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Interview: Andrew Haigh on the Making of Lean on Pete

Haigh discusses the theme that runs through all of his work: our struggle to feel less alone.

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Interview: Andrew Haigh on the Making of Lean on Pete
Photo: A24

Yorkshire-born writer-director Andrew Haigh specializes in stories about ordinary people experiencing emotional tsunamis that upend their sense of self. His latest film, Lean on Pete, is about a lonely 15-year-old, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who sets out on an impulsive road trip after what’s left of his already precarious family life evaporates, leaving him alone except for the quarter horse he bonded with while working in a D-level racing circuit. I met with Haigh at the offices of the film’s distributor, A24, and we talked about why he prefers passive main characters, the importance of being melancholy, and how Lean on Pete finds a new way of exploring a theme that runs through all of the director’s work: our struggle to feel less alone.

Your work is usually about people finding themselves through relationships with other people, but Charley finds himself by relating to a horse. What was it about this story that compelled you to film it?

I think even [in my films about] people finding themselves through other people, it’s about people essentially feeling very alone in the world, and they’re desperately trying to find a way to not feel alone. If it’s in the case of Weekend or 45 Years, it’s through relationships, I suppose. But this was dealing with a similar thing, just in a different way. We all exist in a state of aloneness, and we find ways to not be like that, but they can very easily fall apart and we can fall back into aloneness again. Kate in 45 Years, for example, has had this relationship that felt very strong, and then suddenly it dissolves and she feels alone again. So this was a way to look at that in a context that wasn’t necessarily about romantic relationships—and also wasn’t even existential. It’s not an idea of who you are or an identity that falls apart if your relationship does, for example. This is about what happens, actually, if things fall apart: if your family falls apart, if you don’t have any money anymore, if you have no place to live. What is that type of aloneness? And for me it wasn’t about a boy and a horse, in any traditional type boy-and-horse movie way. It was just about him desperately needing something to cling onto and have as a friend, I suppose, to talk to and to care for like he would like to be cared for.

And there are a lot of parallels between the kid and the horse.

Yeah, exactly. I felt like they were almost the same.

They’re both runners, even.

When we cast the horse, I was looking for one that felt like it was like Charley. It was the horse that was at the back of these three horses, that didn’t want to look at us, and was a little bit nervous, and took a while to warm up. I don’t like to make films about the person that’s usually at the front. I think the person that hangs around at the back is usually more interesting.

There’s nothing surrealistic about this film, yet it felt to me a bit like a dream that slowly turns into a nightmare. I think that has to do with how really big things often happen to Charley out of the blue, and he moves through it all in this state of kind of underwater watchfulness that can make him seem passive or helpless even when he’s driving the action.

I’m drawn to passive characters, much more so than I am to active ones. It’s the same in 45 Years. Kate isn’t the active character in that story.

She wasn’t even the main character in the short story. Her husband was.

Right. And in Weekend, the main character is the passive one within that relationship. It’s the other character that’s forcing everything to happen. I like that. I feel like it makes sense to most of our lives, that you deal with things as they come to you. And you’re right about the tone of the film. It’s not like it’s dreamlike, but there’s like a steady flow to it that’s not quite like reality but is grounded in reality. Again, I suppose I feel like I walk through my life like that. Events happen, but actually, you stay quite constant as you deal with all of these things. Even when there’s emotional peaks and troughs, your understanding of the world is relatively steady. Or mine is, anyway.

That’s probably part of the reason why I like your movies so much. I always feel like about 95% of life is out of our control.

I’d say more like 99%.

But Hollywood is so much about characters having an arc and being proactive and driving the action. Has featuring characters who are passive made it harder to get your movies made?

I think so. And I think it both probably makes it harder for them to be made and is why so many people don’t like them. [laughs] You read all these books about how to write the perfect script when you’re starting out, and I always felt like they have good ideas in those books, but none of it speaks to how I think we actually live our lives. I suppose I want to see that on screen. I was thinking recently about Bob Rafaelson’s Five Easy Pieces. I think that’s my favorite Jack Nicholson performance, and it’s probably the most passive. He kind of flows through the film, trying to do things as they come along, and he makes choices, but he’s not like this strong, active character.

In fact, he’s pretty frustrated.

Yeah.

There’s a pervasive sense of sadness and loss that suffuses your work, and a word that comes up a lot in the other interviews you’ve done that I’ve read is melancholy. That seems to be a big part not just of your movies, but of who you are—maybe even, as you once said, of being British.

I think it is. When I talk to people about the feeling of being a melancholic, over here [in the United States] it seems to be more that you’re depressed. Whereas, over there [in the United Kingdom] you can be melancholic—if you’re Irish, especially—and it’s not really about being depressed.

So what does melancholy mean to you? Is it more of a poignancy?

Yeah. It’s a feeling of having hope, but then the reality of life not being what you’d hoped it would be. And looking back to a period in your life when you thought it would be exciting and better with a sense of nostalgia, even though you know at that time you weren’t happy either. It’s a really weird feeling. It’s a feeling of sadness that pervades, without being depression.

That feeling comes out a lot in your endings, including in Lean on Pete. Charley does what he sets out to do, and there’s a great sense of relief and accomplishment about that, but you certainly don’t leave the theater thinking “Happily ever after!”

“It’s all going to be great!” [laughs] That’s another thing that films do so much. I very strongly believe that all of the things that happen to us in our lives, from the day we’re born, has such a dramatic impact on everything we do, we feel, our relationships, how we feel about all the choices we make. So the idea that there could ever be an ending to your story makes no sense. You’re always going to struggle onward. Charley, at the end [of the film], is not suddenly going to find everything fantastic in his life. Because so much has happened. He’s lost people he’s loved. You can’t get over these things.

And he’s done stuff he has to come to terms with.

Yeah! That’s the thing. There’s some violence in the film that comes from Charley. It was never, for me, that you should think: “Well done, Charley, well done!” It was more like, “Aagh, why have you done this?” You can sort of understand why he’s done it, but you know he’s going to have to deal with that. We all have to deal with things that we’ve done that we don’t love.

There’s a strong sense of place in this film, both of the place where Charley starts out and of the places he’s moving through. Is it harder to capture that sense of place when it’s not your own culture?

I think you probably have to make more of an effort, but when you live in an environment you don’t necessarily make an effort to represent it properly either, because you maybe don’t see it as well as you do a new environment. The book is based there, and it’s written by an author who knows that world very well, and I traveled a lot around for about four months before I made the film. I wrote the first draft of the script on the road trip that Charley goes on, in diners and motels, and I met a bunch of trainers and jockeys. I think it’s about going into an environment and finding what feel like the right details to define that world. The people in the homeless shelter are the people that went to that shelter normally, and the people in the background of the racing community are people that work with horses in that type of racing community. Film is fake, so you’re trying in every way to make it feel authentic.

You adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine and Lean on Pete from a novel by Willy Vlautin. Those two processes must be pretty different, since there’s so much in a novel that won’t fit into a film. Did you like one kind of adaptation better than the other?

They were quite different. The story that 45 Years is based on became dramatically different. In the story, there was no wedding anniversary party; it was all set from his perspective, not hers. So much of the dialogue in the film was not in the story. But Lean on Pete was a novel, so there’s a lot that I couldn’t put in, and stuff I put in the script, early stages, that had to come out. We even shot a little sequence that wasn’t in the film. It’s more of a fine-tuning process, trying to keep in your mind: What is this story really about? It’s not really about racing; it’s not really about horses; it’s just about this kid and what can happen. You try to keep that as the subtle through line of the story, and other things can just fall by the wayside. It takes time. I kept sending Willy each draft as I wrote it. He’s a lovely guy, and he was very open. He knows this is my version of the story. He was quite helpful in saying, “I don’t think you really need this.” Even though it was a sequence I loved in the book, it was like, “No, I think you can get rid of that. Don’t worry about it.” [laughs]

Your husband is a novelist.

Yes. Early novelist, let’s say.

Does he ever give you any input when you’re adapting a piece of fiction?

We’re very simpatico in terms of the things that we like, so he’s very helpful to talk to about things when I’m pulling my hair out, wondering if I’m giving too much away or keeping too much hidden, or trying to find that balance of objectivity and subjectivity in the story, or all those things that I end up spending a lot of time trying to balance.

Does he read your screenplays and give you suggestions?

Yeah. But he doesn’t watch the film until it’s finished. Some directors have screenings for their friends and they’re, like, “Give me all your ideas!” I show it to nobody. My producer, obviously. And that’s literally it until I have to show it to executive producers and my distributor and others. I feel like it’s hard enough to keep in your head what it is that you’re trying to do, and the more you watch it, that becomes increasingly harder. And everyone else’s opinions, while worthy and valid, are their versions of the film. I know not everyone is going to like this, but the only way I can ever make a film is knowing how I want to tell it, rather than trying to make everyone happy.

You edited a lot of other people’s films when you were starting out. I’m curious to know what you learned from that.

I think the most important thing for me was realizing that directors are as stressed as everyone else. Growing up, I thought directors should know everything all the time. And then you sit in an editing room with a director and they’ve got their head in their hands: “Oh no, how do I make this scene work?” That was actually really liberating because I could see, okay, it’s not easy—even the best directors struggle to get across what they’re trying to say. That made me feel like I could make my own films.

Could you have made films and TV series like Weekend and Looking without the New Queer Cinema wave that started in the ‘90s?

No, no, definitely not. Those films that were made before I made Weekend, especially in the early ‘90s. And, actually, in the ‘80s there were some really interesting, quite radical films that were being made.

My Beautiful Laundrette came out then, didn’t it?

Yeah, exactly. Then I think there was a gap. They stopped making them. You had Brokeback Mountain a little later, but in the aughties, whatever you call it, there wasn’t so much. I remember being frustrated by that, feeling like being gay has changed so much in society that I wanted to make Weekend to deal with how different it was. And now it’s changed all over again.

Do you think we’re approaching the point where we don’t need a “queer cinema” category per se, because queer characters and queerness can just be part of the mainstream, or are we still a long way from that?

I think we’re a long way from that. And I actually think that’s okay. I think it’s great that there are films now that can get made that have gay characters that can do well and they can win Oscars and do all the things that people want them to do, but I think being queer or gay is also lots of different things, not just about love. It can encompass all kinds of fascinating things that aren’t going to appeal to a wide audience. There are still lots of things that I, as a filmmaker, want to look at, things that are gay or queer experience, that I know are never going to be commercially successful. And I think that’s good. It should also be like that. We need room for art-house or challenging material without the notion that it has to break through to a wider level.

It also feels like queer cinema is a mostly male movement. Carol came out recently, and there was The L Word on TV, but I can’t think of too many recent examples of shows about women. Well, there have been a few about trans women—maybe more than about cis gay women.

Yeah, there’s probably been more films like that than there are films about gay women made by gay women directors. There are not a huge amount of them. I do hope that people realize that these films deserve to be made even if they don’t have a huge audience. We want to see more of them. We want ones that break through and do well, and we want ones that are smaller.

Do you feel like it’s getting easier or harder to make small films? The barriers to entry are lower so it’s a lot easier to make a film on a low budget, but it seems like it may be harder to make a living at it.

I think it’s harder. I think unless they are the three small films a year that break through, it’s really hard to get people to see them. The younger people aren’t going to cinema to see the smaller, independent, art-house films. I love Kelly Reichardt’s films, and you look at the box office for them and you think why aren’t more people seeing them? It’s like Antonio Campos. Why are more people not going to see his films? They’re American art-house filmmakers, making films of a certain level, but it’s hard to get people to see them. There’s too much content, frankly.

Looking also never really found its audience.

No, never. It didn’t help that it was on HBO, to be honest with you. I think if it had been on Netflix, it would have been a different thing. HBO’s expensive, and you have to subscribe to it. Almost everybody has Netflix. Well, not almost everybody, but lots of people.

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The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Interview: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey into Night As a Technological Experience

The Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.

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Bi Gan
Photo: Kino Lorber

Even before the hour-long take that makes up its second half, Bi Gan’s shapeshifting noir epic Long Day’s Journey into Night displays the kind of filmmaking prowess that’s better seen than talked about. Nevertheless, it was an honor to speak briefly with the 29-year-old auteur—albeit over the phone, and with the help of an interpreter—about how his life has changed in the wake of his staggering first two features. To discern a single clue into Bi’s notion of cinema—which is influenced by poetry, literature, painting, still photography, and real life—feels like a small victory, and the Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.

Tell me about the release of Long Day’s Journey into Night in China. On social media, I got the impression the film had been mis-marketed as a romantic comedy, and made a lot of money the first weekend.

China is still not as mature as the United States in terms of how movies are marketed. Even though this is an art film, they still had to present it like a commercial film, and I didn’t think too much about how I wanted to release the film. They were coming up with interesting ways to release it, one of which was spinning it as a romantic film. A lot of couples went to see it and got something else entirely: an art film. There was an uproar. They felt they had been duped into seeing a different type of movie. But even though it was released as a commercial film and made quite a lot of money in its first weekend, I’m very proud of the way it was released. A lot of the audiences had never seen a film like that and may never again. I’m very happy it was their first time seeing that type of movie.

Whether the film made money or not, it’s going to be very difficult for me to find investors for my next project. I make a very specific type of movie and I probably won’t be able to make a more commercial film now that people know who I am, and the vision I want to work with. It doesn’t translate to easy investment, and it doesn’t change the kinds of movies I want to make. I will not be making more linear or commercial films.

My films are released at Cannes, or the New York Film Festival, but it doesn’t make a difference in China. Even though people understand that the films are showing internationally, they don’t really see the importance of it that much. The good news is that within China right now, the investment market is very healthy. If you have a decent script and vision, people may be willing to invest. I’m very lucky because I have a group of people as a base, at least, who have always been interested in my kind of work. But just to be clear, Long Day’s Journey into Night cost so much that I had to look elsewhere for investment.

Weren’t there changes made between Cannes and the film’s North American premiere, at the Toronto International Film Festival?

Normally when I finish a film, I can spend some time breaking it down and deciding the rhythm, but because I needed to make the cut in time for Cannes, the version we had there was the “finished” version. After Cannes, my team and I decided to carefully watch the film again and I wanted to simplify it a little bit more. Even though it was there, I wanted to cut down the dreamlike quality and make it more of a love story between Huang Jue and Tang Wei.

What’s it like being in Kaili now that you’re a world-renowned art-house filmmaker?

At home, they see me as an artist, but they don’t understand how; in their eyes, art is mostly painting. They’re slowly understanding filmmakers can be artists. In Kaili itself, they’re quite proud of the fact I’m from their town. Now, when people see me on the street they recognize me and they tell me they like my films, even though I suspect they don’t like them, or don’t understand them. The next question is always, “When are you going to make something a little bit more commercial?” And the answer is always: “I’m going to try.” [laughs]

Some colleagues of mine have complained that the film is actually too virtuosic for its own good—like, the camerawork is so dazzling it’s distracting. How conscious do you want the audience to be of the elaborate choreography that goes into a take like this?

Because of the way we all watch movies now, when we walk into a theater we know we’re about to get a technological experience, whether it’s an art-house film or a big-budget Hollywood film. Everyone is aware to some degree of the process of filmmaking. So, with my long scenes, I’m not trying to be meta about the camerawork. I want people to see it as part of the film instead of a distraction or a special moment for the audience. A lot of my friends, when they see the long take, they don’t understand how it was shot, but they understand it’s dreamy. I want the audiences to get lost. I want them to disappear into it.

The shots required so much prep that my thinking became purely technical. Every shot was about getting to the next shot. The stress of shooting those scenes is actually approaching PTSD for me. But now that I can watch it with an audience, I enjoy it.

I saw the film in a couple different contexts, but audiences always laugh at the moment in the theater where the screen goes dark. Everyone puts on the 3D glasses, and the title of the film comes up—over an hour into the movie. Is it supposed to be hilarious?

When I was writing the script, I knew that was going to be a funny moment. Back in the day, when you watched 3D movies, there would be a slate telling people to put on the glasses. As a collective experience I always knew that was gonna be a big laugh.

Translation by Steven Wong

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The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time

Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption.

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100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Purists will argue that film noir was born in 1941 with the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and died in 1958 with Marlene Dietrich traipsing down a long, dark, lonely road at the end of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. And while this period contains the quintessence of what Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank originally characterized as film noir, the genre has always been in a constant state of flux, adapting to the different times and cultures out of which these films emerged.

Noir came into its own alongside the ravages of World War II, with the gangster and detective films of the era drastically transforming into something altogether new as the aesthetics of German Expressionism took hold in America, and in large part due to the influx of German expatriates like Fritz Lang. These already dark, hardboiled films suddenly gained a newfound viciousness and sense of ambiguity, their dangers and existential inquiries directed at audiences through canted camera angles and a shroud of smoke and shadows.

As the war reached its end stage, soldiers came home to find a once-unquestioned era of male authority put in the crosshairs of changing cultural norms. And in lockstep, the protagonists of many a noir began to feel as if they were living in a newly vulnerable world, taking cover beneath trench coats and fedoras, adopting cynical, wise-cracking personae, and packing heat at all times while remaining hyper-aware of the feminine dangers that surrounded them. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” and in noir, the latter was often the most dangerous. Indeed, Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Ann Savage’s icy stare in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour are as deadly as any bullet.

Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. Derek Smith


House of Bamboo

100. House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

House of Bamboo wants to be a lush, romantic CinemaScope thriller and a Samuel Fuller movie at once. The director’s admirers will recognize those aims as almost genetically contradictory, as Fuller thrives on bold, often vitally threadbare aesthetics that suggest the visual embodiment of a tabloid headline. Indeed, Fuller’s best films don’t have much use for studio polish, instead courting the pathos of the immediate and the guttural, though the cross-pollination between the various forms and sensibilities at play in House of Bamboo is fascinating and often intensely beautiful. Fuller could play the studio’s game when he wanted to: The Scope compositions he devised with cinematographer Joseph Macdonald are some of the liveliest and most resonant of any in Hollywood history, subtly wedding Japanese theater and film tradition with American pulp, quietly refuting the notion that an epically sized screen must be statically embalmed in awards-courting “importance.” It suggests a for-hire film that’s been polished with flourishes so great they cumulatively transcend their potentialities as formal window dressing: They’re the film’s pulse, the work of a masterfully intuitive director whose artistic sensibility appears to be governed by an unusually large portion of id. Chuck Bowen


Stolen Death

99. Stolen Death (Nyrki Tapiovaara, 1938)

Echoes of German Expressionism abound in Nyrki Tapiovaara’s tough-minded, class-conscious Stolen Death, an early Nordic noir about gun-smuggling Finnish revolutionaries opposing the Russians occupying their country in the early 20th century. Tapiovaara’s unique blend of off-kilter compositions, unconventional camera angles, foreboding high-contrast lighting, and sparse yet creative sound design transforms the tumultuous journey of the resistance fighters into a nightmarish battle against both the Russian Tzar and the bourgeois Finns unwilling to risk their comfortable position in society. Despite the untraditional subject matter for noir, Stolen Death is steeped in the genre’s overwhelming sense of fatalism, its anxieties over a disrupted status quo, and, in the case of the jilted lover who refuses to let his ex-flame go free and fight for her cause, its doomed romanticism and fear of female empowerment. As the film builds to its tense, tragic, and darkly comical finale, Tapiovaara—who, in a cruel twist of fate, was killed while fighting the Russians only two years after this film was released—stresses both the futility and necessity of confronting oppression against all odds. Derek Smith


Brighton Rock

98. Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1948)

One of the more terrifyingly amoral, sociopathic villains in all of noir, Richard Attenborough’s Pinky is at 17 already a slave to his nihilism. Consumed by a seemingly bottomless abyss of anger, paranoia, and, in typical Graham Greene fashion, Catholic guilt, Pinky hides behind a mostly stoic visage, teasing out a smile only when he’s trying to win over young Rose (Carol Marsh), whom he needs to keep mum about evidence she has that could get him convicted of murder. While he sees himself as a criminal mastermind, Pinky can’t quite shake the frumpy music hall singer who’s determined to give the hood his much-deserved comeuppance. But it’s Pinky’s implacable ruthlessness rather than his smarts that make him so palpably threatening, willing as he is to snuff out strangers and friends alike without a second thought. Playing out in the “dark alleyways and festering slums” of pre-war Brighton, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock peels back the idyllic façade of a touristy beach town to reveal the ugliness that can lurk beneath even the most gorgeous of locales. Smith


One False Move

97. One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Released days after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, One False Move offers a particularly prescient reflection of regional division and segregation still powerfully evident in Donald Trump’s America. It sees violence as the common denominator between blue and red states, a casual fact of life that cannot be stopped no matter your ethnicity or background. In the film’s opening act, mixed-race outlaw Lila Walker’s (Cynda Williams) southern-fried psycho of a boyfriend, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), and his sadistic spectacled accomplice, Pluto (Michael Beach), murder six Angelinos to get their hands on a large stash of cocaine. Franklin’s smooth camera movements build unwavering suspense, illuminating the brutal seamlessness of these characters’ actions. For one of these perps, suffocating a woman with a plastic bag yields a fleeting pleasure. Another stabs his victims repeatedly while happy home videos, recorded minutes earlier, play in the background. The film is more noir than western, cynical of our ability to process trauma and resolved to the cold hard truth that good people are often punished for no discernable reason. It seems to comprehend that trusting someone is the fastest way to the grave, and that denial is something almost hereditary. Glenn Heath Jr.


Caught

96. Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949)

Max Ophüls’s Caught offers an intense corrective to the clichés of the American noir, particularly the perception of a woman as a predatory other who pulls all the strings, leading men downward toward a doom for which they often bear implicatively little personal responsibility. Right out of the gate, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) is understood to be trapped, even before she catches the eye of Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a psychotic thug who’s also a brilliant businessman as well as a filthy-rich parody of Howard Hughes. A model trading in illusions of heightened female subservience that remain essentially taken for granted to this day, Leonora is essentially stuck between two modes of prostitution: literally posing at the department store that pays her practically nothing, or figuratively posing at Smith’s mansion for luxury beyond her imagination. The premise indulges a blunt reduction of sexual politics, in the tradition of most memorable noirs, and the extent of the film’s impact resides in Ophüls’s refusal to shy away from concentrated, pointedly symbolic outrage. In one of the boldest and riskiest touches, Ophüls elides Leonora and Smith’s courtship entirely, understanding that it’s meaningless—a series of prescribed rituals designed to superficially ease the placing of all the participants into socially preordained positions. Bowen


While the City Sleeps

95. While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

From his Weimar films all the way through his Hollywood productions, Fritz Lang evinced a deep suspicion of any and all institutions of authority. Alongside Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success, While the City Sleeps is the most cynical and piercing of noirs to place journalism in its crosshairs. The film’s killer is a by-the-numbers figure whose sexual repression feeds his murderous rage, but the true focus here is on a media empire divided by a mogul among three subordinates who war with each other for a top position at the paper. As each journo tries to find the killer, the company loses sight of its civic responsibility and embraces seedy sensationalism, stoking rumor and paranoia in order to sell papers. Executives are even willing to dangle their own employees as bait for the killer, and the film ratchets as much tension out of office politicking as the actual murders. One of Lang’s most stripped-down features, the film, which owes much to Shakespeare’s King Lear, nonetheless communicates a lot with its spartan views of the newsroom, a place of open-office planning that suggests a transparency that’s subsequently drowned out by the roar of printing presses and typewriters that symbolize the faceless, expansionist scale of large-scale media. Jake Cole


The American Friend

94. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)

Loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, The American Friend wears its love of the United States and its cinematic lineage on its sleeve. From its engagement with genre tropes (particularly noir), to its tangibly grimy urban backdrops, to its archetypal hero/villain dramatic dichotomy, there’s no mistaking the film’s American influence. Dennis Hopper stars as the novel’s namesake charlatan, though in a sage bit of imagination from the actor, not as Highsmith’s methodically devious characterization of Tom Ripley, but as an unhinged, impulsive personification of the character’s amorality run amok. Wenders stages the otherwise routine underworld dealings with an impressive stylistic and meta-cinematic gusto, coupling exaggerated fluorescent lighting schemes (courtesy of longtime cinematographer Robby Müller) with a gritty realism reminiscent of both concurrent American crime films and post-war noir. Which is to say nothing of Ripley’s signature cowboy hat—an unmistakable symbol of bygone Americana, as well as a call back to another beloved Hollywood genre—and the rollcall of then under-appreciated directors who fill out the supporting cast, most notably Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, but also Jean Eustache and Gérard Blain. Jordan Cronk


The Postman Always Rings Twice

93. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a simple, deliciously depraved film. Based on the James M. Cain novel, the story concerns a feckless drifter (John Garfield) who at a roadside inn crosses paths with the owner’s beautiful and dissatisfied wife (Lana Turner), a woman his match in both sexual appetite and sociopathy. United in lust and a general disdain for everyone who’s not themselves, the two murder her husband (Cecil Kellaway) and manage to avoid legal punishment, only to be punished in a more cosmic sense. (“The postman always rings twice” is the film’s gritty, baroque metaphor for fatalistic moral reckoning.) Turner’s character, Cora, is a dark vision of the femme fatale, absolutely empty of any human qualities but raw sexuality, a lust for murder, and a veneer of exaggerated femininity. Her entry into the film is iconic: Garfield’s Frank is meant to be watching a hamburger on the griddle, but he’s distracted when a lipstick pen rolls across the floor to him. Following its path, the camera tracks up Turner’s legs, and then cuts to a wide shot: There’s Turner posing in the doorway wearing a shockingly white, vaguely marine, midriff-bearing get-up, and a strange, round, wrap-style hat. Distracted by this vision, Frank has let the hamburger patty burn, the film signifying with evident relish his overheated desire. The overt sexism of Turner’s introduction as tempting sexual object is offset somewhat today by the camp: This is a woman, a whole film, in drag. Pat Brown

The Asphalt Jungle

92. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle could be understood as a hardening of John Huston’s directorial vision, breaking away from Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and any greater conquest of cool for pathetic men whose minds have gone rotten from being left on the slab for too long. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is first seen woozily stumbling into a diner, which is apt given that his entire life rests upon the wobbly premise that he can go home again, back to the farm where his childhood colt might be resurrected, if only in his mind. He’s known around town as a “hooligan,” and is solicited for a jewel heist by Doc (Sam Jaffe), who’s fresh out of prison. Alonzo (Louis Calhern) backs their operation, though his finances turn out to be more than slightly dubious. Huston often frames these men in obtuse ways, from an unusually low angle or with their faces obscured in darkness for long periods of time, which makes The Asphalt Jungle, in terms of visual style, a somewhat conventional noir for its time period. Yet there’s nothing remotely commonplace about Huston’s handling of space between and within scenes, with objects consistently marking three or even four planes of action. Accordingly, the relative flatness of the characters is given counterpoint through their surroundings, which becomes the film’s actual line of inquiry, and renders the jewel heist more of a structuring plot than an end in itself. Clayton Dillard


The Killers

91. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” is a marvel of implication and showing rather than telling. Robert Siodmak’s adaptation opens with a beat-for-beat adaptation of the story that neatly functions as a self-contained short, elegantly alluding to the oppression that’s evident in the nooks and crannies of a lunch counter’s interiors, which suggest a figurative diner of America’s collective imagination more than any singular restaurant. (It’s difficult, for instance, to watch this film and not think of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks.) The dialogue is delivered with a perfectly blunt staccato that’s ideal for the story, particularly the lines uttered by the killers (superbly played by William Conrad and Charles McGraw), and Siodmak’s leisurely, unpretentiously modern, prismatic long takes connote a sense of evil that’s gathering in claustrophobic real time. The Killers is a svelte, vividly directed film, with a remarkable grasp of physicality, both human and locational (particularly displayed in a breathtaking heist scene that’s staged in one long master shot), though the fancy plot gymnastics do needlessly clutter up Hemingway’s original, evocatively streamlined setup. Bowen

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The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.

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The Chemical Brothers
Photo: Hamish Brown

This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.

25. “Saturate”

The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan

24. “Life Is Sweet”

But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson

23. “Loops of Fury”

Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson

22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”

There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani

21. “My Elastic Eye”

Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani

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Interview: Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson on the Making of High Life

The director and actor discuss how the film’s main character progressed from Denis’s imagination to Pattinson’s realization.

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Robert Pattinson
Photo: A24

Like her films, Claire Denis’s bond with Robert Pattinson defies familiar categorizations and feels forged from deep, profound emotion. It doesn’t appear to be maternal-filial, and Denis’s willingness to let her star make discoveries with a long-gestating project like High Life suggests it’s not strictly professorial. Denis and Pattinson resemble colleagues who’ve become great friends through collaboration. Pattinson’s talent for conveying repressed desires translates well to playing a quintessentially paradigmatic Denis protagonist, an inscrutable loner who teeters tenuously on the brink of transgression.

While each admired the other’s work for several years—Pattinson since he saw her White Material, and Denis since catching him in Cosmopolis and the Twilight series—their partnership on High Life arrives at a fortuitous moment for both. The film cements Pattinson’s status as one of the decade’s key figures in auteurist cinema and reaffirms Denis’s status at the vanguard of global filmmaking. And A24’s distribution of the film will help to ensure that she finally receives a release on a scale commensurate with her craft.

On the day of High Life’s American release, I talked to Denis and Pattinson jointly about the journey to bring the project to the screen. We began at the fateful night when Pattinson stumbled upon Denis’s work and talked through how his character, Monte, an ascetic prisoner tricked into a mission to harness the energy of a black hole, progressed from Denis’s imagination to Pattinson’s realization.

Robert, you’ve mentioned White Material as your entry into Claire’s films. What about it drew you to work with her? Were your impressions of how she worked with actors to inhabit their physicality and drop their self-consciousness accurate?

Robert Pattinson: When I watched White Material, it was on at two in the morning in Louisiana. I was shooting the last Twilight movie, and I had been asleep when I woke up, and the film had already started. It was really unusual for the film to be on that channel in the first place. And to wake up to it—it sort of felt like transitioning from being in a dream to being in the movie. I just remember the image of Isabelle Huppert holding onto the back of the truck. It’s just such a striking image. It’s weird, but it almost makes more sense now, to show the strength of her femininity. It’s not like she’s wearing armor trying to look like a guy, but she looks so powerful as her skirt blows up in the wind behind her. You could see there was something going wrong, but the expression on her face—you know immediately that she’s a dynamo. I just love that performance.

I remember sending an email to my agent that night at four in the morning saying that Claire Denis is “the one.” I talked to someone else, and they were like, “Claire has done loads of movies, what are you talking about?” But there was something about it that felt new. There was something about it, the performances first, that made it feel like it had to be made. That’s what I look for in directors.

Do either of you see any similarities between Maria Vial in White Material and Monte in High Life? They both hold onto their bodily autonomy and space with such intensity.

Claire Denis: They both have a child!

Pattinson: I guess there’s an autonomous thing where they make themselves exist in a slightly separate reality to everyone else around them. I think Maria is more connected with her environment. They definitely have something slightly missing. I was looking at this thing yesterday, giant wave surfers in Nazaré, these Portuguese surfers. These guys surf 150-foot waves. I saw one interview with a guy, who’s got a four-year-old son and a girlfriend, where they’re looking at these waves the size of mountains, and he’s like, “It looks like a good surf today!” And his son is looking at him. Some of these people have completely different mental setups. It’s exciting to see something which is like, “You’re gonna die.” Sorry, that’s not particularly relevant!

Denis: No, it’s not irrelevant! I’m interested in people who surf. I’ve seen one of these waves, in Tahiti. I saw it for real and thought, “How could people believe without doubt that that’s a great thing to do?”

Pattinson: It’s insane!

Denis: I was so amazed. They were there waiting, and they looked sane. They didn’t look crazy, you know? They looked excited, happy. So, I think you have to be like—I think Isabelle, if she would have decided to be a surfer, she would have been a crazy surfer! She’s really enjoying a certain type of danger, you know? As opposed to her, Monte decides not to stay in jail, to take this offer and mission to be left in peace. Just to be, I don’t know, maybe he has some hope. But it’s not only a question of hope. It’s a question of “will I be better there than this horrible corridor.” It’s not exactly the same heroic person, I don’t think, but maybe the same craziness. No, I think Maria is more crazy. She’s really completely crazy.

The role of Monte was originally envisioned for someone older, perhaps even Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Denis: Yeah, but I never asked him. I had someone in mind who was a little bit tired like him. But, of course, I never asked him. It was just an image for me when I was writing the script, you know?

Pattinson: There’s this thing where, when we were talking about Monte, there’s something about him where if it was an older guy, you reactively become someone who has nothing to live for. But I think Monte is trying, forcing his life to be the same every day. He’s like, “I want to wake up and feel nothing. Figuring out how to get rid of anything that is alive, basically. Alive in me, anything which can feel alive.”

Denis: But it’s really something like a Tibetan monk to get there. To this place where you need nothing.

Yeah, like the “chastity over indulgence” line. Did the role move more toward Robert, or did he adapt himself to play someone who fit the character as written?

Pattinson: Toward me as a person? I’m definitely indulgence over chastity! [laughs]

Denis: You changed immediately, I think.

Pattinson: I remember being in my hotel room—my weird hotel room that looked like a strip club with these weird green lights in the bathroom—not really knowing what I was doing at the time and not thinking of my lines. I have these weird videos on my phone where I’m trying to manipulate my body into strange shapes. Maybe it was just a completely random thing, but I think Monte is trying to get some kind of control over his body, so I wanted to dig inside myself or something. As soon as we got on set and did the lighting test, it was almost immediate: I knew there was something with the costume that made me want to do a sort of boxy thing. I wanted it to feel heavy. In the first test, I realized there was a different way to my walking.

Denis: I saw you change. I saw you transform. I didn’t understand how you were working, but I saw how different you were when we started shooting. I remember the scene where you’re shaving. That was something that came from you. And I liked that so much.

So for you there was more of a physical entry point into the character as opposed to a more emotional and psychological one?

Pattinson: [hesitates] I wanted to do the shaving where he didn’t want to have any hair. And I wanted to convey this constant fear of people touching me or having any kind of physical contact with me, of retreating inside myself. So, I guess it was a physical thing. I wanted to feel alien even to myself. You’re looking to play things in a way that don’t make sense to you.

Claire, given the frequency with which you portrayed post-colonial Africa, did space hold any of that same fascination for you given the long history of nationalistic conquest over the world above and around us, the way a wealthy society exploits marginalized people to have boundless resources?

Denis: Yeah, probably. I say “probably” because I do want to express things I feel, but I’m not a professional activist. I think I’m a very naïve person, honestly. No, it’s true! [laughs] I believe in one thing, and I try and translate that into film.

High Life ends on a moment that felt, at least to me, similar to Beau Travail in the way that they seem to exist in a totally separate plane of time and space from the rest of the film. Claire, what draws you to these fleeting final moments?

Denis: It comes from a different place. The ending of Beau Travail was in the script, of him with the gun and laying down on the bed. It’s his death, you know? He’s committing suicide. And the dance scene is from before, when he was leaving Djibouti. But when we were in the editing room, I thought, “I can’t finish like that, it’s too sad. I want him to be somewhere in another world dancing forever.” So we changed it. And in High Life, I thought they were going somewhere, and that somewhere was mysterious—a place nobody has been before. But it doesn’t mean to me that they’re dying. They’re reaching a place no one has been before. When Monte says to his daughter, “Shall we?,” to me it doesn’t mean “Shall we die?”

Pattinson: “Shall we?” is what you ask when you’re about to dance with someone.

Denis: Exactly.

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Interview: Mike Leigh on Peterloo and the Currency of Period Films

Leigh discusses the seemingly counterintuitive process of making a period film more contemporarily relevant by fully embracing the past.

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Mike Leigh
Photo: Amazon Studios

As we were about to settle into our conversation, I told British writer-director Mike Leigh that this wasn’t the first time I had sat down in his presence to hear him answer questions about his work. About five years ago, he spoke to a student program I attended at the Telluride Film Festival on the occasion of Mr. Turner’s U.S. premiere. Before I could even finish my sentence, Leigh let me know that he didn’t plan to participate in such student symposiums again since “it’s always for half an hour, and you should schedule at least two hours or an hour and a half, because you can’t say anything” in that amount of time.

This episode foretold much of what was to come in my interview with the esteemed filmmaker, who was in New York to promote the theatrical release of his latest feature, Peterloo, a dramatization of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. First, it’s impossible to cover all the nuances and intricacies of his famous improvisational character-building process in a short period of time. Second, Leigh will speak whatever is on his mind, be it a simple one-word response when such an answer will suffice or a grandiloquent refutation of a question’s premise. And, to be clear, it’s a right that the seven-time Oscar nominee has more than earned.

During our chat about Peterloo, Leigh discussed how he incorporated authentic historical speeches and writing into his characters’ dialogue, why he dispels academic notions while directing, and the seemingly counterintuitive process of making a period film more contemporarily relevant by fully embracing the past.

The last time I heard you talk, you described your approach to Mr. Turner being to look at a contained period of time, drop an anchor, and investigate everything. Did that also hold true when you set out to make Peterloo?

Yes.

How does your improvisational process mesh with a project like Peterloo where both the historical record and oratory play such a large role?

Well, the oratory is a part of it, we’ll come back to the oratory. You can research, read all the books in the world until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t make it happen in front of the camera. We’re talking about flesh and blood, every moment being lived, three-dimensional characters. The fact that it may be a dramatization of a historic event may be true, but all the use of improvisation and exploration of character still has to happen to breathe life into it. You can read about the Peterloo massacre in some considerable detail about what happened, and we drew from it very copiously. But that doesn’t make it actually happen. People are going to get on their feet in their costume and talk and act. Improvisations are the way to do character work and bring events into existence, which we call scenes.

As to the fact that one of the elements of it is what people actually said, that isn’t news in my period films either. Turner on his death bed apparently said “the sun is God.” Constable actually said when Turner went up to his painting and put a red blob on it to turn into a little boy, “he has been here and fired a gun.” Those were in the script. There’s a scene in Topsy-Turvy where Gilbert and Sullivan are sitting on a sofa drinking tea, and Sullivan is saying he just wants to write operas, and Gilbert is trying to read him the librettos. A substantial amount of what they say to each other in that conversation was taken from letters that they wrote to each other in correspondence, but we’ve made it natural dialogue.

All of which is to say is that the overall series of events that are Peterloo was a whole lot of stuff that people say that comes from speeches they actually made, things they actually said, things they said in letters. We’ve researched those and assimilated them into the script, stitched them seamlessly in and made them an organic part of the whole. We’ve edited them a lot, we’ve reorganized them, we’ve made them work for the characterizations the actors we’re doing. But we’ve still stuck to the spirit, and in some cases the actual substance and words, that people actually said. So, what I’m saying to you is, don’t get sidetracked by the idea that there’s a contradiction between the improvisational approach to making it all happen and the fact that some of the material is original text.

In terms of the incorporation, you’ve spoken to what you do on your end—is there anything different for the actors?

Yes, of course there is. They’re doing the same thing with me, and we’re doing it together. There’s a difference between everything that comes out finally in the rehearsal, the written scene that comes out of something organic that the actor said spontaneously as a character in a situation, and reading something. But then we’re talking about where people are making a speech. So, the very fact that that’s what they’re doing is different from ordinary domestic behavior because the action of making a speech isn’t the same as sitting around having a domestic conversation about the weather.

Was it harder, or just different, for your actors not to know the motivations of other actors’ characters in the process of Peterloo given the way the film builds toward a single event? Did you make any alterations to your process in response?

Well, they don’t know about the other characters except what they experience normally when we’re making the story up. It’s different in the context of a story where everyone knows what we’re dramatizing, so it doesn’t really apply.

Peterloo opens with the Battle of Waterloo, which you and DP Dick Pope shoot at first as a sweeping shot surveying the carnage around a soldier that gradually becomes a close-up on his face. How did you all come to the decision to portray such a consequential event in European history in such intimate terms?

Well, because we say here’s the Battle of Waterloo, first there’s a label that says the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington, all of that. You think you’re watching another movie and it’s a battle, but in fact, we know that the function of the scene is to focus on this guy. This individual. And pretty swiftly, it will be important whether you did it with lots of shots and cut to him or whether we did it the way we did it, you pretty soon need to get down and say, “On June 18, 1815, there was this famous battle and there was this particular guy.” And we go with the guy. It’s simply that that’s what the scene is about. It purports to be about the battle, but pretty swiftly, it turns out to be about one individual. And then, when you then see him gradually making his way back to England—and they did do that. There was no way they took anybody home. When the battle was over, they were left to their own devices, and a lot of people died on the way back. It took months; it was a real hassle. And while all that’s going on, other things are happening in Parliament and all the rest of England.

It seems like a good distillation…

Absolutely.

The opening is a real contrast to the Peterloo massacre itself, which is shot with a tremendous number of cuts for a director like you who often prefers to film as much of a scene in a single take as possible—

I think that’s a bit of a generalization. I think sometimes I do. But I would reject the notion that it’s a characteristic. There are famous occasions when I’ve done exactly that. If you go back and look at any number of sequences, I sometimes do it when it’s appropriate. When Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time in Secrets & Lies, and they sit by side by side in the café for a continuous take uncut for eight minutes, you can say that’s good discipline to shoot the take like that. But there’s no way you’re ever going to shoot the Peterloo massacre in one take! It’s academic and not worth talking about, really, because if you’re going to shoot that, you’re going to obviously have a massive amount of footage of hundreds of things, shot some of it with three cameras at the same time. There’s no way, and I wouldn’t want it to, because apart from anything else, the rhythm of that event in the café lends itself to that. But the chaos and mayhem of what happened at Peterloo wouldn’t lend itself to even considering that, even if it were possible. It’s kind of an irrelevant question, really.

You’ve said that you don’t make films about other films, but you have mentioned being a student of Eisenstein’s work. Given that it also involves government forces turning their bayonets on unarmed citizens who are advocating on behalf of the proletariat, was the Odessa Steps sequence at all an inspiration or touchpoint?

No! I’ve been asked that quite a lot. Nor was Ran of Kurosawa. I know those films, they’re in my DNA, but I never thought about Battleship Potemkin for a split second at any stage of doing that. Now you say it, and I think, “yeah yeah yeah,” but it never occurred to me. It isn’t that I don’t know the film. I know it backward, actually! But you don’t think about those things. They’re there, maybe in your subconscious.

What are you thinking about then?

The content! What it’s about. Telling the audience what’s going on. It’s as straightforward as that, no matter what the film. This is what’s happening, and let’s work out how to investigate this cinematically in order to tell the story to the audience. That’s what’s in my mind. I know it’s unbelievably uninteresting, but it’s true.

It’s interesting! If you’re not focused on it—

No, no, no. That’s also true. But what I’m saying is, I’m not thinking about what is the genre, what other movie is this like, what am I referencing or any of that crap because it’s irrelevant.

You’re focused in this sequence on the pain of the victims, not on making a spectacle of the violence. Is this a projection of your normal guiding principles onto a battle sequence?

Yes, it’s not incidentally a battle sequence. A battle is two opposing forces—

Well, yes, it’s a very mismatched battle.

Well again, you see, it’s hard to answer that question because it poses a premise that isn’t really relevant. It just seemed that everything that happened in the scene seems the natural way of telling what happened.

When looking at your filmography on the whole, your earlier films looked unflinchingly at the contemporary, while your more recent films tend to be more focused on portraying the past. Is that a conscious shift?

I made my first period film with Topsy-Turvy, followed by a contemporary film, All or Nothing, followed by another period film, Vera Drake, followed by another contemporary film, Happy-Go-Lucky, then another contemporary film, Another Year, then another period film, and then another period film. All you can be saying is that the last two films are period films, and I’m more interested in them.

But why start making them at all?

Just seemed like a good idea.

You say that you don’t make movies about “themes.” Was that any harder given how the history of Peterloo seemed to echo with the present moment?

It would be wrong to say that Peterloo isn’t a film with themes. What I meant when I may have said that is that my films, and I think Peterloo is no exception, do a whole bunch of things within the overall subject matter. These aren’t films with no themes, but they aren’t simplistic black-and-white themes.

I don’t mean to imply that your films are without themes, only that you seem to start with the content and the characters.

Of course. I have the sense of what it’s about, but these things are all compounded. They all come together, part and parcel. You can’t separate one from the other.

But was it harder to keep it rooted in its time? So many filmmakers making period pieces will make a movie set in the 1800s but wink and tell us that it’s about right now.

I think you’re right. A lot of filmmakers fall into that trap. They start to compromise what’s in the film. They say, “Let’s not make the dialogue period, people won’t understand it. Let’s not have the women in corsets, let’s lower the necklines, it’s more sexy.” And in doing that, they aren’t helping the audience believe they’re looking at something that really happened. Even though it’s something that’s happening now, 200 years ago.

Apart from the fact that I and my collaborators enjoy the challenge of capturing how people spoke, behaved, what they wore, what a place looked like, et cetera, well, when I started to make period films with Topsy-Turvy, I said, “Let’s make a period film that doesn’t look like just a costume drama. Let’s make it so that you really believe these are real people with real issues and real preoccupations. Doing a job of work like we all do.” So those are the criteria.

The job of a period film meaning something to a contemporary audience can be best achieved by making it as period-accurate as possible. The thing about a contemporary audience understanding it can only be in contemporary terms. The audience only knows how to interpret anything in terms of their own experience. They all just walk into a museum and look at a piece of sculpture from two thousand years ago, and you can only really decode, understand, and empathize with it in terms of how you are now. In the end, history can only be understood from the perspective of the contemporary world anyway. In a way, the currency of a period film as to how it will have a meaning for contemporary audiences looks after itself.

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The 15 Best Nirvana Songs

Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.

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Nirvana
Photo: Sub Pop

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic death via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As if that weren’t a stark enough reminder of our fragile mortality, the band’s debut album, Bleach, will turn 30 this June. Of course, the massive success of Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up, Nevermind, would help change the course of rock history. The band’s songs, the vast majority of which were penned solely by Cobain, fused pop, punk, and heavy metal into raw yet relatively digestible scraps of visceral rock poetry that struck just the right balance of accessible and challenging, introducing “alternative rock” to the masses, influencing an entire generation of musicians and fans, and—for better or worse—christening a new subgenre: grunge. Though Nirvana only lasted for seven years and three studio albums, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014. Listen to our entire Nirvana playlist on Spotify.

15. “Been a Son”

The first of many collections of scraps tossed out to hungry fans, Insecticide at least revealed a few new sides of the band, ranging from blistering punk assaults to strange slices of jagged power pop. “Been a Son” proves one of the standouts of these early recordings, a zippy, straightforward ditty that retains only a scant undercurrent of sludge, only hinting at the psychic trauma that other songs made much more evident. Jesse Cataldo

14. “Rape Me”

Emblematic of the band’s reaction to accusations that they “sold out” for signing with a major label and softening their early punk sound, the opening guitar lick of “Rape Me” pointedly and playfully evokes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the track devolves into a crushingly blunt treatise on sexual assault that conveniently, if unintentionally, doubles as a taunt to the media to take their best shot. Cinquemani

13. “Sliver”

Rock’s inherently primal qualities have always been obvious, but few songs have approached them as directly as this one, a charging anthem that boils down to a melancholy tale of a little boy crying for his mother. Originally released by Sub Pop as a non-album single, it’s another sustained tantrum of a track, a roar disguising a whimper, highlighting the tormented whelp at the center of all that seething rage. Cataldo

12. “In Bloom”

Pitted with a stream of pithy, sardonic koans that go almost unnoticed under all the noise, “In Bloom” imagines a micro-problem (ignorant meddlers of the Seattle scene) that quickly exploded into a macro one, leaving an acidic song retroactively aimed at the huge contingent of fans prizing the band for their muscular qualities, while ignoring the pained sensitivity which produced that intensity. If more people had been listening, maybe we could have avoided the long downward spiral of influence that eventually led to Puddle of Mudd. Cataldo

11. “On a Plain”

Few things are more selfish, or illogical, than addiction, and the messy, self-focused tenor of Nirvana’s songs proves the perfect platform to engage that topic. The exacting honesty of tracks like “On a Plain” ended up as one of the band’s biggest cultural coups, pushing the focus of mainstream rock not only from glam fakery to “genuine” emotion, but from a fixation on surfaces and objects to the intrinsic horrors of being human, the gross weakness of our bodies and the yawning emptiness of discontent. Cataldo

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

On the occasion of the release of Shazam!, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

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Shazam
Photo: Warner Bros.

This week marks the release of the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which Slant’s Jake Cole praised for being the rare superhero film to “foreground the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god.” The film tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid who’s transformed into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. His ultimate enemy is Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who’s been nursing his wounded pride for decades in the wake of being denied the superpowers that Billy now possesses. On the occasion of the release of Shazam!, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp


Suicide Squad

7. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole


Justice League

6. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole


Aquaman

5. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)

“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen


Wonder Woman

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson


Shazam!

2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)

The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole


Man of Steel

1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick

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Agnès Varda, Legend of the French New Wave and Beyond, Dead at 90

Varda spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized.

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Agnès Varda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Celebrated filmmaker Agnès Varda, who spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized, died today at the age of 90. According to a statement from her family: “The director and artist Agnès Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday, March 29, of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends.”

Varda’s first film, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, has been acknowledged by critics as a forerunner of the French New Wave. She followed that with a series of shorts and, then, in 1962 with Cléo from 5 to 7, the film that would cement her legend. The film, starring Corinne Marchand and scored by Michel Legrand (who died in January at age 86), follows a Parisian pop singer in real time as she awaits the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her cancerous stomach tumor is inoperable. According to our own Eric Henderson:

All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early-‘60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. Her framing teems with life at every corner: kittens wrestling in Cléo’s apartment, a child playing a tiny piano in an alleyway, and quarrelling lovers in a café. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. And in the bargain, every one of the film’s gorgeously designed set pieces enhance our understanding of the character and amplify Cléo’s understanding of herself.

Varda met her future husband, Jacques Demy, in 1958 while living in Paris. They remained together until his death in 1990. Curiously, given how prolific they were as artists, the couple rarely collaborated: Varda has an uncredited role in Demy’s iconic 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and served as an executive producer on his 1971 drama Lady Oscar, and Demy co-wrote her 1991 film Jacquot de Nantes. Maybe that was because they were both drawn to different aspects of life and people’s relationship to them.

Varda’s fiction films, among them Le Bonheur and Vagabond, garnered much renown, but she’s now primarily known for her documentaries. According to Slant’s Pat Brown, in his review of Varda’s last completed film, Varda by Agnès, from this year’s Berlinale:

At one time she was best known for the narrative features she made during the first four decades of her career, but many of those films had a tenuous relationship to fiction, featuring as they do non-professional actors, having filmed exclusively on location, and, in the case of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, taking place in real time. At the turn of the millennium—when Varda was 72—she and feature fiction finally broke up for good, and since then she’s made three celebrated documentaries: The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places.

Faces Places brought Varda considerable acclaim. Made in collaboration with the semi-anonymous French street artist known as JR, the film tells the story of two Frances, one contemporary and the other made of memories and friendships from Varda’s life. Faces Places, which earned Varda her one and only Academy Award nomination, is, according to our own Peter Golberg, “a many-sided and meditative work that’s at turns delightful, saddening, yet always deeply personal, filled with uniquely Vardian chance encounters with people and places from Varda’s past while also focused on JR’s ability to use his art to engage people.”

We had the incredible honor of interviewing Varda on two occasions, once timed to the U.S. theatrical release of Faces Places in 2017 and two years prior to that timed to the one-week runs that her 1988 documentary whatsit Jane B. par Agnes V. and 1993 drama Kung-Fu Master! received at Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Varda spent her long life and career giving voice to the voiceless. Her wisdom and empathy knew no bounds, a raison d’etre that’s perhaps best understood in her own words:

We did look for optimism. We looked for energy, we looked for the energy of expressing that everybody could express his or herself. Because that’s important—that it doesn’t stay totally quiet. Every moment can be agreeable to people we meet. But there is no way to say that life is beautiful, let’s go on. But at the same time, I think you have to be fairly honest about not having a ridiculous hope, but let’s meet, let’s share, let’s use the empathy we have for people, let’s create moments in which people understand each other. I mean, that’s already a big deal, you know?

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Interview: Kent Jones on Diane and Its Almost Miraculous Sense of Detail

Jones discusses how he and his collaborators were able to inform Diane with such verisimilitude on a limited budget.

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Kent Jones
Photo: IFC Films

Film critic, documentarian, and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones has a range of knowledge and influence that’s virtually unrivaled in the critical industry. In his writing, Jones displays a remarkable knack and hunger for tactile detail, examining a film’s aesthetic—and, truly, its soul—with a lively exactitude. (His 2013 piece on John Ford for Film Comment is one of the best and most casually erudite defenses of the filmmaker that you’ll ever read.) As a documentarian, Jones has a similar intensity of curiosity, having most notably collaborated with Martin Scorsese on A Letter to Elia and Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, the latter of which is particularly essential.

Jones’s interest in behavior and emotional texture is quite evident in his first narrative feature, Diane, which gives character actress Mary Kay Place the role of a lifetime as an aging woman serving a self-inflicted penance for an indiscretion that occurred decades earlier. Diane allows herself virtually no pleasure, caring for her ailing family, including her dying cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), a drug addict who eventually seeks salvation in religion. This scenario could easily lend itself to the sort of female martyr tale in which Joan Crawford once specialized, but Jones grounds the film in a wealth of micro gestures, revealing a community of dignity and stature that refutes maudlin emotions. Even at its bleakest, Diane is a kind of celebration of sensorial experience, and it’s this quality that connects the film with Jones’s documentaries and criticism.

In a conversation earlier this week, Jones and I discussed how he and his various collaborators were able to inform Diane with such verisimilitude on a limited budget and a compressed shooting schedule. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that Diane is a wrenchingly personal film for Jones that was a lifetime in the making.

As a filmmaker, do you wrestle with suppressing the formal and historical consciousness you’ve honed as a critic? Would it interfere with your creativity?

It has no place in filmmaking, truthfully. It has no place in the documentaries I’ve made about filmmaking either. Criticism is different. I think I was always aimed at making films, and I took myself through a lot of things before I got there. When I was younger, I think there was a part of me, without being able to articulate it, who knew that I couldn’t make the kind of movie I wanted to make at that point in my life. If I had been younger when I made my first film, it would have been very different and probably would have been self-consciously “cinephilac.” The filmmakers who I personally know—that isn’t a part of their work and it shouldn’t be. The critical knowledge and storehouse—of images and moments and passages from other movies—that’s more of a nuts-and-bolts thing, along the lines of “how is it done?”
It sounds like you didn’t want to make a classic “young man’s film.” Is that fair to say?

Yeah. [both laugh] Well, look, Marty was a young man when he made Mean Streets. Monte Hellman was a young man when he made Two-Lane Blacktop. Arnaud Desplechin was a young man when he made My Sex Life. The young man’s film that I knew that I would wind up making, I didn’t want to make ultimately. Let’s put it that way.

Diane doesn’t conform to the stereotypical idea of the “first film,” with flaunted references, heightened self-consciousness, and such. It feels like you’ve been making fictional features for some time.

Thank you.

Perhaps this is coincidental, but I thought of First Reformed while re-watching Diane recently. There’s a sobriety to both films that’s unfashionable in current American cinema. You handle extremely sad passages with a dignified matter-of-factness. You don’t pity Diane. You take her on her terms. Was it difficult to arrive at that tone? And is this tone connected to you waiting years before tackling fictional features?

Diane goes back many, many years in my life, to when I was a teenager. When all of my great aunts—not my aunts, though they were aunts to me—were still alive and well, and my grandmother was alive and well. And this was the world that I lived in, and I never wanted to leave. As a child going into adolescence, that was where I would go. Everyone would congregate in the kitchen that’s the basis for the kitchen in that scene in the movie. And these weren’t people that I pitied ever—these were people that I admired and that I loved. I loved their anger as much as I loved their sense of humor. I was a child so I was protected from a lot of the anger, but then sometimes I remembered there was anger directed at me.

There was the warmth of a close-knit family, shared by people who had been through a lot together. The fact that they all grew up in the woods was one thing. Another thing was that they all went through the Depression together. And they went through World War II, the men and the women, in different ways. I didn’t pity anybody ever. That was never a basis, and I never wanted to make a movie that was like that. I wanted to make a movie that reflected what it felt like to be at odds with somebody though, and it became a mother and a son story: of Diane and Brian. Then it started to inevitably reflect my own relationship with my mother without me being able to entirely articulate that to myself. It was an evolving process.

I could’ve watched a two-hour movie solely about the family sitting at that table.

Yeah.

That scene is so warm, so lived-in. You feel the comfort they all give one another.

Yeah, that was the only scene that took two days, or a day-and-a-half, actually. We were on a very tight schedule. It also the only scene where we needed two cameras for part of the day. It was very important that we get the right kitchen. It took quite a while to find it, but we did. It was important to get everybody oriented and also in the frame of mind where the energy was right, so that the characters fought in a way that was understood to be a part of their togetherness. It was a great couple of days shooting that scene.

Did you have much rehearsal time built into the shoot?

I wrote the role of Diane for Mary Kay and only her. I never had anybody else in mind. She and I had talked about the character a lot, and we discussed it while I was writing and re-writing. She said, “Well, if we ever get this made, you’re not going to be able to raise a dime on my name.” That’s a truth, but, on the other hand, we did get it made thanks to my producers. She and I kept getting together until the window opened and we had financing. Then it was a question of “What can we do to make the rehearsal process work with no money to pay the actors for rehearsal time?” We managed to find a considerable chunk of time between Mary Kay and Jake Lacy, and put them in a room and taped it off after we had found the location where Brian’s apartment was going to be so we could work out the blocking. I also had Mary Kay sit down for a few hours with Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, and Deirdre O’Connell. This was very important time spent, though I’m not sure I would call it rehearsal exactly. They read through their lines, but it was more about the actors getting oriented with each other.

In certain movies, I wonder how long it takes for filmmakers to communicate a sense that characters have shared pasts with one another, as in Diane’s kitchen scene.

The most important thing in that regard is that you have to be comfortable with characters, with nothing much dramatic happening. I kept wanting to put more error into the kitchen scene—more pauses, dead time. It’s not a scene that builds dramatically. It builds in terms of detail, in the way that everybody is with each other. At a certain point, I knew that I wanted a little boy to enter the room and crawl under the table and pop up in front of Mary Kay, because he’s probably done that a bunch of times before. I knew that I wanted a taller boy to walk in the room and kiss everybody on the cheek—he’s played by my son. Stuff like that, where people are walking in and out. The most important thing is knowing what you’re shooting, and not feeling an anxiety to create something dramatic. At the end of the scene, you know, when Patrick Husted asks Mary Kay, “Hey, how’s Brian?”—that’s part of the fabric of how they are.

And you see how it eats at Diane, having to put on this good face all the time, when Brian obviously isn’t doing well.

Right.

Speaking of people entering and exiting spaces, I think Diane is a remarkable film in terms of how actors move. A scene that jumps out at me in that regard is when Diane is weeping outside in a restaurant parking lot after getting drunk on margaritas, and her family seems to almost materialize out of nowhere. Based on the framing, the appearance of her family almost feels miraculous.

Yeah, I wanted it to feel that way.

It’s a lovely effect.

Yeah, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that, truly. It needed to feel a little miraculous.

I thought of Paul Schrader, and his interest in transcendental cinema, during the final scene between Diane and Brian. In the context you’ve established, it almost feels as if God is attempting to reach down and absolve Diane of her self-loathing. Brian seems to be reaching beyond himself to offer an unexpected forgiveness.

People can do that sometimes. We assume Brian is probably in the middle of a 12-step program, and he’s in the making-amends stage, which I believe is step nine, and he needs to tell her this, and he tells her. Does she hear it, and does everything change automatically? No. And he’s able to say to her that he’s going to return to his resentments in the future, but now he’s telling her this and that he wants her to remember it.

It’s very powerful. It’s one of those scenes where I thought to myself “I haven’t seen this before.” I have experience with people who have substance problems…

Yeah, me too.

…and Brian’s final speech is the sort of thing that struggling people say and that we rarely hear in cinema.

That scene took a while. I spent a lot of timing writing and re-writing it. And I would get it to the point where it almost felt like one of those scenes where people achieve a new understanding with each other but not really. The circumstances have to be specific, even if you don’t say them as a filmmaker. There are a lot of movies where things are left out and I feel like the filmmaker doesn’t know what those things are. And that’s never good. You have to know what it is that you’re saying and what it is that you’re leaving out. It took a long time to get that scene right and I’m glad that it works the way that it does for you. That’s nice to hear.

The potential catharsis of Brian’s final scene is complicated by the ending, where Diane seems to still be stuck in these loops of doubt and recrimination.

Well, it’s not so much recrimination. A friend of mine saw the movie and she’s like, “That’s kind of what it’s like, right up to the last minute of life.” We’re always thinking that there’s a whole that can be put together, that there’s an answer. But it’s all here already, though there’s a feeling of “Oh, wait a minute.” That ending also comes from my own experience with my mother when she had dementia. She was always feeling that there was something that needed to be done, like people were left behind in the car. Or what about the people downstairs? Things like that. That hanging feeling seemed apt to me.

Having worked as both a critic and a filmmaker, what element do you feel that critics understand least about the filmmaking process?

Look, I think that auteurism has been a great thing and continues to have an amazing effect, but the byproduct is that criticism winds up being director-centered in the wrong way. Being a director isn’t sitting alone in a room as a movie pours out of you. It’s exactly the opposite: responding to absolutely everything and everybody in the moment. As Kubrick said, you got to keep the spark alive for a length of time, but you’re also letting the film come alive and surprise you. I think sometimes in criticism there’s a weariness about talking about other people’s contributions, such as production design, etcetera. I’m married to my costume designer now. It’s all response, and it’s all, as Martin Scorsese would say, getting everybody to agree that we’re making the same movie.

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