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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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Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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