Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Xiao Wu, a low-budget Chinese film that was never distributed in the United States. In 1997, few could have anticipated this work would usher in a new generation of Chinese filmmakers, or have guessed that director Jia Zhang-ke would become one of the world’s leading auteurs while still in his early thirties. Since then, he has made four feature films, most of which are masterpieces and none of which are failures. His many astonishing gifts notwithstanding, it has become easier with time to see why he has caught on with Western critics and enjoyed the kind of reputation no young American director of his generation has achieved.
At a time when Western curiosity about China continues to grow, he offers different images of the country than those found in the work of Fifth Generation directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jia’s films historicize the present moment, and they do so without the visual sumptuousness that helped Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s period dramas break Chinese cinema onto the international scene. Where Chen and Zhang satisfied their audiences’ desire to see China reflected through exotic pageantry (à la Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) and neorealist grit, Jia’s work fits perfectly into two trends of the current moment (or the recent past): (a) the critical privileging of a more ascetic aesthetics, as embodied by Bresson, Ozu, Kiarostami, and the Taiwanese New Wave, and (b) the Tarantino-fetish for pop culture and self-reference.
Maoist ideology has stigmatized artists and intellectuals for decades, insisting that art is bourgeois and corrupt if it does not educate the public in Communist ideals. Beginning with the Fifth Generation directors, the work of China’s most internationally renowned filmmakers has largely been suppressed in its native country by the censors. Jia has emerged at an interesting time in the evolution of public values, as the mainland audience continues to find avenues around such suppression and the government has slowly begun to liberalize. Still Life, which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is his second film to be approved by the authorities, but his social commentary remains as pointed as ever, and perhaps even more damning of a government that turns a blind eye to the suffering it has caused in the name of economic progress.
Jia’s first three features (Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures) explored specific problems facing contemporary small-town China, but the depictions of societal growing pains were matched by a deeply empathetic view of youth’s uncertainties and aimlessness; the private space (however limited or illusory) in which young people amuse themselves, waste time, fall in love, and confront the future still existed onscreen, in some small way distinguishable from its socio-political context. The tragic undertones of this first string of masterworks derived from the sense that Jia’s characters were not fully conscious of the ways in which they were being cheated by the inexorability of time and by their limited options in society. But in 2004’s The World and particularly in Still Life, the encroachment of the public/political sphere on private/personal space becomes more apparently suffocating. The characters are older, worn down by time, and, concurrent with the despair of the undeceived, the movies themselves lack the spontaneity associated with youth. The mood of every frame and the purpose of every scene are dictated by the set of socio-political conditions Jia seeks to expose. This new level of obviousness is understandable partly because, in the modern world, Beijing and the Three Gorges Dam (the settings for The World and Still Life, respectively) carry with them built-in associations, epitomizing the extremes of China’s aspirations toward “progress,” and exhibiting the consequences of such progress on a grander scale than Jia’s native Fenyang could in the earlier films. But this obviousness also makes these new works more desirable and easily digestible on the international market, for those who want their Chinese cinema to complement their New York Times.
What has kept Jia’s eye so fresh and up-to-date in the past is the centrality of pop culture to the way his characters understand their identities. His use of music, in particular, is masterful, and distinct from the manner in which more manipulative or fashionable directors have deployed pop in the past. While George Lucas surrounded American Graffiti in a haze of ‘50s rock-and-roll nostalgia, and while Wong Kar-wai continues to highlight the dreaminess of Western pop by attaching it to non-Western imagery, Jia’s relationship to pop culture is at once more complex, more realistic, and more heartbreaking. As a mainlander, his interest in pop (and the ways it delineates community, disseminates values, and normalizes individualistic emotions) is not limited to the colonizing power of American entertainment culture; it also extends to an envy of the more liberated Chinese societies (Taiwan and Hong Kong), and to the contemporary pop scene which has emerged on the mainland alongside the introduction of capitalist reforms.
In a country like the U.S., in which the existence of an entertainment industry looms so large in our everyday lives that it can’t but be taken for granted, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the depth of emotion with which Jia has described growing up in a pop-less China: “We had no entertainment, no culture, no books at all,” he said in a 2003 interview. “We spent our nights sitting at home silently… After the ‘80s, we started having tape players and cassette tapes. We were able to hear more popular music, about the lively things in our lives. You can imagine, in a small town, with no library, no theater, no concert hall, and no art gallery, how important popular music was to us.”
Jia’s carefully chosen soundtracks often feature the most prominent hits of a particular period as they are sung in moments of awkward intimacy, in scenes that sometimes amount to sublime collisions of Mandopop’s typically superficial commercialism and Jia’s own fiercely independent spirit. As a practical narrative tool, this strategy helps Chinese audiences locate the films in time and place. In many cases the songs are undistinguished, but at other times they are embodiments of the modern Chinese soul. Xiao Wu, for instance, plants itself firmly in the ‘90s when a female character starts singing Faye Wong’s “Sky,” and Platform marks itself as a reminiscence of the ‘80s when it includes Teresa Teng’s “Coffee and Wine” in two different scenes. Wong and Teng, incidentally, function as the best possible examples of Chinese pop possessing the transgressive powers by which we define and idealize rock-and-roll of the ‘50s and ‘60s: both of these female singers were globalized, outspoken, and artistically distinguished, but their most radical achievement was to make the romantic and erotic immediate again in a culture that had demonized those impulses as opiates against Communist consciousness. It would have been easy for Jia to use them merely as stimulants of the Chinese audience’s nostalgia. Instead, he establishes a rhyme between the unfulfilled romantic desire expressed in their karaoke classics and the restlessness of existing in a world of limited opportunities. As in life, anxieties stirred by unidentified socio-political forces are funneled into universal emotions that are somewhat easier to articulate.
When Jia’s not making an occasional satirical jab at the propagandist anthems that, for decades, constituted China’s only form of government-sanctioned music culture, he’s invoking the heartbroken love songs that restored forbidden “bourgeois” passions to the Chinese emotional landscape. This music, in the ears of a less sensitive director or another culture, would be condescended to as saccharine or dismissed as mere artifact, but Jia manages to position these songs at the emotional and spiritual heart of nearly all his films without ever surrendering his tightly controlled tone to their sentimentality. Jia shows us how pop music can on the one hand make our longings tangible and memorable, and on the other hand emphasize the ephemerality and triviality of our hopes and dreams.
In his first three features, this personal relationship with pop culture was made possible by characters who were still young enough to be inquisitive about love, who wanted their longings to live up to the ideals they found in the music. The effect ranged from soaring (as in Platform, when a woman hears a sorrowful ballad on the radio and begins to dance with almost frightening passion) to bitingly ironic (as when a would-be robber in Unknown Pleasures is humiliated into singing and garbles the lyrics to a song about love and heroism). Those earlier films were as much about the adolescent and young-adult discovery of (or performance of) love as they were about crime, bureaucracy, and social ills in small-town China. But where American audiences may have found themselves relating to those films the way they did to something like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Still Life announces its intention to be Jia’s most fully mature work, centering itself on two characters who have already grown up. Jia regulars Han Sanming and Zhao Tao are not playing the feckless criminals from Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, nor the young performers from Platform; instead, they are adults personally acquainted with the effects of hard labor, migration, and lost love.
Everyone in this film seems to be holding onto their cellphones for dear life, but no amount of technology can change the fact that, in this world, human beings tend to vanish without a trace. While disappearances, separation, and reunion of family members occurred on the periphery of Jia’s previous films, now they constitute the central theme, in a two-stranded plot that follows Han and Zhao as they search for their long-lost spouses. Having experienced marriage, they are trying to negotiate their responsibility to that institution in a world that looks and feels post-apocalyptic. The vision of China, from this perspective, is drearier, less easily redeemed by humor, hope, and music; therefore, the proximity Jia allows himself to pop culture specifically and Chinese arts traditions in general is necessarily revised. With this film, Jia continues what The World started, shifting his gaze away from adolescence, and moving from autobiographical intimacy to artful, fictional, even mythical distance. This difference may be difficult to detect at first, since Jia has from the beginning been likened to Ozu and Hou for being tonally and aesthetically reserved. But where the earlier films felt miraculously cobbled together, Jia’s last two features give off a stronger sense of being constructed and interpreted beforehand.
Jia has always been closer to the ground than his Fifth Generation predecessors, and for that he seems to descend from a line of renegade heroes who gave voice to a generation scarred by the Tiananmen massacre, artists such as the poet Bei Dao and the rocker Cui Jian. With each successive film, Jia has provided a slightly different response to his social responsibility as an artist. Following the small scale of Xiao Wu, Platform presented itself with the confidence, observation, and epic ambition of a filmmaker taking the pulse of a nation. By Unknown Pleasures, it was clear that Jia knew his notoriety in the Chinese underground was having a profound impact on a national level; you can ascertain this from the cheeky, self-referential scene in which a man searches for DVDs of Jia’s work on the black market, and from how ostentatiously up-to-date the film is with its motif of national news ripped from the headlines. The next two films show Jia trying to grow into a different kind of artist, as if gaining government approval required him to shift from a provincial to a national point-of-view. Not only has he traded in the dusty setting of his Shanxi trilogy for the glitter and neon of Beijing (The World) and the epic wasteland of Fengjie (Still Life), but—now that he is working with a larger budget and a wider audience—he has also adopted a style that seems painstakingly aestheticized compared to the grainy, on-the-fly visuals and structures that made him famous. One example of this difference includes the misleading formal structures of The World and Still Life, which divide the films by chapter headings that don’t seem to indicate shifts in mood or foreshadow twists in the plot. Another example lies in the endings; where the final scenes of Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures seemed to reach outside the screen to invite, include, or implicate the viewer, the conclusions of Jia’s last two releases feel sealed-off in the characters’ minds.
Jia’s films arise from the tensions people feel between their selves and their communities, between their bodies and their environments. Still Life approaches this theme again, with an unsettling combination of modernity and tradition. Shot in the HD format, the film’s meditations on landscape, individual figures, and masses of human bodies are implicitly hooked into the trendy pop vernacular of digital video. But while these images look as immediate and present-tense as possible, they are also the most carefully conceived of Jia’s career. Their scale and framing often echo Chinese painting, an art form whose history carries philosophical and political implications that resonate at least a thousand years further into the past than the pop references of Jia’s previous films. This engagement with tradition could hardly have been avoided, since the location of the Three Gorges Dam—an area along the Yangtze River depicted in so many paintings, Li Bai poems, and pictures on Chinese currency—automatically connects the film to the most enduring sources of the nation’s artistic heritage.
Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s formidable cinematographer, has accomplished more than any other DP in building a place for digital video in our cinematic vocabulary. At the moment, he represents the greatest defense against those who claim the form is artistically illegitimate. Along with more high-profile examples, such as Dion Beebe’s work in Miami Vice and David Lynch’s in Inland Empire, Yu has freed digital cinematography from realism and literalness, finding ways that (like Chinese “mindscapes” of the Yuan dynasty) it can express the inner life of the artist. The peculiar blues, jade-greens, and blinding patches of white light in Still Life’s high-contrast palette feel otherworldly and ordinary at the same time, and could not have been achieved on any other format. Shooting a legendary landscape with the most current technology, Yu seems to directly answer the old masters (whose work was held in contempt during the Cultural Revolution), and the audience experiences the kind of disorienting anachronism that emerges when modernity is carelessly thrown on top of the ruins of an ancient civilization. Jia recognizes that, in building the Three Gorges Dam, one of the Chinese government’s primary interests is in creating a spectacle. Accordingly, this is his most visually spectacular film. But Jia counteracts the beauty of natural scenery with the dust and dirt of an environment constantly being destroyed and reconstructed. Instead of the poems and calligraphic texts found along the sides of Chinese scrolls, this landscape is framed by crude signs that mark temporary buildings or announce the rising water level in the dam. Timelessness can no longer be taken for granted. The irony of the World Park simulacra in Jia’s previous film may have been too feeble, obvious, or clichéd a knock at globalization, but in Still Life, the recognition of that same disjointedness of experience is devastating: no film in recent memory has created as powerful a vision of a culture folding in on itself.
In comparison to the characters in Zhang or Chen’s films, many of whom are built with the fixed personalities of Chinese theatrical role types, Jia’s protagonists feel amorphous and inscrutable. Next to the chameleon-like work of an actress like Zhao Tao, Gong Li’s valiant women look increasingly similar to Bette Davis or Scarlett O’Hara. The question of how Jia’s enigmatic human figures are supposed to hold up against such overpowering forces is complicated by both the deterioration of the landscape (whose ugliness makes us seek human faces to latch onto) and the crowding of an overpopulated nation (which makes it difficult to build personal connections to individual characters). Jia invokes one of the central themes in his oeuvre, calling us to ask what the significance of one life can be in a society like modern China. His camera has never been less anchored by human activity, an attitude he adopts when he opens the film panning and circling around masses of ordinary people, as if in search of a subject (or as if any old subject will do). Even when he settles on Han and Zhao, he is constantly distracted, muffling the melodrama of their situations and turning his gaze toward other conversations, characters, and scenery. The result is a view not of lives moving through time (as Platform was) but of a preordained condition that cannot be escaped.
Jia knows that we often understand the world not by articulating our ideals and values, but rather by conferring meaning upon a set of widely shared images and artifacts. In The World, literacy in global cultures stalls at the level of instantly recognizable structures, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian pyramids. In Still Life, communication is fostered through the use of symbols instead of words: a group of workers speak of their hometowns using the landscapes on RMB notes as visual aids; two men build a friendship off of the ideas of masculinity and brotherliness found in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow; and a boy floats in from time to time to sing love ballads, as if to remind his elders what passion feels like unfettered.
But people reach a point at which shared culture (both high and low, ancient and contemporary) fails to heal or redeem, and that is where imagination must take over. Jia’s past two films have perplexed some viewers by employing flights of fancy and imagination that few would have expected from such a realist. The World dramatizes the impossible, interrupting its live-action scenes with colorful animated interludes and, in its final moments, giving the last word to the voices of the dead.
Still Life’s characters exercise an ambiguous form of mental agency by dreaming up symbols and allegories in their landscape. The world has offered them a Godot-like trap, and they are forced to imagine themselves into existence. The surrealist in Jia is full of both hope and pessimism, and seems to be arguing: If thousands of years of tradition can be degraded in the span of a few decades, then the invasion of UFOs might be a credible occurrence as well; if coal miners can hold onto their faith in a narrow survival, then the film can end with a man walking gracefully along a tightrope above a rocky terrain. Still Life completes Jia’s transcendence of cinéma vérité and pop-dependence by accommodating the spiritual and the absurd (though, for him, the two might be one and the same). In the most remarkable career in modern Chinese cinema, he continues to find new answers to the question of how an artist should express the absurdity, banality, and sincerity of humans striving against impossible odds. Like his characters, he risks madness to maintain his sense of what is possible, without ever allowing his feet to leave the ground.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.
Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.
In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.
Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.
The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.
Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?
At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.
The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.
Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.
One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.2
Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.
It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.
As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.
While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.
Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón
Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.
Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.
Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.
Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.
If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.
Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.
Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.
More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.
And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”
Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects
Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.2
Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.
The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.
Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.
By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.
Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973