After all the praise I’ve lavished on Ramin Bahrani’s three feature films, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that this short is just as great. But pretend for a moment that I’d never even seen Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Or, that I didn’t know beforehand that Plastic Bag was by Bahrani. The excellence of it would have spoken to me regardless. It just so happens for me personally that I was feeling a little sad and vulnerable when I watched it, which only made me that much more receptive to the artistry of this less-than-twenty-minutes of outstanding cinema. It made me cry. Hard.
There is some fantastic staging at work here. It might look easy to move a bag around on location, but there are moments in Plastic Bag when the thing takes on an organic visual presence. It sometimes appears to travel with muscular intention and even to gesture. The romantic interaction with the other bag is airborne ballet. The theatrical level approaches that of genuine puppetry. I make note of this upfront because obviously it is the audio narrative that literally gives voice to the bag, so I mean to acknowledge the contribution of the cinematography to the entire anthropomorphic fabrication. The thing often looks alive.
That it always sounds alive is a tribute to the uniquely affecting quality of hearing Werner Herzog deliver English lines. Much has been made of him interjecting his own personality in his documentaries. Regardless of how one feels about this either way, it cannot be denied that his speaking voice is a kind of aesthetic artifact in its own right. Setting aside Herzog’s reputation as an artist and, even more, his cultural celebrity, it was a stroke of genius by Bahrani to cast him in this role. The timbre and cadences of Herzog’s speech are absolutely perfect for the forlorn pathos of the character.
And the characterization is there to perform in the first place. Plastic Bag is nothing if not a brilliant screenplay. The text achieves poetic concreteness. What might have seemed little more than a gimmick—yet another brave little toaster (hey, Plastic Bag starts off cute and funny enough)—soon takes on truly tragic proportions when we seriously contemplate what the protagonist is saying. His words make us pay attention to the setting as he is situated in it. We are made to confront the environmental crisis as it is experienced by him. Hello—we’re talking about empathetic dramatic identification with a plastic bag. A plastic bag people! Brilliantly shot, brilliantly read, brilliantly written. Yes, the music really works too. The whole tone of the piece changes when it enters.
Thematically, the level of profundity achieved by Plastic Bag is staggering. At first glance, it might seem that the personification of a lifeless object must necessarily advocate spirituality. To animate the inanimate certainly has the potential to point in this direction; and further, to give self-consciousness and voice to a thing is to positively humanize it with those attributes of cognition most commonly equated with soulfulness.
Meanwhile, the plot of Plastic Bag is all about the bag seeking the source of his origin. The bag is searching for “my Maker.” He had a personal relationship with an entity that he conceived to be God or at least a demiurge. He believes he has been forsaken. He searches for reunification. Even in the depths of his despair and doubt, he is able to overcome the worldly utopian misguidance that is the pantheistic cult of the Vortex and hold true to his journey to return to The Creator. How can this not be a religious parable?
It isn’t because Plastic Bag makes it plain that the bag is operating according to bogus mythology. He holds that life was breathed into him when he was separated from the bunch at the grocery till, but this was actually not his birth. The individual who activated him and subsequently engaged with him just enough for him to idealize his own telos did not, in fact, create him. Towards the end, when he questions if his Maker was ever real and wonders if he just dreamed her up—this is him reflecting critically on his own mythology and considering that it may very well be bogus.
At the very end, when he states that if he ever re-encounters his Maker he will proclaim that he should have been made mortal—for the audience this definitively points beyond the individual consumer who once used him for various domestic functions to his true creator, the collective social structures of industrial science and technological production that really did make him never to rot. What is more to the ecological intelligence, the bag’s desire for mortality is the highest expression of common sense, truly no nonsense materialism. Rust never sleeps but plastic doesn’t rust. Hence, the gyre now swirling in the Pacific, a mass of jelly two times the size of Texas.
The relative non-biodegradability of a plastic bag is practically—according to any time scale we can honestly fathom—an absolute indestructibility. In other words, an eternal life. Contra the entire history of metaphysical longing, in Plastic Bag it turns out that living forever is a bad thing. Eternal life is necessarily Hell for those of us who see no supernatural escape hatch from our corporeal being. The protagonist of Plastic Bag makes it to the massive mess of Jell-O in the sea, only to discover that it is not the Heaven for plastic it was made out to be by the secular priests self-crucified on the fence. Following this, he knows he should have been made not to last. He wants to die. He wants to recycle himself in the metabolism of nature.
A ghost is a disembodied spirit unable to reside in the hereafter because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth. Unable to rest in peace, the spectre haunts the living. The bag in Plastic Bag is an inverted apparition, an embodied ghost. Forever trapped in an undead body, he is a kind of zombie; except mindful, oh so mindful. All too corporeal yet cursed with immortality, the bag also cannot rest in peace. Unable to pass away on this planet, he is haunted by a memory of the living, a sole survivor because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth.
Plastic Bag held me rapt from its opening to its closing frame, sunrise to sunset. I have seldom been held in such thrall by a film; I have never been so moved by a film about an inanimate object. Plastic Bag is among the best short films I have ever seen. And I really enjoyed your study of the aesthetic at work—the poetry and ballet of the bag traveling through this world both ugly and beautiful—as it was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the film. Bahrani seems to have literally breathed life into this bag. It becomes he as he appears to inhale and exhale, applauding and adoring the movements of his personal god while she summons and interacts with his life, then dancing like a ballerino over what can only be the post-apocalyptic surface of the earth. Bahrani here confirms his position—well struck in his feature films, which are chock full of subtle and affecting lyrical imagery—as a master poet of the ordinary. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrows and white chickens.
Furthermore, your examination of the bag’s heart of green was something I was particularly tuned into and connected with. However, I was also drawn to this sole survivor as a lost soul. In highlighting the “ecological intelligence” of Plastic Bag, you glossed over the striving of the bag to reunite with his Maker as “bogus mythology.” But the bag’s spiritual journey touched something deep inside of me.
While I enjoy a good walk as much as the next guy, I do not climb mountains. Yet, I am riveted by stories of mountain climbers who strike me as setting out to reach a place in nature where God is somehow more obvious to them. I could not put down Jon Krakauer’s study of a famously doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air; likewise, I was completely absorbed by the troubled Andean expedition recounted in Touching the Void. Any attempt to find God in this earthly realm is compelling for me. I really dig the metaphysical poetry of John Donne because of this. The Passion of Joan of Arc is among my favorite films of all time, and not just for its formal brilliance; I am captivated by Joan’s mysterious adoration of a God who appears to have abandoned her.
Plastic Bag is tapping into this as well. I am not a religious person. Forget about a church of any kind, I do not even have a particularly spiritual bent. Nevertheless, I feel it is valid to appreciate the spiritual striving of others in broad terms of existentialism. A specific search for God is a case of the general search for The Meaning of Life, or at least a meaningful life. I relate to the bag’s spiritual journey on this basic level. He is a seeker.
In focusing on the quest of the bag to find his Maker, I feel it is valid to see this in broad existential terms because of the plainly allegorical approach taken by the film. Just as the bag searches for meaning, so too do we. At first, the bag is content, finding meaning—and even joy—in servitude to his perceived Maker. Secure in his initial religious faith, the bag is an inspired utilitarian, believing his life has meaning only if he is being slavishly useful to his Maker. This leads to the ultimate degradation of being a dog’s pooper scooper, perhaps an inevitable outcome for anyone who seeks meaning through vassalage to a lord. Once he is cast aside, abandoned to the landfill and deprived of his previous mission in life, the bag can only embark on a lifelong journey to fill his existential void.
And I do mean void. The bag is literally hollow. But of course, he is also metaphorically hollow. The bag’s hollowness is a reflection of his lost utility. The bag felt fulfilled when he was actually filled; used by his Maker to carry tennis balls, hold ice, wrap dog crap, whatever. Once he is disposed of, he finds himself fired from the job he was made for, by the very Maker that supposedly made him for it. He is able to travel the world because of this—not weighed down by her needs/uses—but rather than embracing this freedom, he feels a desperate lack of purpose. He wants to return to his Maker so he can feel useful again. So he seeks her out.
There are profound distractions along the way. In one of the film’s most visually affecting passages, he engages in a momentary flirtation with love. The brevity of the encounter suggests the impossibility of maintaining a bond with another without a bond with the Maker to sustain it. In any case, he is compelled to keep moving, continue seeking. The journey proves fruitless until he finds his way to The Vortex, symbol of shared faith. He is converted to The Vortex by other bags martyred on barbed wire, becomes a pilgrim and is baptized upon leaving the land for the ocean.
At first, he believes he has been reborn. Mixed in with all the rest of the rotating plastic, he feels that his journey is finally over, he is happy at home, swirling around in the sea—like the religious masses circling the Black Stone in Mecca—in this continent of like-minded, similarly-bodied types. But faith comes with a price. Consciousness must be left behind. These similarly-bodied types have become no-minded. Eventually, the bag leaves because, “no one thought about anything.” He must set out again independently.
The solitary nature of the bag’s quest is central to my existential reading. The bag rarely meets up with his own kind. More essential, even when he does, he is unable to establish a lasting connection. Exactly why he cannot master the wind enough to stay together with the other single bag he loves for an instant is not clear, but his passing incorporation into The Vortex leads to a loss of self he cannot abide. He leaves before becoming gelatinous himself and forever stuck in the collective glop. There may be solace in the mass of the group, but there is no enlightenment for the individual in The Vortex, so he quickly returns to his solitary position. He remains a stranger in a strange land to the extraordinarily bitter end, surrounded by Otherness he cannot transcend.
The bag remains, above all else, an intelligent, sentient being whose ongoing survival necessarily makes him curious about what it is he is surviving for. He could be any one of us. It is not enough to simply believe, he wants to understand that his life has meaning. He begins to question if his Maker exists, or if he has created her out of his own imagination. He wonders why his moments of choice have proven so rare over the course of his long life. His inspired utilitarianism has proven futile. His romantic love fleeting. His experience with alternative religion unsatisfying. And in the end, reunion with the Maker appears unattainable.
The bag reaches the point of absolutely solitary crisis. He desires his own death. This is a completely understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning, such existential torment. I cannot help but feel sad at the film’s close because the bag begs for a death he cannot have.
What Bahrani has accomplished here is no mean feat. He has personified a piece of plastic and in the process made me care deeply about an otherwise insignificant man-made object. Credit must certainly be shared with fellow writer (and newcomer) Jenni Jenkins, Bahrani’s regular cinematographer Michael Simmonds and composer Kjartan Sveinsson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but the truly vital collaboration is that with Werner Herzog. There is such a gravitas to Herzog’s voice, borne out of a life of questing and uncertainty, of searching and not finding, that I cannot imagine a better fit for the existential subject matter of this piece.
Your existentialist appreciation of the bag’s changing consciousness of himself is fine by me as long as we are analytically clear that my ecological take on the film rests exclusively on the material substance of the protagonist’s body, whereas you only touch on this in the course of mostly attending to the form of his body. Everything I argue has to do with the elementary physical fact of his plasticity as it relates to his theoretical conception of himself. You are far more concerned with his bag-ness as a narrative phenomenology or lived personal experience. I acknowledge that the dramatic personification of the character through the plot fundamentally resides in his bag-ness and I am open to suggestion about how to interpret this, but not at the expense of my understanding of his understanding of his plastic materiality.
I fear you do contravene my ecological take insofar as you treat his death wish as the consequence of him reaching the point of crisis as a bag, rather than what I take it to be—the crisis itself that he undergoes as a piece of plastic. When you say his death wish is the “understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning,” I hear you saying that he cannot bear to live anymore, that he is suicidal for his own tortured sake as a bag. That’s not what I hear the character/Herzog/Bahrani saying at all. Rather than a negation of the world, I hear the piece of plastic positively embracing the world. He has figured out that it would have been better for all concerned if he had been made to biodegrade. His crisis is that he is physically incapable of acting on his will to do so.
I don’t know about him and his search for his God, but he’s certainly on to the truth of the matter. His existential suffering as a bag may take a number of twists and turns but in the end, his tragedy is as a piece of plastic and his pain in being one is profoundly practical. His growing knowledge is connected to his decreasing alienation from the material world, his increasing sense of belonging in nature. Your concern for the bag’s Otherness notwithstanding, he steadily comes to embrace the organic. Let me sketch some detail onto this contour I have just drawn.
His initial contact with life and its messy waste makes him simultaneously repulsed and envious of biological being. He is jealous of his Maker’s dog for the affection she shows to the pet and revolted by his slobber and his feces. After he escapes the landfill and travels the planet, however, he is completely past these petty, self-centered first approximations. No longer repulsed at all, he is attracted. The bag has come to be comfortable with the “monsters.” No longer envious of this or that particular biological stuff, he wishes to become that stuff in general.
Indeed, he wants to become the most general sort of that stuff, what he once picked up after the pet of his Maker so long ago. The fish nibble away little bits of him and he can only wonder what will happen to those bits, but WE know that that’s as close as he’s going to get to becoming real shit returned to the life cycle. Yes, he remains inorganic. So yes, unable to die and become compost he “remains a stranger in a strange land.” But no, not “to the extraordinarily bitter end.” The bag is not bitter. He is full of tragic passion. He has a practical desire. It’s the exact opposite goal of Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner. LESS life fucker! That is what he will demand of his Maker should he ever find her.
What you aptly called the bag’s green heart is no doubt beating loudly in your ear, but you run the risk of becoming deaf to it when you stare so long at the existential contortions of his shape. Hence, you are much bleaker about the message of the film than me. I get the impression from you that you get the impression from the film that our situation is hopeless. But I take the allegorical dimension of Plastic Bag to be more actively engaged in the material world, more critically didactic, more a challenge to invent synthetic materials that do biodegrade. I believe it is a film that any elementary school teacher could show to the class. Nay, I believe it is a film that every elementary school teacher should show to the class.
I am not so full of angst as it may appear. I hear what you are saying about the protagonist’s positive passion. I neglected to address that. You are too strict about only applying this to him as a piece of plastic though. You acknowledge that his bag-ness is the fictional vehicle for him being a person in the first place, but then you refuse to see how it must therefore be implicated in this passion he feels and the tragedy it entails.
It is his bag-ness that allows him to travel as he does and change his mind about the “monsters.” He acknowledges the beauty of things as he flies overhead. After he submerges himself in the sea, he feels familiarity with a jelly-fish. They look enough alike for him to experience a hint of kinship. By the last act of the film, when he has returned to the sky and is flying higher than ever, there is a wonderful moment where he is floating above the whole earth and sees that he looks just like it, then he turns to the sun and notes that he looks just like it too.
So, he certainly does come to positively recognize himself in everything, to see his body as belonging in nature. The point is that this identification he feels is all about his form as a bag. But his quest ends up proving his sense of Otherness, not eliminating it, because no matter how much the bag-like appearance of those around him resembles his bag-ness, his elemental substance—his plasticity—is still alien. In fact, he is not part of anything and nothing is part of him.
I feel for the bag—as a bag—because he wants to trade his material substance for a different material substance, transform from inorganic to organic. That transformation is allegorical for the human aspiration to seek a similar transformation at the end of life—from material mortality to spiritual immortality—which is just as hopeless a quest as the bag’s desire to die as an organic being. Is it really that much of a stretch to see human beings as plastic bags? That is, we view ourselves as separate from the world around us, and hence have a quest to escape our bodily existence (that which connects us to the world around us) by achieving non-corporeal everlasting life. And there is definite irony in the fact that we are equally doomed to frustration and failure. The bag gets what so many humans desire—immortality—while humans are doomed to mortality, because of the very organic nature that the bag can never achieve.
But even without the religious impulse, all of us experience certain expressions of alienation from existence that push us to seek transcendence in material ways that are just as hopeless a quest as what spiritualism chases. I return to the hollowness of the bag as representative of the inner vacancy experienced by modern individuals, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Just as the bag in order to feel fulfilled needs to fill up his emptiness again and again with stuff assigned to him as worthwhile by his Maker, people—falling prey to the advertisers who insist that this will make it so—fill the emotional hole inside themselves by consuming more and more stuff, thereby creating the ecological crisis that the plastic bag adds to, much to his anguish. The emptiness remains. Which pretty much boils down to him being existentially all by himself. This is much of what makes me sad. He is so very alone.
I grasp that your existential reading of the film hinges on the falsity of Cartesian dualism for the plastic bag and the human being analogously. Hence, you expend considerable effort to expose the substance/form contradiction in both generally and you compare the specifics of how this plays out for each respectively. This is all very well. But the pronounced materialist interpretation I bring to Plastic Bag compels me grasp the substance/form contradiction of the plastic bag as asymmetrical. I prioritize substance over form when it comes to deciding which side of the contradiction is the essential source of the protagonist’s problem.
As far as I can see, a very similar story could be told about a plastic package or a plastic cup or a plastic bathing cap. Or the same point from the opposite direction, the story simply could not be told about a bag made of paper. You claim to feel the pain of the bag—as a bag—and no doubt you do over the course of the story. But the pain we feel at the very end of the tale—you know, when the moral of the allegory as a whole is finally delivered—this is his pain at being synthetically ripped from the womb of Mother Nature, his anguish about being born a piece of plastic. And there is not one, single, comparable moment in the film where he regrets being born a bag.
This registered, I grant that the essential manifestation of the protagonist’s problem is registered on his form as a bag, about which you have made some provocative statements. I like the general connection you are making between the bag, consumerism and ecological degradation. This is astute. For the bag is first and foremost a shopping bag. This is the activity that he was created for and this is indeed his original activation.
But then the woman moves from shopping to other domestic endeavours and in so doing re-uses the bag for all sorts of jobs. This is soundly ecological on her part and, by association, on his part too. But even if it somehow wasn’t, I cannot see any of the tasks performed by the bag as analogous with recreational shopping conducted by people out to fill their existential emptiness by consuming more and more. This is because the bag is not a consumer, recreational or otherwise. The bag is a producer, a worker.
In keeping with this, I do not view the hollowness of the bag as so much nothingness as you do, negative space that only borrows the value of the objects that fill it. I see it rather as a site of contained potential, which the bag realizes with his labor. Because he is not a closed shape but rather an open one, he has an orifice. This “mouth” is what enables him to work with his “gut” in which he holds and carries things, his particular skill.
Listen though, you can still see him as existentially burdened in accordance with this if you’d like. Instead of a recreational consumer, the bag would be a type of workaholic. You are quite disparaging about the bag’s sense of self being based on his duty to service, associating this with a vulgar instrumentalism and serf-like status. I am not so bothered about this and could just as easily find nice what you find nasty. But either way, you are right to regard the bag as having a utilitarian ego upheld by a metaphysic. No doubt, the bag has a kind of Protestant work ethic, which I referred to before as “bogus mythology” insofar as the bag labors under the misconception that his human employer is his creator. And I think it’s just great that in the end he begins to transfer his allegiance from his Maker to matter. Instead of the Lord, he wants to work for Mother Nature. His tragedy is that he can’t do it. But admittedly, up until this agonizing epiphany, he suffers from a sort of Stakhanovist productivism, underwritten by the myth of the Maker.
I think you turned me into your straw man here. If you review the discussion up to this point, I am confident that you will observe that I never countered your assertion that the bag’s plasticity is the more elemental aspect of his tragic existence. Furthermore, while I find your suggestion to view the bag as a workaholic reasonable enough, I am not especially moved by it. You put too much of a happy face on the bag’s form in the first place. Even if I agree with you that he has an orifice, I do not agree with you that this “mouth” is a productive appendage as much as I see it as constantly needing to be fed. Hunger is as good a metaphor as any to describe the bag’s terrible longing.
You seem to think this hunger goes away at the end of the film because the bag is on the verge of some sort of enlightened atheist conversion. But his realism is cold comfort. And it is hardly confirmed. It remains true that the bag never feels as content as when his contents came from his Maker. You speak of his tragedy, but you refuse to extend this to include his incapability of self-fulfilment; as a bag he has the potential to be filled, but he necessarily needs to be filled from without. Yet nothing from without can fill him. All things blow out, wash away.
Despite making a mental connection with the biosphere, he recognizes that he cannot keep it inside of him and put himself inside of it; or if you prefer, he is only IN this world, not OF it. However the point is verbalized, he is existentially on the outside looking to get in, pining for a physical transformation that will take away his emptiness. A transformation that will not—hell, cannot—occur. Hence, my overwhelming feeling of great sorrow at the finish of the film is not just about him as a piece of plastic but also about him as a bag.
No, not a “transformation” Not a transFORMation. What he pines for in the very end is transubstantiation. Please forgive my pedantry, but my disagreement with you completely comes down to this difference between sideshow shape-shifting and miraculous substantive change. I employ this Catholic concept in order to insist on the ontological guts of the matter. At the same time, it serves to support your analogous treatment and comparison of the substance/form contradiction for the plastic bag and the Christian believer. But the price you pay for this support is the priority on substance shared by me and the church, even though the Pope and I are diametrically opposed when it comes to choosing between natural matter and divine spirit as substance.
Enough scholasticism though. Maybe you are right when you say that I put too much of a happy face around the bag’s orifice, give his life a spin too positive. But as far as I can tell, the guy gets around and it’s not all bad. That mouth of his never shuts up and the tourism its openness facilitates leads him to conclude that the world is worth saving. You are definitely right that I reckon our plastic hero is on the verge of an enlightened conversion; not necessarily atheistic but certainly secular, in the etymological root sense of the term—OF the world. Or should I just trust that you at least agree with me that he is FOR it? Jesus, he’s for it body and soul. In that order. And there’s the pathos. Personally, I’m hoping the fish eat him all up. I know it’s not the answer in the real world, but it is the happiest possible ending in the reel world.
And Finally Dan:
The bag’s movement is definitely moving, his journey is wondrous and terrible, his joy real but ephemeral. The tragedy is, the bag will have an eternity to contemplate those fleeting moments of happiness and fulfillment.
Having seen what he has done so far in his relatively young life, I find it hard to predict exactly where Ramin Bahrani is going to take us next, but one thing is certain; he is as accomplished and important a filmmaker as there is in America today. Made us talk and talk for hours and hours—that’s right ladies and gentlemen, this is the abridged version—with only 18 minutes of celluloid.
Review: Blessed Child Only Half-Lifts the Veil on a Family’s Ties to a Cult
The film vague on the intersections between Cara Jones’s family, Sun Myung Moon, and the Unification Church at large.2.5
Founded and led by Korean evangelist and businessman Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church enjoyed a surge in popularity in the United States in the 1970s. Disciples of the controversial church, known as Moonies, believed Moon’s assertion that he was a messiah sent to continue Jesus’s work of brokering our connection to God, and was as such unquestionable. Moon presided over mass arranged weddings, called “blessings,” that would lead to children born without original sin. Drugs and sex outside of marriage were verboten, homosexuality was a sin, and various other rules were in place to ensure the “purity” of disciples. What seems to distinguish Moon’s religion from puritanical branches of Christianity is an insistence on internationality, which might have appealed to Americans disenfranchised in the wake of the Vietnam War. Cara Jones’s parents were such Americans.
Blessed Child is an insider’s look at the Unification Church, homing in on Jones’s own family. Farley Jones, her father, was an atheist who became a devout Moonie and rose within the ranks of the church, enjoying intimate counsel with Moon himself. In 1995, Cara was married to a young Korean man she’d just met along with thousands of other couples in a stadium in Seoul, after submitting her high school picture to the church for an arranged coupling. Footage of this wedding is included in Blessed Child, and it speaks to the chilling anonymity of cult life, as a ritual associated with great personal love is transformed into a mass recruiting rally. Blessed Child is, in fact, composed of quite a bit of Jones home-video footage, and the film doesn’t lack for wrenchingly casual details about how a family indoctrinates its young into a contrived belief system, making it all seem so natural and inevitable. Perhaps most unnervingly, we see a young Cara deep in the grips of prayer, performing in a daily ritual at the family’s home, her face curled in determination to please her father.
The documentary is structured as a kind of coming-of-age story. Cara went to Princeton University not long after her wedding and rebelled against her religion, feeling especially alienated by a husband she regarded more as a brother figure. Embracing drugs and sex, Cara eventually fell out with her parents, who insisted she leave Princeton, which she refused. Now in her 40s, Cara wants to be free of the church’s tentacles without losing her parents and brothers, one of whom, Bow, is gay and served as the film’s director of photography. Cara grapples with a hypocrisy that scans as a given to many atheists: that religions that speak of love often seem to pivot far more viscerally on inspiring shame (as well as on the donations that such shame can motivate). Bow, who occasionally appears on screen, is out but clearly damaged by the church, wishing to the camera that he wasn’t gay.
Farley is the film’s most haunting subject though, a patriarch and religious figure who rules the roost with a sense of erudition and overwhelming niceness. Cara, not without bitterness, says that Farley killed with kindness. Late in Blessed Child, Cara asks Farley how he can accommodate a religion that judges his own son. To his credit, Farley isn’t defensive, and to less of his credit, he hems and haws, more or less evading the ramifications of his daughter’s question. Judging by his face, Farley appears to be a man, eaten up with sadness, who absolutely needs this religion and self-definition regardless of certain consequences. Farley says that he saw Moon, who died in 2012, as a father figure, as his own father walked out on his family when he was 10, and he saw the Unification Church as a way to embrace and focus familial love. It’s here that another irony rises to the surface: Farley and his wife, Betsy, frequently left their children in the hands of nannies while on missionary expeditions, so if we’re to believe his motivations, he momentarily lost his family out of fear of losing them.
Jones captures moving moments throughout Blessed Child, such as when Farley and Betsy tearfully apologize for the pressure they put on her and the confusion and misery they wrought. But the film nonetheless feels under-developed, as Jones is vague about the intersections between her family, Moon, and the church at large. Tantalizing questions hang in the air. How did Farley rise so quickly in the church? How do the other brothers, briefly glimpsed over a lunch, feel about Cara’s emancipation? How did Farley rationalize Moon’s tax evasions, infidelities, and other controversies? Farley’s daddy issues also feel like an inadequate explanation for how an intellectual atheist might be seduced by what appears to the layman to be an obvious scam. Jones may be too close to Farley to get to the bottom of him, and as such she doesn’t quite render the rationalizations of the cult members, though she offers a poignant testament to the baggage and insecurities hounding her own life.
Director: Cara Jones Screenwriter: Josh Alexander, Jean Kawahara, Cara Jones Distributor: Obscured Pictures Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Ghosts of War Is a Morally Ghastly Haunted-House Attraction
The film’s unreflective earnestness is haunting in all the wrong ways.1
As a horror film that deals in hauntings and temporal displacements, writer-director Eric Bress’s Ghosts of War almost feels aptly dislodged in time. It could easily have come out two decades ago, around the time of Bress’s own The Butterfly Effect—that post-Sixth Sense era when suspense films seemed almost obligated to reveal their structuring conceit in a last-minute twist. Ghosts of War harkens back to this era of “gotcha” thrillers, building toward a climax in which significant moments we’ve seen are played back to us in rapid montage so we can piece together the supposedly clever ways we’ve been misdirected.
The device of the explanatory twist appears here as an apparent means of papering over some rather glaring inconsistencies in the World War II-set horror story, anachronisms and abrupt tone shifts whose gradual accumulation results in more incoherence than mystery—like when we catch sight of gaunt refugees in striped concentration-camp garb in Eastern France in 1944, or when a scene ends with a character’s fingers being horribly mangled, and the next opens with the same character coolly discussing scrambled radio messages. The big reveal assembles some of these disjointed pieces into a conspiratorial whole that, conveniently, could account for almost any preceding logical lapse. But some oddities can only be explained as continuity errors, like when the characters suddenly have wounds they will receive in a later scene.
The story that’s doomed to be consumed by its own ending concerns five Army grunts assigned to set up camp in a chateau in the French countryside just outside of Strasbourg, relieving another fireteam whose members, when our heroes arrive, wear the sleep-deprived and nerve-wracked faces of men who’ve spent several nights in a haunted house. Left with a radio that’s quite plainly relaying scrambled eldritch whispers from the beyond, a room decorated with creepy porcelain dolls, and a journal kept by the Nazi commanders who used the chateau as a headquarters, the five soldiers might be able to read these signs and guess they’re in for a modern movie haunting, if only they’d been born a few decades later.
One of the soldiers, Eugene (Skylar Astin), whose spectacles and aversion to combat peg him as the group’s intellectual, speaks German, so he begins reading the Nazis’s detailed account of their torture and murder of the family who lived in the house. The spirits of the Hellwigs still haunt the mansion, which we learn through the soldiers’ spooky encounters, which often resemble gags at Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction: the silhouette behind a curtain that disappears when the cloth flutters; footprints that form in the sand before our eyes; and the family photo from which the human subjects disappear, leaving behind empty furniture.
Starting on the basis of these hokey effects, Bress’s screenplay takes up and then immediately drops several distinct threads of development. The old hobbyhorse of Hitler’s interest in the occult is dusted off, ridden around for 10 minutes, then forgotten. Suspicion between the soldiers wanes as soon as it waxes: For about three minutes, Chris (Brenton Thwaits) suspects Eugene of knowing more than he lets on, and everyone briefly suspects Tappert (Kyle Gallner) of harboring some violent intentions or other. There’s little sense that all this is going anywhere, and, of course, the twist ending will render much of it meaningless. At one point, the team tries to leave the mansion, and finds that they’re caught in some kind of spatio-temporal loop. They never feel more relatable than they do in this moment.
Noteworthy in Ghosts of War is that the Nazis aren’t the vicious paranormal force threatening the lives of our boys in uniform, but rather their victims. It’s a distinctive choice that initially suggests the film may intend to use the conventions of the ghost story to talk about something like the lasting spiritual impact of mass conflict and murder. But in a move that ends up being as morally ghastly as it is intellectually flabbergasting, the conclusion entails drawing a direct parallel between persecuted Jews hiding from Nazi slaughter and armed American soldiers hiding from enemy discovery. Perhaps the sloppy jingoism of a Nazi horror movie shouldn’t rankle so much, but Ghosts of War delivers its simultaneous celebration and exploitation of America’s “good wars” with an unreflective earnestness that’s haunting in all the wrong ways.
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Skylar Astin, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub Director: Eric Bress Screenwriter: Eric Bress Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.
The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
TR: I’d love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!
TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.
Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment
It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.3.5
In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.
Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.
The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.
Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.
Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.
Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.
While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.
Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.
Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family
The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.2.5
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.
Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.
Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.
The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.
But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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