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Looking for One New Value But Nothing Comes My Way: An Interview with Film Critic Glenn Kenny About David Foster Wallace



Looking for One New Value But Nothing Comes My Way: An Interview with Film Critic Glenn Kenny About David Foster Wallace

One doesn’t need to dig deep into his body of work to see that the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace had sincere ambivalence about mass media—his much-heralded 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest, features a science fiction conceit where a lethal videotape known as “The Entertainment” is so addictive, its viewers lose interest in anything other than endless repeat viewings of the film.

But his fascination with pop culture extended beyond a critique of hyper-consumption, and always found its way back toward what it means to be a real human being despite our grotesquely materialistic culture. And his work was often incredibly funny. The three pieces Wallace wrote for Premiere Magazine in the mid-to-late 1990s, about subjects as diverse as David Lynch, Terminator 2, and the Adult Video News Awards, offer wide-ranging commentaries on their subjects. Within the notorious high word count is a mosaic of diverging thoughts and feelings, and an attempt to reconcile them.

The editor for all three pieces was Glenn Kenny, who had what he describes as a “generally positive and indeed collegial working relationship” during their first line edit. Some of the Wallace pieces sparked internal controversy at Premiere for a variety of reasons, and Kenny is able to provide a firsthand account of what happened. He and Wallace had mutual interests in film and literature, and Kenny was given the opportunity to not only have a back-and-forth on the shaping of each piece for the magazine, but also went into the field with Wallace to do research during the A.V.N. Awards.

Even after he vowed never to write for Premiere ever again, Wallace and Kenny maintained a friendship and correspondence until Wallace’s suicide on September 12, 2008. Now that some time has passed, I asked Kenny if he would be interested in sharing some memories of Wallace. He spent a fair amount of time laughing, since Wallace was an incredibly funny guy, though he still feels stunned by this sudden loss of one of the great writers of our generation.

How did you find yourself editing David Foster Wallace’s article about David Lynch’s Lost Highway at Premiere Magazine?

In May of 1996, there was this piece that had been in the inventory for a while by David Foster Wallace about David Lynch. It had been commissioned by Susan Lyne, a very prescient editor who kept up with what was happening in the literary world. At that time, Premiere was publishing works by literary authors, like the set visit to Robocop 2 by Martin Amis. Susan had commissioned Dave to visit the set of Lost Highway. He turned in this gargantuan 25,000 word manuscript which kind of got lost in the shuffle after Susan left. Then it landed on the desk of Kristin van Ogtrop, a senior editor who made the first pass at the piece. Her first aim was to cut the piece down to a more manageable magazine-type size. She worked with Dave and hacked away at it with his knowledge. That’s why on the acknowledgments page of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Kristen is referred to as “The Blunt Machete”. Kristin is, by the way, very bright—a very capable editor—there was no malice on her part. She had to fit the piece into a certain amount of space—and that’s it. The magazine was not counting on something as long as this. Dave would often be commissioned to do pieces at 5,000-7,500 words so he understood that at a certain point in the process it was quite possible this would happen, but in a way he was constitutionally incapable of keeping to a word length. It was a tacit agreement you had with him when you commissioned a piece that you were going to get something long. But if you can run a piece that long, he’s one of the cheapest first rate literary writers out there—you pay him X amount of dollars per word, but you get five times the words.

It wasn’t a problem for Premiere that the piece had laid around for as long as it did. Their policy with set visits was to publish them at the point where the film was coming out, which could take anywhere from six months to a year. Once there was some idea of when Lost Highway was coming out, the magazine was then able to slate it for a particular issue. Our editor-in-chief, Jim Meigs, had seen me carrying Infinite Jest into the office every now and then, and said, “It’s probably a good idea for you to edit this piece, since you’re familiar with his style.” His understanding was that Dave was somewhat apprehensive—to use one of several possible words—of how much cutting had been done to or needed to be done with it. Jim’s words to me were: “You should call him up and try to mollify him.” I don’t know how good I am at diplomacy, but Dave was not the kind of person it behooved you to be slick with. In one of our first conversations, I told him, “The guy I’m working for said I should mollify you about this, but let’s see if we can work together and come up with something that we’re both happy with.”

That article has become one of those “best written pieces about David Lynch”. Why do you think that is?

For me, what makes it exciting is not necessarily his discovery of “the Lynchian,” as he put it, but his illumination of the Lynchian in everyday life. That is what makes it so great and so funny. The examples of the hypothetical things that could happen to a person, or the little autobiographical or objective realist details of the Lynchian in everyday life. There’s also the painstaking detail—the descriptions of what happens on the set, the descriptions of the scenes in the film itself, his very astute grappling with what exactly is going on with Lynch at any given moment in the film, what the imagery is doing. What’s great also is he’s not interested in symbols or symbolism, that he takes Lynch at his word that Lynch is not symbolic. He appreciates Lynch as an intuitive artist, and it leads into things about Lynch that Dave was ambivalent about—the scenes with Richard Pryor that he felt were exploitative. In the sprawl of the essay, he demonstrates how it’s all of a piece. He does it in a way that is incredibly sophisticated but there’s this conversational tone in his essays that doesn’t come out at all as pompous. It’s an earnest voice.

A lot of people have misinterpreted Dave as a kind of postmodern ironist, which is the last thing he was. His work is deeply sincere and concerned with human values; searching for them. The thing that makes it seem like it is postmodern or ironic is because he never sees things as being quite that simple. There’s always this kind of doubling-back, always a reexamination of his position, but he’s always trying—not as an attempt to undercut anything, so much as it really is a search, a quest. People really liked the Lynch article, but you didn’t have a sense at the time that it was a paradigm-shifter in movie writing. It was one of those things that’s so in and of itself sui generis that you can’t emulate them. The interesting thing about Dave doing work at Premiere is he probably wasn’t the best fit for the magazine, but at the same time nobody else was going to publish a 20,000 word piece on David Lynch. And of course the title “David Lynch Keeps His Head” was something which he unshakably would not change his mind on. Not that I tried, I thought it was a great title, but you have these things when you’re in a magazine situation where you do the headline meeting or something and you say, “Well, let’s see if we can come up with something!” At a certain point I told Jim, “Let’s not even try to think about alternates for this. Let’s just go with that.” And it was fine.

Could you describe the process of working with Wallace?

It was fun. And funny, because he was soft spoken but had that very definite tone of voice—it was almost paradoxical—where you knew he was speaking from a rock-solid position in terms of his beliefs and inclinations, but by the same token he was in many ways deferential. It took some time for me to convince him that he did not have to call me Mr. Kenny, and that, in fact, it made me incredibly uncomfortable to be called Mr. Kenny.


Do you think it’s strange that he had rock-solid beliefs, but in his writing he was constantly circling around ideas, or backpedaling? Do you think that the tenets were the fulcrum of a wheel, and the wheel kept spinning around?

You’re right about the wheels and so on, and one of his major preoccupations in the fiction and essays was the very simple idea that you should not lie—and yet it is possible and likely that a person will very casually tell up to a dozen lies a day. He reflected on that quite a bit. But in terms of his way of dealing with people, he tried to stick to a very strong ethic of being sincere, well-mannered and respectful. In that way, to a certain extent, being formal is also a way of being guarded. You don’t give too much away. As we got to know each other, that gradually sloughed off. We had a series of conversations, working with this jigsaw puzzle structure where I was trying to restore certain things in the piece that he was very attached to and seeing what we could lose. We worked very specifically on the line edit, which was always [pretty] funny. He had strong feelings about the serial comma, for instance, which was not in our style-book—he was not so big on the sequential comma. Many of our sessions were spent taking out commas that the copy edit people would put back in, or putting back commas that the copy editors had taken out. Our copy chief at the time, Andy Webster, who is a good friend, and is now at The New York Times, was a real stickler for the style book. He was morally outraged over the serial comma issue, and it took persuasion from me and the managing editor at the time, Leslie Lewis, to allow that to go by. After a few conversations, Dave got the gist that I was pretty well versed in cinephilia, so he came to trust me on film references and so on. He said he’s only seen a few Bresson films so he’d say, “I don’t know how firm ground I’m at when I refer to such-and-such as Bressonian” and he would leave it to me to edit.

What was the common ground, or mutual things you enjoyed about films?

It wasn’t his main concern—literature to him was the alpha and the omega. But he liked films an awful lot. When he was in college, like any person going to a reasonably good school, he was able to see a good number of films there. He enjoyed the Bresson films, but on the whole, he usually wasn’t interested in foreign films—he was more drawn to American films as pop culture. They reflected his concerns, which have to do with the condition of being American, particularly during his writing after 9/11. I spent most of my youth as a cinephile almost shunning American film. It wasn’t until I was a little more mature, despite my readings of Andrew Sarris, that I started taking American film all that seriously. For him, it was always about that—about things like Psycho, real touchstones in the development of cinema itself and that represented seismic shifts in the overall culture.

Did your tastes converge on literature?

I remember trying very hard to convince him to read Georges Perec, who he was suspicious of because of what he considered to be his formalist tendencies. I got him to read W, or the Memory of Childhood, which I think brought him around. We were both big fans of the publishing house the Dalkey Archive. We got into impassioned discussions about Harry Matthews, Raymond Queneau, those kind of guys. There aren’t a lot of people who can talk about that, or like talking about it. When we were working together, that was a kind of side-light of our exchanges.

What happened with the second piece commissioned by Premiere, which did not get published?

1998 was the 20th-anniversary of Premiere, so we had a package piece about ten movies that defined our decade. The whole idea was that we were gonna spend a shitload of money, get name writers who would completely violate us in terms of how much we would pay them, and have them do these small 300-500 word essays on films which we just arbitrarily picked. I was in charge of negotiating all the deals with the writers, going through all their agents. We had Martin Amis on Goodfellas, Rick Moody doing Pulp Fiction, Tony Kushner on Wings of Desire, that sort of thing. I mentioned this to Dave, and he was like, “Well, I have some things to say about Terminator 2.” I responded, “I’ll bet you do!” We went through Bonnie [Nadell, his agent], we did the paperwork, and everybody else was turning in 300-word pieces to a letter. I don’t even speak to certain people; I think I faxed Martin Amis a thank you note or something. With most of the writers it was very removed, which was fine, because they all did exactly what they were asked, it was pretty terrific, and cost a lot of money.

But Dave sent 2,000 or 3,000 words on Terminator 2 and why it was a betrayal of the first film because it was so reliant on special effects that it basically heralded in the age of what he called “FX Porn.” The objection was not that it was a negative write-up. It was just too long and we couldn’t shoehorn it into the format. If you have nine essays that are 300 words each, you can’t tack the 3,000 word essay on at the end. Theoretically, you could, but there are all sorts of considerations that come into play. After a fairly long process of—not even negotiation, because what was there to negotiate? Just sort of mutual soul-searching on both our parts we finally understood that this was not something that would distill into either 300 or 500 words, so we paid him the full fee, and it was sort of like, “Well, sorry.” There was a stipulation that we might try and publish it as a stand-alone essay, but then what’s the tag? So we released it and it ended up getting published at Waterstone. It’s available online (ed note: see introduction). I went over to Christopher Buckley, who handed in 300 very good, professional words on Terminator 2, which he liked. Kingsley Amis, Martin’s father, was a big fan of Terminator 2. He said it was an unimpeachable masterpiece. If you’re someone who believes in the sentimental idea of the afterlife, it’s amusing to imagine Wallace and Kingsley Amis arguing about it.

Dave had a pretty strong line on himself as a magazine writer. He was capable of writing very short things, very short stories, and so on. With magazine stuff, he was going to go his own way. I think the idea was if you go to him asking him to do something, he’s going to do it his way. If you want an investigative piece about the Adult Video News Awards, you send an investigative journalist—maybe Evan Wright or Mark Jacobson. You send a reporter. If you want a David Foster Wallace piece on the AVN Awards, you send Wallace. That’s what led to some of the problems that occurred during the editing of [his third piece for Premiere,] “Big Red Son”. It wasn’t a matter of “could he do it,” it was more of a matter of why would you ask him to? He’s not that guy. He’s not the guy you want, if you want 300 or 400 or 1,000 tight words with sourced backup, the stuff of conventional journalism or even gonzo journalism.

It seems like there were a great deal of behind-the-scenes struggles with running “Big Red Son” in Premiere—what’s the story behind this piece?

It was the most fun and the most painful thing, really. I guess it was summer of 1997 when we were talking about porn. He was in the middle of writing Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, because I know that his short story “Adult World” directly came out of his porn research. “Big Red Son” and “Adult World” complement each other. I guess he had been approached by Spin and he suggested writing about the AVN Awards under a pseudonym, because he had told his agent he wasn’t going to do magazine work for two years. But he was interested enough in this topic that he was willing to go back on it, and didn’t want his name plastered all over magazine covers looking like he had lied. Then he remembered he had discussed the idea with me, and wanted Premiere to have a crack at this piece. That’s where it started. Spin didn’t get the piece, which is sad for them, but the thing that I had, which was great for the piece, was knowing the Hustler writer Evan Wright, and I also knew Scotty Schwartz, the former child actor who had gone into porn, sort of, and these guys were going to be able to introduce us to all these porno people. We definitely brought some more research mojo to the table than Spin in that respect, I guess. We ended up buying quite a few porno videocassettes and shipping them off to Dave in Normal, Illinois, where he’d take notes, send them back to us and we’d keep them because eventually we’d have to fact check. AVN was very excited about working with us, so they ended up sending us their magazine for quite some time. That magazine had the best ads in the history of magazines.

Such as?

“Watch out for…COCK-ZILLA!” There was this gay porno film called The Black Brigade that was based on Glory that actually featured a guy playing Abraham Lincoln. THAT was a heck of an ad! Anyway, the time came to actually go out to Vegas itself. It was kind of a lost weekend for me. I was having a lot of personal and money problems at the time, and about to descend into a slough of despondency that I didn’t emerge from until 2002, though that’s neither here nor there. I had only met Dave a couple of times when he came to New York for readings and stuff, and we had lunch once. I knew Evan Wright was going, and [one of the first things we did] I arranged a dinner with Scotty Schwartz, who had been a fairly prominent child actor. He was in The Toy with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor. He plays Flick, the kid who gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole, in A Christmas Story. Like a lot of child actors of his day, once he hit his teens he started running with a pretty fast crowd that included Ron Jeremy. Ron Jeremy’s hobby at a certain point was introducing kids like Corey Haim, Corey Feldman and Scotty to porn stars, which was pretty seedy.

Now I knew Scotty through a friend, who was his driver during his younger days when he was in the Broadway production of Frankenstein. I had a good social relationship with Scotty, who was an interesting little fella. He got involved with the porn scene as a social thing, and around this time, or a couple of years before, both Haim and Feldman were garnering attention because of various drug scandals. Scotty had remained a relative straight arrow, but it occurred to him that if he built a scandal around himself, he would be able to get some attention too. He didn’t factor in that this attention didn’t actually include anything in the way of real paying work with any kind of dignity. Haim and Feldman are completely stuck in that trench of being reality stars rather than performers, so it didn’t have any long term payback. Scotty’s manufactured scandal was to do a sex film, Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure.

How did that first evening with Scotty go?

On the first night we were there, that was the night we had dinner with Scotty and Dave. Scotty was kind enough to take us to a party at the Rio where we met Jasmine Sinclair, and there’s that moment in “Big Red Son” when Dave gets outraged about Tom Byron, “who has precisely one attribute, offering his hand Godfather-style expecting the gesture of obeisance.” That’s an example of Dave’s inability to lie, because the whole account of the dinner with Scotty Schwartz is just … fucking … devastating, and arguably not very nice, but also pretty accurate. I remember talking to him about it and, without even considering asking him to soft pedal it, I was like, “Pretty harsh on Scotty there, aren’t you?” Scotty has never spoken to me since. If you read it, it’s actually couched in a footnote and is not entirely devoid of sympathy, but also doesn’t let up. Dave ties the observations in this whole weird self-regard of the porn star tendency that he perceived, but he also disliked Scotty personally. I remember the night of the awards, Dave was like, “Yeah, I noticed that Scotty really didn’t like my bandana at all, so I’m gonna wear it again tonight.” It was kind of adolescent, but you know, we both had a laugh over that…

We had an awful lot of fun and it was interesting to watch him work. It’s not fair to say he came to the event with an agenda, but by the same token, there are certain things he left out. Evan actually took Dave to a radio interview that was being conducted with this porn star named Chloe a/k/a Chloe Nicole who was a recovering drug addict, and her statement was that porn and Alcoholics Anonymous saved her life. An interesting line, which Dave could have used to a certain advantage in the piece but actually didn’t talk about at all, so there was a certain selection process involving the material that he got out there, which always happens, but it was definitely weighted towards one thing more than another. In the essay, he was very much trying to acknowledge the attraction to porn while being deeply repelled at the same time, and in the arm wrestling match, repulsion handily wins.

This was the first time you had gone out into the field with Dave and saw how he worked. Can you describe what that was like?

Dave could just walk around, getting as much out of the environment as possible. After 45 minutes of looking, he’d go out into the hallway in the convention center, sit up against the wall and write in his legal pad for 20-30 minutes, which was a good thing for him, because then he could zone out and not notice anything that was happening around him. I think the reason he had such an aversion to severely urban areas was the sensory overload of having to perceive that much. When you were walking around with him on the floor of the AVN Expo, you got the sense of him being overwhelmed. Part of his way of dressing was, when he wasn’t wearing the bandana, trying not to be noticed. He said he wasn’t a reporter, and he didn’t do reporting per se. He didn’t go up to people and start asking them questions. I think this is where Evan and I helped him, bringing him to a situation where he could converse. The thing about someone like Paul Little a/k/a Max Hardcore is you don’t need much to get them talking, which was part of his problem. There are all sorts of stories of him being on a plane, first class, getting drunk on free cocktails and showing his portfolio of anal sex extravaganzas to the woman sitting next to him—who would immediately get horrified and request a seat change. It wasn’t difficult to get Max Hardcore to talk—or anyone in the porn industry, really.

So what happened after this lost weekend?

He wrote the piece, which didn’t take too long. Premiere didn’t know where it was going to be on the schedule, it was really long, and we had to see what we were going to do about it. At a certain point we settled on the September issue. Despite the fact that the AVN Awards had lost their “news” value, this was not a news piece. Then we got into this whole process, which seemed to go fine. We cut way less than we did from the Lynch piece. This one actually ran somewhere like 25,000 words, very close to the original word length. We worked very hard on the cut, and then there was the whole matter of legal, which was very weird, because there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s invented, starting from the dual pseudonym which he then expands into a conceit of first person plural narration. There are the characters of Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba, who were invented characters that were also composites of myself and Evan. Legal was like, “Oh-kay … Harold Hecuba’s trifocals winding up in cleavage of Christy Canyon and then never being seen again?” Obviously, that’s not what really happened. It was more like, Jasmine St. Clair got Evan into a choke hold at a party one night. But we said they should let it go because: “Neither Evan or I care about the fact that we’re Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba and … the writer’s a very big deal!” Our legal department was very good about that, actually. As long as it wasn’t actionable, if we wanted to do it, they figured it was our funeral. Then came the fact checking, which involved watching a shitload of porno movies. “Oh and 13 guys spit in Stephanie Swift’s face…” (mimes a fact checker counting off the number of spits in S. Swift’s face)

Jim, the editor-in-chief, was concerned about how relentless the article was. When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, obviously you want to back up your writers, but then there’s also the overall tone of a given issue, and how everything works together. In his opinion something needed to be done. At the time, I was prone to acting out and being belligerent, so I don’t think I actually helped the situation, saying, “We have to do what the writer says!” Not that I don’t think I was right, I just didn’t go about making my position felt in a constructive way. What wound up happening was the profanity of the piece was hyphenated a couple of days before we shipped, which made Dave very angry. He was somewhat angrier still when the piece ran and it leaked out that he was the author, although that was going to happen anyway.

He’s done that other times, though, using a pseudonym for pieces in McSweeney’s.

Yeah, but he hadn’t come out and said Mr. Squishy had been bowdlerized! For that to be leaked, to him, was adding insult to injury. I don’t blame him.

What was your relationship was like with Premiere at this time?

I had threatened to quit, and Dave had made it clear that I should not. He called me up and said, “Look, I am mad about what happened to the piece. I will not write for Premiere ever again. I’d love to work with you if you’re ever at another magazine. I don’t think you should quit, though, because you’re doing good work over there.” I was just about to start writing the film reviews there and actually was going to change my identity. I became a film critic, but before that I had been an editor and an occasional feature writer. But he said, “No, don’t quit on my account.” This was a measure of the kind of person that Dave was. If it had been almost any other writer, he probably would have encouraged me to quit and then not returned my phone calls! But yeah, I was on shaky ground at the time. I’m actually mildly surprised that Jim didn’t fire my ass.

After Wallace had not written for Premiere anymore, what was the nature of how you guys stayed in touch?

We’d call each other up every now and then. Something would happen, or he’d want to ask me about something, or he’d be in town. We’d talk every couple of months—“What did Mickey Rourke do to his FACE?,” or “I was in the video store and I heard this voice on the P.A. system and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and then I thought it was Franzen, and then I was like, why is Franzen on the P.A. system of this video store? And then I realized it was you and they were playing this DVD of Jules and Jim with your commentary on it! How did you wind up doing that—that was pretty cool!” There were a lot of things going on in our personal life simultaneously that we found pertinent to talk about. I had met the woman who I would later marry, and when he was out here in 2002, we all had tea together, and he really liked Claire, which I thought was pretty great. Shortly after that he met Karen and they got married. The last few years of knowing each other, we were like two men as uxorious husbands, essentially.

I tried to get Dave to write for a book I edited about Star Wars called A Galaxy Not So Far Away and he wasn’t that interested. “I’m more of a Lord of the Rings man. Let me know if you ever edit a book about that.” I did get feedback from him when the book was completed, and I know Todd Hansen was happy that Dave enjoyed his piece best of all. Todd wrote this very long 20,000 word piece about the inevitable anticlimax of The Phantom Menace which was very impassioned and questioning and tortured in a way that recalls Dave’s work, so he liked that.

You brought up very early on about his post 9/11 writing. Do you feel like there was a shift?

In the way that Infinite Jest deals with certain species of disaster or catastrophe, 9/11 was a natural subject for him. But it’s funny the way certain events put prior perceptions into relief. I always thought that what Dave did after Infinite Jest was really smart as a career move. He had published this pre-millennial, huge home run novel in a tradition that includes Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon took a very long time to follow that up, and I think part of the reason was because it became expected of him that that was the kind of thing he was going to do for the rest of his life. In certain ways the work Pynchon has done since then has been both in that vein and trying to refute the idea about being the kind of novelist who only writes the Big Novel. I thought what Dave did after Jest was brilliant by not doing another novel—by doing these essays, doing Oblivion and Brief Interviews—the latter of which can function as an unusual novel if you read it in a certain light. It was a smart way of keeping out there, staying vital, maintaining his position as a writer and being so productive in a way where nobody is going to say, “Where’s the next big novel?” Especially when you find out some of the things that were contributing factors to his depression had to do with his inability to get a novel done. So I’m thinking, “What a brilliant strategy!” And he’s thinking, “I’ve just abandoned my third try at a novel. What am I going to do?” He did not tell a lot of people about his depression; only those very close to him.

But if you read his work, it was impossible to deny that he was grappling with these things.

I remember reading Brief Interviews and thinking, “I’m a little worried about Dave.” But then seeing him read the most harrowing portions of the book in New York where it became the funniest thing ever, I thought, “Oh, all right!” We talked about things like addiction. He was always solicitous of your own condition, your own health. I know he had some very profound struggles in areas like that. Even had he not been depressed, I don’t think Dave was adverse to happiness but I think he was incredibly suspicious because of all of the false things in the culture that are proposed to simulate happiness. He looked at the concept askance because of that. Part of his personal struggle was to find a form of happiness that was not ersatz. Certainly, to as much as an extent as possible, he found that in his marriage.

He reacted so strongly against contemporary writers who we might perhaps generalize as nihilistic. I don’t know if I’d call it “happy” but certainly the earnestness of his writing—like Chekhov is perhaps unsparing of his characters, but not unsympathetic. It’s like a doctor looking at a symptom. I don’t think that’s happiness, but at least regarding a human being with empathy gets us going in the right direction.

It was all about the Sisyphean struggle as it were. To put it in a different way, without making it a pop song, “I’m looking for one new value but nothing comes my way.” That’s not how Dave felt, but “happiness” is such an amorphous word. There’s such a huge strain of philosophy that says happiness should not even be what we are, what we should seek, and Dave being incredibly learned in philosophy was no doubt familiar with that. But looking for a value, and not stopping. What stopped him was the disease. Infinite Jest is very interesting in his sections about AA, the whole idea of the intellectual, the non-believer embracing the 12 steps even though he doesn’t necessarily believe them, and how to reconcile that. I don’t think he believed in an afterlife. He thought Belief or Faith were values in and of themselves. It’s the kind of attitude you find, albeit in a somewhat less sophisticated intellectual form, in some of Tarkovsky’s films, like Stalker. I wish we’d talked about it more.

Someone said “the imperative that runs through DFW’s work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom.” Do you agree with that?

It’s an imperative; it’s there—it was there in the way he carried himself, calling me “Mr. Kenny” and all that. He started from a place of humility. As relationships form, it becomes different. But he was never pompous or overbearing as a person, and his wisdom, well, you know? Once he settled on a certain position, morally, he settled on it. And he was very definite. But there’s a never-ending struggle there, too. That’s something I think all writers are well advised to bear in mind.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.



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.



Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

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.

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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.



The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

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.

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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.



Terrence McNally
Photo: Miller Mobley

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.

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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.



Mary Harron
Photo: IFC Films

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.

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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.



The Grand Bizarre
Photo: Jeonju International Film Festival

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.

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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.



Electric Youth
Photo: YouTube

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.

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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.



Eljiah Wood, Stephen McHattie, and Ant Timpson
Photo: Daniel Katz

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.

Wood: Wow!

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.

Timpson: Hundreds!

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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.



Touki Bouki
Photo: World Cinema Foundation

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.

Silent Cinema

Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.


Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)

In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.

Sign up for the Criterion Channel here.

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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.



Ralph Fiennes
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked

On the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s release, we ranked the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.



Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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.

The Incredible Hulk

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

Iron Man 2

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

Captain Marvel

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

Avengers: Infinity War

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

Captain America: The First Avenger

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

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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

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