Connect with us

Features

Interview: Michael Haneke on Happy End and His Reputation

The filmmaker has the regal countenance of a Viennese baron鈥攐r maybe a Bond villain.

Published

on

Interview: Michael Haneke on Happy End and His Reputation
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Michael Haneke鈥檚 Happy End is a ruthlessly pessimistic denunciation of the modern bourgeois European identity. It鈥檚 an ensemble piece centered around Eve (Fantine Harduin), a tight-lipped preteen who relocates to the home of her philandering father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), after her mother overdoses on antidepressants. Thomas and his sister, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), are scions of a wealthy construction family presided over by their suicidal, wheelchair-bound father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Against the backdrop of the 鈥淐alais Jungle鈥 refugee crisis taking shape near the town鈥檚 waterfront, these characters perform in a kind of theater of the haute-elite, quietly crumbling beneath the fa莽ade of a healthy family life.

Things reach an irreversible breaking point, but to delineate the plot is to divulge Happy End鈥檚 thesis鈥攁nd whatever pleasure there is to a film like this derives from the warping and unfurling of its neatly compartmentalized moral universe, the thrill of watching someone work in full command of their chosen vocabulary. Against Haneke鈥檚 prior work, the film鈥檚 key innovation is a mischievously bleak sense of humor. Unless you dismiss Happy End as another exercise in outright abjection, its best gags of family-on-family cruelty will run the risk of making you feel awful enough about the world that you might ask yourself if the 75-year-old auteur is, in fact, onto something.

In no small part thanks to a parody Twitter account recasting this most austere of European arthouse filmmakers as an ebullient stoner sharing cat memes, the distance between Haneke鈥檚 work and his in-person chipperness has been well-trod by now. We met on a crisp morning after the North American premiere of Happy End at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, and I found him an intimidatingly suave presence, with the regal countenance of a Viennese baron鈥攐r maybe a Bond villain.

For Michael Haneke, what is the value of film criticism?

[laughs] I ask myself the same question. If you鈥檙e lucky, it makes you aware of mistakes you鈥檝e made. If you鈥檙e unlucky, you鈥檙e attacked for things you鈥檝e done right. It鈥檚 really ambiguous.

There鈥檚 this notion of you as a provocateur, a scold, a punisher.

I don鈥檛 see myself as someone trying to punish the audience.

But nevertheless, this criticism endures. So what are the things you鈥檝e done right that you鈥檝e been attacked for?

When my work is misinterpreted, it鈥檚 not something I鈥檓 proud of. But you hear the reactions of critics鈥攑rofessional or amateur鈥攁nd sometimes get the impression that what they鈥檙e saying has nothing to do with the film you鈥檝e made. Often it happens that I go to see something after reading the reviews beforehand, and it鈥檚 as if I鈥檓 in a totally different film. Each spectator sees a different film. This is the problem: There鈥檚 not just a movie up on the screen, there are also all the different films taking place in the mind of each viewer. And if someone writes about your film in a way that has nothing to do with what you鈥檝e made, it鈥檚 not too helpful for you as a filmmaker.

I tried not to read about Happy End before seeing it. I wanted to go in as pure as possible. So, this is the first time you鈥檝e included phones and computers as crucial to your story鈥

Not the first time. Benny鈥檚 Video!

I meant chat softwares, specifically.

Oh, right. Because it鈥檚 not so old.

But there is indeed a lineage there.

I try to depict the society we live in today, which is impossible to describe without presenting the digital media that鈥檚 changed our lives so fundamentally. We are so present in it.

How do you decide what you will and won鈥檛 do in depicting the mindset of a 13-year-old girl, using a chat service on an iPhone?

I did a lot of research. I spent weeks on online forums. Print them out, and you have hundreds of pages of reading material.

Didn鈥檛 you use to work as a reader, going through stacks of TV scripts?

It鈥檚 not quite the same thing. Reading scripts, the material takes place within a certain tradition, whereas the online forums are a completely new medium.

As a dramatist, do you decide to use the chat, or the forum, as a means to an end? Or do the scenarios open up possibilities while you鈥檙e shooting?

When I鈥檓 writing, I鈥檝e more or less laid down how a scene will be shot.

To use a different example. There鈥檚 a scene that lasts one shot, where Trintignant鈥檚 character approaches a group of African migrants. We can鈥檛 hear what he鈥檚 saying because the camera is stationed on the other side of the street, but it creates narrative momentum. Did the scene ever have dialogue? Or is it inseparable from the camera angle?

I wrote down that it would take place on a busy street with traffic going by. Before shooting, after writing, I storyboard everything. I am terrible at drawing, but at least it lets my crew know how I intend the scenes to look.

Do you have a revision process?

I very rarely rewrite. Sometimes it happens that you imagine a physical setting for a scene, but you can鈥檛 find the right place when you鈥檙e location scouting. That forces you to reinvent, to imagine a different scene. But in 50 scenes, that might happen once or twice. Sometimes you have to rewrite based on your actors as well. That was the case in the karaoke scene. I had simply written that there would be a karaoke scene, but once I鈥檇 chosen the actor, he couldn鈥檛 carry a tune. He was a terrible singer, but I wrote the scene for him, based on his physical presence. Sometimes you have to leave things open until you鈥檝e completed casting. If you鈥檙e writing a script about a mountain climber and you cast an actor who鈥檚 afraid of heights, that鈥檚 a problem.

As with your earlier work, there鈥檚 a nagging conscience behind the film鈥攁 sense that the characters, and perhaps the moviegoers, are trying to put certain things out of mind. Pierre makes a scene by bringing the African migrants to his mother鈥檚 engagement party, creating a situation that can鈥檛 be ignored. We鈥檙e looking at an elite disparity, made as high-low as dramatic possible. Has the class divide widened in European society?

The son is simply using the migrants as a way to take vengeance on his mother, for having cut him out of the family company. So this is a scene about our willful ignorance of the world around us. I don鈥檛 think this is any different from how it was before, but we don鈥檛 like to face up to the problems around us and take responsibility, especially those for which we are to blame. I鈥檓 talking about the unwillingness of Europeans to confront the migrant crisis, and perhaps similarly, the United States鈥檚 unwillingness to deal with the legacy of slavery. We鈥檙e dealing with the harvest sown by our parents and grandparents. I am referring to colonialism specifically.

Which scene was hardest for you to shoot?

Well, for Jean-Louis, the ending wasn鈥檛 easy. In fact, that scene was stressful for all of us because we only had an hour where the tide would be at the right sea level, so we needed three days to shoot in which the weather was the same. The scene with the young girl in the car with her father was difficult. He鈥檚 driving in traffic, and the scene required her to cry at a certain point. It鈥檚 harder to work with children than with adult professionals.

Do you prefer to talk about theme? Or the mechanics of filmmaking?

The process. People are always trying to tempt me into delivering a user鈥檚 guide to interpreting my work, and I don鈥檛 want to give them that.

But how many possible interpretations really exist? The message is quite clear, in the end.

I have no message. I hate messages.

Can we say Happy End is less optimistic than Amour?

鈥淟ess optimistic.鈥 That鈥檚 one interpretation. If that鈥檚 what you found, you鈥檙e right. Every interpretation is right. If I find it wrong, I鈥檓 also right.

But surely you can鈥檛 say that to your actors.

I can. I hate when actors want to discuss these things: 鈥淲hy do I have to do it?鈥 To me, if you do it well, it鈥檚 okay. If you don鈥檛, I will tell you why it isn鈥檛 right. But don鈥檛 ask me why. I cast you, you be yourself, and that鈥檚 the best.

How do you know when it鈥檚 right or wrong?

Instinct! I have very good ears. I hear the slightest false tones and I can say, 鈥淭he pause there is a 10th of a second too long.鈥 With someone like Isabelle Huppert, it鈥檚 no problem: She鈥檒l make the pause a little bit longer or shorter, and it鈥檚 done. [laughs]

Translation by Robert Gray

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Published

on

The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on November 28, 2016.

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almod贸var film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almod贸var鈥檚 entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they鈥檙e a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almod贸var鈥檚 mise-en-sc猫ne redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almod贸var鈥檚 oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura鈥檚 character in Matador, who says near the film鈥檚 end: 鈥淪ome things are beyond reason. This is one of them.鈥 Clayton Dillard

On the occasion of the release of Almod贸var鈥檚 latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur鈥檚 films from worst to best.


The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

21. I鈥檓 So Excited! (2013)

The broad comedy of I鈥檓 So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film鈥檚 brisk runtime. It鈥檚 a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film鈥檚 sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier C谩mara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almod贸var鈥檚 finest films, where there鈥檚 no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

20. Julieta (2016)

Arguably the most conventional film of Almod贸var鈥檚 career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character鈥檚 recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almod贸var鈥檚 directorial style. The screenplay鈥檚 unimaginative frame narrative isn鈥檛 helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almod贸var opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Su谩rez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters鈥 lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almod贸var forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almod贸var regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria鈥檚 cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer鈥檚 Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man鈥檚 demand for 鈥渆legant, sophisticated sadism鈥ike in French films,鈥 don鈥檛 resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almod贸var鈥檚 sharpest farces. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

18. Broken Embraces (2009)

After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almod贸var opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Llu铆s Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almod贸var鈥檚 telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almod贸var Ranked

17. Kika (1993)

By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almod贸var鈥檚 perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director鈥檚 films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almod贸var鈥檚 fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there鈥檚 a certain je ne sais quoi to the film鈥檚 sheer energy, there鈥檚 also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

New York Film Festival 2019

If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn鈥檛 see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.

Published

on

Varda by Agn猫s
Photo: Netflix

鈥淐inema is the domain of freedom, and it鈥檚 an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,鈥 said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.

More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Fr茅maux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to J茅r茅my Clapin鈥檚 I Lost My Body and Mati Diop鈥檚 Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There鈥檚 no right or wrong here per se, though it鈥檚 clear that Fr茅maux鈥檚 edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world鈥檚 most important film festival.

The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese鈥檚 hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country鈥攁 non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film鈥檚 best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuar贸n鈥檚 Roma couldn鈥檛 last year.

It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom鈥攐r, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile鈥檚 idea of freedom.

In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach鈥檚 Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach鈥檚 divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello鈥檚 first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas鈥檚 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendon莽a Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Libert茅), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almod贸var (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agn猫s Varda, whose Varda by Agn猫s premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid鈥檚 Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec鈥檚 I Was at Home, But鈥

Among the festival鈥檚 noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker鈥檚 iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from 脡ric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips鈥檚 surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola鈥檚 The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.


Atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal鈥檚 local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the 鈥減irogue phenomenon鈥濃攔eferred to colloquially as 鈥淏arcelona or death鈥 in Senegalese communities鈥攁re the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what鈥檚 so extraordinary about Mati Diop鈥檚 first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello鈥檚 Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri鈥檚 multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul鈥檚 Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendon莽a Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendo莽a Filho and Juliano Donnelles鈥檚 Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It鈥檚 a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, 鈥淗ell no!鈥 The Bacurau of the film鈥檚 title is a fictional town in Brazil鈥檚 northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony鈥攗ntil Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendo莽a Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema鈥檚 most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil鈥檚 current administration and its willful erasure of the country鈥檚 culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting鈥攁nd it鈥檚 the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda鈥檚 color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kie艣lowski鈥檚 The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole鈥檚 grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov鈥檚 hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya鈥檚 PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)

Oliver Laxe鈥檚 Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such 鈥渇iction,鈥 the film鈥檚 delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we鈥檙e almost convinced that there鈥檚 no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters鈥 names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It鈥檚 at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person鈥攏amely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta S谩nchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene



A Girl Missing

A Girl Missing (K么ji Fukada)

Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, K么ji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that鈥檚 almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he鈥檚 transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman鈥檚 martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he鈥檚 fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen



I Was at Home, But鈥

I Was at Home, But鈥 (Angela Schanelec)

Angela Schanelec鈥檚 I Was at Home, But鈥 take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it鈥檚 experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn鈥檛 complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec鈥檚 insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It鈥檚 less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother鈥檚 (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it鈥檚 telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But鈥 configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund



Libert茅

Libert茅 (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra鈥檚 films don鈥檛 crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it鈥檚 the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra鈥檚 new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Libert茅, doesn鈥檛 give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Libert茅鈥檚 duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund



Marriage Story

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach鈥檚 Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple鈥攚ritten at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss鈥攖itled 鈥淪cenes from a Marriage,鈥 a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that鈥檚 also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, 鈥淭he opposite of love is not hate, it鈥檚 indifference,鈥 and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other鈥檚 flaws in the first place. Cole



Martin Eden

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

Pietro Marcello鈥檚 Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film鈥檚 title, don鈥檛 make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character鈥檚 transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that鈥檚 about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It鈥檚 an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-鈥60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film鈥檚 themes. Greg Cwik



The Moneychanger

The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)

Federico Veiroj鈥檚 The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne鈥檈r-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash鈥攆rom client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe鈥攊s by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he鈥檚 interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It鈥檚 apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man鈥檚 undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg



Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

Fans of Jonathan Lethem鈥檚 Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton鈥檚 decision to change the novel鈥檚 time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton鈥檚 popping of the novel鈥檚 anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the 鈥50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre鈥檚 best films. Throughout, Norton鈥檚 too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film鈥檚 greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole



Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There鈥檚 a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who鈥檚 a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael鈥檚 Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen



Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almod贸var)

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almod贸var. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almod贸var continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur鈥檚 part that he hasn鈥檛 made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almod贸var鈥檚 formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac



Parasite

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that鈥檚 reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn鈥檛 some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society鈥檚 people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea鈥檚 dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that鈥檚 been missing from Bong鈥檚 recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It鈥檚 the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they鈥檙e imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac



Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (C茅line Sciamma)

C茅line Sciamma鈥檚 Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that鈥檚 also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn鈥檛 out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (No茅mie Merlant) and H茅lo茂se (Ad茅le Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what鈥檚 most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in H茅lo茂se and Marianne鈥檚 feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma鈥檚 script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it鈥檚 also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that鈥檚 assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray



Sibyl

Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients鈥攎ost, not all, so that there鈥檚 always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl鈥檚 (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film鈥檚 many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl鈥檚 pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we鈥檙e pursuing something whereas we鈥檙e secretly pursuing something else鈥攕omething less avowable. Semerene



Synonyms

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid鈥檚 Synonyms doesn鈥檛 hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav鈥檚 brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that鈥檚 most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that鈥檚 nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown



To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa鈥檚 latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn鈥檛 beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it鈥檚 squarely focused on character鈥攁 strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film鈥檚 setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn鈥檛 just a meandering film born of an auteur鈥檚 plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it鈥檚 because he鈥檚 focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac



The Traitor

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it鈥檚 in director Marco Bellocchio鈥檚 depiction of the 鈥淢axi Trial鈥 in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy鈥檚 justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio鈥檚 staging of the 鈥淢axi Trial鈥 invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film鈥檚 running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole



Varda by Agn猫s

Varda by Agn猫s (Agn猫s Varda)

Agn猫s Varda鈥檚 final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker鈥檚 talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cl茅o from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agn猫s, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agn猫s finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film鈥檚 main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda鈥檚 bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of 鈥渟haring鈥 not borrowed from her previous work. Brown



Vitalina Varela

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film鈥檚 oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina鈥檚 personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



Zombi Child

The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu鈥檚 The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who鈥檚 manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the 鈥減earl鈥 of the Canary Islands. Cristi鈥檚 inability to make sense of his place in the very case he鈥檚 investigating is just one of the film鈥檚 cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film鈥檚 title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers鈥檚 persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he鈥檚 jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray



The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan鈥檚 The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it鈥檚 up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn鈥檛 otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn鈥檛 be acceptable from a 鈥渞ealistic鈥 drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what鈥檚 essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake鈥檚 masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne鈥檚 films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people鈥檚 lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical鈥檚 inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don鈥檛 exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed鈥檚 seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly 鈥渆xplained鈥 with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don鈥檛 dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they鈥檝e applied to this subject matter. Bowen



Zombi Child

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello鈥檚 Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director鈥檚 prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee M茅lissa (Wislanda Louimat)鈥攃lassmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte鈥擝onello鈥檚 interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello鈥檚 artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil

Zombie discusses how he corrals his films鈥 furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.

Published

on

Rob Zombie
Photo: Saban Films

Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil鈥檚 Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.

Zombie鈥檚 villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they鈥檙e elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie鈥檚 films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil鈥檚 Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)

Zombie鈥檚 latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker鈥檚 most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil鈥檚 Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie鈥檚 wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie鈥檚 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah鈥檚 The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films鈥 furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.

Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I鈥檓 curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?

Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?

I have.

Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody鈥檚 held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don鈥檛 know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it鈥檚 a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, 鈥淲hat is the element that鈥檚 missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?鈥 It was driving us all crazy.

Was there any decisive 鈥渨rong鈥 thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?

It just wasn鈥檛 kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she鈥檚 excited at what鈥檚 going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it鈥檚 amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it鈥檚 really frustrating sometimes when you鈥檙e trying to figure things out because we鈥檙e all working on such a time constraint. It鈥檚 not like, 鈥淎h, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.鈥 That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we鈥檙e trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.

I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil鈥檚 Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?

The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would鈥檝e happened no matter what. I鈥檝e made movies with much longer schedules and there鈥檚 never enough time. I鈥檓 sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, 鈥淲e need more time!鈥 I don鈥檛 think it matters how much time you have, you still don鈥檛 have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I鈥檓 shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they鈥檙e always there and in the moment. And that鈥檚 what you need: You need to yell 鈥渁ction鈥 and they鈥檙e still there. Because it鈥檚 really hard when you start a scene, whether it鈥檚 a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, 鈥淎h, man, where was I? What was happening?鈥 And whenever you break for lunch, it鈥檚 like, 鈥淎h, crap.鈥 There鈥檚 that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody鈥檚 energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don鈥檛 want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It鈥檚 like a play.

In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby鈥檚 prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.

Well, I like anti-typecasting. We鈥檝e worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don鈥檛 and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn鈥檛 say yes right away. She was like, 鈥淥h God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.鈥 And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she鈥檚 been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You鈥檙e an actor, you got it. [laughs]

What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn鈥檛 entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.

There鈥檚 a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she鈥檚 not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee鈥檚 character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby鈥檚 in Dee鈥檚 head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It鈥檚 so weird. He鈥檚 like, 鈥淗ey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I鈥檝e been there before.鈥 The crew doesn鈥檛 think of Manson as a murderer, he鈥檚 like a rock star to them. There鈥檚 this weird fascination because he鈥檚 so fucking famous. It鈥檚 a sick thing.

Your films have an edge because they鈥檙e willing to tap that fascination. You鈥檙e willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You鈥檙e honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?

Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they鈥檙e cool and charismatic and sexy. That鈥檚 who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they鈥檙e horrible. But this guy looks like he鈥檚, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she鈥檚 like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.

You have a good point. People don鈥檛 quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.

Yeah, there鈥檚 a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing 鈥渇ree Manson鈥 shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, 鈥淥kay, he鈥檚 not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.鈥 Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it鈥檚 because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it鈥檚 because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We鈥檝e compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King鈥檚 work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Published

on

Misery
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson鈥檚 example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King鈥檚 remarkably vast bibliography鈥攈is exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose鈥攁re 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鈥檚 dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they鈥檇 rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King鈥檚 beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author鈥檚 writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic na茂vet茅 of the author鈥檚 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鈥檝e compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King鈥檚 work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that鈥檚 precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King鈥檚 source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys鈥 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鈥檚 remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of鈥oming-of-age fiction. At times it鈥檚 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鈥檚 more sentimental non-horror writing, and it鈥檚 far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

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鈥檚 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鈥檚 reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King鈥檚 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.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy鈥檚 sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King鈥檚 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鈥檚 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.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

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鈥檚 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鈥檚 a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King鈥檚 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鈥檚 performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores鈥檚 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鈥檚 voice.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King鈥檚 dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they鈥檙e 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 鈥渘umber one fan鈥 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鈥檚 holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King鈥檚 unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn鈥檛 sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King鈥檚 most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative鈥檚 center.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival鈥檚 competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

Published

on

Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe鈥檚 most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival鈥檚 competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as Jo茫o Nicolau鈥檚 Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorc茅, Lu铆s (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he鈥檚 past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Lu铆s, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who鈥檚 frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum鈥檚 dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year鈥檚 special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson鈥檚 Echo isn鈥檛 exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child鈥檚 funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it鈥檚 delightful to behold Runarsson鈥檚 sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country鈥檚 collective mental health.

Yet while the film鈥檚 underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of 鈥淛ingle Bells鈥 amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we鈥檙e looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids鈥 nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it鈥檚 Echo鈥檚 sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that鈥檚 equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich K枚hler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

K枚hler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it鈥檚 easy to share Urs鈥檚 disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy鈥檚 earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he鈥檚 the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade鈥檚 masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year鈥檚 nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7鈥17.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Books

Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Reagan, and 鈥80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan鈥檚 presidency.

Published

on

They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America鈥檚 reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton鈥檚 song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation鈥檚 chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his 鈥淪tar Wars鈥 strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year鈥檚 top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president鈥檚 administration. And on the occasion of the book鈥檚 release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the 鈥80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the 鈥淎ge of Reagan,鈥 and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the 鈥80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you鈥檝e taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn鈥檛 realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It鈥檚 not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn鈥檛 to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn鈥檛 changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the 鈥80s was true to the moment. That鈥檚 why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn鈥檛 just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum鈥檚 Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-鈥80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn鈥檛 really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice鈥檚 second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren鈥檛 the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of 鈥80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled 鈥淲hite Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb鈥 in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith鈥檚 nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn鈥檛 much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan鈥檚 political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you鈥檝e watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I鈥檓 not sure that鈥檚 still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn鈥檛 respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn鈥檛 expect to see Reagan in it. I don鈥檛 think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night鈥攖he whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very na茂ve response. I couldn鈥檛 understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn鈥檛 see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it鈥檚 odd re-watching Donald Trump鈥檚 numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan鈥檚 silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan鈥檚 鈥渓ovable鈥 persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump鈥檚 media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn鈥檛 come as a result of the movies. He鈥檚 a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who鈥檚 able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn鈥檛 really see Trump鈥檚 presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice鈥檚 narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that鈥檚 what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy鈥檚 attempt at a presidential run. It鈥檚 hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates鈥 chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it鈥檚 different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy鈥檚 success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it鈥檚 not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of 鈥渓ive by the sword, die by the sword,鈥 that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn鈥檛, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he鈥檚 just going to make this stuff up. They think it鈥檚 funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a 鈥済reater degree of authenticity.鈥

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler鈥檚 appeal. I鈥檓 not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he鈥檚 a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler鈥檚 lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn鈥檛 get Hitler鈥檚 appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler鈥檚 assertions and his tantrums. What they didn鈥檛 realize was that鈥檚 precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that鈥檚 also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I鈥檓 not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There鈥檚 no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don鈥檛 see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele鈥檚 Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino鈥檚 Once Upon a Time鈥n Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it鈥檚 a movie about 1969, and yet it鈥檚 also a movie about 2019. It can鈥檛 help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren鈥檛 taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time鈥n Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did鈥

Well, that鈥檚 certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven鈥檛 seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The 鈥50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies鈥 view of the 鈥50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the 鈥90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the 鈥50s, but from the 鈥50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the 鈥50s 鈥渁s it should have been.鈥 Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich鈥檚 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early 鈥50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That鈥檚 what Happy Days was. I think Reagan鈥檚 genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized 鈥60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book鈥檚 release, you鈥檝e programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it鈥檚 possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other鈥攁nd I don鈥檛 have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the 鈥90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as 鈥渁n enemy of the people.鈥 And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.

Published

on

Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

鈥淭he [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.鈥 So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas鈥檚 Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard鈥檚 view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang鈥檚 Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what鈥檚 even left? It鈥檚 no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott鈥檚 Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick鈥檚 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant鈥橢lia than it does to Dick himself. Then there鈥檚 Andrei Tarkovsky鈥檚 Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky鈥檚 briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they鈥檙e united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell鈥檚 psychedelic Altered States examines one man鈥檚 egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film鈥攄rugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, 鈥渢ime simply obliterates.鈥 Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father鈥檚 painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie鈥檚 visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It鈥檚 an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie鈥檚 headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.


Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I鈥檒l Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jind艡ich Pol谩k, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jind艡ich Pol谩k鈥檚 Tomorrow I鈥檒l Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who鈥檝e discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it鈥檚 a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film鈥檚 opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he鈥檚 boogieing to disco music. And if all that鈥檚 still not enough, Pol谩k鈥檚 film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the 鈥70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson


Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges鈥檚 Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you鈥檙e likely to find. A glitzy鈥攁t times garish鈥攅xtravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn鈥檛 seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas鈥檚 action-packed monomyth. That鈥檚 thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film鈥檚 flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson


The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale鈥檚 anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal鈥檚 line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale鈥檚 decision to keep Claud Rains鈥檚 Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film鈥檚 closing seconds and elide his character鈥檚 backstory altogether. Griffin鈥檚 unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith


The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles鈥檚 The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this 鈥渂rother鈥 hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could鈥檝e been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles鈥檚 hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton鈥檚 soulful lead performance鈥攆ew have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch鈥擲ayles鈥檚 film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson


Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov鈥檚 Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds鈥 eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we鈥檙e offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion鈥檚 impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky鈥檚 Stalker and Aleksei German鈥檚 Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith


Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jind艡ich Pol谩k, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Pol谩k鈥檚 effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn鈥檛 without the Czech New Wave鈥檚 notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here鈥檚 looking at you, dance party sequence), though Pol谩k expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Pol谩k suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film鈥檚 bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene


The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks鈥檚 trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the 鈥50s political climate, it鈥檚 no surprise that the film鈥檚 climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager


The World鈥檚 End

92. The World鈥檚 End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World鈥檚 End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright鈥檚 film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director鈥檚 usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it鈥檚 the filmmaker鈥檚 most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date鈥攏ot to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager


Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman鈥檚 cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol鈥檚 Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her 鈥楾il Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film鈥檚 aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the 鈥80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture鈥檚 sexual indiscretions and a nation鈥檚 political na茂vet茅. Ed Gonzalez

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talk Luce鈥檚 Ambiguities

Onah and Harrison discuss their approach to creating the film鈥檚 central character and how they navigated his many dualities.

Published

on

Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Photo: Neon

鈥淩eally, it鈥檚 just about people鈥攚hether they conform to what we think they are,鈥 says Kelvin Harrison Jr.鈥檚 eponymous character in Luce. The high school student is engaged in a classroom debate with his history teacher, the self-appointed respectability politics enforcer Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), but he also speaks to the very essence of the film itself. Luce鈥檚 plot takes a number of engrossing turns as characters attempt to reconcile the disparities between the people they know so well and the deeds others allege they committed. But it all comes back to the characters themselves, Luce chief among them.

At his core, Luce is a model student thriving in suburban Arlington after being pulled out of an Eritrean war zone. Describing him further proves difficult because he means so many things to different people, some of whom鈥攅specially his adoptive white parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and school faculty鈥攎aintain an investment in seeing that he fulfills their expectations. From there, it only requires a few misunderstandings to ignite a powder keg of anxieties and assumptions surrounding race, class, immigration, and privilege.

While this description might seem to cast Luce as merely a passive participant in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth. He鈥檚 the film鈥檚 central enigma, with each scene concealing as much about his nature as it reveals. Harrison, a 25-year-old rising star who鈥檚 already turned in psychologically complex work in films such as Monsters and Men and It Comes at Night, endows the film with equal parts pathos and pathology through his performance. Shortly after Luce鈥檚 theatrical bow, I sat down with both Harrison and director Julius Onah to discuss their approach to creating the film鈥檚 central character, how they navigated his many dualities, and where they made determinations about his sincerity.

Who is Luce, for each of you? Inasmuch as it鈥檚 possible to pin him down.

Julius Onah: Whew!

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: He鈥檚 a 17-year-old kid who鈥檚 insanely intelligent. He鈥檚 gone through, seen, and overcome a lot. As he moves forward, he鈥檚 trying to make sure he feels protected and seen鈥攖hat he鈥檚 not put, like he says, in a box and that his peers aren鈥檛 doing the same. He feels like the future generation is the future, so shouldn鈥檛 we all be supporting each other to do that? That makes him the budding revolutionary he wants to be鈥攁nd is, in a lot of ways.

JO: As Kelvin said, we viewed him as this budding revolutionary, this kid who has incredible intellectual horsepower. But it鈥檚 like he鈥檚 got a Lamborghini with no license to drive. He contains all these multitudes within him, but, at the same time, has a tremendous amount of expectation on him from everyone around him who wants him to live his life on a symbolic, representational level, in order to prove whatever point they want. This kid is trying to negotiate the balance between 鈥淲ho am I really?鈥 and 鈥淲ho do I have to be to make everyone around me happy and survive in America?鈥

How did you handle the meta consideration of finding the person of Luce without losing his symbolism?

KH: I鈥檝e been telling this story that I grew up in New Orleans, the South, and went to a private school for high school. New Orleans is very laidback, we鈥檝e got a lot of slang, which is what it is. But then I went to this majority white school and was one of five, six, less than 10 black people in the entire high school. The first thing they told me was, 鈥淵ou can鈥檛 say 鈥榶eah.鈥 It鈥檚 鈥榶es.鈥欌 They were like, 鈥淲hat do your parents do? Why do you dress like that?鈥 I started judging myself and changing who I was or what I looked like to assimilate to the culture. I took a lot of that and brought it into Luce and his journey coming from Eritrea, and to his parents saying, 鈥淲e don鈥檛 know how to pronounce your name, so we鈥檙e changing it.鈥 [laughs] And Harriet being like, 鈥淵ou need to do these things in order to be great.鈥 It鈥檚 like [to her], 鈥淲hatever I am isn鈥檛 enough for you. You鈥檙e judging me based on where I came from, and now you鈥檙e telling my parents I wrote a violent paper.鈥 It鈥檚 insane.

Watching Luce, I wondered if he鈥檚 played as if the character is the way that he is at his core and the audience just gets to discover that, or if the events of the film goad him into becoming the way that he is. Did either of you make a decision to play it one way?

JO: As a director, I have a conception of the character, but I always believe that the actor has to live it truthfully. We talked a tremendous amount about where this guy was coming from and the specific biographical details of that. But, at the same time, the beauty of it is these moments that just appear as actors are living it. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Luce is in the shed with his friend, Orlicki, who says, 鈥淒eShaun is black black.鈥 And Luce instantly tries to defuse the situation. For a moment, he retreats into himself, but right after, he smacks his friend鈥檚 leg, and they start laughing. It tells you so much about who this guy is, constantly measuring every moment, situation and expectation from people.

So, in terms of the overall of the character, there鈥檚 that human part of him that鈥檚 just a 17-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is like most 17-year-old kids are. But then there鈥檚 a part of him that鈥檚 brilliant and well read; he鈥檚 been brought out of a real, physical war zone and thrust into this psychological, emotional and sociological war zone of culture in America. He鈥檚 taken some of the skills from survival there and applying it here, constantly reading everything around him looking for incoming fire, ducking and covering, reshaping and reforming himself as he navigates all of this. That鈥檚 where some of the symbolic version of this character comes from. He knows what he has to represent to literally survive.

You mention incoming fire, and it reminds me that I read about how every time Luce shuts his locker, you added in the sound of gunfire. Where did that idea come from?

JO: A lot of people, and this started at the script level and in friends and family screenings, they would say things like, 鈥淚f we just had a flashback to when he was a child soldier鈥︹ Which, to me, was like saying, 鈥淚f you just made it easier to pigeonhole this character鈥︹ The minute you start doing all that, they can say that this is some PTSD story. But when you see someone walking down the street, unless you鈥檙e Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, you can鈥檛 touch them and flash back to learn what happened to them. All you have are your eyes and ears, and from there we make judgments about who people are. But, at the same time, I did want to suggest some of his history, so I said, 鈥淲hat鈥檚 a more sophisticated way to make you feel some of the pressure this kid is coming from without spelling it out?鈥 And that鈥檚 where I decided, 鈥淲hat if we embedded gunshots throughout the locker, but we changed the pitch of them throughout the movie?鈥 And also, the bells in the hallway that he hears in the school get more pitched up. Slowly, over the course of the film, you鈥檙e feeling that pressure rising and don鈥檛 even know it.

If people wanted a flashback, do you think they really wanted to feel pity for Luce that they didn鈥檛 otherwise have an outlet for?

JO: For me, I think they want to be able to put him in a box, and we all have that tendency. We want to be able to explain away the things we don鈥檛 understand, and that defies the purpose of asking the question. Once we make it easy for the audience, there鈥檚 no point to tell the story.

I saw the film for the second time yesterday and found myself watching it like a courtroom drama, building cases for or against characters, looking for silver bullets that might explain them鈥

JO: That鈥檚 great to hear.

鈥ut then I realized at some point that this way of viewing was leading me to look for some kind of coherent explanation. Luce is all this one way or Ms. Wilson is all that way, and that one silver bullet will explain who they are, which goes against exactly what the film wants us to think.

JO: Yeah, it鈥檚 not like some epiphany we鈥檙e stating here, but it鈥檚 not the way the world works. I feel like if we鈥檙e going to tell these stories, there鈥檚 often a version of the story鈥攁nd I鈥檓 not going to criticize any of these films. I understand why these stories are told, whether to give us hope or understanding or a sense of clarity. But, at a certain point, you have to ask when it鈥檚 disserving us. There aren鈥檛 easy morals or digestible answers to hundreds, thousand-year-old questions of identity that are now really bubbling to the surface in this country. When you look at the headlines in this country, the more we continue to think there鈥檚 an easy answer, the more we鈥檙e going to deal with these problems in a way that doesn鈥檛 solve anything. I felt the only way鈥攁nd this started with J.C. [Lee]鈥檚 brilliant play鈥攖o talk about these things is to grapple with the fact that there isn鈥檛 a silver bullet.

There鈥檚 such a push and pull between sincerity and deceit for the character of Luce. It鈥檚 tempting, based on what we learn about him, to doubt the authenticity of any given moment. How did you all handle that dissonance that we experience?

KH: Truthfully? Because everything is to be played with the truth, it鈥檚 almost hard to keep track of the truth, even as Luce, of when he鈥檚 trying to get something that he needs or when he鈥檚 genuine. I wouldn鈥檛 even know at a certain point because it was always being sincere. It all kind of blurs after a while.

JO: I think that鈥檚 a really astute observation of it because, as a 17-year-old kid, you don鈥檛 know all the time. You鈥檙e just reacting and dealing with the fire of the world around you.

There鈥檚 a very ambiguous scene about midway through the film when Luce practices his speech before an empty auditorium. Are we meant to know what he鈥檚 thinking or how he鈥檚 feeling there? Did you make the determination of whether this is true self because he鈥檚 not performing before an audience, or just a rehearsal of emotion so he can play convincingly when the seats are full?

KH: I don鈥檛 think we made that determination, did we?

JO: Not explicitly. We never talked about it on that level. I think what鈥檚 so tricky and interesting with a character like this is that there鈥檚 always going to be an internal emotional life. However, it ends up being projected in that specific moment is going to be up to the audience. That鈥檚 why I love hearing this interpretation of yours. But what I think is sincere is this 17-year-old boy feeling the suffocating pressure of all these expectations, and it鈥檚 almost even harder when there鈥檚 nobody there in front of you because you realize what a performance it has to be. Whether there鈥檚 somebody there or not, you have to be on all the time.

KH: There鈥檚 some truth to that. I can remember being in the moment, considering the series of events that led up to it with being the star pupil, seeing what happened to DeShaun and Stephanie, and then my black teacher鈥攚ho we talked about being in a weird way like a second mom鈥攇o behind my back and tell my white parents that maybe I鈥檓 a threat because of who I was is a lot! And then to have my dad turn on me like that [snaps fingers] on the drop of a dime simply because he heard an accusation and be like, 鈥淭his is bullshit, you鈥檙e full of shit.鈥 It鈥檚 a lot. I think to go through the process of fighting for his identity and rights, in that moment he鈥檚 saying this thing about how his mother couldn鈥檛 pronounce his name, so they renamed me, it hurts. Because it reminds him of the things he鈥檚 had to go through since the beginning that he鈥檚 had to suppress to move forward. There鈥檚 a lot of truth. He鈥檚 disappointed, and he feels scared and abandoned. He鈥檚 very alone in that moment, which you can see. But it could be performative because there are moments where he鈥檚 like, 鈥淚鈥檓 good at acting!鈥 [laughs]

There are a pair of instances in the film where it鈥檚 alluded to that Luce showed cruelty to a fish. Is that at all a nod to the possibility that he might be a sociopath given that being a commonly recognized trait for them?

JO: Again, we鈥檙e just always trying to present things as truthfully as possible. I鈥檓 sure every person in this room has done something as a kid to a living creature where you鈥檙e just testing the limits. I remember things with my dogs when I was six or seven like, 鈥淲hat if we fold the dog鈥檚 legs this way?鈥 You鈥檙e sort of playing, but you鈥檙e also testing your power. Down to holding the magnifying glass over ants, whatever the case might be. These are all things where we lay out the story and just tell it. Then it鈥檚 up to us as to how we want to view it. Do we want to view this as a child doing something or through the lens of race? His history coming from violence? And then how are we going to choose to feel about it afterwards.

Luce, both the film and the character, rail against the 鈥渕odel minority鈥 archetype. But while he describes it as a straightjacket, is it possible that he also slyly sees it as a shield under which he can hide some of his actions?

KH: I think he鈥檚 aware of that. There鈥檚 a bit of not completely fully understanding the privilege he gets from his white parents. But at the same time, I do think he knows Principal Dan is like, 鈥淭his one鈥檚 my thoroughbred. He鈥檚 on my team, I know how to work him, I know how to get him on my side, I know if I bring my parents they鈥檒l probably donate money to the school.鈥 He can finesse his mother right before, and she might do exactly what he needs her to. But there鈥檚 another part of him that doesn鈥檛 know how much he can do. He鈥檚 just testing it out. He鈥檚 reactive, just living in the moment and seeing what he鈥檚 capable of.

JO: What鈥檚 interesting about him is his duality. He鈥檚 grown up with a white family, adjacent to white privilege because he can walk into school with his mom and dad. They can offer him the kind of protection that DeShaun would never get. One of the things I would often tell Naomi and Octavia is, 鈥淚magine if that big showdown happens in the third act, but it was DeShaun鈥檚 parents who walked in.鈥 There鈥檚 no way they could engage and carry themselves in the way Luce鈥檚 parents do! But at the same time, Luce is still black. When he walks out of his house, he will be treated and viewed when he鈥檚 not with his parents in the same way that a young black man would be. He alludes to that when it comes to smoking weed.

So, part of all this is how far the model-minority thing can go for Luce. How far does this privilege extend for him? How much can he get away with, or when are they going to decide that he鈥檚 not a saint anymore, but a monster? And the inability to negotiate that. Because in either case, whether you鈥檙e a saint or a monster, it鈥檚 saying that you鈥檙e not human. Though one of them comes with privileges, it鈥檚 still saying that you don鈥檛 have access to a full spectrum of humanity. While on some level, everyone around Luce thinks that if they lift him up to perfection, it proves, one, how open-minded and progressive they are and, two, the system works. What they don鈥檛 always fully recognize is that not only is it discarding the people who aren鈥檛 doing that, it鈥檚 also creating鈥攐n an emotional and psychological level鈥攁n alienation within Luce. And, in this case, both people are hurt as opposed to arriving and doing the real work that makes it a possibility for everyone to have access to that full humanity.

You mention the big third-act showdown, and in both times I鈥檝e seen Luce, the moment that gets the loudest gasp is when his adoptive white parents decide to go all in on a pretty bald-faced lie. What do you hope audiences take away about whiteness and its complicity in perpetuating the monster/saint dichotomy?

JO: An awareness of that complicity. There鈥檚 often the analogy used that fish don鈥檛 know they鈥檙e swimming in water鈥擺the water鈥檚] just there. When you have a space that鈥檚 built for your existence, you don鈥檛 feel the pressure points in the same way. You鈥檙e not always aware of the privileges you have and how those things can be weaponized. Sometimes, your good intentions can be a path that leads down鈥攚e know how the rest of that saying goes. I think the challenge for everybody, and that鈥檚 what I loved about telling this story, is that we are all limited and prisoners of our own perception. For some of us, that perception comes with more privilege. But specifically, for those who live on the top end of that power totem pole, there often isn鈥檛 an awareness of how even in the best of circumstances, one is contributing to the systems of power and privilege that exist. I think, hopefully, if we鈥檝e done our job with the story, we鈥檙e not lecturing anybody or pointing the finger per se. We鈥檙e just asking the question.

Watching it again, I was struck by how many instances in the film there are where if the characters were just honest, transparent, or didn鈥檛 assume something about the other person, they could have avoided so many bad things. Is that a fair statement?

JO: Absolutely! I think we all know鈥攁nd this is my first time meeting you, Marshall鈥攈ow hard that is. It is so hard. It鈥檚 such a negotiation between ego and beliefs. All you have to do is look at who鈥檚 in power in this country right now and what he has the privilege to ignore. And then, by proxy, the people who choose to support him have the privilege to ignore. What was really interesting about Amy鈥檚 arc in the film is that you have her move from a lack of awareness to awareness, but then she has the privilege to decide how aware she wants to be or what she wants to turn off. She says, 鈥淵ou know, I just want to love my son, forget it!鈥

KH: Tim鈥檚 character is interesting because, from the get-go, he鈥檚 like, 鈥淛ust tell him!鈥

JO: Tim and I often had these conversations about where Peter鈥檚 coming from. He came from more of a working-class background and rose to that level. But Amy grew up in the type of environment she鈥檚 already in, with more privilege. Peter very much just wants to parent. He鈥檚 always dealing with that, and this is where it gets so tricky with that negotiation of 鈥渨hen am I being a parent who just wants to look after my son? Or when am I being a white man who鈥檚 letting my baggage of privilege and my perceptions and assumptions about my son cloud the way I treat him?鈥 And that鈥檚 where it becomes really messy and complicated.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival

Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: 鈥淚t鈥檚 complicated.鈥

Published

on

Peaches and Cream
Photo: The Jerusalem Film Festival

Gur Bentwich鈥檚 Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinema鈥攃laims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentich鈥檚 film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Cream鈥檚 wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwich鈥攖he two are deliberately indistinguishable鈥攈ave both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.

I thought of Bentwich鈥檚 running joke when the international critics鈥 delegation of which I was a part鈥攁nd which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakia鈥攚as treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the film鈥檚 references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israel鈥檚 cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writer鈥檚 sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.

Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the West鈥檚 great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.

Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro Almod贸var鈥檚 Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The banner鈥檚 commanding image鈥攐f a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this year鈥檚 Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of Almod贸var himself against a red backdrop鈥攈ad been merged with an advertisement for Bentwich鈥檚 film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that I鈥檝e seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.

Generally, my fellow critics didn鈥檛 care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexist鈥攓ualities which struck me as part of the film鈥檚 joke. There鈥檚 no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festival鈥檚 taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-ho鈥檚 Palme d鈥橭r-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.

Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the film鈥檚 first hour, the greatest achievement of Bong鈥檚 career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor family鈥檚 ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bong鈥檚 kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the film鈥檚 tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment that鈥檚 been percolating under the narrative鈥檚 surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.

The setting of Parasite鈥檚 premiere at the JFF intensified the film鈥檚 power, as it was shown at the Sultan鈥檚 Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue that鈥檚 hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultan鈥檚 Pool was a site for children鈥檚 sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalem鈥檚 water supply system. Before Parasite鈥檚 premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israel鈥檚 dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the country鈥檚 president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isn鈥檛 without tension, given the conservative government鈥檚 hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audience鈥檚 traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who鈥檚 wanted to cut the government鈥檚 funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.

Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, they鈥檙e the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though they鈥檙e also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Aren鈥檛 festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesn鈥檛 understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that he鈥檚 a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population that鈥檚 still nevertheless controlled.

Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ire鈥攁 topic we also touched on at the critics鈥 dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think we鈥檝e initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: 鈥淚t鈥檚 complicated.鈥

The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festival鈥檚 screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultan鈥檚 Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttman鈥檚 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassi鈥檚 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.

Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim A茂nouz鈥檚 The Invisible Life of Eur铆dice Gusm茫o. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters who鈥檙e separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. Eur铆dice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. It鈥檚 a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.

Starting with the film鈥檚 opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girls鈥 eventual plight, A茂nouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in Eur铆dice and Guida鈥檚 longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of Eur铆dice Gusm茫o, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year鈥檚 Cannes, a streak of perversity that鈥檚 amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, A茂nouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square who鈥檚 stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his 鈥済ood鈥 daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the 鈥渂ad鈥 daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images I鈥檝e seen this year.

Colors serve the story of A茂nouz鈥檚 film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinan鈥檚 The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that one鈥檚 encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss that鈥檚 occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story that鈥檚 truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.

Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that they鈥檙e sure they鈥檒l despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until it鈥檚 revealed that they鈥檙e trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isn鈥檛 fed on time.

Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonists鈥 shoes. The filmmaker also doesn鈥檛 over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tom鈥檚 no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, it鈥檚 all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The characters鈥 immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, there鈥檚 nowhere else for the film to go.

In certain fashions, Jessica Hausner鈥檚 Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though it鈥檚 a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But there鈥檚 more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one can鈥檛 quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausner鈥檚 aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this year鈥檚 Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls 鈥淟ittle Joe鈥 after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.

The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, can鈥檛 see the invasion that鈥檚 engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenberg鈥檚 The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenberg鈥檚 film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.

At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zauberman鈥檚 much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse that鈥檚 wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiwei鈥檚 The Rest continues the artist鈥檚 project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people who鈥檙e fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiwei鈥檚 Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutes鈥 worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugees鈥 lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness that鈥檚 unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.

Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro director鈥檚 head, when they鈥檙e really works of communal endeavor. Catherine H茅bert鈥檚 Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmann鈥檚 Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the world鈥檚 grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoah鈥檚 most important formal gambit鈥攖he contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the film鈥檚 production鈥攄idn鈥檛 crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. H茅bert eventually connects Postec鈥檚 astonishing accomplishment with the editor鈥檚 own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her culture鈥檚 demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliation鈥攐f the demons of the past with the yearnings of the future鈥攊s what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.

The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25鈥擜ugust 4.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Rick Alverson on The Mountain and Challenging Narrative Convention

The filmmaker discusses his latest, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.

Published

on

Rick Alverson
Photo: Kino Lorber

Writer-director Rick Alverson is as intense and intelligent as films like The Comedy, Entertainment, and the forthcoming The Mountain would lead you to believe, with a pointed distrust of sentiment that indicates an urge to forge a connection that isn鈥檛 muddied by platitude. Alverson鈥檚 protagonists yearn for connection, too, especially Tye Sheridan鈥檚 wounded and adrift young man in The Mountain, a pursuit that also mirrors the filmmaker鈥檚 urge to discard or challenge narrative convention in order to reach a kind of purity of observation. The Mountain is rich in self-consciously still and idyllic compositions that parody the characters鈥 various pretenses, while also capturing their internal reverberations.

Since at least the rise of postmodernism, artists and critics alike have been trying to free certain art forms鈥攑articularly the novel and later cinema鈥攐f the constrictions of plot, presumably to access a free-associative and primordial truth. This struggle was at the heart of Susan Sontag鈥檚 essay collection Against Interpretation, and it鈥檚 a concern shared by Alverson. Yet the filmmaker, in his art and in conversation, runs into the same irony as Sontag: Their rejection of interpretation, embodied mostly in Alverson鈥檚 case by the rejection of plot, is interpretation. Most critics and artists, even if they confine themselves to discussions of formalism (and Alverson and I did not) still run headfirst into ideas of meaning, which could be more prosaically and perhaps more truthfully be described as notions of theme.

However, it鈥檚 refreshing that Alverson even bothers to grapple with such paradoxes, and he has a knack for speaking in full and winding sentences that mirror the thorny poetry of his cinema. Alverson and I also happen to live in the same city鈥擱ichmond, Virginia鈥攁nd we met last week over coffee in a local spot and chewed over The Mountain, Alverson鈥檚 earlier work, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.

Given that you travel quite a bit, is it comforting to have a central home to return to?

鈥淐omfort鈥 is a complex word. [laughs]

I know. I think I鈥檓 asking if the concept of a nest appeals to you.

Yeah, but there鈥檚 always acclimating to coming home. There鈥檚 this whole process of reevaluating things around you that have been with you for a quarter century. But, yeah, it鈥檚 nice being in a city that鈥檚 oblique and a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the industry obsessions. Now, if I can clean up my Twitter feed to reflect the world as opposed to the film industry, I鈥檒l be a better person.

My Twitter game is extremely rudimentary. A variety of passing fancies.

Yeah.

Where did you go to film The Mountain? California?

It was shot in upstate New York, from the Seneca in the Finger Lakes to the Bronx鈥14 different towns. Then we took the production and did a leg out in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker and the Canadian border all the way through the rain forest. A company move across the country is substantial. [laughs]

Do you purposefully seek narratives in which characters are wandering?

Yeah, I鈥檓 sort of turned off by certainty in films. Movies that have always meant something to me are open and unmoored. The idea of resolution is so fantastical. In so much of consumer cinema, resolution is pushed as a necessary element. Not only as a cathartic moment in the last act, but the very nature in every journey in most films feels like it鈥檚 destined to be resolved. It鈥檚 so uninteresting to me. It鈥檚 so removed from the way we experience life.

When watching The Mountain and Entertainment, I thought at certain points that it鈥檚 a relief to be free of exposition. That opens films up, gives them space to do and say something else. Your characters don鈥檛 talk about a plot. I鈥檓 not saying that those films don鈥檛 have narratives, but your characters are allowed to say these poetic and surprising things because they are accorded both geographic and emotional space.

Yeah, in the consumer model for cinema, there isn鈥檛 that air in the thing. The act of 鈥渢ightening it up鈥濃攆rom the script reviews to the test audiences鈥攌ills a thing and deprives it of its incoherence, which is poetry, the stuff of life. Also, I never like as a viewer to feel that I鈥檓 being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because it鈥檚 all laid out; there鈥檚 no place to maneuver in there. You鈥檙e supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live and find you and actually becomes your consciousness, because these movies aren鈥檛 giving your mind anything to do.

I think of the moment in The Mountain where the father tells his son, Andy, the Tye Sheridan character, that he never thought the boy would stop growing. And then he compares his son to the child鈥檚 mother, seemingly unflatteringly. There鈥檚 a lot of texture there in just a few lines. A conventional film might have elaborated more on the psychology, though we don鈥檛 need it. And those lines haunt the entire movie.

Well, good, I appreciate that. A lot of audiences are conditioned to let those things pass them by, because movies teach them to look for expositional triggers. Like 鈥渨hat is this telling me, does it make sense?鈥濃攁nd if it doesn鈥檛 they discard it. They鈥檙e conditioned in films and episodic television to do that. It鈥檚 literally a grammar that says 鈥渢his is the particular kind of information that鈥檚 going to be valuable to you to be able to compartmentalize this whole thing when you鈥檙e done.鈥 I think we鈥檙e being deprived of a lot of the stuff of life in these grammars.

Even in art cinema, there鈥檚 this narrative fixation, and The Mountain looks at this quite a lot, both as a toxic element for these men in this film, and for the audience that鈥檚 imbibing them. Is narrative, in the space of cinema, still functional? Even in a broader space, has narrative outlived its functionality as a delivery mechanism for complexity? We鈥檙e increasingly taught to have caches, and to reduce things down to very simple narrative ideas, and that鈥檚 weaponized by your Trumps and by everybody. The larger concern isn鈥檛 鈥淥h we should just tell more positive and better stories.鈥 We鈥檙e using something that was designed in the oral tradition, and in the written tradition, for an entirely other space. Can we criticize the rules of the game?

I don鈥檛 want to put The Mountain in a box myself, but Jeff Goldblum鈥檚 character, Wallace, is himself addicted to a narrative, to an idea of how lobotomies work.

That鈥檚 a reduction of the complexity and nuance of his life into a tidy narrative bubble, essentially. That then allows for a hell of a lot of misfortune, because he鈥檚 succumbing to ignorance, and ignorance breeds that shit.

Andy, maybe like his mother, refutes ideas of how we should behave, and you wonder if they鈥檙e actually wrestling with madness. From what you give us lobotomizing Andy feels disproportionate to his actions, which is terrifying. We see the social bridge: He鈥檚 on the bench entirely accepted and a moment later he鈥檚 at society鈥檚 mercy.

It鈥檚 about surfaces, signifiers, and clarity. I hope the film looks at problems of clarity. We often speak of clarity in celebratory terms, but what is lost in that? The whole mission statement of the arts is to interrupt that idea somehow.

A scene that struck me in The Mountain, and that testifies to the benefits of how you work, making the audience come to you to a certain extent, is when Andy grasps the face of one of Wallace鈥檚 patients.

Yeah, I like that scene a lot.

It鈥檚 a profound moment. You鈥檙e thinking about the potential similarity of this woman to Andy鈥檚 mother, and what Andy thinks about that, and his desire for communion. It is poetry鈥攁 pure moment. It鈥檚 not emotion-by-the-yard, like in a more conventional narrative, with waves of catharses. This is a moment where you鈥檙e in this room and you have to look at these people. It reminds me a little bit of Bresson. He slows your biorhythms down, and when certain moments come they hit you in the solar plexus.

It鈥檚 funny with Bresson, you, and particularly a contemporary audience, have to be receptive to that state. And there are treasures in there, you know. I think about emotion and the capacity for cinema or what鈥檚 left of it to viscerally engage with you emotionally. The emotions that we typically experience in cinema are nostalgic and reverential. I鈥檓 not a fan of Tarantino because he鈥檚 very tightly recirculating something, and there鈥檚 no air in it. I understand he鈥檚 a great craftsman, but that鈥檚 not why I go to cinema. This idea of 鈥渙h this reminds me of this and now I鈥檓 reminded in the vein of nostalgia for this emotion鈥濃攊t鈥檚 all triggering. And when the uncertain events of a natural experience, uncoupled with another experience, occurs to an audience, they just shut it out because it makes them uncomfortable. If your mission statement is to engineer that discomfort, it can be tricky.

I watched your first film, The Builder, last night for the first time. It鈥檚 very good.

It was a petri dish. Me shooting and, at any given time, one other person holding a boom mic, that was the extent of the crew for a year. It was an investigation into the relevance of the medium to me.

The Builder is shaggier visually than your recent films, but your aesthetic seems to be pretty fully formed. You seem to have already known what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be. Is that fair or off-key?

Yeah, I don鈥檛 believe we change very much as individuals in our lives. [laughs] We have a bandwidth, which is another reason why I鈥檝e been forced to value limitations. Because the fact of the matter is that if we can better understand what that bandwidth is, we can explore it. One of my favorite writers is the novelist Thomas Bernhard, and every one of his books resemble one another. They have surrogates for the same position and value of characters in previous books, and so there鈥檚 this tonal exploration of a very small space over the course of many novels. I think there鈥檚 something beautiful about that.

It seems to me that most major artists have one idea that they鈥檙e seeking to express purely. They seem to be chasing a purity of expression.

Well, expression is a vocalization, and the process of cinema is still complex. It鈥檚 cumbersome it鈥檚 so complex, down to the distribution, and the promotion and development, and the number of people and orientations that are involved. It鈥檚 not tidy, but in that process there鈥檚 a potential wrestling with the medium itself, which I think is really vital. And if independent cinema has anything to offer, it鈥檚 in that contention with the shape and limitations of the medium, rather than it all being a well-oiled machine that you step into. I envy those directors who have that opportunity to create such enterprises. At the same time, it鈥檚 reflexive contention that has value.

Did the wide recognition of The Comedy place any pressure on you to try to broaden your audience, or did it enable you to further mine your own interests?

It did allow me to expand in terms of budget, and so the movies became less scrappy. Fortunately. There鈥檙e scenes in Entertainment that I couldn鈥檛 have shot on those earlier budgets. With any sort of mild recognition in a practitioner鈥檚 life, there are doors that open and people say, 鈥淥h, step in, we鈥檝e been waiting for you.鈥

How do you like to talk to actors? Are you someone who talks a lot to them?

I think there are actors with very particular curiosities that want to work with me, because it鈥檚 imperative that the person wrestle a little bit with the process, and that we go into that together and that there鈥檚 a discovery. I鈥檓 very physical, oriented toward physical concerns of the production, blocking, composition鈥攖hose sorts of things. And, in casting, there are conversations about the objectives, so that motives鈥攏ot the character鈥檚 motivations but our motivations as creators鈥攁re somewhat in concert. There鈥檚 a lot I don鈥檛 tell because it鈥檚 not necessary. During a film鈥檚 release or even a year afterward, an actor might discover something in it and ask me if it was intentional. They鈥檒l discover something about how they were used.

Jeff Goldblum is extraordinary in The Mountain.

He should get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it. He honestly should.

He should. I鈥檝e always liked him. I鈥檓 a very big fan of The Fly.

Yeah, I鈥檓 a Cronenberg fan. I love The Brood. I wish Jeff had played one of the diminutive personalities in that. [both laugh]

Goldblum鈥檚 energy in this film has a robustness that contrasts with the withdrawn mood of the other characters, and with the austerity of the film in general.

He鈥檚 incredibly curious as an individual and an artist. And his charisma has a life of its own. He鈥檚 great to work with and is a very kind person, and inevitably some of that comes across in the film.

This next question is motivated by that scene we discussed earlier, when Andy is looking at this woman and caressing her face: Are you minutely advising the physical gestures of the actors? Their movements feel very exact.

Yes. Me and my cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, who I did Entertainment with, designed this movie to be formal to a fault. It鈥檚 supposed to almost verge on the fastidious, with a kind of compulsive artificiality. It鈥檚 supposed to feel stilted. So, yeah, it鈥檚 rigorously blocked, even on a short production schedule. We don鈥檛 do a lot of rehearsals, but there are blocking rehearsals and those are, to me, also gestural. I also talk about physical components, and will give direction like 鈥減art your lips.鈥 It鈥檚 nice to work with people who recognize our limitations of access to this two-dimensional space. First of all, there鈥檚 no interior beyond the screen. It literally is a flat expanse, in which you鈥檙e generating the illusion of access, which is really just an event that is occurring in the audience. Someone like Bresson proves that it鈥檚 silly to believe that an emotional event can鈥檛 be generated entirely on the surfaces, though it鈥檚 not where we typically look for it.

Do your actors ever resist this sort of direction?

Some, but not who I work with. Nobody has for a long time.

The Mountain reminded me a bit of The Master. Do you admire that movie?

I thought it had problems. I mean, I admire everybody involved in it. Paul Thomas Anderson is the last great steward of a dying part of the industry, he鈥檚 an astute craftsman with a conscience and a capacity for nuance that Tarantino doesn鈥檛 have. I don鈥檛 know. I can understand that they have some literal similarities: there鈥檚 a photographer in that film, and there鈥檚 this concept of a mentor. I鈥檓 fascinated with these huckster characters, and so is Goldblum, and we bonded over that. Essentially our nation was forged by entrepreneurial fraudulence, even if you鈥檙e going back to the entirety of the new world. What鈥檚 being searched for is a fantastical unreality, and that desire is harnessed by industry whether it鈥檚 the Virginia Company or Joseph Smith鈥檚 enterprises. I find these characters incredibly fascinating, and I think Paul Thomas Anderson has a mutual fixation with that. Of course, the two films were being made during the same time period.

To return to a familiar theme of this conversation, neither you nor Anderson are cowed by the idea of offering resolution. You鈥檙e both determined to forge your own paths, and you both follow your characters into the ether.

He鈥檚 more generous than I am. [both laugh]

He might be more of a humanist, though I wouldn鈥檛 call you ungenerous. There鈥檚 a lot of earnest searching in your films.

I feel deeply about people and their environments and frailties. I鈥檓 sometimes painted as a cynic or a contrarian.

Advertisement


I鈥檝e heard that too, and I think that鈥檚 a misreading of your work.

I appreciate that. There鈥檚 this fella, I forget who, who said it was evident that I hate the medium, and that I hate humanity. Just because you鈥檙e trying to interrupt this greased conduit into self-absorption and validation, just because you鈥檙e trying to provide an obstacle. I believe that obstacle is constructive, and I want to become more alive and less pacified. Some critics get kind of personal about me and I鈥檓 like 鈥淐hrist Almighty you don鈥檛 even know me.鈥 What did Francis Bacon get for God鈥檚 sake, you know? Talk about obstinate.

Yeah, in Entertainment, I think your refusal to judge or editorialize that central character is humanistic. I think a lot of directors would鈥檝e scored points off that character.

Well, yeah, and I got shit for The Comedy because there was no on-screen reckoning. The author didn鈥檛 imprint his morality on the thing and therefore the author is immoral. That鈥檚 tiredly outmoded. It鈥檚 like postmodernism never happened.

Contemporary moralism is often at war with empathy anyway. If you have this tidy moral point, you aren鈥檛 dealing with the characters, you鈥檙e dealing with the author鈥檚 preconceived intentions.

Yeah, there鈥檚 a lot of maneuvering for comfort, which I think is part of the reason why the medium is changing and some factions of it are dying. The works of someone like Bresson or Godard鈥攁lthough Godard鈥檚 work is the most experimental it鈥檚 ever been, and God bless Kino for releasing his films in the United States鈥攁re now mostly relegated to the museum set. When people wrestle with the form or the medium now, I would say that it鈥檚 strange that it鈥檚 not more welcomed in the critical community, since critics romanticize iconoclasts like the French New Wave directors.

Revolution looks better in retrospect, because we know the ending.

Yeah. [laughs]

And before we go, I鈥檇 just like to say, for all the seriousness of your movies, there鈥檚 certainly a dollop of absurdism.

Oh, yeah, totally. And had The Mountain been less of a difficult process to make, I would鈥檝e had a lot more fun. I鈥檝e been watching the recent Bruno Dumont movies. With the Quinquin and Coincoin series, it鈥檚 fascinating to see how he weaponizes absurdist slapstick in order to have the audience become vulnerable, only to then have those characters moments later become grotesque bigots. That鈥檚 exactly what I was aiming for in The Comedy: to disarm some faction of the audience so they become complicit in the thing, and so that I become complicit too. A morality tale is uninteresting if it鈥檚 merely allowing you to shore up your moral voice.

We鈥檙e committed to keeping our content free and accessible鈥攎eaning no paywalls or subscription fees鈥攕o if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending