“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” — Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)
The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.
Considered in full, the body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness. From first to last, Ray expresses a profound compassion for outcasts, outsiders, and marginal types—the conflicted and questing sort after whom Dostoyevsky titled one of his novels, The Insulted and Injured. Like Camus’s man in revolt, Ray’s characters often lash out unpredictably—yet, as Rivette suggests, these abrupt acts of violence always mask an attempt at communication. The film medium itself becomes the message—so that, even when (as in his ubiquitous Rebel Without a Cause) the manifest, didactic content of the work hits a trifle too on-the-nose (“You want to kill your father!”), the “pure cinema” of his framing, deployment of color and non-traditional editing style nonetheless conveys the yearning and soul-searching with aplomb. Like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber, the archetypal Ray (anti)hero—and, one suspects, Ray himself—was always trying to go home again and discovering, often to his mortification, sometimes to his disgrace, that it simply isn’t there.
Raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Nicholas Ray was born in close proximity (five years and a hundred miles) to the other members of what I should like to call “The Unholy Three”: Joseph Losey and Orson Welles, writer-directors fated, like Ray, to run afoul of the Hollywood studio and/or American political system. In his early 20s (after serving an internship with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on Ray’s visual sensibility was to prove incalculable), Ray moved to New York and became involved in the Group Theatre, where he met director Elia Kazan and producer John Houseman. Throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s, Ray would collaborate closely with Houseman, a partnership yielding one Broadway musical, several radio programs centered on folk music (drawing on the lifelong love of jazz, blues, and other indigenous styles Ray developed while traveling the American South with musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress), and an early TV adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number. In 1944, Ray went to Hollywood, at the behest of Kazan, to observe the production process behind his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
One of the most auspicious film debuts in Hollywood history (not for nothing is Welles’s Citizen Kane regularly invoked for purposes of comparison), They Live By Night was, upon completion, shelved for nearly two years while the smoke settled from Howard Hughes’s hostile takeover of RKO studios early in 1948. In subject matter, as well as details of character and setting, the film is as much a product of the Great Depression and New Deal social policies as its director. Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us (later filmed under that title by Robert Altman), They Live By Night is, alongside Fritz Lang’s ferocious You Only Live Once, one of the prototypical “criminal lovers on the lam” films inspired by the saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in much the same way that Ray’s film (refracted through the perverse prism of Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy) was a significant influence on Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic.
Unexpectedly, They Live By Night opens with its own trailer—a two-shot of Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), nuzzling and frisky as two overeager puppies, while in fancy cursive a subtitle informs the audience: “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Ray deemed this self-reflexive introduction necessary to distinguish the film as a romance/tragedy, obviously patterned after Romeo & Juliet, from a myriad other gangster pictures and minor noirs. Within the space of 20 seconds, Ray lays out the major theme—doomed romance, an amour fou (beloved by the surrealists) mixing death and desire, played against the backdrop of social alienation.
Whereas Anderson’s novel glosses its title’s all-inclusive indictment of corruption and exploitation with reference to greedy bankers (“They’re just thieves like us!”), Ray’s film was forced, by the dictates of the Production Code, to rather more lightly limn a similar viewpoint; its chief representative is now the figure of Hawkins, owner of a pay-as-you-go wedding chapel (“Rings for rent or sale”), played by Ray regular Ian Wolfe. Hawker of honeymoons and stolen vehicles, Hawkins stands at the crossroads of Cupid and cupidity—or, as he puts it, “giving folks what they want…as long as they can pay for it.”
As Bowie and Keechie cross the street to Hawkins’s establishment, its garish neon sign beckoning throughout the previous scene where they discuss whether or not to tie the knot, traversing the same uncannily ominous RKO back-lot prowled a few years earlier by Val Lewton’s shadowy kind, the camera frames them from behind the neon sign, capturing them within its flickering letters. Ray shoots the long walk down the stone path to Hawkins’s front door from a high angle, trapping the would-be newlyweds against lugubrious swaths of shadow. Later, when Bowie returns to the chapel, looking for a feasible exit strategy, Hawkins refuses to help him, despite the large offering of money on the table between them. When your doom sets in upon you, not even piles of cold cash act as any comfort.
Allow two further examples of Ray’s characteristic “meaning through mise-en-scène” to suffice: When Bowie kicks Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) out of his jalopy after Chickamaw’s attempted assault, the audience watches his dwindling figure recede in the rearview mirror. Moments later, we hear of Chickamaw’s death during an attempted liquor store robbery. And later, as an uncertain Bowie and Keechie make their way in the lashing wind and rain, the two-shot positions Keechie in the foreground, her face by turns shadowed and tremulous in the wavering light, with the window spider-webbed by Chickamaw’s wayward blow (seen behind Bowie’s head) providing mute testimony to the world’s mindless aggression.
They Live By Night provides the first of several significant scenes in Ray’s films where an on-screen performer (usually an African-American chanteuse) croons a song, the lyrics clearly related to larger thematic concerns. In this case, Marie Bryant—who had appeared in Houseman and Ray’s sole attempt at a Broadway musical, Beggar’s Holiday, an updating of The Beggar’s Opera with music by Duke Ellington—performs “Your Red Wagon.” The title, according to Ray, was an idiomatic Southern expression meaning “It’s your problem,” as the dapper gangster who gets the drop on Bowie in the restroom will let him know, dismissing him as a “trigger-happy hillbilly.” Even criminal society, business-minded as much as conventional society, refuses to the shelter the outcast couple (a distant echo of Fritz Lang’s M). The song’s title also served as one of several working titles for the film, along with The Twisted Road and
Betrayed in the end by their own families, Bowie walks into a police ambush—anticipating the bullet-riddled finale of Penn’s film, though here the action takes place in the dead of night. The tension-ratcheting scene just before his demise, paced at a purposeful adagio, shows him crossing the deserted motel court, intercut with brief shots of cops hunkered down behind parked cars and various outbuildings. Having reached their very doorstep, the cops blast Bowie as he fumbles for his pistol. In the haunting final shot, Keechie watches helplessly from the doorway, as the police cars turn off their lights and darkness steadily swallows the screen.
Next come the “prepositional noirs,” though—like They Live By Night—they’re really more hybrid assemblages than straightforward genre exercises. In a Lonely Place tosses noir, insider-Hollywood satire (in the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and murder mystery tropes into the pop-cultural crucible, extracting one of the smartest, bleakest, and most adroitly nuanced depictions of a brittle relationship collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions this side of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.
In a Lonely Place’s exemplary scene finds volatile screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) bringing home checkroom girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) in order to “tell him the story” of a lurid bestseller he’s just been hired to adapt for the screen. Every element in the mise-en-scène—every offhand line of dialogue, apparently unimportant bit of business (the girl’s constant mispronunciation of the novel’s title), disorienting shift in POV (a motivated shot seemingly from Bogart’s perspective turns out to be an “objective” setup as he saunters into the frame), and detail of set design (portentous wrought-iron gates, lending an aspect of confinement)—contributes to the sequence’s suggestiveness, so that Ray never has to tip his thematic hand. Discussion between Dix and Mildred about the pulpy “source material” doubles back on the process of the film’s construction (it’s another radically altered “adaptation” involving suspicions of foul play and utilizing voyeurism as a key plot point), but whereas we’ll never know what liberties Dix eventually took with Althea Bruce, we do know that, in the Dorothy Hughes’s novel, the protagonist is shown to be guilty from the outset and, equally as important, has nothing to do with the film industry. Ray and scriptwriter Edmund H. North hedge on Dix’s guilt or innocence, allowing audience suspicions to mount in tandem with alibi-turned-amour Laurel Gray’s (Gloria Grahame), delineating one of cinema’s most potent portraits of a man’s compulsion to destroy the thing he loves. Lending further amperage to the self-referential feedback loop: Ray and Grahame, to whom he was married at the time, quietly separated during filming. You can only imagine the tensions and hidden springs of inspiration at play while Bogart, Grahame, and Ray, putting their heads together at night on a closed set, hammered out one of the bitterest, most emotionally-hollowing endings in film history.
A study in contrasts, On Dangerous Ground modulates from the pitch-black mean streets of the Big City, expressive, as usual in noir, of post-war urban estrangement, to startlingly white mountain landscapes conveying another kind of desolation: solitude and its obverse loneliness. Alienated and unstable, detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan, in one of his finest roles) has reached his breaking point; the “garbage in, garbage out” nature of his work and persistent disparagement at the hands of the general public (a waitress laughs at the idea of dating a cop) have done a number on the man’s conscientiousness, shoving him over the line into outright zealotry. On the hunt for a gang of cop-killers, Wilson tracks one of the men to his grubby apartment. As he cowers like some cornered feral animal, Jim looms over him (Ray frames it so that Wilson’s eager fist assumes the shot’s focal point). Confrontation with this abject creature brings out the philosopher in Jim and he muses, “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!” before savagely beating the man into submission. (Ray and noir regular A.I. Bezzerides slyly hint that the man, who engages in “rough stuff” with his moll girlfriend, might be getting a bit of a charge out of the thrashing himself.) Consequent allegations of excessive force banish Jim to the “Siberia” of snow-clad boondocks, on loan to assist a country sheriff (Ian Wolfe again) with the investigation into a young girl’s rape and murder, where he encounters Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of the prime suspect.
Having concocted the entire city-set first act out of whole cloth, Ray and Bezzerides now follow the source material (a British rural-procedural titled, after a line in one of John Donne’s Elegies, “Mad with Much Heart”) with more or less fidelity, excepting a significant change in the killer’s mindset and motivation. Severely mentally impaired in the novel, the film’s Danny is a maladjusted “nature boy” (the Malden home is filled with his wood carvings, as well as a tree bole turned into a readymade sculpture that figures in several scenes), a tortured artist (like Dix Steele) who uses the same knife to carve his statuary and to commit murder. The anecdote Danny recounts, about two young girls who reject his fumbling attempts at friendship with laughter, strikes a chord with Jim, establishing Danny as a second self or secret sharer, in the same way that the single-minded father of the victim (Ward Bond), head of the local posse, determined to string up the killer, echoes Jim’s own avowedly violent nature.
The inevitable romance that develops between Jim and Mary, as often as it tips into the maudlin and platitudinous, maintains a tentative, even hesitant quality, rendered more palatable by the finely shaded performances from Ryan and Lupino. Jim’s eventual “salvation” (with much heart) after he turns his back on the Big City—signaled by a match-dissolve through Jim’s windshield between snow and shadow—proceeds quickly and without too much ado. Together with the frangible finale to Bigger Than Life, it stands as one of the most optimistic endings in Ray’s filmography. On the other hand, perhaps this is because it was shot several months later without Ray being present.
A matched pair of westerns followed, one a mournful modern-day ode to a vanishing way of life (a clear influence on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner), the other a truly perverse “psychological western” or, the designation I prefer, “weird western.” The Lusty Men pits homeward-looking, aging rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) against upstart wannabe Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), positioning Wes’s wife Louise (Susan Hayward) as the upright angle in this acute triangle.
Continuing a trend glimpsed in In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men juxtaposes patently false studio sets and process photography—even beyond, one feels, the usual exigencies necessitated by studio procedures—with a gritty verisimilitude derived from documentary-style location shooting at eminent rodeo events. The opening rodeo sequence succinctly establishes the mood: Jeff goes through the motions of his routine (a brief subjective shot from atop a bucking bronco is a stunner), never bothering to interact with the other contestants, before leaving the deserted, windswept, and paper-strewn ring through the livestock exit. Hitching a ride back to the old homestead, Jeff roots around under the porch, rifling through his childish things (a tobacco tin, a stripped-down pop gun). It’s never entirely clear what he’s after (access to some ineffable past moment when everything seemed clear and clean and easy), but at any rate it’s denied him when old-timer Jeremiah (Burt Mustin), who lives there now, barges in on Jeff’s jaunt down memory lane. Showing him around the dilapidated bungalow, Jeremiah remarks that for Jeff it must be like visiting a graveyard. For Wes and Louise, arriving on the scene soon after, the ramshackle ranch is a dream home, albeit one tantalizingly just beyond their fiscal reach.
Wes soon determines to learn the tricks of the trade under Jeff’s tutelage (Jeff trades on his experience for a percentage), figuring—over Louise’s levelheaded objections, naturally—that calf-roping, bronco-busting, and bull riding will earn him a “fat bankroll” sooner than more mundane work as a hired hand. The fast buck is, after all, the American Dream bound in a nutshell. Since he seems to possess natural aptitude, Wes’s success comes quick and easy—a little too, as the story goes. The attention goes to his head, he even attracts groupies, lasses eager to be lassoed and busted. The film literal-mindedly—not to mention raunchily—sets up an equivalence between horses and women. Fending off one of Wes’s female admirers, Louise quips, “Beat it, sister. He’s got a horse.”
Tensions come to a head at a wedding party. Ray articulates the relational geometry between the characters with a series of tracking shots that follow Jeff and Louise as they arrive on the scene, then Wes and lady friend Bev as they leave the bedroom together, tracing the vectors as they cross and re-cross the room; a floor-level shot of ladies’ legs, ice buckets, and discarded champagne bottles captures Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) dividing his attention between these peregrinations and a folk singer strumming his guitar, singing a barely identifiable version of “Worried Blues.” (Bob Dylan later covered the song on his album Freewheelin’.)
“All you’ve been doing is dragging your foot in my stirrup,” Wes tells Jeff. But when Wes calls him yellow (think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause responding to the “chicken” charge), Jeff knocks him cold. Jeff resolves to return to the rodeo, signing up for all the major events at the Pendleton Roundup. As he preps for the bull ride, Jeff and Wes have a moment of silent reconciliation—nothing more than a look and a swapped smile—shot in a brisk high-angle/low-angle interchange. Jeff’s foot gets caught in his stirrup—ironic, given Wes’s allegation—and the bull fatally tramples him. As Jeff lays dying among furled flags and saw-horsed saddles, Louise weeps over him: Though she elects to stand by her man, her capacity to love them both in equal measure is apparent, an understated touch mitigating the otherwise conventional posturing and routine double-entendre-laden exchanges between Jeff and Louise.
Despite its “heronymous” title, Johnny Guitar centers on saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), caught in the clash between the forces of social conformity—represented by resident cattle-baron McIvers (Ward Bond), who wants to snatch up Vienna’s land before the railroad comes through, and Emma Small (a fierce turn from Mercedes McCambridge), sister of the local banker killed in the film-opening stagecoach robbery—and the outlaw gang led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Conventional motivations, however, soon go out the window: McIvers morphs into a Joe McCarthy type, quick to resort to extra-legal means in his land-grab, while Emma would rather string the Kid up than admit her love for him. Into this maelstrom of repressed desire and lynch-mob mentality rides Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden), gunslinger turned troubadour.
Johnny’s guitar-strumming sublimates an aberrant compulsion, a thin veneer of culture concealing a gun-craziness the film perversely links to a textbook-Freudian dialectic of sexual potency and emasculation. When Turkey (Ben Cooper) tries to prove his manhood to Vienna by shooting up her joint, Johnny responds by blasting the gun out of his hand. It’s clear, from Turkey’s abashed peeks at his dented firearm, that the insult is far more than instrumental.
Johnny Guitar’s dramatic tectonics may owe an outsized debt to Casablanca, but, as always with Ray, the devil’s in the details—first and foremost, the issue of a rather subversive gender swap. When star Crawford determined early on in the filming that she should play Vienna as though she were the male lead, Ray screenwriter Philip Yordan ran with the notion, dressing her in mannish garb and relegating the male leads to secondary, largely passive roles. Marking another first, the film climaxes with a shootout between two women, McCambridge and Crawford stalking each other around the Kid’s hilltop hideout until Vienna puts one in Emma’s brainpan and she tumbles down to the lynch mob’s feet.
Let’s not discount >Johnny Guitar’s formal and aesthetic distinctions either—the studied use of Republic Pictures’s patented Trucolor process, which renders the greens, reds, and oranges of the landscape in fitting painterly fashion. There’s also the blatant theatricality, traceable back to Ray’s time with the Group Theatre, down to costume changes cueing emotional states and even ethical relations. When the mob, on the hunt for the Kid and his bunch, barges in on Vienna, she’s tickling the ivories onstage, her flowing white hoop-skirt—the most feminine attire she ever wears—in stark contrast to their funereal black.
Fifty years of hoopla and hyperbole—owing, as much as anything, to star James Dean’s tragic death in a car crash four days before the film’s release—have encrusted and obfuscated Rebel Without a Cause’s uniqueness. You must have eyes to see it, lurking in the interstices between the youth movie—a genre it at once concretized, elaborating on a template established by the previous year’s Blackboard Jungle, and came to epitomize—and the “social problem” picture. It’s clearly on display in the geometrical precision with which Ray introduces the three main characters—Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo)—in the police station opener. Slight readjustments (modest pans, unobtrusive tracking shots) bind all three together within the broad CinemaScope frame. Ray came to prefer the CinemaScope format to the more confining Academy Ratio and quickly made it his own.
It’s also discernible in the scene that perfectly demarcates both the film’s formal daring and its thematic overindulgence: Coming home from the “chickie run,” Jim finds his old man (Jim Backus) asleep in front of the TV. Torn between the need to confide in someone and the desire to avoid causing a ruckus, Jim splits the difference on a bit of business with a milk bottle—revealing thought through action, a Ray specialty—and sprawls out on the couch. An upside-down subjective POV shot picks up his mother descending the stairs, then rights itself as Jim sits up to confront her. The ensuing imbroglio plays Method-y (“You gotta give me something!”), but the precise and off-kilter blocking and framing consistently undercut the too-explicit dialogue: on the staircase (also the scene of conflict in Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life), caught between mother taking the high ground and father down below (“You’re tearing me apart!”), Jim responds in typical Ray fashion with violence—dragging his father across the living room, starting to throttle him (shades of In a Lonely Place). Frustrated even in his Oedipal rage (the aforementioned “You want to kill your father!”), Jim exits stage right, but not before kicking in a frumpy framed portrait of his grandmother. The production history reveals that, after rehearsing and blocking the scene in his own living room before filming it, Ray had the art department copy the interior for the scene. Similarly, Ray patterned the exterior of the Patio Apartments, in the already-uncomfortably-personal In a Lonely Place, on his first L.A. residence.
Unjustly neglected, and often misunderstood as a cautionary “social problem” picture about the dangers of cortisone abuse, Bigger Than Life is a far rarer bird—a jet-black comedy-cum-demolition derby that uses its “message” as a Trojan horse to sneak a bewildering array of social-critical potshots at 1950s-era conformism and middle-class, middlebrow mentalities past its unsuspecting viewers, as well as gleefully taking a sledgehammer to nearly every cherished idol of Ozzie and Harriet complacency—PTA meetings, friendly neighborhood milkmen, and somnolent Sunday services all get it in the neck.
Schoolteacher Ed Avery (producer/star James Mason) works a second job as taxicab dispatcher so he can keep wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen, soon to be seen as James Stewart’s kidnapped son in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) in the style to which they’re accustomed. When he collapses from nervous exhaustion (clutching his doorbell, so that incessant buzzing serves as objective diegetic correlative to his discomfort and disease), he’s rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with an uncommon heart disease and prescribed the new “miracle drug” cortisone. Ray fills the medical test montage with garish swaths of red and black, after an almost Expressionist fashion, and groups the doctors in vaguely ominous twos and threes.
Abusing his medication unleashes a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement and superiority—its germs already evident prior to his breakdown, as in the scene where Ed scolds Richie for enjoying the dumb shows and noise of a TV western—long held in check by the self-professedly dull Ed Avery. This Janus-headed approach to the material allows Ray and his flotilla of screenwriters, among them playwright Clifford Odets and film critic-turned-novelist Gavin Lambert, to radically interrogate the very institution of the paterfamilias as well as use him for a mouthpiece in their devastating satirical attacks: An address to the PTA turns into a free-for-all when Ed informs the assembled parents that their children are on an intellectual par with chimpanzees, then goes on to outline a crypto-fascistic plan for educational reform. Holding a fabled high school football victory over his son Richie (the ball holds pride of place on the mantelpiece), he begins a harsh, incessant regimen of drill practices as a pretext to terrorize and berate the boy.
Bigger Than Life’s visual and thematic schema are also Janus-faced; hearkening back to the heyday of German Expressionism, it deploys portentous shadow-play and mirrored doublings to deepen its portrait of psychological disintegration, paving the way for the New Hollywood horror renaissance by locating the source of its horror—a father’s unabashed, uncontested desire to slaughter his own son—squarely within the nuclear family. The influence on Kubrick’s The Shining is inarguable.
Bigger Than Life boasts the ne plus ultra of staircase confrontations. Convinced of organized religion’s hypocrisy and negligence after taking a banality bath during the Sunday sermon, Ed realizes, as he puts it, he must “now take all that on too.” Striding down the stairs like some Old Testament prophet, Ed recites the story of Abraham and Isaac, leaving off where Abraham raises the knife to deliver the killing blow—holding aloft a pair of scissors he’s been using as a place-marker. When Lou urges him to continue, saying, “That’s not how the story ends, Ed! God stopped Abraham!” Ed proclaims, “God was wrong!” What other film—then or now—had the audacity, drug addiction or no, to call into question the reliability of the Big Guy Upstairs?
Turning on the baleful eye of the TV (the set shows an incongruous carnival scene, the raucous calliope music making do as soundtrack for the murderous attack to follow), Ed chases Richie upstairs, when something—a baffling wash of red across the frame—prevents him from striking. As he chases Richie back down the stairs, family friend Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) arrives, and a violent struggle between the two men ensues, shattering the stairway banister. Because the stairs lead from the public-access downstairs where parties and get-togethers are held to the private, domestic space upstairs, they represent the tensions between these two spheres, and the banister’s rupture signals the absolute collapse of the family unit.
A perfunctory epilogue supplies the resolution, rendered tentative by stressing the fact that Ed’s recovery may well be provisional, the likelihood being that eventually he will relapse. (This major revision to the source material—wherein the teacher was simply prescribed a different medication—imposes a “No Exit” baseline existentialism on what otherwise might have become mere melodrama.) The road to Ed’s provisional recovery is free-associational; a dream about Lincoln (“I dreamed I walked with Abraham, he was as big and as ugly as in life”) segues into the memory of his attempted murder. The family unit comes together for a group hug, but it may only be a matter of time before madness descends upon them again.
More or less finished with the Hollywood studio phase of his career (only the interfered-with The True Story of Jesse James and for-hire Party Girl remained), Ray moved to Europe, where his films were already attracting lavish critical praise, and two international co-productions followed. Both films—dominated by enormous vistas (shifting Saharan sands, barren Arctic tundra) captured in CinemaScope and, in the latter case, the even-more-expansive Super-Technirama 70 format—exemplify what Herman Melville called “the deadly space between” differing human natures, as well as between man and the indifferent, even hostile, natural world that surrounds him.
Ostensibly, Bitter Victory is a WWII film set, and partially filmed, in Libya, but instead starts off more like a chamber piece, another triangulated love affair, when Major Brand’s (Curd Jürgens) wife, Jane (Ruth Roman), turns up at Western Desert HQ on the eve of an important mission. When he introduces her to rival and second-in-command Captain Leith (Richard Burton), it soon becomes apparent they have a prior history. Before the war, Jane and Leith had been lovers until he abandoned her for archeological work in Libya: “You always seemed to prefer stones to people,” she says. Brand senses something between them, but opts to curry favor with his superiors, rather than confront his wife, providing Leith and Jane with the convenient opportunity for a farewell scene. She talks of love, he deflects the emotion into a pessimistic appraisal of the “futility” of history: “The Romans built beautiful cities in Libya: dead bones sticking out of the sand. War rolled over them. It’ll be good to see them again.” Already Leith’s death wish, a desire to return to the inorganic state, to be one with stone and mineral (as Freud would have it), rears its head.
The scene shifts to a virtuoso set piece—the nearly 10-minute, virtually silent commando raid on Benghazi—that allows Ray to flaunt his architectonic compositions and syncopated editing rhythms. Though the mission is a success, things begin to fall apart later that night, as the men make their way through the desert to the rendezvous point, when a convoy of Germans sneak-attack their encampment. The following day, Brand decides to leave Leith and the native guide, Mokrane, behind with wounded soldiers from both sides. With excruciating slowness, some of the men die, while Leith weighs his alternatives. (Burton is wonderfully expressive here, having to do nothing more than gaze dolefully into the desert wastes to register Leith’s internal warfare.) Deciding to put the men out of their misery, Leith levels his gun at a German officer, who pleads for his life, appealing for mercy by holding up a family picture. Leith fires anyway. The British infantryman, on the other hand, wants to die. Leith attempts carrying him to safety, over the man’s agonized protests. He doesn’t get very far before Mokrane stops him. The soldier is dead. “I killed the living,” Leith says with abashed irony, “and I saved the dead.” Human endeavor, it seems, may also be futile in the end.
Reunited with Brand and the rest of the men, the company must traverse the desert on foot. The low contrast photography blurs the line between sky and sand (compared to the earlier nighttime German raid), increasing the viewer’s impression of aimless wandering, an almost bibilical exodus mood, even perhaps a kind of sand-blindness. The animosity between Brand and Leith grows: Brand’s suspicions about Jane and Leith are confirmed, Leith needles Brand relentlessly about an act of cowardice committed during the Benghazi raid. Brand sees, but does nothing to prevent, a scorpion crawling up Leith’s leg. When he’s stung, Mokrane kills and disembowels a camel, so Leith can drink ammonia from its bladder—anticipating a similar moment in The Savage Innocents. But the ironic reversals aren’t quite over yet; directly following, a ghibli (sandstorm) blows up. Leith throws himself across Brand, saving his life, his dying words paraphrase Whitman, “I contradict myself! I always contradict myself!”
The apotheosis of a tendency within Ray’s work, taken to nearly Surrealist lengths, The Savage Innocents was filmed for the most part on soundstages in France and Britain, but with second-unit footage shot above the Arctic circle, and some principal photography involving the lead actors, haphazardly cut in—and the integration of these wildly disparate scenes from time to time skirts camp and on occasion imparts a certain Brechtian “alienation effect.” Also contributing to the mood, the fact that a young Peter O’Toole, in only his second film role, had his voice re-dubbed by the Italian producers. (An admitted fan of the film, Dylan wrote “Quinn the Eskimo [The Mighty Quinn]” to express his admiration.)
Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is indeed an “innocent” who spends practically the entire first hour cavorting and giggling with his Inuit kind; it’s no coincidence that the film suggests “to laugh” as the Eskimo circumlocution for carnal knowledge. Resembling not so much Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as Welles’s Touch of Evil in its racial politics (none of the actors are actual Eskimos, of course; at best the film settles for vaguely “Asiatic” types like Yoko Tani, playing Inuk’s wife Asiak), The Savage Innocents exudes sympathy for this band of outsiders. When the plot eventually does kick in, the narrative focuses on Inuk’s quixotic interactions with “civilization,” as represented by a trading post ruled over by a lone white trader and staffed by a gaggle of Americanized Inuit. The White Man is a prude (and, of course, a bigot), refusing to interact with any of the natives save his right-hand man. Ever the patriarch, the trader even pulls the plug on the natives’ innocent fun—doing the twist to a tune called “Iceberg” playing on an old-fashioned jukebox—and sends them all to bed.
Sensibly enough, Inuk and Asiak run away. But now civilization won’t leave them be. An unctuous missionary turns up at their igloo, looking to introduce them to his “friend” Jesus (they imagine he means a real person), and when Inuk offers to let him “laugh” with Asiak, the man starts crowing “It’s a sin!” until Inuk cracks his head against the ice-wall. The following spring, two troopers flying in to investigate wreck their seaplane. One drowns, while the other’s (O’Toole) hands are terribly frostbitten trying to save his partner. Inuk guts a sled dog, forces the trooper to shove his hands in. “It hurts!” the man cries. “Good,” Inuk replies. “Means life is coming back. Only death is painless.”
The scenes between Quinn and O’Toole are key to the film’s refreshingly non-paternalistic subtext. Rather than applaud the wondrous advantages of material culture (the jukebox scene sets the tone at wryly bemused) or, on the contrary, simple-mindedly idolizing the simplicity of the native Inuit, Ray navigates a middle ground based on mutual appreciation and reciprocity. Or, as Asiak puts it, bidding farewell to the recuperated trooper, “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”
Following two epic catastrophes funded by notorious producer Samuel Bronston (King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, during which Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced), Ray’s filmmaking career was, for all intents and purposes, over and done with. On the scene in Paris during the May 1968 student uprisings, Ray eventually did go home again (briefly), shooting footage for two documentaries, one on the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the other chronicling the 1969 anti-war protest march on Washington. From 1971-73, he taught filmmaking at Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton), overseeing production of an experimental split-screen work-in-progress, We Can’t Go Home Again, which had its provisional premiere at the 1973 Cannes film festival. From 1976 until his death in 1979, Ray and his third wife, Susan, occupied a loft in SoHo. He made cameo appearances in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Milos Forman’s Hair and, over the last few months of his life, collaborated again with Wenders on the documentary Lighting over Water (a.k.a. Nick’s Movie).
August marked the centenary of Nicholas Ray’s birth. The Venice Film Festival will be marking the anniversary by premiering a new documentary about Ray’s life and career, Don’t Expect Too Much, as well as a newly restored and re-edited version of We Can’t Go Home Again.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Get Duked! Is a Cheeky Mashup of Social Critique and Genre Thrills
Get Duked! offers enough evidence to suggest that Ninian Doff may be a new comedic voice to look out for.2.5
Three juvenile delinquents from the big city and a home-schooled nerd are thrust into the Scottish Highlands and hunted down by a pair of upper-crust psychopaths hellbent on preserving the purity of their country’s bloodline. On paper, that’s a pretty straightforward premise, but Ninian Doff’s feature debut seamlessly weaves blunt yet forceful social critique into its story, which cheekily mashes up horror, comedy, and adventure film tropes. The result is a taut genre exercise that delivers enough surprises and cleverly timed bits of humor for its sometimes familiar, uneven narrative beats to play an original tune.
Doff wisely wastes no time on needless exposition, setting an irreverent tone right from the start as the four teens view a VHS tape from the 1980s that explains the purpose of an adventure competition to win the Duke of Edinburgh Award—getting young delinquents “out of the city and into the countryside”—with a wink and a nod to the classist and racist impulses embedded in such bourgeois programs of cultural assimilation. While few attempts beyond that are made to expand on this commentary, Get Duked! takes great pleasure in mocking the ruling class, with Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen donning human skin masks and playing their parts as hunters of lower-class kids with an appropriately unrestrained and gleeful lunacy.
The trio of rabble-rousing friends from the city—Dean (Rian Gordon), the leader of their pack, DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), a wannabe rapper, and Duncan (Lewis Gribben), a dopey pyromaniac—are joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley), the dorky outsider who actually chose to come along for the ride. And in the film’s first half, Doff relies primarily on the verbal jousting between the foursome to keep things lively as they struggle to find out who’s hunting them across the Highlands and, after accidentally using the wrong piece of their map to roll a joint, where exactly they’re supposed to be heading. And while there are stretches here that seem to drag, suggesting that the film is trying to get its bearings, Doff is actually rather meticulously putting pieces of the plot in motion that will, in some cases, pay off later in the story.
Get Duked! really leans into the sheer absurdity of its scenario when two bumbling small-town police officers (Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie), wrongfully suspicious of a terrorist plot involving pedophiles, urban gangs, and zombies, arrive on the scene. In one particularly ludicrous sequence, DJ Beatroot—who has long been ribbed for both his lack of fans and for not realizing that his rap moniker is also a type of vegetable—finally gets his moment to shine. After stumbling upon a barn full of farmers who’ve been enjoying one of his many self-hyped mixtapes, DJ Beatroot is instantly celebrated. The group even turns him on to the hidden psychedelic properties found in the region’s rabbit shit, setting up an amusingly hallucinogenic rendition of the young rapper’s titular song.
Throughout DJ Beatroot’s performance of the song, as well as during scenes featuring songs by Danny Brown, Run the Jewels, and Vince Staples, Doff gets to flex the skills he honed on the set of many a music video, breathing a visual creativity and propulsive energy into the film that’s lacking in other parts. And as the police and farmers are further intertwined into the film’s plot, the purpose behind earlier events begin to click into place and jokes receive increasingly deranged callbacks, building to an inspired deus ex machina that manages to cleverly tie several loose ends together. Would that the entire film had been as visually and narratively imaginative as the final half hour, but Get Duked! offers enough evidence to suggest that Doff may be a new comedic voice to look out for.
Cast: Lewis Gribben, Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Samuel Bottomley, Eddie Izzard, Georgie Glen, Kate Dickie, Jonathan Aris, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie, Alice Lowe Director: Ninian Doff Screenwriter: Ninian Doff Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power
Reiner Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.3
A major reason behind Maison Martin Margiela’s appeal was the French luxury fashion house’s embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The company’s eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway models’ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion house’s clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margiela’s stores lacked signage and weren’t listed in the yellow pages.
Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margiela’s narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We don’t see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margiela’s face replicates the conceptual framework of the designer’s own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.
That sphere, which allowed for Margiela’s ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered ‘80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-à-vis the fashion industry’s tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margiela’s models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the models’ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of models’ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.
Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakao’s shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueen’s ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemer’s documentary makes the case for Margiela’s revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warhol’s and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle that’s guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.
Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of technique—or how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artist’s approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (we’re introduced to Margiela’s childhood midway through the film) and allows us to see—at the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scène—how the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakubo’s deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardin’s theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultier’s rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardot’s unflappable femininity.
Holzemer doesn’t shy away from exploring Margiela’s commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margiela’s creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margiela’s subversion with Hermes’s aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margiela’s refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.
Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: Apple TV+, A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, it’s good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.
What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”
That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?
It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.
What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.
We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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