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“He’s the Internet”: A Conversation on Satoshi Kon

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“He’s the Internet”: A Conversation on Satoshi Kon

“Satoshi Kon: Beyond Imagination” opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through July 1st. In anticipation of the retrospective, Brendon Bouzard, John Lichman, and Keith Uhlich gathered at Grassroots Tavern to discuss Kon and his work. See after the break for their podcast conversation and a transcript, slightly edited for clarity.

To download the podcast, click Shooting Down Pictures.

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JOHN LICHMAN: Hello and welcome to a House Next Door podcast featuring myself, John Lichman, contributor and author of “Idiot Savant Japan,” the somewhat bi-weekly column if I remember to write it. Joined here with Keith Uhlich, editor of The House.

KEITH UHLICH: Howdy, howdy John.

JL: And Brendon Bouzard of My Five Year Plan. Which is currently on the third year.

BRENDON BOUZARD: Yes! Just entered my third year on the five year plan.

KU: And we’re here today to talk about…

BB: … the films of Satoshi Kon. As well as his television series, Paranoia Agent.

KU: And this is because of an upcoming retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

JL: Which runs June 27th to July 1st, where on the opening night we have a conversation with Satoshi Kon after a screening of Paprika. So I think it’s fitting we start off on his most recent film.

KU: And before we do, I should say that where I’m currently coming from is I’ve watched all of Kon’s movies, but I haven’t watched them recently. So I’m going mainly by memory on everything, and what I’m actually is that the movies are pretty fresh in my memory in spite of having some distance from them. Brendon, what about you?

BB: I just rewatched all of the features. I have not seen Paranoia Agent, but I rewatched all the features over the past couple of weeks so they’re relatively fresh in my mind. And being able to see them all together at a clip allowed me to see a lot of the similarities and some of the subtle differences between the films, which I really appreciated.

KU: And John?

JL: And I’m coming from somewhere.

KU: Coming from where?

JL: Somewhere.

KU: That’s fine. You’re the middle ground.

JL: Brendon, you’ve actually brought up an interesting point of how Kon’s films tend to blend together. He’s had four major motion pictures and one TV series, and most of the films, aside from Tokyo Godfathers, follow a very new media nightmare—it’s always an information driven society that eventually destroys itself and then rebuilds after the fact. Do you see any recurring themes like that? How would you interpret those?

BB: I think Kon is up there with De Palma and a few other filmmakers working today whose films are grounded in a very strong understanding of theory and, specifically, of the means by which film communicates, theoretically, as a medium. I think that three of his films—Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue all sort of work together. Obviously two of them are specifically about filmmaking in one way or another. But they all sort of comment on the relationship between the spectator and the onscreen figure—the female onscreen figure—in a way that is really compelling.

KU: And always a female onscreen figure?

JL: Aside from Tokyo Godfathers all three have lead female figures. Part of the reason, at least from what Kon said in an interview, is that he thinks women are more interesting than men, and that having a male lead is pointless.

KU: Which is something that De Palma actually has echoed in his own filmmaking as well—an interesting point of comparison.

BB: Both of them are extremely intelligent about film. Both of them have seen a lot of films, obviously, and they both draw a lot on the same filmmakers. Both have been compared to Hitchcock. Perfect Blue has gotten the Hitchcock comparison quite a few times and of course De Palma can’t quite escape that in criticism. But I think the two are very similar, at least in terms of their understanding of the female figure as relates to the audience.

KU: This brings up a point: in anime I know the portrayal of women is something that’s often discussed, sometimes disparaged. John, I’d turn to you on that and say does Kon bring a different perspective on the female form to his movies than is traditional in anime or does he tweak it in some way?

JL: Well I think he tweaks it in that you’re not dealing with a magical pretty sailor girl or a buxom bouncy bubbly person. You’re dealing with very averagely drawn characters; the only people who really are exaggerated in Kon’s work are either the elderly or the male figure. Women are always drawn in a very subtle, non-assuming style, unless he makes them be extravagant. Like in Paprika and Millennium Actress where the women portray characters in order to protect themselves.

KU: Where they have alter-egos.

JL: When the alter-egos are used as protection. They’re not used to attack. They’re not used to pry. They’re used as a defense mechanism. There’s that great scene in Paprika where—I’m not going to remember any of their names, which is awful—where Paprika is being stripped of her alter-ego and then she’s a very plain looking woman left naked on the table. And the co-worker who’s doing that to her remarks how beautiful that is. So even though Paprika is this beautiful pixieish woman, this is what’s really underneath her and it’s better than being the pixie. So I think Kon has a very interesting realism when it comes to a female character, one I’d say that’s not used anywhere else. The only others who may treat women that well the two other major anime directors: Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. With Kon, they’re the only three. I think it’s worth it to say: they’re the three mainstream directors of anime.

BB: They’re the three that have sort of crossed over to Western audiences on that level. I think it’s interesting though that Kon’s treatment of women has developed over the course of his career. If you look at something like Perfect Blue and the treatment of Mima: to a certain extent, one could make the argument that he includes a few fan service shots of Mima over the course of the film. Mima is of course nude at various points, but I think that even then he’s very intelligent about how he does that. Perfect Blue is so much about spectatorship that it makes the audience complicit in the exploitation of Mima when, for instance, she’s being photographed by that photographer who basically takes advantage of her and sort of elevates the stalker’s insanity to the next level. Whereas later Kon films, I think, go more towards a level of respect and understanding of femininity.

JL: I want to bring up a point since we got on the track of Oshii and Miyazaki. These are the three best received anime directors for Western audiences right now.

KU: Oshii, Miyazaki, and Kon.

JL: And I think it represents a great trio because you have Miyazaki who is heavily the mainstream favorite. He has family-friendly fare that is actually social satire. And being repped by Disney doesn’t hurt because that guarantees box office. Then you have Oshii who is basically art-house. No matter what he does he can’t get out of the art-house, and he likes it there. And then you have Kon, who straddles this middle ground of extremely highbrow thinking. I mean in terms of identity, of femininity, of what it means to be a digital culture, of what it means to be an apocalyptic culture, of living in the shadow of the bomb… you can go on and on. But he’s very much a 21st-century thinker. And yet he juxtaposes that with extremely cartoony images, like the parade sequence in Paprika. And I’m trying to figure out, do we think Kon is happy there? Does living in that middle ground give him the freedom to do something like Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers?

BB: Well the thing about Tokyo Godfathers: on so many levels that is a film that can be appreciated by pretty much anyone. It’s a very heartwarming film. It’s got a lot of extremely funny stuff in it. The characters are extraordinarily likable. And yet there’s this darkness to it that I feel nevertheless would prevent its reception by a large cross-section of the audience. And so in terms of it being a middle ground—I feel Kon really is a middle ground. He blends elements in Tokyo Godfathers and the art of the film reflects this in the very realistic portrayal of these three homeless people in Tokyo.

JL: See this also brings up another idea of mine: If you look at how Kon’s work has progressed, when Perfect Blue first premiered in New York it played the Angelika. That was it. Then when Millennium Actress came out: Angelika and Landmark. Tokyo Godfathers comes out: Angelika and Landmark. Paprika comes out: most of the chain theaters, Angelika, and Landmark. It just shows that he’s being more and more accepted, but I think it’s unheard of for an anime director to get that acclaim.

BB: Especially with what I’d say is probably his most difficult film, Paprika. It’s probably the hardest to glean a lot of meaning from, at least on a first viewing.

KU: And especially if you’re not familiar with some of the earlier works because it really does grow out of them. (As you were pointing out, John, the ending of Paprika with the three movie posters of the films that Kon had directed previous on the marquee—that sort of cyclical thing that’s there in pretty much everything he’s done). Just to go on something with the middlebrow idea.

JL: I don’t think it’s middlebrow. I think it’s middle ground.

KU: Yeah, I know what you mean, but it just brought up something in my mind about my first reaction to Paprika. I liked it more on the second viewing, but the first time out… I’ve always found that Kon’s apocalypse’s, and there are a few, save for Millennium Actress which I actually think does that more psychologically and emotionally than the others. Yet I felt like the ones in Paranoia Agent and Paprika kind of paled in comparison to what I feel is the definitive anime apocalypse, which is Evangelion by Hideaki Anno.

JL: Going into Eva’s a whole other can of worms.

KU: I’m sure it is and that’s why it’s probably something of an unfair comparison. Kon approaches it differently than Anno does, but I’m just saying purely from the visceral sense of apocalypse portrayed, I’ve always felt like that’s one of the weaker aspects of Kon because it seems so tossed off and thrown away to me. And maybe that’s the point. If we’re talking about getting the anime out of the ghetto, maybe it’s getting it out of the “we’re influenced by the atomic bomb” ghetto.

JL: But you’re never gonna get out of that. Every part of anime is taken from the Little Boy standpoint of Takashi Murakami, which is robots, atomic bomb, apocalypse, atomic bomb, changing oneself, atomic bomb, dystopian future, atomic bomb. These are all things that are ingrained in their culture. You can’t take away that and still expect to get the same product.

KU: Right, but what you’re saying is that Kon is appealing to a more Western audience.

JL: He’s appealing to them through the art style. He’s always had a very mundane style of art. All his characters look very humanesque and no one’s really exaggerated except for in Paprika where she dons the avatar. Paprika is the bubbly pixie, and she flies through billboards and she flies through signs for eating fast food, J-Pops behind her. I mean that’s the deal. But as her regular self she’s a boring, flat, straight-lined, dark-haired figure.

KU: But then there’s the guy, her assistant, the big portly assistant…

JL: He’s otaku. He’s fat. He likes robots. And, eventually, when the dream world takes over, he sees himself as a robot. Not just any robot, but a 1950s sci-fi chic robot that goes out and wants to help people, but yet causes more damage, which—you can say right there—that’s the US Army. That’s how people can see that.

KU: But I’m just thinking of this appeal to Western sensibilities as much as Eastern because there’s even history of that in, say, Iranian culture with Kiarostami or Majidi or Panahi. I would say at their worst they play to prejudices that Westerners harbor about Easterners. Because they know that will get them more exposure. And I’m not saying they always do that. And I’m not necessarily saying Kon is doing that, but just because of his appeal, do you see anything of that in his work?

JL: I do, but let’s go back to the main three argument. Miyazaki, Kon, and Oshii all use apocalypse. All use dystopian future. All use a corruption of modernity. And I think that’s what appeals most. They’re moving out of the whole Little Boy phase and into the fact that the world is a corrupt place anyway, and there’s no more perfect example of that than the Internet. Than digital culture.

KU: Oshii’s Fast Food Grifters movie is very much about that.

JL: Oshii is huge into that style. He also did that adaptation of Avalon. I mean Oshii is very much stuck in that and maybe that’s why he’s doomed for the art-house. But Kon knows that he can trick his viewers. He’s going to show you a very pretty thing, but really it’s going to be much darker. It’s not going to be Miyazaki level pretty. Actually, this is important. When you say Miyazaki, you say anime. When you say Kon, most times you say film. Kon’s transitioning out of anime into some other weird realm.

KU: Well bringing up this idea of the trickster is interesting because that really is ingrained in a lot of his work. And I’m thinking especially of Paprika when Kon is actually in the movie as one of the cyberbar bartenders who help out the detective. And he’s sort of copping to the fact that he’s playing with your mind and such.

JL: It’s a bar that you can only reach by going on the Internet. So that takes into account the whole aspect of social networking. You pretend you’re going to a bar without going to a bar. Is the detective actually in a bar or is he sitting at his computer watching this animated feature play out? I mean Kon is a master, pardon my French for a second, of mindfucking. He was working on Paprika while doing Paranoia Agent and those two rub off on each other.

KU: They really do, yeah.

JL: So I wonder, Keith, if you can actually go into the themes of Paranoia Agent, ’cause we’ve been going over Paprika nonstop. Paranoia Agent was the 24 episode…

KU: No it’s only…

BB: …13. A 13 episode series.

JL: Gosh, it seems a lot longer. A 13 episode series focusing around what we at first think is the Little Slugger attacks, but quickly turns into another story.

KU: There’s basically this figure attacking people in Tokyo, and he’s this kid on rollerblades with a cap down over his eyes, and he has a hockey stick, and he comes at you, and he basically hits you…

JL: It’s a baseball bat. It’s a crooked baseball bat.

KU: Right. Right. It’s a crooked baseball bat. This is why I need to have seen it more recently, but yeah, it’s a crooked baseball bat, essentially I assume from all the people he’s hit—it’s just gotten that shape. And once you’re hit you become part of this shared madness in the city…

JL: You become part of it, or you wake up to it? It’s like being hit and once you’re hit, you’re awakened to what’s going on.

KU: Right, exactly. When that’s first happening, it seems like madness because it’s only affecting a few people, but the minute madness tips into the majority, it can become sanity. And the whole opening of Paranoia Agent is everyone in the series laughing in maniacal unison while the city around them moves in fast motion. And that’s definitely a Kon image in that it’s an image of shared madness.

JL: Don’t forget the final sequence of the opening as a mushroom cloud comes up over Tokyo. And yeah, it’s a great image for Kon. I think he’s coming back to the whole theme of apocalypse, which he and a bunch of other directors are very much accepting of.

KU: It’s an image of unitedness. And I’m remembering this one episode of the series (“ETC”), which basically takes place among these ladies in an apartment complex who gossip to each other, and each of their stories that they tell about Little Slugger is shown as a five minute interlude. At the end, Kon zooms up above the apartment complex and you see the buildings themselves are shaped into either a number or a symbol that specifically refers to Little Slugger. So it’s like they’re gossiping about it, but they’re also being affected by it without even really knowing it. And that’s later in the series, so at that point Little Slugger is infecting the populace whether or not he’s actually hit you.

BB: The collective experience of madness comes up again and again in Kon’s films. And I think the example that stands out strongest for me is in Millennium Actress. The way that the three figures of the actress as well as the documentarian and his cameraman all find themselves collectively in this world that exists between her memories of the past and her films, sort of blending the two together. And in a way it represents the collective memory of the audience—the filmgoing audience of Japan over this very historically specific period—and it regards collective historical memory as a sort of shared delusion. Of all his films, I think Millennium Actress is the one that’s the most grounded in reality, and yet it’s the one that I think formally interrogates that question of where reality and fantasy blend together in the strongest sense.

JL: I’ve always enjoyed how Kon assumes his audience is global. Millennium Actress is inherently Japanese. As you were saying earlier before we were recording, he looks at Ozu and never says you’re looking at an Ozu film. He looks at Chanbara, but you’re not looking at a Chanbara film. In Paprika he models one of the characters after a screenshot of Akira Kurosawa. And another shot in Paprika is entrusted to Son Goku, not of Dragon Ball, but of Journey to the West. And most people won’t get that image.

KU: They won’t get it, but they will. I think that’s probably the key.

BB: Yeah, he draws on images that are part of the collective visual culture of Japan, but also more, in Paprika, of the West.

JL: And that’s why you can tell that he’s spreading. ’Cause either he’s spreading or we’re all combining—Eastern and Western images are combining. And there’s no longer a big divide. Now it’s: “Oh that’s the rising sun flag. I know exactly what that means.” Or: “There’s the battleship Yamato. I know the history behind that now.” Or: “There’s two smoking towers. I know that.” Or: “There’s a square-jawed white guy on the TV screen. That’s Kennedy.” That’s actually another weird tangent I want to get off on for a sec. Kennedy is the most iconic American president figure in Japanese animation. And I don’t know why.

KU: Really? Hm. I seem to recall Oshii put him in a movie.

JL: In 70s and 80s anime, Kennedy is the American president. And even in the early 90s. I don’t know if that builds up from the whole icon aspect of the animation, and of the global figure. ’Cause Kennedy’s probably one of the most globally known US presidents.

BB: He died young. He was a very telegenic figure. A lot of the myth of Kennedy comes from the whole idea of the television age and people being able to see him, which helped him win the debates against Nixon. So I think the iconic image of Kennedy is one that’s very strong for all viewers.

KU: Kennedy was coming up during a time when televisions were really, really infiltrating worldwide. Moreso than with Ike. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Japanese culture, especially post-war, he was the first American president that the masses of Japan had a collective image of. That’s a proposition. I’m not entirely certain.

JL: Here’s a theory for you all. If we consider Miyazaki to be the storyteller who relies on fantasy imagery. If we consider Oshii to be the avante-garde New Wave. Is Kon then truly middle ground in that he is television?

KU: See middle ground just sounds so negative to me…

BB: Yeah.

JL: I know, but he just seems the perfect balance of the art-house and the mainstream.

KU: Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily think of movies in terms of art-house and mainstream that I’m resisting that. I think that there are just figures who are more polarizing to people than others. Oshii I can absolutely see why because his movies can be very lethargic and really disturbingly hypnotic, and—I don’t mean this as a criticism—incoherent. There’s an incoherence to Oshii that actually works on the level of a dream. I think Kon is a bit more coherent. I think you can read a Kon film with story. You can read it as a dream. There are a lot of elements and layers that he works on for different people and I can see why because if you go to it as, say, a fanboy I think you’ll get your anime fix. If you go to it as, “Oh, I want to see something at the art-house” I think you’ll get that with Kon. If you even just want to see a kind of mainstream, plot-driven whatever, I think you can get that out of him as well. Again, I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, I just believe there’s something of an incoherent dream logic to a lot of anime. But in Paprika I think you can pretty much figure out what the story is. I don’t think that it’s that hard to figure out for anybody. I think he delineates what the dream space and the real space are enough that people get it.

JL: Or blends them together.

BB: The word that you use that I think is really good is “delineate.” “Linear.” There’s a linearity to Miyazaki that is part of what I think makes him so accessible to people and I think part of what makes Kon accessible to people is that there’s a basic linearity to the narrative, vs. what you see as the incoherence of Oshii. The fact that there’s this sort of through-line temporally, even though his films blend fantasy and reality, and even venture into the past. I feel as though there’s a definite through-line that you can follow in any of Kon’s films. And yet they do sort of fold in fantasy and the past. And if you can say he’s a middle ground between the two, I think it’s in the degree to which he relies on linear storytelling. John. you brought up the issue of “Is Kon television?” I would actually say he’s the Internet. You can follow the pathway between various hyperlinks and you can find a coherent narrative, but there’s also so many other tangents that are being drawn into every moment. He uses the Internet motif so often in his films.

KU: And I think that this differentiates him from Miyazaki as well. Brendon, you were positing him as something of a more popular figure than Miyazaki. Certainly Miyazaki’s films have made a lot of money in this country, but at the same time there’s also a kind of antiquated fairytale aspect to his films, whereas Kon is engaging in the present tense and the present moment. I would say Miyazaki tends to model his characters, at least to Western eyes, and maybe he’s not doing this consciously, but I think his characters would appeal more immediately to children. Or those, let’s say, with younger eyes. Whereas Kon is drawing adults in animation realistically.

JL: I agree with that. Miyazaki’s a radical, leftist…

KU: Environmentalist.

JL: Yeah, I mean he would hate Kon because Kon champions technology. I mean that’s where they split right there.

KU: Do you think Kon is championing technology or that he just accepts that it’s there and he looks at it in all its complexity?

JL: I think he realizes what… you know the complexity argument… he sees it and he realizes that that’s what the society is based on right now.

KU: Now that I think about it, when I look at the apocalypses in Kon, maybe what is bothering me that I’m now starting to put together is I don’t necessarily find them horrifying. In Anno’s Evangelion, it’s horrifying and legitimately like a psychological scar, a wound being ripped into your brain. Whereas in Kon, you look at it and it’s just a fact. It’s a fact and it’s there. Technology can lead to this, but it can also lead to Paprika (the doctor who is Paprika) and her assistant connecting on a very human level. So he sees the beauty and the horror at the same emotional level.

JL: But if you do have, like the scene in Paprika where there is the big apocalyptic moment that I think actually “Eschers” Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira. You know, the gigantic white light, the sphere appearing around the city. It’s like the final scene from Akira when Tetsuo’s about to explode and the entire city gets destroyed in another blast. Yet it gets swallowed in on itself and instead of death it brings back the entire world. And let’s the world be reborn.

BB: And, of course, Ôtomo was Kon’s mentor.

JL: Kon does show the grittiness of what happens, but he’s also very careful to follow it up with, “But look at the bright side. It’s not going to happen. If we have someone to check it, we’ll be fine. If there was no one like Paprika who would want to stop this from happening, then we would all be dead.” Which is fatalistic, but hey… Brendon: We keep talking about Paprika and Paranoia Agent. You have drawn some comparisons between Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue.

BB: I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Both of them are essentially about the relationship between a woman and her audience, specifically a fan. In Perfect Blue it’s this extremely dangerous relationship between Mima and her stalker, as well as her other stalker as it turns out. And in Millennium Actress, it’s the documentarian who’s been a lifelong fan of the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. And throughout the film, as she’s reliving these moments from her various films, or these moments from her life, the documentarian consistently reinvents himself as this knight in shining armor who rushes in and saves her at the last moment. To a certain extent, I think both of the films are about the way that the audience injects themself into a narrative. The way that they relate to the onscreen figures. And the way that they project themselves into these stories. In the same way that Paprika shows you the apocalypse, but then pulls back and says, “But this isn’t gonna happen,” I think that Perfect Blue shows you an extremely dangerous relationship between a performer and her fan and then Millennium Actress pulls back and says “Okay, but this is more likely.”

KU: So those two films engage in the dialectic that then in subsequent films he blends into a single story.

BB: Absolutely. And I think Paprika is where he blends that most cogently. Tokyo Godfathers I consider a bit of an anomaly.

JL: It’s funny because Kon’s next film is going to be a children’s fairy tale, which has me really worried.

KU: What is it called?

JL: It has a name. I don’t know it offhand. I just know that it’s about two kids who find a book and then they live out the fairy tale. And I’m wondering if we’re not supposed to be seeing some theme here: we have Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Paprika and Paranoia Agent. And then Tokyo Godfathers and this fantasy film. Is he creating these dual notions?

KU: I would just say that in terms of Tokyo Godfathers: it does fit in with his other films in terms of people living as a collective mind. Having their own very defined individual personalities in Tokyo Godfathers, and very disparate personalities in a lot of ways, and then having that thing, essentially, that brings them together. Paprika, as you say, bringing the darkness and the light together in harmony. As the baby in Tokyo Godfathers bring this trio together. I think the trio… it’s taken from John Ford, but certainly I think there’s a Catholic reading, or a Christian reading to be given to it.

BB: A very explicit one because in the beginning of the film, the first images are of the three wise men showing up at a Nativity scene.

KU: Indeed. But also acknowledging the present day in the sense of: there’s a transsexual, there’s a girl, there’s a man. They all have their traumas. One of the things I’d actually like to get into, and this is a comparison between Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, is that both that film and that TV series hinge around a character’s relationship to a pet that died when they were a kid. This is something that a lot of people were nonplussed by… that the pet was the cause of this girl’s psychological grief. As it is in Paranoia Agent. I have this feeling that that is something that’s very specifically Japanese, this worshiping of a pet or an animal. I wonder if either of you might be able to expound on that.

JL: I don’t think it would be the worshiping of a pet. I think it’s more about childhood and being forced to move on.

KU: Right. But in hearing and reading about Japanese culture, in seeing that most signs and other public spaces have cartoon animals that are everywhere telling you what to do and where to go, I don’t think of it just as a childhood thing. There’s something about the way Kon puts those two incidents across. He portrays it very seriously. It’s not just flippant: “Oh, the reason she’s fucked up is because her dog died.” No. It’s a real big trauma. And yes it happened during childhood, but it’s still rooted in the culture in some way. Or so it seems, from what I understand about Japanese culture, the place animals have in it, and the way that’s it’s portrayed in Kon’s films, those two specifically.

BB: Yeah.

KU: In Paranoia Agent, it’s essentially the catalyst for the entire series. The reason the whole city is going mad is because this girl created a toy based on her dead dog. Her emotion surrounding that event, of that dog getting run over, infects the populace. And they all react to varying degrees in shared emotionalism, in shared madness.

JL: I would read that as bad childhood memories, but moreso of remembering hardships from early on in your life. And having that affect you later. I don’t know how much I would read the animals into that. But…

KU: So do you think it’s more metaphorical?

JL: I’m gonna go with more metaphorical. The animal thing is interesting and there may be something to it, but I don’t know what because I can’t speak to it. I’m going to lean towards the more metaphorical aspect of being brought up and having this awful memory in your past, and you can’t quite define it. But it sets you for the rest of your life—who you’re going to become. Which also leads back into the whole Little Boy theory. Of an entire infantilized culture.

BB: I’m not of an opinion either way on this animal issue, although I do remember in Perfect Blue one of Mima’s obsessions are these pet fish that she has. And she has a traumatic vision of all her pet fish dying.

JL: Man, this is like an untapped animal thing that we’re getting on now. We got to write to Film Comment right away.

KU: I remember thinking about it just because I saw Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers in close succession and it was striking to me ’cause it seemed to tap into something very much of Eastern culture. When I first saw it I didn’t quite know how to react to it. It didn’t really touch me that deeply on any level. But then when I saw other critics writing from a Western perspective and saying, “Oh, it all comes down to that?” I thought, “Well why not.” And I don’t think Kon’s necessarily saying it all comes down to that. But he is portraying something that’s very ingrained and deeply traumatic to these particular characters. I can’t think of anything comparable in Millennium Actress or Paprika necessarily, but it seems like these are driving psychological stressors in the other films, just another avenue of exploration.

JL: That might be a good note to end out on as we uncover a brand new aspect of Kon that I actually have never thought about before.

KU: Well… Film Comment I hope you come calling after you hear this. If you’ve listened to the end, as Vadim says. Any final thoughts on Kon?

JL: I stand by the fact that I think he is going to become more influential in the coming years. I think it’s interesting that he’s backed by Studio Madhouse who are one of the main independent studios. (All creator-run and creator-owned for the most part, unless they’re hired out to do backgrounds or something of the sort.) And it shows in that he’s only worked on his own projects, which is a rarity for an anime director or for anyone involved in anime. Even Miyazaki had to do background—in-betweens, foreground, background. Was Kon Otomo’s apprentice or was he…

BB: Otomo was his mentor and I think Kon did scene design for one or two of Otomo’s projects, but yeah he didn’t have to pay that many dues in order to get his directing position.

JL: Which is unheard of. In the anime system today, you have to wait until you’re 30 or 35 until you’re even given art director or until you’re put in charge of a group. In your twenties you’re told to do in-between. You’re told to do background, and that’s why there’s a lack of current anime. Or a lack of current anime directors, ’cause you have guys like Shinichirô Watanabe who did Cowboy Bebop. He’s fairly old. Most younger guys are leaving the studio system and handmaking everything. And Kon exerts amazing creative control.

KU: His hands are all over everything.

JL: And that’s extremely admirable… I love Kon’s work…

KU: And it should be seen on the big screen on Walter Reade.

BB: Absolutely.

KU: So everybody get there because he’s well worth it.

JL: So to change our usual ending. For The House Next Door, I’m John Lichman.

KU: I’m Keith Uhlich.

BB: I’m Brendon Bouzard.

JL: And if you see us at Walter Reade, please buy us a soda pop.

Brendon Bouzard is author of the blog My Five Year Plan.

John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.

Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.

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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.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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 year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s 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 Matsugami’s 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 mother’s 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 Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s 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: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s 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 Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s 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 protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s 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. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s 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 she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s 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 Nagayama’s 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 café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t 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 he’s trapped within.

The film’s 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 that’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 19—28.

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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 doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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. It’s 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 he’s 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 musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s 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 Crosby’s 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 he’s 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 “insufferable” 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 he’s 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 doesn’t 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

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s 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 Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico 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, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched 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, Cassandro’s 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 wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s 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, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” 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 people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s 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

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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.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” 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, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” 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 film’s 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 “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re 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 I’m 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 there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s 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 who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s 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 I’ve started acting more, I’ve 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 I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” 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 don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t 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 don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t 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 I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m 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 isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that 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. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m 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. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité 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 they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t 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 hasn’t 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. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ 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 children’s 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 that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re 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 who’s 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 McCall’s 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 father’s 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 that’s 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 children’s 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 Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s 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 Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s 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 subject’s 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 who’s 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 form Streetwise 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 character’s 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 that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s 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.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s 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 expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” 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 Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s 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 Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s 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 Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s 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 Mirror’s 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 conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă 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, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s 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 she’s 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.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t 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 Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s 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 isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s 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 film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t 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

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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 Shelton’s 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 Trust’s 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 they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t 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 can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve 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 don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m 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 we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s 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 “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s 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 Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” 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. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s 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. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s 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 doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re 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 I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve 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 laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s 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, there’s 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 O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s 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, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s 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 cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” 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 wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien 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 Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t 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 didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” 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 I’m 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. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve 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 you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re 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, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” 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, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” 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 it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I 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 Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t 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.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” 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! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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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.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s 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 ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s 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 Nick’s 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, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s 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, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s 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

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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