When they write a history of Twitter, hopefully a footnote will be spared for Alejandro Adams, the first meaningful filmmaker to make himself known that way, at least in my book. Conventional wisdom says you should use Twitter to beg for followers, chronicle your production, spam your friends and hope they suck it up for the greater good of social networking’s future. Adams took a different tack: he got in touch with only the critics he admired and asked them to watch his work after making it very clear (through a barrage of polemics, hilariously self-aggrandizing declarations and gnostic aphorisms) he was playing on a whole other level.
The movies, fortunately, are good too. Around The Bay isn’t quite L’Enfance Nue, but it’s not that far off either: childhood has rarely been this abrasive. Canary’s a tougher watch; its sci-fi framework is deliberately difficult to follow, and its most impressive setpieces involve very realistic rooms of people all talking at the same time, making a mockery of the Altman ideal of floating in and out of one conversation to each other. Here, the cacophony is the goal in and of itself. Babnik is a whole other creature, a first leisurely and suddenly urgently twisty crime drama; the less you know, the better. And not knowing much won’t be a problem: it may be months or years before you get a chance to see this, or Adams’ other two films.
So why read this two-part e-mail exchange between me and Adams? I’ve never met him, but this is the kind of promotional collaboration/collusion I try to avoid; it’s vaguely sketchy. But he’s a fun guy to argue and correspond with, and I’m comfortable whoring for him a bit. What I’ve done here is chopped up our back-and-forth into something more or less structured; it’s out of order and distorts the actual chronology, but that seems appropriate. In part one, we mostly talk about acting; in part two, we mostly talk about visuals. Digressions abound, as do faux-aggressive taunts. Enjoy.
Thanks for sending along Babnik, your third and easily most accessible feature yet. Proof: I watched it with two of my roommates, one of whom fancies himself a tasteful cinephile (he isn’t) and one guy who couldn’t care less (he spent most of the running time ogling the women), and they were both sucked in. I liked it a lot, for various reasons: it’s twisty in a way that isn’t obvious until it’s almost over, avoiding David Mamet’s sometime gaffe of piling on so many twists I just want him to pick a moral side to come down on and get on with it. It’s got the same interest in the regulation and control of bodies by financial interests as in Canary, except it’s not too academically “body studies” about it.
I bristle at the notion that Canary is cerebral or academic, but that’s another conversation. Although it’s probably not a coincidence that Babnik seems accessible in comparison. Every film is at least in part a reaction to the previous film. I hope you’ll give me a pullquote that goes something like “breathtakingly accessible.”
I used the deadly word “accessible” because, compared to Canary (and as opposed to Around The Bay, where I mostly grooved on your Pialat-esque depiction of children as abrasive and frequently unlovable), I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble following the film (which I guess is what the word “accessible” often means now), and didn’t even realize you were going to twist back on me, which is so rare. I didn’t even realize it was that kind of movie.
It’s not that kind of movie. Around the Bay is not that kind of movie either. Canary is not that kind of movie either. Go watch “that kind of movie” again and get back to me. I’m pretty sure I’m right.
Also, it’s fun to watch on a basic level: I wasn’t really sure what a San Jose filmmaker making a movie largely about Russian émigré scumbags would look like, but it played just right to me. I don’t know if anyone’s pointed this out to you yet, but I’m going to guess you gave your actors free reign to translate your dialogue into correct-sounding vernacular, and they do sound very convincing. They also changed your dialogue in fairly significant ways: nothing that changes your intent, but a lot of the profanity’s been taken out and some of the euphemistic language revernacularized. So if you speak Russian, it’s sort of like simultaneously reading a screenplay and watching a translated film of the same. Did you account for that? You don’t speak Russian (right?), and neither will most of our audience, but how do you approach that?
I wrote script segments in English which were translated into Russian for the performers and then when it came time to subtitle the film I worked with producer and star Michael Umansky to translate the spoken Russian back to English. In some cases they changed the dialogue for the better, in some cases they strayed too far and got silly, in some cases it was pretty close to what I’d written. But we agreed from the beginning that I’d subtitle it however I wanted—the whole thing is fiction, why should I have any fidelity in translating dialogue? If they’re talking about fried chicken, and I subtitle it with sex trafficking jargon, that’s a brilliant directorial feat as far as I’m concerned. If that seems reckless, think about how reckless it is to take an immigrant subculture and depict them as cannibals.
Two things always come up in the Q&A—a mention of how “real” everything seems is followed by someone with a heavy Russian accent asking, “Do you really think you’ve represented Russians accurately in this film?” That seeming realness, which is completely a product of my imagination, has a price.
For that matter, how’d you approach this milieu? It seems seedy and dangerous and accurate, but maybe you made it all up. I really can’t tell.
Funny how I created something seedy and dangerous and accurate by casting a software engineer, an insurance salesman and a wedding planner as sex traffickers.
But to answer your question on another level, I was often the only non-Russian speaker present and I was intimidated, to put it lightly. We were shooting in Russian restaurants and businesses. I heard stories about some of these places. We were creating situations in which these menacing guys were asking minors to spread their legs or show their tits. If I’d been delighted rather than disgusted and intimidated by what I was creating, the film would have failed. The audience can’t be made to feel what I don’t feel myself.
Forgive me for saying so, but you seem to mostly trust the actors to take care of themselves.
That remark is hard to forgive, as a matter of fact. On Around the Bay there was a shooter who clearly didn’t respect my on-set methods. Finally I asked him about it and he said, “You’re just getting lucky—they’re giving you what you want and you’re not even telling them anything.” He didn’t realize that the directing was taking place in individual meetings, group meetings, email exchanges and phone calls. For one actor in Babnik I devised a system of directing through outtakes uploaded to the web. I’d number the clips and send along notes on his performance in each clip. I would talk about how he knit his eyebrows, a twitch at the corner of his mouth. That kind of micromanaging is rare in my process, but I’m not shy about it if I feel it’s called for.
Another actor in Babnik was coming across a room in an early scene—he was just a background element but if the walk was wrong it would kill the tone of the scene. We shot take after take and I was telling him he was too campy and wrecking the verisimilitude in all the other details we’d orchestrated. Everyone else was perfect in the scene, and there was this background element out of place. I could have said, “Oh it’s just the background, who cares,” but I kept trying to fix it. Finally I said, “Think of a song. Any song. Don’t stop thinking about it. You no longer have a responsibility to be this character—just be a guy with a song in his head and move to the song.” And it worked—it totally relaxed him. He walked across the room exactly as I wanted him to. So I don’t let the actors direct themselves. In some cases tinkering would do more harm than good—in fact I have overdirected at times and it shows. Some actors might say I hardly directed them at all but in most of those cases I’m directing every other element in the scene to work around them and they’re unaware of it.
Another thing I should mention is that I love talking to actors but I don’t want to talk to them when we’re shooting. When we’re shooting, we’re shooting. I care a great deal about the image, and I’m involved in all the technical decisions, so at that point I’m having a relationship with the camera rather than the actor and it had better be evident on screen. Too often in films you can see the director having a relationship with his actors at the expense of the camera or a relationship with the camera at the expense of the actors. My films are not made of compromises. I want a certain thing from the actors and I want a certain thing from the cameras and I’m going to have both or I’m not going to bother making the film.
You bristled at my acting comment, which honestly probably has more to do with a kind of juvenile distaste for and mistrust of “acting.” It’s probably pretty clear what I mean: Naomi Watts in 21 Grams is a prime offender, and I don’t mean to sweep away stylized acting (the kind that really doesn’t exist anymore) or, say, Robert Downey Jr’s variations on a smartass theme in the process. I’m just not big on mechanically expressive performances. The reason I thought about it specifically in Babnik has to do with the scenes of your two main guys and girl just sitting in the living room; when they pause to think, I can’t tell if they’re “thinking” or just being vacant, and I like that. They’re certainly not sweating to convey either. A lot of people get excited when they can tell what an actor’s conveying without overselling (e.g. Bill Murray in Rushmore, which if memory serves you despise), and that’s grand; I get a little more excited when I get a glimpse of interior life that’s in no way being expressed and may not even exist. Sometimes, anyway.
I’ll answer your Wes Anderson aside by saying that some friends and I who despise most of what qualifies as “independent film” these days were going to make T-shirts and bumper stickers featuring the slogan “Punching the quirk out of independent film since 2006.” There’s a lot of criminally expensive goofing off that qualifies as filmmaking these days. You critics will start talking about the New Earnestness soon if you haven’t already. I’m grossed out by stuffed foxes in brown suits and all that hipster bullshit. I try to keep my mouth shut and not tear down others’ work but you called me out.
The Babnik couch scene you mention has some character-enriching subtext which is out of left field. I think it’s memorable for more than its acting. Some people interpret that scene a certain way and as a result the climax means something really specific to them. I’m being vague, but you probably know what I mean.
You suggest that this scene contains the opposite of “mechanically expressive performances.” Possibly true in effect but certainly not in execution. I told Sasha to put his arm behind his head and slouch and mumble. I told Ilona to ball up on the chair and set her shoes aside—it seems that trying to convince an actress she doesn’t need to wear those great shoes is like trying to convince an actor he doesn’t need to flash that cold, heavy gun. This may seem to contradict my insistence that I don’t direct while we’re shooting, but physically arranging the mannequins in the window—blocking if you will—is not what I’m talking about. That is totally different from telling an actor what I need from his or her performance. By facing Ilona away from the guys in that couch scene I got a tension from the space that belied the casualness of their manner, a dialectic which mirrors the content in that they’re being casual in their plotting of various crimes. And then when Ilona laughs at the end of the scene, it’s offscreen. If you listen carefully it’s the same cackle looped twice. So there are a hell of a lot of orchestrated and even fabricated “effects” in those natural performances, even when what you might call content is totally improvised.
I take the images and ancillary sounds far more seriously than the words. Words don’t mean a goddamn thing. Which direction she’s facing, the pitch of her laugh, Sasha’s arm behind his head—those details suck you into the scene, not words, not drama. Babnik premiered at Cinequest in March and the alt weekly critic Richard von Busack said his favorite single shot in any of the 120-plus features was the shot of Yelena getting a “rub down” in the salon. Like that scene on the yacht in Mr. Arkadin—I want to give you shots and scenes that are so distinctive in their physicalness that they’re indelible.
Another weird thing is watching your actors, who are somewhere between completely convincing and totally affectless, living in a dramatic void that’s vaguely charged.
I like that charge. I will do anything to create that charge. Give me a rabbit and a broken laptop and some hand sanitizer and I will try to create that charge. It’s all I care about. It’s the only reason anyone would want to watch the next scene in any of my films. I know what dramaturgy is, but plot comes naturally to me—maybe you’d call this “concept” rather than “plot”—and I stop thinking about it altogether once I’m in production. Then it’s about the characters populating that story. It’s an organism. It’s a living thing. As long as I’m fighting to keep it alive, it will have that charge.
The visuals, as ever, are yours, and I would’ve recognized Babnik as your film without a credit. You’ve spoken online of your gleefully indifferent approach to space, which doesn’t seem quite true to me: it’s more like every room is its own setting with its own atmosphere. You’re connecting space through tone rather than geography. Thoughts?
Whatever I’ve said, it wasn’t false modesty. I corrupt space as much as I honor it. Most of my effects in all three films are achieved through disorientation. The unrecognizable is really important to me. Depicting the unrecognizable is difficult. I think the most unrecognizable elements in my films are the ones that people sense are most “real.”
I have to say I scoffed initially at the finale, one of those setpiece shootout things that’s impossible to execute convincingly on a small budget (a friend working with similar resources wasn’t nearly as fortunate), and then you turned it into a comment on why things that look implausible can be exactly what they seem, i.e. a sham. Anyone who enters your films knows you’re working with not that much, and I know whenever I see a very low-budget film I know certain things can’t happen: car crashes, explosions, et al., which adjusts my expectations accordingly. Do you ever think about this?
You’re displaying such specific blueprints of your viewing apparatus—you’re a sophisticated viewer but also predictable in your anticipation of predictableness. If I had a budget of $10,000, it’s conceivable that I could spend $9000 to blow something up in the opening scene and you’d watch the rest of the film in shock, waiting for the next thing to up-end your sense of the world. I’m not into that kind of gimmickry. The viewer who feels immune to surprise is no longer watching for pleasure and no longer knows how to derive pleasure from viewing. Why don’t we invert this interview and you explain to me why supercilious, grumpy, even burnt out critics tend to favor my films? I think there’s a kind of exhilaration which only supercilious, grumpy, burnt out critics are sensitive to.
Babnik is commenting on shams within shams, as you note—what you’re identifying as the budgetary limitations of the film could simply be the budgetary limitations of the characters in the film. Look at the disconcertingly charismatic personality at the center of the film. How he coerces, manipulates, cheats, keeps a lot of operations running with no money. He is all dynamic energy and conviction. The metaphor is transparent.
Why do grumpy, supercilious burnt out critics favor your movies? Let’s add here that’s it’s not only my breed that do: earnest Marxists and theory kids (neither of which I am) do as well, probably because both Canary and Babnik offer total worlds for systematic analysis and allegorical extrapolation, which isn’t really my bag.
I agree about allegorical extrapolation. I don’t want to reject positive reviews of my work, but these films aren’t intended to be as politically relevant as some seem to think they are. I work in a closed circuit. I have little awareness of current events or sitcoms. I just saw a film that referred to some viral video craze from a couple of years ago and I was lost. My work risks being horribly out of touch. But whatever its shortcomings, I can vouch for its sincerity. If you can find any gimmicks in my films, or any cleverness for its own sake, let me know and I’ll kill myself.
I enjoy your work (or at least admire it; Canary’s still rough on me) for your commitment to this weird kind of “reality” that’s both flawlessly convincing on its own terms, kinetic without the usual my-camera-has-no-tripod-feel-the-energy tricks. Although you don’t generally have one either, but your restlessness always makes me question what to focus on (and wonder how long I have to take something on) rather than act as a visual end in itself.
I’m using handheld in a seditious way—to make you insecure about your own ability to look for yourself, often by incidentalizing the so-called main action of a scene. So the vitality isn’t canned, it’s actual. It’s not a matter of camera shakiness but camera penetration. I am very particular about lens length. All these video cameras have variable lens lengths, and it’s nearly impossible to make shooters see the way I see. I get fastidious about where the top and bottom of the frame should be. Clearly when shooting handheld this kind of determination is self-defeating. Of course my vision is at war with common sense every step of the way—otherwise I wouldn’t be shooting an entire film in a language I don’t speak. Shooting 4:3 on Babnik was very important to me thematically, but I had to be really manipulative in order to get things framed right. No one wants to shoot 4:3. It’s like shooting on Hi8 video—the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I think Babnik is really gorgeous in 4:3. The aspect ratio is bound to the themes but also it’s just rudimentary in a way that corresponds to the duct-taped barely-organized crime depicted in the film. This isn’t something I can easily verbalize to others, but I think of almost every facet of the film in terms of “four-three-ness.”
I really don’t know, even after three films, when you’re going to cut, or where you might find (though I get a vague sense of your camera being closely hemmed in by borders that can’t be quite placed).
My scenes are like matches. They ignite, the flame flickers briefly, it approaches my fingers and then I shake it violently. I don’t mean that all my scenes are short—some are painfully long and I relish that caughtness. Every long scene is like some tangled nightmare from which I can’t extricate myself, I can’t cut away, and I feel the viewer’s scorn mount with every passing second and I feel exhilarated and ashamed. But, yeah, shorter scenes are like matches and I extinguish them violently. In either case, a great deal of anxiety and fear accompany the fascination with my own creation. A cut is a violent thing. I do it violently, as it should be done. If you could sense when the cut was coming it wouldn’t be a cut which resulted from my process. And I’m not totally immune to influence, so there are probably some cuts that have been handed down to me.
I suffer from a really peculiar kind of boredom I once saw described by Monte Hellman; he was introducing It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books, Richard Linklater’s first film, in which large portions of time involve a dude sitting and staring out an Amtrak window and so forth. “I get bored easily,” he said. “I rarely finish a movie. I finished this one.” I get what he means, sort of: many people might take that kind of description indicative of their personal hell, but I find that kind of challenge fun (done correctly, natch, with “correctly” meaning “pleases me”). Someone recently suggested to me that I have ADHD, which makes a lot of sense (all the speed-freak chatter and so on), insofar as it explains why a lot of twisty mainstream fare is mindnumbingly boring to me: it doesn’t make me focus. Your films do, and that kind of boring-in quality is hard to come by. I like even better that I can’t home in on why that is exactly.
Funny that the phrase “boring in” has the word “boring” in it. I’m very pleased to hear that my films make you focus. Rian Johnson said something to the effect that my films seem all loose and improvised but by the end you realize they’re mouse traps. I think that’s profoundly sensitive to what I’m doing. Of course it’s also the highest form of compliment that a critic as perceptive as yourself can admit that he doesn’t know why my films work like they do. I don’t know either—I think that’s a big part of the recipe. And maybe some would call that “getting lucky.”
As far as expectations born of budget: well, you’re right, I guess, but how could I not factor expectations in, no matter what they’re related to? In fact, you surprised me even with (or because of) them. Ditto the jelly in Canary; I spent a lot of time (probably too much) trying to get past seeing what you were using and wondering what it actually was in your film. That’s enough italics for one paragraph.
There’s an element in Babnik like the blue jello. The secret sauce. You have no idea how hard they fought me on the secret sauce. The phrase, the orange bottle, all of it. How could they be menacing while holding this child’s toy and calling it “secret sauce”? Most of what you see on screen was rejected by everyone at least a few times. Often I’m not even sure they’re going to do it my way on camera until they actually do it. I can work with a mutinous spirit on set—I prefer that energy to the kind of lethargy that comes from a project toward which people are indifferent. The lead in my fourth feature Amity would make the DP or AD shoot his version of a scene whenever I stepped away for a few minutes. It takes a lot of practice to be oblivious to personalities as machinating and devious as these. In any case, I’m not threatened because I’ve won this battle before it begins.
I work with Michael Umansky over and over again largely because his resistance is on his sleeve and our chemistry is so volatile. He hates almost everything I want to do, he challenges me in front of cast and crew, and then in the end he does exactly what I want. We stop cameras and he says, “I know that’s how you want it but it’s ridiculous.” He’s so overbearing that I forfeited the participation of some longtime friends as a result of tensions on the Babnik set. But I’m loyal to him above almost anyone else. Someone so ready to throw everything in your face is much less likely to be duplicitous or destroy the production behind your back. I should clarify that Mr. Umansky is personally warm and generous and I consider him a friend away from production. I rarely stay in touch with cast or crew after shooting—no wrap parties, cast and crew screenings, etc. I’m not in this to make friends. But Mr. Umansky is a friend.
In closing, let me ask: what percentage of Canary is supposed to be funny (or, alternately, how comfortable would you be with people laughing where you see nothing to laugh at)? I’m generally a big believer that you’re going to have to laugh not to cry; the Romanian New Wave is hilarious for the sheer amount of largely unprovoked, over-the-top rudeness, and Canary also made me laugh quite a bit. This seems morally wrong, but it’s the same kind of frisson provoked by an appalling drinking story, only with entirely different stakes. Maybe not?
When one of the jumpsuited Canary agents is picking up the organs at the clinic for redistribution, a receptionist gestures to one of the containers and says, “The sushi’s in that one.” You can barely hear it among all the overlapping dialogue. But you’re right: that’s not funny. Canary is profoundly unfunny. I’m glad it upsets you. I’m glad you have reservations about it. I’m a very sensitive person and my films are just elaborate seismographs. In my day job I fire people pretty regularly. I’m in the middle of a divorce which is crushing my kids. I was barely able to get out of bed for a few months last year as a result of this unexpected obliteration of my life. The films are where I allow myself to feel something. And what I feel isn’t funny. So thank you for not laughing.
Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare
Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.
When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywood’s “golden” era playing a mother superior. “There’s actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have worked out,” says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, “like an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.” Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.
How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?
It’s a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creative—the so-called Pre-Code cinema—before the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of movies—all variations of the same plot—about a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.
Who’s Lily Dare?
A survivor. I’ve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways it’s a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What I’m doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.
This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?
I’ve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year we—that’s me and Carl Andress, the director I’ve worked with for 25 years—make a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, “Can you give us a space?” It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when there’s a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stages—a theater I’ve had a relationship with, going back to 1994—said it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.
Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?
I’ve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and it’s a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone who’s lost a parent. It’s something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether it’s personal relationships or, if you’re a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.
You’ve said before that your plays come about because there’s a role you’d like to play.
Yes, I’d get an idea like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,” or “wouldn’t it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.” In this case, it was “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?” I’ve just been very fortunate that I’m in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.
The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that I’d like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think she’s the only actress who’s ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctor’s wife and a mysterious baroness.
What’s it like writing roles for yourself?
It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, I’ve aged into my roles. In the late ‘80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, let’s say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as she’s approaching her late 50s. It’s always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character I’m playing. Perhaps what I’m seeing in the mirror isn’t what the audience is seeing. I hope that’s not true! I may be deluding myself, but I’ve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audience’s conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In this play, I’m taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. I’m getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!
Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?
I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I haven’t seen, that I know are in the same genre. But I’ve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. It’s not for me to do the spoof of film noir; that’s really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, that’s kind of good because I don’t really approve of something where an audience’s enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet or—they all have similar titles—The Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesn’t matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Google—to be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if I’m going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.
What about the plays that didn’t feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?
I’ve written a number of them and, honestly, it’s frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And it’s not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didn’t really care for it. I don’t know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of “Did I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?” And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that I’ve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.
Is the movie version of Allergist’s Wife still happening?
Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I can’t say it is not going to happen, but there’s certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that I’d like to write in different styles—always a million notions for film parodies. There’s an Irish parody that I’ve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that I’ve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. It’s a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!
Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?
Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because I’m not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think she’s very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that I’ve been a part of—the East Village of the ‘80s—and there’s this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that there’s no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think I’m rather fearless as a dramatist—I just keep going and nothing seems to stop me—but I’m much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, it’s dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.
Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?
I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this play—Carl was just saying the other night—it was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thing—it doesn’t happen too often it seems—that we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.
Is there a confession of Charles Busch?
Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and I’m often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.
Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”
However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.
Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II
Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole
Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.
The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.
You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.
The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.
You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.
Don’t put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.
We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.
Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)
But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Should Win: Ad Astra
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.
There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.
Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body