Poison in the well. I don’t know if this qualifies as its own genre or a trope or whathaveyou, but I have to classify The White Ribbon as a poison-in-the-well film. I can distinguish this from plague-upon-the-land, which draws on causative metaphysical force, and something’s-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark, which also does so but only in passing to focus on social corruption directly; yet both rest on the theme of perverted Nature, what one theology calls “sin.”
The White Ribbon is completely past all this, thoroughly modern, if you will. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say that it is a critique of authoritarian political power—the patriarchy in the family, the church, and the vestiges of the feudal manor—but it is strictly sociological. And the fact that the film ends with the outbreak of WWI is surely not trivial to its meaning. Full-out and without doubt, the topic is a terrorized society. And it is terrorized by itself. There’s poison in the well.
Who put it in? The plot of The White Ribbon asks this question but does not answer it. All the horrible incidents that take place are never explained. Who committed the crimes remains an unsolved mystery. But the lack of forensic resolution in the film is not an invitation to dwell in the mystery for its own sake. This is not an Agatha Christie conundrum lacking a final scene. The point is that the town only has one well and everyone is drinking from it. What matters is the poison they have all ingested.
The brutal and shocking things that happen are certainly that. But their occurrence is the epitome and not the essence of what is going on. They are the fullest manifestation of the loveless lives lived by each and every person in the program; well, just about, and more on the exception below. It’s a festival of mutual abuse, contempt, disgust, suspicion—all the passions are negative. And they are revealed after much passionless, nearly soul-less going-through-the-motions. You tagged The White Ribbon as Fanny and Alexander (how could you!) meets The Tin Drum (fair enough). I offer: The Crucible meets Sátántangó.
Of course, the character of the schoolteacher is the exception to which I alluded above. His budding romantic relationship with the nanny is the only source of fresh water in the film. This legitimates his character as the narrator speaking in the past tense. He is given a sufficient degree of objectivity to report the story after he has escaped from it. As I have complained to you previously, I generally have difficulty accepting voice-over narration as a device in film. More often than not it indicates a failure of cinematic imagery. This is not the case for The White Ribbon, which is very striking in this department. It is instead a weakness with respect to the storytelling point-of-view given the thematic perspective of the film. I propose that the latter demands that the former be third-person omniscient. Haneke adopted this for Caché (Hidden) to convey the terrible sensation of total surveillance to great effect.
This is not to suggest that The White Ribbon is an inferior work. Far from it. Although it did not emotionally affect me as strongly as Caché, it is in some ways an even more powerful film. I would like to see more of Haneke’s earlier productions and I look forward to what he will do next. He is clearly an excellent craftsman on the technical side and he has made me want to become better acquainted with his weltanschauung, one of which I get the feeling he actually has. And not just because he’s Teutonic.
The White Ribbon draws much of its power from the setting. Dropping us into this German village on the brink of the First World War, we know that the people we are looking at, particularly the children, could one day, less than two decades hence, play a key role in the rise of National Socialism. So we are on the lookout for clues, attempting to connect the dots. On everyone’s lips is the obvious question: How do the events in this story provide a plausible backdrop for the emergence of Hitler’s Third Reich? Every look and gesture, every utterance and action is tainted by our knowledge that these youngsters could be future Nazi Youth, or even the backbone of the Nazi Party. So when we look into these children’s large yearning eyes we wait to see how the innocence will be lost, and who is to blame.
Who is to blame? Everyone. Parents, religious leaders, social leaders, all let down the side, and with relentless vigor. Almost all of the most heinous people in the film are men, using their authority to crush all who do not measure up to their lofty standards. The result is a climate of fear that suffuses all levels of society, from Baron down to laborer, adult through child. And the greatest tragedy is the effect it has on the children. During one of our first encounters with a child, he walks on a rickety guard rail, perched precipitously above a long drop, and speaks of wanting to die. And he is not the only one. Throughout the film we witness children trying so damned hard to be what the adults want them to be that it should be little surprise (and yet it IS) that they turn out to be just that. Watching their transformation (or is it merely our impressions of them that transforms?) is painful, but instructive. As Wordsworth noted, over a century before this story takes place, the child is father to the man.
As for your contention that we don’t know who poisoned the well, this may or may not be true. The schoolteacher seems pretty confident that he has solved the mystery, but we cannot take his conclusions as gospel because he has not proven himself the most observant or insightful of narrators throughout the film. Indeed, it is these limitations that allow me to give Haneke some latitude with his generous use of voice-over narration throughout the film. As you rightly note, voice-over is often a crutch for lesser filmmakers who don’t know how to convert the words into images in interestingly cinematic ways. However, this is less so with The White Ribbon, which boasts some of the most striking imagery in recent memory. Haneke is a master formalist, and his cinematography, compositions and editing in this film are first rate, propelling all aspects of the story adeptly. Instead of annoying, I found the teacher’s narration to be at times rather amusing, as his occasional obtuseness created an interesting bit of narrative dissonance from time to time; at times, the words do not exactly match the pictures.
Finally, regarding my Fanny and Alexander parallel, allow me to clarify. I am not comparing TWR to the loving, life-affirming half of F and A, but rather to the paternalistic, Scandinavian Christian, life-denying half when the poor kids are basically prisoners of their evil stepfather.
As a result, the film has a real icy coldness to it, and it is difficult to find an entry way into the story from an emotional standpoint. I suppose we are supposed to identify with the teacher, who not only narrates the film but also, as you note, proves himself the exception to the town’s cruelty by being pretty much the only person capable of love. However, he is also a bit dull, easily bullied and doesn’t actually manage to accomplish much while in the town. So, while he is the best we’ve got, that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. The children ultimately prove to be a false hope, as the more they get emotionally and physically abused, the more their Children of the Corn ways grow creepier and creepier, leaving me on the outside looking in for much of the film. Don’t get me wrong, while viewing The White Ribbon, I was certainly admiring the hell out of it, and I was most definitely intellectually engaged by it. I just wasn’t deeply moved by it.
As I touched on the critique of authoritarianism in only a cursory and tentative way, I appreciate you confirming my sense about this. I think you are correct to concentrate on The White Ribbon as a case study of the breeding grounds for fascism. In doing so, you make a chronological error that to me demonstrates the effectiveness of the film with respect to what you properly identify as central to it—the children. You suggest that these kids in 1914 might be the Hitler Youth of 20 years hence. Of course, this defies temporal logic. They would have long since become adults. But I think you made this mistake because the youth in The White Ribbon strike us somehow as Hitler Youth already. You also say that these kids in 1914 could play a key role in the rise of National Socialism (the first Hitler Youth date back to the early 1920s) and even become the backbone of the Nazi Party. Of course this makes chronological sense. Yet, your temporal slip seems to me to be your deeper insight. Made by accident, it nevertheless goes to the heart of how The White Ribbon works on us. The proto-fascism is consciously grasped because it is unconsciously grasped as fascist already.
I did not mention it in my initial review, but you know I did elsewhere, that I found the performances of the young actors in The White Ribbon to be outstandingly good. You have helped me understand why I was so gripped by them. What is more, you have helped me understand why my 15-year-old German niece and I—after watching the film together—inevitably found ourselves talking about Hitler afterwards. By the way, she soon figured out that the film is set not in Germany but in Austria, a distinction that may not mean anything to North Americans, but is obviously meaningful for Germans and Austrians, the latter of which is Haneke. And you have helped me understand why The White Ribbon made me remember the Czech film from the mid-1960s, The Shop on Main Street, about a community divided after the installation of Aryanization laws. As far as I could tell, The White Ribbon does not even hint at the topic of anti-Semitism. Still, the random acts of cruelty that run throughout the film are all too susceptible to being channeled into institutionalized scapegoating. On this interpretation, the missing link between The White Ribbon and The Shop on Main Street is Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. (I’m unfamiliar with Children of the Corn, but I’m guessing by referring to it, you already made this point.)
You are welcome to be less or even not at all bothered by the voice-over narration. I just want to pick up on your observation that the conclusion to which the school teacher jumps in 1918 about the guilt of the children is not to be taken as gospel. That’s an understatement. What is key is that the school teacher recounting the story years later does not and cannot corroborate his 1918 conclusion. The narrator does not prove the character. Indeed, it is impossible to know which representation is more trustworthy, which is a better source of objective truth. The character points his finger at the children—but are they really to blame? The narrator speaks of the gossipy excuses made to cover up what really happened—implicating even more than the kids, the adults who control them. Attempting to sort this out is misguided in my estimation. It’s called Totalitarianism because the society as a totality is involved.
Fanny and Alexander. Yeah, yeah, I understood why you made the comparison. But you should understand why I object to it. And not just because Bergman’s film is so full of life-affirming material. It’s also because even in the life-denying middle section of that film, it never goes over to the Children of the Corn, (or does it? you tell me). There is resistance, struggle, hopeful signs of life—from the children! Their oppression has not taken over completely and they never do get with the program. This is no totalitarianism in the making. This is war. And the kids win. [PAUSE] OK, so I lied. It IS just because Fanny and Alexander is so full of life-affirming material. But what a “just because.”
Both of us appear to have experienced The White Ribbon more intellectually than emotionally. I wonder why this is.
And (finally) Dan:
The temporal error you refer to is my Tin Drum moment, I guess. My error is founded on the feeling I get that these children will remain forever trapped in this pre-adolescent state in angry defiance of the notion that they need to somehow grow up and beyond this damaged condition. As for your Lottery reference, yes, The Children of the Corn (a Stephen King short story) is likewise built around the notion of ritual sacrifice during harvest, except here those doing the sacrifice are children, and those being sacrificed are those entering adulthood. All of this assumes that the teacher knows something we can never be sure of, and these kids are indeed the perpetrators of all this cruelty. However, given the cruelty inflicted on them by the adult hegemony of this small town Austrian (thanks for the clarification!) society, it’s hardly a shock to see the acorns falling next to the trees.
I am in total agreement on the child performance front. The actors do some remarkable work here; never once was I aware of a young person acting. Their actions and reactions were (often devastatingly) authentic. Such a refreshing break from the sort of look-at-me self-conscious adorability that passes for child acting in most Hollywood films.
Excellent pull on the Shop on Main Street front. In The White Ribbon, this apparent division, caused by the torture inflicted by the unknown assailant(s), is subsumed so completely by the adults that it appears as if the town is dealing with matters. Getting things done. Making things right. Yet, the torment goes on and on. Some of Haneke’s shots of the building’s facades, so dark, brooding, but upright and solid, clearly telegraphed his feelings about these people’s attempts to shove back the truth, and put up a brave, united front. So, in the end, the finger of blame MUST be pointed right back at the adults. Even if it IS the children committing these heinous acts, they are only doing as they’ve been instructed AND their acts are being swept under the proverbial rug by adult authorities who have no interest in looking into that deep, dark, poisoned well of truth.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan’s who he has been lending movies to for a while now.
Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity
It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.1.5
The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.
Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.
The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.
There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.
In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship
The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.1.5
Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.
Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.
Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.
In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor
The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.2.5
Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.
In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?
Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.
Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).
If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.
Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.
Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite