1. The Air of Unreality
Keith Uhlich: Here. Read this. It’s from Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Nonfictions.
Matt Zoller Seitz: All right. (Reading aloud from text:)
“Objections of a more general nature can also be leveled against City Lights. Its lack of reality is comparable only to its equally exasperating lack of unreality. Some movies are true to life: For the Defense, Street of Chance, The Crowd, even The Broadway Melody, and some are willfully unrealistic, such as the highly individualistic films of Frank Borzage, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Eisenstein. Chaplin’s early escapades belong to the second type, undeniably based as they are on depthless photography and accelerated action, as well as on the actors’ fake mustaches, absurd false beards, fright wigs and ominous overcoats. Not attaining such unreality, City Lights remains unconvincing. Except for the luminous blind girl, extraordinary in her beauty, and for Charlie himself, always a rake, always disguised, all the film’s characters are recklessly normal. Its ramshackle plot relies on the disjointed techniques of continuity from 20 years ago. Archaism and anachronism are literary modes too, I know, but to handle them intentionally is different from perpetrating them ineptly. I relinquish my hope, so often unfulfilled, of being wrong.”
KU: I’m citing this passage to get at the idea of unreality in Tarantino, because you said that you often had a problem believing in the worlds he’s created, that you miss the religious element or the spiritual element that I think apply to them. I use that Borges quote as a justification for my point of view, primarily because of the one section where Borges talks about attaining an unreality.
Yet I think that part of the passage also supports your point of view because maybe the Kill Bill films, or Reservoir Dogs—or any of Tarantino’s films—don’t attain the air of unreality that allow you yourself to feel the reality of the situation. Whereas they do for me.
We’re entering into this conversation coming from antithetical perspectives.
MZS: Yeah, and we’re kind of jumping into the deep end of the pool. And that’s OK, because what you’re describing is the crux of what I call “My Tarantino Problem.” We’ve been having this argument for about a year now, and at one point I told you that I was going to write a piece called “My Tarantino Problem,” and that you might as well follow it up with a rebuttal titled, “Your Tarantino Problem.” We never got around to that, but here we are now, so let’s just get it out here, and follow it at the very end with a discussion of Grindhouse.
By way of background, the first Tarantino movie I reviewed was Reservoir Dogs, back when I was a critic for New Times newspapers. I said at the time, when it came out after an advance wave of publicity declaring him the next great American filmmaker, that yes, it was entertaining, yes it was very clever, but there was something secondhand about it. It seemed to me an exceptional example of the tough guy movie, of the gangster film, but there was something glib about it that rubbed me the wrong way. I guess you could call the review backhandedly positive.
Then Pulp Fiction came out, when I’d been a professional journalist for about three years, and a lead film critic for about a year. I really fell for that movie. I saw it several times in the theater, and I remember being very strongly influenced by a Sight and Sound article about Tarantino that hit newsstands right around the time of the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded the movie its grand prize. I remember on first viewing being bothered by certain elements of the movie, including pacing problems and the film’s attitude toward violence, which I thought was too comical—there wasn’t enough weight to it—and just a general sense that what I was seeing were not hit men and boxers and gangsters’ trophy wives, but rather a video store clerk’s conception of them based on having seen them in other movies.
But the movie was so exciting, and so interesting for the way that it merged Hollywood and American art house and exploitation and academic elements, that my review barely touched on the aspects that bugged me—maybe because I was young, the movie was being hailed as a masterpiece by much more established critics who I thought were quite smart, and I wanted to cover my ass in case my elders were drawing on a base of knowledge I just didn’t have yet, which seemed very possible, considering that I was still finding my way.
That nagging feeling came back years later as I was watching parts of Jackie Brown, which I think is still his most mature film, for all its problems. And they resurfaced again when I watched the Kill Bill movies. A lot of the things that didn’t sit right with me when I watched his last three features were also present, in some form, in Pulp Fiction. There was a lesson in there, and I think it was something like, “Trust your instincts.”
My Tarantino problem in a nutshell is that I recognize the things that he’s trying to do, and I concede that if the goal is to create an entertaining movie that is very much about other movies and very much informed by film history, then Tarantino has to be considered a major, major success, there’s no doubt about it; but as I get a little older, and get further away from my twenties, I look back on my positive review of Pulp Fiction, and I cringe a little bit, because what I’ve come to value in movies more than anything else is emotion, and a sense of connection to life. That is the one thing that I think is consistently missing from Tarantino’s movies, with a couple of exceptions, which I think we’ll get to as we go through his career film by film.
2. Fire and Brimstone
KU: Reservoir Dogs I count as a big influence in my life. It was the movie that sort of shocked me into wanting to be a critic. To further my spiritual-religious descriptor: I recently re-watched all of Tarantino’s work and they seemed like an old school preacher talking at you, really preaching with fire and brimstone.
MZS: Reservoir Dogs? Really?
KU: Yes. Absolutely. And not just Reservoir Dogs—the whole body of work has to me a revival tent, old-school-religious feel: in its sanguine nature, in its passion and enthusiasm, and also in its more troubling aspects.
I don’t want to come across as a blind Tarantino acolyte. I admit there are problematic things in all his movies that I am willing to accept as part of his contradictions. But his movies are inherently contradictory in that way. Reservoir Dogs is probably the most perfectly structured and leanest of them all—
KU: You know what, though? I’m going to take that back. One of the things I appreciated when I re-viewed all the movies is what I’ll call The Tarantino Longeurs, which are the very quiet moments, the “boring” moments, that lull you into complacency before the punch line. Everything comes clear for me. There’s a sense of illumination and I get a chill out of it.
MZS: I would never use religious language to describe Tarantino. You’ve got to not only have, but be able to communicate, feeling, in order to convey that sensibility, and I just don’t think Tarantino has it in him. He believes in the gospel of movies, no doubt. I think his taste is incredibly eclectic, and I admire that. But I could list—and I might as well go ahead and do it right here—the moments that have moved me in Tarantino films.
There’s Harvey Keitel cradling Tim Roth in his arms at the end of Reservoir Dogs. There’s the flashback, or the visualization, in Reservoir Dogs, of Tim Roth in the bathroom with the police dog coming in. There’s John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson walking out of the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction, and the dance between Travolta and Uma Thurman. In Jackie Brown, almost any scene involving Robert Forster, and the expressions on Robert De Niro’s face as his character comes to grips with his attraction to Bridget Fonda’s character. And in the Kill Bill movies, really nothing, except for the anime section in Kill Bill, 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?
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.
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.
KU: He also has a very musical speaking rhythm, not just with that word, but with all of his dialogue in that movie, as he does in Pulp Fiction. Sam Jackson might be Tarantino’s muse.
MZS: He might be, and he certainly embodies the kind of Stagger Lee, menacing Negro character in a way that no other modern actor does.
KU: Armond calls him “the walking mugshot.” But then in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino casts himself in the “dead nigger storage” scene, and that is problematic. I think even in Kill Bill, the Japanese businessman that Go-Go Yubari kills is portrayed in a too-comical way, with rotten teeth and an overly cartoonish laugh. That takes me out of that particular movie, much in the way that a lot of people have a problem with Lucy Liu saying, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.” But I’m able to accept it. It doesn’t harm the whole for me. Maybe for other people it does—it reveals to them the bankruptcy of the entire vision.
But I don’t necessarily go to Tarantino for race commentary, because I don’t think he has much to say about it. What I go to Tarantino for is a kind of old-school religion, a sense of fire and brimstone, with all the problems and beauties of that; an appreciation of movies, a sense of actors as people, an appreciation of the souls of performers. I appreciate his enthusiasm. Even though I might not see Uma Thurman herself as an ideal, I sense his enthusiasm for her. In his CSI episode, I may not particularly care for those main actors, except maybe William L. Petersen, but there are cameos by Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin in it as well, as old-time gamblers; John Saxon shows up in half-light in most of the episode, but you still sense a very specific John Saxon-ness emanating from him, which is something only Tarantino can capture. He doesn’t just pay tribute to certain movies and actors, he finds unseen facets, unseen sides.
MZS: That’s an aspect of him that I do appreciate—the sort of pop culture preservationist side of his talent.
My daughter is really into The Simpsons, which in a strange way I think has a sensibility that’s closer to Tarantino’s than that of any single filmmaker. There’s a scene in this one episode where the Schwarzenegger muscleman character, Ranier Wolfcastle, appears on Springfield Squares, and they introduce him by having him talk about his latest film, which is about a businessman who goes to his old college where his son is now enrolled and is horrified to discover that his son has become a nerd. The host, the newscaster Kent Brockman, says, “That sounds very funny,” and Wolfcastle says, “It’s not a comedy.” My daughter laughed at that, then she said, “Dad, why is that funny?” And I thought: Wow, now I’ve got to explain seven or eight different things to her. I’ve got to explain Hollywood Squares, the idea of Kent Brockman the newscaster doubling as a game show host, the whole subgenre of back-to-college movies and the obsession with nerds in the 1980s, and the entire career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just for that one joke. The Simpsons is probably going to outlast all of the things it’s making fun of, and in making fun of them, it’s going to preserve their memory.
I wonder if Tarantino’s movies aren’t serving a similar function. He’s like a one-man Smithsonian of schlock. The Kill Bill movies in particular are like a widescreen pop culture equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a museum of 20th century genres. For a lot of college students studying English literature, their exposure to certain early and pre-20th century events, ideas and works of literature comes about because they had to read “The Waste Land” and research its footnotes, not because of initial exposure to that which inspired Eliot.
KU: Schlock on the surface—but I would say these are more serious, more heady movies. I recall seeing Kill Bill, Volume 2 at a midnight screening. The audience was pretty much restless. There was one guy behind me who was narrating everything onscreen. He was bored with the longeurs, which weren’t like Volume 1 at all. Again, that’s sort of why I say it needs to be seen as a whole to get the full effect. The closest I’ve come to not liking Tarantino is after seeing Kill Bill, Volume 1, in its initial run. It wasn’t until I saw Volume 2 that I thought, “Aha—now what you’ve done makes sense to me.” I enjoy him as much for his problems as for his insights. You talk about how you had to explain seven or eight different things to answer your daughter’s question about that Simpsons joke. I feel like I’ve had to explain as many if not more things in this conversation, to justify my feelings about Tarantino. I agree with some of the criticisms of him, but ultimately that’s absorbed by the passion, the feeling I get from each of the ends of his movies.
It’s interesting to me that except for the anime sequence in Kill Bill, Volume 1, pretty much all the Tarantino scenes that you described as having moved you occur at the ends of his movies.
MZS: You’re suggesting that perhaps there’s a cumulative effect that’s sinking in when I’m watching his movies, even when I’m rolling my eyes or looking at my watch?
KU: Yes. And I want to ask, “Mightn’t that be enough?”
MZS: It very well might be. Every time I catch Pulp Fiction on cable, I watch a bit of it, and I discover new things that annoy me, and when it gets to the scene with Butch and the cabdriver—
The SimpsonsKU: “What does it feel like to keeel a man?”
MZS: Awful. The first time I saw that scene at a press screening, I wanted to skip it and go for popcorn, and I still think that if he’d cut it, the movie would be five minutes shorter and no less entertaining. Yet when the movie’s on cable, I’ll sit through that scene again, and the scenes after that, all the while adding to my list of reasons why this isn’t a great movie, and eventually there I am watching the closing credits. It’s the Annie Hall joke again: The food is terrible, and such small portions.
8. Clarity and Insanity
You have the advantage here, because you’ve seen it three times now, but I’m still eager to talk about it because we saw it over the weekend and I can’t stop turning it over in my head. I’d like to talk about the whole thing for a minute if that’s OK, because I feel like the double-feature aspect is important.
KU: Please begin.
MZS: Walter Chaw, who wrote the best review of Grindhouse that I’ve yet read, said Tarantino’s feature was superior to Rodriguez’s, and while I don’t think Death Proof is perfect by any means, I agree with that, and I think the substance of Tarantino’s movie becomes more apparent when it’s juxtaposed against Planet Terror.
Rodriguez’s movie struck me as mostly excessive and trashy—in the true grindhouse spirit, I guess—but there was something off about it. It was the fact that it was so overscaled and so glib and knowing at the same time. It had the budget of an A picture but the mentality of a B or B- picture, and at the same time, it also seemed to be parodying that sort of movie, which seems counterproductive because grindhouse movies generally know they’re trash from the get-go. Tarantino’s Death Proof, on the other hand, is really complicated, in ways both good and bad, and in the end I don’t really feel he’s trying to parody anything. He’s just making a Tarantino movie, and as Chaw pointed out, if nothing else, this double feature proves that Tarantino is constitutionally incapable of making anything but a Quentin Tarantino movie.
KU: I liken it to the filmmakers being given a school assignment. It’s telling that Rodriguez follows the assignment to the letter while Tarantino takes it and runs off in his own unique directions.
MZS: There were a few things that really struck me, in a good way, about Death Proof. One was the fact that, more than any other Tarantino movie, it indicates that there really is depth of feeling there, genuine human feeling, an affection for people. It occupies a similar place in his filmography that Casualties of War occupied in De Palma’s, which is to say, while it certainly doesn’t absolve him of charges that he likes to see women get hurt (as if he doesn’t love to see men get hurt, too), it also establishes that he doesn’t hate women—far from it. I think he fears them and is in helpless awe of them.
KU: I think it’s all those things and more. It’s a complicated perspective, made all the more complicated to me by the structure of the piece. He sticks with two groups of women; Stuntman Mike is on the periphery. In the first, he’s the pure villain, though Kurt Russell shows some underlying pain in that first part that comes out, full force, in the second part. I’m thinking particularly of when he’s talking about all the shows he’s worked on and no one knows what he’s talking about. A wry Tarantino self-comment, but also an intuitive character moment.
Then in the second part Mike is more the focus of sympathy, though we don’t know it until the car chase, which illustrates the shift in sympathies. I think it’s telling, again, that Tarantino literally hangs out with the first group of girls and stands back from the second. His sympathies, his soul are more with the characters rooted in a single milieu—Austin, a true artists’ enclave. In this way, I feel Death Proof examines the differences between the rooted and the rootless. Ultimately it’s the fellow travelers who are able to overcome Stuntman Mike.
MZS: I’m not with you on the shift in sympathies from the first part to the second. Stuntman Mike suffers in the second half, but I found his suffering mostly comical and pretty schematic, honestly—a comment that isn’t mean to take anything away from Russell’s performance, which I think is extraordinary. I just mean that the whole “payback” thing in the second half feels pro forma to me. The movie’s structure is intriguing—in some ways it reminds me of Psycho, which starts out establishing a sympathetic female protagonist that you think is going to be your surrogate through the movie, then has a psychopathic murderer off her at roughly the halfway mark. Here we’ve got a whole carload of Janet Leighs, and an Anthony Perkins with broad shoulders, a killer smile and death-proof car who ultimately gets done in by some tough dames who are just as physically skilled and fearless as he is, ultimately more so.
But there’s a problem here, for me, and it’s that Tarantino established both sets of women as people, real people, so vividly that when they suddenly turned into standard babes-on-a-rampage, and the whole thing turned into a cartoon, it felt like a regression. I’m probably in the minority on this, but for me the single most extraordinary scene in that movie was the long take of Rosario Dawson and company in that restaurant shooting the shit. The choice of camera move—the slowly rotating 360 degree tracking shot—is an auteur’s cliche that everyone from Arthur Penn to Brian De Palma to Woody Allen has used, and I kind of hoped I wouldn’t see it again, but then Tarantino breathed new life into it, and really used it to observe these characters. I felt like I was sitting at that table. It was also the first time that I ever looked at Rosario Dawson and saw an idiosyncratic person there, as opposed to a beautiful camera subject. That life force you talked about earlier in our conversation really came through in how Tarantino photographed her—in the energy he drew out of her.
KU: I know what you mean about Dawson, though my girl is Sydney Poitier’s Jungle Julia. When she’s twirling her hair in the bar to Smith’s “Baby, it’s You”, I’m just in heaven. Now that said, I do think the character switcheroo you point out—where the latter group of girls become “superheroines”—is set up and prepared for. The way they make fun of the cheerleader girl (and how they leave her behind with the lecherous hillbilly) is particularly deplorable, but true to who I think these girls are: attractive empty shells, who we do, perversely, feel for. I chalk this up to their charisma, their way with QT’s dialogue. I think the clincher in the switcheroo is Rosario Dawson’s close-up where her face goes from fear to elation all of an instant. As I remarked in a comments thread, this rhymes with the final shot of Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” where she’s riding off with her daughter. It treads a fine line between spiritualism and fetishism; clarity and insanity. It’s all these things at once and we ask, I think, that question you say you yourself so often ask with Tarantino (and are kind of hurt by when someone asks it of Wes Anderson), “Is he serious?”
MZS: I think Tarantino’s more serious than he’s given credit for being, and perhaps more serious than he knows. I also think he’s torn between being true to expectations of Tarantino and exploring aspects of his talent that are often thought of as something one just has to put up with in order to get to the “fun” stuff. That long take conversation is one such example. The first half of Death Proof was striking because of how it pushed toward stylization, but stayed in some kind of recognizable reality, geographic and emotional. Tarantino’s movies are often set in a kind of fantastic everyday universe, like comic books that would be sold on the same shelf alongside Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, and probably Frank Miller, too. But I felt he attained a degree of real-world weight in that first half, and in the quieter scenes in the second half, that I’d never seen him attempt before, except in parts of Jackie Brown, and I was intrigued by that.
For once, the Rohmer connection seemed to me more concrete than abstract. I found myself marveling at how Tarantino objectified, but also humbled himself before, the sheer physicality, the femininity, of his actresses. It’s revealing that when Stuntman Mike makes his big play, he’s kneeling. I thought Tarantino might actually be the right director for an adaptation of Tropic of Cancer. Something in his tone had that attitude, that very heterosexually male but at the same time lyrical and helplessly enthralled way of looking at women. Some of the shots—particularly that slow track up Jungle Julia’s raindrop-speckled leg on the porch—had the granite sensuality of a Bob Dylan lyric. That stuff was so good, so daring for Tarantino, that the car chases and the final beatdown felt like QT giving the people what they want, and what the Ain’t-It-Cool geek inside Tarantino always craves.
I think the boldest thing he could have done in order to really throw the entire grindhouse genre into sharp relief was to continue in the same vein he’d been exploring, and shock us with real anger, real pain, and shatter the same tropes he’d been setting up. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. I fear he loves trash too much to transform it utterly. It’d be like repudiating where he came from, the movies that made him who he is.
KU: And I believe there is real pain in that ending, which—like Tsai Ming-liang does with a pornographic vernacular in The Wayward Cloud—plays out as a grindhouse film on the surface while raising all sorts of troubling questions beneath. The villain is the victim; the first half resonates with the second half to complete the portrait. I don’t doubt that Tarantino has a give-people-what-they-want mentality, but I also think he trusts his instincts to lead him, and realizes his subconscious will take him places contradictory to his public persona. I believe the work of art always betrays its creator. QT is no mere fanboy, but I don’t know if he’d ever be able to express how deep and intuitive I think he is. Which maybe gives me a reason to exist.
MZS: Didn’t it bother you that Tarantino had established very real characters with real emotions, then sent them on this crazy revenge mission that didn’t jibe—at least for me—with what he’d established earlier? I didn’t believe that women this real, this well-rounded, would be going after a homicidal maniac in such a cavalier, let’s-get-him-girls kind of way. It was as if characters in a documentary suddenly decided, “From now on, we’re going to act like stereotypical grindhouse babes.”
The Zoë character, for instance, is utterly believable as a stuntwoman who seeks danger for a living and because she loves it, but the context for that behavior is clear; she tests herself within her own limits. I didn’t believe that she’d endanger herself in that way and turn into a super-avenger on a dime. She had too much at stake, and there were too many imponderables. This plays into the Borges quote about unreality. I thought the world Tarantino created was so much more real that what you usually see in a grindhouse movie—except maybe one directed by Monte Hellman, who was more arthouse at heart anyway—that when it became unreal, I didn’t believe it.
KU: And I did, because I believe that switch was entirely prepared for. To come back to your Psycho parallel I think the first group of girls are Janet Leigh, the second group Vera Miles and John Gavin. Like Hitchcock, Tarantino subtly shifts our sympathies until we identify more with the monster than with the “heroes.” I find his rhyming structure (sticking with the girls in both sections) to be quite audacious. And while the ending plays triumphant, I think it’s actually calculated to create some underlying disturbance, sort of like De Palma’s end to The Fury, which I read as tragic, even as I’m cheering John Cassavetes getting blown sky-high.
It comes back again to what I’m saying about the rooted vs. the rootless. The second group of girls are Hollywood types, jumping between places, really no sense of the world even though they’ve traveled it (I’d say this is, in part, a sly QT rebuke to his critics). Tarantino is more interested in the Austin girls (as am I, quite honestly) because they are rooted, not just in a place, but in a genuine artistic pursuit. The telling line for me is when Jungle Julia says that she and her friends are not really fighting. She admits to the mask that she puts on in public. I love the moment when she’s talking to the pot dealer on the phone, asks “Where are you?!!” in ultimate high bitch mode. The record player comes on. She moves alone to a back room and then softens…“Where are you?” Then the text message aside (scored to the love theme from Blow Out), which just kills me, I love it so. And the way Julia holds Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) at the end of the night, apologizing to her for the whole lapdance situation. There’s genuine feeling between them, where I think the second group of girls are always superficial, make bad choices (as Chaw says in his review), and it’s only when Stuntman Mike shows up that we realize why the disparity. The second part is about him—monster by night, all-too-human by day.
MZS: Here’s where I haul out an accusation that’s often leveled at me—the movie you’re describing is much greater than the movie I saw. There was so much potential in Death Proof, much of it realized and much more unrealized—that it reminded me of another Pauline Kael quote, from her review of The Wild Bunch. She said that in that film, Peckinpah doesn’t just pour new wine into an old bottle, he explodes the bottle. I wanted Tarantino to explode the bottle here, and though there were glimmers of intent, I didn’t think he followed through on them, because he was so damned fond of the bottle.
I didn’t sense any undertone of unease in that final shot. To me it seemed a triumphant freeze-frame that sent people out of the theater happy that the monster had been slain. That’s true to the emotions of the genre Tarantino is honoring, but I don’t think it’s a tradition that should be honored. I had much the same problem with Rodriguez’ Sin City, which I thought was one third of a great movie—the third with Mickey Rourke. The subtext of that entire film, which a lot of finger-wagging critics who presumably have never actually read Frank Miller on the page didn’t get, is that the hypermasculinity, the need for revenge, that’s depicted in all of those stories, particularly in the Rourke story, isn’t being taken at face value, it’s being pushed to extremes so that it can be parodied. There’s a heart of darkness in that story that makes the other, similar stories in Sin City feel redundant and reflexive, just an acolyte mistakenly believing he’s honoring a master by replicating his superficial aspects.
I felt a similar frustration with Tarantino in the second half of Death Proof. The truly audacious thing to do here would have been to hurt the audience, really hurt them, and leave no doubt that the ritualized revenge enacted in that final segment is symptomatic of the worst tendencies in the human race, or at least the dumber tendencies of schlock culture. Cartoonish male notions of payback have been transposed onto women who’ve been drawn so realistically that the behavior makes even less sense, and feels like even more of a headscratcher, than it would seem if Tarantino had made all the women dunderheaded cardboard cutouts from frame one.
KU: To each his own. I felt the unease in the final frame, and it was only accentuated by Dawson’s drop-kick to the face, which is like a bloody punctuation mark…a perfect endpoint. Even though the ending is played triumphantly, I do not read it as that. But it’s not evasiveness of the dark side of human nature I sense so much as contradiction writ large. You know I’m big on contradiction. To feel, to see, to sense, to live the antitheses. I have a bloodlust in me that I want to be satiated… I’ve said before I’m all for a sanguine cinema: taken to the honest extremes, I see something spiritual and sexual in it. That’s what I get from Death Proof, from De Palma’s The Fury, from Spielberg’s Munich, from Cronenberg’s The Fly. All very different films from very different directors—blood coursing violently through their veins.
What connects them is the sense I feel that each director is being true to his view of the world. That’s what I ask of an artist, and I feel Tarantino (for all his problematic aspects, which we’ve touched on in other areas of this discussion) is always true to himself. I enjoy the challenges of being in his head. Death Proof only confirms his greatness for me.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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