This is the second of two posts cross-published at The House with the kind permission of Film Comment editor Gavin Smith and writer Paul Brunick. The blog roll appends Paul’s FC article “The Living and the Dead: Online versus Old School”, which deals with the evolution of film criticism in the digital age. We hope this list helps direct readers to sites of note. Full disclosure that The House is included among the selections. Click here to read Part One.
Film scholar David Bordwell is a one-man institution—not only a font of productivity (staple volumes Film Art and Film History, co-written with wife Kristin Thompson, are now in their ninth and third editions, respectively) but a kind of eager, plainspoken ambassador for the field. Moreover, this pillar of the establishment has a blog. And since its launch in September 2006, Observations on Film Art certainly stands as the most robust and active online home of any film-studies academic. Posting individual entries in roughly equal measure, Bordwell and Thompson have taken to the online world’s characteristically more relaxed and informal mode of address. What makes their site an essential stop is that both are fine aesthetic observers as well as scholars, and they write the equivalent of full-fledged publishable essays, usually with plentiful and carefully placed frame enlargements. And the writing is anything but ephemeral: Bordwell’s post on “new media and old storytelling’’ was selected for the paperback edition of the Library of America’s American Movie Critics, edited by Phillip Lopate. More recent highlights include a thoughtful appreciation of critic Gilbert Seldes and an analysis of the forgotten possibilities of “the cross” in film blocking. —Paul Fileri
If the blogosphere is a realm that’s predisposed to linguistic profusion, Unexplained Cinema stands out for its beguiling reticence. A companion to his more text-centric Cinema Styles, Greg Ferrara’s blog consists entirely of film stills: moments snatched from their 24 frames-per-second rush and held up to the digital light for closer inspection. Sometimes the images impressionistically sketch out a scene’s mini-arc in a series of telling shots, an act enhanced by the blog’s vertical placement of frames within two centered black lines, transforming your screen into a makeshift strip of celluloid and your scroll bar an impromptu projector. Elsewhere, he’ll trace the emotional trajectory of a performance, with particularly loving attention bestowed upon dignified British actresses in silent turmoil, from Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter to Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And Ferrara has a real eye for juxtaposition. A post noting the death of actress Carol Marsh features an image of a pigtailed, bedridden Carol calmly gazing off-screen left, followed by a wild-haired, quite vampiric Carol perched in a tree and leering off-screen right; as a micro-meditation on the dualities of a screen persona, it’s genuinely haunting. As for what it all means, Ferrara enigmatically cedes the floor to his readers/viewers. —Matthew Connolly
The passion of the collector knows no bounds. So it’s no surprise to find that websites catering to avid DVD collectors constitute some of the most spirited precincts of online film culture. Launched in 2001, Masters of Cinema is run by an eclectic group hailing from the U.S., Canada, and England: Jan Bielawski, Doug Cummings, R. Dixon Smith, Trond S. Trondsen, and Nick Wrigley. So which masters tie this collective together? Many celebrated auteurs, but from the beginning it seems there was one sanctified quartet: Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky, and Dreyer. Check out the eminently useful worldwide DVD release calendar posted on the sharply designed home page and explore five years’ worth of DVD of the Year readers’ polls. Since 2004, the site’s team has collaborated with the British DVD company Eureka to produce a Masters of Cinema curated collection, notable for the sterling care taken with each disc and the inclusion of top-notch book-length liner notes. Communities of dedicated amateurs link and sustain Masters of Cinema as a valuable resource for anyone with access to a multi-region DVD player. It’s an increasingly familiar figure who enters these virtual gathering places: the domestic cinephile, constantly struggling with the ever-present pitfalls and temptations of technophilia, consumer fetishism, and the withdrawal from public space. —Paul Fileri
The best blogs thrive as online meeting places for discerning enthusiasts—a modest-sounding accomplishment that actually means a great deal. Launched in 2005, Dave Kehr’s website is a sideline to his gig reviewing DVDs at The New York Times. Yet as its tagline, “Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinephilia,” suggests, it also serves as a venue for Kehr to bring his critical intelligence and knowledge to bear far beyond the home-video landscape. The blog’s backbone is formed by entries linking to his weekly column, but the real action occurs in the comments section, where discussions are sparked by Kehr’s remarks on everything from the state of film criticism to the careers of Nagisa Oshima and Sydney Pollack. His reflections on the site tend to circle back to the changing experience of filmgoing today. Kehr observes that the culture of cinephilia “used to be about, for instance, hanging out in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art and starting a discussion or argument.” But now, he adds, these encounters largely take place “home alone”—usually spurred by a DVD, TCM, or something online. This site, which began as a lark, has become a prime Web destination. —Paul Fileri
Thanks for the Use of the Hall is the personal blog of Dan Sallitt, a critic and filmmaker whose work includes the independent features Honeymoon (98) and All the Ships at Sea (04). Sallitt has written for print publications across the country (from the L.A. Reader to the Chicago Reader), contributed pieces to Senses of Cinema, and provided several essays for the British DVD imprint “Masters of Cinema”—but his blog doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to its geographic specificity. TFUH proudly offers “a general discussion…and specific recommendations of films playing in the New York City area.” Since its inauguration in May 2007, Sallitt has maintained a slow-but-steady posting schedule. Some months there may be as few as two or three entries, but the thoroughness of Sallitt’s historically informed criticism gives his blog a distinctive lasting value. More importantly, Sallitt provides a personal record of the diverse movies (from repertory screenings to new releases) and venues (from prominent venues like BAMcinématek and the Walter Reade to relative newbies like Maysles Cinema and assorted mini-festivals) that collectively constitute NYC’s film scene. —Cullen Gallagher
In the late Nineties and early Aughts, the Chicago Reader film section was a major hub of cinephilia’s online landscape. Not only did the archive include all of the sharp, highly opinionated capsule reviews that Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr had written for the alternative weekly, but it also provided access to one of the most vital bodies of work in film criticism: Rosenbaum’s brilliantly sustained run of essays on contemporary cinema. Now that the long-form pieces have been removed from the site and Rosenbaum has retired from regular reviewing, it is a huge relief to find his writings republished on his personal website. For the most part, JonathanRosenbaum.com showcases the most productive period of his career—his two decades at the Reader—as each month J.R. dredges up a piece from the vaults and generously pads it with a selection of stills. Sifting through the several thousand articles on the site, a reader can’t help but feel nostalgic for the days when Rosenbaum was producing his lucid, erudite prose on a regular basis. But the Internet can be credited with extending his name’s reach among a wider movie-loving readership, and this exhaustive online anthology ensures that we can all continue to learn from his work. —Andrew Chan
After wandering through the new-media forest of so many hyperactive, cluttered web pages, the spare layout of the Australia-based online film journal Rouge feels like a clearing in a forest—a clean, well-lighted place for an ardently cinephilic readership interested in some of today’s finest long-form critical writing. Since its birth in late 2003, co-editors Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin, and Grant McDonald, along with webmaster Bill Mousoulis, have guided this labor of love (enigmatically named after a 1968 Gérard Fromanger flag painting and Godard collaboration) through 13 issues so far. Free of commercial and institutional strictures, Rouge boasts an enviable international stable of contributors—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez, Shigehiko Hasumi, Thomas Elsaesser, and William D. Routt, to name a few—and a remarkable commitment to the eclectic and intellectual at its most lively, relevant, and generative. This means publishing the words of filmmakers (Mark Rappaport, Víctor Erice, Pedro Costa), lengthy translations (of Raymond Bellour and Serge Daney), and terrific image-by-image analyses of film sequences. In an information environment more and more beholden to the speed of the daily news cycle, there’s something to be said for the value of long-range insight that a little magazine such as Rouge brings to film culture. —Paul Fileri
Mubarak Ali’s Supposed Aura is screen-grab epistemology, a philosophically inflected attempt to get to the bottom of images, their internal logic and their ability to instruct us about the external world. Tracing subterranean trajectories between non-mainstream narrative and documentary filmmakers (e.g. Hartmut Bitomsky, Marcel Hanoun, Jean-Claude Rousseau), Ali recuperates films that make politics and pedagogy integral to their aesthetics. In montages of textual quotations and screen grabs, Supposed Aura excavates moments in film that reach for truth, exploring the image in its capacity to reveal. A chronicle of lost true things resurrected through poetry and image, Ali helms a project of Dorskian devotion (as in Nathaniel Dorsky, filmmaker and author of Devotional Cinema). A recent post quoted Jean-Claude Rousseau’s “La beauté n’est jamais fictive”: perhaps the beauty of cinema is in its truth, and vice versa. In its acts of resurrection and commitment, Mubarak Ali’s blog embeds itself in the truths and beauties of the cinema it chronicles. The history of movies is also a movie; Supposed Aura is not just of the cinema but is cinema. —Dave McDougall
Aimed at the happy few and imbued with sensibilities neither wholly amateur nor professional, World Picture was launched in 2008 by Brian Price, John David Rhodes, and Meghan Sutherland, media scholars and longtime friends split between university towns in Oklahoma and East Sussex, England. Sutherland says that she and her fellow editors began the journal in response to a frustration with the “technological specialization of film and television studies scholarship and with the professionalized styles of writing…it tended to produce.” They hope to “cultivate a space [for] more speculative and porous ways of thinking that can cut across the typical genres, styles, and media of thought.” The first issue was entitled “Jargon” and approached, in a manner both critically acute and slyly ruminative, the ways that epithet gets bandied about. Issue two broached the hardly obvious theme of the “Obvious,” while the third considered the slippery issue of “Happiness.” Between the three, you’ll find long interviews with Olivier Assayas and Emmanuel Bourdieu, trenchant essays on Bamako and Adorno, and a charming piece of fiction by Sam Lipsyte called “A Pimple on the Ass of Drew Barrymore Speaks.” Their current issue boasts a bevy of interesting articles wrapped in yet another intriguing title: “Arousal.”— Paul Fileri
The rise of Harry Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News parallels the film industry’s increased involvement with San Diego Comic-Con and the rise of Austin’s film scene, from its alternative exhibition circuit (highlighted by SXSW and Knowles’s own Fantastic Fest) to its thriving independent productions. While the former provides Hollywood with focus-group insights into the valuable fanboy demographic and the latter fresh discoveries of up and coming (and thus inexpensive) creative talent, it’s eerie to think that awareness of Knowles alerted Hollywood to the existence of both youthful markets. AICN’s “agents” track down pre-production gossip, aggressively solicit first-look access to promotional materials, sneak in (though by now they’re usually invited) to test screenings—all the while engaging in feverish “What-if…?” speculations. Though the completed movies rarely live up to the pre-release buzz, cinephilia often indulges such pie-in-the-sky speculation. (What if Orson Welles’s later projects had proper backing? etc.) Since AICN operates on the principle that creators of cultural products are beholden on principle to their most rabid fans, it’s unclear how many of the site’s 300,000-plus monthly audience is there for the coverage and reviews themselves and how many are merely gawking at the reader-forums sideshow. —Violet Lucca
Those bemoaning the death of print criticism might just have Mike D’Angelo to blame. Before all the think pieces and panel discussions—before Web-based criticism was even a thing, really—there was D’Angelo, who, while writing capsules for Entertainment Weekly, was also running a film-nerd discussion group and maintaining his own personal website, The Man Who Viewed Too Much. D’Angelo was one of the first critics to make his name almost exclusively through the Internet, and though many since have traveled down this new-media path, few have come quite so far. For connoisseurs of criticism, D’Angelo’s voice is immediately recognizable for its unique cadence: a blistering mix of erudition and wit that’s at once stimulating and pleasurable, thorny and inviting. As a writer D’Angelo is a true debate-team champion, fiercely intelligent and argumentative, and he’s never less than a blast to read—even (or especially, perhaps) when you disagree with him. D’Angelo went on from Entertainment Weekly to write for Time Out New York and Esquire, and though the economy would eventually deprive him of those gigs, The Man Who Viewed Too Much is still around and he continues to write for print venues—the Las Vegas Weekly, Nashville Scene, and The Onion’s A.V. Club are all the better for it. —Matt Noller
The driving force behind The Criterion Collection’s November 2008 website overhaul, The Auteurs combines a film library with a social networking platform and an online journal called The Notebook. The company is the brainchild of founder and CEO Efe Cakarel, a Turkish-born entrepreneur who drew on his experience in business and technology to launch The Auteurs, despite no previous film track record or industry connections. For Cakarel, the value of their growing online catalogue (roughly 1,000 on offer globally) rests on the diversity and quality of its holdings and the thoughtfulness of the programming. The Notebook, meanwhile, provides a top-notch example of the indispensable work that a dedicated news-aggregator can perform in the age of the RSS feed. Run by former GreenCine Daily guru David Hudson (who also blogged briefly for IFC.com), it offers an extensive daily clearing-house of film-related news, criticism, and commentary generated from online and print publications, as well as from personal blogs and lively interactive amateur enclaves on the Web. As a whole, The Auteurs proves a worthy reminder that commerce and culture can be deeply intertwined when film devotees try to figure out how to get their hands on the movies they love. —Paul Fileri
Jacques Rivette’s cinema has never been easy to track down. Access to his interviews, and the many extraordinary polemics he penned for Cahiers du cinéma in the Fifties and Sixties, has also been limited. Order of the Exile, a website named after a line from Rivette’s 1961 film Paris Belongs to Us, has been trying to rectify this matter. Its intrepid founders, Daniel Stuyck and Ross Wilbanks, say they’ve designed the outpost, hosted by DVD Beaver’s Gary Tooze, with the aim of making more Rivette available in English than ever before. Readers have become contributors, happily driven to transcribe, compile, or translate material, thereby adding to the site’s stripped-down yet well-organized database. Stuyck, meanwhile, takes the time to handle any rights issues that may arise in reprinting previously published material. The holdings of this online collection cut a wide swath, including what is apparently still the only published English translation of Rivette’s key 1961 essay “On Abjection,” concerning the morality of film style; two essential extended interviews with Rivette from 1963 and 1981 (the latter previously untranslated); and even a listing (compiled by a dogged Joseph Coppola) of all of Rivette’s star ratings given to films in Cahiers du cinéma from 1955 to 1966. —Paul Fileri
Cinebeats chronicles “one woman’s love affair with ‘60s and ‘70s-era cinema.” As this informal mission statement suggests, those looking for hard historical data or deep academic readings should keep moving. Photographer and designer Kimberly Lindbergs’s blog is a charming little fan site that reflects the ethos of the small ’zines where she began her career. That’s not to imply that her project is a slapdash affair; as of March 2010, her sharp postings will be included in Turner Classic Movies’ official blog, Movie Morlocks. Cinebeats, however, is best utilized for its fascinating photographs of Hollywood royalty. Lindbergs has a terrific eye for both composition and charisma, and she’ll snatch up any topical hook to assemble impressive mini-galleries of beloved stars and directors as memorialized in press photos and candids. The fawning may wear thin for readers who feel that one can extol the physical virtues of Steve McQueen or Michael Fassbender too much, but it’s through the sheer exuberance of her personality that the site achieves its success. It’s rare to find such unaffected delight and genuine passion laid as bare as they are on Lindbergs’s blog, an enthusiasm made all the more digestible through her straightforwardly elegant Web design. — Benjamin Shapiro
Print publications these days can barely muster a capsule review for most non-Western films released in the States, and that’s on a good week. Over at The Seventh Art, however, movies elsewhere given the 150-word write-off become the subject of lengthy reflection—the kind that newspapers normally reserve for important stuff like Sex and the City 2. Even better, the impressively prolific Srikanth Srinivasan matches quantity with quality. Alternating between directorial profiles, reviews of new releases, and reconsiderations of older works, Srinivasan’s posts are erudite yet accessible, displaying astute formal analysis and a deep knowledge of film history (a recent post on Lisandro Alonso persuasively connected his oeuvre to those of Tsai Ming-liang, Robert Bresson, and the Italian Neorealists). Srinivasan’s expansive view doesn’t ignore U.S. cinema; the blog’s coverage of Inglourious Basterds remains among the most densely packed and satisfying on the Web. But this is a place where “American movies” tend to mean Bush Mama and Los Angeles Plays Itself rather than Avatar and its ilk. That a stinging pan of Cameron’s blockbuster gets roughly half the space of an appreciative look back at Lav Diaz’s filmography is enough to give the most despairing cinephile reason to hope. —Matthew Connolly
Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz has been in the game a long time. A journalist in Dallas before emigrating to New York, he wrote for the New York Press for a number of years and has made both narrative features and a batch of incisive, illuminating video essays. In 2006, he embarked on a project to exalt what he thought was a misunderstood and unappreciated film, Terrence Malick’s The New World. That project became The House Next Door. Its first entries were extended exegeses and analyses of The New World’s formal, narrative, and thematic qualities. The website quickly expanded into much more. Now under the stewardship of Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich (and housed as the official blog of the outstanding online arts mag Slant), THND publishes articles on art cinema, Hollywood blockbusters, television shows, critical dialogues about bona fide classics, in-depth festival coverage, and just about anything else that interests the always perspicacious, ever evolving writing staff of Seitz and Uhlich’s venture. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an online film magazine as inclusive or expansive as this one. Seitz may have started small, but like the film he championed back then, his opus could not be contained. —Evan Davis
Despite being based on an open-source content management system instead of smudgy newsprint, the audacity of Reverse Shot lies in its “spirit of ’68” adherence to principles of print journalism. Inheriting a semi-academic critical approach, each quarterly edition has championed a single director or explored an aspect of filmmaking (a single shot, sound, etc.). The retro lack of a comments field (except for on the blog) allows the opinions expressed to endure with authority. But a tone of reasoned partisanship prevails, even if the site’s “Shot/Reverse Shot” dueling reviews have faded away. A “Talkies” series of video interviews with filmmakers continues a string of ambitious digital and real-world experiments: a stint providing indieWIRE with reviews, guest-programming movie series, and even arranging for distribution of the documentary A Lion in the House in 10 cities in 2006. —Violet Lucca
A veritable institution in the world of online film journals, the 10-and-a-half-year-old Senses of Cinema continues to be one of the most vigorously diverse sources of scholarly research and commentary on the Web. Just a gander at their latest issue (their 55th!) speaks to the breadth of topics and range of methodologies at work: the complex construction of Louise Brooks’s on and off-screen personae; notions of sexuality and homeland in Michael Lucas’s Middle Eastern porno Men of Israel; the intersections of cinema and cartography as expressed in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (the Melbourne-based journal has always been a particularly valuable source for writing on Aussie cinema). Factor in their invaluable “Great Directors” series—over 200 lengthy entries currently available, and more to come—and Senses of Cinema deservedly earns its reputation as a mainstay of the digital film-criticism universe. —Matthew Connolly
In the realm of Internet criticism, there’s been a lot of commentary on the gulf dividing fanboys and academics, but when it comes to unfortunately polarizing tendencies, there’s still another Great Schism: the altar boys and the assholes: humorlessly earnest, mind-numbingly reverent hagiographers and caustically negative, bitchy would-be satirists. Jim Emerson is here to show us a better way. The founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com maintains an addictively enjoyable side project in Scanners, a blog that should appeal to all four of the above demographics and everyone in between. Weighing in on topical debates—from 3-D and hyper-fast editing to the culture of the Academy Awards and (yes) the future of film criticism—Emerson isn’t afraid to call bullshit when he sees it, but he reliably turns every takedown into a constructive “learning moment.” A proud member of Colbert Nation, Emerson’s incisive responses to legacy-media “trend pieces” are an almost weekly reminder that the MSM is not as meaningfully quality-controlled as they pretend. (Jim’s response to Newsweek’s infamous can-gay-actors-play-straight? essay by Ramin Setoodeh was the wittiest media critique I’ve read all year.) A formalist at heart, Emerson will spend weeks at a time analyzing isolated aspects of cinematic style: opening shots, close-ups, long-take staging. And he isn’t afraid to revisit his past favorites again and again, obsessively attempting to pin down what it is about certain films (Chinatown, Fight Club, No Country for Old Men) that he finds so compulsively watchable. Smart but accessible, cutting but never cruel, and a true believer in critical debate (“I want to try as hard as I can to understand and be understood”), Emerson makes most critics look like self-involved narcissists impotently talking past one another. —Paul Brunick
Landscape Suicide’s preference is for films in the Lumière-Benning-Straub mode—films that leave their subjects ontologically untouched, surveying the materiality of the world under the direction of nature and cultural precepts. The artist’s job becomes that of a kind of evidence collector, describing an autonomous landscape through framing and juxtaposition, much as a poet puts things into words. Seen in these terms, the filmmaker is effectively a critic of the actual. By extension, Landscape Suicide’s method is to let things speak for themselves with short clusters of high-theory quotes and abstract insert shots from Hollywood B movies and structuralist films—though these are in the necessarily circumscriptive terms of quotes and screen grabs, representative frames extracted from their original contexts and left to make sense in a new one. LS creator Matthew Flanagan presents an image critique in which shots and scenes from films unknowingly echo and reflect each other but remain themselves, so that the reader must play critic to make connections; the result at its best is something like the excavation and articulation of a hidden language—a language the movies have been speaking all along, beyond common subject or authorial intent. —David Phelps
© 2010 The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Click here to read Part One.
Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics
Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.
Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.
Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).
This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.
Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.
Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.
Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.
As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.
In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.
One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.
It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.
It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.
McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.
Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?
Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!
Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”
There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.
McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.
You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?
McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.
Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?
McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.
Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?
McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.
Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?
Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.
Now you’re speaking in the language of today.
Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.
If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?
McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?
McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?
Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.
McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.
What do you think of when you look back to that era?
McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.
Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.
McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.
That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.
The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Interview: Mary Harron on Charlie Says and Correcting the Record on Manson
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed her latest film.
We are in the midst of a reappraisal of the legacy of the gruesome murder spree perpetrated by Charles Manson and his family. It’s a discourse that got off to a quite rocky start with Daniel Farrands’s schlocky The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a counterfactual recounting of Sharon Tate’s final days that imagined her as being consumed by premonitions of her own death. And we’ll have to wait another two weeks to see if Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, will similarly bring a revisionist spin to the story of Mason’s crimes.
Something we do know for sure is that Mary Harron’s new film, Charlie Says, thankfully centers the dialogue around an enduring, but still largely unrecognized, fascination at the heart of Manson’s story. It’s not just what led him and the family, a group of young devotees he attracted to follow him with religious fervor, to commit such extreme acts. It’s also how he maintained their loyalty up to and beyond the murders. Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner’s point of entry into this multifaceted saga comes through the women still under Manson’s spell long after their crimes have landed them behind bars.
Harron’s background as a journalist and critic was apparent as we discussed Charlie Says prior to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. She spoke with remarkable clarity about how the Manson murders were a product of their cultural moment in the late ‘60s and articulated both what attracted her to explore this story and how Charlie Says fits into a larger pattern in her filmography. To convey why extremes persist in our society, Harron understands she must present their allure along with their more controversial elements.
Who decided on the title Charlie Says?
We were talking about what we wanted the title to say, and Guinevere came up with the title Charlie Says because the women in the film are always saying, “Well, Charlie says…” Charlie says many things: go kill people, kill your ego, there’s no death. It was the idea that his voice was constantly in their head.
What led you and Guinevere to focus on the women as the main characters rather than Charles Manson? Is it all a corrective to the dominant narrative?
Yes, partly because it’s been more focused on Manson. I think the strangest aspect and the more enduring fascination is why these very young, seemingly nice girls did these terrible things. I feel like with Manson, we know why he’s a monster. Partly because of his innate character, but also his horrible childhood and the warping experience of growing up in prison. You can understand how Manson turned out the way he did and did the things he did—also being a sociopath, I guess. But the women, the family members, that’s the big mystery of what happened over a year and a half. That hippies who want to live in a world above become his acolytes who would go out and do violence if he asked them to do it.
How do you balance making a film about people who were involved in reprehensible behavior without excusing them while also explaining how they were coerced?
We knew we wanted to answer a specific question: How did he get them to do these things? What you want to do is show the appealing aspects of the ranch because they all got involved because they thought of it as this golden place of love and freedom and lack of inhibition and escape from the world of their parents, what they thought was the oppression of “straight” society. And how this freedom, which is represented by when they go up to the mountain and dance around in costumes, turned into a much worse form of oppression and terror. You have to show what’s good about it and what got them involved before you show how scary it can be. None of them, if you said, “Come join my cult, and we’ll go kill some strangers in a year and a half,” would have done that if they’d known at the outset what it would lead to.
Is that task any different than Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, walking the thin line between depicting but not endorsing? Obviously, satire makes it a little different.
Obviously, when you do a type of character, the audience in some way is going to be with them because you’re following their story. That doesn’t mean you’re endorsing them, but you’re kind of compelled by them. It’s a different question because the question is about how they got there, the process of mind control. It’s how do they lose themselves, and as Karlene says, “I want to give them back themselves.” How do they come to abandon their own conscience and voice of reason? I wanted to show the gradual process of the erosion of your will. Just like people in abusive relationships, it’s a gradual process of losing their will.
I’ve read Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson, which talked about how he used pimp logic to gain control over women.
In some ways, it’s a seduction. It’s a bizarre version of a relationship. It’s why we wanted to tell the story of Leslie Van Houten—to show her from being brought into it, the things she saw, why she wanted to stay, and then how she became a full-on convert. She’s since silenced those doubts. She gets more committed not just to Charlie, but also to Patricia Krenwinkle, another friend in the cult. When you start totally losing your perspective, you become more and more detached from the outside world. This is true of the terrible things people do during wartime as well, you lose your wider perspective from only seeing the reality you’re told to believe in. That’s your enemy, these are the good people, those are the bad people.
That moment in the film where Karlene brings in the TV and breaks the feedback loop for the women in jail really feels like such a breakthrough.
For all the atrocities [they committed], the victims are depersonalized. It’s very hard to hurt someone if you see their humanity and have any empathy for them. And these people were complete strangers. They didn’t even know who Sharon Tate was. I mean, they knew her as a movie star, but they had no connection to these people—particularly Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whose murders are the ones we show in detail. They had no idea who these people were! Charlie chose those people at random. When they see the Sharon Tate thing, they had to see, this was the person whose life we took.
Didn’t the family choose the home where they murdered Sharon Tate just because it was a place they knew how to drive to at night?
They knew how to get there, Tex Watson [a family member involved in the Tate murder] had been there once before, but we don’t show it in the film. I think they knew it was where some rich Hollywood types would be because Charlie wanted to kill some rich white piggies, and that seemed to be a place. But there was definitely a randomness about it.
Like you said, it’s depersonalized. Even if they knew it was some kind of rich, white, famous person, there was no name or identity to go with it.
Charlie could have tracked down Terry Melcher [the record producer who auditioned but didn’t sign Manson to his label] if he really wanted to kill him, but he knew he wasn’t there anymore.
There’s a conception in culture of Manson as this kind of terrifying criminal mastermind, but in your film, he’s really just a garden variety predator with higher profile victims. Is there at all an element of correcting the record here?
Yes, I mean, Guinevere described him as a charismatic loser. He had some gifts, a real animal cunning as he chose his followers. He would home in on people who had a vulnerability or weakness. After he got out of prison, he was a pimp and had that kind of skill of drawing someone in and making girls feel he saw and cared about them. He would also then be somewhat abusive and reject them, which would make them want his approval more. And he did that kind of giving people attention and then switching it off with both men and women to keep them off balance and maintain control over them. He was skilled, but he couldn’t function even outside society. Kind of feral, you know. And preying on these middle-class kids with his prison credibility, like, “I’ve suffered, you don’t know.” In the scene by the fire when he gets Sandra Good to take her clothes off, he says, “You all had childhoods, I didn’t have a childhood, I’m tougher, I’m more real, I know more.”
The other thing, when I was asking Guinevere about the script early on, I asked what the family members had in common. They all came from such different backgrounds, so there’s no common denominator you can say with any of them. Except that a number of them came from religious backgrounds or the church. Like Tex, from a Christian small town. He was playing on a thing as presenting himself as Jesus, playing into Christian mythology.
Joan Didion’s famous quote about how the ‘60s ended abruptly on the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, which you use to open Charlie Says, made me think about your films as encapsulations of decades: the hedonism of the ‘80s in American Psycho, the post-war puritanism of the ‘50s in The Notorious Bettie Page, and now the dissolution of the free-spirited ‘60s into the malaise of the ‘70s in Charlie Says. Is the decade a unit in which you often view history? Why analyze the past in this way?
I think so. I’m very interested in personal stories set against history and how history informs what happens. It’s not just their characters or emotions, it’s the way the time they’re living in has an impact and effect on them. And I’m particularly interested in that with women, being a woman [laughs] born in the second half of the 20th century. Women’s lives changed so unbelievably in the second half of the 20th century, more rapidly and more extraordinary changes than any other time in history. What decade you were born in really affected how your life might go in the 20th century, even the 21st century.
There’s a quote I love from Newsweek from November 2007 where they declared that “America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise.” Do you think that’s still true? Or have we moved on?
No, I don’t think we have at all. Even the war between Trump and the left, or progressives, is so much a battle that was happening in the ‘60s. Trump is such a throwback. And we’re still trying to convulse our way through this cultural civil war that opened up. But at the same time, the idea of the ‘60s looms, but there have been these great gains as well which are happening now. Ecology, civil rights, position of women, gay rights—all those battles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are still being worked through.
By coincidence, I read a Manson biography in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, and I’ve always viewed his rise through the lens of Manson. There are so many parallels—empowerment through submission, idolatry of an infallible strongman, a vindictive quest for fame and recognition that targets anyone in his way. Not to draw a complete parallel, but do you hear similar echoes?
Yeah, and it’s also that thing of finding weakness and being a bully, which is what Manson was. For sure.
Jeonju IFF 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale
Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.
A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.
A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.
Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.
For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.
Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.
The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.
With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.
The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.
Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.
The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.
The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30
Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.
In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.
The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.
The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.
Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”
Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)
“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.
Interview: Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson Talk Come to Daddy
The actors and filmmaker discuss the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant Timpson is best known for his work as a producer of horror films, most notably the The ABCs of Death series. But if fortune favors the brave, then Timpson is poised to be recognized as a different kind of visionary for his first directorial feature, the anarchically constructed Come to Daddy, which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival a few days ago. In the film, thirtysomething Norval (Elijah Wood) arrives at a secluded coastal home—which one character likens to a UFO from the ‘60s—to reconnect with his father. However, his dad (Stephen McHattie) consistently humiliates him, making Norval anxious to walk out on him, just as the old man walked out on Norval 30 years ago.
Of course, Come to Daddy has a few surprises in store for Norval and his father, as well as audiences. As Norval, Wood displays the same gusto for the gonzo that he’s brought to a recent string of action- and horror-driven genre films, most notably Wayne Kramer’s underseen Pawn Shop Chronicles and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake. And the actor is well-matched by McHattie, who brings to his role that same sense of snaky power that has defined some of his best work. While it’s almost a spoiler to say that Timpson’s film isn’t a two-hander, it’s best left to audiences to see how things play out between Norval and his pops.
In a conversation following Come to Daddy’s world premiere, Timpson, Wood, and McHattie discussed the father-son relationship at the heart of the film.
Ant, I’m curious to know about your relationship with your father?
Timpson: This whole film came about from the passing of my dad. I was there in front of him when he died. It was kind of traumatic. His partner thought it would be great to have a grieving process with his embalmed corpse in a coffin near us for a week. I wasn’t working on anything at the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone with him in the house all night. I was sleeping in his bed, wearing his pajamas, going down to look at him at night and thinking of unresolved things I should have said to him in life that I didn’t. During the rest of the week, people came and paid their respects, and they were telling stories I had never heard. I thought that was unusual, and wondered if I really knew everything about this man.
It was a beautiful, cathartic experience, but also, the way that my mind works, it started going to strange places. Suddenly life felt really short [laughs]. I thought that I need to fucking do what I should have been doing for the last 25 years, which is to go back to directing. This felt like the biggest kick in my ass of all time. But I had no script and I didn’t want to look around at shit. As a producer, I’m inundated with scripts. So why don’t I use this experience to come up with something? So, it became a tribute to my dad to make this film that we would have watched together when I was younger. We both loved British thrillers, character-based gritty dramas with a really dark sense of humor interlaced in them, chamber pieces like Sleuth.
I wrote to Toby Harvard and said that I had an idea based on what I had just gone through. I really want to make something, and I said that I was going to find the money and shoot it—maybe in the house where we were before it gets sold. He said that wasn’t a film I could find in my bank account [Elijah cackles], but that the idea is crazy good, so we kept going—coming up with amazing ways to keep it surprising. And it just evolved from there. Eventually, it got to a shape where I wanted to send it out and Elijah read it and soon we were off and running.
What about casting Stephen?
Timpson: I’ve been a lifelong fan of Stephens’s work. I’ve always found him super compelling on screen. He doesn’t need to say a word for me to emote. Those piercing eyes!
Stephen, what about your relationship with your father?
Stephen McHattie: My dad was blind and a miner. He lived way out in the country in Nova Scotia. He used to carry me on his shoulders to watch movies. He loved movies. I had no idea he was blind until I was six years old. We’d talk about the movies. I thought he could see them.
Timpson: So, you were his eyes?
McHattie: No! I thought he was watching them!
Timspon: But as a kid did you ever…communicate, if you can remember…
McHattie: Yeah, we would talk about the films.
Timpson: That is so cool.
McHattie: I was young, very young, and we would talk in a very elementary way. He would talk about what he enjoyed in them, so I was absolutely convinced he was watching them. Man, it was a shock to me when I realized he was blind.
So, Elijah, how are you going to top that?
Wood: I can’t top that. Yeah, I can’t top that! My parents were…I’m a product of divorce, which wasn’t uncommon. They divorced when I was 15. So, I was essentially estranged from my father for almost 20 years, a little bit over 20 years. I reconnected with him in my 30s.
Sounds like Come to Daddy.
Wood: [laughs] That’s kind of funny. Except I obviously knew my dad and extended family as well. It wasn’t quite the reunion that Norval experiences with his father.
There are some, let’s say, unsettling moments in the film. I like the deadpan tone. For one, the surreal situations are treated almost as perfectly ordinary. Could you speak to how you handle odd, uncomfortable, or strange moments in life?
McHattie: You try to figure it out, which is kind of the situation my character is in in the movie—trying to add things up and stay a little ahead of the game, but every situation is kind of a game if you look at it that way.
Wood: I think I take stuff at face value.
Timpson: Oh man, I’m like a moth to a flame.
Wood: You really are, actually! Your stories are crazy!
Timpson: I’m like a voyeur. Life is full of the mundane, so when anything strange happens, I’m going to soak it up and absorb it. Otherwise, you’re walking through a banal haze.
Wood: Fuck, yeah!
Timpson: Not that I want to be directly involved in it—I’m not that brave—but I want to take it all in and I’ll process it later, and it will pop up somewhere else down the line.
Wood: You’ve had a series of extraordinary things happen to you.
Timpson: When I tell crazy stories about stuff that happens in my life and people say, “That’s really unusual,” but I think it’s normal.
Wood: Right. Weird is so subjective. It’s different. When it’s something happening to you, it may not seem as odd.
Timpson: And I amplify stuff…
Wood: …in the telling of the story?
Timpson: Yeah, I like telling stories. Otherwise, it’s like, “I went and bought a glass of Coke and sat down.” You’ve got to give the audience something! [Wood laughs]
For Stephen and Elijah, how did you calibrate your performances? I love the tensions that play out between your characters. What observations do you have about the transformations both of your characters go through—because they are extreme.
McHattie: I was trying to be true to his drunkenness. I’ve always found that hard to play—and hard to watch. I was trying to keep him drunk, to give him a hurdle to cross when he was trying to interpret things.
Wood: That’s great.
McHattie: He’s got a [fog] he has to get through to get to the “What is going on here?”
Timpson: Yeah, you do that so well. He’s asking you, demanding stuff from you and you’re like, “Oh man, I haven’t got it!”
Wood: He looks so hungover, it’s so painful! But there’s an internal thing happening with each character that the other character isn’t aware of. Norval has this whole life he’s coming from that his dad doesn’t know about. Norval has expectations of him and he has a whole secret life that Norval isn’t aware of. So, it’s what’s happening in between based on these two people’s own internal life that’s the kind of the kinetic meat. That dynamic is established because these two people are existing in their own spheres, wanting something from the other—or not.
Yes, the phone call for example. Both of your characters guzzle wine hungrily. They also lie on occasion. On what occasions do you lie? Or do you lie to protect yourself?
Wood: I can’t lie. I find lying impossible and really difficult for me. It was drilled into me from a young age, or maybe it was just in the fabric I was born with, but it’s very hard for me to be dishonest.
Did something happen as a child?
Wood: No, it was never [anything in particular]. I never used it to manipulate or try to get something. That’s fine. Everyone is figuring out as a kid what their boundaries are, and what they’re capable of, and what they can get away with. And certainly, everyone goes through it. For me, dishonesty wasn’t a part of that. I remember I ate peanuts at a supermarket, and I thought I’d stolen something. I had a complex about it. Less so now.
McHattie: When I was a kid, I had a great ability and tendency to elaborate on stories and just bullshit my way through everything. I had a brother who was about 10 years older than me, and he was a banker. My dad had died, and my mom said to my brother, “You’ve got to do something about him.” He would do a catechism with me on everything I said, calling me out on being a liar.
McHattie: I have a hard time with lying. He was a little brutal.
Ant, I want to ask about the film’s distinctive style, which is claustrophobic even in the widest spaces. How did you land on your visual approach?
Timpson: I used to talk to cinephile friends, and we used to ask first-time directors shooting film with anamorphic lenses that don’t require them, “Why are you using anamorphic in a haunted house? Get out of here! Where’s the claustrophobia in that?” But I wanted the character to feel isolated in the frame more than anything and I felt if we were boxed, it wouldn’t be as impressive a canvas in terms of really making them feel as small and as insignificant as possible. It gives you different things to play with, and in a film where you shift gears, it’s nice to have those framing things that hint at what might be coming. I found it freeing.
Wood: You can be very claustrophobic with anamorphic. Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s isolation in those wide frames. You put something small in those frames and they feel more isolated and alone.
The characters make some foolish or perhaps bad decisions. What are your thoughts about regrets, or bad ideas or decisions you’ve made?
Wood: I don’t know if I have any regrets. We are a combination of all of our life experiences in the present and I wouldn’t take away the choices, right or wrong that I’ve made, because I’m happy with who I am and where I am now. It’s all part of the fabric of who we are. We are the combination of those choices.
McHattie: Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I don’t have any regrets, except…actually, no.
The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming
Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”
The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.
There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”
The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.
With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.
“The Agnés Varda Collection”
The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.
“Directed by Vera Chytilova”
For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.
“The Kids Aren’t All Right”
In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.
Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki
Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.
Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.
“Observations on Film Art”
Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.
Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.
Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)
In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.
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Interview: Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow and the Ferocity of Rudolf Nureyev
Fiennes discusses his affinity for Russian culture and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
English actor Ralph Fiennes moved with great ease from performing on the London stage, mostly as a Shakespeare interpreter, to the world of film, winning early acclaim for his performance as a sadistic Nazi prison commandant in Schindler’s List. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s film, and again for his soulful turn in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Fiennes possesses an innate gift for creating intimacy between himself and his co-stars, which he channeled into his first film as a director in 2011, an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which he shortly followed up with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 novel The Invisible Woman.
Fiennes’s latest film as a director is The White Crow, the first biopic about Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. The title refers to the name the young Nureyev was given in school when he was growing up, identifying him as the odd one out among his fellow classmates. Starring Ukrainian-born dancer Oleg Ivenko as the adult Nureyev (and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin), the film, based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2011 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, switches back and forth between the dancer’s childhood in the central Russian city of Ufa, his student days in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and Paris, where he made his dramatic defection to the West in 1961.
In a recent conversation, Fiennes discussed the making of The White Crow, his affinity for Russian culture, and exploring Nureyev’s life in nonlinear fashion.
What drew you to tell the story of Rudolf Nureyev’s life on screen?
Julie [Kavanagh] sent me the first five chapters of her book in proof copy—about 1999 I think it was. At the time, I had no conscious desire to direct. I just thought this was an extraordinary story. I didn’t have the other chapters to finish until later when the book was published, but it sat with me. Some years later, I had made two films and producer Gabrielle Tana—she has a background in ballet—asked if I wanted to move forward on this for a film. It was then that we approached David Hare to write it.
Why did you approach Hare specifically?
I know David is very good at writing what I call provocative, high-definition characters. I knew he relishes writing with wit and compassion. Also, his instinct about the world and the social political context in which dramas can happen is very strong. I love his plays, but I think he’s a brilliant screenwriter. He loves film, and he thinks very filmicly. He said he remembered reading the biography and it moved him very much. He completely got pleasure out of the size of Nureyev’s character—his vulnerabilities and then his ego.
I thought of this as the story of the emergent young Nureyev. David was interested in the Paris aspect and I came advocating the Russian background. We both felt that we wanted to explore it in a nonlinear way, with three different time frames interacting, jostling against each other. We wanted this exciting dynamic as you go from one time frame to the next.
I’m curious if you have an affinity for all things Russian?
It’s an affinity and a curiosity, and something of an infatuation, which I recognize is sometimes a bit naïve, because Russia is complicated and not an easy country in so many ways. But I’ve been there over the years, and I actually made a film in Russia in 2013: Two Women, directed by Vera Glagoleva, an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. There’s a connective warmth I feel from the people and a shared interest in Russian culture. I guess life takes you somewhere and you make connections and want to continue keeping them. Sometimes there are things, you know, that politically are disturbing and hard to accept. There are definitely worrying things that go on in the way the state curates its artists. But I have these friendships there and I’ve had experiences that I felt to be very rewarding.
But the Russian ballet stuff was a whole new thing. I came to this story because of the ferocity of who Nureyev needed to be. That was compelling to me, like some Greek story, of a kind of god-man who challenges the gods. I responded to it in some kind of Jungian way, I suppose. And then I had to get to grips with the ballet. And that was scary, out of my comfort zone. I had to do major immersion and surround myself with people advising me on it.
Did you specifically want to cast a dancer in the role of Nureyev?
I wanted it to be authentic and shoot it in the Russian and the French language. So, I wanted a Russian in the lead. And I started to feel very strongly that it should be an unknown person that the audience couldn’t project any baggage onto. I wanted a face that was totally new. I knew if I was going to get a dancer, I wouldn’t have the resources to do face replacement or body doubling. I could see my head spinning, being taken up by these technical challenges. So, I thought if I could get a dancer who could act, that would be great. My producer asked, “Should we not get an actor?” And I said that if I did, the moment they raise their arm or something, the world is going to know. This is Nureyev, so he’s got to have it in his body. And also, the way dancers carry themselves, the whole way they’re formed, is different. So, I thought I just couldn’t make a film about a leading dancer and not have a dancer.
Anyway, we set a big casting sweep through the Russian-speaking ballet world and Oleg was very quickly on the list. He has a real ease about him when he’s in front of the camera. I had to guide him a little bit into my sense of Nureyev’s attitude—his hauteur, and that slightly “fuck you” quality in his demeanor. Oleg is very smiley and lovely and warm, but he got it very quickly. He weirdly had an experienced actor’s confidence. In fact, some experienced actors are full of nerves on their first day of a new film. I know I’ve been full of nerves. With Oleg, maybe it’s because he didn’t know what he had to be afraid of. He didn’t come with an actor’s ambition, asking, “What if I fail, what if don’t succeed,” all the wrong crap that you put in your head. He just said, “I’m very lucky I’m here,” and it gave him a sort of openness and flexibility.
What about you taking on the role of Nureyev’s ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin?
I wanted to have a Russian actor playing Pushkin, but there was a point where the commercial element came in. It was a Russian producer who said to me, “Ralph, if you’re going to get Russian money in your film, why are you not in it?”
You sound very fluent when you speak Russian in the film.
Well, I had to work very hard to achieve that. I had made a film before in Russian. My Russian is quite limited, actually, but it wasn’t alien to me. I can assimilate a new word relatively quickly because I have a little foothold in the language. But also, now there’s the magic of modern technology. I would run off like 20 of the same vowel sounds with my Russian teacher and the Russian sound editor going, “No, no, no, yes, no, no, yes”—and then they would pick the best one. You can literally stitch it in because the sound technology is so sophisticated. It mattered to me that to Russian ears it was plausible. Even so, I think I’ve got a slight accent.
Do you think Pushkin was aware of his wife’s affair with Nureyev?
Well, no one knows what he thought about it. Julie actually gave me all the tapes of the interviews with the people she met in her research and there’s one person who says it was clear that Pushkin’s wife, Xenia, had a predilection for young male dancers. And Pushkin seemed to accept this. There are people who say that he may himself have been gay. But the two of them had a very strong marriage and very strong bond.
Pushkin’s whole world was the dance. He came from a very humble background and was sort of a self-cultivated man. He was a dancer before he went into teaching in the mid to late 1930s. He was known to be incredibly sensitive and very, very kind. And quiet. He was loved, and he obviously got results. His whole mode of teaching—people say that he would just look and make a comment and allow the dancers to discover and correct their mistakes themselves. There is an interview with the older Nureyev saying that every time Pushkin gave you a combination of steps, it all made sense. Pushkin was very protective of Nureyev. People thought he gave Rudolf too much attention.
Almost like he was in love with him?
I think a bit, yeah.
Is directing movies something you now wish to pursue more than acting?
I know I need a bit of time to find the next thing. What I love about directing is that another part of my brain is being challenged. I love the interaction and the people who are there to help me realize something and, indeed, bring their own talent and artistic ideas to the table. It was thrilling talking with David about creating the piece, and then putting it together with a cinematographer, and then the editor. And then the actors—I just love the process of nurturing a process with an actor. I find it rewarding to see how a character can evolve. I think a lot about Anthony Minghella. Of all the directors I worked with, he was the one who gave a lot of time to actors and was most curious about what actors would reveal. He’s often in my head as a sort of spiritual mentor.
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