There’s one word that sums up the World Wide Web: huge. Faced with the Internet’s exponentially expansive growth and sprawling heterogeneity, every other generalization comes up short. Though the all-too-familiar “death of film criticism” polemics prefer to frame the current era in terms of (degraded) quality, the truly epochal shift in digital-age criticism is a function of quantity: total media saturation and head-spinning content overload.
Mid-century cinephilia offered its transatlantic disciples something that, for the other fine arts, had reached its breaking point in the Modernist period: a canon that could be mastered in its entirety by an individual consciousness. If you subscribed to a dozen or so of the “right” periodicals and faithfully patronized the art-house premieres and repertory revivals of London, Paris, or New York (or, later, San Francisco and Los Angeles), you could quite literally see everything that was considered worth seeing and read all the critics thought to be worth reading. This culture, of course, was built on a kind of artificial scarcity: the back catalogues of film history were just starting to be excavated and archived, much of world cinema was off the Western radar, and most of the accomplished criticism published in student newspapers, mid-sized metropolitan dailies, and underground film journals went largely unnoticed. The last two decades have yielded so much to cinephilia—from digital archives and movie-review clearinghouses to TCM and Netflix—but the surfeit has taken at least one thing away: the illusion of all-encompassing critical authority. The spirit of encyclopedic completism embodied in, say, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema seems more anachronistic by the day. There are just too many films to see and (more to the point) too many smart writers to compete with.
So where do we get off appointing ourselves the selection committee for the top film criticism sites? If that strikes you as a little presumptuous, you’re totally right. Though not “meaningless,” the selections below are meaningful only in a contingent, puzzle-piece sort of way. There are plenty of sites that could just as easily have made the cut: Arbogast on Film, Buzz Buzz, Chronicle of a Passion, Cinema Style, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, The Crop Duster, DVD Savant, Elusive Lucidity, The Independent Eye, Movie Morlocks, New Deal Sally, Rightwing Film Geek, Shooting Down Pictures, Theo’s Century of Movies, Zero for Conduct, plus a dozen others we could name off the top of our heads—and who knows how many more that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the thing: while we could have billed the selections as “43 Semi-Randomly Selected but Genuinely Distinguished Film Criticism Sites,” that meme just doesn’t trend as well (#awkward). To tantalizingly mislabel the headline above and then clarify the stakes here in the introduction seemed like the best compromise, in a lie-that-tells-the-truth sort of way.
The blog roll has become the defining trope of critical exchange in the early Internet era: its network of laterally enmeshed connections quite literally defines “the Web.” But the long, scrolling lists of hyperlinked sites are easily overwhelming. Jumping into a random blog midstream is often disorienting. And if you’re already the kind of person who actively seeks out intelligent film criticism, your reading queue is no doubt pretty full. But maybe you’d like to refine your short-list of go-to sites, match your favorite venues against a few others in a Darwinian death-match—because how else are your tastes going to expand and evolve?
Our goal here is to make that process as easy and efficient as possible. For every URL included, one of our crack contributors has come up with an elegantly pithy synopsis of the critical style and obsessively revisited subjects that define the spirit of the site. When you’ve found a couple of capsules that pique your interest, bookmark them at the top of your browser and click over when you have some downtime. Try to have patience if the writer’s personality doesn’t immediately hook you. Just as in real life, the person who at first strikes you as slightly boring may later become your best friend forever. So give it a week or two of casual browsing; peruse the backlog of posts by subject tags; linger in the comments sections. Every writer has his own rhythms, her own hidden wellsprings of ideas and emotions, and sometimes it takes some up-front effort to tune in to that. The more you put in, the more you get out.
The projects included here span a wide range of genres: digital film journals, multi-writer theme sites, side projects of film studies academics, digital outreach by professional print reviewers, and, above all, the personal blogs of unpaid enthusiasts. Our only criteria for inclusion were that (a) posts must be written primarily in the English language and (b) the content must be specifically produced for online consumption. The selections are unranked and in randomly generated order (our highly sophisticated algorithm is modeled loosely on the perennial schoolyard favorite MASH).
For years now, Internet film critics have been relentlessly dumped on by many (but by no means all) in the legacy media. Though they’ve gotten little in the way of social recognition or financial compensation, cinephile bloggers have filled in the gaps of mainstream review coverage, corralled hard-to-find source materials, enriched cinema’s theoretical vocabularies and historical narratives, and shared their personal obsessions in often fascinating, hilarious, and deeply affecting ways. I feel personally privileged and just really fucking happy to shine a light on their work—all of them life-affirming examples of democratic participation and humanizing cultural exchange. —Paul Brunick
Classical Hollywood fetishism has found a most enchanting ambassador. Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren turns the articulation of cliché and convention into a sport—no surprise she’s chosen melodrama as her champion underdog and counts Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk among her favorite directors. A witty, working mother of three (the blog originated during afternoon naptime), the Siren is a unique and refreshing voice in a field often prone to nostalgic vacuity or esoteric one-upmanship. An “Anecdote of the Week” feature showcases her extensive bibliographic endeavors. Her obituaries are the most dependably poetic on the scene. Whether dusting off forgotten gems and industry players or providing fresh analysis on the already canonical, the Siren speaks with the grit, gumption, and savvy of the pre-Code ladies she so admires. Her extensive research is a valuable corollary to the Hollywood Babylon school of salacious folklore; not that the blog is without juice (delicious bon mots care of her beloved George Sanders) or mysticism (a reverential moment of silence for Charles Boyer’s “incomparable way with a hat”). The Siren abandoned anonymity upon co-programming a series for TCM, but lifting the veil, in true Merry Widow style, has only furthered the blossoming of her appeal: a recent blogathon hosted in association with the National Film Preservation Foundation has raised $13,500 and counting. Not only is the Siren the best film geek friend you ever had but an increasingly powerful force. —Brynn White
No one embodies cinephilia in the Internet age better than the pseudonymous Acquarello (aka Pascual Espiritu), a self-described “NASA flight systems design engineer” who single-handedly creates all the content for Strictly Film School. Unapologetically auteurist in design, Strictly Film School’s biggest draw is its jaw-droppingly extensive Director’s Database that boasts over 500 names, from canonical faves like Chantal Akerman and Pedro Almodóvar to the less known (but no less worthy) Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Lisandro Alonso—and that’s just scratching the surface of the As. The directory doesn’t offer bios but instead concise capsules whose brevity is belied by their insights. While online platforms offer practically limitless writing space, Acquarello’s economical and precise prose is something to treasure. And for those looking to venture beyond auteurism, Strictly Film School offers the option to browse reviews by genres (of the academic sort: “Neo-Expressionism,” “Cinema Verité”), themes (“Generational Conflict,” “Aging/Obsolescence/Death”), and images (“Chromatic Shifts—State of Consciousness, Existential Realm” being my personal favorite). “Film-Related Reading Notes” on recently browsed print matter and a “Film Fest Journal” tops off this exhaustively (and exhaustingly) comprehensive site. If only real film schools were as informative and passionate as Strictly Film School. —Cullen Gallagher
In the distant future—when we are nothing more than incorporeal abstractions coded into the algorithmic consciousness of a virtual singularity, or blue-skinned, loin-clothed power-forwards cybersexing flora and fauna with our FireWire pony tails, or whatever!—I sincerely hope that our post-organic nervous systems will occasionally light up to the archived index of Diagonal Thoughts. Media and culture aficionado Stoffel Debuysere, a member of Belgium’s Courtisane collective and co-programmer of its film and video festival, maintains a dense and diligently curated collection of “notes on seeing and being, sound and image, media and memory.” The site presents fresh, often mind-bending findings drawn from the worlds of neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, computer science, cultural studies, and (of course) the cinema. Collating quotations from innumerable sources, Debuysere is much more than a mere cut-and-paster—the rhetorical patchwork of interviews, articles, and program note snippets have a synthetic brilliance all their own, further gilded with Debuysere’s original observations and erudite commentary. Alongside his interest in new media’s ontological collision with human cognition and perceptual reality is a stalwart passion for old-school avant-garde celluloid (lovingly categorized as “Indeterminate Cinema”); recent “Artists in Focus” have included Guy Sherwin, David Gatten, and Morgan Fisher. Tracking the intersecting vectors of technological and aesthetic evolution, Diagonal Thoughts is nothing less than the cinephile’s survival guide for the 21st century. —Jesse P. Finnegan
Rumsey Taylor was reared in the hinterlands of rural Kentucky, nurtured by VHS rentals and late-night cable TV. It’s fitting that he would go on to found Not Coming to a Theater Near You, an ambitious online resource for reevaluations of forgotten and fringe cinema. Taylor’s prowess as an editor lies in an innate ability to skirt both irreverent fan-boy pitfalls and highfalutin postgrad navel-gazing; the writing remains doggedly non-academic while retaining a sharp populism and simple elegance often lacking in similar niche sites. Not Coming increased its profile in 2009 by partnering with the NYC revival venue at 92YTribeca, where editors and contributors present public screenings of rare and controversial classics. The site sets itself apart through its assemblage of talented contributors, many of whom are able up-and-comers in New York’s criticism and repertory programming scenes. In addition to reviews, Not Coming offers independent festival coverage, interviews with significant figures in alternative cinema and criticism (filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, animator Don Hertzfeldt, and New Yorker film editor Richard Brody were all recent respondents), as well as comprehensive essays on intriguingly obscure subjects. A recent piece analyzed the rogue cinephilia of underground video mixtapes, most of which are of questionable legal status. It’s rare to find such subjects spotlighted with so much eloquence, and it’s with essays like this that the site really scores. —Benjamin Shapiro
Acidemic is to be experienced more than summarized. While founder Erich Kuersten will write on oft-discussed blogosphere subjects—down-and-dirty horror pics, Seventies cinema of both mainstream and marginal varieties—these often serve as launching pads for loose-limbed meditations on cultural mores, youth nostalgia or, well, whatever else he wants to talk about. Kuersten’s runaway-train sentence structure and off-the-cuff humor result in some singular insights. (From an appreciation of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian: “The Thulsa Doom serpent cult in the film was a perfect analogy for the hippie movement, with its focus on converting young people to blood orgies and training them to kill their parents…For kids wondering why they weren’t growing up drowned in orgies like their older brothers in the 1970s, [it] was the perfect demonization tool.”) But following the snaking paths of his musings proves quite rewarding, not least for the way he intertwines the analytical with the personal. In a defense of Lindsay Lohan, for instance, Kuersten (who has written about his struggles with alcohol) both calls out the public’s gender bias and then offers the oft-soused starlet some AA-inspired solidarity. Full of freewheeling insights, Acidemic gives seemingly familiar material an idiosyncratic spin. —Matthew Connolly
At first glance, there’s something intimidating about Michael Sicinski’s website, with its spare design and unadorned capsules of small-print Times New Roman. But as Sicinski’s ever-increasing fan base will attest, appearances can be deceiving. While he may indeed be an academic (he has a background in visual art and teaches university film courses), there’s nothing dry about his writing. Sicinski specializes in avant-garde film—there’s no other critic I know of who can make some of cinema’s most challenging works sound downright inviting—but he writes about Hollywood and art cinema with equal passion, humor, and clarity. His short-form reviews waste not a word; as the father of a young child, he doesn’t have the time to spare. Whether he’s unpacking complicated films with astonishing insight, defending a misunderstood triumph, or tearing down a seemingly unassailable critical favorite, Sicinski’s voice is one of almost scary intelligence—but it’s never haughty or condescending. His writing challenges accepted opinions and inspires reflection and investigation. You can’t ask for much more from a critic. —Matt Noller
Spartan and straightforward, the online magazine Undercurrent gets by without the hard sell—and that’s no small matter. A labor of love founded by Chris Fujiwara in 2006, Undercurrent is a quintessential small magazine, posting only one or two issues a year yet greatly enriching the world of film criticism. The site has done especially sharp and enjoyable work in the single-theme tribute format: a special section on John Ford, an homage to Danièle Huillet. Fujiwara, an occasional Film Comment contributor and author of several perceptive critical studies (on Tourneur, Preminger, and Jerry Lewis), says that he sees the project partly as “a magazine about film criticism.” Under the aegis of FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics), the journal’s focus and cosmopolitan character seem fitting, but it’s a real credit to Fujiwara’s editorial hand that Undercurrent transcends professional insiderism. Fujiwara, who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Tokyo for the past three years, says he seeks to steer the journal toward examination of the critical scenes in countries outside North America and Europe, and spur more thinking on “the theory and practice of criticism, the ways it gets written and read, in practical terms, and what critics’ goals and ideals are.” —Paul Fileri
With its wealth of screen grabs direct from their DVD or Blu-Ray sources, Gary Tooze’s DVD Beaver is the go-to site for home-cinema perfectionists. From bit-rate analyses and run-time certifications to examinations of aspect ratios and image formatting, Beaver’s orgy of tech specs is a cinephilic wet dream. As the next-generation heir to Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog (see separate entry), Tooze has maintained pressure on home-video distributors to keep raising the bar of image and audio quality. Particularly revealing are side-by-side comparisons of a single title’s competing regional releases, in which the often staggering differences in transfer quality have to be seen to be believed. For such reasons, Beaver is both a major advocate of owning a multi-region player and a consumer-reports resource for sorting through the various models. Though reviews can get lost in the sea of advertising necessary to support the independently owned and operated site, once a user gains a little familiarity with the layout, staying updated is easy (and addictive): from the “What’s New” and “Release Calendar” sections to the conversely complementary “Criterions Going Out of Print” alerts. While the site currently focuses on technical evaluations, Tooze applies his unique analytical voice to auteurist critiques in the “Director’s Chair” section and shows off his genre smarts in the “Definitive Film Noir on DVD” resource page. —Ben Simington
At once a secret history of radical cinema and a secret history of radicals in the cinema, Kino Slang is as much about politics as film. Andy Rector’s selections of text and image capture the moments when history seeps through moving pictures in spite of themselves, revealing for a trembling instant the politics underlying their representation. There’s no preferred “genre” here other than authenticity; posts might combine images and texts from Pedro Costa with Kenji Mizoguchi or from Jean-Marie Straub with Charles Burnett. As an attempt to excavate the 20th-century political projects that have structured the history of cinema, Kino Slang is often oblique but no less essential for that. Like the flickering images of Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat or the tombstones of John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, Rector isolates the outliers, those critical voices in the wilderness, and assembles them into a unified trajectory of what might have been—and could be still. Rector’s compilation of discrete cultural moments does more than unearth forgotten episodes of (film) history. More than the sum of its parts, Kino Slang’s posts cumulatively comprise their very own histoire(s)—of cinema, of politics, and of personal artistic commitment. —Dave McDougall
Northwestern University professor Jeffery Sconce has devoted his career to the scholarly probing of seedy cinematic underbellies: exploitation flicks, televised trash, and various cult phenomena. Sconce’s blog, billed as “An Index of Co-Morbid Symptoms,” skims lurid treasures off the cesspool of mass media with a timeliness that a critical anthology or symposium could never provide. Ludic’s robust, readable, and topical-to-the-week epistles are distinguished by Sconce’s spry intellectual vigor and playfully acerbic (or acerbically playful) curiosity, not to mention his laser-guided insights and pitch-perfect wit. Speculating as to why the incubators of Avatar seemed so compelled to weigh down a would-be romp with the cement shoes of a “message movie,” Sconce hypothesizes: “Perhaps this stems from a sense of guilt—if someone is going to spend this much money on a film, it should do more than simply grind Cool Ranch Doritos into the spectator’s eyes for two hours.” Dusting off all manner off sub-pop pap and B-grade tawdriness from decades past, Ludic also offers analytical treatises on contemporary concerns: a memorandum on our growing fascination with mall cops; a fiery deflation of the “Balloon Boy” media circus; a dialectical account of the death of “the teenager,” prompted by England’s adoption of the anti-loitering gizmo “the mosquito.” No matter the moving-image netherworlds Sconce navigates, the self-evident absurdity (which would be enough for most cultural commentators) is only the starting point—Sconce’s explications may be funny, but they’re far from a joke. And if you’re still waiting for the definitive appraisal of oddball icon Clint Howard, your day has arrived. —Jesse P. Finnegan
In a media environment that rewards snark, however joyless, Dennis Cozzalio is an affable and refreshing voice. A father of two who came of age in the heyday of New Hollywood, Cozzalio’s cinematic reference points run as broad and deep as any salaried movie reviewer; but unlike the professionals, who are often required to waste spleen on films toward which they feel indifferent or hostile, Cozzalio has the luxury of focusing on the movies he actually enjoys. In practice this means that the content is delightfully varied: reviews of new releases, coverage of repertory events in the Los Angeles area, nostalgic looks back at trashy gems that won’t even play on cable. As someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of the guilty pleasure, Cozzalio doesn’t approach the “lowbrow” with caustic irony or overcompensating veneration; the oeuvre of Joe Dante is treated on its own terms. Since Cozzalio has a day job, updates can be sporadic, but uninhibited by space limitations or word count, his posts are lengthy and well-illustrated with images. Most impressive, as any dedicated digi-critic will tell you, is the community of commenters and fellow bloggers that have responded to Cozzalio’s work: their robust and insightful engagement lives up to Wired magazine’s Web utopianism. —Violet Lucca
Glenn Kenny was once a respected critic and editor for Premiere until he became a casualty of capitalism’s war on journalism. Now he finds himself online doing exactly what he wants, no longer beholden to deadlines and column inches. Not that he’s totally happy about that. Kenny has always been ambivalent about the position online criticism holds in the cultural discourse. When he’s at his best, though, he navigates the cyber landscape with the ease of any “digital native” youngster. A regular highlight of his site are the entries on DVD and Blu-Ray releases wherein he scopes out oft-obscure corners of the market for beautiful transfers of forgotten classics. And serious lovers of film criticism can appreciate Kenny’s regular lambasting of his two favorite punching bags, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells and the New York Press’s Armond White. —Evan Davis
Writing with a Bordwellian clarity and analytical rigor that’s perfect for unpacking the components of cinematic form, Benjamin Wright’s site is a fount of smart discourse on modern film aesthetics. Topics range from the character of Michael Mann’s close-ups to speculation on the almost-projects of great directors, but Wright (a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa) perhaps shines brightest when discussing his dissertation topic: sound in modern movies. His essays delve into the ways in which technology and industrial economics shape our experience of the oft-ignored aural aspects of the films we see (and hear), always taking care to initiate sonic laypeople with generous explanations of technical terms. It may sound a little (gasp!) academic, but Wright’s thoughtful enthusiasm guides you gracefully through the intricacies of, say, the narrative functions of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores or inside-baseball debates on 5.1 versus 10.2 surround sound systems. Wright has recently been considering the implications of 3-D, particularly with regard to how it might alter the soundscape of feature films. The intelligence and equanimity with which Wright treats this much-discussed topic alone makes Wright on Film a valuable resource. Best of luck with the dissertation, Benjamin, but make sure to keep the posts coming! —Matthew Connolly
Under the stewardship of editor-in-chief Dennis Lim, Moving Image Source has quickly become one of the most consistently engaging critical voices on the Web, offering a versatile platform for its home institution (Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image) to explore classic and contemporary cinema in all its international variety. Bridging the gap between serious criticism and scholarship, the journal is noteworthy not only for its consistently insightful prose and wide-ranging subjects—often pegged to important film exhibitions—but for its regular inclusion of video essays, an exciting emergent format that has been pioneered by frequent contributors Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz. In its two years online, the publication has thrived on a cinephilic passion open to many different tastes and approaches, with subjects ranging from the art of cinematography to the aesthetics of early video games, from established filmmakers like Wes Anderson to more obscure figures such as Yasmin Ahmad. In addition to top-notch criticism, the sleekly designed website features an exhaustive but easily navigable list of online resources for cinema-related research, a calendar highlighting the most significant film events around the world, and an audio treasure trove of MOMI’s Pinewood Dialogues with film and TV luminaries. —Andrew Chan
Continuing Artforum’s tradition of film writing begun in the late Sixties by such luminaries as Annette Michelson and Manny Farber, the film blog at Artforum.com also gives space to a wider range of subjects than the print publication and more reflections from a welcome roster of critical voices including James Quandt, Amy Taubin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ed Halter, Nicolas Rapold, Melissa Anderson, Andrew Hultkrans, Michael Joshua Rowin, and more. Artforum’s pristinely designed outpost places the cinema beat alongside a news digest and links to both its “critics’ picks” section and the Scene & Herd diary, which offers a plethora of photos from exhibition openings and parties. New York remains a persistent locus of attention, but current online editor David Velasco says he aims to keep “multiple venues and topics in the mix.” Recent reports have been filed on screenings of Pancho Villa-centered documentaries by Gregorio Rocha and Félix and Edmundo Padilla at L.A.’s REDCAT experimental film theater, and an exhibition of works by Ryan Trecartin, Peter Campus, Sharon Lockhart, and Joachim Koester at The Power Plant contemporary art gallery in Toronto. At its best, Artforum.com reports and reflects the ways in which the world of cinema and the contemporary art scene increasingly commingle and cross-fertilize. —Paul Fileri
In the world of online film publications, Film-Philosophy qualifies as a firmly entrenched fixture. Begun as an e-mail list in 1996, this first-generation, U.K.-based enterprise has cultivated a small but focused international readership, helping to renew interest in thinkers who yoke together philosophy and film, from Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell to Henri Bergson and Hugo Münsterberg. Founder and academic Daniel Frampton has since collected his long-gestating reflections in an ambitious 2006 book Filmosophy (a work whose cumbersome title has perhaps unsurprisingly failed to catch on), turning over stewardship of the site to current managing editor David Sorfa. “We have special issues coming up on disgust and on animation,” Sorfa said [in the fall of 2009]. “One theme that runs through many of the recently published articles is the question of what it might mean for films to ’do’ philosophy themselves (rather than merely act as examples of prior philosophical theses).” That’s a major challenge, and it’s been most recently met by an issue devoted to Claire Denis and her sometime collaborator Jean-Luc Nancy; articles on the Dardenne Brothers’ cinema in relation to thinker Emmanuel Levinas; and a compelling reconsideration by Gal Kirn of the collectively made 1932 German film Kuhle Wampe. —Paul Fileri
Film Journey’s extemporized thoughts on long-percolating interests read like the best conversations you ever overheard at the cinematheque. Edited and written (with semi-regular guest contributors) by Doug Cummings, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Masters of Cinema (see separate entry), Film Journey is less a modest triumph than a triumph of modesty: unaffectedly functional in style, wonkish but never willfully obscure, updated on a schedule that’s leisurely but sustained (Journey has averaged a handful of entries per month for over six years now). Though Cummings’s prosaic, analytical voice has little in common with the freewheeling wordsmithery and bumper-car collisions of ideas that were the signature of his critical idol Manny Farber, it shares with the latter an ability to burrow deep into fine-grained detail and a restless dissatisfaction with intellectual shorthand and orthodox wisdom. Whether re-evaluating old masters like Ozu and Bresson, championing contemporary favorites like Andrew Bujalski and the Dardenne Brothers, highlighting under-praised work in niche periodicals, or getting into the weeds of film festival politics, Cummings continually breaks new ground. That he once had the uncanny experience of discovering his own writing repurposed (without citation) in a sheet of CSUN screening notes is not that surprising—next to his small-scale but refreshingly original insights, the majority of film criticism looks like a rhetorically polished thesaurus-job. —Paul Brunick
Hark the overdue emergence of New Yorker film editor Richard Brody, previously only available in capsule-sized bites; his physical-emotional breakdowns of American auteurists’ neglected works and sophisticated, subversive celebrations of Norbit and Jared Hess certainly stood out from the “Goings On About Town” fray. Brody published his landmark opus on Jean-Luc Godard (Everything Is Cinema) in the summer of 2008 and his investment in the Nouvelle Vague legacy peppers his daily blog. This bilingual Francophilia is to everyone’s benefit: translations of news items and interviews otherwise unavailable in English and illuminating comparisons of European and American responses appear regularly. The most engaging and sincere species of highbrow intellectual, Brody makes thoughtful, mainstream applications of his interests in cinema symbology and poetics. He offers his readers a philosophical, macrocosmic grasp of film today: its marketers, its creators, and its audiences—including his two teenaged daughters and their responses to films both contemporary and classic. Championship of indie underdogs, weekly video essays on DVD releases, and notifications of must-see TCM broadcasts keep readers abreast of what’s worth seeing now, as filtered through the perspective of a modernist with an infectiously ecstatic faith in the potential of the medium. And for those still worshipping at the altar of Woody Allen, Brody’s got your back. —Brynn White
Flaunting the “independent” banner with business-minded acumen, indieWIRE stands as a prime example of the ways in which commercial online outposts serve up news, information and interactive commentary. The site, which began in 1996 as an e-newsletter co-founded by current editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez, has grown exponentially. Back in January of 2009, it launched a “re-imagining” of its website to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival’s kickoff, and announced its increasing integration with its new owner, SnagFilms, an online documentary-focused video distribution platform. Now arrayed with the characteristic accoutrements of fashionable journalistic ventures—feeds for news and blog links, rankings of articles, prominent advertising—indieWIRE has further consolidated its status as an alternative to the industry trade paper Variety. In its current incarnation, the site draws together industry players in their own niches, dispersed and networked throughout North America—largely beyond the purview of Hollywood, although Anne Thompson’s blog hardly ventures outside that frame—and also, more centrally, a whole audience that tracks the marketing and commerce of indie cinema. Though Variety no longer reigns supreme as the inside players’ bible of Hollywood dealing, the trade-magazine ethos thrives in more corners than ever, for readerships more general than a studio town ever defined. —Paul Fileri
Self-proclaimed “Perfectionist of Fantastic Video” Tim Lucas is the creator of Video Watchblog, an outgrowth of his cult magazine Video Watchdog (1990-present; 157 issues to date), which itself originated in a series of columns Lucas published across multiple magazines throughout the Eighties. Recognizing that home media would be the dominant mode of movie-viewing in the future, Lucas’s quietly revolutionary writing is in part responsible for setting the high standards home media must meet today, as well as the emergence of boutique labels, whether they aim to release the definitive edition of a world-cinema classic or reintroduce the public to a forgotten cult gem. Lucas’s approach exhibits an archival commitment to preservation before evaluation: no matter how far outside the canon a title may reside, it first and foremost deserves the highest-possible handling to replicate the director’s original theatrical intentions… then criticism can follow. To these ends, Lucas trained an entire generation of film readers and video renters to manually measure aspect ratios onscreen, hunt down multiple and multi-region releases of the same title, compare alternate run-times and conflicting versions of the same film, and in the process, appreciate the ever-blurring line between exploitation and art house. —Ben Simington
A professor of management at Buffalo’s Canisius College who had originally trained as an engineer, Shambu is an unlikely candidate for Best Online Critic—but he’s certainly in the running. Shambu’s blog is less a formal collection of essays than a locus of fresh and energetic debate about seriously cinephilic matters. He posts recent observations, thoughts, or concerns, and then prompts his commenters to respond with a related query. The results are some of the most enlightening discussions on film style, theory, and history this side of davekehr.com (Shambu counts among his frequent contributors such heavy-hitters as Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum). After all, isn’t the pinnacle of intellectual exchange a fluid, continuous opening-up of ideas rather than a rigid, parochial closing-down? —Evan Davis
Film academics too rarely get involved in the online game (with the obvious exception of David Bordwell) but University of Chicago professor Yuri Tsivian has entered the Internet exchange with a wonderfully unique contribution. CineMetrics is a database that allows everyone from scholars to Joe Cinephiles to generate empirical data about shot lengths and scales in films using user-friendly (and free!) downloadable software. The well-known metric ASL (Average Shot Length) was popularized thanks to Tsivian’s efforts, who built upon Barry Salt and Bordwell’s pioneering work to generate historical and aesthetic conclusions about film style based on hard numerical data. If you ever wanted to let people know how many medium close-ups were used in Patton, or what Anchorman’s median shot length is, now’s your chance to scratch the statistical itch that’s been driving you crazy! —Evan Davis
Paul Schrader, well appointed in tailored vest, glares at you through round wire frames on the home page of his new website. With a no-nonsense formality, the visitor is offered three resources: his films, his writings, and his photos. While the filmography and collection of images are predictable fare, the real action goes down in the archives containing his film criticism. Here you’ll find the whole gamut of his hard-to-find film writing, including his recent contributions to Film Comment. By his own account, he owes everything to Pauline Kael, whom he met in New York while taking summer courses at Columbia. He sent her his college-paper movie reviews (written 1965-67 and also included on the site), and she helped him get a gig with the Los Angeles Free Press. During his time there, he wrote such notable reviews as a two-part exploration of Pickpocket, a favorable take on De Palma’s Greetings, a marvelous pan of Easy Rider, and an ode to Boudu Saved from Drowning. Later, for the short-lived Cinema Magazine, he wrote at length about Boetticher and Rossellini, two filmmakers who almost made the grade (alongside the holy trinity of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer) in Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. —Paul Fileri
© 2010 The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Click here to read Part Two.
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
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.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself
Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.2
David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.
That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.
Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.
A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.
Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.
Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.
Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.
These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018
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