Lakeith Stanfield has been racking up standout performances in some of the most buzzed-about films of the past decade: as the guarded but sensitive resident of a group home for teens in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12; murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s Selma; Snoop Dogg in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton; and the bodysnatched Brooklyn hipster in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. He’s also a standout in FX’s Atlanta, in which he plays the perpetually stoned and free-associative Darius.
His latest film is writer-director Matt Ruskin’s harrowing but unsensationalized Crown Heights, the based-on-a-true-story tale of Colin Warner. Warner was framed as a teenager for a crime he didn’t commit and spent 21 years in prison before getting out, thanks to his own efforts and the unfailing support and advocacy of a friend on the outside. In the film, Stanfield gives a powerful but understated performance, richly capturing Warner’s warmth, strength of character, and philosophical nature.
In New York this week to promote the film, Stanfield spoke with me about why acting in Get Out was an out-of-body experience, how the internet nurtures creativity, and whether racial justice has made any progress in the United States in the half century-plus since the march on Selma.
Right from the start, you’ve played interesting roles in movies that got a lot of buzz. Do you just have really good taste, or do you get good advice?
Yeah, well, I’m a member of the Illuminati. [laughs] I think it’s a combination. I have a really hard-working agency behind me.
You found an agency online? Because you got into acting by Googling, right?
Kind of. The Googling led to me doing a little project.
Short Term 12. Which was not such a little project, as it turned out.
No. It became something which sort of thrust me into the public eye of Hollywood, and so that attracted agents. I knew coming out of the gate what kind of work I didn’t want to do. I didn’t know what I did want to do, but I knew I didn’t want to do things that I felt weren’t in line with my core values and not entertaining to me, not funny to me or not true to me. I wanted to make sure that I was doing something that I felt like I could shine in my best light. So I kind of waited for the best projects that in some way spoke to me. And that was really pretty much it.
So you said no to things even early on?
I thought it was important to make that sacrifice, because I thought it might be good for me in the long run. I didn’t want to look back on what I’d done and be, like, “Aww, shit, I remember when I did that movie.” I wanted to be proud of my work. And I was confident enough in my abilities that I was, like, “I’ll be okay. I just have to wait until the right thing comes. I just gotta be patient.” And also, I have a very cool team of people around me who work very hard on my behalf to bring these great projects to me. When I read scripts, I might send it off to my manager and be like, “What do you think about this?” I take a lot of opinions from my team and my family.
You started out with zero connections in the movie industry, which makes your achievements seem that much more impressive.
Everyone can be a star now. You can literally just record yourself on camera, and if you have a good personality, or one that attracts a lot of people, boom, you’ve blown up. Which I think is great, because I think everyone should be a star. Everyone is a star. It’s a cool time to exist in. I hope to see more people who rise up through their own volition and their own hard work and find a space for themselves. I think coming up that way also makes you a particular kind of artist creatively, because most of the ways you were able to get where you got was by thinking in a creative way, coming on your own merit. And so it makes you be in contact with that, in a way that serves you.
In Crown Heights, Colin Warner’s apparent lack of anger about what happened to him is amazing. What do you think allowed him to get through that ordeal with such grace, and how did you portray that part of him?
It’s hard to say what got him through it, but I know he has an unflinching sense of self. He knows “I didn’t do that, I’m not that person, and I’m not going to admit to doing it because I didn’t do it.” That’s an amazing thing to say once or twice. It’s an incredible thing to say for 20 years, knowing that you—
Could have gotten out of prison if you just said you did it?
Yeah. That’s a very strong-willed person, and I think that’s a testament to the human spirit—what it can be. But it isn’t always. So that’s a great man. I just wanted to try to embody that. And in some ways, in life, there are things that I think about in a similar way. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I was in his situation, but there are things that I’m determined to be and do that I won’t compromise on, so I kind of felt that connection.
Warner spoke to me for that reason: because he was unflinching, didn’t move, stood up for what he believed in, and made it all the way through. And still came out and wasn’t mad at anybody, didn’t hold a grudge.
There’s so many things in my life where I could hold a grudge, but I don’t do that because I know it’s not good for me. And if I do that, then the person that I’m holding the grudge against wins, because I’m walking around with my head down. So I try to just get up every day and live it one day at a time and forgive and be open to people. I think we kind of shared that philosophy.
The thing Colin says to himself every morning before he opens his eyes, “Please don’t let it be a cell,” is so poignant. Did the claustrophobia of being locked up seep in at all while you were playing him, so you found yourself thinking, “Don’t let it be a cell”—or just feeling conscious of how lucky we all are who aren’t locked up like that?
I had weird dreams. I actually had one a couple days ago. I was being pursued by law enforcement, I guess because of how deep I was into it. It’s just a weird, sort of residual thing. I see how you could be waking up hoping that it would be a different environment. I imagine that he was dreaming a lot, of his life back in Trinidad, dreaming that he’d be back home, dreaming he could be with his kids, a lot of crazy different things, and then just you wake up again, after all of those days, I’m back here again—you can just imagine.
Was it hard to play him over such a long age span? What did you change to play him as a guy in his 30s from a guy in his teens?
[laughs] God bless the makeup team, because I just look old. They must have had a very hard time making me look anything under 30. But I think, for me, it was really just the disposition. As you grow older, you get used to your environment, no matter where you’re at. Although he didn’t want to be there, prison became his home. And I think it also provided a platform from which he could fight easier, because he was, like, “Okay, I’m gonna just fucking accept this. I’m here. How do I get through this day?” Rather than the agitation of youth, and being “I gotta get out!”
Yeah, he got into some fights when he was young, but not when he got older.
The time lapse causes you to become more acquiescent to the environment.
You’ve learned to act by doing, not by taking classes. Is there anything you have learned from the people you worked with that helps you now when you prepare for a role or a scene?
I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of talented individuals, from directors like Oliver Stone and Destin [Daniel Cretton] and Ava [DuVernay], and many very talented actors who taught me about process. When I worked with Chiwetel Ejiofor on Come Sunday, which isn’t out yet, I saw the way he broke down the story and the character within the confines of the story. He was playing the lead, and he taught me how the story spirals around this character’s focused journey. Just pick one thing, the journey, focus on that, and everything else kind of influences that. I never thought about it like that. I’m more of a moment actor. I’ll get in the moment and every take will be different. I’ve heard criticisms of that in Atlanta, that every take is way out. Which fits the description of that character, but that’s more my style. But [Ejiofor’s] style of breaking down the story is very interesting, sort of studious. I thought it was awesome. After you get the general idea of where the character is going, now you see in each instance how this will play in this larger arena.
And that keeps your performance a little more focused?
It creates more of a spine for the person. I thought that was a great lesson.
Did Donald Glover create Darius with you in mind?
I never asked him. I know he came up to me once at a party and was like—
He said he thought you’d be really good for this part, right?
You improvise some of Darius’s lines, right?
Definitely. The writers are so smart on that show. I think they were following all of us around, picking up little things that we do and giving it to our characters. They had to be, or they were just tapping our phones. [laughs] Because there were things that kept popping up, and I was like, “How do you know? That’s crazy!” So yeah, they’re sneaky.
Jordan Peele has said, “Lakeith, stripped of his cool, is a creepy thing,” which I thought was a great description of you in Get Out. Your face looked so different than usual: kind of clueless and stunned. How did you do that?
I had a little mini existential crisis on that film, because I felt like I was embodied in a black body for the first time. I really felt like a foreign being occupying my body for the first time. These brilliant extras and actresses who were in it, they made me feel extremely uncomfortable: “Oh, how does he look? How does he feel?” And I’m playing along with it, going [looking at one of his own tattoos as if in awe] “Oh, these tattoos are so expressive!” It made me feel outside of myself in a way that I hadn’t felt before, like, “Damn! Do I look like that to the world?” It was a very creepy thing.
Like being Dave Chappell’s racist black guy.
[laughs] Yeah, man. It’s weird. It was weird.
But that line between cool and weird is your territory. I don’t know how intentional it is: It may just flow from who you are. But a lot of your characters, they’re who they are, and who they are is a kind of weird dude. But they’re also cool, because they seem totally comfortable in their own skins and they just don’t care what other people think of them.
It’s always interesting to me when people think I’m cool, because I always feel like…[mimes goofy face and hand motions, then laughs]…I mean, it’s nice. There are worse things. But yeah, that’s me embracing myself, for sure. That’s pretty much it. But it’s cool that people think I’m cool.
Your Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma was another of your supporting roles that kind of stole the show: It was so heartbreaking and infuriating and horrible when he was shot by the trooper. Having played that character, do you think of him now sometimes, in terms of how much things haven’t changed when things happen like what went down in Charlottesville last weekend?
You know, that’s a good question. I hadn’t really thought about Jimmie Lee in the larger scheme of what’s going on, but yeah, that’s exactly what that shit is. That’s one of the reasons I really wanted to do that role, because I knew that not much had really changed, and I knew this would be an opportunity to shed light on that and be a part of that conversation. I was ready to talk about that. But we ended up just talking about awards the whole time.
Awards? Oh, because Selma got snubbed by the Oscars?
Yeah. That’s what that is. It’s happening today again. I think now the difference is, though, it isn’t just black people. It’s all kinds of people that are becoming victim to circumstances that they don’t understand. Because now we can see it on an economic scale too. People are banding together of all different kinds of colors, fighting for a right to just be. Now you can have Jimmie Lee Jackson lumped in with a couple more colors. But things aren’t necessarily better. In some ways there’s improvement, because of access to information, but in other ways things have regressed due to complacency.
You’ve obviously very smart, but you say you didn’t do well in school. Why do you think that is?
I’m not very smart. [laughs]
C’mon. Yes you are.
Because, I think, I’ve always had a problem with linear learning styles. Accumulation of data and regurgitation wasn’t really my learning style. I’m much more of an immersive, hands-on type of person. Also I’m a chronic procrastinator, and that doesn’t really go well with getting homework done. [laughs] Also, I’m a social person: I just love people. So, I think, some of my problem is that I was much more interested in drama class, and being involved with people and personalities, than in what I was supposed to be doing. I think that has its benefits, that kind of personality, but it also has its drawbacks, which I’m learning now. I’m becoming a more responsible person in that way, learning how to be diligent and studious. I read much more now than I ever did when I was in school.
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.
The 20 Best Rihanna Singles
We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she’s expected to zag. “Russian Roulette,” “Diamonds,” and “Four Five Seconds” were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singer’s wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012’s Unapologetic, and she’s only dropped one album since then, 2016’s ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary pop’s most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihanna’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.
Editor’s Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on Spotify.
20. “Four Five Seconds”
The reverberations of a “ella-ella” or “na-na” now feel something like a big bang: There would be no “We Can’t Stop,” no “Come & Get It,” without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if “Stay” saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, “Four Five Seconds” does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartney’s best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It’s an oddly affecting formula that’s unlikely to prove quite so imitable—though Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac
To say the world wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) “that incident,” singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust “S&M” to the top of the charts anyway, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, we’ll say it. “S&M” might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-“Throb” stride. Eric Henderson
18. “Love on the Brain”
No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016’s ANTI channels the late singer’s brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: “It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I can’t get enough.” Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heart—and her brain—on her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani
17. “Man Down”
Rihanna’s follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is “Man Down,” about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Rihanna’s vocals are surprisingly agile, and “Man Down” is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp
If “Umbrella” was a good girl’s gesture of generosity, “Rehab” is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. “I’ll never give myself to another the way I gave it to you” is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singer’s signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that she’d never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac
Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35
We’re taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.
Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)
I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.
MTV Video Music Awards (1984)
Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.
Music Video (1984)
Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.
Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.
The Girlie Show (1993)
The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.
MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.
Confessions Tour (2006)
In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.
MDNA Tour (2012)
Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.
Rebel Heart Tour (2015)
After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.
See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Interview: Max Richter on His Ad Astra Score and its So-Called Planetary Instruments
Richter discusses how he connects his classical schooling to one of his other early passions: outer space.
NASA launched its Voyager program over 40 years ago, and since then, sci-fi films like James Gray’s Ad Astra have been drawing inspiration from the journey that the program’s twin robotic probes have made through our outer solar system. And for the film’s post-minimalist soundtrack, influential composer Max Richter actually pulled plasma wave data from the Voyager probes and used it to make music that would embody the story of the long and precarious journey that an existentially fraught astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), makes through space to find his famed father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
Though Ad Astra’s music is written with an interstellar scope in mind, Richter is modest when speaking about his diminutive “notes on the page.” “If you don’t get the notes right on the piano, they won’t sound right when they are being played by an orchestra,” he says in a straightforward way. Ad Astra is also a bit of a return to a childhood dream for the musician, as one of his first memories was being woken up in the middle of the night by his parents to watch the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white TV set in their living room.
Speaking with German-born British composer while he takes a break from recording his next album, we discussed how he connects his classical schooling—he studied composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio in Florence—to one of his other early passions: outer space. In doing so, we also discover that the distance between two broken human psyches sometimes feels as though it’s on an interstellar scale.
How are you doing today after the recent U.S. tour?
I’m recording today, so I’m good. I’m recording a new project for next year.
Is there anything that you can share about it yet?
Well, it’s very much the vein of my other kind of storytelling projects around society and culture, like Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks. So, it has a kind of a sociopolitical, activist dimension. It’s very much in the vein of Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks.
Both of those albums posit the idea of the democratization of music and getting it out there, and you’ve continued that commentary on sociopolitical things. What are your thoughts on the choice to perform the eight-hour composition Sleep at the Great Wall of China? Obviously sleep, shelter, and food and water are common denominators across all cultures and governments.
Sleep is a piece which is about finding a place to rest and repose. It’s a moment to pause and reflect, and I think music can provide that. Artworks can provide that. They can provide a place to think—to think about what we’re doing. That’s one of the most important things I think that music can do. I felt that bringing Sleep to that setting was, in a way, my way of contributing to that debate to what was going on over there, what is going on over there, and to try and make a kind of a plea for kind of a humane behavior. I think that’s really one of the things that Sleep is about. So, yeah, it was very, very interesting.
I saw that when you were approached to work on Ad Astra, you saw a rough cut. What were you originally struck by as a composer even in that early stage of the edit?
There are really two films in Ad Astra. There’s the father-son psychodrama and then there’s the voyage in space. I like the way that these two films are superimposed on top of one another. I then started thinking about the two kinds of musical language. The first being that kind of personal instrumental language, which speaks to the dynamic between Roy and Clifford, and the second being the kind of big-picture music.
I had kind of traditional instrumentation for them and their story and then I thought, “What about the big-picture music, what about the physics, and, you know, all of that science?” So I thought about the Voyager I and II probes, which have actually made the journey that’s depicted in the film. I contacted Iowa University’s Department of physics & Astronomy, which got data that the Voyager probes recorded on their journey.
They actually measured the plasma wave data all the way out and sent it back. We got a hold of the data and transformed it into musical sounds. That allowed me to use almost like a location-recording approach to the electronic music so that when Brad’s character goes past a planet, you’re actually hearing data collected there, transformed into music. As well as being illustrative and embodying the journey, you’ve actually got real objects from that place. That was the sort of jumping-off point for the electronic music parts.
Is the data that you manipulated throughout the soundtrack or does it only pop up on select tracks?
Oh yeah! We’ve actually built computer-modeled instruments out of that data. So, there’s that kind of raw and cooked versions of that data [on the soundtrack].
I enjoyed the classical parts of the score meeting those electronic ones. It got me thinking about your background in Renaissance music. I immediately think of angelic things when I hear the harp on the soundtrack. First Man employed it in a different way. I was curious about that instrument choice.
I mean, there are a lot of sounds which kind of evoke traditional religious music or choral writing. There are these kinds of glassy, high-frequency tones and they sort of transcend them in some way. They evoke those colors. The reverberation I’ve used in the score throughout is a digital model of the Notre Dame in France. It’s a kind of a virtual cathedral [laughs] that all the music is being played through. I think that kind of affects us. It makes us think about big stuff and the sort of big questions. The film is about big questions. So, we’re trying to sort of populate the sonic universe of it with these sorts of emblems, which remind us of those things.
I watched an Estonian TV show in which you likened the Brexit situation to someone willfully stepping off a fast-moving train, and though the story for Ad Astra is highly personal, there are some moments, almost like Easter eggs, that are commentaries on what life might be like in that situation. Did you find any contemporary, socioeconomic elements coming out in the writing against those images?
Well, yeah. I mean, I think James Gray is a realist. You know, he’s a very, very smart writer, and he’s very sanguine about the present and the future. Certainly, the way the moon is depicted in Ad Astra is the big thing, as it’s got subways and stuff all over it and there’s a war going on. It’s like we’ve just exported all the problems of Earth and put them on the moon. That’s basically what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, it’s actually very sad. I think Brad’s character actually says this [about the moon]. He says something like, “You know, if my dad was here, he would certainly be so depressed.” So, James is very sanguine about the potential for humanity, but he does show humanity’s habit of falling back on these sorts of conflicts.
I read that you’re closer with your mother and I was curious if there was anything that you found with your personal journey with your father that came up as you were working through the soundtrack?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I think all father-son relationships have an element of confrontation [laughs] that Roy and Clifford have. It seems to be something about the male psyche isn’t it, somehow? There’s always something of that and hopefully [laughs] not as much as they have. Yeah, I think it speaks to people because of that. Roy is somebody who can’t connect to other people. That’s his kind of challenge and that’s his journey and connecting sometimes is hard. It’s also like the most important thing we do actually. Yeah, there’s a paradox in that. I think the film does speak to people in a personal way. And, certainly, to me.
You’ve done versions of classical pieces throughout your career, most notably on the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, but I really liked the rendition of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. What did you want to convey with that on the soundtrack at that point in the film’s narrative?
Bach’s music is kind of like the most perfect music in my brain. It’s like divine music, you know? “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion translates as “have mercy.” You know, obviously it’s in a religious context in that film. What I was thinking is, “Well, this is really what Roy is asking for from his father.” He’s saying, “Have mercy,” and the father is saying, “No, not in this way.” It just seemed to sum up their dynamic and, obviously, it’s fantastic music. It was a nice opportunity to kind of revisit that and then I think there’s something about Bach’s music which just sort of connects to some of those sorts of very archetypal, cosmic images. It’s because of the incredible perfection of the geometry of Bach’s music.
I really enjoyed the orchestra’s energy and thrum on “Encounter” and “Forced Entry.” They show more of the menacing side that you have as a composer and it’s definitely reflected in the film. It seems like there’s some kind of electronic-like processing on the instruments for those tracks.
Yeah, there is. I basically just put guitar pedals on the orchestra for just sort of gritty energy in various places. There’s quite a bit of that kind of stuff, and aside from the so-called planetary instruments made from the Voyager data, there’s also the synthesizer that I use most is a Moog System 55. Apart from being like an archetypal synth and my absolute favorite, it also comes from, you know, 1969, which is the Apollo 11 landing year. It all just sort of made sense. All of that quite gritty, analog-sounding electronics stuff is from the Moog 55 and it’s there because of its association with, you know, that moment in history. It has kind of a cosmic vibe.
What did you see as the main thread that went throughout the score as you were working on it?
Well, I guess it’s mostly about the sort of image of music, which can evoke something beyond ourselves. So that’s why it sort of connects a little bit to traditional religious music or historical religious music. It’s got this kind of slow-moving ritual quality and, you know, very extreme registers, kind of low-density, low-information density, so that the listener sort of completes the piece. [That is the impact] of those kinds of things on the soundtrack; I almost feel like they’re drones, but they’re not, they’re just very slow-moving music. There’s just something about very slow-moving material which makes it feel big. I don’t know why that is. I guess we’re used to seeing, you know, large, slow-moving objects in real life, and there’s something about that that we imprint on the music somehow. All of those sorts of ideas. Honestly, for any film, you’re really just looking for material which feels like it belongs to that world. When you find it, that’s it. I mean, of course, it’s a very technical and cerebral process on one hand, and on the other hand it’s completely intuitive.
A Space in Time: Doclisboa 2019 Explores the Politics of Memory, Space, and the Image
The film image opens a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Just before the start of this year’s Doclisboa film festival in Lisbon, the organizers put out a press release protesting the Brazilian government’s apparent crackdown on independent filmmaking through censorship and abrupt budget cuts to Ancine, the South American country’s state-supported cinema fund. Given the close ties between Portugal and its former colony—which include shared memories of 20th-century dictatorships—it’s not surprising that Doclisboa felt compelled to address Brazil’s ongoing crisis, unambiguously decrying the Bolsonaro government’s “dismantlement of democracy” and installation of a dictatorship, and announcing additional screenings of anti-dictatorship films from Brazil.
Several Brazilian films, of course, were already on Doclisboa’s docket this year. One of the standouts of the festival’s international competition was Jo Serfaty’s Sun Inside, which follows four Rio de Janeiro teens as they struggle to find their identities in the summer after school ends. Featuring compelling, naturalistic performances from each of its young leads and practically radiating hope for the future represented by Generation Z, the film has the makings of an American award-season darling.
But Sun Inside qualifies its own sense of hope: Its fun, woke teens know they live in a time of change, crisis, and inequity, and neither the script nor Serfaty’s camera offers an easy path toward transcending the cramped spaces and precarious circumstances they navigate in Rio. The film, which suggests a very muted version of Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, is as much about a milieu as it is about its characters.
Serfaty’s socially minded film shares its exploration of the politics of narrative form and the cinematic image with much of the 2019 Doclisboa slate. And Brazil isn’t the only former Portuguese colony represented at the festival: The Sound of Masks explores the traumatic history of Mozambique in the decades since it freed itself from Portuguese rule in 1975 by focusing on Atanásio Nyusi, a renowned dancer of the mapiko, in which a solitary male dancer dons a wooden mask. For Nyusi—and for director Sara CF de Gouveia—his tremulous mapiko dance serves as a record of the trauma Mozambique experienced over a century of colonialism and civil war. His jolting movements and often frightful bearing toward his audience implicitly speak of pain and terror, but the fact that he and his company continue to perform suggests perseverance and pride.
Nyusi, appropriately, also manages his community’s archive of mapiko dancers, the existence of which by itself points to the fact that the dance isn’t some timeless tribal practice. A crucial subtext in The Sound of Masks is that precolonial practices aren’t objects frozen in time, but bear the marks of history like any form of transgenerational human activity. Throughout, de Gouveia uses television footage from the days of colonialism and the civil war relatively sparingly, illustrating through montage the events that she and Nyusi understand his dance to be evoking. This expressive use of archival footage is combined with haunting footage of Nyusi’s performances—both contemporary and from when he was young—and slow-motion shots of Nyusi or other members of his company in full makeup against a black backdrop, staring directly into the camera. In this way, the documentary is utterly transfixing, often as strange as it is revelatory.
A confrontation with Portugal’s colonialist legacy is also implicit in Welket Bungué’s I Am Not Pilatus, one of the short films in the festival’s international competition. It’s composed of cellphone footage of two recent racist incidents in Lisbon, one of which took place on the Avenida do Liberdade, down the street from Cinema São Jorge, where many of Doclisboa’s screenings are held. The unseen woman doing the recording stands on one of the broad commercial avenue’s many plazas, filming at a great distance a confrontation between Lisbon police and a group of black youth and, though she admits she cannot see what’s happening, making racist conjectures. Bungué manipulates the footage, mockingly distorting the woman’s voice, flipping the footage upside down, looping her racist or obviously hypocritical lines, and ironically splicing in footage from a police beating that undercuts her assertion that the police are there to keep order.
Aesthetically, I Am Not Pilatus hardly breaks new ground, but it’s an instructive reminder of a certain activist filmmaking credo: Because reality is already structured by unjust systems, it’s incumbent upon artists like Bungué to use film as an instrument of intervention, rather than merely reproduce unjust realities. However slight, I Am Not Pilatus is an admirable and coherent political intervention, simmering with righteous anger at the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments apparently on the rise in Portugal, which recently elected a far-right representative to parliament for the first time since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.
Other distinctly political shorts—like Josip Lukić’s The Rex Will Sail In and Filipe Oliveira’s Há Margem, which screened together out of competition in the “Green Years” section—explore the manifestation of bigger socio-political structures in the lives of the underclass. The Rex Will Sail In concerns a Croatian family supported by their matriarch Marina’s work on a cruise ship, which sends her away from home for months at a time; the stress of working in the neoliberal tourism industry has taken its toll, and Marina uses the camera as her therapist, monologuing her buried anxieties about her sons’ behavior and upcoming changes at work. By and large consisting of close-ups, and filmed mostly in Marina’s car and small apartment, the short conveys the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an unforgiving, often unpredictable profession.
Há Margem is also in part about feeling closed in. “It’s tight in here,” says one subject about a narrow alley that bends between buildings, and that remark resonates throughout the film. Capturing slice-of-life footage from Segundo Torrão, a neighborhood on the other side of the Tagus River from Lisbon whose homes are all illegal because the land there isn’t appropriately zoned, Oliveira’s poetic documentary looks at the ways people make what they can out of a life on the margins (“There’s Margin” is the English translation of the film’s title).
Spatial politics also play an important role in Christian Haardt’s A New Environment, an essayistic film with rather esoteric interests and a dry tone. Composed of archival footage edited to the audio of an interview with the architect Heinrich Klotz, it covers, among other topics centered around 20th-century architecture, how national character and memory is revealed or hidden by major building projects like the postwar reconstruction of Frankfurt. Klotz’s thinking can be intriguingly dialectical: Suspicious of modernity’s penchant for reproductions, he nevertheless embraces the design principles of Disney World because even if it represents the pinnacle of fabricated living, it contains the dream of a unique and specific utopia. But Haardt’s sparse, quiet film has a monotonous quality that often makes it easy to lose the stakes of Klotz’s extended discourse.
Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, which won the Caligari Prize at this year’s Berlinale and screened at Doclisboa in the “From the Earth to the Moon” section, is more effective in grappling with German history. Heise delves into his own archival material—letters, diary entries, photographs, even a resume—to reconstruct the effect that the tragedies of the 20th century had on his family. At one point, he reads an exchange of letters between family members from the ‘30s and ‘40s—some in newly annexed Vienna, some in their adopted home of Berlin—over scrolling images of deportation lists. As the dispersed family reports of the increasing persecution they face and expresses their growing fears of being deported and murdered, we wait in anguish for the inevitable appearance of their names on the lists. In this sequence and others, the film’s deliberate pace demands intellectual engagement, compelling us to look and truly consider the material reality of the past.
Heimat Is a Space in Time’s title uses the German word for “homeland” in an evocative, paradoxical phrase that suggests the historically mutability of the concept, and the problem of a notion of homeland for a German whose family was shattered by the most notorious and inhumane of the 20th century’s nationalist movements. By contrast, Wook Steven Heo’s Under-Ground is a far less personalized confrontation with significant historical spaces affected by the chaos that nationalist aggression set loose in the world. Wook sends his camera contemplatively into the cold landscapes of factories and industrial campuses where the Japanese forced Korean captives to work, through now-empty caverns under Okinawa where Korean prisoners died alongside Japanese soldiers, and around Japanese anti-war memorials, looking to capture spaces of suffering that were forgotten even as the rest of the world memorialized their fallen.
The film’s anonymous feel suits the legacy of dehumanization Wook is concerned with—Under-Ground is in large part a protest against Japanese steel giant Nippon’s refusal to reckon with its historical participation in war crimes—but at times its presentation can feel a bit cold, suggesting a particularly somber travel film. Finding a more metaphorical way of dealing with the spaces of the past is Clayton Vomero’s Zona, a documentary-narrative hybrid that draws parallels between the spread of individualism among young people in the ‘80s, which helped bring an end to Russia’s totalitarian communist state, and today’s Russian subculture.
Zona’s title is surely a reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which a mysterious event creates an exceptional zone of temptation in which wishes come true. One of the veterans of the so‐called second Russian revolution in 1991 describes post-communist Russia as permanently existing in the state of exception declared during the military’s attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia here appears as a metaphysically suspended space, caught between the dream of the West its young people had at the turn of the ‘90s and the reality of a country that managed to successfully adopt neoliberalism but not democracy.
The attitudes of today’s counterculture youth, which the film represents through scripted but veracious interviews, offers a glimpse at the possibility of a more open Russia, but it’s clear now that this open future won’t be achieved by building more McDonalds. The problem with global capitalism, one of the Gen-X rebels interviewed notes in despair, is that “in the end, everyone will just be American.” Finding a Russian identity that doesn’t depend on such a perverse dream may require finally canceling the state of exception that the film proposes the country has found itself in for nearly three decades.
The selections cited here represents a miniscule portion of the 303 films showing at Doclisboa. Many, like Heimat Is a Space in Time, have already received attention after playing other festivals earlier this year. Werner Herzog probably counts as the biggest name with a film at Doclisboa, with his strange new Japan-set drama Family Romance, LLC, about an actor (Ishii Yuichi) who works for a company that hires him out to impersonate the missing father to a 12-year-old girl (Mahiro Tanimoto). It played Cannes earlier this year. Eric Baudelaire’s disarming documentary A Dramatic Film, made over the course of four years in collaboration with a diverse group of pre-teen children at a Paris school, premiered more recently at Locarno.
Gathering such already-premiered films under the Doclisboa umbrella—or, as a recurrent advertisement for the fest suggests, baking them into the same cake—invites us to consider their politics alongside their experimental aesthetics. When a director chooses to allow a black French child to record his walk home for inclusion in his film, when an established German director elects to make a film about the mechanization of family relations in Japan with Japanese principles, they’re not merely aesthetic choices, but political interventions that color the films’ reconstruction of the real. As Doclisboa’s program and emboldened stance against the burgeoning democratic crisis in Brazil attests, film may be a form of action as well as one of thought. Its images open a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Doclisboa runs from October 17—27.
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
99. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
98. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
97. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
96. Basket Case (1982)
Unsaid yet implicit in Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case is the notion that outsiders can sniff each other out. Yet self-loathing can estrange someone from even an accepting society, and Henenlotter is attentive to the literal and figurative scars that Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his brother, Belial, carry as social rejects accustomed to companionship only from the other. Women are attracted to Duane, yet he carries guilt over Belial’s much worse lot in life, as well as a steadfast conviction in his own essential “ugliness,” which Belial metaphorically physicalizes. This poignancy complements the purposefully and amusingly tasteless plot—a variation on lurid stories of conjoined twins and aborted children who miraculous live—and informs the film with a tangy emotional texture that’s intensified by Henenlotter’s resolute lack of pretension. Horror is said to be driven by a fear of death when the genre is often more viscerally concerned with rejection and loneliness. Henenlotter feels these emotions in his bones. Bowen
95. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
94. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
93. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
92. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
91. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
13 Obscure and Underrated Horror Movies to Watch This Halloween
At the very least, these 13 weird movies can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.
Halloween is a time for horror, and if you’re no stranger to John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Val Lewton, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, the Italian giallo, or Universal Horror, then you may be hankering to unearth a few obscure sleepers made by directors and stars half-forgotten in the sludge of time. This list of 13 weird movies all seem to reflect fear of their own obscurity: aging actresses camping it up before the mirror with highballs and axes; younger actresses having Antonioni-esque meltdowns; and space ships following the Alien slime breadcrumb trail. They throw normal reality to the wind, yet never lapse into whimsy or sentiment. They explore collective human mythos with a stout heart of darkness, and with scant budgetary means. At the very least, they can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.
The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)
The Black Pit of Dr. M’s plot unfolds like a whole season of The Twilight Zone collapsed into a single surrealist fever dream. Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) asks his dying colleague to arrange a means by which he can visit the realm beyond death and then return to tell the tale. A pretty difficult thing to ask, but after his death, his colleague’s spirit appears to assure him an elaborate chain of coincidence is in play that will fulfill the macabre request. A beautiful dancer, an dangerous female lunatic, an acid-scarred orderly all play parts in an experience that will answer all Dr. M’s questions. The bombastic plodding score is like an inexorable countdown to some horrific destiny, and some of the light and shadow patterns recall early Orson Welles. In sum, 71 minutes of unusually mature and poetic Mexican horror cinema, its rich minimalist dream ambience worthy of Edgar G. Ulmer or Val Letwon.
Juli Reding is a ‘50s pulp-novel cover come to life as Vi, a jealous jazz pianist’s ex-lover turned ghost, haunting the louche Tom (Richard Carlson) after he lets her fall from the top of a lighthouse so he can marry Meg (Lugene Sanders) and her money. The next morning there’s footprints in the sand following Tom home, and soon Vi’s disembodied head is taunting him and her hand scuttling after his. He has to keep killing to keep his shadiness a secret until after the wedding, and it’s up to Meg’s disillusioned younger sister (Susan Gordon) to convince the adults to call the whole thing off before she’s next on Tom’s kill list. Joe Turkel makes a rare early appearance as a hipster beatnik, dropping crazy slang no real beatnik probably ever said while still maintaining that Satanic stare as he shakes Tom down for a cut of the take. Carlson, the terminally sincere good guy scientist in so many ‘50s horror movies, is gamely playing against type too. Bert I. Gordon, the director behind The Amazing Colossal Man, gets a lot of flak for his chintzy special effects (his colossal man was see-through), but he usually brought some bizarre twists and humanity to his films, here the double-exposure effect fits the ghost material, and it works as a masculine character study as well as a streamlined all-American pulp-horror romance.
Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)
Tina Gloriani, who plays the gorgeous heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film by Renato Polselli, looks a lot like Eva Marie Saint, and though the “busload of dancing girls stranded on tour near an old castle menaced by a vampire” plot was old-hat even in 1960, she’s so luminous, and the crumbling castle ruins so atmospheric in crisp black and white, that it feels fresh. The troupe’s improv vampire dance routines, and the natural rapport between Gloriani’s Francesca and her equally blond roommate, Luisa (Hélène Rémy), conjures weird echoes of Stage Door and Persona. The male vampire wears a goofy mask with ping-pong eyeballs when he needs blood, becoming younger and normal-looking after drinking some—an unusually smart touch that taps into the vanity at the dark heart of Italian masculinity (as soon as his lovely young victims come back, he stakes them, shouting “I’m master of my domain!” as he kicks their coffins shut). Most available versions of the film are in Italian with English subtitles, which is the ideal way to soak up the arty, weirdly neorealist vibe.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
With its child nursery rhyme-style title, naturalistic acting, eerie ambiguity, complex portrait of mental illness, and sense of America as a land of eternal limbo, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has a uniquely ‘70s approach to horror, one borne of encounter groups, Valium, women’s lib, LSD, and suburban swinging. Zohra Lampert stars as Jessica, a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown by moving with her husband and a Meathead-mustached buddy to a remote island apple orchard, where she soon learns that just because you’re delusional doesn’t mean the constant whispering you hear is an auditory hallucination or that the hippie chick (Gretchen Corbett) squatter you let stay over isn’t a vampire, or that she’s just trying to seduce you rather than drown you. Horror films from the ‘70s were steeped in such paralyzing self-doubt, and this is perhaps the subtlest, creepiest example.
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)
Jane Birkin—her long straight hair like gossamer gold in the candle light as her character, Corringa, investigates strange goings on in her aunt’s mansion—is just one reason to discover this European mod update to the dark-house horrors of the 1930s. Genre staples abound: secret passages, secret heirs, even a guy in an ape suit. The plot involves the usual ornate mansion full of scheming eccentrics, one of whom killed Corringa’s mother; the doctor says it was natural causes, but he’s sleeping with Corringa’s aunt, who’ll hold onto the mansion at any cost to those around her. At night, Corringa’s mother appears as a vampire, invoking her lineage’s birthright, declaring that Corringa must avenge her death. The killings are strangely observed by a big orange tabby cat, and the suspects include Doris Kunstman as a bisexual, self-diagnosed “slut” and Hiram Keller as a cloistered, Byronic pretty boy. (Birkin’s husband, Serge Gainsbourg, even appears as a drowsy constable.) It’s not particularly scary, but the Ennio Morricone-esque score by Riz Ortolani and the fairy-tale tableaux conveyed by Carlo Carlini’s beautiful cinematography make it ethereal.
Messiah of Evil (1976)
This impressive debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation.
Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence
Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.
Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.
At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?
I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.
I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?
When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.
In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.
There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.
I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.
Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?
No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.
Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?
I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.
I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?
I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”
Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?
When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!
Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?
Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.
All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?
I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.
You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.
I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.