I. Spreading the Word
I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think heâs too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, âWe know what heâs saying, but we canât figure out how heâs saying itâ). Heâll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think youâve got him, whereby heâll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharekâs description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (âOh, yeah, just one more questionâŠâ). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.
Language, more than I realized at first, plays a crucial role in The Last Temptation of Christ, which premiered 25 years ago on August 12, 1988 (incidentally, right around the same time my father helped me load up a U-Haul for my freshman year at college). Actually, it may be more accurate to say words play the same role in Last Temptation as they do in Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, right down to the controversial contemporary elocution, which, to me, even on first viewing, emphasized the point that the characters, as far as words are concerned, are forever fumbling for them. Unlike the Christ of the Bible and prior Christs of cinema, the Jesus in Last Temptation begins his mission tongue-tied. His Sermon on the Mount is painfully awkward: âIâm sorry,â is his unpromising start. Still he trudges forth, convinced that God will do the talking for him. He tells a story (âThe Parable of the Farmerâ) that concludes with the moral that love is the answer to societyâs ills. Many in his initial audience remain skeptical, even hostile, yet gradually he gains a few followers. They find him persuasive. I found him moving.
Seeing Last Temptation at the age of 18 appealed to both the still-evolving movie buff and would-be rebel in me: What occurred onscreen was heady stuff, and what was fomenting offscreen made crossing a mild-mannered picket line feel like taking a bold stand (for more harrowing examples of the controversy surrounding the filmâs release, see David Ehrensteinâs excellent Criterion essay. Back in the 1980s, reading Roger Ebertâs unwavering enthusiasm for Scorseseâs workâan exception, ironically, being his previous film, The Color of Money, whose success helped get Last Temptation green-lit after prior false startsâconvinced me at that I knew more about his movies than I did. Certain portions of the general public, however, knew nothing. As often happens when thoughtful reflection squares off with dead-certain hostility, the collective rhetoric by opponents of Last Temptation was so extreme that it obscured what the movie itself was trying to say.
II. The Valley of the Sun
My father, an agnostic (I suppose, although heâs never used the word), and my mother, a privately devout refugee from an evangelical church, raised me in the urban desert of Arizona. âGod is not alone out there,â Jesus is warned in Last Temptation, before venturing forth to confront his demons in the badlands. And the same was true about Phoenix: If Satan wasnât around, there was certainly no shortage of his incompetent minions. One summer day our next-door neighbor, a strutting mailman named Paul, sauntered over to challenge us on an irrigation dispute. My father sidestepped a punch and gently squeezed his bigger, heavier assailant into a headlock below his knees (the mailmanâs wifeâs indelible reply was, âPaul doesnât want to hurt youâŠ.â).
My upbringing was largely secular, with occasional forays into Sunday school. Once we attended a church-sponsored musical where eternally-damned sinners snapped their fingers and sang, âItâs hot in the furnace, manâŠâ a catchy ditty that had the effect of making Hell look like a groovy place. Yet it wasnât until the sixth grade when my parentsâfor educational reasons more than spiritual onesâtransferred me from a local public school to Ss. Simon and Jude, an academically respectable Catholic elementary, that I began to encounter religious belief on a more regular and, frankly, more interesting and thought-provoking basis. Having that experience prepped me for viewing films like Last Temptationânot with an open mind so much as an active one.
I wonât guess what the nuns who taught me at Ss. S&J went on to think of Scorseseâs movie, if they ever saw it, or Kazantzakisâs original novel, if they ever read it. But they practiced the kind of belief that I admired about both film and book, engaging intellectually in spiritual endeavors and spiritually in intellectual endeavors (Kael was stirred by Scorseseâs âpassionate thrashing aroundâ as well). I saw Last Temptation years before I read it, and having seen the movie a few more times since, I now recall the dialogue being more in synch with the images: Jesus stalked by an invisible entity who pins him to the ground (âWho are you? What do you want?â), his encounter with AndrĂ© Gregoryâs fire-and-brimstone John the Baptist (âHe sounds like the Messiah,â Judas notes), Pilateâs reasoning behind Jesusâs death sentence (âItâs one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, what they feelâ), Lazarusâs pithy description of the afterlife (âI was a little surprised. There wasnât that much differenceâ), and the print-the-legend justifications of the Apostle Paulânot to be confused with the Mailmanâfor preferring the Divine Christ to the mortal version (âYou know, Iâm glad I met you, because now I can forget all about youâ).
Although most Christians are baptized very young, Jesus, according to Scripture and the Apocrypha on which Kazantzakis based his book, wasnât officially blessed until he was 30. I, on the other hand, was between infancy and adulthoodâ12 years old in the spring of 1982âwhen the Sisters at my new school gently pushed to save my soul. My parents, wanting me to fit in, agreed. I wish I could say I thought long and hard about such a weighty matter. In Last Temptation, Jesusâs request to be baptized feels meaningful. I suspect my reaction was more along the lines of, âSure, what the hellâŠwhy not?â
In Scorseseâs depiction, Jesus arrives at the Jordan River among other seekers of The Baptist, some of them naked and caterwauling. The soundtrack goes memorably silent during this sequence (My Baptism with Andre), leaving audible only the dialogue between Jesus and John (after Gregory pours a handful of water down Willem Dafoeâs face, the surrounding din returns). My own christening, somewhat more subdued, took place at Ss. Simon and Jude Church. An older student in my motherâs art class, whom I knew as âMr. Boylan,â agreed to be my godfather. Mr. Boylan, whose first name was John, was a retiree-turned-aspiring-actor who had once given me a shard of breakaway-glass from an episode of The Fall Guy, on which he had been an extra (John Boylan would go on to play Mayor Milford on Twin Peaks, and the elevator man who takes Meg Ryan to the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle). It was a lovely ceremony. My peers wrote heartfelt well-wishes that were collected in a scrapbook. I tried to be heartfelt as well in my commitment. I wasnât cynical about religious belief. Deep down, I think I just wasnât feeling the devotion. At best, I gave faith a whirl.
Unsurprisingly, I wasnât a very good Catholic. Over the years I have acquired plenty of more dedicated friends, including a gregarious ex-seminarian who, whenever a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties knocked on his door to talk about God and Jesus and salvation, would invite them inside for a friendly debate over spiritual matters. I hadnât the patience for even the fundamentals of faith. My church attendance was erratic; my confessions unforthcoming. Nevertheless, I stayed in Catholic schools all the way through college. And it was at Marquette University, in the early fall semester of 1988, where I was able to see Last Temptation.
III. The Good Land
That Marquette is a Jesuit institution may suggest to some an unflinching rigidity, and admittedly, at times, that quality was there. Eight years and two degrees later, I still felt, in essence, like an outsider. Yet the atmosphere could be open in surprising ways. I hadnât a prayer of seeing the movie in Nashville, where I had just graduated from high school. And even if by some miracle a print of Last Temptation had been smuggled into the state (as The Simpsons taught us, âTennesseeinâ is Tennebelievinââ), I likely would have had to go it alone. Earlier that summer Iâd been accused of enjoying âinnerlectual movies,â after I coerced a couple of pals into seeing Daniel Petrie Jr.âs playful romantic thriller The Big Easy instead of their choice, Disorderlies, starring the Fat Boys (if my friends were indifferent to the celebrated Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin sex scene, I can only imagine their bewilderment toward Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hersheyâs hallucinatory fornication). Marquette was in Milwaukee, the northernmost city I have yet to inhabit, in a state that had been home to the likes of Hank Aaron, Fighting Bob La Follette, and Peter Bonerz (not to mention Joe McCarthy, Kato Keilin, and, living only six blocks from campus when I was there, Jeffrey Dahmer). Nationwide, however, the release of Last Temptation was in such doubt I wasnât optimistic about my chances anywhere, even in the region whose Algonquin heritage Alice Cooper spoke of so fondly.
As it happened, though, a few weeks into the fall semester, Last Temptation was scheduled to play at Milwaukeeâs Downer Theater ,beginning on Friday, Sept. 23, 1988, and for that weekend a bus had been arranged to take anyone from campus who wanted to see it. I donât know the reason behind the field trip other than that, possibly, the organizers (who were MU faculty) were as curious as I was. I hopped on the bus with maybe 20 other students, and it dropped us off in front of the theater. We wended our way through an outnumbered dozen or so protesters, who wielded signs but didnât hassle us. Inside, we joined an at-capacity audience and watched the movie.
Apparently, that sell-out crowd wasnât a fluke. Thomas R. Lindlofâs Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars reports that Last Temptation âwas extraordinarily popular in its two-month runâ at the Downer, âthe cumulative total of more than 20,000 moviegoers breaking the house recordâ (Lindlof adds that the film appeared in the deep South after all, most prominently in Atlanta, âsneaking into town like a thief in the nightâ). Still, the success of the movie in limited release shouldnât obscure the fact that that release remains limited to this day. The movie endures. But, to a degree, so does the impact of the rhetoric.
IV. Grace Notes and Rough Edges
I admired the movie despite a few awkward passagesâor, rather, I found the awkwardness oddly admirable, with lyrical images caught seemingly on the fly (consider the haunting expression on Harvey Keitelâs face when Judas witnesses Jesus restoring the slaveâs ear during his arrest at Gethsemane). My only serious debate about Last Temptation occurred the following summer with a sneering friend back in Nashville. He hadnât seen the film and didnât seem to hold any moral objection against it, but he claimed that Siskel and Ebert hated it and therefore it must be lousy. He was thinking of Lyons and Medved. Both Siskel & Ebert & the Movies and Sneak Previews aired the same clip, wherein Jesus confronts the moneychangers in the Temple (culminating with a striking image of coins tossed in the air), as evidence that the movie was, depending on your viewpoint, a masterpiece or an atrocity.
Last Temptation remained divisive enough that I was unable to rent it from Blockbuster, and I didnât see any part of the film again until Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebertâs 1997 extended conversation of the directorâs career at The Ohio State University in Columbus (transcribed in Scorsese by Ebert). I had invited my father to attend. Based on the comments from a group seated behind us, the audience was comprised of a significant portion of mucky-mucks who were there to honor Scorsese (that yearâs recipient of the Wexner Prize) without having more than the dimmest idea who he was. After the event, the audience shuffled out quieter than when they entered.
Ebert presented a barrage of the bloodiest scenes from Scorseseâs movies to much squirming and discomfort among the crowd, and a woman sitting a few rows to our right fainted during Last Temptationâs crucifixion sequence, when the camera arcs around Willem Dafoe as he shouts, âWhy have you forsaken me?â (She recovered.) My father, who had yet to see the film in its entirety, had no discernible reaction. For me, it remained a powerful moment. And I canât help but suspect that, if Scorsese had worked with the originally approved, larger budget, and if Last Temptation had been more polished, like much of his later work (which is too polished, at times, if you ask me), the end result would have been less powerful than it is.
V. Every Day a Different Plan
This story (âThe Parable of the Knock at the Doorâ) will sound apocryphal. But I swear it is true. My father, as you may have gathered, doesnât suffer fools. Using words for weapons, I have seen him eviscerate plenty of adversaries over the years. He and I have had our share of skirmishes as well. Sometimes, in conflict, he can be hilariously wry; at other times, frighteningly explosive (âItâs hot in the furnace, manâŠ.â). This is why I wonder sometimes if I respond to Keitelâs Judas in Last Temptation not only on account of the actorâs performance, or the characterâs conception (immeasurably more interesting as the only disciple strong enough to betray Jesus, rather than a stock villain motivated by petty avarice), but because this Judas, unlike any other on screen before or since, feels intimately familiarâquick to both ire and sentiment, set in a particular system of belief, frustrated whenever plans change unexpectedly, yet always striving to understand.
A few years after seeing Scorsese at OSU, I watched Last Temptation with both of my parents, when I managed to snag a DVD from a privately-owned video store in Columbus. An intense theological discussion followed. By âintenseâ I mean riotous, and by âtheologicalâ I mean my father twisting brilliantly insightful knots into the notion of Christ (âOh, yeah, just one more question, about that time he pulled his heart outâŠ.â). It wasnât quite along the lines of Rowan Atkinsonâs âIn the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigotâ from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but suffice to say he had us in stitches. Iâm not sure if he liked the movie or not, but it seemed to have intrigued him. My mother started cobbling together a shopping list during the climactic 40-minute dream sequence but liked everything up to that; the ex-evangelical in her appreciated the film for trying to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The three of us talked in the living room for a while before arriving at our respective summations.
âI donât believe in God,â my father announced.
âI donât believe in God either,â I declared.
âI donât know if I believe in God or not,â my mother opined. Even though, of course, she did. On cue, at that moment, there was a knock at the door. My father rose from the couch and opened it to a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties. They were very polite. They had come to save us.
Sometimes I wish I had that much faith. But the truth is I need to see things in order to believe in them. In terms of eternity, Iâm neither enticed by metaphorical carrots nor threatened by figurative sticks. âThe Wordâ alone has never convinced me, regardless of who delivers it. So whenever I have sought transcendence, Iâve gone to the movies. And every now and thenâlike in the final scene of Last Temptation, when the ineffable âis accomplishedâ and Christâs resurrection implied by the filmâs refusal to depict itâthey deliver. Yet, in the real world, when I have been in pain, when I have felt alone or let down, when âThe Planâ (if there ever is one) has changed so often that none of the divergent paths seem to matter, Iâve been left with the nagging sensation that movies arenât enough. When the final image in Last Temptation turns overexposed, when we are reminded that we are watching only a movie, perhaps even Scorsese is suggesting he senses this too.
Consequently I have come to find myself longing for grace without ever expecting it. So after those nice young men finished their sales-pitch about God and Jesus and salvation, I braced myself for the inevitable. My father hates unwanted visitors. He would put them in their place. First, he would yell at them. And then he would slam the door. And then he would rage about the encounter for a long time afterwards. And thenâ
âThank you, but weâre not interested. Have a nice day.â
He said it with love.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this yearâs recipient of the festivalâs Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japanâs cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugamiâs feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her motherâs death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoaâs father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, whoâs isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, itâs almost as if sheâs destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos sheâs been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: âYou wouldnât understand, youâre rich, you wouldnât know. Will you pay for my expenses?â In this moment, Kitaiâs triumph is making her characterâs wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star ShĆta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot theyâve been handed in life. The protagonistâs attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonistâs co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the menâs lives. Thereâs redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyakeâs style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyoneâs slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that sheâs going to regret her purchase. Miyakeâs gaze is empathetic, and thereâs truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayamaâs satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style cafĂ© that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesnât fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system heâs trapped within.
The filmâs style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere thatâs in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and itâs satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that itâs difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19â28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesnât have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. Itâs difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what heâs put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musicianâs brain, A.J. Eatonâs David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosbyâs productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Thereâs no effort made to hide Crosbyâs thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosbyâs bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges heâs permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how âinsufferableâ Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that heâs only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesnât have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losierâs empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isnât just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. Itâs also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandroâs textile-informed camp isnât compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scĂšne. Instead, this exĂłtico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, nĂ© SaĂșl ArmendĂĄriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the insideâa world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are allâto various degrees of visible and invisible discomfortâstitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandroâs body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldnât be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the directorâs empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandroâs wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandroâs misery, Losierâs response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, âI wish I could give you a kiss.â It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose peopleâs troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losierâs visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandroâs frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that itâs precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter âcomicâs comicâ who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, âWTF,â and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a âcomic who actsâ into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the filmâs director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the âmind-fuckeryâ currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that youâve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, Iâm generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I donât know if thereâs a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors whoâre hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because Iâm certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and thereâs subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldnât have the confidence to assume that my take is the ârightâ one necessarily.
Thereâs a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that Iâm not sure weâve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynnâs character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy whoâs sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I donât know if itâs heartache, but heâs definitely a broken dude whoâs making the best of whatever time he has left. I donât know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Melâs appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. Heâs not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that youâre talking about. With acting I feel that Iâve been learning on the job in a way, and over time Iâve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether itâs a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, Iâve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with whatâs around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. Itâs about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since Iâve started acting more, Iâve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that Iâve talked to so many of them, Iâve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, thatâŠwhatâs the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, âWell, thatâs how theyâre approaching this job,â and when you get into the ring or the scene, youâre in it.
That inside knowledge gives âWTFâ an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I donât think I ever set out to interview. Iâve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they donât. Thereâs a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally donât see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I donât have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I donât have to answer to anybody and I donât know what Iâm looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge Iâve found with interviews is that one doesnât always entirely know what is and isnât in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know Iâm not necessarily intuitive about that. Iâm not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesnât really matter what theyâre talking about. Audiences will say, âOh, wow, I didnât know that.â These conversations donât require information, but an emotional connection. Iâm so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isnât civil and thereâs a momentum to everything thatâs based on mind-fuckery. I know for myselfâas somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a differenceâthat people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. Itâs not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what weâre telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information thatâs being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesnât take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. Itâs sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that Iâm having. Iâm trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. Itâs called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someoneâs that personally invested in something they believe in, and itâs righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, thatâs what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone whoâs long been in recovery, to play characters whoâre either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously thereâs the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didnât happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and youâve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life thatâs not in the throes of itâI mean, itâs such a common struggle. And whatâs amazing to me is how many people donât find a way out of that or donât seek help. Or are ashamed of it or donât know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but Iâm thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people whoâre isolated by this sickness. Itâs really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people whoâre struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what Iâve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context thatâs very specificâa way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bellâs Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subjectâs entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bellâs Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vĂ©ritĂ© portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that theyâre seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that theyâre desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects canât afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasnât been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwiseâs most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. âTiny,â lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughterâs prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erinâs ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. Itâs little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakersâ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these childrenâs circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture thatâs familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what weâre seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man whoâs obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCallâs attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this fatherâs love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise thatâs been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her childrenâs own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erinâs need for atonement. Though Erinâs gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Santâs My Own Private Idaho and Larryâs Clarkâs Kids. Set predominantly in Erinâs home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subjectâs entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman whoâs used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every characterâs contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family thatâs plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home thatâs rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Judeâs I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Judeâs film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the eraâs supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsionâand, if necessary, genocideâof the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, âI do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.â Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romaniaâs currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nationâs collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae CeauÈescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescuâs 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescuâs rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Judeâs protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the filmâs distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. Thereâs an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirrorâs comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversationsâmostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actorsâ movementsâin which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is MovilÄ (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her workâs unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. MovilÄ is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Judeâs dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. Thatâs thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Judeâs dense screenplay. Iacob captures Marianaâs unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that sheâs a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Judeâs heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isnât attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Marianaâs relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the filmâs climactic presentation of the artistâs reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isnât clear that itâs actually any more ârealâ than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookersâ reactions are coached remains one of the filmâs most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the publicâs response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nationâs historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the countryâs unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the filmâs conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldnât make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Sheltonâs wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trustâs opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like theyâre paratrooping into her charactersâ lives.
Last year on Marc Maronâs podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldnât normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I canât remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think thereâs eight. I know Iâm not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think Iâm pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. Iâve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I donât like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. Iâm interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but weâre constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, Iâm much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because itâs not a prewritten script weâre handed. Itâs not like, âThis is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box weâve already determined for you.â Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living oneâs life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of âthis is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that planââthat feels very depressing to me. Itâs more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marcâs on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer âpersonaâ having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. Heâs raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and heâs looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. Thatâs why heâs such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And thatâs all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesnât know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, âThe next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.â I said, âWhat?! That cameraâs right there!â Heâs like, âI donât see it. Iâm not aware of it. Iâm just in this scene with the person.â Iâm like, âThat is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that youâre able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.â Heâs really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set heâs drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but theyâre often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who Iâve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then thereâs other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I havenât done since Your Sisterâs Sister. Iâve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laughâand let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which Iâve never let myself do before. Iâve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, âWhat if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?â I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didnât make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what weâre dealing with in society. Weâre having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. Theyâve always been around, but this is definitely where theyâve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, itâs usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, thereâs this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike OâBrien, my co-writer. Itâs so fascinating because thereâs little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, theyâre at odds and frenemies for life. Itâs insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? Thereâs a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like âumâ or âyou know.â
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. Iâll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. Youâll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if Iâm cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, itâs often because Iâm slicing out an âumâ or an âahâ or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. Itâs incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cutâit didnât feel fat, it was funny throughoutâwas two and a half hours long. I was like, âHow am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?â And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, âThis is hysterical, this is gold, but itâs not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but letâs just hone it down to Melâs emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.â We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasnât. When Mike OâBrien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Melâs arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldnât figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasnât comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasnât going to worry about it. I wasnât going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didnât realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
Youâve described your writing process as being âupside-down,â where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what Iâm doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. Youâre out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. Youâre at scene 35 on the first day and like, âWhatâs happened before this? Where am I emotionally?â And then youâve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless youâre Meryl Streep! But if youâre not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, âWhat if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work withâŠâ That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, âWhat am I watching? Am I in these peopleâs lives?â And people have said theyâve had that experience where theyâll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what theyâre watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, âYes! Thatâs what I meant.â
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. Iâll bring in a few lights. I had said, âNo lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, thatâs it.â I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because itâs half them or three-quarters them and theyâve developed it with meâŠI want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sisterâs Sister in the theater, but I didnât feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
Itâs funny because I want my movies to feel like youâre paratrooping into somebodyâs life. Weâre taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I donât like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that theyâre continuing to live their lives, and who knows whatâs going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, thereâs a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bellâs character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, âWhat a strange experience.â Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! Itâs all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. Iâve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel likeâŠyou couldnât write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harveyâs Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile neâer-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man whoâs just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The manâs gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nickâs father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nickâs recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloanâs thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latterâs home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crewâs last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, thereâs just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. Thereâs one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: StĂ©phane BrizĂ©âs At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of Franceâs Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the countryâs ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with âmoral harassmentâ after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, itâs evident that whatâs simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. Itâs a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, StĂ©phane BrizĂ©âs labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to BrizĂ©âs prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where heâs eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindonâs Laurent AmĂ©dĂ©o is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindonâs stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegrationâleveraged by outside pressureâas the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, itâs always clear whoâs right and whoâs wrong, which material interests each is representing, and whoâs lying and whoâs telling the truth.
This didnât have to be the case, as proven by David Franceâs procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, BrizĂ©âs film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. Thereâs a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesnât justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold faĂ§ade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loachâs recent Palme dâOr winner I, Daniel Blake, itâs a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: StĂ©phane BrizĂ© Screenwriter: StĂ©phane BrizĂ©, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felittaâs film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felittaâs Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though thereâs never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. Heâs initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isnât without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichĂ©s.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angelaâs reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isnât poignant either, as the characters havenât been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonnyâs own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta mightâve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. Thereâs truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the filmâs construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, SofĂa Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik GarcĂa-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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