In his 1970 essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” postmodern author William H. Gass broke down the character Mr. Cashmore from Henry James’s The Awkward Age into a series of ideas: a noise, a name, an instrument, “a source of verbal energy.” Without denying the importance of character, Gass opines that all characters in fiction are, at their core, just a series of words.
For Dario Argento, character is just a series of images. Think of that complex opening murder from his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, with its shards of broken stained glass and wire noose, that throbbing pink heart being stabbed repeatedly, and those faces contorted into agonized death grimaces. The sequence is operatic, nonsensical, and absolutely glorious. If the two victims aren’t important it’s because all that matters in the film is the manner of their death; the women are simply vessels waiting for their blood to spill. Argento’s lurid, unbridled vision takes purposeful leniency with the rules and regulations of reality. His film is strange and ungoverned by the rules of logic, a fantasy of super-saturated variegation and ludicrously exaggerated violence set to a prog-rock score that’s as apt for murder as it is for dancing.
By comparison, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Argento’s film is silly and self-serious, a funereal pseudo-realist drama about political upheaval and the violence of systems that’s at odds with itself. The new Suspiria has little of the restraint that made Guadagnino’s prior Call Me by Your Name so poignant, and all the immoderation of a passion project. It’s the kind of astoundingly bad movie only a great filmmaker can make: bloated, confoundingly sloppy, unwaveringly self-assured yet rife with indecision, a mélange of showy indulgences that an editor should have flensed during post-production.
The film’s chutzpah is admirable—few remakes have ever strived so hard to establish an identity unique from their progenitor—and Guadagnino’s prowess is still obvious. Certain sequences possess a potent allure, beguiling in their meanness, such as an early dance sequence that uses complex intercutting and choreography—not to mention the sounds of bones snapping, skin splitting, and bodily fluids spilling—to suggest the possibilities of one character’s untapped powers. It’s a vicious and imaginative depiction of bodily suffering, and an unrepentant display of directorial prowess, as well as of Guadagnino’s fascination with the corporeal and spiritual experiences of the human body, the limitations of physicality, how one person’s body can affect another’s. But this Suspiria is, from its frazzled opening moments to its incongruous, blood-doused climax, frustratingly shambolic.
The film takes place in Berlin, during the so-called German Autumn of 1977. Stories of the Red Army Faction and the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking play on televisions, adorn the front pages of newspapers, and spill like poison from speakers across the city. From the brume of a smoke bomb emerges a young girl, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). She pounds ferociously at the door of her psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, credited as Lutz Ebersdorf, in a bit of stunt casting), who lets her in and listens as she rambles about witches and conspiracies at her dance company. “They’ll hollow me out and have my cunt on a plate,” she says, before disappearing into the night. Klemperer, who’s given his own subplot about a wife who went missing during the Holocaust, and who comes to represent the indelible, ineffaceable atrocities of the past, embarks on a quest to get to the bottom of Patricia’s story.
Klemperer becomes something of a sleuth, and quite a deft one, probing his patient’s disconcerting claims by speaking to her classmates at the Markos Dance Academy. As he waits outside the school, veiled by snow, the old man suggests a portent of the past and its refusal to disappear. His unwavering efforts stem, at least in part, from a lamentable period in his past, namely from the losses he suffered during the war. The man seeks closure, but he is, more than anything, a distracting and obvious thematic device for the film’s political ideas, at once obvious and obfuscated, and his prominence in the narrative becomes irksome. In a story about feminine ferocity and the malfeasances of post-war society, Klemperer’s exposition-laden investigation interrupts the hypnotic aura for which Guadagnino is striving. The man and his miserable history—too obviously reflecting the misery of history in general—feel like extraneous elements in an already busy film.
Susie (Dakota Johnson), a preternaturally talented dancer from a Mennonite family in Ohio, arrives at the Markos Dance Academy, where she immediately impresses Madame Blanc (also Swinton) and becomes an object of desire for the witches who lord over the academy, and who seek to find a young woman such as Susie as a vessel for their ailing “mother.” Swinton, who gave one of her most emotionally nuanced performances as a mostly mute rock star in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, has much more fun as Klemperer than she does as Madame Blanc. As the teacher-slash-witch, she’s all concerned stares—a stoical pedagogue who never seems particularly insidious or dangerous. In general, the witchcraft in the film isn’t very prominent, or interesting, as Guadagnino seems more intrigued by the political tumult of the coven, their election process, and the schism between those who want Madame Blanc to assume command and those who support the old and quite unwell Helena Markos (also Swinton), than he does in magic or mystery.
Suspiria is a largely befuddling accumulation of shots and sounds that never coalesce. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who also shot Call Me by Your Name, make proficient use of the zoom, and move the camera often, as if stasis makes them uneasy. Each movement, each pan and push, is carefully choreographed, with subjects situated in precisely the right part of the frame, the scenery of the negative space enfolding them.
But the relationship between shots is rarely meaningful or considered, and the editing perfunctory. And this sense of disarray and fallaciousness extends to the music. Thom Yorke’s score, eerie and more discordant than his previous solo efforts but laced with his usual malaise and paranoia, bears little resemblance to Goblin’s beloved theme music for the original film. (“Suspiria,” with its whispers of “witch!” and infectious arpeggio motif, has become something of a theme for Argento himself.) Any attempt to emulate Goblin’s score would have been boring and lazy, and while Yorke uses a flotilla of digital notes and the occasional burst of curious drums to create the sound of sinister hypnosis, the vocal tracks have an odd, other-ly feeling, disconnected, like they don’t belong with the images they accompany.
This Suspiria is all the more vexing because there are shades of brilliance here, and because Guadagnino is so obviously a talented artist who wanted so badly to make a Great Film but fell victim to his own enthusiasm. There’s a pivotal shot—unshowy and imbued with uncertainty and ineffable anxiety—in Call Me by Your Name that concisely represents Guadagnino’s strengths as a filmmaker. Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver walk around a WWII monument situated in an Italian town’s piazza. They speak laconically, their words pregnant with unspoken meaning as the camera moves with an unfussy sense of control. This is the moment when Elio confesses, without really saying anything, that he’s in love with Oliver. Here, Guadagnino uses an unbroken take to keep us entrenched in an ontological moment, so that the badinage, the gradual revelation of spurious words, the sober reactions are all captured in unfeigned real time. Conversely, his Suspiria feels chicanerous, at once rushed and sedate. It’s a film of forced momentum, dawdling in moments but lacking the patience to really luxuriate in their rhythm.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper Director: Luca Guadagnino Screenwriter: David Kajganich Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 152 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child
The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.1.5
Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.
Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.
Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.
Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.
Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Iron Orchard Punishingly Leans into Nostalgia
Director Ty Roberts’s film is unable to realize that its subject matter is that of a horror story.1.5
Ty Roberts’s The Iron Orchard opens with—and often returns to—shots of the sun glinting behind rusty oil rigs on the dusty plains of West Texas. The film hallows the region’s mechanical “orchards,” collapsing the extraction of oil via industrialized labor into the agrarian notion of “working the land.” These montages of dormant rigs, used whenever the film otherwise lacks a coherent transition between scenes, fit into this representational schema: The rigs seem almost natural components of the landscape, as solid and eternal as trees. Though the film is set in the mid-20th century, its title-card preface proudly proclaims that the oil fields of West Texas’s Permian Basin “are still active today.”
If that phrase doesn’t fill you will utter dread, you’re either the mysterious target audience or one of the makers of The Iron Orchard, a film unable to realize its subject matter as that of a horror story. The simultaneously bland and detestable protagonist of Roberts’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison), is a poster boy for mid-century toxic masculinity, a macho oil tycoon who thrusts audiences into the Anthropocene epoch because a girl rejected him. In McNeely, the film honors the ambition of a “slave” (to which he compares himself) whose deepest desire is to become one of the brutal masters. It styles as heroic both his early brutal assault of a co-worker with a baseball bat and his later jovial projection to a business partner that “maybe someday I’ll need some good, cheap labor.”
Laying twangy plucked guitar chords beneath crane shots of McNeely cruising through Texas highways in vintage vehicles (too pristine to be anything but collectors’ items, circa 2018), The Iron Orchard leans into nostalgia, assuming we’ll mistake the world that McNeely’s building as belonging to anyone but him and his bros. He lands in West Texas in 1938 as a laborer for the Bison Oil Company, after the family of his well-to-do Fort Worth girlfriend, Mazie (Hassie Harrison), tells him to make something of himself. In the film’s first act, whenever a motivation for McNeely’s bald arrogance and arbitrary petulance is lacking, The Iron Orchard flashes back to overexposed images of this painful rejection. Later, when McNeely is happily married to Lee (Ali Cobrin) and managing his own oil fields, the flashbacks are suddenly of his being bullied in school, as the film scrambles to find new excuses for his autocratic behavior.
While still working Bison’s fields, McNeely seduces the married Lee, in a series of scenes that should—given that the film’s thin dramatic arc will concern the ups and downs in their marriage—firmly establish their chemistry and mutual attraction. Instead, their romance consists of car rides peppered with superficial small talk-isms, whose quiet moments feel less pregnant with bourgeoning affection and more like awkward silences between two actors waiting for their next line. Appropriately, the finale to this courtship is an uncomfortable scene in which McNeely makes a move on Lee in her car, only to be shoved away as Lee voices her discomfort. This discomfiting scene is the last featuring both characters before, a few minutes later, McNeely declares: “I did it. I married her.”
McNeely puts Lee through the emotional wringer in typical great-man fashion, encountering Mazie again in polite society just as he’s beginning to indulge in the excesses of oil-tycoon life. The film’s narrative trajectory from this point is obvious, but Roberts and co-screenwriter Gerry De Leon fail to establish any true stakes throughout: Lee and McNeely’s romance is unconvincing from the start so it’s hard to feel anything when she discovers his inevitable betrayal; the film treats his naked greed as a neutral trait, choosing neither to imbue it with consistent motivations or treat it with a distinctive angle; and the exclusive society to which he gains access with his wealth is so insipid as to make one ponder its attraction. Lee unknowingly articulates our feeling when, during the rift in her marriage, she confesses to her parents that McNeely is “just trying to be a part of something that…I just don’t care about.”
Cast: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Lew Temple, Hassie Harrison Director: Ty Roberts Screenwriter: Gerry De Leon, Ty Roberts Distributor: Santa Rita Film Co. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Wrestle’s Triumph Is Its Unmistakable Humanity
The documentary shines a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget.2.5
In the wake of Hoop Dreams, documentaries following the travails of under-privileged teenage athletes have become a genre unto themselves. In these films, institutions are ambiguously critiqued as well as often implicitly endorsed, as we come to share in blossoming adults’ efforts to win by playing by rules that generally don’t serve them. In each such documentary, we hope that we’re watching one of the exceptions to the pattern of casualties beget by the racial, classist strictures of this country—a hope that embodies the insidiously self-negating pull of capitalism. And this form of suspense quietly drives director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s Wrestle.
For Wrestle, Herbert and Belfer filmed hundreds of hours of footage of four teen wrestlers on the J.O. Johnson High School team in Huntsville, Alabama. We learn that Johnson is a failing high school with low test scores and graduation rates, and so the new wrestling team, headed by young social studies teacher Chris Scribner, is an attempt to offer students direction and to allow the school to achieve a measure of self-respect. This information is introduced too casually, as one craves more context as to how Scribner sold his hopeless superiors on this team, particularly in a school that’s in threat of being defunded.
Herbert and Belfer home in on four of Scribner’s athletes: Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan. Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are African-American, and wrestle with issues of neglectful parents, teen pregnancy, drug use, and indifference to the rules that various white people insist they follow for their own good. It’s in dramatizing this last point that Wrestle proves to be most evocative, especially in terms of defining the athletes’ relationship with Scribner, who’s Caucasian. Scribner’s aware of his white privilege, though it often gets the better of him anyway, such as when he repeatedly calls Jamario “bro” as if he’s the young man’s peer.
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Jamario and Scribner almost get into a fight on the school’s grounds. To his credit, Scribner maintains his cool and talks Jamario down, but this encounter illustrates the distinct gulf of experience between coach and pupil. And this gulf is reaffirmed when a cop harasses and threatens to jail Jailen for public urination. Aware of the camera, the cop seems most concerned with Jailen’s “disrespect,” which is admirably contained given the circumstances, because Jailen knows that manners are a matter of life and death between black men and the police. Meanwhile, Jamario and Jaquan’s mothers—heavy, tough, impervious to bullshit—try to help Scribner keep their children on the straight and narrow. This is another thread that Wrestle should’ve elaborated upon: What do black women think of allowing a white man to assume a pseudo-parental role in their sons’ lives?
Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are commanding and photogenic, stealing the filmmakers’ attention away from Teague, a white teenager who reflects the path that Scribner was in danger of treading. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Scribner empathizes all too well with Teague, who’s constantly lectured for getting high before school functions. Teague embodies the recessive-ness of substance abuse, which isn’t acknowledged much by pop culture. Even when on screen, he rarely seems present, as he appears to be lost in his anger and hungers—though these emotions drive him to achieve a few startling victories on the mat.
Wrestle has a lovely, scruffy, wandering quality, and individual anecdotes are vivid, such as when Jamario learns of his daughter being born during his high school graduation, for which he fought hard to achieve. But Wrestle doesn’t have the spellbinding flow of Minding the Gap or especially of Hoop Dreams, and it may make you wish that the strictures and challenges of J.O. Johnson itself had been more specifically established, especially in light of a potent bit of information that’s revealed in the text before the end credits. Herbert and Belfer, though, do shine a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget, justifying indifference with various infrastructural metrics designed to cloud the human cost involved. In Wrestle, that humanity comes roaring to the surface.
Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer Screenwriter: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer, Pablo Proenza