I was away from Godâs Land for a few weeks, producing an independent feature in Sarasota, FL. It was a rigorous experience, and while we are not supposed to talk about “project mayhem,” I can say that we were chased by alligators in a rubber raft, I saw armadillo and wild boar in the wetlands, shot on planes and speedboats over the Gulf of Mexico, filmed an elaborate and risque magic show, and set up car rig shots on designer cars that, when fitted, seemed like vehicles from Mad Max. Ah, yes, “project mayhem” was an intense and enjoyable time, but when I come back to NYC, Iâm dog tired and itâs hard to settle back into the rhythm of Godâs Land, which is slow, meditative, put together by a handful of loyal crew members, and hangs together by what feels like cardboard boxes and chewing gum, and the will of director Preston Miller.
Our latest shoot involves night exteriors. I think it was Repo Man director Alex Cox who said that for all the pain that has been put upon screenwriters over the years, they have the sweetest revenge when they write the words “EXTERIOR: NIGHT” because these scenes always involve more lighting, more cable running, more of a heavy workloadâand considering Prestonâs crew size is generally three or four people, it stretches the production incredibly thin whenever he has a scene like this. Since Iâm still wiped out from my previous feature, I wonder how much support Iâll be able to provideâI look and feel like death warmed over. House Next Door editor Keith Uhlich didnât even recognize me when we attended a screening together, since I was pale, hollow-eyed, and seemed to have come back from a war. I figure, what the hell, maybe I should use this persona in Godâs Landâand enlist myself as an extra. Since with my headband, sunglasses and camera I look like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, I play a rock and roll journalist/photographer during one of our big scenes.
The problem with lighting night scenes isnât as much lighting the people in the frame, who can either go dark Gordon Willis-style or be lit with classical three-point lighting. More important is lighting the background to provide depth to the frame, to provide a reference of where the characters are, and if you only have four lights without heavy wattage and that small lighting package is nevertheless tripping the circuit breaker from the lines youâre running from the house, youâre walking into an independent film horror show. Director of Photography Arsenio Assin and I perform the grip and electric duties, and Iâm reminded that, on most night shoots, you need at least six guys to do this properly. Our stalwart Assistant Director, Alex Gavin, occasionally lends a hand, and even Sound Mixer David Groman offers to help when heâs not rigging mikes and camouflaging his own cables behind trees, bushes and flowerbeds.
Still and all, Preston is in full-on Captain Ahab mode and remains undeterred by the struggle; I donât think he considers it all that much. While heâs friendly, smiling, polite and, generally, an all-around nice guy, he has the tunnel vision of a director. He tunes out these problems and does his job, which is concentrating on the performers. The night shoot involves a large group of cult members during the darkest hour of their faith. Thereâs a quietly intense speech given to the crowdâall dressed in white jumpsuits, cowboy hats and bootsâinforming them that this moment, while not literal suicide, should feel like standing on the edge of a great abyss.
In an extreme wide shot, which pushes the limits of our ability to light but nevertheless reminds me of one of Gregory Crewdsonâs eerie, moody suburban nightmare photographs that suggests violence even when there is none in plain view, a sea of bodies in white gradually move onto the lawn, racing toward the windows to peer inside a house. There are children who skip and play on the lawn, and their obliviousness to the mania around them is unsettlingâparticularly when one of the supporting actors goes down on his knees and places his hands on his cheeks and head in a gesture of trauma or oppression. Itâs not sillyâthe contortion reads as psychic pain. One of the women cult members runs to him briefly, sees he is beyond repair, and then goes back to scattering across the lawn and the windows, trying to see whatâs happening inside.
The script, as written, demanded a Steven Spielberg budget involving 350 extras, helicopters, policemen, an army of reporters and onlookersâand when Preston was unable to raise the millions it would take to shoot that version of the scene, it took on a more intimate quality, more about the disintegration of a belief system. I often say that the making of a movie is the movie itself, and Prestonâs dream of a multi-million dollar spectacle scene has dissolved into cold, harsh reality. The cult members are facing the pain of that reality as surely as Preston is. The handful of lights and crew, the grueling endlessness of night shooting, which gets us home at about four in the morning, the frustration of not having enough house power to draw onâthis, too, is a harsh reality. And Preston allows these things to happen, so in his own gentle, quiet way, he lets real life inform the scene. I donât think heâs even aware of it, and even if he was, I doubt heâd care. When youâre making movies in this low-budget way, getting the shots done puts the director into a kind of trapped survival mode where heâs racing against the clock, and against fatigue and the frustration of his team.
But amidst all the rigor of night shooting and the choreography of many actors within a complicated scene, at the start and finish of the day we film a handful of the intimate scenes that are really Prestonâs forte. When I think of time spent with Preston, itâs usually one-on-one as opposed to with a big group. Big groups tend to make Preston seem scattered, as if he is trying to pay equal attention to fifteen different people at once, whereas, one-on-one, heâs very present, a patient listener and a playful raconteur of odd storiesâmost recently he was telling a kooky tale about the last of the Times Square pimps and one of his misadventures. But Preston can also go deep, discussing matters of the heart and soul in a way that is not ironic, and the final scene we shoot is more this side of his personality.
The moment involves our doomed protagonist, Hou (Shing Ka), and the cult company man, Richard Liu (Wayne Chang), during a scene at the filmâs midpoint, which involves Hou releasing a hint of emotional baggageâfor much of the movie, he keeps these parts of himself very close to the vest. But of course heâs unloading to a representative of the cult who is slick and toes the party line, so itâs like releasing into a vacuum. Wayne, whose character earlier in the night was having a quavering meltdown and had to lower his head and collect himself between takes, is back in the smooth operator mode, and Shing, throughout this evening, has been opening himself up more than Iâve seen him do before, even in person. He has a cool persona, a kind of rock star aloofness that I couldnât see past when I first met him.
It was only when I saw him interacting with the actors playing his wife and child (Jodi Lin and Matthew Chiu) that I saw the kindness, depth and humanity underneath. In these scenes, we see the cracks forming in his faĂ§ade, and through the cracks we see a glimpse of painâwhich is the pain of not knowing whether this quest has all been for nothing. Itâs powerful to witness a man as strong and secure in himself, and Shing allows us to glimpse that vulnerability. His face is as much an emotional landscape as seeing twenty white-cloaked figures running across a lawn in torment, and yet Shing is finely calibrated, very controlled. We go up to four takes on the scene, and Shing slowly opens himself up, allowing more of the ache to slip through. Preston is profoundly moved by his performance; it may be the moment he and Shing are closest as director and actor. We shut off the lights; the long dark night of the soul is over.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of on-set reports on Godâs Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.
Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War
The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.2.5
Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: âI only know about the time since I was born. Whatâs history?â The child goes on to explain that history isnât taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The questionâs poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the cityâs recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longleyâs first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the schoolâs exterior. Later, one of the buildingâs walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.
Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.âs so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesnât see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.
The documentaryâs classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their schoolâs first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, thereâs a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaadaâs sometimes intrusive score.
If the children arenât taught about their countryâs history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. âDeath is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,â one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.
As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boysâ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the cityâs past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the cityâs center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americansâ sway over the vote.
Longleyâs decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarianâs predicamentâa totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the Westâs influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and itâs admirable that heâs able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.
Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him
Much like its subject, Avi Belkinâs documentary knows how to start an argument.3
Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkinâs archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill OâReilly at the peak of the latterâs influence as a Fox News blowhard. âThat is not an interview, thatâs a lecture,â Wallace moans before OâReilly calls him a âdinosaurâ and then really twists the knife: âYouâre the driving force behind my career,â he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.
Though itâs almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous âpersonality journalism,â the breadth and quality of Wallaceâs work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkinâs exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, âan invention.â Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallaceâs self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.
Ironically, Wallaceâs breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beatâthe first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smokeâreveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying âMy role is that of a reporter,â and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (âMany people hated your husband, and you,â he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)
Belkin weaves Wallaceâs personal story into the documentaryâs parade of interviews in a manner thatâs unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subjectâwith the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleaguesâheâs alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallaceâs hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.
Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcasterâs time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmorelandâs libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American militaryâs analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallaceâs interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mannâs The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as itâs celebrating him.
At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how âfear is the energy toward doing your best work.â In the very same interview, she calls Wallace âa son of a bitch,â and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.
Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this yearâs recipient of the festivalâs Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japanâs cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugamiâs feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her motherâs death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoaâs father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, whoâs isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, itâs almost as if sheâs destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos sheâs been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: âYou wouldnât understand, youâre rich, you wouldnât know. Will you pay for my expenses?â In this moment, Kitaiâs triumph is making her characterâs wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star ShĆta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot theyâve been handed in life. The protagonistâs attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonistâs co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the menâs lives. Thereâs redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyakeâs style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyoneâs slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that sheâs going to regret her purchase. Miyakeâs gaze is empathetic, and thereâs truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayamaâs satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style cafĂ© that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesnât fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system heâs trapped within.
The filmâs style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere thatâs in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and itâs satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that itâs difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19â28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesnât have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. Itâs difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what heâs put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musicianâs brain, A.J. Eatonâs David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosbyâs productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Thereâs no effort made to hide Crosbyâs thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosbyâs bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges heâs permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how âinsufferableâ Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that heâs only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesnât have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losierâs empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isnât just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. Itâs also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandroâs textile-informed camp isnât compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scĂšne. Instead, this exĂłtico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, nĂ© SaĂșl ArmendĂĄriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the insideâa world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are allâto various degrees of visible and invisible discomfortâstitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandroâs body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldnât be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the directorâs empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandroâs wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandroâs misery, Losierâs response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, âI wish I could give you a kiss.â It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose peopleâs troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losierâs visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandroâs frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that itâs precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter âcomicâs comicâ who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, âWTF,â and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a âcomic who actsâ into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the filmâs director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the âmind-fuckeryâ currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that youâve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, Iâm generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I donât know if thereâs a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors whoâre hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because Iâm certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and thereâs subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldnât have the confidence to assume that my take is the ârightâ one necessarily.
Thereâs a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that Iâm not sure weâve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynnâs character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy whoâs sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I donât know if itâs heartache, but heâs definitely a broken dude whoâs making the best of whatever time he has left. I donât know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Melâs appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. Heâs not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that youâre talking about. With acting I feel that Iâve been learning on the job in a way, and over time Iâve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether itâs a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, Iâve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with whatâs around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. Itâs about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since Iâve started acting more, Iâve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that Iâve talked to so many of them, Iâve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, thatâŠwhatâs the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, âWell, thatâs how theyâre approaching this job,â and when you get into the ring or the scene, youâre in it.
That inside knowledge gives âWTFâ an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I donât think I ever set out to interview. Iâve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they donât. Thereâs a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally donât see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I donât have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I donât have to answer to anybody and I donât know what Iâm looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge Iâve found with interviews is that one doesnât always entirely know what is and isnât in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know Iâm not necessarily intuitive about that. Iâm not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesnât really matter what theyâre talking about. Audiences will say, âOh, wow, I didnât know that.â These conversations donât require information, but an emotional connection. Iâm so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isnât civil and thereâs a momentum to everything thatâs based on mind-fuckery. I know for myselfâas somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a differenceâthat people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. Itâs not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what weâre telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information thatâs being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesnât take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. Itâs sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that Iâm having. Iâm trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. Itâs called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someoneâs that personally invested in something they believe in, and itâs righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, thatâs what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone whoâs long been in recovery, to play characters whoâre either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously thereâs the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didnât happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and youâve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life thatâs not in the throes of itâI mean, itâs such a common struggle. And whatâs amazing to me is how many people donât find a way out of that or donât seek help. Or are ashamed of it or donât know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but Iâm thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people whoâre isolated by this sickness. Itâs really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people whoâre struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what Iâve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context thatâs very specificâa way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bellâs Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subjectâs entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bellâs Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vĂ©ritĂ© portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that theyâre seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that theyâre desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects canât afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasnât been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwiseâs most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. âTiny,â lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughterâs prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erinâs ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. Itâs little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakersâ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these childrenâs circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture thatâs familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what weâre seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man whoâs obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCallâs attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this fatherâs love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise thatâs been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her childrenâs own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erinâs need for atonement. Though Erinâs gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Santâs My Own Private Idaho and Larryâs Clarkâs Kids. Set predominantly in Erinâs home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subjectâs entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman whoâs used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every characterâs contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family thatâs plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home thatâs rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Judeâs I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Judeâs film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the eraâs supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsionâand, if necessary, genocideâof the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, âI do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.â Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romaniaâs currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nationâs collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae CeauÈescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescuâs 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescuâs rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Judeâs protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the filmâs distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. Thereâs an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirrorâs comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversationsâmostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actorsâ movementsâin which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is MovilÄ (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her workâs unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. MovilÄ is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Judeâs dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. Thatâs thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Judeâs dense screenplay. Iacob captures Marianaâs unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that sheâs a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Judeâs heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isnât attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Marianaâs relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the filmâs climactic presentation of the artistâs reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isnât clear that itâs actually any more ârealâ than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookersâ reactions are coached remains one of the filmâs most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the publicâs response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nationâs historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the countryâs unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the filmâs conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldnât make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Sheltonâs wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trustâs opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ lives.
Last year on Marc Maronâs podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldnât normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I canât remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think thereâs eight. I know Iâm not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think Iâm pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. Iâve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I donât like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. Iâm interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but weâre constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, Iâm much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because itâs not a prewritten script weâre handed. Itâs not like, âThis is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box weâve already determined for you.â Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living oneâs life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of âthis is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that planââthat feels very depressing to me. Itâs more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marcâs on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer âpersonaâ having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. Heâs raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and heâs looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. Thatâs why heâs such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And thatâs all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesnât know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, âThe next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.â I said, âWhat?! That cameraâs right there!â Heâs like, âI donât see it. Iâm not aware of it. Iâm just in this scene with the person.â Iâm like, âThat is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that youâre able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.â Heâs really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set heâs drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but theyâre often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who Iâve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then thereâs other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I havenât done since Your Sisterâs Sister. Iâve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laughâand let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which Iâve never let myself do before. Iâve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, âWhat if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?â I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didnât make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what weâre dealing with in society. Weâre having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. Theyâve always been around, but this is definitely where theyâve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, itâs usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, thereâs this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike OâBrien, my co-writer. Itâs so fascinating because thereâs little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, theyâre at odds and frenemies for life. Itâs insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? Thereâs a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like âumâ or âyou know.â
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. Iâll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. Youâll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if Iâm cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, itâs often because Iâm slicing out an âumâ or an âahâ or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. Itâs incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cutâit didnât feel fat, it was funny throughoutâwas two and a half hours long. I was like, âHow am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?â And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, âThis is hysterical, this is gold, but itâs not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but letâs just hone it down to Melâs emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.â We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasnât. When Mike OâBrien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Melâs arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldnât figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasnât comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasnât going to worry about it. I wasnât going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didnât realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
Youâve described your writing process as being âupside-down,â where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what Iâm doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. Youâre out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. Youâre at scene 35 on the first day and like, âWhatâs happened before this? Where am I emotionally?â And then youâve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless youâre Meryl Streep! But if youâre not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, âWhat if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work withâŠâ That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, âWhat am I watching? Am I in these peopleâs lives?â And people have said theyâve had that experience where theyâll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what theyâre watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, âYes! Thatâs what I meant.â
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. Iâll bring in a few lights. I had said, âNo lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, thatâs it.â I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because itâs half them or three-quarters them and theyâve developed it with meâŠI want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sisterâs Sister in the theater, but I didnât feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
Itâs funny because I want my movies to feel like youâre paratrooping into somebodyâs life. Weâre taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I donât like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that theyâre continuing to live their lives, and who knows whatâs going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, thereâs a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bellâs character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, âWhat a strange experience.â Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! Itâs all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. Iâve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel likeâŠyou couldnât write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harveyâs Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile neâer-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man whoâs just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The manâs gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nickâs father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nickâs recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloanâs thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latterâs home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crewâs last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, thereâs just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. Thereâs one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Thom Yorkeâs Anima Finds the Singer Raging Against the Apocalypse
Review: Sum 41âs Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Review: Radu Judeâs I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War
Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him
Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre
Review: Season Three of GLOW Offers a Multifaceted Vision of the â80s
Review: Ealing Studiosâs Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
- Music7 days ago
Review: Thom Yorkeâs Anima Finds the Singer Raging Against the Apocalypse
- Music4 days ago
Review: Sum 41âs Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control
- Film7 days ago
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
- Film5 days ago
Review: Radu Judeâs I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians