“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.”
So begins the diary of Winston Smith, arguably one of literature’s most famous journals, from 1984, written by Eric Blair—whose better-known pseudonym was George Orwell.
Orwell’s last fictional effort was published in 1949, only one year before his death. Terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “newspeak,” and “Room 101” are in our lexicon for totalitarianism because of 1984. Orwell’s work cuts across the political spectrum as those on both the left and right freely channel him when excoriating contemporary examples of governmental power abuse.
There’s a logical irony in this because Orwell’s own personal views seem contradictory by today’s standards and make it impossible to pin him neatly down to either side of the political divide. Even though “Ingsoc,” Oceania’s guiding ideology in 1984, was Newspeak for “English Socialism,” Orwell—pro-life, anti-gay, atheist—was an unabashed Socialist to the very end. Of 1984, he stated, “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions … which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”
Christopher Hitchens’ book on the author, Why Orwell Matters, discusses at great length how partisans of all stripes who would adopt Orwell as one of their own often do so on tenuous grounds. Or, as the New Yorker’s George Packer observes, “When writers use the word ’Orwellian,’ you can be pretty sure they’ve read very little of him.”
Although its protagonist, Smith, isn’t sure exactly what year it is, 1984 takes place in a future imagined by Orwell where the second world war didn’t really end. Civil unrest and sporadic nuclear conflicts have left three superstates in control. Smith lives in Air Strip One, a province of what is called Oceania (formerly the United States and Britain). The other two are Eurasia (Soviet controlled Europe) and Eastasia (an alliance of China, Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet).
Winston Smith’s job rewriting history for the ironically named “Ministry of Truth” gives him a unique vantage point into the workings of Ingsoc in Oceania. Under the banner of Big Brother, a fictional figurehead, Oceania’s oppressive government controls the population by maintaining an unending state of martial law and steady flow of propaganda. For Outer Party members, such as Smith, this includes the installation of a two-way telescreen in his home that pumps out a diet of misinformation and allows the Thought Police to keep a constant watch on him. While browsing in an antique shop, Smith buys a diary; an act of “thoughtcrime” that he predicts will lead to his downfall. Three characters play pivotal roles in his life. First, Inner Party member O’Brien, who Smith mistakenly sees as a kindred spirit that will initiate him to an underground revolutionary movement. Julia, a twenty-six year old fellow worker at the Ministry of Truth, with whom Smith enters into an unsanctioned sexual relationship. Finally, Mr. Charrington, the man who owns the antique shop where Smith bought the diary and from whom he rents a flat for his trysts with Julia. When it’s revealed that Charrington actually works for the Thought Police, Smith’s prophecy about the diary comes disastrously true. This diary is tactically used against him during weeks of torture in the Ministry of Love at the hands of O’Brien (who turns out to have only pretended to be part of an underground movement). In Room 101, faced with his worst fear (rats), Smith is ultimately broken, renounces Julia, and comes to realize that he has “won the victory over himself” and loved Big Brother.
Both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and Orwell’s 1984 portray dystopian societies that have taken their respective guiding principle to absurdly extreme levels. Capitalism is satirized in Brave New World as mass production has become a worldview and replaced religion with mantras encouraging new product consumption such as “Ending is better than mending” and “the more stitches, the less riches.” Cloning and genetic engineering factories have eliminated sexual intercourse as the primary method of procreation. However, the distraction of wanton casual sex, the accumulation of material goods, and other hedonistic pursuits have become the foundation upon which that social order is built.
In 1984, Orwell describes a socialistic society that disdains capitalism and discourages consumption through draconian rationing. A perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia is sustained to justify an economic system that leaves Oceania’s inhabitants in a state of constant squalor. Whereas in vitro engineering and Pavlovian conditioning are used to mollify the citizens of Brave New World, Oceanians are subjugated by their poverty along with a sense of forced patriotism drummed up by state propaganda. Referred to as “proles,” eighty-five percent of the population live under the worst conditions and are too distracted by their plight to even consider revolt. The Inner Party takes a puritanical stance on sexuality because the families potentially resulting from sexual activity lead to personal, not communal, attachments and, as such, are at odds with the precepts of Ingsoc. Therefore, “artsem” (artificial insemination) is one of the few technological advancements still being pursued in Oceania.
Just as some theologians argue that the book of Revelations is not meant to be a prediction of the future but, instead, a warning from its author on contemporary issues of the day, 1984, like Animal Farm before it, is, in large part, Orwell’s commentary on the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Big Brother and Joseph Stalin are both “black-haired, black-moustachio’d” men. Emmanuel Goldstein, a figure held up by the government as a traitor, but viewed by a few remaining dissidents as a savior, parallels Leon Trotsky (whose real name was Lev Bronstein). The three slogans of the party, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” could be classic Marxist dialectics where contradictory ideas clash to form a synthesis.
Much of the political landscape laid out by Orwell in 1984 was derived from his concern for how a post-atomic age could actually make it easier for oppressive regimes to exist. Though he doesn’t often receive credit for it, Orwell coined the term “cold war” in his 1945 article “You and the Atomic Bomb.” The article prefigures what he will later fictionalize in 1984.
“More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parceled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy.
…looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ’cold war’ with its neighbors.
“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ’peace that is no peace’.”
There are many theories as to why Orwell ultimately chose the title 1984. One holds that as if to hold up a mirror to the times in which he wrote it (1948), Orwell simply reversed the last two digits of that year. Whatever the reason, Orwell’s use of numbers in 1984 does seem more than arbitrary.
A common motif in book is summed up in one of Smith’s journal entries that reads: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Later, during Smith’s interrogation in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien challenges this by stating that if the Party wanted it so, five could be the answer. This is a not so subtle reference to the Soviet slogan “two plus two equals five.” Meaning that the Communist Five-Year Plan could be achieved in four if the people tried hard enough. Furthermore, the date of Smith’s very first journal entry: “April, 4, 1984” is the fourth day of the fourth month of the fourth year of that decade. In addition to the diary, Smith buys a paperweight at Charrington’s shop. It is a piece of coral encased in glass which aesthetically appeals to Smith’s nostalgia for a time before Ingsoc. The price of the paperweight is four dollars. Thus, Orwell associates the number four with Smith’s quest for self-determination and freedom of thought.
Between bouts of torture, O’Brien confronts the idea of freedom of thought by explaining the Inner Party’s philosophy that, like a tree falling in the forest only making a sound if someone’s auditory system processes it; reality only exists as a construct in the human mind.
“Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. “If I wished,” O’Brien had said, “I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.” Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.” He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.”
Just as Goldstein’s fictional book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism was banned, in a case of life imitating art, Orwell’s 1984 was itself banned in Communist Poland. Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who suffered under Stalin, wrote about this in 1953:
“A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.
A few years after the book’s release, two television versions of 1984 were broadcast. The first, from 1953, had Eddie Albert playing Smith to Lorne Green’s “Big Brother” for Studio One. A BBC production from 1954 starred Peter Cushing. The BBC version is available on YouTube and is an interesting, if not flawed, interpretation.
Staging 1984 faithfully presents many challenges. Not the least of which is the temptation to treat the material more like science fiction than a vehicle for social commentary. This can be seen in the BBC version which, to a certain extent, plays up the gadgetry of Smith’s world in direct opposition to Orwell’s vision of arrested technological advancement. It’s also hard to imagine 1950’s television being able to faithfully depict the sadistic treatment Smith receives in the Ministry of Love.
This can also be said of Michael Anderson’s film version of 1984 (1956), which cast Edmond O’Brien as Smith. A number of shortcomings in this adaptation blunt the force of Orwell’s novel. First of all, Oceania doesn’t seem all that dreary a place. Again, the production designers succumb to the temptation of setting the story in a gleaming, futuristic environment. The cityscapes are clean, dome-like, glass houses, rather than the bombed out, deteriorating urban dwellings Orwell imagined. Furthermore, Edmond O’Brien is miscast. He’s far too healthy looking for the frail, sickly Smith as described. And his portrayal as the brave, would-be revolutionary is a bit too melodramatic when compared to the more tentative, fatalistic, paranoid Smith of the novel.
This is even more apparent when the Thought Police bust in on Smith and Julia’s love nest. Rather than being completely terrified, there’s a hint of defiance in Smith’s demeanor as soldiers surround the couple.
Finally, the torture scene, while still somewhat disturbing, is quite sanitized from the novel’s version.
The definitive film version of 1984, was actually produced in 1984. Michael Radford’s film, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is an extremely faithful adaption that perfectly captures the dark tone and texture of Orwell’s novel. John Hurt plays a sickly Winston Smith with the appropriate yearning for freedom tempered by a justifiable fatalism and sense of dread. Hurt’s Smith is no hero. Richard Burton, in his last film role, is equally well-cast as O’Brien. He brings a calm, quiet conviction to his role of a brutally uncompromising true-believer. Unlike Jan Sterling’s more romanticized performance in the 1956 film, Suzanna Hamilton as Julia displays the right level of mater-of-fact sexuality and pragmatic live for the moment demeanor.
Not that it really mattered, but, as the closing credits proclaim, Nineteen Eighty-Four was shot during the same time frame and in the exact locations as envisioned by Orwell. For example, the scene showing Smith making his first journal entry was actually filmed on April 4, 1984.
As opposed to the earlier attempts to dramatize 1984, Radford had a different challenge. Since the real world of 1984 didn’t resemble Orwell’s version, the temptation might have been to update the material and sidestep the discrepancies. A rumored Francis Ford Coppola adaptation was supposedly going to do just that. The film would have been set further in the future with some sort of explanation provided for the title. Fortunately, George Orwell’s widow, who disliked the 1956 version, would only sign over the film rights as long as a futuristic, sci-fi approach wasn’t employed.
The Radford film assumes that the audience can make a mental leap and accept that the world didn’t “turn out” as it did in the book. One comprise, albeit very minor, is Radford’s choice to present the title in its spelled out version (Nineteen Eighty-Four) rather than using the actual digits. Instead of looking forward, as previous adaptations had, Radford actually looks backward and creates a society that has more in common with the forties than the eighties. He also seems to assume that the viewer has read the book. For instance, the scene where Smith “rectifies” the Party’s incorrect chocolate predictions to make it appear that they exceeded expectations may not make sense to those without an understanding of the material beforehand. The film infuses Orwell’s voice in Nineteen Eighty-Four through the effective use of narrations from Smith’s diary and Goldstein’s book.
Except for inventions Orwell described in the novel (telescreens, speakwrite devices, synthetic food), there’s nothing in Nineteen Eighty-Four that appears more advanced than late 1940s technology. Smith even uses uses a rotary dial, rather than a touch pad, to call up information on his terminal. While the Eurythmics had recorded a soundtrack for Nineteen Eighty-Four, not much of it can actually be heard. The pop group’s synthetic sound was mostly buried in the background while Dominic Muldowney’s uber-patriotic anthem music figures more prominently (more details on the controversy between Radford and Virgin Films over the final soundtrack can be found here).
Highlighting Nineteen Eighty-Four are the Party propaganda pieces created for the film, as shown below in the “Two Minutes Hate” opening. They are themselves polished films within films, clearly inspired by works such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumpth of the Will. If there’s a silver anniversary DVD release of Nineteen Eighty-Four, one would hope for a special features section of just these telescreen broadcasts.
It’s worth comparing this version of Smith and Julia’s arrest with the 1956 version. That both are naked (something unlikely for a 1956 film) adds to the sense of intrusion and vulnerability in the scene. Also, unlike the 1956 version, Smith and Julia are, at that moment, clearly more focused on their individual predicaments than their love for each other. The telescreen voice parroting the couple’s words exactly save for the pronouns (“you are the dead” in place of “we are the dead”) plays out more eerily on film than in the book. For what it’s worth, the movie contains a line not from the book that sets the rent for Smith and Julia’s love nest at FOUR dollars.
Likewise, while the torture of Smith by O’Brien is perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards (Saw, Hostel), it’s still difficult to watch. Burton and Hurt really shine here as O’Brien explains the precepts of Ingsoc to the slowly deteriorating Smith.
Some final random thoughts:
1. Donald Pleasence, who appeared in both the BBC version of 1984 from 1954 and the 1956 film, was also in the similarly dystopian THX-1138.
2. Edmond O’Brien played an old West reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance who lived by the mantra that could very well have also been found in Goldstein’s book: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four has a great scene set in a lecture hall where the speaker discusses how the elimination of the orgasm is a necessary aspect of Artsem as it relates to Ingsoc.
4. Cyril Cusack, Mr. Charrington in Nineteen Eighty-Four was also the captain of the fire brigade from the 1966 film verision of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 directed by François Truffaut.
5. John Hurt played a Big Brother like character in V for Vendetta.
6. A new version directed by Tim Robbins is due out in 2010.
Lastly, here’s a YouTube of the infamous Ridley Scott-directed 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad. In this clip, the ad was being screened for an audience. The irony is that it shows a crowd reacting wildly to a movie screen depicting a crowd reacting wildly to a telescreen:
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.
Review: Come to Daddy Invests a Familiar Scenario with a Crazed Energy
Ant Timpson’s feature debut is a crazed parody of the self-pity inherent in familial resentments.3
Ant Timpson’s Come to Daddy is a crazed parody of the self-pity inherent in familial resentments. Norval (Elijah Wood) is a thirtysomething man who is invited by his estranged father, Gordon (Stephen McHattie), to meet him at his remote coastal cabin in a gesture of reconciliation. Norval and Gordon offer a pronounced study of contrasts: Gordon is a wiry, macho drunk who’s so bitter he seems to be losing his mind, while Norval is diminutive, vulnerable, somewhat fey, and on the wagon as a response to his own alcohol issues. In Gordon’s eccentric and gorgeous home, which resembles a lighthouse, the two men dance around the riddle of this reunion: Why does Gordan want to reconcile now?
Early on, it’s clear that Norval desperately wants Gordon’s approval, which Wood plays with a nakedness that gives the film an air of poignancy. The counterpoint to that poignancy is McHattie, who doubles down on Gordon’s irrational selfishness, giving a performance that’s both hilarious and eerily unpredictable. Wood and McHattie have stunning anti-chemistry, fashioning a sonata of loneliness and passive aggression out of silences, tics, and outbursts that eventually become violent. Timpson and screenwriter Toby Harvard have conceived Come to Daddy as a generational dramedy that goes spectacularly cuckoo, and the film’s joke is that things are much worse between Norval and Gordan than the heartbroken son imagines.
The tension between Norval and Gordon suggests a distillation of the differences between baby boomers and millennials writ large and broadly, with Norval as an over-sensitive man-child who lives with his mother, while Gordon is a lout who’s mourning his own irrelevancy. This contrast reaches a crescendo when Norval attempts to impress Gordon by lying about his knowing Elton John, which leads to a pair of resonant and intertwined punchlines. Gordon doesn’t exactly strike one as an Elton John fan, which underscores Norval’s cluelessness on the subject of working-class machismo, and Gordon also isn’t as out of it as he appears to be, calling Norval out on his deception with an acute and amusingly random sense of cruelty.
McHattie’s great gravelly voice renders regular words obscene and obscene words blasphemous. Later on, it’s truly disturbing when Gordon calls Norval a “cunt,” repeating the word as a mantra and bringing out into the open the contempt that’s been in the air from the start of the visit. Not long after this altercation, Timpson dramatically changes gears, springing a twist that’s out of the M. Night Shyamalan playbook and switching genres entirely.
Unlike many Shyamalan films, which seem constructed out of Mad Libs, Come to Daddy retains an emotional consistency. The film’s last hour could almost be Norval’s fantasy: a retreat from Gordon’s astonishing rejection. Come to Daddy structurally resembles Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which became a lurid fantasy at the moment that its antihero’s illusions were shattered. After Gordon impugns Norval’s masculinity, the two men are plunged into a delirious underworld in which Norval must learn to be a killer, and in which he’s even provided with a new father figure, Brian, who’s played by Martin Donovan with a soothing energy that serves as a respite from McHattie’s guttural gesticulations.
By film’s end, Norval gets the reconciliation of his dreams at a considerable cost, though he never learns why his father sent for him in the first place. Come to Daddy has a tang of real sadness, suggesting that family is composed of a coterie of arbitrarily assembled strangers.
Cast: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan, Michael Smiley, Madeleine Sami, Ona Grauer, Simon Chin Director: Ant Timpson Screenwriter: Toby Harvard Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s release, we ranked the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
21. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
20. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
19. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
Review: Body at Brighton Rock Is a Horror Film in Desperate Need of Thrills
Appearing to recognize the flimsiness of her material, Roxanne Benjamin overcompensates with insistent direction.1.5
Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock briefly exudes a daffy comic pulse as it traces a park ranger, Wendy (Karina Fontes), showing up late to a meeting. Wendy’s boss and co-workers lecture her for being locked up in her own head, but it’s to seemingly little avail. Fontes plays the moment with likeable aplomb, and Benjamin succinctly establishes the social dynamics of the park office, though these scenes turn out to be a form of misdirection. Seeking to prove herself, Wendy accepts an assignment out in the woods surrounding the fictional Brighton Rock peak, against her co-workers’ protests. At this point, Benjamin’s film leaves the office and supporting characters behind, becoming a two-hander between its protagonist and a theoretically fearsome setting.
Compared to the setting of The Blair Witch Project, or even of a comparatively polished film like Backwoods, the forest of Body at Brighton Rock feels tamed. In fairness, this is partially the point: Wendy is a ranger lost in a park after all, and Benjamin clearly wants us to feel the danger of a place that’s touristy on the surface yet is still ultimately wild and chaotic. Benjamin also sets most of Body at Brighton Rock in the bright sunlight, deliberately playing against horror-movie clichés of dark and spooky woods at night. That ambition is both admirable and regrettable, as a film this conceptually thin can use all the gimmickry it can get.
Most narratives about people out in the wild pivot on a macho idea of pampered individuals learning to conquer their weaknesses and connect with their primordial nature. Benjamin mostly resists this conceit, recognizing its hoariness, but doesn’t replace it with anything, leaving a hollowness at her film’s center. Wendy doesn’t have to come of age, but there should be some sense of her emotional progression as she finds a dead body, spends a night in the woods, and hallucinates a variety of repetitive scares. Instead, Wendy is simply presented as an avatar for the audience, and so the plot becomes a collection of stuff happening to her.
Though clocking in at a lean 87 minutes, Body at Brighton Rock feels padded out. Appearing to recognize the flimsiness of her material, Benjamin overcompensates with insistent direction. For instance, Wendy’s climb up a rock wall is goosed with quick cuts when a sustained shot of her against the rock would’ve been more frightening. And the score is always attempting to will nonexistent tension into being, conjuring a frenzy that simply isn’t on the screen.
One scene does linger in the memory. When Wendy encounters a bear, Benjamin underscores both the woman’s fear and the graceful poignancy of the hungry animal. This moment lacks the show-off gruesomeness of the bear attack in The Revenant and is all the better for it. Benjamin imbues her set piece with docudramatic immediacy, which lends authenticity to the film’s one insane flourish: Wendy turning a can of bear spray into a blowtorch in an act of self-defense. The largely buttoned-down Body at Brighton Rock could use more moments like that.
Cast: Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus, Miranda Bailey, Matt Peters, John Getz Director: Roxanne Benjamin Screenwriter: Roxanne Benjamin Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics
Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.2
Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”
We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.
The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.
On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.
Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.
The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).
Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.
Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax
It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.2
J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.
As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.
It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.
Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.
Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.
It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.
Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer
Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.
Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.
Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:
Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.
Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy
Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.1.5
“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.
It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.
I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.
That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More
In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.
Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.
See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.
Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Yves (Benoît Forgeard)
Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)
Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)
Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)
Third Annual ACID Trip
Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)
Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise
The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.3.5
The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.
Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.
Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.
This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.
Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.
These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.
Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture
Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.4
Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.
Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.
One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.
Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”
Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.
Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.
These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.
Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992
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