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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

The body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness.

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” — Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.

Considered in full, the body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness. From first to last, Ray expresses a profound compassion for outcasts, outsiders, and marginal types—the conflicted and questing sort after whom Dostoyevsky titled one of his novels, The Insulted and Injured. Like Camus’s man in revolt, Ray’s characters often lash out unpredictably—yet, as Rivette suggests, these abrupt acts of violence always mask an attempt at communication. The film medium itself becomes the message—so that, even when (as in his ubiquitous Rebel Without a Cause) the manifest, didactic content of the work hits a trifle too on-the-nose (“You want to kill your father!”), the “pure cinema” of his framing, deployment of color and non-traditional editing style nonetheless conveys the yearning and soul-searching with aplomb. Like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber, the archetypal Ray (anti)hero—and, one suspects, Ray himself—was always trying to go home again and discovering, often to his mortification, sometimes to his disgrace, that it simply isn’t there.

Raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Nicholas Ray was born in close proximity (five years and a hundred miles) to the other members of what I should like to call “The Unholy Three”: Joseph Losey and Orson Welles, writer-directors fated, like Ray, to run afoul of the Hollywood studio and/or American political system. In his early 20s (after serving an internship with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on Ray’s visual sensibility was to prove incalculable), Ray moved to New York and became involved in the Group Theatre, where he met director Elia Kazan and producer John Houseman. Throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s, Ray would collaborate closely with Houseman, a partnership yielding one Broadway musical, several radio programs centered on folk music (drawing on the lifelong love of jazz, blues, and other indigenous styles Ray developed while traveling the American South with musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress), and an early TV adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number. In 1944, Ray went to Hollywood, at the behest of Kazan, to observe the production process behind his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

One of the most auspicious film debuts in Hollywood history (not for nothing is Welles’s Citizen Kane regularly invoked for purposes of comparison), They Live By Night was, upon completion, shelved for nearly two years while the smoke settled from Howard Hughes’s hostile takeover of RKO studios early in 1948. In subject matter, as well as details of character and setting, the film is as much a product of the Great Depression and New Deal social policies as its director. Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us (later filmed under that title by Robert Altman), They Live By Night is, alongside Fritz Lang’s ferocious You Only Live Once, one of the prototypical “criminal lovers on the lam” films inspired by the saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in much the same way that Ray’s film (refracted through the perverse prism of Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy) was a significant influence on Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic.

Unexpectedly, They Live By Night opens with its own trailer—a two-shot of Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), nuzzling and frisky as two overeager puppies, while in fancy cursive a subtitle informs the audience: “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Ray deemed this self-reflexive introduction necessary to distinguish the film as a romance/tragedy, obviously patterned after Romeo & Juliet, from a myriad other gangster pictures and minor noirs. Within the space of 20 seconds, Ray lays out the major theme—doomed romance, an amour fou (beloved by the surrealists) mixing death and desire, played against the backdrop of social alienation.

Whereas Anderson’s novel glosses its title’s all-inclusive indictment of corruption and exploitation with reference to greedy bankers (“They’re just thieves like us!”), Ray’s film was forced, by the dictates of the Production Code, to rather more lightly limn a similar viewpoint; its chief representative is now the figure of Hawkins, owner of a pay-as-you-go wedding chapel (“Rings for rent or sale”), played by Ray regular Ian Wolfe. Hawker of honeymoons and stolen vehicles, Hawkins stands at the crossroads of Cupid and cupidity—or, as he puts it, “giving folks what they want…as long as they can pay for it.”

As Bowie and Keechie cross the street to Hawkins’s establishment, its garish neon sign beckoning throughout the previous scene where they discuss whether or not to tie the knot, traversing the same uncannily ominous RKO back-lot prowled a few years earlier by Val Lewton’s shadowy kind, the camera frames them from behind the neon sign, capturing them within its flickering letters. Ray shoots the long walk down the stone path to Hawkins’s front door from a high angle, trapping the would-be newlyweds against lugubrious swaths of shadow. Later, when Bowie returns to the chapel, looking for a feasible exit strategy, Hawkins refuses to help him, despite the large offering of money on the table between them. When your doom sets in upon you, not even piles of cold cash act as any comfort.

Allow two further examples of Ray’s characteristic “meaning through mise-en-scène” to suffice: When Bowie kicks Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) out of his jalopy after Chickamaw’s attempted assault, the audience watches his dwindling figure recede in the rearview mirror. Moments later, we hear of Chickamaw’s death during an attempted liquor store robbery. And later, as an uncertain Bowie and Keechie make their way in the lashing wind and rain, the two-shot positions Keechie in the foreground, her face by turns shadowed and tremulous in the wavering light, with the window spider-webbed by Chickamaw’s wayward blow (seen behind Bowie’s head) providing mute testimony to the world’s mindless aggression.

They Live By Night provides the first of several significant scenes in Ray’s films where an on-screen performer (usually an African-American chanteuse) croons a song, the lyrics clearly related to larger thematic concerns. In this case, Marie Bryant—who had appeared in Houseman and Ray’s sole attempt at a Broadway musical, Beggar’s Holiday, an updating of The Beggar’s Opera with music by Duke Ellington—performs “Your Red Wagon.” The title, according to Ray, was an idiomatic Southern expression meaning “It’s your problem,” as the dapper gangster who gets the drop on Bowie in the restroom will let him know, dismissing him as a “trigger-happy hillbilly.” Even criminal society, business-minded as much as conventional society, refuses to the shelter the outcast couple (a distant echo of Fritz Lang’s M). The song’s title also served as one of several working titles for the film, along with The Twisted Road and I’m a Stranger Here Myself (always something of a mantra for the director). The latter would eventually find its way as a key line of dialogue in Ray’s perverse western, Johnny Guitar.

Betrayed in the end by their own families, Bowie walks into a police ambush—anticipating the bullet-riddled finale of Penn’s film, though here the action takes place in the dead of night. The tension-ratcheting scene just before his demise, paced at a purposeful adagio, shows him crossing the deserted motel court, intercut with brief shots of cops hunkered down behind parked cars and various outbuildings. Having reached their very doorstep, the cops blast Bowie as he fumbles for his pistol. In the haunting final shot, Keechie watches helplessly from the doorway, as the police cars turn off their lights and darkness steadily swallows the screen.

Next come the “prepositional noirs,” though—like They Live By Night—they’re really more hybrid assemblages than straightforward genre exercises. In a Lonely Place tosses noir, insider-Hollywood satire (in the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and murder mystery tropes into the pop-cultural crucible, extracting one of the smartest, bleakest, and most adroitly nuanced depictions of a brittle relationship collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions this side of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

In a Lonely Place’s exemplary scene finds volatile screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) bringing home checkroom girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) in order to “tell him the story” of a lurid bestseller he’s just been hired to adapt for the screen. Every element in the mise-en-scène—every offhand line of dialogue, apparently unimportant bit of business (the girl’s constant mispronunciation of the novel’s title), disorienting shift in POV (a motivated shot seemingly from Bogart’s perspective turns out to be an “objective” setup as he saunters into the frame), and detail of set design (portentous wrought-iron gates, lending an aspect of confinement)—contributes to the sequence’s suggestiveness, so that Ray never has to tip his thematic hand. Discussion between Dix and Mildred about the pulpy “source material” doubles back on the process of the film’s construction (it’s another radically altered “adaptation” involving suspicions of foul play and utilizing voyeurism as a key plot point), but whereas we’ll never know what liberties Dix eventually took with Althea Bruce, we do know that, in the Dorothy Hughes’s novel, the protagonist is shown to be guilty from the outset and, equally as important, has nothing to do with the film industry. Ray and scriptwriter Edmund H. North hedge on Dix’s guilt or innocence, allowing audience suspicions to mount in tandem with alibi-turned-amour Laurel Gray’s (Gloria Grahame), delineating one of cinema’s most potent portraits of a man’s compulsion to destroy the thing he loves. Lending further amperage to the self-referential feedback loop: Ray and Grahame, to whom he was married at the time, quietly separated during filming. You can only imagine the tensions and hidden springs of inspiration at play while Bogart, Grahame, and Ray, putting their heads together at night on a closed set, hammered out one of the bitterest, most emotionally-hollowing endings in film history.

A study in contrasts, On Dangerous Ground modulates from the pitch-black mean streets of the Big City, expressive, as usual in noir, of post-war urban estrangement, to startlingly white mountain landscapes conveying another kind of desolation: solitude and its obverse loneliness. Alienated and unstable, detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan, in one of his finest roles) has reached his breaking point; the “garbage in, garbage out” nature of his work and persistent disparagement at the hands of the general public (a waitress laughs at the idea of dating a cop) have done a number on the man’s conscientiousness, shoving him over the line into outright zealotry. On the hunt for a gang of cop-killers, Wilson tracks one of the men to his grubby apartment. As he cowers like some cornered feral animal, Jim looms over him (Ray frames it so that Wilson’s eager fist assumes the shot’s focal point). Confrontation with this abject creature brings out the philosopher in Jim and he muses, “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!” before savagely beating the man into submission. (Ray and noir regular A.I. Bezzerides slyly hint that the man, who engages in “rough stuff” with his moll girlfriend, might be getting a bit of a charge out of the thrashing himself.) Consequent allegations of excessive force banish Jim to the “Siberia” of snow-clad boondocks, on loan to assist a country sheriff (Ian Wolfe again) with the investigation into a young girl’s rape and murder, where he encounters Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of the prime suspect.

Having concocted the entire city-set first act out of whole cloth, Ray and Bezzerides now follow the source material (a British rural-procedural titled, after a line in one of John Donne’s Elegies, “Mad with Much Heart”) with more or less fidelity, excepting a significant change in the killer’s mindset and motivation. Severely 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.

A matched pair of westerns followed, one a mournful modern-day ode to a vanishing way of life (a clear influence on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner), the other a truly perverse “psychological western” or, the designation I prefer, “weird western.” The Lusty Men pits homeward-looking, aging rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) against upstart wannabe Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), positioning Wes’s wife Louise (Susan Hayward) as the upright angle in this acute triangle.

Continuing a trend glimpsed in In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men juxtaposes patently false studio sets and process photography—even beyond, one feels, the usual exigencies necessitated by studio procedures—with a gritty verisimilitude derived from documentary-style location shooting at eminent rodeo events. The opening rodeo sequence succinctly establishes the mood: Jeff goes through the motions of his routine (a brief subjective shot from atop a bucking bronco is a stunner), never bothering to interact with the other contestants, before leaving the deserted, windswept, and paper-strewn ring through the livestock exit. Hitching a ride back to the old homestead, Jeff roots around under the porch, rifling through his childish things (a tobacco tin, a stripped-down pop gun). It’s never entirely clear what he’s after (access to some ineffable past moment when everything seemed clear and clean and easy), but at any rate it’s denied him when old-timer Jeremiah (Burt Mustin), who lives there now, barges in on Jeff’s jaunt down memory lane. Showing him around the dilapidated bungalow, Jeremiah remarks that for Jeff it must be like visiting a graveyard. For Wes and Louise, arriving on the scene soon after, the ramshackle ranch is a dream home, albeit one tantalizingly just beyond their fiscal reach.

Wes soon determines to learn the tricks of the trade under Jeff’s tutelage (Jeff trades on his experience for a percentage), figuring—over Louise’s levelheaded objections, naturally—that calf-roping, bronco-busting, and bull riding will earn him a “fat bankroll” sooner than more mundane work as a hired hand. The fast buck is, after all, the American Dream bound in a nutshell. Since he seems to possess natural aptitude, Wes’s success comes quick and easy—a little too, as the story goes. The attention goes to his head, he even attracts groupies, lasses eager to be lassoed and busted. The film literal-mindedly—not to mention raunchily—sets up an equivalence between horses and women. Fending off one of Wes’s female admirers, Louise quips, “Beat it, sister. He’s got a horse.”

Tensions come to a head at a wedding party. Ray articulates the relational geometry between the characters with a series of tracking shots that follow Jeff and Louise as they arrive on the scene, then Wes and lady friend Bev as they leave the bedroom together, tracing the vectors as they cross and re-cross the room; a floor-level shot of ladies’ legs, ice buckets, and discarded champagne bottles captures Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) dividing his attention between these peregrinations and a folk singer strumming his guitar, singing a barely identifiable version of “Worried Blues.” (Bob Dylan later covered the song on his album Freewheelin’.)

“All you’ve been doing is dragging your foot in my stirrup,” Wes tells Jeff. But when Wes calls him yellow (think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause responding to the “chicken” charge), Jeff knocks him cold. Jeff resolves to return to the rodeo, signing up for all the major events at the Pendleton Roundup. As he preps for the bull ride, Jeff and Wes have a moment of silent reconciliation—nothing more than a look and a swapped smile—shot in a brisk high-angle/low-angle interchange. Jeff’s foot gets caught in his stirrup—ironic, given Wes’s allegation—and the bull fatally tramples him. As Jeff lays dying among furled flags and saw-horsed saddles, Louise weeps over him: Though she elects to stand by her man, her capacity to love them both in equal measure is apparent, an understated touch mitigating the otherwise conventional posturing and routine double-entendre-laden exchanges between Jeff and Louise.

Despite its “heronymous” title, Johnny Guitar centers on saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), caught in the clash between the forces of social conformity—represented by resident cattle-baron McIvers (Ward Bond), who wants to snatch up Vienna’s land before the railroad comes through, and Emma Small (a fierce turn from Mercedes McCambridge), sister of the local banker killed in the film-opening stagecoach robbery—and the outlaw gang led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Conventional motivations, however, soon go out the window: McIvers morphs into a Joe McCarthy type, quick to resort to extra-legal means in his land-grab, while Emma would rather string the Kid up than admit her love for him. Into this maelstrom of repressed desire and lynch-mob mentality rides Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden), gunslinger turned troubadour.

Johnny’s guitar-strumming sublimates an aberrant compulsion, a thin veneer of culture concealing a gun-craziness the film perversely links to a textbook-Freudian dialectic of sexual potency and emasculation. When Turkey (Ben Cooper) tries to prove his manhood to Vienna by shooting up her joint, Johnny responds by blasting the gun out of his hand. It’s clear, from Turkey’s abashed peeks at his dented firearm, that the insult is far more than instrumental.

Johnny Guitar’s dramatic tectonics may owe an outsized debt to Casablanca, but, as always with Ray, the devil’s in the details—first and foremost, the issue of a rather subversive gender swap. When star Crawford determined early on in the filming that she should play Vienna as though she were the male lead, Ray screenwriter Philip Yordan ran with the notion, dressing her in mannish garb and relegating the male leads to secondary, largely passive roles. Marking another first, the film climaxes with a shootout between two women, McCambridge and Crawford stalking each other around the Kid’s hilltop hideout until Vienna puts one in Emma’s brainpan and she tumbles down to the lynch mob’s feet.

Let’s not discount >Johnny Guitar’s formal and aesthetic distinctions either—the studied use of Republic Pictures’s patented Trucolor process, which renders the greens, reds, and oranges of the landscape in fitting painterly fashion. There’s also the blatant theatricality, traceable back to Ray’s time with the Group Theatre, down to costume changes cueing emotional states and even ethical relations. When the mob, on the hunt for the Kid and his bunch, barges in on Vienna, she’s tickling the ivories onstage, her flowing white hoop-skirt—the most feminine attire she ever wears—in stark contrast to their funereal black.

Fifty years of hoopla and hyperbole—owing, as much as anything, to star James Dean’s tragic death in a car crash four days before the film’s release—have encrusted and obfuscated Rebel Without a Cause’s uniqueness. You must have eyes to see it, lurking in the interstices between the youth movie—a genre it at once concretized, elaborating on a template established by the previous year’s Blackboard Jungle, and came to epitomize—and the “social problem” picture. It’s clearly on display in the geometrical precision with which Ray introduces the three main characters—Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo)—in the police station opener. Slight readjustments (modest pans, unobtrusive tracking shots) bind all three together within the broad CinemaScope frame. Ray came to prefer the CinemaScope format to the more confining Academy Ratio and quickly made it his own.

It’s also discernible in the scene that perfectly demarcates both the film’s formal daring and its thematic overindulgence: Coming home from the “chickie run,” Jim finds his old man (Jim Backus) asleep in front of the TV. Torn between the need to confide in someone and the desire to avoid causing a ruckus, Jim splits the difference on a bit of business with a milk bottle—revealing thought through action, a Ray specialty—and sprawls out on the couch. An upside-down subjective POV shot picks up his mother descending the stairs, then rights itself as Jim sits up to confront her. The ensuing imbroglio plays Method-y (“You gotta give me something!”), but the precise and off-kilter blocking and framing consistently undercut the too-explicit dialogue: on the staircase (also the scene of conflict in Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life), caught between mother taking the high ground and father down below (“You’re tearing me apart!”), Jim responds in typical Ray fashion with violence—dragging his father across the living room, starting to throttle him (shades of In a Lonely Place). Frustrated even in his Oedipal rage (the aforementioned “You want to kill your father!”), Jim exits stage right, but not before kicking in a frumpy framed portrait of his grandmother. The production history reveals that, after rehearsing and blocking the scene in his own living room before filming it, Ray had the art department copy the interior for the scene. Similarly, Ray patterned the exterior of the Patio Apartments, in the already-uncomfortably-personal In a Lonely Place, on his first L.A. residence.

Unjustly neglected, and often misunderstood as a cautionary “social problem” picture about the dangers of cortisone abuse, Bigger Than Life is a far rarer bird—a jet-black comedy-cum-demolition derby that uses its “message” as a Trojan horse to sneak a bewildering array of social-critical potshots at 1950s-era conformism and middle-class, middlebrow mentalities past its unsuspecting viewers, as well as gleefully taking a sledgehammer to nearly every cherished idol of Ozzie and Harriet complacency—PTA meetings, friendly neighborhood milkmen, and somnolent Sunday services all get it in the neck.

Schoolteacher Ed Avery (producer/star James Mason) works a second job as taxicab dispatcher so he can keep wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen, soon to be seen as James Stewart’s kidnapped son in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) in the style to which they’re accustomed. When he collapses from nervous exhaustion (clutching his doorbell, so that incessant buzzing serves as objective diegetic correlative to his discomfort and disease), he’s rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with an uncommon heart disease and prescribed the new “miracle drug” cortisone. Ray fills the medical test montage with garish swaths of red and black, after an almost Expressionist fashion, and groups the doctors in vaguely ominous twos and threes.

Abusing his medication unleashes a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement and superiority—its germs already evident prior to his breakdown, as in the scene where Ed scolds Richie for enjoying the dumb shows and noise of a TV western—long held in check by the self-professedly dull Ed Avery. This Janus-headed approach to the material allows Ray and his flotilla of screenwriters, among them playwright Clifford Odets and film critic-turned-novelist Gavin Lambert, to radically interrogate the very institution of the paterfamilias as well as use him for a mouthpiece in their devastating satirical attacks: An address to the PTA turns into a free-for-all when Ed informs the assembled parents that their children are on an intellectual par with chimpanzees, then goes on to outline a crypto-fascistic plan for educational reform. Holding a fabled high school football victory over his son Richie (the ball holds pride of place on the mantelpiece), he begins a harsh, incessant regimen of drill practices as a pretext to terrorize and berate the boy.

Bigger Than Life’s visual and thematic schema are also Janus-faced; hearkening back to the heyday of German Expressionism, it deploys portentous shadow-play and mirrored doublings to deepen its portrait of psychological disintegration, paving the way for the New Hollywood horror renaissance by locating the source of its horror—a father’s unabashed, uncontested desire to slaughter his own son—squarely within the nuclear family. The influence on Kubrick’s The Shining is inarguable.

Bigger Than Life boasts the ne plus ultra of staircase confrontations. Convinced of organized religion’s hypocrisy and negligence after taking a banality bath during the Sunday sermon, Ed realizes, as he puts it, he must “now take all that on too.” Striding down the stairs like some Old Testament prophet, Ed recites the story of Abraham and Isaac, leaving off where Abraham raises the knife to deliver the killing blow—holding aloft a pair of scissors he’s been using as a place-marker. When Lou urges him to continue, saying, “That’s not how the story ends, Ed! God stopped Abraham!” Ed proclaims, “God was wrong!” What other film—then or now—had the audacity, drug addiction or no, to call into question the reliability of the Big Guy Upstairs?

Turning on the baleful eye of the TV (the set shows an incongruous carnival scene, the raucous calliope music making do as soundtrack for the murderous attack to follow), Ed chases Richie upstairs, when something—a baffling wash of red across the frame—prevents him from striking. As he chases Richie back down the stairs, family friend Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) arrives, and a violent struggle between the two men ensues, shattering the stairway banister. Because the stairs lead from the public-access downstairs where parties and get-togethers are held to the private, domestic space upstairs, they represent the tensions between these two spheres, and the banister’s rupture signals the absolute collapse of the family unit.

A perfunctory epilogue supplies the resolution, rendered tentative by stressing the fact that Ed’s recovery may well be provisional, the likelihood being that eventually he will relapse. (This major revision to the source material—wherein the teacher was simply prescribed a different medication—imposes a “No Exit” baseline existentialism on what otherwise might have become mere melodrama.) The road to Ed’s provisional recovery is free-associational; a dream about Lincoln (“I dreamed I walked with Abraham, he was as big and as ugly as in life”) segues into the memory of his attempted murder. The family unit comes together for a group hug, but it may only be a matter of time before madness descends upon them again.

More or less finished with the Hollywood studio phase of his career (only the interfered-with The True Story of Jesse James and for-hire Party Girl remained), Ray moved to Europe, where his films were already attracting lavish critical praise, and two international co-productions followed. Both films—dominated by enormous vistas (shifting Saharan sands, barren Arctic tundra) captured in CinemaScope and, in the latter case, the even-more-expansive Super-Technirama 70 format—exemplify what Herman Melville called “the deadly space between” differing human natures, as well as between man and the indifferent, even hostile, natural world that surrounds him.

Ostensibly, Bitter Victory is a WWII film set, and partially filmed, in Libya, but instead starts off more like a chamber piece, another triangulated love affair, when Major Brand’s (Curd Jürgens) wife, Jane (Ruth Roman), turns up at Western Desert HQ on the eve of an important mission. When he introduces her to rival and second-in-command Captain Leith (Richard Burton), it soon becomes apparent they have a prior history. Before the war, Jane and Leith had been lovers until he abandoned her for archeological work in Libya: “You always seemed to prefer stones to people,” she says. Brand senses something between them, but opts to curry favor with his superiors, rather than confront his wife, providing Leith and Jane with the convenient opportunity for a farewell scene. She talks of love, he deflects the emotion into a pessimistic appraisal of the “futility” of history: “The Romans built beautiful cities in Libya: dead bones sticking out of the sand. War rolled over them. It’ll be good to see them again.” Already Leith’s death wish, a desire to return to the inorganic state, to be one with stone and mineral (as Freud would have it), rears its head.

The scene shifts to a virtuoso set piece—the nearly 10-minute, virtually silent commando raid on Benghazi—that allows Ray to flaunt his architectonic compositions and syncopated editing rhythms. Though the mission is a success, things begin to fall apart later that night, as the men make their way through the desert to the rendezvous point, when a convoy of Germans sneak-attack their encampment. The following day, Brand decides to leave Leith and the native guide, Mokrane, behind with wounded soldiers from both sides. With excruciating slowness, some of the men die, while Leith weighs his alternatives. (Burton is wonderfully expressive here, having to do nothing more than gaze dolefully into the desert wastes to register Leith’s internal warfare.) Deciding to put the men out of their misery, Leith levels his gun at a German officer, who pleads for his life, appealing for mercy by holding up a family picture. Leith fires anyway. The British infantryman, on the other hand, wants to die. Leith attempts carrying him to safety, over the man’s agonized protests. He doesn’t get very far before Mokrane stops him. The soldier is dead. “I killed the living,” Leith says with abashed irony, “and I saved the dead.” Human endeavor, it seems, may also be futile in the end.

Reunited with Brand and the rest of the men, the company must traverse the desert on foot. The low contrast photography blurs the line between sky and sand (compared to the earlier nighttime German raid), increasing the viewer’s impression of aimless wandering, an almost bibilical exodus mood, even perhaps a kind of sand-blindness. The animosity between Brand and Leith grows: Brand’s suspicions about Jane and Leith are confirmed, Leith needles Brand relentlessly about an act of cowardice committed during the Benghazi raid. Brand sees, but does nothing to prevent, a scorpion crawling up Leith’s leg. When he’s stung, Mokrane kills and disembowels a camel, so Leith can drink ammonia from its bladder—anticipating a similar moment in The Savage Innocents. But the ironic reversals aren’t quite over yet; directly following, a ghibli (sandstorm) blows up. Leith throws himself across Brand, saving his life, his dying words paraphrase Whitman, “I contradict myself! I always contradict myself!”

The apotheosis of a tendency within Ray’s work, taken to nearly Surrealist lengths, The Savage Innocents was filmed for the most part on soundstages in France and Britain, but with second-unit footage shot above the Arctic circle, and some principal photography involving the lead actors, haphazardly cut in—and the integration of these wildly disparate scenes from time to time skirts camp and on occasion imparts a certain Brechtian “alienation effect.” Also contributing to the mood, the fact that a young Peter O’Toole, in only his second film role, had his voice re-dubbed by the Italian producers. (An admitted fan of the film, Dylan wrote “Quinn the Eskimo [The Mighty Quinn]” to express his admiration.)

Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is indeed an “innocent” who spends practically the entire first hour cavorting and giggling with his Inuit kind; it’s no coincidence that the film suggests “to laugh” as the Eskimo circumlocution for carnal knowledge. Resembling not so much Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as Welles’s Touch of Evil in its racial politics (none of the actors are actual Eskimos, of course; at best the film settles for vaguely “Asiatic” types like Yoko Tani, playing Inuk’s wife Asiak), The Savage Innocents exudes sympathy for this band of outsiders. When the plot eventually does kick in, the narrative focuses on Inuk’s quixotic interactions with “civilization,” as represented by a trading post ruled over by a lone white trader and staffed by a gaggle of Americanized Inuit. The White Man is a prude (and, of course, a bigot), refusing to interact with any of the natives save his right-hand man. Ever the patriarch, the trader even pulls the plug on the natives’ innocent fun—doing the twist to a tune called “Iceberg” playing on an old-fashioned jukebox—and sends them all to bed.

Sensibly enough, Inuk and Asiak run away. But now civilization won’t leave them be. An unctuous missionary turns up at their igloo, looking to introduce them to his “friend” Jesus (they imagine he means a real person), and when Inuk offers to let him “laugh” with Asiak, the man starts crowing “It’s a sin!” until Inuk cracks his head against the ice-wall. The following spring, two troopers flying in to investigate wreck their seaplane. One drowns, while the other’s (O’Toole) hands are terribly frostbitten trying to save his partner. Inuk guts a sled dog, forces the trooper to shove his hands in. “It hurts!” the man cries. “Good,” Inuk replies. “Means life is coming back. Only death is painless.”

The scenes between Quinn and O’Toole are key to the film’s refreshingly non-paternalistic subtext. Rather than applaud the wondrous advantages of material culture (the jukebox scene sets the tone at wryly bemused) or, on the contrary, simple-mindedly idolizing the simplicity of the native Inuit, Ray navigates a middle ground based on mutual appreciation and reciprocity. Or, as Asiak puts it, bidding farewell to the recuperated trooper, “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”

Following two epic catastrophes funded by notorious producer Samuel Bronston (King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, during which Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced), Ray’s filmmaking career was, for all intents and purposes, over and done with. On the scene in Paris during the May 1968 student uprisings, Ray eventually did go home again (briefly), shooting footage for two documentaries, one on the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the other chronicling the 1969 anti-war protest march on Washington. From 1971-73, he taught filmmaking at Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton), overseeing production of an experimental split-screen work-in-progress, We Can’t Go Home Again, which had its provisional premiere at the 1973 Cannes film festival. From 1976 until his death in 1979, Ray and his third wife, Susan, occupied a loft in SoHo. He made cameo appearances in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Milos Forman’s Hair and, over the last few months of his life, collaborated again with Wenders on the documentary Lighting over Water (a.k.a. Nick’s Movie).

August marked the centenary of Nicholas Ray’s birth. The Venice Film Festival will be marking the anniversary by premiering a new documentary about Ray’s life and career, Don’t Expect Too Much, as well as a newly restored and re-edited version of We Can’t Go Home Again.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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