Fourteen years ago, the New York Film Festival kicked off a little over two weeks after the September 11 attacks. Grief hung heavy over the festival’s early press screenings, and at times the rawness of the emotions unveiled on screen seemed indistinguishable from our own. Flash-forward to the present and, less than a year after the opening of One World Trade Center, the festival unveils its 53rd edition, almost triumphantly, with a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, a dramatization of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.
In recent years, the festival has become an important stop on the road toward the Academy Awards. In addition to The Walk, other films from this year’s lineup with obvious awards-season ambitions include the centerpiece selection, Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s character-driven, Aaron Sorkin-penned portrait of the titular Apple visionary; Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War-era thriller starring Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, and Mark Rylance; Todd Haynes’s Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that, earlier this year, won Rooney Mara the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival; John Crowley’s Brooklyn, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish immigrant (played by Saoirse Ronan) living in the titular New York City borough; and the closing-night selection, Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s portrait of Miles Davis, “refracted through his crazy days in the late ‘70s.”
This year’s main slate features 26 films, 28 if you count the three parts of Miguel Gomes’s heady homage to the Arabian Nights, rooted in the “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014,” as separate entities. Other auteurs returning to the festival include Hou Hsiao-hsien with his elegiac wuxia film The Assassin; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Cemetery of Splendour rhythmically traces a series of strange happenings in and around an improvised hospital in Khon Kaen, Thailand; Jia Zhang-ke, whose decade-spanning Mountains May Depart promises a pointed look at communist China’s capitalist explosion; and Hong Sang-soo, whose Right Now, Wrong Then may be his most emotion-rich, bifurcated narrative to date.
And in addition to new works by Michael Almereyda (Experimenter), Guy Maddin (The Forbidden Room), Philippe Garrel (In the Shadow of Women), Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days), Chantal Akerman (No Home Movie), Michael Moore (Where to Invade Next), among others, the festival is once again rich in sidebars and special events that aren’t to be missed. Of special note are screenings of Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, a 190-minute immersion into the titular Queens neighborhood’s very being; Junun, Paul Thomas Anderson’s portrait of a recording session by his frequent collaborator (and Radiohead member) Jonny Greenwood at the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort; and De Palma, a loving portrait of Brian De Palma (whose Blow Out will also screen in the Revivals sidebar) by Noah Baumbach.
Starting September 22, check back daily for a review of each main-slate title. The 53rd New York Film Festival will run from September 25 to October 11. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site. Ed Gonzalez
Arabian Nights: The Restless One
Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy is a sprawling, shoot-for-the-moon patchwork of virtually every genre and film convention one can imagine, fusing documentary, comedy, fantasy, vérité, parable, and first-person confessional together under the ambition of mounting a non-traditional, free-form adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. Gomes derives his creative energy from contrast, from startling juxtaposition of tones, and the comingling of genres mirrors the unlikely union between the source material and the filmmaker’s real subject: Portugal, and the austerity measures imposed on it by the European Central Bank and others during the present financial crisis. Gomes isn’t subtle on this point, as text appears on the screen in each of the three volumes to remind us that the stories included are real tales of Portugal in the face of the government’s social cost-cutting measures, which has spectacularly failed to rejuvenate its economy, leaving more and more people literally and spiritually stranded. >>
Arabian Nights: The Desolate One
Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One, like the chapters that precede and follow it, is the equivalent of director Miguel Gomes taking his creative hubris onto the art-film playground, locating the sandbox, and suggesting the sand be removed and replaced with feces, for no greater reason other than jolting the decorum for recess procedure. Gomes says in an interview with CinemaScope that he finds the Arabian Nights folktales to be “completely scatological,” but these segments, in their proclivities for distended muckraking and obtuse meaning, border on coprophilia. This is Gomes’s most abstruse film yet, even though its foundation is rooted in “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014.” However, those facts remain entirely off screen, sans a general assertion (via on screen text) that the nation’s people were “held hostage to a program of economic austerity,” resulting in widespread poverty amongst large portions of the population. >>
Arabian Nights: The Enchanted One
As shapeless and occasionally sublime as its predecessors, the third segment of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy begins in the “Antiquity of Time” of the “Baghdad archipelago,” where actors in lavishly designed Arabic clothing laze and dance around a rocky seashore, with an undisguised, modern Portugal as a backdrop. Here, the bewitching storyteller Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) takes part in a narrative rather similar to the one she’s been weaving. Instead of regaling a bloodthirsty king with folk and fairy tales in order to save the skin of her country people, Scheherazade is tempted by a series of tempters, bandits, and magical genies. They offer her experience rather than stories: a genial thief named Elvis break-dances for her; a prolifically reproductive charmer, Paddleman (Carloto Cotta), tries to seduce her; and a hipster guitarist plays in the backdrop as a windblown Scheherazade sings a multilingual pop song, the scene’s cuts and compositions redolent of Wilson Phillips’s 1990 music video for “Hold On.” >>
Set amid the distant reaches of China’s expansive past, wuxia films are first and foremost fantasy stories, replacing the mystical vagueness of storybook nowherelands with hazy historical allegories. Focused on communicating the transportive heroic purity of traditional values, their plots and settings are fundamentally set dressing, used to enhance the verisimilitude and overall beauty of the fable. This makes it a seemingly strange choice of genre for a meticulous director like Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films are both remarkably modest in terms of emotion, and specifically attuned to the concrete details of very specific points in history. Yet just as he mined lavish, muted melodrama from 19th-century opulence in Flowers of Shanghai, or granted piercing tenderness to the near future in Millennium Mambo, the Taiwanese auteur sets down to familiarize Tang dynasty China in The Assassin. Less concerned with eulogizing values than exploring them, the film carves out a rich emotional sphere concomitant to its stunning production design, finding delicate poetry in the dispassionate pursuit of revenge. >>
Bridge of Spies
Rife with lawyer James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) plainspoken moral authority, Bridge of Spies is a good movie that suffers from a lack of anxiety about its convictions. Steven Spielberg counters the false binaries and nuclear bogeymen of Cold War America with an argument built from equal parts liberal humanism and earnest pleas to Constitutional law. Only rarely does the director observe how queasily at odds our patriotism is with our humanity: A stunning series of cuts segues from an audience rising in a courtroom to a group of schoolchildren reciting the pledge of allegiance, and then watching an educational video about how to defend oneself in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The impact of this sequence is blunt, but stirring. Elsewhere, Donovan’s pleas to due process are broadly phrased to allude to contemporary matters of jurisprudence and war posturing, but these political allusions lack the fraught, pinpoint pungency of Spielberg’s work in Munich, which managed to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center with an urgency that continues to astonish and unsettle. >>
The life Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) might have had if she had stayed in Ireland shadows the film’s first half, as she establishes a new life in Brooklyn and mourns what left behind. Then she goes back for a visit after a family tragedy and the ghost of possibilities past is resurrected. Parallels between her two lives illustrate a bit too neatly the degree to which Eilis is torn between them, as she heads to the beach, goes out with friends, or has dinner and goes dancing with a devoted suitor in Ireland, just as she once did in New York. As that list of activities indicates, it’s hardly all thin gruel and rejection for Eilis. Gracefully balanced on the cusp of young adulthood, she may be as passive as a Dickens orphan, far more acted upon than acting, but nearly everyone she encounters seems drawn to her modest, matter-of-fact self-confidence. But even a world in which people are quick to offer praise, love, or assistance can be a lonely place for a young woman far from everything and everyone she once knew. >>
Can a film about crushing loneliness and isolation still be what critics used to call a “sumptuous” experience? Todd Haynes’s Carol is as prim and curlicued a movie as a Fifth Avenue window display at Christmastime—and ensconced beneath just as much glass. There’s no doubting the film was financed as an awards-season vehicle for the reaffirmation of Cate Blanchett as one of the great doyennes of acting. But beyond the machinations of “how exactly did this downtempo lesbian period piece get made?,” Haynes leaves his audience precious little to figure out for themselves. Carol’s main draw, then, is to luxuriate in the pining shared by the film’s blueblood namesake (Blanchett) and a bashful clerk from Frankenburg’s named Therese (Rooney Mara)—a pining which, in buttoned-down postwar America, can also look and feel an awful lot like being trapped. The connection doesn’t build laterally toward any long date scene, illicit kiss, or even their inevitable first night in bed together. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy largely refuse such facile signposts, preferring to stretch the narrative along Therese’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage both Carol herself and Therese’s at-times vaporous idea of Carol. >>
Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s quietly incandescent new feature, Cemetery of Splendour, is so serene, so perfectly meditative, that it puts the viewer in precisely the same hushed reverie to which its characters eventually submit. Moving away from the spatial and temporal bifurcations of much of his previous work, the film fixes its tender gaze on all the myriad things one specific place was, is, and yet may be, gently and often imperceptibly shifting between past and present, legend and modernity, wakefulness and reverie. Regardless of what might lie beneath, there’s a peculiar joy in peeling away the different layers. >>
Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys appears to pride itself on demonstrating both sides of a complex racial divide, only for its messaging to wind up flattering the whitest sensibility imaginable. Heretofore comedic actor François Damiens stars as Alain, a hardheaded father and husband in rural France whose 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, disappears at the end of a long day of country-western-themed roleplaying in the autumn of 1994. A lot hinges on the question of how metaphorically Bidegain, Jacques Audiard’s longtime co-writer, wants his viewers to take this family’s obsession with American iconography. The cheeseburgers, horseback rides, snakeskin boots, square dances, and 10-gallon hats feel borderline satirical, but then the camera hangs back in a kind of halting, reverential handheld, as if characters were the Mennonite broncos from Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. Speaking of comparisons: Despite the “riff on The Searchers” logline currently making festival-circuit-recap rounds, Bidegain’s directorial debut might be better elevator-pitched as Taken meets Paul Haggis’s Crash, too enamored of its would-be importance to come anywhere remotely near being enjoyed (or enjoying itself) for the meatheaded pulp that it is. >>
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
What Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the nation, presenting the post-war United States with an X-ray of its soul, the free-form, intensely personal films he started making a few years later did for New York City. Watching a charismatic character in one of those movies in Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, the photographer-filmmaker says, “I don’t know people like them anymore.” Maybe not, but he seems to have known just about every artist who passed through mid-century New York, and he distilled the rebelliously ragged genius of people like a young Allen Ginsberg and a skeletal William Burroughs in films like Pull My Daisy and One Hour. As a result, Laura Israel’s documentary is a portrait not just of the Swiss-born artist, but of his adopted city, especially during the Beat era that was his heyday. >>
Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is strikingly indifferent to being liked, reminding one how rare and refreshing it is to encounter a biopic that courts a somewhat distanced observational response from the audience, rather than detonating the usual emotional fireworks in an attempt to open up a troubling topic’s potential approachability. The film doesn’t include much about the personal life of its protagonist, the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), and there’s none of the montages that can often be counted on in biopics to reduce vast amounts of social context to platitudinous homily. By contrast, Experimenter is chilly and determinedly subdued, quietly accepting as a given that, for Milgram, work is life, as it is for many committed, somewhat antisocial people who think outside the boundaries of normative society. >>
The Forbidden Room
The surface curiosities of Guy Maddin’s cinema are such that the analytical mind can boggle at the thought that his work may in fact be deeply personal, and this misdirection applies doubly to The Forbidden Room, a colossal symphony of cascading oddity that features such indelible curveballs as a pair of malevolent “Aswang bananas.” Alas, the longstanding trend of Maddin’s career has been a consistent piling of farfetched folklore and dreamlike designs around a cluster of familiar human truths (grief, infatuation, forgetting, remembering), so his new film’s utter indulgence in esoterica paradoxically leaves it most vulnerable to the beating heart of this great artist of self-therapy. >>
In the Shadow of Women
In the Shadow of Women doesn’t stray far from Philippe Garrel’s usual formula. Like most of his films, it’s a throwback to the nouvelle vague that uses that movement’s stripped-down experimentation to depict a tumultuous relationship. Yet Garrel diverges from his usual early-Godardian prism of wounded (but also analyzed and critiqued) male insecurity and tracks closer to the milder politics and aesthetics of Eric Rohmer. As such, Garrel shifts the bedrock of the film away from the post-May ’68 context that dominates his filmography toward a comedy of manners that pokes fun at the hypocrisies and self-denial that dominates each point of its love triangle. >>
Journey to the Shore
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore has its defining moment a few minutes in, as its focus shifts from the meandering melancholy of a dejected widow to something more novel and alluring. Preparing a quick meal of sweet dumplings, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) finds her departed husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), watching her from across the room. Her understated reaction sums up the film’s inconspicuous handling of this supernatural incident: Distressed at her phantom husband’s forgetfulness, Mizuki reminds him to take off his shoes in the house. He smiles and complies, updating his wife on his current situation (his body has been eaten by crabs). When she wakes the next morning, expecting it all to have been a dream, Yusuke is still there, curled up on the living room floor, again wearing his shoes. >>
As Yorgos Lanthimos’s high concepts usually are, this one is as sui generis as they come. The title derives from main character David’s (Colin Farrell) choice of animal when asked what he’d like to turn into if, after 45 days at a particular hotel, he fails to find a mate. From that nutty premise, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou, for a while at least, hit upon some genuinely provocative truths. These characters take the need for human companionship as a given, and some of them go to desperate lengths to find their match—like a limping man (Ben Whishaw) who fakes a nosebleed problem simply to make it with a particular woman with a similar “defining characteristic.” This focus on merely superficial similarities to try to force a romantic connection especially resonates in our digital age, with the increased emphasis on creating online personas and making instant impressions. >>
The film’s first act builds to a manic climax, starting with Maggie’s (Greta Gerwig) misadventures relating to her pregnancy. Guy’s (Travis Fimmel) clumsiness with normal social engagement leaves him positively befuddled by the business transaction of his semen, leading to the kind of awkward entreaties that Maggie hoped to avoid in the first place. The farce of their trade culminates in something near to a gross-out gag, with Maggie using a home kit when a sudden knock at the door prompts her to crab walk across the apartment to keep Guy’s sample inside of her. But if Maggie’s Plan wryly pokes at the convoluted nature of its main character’s supposedly simple solution for having a child, it saves its sharpest critiques for the more traditional romance that blossoms between Maggie and John (Ethan Hawke), one that ruins John’s marriage and curiously coincides with how fervently Maggie praises his manuscript. >>
The Measure of a Man
Stéphane Brizé saves his boldest flourish for the film’s midpoint. Just as we’re resigned to watching a hopeless, nontraditional sort of process thriller, Thierry (Vincent Lindon) gets a job, though his attainment of it is daringly elided. One moment he’s weathering the search for work, and the next he’s a security officer in a department store, helping to interrogate folks caught shoplifting in altercations that also weirdly resemble the sort of scolding that he’s recently escaped. The interviews, the conferences at his child’s school, the conversations at the bank, and the interrogations at the store all involve crass attachments of “objective” rules of conduct to unquantifiable matters of resentment and survival. Eliding Thierry’s one victory illustrates how the fear of unemployment haunts him, and how quickly one can shift from oppressed to oppressor. Landing a job provides Thierry and his family with financial relief, but the tense precariousness he feels hasn’t been lanced. Disaster is never not a possibility. >>
Nanni Moretti’s latest, Mia Madre, centers on a middle-aged director, Margherita (Margherita Buy), whose challenges while making a new film distract her from the painful reality of dealing with her mother’s life-threatening illness. Moretti, whose previous films include the highly autobiographical, tongue-in-cheek Caro Diario and the comically offbeat We Have a Pope, tempers wittiness with melancholy throughout. Mia Madre is carefully measured and satisfying, albeit occasionally tone-deaf, suite of fleeting, dispersed impressions, some as delicate as an empty yogurt cup by Margherita’s mother’s hospital bed, or an image of elderly hands being massaged and caressed. While some of Moretti’s films are talky and even occasionally sly, this one’s written in a minor key. >>
Microbe and Gasoline
Michel Gondry’s Microbe and Gasoline is, first, a textural experience, an evocation of the prickly, confusing crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood through a fixation on the shape and surface of things. Its images abound in astonishingly tactile qualities and pointed associations on which the story’s subtle epiphanies are built. When Daniel (Ange Dargent), alias Microbe, wakes up at six in the morning to piss, the menstrual blood that sits in the toilet bowl connects to a tea bag’s release of brown liquid. The teacup is understood as a universe, a container of life, and one gleans that this boy’s gift for drawing, evinced by the cartoon pornography to which he half-heartedly whacks off to, arises from the pleasures and horrors he alternately sees swirling within it. Poor Microbe fears he has no sperm in his system, and among the film’s many astonishments is that the story doesn’t culminate in a release of tension, as such defying expectation. >>
Like the unruly spawn of The End of the Tour and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Miles Ahead is a fictionalized biography of a real artist that pairs its subject with a journalist turned sidekick of sorts. Unlike The End of the Tour’s logorrheic David Foster Wallace, Miles Ahead’s Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) is tight-lipped and enigmatic, too cool to ever spill his guts—except maybe literally, in one of the comically inept gunfights he keeps getting into. Instead of talking to Rolling Stone freelancer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), he makes him his wingman on a series of quixotic quests, pursuing a tape of the only music he’s recorded during a long fallow period; the $20,000 he says his thuggish producer, Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), owes him; and the mounds of cocaine that fuel his erratic, often violent, possibly paranoid behavior. >>
My Golden Days
Arnaud Desplechin tries his hand at a coming-of-age tale with My Golden Days, and does so with equal doses of mature reflection and youthful impetuosity. It’s the latter quality that many may immediately associate with the filmmaker, who’s often infused his work with an anarchic sense of play that could be simultaneously thrilling and exhausting. But his last film, the period drama Jimmy P., displayed Desplechin’s more becalmed side—apt for a story that was all about patiently wading into a person’s deep psychological waters. This side once again comes to the fore in My Golden Days, as he revives anthropologist Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), the protagonist of his 1996 film My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument, and has the character, now much older, reflect on his tempestuous past as he plans a return to Paris after many years abroad throwing himself into his studies. >>
No Home Movie
If Chantal Akerman’s politics and aesthetics are devoted to a “historiography and theory of women in the home,” as Jayne Loader says in a 1977 Jump Cut piece on Jeanne Dielman, then No Home Movie, Akerman’s stridently unsentimental love letter to Natalia, her recently deceased mother, necessarily unfolds as the culmination of those efforts. Taking a fragmented approach to portraiture, the filmmaker trains her camera on Natalia as she moves about her Belgian home, whether trekking from the living room to the kitchen, eating meals, or Skyping with Akerman while she’s away. Instead of pairing words with images, Akerman often rests her camera in Natalia’s abode, but without urgency to record epitomizing moments or even conventionally meaningful revelations. Natalia is simply present, at times humming a small tune, but generally oblivious to being filmed. Loader also refers to Akerman’s work as “death in installments,” a not inappropriate description of her latest; almost episodically structured, it chronicles Natalia’s gradual deterioration and eventual off-screen death. >>
Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong Sang-soo’s films are so openly similar to one another that they often seem to run together in one’s mind, their worlds an agreeably homogenous accumulation of wryly interchangeable neurotic directors, pretty girls, awkward encounters, and extended drinking sessions. While Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t a departure as such, it’s also not exactly more of the same, functioning, if anything, as a subtle dig at those who deem the art of variation to be no such thing. A neurotic film director does indeed meet a pretty girl on a trip to a film festival, but the two impeccably calibrated permutations of their encounter that Hong serves up shift the focus somewhere else entirely, namely on to the more abstract question of character versus circumstance. Is any meeting truly unique? Does the nature of a connection really hinge on specific moments? And are we actually different people in different situations? >>
By now it’s no secret that Steve Jobs was a controlling, egomaniacal bully. But Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs presupposes that, maybe, he wasn’t all that bad. As if testing the mettle of its rendition of the late Apple co-founder, to say nothing of audience endurance, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is broken into three disparate chunks, each played in something approximating real time. Michael Fassbender stars as the Mephistophelean Jobs, seen exclusively in the minutes ticking down to one of his signature keynote speech-cum-product launches—the first Macintosh in 1984, the neXT “black cube” in 1988, and finally, the desktop iMac in 1998—with frisky expository montages filling in the peaks and dips of his storied career between acts. But despite this intriguing structure and the vigor of its execution, Boyle’s film can’t help but land in the same hagiographizing place as nearly every single other Great Man biopic churned out by the studio powers that be. >>
As in Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu’s earlier 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, The Treasure deploys the use of real time to painstaking ends, whereby the absurd and quotidian find themselves at an exact one-to-one ratio. This droll and methodical film is every bit as acerbic a comedy as those works, but it’s also Porumboiu’s most generous ensemble work to date, if quietly so, probing norms of post-communist masculinity and cultural lineage with an almost surgical delicacy. A band of broke and disgruntled men go searching for a mythical buried cache, exposing in the process that the post-communist hangover and bottomlessly corrupt local government has left them feeling—for lack of a better word—devalued. >>
Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk is, first, a loving tribute to the World Trade Center towers, and second, a recreation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between them. An illegal act that Petit could never have carried out with anyone’s official permission, the stunt has often been credited with imbuing the towers—unpopular at first among New Yorkers—with a certain je ne sais quoi, an essence, a spirit, that convinced the notoriously skeptical Big Apple to view its imposing height and utilitarian bulk with warmth, not malice. Not every giant in a city’s skyline gets that treatment; just ask a sample of New York City residents about the 75-story One57 skyscraper in Midtown, which for most of us expresses only dizzying wealth and unattainability. If architecture is politicized, and One57 is a badge of the world’s elite, then Zemeckis’s film argues that the Twin Towers, recreated not just as daunting spectacle, but in physicality and limitless detail, belongs to the awestruck audience. Which is to say, everyone. >>
Where to Invade Next
The film itself turns out to be more or less business as usual for Michael Moore, as he, with his showman’s instincts and penchant for oversimplifications and grandstanding, continues to be his own worst enemy when it comes to the broader argument he’s actually trying to make. This argument is a valuable one, as is often the case with Moore’s films. Despite what its title may imply, Where to Invade Next isn’t a diatribe about U.S. foreign policy, but an attack on American exceptionalism. By adopting the persona of an insular American traveling the world in order to find ways to improve his home country, Moore attempts to not just show how much better circumstances are overseas, but, more importantly, to demonstrate how some foreign nations are currently fulfilling such classic American ideals as freedom and equality far better than the United States is. >>
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.