Connect with us

Features

Nightmare on Mulberry Street: An Interview with Writer-Director Jim Mickle & Co-Writer/Actor Nick Damici

“It’s a neighborhood movie,” says Jim Mickle, director of Mulberry Street.

Published

on

Nightmare on Mulberry Street: An Interview with Writer-Director Jim Mickle & Co-Writer/Actor Nick Damici

“It’s a neighborhood movie,” says Jim Mickle, director of Mulberry Street. This gritty NYC horror film, set in a rickety apartment building on the lower east side, places its emphasis on the diverse, resilient locals who live there. Some of them have been tenants all their lives, and they all form a funny, wisecracking community of oddballs. There’s Charlie (Larry Medich), the old guy who lives upstairs with his portable respirator, and Clutch (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mickle), a gruff but neighborly ex-boxer who has an unspoken affection for his upstairs neighbor, Kay (Bo Corre), a foreign woman who works at the bar down the street. Meanwhile, Clutch’s daughter (Kim Blair) just got back into the city and is making her way from Harlem to the downtown area. They aren’t caricatures, but lived-in, believable individuals—perhaps because they were based on some actual people that live upstairs from Dimici.

Gentrification is taking its toll on these working class New Yorkers, and eviction notices have gone around so the characters are already in a state of nervous anticipation. Mulberry Street allows us time to get to know these people and their daily struggles. When the monsters appear, it’s a lethal problem on top of everything else they have to deal with as hard-boiled urbanites. Set within a 24-hour period, Mulberry Street is unrelenting. A rapidly spreading infection is transforming humans into freaky rat creatures, and as the streets are taken over, our heroes hole up Night of the Living Dead style. But in much the same way the neighborhood is dying, the menace is breaking down the doorways and dragging their neighbors off into the night.

On an ultra-low budget, Mulberry Street has tremendous ingenuity suggesting a city under siege, with helicopters, police cars and barricades holding back the frightened masses. The monsters themselves are freaky-looking, slimy and matted in filthy hair, as jittery and quick as crack addicts. But the heart of the movie lies in its love for the denizens of the lower east side, a group that is rapidly disappearing from the Big Apple. The DVD of Mulberry Street has some fascinating extras (FX tests and storyboards drawn by Mickle), but no feature length commentary. The House Next Door wanted to catch a few stories from Damici and Mickle, and also hopefully inspire horror fans to seek out this creepy low budget gem.

Jim, before this, you’ve been a grip and electric, and a storyboard artist. Did you go to film school?

Jim Mickle: I went to NYU and graduated in 2002. Even when I was in school, I got a ton of jobs as a storyboard artist to the point where I almost dropped off to do that. Luckily, I stayed on because September 11th happened right before I graduated and dried up every indie in the city. That was where I was making connections, but all of those movies were erased for two or three years. I became a PA for probably a year on a Jennifer Lopez movie, Spider-Man 2, so many movies, then I started getting grip work for a year. NYU sends you out the door with this feeling like, “Go make your first feature!” On graduation day, Marcia Gay Harden spoke, saying spread your wings, and then you have to go out an experience the frustration of the real world. The hard part is the transition. The minute you start taking on some other career, it’s over. Even if you’re completely broke you have to keep one foot in just to stay involved in the business.

Almost every movie I worked on before was a first time director. It’s the worst. They’re rich, they never went to film school, they never did anything and have no idea, just blowing their money on some vanity project. It was so frustrating being a grip on those films, because it was like sending a ship out to sea and the captain of the ship had never been out on a boat before. I still felt like, “What the fuck am I doing?” on Mulberry Street, but at least you have a sense of lighting, or why something is taking so long, or whether it is taking too long. All the things that usually trip people up got me too, but at least I could say, “All right, I’ve been in this situation before. Here’s how we can deal with it.”

How did you guys meet, and what led to your collaboration on Mulberry Street?

Nick Damici: A friend of mine, this teacher at NYU, asked me if I’d be interested in doing a student thesis film called Mickey Lee in 2001. It was like an after-school special with me as a crazy school bus driver and thirty little kids. I went up to Connecticut and did that for two weeks. Jim was a friend of the director, and was working on it too. It was a great shoot—we’re staying in cabins, and every night we’d have drinks by the campfire. The guy who owned that property was crazy, which [got] Jim and I talking about doing a movie there. I wrote a script off that called The Phlebottomizer. We filmed a trailer for that with Victor Argo, but it never came to fruition. We kicked around other ideas over the years, until finally Jim called me up while working on a small, low-budget movie. He said, “Y’know, man, we can do this.”

Mickle: It was a film being made for very little money by a couple of people working at Manhattan Theater Source. They owned all the equipment. One of them was the sound guy, one was the director of photography, one was the director, and they were all actors. They said, “We already have everything. Let’s just make this movie ourselves.” They were having more fun than I had ever seen on a movie set, so instead of going for the big break and waiting for the big money to arrive, let’s just do something very simple, in one or two locations. I was on that shoot for a week, and by the time I came back Nick already had half the script written.

Damici: I wrote a zombie script called Dead of Night, which we were gonna do as a back-to-the-roots throwback horror movie in Pennsylvania.

Mickle: It was all night exteriors, snow, zombies—and we were trying to figure out how we could even afford to bring people out there, putting them up in hotels. That alone came out to $40,000. On top of that is food and gas. We realized we didn’t have the budget. So I thought, “Well, there goes that idea.” Nick came back to me a week later, though, and said, “Y’know, we could still do it. But we shoot it right here.”

Damici: My buddy Tim House, who plays the super in Mulberry Street and is our main producer, money-wise, said he thought he could come up with maybe ten grand. I said, “The only way we can do this is if we shoot the whole movie in my kitchen.” Literally, that was the original idea. These people are in their apartment, and crazy shit is happening out in the street. From there, it grew, and we ended up using the neighborhood. The brunt of it was using this building and the kitchen. We took that script and reworked it into Mulberry Street.

Mickle: It started off in the first couple drafts as a straightforward zombie movie, where a rat bite starts spreading the infection. At some point, it became obvious that we could make them into these rat zombies, rat creatures, rat-zoids—I’ve seen every description of these things online. It seemed a good twist, and allowed us to do our own thing.

Damici: It was interesting how the creatures became less important. It became more about the story, and people surviving this disaster.

Mickle: It’s cool to see the reaction to that. Some people get that and embrace that, and some people refuse. “That’s not how I like my horror movies! Don’t even try it!” When we first finished Mulberry Street, we had seen it so many times that we didn’t know if it was good or bad. But regardless, I was glad that we were trying something different. I’m a horror fan and the thing I hate recently is that so many movies are remakes that do the same shit over and over again.

Did the characters evolve along with the premise?

Damici: All of the characters pretty much changed. I’ve lived in this building for fifteen years now. The two brothers were based on these two old guys who lived upstairs. Charlie’s still up there and we see him every day. Frank was his brother. Died of emphysema. The hospital bed my father was in [playing the fictional Charlie in the film]—we borrowed it from [the real] Charlie. He still had it. [The character] Coco was based on this guy Tom who was here when I moved in—a transvestite and a crack addict, crazy out of his mind, bringing homeless guys to his place. Finally he got thrown out, then he died of a heart attack not long after. A lot of the characters were brought in from the reality of the apartment building.

Mickle: The archetypes stayed from the Pennsylvania script. That was more Night of the Living Dead, with the characters you expect to see in the zombie movie. Bringing it here, we found people in real life who made interesting characters in this situation.

Damici: Kay was originally going to be a New York character, but I knew this actress Bo Corre [originally from Sweden]. This movie is such a New York piece, and there are so many foreigners here now. I ran into her one afternoon—she was working at a flower shop and I haven’t seen her in ages. We talked for a few minutes, and when I got back home I said to myself, “Woah, she could play Kay!” I ran right back out and said, “Hey Bo! Read this script!” The other actors are good friends of mine, like Timmy and Larry Fleischman, and we’ve done stuff together.

Mickle: Nick’s dad played the old guy, Charlie.

Damici: That was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t know if he could do it physically, since in the past couple years he had two triple-bypasses. But I asked him and he said, “Yeah.”

He had never acted in a movie before, but you must have known that he’s such a character.

Damici: Oh yeah. 20 years as a bartender…I knew he’d be fine. He’s very photogenic, so I figured once he relaxed, he’d be fine. I thought he stole the movie.

Mickle: He caught on really quick. The first take or two he was nervous, but then he realized he should just be himself. By the end, he was rocking.

How did you guys collaborate on the script? What was the back-and-forth between you both, and the different strengths you bring to it?

Mickle: That was all Nick. He did all the writing on Mulberry Street.

Damici: No, no, we’ve developed a system. I used to write with Victor Argo all the time. He could never put anything down on paper, but I would write and it was like having an editor there, or whatever you want to call it. Jim and I have taken it a bit further than that. I have the ability to pound shit out, and I don’t have an ego about what’s on the page. If you want to change it, we change it. Bang, and then we keep going. We went through 45 drafts.

How did you handle the horror element? When you have rat people scuttling around, how do you make it scary—not funny?

Mickle: For a long time, I was drawing sketches to figure out what these creatures look like. When you’re making a zombie movie, you have to find a way to make them look or seem different if you want to be relevant. I started sketching rat ears and noses on them, and at first they looked goofy. But if you darken them and do silhouettes, it becomes moody. My biggest gripe with Signs is that up until it showed the aliens, it was like a Hitchcock movie. The minute they showed it, all the tension was drained. I always hated that moment.

Damici: Least scary aliens I’ve ever seen! Any alien I can beat to death with a baseball bat, hey—if that’s all I gotta do, we’re safe.

Mickle: We kept our monsters in the shadows, mostly suggested. Besides, if you have good actors who can really look scared you can play scenes off of their reaction more than trying to scare the audience with showing the monsters. Our main aesthetic throughout was keeping it realistic and character-driven.

You got some amazing footage during the Fourth of July and a parade up in Harlem, where you create the illusion of a city under siege with all the barricades, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, helicopters and crowds. It gave you immediate production value, and with sound design it felt tense and scary. But I’d like to talk about some of your other footage in and around NYC. How much was serendipity and how much was planned?

Mickle: A lot of it was serendipity and patience. We shot almost 80 hours of footage, budgeting for four or five days with just me, a cameraman and the actors to get whatever else we needed. The inflatable rat you see in the beginning—we chased it all around the city. Q104.3 announces in the morning where the union rat is, and always by the time we showed up they had taken it down. We also have a lot of shots looking up, which is good for a horror movie anyway—but it helped us if we were shooting on a Friday night, which is so busy downtown with people everywhere. If the camera is looking up, the city seems empty. That, combined with some great sound design like creepy wind, goes a long way towards creating the illusion.

You have scenes with Clutch’s daughter Casey (Kim Blair) walking through Central Park on her way downtown. I heard about how you got shots of the empty playground during the day, catching that right before it was about to rain. But it is always so busy there. How were you able to piece together that sequence?

Mickle: That was almost completely made up as we went along. We shot two days with Kim after principal photography. By that time, we were completely exhausted. I only had some loose storyboards and ideas, and knew we’d figure it out as we went along. We lucked out by going through the park and stealing pieces of footage. It’s the kind of thing where if you were able to look one inch to the right, you’d see people running around.

Kim Blair perhaps has the most challenging role. Everyone else has a chance to play with dialogue and scenes, but she has to basically walk through the city and react to what’s happening. It’s amazing, because she’s probably the second most important character in the movie, and yet for three-quarters of the movie she has no dialogue. How did you find her?

Mickle: She was my first girlfriend in college. She’s great. When we did the trailer for The Phlebotomizer, we had a couple of other actresses lined up. They fell through, so I called Kim at the last minute, wondering if this was going to be weird. Literally, we were there with our cameras ready to go. I called her up and asked if she could come do this thing, and she said she was going to leave town, but we sounded desperate so she said yes. She’s so good in that, and her chemistry with Nick was amazing. So many actresses who are touted as the next big thing have no depth, no real understanding of anything, and here’s a girl with amazing presence. There’s no way to shoot her where she looks bad. Light always seems to hit her in the right way. She’s amazingly well trained, and has a background in the theater, so casting her was a no-brainer. We knew we had Kim, and these other great actors, and just figured out a way to write them into the script.

Jim, as a grip and electric or even as a storyboard artist working on other people’s films, you’re able to make a living but nevertheless it’s tough to not work when you’re a freelancer. You’re not earning vacation pay or anything. Obviously commitment goes a long way but what enabled you to give three and a half weeks of your life to shoot Mulberry Street.

Mickle: Complete serendipity. I got a call to edit a commercial that paid decently and enabled me to purchase a G5, which is what we did everything for Mulberry Street on. I hooked up with a financial company that considered me their in-house video guy, so I’d shoot for them and use their DVX-100 for B-unit stuff. I lucked out, doing a couple of editing jobs for three months, saving up, and setting a deadline where we would absolutely be shooting by [a certain] date. That’s it. The money wasn’t much, but it got us to the wrap day, and it took us a year to edit. I’d literally spend time cutting a corporate video, hitting render, then skipping over to cut a scene on Mulberry Street, hitting render, and going back and forth. That’s what enabled me to keep making our film during that time. It was just luck. As soon as we finished the movie, they were like, “Oh, you made a movie? You don’t need us anymore!” They went away and I spent six months last year without getting a single job.

Let’s talk about your director of photography, Ryan Samul. Many DP’s on low budget jobs can be really difficult. If they have a million dollars, or even one hundred thousand dollars, it’s not enough—and it’s never enough. You were working with much less to make Mulberry Street. What was the dynamic between you and Ryan, and was he cool with running and gunning?

Mickle: He had moments where, as anyone would have, he would get frustrated. In retrospect, you wonder how he wasn’t freaking out every day. We had worked with a guy named Jason Velez, the key grip, who owns his own lighting truck, and we were lucky enough to be able to come in and borrow a few lights from him. Those were the only movie lights we had. The style of the movie was built on what we were readily able to get: china balls and fluorescent lights from home depot that we could rig into a battery. This is the kind of movie we were going to make, it set the tone, and we embraced that.

Those things have an integrity and beauty all their own. If you watch John Cassavetes films, they aren’t necessarily pretty, but there is an intense, scrappy, raw sense of reality to them. Mulberry Street is a beautifully shot film, and I think it’s because of that tone. Also, Ryan Samul has a good eye.

Damici: One great story about Samul, among the many: There’s a scene where Charlie goes out into the hallway. “I can’t hear! I’m gonna go see what he wants!” Frank shouts not to go out in the hallway. Boom, he goes out and the rats are there, and he slams the door shut. The crew’s all there, looking to Samul, saying, “You’re the DP—where’s the camera gonna be?” He runs over to the door with duct tape, and tapes the camera to the door and walks away, saying, “There it is.” You see the result.

Mickle: I saw that shot on his reel.

Damici: The other story is we wrapped shooting the apartment, second time in. We’d taken two weeks off, came back and shot here again. It’s all done, we are wrapped, done, over! I got the equipment in the front room. My apartment’s a fucking mess. “Let’s go to the bar and have a beer, man!” It’s a gorgeous summer night, and we’re crossing Houston Street. We see this beautiful full moon. Me, Jim and Samul stop in the middle of the street. I look up and say, “Ryan, look at that fuckin’ moon…!” I turn and see he’s running back towards the apartment to get the camera and shoot it. That’s total commitment, and the shot’s there in the film. But he’s crazy, too—running up and down that rickety fire escape for those shots at the end of the movie. He scared the shit out of me.

But your actors were running up there, too.

Damici: Anything we were doing, he did ten times more—with a camera in his hand! Jumping across to the other roof to get the shot. His instincts were great. We did shots in this alley, got thrown out, had no electricity, and Samul got it lit with truck lights and flash boards. He was always saying, “We can do that!” That’s what he really likes to do.

Mickle: Ryan and I worked on Trans-America together. At the end of the day, we’re doing a close-up of someone standing in the yard. The DP says, “All right, put up a 20x silk.” Just to give you an idea, this is the biggest pain in the ass to rig. It takes four or five people to put up. This was our last shot of the day, and did we really need to do this for this girl’s close-up? Ryan and I spent so many days together like that, griping, “You don’t need this. Why?” I think he has a good understanding of being on the other end of that, in terms of knowing what not to ask for. Half of the shoot on Mulberry Street, we had no grips. It was just Ryan running around doing lights and coming back to the camera. On the days he brought people on, he thought of the easiest ways to do it. When everybody’s working for free, you don’t want to kill anybody. Another thing he did that was brilliant was lighting for 360 degrees. We knew we’d never have the time to light Nick perfectly here, then light the other person perfectly for the next shot. We were able to move very fast. I remember Ron Brice, who played Coco, would finish his scene and walk off, but immediately we’d be back on him saying we’re ready again. He’d be like, “Are you kidding me?” He said later that sometimes it was moving so fast that he wasn’t used to it. But hats off to Samul for that. He’s the guy that should make it—he’s done a couple million-dollar films since then.

What was your experience shooting at the bar where Kay works, Tom & Jerry’s? Filming in any bar in Manhattan is tough, because you have a limited amount of time.

Damici: We shot sometimes when they were open, and stayed into the morning blocking out the sun when we’re shooting crazy stuff. It would be seven o’clock in the morning, broad daylight, when we’d shoot scenes with rats attacking people there.

Mickle: We’d come in at midnight or two shooting stuff on the side, or in the basement, and the minute the bar closed, we’d go to work. A couple of times we had extras, but that was the bane of the shoot. Twenty-five people would be scheduled to arrive, and six would show up. When we tried to use real bar patrons, after one shot, they’d be ready to go home. I’d be like, “No, we need you the whole night!” Every scene in the bar is desperately trying to shoot around the fact that nobody was there, and it was a constant struggle. I think the music and confusion of it makes it work.
Damici: The bar stuff works for me, but mainly because we deliver with Big John (John Hoyt). He’s a real guy, works security at a strip club over on 11th Avenue, so he’s been around and knew what he had to do. When the rats are attacking and he comes in beating them down with the frying pan, wielding it like a ping-pong paddle, especially in that last shot where he backhands one of them.

Mickle: Originally, we had a bat with nails driven into it. Then I saw a really cool movie called Of Unknown Origin starring Peter Weller, where he’s going crazy thinking there’s a giant rat in his apartment, and he grabs a bat and starts driving nails into it, so it was already done. We looked around and found this special effects company out in Los Angeles, which sells you the real thing and a foam version of it. Like, you can buy a pipe wrench, or a frying pan…I was excited by all the things we could get. We were inspired the beginning of Irreversible, where they bash in the dude’s head with the fire extinguisher. It’s the sound of that blunt object hitting the face, and being able to see it and not cut away. So he’s smacking people in the face with a rubber frying pan, and we didn’t have to cut.

Damici: The unsung heroes are the stunt guys, man. Adam Morrow and Steve Bodi.

From the script stage, were you aware how downbeat and melancholy the movie would feel? This becomes very intense for the viewer, because you get attached to these characters and many of them don’t survive.

Damici: From the very beginning…

Mickle: We had a moment where [a main character] gets ripped out of a car, and it’s such an unexpected moment. One of the best things about Nick as a writer is he’s not afraid to throw out the craziest ideas. Sometimes you’re like, “I don’t know, man.” But two-thirds of the time, it’s a great idea. Great films like Alien kill off major characters early, just when you think you know what direction the movie’s going.

Damici: We said right from the very beginning, “Everybody dies.” Some people make it, because I didn’t want to have the cliché where every single person gets killed. But we made a choice. It’s not a happy movie.

One of the things I loved about the 1970s Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland are all these great scenes, like when he tells the joke about General Rommel, or chopping vegetables in the kitchen with Brooke Adams. You see these very human moments that will be taken away from us when the pod people take over. Mulberry Street also has its characters living through what we associate with New York, and a certain lifestyle of the Lower East Side, where everyone living in the same apartment building, they know and take care of each other. When everyone is dying, it got me reflecting on what is actually being lost in our city nowadays. Was this something you hoped to achieve, or did it naturally happen while making the movie?

Damici: It was essentially planned. We knew things would not work out okay, and the heroes were not going to win. Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t have the same impact if the hero lived. That’s our future, if we don’t change something. This world is gone, though. We were cheating by saying that way of life still exists now. I remember the real Charlie and Frank. I’d carry that old guy up the stairs when he was sick; he weighed one hundred and twenty pounds. He’d make jokes about feeling like a baby, and he’d make me stay in his apartment and have a shot of vodka with him. We had to nail it to those real estate motherfuckers, to say they’re killing the entire character of the city.

Mickle: We wanted to capture that inevitable sense of New York right now. The neighborhood is changing.

Is that one of the reasons you called the film Mulberry Street and not Attack of the Rat Monsters?

Mickle: We had to fight tooth and nail to hold on to that title. Lions Gate didn’t want to change it, but when we were sending it to festivals, our reps kept telling us this wouldn’t fly and nobody would be into it. They didn’t think we were capitalizing on the heat around horror movies.

Damici: You have to deliver on a title like Rat Zombies on Mulberry Street, but it wasn’t that movie.

Mickle: Ultimately, more than a horror movie, it’s a neighborhood movie.

Damici: The death of a neighborhood, slowly but surely…

You had an excellent festival run showing at Fant-Asia in Montreal, Sitges, South by Southwest and Tribeca—and then you had a nationwide theatrical run through After Dark Horrorfest. How did that come about?

Mickle: I have no idea! (laughs) We had our world premiere in Stockholm, then South by Southwest where everyone almost unanimously turned us down and had nasty things to say about it.

Damici: Our sound was fucked at that festival because of some technical bullshit.

Mickle: Ti West’s movie Trigger Man has the same problem, where something was wrong with the speakers. We wondered if our film would never see the light of day, but in European horror festivals, people were eating it up. During Tribeca, supposedly Lions Gate saw it again. We were able to sell to Lions Gate, and weren’t sure how they negotiated it with After Dark Horrorfest, but I never knew anything about that until I randomly went to the Fangoria Web site. While we weren’t involved in that process at all, certainly we embraced it. Our little $60,000 DV-movie would be on 350 screens, a theatrical release, and a big push.

Damici: I remember taking my father to the theater, seeing the premiere on 42nd Street. The guy’s never acted before, he’s 78 years old, and here he is sitting there watching Mulberry Street on the big screen, larger than life. That was the best part for me.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

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

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

Published

on

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. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

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.

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Published

on

Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

Published

on

Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

Published

on

Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.

Published

on

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
Photo: Public Theater

Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)

This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. © The Public

Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?

Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.

An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.

In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”

This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.

Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.

If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.

Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”

Not I

A scene from Not I. © James Lyndsay

Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.

The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.

Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.

After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.

The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Grey Rock

A scene from Grey Rock. © Carlos Cardona

Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.

It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.

Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.

Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.

Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.

Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.

I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.

Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

Published

on

Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending