Itâs conventional wisdom in fan circles that of the six âoriginal castâ Star Trek films the even numbered outings (2, 4, and 6) are the best. I can understand why Treks 1 and 5 are generally held in low esteem. But I am perhaps the ONLY person who actually found 1984âs Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to be the most faithful (and therefore the most enjoyable) of the first half dozen excursions.
Iâve never felt that the transition of Star Trek from television to film was particularly well handled. An excellent House piece by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard, âThe Conversations: Star Trek,â takes an in-depth look at all of the six OC movies. While I donât necessarily subscribe to all the opinions expressed within, itâs a worthwhile read.
My take on the films is that they suffered from Paramountâs post-Star Wars desire to turn Star Trek into a big budget, pyrotechnics laden sci-fi property. While the Enterprise herself didnât have a traditional galley (except for the one that mysteriously appears in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), the franchise possessed an overabundance of cooks. The result was something called âStar Trekâ that had a lot more flash but, for me, lacked the essence of what made the more austerely produced television version work.
Not that this makes me cool or cutting edge (quite the contrary perhaps), but Iâm one of those baby boomer âTrekkiesâ (not âTrekkersâ) who jumped onto the Star Trek bandwagon during its wilderness years of syndication when the prospect of any new adventures either on television or film seemed pretty grim. To give some perspective, the premiere of the Saturday morning animated series in 1973 was a major event in my life (sad, isnât it?). By the way, if you want to have fun at a Star Trek convention, go up to a crowd of people (especially if theyâre in costume) and innocently ask if the Star Trek cartoons are âcanonicalâ (Iâm animiconoclastic).
When it was announced in the late â70s that Star Trek would finally return in movie form, I was beside myself with anticipation. Alas, the batteries of my Trek fandom started to drain about halfway into 1979âs Star Trek: The Motion Picture. My first impression was that they had changed too much of the Trek universe. In interviews leading up to the filmâs release, Star Trekâs creator, Gene Roddenbery, identified two camps of fans: those who didnât want ANYTHING about the original series altered and those who were excited that ST: TMPâs 35-million-dollar budget would allow for a fully realized Trek experience that had never been possible on the small screen.
I fell into the former camp. I liked the original color-coded uniforms: gold, blue and, red (yikes). The first movie totally revamped this with â70s era pastels that no longer made organizational or aesthetic sense. Iâll grant that they probably needed to adjust the look of the original costumes to conceal the effects of time and gravity on the more mature cast members. But did the uniforms have to resemble 23rd-century leisure suits?
On the outside, the Enterprise, thankfully, wasnât given SO drastic a refit. However, they did do a lot of redecorating inside. An extra turbo lift door was added to the bridge because fans had complained that it was illogical to only have one point of egress. Fine. Automatic restraints were added to all of the chairs to keep the crew from tumbling around when encountering rough space turbulence (which really shouldnât happen inside a ship equipped with an artificial gravity environment, but okay). They also revamped the classic original Enterprise bridge set by pivoting some of the workstations ninety degrees, thus disrupting the feng shui of the familiar circular pattern Trekkies had grown up with. Worst of all, however, was the bland grey color scheme that dominated everything. Maybe, as in Operation Petticoat, it was just primer and the arrival of VâGer interrupted the final paint job. Nonetheless, I could totally sympathize when Admiral Kirk got lost in one of the corridors.
While I sound like a nitpicker (and I am, but thatâs beside the point), thereâs a vast collection of Star Trek fans (trust me on this) for whom the production design was an important part of the original series.
To prove this isnât an overstatement, I submit the fact that subsequent Star Trek television incarnations, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, each aired heavily hyped episodes which worked a justification for revisiting the original 1960âs Enterprise ship, uniform design, or both into their storylines (âRelics,â âTrials and Tribble-ations,â and âIn a Mirror Darklyâ respectively). Then thereâs the surprisingly successful fan-created Star Trek: Phase II. This web series set in the original Star Trek universe contains all of the 1960âs accouterments. Iâm not a fan myself, but I understand that it has a huge following.
Production design wasnât ST:TMPâs only problem. Instead of picking up where the television show had left off and getting right into the plot, ST: TMP played up the reunion aspect of the story too much for my taste. As a result, thereâs a lot of wasted time watching Kirk âgetting the band back together.â That along with the lingering love affair it had for its own expensive special effects slowed the movie to a wormholeâs pace. By the time the Enterprise finished a ridiculously long journey through VâGer, I had already started to fade like Charlie Evans being reclaimed by Thasians at the end of âCharlie X.â
The general consensus seems to be that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the bunch. But the drama struck me as a tad forced. This is epitomized by the scene where, in spite of a tactical error, Kirk withstands Khanâs first attack. Afterward the captain comforts a dying crew member. The mortally wounded midshipman leaves a bloody hand print of guilt on Kirkâs redesigned ST2 uniform (theyâre wearing jackets now). It would have been a more emotional moment but for the fact that Kirk encounters the doomed lad only because Scotty, for reasons unknown, decides to carry him up to the bridge instead of straight to sickbay.
As with ST:TMP, the producers of ST:TWOK had to work hard to convince Leonard âI Am Not Spockâ Nimoy to reprise the role of Mr. Spock. Without the lynch pin of the Trek franchise in place, it was felt that many Trekkies would stay home. Nimoy was lured to participate in TWOK by the promise of a juicy death scene. Fairly or not, because news of Spockâs impending death was so well publicized, the drama of the scene was lost on me. Unlike the final teary-eyed shot of Lt. Saavik, a Vulcan officer played by Kirstie Alley, my eyes were as dry as her home planet at the end.
Legend has it that while attending the wrap party for TWOK, jaws dropped like red-shirts on a landing party when Nimoy declared how excited he was to get started on the next Trek adventure.
Whether thatâs a true story or not, Nimoyâs involvement in The Search for Spock probably has a lot to do with my enjoyment of it. He directed and helped to develop the storyline for this third installment. TSFS is not without its flaws and I can understand why many fail to embrace it. But, for me, it has none of the stiffness of the first film nor the banal sentimentality of the second. TWOKâs success had ensured that subsequent Trek films would be oriented to adventure and pyrotechnics as opposed to the more contained morality lessons played out on the small screen. I credit Nimoy for infusing the established Star Trek âaction filmâ template with a number of little moments that, taken as a whole, capture the essence of the series more than any of the other cinematic efforts.
On paper, TSFSâs only purpose is to resolve the seemingly insurmountable plot element of Spockâs death in TWOK. Sure, Star Trek has brought deceased characters back to life before. But generally only seconds after McCoy has declared, âHeâs dead Jim.â And never weeks after the funeral. To its credit, given the heavy lifting that TSFS faced story-wise, it doesnât allow itself to get too too bogged down in technobabble or overplay the mystic elements of the plot. The âGenesis effectâ solution the writers came up with to resurrect Spock is very much grounded in the Trek tradition of pseudo-science. I mean, they could have had a translucent Spock floating around the Enterprise like Obi Wan Kenobi scaring people. Come to think of it, they did kind of do that with Kirk in âThe Tholian Web.â But I digress.
TSFS opens with a damaged Enterprise returning to space dock after the battle with Khan from ST2. Not counted among the casualties, but equally damaged, is a very unstable Dr. McCoy. We find out later that just before entering the enclosed dilithium chamber in TWOK, Spock, anticipating his death and knowing that heâd be segregated from other people, mind-melded with Bones to so that his âkatraâ (living spirit) would have somewhere to go (as opposed to just flying loose into space). In Vulcan dogma, the body and soul have to be laid to rest together. For some reason, at the end of TWOK, instead of returning Spockâs body to Vulcan for burial, they fired it onto the surface of the Genesis planet in a photon torpedo. As it turns out, a byproduct of the terraforming work being done down there somehow reconstitutes Spockâs corpse.
In a bar scene thatâs a little too close to the Star Wars cantina, McCoy, under the influence of Spockâs katra, finds himself arrested for trying to illegally book passage to the Genesis Planet. Later, Kirk is visited by Sarak (Mark Lenard), Spockâs father, who informs him that the only way to cure Bones and save Spockâs immortal soul is to free McCoy from his incarceration, steal the Enterprise, make an illicit trek to the Genesis Planet for Spockâs body, and return with the whole kit and kaboodle to Vulcan. Iâm not sure why it HAD to be the Enterprise, but thatâs the plan. Of course, Kirk enlists his old crewmates, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. As this isnât an official âmission,â theyâre all wearing ridiculous futuristic civilian clothes. (By the looks of it, for TSFS, Barry Manilowâs tailor from ST: TMP was replaced with Princeâs for Purple Rain.)
Meanwhile, a Klingon named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) is hot on the trail of the Genesis device introduced in TWOK. While Federation scientists see it as a way to create life on barren planets, Kruge only sees its WMD potential.
Iâve read complaints that characterize Lloydâs performance as Taxiâs Reverend Jim Ignatowski in Klingon garb. I couldnât disagree more. Both humorous and dangerous, Kruge is one of my favorite Star Trek movie villains. Lloyd picks up where Michael Ansaraâs prototype Klingon, Kang, left off in âDay of the Doveâ and fleshes out the now familiar warrior persona. Until then, the smooth foreheaded, goateed Klingons from the original series were either sinister Bond-like villains (Kor in âErrand of Mercyâ) or sniveling pirates (Kras in âFridayâs Childâ).
Roddenbery had filmed a TV pilot in the mid-seventies called Planet Earth that was set in a post-nuclear future. One of the races left on Earth were warlike mutant humans called the âKreegâ who sported prominent bony ridges running across their bald heads. Roddenbery must have liked the look because he took advantage of ST: TMPâs budget and incorporated it into the Klingon makeup. However, Klingons only make a cameo in TMP and donât show up at all in TWOK. TSFS is the film that establishes them as more than just stock adversaries for the Enterprise to do battle with.
Thereâs a great moment with Kruge in his bird of prey talking via viewscreen to a sexy Klingon female spy named Valkris (ST canât seem to decide if Klingon women are alluring or butt-ugly). Valkris has purchased crucial data on the Genesis device from some mercenaries and, while transferring it from their ship to Krugeâs, inadvertently admits to having read it. They both instantly recognize that this is a fatal error on Valkrisâ part and without hesitation Kruge destroys the mercenary ship with her still aboard. Itâs clear from the context of their interaction that Kruge and Valkris are romantically involved; yet each dutifully resign themselves to do whatâs best for the sake of the Klingon empire.
TSFS may not withstand close scrutiny (none of Trek films really do), but, as I said, Nimoy adds touches to the action yarn that evoke TOS. Lieutenant Uhura, who often functioned only to âopen hailing frequencies,â is given a wonderful moment where, as part of the plan, she gets the best of a bored crewman who had just minutes before complained about the lack of âadventureâ his post offered.
Likewise, Sulu overpowers one of the obnoxious security personnel guarding McCoy by flipping him onto the floor while explaining that he doesnât like to be referred to as âtinyâ (Iâm not sure why Star Fleetâs Security division always seems like an island of fascists in an otherwise benevolent organization).
On the Genesis planet, Lt. Saavik (played this time with appropriate stoicism by Robin Curtis) and Kirkâs son, Dr. David Marcus, locate Spockâs empty coffin. They follow a trail to find a live Vulcan teenager who resembles Spock. As with everything else on the planet, he is undergoing a conveniently expedited maturation process.
The scene in TWOK where Kirk screams âKHAN!â into the communicator is often cited res ipsa loquitur of William Shatnerâs poor acting skills. However, in Shatnerâs defense, he wasnât really playing a rage-filled Kirk there. He was playing Kirk PRETENDING to be filled with rage. In TSFS, Kirkâs son is brutally murdered by a Klingon on the Genesis planet. When Lt. Saavik matter-of-factly informs the captain, Shatner effectively shows Kirkâs breakdown as a mixture of restrained anger appropriately tempered by grief.
Kirk and Kruge engage in a battle of wits that leads up to the Klingon being tricked into beaming most of his crew onto the Enterprise, not realizing that itâs empty and the infamous âself-destructâ process is winding down. Blowing up the Enterprise is an interesting solution for this situation. Intentionally or not, the Star Trek franchise was always ahead of its time in the âviral marketingâ department. Just as news of Spockâs impending death leaked well before the release of TWOK, so had chatter among Trekkies about the loss of the Enterprise. This created a pre-release grassroots buzz for the film. DeForrest Kelly once humorously commented that part of the reason he agreed to make a cameo as an old Dr. McCoy in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was to set a canonical precedent that would make it impossible to kill him off in any of the subsequent films. Clever.
To make a long story short, Kirk and crew, having escaped the exploding Enterprise, end up in a face-off with Kruge on the Genesis planet, which itself is about to disintegrate. Kruge allows McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Saavik to beam up to his ship as prisoners. Kirk stays behind ostensibly to give Kruge the scoop on Genesis. Just to be annoying, Kruge snidely does not allow the new Spock to leave either.
This leads to good old fashioned Star Trek fisticuffs as Kirk and Kruge go mano-a-klingon. Watching the ground crumble and burst into flames under their feet as they battle, I always play the famous fight music riff from the series in my head: âDa da daa daa daa daa daaaaa da da daaa daaa.â
Of course, Kirk is victorious, beams up and gets the drop on whatâs left of the Klingon bird of preyâs crew. They head to Vulcan where TâLar, a Vulcan High Priestess, administers a mystic protocol known as the Fal-tor-pan to remove the katra lodged in McCoy and transplant it into Spockâs body. The process is given too much screen time and comes across as only slightly less silly than the brain surgery scene from a third season Star Trek episode appropriately titled âSpockâs Brain.â It also leaves open the question of why Vulcans donât see the logic in ensuring their own immortality by cloning a stable of waiting bodies to Fal-tor-pan into whenever needed. But, once again, I digress.
While the ritual is successfully completed, itâs not clear if Spock will totally regain his memory. Being led away from his crewmates, Spock stops, turns to look at Kirk and says: âJim. Your name is Jimâ as the original Star Trek theme plays in the background and the old comrades circle together for a group hug. Call me a sentimental softie, but this has always been a bombshell of a moment for me. Just as the cinematic Spock seemed to finally make peace with his own conflicted nature after his encounter with VâGer in ST: TMP, Iâve always viewed Nimoyâs final raised eyebrow after recognizing Kirk and company at the end of The Search for Spock as a personal acknowledgment of his coming to terms with a character that heâd been at war with since the series ended.
Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power
Reiner Holzemerâs adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.3
A major reason behind Maison Martin Margielaâs appeal was the French luxury fashion houseâs embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The companyâs eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway modelsâ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion houseâs clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margielaâs stores lacked signage and werenât listed in the yellow pages.
Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemerâs documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margielaâs narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We donât see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margielaâs face replicates the conceptual framework of the designerâs own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.
That sphere, which allowed for Margielaâs ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered â80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-Ă -vis the fashion industryâs tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margielaâs models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the modelsâ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of modelsâ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.
Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakaoâs shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueenâs ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemerâs documentary makes the case for Margielaâs revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warholâs and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle thatâs guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.
Holzemerâs adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of techniqueâor how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artistâs approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (weâre introduced to Margielaâs childhood midway through the film) and allows us to seeâat the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scĂšneâhow the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakuboâs deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardinâs theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultierâs rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardotâs unflappable femininity.
Holzemer doesnât shy away from exploring Margielaâs commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margielaâs creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margielaâs subversion with Hermesâs aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margielaâs refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.
Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the ânon-partisanâ Americanism of the American Legionâs Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Mossâs Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the programâs participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power donât quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: RenĂ© Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (âIâve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,â he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the programâs 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austinâall clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious missionâtheyâre randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalistsâ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that âyou have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.â
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, âThatâs politicsâŠI think.â Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naĂŻve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance thatâs surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, thereâs a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Stevenâs rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist partyâa concurrent plotline sees RenĂ©, the groupâs chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platformâgets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. Itâs easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowdâs own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scottâs Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scottâs Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a manâs ribcage in one of the most brutal âbirthsâ in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenkoâs Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubankâs Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as itâs entering its death rattle. Itâs cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Pattersonâs The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. Heâs returned from a space mission thatâs vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantinâs vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), whoâs pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor whoâs in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnikâs first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesnât tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creatureâs emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and âreality.â The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that filmâs prequel, Prometheus, as itâs pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnikâs monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesnât seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnikâs wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alienâs symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Leeâs Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantinâs anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnikâs third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the filmâof an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and overâis relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, itâs a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques heâs developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowskyâs full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaudâs Theater of Cruelty, the âlast daysâ of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis BuĂ±uel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isnât magic that letâs you see the future. Itâs only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. Itâs to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When youâre working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, âPaint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.â I will say thatâs an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. Iâm not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. Itâs free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didnât know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didnât speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! Itâs a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or donât we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I donât know if they fought the cancer for years because itâs a big, big business, and they donât want to find the solution. That I donât know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesnât take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, sheâs alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I donât know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, itâs good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I canât find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the âhappening,â improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didnât create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, theyâre an art.
What is art? Itâs open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. Thatâs what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, âProblem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.â I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And thatâs what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with AndrĂ© Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. Itâs a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. Thatâs number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script Iâve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker whoâs really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesnât show, doesnât explain. Itâs the mystery of something you donât understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you donât understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what youâre doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. Thatâs what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. Itâs fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. Itâs complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis BuĂ±uel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but heâs too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, theyâre a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. BuĂ±uelâs show only one point of view. Heâs sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesnât go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesnât make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have BuĂ±uel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesnât give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something thatâs weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I donât remember the names. Iâve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You arenât free with the script. You need to shoot whatâs right there. Because, when youâre free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when youâre shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, âGo find me this drunk woman, because itâs the music I need for that suicide.â And then he will kill himself, but in the image thereâs a real song of a person whoâs really suffering. And itâs fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, âNo.â More poetical, more artisticalâthat is good. Like the tarot, that isnât a business. I know Iâm crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people arenât crazy. Theyâre just using their mind in another way. And itâs very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, âMaybe we can make a picture.â But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didnât have the money, I didnât do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what youâre shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isnât fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because itâs the totality. Searching the totality of expression, thatâs what we did. It wasnât a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesnât exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called âhappeningsâ in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say thatâs accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didnât use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, thatâs all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didnât want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You arenât a butcher. Youâre creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think thereâs something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that RenĂ© Daumalâs novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love RenĂ© Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a âcounter-surrealistâ journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didnât want to give me the rights. I said, âWell, I will make my own Holy Mountain!â What I directed depicts Daumalâs book. Itâs a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? âBecause there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.â No, I will go, because itâs beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. âNo! I donât want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!â I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasnât as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
Weâre making a picture. Itâs not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! Iâm not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didnât have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. Itâs a kind of literature, but at the same time youâre reading, Iâm giving you exercises. Itâs mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when youâre not intellect. What is in you? You donât need to take LSD. You donât need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetzâs She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this yearâs SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, âIâm going to die tomorrow.â
That She Dies Tomorrow doesnât buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. Sheâs capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
Itâs merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. Sheâs equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that itâs such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didnât like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, âOh, no, youâre mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.â Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which isâŠnot the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about myâI hate to say itââprocessâ in a truthful manner at a certain point, and thatâs how I would [do it]. Thatâs probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, thatâs all thatâs all Amyâs writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesnât seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesnât really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion thatâs so visceral and unique?
Itâs Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set whereâI donât want to say itâs not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasnât doing as good a job as I could. I didnât want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. Weâve known each other for such a long time, and weâve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. Sheâs not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if Iâm not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] âOkay, thatâs what Iâm supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasnât much of the âgo with the flow, weâll just find it in the moment.â Thereâs a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But thatâs not to say that she doesnât give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Donât Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Donât Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if youâre shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. Thatâs my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Donât Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didnât want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, youâre shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then sheâs like, âOkay, youâre just gonna be sitting because you canât do anything.â
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where youâre brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think itâs very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. Itâs so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so itâs more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that youâre probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, thereâs something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and itâs not your old, close friends. Thereâs something nice about both.
Whatâs the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kimâs Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
Iâm so close to it that itâs hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. Itâs where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadnât existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I donât think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And itâs nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. Thatâs a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word âprocessâ earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve âunlearningâ any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like itâs all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, youâre trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isnât anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the cameraâs your audience. I havenât acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, âYou know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!â But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, âI was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.â You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to âunderstandâ the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think itâs important to make it make sense for you, but I donât think itâs important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But itâs always very important for me to know what Iâm doing to understand where, in particular, Iâm coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me thatâs how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [thatâs what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
Iâm always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, itâs often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I canât get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying âIâm going to die tomorrowâ like all the characters.
Weâre obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that theyâve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe thatâs the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
Itâs been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming heâs been in the business much longer given all that heâs accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogenâs on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasnât, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Maxâs first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogenâs own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickleâs release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that Iâm older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that itâs almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how itâs going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, thatâs a good lesson in that! Thereâs people on the set of the worst movie youâve ever seen who think theyâre making a masterpiece, and thereâs people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no oneâs going to watch or see it everâand even if they do, theyâll hate it. Itâs not uncontrollable, but itâs hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, Iâm glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really donât know whatâs going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel thereâs an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think itâs definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
Thereâs such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wifeâs mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. Iâve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
Youâve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
Iâm definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one thatâs on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isnât what I would do, always, but Iâm not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. Itâs not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasnât expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. Itâs an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences Iâve had in a theater, I donât think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw Thereâs Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear whatâs happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance youâd do a This Is the End sequel? Itâs a movie Iâve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnettâs The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And itâs clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the bookâs darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girlâs confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novelâs thematic borders by having multiple charactersâincluding Craven, whoâs still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)âface a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnettâs book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Cravenâs wife and Colinâs mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Maryâs plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; itâs but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to peopleâs feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, itâs been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnettâs story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colinâs friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Maryâs sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the gardenâs mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isnât necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowskyâs work.3
Alejandro Jodorowskyâs first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)âsome of them are couplesâto describe the therapyâs impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowskyâs earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off oneâs old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls âinitiatic massage,â a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his âgrave,â and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then heâs dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, thereâs a section given over to âsocial psychomagic,â ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as âthe Walk of the Dead,â a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesnât make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. Itâs never entirely clear whether or not sheâs cured, but 10 years later, sheâs still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The âexperimentâ merely âopened a doorâ for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowskyâs compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskoueiâs documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskoueiâs Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentaryâs reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girlsâ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflectionâuntil we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskoueiâs line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether heâs asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskoueiâs second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmannâs approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimerâs harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakersâ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, weâre already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girlsâ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girlsâ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member theyâve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girlsâ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesnât try to dress up the scenario that links themâpatriarchy as an interminable metastasisâwith forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girlsâ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their motherâs execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scĂšne in this context feels like an affront.
Itâs refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, âIs killing difficult?â To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, âAt the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.â
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesnât deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. Itâs only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinicâs radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georginaâs degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina LeĂłnâs feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if itâs been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy PĂĄrraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as heâs reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that LeĂłn is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on peopleâs faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The filmâs backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
LeĂłn depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol HernĂĄndez), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles thatâs only made more prominent by the cameraâs distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedroâs investigation seem to fall into place. LeĂłn channels Georginaâs devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy PĂĄrraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol HernĂĄndez, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina LeĂłn Screenwriter: Melina LeĂłn, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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