You know you’re dealing with an assertive artist when he’s the one who starts the interview. Before I even sit down to speak with Tracy Letts, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning actor-playwright known for conceiving and adapting works like Bug and Killer Joe, he’s already grilling me about Slant’s not-so-ecstatic recaps of Homeland, a series on which Letts starred this season as the shady Senator Andrew Lockhart. Apparently, Letts doesn’t miss a bit of press that’s linked to his work, nor does he blindly speak to outlets without doing a little digging. Though always perfectly respectful, Letts is direct, and forthcoming, which should really be no surprise given the uninhibited stories he’s put his name to.
Having penned the screenplays for Bug and Killer Joe, two indelible bits of mind-fuckery that teamed the author with William Friedkin, Letts is now unleashing his adaptation of his most personal piece, August: Osage County, the film version of which marks a partnership with director John Wells—not to mention a monumental cast. Though a far cry from the Friedkin collaborations, August: Osage County is similarly no-holds-barred, dropping the viewer amid a venom-spitting brood inspired by Letts’s own family.
A sensation when it stormed Broadway in 2007, the story of August: Osage County takes place in Letts’s home state of Oklahoma, and it’s infused not just with the drama of dysfunction, but a Midwestern history with which he’s all too familiar. The man behind the narrative that’s now led to heavy awards buzz (particularly for leading ladies Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), Letts discussed the story’s Native American themes, his opinion that his own mother, Billie Letts, is “a goddamned liar,” and, more than anything, the limits of control. That is, of course, after addressing those recaps.
Don’t we continually get bad reviews on Slant from the guy who writes the episode recaps for Homeland?
You might! One of our writers does recap the show on our blog. But, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t read those pieces, because I’m behind on this season of Homeland and I’m avoiding spoilers.
Yeah, well, I’ve read them. I read it all. I’m shameless. I read everything.
Oh yeah? Well, I do know that we at the site are fans of movies based on your work, like Bug and Killer Joe. Slant really digs Killer Joe.
Great. Glad to hear it.
Speaking of which, since Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County are so different, I’ve been trying to think of how they connect thematically, and what I’ve come up with is this element of control—people trying to control their worlds via their bodies, shady deals, self-medication, even family. Is the issue of control something you consciously try to explore?
Oh man, that’s such a good question, and I haven’t had that question before, because I haven’t really had anyone pay that much attention to the works in total. I don’t know. Perhaps I just think it’s the stuff of drama, but perhaps it’s something from my own life as well. I mean, I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s “running things now” was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: “Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.” As opposed to allowing people to make their own choices, for good or ill.
In what ways do you think you try, perhaps, to exert too much control in your own life?
I don’t know. I hope I don’t. Or I hope I’m somewhat vigilant about not trying to do that. When I was a young man, I used to get really angry. There’s a lot of anger in young men, or there was in me, certainly. And it was probably about that very thing: If you feel like you’re in control of everything, and then things aren’t going well, you feel like you’re failing. But I guess I don’t struggle with that so much anymore, because I don’t get angry nearly as often. But I probably still am guilty of it, and there are probably still some things I have to stay vigilant about. What those things are…I don’t know.
The issue of control brings directors to mind. Why not direct any of the film adaptations of your work yourself? Have you ever considered doing that?
No. First of all, I can’t remember what Bug cost—maybe $7 million? And Killer Joe was $10 million?—but I don’t think anyone would have given me $7 million or $10 million to make those movies. Or $30 million, in the case of August: Osage County. And I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker. I’ve just written these adaptations of my own work. You know, I met with Warren Beatty right after August opened on Broadway. We had a lovely meeting and he sort of suggested that I be the producer of August: Osage County, because the only way I’d see it done the way I really wanted it done was if I exerted control over the production. And I said to him, “Mr. Beatty, I’m not a filmmaker.” If I spent 10 years dragging that ship over the mountain, and trying to get August made exactly the way I want it made, it might end up being the film I would want to see. But my focus is primarily on the theater. I don’t want to spend 10 years of my life and career dragging that ship. That’s not the hill I choose to die on.
Well, what are some of the biggest concerns when seeing your work translated to the screen? Because I read that, at various points, you weren’t thrilled with some of the things that were happening with the August: Osage County production.
Well, I always liked the idea that movies can get to places that plays can’t. Growing up in a small town myself, I didn’t have access to great theater. A lot of my access to those things came through the movies. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. So I always wanted to see a film made, but I’m aware that a film is different than a play, and that a film isn’t going to be the filmed record of the play. It’s its own separate entity, and I’ve come to peace with that. During the process of making it, I’ll fight like hell for the things I think are going to make the movie better. But while Killer Joe and Bug and August: Osage County are all Tracy Letts plays, they’re also William Friedkin films and a John Wells film. And I felt my job was to help John Wells make the best John Wells film he could make. And he knew that. He said when he first met me, “If this thing’s fucked up, I’m the one they’re going to look at. I’m the one they’re going to blame. You’ve already written the play and won the awards.” And I said, “Well, then let me help you make the best movie you can make.” Me fighting for certain things didn’t have anything to do with preserving my play; it had everything to do with thinking, “This material is important for the thematic integrity of the piece.” I lost some of those fights and I won some. There were moments along the way when I wasn’t happy, but that’s the process of collaboration. We come back to that issue of control, right? I’m not going to insist that everyone try to do things my way. It’s about all of us pitching in our ideas.
I read that your mother, Billie, another famous writer, said that all the people in your plays “wind up naked or dead.” Is the fact that there’s no nudity in August: Osage County, and only one unseen death, in any way a tribute to Mom?
My mother is a goddamned liar, and not all of the people in my plays wind up naked or dead. My mother also issued that quote as a kind of defense of her own work, and of how her own work is so nice and friendly. And that’s a goddamned lie too. Because there’s actually a pretty good streak of cruelty in my mother’s books as well. Though they’re popular novels, there are definitely moments of great human cruelty in her works. So. “My mom is a goddamned liar” is the answer to that question.
[laughs] Okay. And Violet—in the writing of her and the creating of her, is there any of your own mother there? And whether there is or isn’t, when writing that character, were there specific people or actresses you were picturing?
No actresses I was picturing. It’s very much based on my grandmother—my mother’s mother. My mother’s father committed suicide when I was 10 years old, by drowning. My mother’s mother then descended into years of downer addiction. The impulse for the play was autobiographical. And while the characters are very much an amalgam of fiction, and the story is heavily fictionalized, there are also a lot of moments of truth from my life in the piece, or, at least, my perception or memory of it. And certainly in the character of Violet. She’s very much my grandmother, perhaps not in language, but in attitude and inclination. In fact, I gave the play to my mother to read, which I knew would be hard for her, and her first comment to me was, “You’ve been very kind to my mother.”
And your grandmother also lived in Oklahoma, where you were born? Enhancing that strong connection to the place?
And the Native American aspect—you clearly incorporate this as a commentary on roots, and America, and generational views of minorities in the Midwest. But it’s a touchy thing to include, specifically having Johnna, this Native American maid, in the ensemble. Can you discuss the provocations and the delicacy of that inclusion?
First of all, if you’re from Oklahoma, Native American life is part of your experience growing up. I myself am part Native American. It’s not uncommon for people from Oklahoma to have that background. My parents and all of my grandparents are from Oklahoma; my grandfather was born in Native American territory before it became a state. So there’s a lot of Oklahoma history there. And though we lost some of Johnna [played by Misty Upham in the film] from stage to screen, the truth is that the title is still August: Osage County, with the name of the [Native American] tribe in the title, and Johnna is Cheyenne. And, yeah, I always felt there was some strong thematic resonance. I can tell you this: The actress who originated the role, an Oklahoma native name Kim Guerrero, was Cherokee. And she said to us while we were rehearsing that the idea she had been raised with, by other natives, was that, “This is our land, the white people are here for a while using it, we’re going to be good to them while they’re here, and then when they’re gone it’s going to be our land again.” That was kind of a governing principle when I was writing the piece. I always felt that inherent in the work was the idea that, perhaps, we have sown the seeds of our own destruction, by that genocide. And that Oklahoma, positioned right in the center of the country, was somewhat representative of a national shame.
Speaking as both a writer and an actor, is there a character in this piece with whom you identify most? Or who you might play? My guess was you identified most with Barbara, but, naturally, she might be a little tricky for you to portray.
I mean, they’re all me, right? I guess I believe in that idea that if you write the thing, it’s some part of you. And they’re all some part of me. Having lived through that time with my grandparents, and my grandfather’s suicide when I was 10, to some extent Jean [played by Abigail Breslin in the film] is me. But then I think I’ve also played the role of all three of the siblings, Violet’s daughters. I’m the youngest of three brothers, and I think I’ve played each of those roles at different times. And I think I’ve behaved despicably, as some of the characters do, over the years. So I think I could be any of them. Barbara, as the protagonist, holds some of my ideas, but I think if I were to play a character, I would probably play her husband, Bill [played by Ewan McGregor in the film]. He’s not a particularly noble character, but you should understand: I’m never going to play any of them. I don’t act in the stuff that I write. I have no interest in doing that.
It’s the holiday season. Families are gathering around the table. Can you give me an August: Osage County-style anecdote from your own life? Maybe something wild that happened around the table that’s not incorporated here?
Oh! [laughs] You know, people see this, and I tell them that it’s based on my family, and they assume that I came from some kind of horrible, hysterical circumstances. That’s not true. My family, my nuclear family, was actually very close. My mom and dad were great parents and they encouraged a real rich, creative life for me and my brothers. My extended family, like every family, has some darkness, and some violence of some kind, emotional or otherwise, in their past. I think that’s part of the appeal of August: Osage County. People can recognize their own families in the piece. But in terms of actual stuff around the table? No, you’ve seen it. Hell, it’s up there on the screen.
All right then. Well, thanks so much.
Yeah, it was good to meet you. And tell that Homeland recap guy I’m looking for him. [laughs]
Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.
It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.
McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.
Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?
Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!
Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”
There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.
McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.
You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?
McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.
Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?
McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.
Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?
McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.
Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?
Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.
Now you’re speaking in the language of today.
Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.
If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?
McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?
McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?
Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.
McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.
What do you think of when you look back to that era?
McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.
Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.
McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.
That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.
The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Interview: Mary Harron on Charlie Says and Correcting the Record on Manson
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed her latest film.
We are in the midst of a reappraisal of the legacy of the gruesome murder spree perpetrated by Charles Manson and his family. It’s a discourse that got off to a quite rocky start with Daniel Farrands’s schlocky The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a counterfactual recounting of Sharon Tate’s final days that imagined her as being consumed by premonitions of her own death. And we’ll have to wait another two weeks to see if Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, will similarly bring a revisionist spin to the story of Mason’s crimes.
Something we do know for sure is that Mary Harron’s new film, Charlie Says, thankfully centers the dialogue around an enduring, but still largely unrecognized, fascination at the heart of Manson’s story. It’s not just what led him and the family, a group of young devotees he attracted to follow him with religious fervor, to commit such extreme acts. It’s also how he maintained their loyalty up to and beyond the murders. Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner’s point of entry into this multifaceted saga comes through the women still under Manson’s spell long after their crimes have landed them behind bars.
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed Charlie Says prior to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. She spoke with remarkable clarity about how the Manson murders were a product of their cultural moment in the late ‘60s and articulated both what attracted her to explore this story and how Charlie Says fits into a larger pattern in her filmography. To convey why extremes persist in our society, Harron understands she must present their allure along with their more controversial elements.
Who decided on the title Charlie Says?
We were talking about what we wanted the title to say, and Guinevere came up with the title Charlie Says because the women in the film are always saying, “Well, Charlie says…” Charlie says many things: go kill people, kill your ego, there’s no death. It was the idea that his voice was constantly in their head.
What led you and Guinevere to focus on the women as the main characters rather than Charles Manson? Is it all a corrective to the dominant narrative?
Yes, partly because it’s been more focused on Manson. I think the strangest aspect and the more enduring fascination is why these very young, seemingly nice girls did these terrible things. I feel like with Manson, we know why he’s a monster. Partly because of his innate character, but also his horrible childhood and the warping experience of growing up in prison. You can understand how Manson turned out the way he did and did the things he did—also being a sociopath, I guess. But the women, the family members, that’s the big mystery of what happened over a year and a half. That hippies who want to live in a world above become his acolytes who would go out and do violence if he asked them to do it.
How do you balance making a film about people who were involved in reprehensible behavior without excusing them while also explaining how they were coerced?
We knew we wanted to answer a specific question: How did he get them to do these things? What you want to do is show the appealing aspects of the ranch because they all got involved because they thought of it as this golden place of love and freedom and lack of inhibition and escape from the world of their parents, what they thought was the oppression of “straight” society. And how this freedom, which is represented by when they go up to the mountain and dance around in costumes, turned into a much worse form of oppression and terror. You have to show what’s good about it and what got them involved before you show how scary it can be. None of them, if you said, “Come join my cult, and we’ll go kill some strangers in a year and a half,” would have done that if they’d known at the outset what it would lead to.
Is that task any different than Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, walking the thin line between depicting but not endorsing? Obviously, satire makes it a little different.
Obviously, when you do a type of character, the audience in some way is going to be with them because you’re following their story. That doesn’t mean you’re endorsing them, but you’re kind of compelled by them. It’s a different question because the question is about how they got there, the process of mind control. It’s how do they lose themselves, and as Karlene says, “I want to give them back themselves.” How do they come to abandon their own conscience and voice of reason? I wanted to show the gradual process of the erosion of your will. Just like people in abusive relationships, it’s a gradual process of losing their will.
I’ve read Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson, which talked about how he used pimp logic to gain control over women.
In some ways, it’s a seduction. It’s a bizarre version of a relationship. It’s why we wanted to tell the story of Leslie Van Houten—to show her from being brought into it, the things she saw, why she wanted to stay, and then how she became a full-on convert. She’s since silenced those doubts. She gets more committed not just to Charlie, but also to Patricia Krenwinkle, another friend in the cult. When you start totally losing your perspective, you become more and more detached from the outside world. This is true of the terrible things people do during wartime as well, you lose your wider perspective from only seeing the reality you’re told to believe in. That’s your enemy, these are the good people, those are the bad people.
That moment in the film where Karlene brings in the TV and breaks the feedback loop for the women in jail really feels like such a breakthrough.
For all the atrocities [they committed], the victims are depersonalized. It’s very hard to hurt someone if you see their humanity and have any empathy for them. And these people were complete strangers. They didn’t even know who Sharon Tate was. I mean, they knew her as a movie star, but they had no connection to these people—particularly Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whose murders are the ones we show in detail. They had no idea who these people were! Charlie chose those people at random. When they see the Sharon Tate thing, they had to see, this was the person whose life we took.
Didn’t the family choose the home where they murdered Sharon Tate just because it was a place they knew how to drive to at night?
They knew how to get there, Tex Watson [a family member involved in the Tate murder] had been there once before, but we don’t show it in the film. I think they knew it was where some rich Hollywood types would be because Charlie wanted to kill some rich white piggies, and that seemed to be a place. But there was definitely a randomness about it.
Like you said, it’s depersonalized. Even if they knew it was some kind of rich, white, famous person, there was no name or identity to go with it.
Charlie could have tracked down Terry Melcher [the record producer who auditioned but didn’t sign Manson to his label] if he really wanted to kill him, but he knew he wasn’t there anymore.
There’s a conception in culture of Manson as this kind of terrifying criminal mastermind, but in your film, he’s really just a garden variety predator with higher profile victims. Is there at all an element of correcting the record here?
Yes, I mean, Guinevere described him as a charismatic loser. He had some gifts, a real animal cunning as he chose his followers. He would home in on people who had a vulnerability or weakness. After he got out of prison, he was a pimp and had that kind of skill of drawing someone in and making girls feel he saw and cared about them. He would also then be somewhat abusive and reject them, which would make them want his approval more. And he did that kind of giving people attention and then switching it off with both men and women to keep them off balance and maintain control over them. He was skilled, but he couldn’t function even outside society. Kind of feral, you know. And preying on these middle-class kids with his prison credibility, like, “I’ve suffered, you don’t know.” In the scene by the fire when he gets Sandra Good to take her clothes off, he says, “You all had childhoods, I didn’t have a childhood, I’m tougher, I’m more real, I know more.”
The other thing, when I was asking Guinevere about the script early on, I asked what the family members had in common. They all came from such different backgrounds, so there’s no common denominator you can say with any of them. Except that a number of them came from religious backgrounds or the church. Like Tex, from a Christian small town. He was playing on a thing as presenting himself as Jesus, playing into Christian mythology.
Joan Didion’s famous quote about how the ‘60s ended abruptly on the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, which you use to open Charlie Says, made me think about your films as encapsulations of decades: the hedonism of the ‘80s in American Psycho, the post-war puritanism of the ‘50s in The Notorious Bettie Page, and now the dissolution of the free-spirited ‘60s into the malaise of the ‘70s in Charlie Says. Is the decade a unit in which you often view history? Why analyze the past in this way?
I think so. I’m very interested in personal stories set against history and how history informs what happens. It’s not just their characters or emotions, it’s the way the time they’re living in has an impact and effect on them. And I’m particularly interested in that with women, being a woman [laughs] born in the second half of the 20th century. Women’s lives changed so unbelievably in the second half of the 20th century, more rapidly and more extraordinary changes than any other time in history. What decade you were born in really affected how your life might go in the 20th century, even the 21st century.
There’s a quote I love from Newsweek from November 2007 where they declared that “America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise.” Do you think that’s still true? Or have we moved on?
No, I don’t think we have at all. Even the war between Trump and the left, or progressives, is so much a battle that was happening in the ‘60s. Trump is such a throwback. And we’re still trying to convulse our way through this cultural civil war that opened up. But at the same time, the idea of the ‘60s looms, but there have been these great gains as well which are happening now. Ecology, civil rights, position of women, gay rights—all those battles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are still being worked through.
By coincidence, I read a Manson biography in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, and I’ve always viewed his rise through the lens of Manson. There are so many parallels—empowerment through submission, idolatry of an infallible strongman, a vindictive quest for fame and recognition that targets anyone in his way. Not to draw a complete parallel, but do you hear similar echoes?
Yeah, and it’s also that thing of finding weakness and being a bully, which is what Manson was. For sure.
Jeonju 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale
Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.
A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.
A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.
Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.
For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.
Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.
The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.
With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.
The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.
Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.
The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.
The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30
Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.
In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.
The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.
The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.
Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”
Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)
“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.
Interview: Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson Talk Come to Daddy
The actors and filmmaker discuss the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant Timpson is best known for his work as a producer of horror films, most notably the The ABCs of Death series. But if fortune favors the brave, then Timpson is poised to be recognized as a different kind of visionary for his first directorial feature, the anarchically constructed Come to Daddy, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival a few days ago. In the film, thirtysomething Norval (Elijah Wood) arrives at a secluded coastal home—which one character likens to a UFO from the ‘60s—to reconnect with his father. However, his dad (Stephen McHattie) consistently humiliates him, making Norval anxious to walk out on him, just as the old man walked out on Norval 30 years ago.
Of course, Come to Daddy has a few surprises in store for Norval and his father, as well as audiences. As Norval, Wood displays the same gusto for the gonzo that he’s brought to a recent string of action- and horror-driven genre films, most notably Wayne Kramer’s underseen Pawn Shop Chronicles and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake. And the actor is well-matched by McHattie, who brings to his role that same sense of snaky power that has defined some of his best work. While it’s almost a spoiler to say that Timpson’s film isn’t a two-hander, it’s best left to audiences to see how things play out between Norval and his pops.
In a conversation following Come to Daddy’s world premiere, Timpson, Wood, and McHattie discussed the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant, I’m curious to know about your relationship with your father?
Timpson: This whole film came about from the passing of my dad. I was there in front of him when he died. It was kind of traumatic. His partner thought it would be great to have a grieving process with his embalmed corpse in a coffin near us for a week. I wasn’t working on anything at the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone with him in the house all night. I was sleeping in his bed, wearing his pajamas, going down to look at him at night and thinking of unresolved things I should have said to him in life that I didn’t. During the rest of the week, people came and paid their respects, and they were telling stories I had never heard. I thought that was unusual, and wondered if I really knew everything about this man.
It was a beautiful, cathartic experience, but also, the way that my mind works, it started going to strange places. Suddenly life felt really short [laughs]. I thought that I need to fucking do what I should have been doing for the last 25 years, which is to go back to directing. This felt like the biggest kick in my ass of all time. But I had no script and I didn’t want to look around at shit. As a producer, I’m inundated with scripts. So why don’t I use this experience to come up with something? So, it became a tribute to my dad to make this film that we would have watched together when I was younger. We both loved British thrillers, character-based gritty dramas with a really dark sense of humor interlaced in them, chamber pieces like Sleuth.
I wrote to Toby Harvard and said that I had an idea based on what I had just gone through. I really want to make something, and I said that I was going to find the money and shoot it—maybe in the house where we were before it gets sold. He said that wasn’t a film I could find in my bank account [Elijah cackles], but that the idea is crazy good, so we kept going—coming up with amazing ways to keep it surprising. And it just evolved from there. Eventually, it got to a shape where I wanted to send it out and Elijah read it and soon we were off and running.
What about casting Stephen?
Timpson: I’ve been a lifelong fan of Stephens’s work. I’ve always found him super compelling on screen. He doesn’t need to say a word for me to emote. Those piercing eyes!
Stephen, what about your relationship with your father?
Stephen McHattie: My dad was blind and a miner. He lived way out in the country in Nova Scotia. He used to carry me on his shoulders to watch movies. He loved movies. I had no idea he was blind until I was six years old. We’d talk about the movies. I thought he could see them.
Timpson: So, you were his eyes?
McHattie: No! I thought he was watching them!
Timspon: But as a kid did you ever…communicate, if you can remember…
McHattie: Yeah, we would talk about the films.
Timpson: That is so cool.
McHattie: I was young, very young, and we would talk in a very elementary way. He would talk about what he enjoyed in them, so I was absolutely convinced he was watching them. Man, it was a shock to me when I realized he was blind.
So, Elijah, how are you going to top that?
Wood: I can’t top that. Yeah, I can’t top that! My parents were…I’m a product of divorce, which wasn’t uncommon. They divorced when I was 15. So, I was essentially estranged from my father for almost 20 years, a little bit over 20 years. I reconnected with him in my 30s.
Sounds like Come to Daddy.
Wood: [laughs] That’s kind of funny. Except I obviously knew my dad and extended family as well. It wasn’t quite the reunion that Norval experiences with his father.
There are some, let’s say, unsettling moments in the film. I like the deadpan tone. For one, the surreal situations are treated almost as perfectly ordinary. Could you speak to how you handle odd, uncomfortable, or strange moments in life?
McHattie: You try to figure it out, which is kind of the situation my character is in in the movie—trying to add things up and stay a little ahead of the game, but every situation is kind of a game if you look at it that way.
Wood: I think I take stuff at face value.
Timpson: Oh man, I’m like a moth to a flame.
Wood: You really are, actually! Your stories are crazy!
Timpson: I’m like a voyeur. Life is full of the mundane, so when anything strange happens, I’m going to soak it up and absorb it. Otherwise, you’re walking through a banal haze.
Wood: Fuck, yeah!
Timpson: Not that I want to be directly involved in it—I’m not that brave—but I want to take it all in and I’ll process it later, and it will pop up somewhere else down the line.
Wood: You’ve had a series of extraordinary things happen to you.
Timpson: When I tell crazy stories about stuff that happens in my life and people say, “That’s really unusual,” but I think it’s normal.
Wood: Right. Weird is so subjective. It’s different. When it’s something happening to you, it may not seem as odd.
Timpson: And I amplify stuff…
Wood: …in the telling of the story?
Timpson: Yeah, I like telling stories. Otherwise, it’s like, “I went and bought a glass of Coke and sat down.” You’ve got to give the audience something! [Wood laughs]
For Stephen and Elijah, how did you calibrate your performances? I love the tensions that play out between your characters. What observations do you have about the transformations both of your characters go through—because they are extreme.
McHattie: I was trying to be true to his drunkenness. I’ve always found that hard to play—and hard to watch. I was trying to keep him drunk, to give him a hurdle to cross when he was trying to interpret things.
Wood: That’s great.
McHattie: He’s got a [fog] he has to get through to get to the “What is going on here?”
Timpson: Yeah, you do that so well. He’s asking you, demanding stuff from you and you’re like, “Oh man, I haven’t got it!”
Wood: He looks so hungover, it’s so painful! But there’s an internal thing happening with each character that the other character isn’t aware of. Norval has this whole life he’s coming from that his dad doesn’t know about. Norval has expectations of him and he has a whole secret life that Norval isn’t aware of. So, it’s what’s happening in between based on these two people’s own internal life that’s the kind of the kinetic meat. That dynamic is established because these two people are existing in their own spheres, wanting something from the other—or not.
Yes, the phone call for example. Both of your characters guzzle wine hungrily. They also lie on occasion. On what occasions do you lie? Or do you lie to protect yourself?
Wood: I can’t lie. I find lying impossible and really difficult for me. It was drilled into me from a young age, or maybe it was just in the fabric I was born with, but it’s very hard for me to be dishonest.
Did something happen as a child?
Wood: No, it was never [anything in particular]. I never used it to manipulate or try to get something. That’s fine. Everyone is figuring out as a kid what their boundaries are, and what they’re capable of, and what they can get away with. And certainly, everyone goes through it. For me, dishonesty wasn’t a part of that. I remember I ate peanuts at a supermarket, and I thought I’d stolen something. I had a complex about it. Less so now.
McHattie: When I was a kid, I had a great ability and tendency to elaborate on stories and just bullshit my way through everything. I had a brother who was about 10 years older than me, and he was a banker. My dad had died, and my mom said to my brother, “You’ve got to do something about him.” He would do a catechism with me on everything I said, calling me out on being a liar.
McHattie: I have a hard time with lying. He was a little brutal.
Ant, I want to ask about the film’s distinctive style, which is claustrophobic even in the widest spaces. How did you land on your visual approach?
Timpson: I used to talk to cinephile friends, and we used to ask first-time directors shooting film with anamorphic lenses that don’t require them, “Why are you using anamorphic in a haunted house? Get out of here! Where’s the claustrophobia in that?” But I wanted the character to feel isolated in the frame more than anything and I felt if we were boxed, it wouldn’t be as impressive a canvas in terms of really making them feel as small and as insignificant as possible. It gives you different things to play with, and in a film where you shift gears, it’s nice to have those framing things that hint at what might be coming. I found it freeing.
Wood: You can be very claustrophobic with anamorphic. Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s isolation in those wide frames. You put something small in those frames and they feel more isolated and alone.
The characters make some foolish or perhaps bad decisions. What are your thoughts about regrets, or bad ideas or decisions you’ve made?
Wood: I don’t know if I have any regrets. We are a combination of all of our life experiences in the present and I wouldn’t take away the choices, right or wrong that I’ve made, because I’m happy with who I am and where I am now. It’s all part of the fabric of who we are. We are the combination of those choices.
McHattie: Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I don’t have any regrets, except…actually, no.
The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming
Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”
The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.
There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”
The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.
With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
“The Agnés Varda Collection”
The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.
“Directed by Vera Chytilova”
For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.
“The Kids Aren’t All Right”
In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.
Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki
Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.
Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.
“Observations on Film Art”
Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.
Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.
Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)
In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.
Sign up for the Criterion Channel here.
Interview: Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow and the Ferocity of Rudolf Nureyev
Fiennes discusses his affinity for Russian culture and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
English actor Ralph Fiennes moved with great ease from performing on the London stage, mostly as a Shakespeare interpreter, to the world of film, winning early acclaim for his performance as a sadistic Nazi prison commandant in Schindler’s List. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s film, and again for his soulful turn in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Fiennes possesses an innate gift for creating intimacy between himself and his co-stars, which he channeled into his first film as a director in 2011, an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which he shortly followed up with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 novel The Invisible Woman.
Fiennes’s latest film as a director is The White Crow, the first biopic about Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. The title refers to the name the young Nureyev was given in school when he was growing up, identifying him as the odd one out among his fellow classmates. Starring Ukrainian-born dancer Oleg Ivenko as the adult Nureyev (and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin), the film, based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2011 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, switches back and forth between the dancer’s childhood in the central Russian city of Ufa, his student days in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and Paris, where he made his dramatic defection to the West in 1961.
In a recent conversation, Fiennes discussed the making of The White Crow, his affinity for Russian culture, and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
What drew you to tell the story of Rudolf Nureyev’s life on screen?
Julie [Kavanagh] sent me the first five chapters of her book in proof copy—about 1999 I think it was. At the time, I had no conscious desire to direct. I just thought this was an extraordinary story. I didn’t have the other chapters to finish until later when the book was published, but it sat with me. Some years later, I had made two films and producer Gabrielle Tana—she has a background in ballet—asked if I wanted to move forward on this for a film. It was then that we approached David Hare to write it.
Why did you approach Hare specifically?
I know David is very good at writing what I call provocative, high-definition characters. I knew he relishes writing with wit and compassion. Also, his instinct about the world and the social political context in which dramas can happen is very strong. I love his plays, but I think he’s a brilliant screenwriter. He loves film, and he thinks very filmicly. He said he remembered reading the biography and it moved him very much. He completely got pleasure out of the size of Nureyev’s character—his vulnerabilities and then his ego.
I thought of this as the story of the emergent young Nureyev. David was interested in the Paris aspect and I came advocating the Russian background. We both felt that we wanted to explore it in a nonlinear way, with three different time frames interacting, jostling against each other. We wanted this exciting dynamic as you go from one time frame to the next.
I’m curious if you have an affinity for all things Russian?
It’s an affinity and a curiosity, and something of an infatuation, which I recognize is sometimes a bit naïve, because Russia is complicated and not an easy country in so many ways. But I’ve been there over the years, and I actually made a film in Russia in 2013: Two Women, directed by Vera Glagoleva, an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. There’s a connective warmth I feel from the people and a shared interest in Russian culture. I guess life takes you somewhere and you make connections and want to continue keeping them. Sometimes there are things, you know, that politically are disturbing and hard to accept. There are definitely worrying things that go on in the way the state curates its artists. But I have these friendships there and I’ve had experiences that I felt to be very rewarding.
But the Russian ballet stuff was a whole new thing. I came to this story because of the ferocity of who Nureyev needed to be. That was compelling to me, like some Greek story, of a kind of god-man who challenges the gods. I responded to it in some kind of Jungian way, I suppose. And then I had to get to grips with the ballet. And that was scary, out of my comfort zone. I had to do major immersion and surround myself with people advising me on it.
Did you specifically want to cast a dancer in the role of Nureyev?
I wanted it to be authentic and shoot it in the Russian and the French language. So, I wanted a Russian in the lead. And I started to feel very strongly that it should be an unknown person that the audience couldn’t project any baggage onto. I wanted a face that was totally new. I knew if I was going to get a dancer, I wouldn’t have the resources to do face replacement or body doubling. I could see my head spinning, being taken up by these technical challenges. So, I thought if I could get a dancer who could act, that would be great. My producer asked, “Should we not get an actor?” And I said that if I did, the moment they raise their arm or something, the world is going to know. This is Nureyev, so he’s got to have it in his body. And also, the way dancers carry themselves, the whole way they’re formed, is different. So, I thought I just couldn’t make a film about a leading dancer and not have a dancer.
Anyway, we set a big casting sweep through the Russian-speaking ballet world and Oleg was very quickly on the list. He has a real ease about him when he’s in front of the camera. I had to guide him a little bit into my sense of Nureyev’s attitude—his hauteur, and that slightly “fuck you” quality in his demeanor. Oleg is very smiley and lovely and warm, but he got it very quickly. He weirdly had an experienced actor’s confidence. In fact, some experienced actors are full of nerves on their first day of a new film. I know I’ve been full of nerves. With Oleg, maybe it’s because he didn’t know what he had to be afraid of. He didn’t come with an actor’s ambition, asking, “What if I fail, what if don’t succeed,” all the wrong crap that you put in your head. He just said, “I’m very lucky I’m here,” and it gave him a sort of openness and flexibility.
What about you taking on the role of Nureyev’s ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin?
I wanted to have a Russian actor playing Pushkin, but there was a point where the commercial element came in. It was a Russian producer who said to me, “Ralph, if you’re going to get Russian money in your film, why are you not in it?”
You sound very fluent when you speak Russian in the film.
Well, I had to work very hard to achieve that. I had made a film before in Russian. My Russian is quite limited, actually, but it wasn’t alien to me. I can assimilate a new word relatively quickly because I have a little foothold in the language. But also, now there’s the magic of modern technology. I would run off like 20 of the same vowel sounds with my Russian teacher and the Russian sound editor going, “No, no, no, yes, no, no, yes”—and then they would pick the best one. You can literally stitch it in because the sound technology is so sophisticated. It mattered to me that to Russian ears it was plausible. Even so, I think I’ve got a slight accent.
Do you think Pushkin was aware of his wife’s affair with Nureyev?
Well, no one knows what he thought about it. Julie actually gave me all the tapes of the interviews with the people she met in her research and there’s one person who says it was clear that Pushkin’s wife, Xenia, had a predilection for young male dancers. And Pushkin seemed to accept this. There are people who say that he may himself have been gay. But the two of them had a very strong marriage and very strong bond.
Pushkin’s whole world was the dance. He came from a very humble background and was sort of a self-cultivated man. He was a dancer before he went into teaching in the mid to late 1930s. He was known to be incredibly sensitive and very, very kind. And quiet. He was loved, and he obviously got results. His whole mode of teaching—people say that he would just look and make a comment and allow the dancers to discover and correct their mistakes themselves. There is an interview with the older Nureyev saying that every time Pushkin gave you a combination of steps, it all made sense. Pushkin was very protective of Nureyev. People thought he gave Rudolf too much attention.
Almost like he was in love with him?
I think a bit, yeah.
Is directing movies something you now wish to pursue more than acting?
I know I need a bit of time to find the next thing. What I love about directing is that another part of my brain is being challenged. I love the interaction and the people who are there to help me realize something and, indeed, bring their own talent and artistic ideas to the table. It was thrilling talking with David about creating the piece, and then putting it together with a cinematographer, and then the editor. And then the actors—I just love the process of nurturing a process with an actor. I find it rewarding to see how a character can evolve. I think a lot about Anthony Minghella. Of all the directors I worked with, he was the one who gave a lot of time to actors and was most curious about what actors would reveal. He’s often in my head as a sort of spiritual mentor.
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s release, we ranked the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
21. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
20. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
19. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Interview: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey into Night As a Technological Experience
The Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.
Even before the hour-long take that makes up its second half, Bi Gan’s shapeshifting noir epic Long Day’s Journey into Night displays the kind of filmmaking prowess that’s better seen than talked about. Nevertheless, it was an honor to speak briefly with the 29-year-old auteur—albeit over the phone, and with the help of an interpreter—about how his life has changed in the wake of his staggering first two features. To discern a single clue into Bi’s notion of cinema—which is influenced by poetry, literature, painting, still photography, and real life—feels like a small victory, and the Chinese filmmaker himself appears not to suffer any pressure to separate the experience of the film from his own visual ideas.
Tell me about the release of Long Day’s Journey into Night in China. On social media, I got the impression the film had been mis-marketed as a romantic comedy, and made a lot of money the first weekend.
China is still not as mature as the United States in terms of how movies are marketed. Even though this is an art film, they still had to present it like a commercial film, and I didn’t think too much about how I wanted to release the film. They were coming up with interesting ways to release it, one of which was spinning it as a romantic film. A lot of couples went to see it and got something else entirely: an art film. There was an uproar. They felt they had been duped into seeing a different type of movie. But even though it was released as a commercial film and made quite a lot of money in its first weekend, I’m very proud of the way it was released. A lot of the audiences had never seen a film like that and may never again. I’m very happy it was their first time seeing that type of movie.
Whether the film made money or not, it’s going to be very difficult for me to find investors for my next project. I make a very specific type of movie and I probably won’t be able to make a more commercial film now that people know who I am, and the vision I want to work with. It doesn’t translate to easy investment, and it doesn’t change the kinds of movies I want to make. I will not be making more linear or commercial films.
My films are released at Cannes, or the New York Film Festival, but it doesn’t make a difference in China. Even though people understand that the films are showing internationally, they don’t really see the importance of it that much. The good news is that within China right now, the investment market is very healthy. If you have a decent script and vision, people may be willing to invest. I’m very lucky because I have a group of people as a base, at least, who have always been interested in my kind of work. But just to be clear, Long Day’s Journey into Night cost so much that I had to look elsewhere for investment.
Weren’t there changes made between Cannes and the film’s North American premiere, at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Normally when I finish a film, I can spend some time breaking it down and deciding the rhythm, but because I needed to make the cut in time for Cannes, the version we had there was the “finished” version. After Cannes, my team and I decided to carefully watch the film again and I wanted to simplify it a little bit more. Even though it was there, I wanted to cut down the dreamlike quality and make it more of a love story between Huang Jue and Tang Wei.
What’s it like being in Kaili now that you’re a world-renowned art-house filmmaker?
At home, they see me as an artist, but they don’t understand how; in their eyes, art is mostly painting. They’re slowly understanding filmmakers can be artists. In Kaili itself, they’re quite proud of the fact I’m from their town. Now, when people see me on the street they recognize me and they tell me they like my films, even though I suspect they don’t like them, or don’t understand them. The next question is always, “When are you going to make something a little bit more commercial?” And the answer is always: “I’m going to try.” [laughs]
Some colleagues of mine have complained that the film is actually too virtuosic for its own good—like, the camerawork is so dazzling it’s distracting. How conscious do you want the audience to be of the elaborate choreography that goes into a take like this?
Because of the way we all watch movies now, when we walk into a theater we know we’re about to get a technological experience, whether it’s an art-house film or a big-budget Hollywood film. Everyone is aware to some degree of the process of filmmaking. So, with my long scenes, I’m not trying to be meta about the camerawork. I want people to see it as part of the film instead of a distraction or a special moment for the audience. A lot of my friends, when they see the long take, they don’t understand how it was shot, but they understand it’s dreamy. I want the audiences to get lost. I want them to disappear into it.
The shots required so much prep that my thinking became purely technical. Every shot was about getting to the next shot. The stress of shooting those scenes is actually approaching PTSD for me. But now that I can watch it with an audience, I enjoy it.
I saw the film in a couple different contexts, but audiences always laugh at the moment in the theater where the screen goes dark. Everyone puts on the 3D glasses, and the title of the film comes up—over an hour into the movie. Is it supposed to be hilarious?
When I was writing the script, I knew that was going to be a funny moment. Back in the day, when you watched 3D movies, there would be a slate telling people to put on the glasses. As a collective experience I always knew that was gonna be a big laugh.
Translation by Steven Wong
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love
Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels
Review: Rage 2 Brings the Flair, but It Barely Fills Its Open World
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 6, “The Iron Throne”
Blu-ray Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth on the Criterion Collection
Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows
Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study
Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy
- TV7 days ago
Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”
- Music7 days ago
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
- Music5 days ago
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love
- Film5 days ago
Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels