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Interview: Asghar Farhadi on Everybody Knows and the Persistence of the Past

Farhadi discusses the universal human instinct to distrust outsiders, the strong similarities between Spanish and Iranian culture, and more.

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Focus Features
Photo: Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

A beautifully acted ensemble piece, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows starts with a hyper-realistic introduction to a cozy world—a bath of golden light, goblets of wine, warm hugs, and festive music as Laura’s (Penélope Cruz) large, loving family gathers for a wedding. But the film’s focus on this family’s day-to-day interactions takes a sharp turn when a crisis puts the main characters, including Paco (Javier Bardem), Laura’s old and dear friend, to the test, throwing everything about their lives into question.

Two years ago, on what turned out to be his last trip to the United States, I spoke with Farhadi in person about The Salesman. (The filmmaker, who has a green card, has stayed away since then, in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.) Earlier this week, we spoke over the phone about Everybody Knows and the subject of the universal human instinct to distrust outsiders, the persistence of the past, and the strong similarities between Spanish and Iranian culture that make Farhadi feel at home in Spain.

There’s a subplot in Everybody Knows about the anti-immigrant prejudice in Spain, which makes people point fingers at foreign grape-pickers the moment something goes wrong. Were you trying to say something about how that kind of poisonous thinking seems to be spreading around the world?

My point I’m making is more general. It was this very universal reflex that we have that when there’s something wrong, suspicion is first directed against not just immigrants but the stranger, the outsider. Whereas problems may actually come from people around us—relatives, friends—and that is the case in this film.

There are a lot of reminders in Everybody Knows, starting with the title, of how hard it is to keep a secret in a small town.

Because I wanted to deal with the notion of secrets, and secrets being related to the past of the characters, I had to choose a society in which people are aware of each other’s pasts. If I had put my story in a big city it wouldn’t have made sense. People don’t know where the others come from; they aren’t aware of each other’s background. I wanted it to be in a small community in which people pretend that they don’t know anything about the others, but in reality they know everything.

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It’s also about how things do and don’t change with time, and how the past is always present, which is a theme in a lot of your films.

Yes, this is a personal question, something that’s haunting me. The older I get, the more I’m haunted by it—this relationship that we have with our past. A friend in Spain told me this Cuban saying: “We don’t remember what past we had, or what past is awaiting us.” That’s something that I think is very true. In my culture, in Iranian culture, the past is very predominant, maybe I should say unfortunately, because nostalgia and the longing for the past is something that maybe sometimes prevents us from moving on.

The film starts out so full of joy and warmth and beauty, and even after things take a dark turn, the atmosphere never gets as tense as it does in the films you made in Iran. Is that partly because it felt lighter to be making a film far from the eyes of the censors?

I think this lightness and joy you refer to, this very warm feeling, is due to the reality of the Spanish people. It’s what I perceived in Spain, and so it is in the film. I think the reason there’s less tension than in my Iranian films is because the Spanish are much more straightforward. They open up to each other very easily, which isn’t at all the case in Iranian culture. One aspect that makes the tension so high in my films that I shot in Iran is that people don’t talk to each other frankly. Even in the language, things are expressed in a very indirect way. Whereas here in Spain, it’s much easier to express your feelings and say how things are. Once my script was ready, I went to Spain and started to adapt it to what I was observing in Spanish society. I realized that my characters had to be more straightforward and more open. For instance, Laura, in the first version, wouldn’t tell her husband that the child was not his. And then once I stayed in Spain, I realized that what would be a tragedy in Iran, to confess to a father that a child was not his, wouldn’t necessarily be the case in Spain.

Which came first: knowing you wanted to make a film in Spain or knowing you wanted to make a film with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem?

I chose the country first. I decided to make the story in Spain because the story was triggered in Spain, by something that happened 15 years ago when I was visiting Spain. [Farhadi’s young daughter spotted a poster of a girl who had been kidnapped.] And also because I had a kind of attraction to Spain and Spanish culture, because I felt really at ease there. I felt there was something similar between Spanish culture and Iranian culture, which of course isn’t obvious in the present situation, because in Spain the democracy that you have nowadays is quite different from what’s going on in Iran. But in the emotional reality, how people relate to each other, the family relationships, there was something I was very familiar with. So that’s why I chose Spain. And then when I started thinking of my cast, it was obvious that the first people who came to my mind were Penélope and Javier.

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Translation by Massoumeh Lahidji

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Review: Mapplethorpe’s Take on an Artistic Legend Is Fierce in Its Reductiveness

Here, Robert Mapplethrope is just another tormented queer destroyed by his tendencies toward vice.

1.5

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Mapplethorpe
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Pictures

The life story of Robert Mapplethorpe is inextricably tied to the art that became his legacy. As a photographer, he worked primarily in black and white, his subjects often framed against empty backgrounds. The erotic images that he eventually became known for, often exploring BDSM iconography, are famous now for the controversy that they generated related to notions of obscenity and public funding for the arts.

Mapplethorpe, though, was also one of his generation’s most accomplished portraitists. His photograph of Patti Smith for the cover of her 1975 album Horses is perhaps the most recognizable of his work among the general public, but he also photographed figures as famous and far-ranging as Andy Warhol in the year before his death and a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his bodybuilding career. And, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe himself. Mapplethorpe was a master of the visual autobiography, always staring directly into his own camera as if daring his eventual audience to look away even for a moment.

The relationship between art and its audience is based on the establishment of trust, and you can tell just by looking at a Mapplethorpe print that the artist whose eye brought the image to life was someone with keen instincts with regard to the careful collaboration between content and form, not to mention a deeply original point of view. But Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe, a film that sets out to present a biographical account of the artist’s life from his young adulthood until his death in 1989 due to complications from AIDS, has absorbed none of its subject’s singular precision and focus. The film’s flatness and its relentlessly obvious narrative choices consistently undermine its potential to communicate anything more than the specifics of a timeline, and the constant reminders of Mapplethorpe’s genius at portraiture—his work is liberally represented throughout—do the comparatively bland film no favors at all.

Beginning with scenes that are air-lifted directly from Just Kids, Patti Smith’s acclaimed memoir of her and Mapplethorpe’s origin story as young lovers and budding artists experimenting and collaborating in relative obscurity, the film trudges through the already well-trod elements of Mapplethorpe’s biography as if responding to a particularly uninspired prompt, checking the boxes without elevating the form. But Matt Smith plays the artist with an involvedness that belies the banality of much of the dialogue that he’s been made to speak, capturing in the film’s stronger moments Mapplethorpe’s internal struggles both with his sexuality and with the direction of his increasingly complex artistic practices.

A beautiful scene early in the film depicts Mapplethorpe flirting concurrently with both the next phase of his sex life and the next phase of his work, impulsively tying up a future male lover in a bondage pose and snapping those first few photographs before succumbing to the other man’s embrace. Smith’s performance in the scene is at once seductive and aloof, full of both the nervous excitement of unfamiliar desire as well as the potential for violence in what is one of the film’s most raw expressions of the artist’s inner turmoil.

But it often seems like Smith has wandered from the set of Mapplethorpe and stumbled into a generic made-for-television depiction of an artist’s coming of age in New York City in the latter part of the 20th century, lazily rendered and lacking specificity. At the beginning of what is essentially the third act of the film, a title card indicates that the year is now 1981 just as Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”—which wasn’t released until 1984—begins to play. And that’s just one of several distracting details poised to throw discerning viewers.

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Never mind that the biographical elements are essentially accurate; it’s the way that they’re so predictably strung together that begins to grate. The chronological events of a human life feel random without the connective tissue, the beating heart that brings us back again and again to the pleasures of narrative as art—stakes and tension, an intricate sense of causality and surprise, a sense of purpose. Look at the way Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate incorporates Vincent van Gogh’s particular artistic aesthetic into the film’s cinematography as it brings to life an entirely interior world by embracing the quotidian, the everyday life of its subject. The content of Schnabel’s film directly influences its form.

In Mapplethorpe, the ultimate purpose of the film seems to be the reductive portrayal of the artist as yet another tormented queer destroyed by his tendencies toward vice. The cliché of tedious representations of rampant drug use and illicit sex that inevitably lead to an early death of AIDS is on full display here, similar to the way that Freddie Mercury’s extravagant descent into depravity is represented in Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, excessively played out (in a cringingly fallacious timeline) only for the audience to applaud his redemptive return to the stage by the film’s conclusion. And even Smith, in an otherwise loving portrayal of his subject, slips in Mapplethorpe’s last act into a theatrical and affected performance of vanity that shuts out the audience completely, the pathos of his younger Mapplethorpe replaced with a self-absorption that feels easy and unexplored.

Cast: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kerry Butler Director: Ondi Timoner Screenwriter: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Some Like It Hot, a Funhouse of Sexual Exposure, Tickles Anew in 4K

The film is an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

4

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Some Like It Hot
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first time Marilyn Monroe, in the role of the perfectly named Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, walks onto the screen in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, even the train cat-calls her with a whistle of steam. Heading off to front the Sweet Sues, an all-girl brass band starting a residency as the house band at a posh Florida hotel, Sugar Kane has vowed to land a rich hubby, and the way she retrieves a flask of whiskey from her garter, it’s hard to imagine any man passing up the opportunity. And yet, most men that enter Wilder’s frame are far more interested in Joe (Jack Lemmon) and Jerry (Tony Curtis), dolled-up in drag to secure places (as upright bass player and tenor saxophonist, respectively) in the Sweet Sues and hide out from the gangsters they witnessed mowing down a snitch and his associates in a garage—a recreation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Even the gangsters, late in the film, openly flirt with Joe and Jerry on an elevator, thinking they’re really women.

Of course, Joe and Jerry are the only men who seem interested in actually courting Sugar Kane, a fantastical suspension of disbelief that goes hand in hand with the idea that no one can tell that Curtis’s Josephine and Lemmon’s Daphne aren’t hiding something under their Orry-Kelly dresses. At first, the setting is prohibition-era Chicago (right as the Great Depression was beginning to sink in), where Joe and Jerry play as part of a small jazz band in a speakeasy run out of a funeral parlor by criminal kingpin Spats Colombo (George Raft). A raid puts an end to Joe and Jerry’s paychecks, but it fails to capture Spats, who orders—and is present for—the massacre, as are the two out-of-work musicians. Finding themselves the targets of a statewide hunt by both the cops and the mob, Joe and Jerry powder their noses, jump a train, and join up with the Sweet Sues, only to find themselves pursued even there, this time by horny bellboys and elderly millionaires dealing with their umpteenth divorce.

The brilliant rat-a-tat dialogue is courtesy of Wilder and his regular writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, who had conceived Some Like It Hot as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor. Only Curtis remained on throughout the project’s entire gestation, as the unbeknownst romantic lead to Monroe’s romantically challenged showgirl. Indeed, Sugar Kane falls hard for Joe, but only as he takes on the guise of Junior, the preposterously wealthy heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in a bid to get the voluptuous singer in the sack. Cynicism, as throughout Wilder’s career, is pervasive here, and once she hears about Junior’s fortune, Sugar Kane can barely keep her dress on in front of Joe, who, as Junior, mimics Cary Grant in yacht-owner drag.

Sugar Kane’s willingness to indulge in the perverse proclivities of the rich is more grounded here than that of Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but then, Some Like It Hot is a more ambiguous affair than Howard Hawks’s extravagantly ludicrous musical. Up to and including the film’s legendary final line, spoken by the great Joe E. Brown as Jerry’s chief suitor, Wilder’s sex comedy regularly toys with sexual definitions, even obliterating them at times, most noticeably through Lemmon’s fearless comic performance. At first attempting to suppress himself from taking Sugar for a roll in his bunk, Jerry later comes back from a date with Brown’s Osgood, shaking maracas and walking on air; Joe insists he repeat “I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man” as a sort of mantra. Money, more than gender or even sexual attraction, is the ultimate aphrodisiac here, and if this deeply cynical belief is slightly upended by the film’s ending, as in The Apartment, the idea is never entirely dispelled by the narrative.

Panned by nearly every critic with a pen or typewriter upon its release, Some Like It Hot became a box office sensation, garnering six Academy Award nominations and, decades later, a place at the very top of the AFI’s list of the 100 best American comedies ever made. Wilder’s film was a triumph over intellectualism, and it came to be worshipped by intellectuals who, after coming to terms with the fact that the film wasn’t co-written by Rudolf Arnheim, noticed the precise auterism at work within it. Magnificently paced and terrifically funny at nearly every turn, Some Like It Hot was imbued with an inherent distrust of capitalism and big business that Wilder regularly expressed in an only slightly covert manner. Here, the stiff, quasi-charming man who says he will one day run Shell Oil is, to put it simply, a liar and a sneak. It’s a blunt indictment of a popular U.S.-based company, but nevertheless a long ways away from the manic, radically profane cynicism that Wilder deployed in One, Two, Three, wherein Coca-Cola has more or less become America itself.

By the end of Some Like It Hot, Sugar Kane is singing “I’m Through with Love,” but it’s a song she’s been singing all along, gossiping with Josephine about all the lousy musicians who’ve romanced her and then bilked her for all she’s worth. The lead singer of the Sweet Sues doesn’t show up until a solid 30 minutes into the film, but make no mistake, Monroe’s importance in this picture is second only to Wilder’s. A notorious presence on the set, the actress flubbed her lines, arrived late, and tested the saintly patience of her director and co-stars, but on the big screen, Monroe holds the audience in her gaze without a flicker of hesitation. Of course, Monroe’s behavior could partially be blamed on the tragic state of her private life; she had grappled with drug problems for months prior to the shoot and suffered a miscarriage toward the end of production. Nevertheless, whatever she put Wilder, Lemmon, Curtis, the crew, and their financial backers through was worth it for what’s on screen: an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

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Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond Distributor: Park Circus Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Buy: Video

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Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Sparks with Sensitivity and Gravitas

Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker with his quietly assured directorial debut.

2.5

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Photo: Netflix

With his quietly assured directorial debut, Nigerian-born British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor announces himself as a sensitive, shrewdly restrained filmmaker. Based on the memoir of the same name by Malawian innovator William Kamkwamba (co-written by journalist Bryan Mealer), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the remarkable story of how, as a largely self-taught techno-wizard, William (played by Maxwell Simba) saved his village from famine by building a wind turbine from scrap metal and bike parts.

It’s a tale that sounds ripe for a blandly inspirational film, but Ejiofor eschews overt sentimentality and adds gravitas by exploring more than just the optimistic William’s perspective. From the start, Ejiofor takes care to place the famine in a broader geopolitical context, while digging into the cultural specificity of the Malawian setting. A leisurely opening act establishes a society caught between the push and pull of tradition and modernity—as symbolized by the recurring presence of the elaborately costumed Nyau brotherhood, a local cult that survived British colonial rule by making concessions to Christianity. William’s parents, Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), meanwhile, seem eager to reject all forms of religious superstition, refusing to adhere to the local custom of praying for rain when their crops begin to suffer, and prioritizing a broad education for their kids above all else.

But the Kamkwambas’ noble principles seem somewhat incompatible with the realities they face both as a family and as part of an increasingly beleaguered community. When droughts begin to decimate his income as a farmer, Trywell refuses to concede that he needs help providing for his dependents, even after he runs out of money to keep William in school. Glimpses of political corruption—including a sequence in which a dissenter is swiftly removed from a government rally and brutally beaten—make it abundantly clear that no benevolent deus ex machina is waiting in the wings. But in his stubbornness, and fixation on family hierarchy, Trywell fails to see that he might have something to learn from the younger generation, and that William may hold the solution to his woes.

Sometimes, Ejiofor’s understated directorial approach pays off handsomely. The action of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind begins in 2001, and the events of 9/11 (which play into later plot developments) are introduced via a radio news report, which William and friends swiftly tune out in their eagerness to listen to a soccer game. It’s a neat rebuttal to the Western-centric notion that the entire world came to a standstill during those fateful few hours.

In taking great care not to sensationalize the material, however, Ejiofor struggles to raise the dramatic stakes. Simba is charming as William, but the character is given few opportunities to emote; he mostly just processes the chaos unfolding around him and devours engineering books at the local library. There’s a few affecting final-act scenes in which a rift between father and son escalates, and Trywell is left seething with impotent rage, but Ejiofor never quite finds a way to sufficiently distract attention from the preordained feel-good climax.

In a similar vein, Dick Pope’s cinematography evokes an inherently dramatic landscape at the mercy of the elements, without resorting to poverty porn, or the clichéd chaotic vibrancy of Mira Nair’s Uganda-set Queen of Katwe. Aside from a hypnotic ritualistic dance performed by Nyau members, though, there are few truly memorable visual sequences. It all adds up to a film that’s unmistakably well-intentioned, if ultimately difficult to love.

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Cast: Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aïssa Maïga, Joseph Marcell, Lemogang Tsipa, Philbert Falakeza Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor Screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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