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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema.

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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

“I’ve lived in empty places all my life. I don’t care where I live or what I look like.”

— Brian De Palma

“Critics—no maybe I should call them “reviewers” instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”

— Armond White, attempting to explain the critical abandonment of De Palma

In May, 2001, director Brian De Palma was honored with a one-month long retrospective, “The Responsive Eye,” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Although De Palma had been taken seriously for decades by international critics, and had cultivated a large domestic audience, reviewers in the United States had been slow to recognize his achievements and progression as an artist. This event was seen by many as a breakthrough.

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema. His career has spanned three decades and includes such touchstones as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible. Not only are these tremendously important works in their own right; De Palma’s characters, the phrases they utter and the philosophies they propitiate have been absorbed into our cultural vocabulary. Through persistence and longevity De Palma has created a body of work that is as moody and recalcitrant as it is aesthetically unassailable. The intensity and perceptivity of his works insures that a discussion of De Palma’s films is not merely a discussion of cinema but a discourse on the dynamics of human nature and our national psyche.

In spite of his popularity, De Palma is admittedly notorious. He has been accused of misanthropy, misogyny, cynicism—and their opposites: of “loving women,” of humanism, idealism and gushing romanticism. He is known alternately as a dispassionate plagiarist of Hitchcock and a maverick, a wicked satirist, an avant-gardist, a “sell-out”, a fiercely independent iconoclast and an intellectual; a creator of intensely personal or detached, deterministic and cerebral movies. As his own publicist, De Palma has at times been inflammatory. He is ambiguous or flagrantly opaque when discussing his own work and is at times willfully misleading. He is angered by his critics and occasionally peremptory with staunch advocates. De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, once described him as a man defined not by his continuities but by his incongruities: “He is his own opposite, if you will. He is his contradictions.” Yet the truth is that De Palma’s body of work is undeniably symmetrical and entirely consistent.

Animosity towards De Palma’s formative, ferocious works is subsiding, and the trend towards measured reappraisal of his value as a filmmaker has encroached on his reputation for vituperation and scandal. The critical logjam gave way between the 1998 release of Snake Eyes and September 2000, when De Palma turned sixty years old. Since then, nearly all of De Palma’s works—including the confrontational Sisters, elegant Obsession and cult touchstone Phantom of the Paradise—have been reissued on DVD. The continued popularity of his old and new works, coupled with a recent surge of enlightened Internet criticism and highly publicized retrospectives domestically and abroad attest to the growing recognition of his importance. Courses on De Palma are now taught in several major universities.

Although De Palma has never been cowed by negative criticism, it is probable that without it his body of work might look very different than it does. Provocation has helped him to clarify himself. His films evolve to become more quietly forceful. His obsessions are his obsessions; that he explores and re-explores them with such tenacity attests to his unwillingness to discard his essential ideologies. His allegiance to a risky set of ideas in the face of skepticism situates him in a battle of attrition against evolving sensibilities. Just as Hitchcock and Kubrick outgrew their labels, as decades pass it becomes far more difficult to dismiss Carrie and Dressed to Kill as misogynist diatribe because audiences are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to draw a distinction between what a character signifies and what a director intends to say. These obstinate labels, on the contrary, have been good for De Palma because they stimulate scrutiny, and scrutiny motivates De Palma to be lucid.

Because of the advocacy of critics and persistent theorists, in conjunction with Internet scholarship and intermittent bursts of enthusiasm by mainstream reviewers who recognize flutters of genius in a half dozen of his works, the hope never perishes that De Palma might one day receive the reckoning afforded to a Kubrick, Scorsese or Godard. It has never been feasible to discredit De Palma on the grounds he lacks talent—even Stanley Kauffmann, who disdained the works now considered De Palma’s greatest, never denied that De Palma was gifted. In fact, it was precisely De Palma’s aptitude that exasperated Kauffmann; he argued De Palma’s crime was that he did not apply his genius to the telling of moral stories. But De Palma’s stories are moral; it is their moral complexity that creates the impression they are amoral.

A cinema of fearlessness

In the 1970s a new cinematic language became necessary not merely to transcribe the incongruity and paradox of life but to enhance the ability of cinema to save life from sameness by revealing the art in existence. Brian De Palma’s work was initially hard to reconcile with the affable coherence of more accessible, less contentious movies. His work was, and still is, a reaction against the incorrect apprehension of reality, as well as the representation of reality in art. He prefers pessimism if it is accurate to optimism that is a gross distortion of life experience. In the wake of assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, films that fed rather than challenged complacency were vestigial leftovers, and audiences were famished not for platitudes disguised as comfort food but truth even when it hurt. De Palma’s films depict a world in which decency is imperative but rare and seldom rewarded; he offers a realistic representation of virtue’s motives and consequences, and a more honest appraisal of the impulse to be good. He presents action as a new mythology and antidote to paralysis and does so in a form that heightens the appreciation of reality rather than tries facetiously to persuade us that the world is arctic, corrosive and banal. De Palma’s career has been about testing the architectural integrity of cinema and encompasses his search for a balance between spectacle that ravishes the senses and emotional truth that invades the psyche at a subconscious level.

A visualist with an appreciation for the beauty of movement through geographies and across glittering surfaces, De Palma is constitutionally unable to make ugly films, and making them beautiful serves his purpose of locating existential splendor in chaos. He is fascinated by the discourse that transpires between film and spectator, and actively provokes our perception at deeper levels by colliding abstract symbols and polymorphous imagery, by offering more than one interpretation of a single event, and by integrating dream and reality without clarifying which is which in order to prove that in art such a distinction barely matters. As his work has become less edgy, it has become more philosophically challenging and, at times, subtly provocative—not provocative because of sex and violence, but as a result of an evolving sensibility that weds unconventional ideas with revelatory technique that sometimes contradicts or aggressively deceives the audience as to his intent.

De Palma is fearless when it comes to transposing patterns from one genre to another, and even when he works within the framework of a genre he manages to transcend easy categorization. Critics refer to Carrie and The Fury as horror films only because no more precise term exists to describe what they are. Is The Untouchables a western or a cop film? To call Mission: Impossible an espionage thriller is to reduce what is more properly described as a hybrid of Oedipus and Hamlet. Nearly three decades after its release, film theorists still quarrel over how to label Phantom of The Paradise.

Most every De Palma film conjures to mind at least one quintessential image, many of them metaphors in themselves: Carrie White soaked in pig’s blood at her own prom; Gillian, arms raised in the middle of a day-lit street as she tries to distinguish saviors from assassins in The Fury; Jack Terry straining to listen to the imperiled Sally through an earpiece on a subway platform in Blow Out; Tony Montana emerging from a swirl of smoke with a hand held rocket launcher in Scarface; Ethan Hunt suspended by a wire in Mission: Impossible; any frame extricated from the famous baby carriage sequence in The Untouchables. The images are potent enough; that they revivify contemplation of concepts is an even greater attribute.

His best films function as stories that enthrall us, paradoxes that trap us, and metaphors that expatiate the effort of a protagonist to cope with a fragmenting universe. De Palma adjusts for chaos and his films speak directly to people who feel, intuitively, that the world is coming apart at the seams but is not yet lost entirely. Even his ethical heroes are sentenced to linger in irreconcilable trauma. De Palma’s works comprise a relentless commentary on the world in which we live, even in instances where they masquerade as fully integrated commercial entertainments. His movies are soulful and inspiring even when they resolve in ambiguity, bitterness and mourning, if only because so many of his protagonists do, to some degree, master chaos.

Emergence of an auteur

De Palma was born in 1940. Pauline Kael, in a November 8, 1976 essay, situates De Palma among his contemporaries of Catholic upbringing, including Coppola and Scorsese. “These men have grown up with a sense of sin and a deep-seated feeling that things aren’t going to get much better in this life.” They are compelled to make art that testifies to their experience of America as a country in which “the Protestant work ethic doesn’t seem to have worked out too well.” As an adolescent, De Palma was mesmerized by computers and distinguished himself by winning first place at a science fair. After a brief flirtation with physics at Columbia University, De Palma immersed himself in his other fascination: filmmaking. His very early works, Greetings and Hi Mom!, were satires. But De Palma’s favorite director was Alfred Hitchcock, and in the early ‘70s he quickly located the Psychological Thriller a sufficiently lean genre whose economies and conventions invited the sort of expressionistic displays of technique that excited his muse. He recalled the genesis of his interest to Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times:

“I wanted to tell tight, precise stories and suspense and terror sometimes lend themselves to that. I was trying to learn something about film technique. I’ve been influenced by the German Expressionists. I’m very concerned with motivating an audience through imagery. I think I’m one of the few directors working in that area, and a lot still has to be developed there. Visual imagery and sound are essential elements of a film. That’s what makes cinema cinema. Most directors use their cameras as recording instruments and don’t really get to the essential element of form.”

Susan Dworkin, author of Double De Palma—a portrait of Body Double in production—situates De Palma among the “movie brats” and posits one explanation for the difficulty of categorizing works produced by these directors to genres.

“Artistically, De Palma could be placed as one of the “Whiz Kids,” a group of five directors who constituted a central generation in American auteur filmmaking. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma were all friends, connected by old encounters… The Whiz Kids were American spinoffs of the European nouvelle vague of the early 1960s. They had been raised on the notion that the real auteur of a good movie had to be the director. It was originally François Truffaut’s idea, put forth when he was still a film critic and not yet a director himself. The idea was that a director could take a genre movie…and so imbue it with his vision and technique that it would rise above the genre into the sphere of art.”

Jake Horsley, introducing De Palma in The Blood Poets, a sprawling, two-volume analysis of violent contemporary cinema, writes:

“De Palma was actually the first American auteur of the New Hollywood (“the movie brats”) to emerge, but the last to come to prominence (not counting George Lucas, who is hardly an auteur in the true sense). He is also the most gleefully, perversely derivative of them all, and perhaps for this reason the most in tune with the times. De Palma may be the only one of these auteurs—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielbergfrom whom we might still hope for miracles…”

Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy remains the single most vivid portrait of De Palma at work. She concisely summarizes De Palma’s evolution and the conventional perception of his work. De Palma’s movies were, she writes,

“emotional, operatic films, repeatedly invoking the idea that terror was the only possible response to the cruel and irrational forces that governed the universe… His movies were filled with disturbed families and confused identities. They were filmed with such technical precision that they called attention to the presence of the man behind the camera, whose invisibility protected him from the intense emotions he aroused as he moved his characters through the treacherous, sometimes sadistic world he created on film. His movies were bloody yet oddly poetic, feverish yet carefully planned, full of passion yet distant.

”…Psychologists were intrigued by De Palma’s fascinating with pathology, by the aberrant behavior aroused in characters who find themselves manipulated by others.

“A great many people simply thought that De Palma was a fraud. They argued that he had simply dressed up his woman-hating wickedness so artfully that the intelligentsia didn’t see him for what he was: a perverse misogynist.

“At first De Palma was startled by the attacks, and then invigorated by them. He willingly, sometimes gleefully, went head to head with journalists eager to denounce him for the violence and violent sexuality in his movies. People were almost always thrown off guard when they met the well-spoken graduate of a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. Articulate and convincing, De Palma could defend himself very well indeed.”

The portrait that has incrementally emerged—not only in Salamon’s exemplary document but in interviews and profiles—is that of a casual—even frumpy—and reserved man who spends money on art and travel but not luxury, appreciates praise but anticipates condemnation, is indulgent with actors but cynical about producers, is impatient with dull questions asked by journalists and, at times, impatient with reasonable questions asked by proponents. De Palma also smokes, has trouble sleeping during production, allays anxiety by means of meticulous planning, and is cool under fire with studio executives—or at very least conceals his anxiety well. His mischievous side manifests when he is under assault; he will occasionally go incognito—vanish from the set or—in the wake of the critical coruscation of Mission to Mars—vanish from the continent. One can draw any number of conclusions from his asceticism, which has been remarked upon by many. Paul Mandell observes in a post-Fury interview:

”[De Palma] lives a relatively normal life far from the madding crowd of Hollywood. Beside a cigarette-littered ashtray on a table in his modestly furnished Fifth Avenue apartment sits a $50 portable typewriter with a piece of paper rolled through the carriage… “I’ve lived in empty places all my life,” I recalled him saying once in an interview. “I don’t care where I live or what I look like.” Mmm. I remembered reading how he spent his high school years designing computers and dreaming of going to the moon. I also remembered reading that he had been disinherited; had worked at a Greenwich Village bistro, the Village Gaslight; and had caught a bullet from the NYPD at the age of 23… The furniture was quite sparse.”

Mandell also quotes De Palma as saying, “I’ve never had an interest in anything material. I’ve always found it difficult to buy things. I’m just very bored by the process of going into a store. In fact it makes me quite uncomfortable.” Jennifer Dunning opens her New York Times profile with a description of an austere, morose De Palma:

“Mr. De Palma was sitting rather glumly across a worktable in his lower Fifth Avenue apartment. Soft rock blared out. But the apartment was nearly bare of furniture. Airy and immaculate, it had almost a monastic look.”

De Palma described himself to Us magazine author Stephen Schaefer in 1978 as “a relatively happy person” who lives alone and whose favorite pastime is “to be alone.” Julie Salamon gives us a flavor for De Palma’s preference for solitude—including a desire not to be bothered, particularly when napping—when she describes his abrupt absences during the filming of Bonfire of the Vanities, typically when he anticipated a confrontation with uneasy studio executives. As he had done on the set of Carrie, he soon began to listen to opera cassettes on his Walkman during filming.

Salamon believes she has located De Palma’s central contradiction: “He wanted to be recognized as an artist by the critical establishment, and he wanted to achieve box office success. Yet his most personal films could never have the mass appeal of more conventional movies.” To complicate matters, the critics who understood and felt possessive of his work resented it when he released films that made money and were appreciated by mainstream audiences.

Wrestling with contradiction

The desire for both artistic legitimacy and commercial success is contradictory in De Palma only because his stated objective is not to be loved but to be “infamous.” He has never aspired to please the many; that many are often not pleased should not surprise De Palma. Yet his behavior in the wake of rejection, even of ferociously antagonistic works like Casualties of War, suggests he is wounded by it—even by rejection that he actively courts, as in the case of Body Double, a film that sought to infuriate skeptics and cultivate new enemies. He appears at times simultaneously to reject and serenade the Hollywood establishment. Armond White explained to interviewer Brett Leitner why he believes De Palma—unlike Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas—is perceived to be an outsider:

“Probably because he takes more risks. I’ve always thought that people don’t really understand De Palma’s movies. I think of him as a popular filmmaker, yet he is not popularly understood. So many people who think he simply rips off Hitchcock don’t understand how many other filmmakers have influenced him. One of those other filmmakers is Godard. And like Godard, De Palma tends to alienate some people because he is so experimental, doing what used to be called ’radical.’ It causes the audience to think about what they’re watching… Because De Palma has that Godardian side to him, that’s the trouble he faces too, even though he works in a popular American medium.”

White, who has interviewed De Palma twice, found the director reluctant to discuss the political, social or metaphorical dimensions of his work.

Pauline Kael became De Palma’s first crucial advocate. She praised films like Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury without guilt and argued that De Palma’s works were more than entertainments; they were not derivative but additive, and were products of an exponentially developing talent. Where other critics saw potential, Kael discerned hallucinatory poetics and wicked satire. It was not just that Kael was pleased by the films—many critics were pleased by Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury—but the way she was pleased, and her persistence and eloquence in stating her case. She was able to situate De Palma in a context that did not diminish his achievements by insinuating that he was merely an understudy to greater, earlier directors. She called his films serious, compared them to works by Godard and Antonioni, and devoted pages and pages to cataloguing their virtues and, when necessary, their deficiencies. Certainly one of the most daring sentences she ever authored appeared in her 1978 review of The Fury, in which she asserted that De Palma had at last directed a movie that surpassed in intensity, vision and number of classic sequences anything directed by Hitchcock. In her defense of De Palma, Kael made adversaries and—in the eyes of the critical establishment—jeopardized her credibility. She was pilloried and even parodied by other critics. But she never backed down.

Armond White would become a force in the U.S. reappraisal of De Palma that followed the release of Snake Eyes. White’s contribution is not blind acceptance of every De Palma work (in fact, he was aghast by French exaltation of Carlito’s Way) but his positioning of De Palma, the modernist, among his post-modernist peers and his recognition of the sensibilities that fuel the director’s vision, not only at the moment the films are released to the world but within the larger context of what White describes as their “dialogue” with the history of cinema. White has on occasion opposed the consensus; he sees Mission: Impossible as a “sell-out,” deducted brownie points from The Untouchables because it pleased mainstream audiences, believes Bonfire of the Vanities is a vastly under-appreciated work of satire, and proclaimed Mission to Mars one of the ten best films of 2000. White is a provocative non-conformist who appears to distrust films that succeed at the box office but is unflinchingly consistent in locating aesthetic organization and passages of astounding beauty even in De Palma’s less experimental, widely accepted works. White believes hostility towards De Palma is a conditioned response to movies that have artistic rather than escapist aspirations. When interviewed by Brett Leitner, White asserted:

”[Critics] want to deny the truth and drift off into total escapism… That’s why they can’t see De Palma for anything other than a Hitchcock imitator. Some people think the world begins and ends with Hollywood formula; they aren’t aware of art, they aren’t aware of the modernist movement. But I think that’s almost willful. I mean, he’s been making movies for over thirty years and they still deny his seriousness. But it’s worse than that, it’s a willful commitment to the Hollywood idea of ’escapism is everything.’”

White attributes historical resistance to De Palma to a fear of filmic sensuality, invoking a phenomenon that Kael theorized in her essay, “Fear of Movies.”

”[De Palma] disturbs them in a way that a facetious and parodical filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino never can, because there isn’t really much style to respond to in Tarantino. Minimal style is OK with a lot of people, so they don’t want to respond to De Palma’s camera movement or his style of editing. They don’t even want to feel it. I think that’s part of Pauline Kael’s notion, that the ’fear of movies’ for some people is a culturally induced thing, almost related to peoples’ sexual response. Movies are very kinetic and can be a sensual art form and some people are just afraid to feel those things.”

White believes that critical and popular perception of De Palma is in transition and that reappraisal of his work is inevitable. For White, “the tide has turned. [We] have to make it happen. Critical responses are the result of critics. We need a new generation of critics, because after a while opinions and attitudes become a matter of inherited hostility rather than individuals watching movies for themselves. Think about Godard’s career. His reputation is still in dispute, yet he is crucial to film culture… [De Palma] may always be in dispute. And that’s OK!”

Many critics now concede that films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible did overcome the contradiction Salamon described by achieving both artistic and commercial success. But there has never been the unanimity in the critical community that is so predictably engendered by the works of a Scorsese or Spielberg. The charge, by De Palma’s advocates, is that he has not been taken seriously by critics simply because his works are so controversial that even to contemplate their significance is to risk ridicule. In the preamble to his interview with Armond White, Brett Leitner writes, “Few critics have dared to make public a respect for De Palma, and fewer still have bothered to explore the significance of his talent.”

Influences and accusations

As for De Palma’s appropriation of Hitchcock’s techniques, De Palma admits how deeply influenced he is by Hitchcock as well as other filmmakers. Critics versed in film history note not just one but a gamut of influences, including Orson Welles, Scorsese, Cassavetes and Kubrick. Although some dismiss any notion of a Kubrick influence on De Palma, he has invoked Kubrick frequently, as far back as 1975, and revisited Kubrick’s satires when conceptualizing Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma has wisely left it to critics to determine whether he has surpassed his mentors or not—and some important critics believe he has realized Hitchcock’s promise by transcending its strictures and introducing important social themes—and even taboo—to the paradigm. On the matter of De Palma’s debt to Hitchcock, Jake Horsley writes:

“De Palma does not copy Hitchcock, he follows him, and his films (specifically Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and, to a much lesser extent, Obsession, Body Double, and Raising Cain) are not imitation Hitchcocks, they are rather authentic and ingenious developments of the same themes that once obsessed Hitchcock… De Palma took the threads that Hitchcock laid, and then ran with them, in the process creating a whole new tapestry, and his audacity helped to resurrect the old horrors within new forms in the American cinema.”

Another recurring allegation is that early De Palma’s works are inherently misogynist. Feminist objection to Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double left a taint that persists. More recently the charge was leveled against Casualties of War. Perhaps helping his cause, but likely not, De Palma discussed with critic Michael Bliss the aesthetic reasons he places women in mortal jeopardy:

“You try to deal with things that an audience can identify with on a visceral level and I feel that’s what they can identify with to some extent. People say, “Why do women get slashed in his films, what does he have against women?” I just think that when women are in a perilous situation, audiences identify with them more than men because they look more helpless.”

De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, sees internal contradiction as what differentiates De Palma’s work from that of his contemporaries and, even, from those works to which De Palma’s suspense films are frequently compared. Leach told author Susan Dworkin: “I can still tell Brian’s work in a minute. His work is the work of a rational, thoughtful, intellectual person who stands outside things—and who, in fact, is the opposite of that, whose passions run deep, whose sense of outrage is limitless.”

There is ample contradiction in De Palma; a filmmaker who admires and borrows from Hitchcock yet grows weary of having critics acknowledge this debt; a director who loves his female characters—often speaks through his females—yet situates their demise, often at the hands of vindictive psychopaths and disturbed voyeurs, as central to his art; a director who is simultaneously nonchalant about assertions his blockbusters are “sell-outs” and defensive of the charge because it insinuates artistic compromise; a director who at times seems to welcome and spar with detractors yet, in some instances, has cancelled publicity tours in the wake of critical excoriation. Finally, De Palma is a director who until 1985 wanted to offend the sensibilities but expressed disappointment when his films were denounced as offensive—perhaps because they were not attacked on their own terms but marginalized by a process of comparison (“Hitchcock”) and reductionism (“satire”).

Beauty in the grotesque

De Palma has, like Kubrick, Lynch and Fincher, sought to master the intersection of mesmerizing beauty and grotesque horror while legitimizing and freeing encumbered and stigmatized genres. His films are intensely curious—curious about the human psyche, as well as the cyclic patterns and inherent nature of quotidian existence. They explore cycles of self-preservation, implosion, virtue, vice and avarice. They hunger for the cosmic meaning of suffering. They explore the nature of mistakes and substitute obsolete myths about America with more fortifying and truthful myths. Where De Palma deviates from his contemporaries is that he situates intellect, intuition and social strategy as higher than emotion or pure altruism on the hierarchy of evolutionary tools. His most realized protagonists are patient Watchers who observe and deliberate before using reason, psychology and technology to smash through deception. De Palma does not attach any special premium to the emotional synthesis of crisis. His most successful characters are resourceful, methodical and disciplined. In instances where they are manipulated and exploited, it is often a consequence of inattentiveness or existential resignation.

De Palma’s characters are almost universally motivated by dualistic drives; they are multidimensional in their objectives and paradoxical in their desires. They seek transcendence, but how they go about this is dependent upon frequently contradictory considerations. Grace Collier in Sisters attempts to parlay the private anguish of a neighbor into professional credibility but soon becomes sidetracked by her fervor to feed a deeper psychological need. Jake Scully in Body Double is motivated by the paradoxical demons of prurient desire and a shamed conscience. In Blow Out, regret disguised as altruistic idealism manifests as Jack Terry’s compulsion to resurrect his accomplice, Sally Bedina, in his own image. Tony Montana’s every step closer to a forgery of the American Dream is undermined by proportionate estrangement from his own soul and bitter alienation from the sister whose idolatry inspires his voracity for success. In Casualties of War, Private Eriksson’s impulse to intervene on behalf of a brutalized civilian collides with the obstacle of rational self-preservation in a universe where hierarchy and moral order are eviscerated by primitive impulse and collective psychosis. In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt’s fixation on the mastery of obstacles and restoration of order to chaos is tainted by an erotic desire that may or may not constitute the betrayal of a betraying mentor. In Femme Fatale, De Palma documents the internal struggle of a female protagonist as she deliberates whether to accept or reject an archetype so powerful that it has the potential to emancipate or destroy her. Yet, even these thumbnail descriptions seem insufficient to convey the forces that toss De Palma’s creations around the existential abyss. In film after film, De Palma situates a divide between private aspirations and the intrinsic need to be—and to be perceived by others as—decent and evolving towards a perfected and sovereign self.

The films propound a hydraulic, incessant and fastidious linkage of cause to effect that challenges the notion of reality as arbitrary and unfathomable. Non-virtue yields poor results and good causes yield better results but often his heroes do not triumph in any traditional sense. They do, however, embody the realm of free choice and pure action. Everything they do matters. They do good, or they do bad, they leave an imprint on the society in which they struggle, and they always suffer. Despair can, in De Palma’s world, be the redemptive result of a magnificent act of moral courage. Good intentions can reap catastrophe. A deadly mistake is repeated by an intelligent man with an honorable aspiration. This is a much more clear-headed and less nostalgic cognition of the world in which we live—but De Palma gives it to us not as realism but allegory that, in its way, exalts the travails of life and transforms painful experience into art. There is glory to be found even in the stories of his most malignant characters. They are larger than life, and they believe they are free. Even when his narratives are phantasmagoric, they convey something utterly true. Through abstraction, and by the sheer fascination and novelty of their journeys towards redemption or collapse, they affirm the spiritual journey that culminates in self-comprehension and autonomy.

De Palma’s films are not warm and fuzzy. They issue ultimatums, cultivate disenchantment, and violate narratological edicts. Their heroes reap weariness and disappointment. He creates universes that penalize good intentions, sometimes reward intellect, and dangle temptation before the weak and ambivalent. His consistent mixture of beauty with violence is his signature. His Darwinian films, which champion ascendancy over evil and entrenched corruption by means of superior tools of adaptability, intellect, intuition and reason, have a taint of elitism because they deviate from classicist and popular exemplars that argue being good is enough. In De Palma’s universe being good is a virtue but is no guarantee of survival. His natural selection tends to favor taciturn exotics who do not react but rather choose a response. His cinema is not always a cinema of transformation. De Palma does not blindly accept the mantra that great drama must be about radical change; the challenge for some of his protagonists is to resist an onslaught. Eliott Ness and Private Eriksson, for example, are characterized by their defiance; they refuse to change, compromise or submit to an invitation to corruption.

De Palma is fascinated by contradictions within motive. The nightmare at the conclusion of Dressed to Kill hints that even the use of manipulation for a virtuous purpose—to expose a killer—leaves its user with a penetrating sense of guilt. In Body Double a questionable and frivolous obsession leads a man to solve a murder made possible only by his predictability. De Palma’s best films behave like self-replicating Von Neumann machines: They are so highly stylized, self-assured, and unrelenting that they create the impression that they are intelligent life forms. They ask, but only partially answer, the questions they raise about what it means to live in the modern world.

Clear perception is the religion of De Palma’s most intricate protagonists; Gillian in The Fury; Jack Terry in Blow Out, Eliott Ness in The Untouchables; Private Eriksson in Casualties of War, and Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible. Intuition, which De Palma distinguishes from emotion and intellect, is not a means to an end but a lifeline. Gillian doesn’t use clairvoyance; she embodies clairvoyance as a metaphor for sovereignty and the synthesis of truth. Peter Miller’s preoccupation is surveillance. Jack Terry’s is sound and, like Rick Santoro’s in Snake Eyes, visual-sequential reconstruction. Ethan relies on logic and photographic memory. These skills define the character who possesses them while functioning simultaneously as tools to master the indecipherable.

A universe of graceful suffering

De Palma is one of our most important and prolific living American directors. He has produced one of the most obstinate and unpredictable bodies of work in history. The prodigality, diversity and controversy of the oeuvre has frightened scholars away from pursuing meta-theories that explain De Palma’s output as a unified whole. To complicate matters, like Godard, De Palma’s films not only entertain and ruminate on the human condition but constitute a critique of contemporary cinema. Yet De Palma is every bit as consistent as Scorsese, as subversive as Lynch, and as cerebral and bemused by human nature as Kubrick. Like Scorsese, he excavates the same themes repeatedly, often to augment or recalibrate a schema he has rethought. Dworkin, with the help of De Palma’s mentor, explains the rationale behind repetition.

“Wilford Leach said that Brian’s movies were like the circling of the planets. Around and around the artist went, a lifelong 360-degree pan, and what he saw on one revolution would be better lit on the next or in total darkness the next time around. With each revolution, there was a further revelation, but the universe of Brian’s material remained basically the same.

Brutality.
Sex.
Greed.”

De Palma’s work testifies to an ongoing process of reinvention. He continues to transfigure obsolete, dishonest and meaningless myths for emerging generations that crave their renovation. His stories are infused with life; those moved by them receive the twin gifts of inspiration and curiosity. His films help us to experience the world more intensely, and to bear with grace, intelligence and courage the suffering of being human.

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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