1. The Air of Unreality
Keith Uhlich: Here. Read this. It’s from Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Nonfictions.
Matt Zoller Seitz: All right. (Reading aloud from text:)
“Objections of a more general nature can also be leveled against City Lights. Its lack of reality is comparable only to its equally exasperating lack of unreality. Some movies are true to life: For the Defense, Street of Chance, The Crowd, even The Broadway Melody, and some are willfully unrealistic, such as the highly individualistic films of Frank Borzage, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Eisenstein. Chaplin’s early escapades belong to the second type, undeniably based as they are on depthless photography and accelerated action, as well as on the actors’ fake mustaches, absurd false beards, fright wigs and ominous overcoats. Not attaining such unreality, City Lights remains unconvincing. Except for the luminous blind girl, extraordinary in her beauty, and for Charlie himself, always a rake, always disguised, all the film’s characters are recklessly normal. Its ramshackle plot relies on the disjointed techniques of continuity from 20 years ago. Archaism and anachronism are literary modes too, I know, but to handle them intentionally is different from perpetrating them ineptly. I relinquish my hope, so often unfulfilled, of being wrong.”
KU: I’m citing this passage to get at the idea of unreality in Tarantino, because you said that you often had a problem believing in the worlds he’s created, that you miss the religious element or the spiritual element that I think apply to them. I use that Borges quote as a justification for my point of view, primarily because of the one section where Borges talks about attaining an unreality.
Yet I think that part of the passage also supports your point of view because maybe the Kill Bill films, or Reservoir Dogs—or any of Tarantino’s films—don’t attain the air of unreality that allow you yourself to feel the reality of the situation. Whereas they do for me.
We’re entering into this conversation coming from antithetical perspectives.
MZS: Yeah, and we’re kind of jumping into the deep end of the pool. And that’s OK, because what you’re describing is the crux of what I call “My Tarantino Problem.” We’ve been having this argument for about a year now, and at one point I told you that I was going to write a piece called “My Tarantino Problem,” and that you might as well follow it up with a rebuttal titled, “Your Tarantino Problem.” We never got around to that, but here we are now, so let’s just get it out here, and follow it at the very end with a discussion of Grindhouse.
By way of background, the first Tarantino movie I reviewed was Reservoir Dogs, back when I was a critic for New Times newspapers. I said at the time, when it came out after an advance wave of publicity declaring him the next great American filmmaker, that yes, it was entertaining, yes it was very clever, but there was something secondhand about it. It seemed to me an exceptional example of the tough guy movie, of the gangster film, but there was something glib about it that rubbed me the wrong way. I guess you could call the review backhandedly positive.
Then Pulp Fiction came out, when I’d been a professional journalist for about three years, and a lead film critic for about a year. I really fell for that movie. I saw it several times in the theater, and I remember being very strongly influenced by a Sight and Sound article about Tarantino that hit newsstands right around the time of the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded the movie its grand prize. I remember on first viewing being bothered by certain elements of the movie, including pacing problems and the film’s attitude toward violence, which I thought was too comical—there wasn’t enough weight to it—and just a general sense that what I was seeing were not hit men and boxers and gangsters’ trophy wives, but rather a video store clerk’s conception of them based on having seen them in other movies.
But the movie was so exciting, and so interesting for the way that it merged Hollywood and American art house and exploitation and academic elements, that my review barely touched on the aspects that bugged me—maybe because I was young, the movie was being hailed as a masterpiece by much more established critics who I thought were quite smart, and I wanted to cover my ass in case my elders were drawing on a base of knowledge I just didn’t have yet, which seemed very possible, considering that I was still finding my way.
That nagging feeling came back years later as I was watching parts of Jackie Brown, which I think is still his most mature film, for all its problems. And they resurfaced again when I watched the Kill Bill movies. A lot of the things that didn’t sit right with me when I watched his last three features were also present, in some form, in Pulp Fiction. There was a lesson in there, and I think it was something like, “Trust your instincts.”
My Tarantino problem in a nutshell is that I recognize the things that he’s trying to do, and I concede that if the goal is to create an entertaining movie that is very much about other movies and very much informed by film history, then Tarantino has to be considered a major, major success, there’s no doubt about it; but as I get a little older, and get further away from my twenties, I look back on my positive review of Pulp Fiction, and I cringe a little bit, because what I’ve come to value in movies more than anything else is emotion, and a sense of connection to life. That is the one thing that I think is consistently missing from Tarantino’s movies, with a couple of exceptions, which I think we’ll get to as we go through his career film by film.
2. Fire and Brimstone
KU: Reservoir Dogs I count as a big influence in my life. It was the movie that sort of shocked me into wanting to be a critic. To further my spiritual-religious descriptor: I recently re-watched all of Tarantino’s work and they seemed like an old school preacher talking at you, really preaching with fire and brimstone.
MZS: Reservoir Dogs? Really?
KU: Yes. Absolutely. And not just Reservoir Dogs—the whole body of work has to me a revival tent, old-school-religious feel: in its sanguine nature, in its passion and enthusiasm, and also in its more troubling aspects.
I don’t want to come across as a blind Tarantino acolyte. I admit there are problematic things in all his movies that I am willing to accept as part of his contradictions. But his movies are inherently contradictory in that way. Reservoir Dogs is probably the most perfectly structured and leanest of them all—
KU: You know what, though? I’m going to take that back. One of the things I appreciated when I re-viewed all the movies is what I’ll call The Tarantino Longeurs, which are the very quiet moments, the “boring” moments, that lull you into complacency before the punch line. Everything comes clear for me. There’s a sense of illumination and I get a chill out of it.
MZS: I would never use religious language to describe Tarantino. You’ve got to not only have, but be able to communicate, feeling, in order to convey that sensibility, and I just don’t think Tarantino has it in him. He believes in the gospel of movies, no doubt. I think his taste is incredibly eclectic, and I admire that. But I could list—and I might as well go ahead and do it right here—the moments that have moved me in Tarantino films.
There’s Harvey Keitel cradling Tim Roth in his arms at the end of Reservoir Dogs. There’s the flashback, or the visualization, in Reservoir Dogs, of Tim Roth in the bathroom with the police dog coming in. There’s John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson walking out of the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction, and the dance between Travolta and Uma Thurman. In Jackie Brown, almost any scene involving Robert Forster, and the expressions on Robert De Niro’s face as his character comes to grips with his attraction to Bridget Fonda’s character. And in the Kill Bill movies, really nothing, except for the anime section in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which ironically for me is the only chapter of those two movies that attains that kind of excessive, operatic emotion that Sergio Leone attained routinely in his spaghetti westerns, which are an acknowledged and probably primary influence on the Kill Bill films.
That last item on the list tells me all I need to know about Tarantino: the only scene in both parts of Kill Bill that felt truly overwhelming to me—overwhelming and excessive in a good way—was the scene that Tarantino essentially subcontracted to another filmmaker.
That, in a nutshell, is my Tarantino problem. His technical proficiency, his sense of play, his sense of film history, his wide-ranging taste, the democratic spirit that is Quentin Tarantino, all demand to be acknowledged. But there’s something missing. I like many filmmakers who are in the vein of Tarantino. I adore the Coen brothers, and they’re often accused of being artificial, and I’m doing some writing about Wes Anderson right now, who wouldn’t exist if not for Tarantino and the Coens. But Wes Anderson and the Coens—and for that matter, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, who are also highly, highly, highly stylized, contraptionist filmmakers have all moved me more than Tarantino. Even when their movies are overscaled, overcontrolled or boring, they touch my feelings in a way that Tarantino doesn’t. If Tarantino’s a preacher, I’d say he’s Elmer Gantry. I don’t believe in anything he says.
KU: I do believe, and continue to. Reservoir Dogs was important to me as a teenager—and this is going to sound crazy—in the way that Spaceballs was important to me as a child.
MZS: How so?
KU: Spaceballs was one of the videos I rented the most. That’s my video store clerk mentality coming out here. I saw it seven times on video, I loved it so much. I went into the video store to rent it again and there was literally one last copy up there on the shelf. Somebody else had just taken it, so I walked up to this person and grabbed the Spaceballs cassette from them because I wanted to see it an eighth time.
MZS: You never know what’s going to give you a revelation.
KU: And that film gave me a revelation when I was very young. Then I was going through middle school, and I somehow heard about Akira Kurosawa, and I said to my parents, “Let’s do a Kurosawa film festival,” just because I had heard of him, and I started bringing home Kurosawa films on tape. Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992. That was post-middle school, early high school, a very important time for me developmentally. And Reservoir Dogs shocked me out of some kind of complacency. I credit it with putting me on and pushing me down the road toward being a film critic.
MZS: What did Reservoir Dogs do to you, or show to you, that was so significantly different from anything you’d experienced before that it prompted you to reconsider your life and think about what you wanted to do with it? I ask that because—and I don’t think you’d disagree with this—Tarantino’s career is very much about borrowing and repurposing film history. By which I mean, a lot of the stuff you saw in Reservoir Dogs you’d probably seen before, in some other form.
KU: Or I was being prepared for it. People say about Tarantino—and I want to be careful here and not make blanket statements about groups of people, because I did that the last time we had one of these conversations—I do see a sort of group mentality that attacks Tarantino, that says his appropriations turn minds off to film history, and not just film history.
MZS: I have heard that—that if Tarantino’s such a boon to film history, why aren’t Godard DVDs flying off the shelves?
KU: The charge is that Tarantino’s work does not make people want to seek out the other stuff, the movies that inspired him. But Tarantino’s work does make me want to seek out the other stuff. The Shaw Brothers logo at the beginning of Kill Bill actually made me seek out the Shaw Brothers films, and it helped inform me as to what he was trying to do in the Kill Bill movies. Reservoir Dogs, maybe Jean-Pierre Melville could be compared to that. But back to your question, which is, what was different about Reservoir Dogs? For starters, there’s the copious amount of blood. It’s a very sanguine movie. It is soaked in blood—Tim Roth especially.
MZS: Tim Roth seems to spend about half the movie bleeding.
KU: He does. Then there was the jumping back and forth within the story. I know now that this had been done before in other movies. But put yourself in my position—this was entirely new to me, this jumping around chronologically. I can hear the cinephiles now, saying, “Oh, what a sad child, to have experienced Tarantino before Godard.”
MZS: Well, you gotta start somewhere.
KU: The movie showed me this structure that I had never seen before, and it showed me this really vicious, bloody vision. Like the title says: Reservoir Dogs. They’re going at each other in the gutter. God is in all of Tarantino’s movies. Reservoir Dogs is very much about looking down at these men going at each other, and essentially destroying each other.
However, at the same time, it’s funny, but I think I had always misread the end of Reservoir Dogs until I watched it again just a few days ago. When Roth is saying, “I’m a cop,” and Keitel points the gun at his head, I always thought Roth was trying to talk Keitel out of shooting him. The last time I watched it, it seemed that instead of [Roth] saying, “I’m sorry. What are you doing? Don’t do that!” he was saying, “Do it. I want to be with you.”
MZS: The brilliance of that ending is that it can be read more than one way. I’ve had conversations with people about the meaning of the words and gestures in that scene, and there isn’t one answer, just as there is no one answer to the question, “Why did Travis Bickle shoot all those people?”
3. God in Tarantino
KU: If I see the presence of God in Tarantino’s work, it comes primarily through the idea of beatification.
MZS: How so?
KU: Faces. And what faces mean.
I’ll give you some examples from the movies. The dolly-in to Keitel’s face at the end of Reservoir Dogs. In Jackie Brown, Pam Grier, both the opening side profile, and the final shot of the movie, looking at her face. In Pulp Fiction, Travolta’s ecstasy after he shoots up. And from Tarantino’s CSI episode, “Grave Danger” where one of the CSI members is buried alive—by John Saxon of all people, which tickles me to no end—
MZS: Appropriate given his exploitation pedigree—
KU:—and this video feed comes up showing the buried CSI member accompanied by The Turtles’ song “Outside Chance”. Tarantino then does these individual close-ups of the CSI team looking at the feed, and coupled with the song—whether or not you think these television actors can necessarily project or not—the end result is profound, soulful. I got that out of it anyway. Someone once criticized Jackie Brown in a class I was auditing. She said that when she saw that close-up of Pam Grier, all she got out of it was that Tarantino enjoyed looking at her. She was saying, “I don’t get it, I don’t get it.” I wanted to just say, “Yes, he likes looking at her, but he also likes what she emanates.” There’s something that comes from her, some kind of soulfulness that also comes from Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies.
MZS: It’s interesting that you say that, because I think that Tarantino unquestionably appreciates the personalities of actors, their senses of humor, their idiosyncrasies, and as far as photographing their faces, yeah, he has his moments. But I often feel that he’s seeing them primarily as objects to be photographed. I don’t get the same sense, consistently, of a life force emanating out of them.
You bring up Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. One of the major failures of that movie is Grier’s performance. I don’t believe it’s her fault. Quentin Tarantino was her director, and he should have given her more direction, or different direction, but there’s a sense in that movie of her being treated as an icon, and in the context of that particular movie, her iconic status is not elaborated upon enough for my taste. Perhaps what we needed in that movie was not Pam Grier the blaxploitation icon, or the kind of street-level feminist figure, but a woman—just a real woman, a person who compliments Robert Forster’s character. That long final close-up scored to “Across 110th Street,” which a lot of people think makes the movie, to me exposes everything that’s wrong with the movie—a movie that I like a great deal, in spite of the many, many aspects of it that I have problems with. I’m looking at the face of an actress driving a car while a song plays, and I’m not getting any sense of reflection from the movie or from her.
Again, it’s not Grier’s fault. The woman can act. But in that movie, she’s put on a pedestal too much.
KU: I don’t agree. Dan Callahan and I are friendly with James Harvey, who wrote Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges and Movie Love in the Fifties. He’s told us how great he thinks Jackie Brown is. This is a man in his seventies who had never seen Pam Grier before that movie. He said he was so taken with Pam Grier that he’s writing a full chapter on her in an upcoming book on actresses.
MZS: I have the same issue with Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies, actually. I feel about her performance the way I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio in his first two films for Martin Scorsese—meaning I understand why his involvement was necessary in order for the films to exist, but I wish there were someone else in those parts.
KU: You feel the same way about Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, right?
KU: That’s one of the aspects of criticism that we can’t really do anything about. If someone says, “I don’t really like Uma Thurman,” or “I don’t get it,” well, what can I fuckin’ do? I can’t do anything. It’s like, “Well, if you don’t like it…”
MZS: “…don’t watch the movie?”
KU: No! Not, “Don’t watch the movie.” Never that. Maybe there is no finish to that sentence, at least none that I can express for others.
I will say that I don’t think Uma Thurman works in the same soulful way that Pam Grier does in Jackie Brown. But I want to bring up a quote from a review of Kill Bill, Volume 2. The critic, whose review I can’t find and whose name I can’t recall, natch, said that after Kill Bill: Vol. 2, he understood what Tarantino was trying to do with Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and that they needed to be wedded. I think that’s true—they need to be seen together, because they’re really one film. He said, “Tarantino’s enthusiasm is infectious.” I think “infectious” is the key word here, because with Tarantino, it really is like a virus.
MZS: Talk about a statement that can be interpreted in more than one way.
KU: Exactly. It’s like, “Do you like being sick with this man’s mind and this man’s soul and this man’s heart, or do you not?” A lot of people reject it and a lot of people really love it. I really love it.
4. “Come back here, you silly duck!”
KU: To come back to Reservoir Dogs, the first time I saw it, when that ending hit, when Keitel is blown out of frame and it cuts to the credits and the Harry Nilsson song “Coconut”, I don’t know if I can begin to describe how shaken up I was by that. It was an epiphany. I suppose it’s possible that even now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because of how much he means to me for showing me a path.
MZS: That’s an entirely legitimate way to feel, though.
KU: I think so. When I reviewed Kill Bill for Slant, I brought up Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, which is a real hodgepodge of things, a gestalt, a Rorschach. Mason and Dixon are sailing calmly along on the ocean, then suddenly they’re smoking pot with George Washington, or a flying duck comes in, with a French chef chasing after it and screaming, “Haw haw haw, come back here, you silly duck!”
MZS: That’s the same sense of play that W.C. Fields had in his movies.
KU: That’s what I was trying to get at with the Borges quote—that underneath all that is the profundity of pleasure, which I think also comes from sources as diverse as the Marx Brothers and Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes movie. Jonathan Rosenbaum said of Reservoir Dogs, “It’s unclear whether this macho thriller does anything to improve the state of the world or our understanding of it…” I understand what he’s talking about. But I genuinely believe that I can like someone like Abbas Kiarostami and someone like Quentin Tarantino and feel the profundity in both—that they don’t have to cancel each other out.
MZS: They’re coming at you from different directions.
KU: They really are. The thing is, I do think they have a similarly serious approach to examining life. But Tarantino’s idea of life is something that a lot of people have problems with, because it is so sealed within movies. That’s who he is. And that’s what I ask from an artist. If he’s being honest about his own perceptions of life, then I go with him.
MZS: But if you’re essentially confessing, in movie after movie, that you apparently have no understanding of life except that which you’ve absorbed from watching movies, then I’m not sure that’s something you want to be confessing to.
KU: But I don’t think Tarantino is saying that, either. I think his life is heavily influenced by movies, but also by his upbringing, which he’s brought up in interviews.
MZS: I don’t doubt that certain movies meant a great deal to him at critical junctures in his life, in the same way that Tarantino’s movies meant a great deal to you, and to me, at certain points in our lives. But that’s not really getting at what bugs me about his movies. What bugs me about his movies is the lack not only of empathy but of any genuine feeling of any kind—with certain exceptions that I’ve already listed—throughout his whole filmography.
When I reviewed Kill Bill, Volume 1 for New York Press, I complained among other things about the fact that I felt like I was seeing too much of a series of set pieces, too much of a series of quotes, too much of a tour of his influences, and that the material was not transformed enough to stand on its own. It felt like a movie that needed footnotes. And I didn’t say a word about the violence, because frankly, it was so over the top, but so totally disconnected from anything real that it barely registered with me, apart from the way it was staged and shot. The following week, Armond White made a parenthetical reference to the movie in a review of something else, saying “Tarantino kills with a jackal’s glee.” That was completely off the mark, not because Tarantino has a healthy attitude about the meaning of violence and its impact on the psyche, but because Tarantino has no feelings about violence at all, apart from appreciating its usefulness in jazzing people up or getting a character from Point A to Point B. Compare him to Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese or even Steven Soderbergh, and I don’t see any particular attitude at all. I would love to be able to argue with Tarantino’s presentation of violence, his attitude toward violence. But I really couldn’t tell you what it is, after all these years.
That’s what bothered me even the first time I saw Pulp Fiction, although at the time I discounted those misgivings, and I shouldn’t have. When Marvin gets shot in the car, by accident, it’s very much like the rest of Pulp Fiction, and the rest of Tarantino’s work, in that it’s comical, and the sense of humor is superficially very Scorsesean. It’s bloody, savage violence, and the callousness with which characters address—or just as often don’t address—the violence is the source of tension and excitement in the movie. But where Tarantino differs from Scorsese is that while Scorsese sometimes succumbs to a savage impulse, he always has an attitude about it, namely that people who behave this way are monsters—they’re missing something. It doesn’t mean they have no human qualities or that they don’t have interesting characteristics, but it does mean that we should not get too comfortable with them. Scorsese never allowed us to get too comfortable with the characters in GoodFellas, which to this day remains one of the primary influences on all of Tarantino’s work. But Tarantino’s missing something about Scorsese. In GoodFellas the disjunction between the excitement of the filmmaking and the protagonist’s dry, kind of bored, retrospective narration told you all you needed to know about Scorsese’s attitude toward the material, which was, “Yes, it’s an exciting life, but these people are sociopaths, and their lives are all about power and getting what you want when you want it, damn the consequences.”
In contrast, Pulp Fiction is centered on a couple of guys who kill people for a living, and it’s presented, more so than any other film about assassins that I can recall, as a morally neutral skill or trade, like being a plumber or a golf pro. I am not an especially moralistic critic—I don’t think the purpose of movies is to educate us on the proper way to live—but I object to that. And I sense that strain running through all of Tarantino’s work.
I don’t get that from many of the other habitually violent directors that are recognized as important, including Sergio Leone, who I keep coming back to because of his huge influence on the Kill Bill films. Leone’s movies are filled with violence. The violence is very operatic, even cartoonish. But it’s got gravity. When people get killed, it matters, if not necessarily to the person dying (a lot of them are cannon fodder), then certainly to the person doing the killing. And when it doesn’t seem to matter, that’s when it matters most of all. Eastwood’s poker face as he kills people isn’t saying to the viewer, “This doesn’t matter.” It’s saying, “This character has become so comfortable with killing that it doesn’t matter to him anymore.” That gives the action scenes, as fun as they are, an undertone of sadness. Leone’s films are extravagant and unreal, and they can be silly, but the attitude towards suffering and cruelty is always serious. His movies have soul. Tarantino has tried many times, but I think he has yet to give us a moment as tender as the one in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where the Man with No Name comforts a dying soldier, or a character as tragic as Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel in For a Few Dollars More, who at first seems like a heartless bounty hunter, but is actually driven by an overwhelming sense of loss.
Compare Leone’s violence to the temple sequence at the end of the first Kill Bill. I really did feel as if I was watching someone else play a video game. There were oceans of blood spilled, but I didn’t feel nauseous. I didn’t feel anything, really. I just looked at my watch.
KU: Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that the movies were released separately. They need to be seen as one film. When you see them together, the patterns, the doublings of things, the poetic rhymes of certain actors playing one character at one end of the story and another character at the other end, the symmetrical aspects—which I likened in my review to the yin and yang symbol—become clearer, and they’re very important to what Tarantino is doing. When David Carradine is monologuing about the fish flopping on the carpet, and how the daughter squished it, it’s connected to the chapter prior, where the Bride squishes Elle Driver’s eyeball beneath her foot.
I realize some people just don’t see that as being simpatico. They don’t feel that these things are connected. They feel it’s disjointed between chapters that exist independently of each other. But it plays as a whole to me.
MZS: The closest I’ve watched them together was a couple of days apart. I didn’t immediately connect the fish and the eyeball as you just have. That said, there’s a difference between the act of linking things metaphorically and poetically and actually having them achieve their intended effect.
Another filmmaker who really foregrounds style, and believes that style equals substance, is Darren Aronofsky. His second feature, Requiem for a Dream, I liked a lot, but one of the things I didn’t like about his next film, The Fountain, was that I was aware of, and did admire, the repetitions, the plants, the payoffs, the recurring images, the themes, the reiteration of the themes, but I didn’t feel that they added up to what Aronofsky wanted them to add up to. I know there are many people who disagree and think The Fountain is one of the best movies they’ve ever seen. But it didn’t do it for me. I admired the handiwork in the way that you can admire a well-crafted chair, but it didn’t move me. And that movie of all movies should have fucking moved me. You know?
KU: I understand, and that gets at my hesitation in having this discussion. A lot of the people who’ve shaped me as a critic, people whose opinions I respect—you, Armond, and friends like Jeremiah Kipp and Ed Gonzalez—don’t like Tarantino. And for whatever reason, when I hear that, I feel this twinge of, “What am I missing here?” I blame that on feelings of inadequacy, which I think everyone feels at certain times. But I also wonder if I am being willfully blind because of how I feel Tarantino himself influenced me.
But still I hold to the conviction that what Reservoir Dogs did to me was important, and I think, “Don’t belittle it. Don’t think less of it.” There is something very important about that. I listen to your arguments. I see—
MZS: But you don’t agree.
KU: Theoretically, I can see them. But—
MZS: I know what you mean. In Tarantino’s case, I hear the words and the melody, but I’m not feeling the music. The way that you feel when people run down Tarantino is the way I feel when I hear people complain that Wes Anderson’s movies are too cute and flashy, or that the Coen brothers are all style and no substance, that they have no heart, that they’re insincere in some way. It’s like a knife in the heart.
KU: It is like a knife in the heart.
MZS: I feel like, “How can you watch The Man Who Wasn’t There and say that?”
KU: And I feel like, “How can you watch Jackie Brown and say that?” That movie to me is perfection. Dan was saying to me the other day that it reminded him of late Howard Hawks, in its improvisational style and its languorous, “We’ll get there eventually” rhythms.
MZS: I do admire that about Tarantino—the fact that he seems blithely unconcerned with playing by the usual rhythmic rules.
KU: You have used, and I have used, the word “maturity” in discussions of this type. That’s a word that’s often been used in criticisms of Steven Spielberg. “Why aren’t you more mature? Follow this path, grow up, stop being a child.” Here I’m talking about another group mentality that I see. Tarantino makes Jackie Brown, and critics say, “Oh, he’s finally matured.” Then he makes the Kill Bill movies and it’s, “Oh, now he’s an adolescent. He’s regressed.” I don’t believe that at all. I think he’s following his heart and his muse, whether we like it or not, as I believe Spielberg is doing as well.
5. “We’ll get there eventually.”
MZS: The question remains, in making Kill Bill, was he working something out of his system, or did those films represent his blood and his bone marrow? In Kill Bill, I think it’s option number two.
KU: It’s his Inland Empire.
MZS: Wow. To quote Quentin, that’s a bold statement.
KU: I only mean that in the sense that Kill Bill expresses a very strong aspect of his personality. He’s wearing different skins—different skins of the filmmakers he has watched. Whether you consider that valid or not, that filmmaking mentality is easily imitated, and like Spielberg, who has also been imitated ad nauseum, the imitators tend to cast a negative light on the original.
MZS: They often imitate the most superficial aspects of the source.
KU: I believe, however, that Tarantino, love him or hate him, is a unique, individual artist. He’s wearing different skins, but channeling those influences through his own perceptions.
MZS: He is still, at heart, a video store clerk. I’ve used that as a rap against him, but you could also say it’s praise.
KU: I hear Susan Sontag despised him. To her he was the wrong kind of cinephile. I think we need to get away from that. I have a problem with anything that tries to eradicate another point of view. Tarantino never wants to eradicate another point of view. If anything, he’s too generous.
MZS: In the abstract, I like what Tarantino represents, as an eclectic, democratic movie spirit—and I say that setting aside his unfortunate tendency to act, which I hope he’ll get past. Sitting through his star turn in Wait Until Dark on Broadway was like having Novocaine injected into my eyes and ears. What it comes back to is the movies. Yeah, I suppose one could say that Tarantino’s brand of cinephilia might not inspire a lot of people to go out and check the source—to rent a Godard movie. It’s more likely that they’ll rent a Shaw brothers movie or a blaxploitation movie, because frankly, they’re much more accessible and in the end, much less lasting. But one could also say that the number one reason the shelf lives of certain exploitation films has been prolonged is Quentin Tarantino.
KU: I would say with the Shaws, there are a good number that have stood the test of time. And the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 does remind me of some of Eric Rohmer’s movies, not necessarily in terms of the subject, but in terms of the ephiphanic moments in conversation.
MZS: I agree with that. I’ll also say that the same arguments you cite—that Tarantino makes movies that extinguish curiosity rather than awaken it—were also used against Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1970s, that a person watching Jaws or Close Encounters or the original Star Wars film might not be inclined to seek out Alfred Hitchcock, or Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, or John Ford’s The Searchers, or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or the myriad other works that fed those guys’ imaginations. But that’s not necessarily true. I’m living proof of that. You’re proof of that. Yes, there are tens of millions of people who watched Star Wars and never thought to watch The Searchers to see where the Tattooine sequences came from. But others did.
And if they did or didn’t, so what?
KU: I think we all sometimes think movies have more power than they actually do. There are examples of movies directly affecting behavior—e.g.: Birth of a Nation spurring the re-establishment of the KKK—but I would say that’s probably an anomalous example. Movies were so new back then that they had a more immediate and wide impact. We’re so used to movies now that they’ve become a more individualist pursuit. I recognize that 300 is a phenomenon, but I don’t see it spurring the kind of rise in anti-Iranian sentiment in this country that The Birth of a Nation inspired against blacks.
MZS: I think it’s a bad idea to force Tarantino to carry a responsibility to educate the filmgoing public. We come back to the video store clerk mentality. The clerk can say, “This is a good movie, you should check it out,” but it’s up to you to do it.
MZS: What I want from Tarantino is a palpable, identifiable sense of what he believes, about life on this earth, about how people interact with one another, that is identifiable apart from the quotations from film history. I understand his attitude toward certain archetypes that are familiar from other movies—certain modes, certain genres, certain styles. That’s crystal clear.
But there are a lot of filmmakers who give me that, all through history. Orson Welles and Kurosawa give me that. Wes Anderson and the Coens give me that. The Coens are a good counterexample to Tarantino. Tarantino would not exist without the Coens, who perfected that kind of accessible, funny, “Here we go on a tour through film history” movie, but also counterbalanced that sensibility with a sense of how humans behave, with definable opinions on what sort of behavior is useful and productive and good, and what’s evil and venal and trivial. You see those interests reflected in film after Coen brothers film. The Ladykillers got a number of poisonous reviews, but the morality of that film is as clear as Raising Arizona’s. The Coens are not, strictly speaking, moralists. Their movies aren’t moralistic, but they are about morality, or in the case of Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There, moral relativity and the mechanics of moral codes.
Not every film needs to be about moral choice, but I do think the presence of moral choice is one of the qualities that distinguishes films of great directors from merely interesting ones. I don’t see a whole lot of that going on in Tarantino. If I’m wrong, tell me.
KU: His idea of life is that it’s a mish-mash. It’s a mish-mash of styles, a mish-mash of moods that butt up against each other and either mix or seem antithetical. Watching Kill Bill—and maybe this is why I called it his Inland Empire/psychological examination—there are scenes that are just extremely raw, like when the Bride wakes up and finds that her baby is not there. That’s performed, I would say, very realistically.
MZS: It is, and that’s probably the strongest moment in both movies, I think, besides the anime sequence.
KU: But that butts up against those redneck guys coming in and trying to rape her, which is done in a very comical, extreme way, and that butts up against the anime sequence—the Rise of O-Ren Ishii—and then there’s O-Ren having her American Chinese heritage called into question in front of the Yakuza and cutting off Boss Tanaka’s head. She’s very abrasive, and that abrasiveness is very American in some ways; Lucy Liu is an abrasive personality, and very well-cast in that particular role. When she dies, though, or is about to die, she apologizes to the Bride for having made fun of her earlier—after having been reduced to an American stereotype, she takes on a very Japanese quality; I’m uncomfortable making those sorts of generalized statements about nations, but that’s what I got out of it. Then there’s the reverence of the Sonny Chiba sword-making scene, which is performed pretty much straight, treated as a holy ritual and rite—at first he sort of plays to the Bride as being a silly American valley girl. Then when he realizes she’s not, they begin talking on a whole other level.
MZS: Well, now you’re giving me pause, because one of the things I say over and over is that one of the surefire signs that a filmmaker is worth taking seriously is when you watch their movies and for long stretches of it you’re entirely sure if they’re kidding or not. Tarantino absolutely fits the bill. How serious is he?
KU: You don’t know. Then there’s the whole Pai Mei sequence—and here’s where we get into the doubling thing. Both Gordon Liu and Michael Parks play two roles in the Kill Bill movies: Liu is Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88’s in Volume 1 and Pai Mei in Volume 2 (simple dichotomy, bad guy-good guy). Parks plays Sheriff Earl McGraw in Volume 1, very much a redneck stereotype, then comes back in Volume 2 as Esteban Vihaio, the pimp. At the first the tenor of his performance is in the same comical vein as Earl McGraw, but then there’s that interesting moment where he calls the waitress over, and you see that he’s slashed her face up. Tarantino doesn’t make that into a joke. A character who we initially thought was a stereotype of a pimp has been given some extra weight.
And there’s the way that Bill in the first movie is a ghost, a godlike presence hanging overhead shooting down at The Bride, but in the second movie, or the second half, he comes down to earth, and you see him, or at least I see him, as a man. You also see Tarantino doing this with the Gordon Liu characters. All these roles, these doublings inform each other. If you realize it’s the same actor playing two roles, you realize the connection between things, and the resonance of what they mean comes out of that as well.
Then there’s Volume 2’s buried alive sequence, which is really wonderful as well. It brings this discussion back to the religious metaphor that I often cite from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s my favorite Indiana Jones movie primarily because of Sean Connery’s line at the end, when Indy asks him, “What did you find, Dad?” and he says, “Me? Illumination.” That word, illumination, explains how I view movies, and there’s a sense of illumianation in the buried alive sequence of Kill Bill, Volume 2. When the Bride wakes up in the truck, the movie, which has been in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio throughout, is for a moment in the more squarish ratio of 1:33:1, as if to emphasize the Bride’s claustrophobia, the haze she’s waking up into. Then Budd and his accomplice pull her out of the truck and the image shoots back to 2:35. Then she’s buried alive and they give her the flashlight, and she turns it on and hits against the coffin, and it knocks the light out. She gets really scared for a second, then manages to knock it back on. Her anxiety increases, then it subsides, and she eventually gets to a calm place and turns the light off—into darkness—and at that point, after a brief chapter title, a campfire illuminates the center of the frame. Then, after that illumination, you see Bill and the Bride, and then it goes into his whole story about Pai Mei (“Once upon a time in China…), which I now connect to Bill’s later story about Superman. That’s a very conscious juxtaposition of Western mythology, Superman, versus Eastern mythology, Pai Mei. Tarantino believes in both of them.
MZS: Not only can I see what you’re saying, I can actually see the movie as you’re describing it. But I wanted that scene where she’s buried alive and then comes out—as she must because she’s the heroine of the movie—to be revelatory and powerful, and it wasn’t for me. There are a number of reasons why it wasn’t.
This is a rap against Tarantino that you may consider unfair, but I’ve never seen an inside-the-coffin sequence done better than at the end of the original version of The Vanishing. When I saw a version of that scene being set up in Kill Bill, I said to myself, “Quentin Tarantino loves The Vanishing.” And that’s a reaction I have to a lot of his appropriations. Not only was the scene not as disturbing as the one in The Vanishing, I didn’t feel a revelation in her character, because I did not feel there was a character there who could experience a revelation. I liken the experience to what I felt when I saw that very long closeup of Dirk Diggler near the end of Boogie Nights, in the drug-deal-gone-bad sequence with the Alfred Molina character. It’s a very slow dolly-in on Dirk as he’s realizing something—but what? What is he realizing that this stupid kid shouldn’t have figured out much earlier in this nearly three-hour movie? That he’s in a very bad situation and needs to get out of it? The extravagance of the director’s presentation doesn’t match up with the substance of what’s being revealed.
Added to that, from a craft standpoint, I realize that in cutting away from that intensely claustrophobic sequence to a flashback, Tarantino was going for the movie equivalent of jumping from one chapter of a novel to another. In a novel, it’s perfectly acceptable to cut away from a very suspenseful episode in the heroine’s life to give us a flashback and then return to that moment. But in a movie, it’s like taking a hamburger away when you’re half done eating it. It was frustrating for me, and the fact that it was clearly intended to frustrate doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good decision on Tarantino’s part. For me that decision drives home the fact that the whole Kill Bill saga is an example of a director aestheticizing the life right out of the very genres he purports to celebrate. It’s the pokiest, least urgent revenge movie I’ve ever seen. Which, I will grant, might be the point.
KU: The climax of the Kill Bill story really comes at the end of the first half, in the House of Blue Leaves. If you want to talk about it as a revenge movie, as Yin-Yang, then the first half is her ascension to goddess and superhero, and the second movie is about the descent, to the penultimate scene in Volume 2 where she’s lying on the bathroom floor in the same prostrate position she was in when she was shot by Bill—only now, instead of being prostrate before her former lover, she’s prostrate before God. And she says “Thank you,” to someone I think is God.
In a way, that moment rhymes with the Sonny Chiba scene in the first movie, the one where he tells the Bride, speaking of the sword, “If on your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut.” What’s funny about that—and why I like the Sonny Chiba scene so much—is that he says, “I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword.” The key words there are, “Without ego.” I believe the character is saying that line without ego. I also believe he is saying, “God will be cut” without ego.
That’s an interesting moment to consider, because Tarantino’s public persona is all about ego, and unfortunately, he’s so ubiquitous and so enthusiastic that the idea of egocentricity is applied to his movies by people who have witnessed his behavior in reality. That’s unfortunate, because there’s more to his movies than there is to his public persona.
MZS: I agree. Spike Lee has the same problem. The fact that Lee cast Tarantino in Girl 6 as the director who makes Theresa Randle take her top off in the audition says to me that both guys have a degree of self-awareness, and a sense of humor, about being The Director.
7. The Quentin Tarantino Show
MZS: There are problematic aspects of Tarantino’s work that are clearly intentional, but the fact that they’re intentional doesn’t make them all right.
One example is Tarantino’s use of the n-word. I don’t think it’s earned. I didn’t think it was appropriate in Reservoir Dogs, which was more fantastic than realistic; there, it feels to me like a bad judgment call by a guy who’s seen Scorsese movies. Tarantino doesn’t seem to understand that in Scorsese’s movies, that word is used to demonstrate a particular mentality of particular people who exist in a real world, who come from a certain social strata, and who are bigoted by nature of where they come from. In Reservoir Dogs, I feel like I’m watching a movie by a guy who has seen a lot of tough guy movies and has decided that tough guys talk that way. The cameo he gives himself in Pulp Fiction is just horrible—badly acted and badly judged.
And I can tell you right away, without even having asked Tarantino, where that decision came from: Tarantino idolizes Scorsese, and in Taxi Driver, Scorsese has a cameo as one of Travis Bickle’s more loathsome passengers, a guy who’s obsessed that his wife is having an affair with a black man and wants to kill her for it. He has Travis drive him over to the man’s apartment, and they sit there looking up at his window, and he tells Travis, “You know who lives there? A nigger lives there.” I’m sure Tarantino would deny it, but I bet you anything that his tone-deaf cameo in Pulp Fiction is all about this nerdy young white filmmaker being obsessed with Scorsese, a celebrity director who’s so bold that he puts himself onscreen playing a hateful racist. Tarantino wanted to be Scorsese so badly that he put himself in a lame version of that infamous cameo. It’s embarassing. Whenever Pulp Fiction is on cable, when that scene comes up I want to crawl under my couch.
Another example of Tarantino’s suspect judgment is his use of violence. Tarantino knows how to present violence in a spectacular way, but I don’t think he understands the weight of violence, the long-term ramifications of it, otherwise he wouldn’t make it so graphic and so lightweight at the same time. The savageness of it feels like an effect, like he’s trying to traumatize you just to demonstrate his power over you, not because he has any particular point to make. Everybody’s suffered real violence or knows someone who’s suffered real violence; I have to assume that Tarantino himself probably has some firsthand experience with it, or knows someone who does, because he’s a grown man who’s lived on this earth. But I don’t see evidence of that that his movies. The details of Tarantino’s violence are realistic, sometimes pornographically so, but the context is not, and that makes Tarantino seem, to me, like a director who lacks a sense of proportion, and who’s striving for powerful effects he’s not interested in earning.
Related to that is my sense that Tarantino’s references and appropriations have no hierarchy. He seems to consider all things, all movies, to be equal. I think the failure to distinguish between the value, the depth, of things you’re appropriating opens a director to accusations that he’s not serious. And again, to hit a note I feel I need to keep hitting here, I still don’t get a sense of what moves Tarantino and inspires him, of what he stands for. I have never seen him say, in a movie, “This is what I believe. This is what I prize. This is what matters to me.” He’s a public figure, and he affects a “What you see is what you get” image, but he’s very cagey about letting the audience look past The Quentin Tarantino Show and sense, in the movies, his true essence as a human being and as an artist.
Stanley Kubrick was often accused of being misanthropic and cold, and so was Robert Altman, but there were always points in their movies where you got an undeniable sense, no matter how artificial the filmmaking, of what they believed. Take Full Metal Jacket, for example. Pauline Kael complained that the end of that movie, the Hue sequence with the sniper, was a pulp revenge fantasy presented in a godlike way. But I don’t sense that at all. To me, that scene is the ultimate example of dehumanization and the cruelty that results from it. The Marines are seeing the young female sniper as a person after being shot at from a distance by her, then tracking her down and killing her, but they aren’t able to respond to that revelation as human beings because of how they’ve been desensitized. They stare down at her like she’s a land mine that they’ve just dismantled. It’s a cold movie, presented in a cold manner, but there’s anger and empathy and understanding in there. You sense a number of conflicted emotions in Kubrick—a grim amusement at the absurd behavior humans indulge in, and a sense of sadness at the potential that’s been snuffed out. I have yet to see a Tarantino film of similarly deep conviction and feeling.
KU: Your comments bring to mind the interview that closes out Manny Farber’s book of criticism Negative Space, where Farber discusses John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion:
“…in The Wind and the Lion, there’s a key scene of Teddy Roosevelt [Brian Keith] sitting on the grass at a gunnery range, talking to his grandchildren. Obviously, Milius has a close feeling about Roosevelt; but why does he idolize him? Does that scene bring forth the idolatry? How much irony is involved? What does it have to do with the militarism issue, since it’s a gun? Why is the golden autumn lighting so singularized, intense? Why is Keith faced away from the main flow of both story and character, in a didactic position relative to the camera? Why does the movie segue out at that moment? Is it making a statement about U.S. militarism or colonial ambitions—and does Milius believe this implicitly? And if he believes Roosevelt stands for some order of the gun, or that the U.S. knew the right way and was trying to spread the gospel of democracy at its best around the world—is that really what he believes? Or does he believe that it’s a fault that inevitably leads to Vietnam? Or does he believe in the Zeitgeist of guns and gunmanship? … I don’t think it’s important to ask Milius those questions; I think it’s important for the spectator to want to know what he’s seeing.”
Clearly, Farber is not dismissing The Wind and the Lion in this passage. He is trying to engage with it on a variety of different levels, which I think is the aim of our conversation here. For me, with Tarantino and race, it’s problematic in some instances and not in others. In Kill Bill it’s not really an issue, because the world he creates is so false.
MZS: It’s like the world the Coen brothers create in The Ladykillers.
KU: In terms of the Borges quote, it is willfully unreal. The unreality Kill Bill attains takes me beyond the questionable aspects, if I were to apply them to a real-world model. Likewise, in Jackie Brown, where Sam Jackson says the n-word all the time. I believe his character would talk that way, so it doesn’t bother me.
KU: He also has a very musical speaking rhythm, not just with that word, but with all of his dialogue in that movie, as he does in Pulp Fiction. Sam Jackson might be Tarantino’s muse.
MZS: He might be, and he certainly embodies the kind of Stagger Lee, menacing Negro character in a way that no other modern actor does.
KU: Armond calls him “the walking mugshot.” But then in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino casts himself in the “dead nigger storage” scene, and that is problematic. I think even in Kill Bill, the Japanese businessman that Go-Go Yubari kills is portrayed in a too-comical way, with rotten teeth and an overly cartoonish laugh. That takes me out of that particular movie, much in the way that a lot of people have a problem with Lucy Liu saying, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.” But I’m able to accept it. It doesn’t harm the whole for me. Maybe for other people it does—it reveals to them the bankruptcy of the entire vision.
But I don’t necessarily go to Tarantino for race commentary, because I don’t think he has much to say about it. What I go to Tarantino for is a kind of old-school religion, a sense of fire and brimstone, with all the problems and beauties of that; an appreciation of movies, a sense of actors as people, an appreciation of the souls of performers. I appreciate his enthusiasm. Even though I might not see Uma Thurman herself as an ideal, I sense his enthusiasm for her. In his CSI episode, I may not particularly care for those main actors, except maybe William L. Petersen, but there are cameos by Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin in it as well, as old-time gamblers; John Saxon shows up in half-light in most of the episode, but you still sense a very specific John Saxon-ness emanating from him, which is something only Tarantino can capture. He doesn’t just pay tribute to certain movies and actors, he finds unseen facets, unseen sides.
MZS: That’s an aspect of him that I do appreciate—the sort of pop culture preservationist side of his talent.
My daughter is really into The Simpsons, which in a strange way I think has a sensibility that’s closer to Tarantino’s than that of any single filmmaker. There’s a scene in this one episode where the Schwarzenegger muscleman character, Ranier Wolfcastle, appears on Springfield Squares, and they introduce him by having him talk about his latest film, which is about a businessman who goes to his old college where his son is now enrolled and is horrified to discover that his son has become a nerd. The host, the newscaster Kent Brockman, says, “That sounds very funny,” and Wolfcastle says, “It’s not a comedy.” My daughter laughed at that, then she said, “Dad, why is that funny?” And I thought: Wow, now I’ve got to explain seven or eight different things to her. I’ve got to explain Hollywood Squares, the idea of Kent Brockman the newscaster doubling as a game show host, the whole subgenre of back-to-college movies and the obsession with nerds in the 1980s, and the entire career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just for that one joke. The Simpsons is probably going to outlast all of the things it’s making fun of, and in making fun of them, it’s going to preserve their memory.
I wonder if Tarantino’s movies aren’t serving a similar function. He’s like a one-man Smithsonian of schlock. The Kill Bill movies in particular are like a widescreen pop culture equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a museum of 20th century genres. For a lot of college students studying English literature, their exposure to certain early and pre-20th century events, ideas and works of literature comes about because they had to read “The Waste Land” and research its footnotes, not because of initial exposure to that which inspired Eliot.
KU: Schlock on the surface—but I would say these are more serious, more heady movies. I recall seeing Kill Bill, Volume 2 at a midnight screening. The audience was pretty much restless. There was one guy behind me who was narrating everything onscreen. He was bored with the longeurs, which weren’t like Volume 1 at all. Again, that’s sort of why I say it needs to be seen as a whole to get the full effect. The closest I’ve come to not liking Tarantino is after seeing Kill Bill, Volume 1, in its initial run. It wasn’t until I saw Volume 2 that I thought, “Aha—now what you’ve done makes sense to me.” I enjoy him as much for his problems as for his insights. You talk about how you had to explain seven or eight different things to answer your daughter’s question about that Simpsons joke. I feel like I’ve had to explain as many if not more things in this conversation, to justify my feelings about Tarantino. I agree with some of the criticisms of him, but ultimately that’s absorbed by the passion, the feeling I get from each of the ends of his movies.
It’s interesting to me that except for the anime sequence in Kill Bill, Volume 1, pretty much all the Tarantino scenes that you described as having moved you occur at the ends of his movies.
MZS: You’re suggesting that perhaps there’s a cumulative effect that’s sinking in when I’m watching his movies, even when I’m rolling my eyes or looking at my watch?
KU: Yes. And I want to ask, “Mightn’t that be enough?”
MZS: It very well might be. Every time I catch Pulp Fiction on cable, I watch a bit of it, and I discover new things that annoy me, and when it gets to the scene with Butch and the cabdriver—
The SimpsonsKU: “What does it feel like to keeel a man?”
MZS: Awful. The first time I saw that scene at a press screening, I wanted to skip it and go for popcorn, and I still think that if he’d cut it, the movie would be five minutes shorter and no less entertaining. Yet when the movie’s on cable, I’ll sit through that scene again, and the scenes after that, all the while adding to my list of reasons why this isn’t a great movie, and eventually there I am watching the closing credits. It’s the Annie Hall joke again: The food is terrible, and such small portions.
8. Clarity and Insanity
You have the advantage here, because you’ve seen it three times now, but I’m still eager to talk about it because we saw it over the weekend and I can’t stop turning it over in my head. I’d like to talk about the whole thing for a minute if that’s OK, because I feel like the double-feature aspect is important.
KU: Please begin.
MZS: Walter Chaw, who wrote the best review of Grindhouse that I’ve yet read, said Tarantino’s feature was superior to Rodriguez’s, and while I don’t think Death Proof is perfect by any means, I agree with that, and I think the substance of Tarantino’s movie becomes more apparent when it’s juxtaposed against Planet Terror.
Rodriguez’s movie struck me as mostly excessive and trashy—in the true grindhouse spirit, I guess—but there was something off about it. It was the fact that it was so overscaled and so glib and knowing at the same time. It had the budget of an A picture but the mentality of a B or B- picture, and at the same time, it also seemed to be parodying that sort of movie, which seems counterproductive because grindhouse movies generally know they’re trash from the get-go. Tarantino’s Death Proof, on the other hand, is really complicated, in ways both good and bad, and in the end I don’t really feel he’s trying to parody anything. He’s just making a Tarantino movie, and as Chaw pointed out, if nothing else, this double feature proves that Tarantino is constitutionally incapable of making anything but a Quentin Tarantino movie.
KU: I liken it to the filmmakers being given a school assignment. It’s telling that Rodriguez follows the assignment to the letter while Tarantino takes it and runs off in his own unique directions.
MZS: There were a few things that really struck me, in a good way, about Death Proof. One was the fact that, more than any other Tarantino movie, it indicates that there really is depth of feeling there, genuine human feeling, an affection for people. It occupies a similar place in his filmography that Casualties of War occupied in De Palma’s, which is to say, while it certainly doesn’t absolve him of charges that he likes to see women get hurt (as if he doesn’t love to see men get hurt, too), it also establishes that he doesn’t hate women—far from it. I think he fears them and is in helpless awe of them.
KU: I think it’s all those things and more. It’s a complicated perspective, made all the more complicated to me by the structure of the piece. He sticks with two groups of women; Stuntman Mike is on the periphery. In the first, he’s the pure villain, though Kurt Russell shows some underlying pain in that first part that comes out, full force, in the second part. I’m thinking particularly of when he’s talking about all the shows he’s worked on and no one knows what he’s talking about. A wry Tarantino self-comment, but also an intuitive character moment.
Then in the second part Mike is more the focus of sympathy, though we don’t know it until the car chase, which illustrates the shift in sympathies. I think it’s telling, again, that Tarantino literally hangs out with the first group of girls and stands back from the second. His sympathies, his soul are more with the characters rooted in a single milieu—Austin, a true artists’ enclave. In this way, I feel Death Proof examines the differences between the rooted and the rootless. Ultimately it’s the fellow travelers who are able to overcome Stuntman Mike.
MZS: I’m not with you on the shift in sympathies from the first part to the second. Stuntman Mike suffers in the second half, but I found his suffering mostly comical and pretty schematic, honestly—a comment that isn’t mean to take anything away from Russell’s performance, which I think is extraordinary. I just mean that the whole “payback” thing in the second half feels pro forma to me. The movie’s structure is intriguing—in some ways it reminds me of Psycho, which starts out establishing a sympathetic female protagonist that you think is going to be your surrogate through the movie, then has a psychopathic murderer off her at roughly the halfway mark. Here we’ve got a whole carload of Janet Leighs, and an Anthony Perkins with broad shoulders, a killer smile and death-proof car who ultimately gets done in by some tough dames who are just as physically skilled and fearless as he is, ultimately more so.
But there’s a problem here, for me, and it’s that Tarantino established both sets of women as people, real people, so vividly that when they suddenly turned into standard babes-on-a-rampage, and the whole thing turned into a cartoon, it felt like a regression. I’m probably in the minority on this, but for me the single most extraordinary scene in that movie was the long take of Rosario Dawson and company in that restaurant shooting the shit. The choice of camera move—the slowly rotating 360 degree tracking shot—is an auteur’s cliche that everyone from Arthur Penn to Brian De Palma to Woody Allen has used, and I kind of hoped I wouldn’t see it again, but then Tarantino breathed new life into it, and really used it to observe these characters. I felt like I was sitting at that table. It was also the first time that I ever looked at Rosario Dawson and saw an idiosyncratic person there, as opposed to a beautiful camera subject. That life force you talked about earlier in our conversation really came through in how Tarantino photographed her—in the energy he drew out of her.
KU: I know what you mean about Dawson, though my girl is Sydney Poitier’s Jungle Julia. When she’s twirling her hair in the bar to Smith’s “Baby, it’s You”, I’m just in heaven. Now that said, I do think the character switcheroo you point out—where the latter group of girls become “superheroines”—is set up and prepared for. The way they make fun of the cheerleader girl (and how they leave her behind with the lecherous hillbilly) is particularly deplorable, but true to who I think these girls are: attractive empty shells, who we do, perversely, feel for. I chalk this up to their charisma, their way with QT’s dialogue. I think the clincher in the switcheroo is Rosario Dawson’s close-up where her face goes from fear to elation all of an instant. As I remarked in a comments thread, this rhymes with the final shot of Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” where she’s riding off with her daughter. It treads a fine line between spiritualism and fetishism; clarity and insanity. It’s all these things at once and we ask, I think, that question you say you yourself so often ask with Tarantino (and are kind of hurt by when someone asks it of Wes Anderson), “Is he serious?”
MZS: I think Tarantino’s more serious than he’s given credit for being, and perhaps more serious than he knows. I also think he’s torn between being true to expectations of Tarantino and exploring aspects of his talent that are often thought of as something one just has to put up with in order to get to the “fun” stuff. That long take conversation is one such example. The first half of Death Proof was striking because of how it pushed toward stylization, but stayed in some kind of recognizable reality, geographic and emotional. Tarantino’s movies are often set in a kind of fantastic everyday universe, like comic books that would be sold on the same shelf alongside Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, and probably Frank Miller, too. But I felt he attained a degree of real-world weight in that first half, and in the quieter scenes in the second half, that I’d never seen him attempt before, except in parts of Jackie Brown, and I was intrigued by that.
For once, the Rohmer connection seemed to me more concrete than abstract. I found myself marveling at how Tarantino objectified, but also humbled himself before, the sheer physicality, the femininity, of his actresses. It’s revealing that when Stuntman Mike makes his big play, he’s kneeling. I thought Tarantino might actually be the right director for an adaptation of Tropic of Cancer. Something in his tone had that attitude, that very heterosexually male but at the same time lyrical and helplessly enthralled way of looking at women. Some of the shots—particularly that slow track up Jungle Julia’s raindrop-speckled leg on the porch—had the granite sensuality of a Bob Dylan lyric. That stuff was so good, so daring for Tarantino, that the car chases and the final beatdown felt like QT giving the people what they want, and what the Ain’t-It-Cool geek inside Tarantino always craves.
I think the boldest thing he could have done in order to really throw the entire grindhouse genre into sharp relief was to continue in the same vein he’d been exploring, and shock us with real anger, real pain, and shatter the same tropes he’d been setting up. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. I fear he loves trash too much to transform it utterly. It’d be like repudiating where he came from, the movies that made him who he is.
KU: And I believe there is real pain in that ending, which—like Tsai Ming-liang does with a pornographic vernacular in The Wayward Cloud—plays out as a grindhouse film on the surface while raising all sorts of troubling questions beneath. The villain is the victim; the first half resonates with the second half to complete the portrait. I don’t doubt that Tarantino has a give-people-what-they-want mentality, but I also think he trusts his instincts to lead him, and realizes his subconscious will take him places contradictory to his public persona. I believe the work of art always betrays its creator. QT is no mere fanboy, but I don’t know if he’d ever be able to express how deep and intuitive I think he is. Which maybe gives me a reason to exist.
MZS: Didn’t it bother you that Tarantino had established very real characters with real emotions, then sent them on this crazy revenge mission that didn’t jibe—at least for me—with what he’d established earlier? I didn’t believe that women this real, this well-rounded, would be going after a homicidal maniac in such a cavalier, let’s-get-him-girls kind of way. It was as if characters in a documentary suddenly decided, “From now on, we’re going to act like stereotypical grindhouse babes.”
The Zoë character, for instance, is utterly believable as a stuntwoman who seeks danger for a living and because she loves it, but the context for that behavior is clear; she tests herself within her own limits. I didn’t believe that she’d endanger herself in that way and turn into a super-avenger on a dime. She had too much at stake, and there were too many imponderables. This plays into the Borges quote about unreality. I thought the world Tarantino created was so much more real that what you usually see in a grindhouse movie—except maybe one directed by Monte Hellman, who was more arthouse at heart anyway—that when it became unreal, I didn’t believe it.
KU: And I did, because I believe that switch was entirely prepared for. To come back to your Psycho parallel I think the first group of girls are Janet Leigh, the second group Vera Miles and John Gavin. Like Hitchcock, Tarantino subtly shifts our sympathies until we identify more with the monster than with the “heroes.” I find his rhyming structure (sticking with the girls in both sections) to be quite audacious. And while the ending plays triumphant, I think it’s actually calculated to create some underlying disturbance, sort of like De Palma’s end to The Fury, which I read as tragic, even as I’m cheering John Cassavetes getting blown sky-high.
It comes back again to what I’m saying about the rooted vs. the rootless. The second group of girls are Hollywood types, jumping between places, really no sense of the world even though they’ve traveled it (I’d say this is, in part, a sly QT rebuke to his critics). Tarantino is more interested in the Austin girls (as am I, quite honestly) because they are rooted, not just in a place, but in a genuine artistic pursuit. The telling line for me is when Jungle Julia says that she and her friends are not really fighting. She admits to the mask that she puts on in public. I love the moment when she’s talking to the pot dealer on the phone, asks “Where are you?!!” in ultimate high bitch mode. The record player comes on. She moves alone to a back room and then softens…“Where are you?” Then the text message aside (scored to the love theme from Blow Out), which just kills me, I love it so. And the way Julia holds Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) at the end of the night, apologizing to her for the whole lapdance situation. There’s genuine feeling between them, where I think the second group of girls are always superficial, make bad choices (as Chaw says in his review), and it’s only when Stuntman Mike shows up that we realize why the disparity. The second part is about him—monster by night, all-too-human by day.
MZS: Here’s where I haul out an accusation that’s often leveled at me—the movie you’re describing is much greater than the movie I saw. There was so much potential in Death Proof, much of it realized and much more unrealized—that it reminded me of another Pauline Kael quote, from her review of The Wild Bunch. She said that in that film, Peckinpah doesn’t just pour new wine into an old bottle, he explodes the bottle. I wanted Tarantino to explode the bottle here, and though there were glimmers of intent, I didn’t think he followed through on them, because he was so damned fond of the bottle.
I didn’t sense any undertone of unease in that final shot. To me it seemed a triumphant freeze-frame that sent people out of the theater happy that the monster had been slain. That’s true to the emotions of the genre Tarantino is honoring, but I don’t think it’s a tradition that should be honored. I had much the same problem with Rodriguez’ Sin City, which I thought was one third of a great movie—the third with Mickey Rourke. The subtext of that entire film, which a lot of finger-wagging critics who presumably have never actually read Frank Miller on the page didn’t get, is that the hypermasculinity, the need for revenge, that’s depicted in all of those stories, particularly in the Rourke story, isn’t being taken at face value, it’s being pushed to extremes so that it can be parodied. There’s a heart of darkness in that story that makes the other, similar stories in Sin City feel redundant and reflexive, just an acolyte mistakenly believing he’s honoring a master by replicating his superficial aspects.
I felt a similar frustration with Tarantino in the second half of Death Proof. The truly audacious thing to do here would have been to hurt the audience, really hurt them, and leave no doubt that the ritualized revenge enacted in that final segment is symptomatic of the worst tendencies in the human race, or at least the dumber tendencies of schlock culture. Cartoonish male notions of payback have been transposed onto women who’ve been drawn so realistically that the behavior makes even less sense, and feels like even more of a headscratcher, than it would seem if Tarantino had made all the women dunderheaded cardboard cutouts from frame one.
KU: To each his own. I felt the unease in the final frame, and it was only accentuated by Dawson’s drop-kick to the face, which is like a bloody punctuation mark…a perfect endpoint. Even though the ending is played triumphantly, I do not read it as that. But it’s not evasiveness of the dark side of human nature I sense so much as contradiction writ large. You know I’m big on contradiction. To feel, to see, to sense, to live the antitheses. I have a bloodlust in me that I want to be satiated… I’ve said before I’m all for a sanguine cinema: taken to the honest extremes, I see something spiritual and sexual in it. That’s what I get from Death Proof, from De Palma’s The Fury, from Spielberg’s Munich, from Cronenberg’s The Fly. All very different films from very different directors—blood coursing violently through their veins.
What connects them is the sense I feel that each director is being true to his view of the world. That’s what I ask of an artist, and I feel Tarantino (for all his problematic aspects, which we’ve touched on in other areas of this discussion) is always true to himself. I enjoy the challenges of being in his head. Death Proof only confirms his greatness for me.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms
The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.2.5
The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.
Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.
And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.
The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.
Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time
Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.
The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.
I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?
I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.
Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?
When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.
But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.
That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.
The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?
That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.
In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?
I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.
Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?
There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.
How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.
I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.
So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?
I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.
Review: Rebecca Unimaginatively Runs a Classic Through a Netflix Filter
The film is a pretty bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.2
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is effective at channeling elemental fears into a glossy package, but less so at crafting characters that are more than the sum of their archetypal parts. The story is little changed from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation. While staying in a posh resort on the French Riviera, an unnamed young woman (Lily James) working as traveling companion for acid-tongued, man-hunting dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), is romanced by dashing and recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). In quick order, the somewhat lost-seeming woman marries Max and refashioned as Mrs. de Winter, the new lady of Manderley, Max’s sprawling coastal estate that becomes her gilded cage.
Following the sunny, happy-go-lucky Riviera opening, the film pivots into psychodrama mode once it relocates north to the gloomier English seaside. Given Mrs. de Winter’s humble origins, she commits one faux pas after another. She’s riddled with class anxiety, not knowing when she will next offend Manderly’s icy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the platoon of servants and other staff needed to run the massive complex, or her new husband. The unspoken rules that she keeps breaking—asking the wrong questions, venturing into the wrong rooms, studying a menu incorrectly—all seem to lead back to the same source: Manderley is still in the ghostly grip of Max’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca.
At every turn, people remind Mrs. de Winter of how little she measures up to her predecessor, some more intentionally than others, from Max’s kindly sister, Beatrice (Keely Hawes), remarking about Rebecca being one of those “annoying people everyone loves,” to Danvers rhapsodizing in openly romantic terms about her late lady being “the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life,” to Rebecca’s rascally cousin, Jack (Sam Riley), making snide innuendos about Rebecca’s horse-taming skills. While Max doesn’t say such things openly to his young bride, his simmering rages and habit of sleepwalking at night to stare wistfully at Rebecca’s now closed-off quarters suggest his still being in the grip of an undying passion.
Much of the film’s middle section details what’s either a waking nightmare for Mrs. de Winter (the most effective parts of the story plug into relatable anxieties over being found out or not measuring up) or extensive gaslighting campaign. In either case, the primary instigator is Danvers, who despite being theoretically in charge of the estate appears to spend most of her time lurking in corners waiting for Mrs. de Winter to make another mistake. Thomas’s serenely imperious performance is one of the film’s highlights, stopping just shy of Ryan Murphy-esque grande-dame camp. Riley’s rakish gleam is similarly energizing, particularly when the story turns into a late-developing courtroom drama about how or even if Rebecca died.
As for the leads playing the mere mortals wriggling under Danvers’s unflinching glare, neither James nor Hammer measure up. James has the more difficult job of the two, needing to seem sympathetic even as Mrs. de Winter lurches from one clueless encounter to the next; the actress spends much of Rebecca blushing in joy or biting her lip while on the verge of tears, neither delivering much in the way of depth. And as Max, Hammer communicates a kind of stolid and unintelligent glumness that makes it difficult to comprehend how Mrs. de Winter could ignore so many warning signs of deep depression and anger.
One crucial problem with this new version of Rebecca, in fact, is that Max is reduced to little more than a repository of warning signs, from refusing to answer his bride’s questions to growling “Put that back!” when she dares to pick up a volume of love poetry that Rebecca had inscribed to him. Since Max has precious few plus-column characteristics that don’t fall under the categories of “handsome,” “wealthy,” and “smart dresser,” Mrs. de Winter’s travails after being trapped by her love for him are difficult to identify with.
At least the film doesn’t default to assuming that gothic necessitates a glum visual palette. The design of Manderley is spectacular, its classic English aristocratic grandeur seeming to stretch on for miles, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose with gorgeous chiaroscuro layering. Avoiding both the grotesquerie of some of his other work and the tight tensions of Hitchcock’s adaptation, Wheatley’s Rebecca operates instead as a less psychologically knotted and more straightforward costume drama. It’s an attractive and fairly shallow bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Keeley Hawes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Bill Patterson, Tom Goodman-Hill Director: Ben Wheatley Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: This Is Not a Movie Is a Smart, Clear-Eyed Tribute to Robert Fisk
The documentary adroitly demonstrates that Fisk is still motivated by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism.3
As a boy in the London suburbs, Robert Fisk’s career aspirations were shaped by seeing Foreign Correspondent. In 1972, Fisk got the seemingly glamorous job that Joel McCrea had in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, and has been at it ever since. But reporting from overseas is messier in real life than in scripted drama, which is why Yung Chang’s engrossing portrait of the 74-year-old journalist is titled This Is Not a Movie.
Fisk began no further from home than Belfast, but in 1976 he arrived in Beirut, which became his permanent home base. He’s covered invasions, insurrections, and all kinds of catastrophes, always taking what he calls “the side of those who suffer.” This stance has engendered many conflicts with supporters of the region’s dominant powers, as well as with editors at several British newspapers. Fisk currently writes for the now online-only Independent.
The documentary’s title, which echoes that of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, suggests an attempt to deconstruct cinematic storytelling. But it’s Fisk who’s the iconoclast here, as Chang has crafted a conventional blend of new and archival footage, without any experimental narrative strategies. Unlike his earlier Up the Yangtze, which benefited from a narrower focus and compressed timeline, This Is Not a Movie isn’t especially shapely or propulsive.
The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas. Using digital minicams, Chang and his crew follow the journalist through Syria, Beirut, and the West Bank. There’s also a foray to Serbia and Bosnia, where Fisk tries to determine how European weapons were routed to the Syrian bloodbath, which he calls “the worst reported war in the Middle East.”
“If you don’t go to the scene,” Fisk says, “you can’t get near the truth of it.” And that’s the essence of his mission, which is as moral as it is historical: “So no one can say, ‘This didn’t happen.’ So no one can say, ‘We didn’t know. No one told us.’” Although he’s lived in Beirut most of his life, Fisk is no modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. In his unironed shirts and rumpled pants, he looks as if he’s dressed to putter in the garden at the Irish cottage he says he might have chosen as his retirement home. He admits to speaking only “a bit” of Arabic. (The film shows Fisk’s reliance on translators and guides but doesn’t explain where he gets them, as Chang is more interested in Fisk’s life and ideas than the practicalities of his work.)
Fisk’s focus on the victims of Middle Eastern power plays has made him some enemies. A defining moment in his career was the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilas camps, carried out by Lebanese Christians but facilitated by Israeli forces. (It’s the only event that ever gave him nightmares, he says.) He travels with Amira Haas, an Israeli journalist he admires, to survey the West Bank areas sundered by Israel’s separation wall and to visit what Fink terms Israeli “colonies.” Inevitably, the reporter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, notably by Alan Dershowitz in a 2001 audio debate excerpted in the film.
That moment aside, Chang devotes little time to Fisk’s detractors. Notably, it doesn’t challenge his claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, Syria, in 2018. Early reports may have been overstated, but few observers support Fisk’s account of the incident. Even a reporter who prides himself on getting as close to the story as possible can make a mistake. But Chang makes a strong case that Fisk’s approach is more reliable than that of journalists whose method privileges deflection and distortion. Indeed, what Fisk has to say about that should interest newspaper readers who never turn—or click—to the foreign coverage.
Noting that war is “not a football match,” Fisk rejects mainstream journalism’s standard operating procedure, which he describes as, “First you tell the truth. Then you get someone to deny it.” In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fisk’s rebuff of journalistic “balance” could hardly be more pertinent. Fisk may be out of sync with his profession, but Chang’s documentary adroitly demonstrates that the septuagenarian is still motivated as much by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism. Dismissing the idea of that cottage in Ireland, Fisk says, “I still want to know what happens next.”
Director: Yung Chang Screenwriter: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.
75. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager
73. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
72. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
71. The House That Jack Built (2018)
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard
70. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
69. Unsane (2018)
In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane
68. Suspiria (2018)
Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard
67. November (2017)
In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene
66. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
65. In Fabric (2019)
Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen
64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp
63. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
62. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
61. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Schager
60. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard
59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)
Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen
58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh
57. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
56. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez
55. Hereditary (2018)
The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard
54. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Marsh
53. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
52. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
51. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart
Review: Honest Thief Is a Dried-Out Rehash of the Liam Neeson Actioner
The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another Liam Neeson avenger defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men.1
For more than a decade now, Liam Neeson has been primarily identified with the furrowed brows and flying elbows of men with particular sets of skills. Last year, Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit, with tongue firmly in cheek, seemed to suggest that Neeson’s propensity for playing brooding middle-aged avengers had reached a point of self-parody—á la Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s True Lies. But director Mark Williams’s Honest Thief sees Neeson back in earnest “I’ll catch up to those men who wrecked my life” mode—á la Schwarzenegger in Andrew Davis’s Collateral Damage.
Williams’s action thriller casts Neeson’s as unassuming, denim-clad nice guy Tom Dolan, who has led a secret life as a bank robber known by the press-appointed sobriquet “the in and out bandit.” It’s a moniker ripe for riffs about hamburgers or intercourse, but Honest Thief is too stiff—certainly not too sophisticated—a film for wordplay spicier than the trite paradox in its title. Tom’s defining characteristic consists of his absolute lack of irony; in contrast to the jaded men of the Boston F.B.I. department who end up pursuing him, he’s the last bastion of guileless masculine honor. “She means more to me than all the dollar bills in the world,” Neeson utters in his gravelly baritone at one point, referring to the woman, Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh), who has inspired him to leave his life of crime behind.
If the film doesn’t call up such clichés to mock them, it also doesn’t seem wholly unaware of them. Rather, and perhaps more dangerously, there’s an assertiveness to the way it rehashes corny lines and predictable beats, as if it’s saying that the old clichés—about men and women, about good guys, bad guys, and just deserts—are simply what works, and therefore what’s true. On the other end of the phone call when Tom proclaims the relative worth of his girlfriend is Special Agent Sam Baker (Robert Patrick), who Tom is attempting to turn himself in to, in exchange for a plea bargain. Having received many confessions from individuals claiming to be the bandit, Baker and his recently divorced schlub of a partner, Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), are slow to act on Tom’s call, delegating the task of conducting an initial interview with the man to two subordinates, Agents Hall (Anthony Ramos) and Nivens (Jai Courtney).
Hall and Nivens, being morally directionless men of a younger generation rather than the upright boomers represented by Tom, Baker, and even the disaffected (but soon reformed) Meyers, scam Tom as soon as they realize he’s the real deal. To verify to Hall and Nivens that he is who he says he is, and trusting in them as representatives of authority, Tom gives them the keys to the storage unit that houses the cash he’s stolen over the years. In a turn that suggests that Williams and co-screenwriter Steve Allrich failed to Google “civil asset forfeiture” during their research for the script, Hall and Nivens decide that they need to lie to their bosses and murder Tom in order to steal his misbegotten money.
Naturally, they flub the murder part of their plan, and Tom ends up on the run, with his irrationally loyal girlfriend accompanying him on car chases through the mysteriously empty streets of Boston. Emptiness more or less sums up Honest Thief’s entire aesthetic. It’s an effect that at first seems unintentional. But then, the film’s interiors are so bare that at times they almost resemble Robert Bresson’s alienated cinematic spaces; its urban exteriors are so strangely devoid of life that their deadness recalls midcentury existentialism, as if this were Taken by Beckett. A rushed and cartoonish final act, though, involving cops colluding in the uncontrolled detonation of parts of suburban Boston puts rest to such reveries.
In any case, the truth of the matter—that the film is a pared-down, dried-out rehash of the half-dozen Neeson vehicles that preceded it—seems almost beside the point. The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another of the actor’s characters defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men, surprising them with hand-to-hand skills honed by Marine training, bashing his stolen car into theirs when flight would have been the safer choice. Taken with all the other iterations of this story, Honest Thief isn’t about Tom, but about Neeson as America’s conservative Dad and his Sisyphean routine of grumbling, growling, and raging at a world in which he no longer seems to belong, and then inevitably doing it all over.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos, Robert Patrick, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Mark Williams Screenwriter: Steve Allrich, Mark Williams Distributor: Open Road Films Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.
“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.
Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.
Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.
I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.
Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?
No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.
In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?
When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.
At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?
Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.
As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”
Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.
Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?
No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.
How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.
I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.
But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.
Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.
As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead…
[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.
So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.
It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.
To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.
Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?
Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.
But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.
I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.
Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?
I have, but it’s been a long time.
There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.
You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?
I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.
It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.
When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.
Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.
Review: Nocturne’s Insights Are Potent, but It Lacks for Searing Imagery
Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.2
Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is jealous of her twin sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). Both play classical piano at an artsy boarding school, but only Viv got into Juilliard. Only Viv has a boyfriend (Jacques Colimon), and despite approaching their art with less apparent intensity than Julie, only Viv has the school’s most coveted instructor (Ivan Shaw). But Julie has the black notebook, which has a creepy sun symbol on the front and once belonged to the student who kills herself in the opening scene of writer-director Zu Quirke’s Nocturne. Between the music notes, the notebook contains six creepy drawings that metaphorically come to pass in Julie’s life: Her prospects improve, but at the expense of the people in her way.
That the sixth, torn-out page of the book involves death should come as no surprise. Nocturne proceeds exactly the way it seems like it will, letting the supernatural element remain reasonably ambiguous while Julie keeps seeing a light like the symbol on her new notebook—a light so blinding and prominent that it suggests someone flying too close to the sun. She’s isolated save for her obsession, and perhaps too well, as the film struggles to create any sense of history between its characters, especially the sisters. We enter their relationship at a time when they’re already drifting apart, and the resulting characterizations lack any real specificity or intimacy beyond how Viv calls her sister “wombie,” leaving most of their animosity to weakly fizzle rather than explode after years of palpable resentment.
Behind all that, though, is some otherwise promising subtext about the desire to succeed at a young age. Julie very much feels the strain of being part of what one character calls “the Instagram generation,” where so many spotlights are thrust upon young people for their social media presences, their displays of talent, and the general democratization of fame in an age where anybody and anything can go viral. Over the years, many have struggled to cope with that attention and pressure and died young, from various child actors to the SoundCloud rappers that the film briefly invokes during one dinner table discussion. But Nocturne again stumbles over its own insularity, seemingly reluctant to explore the view of society at large as Julie notes that she doesn’t even have social media.
But rather than seeming like a dated point of contrast, classical music becomes a clever, unexpected companion to what, on the surface, appear to be distinctly modern anxieties. The film’s characters note the field’s many young prodigies up through the 20th century, while the piercing gaze of a painting of young Mozart figures prominently as a towering forebearer. With falling audience attendance and general fading interest, the current state of classical music comes to echo present-day existence: Young people need to succeed now because tomorrow is uncertain, and the light only grows brighter from a world that’s on fire.
But Nocturne still manages no accompanying sense of doom because it hardly lingers on these ideas, giving little more than cursory acknowledgement of how banal our personal markers of success can seem. If Quirke’s film means to mimic the tunnel vision of its protagonist, it does so perhaps too effectively, losing its thematic potency as it travels on a predictable trajectory, involving spooky drawings and sisterly spats, all the while leaving the existential miasma sitting out of frame. With no searing images or haunting displays of psychological insight, Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz Director: Zu Quirke Screenwriter: Zu Quirke Distributor: Amazon Prime Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020