director is able to exploit these levels to their full capacity; but those who can are certainly, if not the greatest, the most medium-specific artists: in their hands, cinema achieves its full stature.

Basic doubles

In a sense, creating a universe means to create a double. The creator-creation axis is one of the most fundamental dualities, the most archetypal division of consciousness. Such an axis is similar, if not identical, to another important duality: the subject-object division between a consciousness that perceives and something else, the object that is perceived. And, becoming more specific, and getting nearer to the stuff of cinema, it is the same axis as the seer-seen, observer-observed, voyeur-objective world dualities.

In cinema, the director is the creator and subject, while the movie is the creation and object. Yet immediately, we can see that something very interesting occurs in this fundamental duality. Another, more ambiguous division occurs: the subject splits in two, the director-creator and the spectator-perceiver; the first one owns, in a way, the vision of the second.

This structure is complex, indeed. The ambiguity of vision in cinema—its being shared between and asymmetrically controlled by two “minds”—is a basic double in cinematic experience. The spectators are in a way “possessed” by the director’s mind; their vision is guided, their emotions manipulated, their perceptions molded and structured. At the same time, spectators actively become new creators, masters of the world that is lent to them: their consciousness, perceptions and interpretations are given new form, a new synthesis; and they become, in the ultimate sense, directors of their own experience of a movie. Thus, cinema and double are inextricably intertwined.

Brian De Palma’s movies are a beautiful catalogue of the possible methods by which the double can find its full realization in a filmic structure. Remember, for instance, the wonderful sequence in The Untouchables when Malone is murdered. The director’s vision is viewed, for the most part, through both the spectators’ and the killer’s eyes. We see through the killer, and we see through De Palma. Our consciousness is immediately and tragically split: our cognition is bound to the camera’s vision, (“owned” by the bad guy), while our heart and feelings are projected onto Malone, the “object” (and target) of this vision (indeed a loved and cherished object, the sum total of what a De Palma “good guy” can be). With our spirit and aesthetic sensibility fully awake and focused, we perceive the beauty of the scene, the meta-meaning that is beyond its images, as if through a premonition achieved in only a few instants, which is always the case in truly great scenes. And, beautifully, this vision that penetrates Malone’s house, that spies and hides, shifting behind a wall, dancing through space and time in search of its object with calm complacency, becomes immediately the best incarnation of a metaphysical voyeur, of our desperate observing consciousness. We are outside the scene, spectators, helpless, but at the same time inside, as accomplices, maybe as killers. And perhaps, in a sense, we are also, ultimately, victims. Only in the end of the sequence, when geometries converge and meanings collapse, our consciousness is reconnected to its primary object, to Malone’s body and mind: but only in death, the only possible singleness, and in the final sign of his blood, which will give meaning to his death and guide his friend Ness to the next clue, the next level of truth.

Consciousness and awareness

A significant ambiguity that results from splitting a consciousness in two (or, similarly, blending two consciousnesses into one) is the mirror game of comprehension, of conscious acknowledgement: how much one knows about the other, how much the other is aware of what one knows. In the ultimate sense, life itself, like cinema, seems to be a complicated game of relative awareness. The sensation of “being observed while observing” is a fundamental component of our state of consciousness. It influences our judgements and our emotions, and as we try to see ourselves through the eyes of all, and to be aware of their awareness, the cloning of vision stems from the cloning of identities, and the theme of the double naturally gives space to that of voyeurism.

The fundamental movie about voyeurism as a symbol of the human condition is Rear Window, as the fundamental movies about the double are Psycho and Vertigo (Hitchcock had indeed a very special sensibility regarding film archetypes). Especially in the first half of his career, De Palma has enjoyed re-interpreting these Hitchcock movies, deepening and enriching their themes and contents, interweaving them in new fictional structures. From the beginning, therefore, the double and voyeurism were main obsessions in De Palma’s cinema, and so strong is their connection in the powerful and complex vision of his individual films that, often, it is difficult to say if what we are seeing is double or voyeurism, or both.

In Body Double, for example, the importance of awareness is expressed with extreme power in the film’s condensation of De Palma’s themes. Here the protagonist’s voyeurism is the effect of complex manipulation: his “friend” puts him in the right place at the right time with the right suggestions, so that he can “peep” on a woman. The set up’s metaphorical similarity to a film’s spectator and director is almost perfect. We can identify with the protagonist, and be unconsciously reassured in our role as voyeurs of the film, mirrored in his role as a voyeur of a body. The friend-actor-manipulator lurks in the background, but at this point in the story, we still have little comprehension of his real purpose.

Then something crucial happens: Jake Scully sees something outside the frame of the scene he has been set up to watch: a danger, a menace, perhaps a mystery, in the form of an Indian working on a satellite dish and “peeping” on the same woman. His role becomes more active; he pursues, he comes in contact with Gloria Rivelle, the object of his voyeurism. When Jake stumbles, on the beach, to explain his identity to her, this moment is one of the most moving and perfect in De Palma’s work. The voyeur cannot explain himself. His role is, in some way, fraudulent, incomplete. Similarly, man cannot explain his role in reality. In a sense, we are incomplete, fraudulent. We can “peep” on the movie of reality, sometimes even try to possess it, to interact with it. But always, something is fundamentally lacking. We cannot really become its heroes, let alone its protagonists.

At the same time, in the scene on the beach, the hero-villain double is expressed with unusual beauty. Jake, the would-be hero, and the menacing “Indian” are each other’s mirror. When Jake at last speaks to Gloria to disclose that someone is following her, she readily agrees, suggesting that she understands that he has been following her. Which is, literally, true.

And then something else happens. Gloria is killed, while Jake, the “hero,” is watching, still unable to save her. And so another strange facet of the double is expressed: the voyeur, the would-be hero, becomes a witness. Which is, in a way, an intermediate state: one who can only perceive and not act, but whose perception can in some way define reality, create the truth. Or at least what appears to be truth.

The truth here seems simple. The killer is an Indian, a mysterious pursuer we have already seen before—and decidedly not Gloria’s husband, Alexander Rivelle, who should be the natural suspect. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that nothing is as it seems: the killer is indeed her husband, who is also “the Indian,” who is also “Sam,” Jake’s so-called friend who has orchestrated the entire scenario. Sam is the creator, artist, manipulator and bad guy all at once: a mise en abyme of doubles, a summa of role-playing.

Amidst the ingenuity of the plot, a single question arises that we may not think to ask after a single viewing: why is Jake’s role as witness so important to convincing the police that Alexander Rivelle is not the killer? After all, he is the killer, but was only disguised as an Indian when he murdered Gloria. Jake, after all, has observed a perfect truth: a husband who, in disguise, has killed his wife. The more important point is that, in the apparent reconstruction of the murder scene by the witness and the police, the killer could not be aware that he was being observed. Jake was observing him through a telescope, from a distance. How could the Indian know? And therefore, why would the killer wear a disguise, and bother to enact such a complex show? The conclusion is therefore “obvious” that Gloria’s killer is not her husband.

But once we understand the larger scenario, and realize that the Indian and Sam are both Alexander Rivelle, who knows that he is being observed, we recognize a perfectly reasonable motive for the disguise, for the show, with no alibi available for Gloria’s husband.

Therefore, the subtext of the plot suggests that the interpretation of reality and comprehension of its structure depend on shifting modes of observation. In a word, vision and awareness of vision are the two strongest determinants of truth.

Moral mirrors

The double is, ultimately, a selection of information. It is, in this sense, a choice. And, as a choice, it has a moral value.

In an existence made of infinitely plural universes (a reasonable theory of quantum physics, not merely a fabrication of science fiction), every thing and every body can be everything and everybody. But if all chances are equal, then there is no choice, no value, no purpose. In the poetic world of Borges, for instance, the infinite is only an accumulation of chances; eternity is only the death of any individual value and hope. Thus, a repetitive view of the infinite leads to a completely void vision of humanity. It is the void space of Mission to Mars, the purposeless chance in which human stories seem to fail or die.

Identity, instead, is the choice of a specified form, of specified information. It is a choice among possible meanings. If one adopts a specified identity, a specified role, the dice have been thrown. And such a choice, such a selection of information, such a deletion of all other possible occurrences, fractures reality. Choice gives birth to similar, but different, chances. It certainly gives birth to opposite chances: one can be good or bad, can love or hate, be faithful or betray, protect or destroy.

The disincarnate consciousness seeking a role (i.e., the voyeur) is constantly trying to comprehend a “reality.” But an uneasy rule applies: you can look, you can “peep,” but if you touch, everything changes (as quantum mechanics students certainly know). If you look, the many are in you. If you touch, you are in the many. You are someone, but you can also be (or become) someone else. You are no more alone. You have to confront yourself and your multiple reflections. You have to confront your opposite. You must fight. You can lose. You can be a victim. You, or some part of you, can die. In a word, you have become a body.

Such is the ambiguity, and the fascination, of the double. It invokes specification, and at the same time it casts the shadow of a doubt. You can no more be anyone and anything. You can be someone, or someone else, or someone else again. But in each case, there is meaning. And the meanings, although elusive, are always different.

Mirrored moralities

Though the confrontations with the variations (or reflections) of one’s identity create a sense of uncertainty, meeting one’s opposite may be the cause of a moral crisis. In Snake Eyes, for example, Rick Santoro is morally superficial and ambiguous until he has to face his double-opposite, the good-guy-turned-bad-guy, Kevin Dunne. Likewise, in Casualties of War, Erickson is forced to become an “incomplete” hero when he confronts the “bad” Meserve and his accomplices.

Heroes are more or less ambiguous; fascinated by their own sense of duality, they split reality within themselves—good and evil, cognition and feeling, truth and power—and are never able to make an ultimate choice. Villains, in contrast, are fascinating. They seem to have achieved an attractive singularity; they act as though they really are simply a “body”, a permanent reality, an objective “truth,” as though they have found a seeming harmony with their physical role, and with the violence inherent in it. They have sex, and make a weapon of it (as Meserve clearly states in Casualties of War), while, for the voyeur-hero, sex is destined to be only a symbol, an impossible goal, the figuration of the failure to physically possess matter. Bad guys, instead, do possess things and people (or at least believe they do). In the words of Tony Montana, they have “balls.” But their ambition to own “the world and everything in it,” is a pitiful ideal, so similar to the voyeur’s ambition of knowing the world through vision alone. The negation of the double generates monsters, careless fighters doomed to destroy themselves and the things they (may) own. So in the end Montana is attacked, with tragic irony, by a baroque multiplication, almost a cloning, of a special, virtual double, a single-minded, powerful “metaphysical” killer: at the “excessive” ending of Scarface, Montana stands impossibly alive against crowds of repetitive enemies, while their leader, the origin and synthesis of all of them, easily destroys him with a single shot in the back. Thus, this “killer without an identity” becomes a perfect incarnation of the impersonal evil, which, in De Palma’s movies, seems to be the real substance behind the various villains, and is ultimately and completely triumphant over the physical, perishable bad guy.

Conversely, being in the many can also be an instrument of constructive choice, and sometimes of salvation. In Femme Fatale, for instance, the doubling of a consciousness and of a life becomes, perhaps, a useful tool to change destiny—to throw the dice a second time without coming up snake eyes. The way to freedom may not always require a moral recognition; instead, it may spring from the intuition of a pattern, from a reconstruction of reality with different space and time relationships, from a blinding ray of light. In any case, the result is all that matters. Freedom, salvation, these are the ultimate goals.

Differences

The double is always a mirror of the unsolved mystery of consciousness: if we are single, we are alone and helpless; if we are multiple, we are lost. The doubling and multiplying of vision in cinema is an extreme expression of a state of consciousness common to all: perhaps we are observing, perhaps we are being observed; perhaps we are not as simple as we like to think, not as lonely as we fear, not as free as we imagine. Perhaps good and evil are not so clear-cut, and yet they are not really blended either. As in the yin-yang symbol, black and white are separate and united at the same time, but in different ways.

This powerful figuration, this archetype so close to the very essence of cinema, is a form difficult to control. Not every director is able to manage its intimidating power, its deceiving complexity. When dealing with doubles, a director needs a very specific touch, a great mastery of his art; otherwise, he is bound to fail. He cannot be too explicit. He cannot be predictable. He cannot be moralistic, philosophical, or generic. The double is pure form, and requires absolute mastery of form to express its values.

De Palma has made the double (and voyeurism) a very private obsession. He is the best at dealing with the theme. His doubles live in the structure of his artistic vision; they are never too explicit, never vulgar, never contrived, never the same. Other great directors have incorporated the theme of the double in their work, with various results. Among the best examples are David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and David Lynch’s sublime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Dead Ringers is more about the body than the double. Through the twin protagonists of Cronenberg’s movie, the body and the double are inexorably connected: they are identical; both are gynaecologists; in their physical being and occupation, the mystery of the body’s origin and duplication is passively and actively prominent: being twins, they share, in a sense, a same body while being physically separated; and by choosing to work and act on the generation of the physical body, they are trying to gain power over the same forces which were originally responsible for their condition. But the balance of this fragile gestalt is compromised by the love for one (single) woman; and the whole two-brothers-in-one system, once so efficient for sharing and compensating for all of life’s experiences, has to face a sudden crisis, and is ultimately destined to failure, madness and death. In a perfect scene, one of the twins, already aware of the fracture of the inner link between himself and his brother, hires a couple of twin prostitutes to recreate, by the power of names, his lost integrity: during their sexual intercourse, he instructs one of the girls to call him by his own name, and instructs the other to call him by his brother’s name. Thus, the fracture of a pristine symmetry—that is of the pre-existing, harmonious relationship between the twins—evokes the generation of new dualities on multiple sublevels. That’s how the structure of duality (or of the mind) evolves in new, (random?) branches, like a fractal image, or rather like a web.

In Lynch’s extraordinary movies, so similar and so different, a very radical double is displayed: two different persons with two different lives and stories tragically overlap, intruding one into the other. The way this is accomplished, at the plot level, is a true formal miracle, an aesthetic intuition that easily transcends any conventional treatment of space, time, causality and narration, following exclusively the inner, deep thread that only pure art can reveal. Thus, we see the body of one character simply substituted for that of another one (for example, the wonderful scene in the prison cell in Lost Highway), or rather, in Mulholland Drive, the cloning of one’s life story from another, through a very complicated web of totally irrational but extremely powerful connections. The films’ meaning, denied to the intellect, becomes a strong, chilling subtext that finds its devastating way directly to our hearts and souls. In Lynch’s movies, however, the double is only one of many doors to the ultimate mysteries of existence; and a surreal sense of subjective, unsolved tragedy takes the place of the objective failure of identity in De Palma’s classical, geometrical work.

Void

Toto le Héros, from Belgian director Jaco van Dormael, is an extremely complex and rich work of art, touching on many deep subjects with inspiration and grace. A unique plot structure based in the double beautifully supports its themes.

Essentially the “birth-to-death” life story of Thomas, it is more accurately his “death to death” story (à la Sunset Boulevard and Carlito’s Way), as his death scene frames and colors the story as a grotesque and ironic film noir. The actual starting point of the plot is the process of birth: the protagonist, indeed, lives his whole life with the firm conviction (maybe justified, maybe not) that, as a newborn, he was exchanged with another baby during a nursery fire. Thomas believes he is living a life not his own, and secretly hates the other child, Alfred, who has supposedly stolen his destiny, and who happens to live nearby in a wealthier family. The consequence of this mental fracture is that Thomas lives with the feeling that he is not really living, that his story is only a pale double of what could and should have been, a void without value or justification. Over the course of the plot, however, the lives of Thomas and Alfred interweave in beautiful and unpredictable ways, and the ambiguity and irrelevance of Thomas’s basic assumption becomes evident: the two parts of the double reveal their total incompleteness, their personal failures, their mirroring diversities. Dormael masterfully creates a precious vision of love, loss, solitude, friendship and compassion. In the end, we are left with the astonishing evidence that Thomas’ life has been all but void: he has touched, lived and lost almost any deep value of life, without being able to acknowledge that value.

Again, the double is a powerful symbol of the basic dissociation in human life, but given a different perspective. In De Palma’s movies the voyeur lives in a disincarnate state, and tries, without success, to “grasp” and possess the objects of life, to gain an identity and a role. In Toto le Héros Thomas lives a full and deep life, while being deprived of any sense of possession, of any chance at identification. In both cases, the result is the same: dissociation, failure, suffering.

Le coeur fait bum

Suffering, in the end, is key to the double. Lost in a jungle of multiple meanings or the desert of their absence, consciousness fights and observes, splits and multiplies; meanwhile, the heart suffers. It suffers in the innocent victims of Casualties of War, of Blow Out, of The Untouchables. It suffers in the voyeurs, in Jack Scully of Body Double or Jack “the écouteur” of Blow Out, in their lack of resolution and dignity. It suffers in the bad guys, in Tony Montana and Meserve, in their stolid absoluteness, in their cold, meaningless cruelty. It suffers in the body of Thomas, and in all of us who are looking at him, who are his voyeurs and doubles. And in the end, it suffers even in his ashes, when, during one of the cinema’s most beautiful endings, Charles Trenet’s wonderful song reminds us that, while all other things in the world may find their sound and their expression, “le coeur fait bum.” The heart is bound to pulse, suffer, feel, blow out: it constantly burns, and its ashes are thrown everywhere, all over reality.

In movies such as Body Double, Casualties of War, and Toto le Héros, we witness a complete universe that is a perfect double of our own, so tragically similar, so fascinatingly different. Our search for meaning, feeling and truth in this precious mirror-world is, in the end, not different from the touching quest of its characters.

Giuseppe Puccio lives in Palermo, Italy, with a wife, two sons and a cat. He is a pediatrician and works as a neonatologist at the Palermo University, but cinema is one of his most important interests. He has harbored an insane passion for Brian De Palma’s cinema in dignified solitude, until, tired of simply speaking endlessly to reluctant friends, he started a website (Brian De Palma’s Split World) to express a few personal thoughts about his favorite director, realizing soon, to his great surprise, that there were a few people in the world who seemed interested. Other fundamental directors in his life are Lynch, Buñuel and Truffaut.

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Review: Save Yourselves! Takes Trifling and Spotty Aim at Millennial Softness

The film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation.

1.5

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Save Yourselves!
Photo: Bleecker Street

Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s Save Yourselves! is the latest in a recent trend of millennial-themed works of science fiction and fantasy to fast-forward past the dystopian phase of our collapsing world in order to land on its complete annihilation. The film introduces its main characters, stereotypical Brooklynite couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds), chafing from the pressures of constant work and the dull routine of their lives. Feeling that their jobs and relationship have grown stale, they elect to take a week-long trip to a friend’s cabin upstate where they will completely unplug from the outside world. But no sooner do they head out than the camera tilts up to the sky to reveal a white plume resembling a plane contrail splitting into tendrils of light that arc toward the ground. The road is now paved for many a gag at the expense of Su and Jack’s last-to-the-party obliviousness.

Most of the film’s most cutting jokes are offered up before the cataclysmic impact of that strange occurrence becomes known to Su and Jack. While preparing for their trip, Su emails her boss to request a vacation and notes that she will not be reachable by phone or email, which prompts an immediate response telling her that she’s fired, a brutal gag on the scarcity of true vacations without work in present-day American life. And that’s a grind that Su and Jack, like so many of us, are only too content to submit to, as they’re constantly trying to sell themselves on their promise to disconnect, even admitting on their first night as they gawk at the natural beauty of the starlit sky how badly they miss surfing their phones.

More lacerating are the ways that their sheltered lives clash with the necessities of cabin living. This is especially true of Jack, whose emasculation is served up for our delight across scenes where he struggles to be self-reliant. When Su proposes that they tell each other secrets, Jack, with his carefully coiffed appearance and neurotic attentiveness, admits, “I don’t know how to be a man.” He wishes he could be the kind of stereotypically masculine man that his father represents, and his own status as a more enlightened man who respects women and his own feelings is a consciously maintained identity that he often resents.

Yet these sporadic moments of insight into millennial posturing and technological reliance are less of a thematic bedrock on which Save Yourselves! is founded than they are peripheral to the story, which starts to roll out in simplified fashion once Su and Jack learn of the alien invasion that’s been ravaging the planet ever since they unplugged. As for the aliens, they’re merely large balls of fur with no discernible faces or limbs (shades of the beach ball-like alien from John Carpenter’s Dark Star), which inevitably results in redundant moments revolving around Su and Jack first noticing what they assume to be a pouf that keeps materializing around the house, and later a number of images of the seemingly harmless creatures abruptly snaking out an appendage that punches through the bodies of unlucky humans.

Fischer and Wilson attempt to juxtapose the twee tropes of a certain strain of indie comedy—brightly lit and colored images, ever-frazzled protagonists, a generally deadpan tone—with the epic horror of a global-invasion film, something that isn’t unprecedented (see Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal) but here lacks a clear through line. Rather than use its emotionally detached tone as an ironic counterpoint to the terror wreaked by hostile extraterrestrials, the film simply reconfigures the aliens into its mannered atmosphere. As a result, the carnage on that we occasionally glimpse on the screen is neither scary nor darkly amusing.

Soon, all of those jokes about Su and Jack’s difficulties at roughing it start to feel less effective once they launch into survival mode. Jack’s squeamishness about using guns provides a few laughs as he frantically rattles off rehearsed statistics about the danger of firearms, but the extended bits about the couple’s inability to drive stick shift further pulls focus away from the film’s dominant theme of millennial softness. Su and Jack’s previously aired generational anxiety only pays off when they’re saddled with an unexpected companion, but a throwaway joke here and there is about the extent to which the film delves into its characters’ minds.

Crucially, the film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation. Any news story these days about an asteroid or meteor passing within any noteworthy distance of Earth is greeted with almost-wistful fantasizing about an obliterating collision, and for all of the sarcasm of such reactions, there’s a pronounced death drive among those facing the increasing probability of a slower and more painful extinction that’s been addressed, albeit with more dour severity, in films such as Melancholia. There’s plenty of room for a movie to address such fatalistic ideas with equally bleak humor, but Save Yourselves! lacks the causticness to deliver on that front.

Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, John Early, Jo Firestone, Gary Richardson Director: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Screenwriter: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Blood on the Wall Is a Spread-Thin Look at the Migrant Crisis

Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s prismatic look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs lacks for cohesiveness.

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Blood on the Wall
Photo: Nick Quested

Cleaning and loading one of the automatic weapons lying on the floor before him, a masked member of a Mexican cartel decries that the “United States gives the weapons, Mexico gives the dead. Americans engage in the wars they want. In Mexico, war just shows up.” It’s a chilling, damning sentiment, and one that, delivered at the start of Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Blood on the Wall, appears to establish the documentary’s guiding principle. But the filmmakers’ interrogation of the myriad ways in which U.S. weapon trades and nefarious interventions in Central America over the past half century have laid the groundwork for the current crises in Mexico is just one of many topics covered here.

Throughout its brisk 93-minute runtime, the documentary not only tackles the disproportionate impact that the War on Drugs has had on Central Americans, it touches on NAFTA, the decentralization of power in Mexico, the C.I.A.’s connection to the Guadalajara cartel, drug mules, the rise of synthetic opioids, community policing, and the massive migrant caravan that, in 2018, made its way from Honduras all the way up to the southern U.S. border. It’s a sprawling, all-encompassing portrait that seeks to identify the causes and effects of the drug war and cartel violence on both a macro and micro scale, but Junger and Quested’s prismatic look at all these complex policies and events lacks for cohesiveness.

Blood on the Wall is at its most incisive and immediate when it hitches its perspective to various members of the migrant caravan—particularly 17-year-old Ludy, whose harrowing, 1,000-mile trek from Guatemala is the personal lens through which we glean the benefits and dangers of traveling in such a massive group of people. It’s during these more intimate stretches that the documentary feels the most grounded. The widespread tragedies caused by policy decisions (and often deliberately) on the part of both the U.S. and Mexico are given an astonishing specificity here that’s absent in the many disturbing yet impersonal shots of decapitated heads and widespread violence captured in other sections of the film.

The attempts to place Ludy’s exodus, and that of thousands of other Central Americans, within a larger context are certainly admirable, even necessary. But in not picking their battles in terms of narrative focus, the filmmakers lose the thread that connects all the disparate issues they cover, and how they led to the mass migration of Central Americans to the United States. Junger and Quested seek to give us a comprehensive and indispensable look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs, but given that their grasp has exceeded their reach, Blood on the Wall ultimately just feels like a starting point for the study of the subject.

Director: Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 12 Hour Shift Is a Well-Oiled Organ-Harvesting Farce That’s Short on Style

Its revolving-door atmosphere papers over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate.

2.5

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12 Hour Shift
Photo: Magnet Releasing

Writer-director Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift ends, neatly and pointedly, as it begins: in a hospital parking lot, with a cold, hard acknowledgement of a brutal workday’s toll on a person. In the opening scene, Nurse Mandy’s (Angela Bettis) world-weary face suggests a lifetime of sleepless nights, and as she takes drags from a cigarette that’s clearly her lifeline to sanity, she visibly endures her co-worker Cathy’s (Julianne Dowler) small talk about a day she’d like to forget, before then telling her to fuck off after the woman’s pleasantries give way to presumptions about Mandy’s weight and how she’s getting by.

The film’s bookend scenes represent the closest thing to a break that Mandy enjoys during her double shift. Unfortunately, they’re also our only breathers from a story that’s so driven by the necessities of plot that it makes scant room for characterization. Indeed, that opening scene is one of few here where the audience gets to really sit with the characters and their feelings, to think of them as actual people. Its richness is such that when we learn that Mandy runs an organ-stealing operation out of the hospital where she works, and that Cathy’s presumptions about Mandy weren’t so wild, Mandy’s brusqueness toward her co-worker still feels justified.

Bettis makes you believe right out of the gate that Mandy, regardless of how she gets by, has earned her right to tell Cathy to mind her own fucking business. Otherwise, 12 Hour Shift reduces Mandy, and everyone else who comes into her orbit, to a cog in its plot’s wheels. You believe that the character has to snort pills in order to get through a shift (shades of Nurse Jackie), but you may wish for an inkling that she once cared about her patients beyond their capacity to supply her with organs. She’s kind, yes, to one dialysis patient (Ted Ferguson), but it’s hard to shake the impression that the old man only exists to get swept up in the bloody free-for-all that ensues after a kidney intended for a group of gangsters goes missing.

Mandy and her flighty but resourceful half-cousin co-conspirator, Regina (Chloe Farnworth), get into it at various points across 12 Hour Shift’s 86-minute running time, and in a way that suggests that their illicit conduct was an inevitable result of their social position. But Grant also doesn’t convey a palpable sense of place—of the hospital being located somewhere else other than a nondescript Anywheresville—and as such the characters’ pitilessness is never fully contextualized. The film was shot in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but its characters and their accents are such that you’d think that it takes place no further east of Pomona.

Of course, 12 Hour Shift isn’t in the verisimilitude game. The plot, geared as much for comedy as horror, is wound with efficient build-up, and its revolving-door atmosphere is consistent enough to paper over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate, such as an anemic bit in which the hospital’s head nurse, Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner), recoils in disgust as she eats whatever it is she decided to lunch on that day.

The film’s highlight is a scene in which an incompetent police officer (Kit Williamson) walks in on Mandy removing a kidney from a dead patient and being unable to process the legitimacy of her actions. The moment is mischievous for the way that Officer Myers tries to square his understanding of Mandy’s profession with her blood-splattered face and clothes, while she walks the razor’s edge between professional calm and murderous rage, trying not to comprise her organ-stealing racket. The close-quarters framing so perfectly intensifies the uneasy, blackly comic energy of the scene that one wishes that the rest of the film wasn’t rife with the shorthand and didn’t have the look and pacing of a multi-camera sitcom.

Cast: Angela Bettis, David Arquette, Chloe Farnworth, Mick Foley, Kit Williamson, Nikea Gamby-Turner, Tara Perry, Brooke Seguin, Dusty Warren, Tom DeTrinis, Thomas Hobson, Julianne Dowler, Briana Lane, Taylor Alden Director: Brea Grant Screenwriter: Brea Grant Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Netflix’s The Boys in the Band Gives a Cultural Touchstone a Glossy Update

This new Boys in the Band is a Matryoshka doll of period piecery, a flashback of a flashback of a flashback.

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The Boys in the Band
Photo: Netflix

“Call you tomorrow,” says perpetually morose birthday boy Harold to his rapidly unraveling friend Michael at the climax of playwright Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking and still-litigated 1968 queer cultural touchstone The Boys in the Band. More than 50 years after those words were written, they still feel among the saddest, most intimate words of farewell ever uttered between two fictional characters.

In the wake of the success of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Crowley’s coup was to populate an entire play with modern homosexuals getting slowly hammered at a party and, eventually, doing exactly as George and Martha did with Honey and Nick: picking away at each other in a seemingly endless cycle of “get the guests” parlor games. None more so than Michael, the more-or-less central figure whose radiant sense of Catholic guilt—and discomfort with his receding hairline—have made a jet-setting, debt-amassing alcoholic of him.

It’s Michael that Crowley says he most identified with when writing the play. And that identification with the story’s most overtly abusive partygoer undoubtedly helped the play—and especially its eventual film adaptation directed by a then-up-and-coming William Friedkin—develop a fraught relationship with the gay community. Some spoke out against its purported implicit suggestion that all gay men are basket cases; others saw in the play’s depiction of outcasts defiling their own safe space with catty barbs something true about themselves. And some undoubtedly recognized both aspects working in merciless tandem.

The best that can be said for Netflix’s new version is that there are surprisingly few recognizable touches from producer Ryan Murphy, who also produced director Joe Mantello’s Broadway revival. Foremost among those is the fact that Murphy and Mantello opted for a full slate of nine openly gay actors to take the stage, and keeps them all on board here. That triumph of representation aside, though, The Boys in the Band alternates between recreating Friedkin’s film—right down to the near-identical set design of Michael’s (Jim Parsons) apartment—and diverging in ways that end up cutting the tension, diffusing performances, and underlining points of a script that never lacked for declarative character.

Halfway through, Michael, having fallen off his six-week wagon and completing his turn into a queer Mr. Hyde, takes the reins of his party and forces his friends to play a sadistic game of telephone, making each of them call their one true love and come clean about their feelings. It’s during this second act that each actor would normally be given their chance to dig deep, laying bare the memories that still haunt their tortured adult lives. Here, though, Mantello frequently cuts away from their monologues for florid flashbacks, just at the point where the audience should feel the air leaking out of that claustrophobic living room. Equally superfluous is a coda that shows where each character goes after the party disbands, literalizing Michael’s monologue about running through life.

Which is to say, a filmed version of the revival would have done better justice to it. Even so, there are enough performances herein to have made any act of preservation worth the bother, most notably Tony-nominated Robin de Jesús as the camp-quipping Emory (an admittedly juicy part that Hoovers up the spotlight, as it did for Cliff Gorman in the original), and Andrew Rannells as the rampantly unfaithful Larry, whose unwillingness to submit to his lover Hank’s (Tuc Watkins) pleas to at least include him in threesomes rather than stepping out behind his back represents the play’s most fascinating variation on self-defeating behavior. And while Zachary Quinto, as Harold, lacks Leonard Frey’s exquisitely simmering sense of self-loathing, when it counts (“Call me tomorrow”), he rises to the material.

In reviving the play on Broadway and transposing the exact cast to a new film adaptation, much as Friedkin did back in 1970, Mantello could arguably have very easily updated the timestamp on the material and set his hostile revelers against each other in present-day New York. There’s enough flexibility in the premise to highlight just how far gay rights have come while at the same time acknowledging the restraints many gay men still fight against, expertly outlined by Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage. But that he didn’t suggests he’s among those who view Crowley’s play as a time capsule, if not outright antiquated, rendering the whole enterprise of preserving the stage version in film form weirdly self-amplifying. This Boys in the Band is a Matryoshka doll of period piecery, a flashback of a flashback of a flashback.

Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington, Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison Director: Joe Mantello Screenwriter: Mart Crowley, Ned Martel Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7, While Timely, Exudes Movie-of-the-Week Vibes

It pulses with relevancy in a time when debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America.

2.5

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The Trial of the Chicago 7
Photo: Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison.

The result feels like a melding of the straight-forward courtroom narrative that Sorkin delivered in A Few Good Men and the fuzzier political complexities he explored in The West Wing. Cutting quickly to the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lays out the lengthy 1969 trial as a politically motivated showcase, later inserting recreations of the protests as they come up during cross-examination. While lead federal prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given some room to hem and haw about how far he’s being asked to bend the law, the Justice Department (under new management that year with the election of Richard Nixon) is shown as fully intent on making an example of the hippies. Clearly eager to help them out is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose shutting down of any dissent becomes so rote that the defendants take to shouting “overruled!” before the judge can whenever defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) makes an objection.

The grab-bag of defendants serve as a handy cross-section of the factional, squabbling anti-Vietnam War movement. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), serve as the starchy and serious counterpoint to the puckish and prankish Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), while middle-aged conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a kind of father figure to the group. Some dark comic relief is provided by John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, baffled as to why they’re even there. But the true odd man out is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had no connection to the rest of the defendants and no part in any of the protest planning, having only been in Chicago for four hours to give a speech. (A plausible theory that Sorkin puts forth is that Seale was there as a token black radical to scare the jury.)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most urgent when showing Seale’s at first infuriated and later desperate attempts to be separated from the seven other defendants or at least be allowed to defend himself. When Judge Hoffman’s glowering authoritarianism causes Seale to be handcuffed to his chair and gagged to stop him from speaking (which actually happened in an American courtroom), a sense of fulsome outrage finally grips the story. But the film, which moves on too quickly from the side plot involving Seale’s connection to Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), feels far more at home in the heady, emotive debates that spark between the white defendants. Abbie Hoffman, whose performative clowning is given thoughtful coloring by Cohen’s vulnerable performance, sees culture as just as important as politics and thinks Hayden is naïve and something of a square. “I don’t have time for cultural revolution,” Hayden hits back. “It gets in the way of actual revolution.”

That back and forth isn’t only an evergreen debate for the left but one that particularly engages Sorkin, whose better episodes of The West Wing limned the clash of idealism and realism. While Abbie Hoffman, who knew just how ludicrous he was being in court but saw the attention-getting as vital to the Chicago Seven’s cause, often gets the better of these exchanges with Hayden, Sorkin’s heart seems to be clearly on the side of practicality. At one point, frustrated by Rubin’s complaints that nobody on the jury “looks like us,” Kunstler slyly replies, “Any of you ever show up for jury duty? No? Then shut the fuck up.”

Unfortunately, the film has relatively little of that kind of punchiness. As a director, Sorkin hasn’t yet grasped how to meld personal drama and historical sweep into a cohesive whole. Although the strong cast helps the film through some of its weaker segments, Sorkin’s attempt to bring a Spielbergian fluidity to the flashbacks to convention riot chaos often fall flat. But while The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on something of a movie-of-the-week note, given the timing of its release as a current Department of Justice gins up spurious charges against political enemies, it nevertheless carries a certain past-is-prologue immediacy.

Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: On the Rocks Is a Screwball Comedy with a Twist of Unresolved Tension

Sofia Coppola captures how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness.

3.5

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On the Rocks
Photo: A24

Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. We then see Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) getting married, and soon descending an elaborate spiral staircase into the cavernous pool of an elegant hotel. Coppola then cuts to Dean already in the water waiting for Laura, who takes the plunge to join him, before then cutting to toys on the floor of a New York City loft—years of marriage compressed into a heartbreaking handful of seconds, as a relationship has evolved from storybook infancy into a romantic partnership that’s enriched by and freighted with obligation, while haunted by an obsessive father’s influence.

Like many Coppola protagonists, Laura and Dean are casually affluent, living in a glass cage of designer parties and restaurants. Yet this is the world that Coppola knows, and her films don’t feign pretense of understanding working-class universality, whatever that may be to begin with. In fact, guilt over this rarefication complicates Laura’s encroaching not-quite-midlife crisis. She feels relentlessly average next to Dean’s chic collaborators, yet she senses that it’s unseemly to feel the pain of the struggling, and such anxieties are embodied by the myopic, comically self-pitying droning of a fellow mom, Vanessa (Jenny Slate). Jones’s body language communicates this anguish vividly, nearly subliminally: Laura is a poignant lump who stands and dresses in order to vanish, coming to see herself only as a supplicant to her children. And she suspects that this behavior might lose Dean’s attention.

In On the Rocks, Coppola utilizes the comic-melancholic tone that she perfected in Somewhere. A shot of Laura lying on her bed, as one of those little robot vacuums buzzes about in hapless circles, instantly evokes Laura’s ennui. And Coppola is particularly adept at expressing the growing confusion between Laura and Dean, who isn’t the cartoon of the inept husband in Lost in Translation but a realistically distracted man too busy to see that he’s ignoring his wife’s needs. One moment is especially strange, even a little dangerous: Dean plops down in the bed in the middle of the night exhausted from work, kissing and touching Laura hungrily until she speaks and ruins the moment, killing the spontaneity of pure sex, the “fucking” that’s referenced in a Chris Rock special that Laura was watching earlier in the night, with the ongoing reality of the work of their relationship. Coppola never over-emphasizes any moments or symbols, particularly a moving motif with wrist watches, cultivating a growing tension that’s intensified by fraught close-ups and passages of pointed silence.

As Laura becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Rarefied even by Laura’s standards, Felix is an art dealer and womanizing bon vivant who sucks the oxygen out of every room. Felix’s thoughtfulness is somehow selfish, as he showers Laura with the sort of attention that Dean should pay her, except it’s suffocating and vainglorious. He isn’t quite the paralyzed lonely rich man that Murray played in Lost in Translation and Coppola’s 2015 Netflix holiday special A Very Murray Christmas; this character’s loneliness is subtler, hidden under extroversion and revealed fleetingly in startling moments, such as when Felix, feeling a sudden desolation, asks his driver to take him home. There was glamour to Murray’s earlier lost men, who were so quiet that you could project yourself onto them, but Murray renders Felix pathetic even as the character abounds in his distinctively curt and caustic charm.

Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if Dean is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Felix has a penchant for absurdist sexism (one of the best bits in the film finds him convinced that he’s growing deaf only to female voices), and he displays undisguised glee at the prospect of proving Dean’s infidelity, which might normalize his cheating on Laura’s mother years ago. Laura might initially be rooting for Dean’s betrayal as well, as it offers a pat answer to her feelings of stagnation.

Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. No wonder Laura feels eclipsed by everyone, including her husband. She was taught early on by Felix to be a spectator, and her latent rage erupts in a moment of reckoning in Mexico.

There are few modern filmmakers who possess Coppola’s gift for capturing how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness. On the Rocks has the same piercing, hazy, noir-esque beauty as Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and A Very Murray Christmas, as quite a bit of it is set in dimly lit hotels and bars that allow people to be anonymously captivating while getting loose on expensive cocktails.

Sitting across from one another, talking of their own relationship while pretending to speak of Laura’s marriage, Felix and Laura make for an enchantingly odd couple, their energies redolent of a classic movie duo, merged with the despairing yet droll preoccupations of a filmmaker who appears to be cutting to the heart of her own demons. Yet On the Rocks has a bounce—a swing and sense of hopefulness—that’s new to Coppola’s work. As Laura implies, endless passion is exhausting, expected only by the selfish. Somewhere on the sliding scale between combustible heat and resignation is something like grace, where communion is likely.

Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Jessica Henwick, Jules Willcox, Nadia Dajani, Barbara Bain, Musto Pelinkovicci Director: Sofia Coppola Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola Distributor: A24 Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies

The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.

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Miranda July
Photo: Focus Features

Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.

July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.

While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”

You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?

You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.

Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?

Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.

As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?

I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.

The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?

I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.

Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?

Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”

I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?

I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.

Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?

Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.

You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?

When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.

I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?

Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.

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Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.

3

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Beginning
Photo: New York Film Festival

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.

The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.

The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.

Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.

The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory

It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.

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Tragic Jungle

Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.

The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.

This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.

As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.

Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.

Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz

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Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.

Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.

This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries to an existential scale, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on. We’re only given glimpses of their internal conflicts, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.

Indeed, the financial precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban eccentricity and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and necessities progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.

Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, who has nevertheless struggled to break free from her parents after almost 27 years, and whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).

Toward the end of the film, there’s some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things”, in a more plainspoken version of the soul-searching aphorisms that usually pepper July’s dialogue. It also reflects the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child honesty is still a matter of personal taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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