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My Tarantino Problem, and Yours

We’re entering into this conversation coming from antithetical perspectives.

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Reservoir Dogs
Photo: Miramax

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.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow

Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.

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Frozen II
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.

Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendell, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.

Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendell civilization in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when the sisters’ father was a boy.

Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.

Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.

This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of the screenplay also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.

That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.

Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything

Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

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Todd Haynes
Photo: Focus Features

For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.

But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.

In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

How did you get involved with Dark Waters?

The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.

At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”

Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?

No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.

How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?

Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.

Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.

I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?

I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.

Why?

Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.

It was shot in the real Taft offices?

Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.

Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?

Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.

That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?

Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—

—rustic beauty—

Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.

How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?

We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.

In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?

I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.

The material through which systems work.

The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.

What are your upcoming projects?

My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.

They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.

Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.

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Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer

At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.

2.5

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Shooting the Mafia
Photo: Cohen Media Group

At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.

Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.

Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.

In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)

The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.

Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

3

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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