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My Tarantino Problem, and Yours

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My Tarantino Problem, and Yours

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.”

Okay!

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—

MZS: Absolutely.

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, Volume 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?

MZS: Yeah.

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 2, he understood what Tarantino was trying to do with Kill Bill 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 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.

6. Illumination

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 word “nigger.” 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 “nigger” all the time. I believe his character would talk that way, so it doesn’t bother me.

MZS: Right.

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

MZS: Well…Grindhouse.

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.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for NYPress and The Star-Ledger. Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here aht the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.

Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.

The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.

These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.

Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.

There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.

These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.

Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair

Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.

Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.

Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.

The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels

The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.

Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.

So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.

Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.

From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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