“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.
II. They Live By Night (1949)
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.
III. In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1952)
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 retarded 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.
IV. The Lusty Men (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954)
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.
V. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956)
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.
VI. Bitter Victory (1957) and Savage Innocents (1960)
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.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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