Everywhere you went at the 49th San Francisco Film Festival you could feel a song coming on. The opening night selection, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s giddy-pensive Hong Kong hit Perhaps Love, set the tone by seasoning Chicago pizzazz with pan-Asian melancholy, and from there it was just a step to James Gandolfini doing “Lonely Is a Man Without Love” with a full backup of Queens garbage men in Romance & Cigarettes. Seijun Suzuki stuffed Princess Raccoon with ballads, calypso, rap and rock, and Robert Altman wove a plangent musical community of his own in A Prairie Home Companion, though, for sheer effect, it might be hard to top Tsai Ming-liang’s cut from cum going splat on a porn starlet’s face to the evocation of a torchy MGM-style number in The Wayward Cloud.
Melodic deluges or not, the festival offered plenty of money shots. Under the new direction of Graham Leggat, recently appointed as chairman of the city’s Film Society after years of experience in the circuit, the festival, the oldest and one of the largest in the country, took extra pains to illustrate what he termed film’s “multiplicity of visions.” Guest speaker Tilda Swinton seconded that notion in her State of Cinema address, during which the Scottish actress, a self-described communist, relished the irony in The Chronicles of Narnia of “goose-stepping over old Walt D. by having the studio make over $700 million with the help of a Red Witch.” Indeed, big-budget filmmaking this year was the festival’s unofficial bête noir, as a high volume of foreign, documentary and experimental features filled the diverse roster (even the “mainstream” entries, Art School Confidential and Prairie Home Companion, could hardly be dubbed concessions to commercialism). The internationally-flavored entries went hand in hand with a feel for burgeoning technology, represented by studies on blogging and “cellphone cinema,” though, as expected, all eyes were mainly on the films.
If the festival needed a poster boy for intransigent vision, it couldn’t do better than Werner Herzog. Riding the comeback from last year’s exceptional documentary troika, modern cinema’s most serenely rapturous explorer came to town to receive the Film Society Directing Award and attend a screening of 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder. The subheading (“a science fiction fantasy”) is fitting, for this is a film of conflations, starting with its own raw materials—footage from “a secret NASA mission,” underwater images from the Antarctic ice shelf, and Brad Dourif channeling Klaus Kinski as our guide, a homesick alien regaling the camera in a barren, garbage-strewn burg. Combining Senegalese vocals and jazz cello, the score contributes to the unearthly schizophrenia, yet the picture melds the deliberately divergent components (images and sounds, captured versus staged “reality”) into a sublimely harmonious tone—call it somber ecstasy. The subtle self-mockery might be seen as the director’s response to critics too eager to box his later works into the limiting “documentary” category, although, with its magnificent use of deep-diving images for anti-gravitational expanses, Wild Blue Yonder attests first and foremost to Herzog’s genius for finding the transcendentally alien squarely in humanity’s own backyard.
The aural mix in Princess Raccoon is no less disjunctive, though when is consistency ever a goal for Seijun Suzuki? An impish operetta surfing effervescently on the gonzo veteran’s liquidity of form, the movie is more of a crowd-pleaser than his previous Pistol Opera, if every bit as nutty—vain regents, shape-shifting ingénues and folkloric winks cavort to a beat that goes from tap-dancing to ‘50s all-girl pop to performance-art voguing. For all the grabby eclecticism of Suzuki’s raucous block party, the movie is particularly attentive to the distinctive cultures at play, from the specific Chinese attributes of star Zhang Ziyi (explored rather than camouflaged a la Memoirs of a Geisha) to the European colonialism threatening the Japanese mythology the director exults here. Carlos Saura’s own cultural celebration, Iberia, is by contrast comfortably steeped in the kind of stereotypical concepts of Spanish romanticism the director would have questioned during the ‘60s and ‘70s. A performance film inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’s eponymous suite, it offers exquisitely arranged moments of sensuality via movement, color and lighting, though the choreographed smolder is scarcely more than decorative next to Saura’s more searching works.
If balking at the seamless artifice of Iberia may sound ungrateful, watching Backstage helps appreciate its polish. Frazzled hysteria is the main ingredient in Emmanuelle Bercot’s portrait of fandom and drama queeniness, a bleary pas de deux between a leonine pop star (Emmanuelle Seigner) and the trembling young groupie (Isild Le Besco) she scoops under her wing; Mrs. Polanski does a robust send-up of Debbie Harry, but the film misses too many opportunities to study the intensity growing between an imploding diva and an imbalanced baby dyke—catfights are the closest the two come physically—to be much more than a limp, strobe-light retelling of All About Eve. All About Love, a hit in Hong Kong, is all about silliness, though it is not without a certain loony romanticism—directed by Daniel Yu, it is built on melodrama poured liberally over lost loves and second chances. The director is no Wong Kar-wai, however, and the simple-yet-convoluted plot—Andy Lau loses his wife in a crash and then stalks the woman carrying her transplanted heart, until her ex shows up, played for no particular reason by Lau in a goatee—becomes inert in a hurry, less hypnotic than somnolent.
Showing both U.S. premieres and festival-tried projects, the event was as much of a place to see new pictures as to catch up on ones that have eluded this side of the country. Chief among the better-late-than-never was Three Times, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s lovely triptych, which had already screened at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York. A filmmaker of astounding visual-spatial gifts and emotional grace, Hou teleports his young characters (Shu Qi and Chang Chen play all the different couples) through a trio of incarnations, in 1966, 1911 and 2005; each third could be a pocketbook retelling of Hou’s previous films (Dust in the Wind, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millennium Mambo, say), yet the trajectory has the feel of an unfolding scroll, a continuously enriching narrative from past to present, connection to alienation, aware of a transience of beauty that is both specifically Taiwanese and affectingly universal.
Also caught in the flow of history, albeit in a far more dramatic manner, is Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata), a “living god” under the merciless scrutiny of Aleksandr Sokurov’s lenses in The Sun. Having already desiccated Hitler and Lenin, the Russian master finishes what could be dubbed his “bunker-trilogy” of murky titans, with Hirohito, his mouth constantly twitching, contemplating the textures of a crab while Japan burns outside. The deposed, top-hated monarch, surreally reminiscent of Chaplin on his way to meet the conquering Gen. MacArthur, provided one of the oddest, most vivid sights of the festival.
A sense of history was also prominent in several of the documentary offerings. Made from footage shot from 2002 to 2005, James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments catches moments in the lives of various Iraqi citizens, though its structure is far less fractured than the title might suggest—split into three, vérité panels, from an 11-year-old mechanic in Baghdad to a young, anti-American religious leader to a fatigued, old farmer in the Kurdish border, the progression could be that of life itself, or at least of hope, from razed urban centers to pastoral vistas routinely kept out of media coverage. In any case, the trenchant message is voiced by the young (“The world is so scary now”) and delivered by Longley’s harsh-beautiful compositions and sharp editing.
Moving to the other side of the world, The Dignity of the Nobodies has radical firebrand Fernando E. Solanas examining the injustices of the Argentinean system with the same fiery vigor he had in the 1960s with The Hour of the Furnaces. Tracing the grave economic collapse of Argentina’s recent years, Solanas weaves a forceful mosaic of lives (the “nobodies” of the title) who may be knocked down but refuse to be grinded by the rapacious machinery of a corrupt government. The director’s activism flows through the present-tense DV camerawork, whether marching along street manifestations or interviewing picketers who fear the return of the old dictatorship. Despite the hardships, however, the picture is a remarkably hopeful one, culminating in one of the fest’s most stirring moments.
On a lighter note, Al Franken: God Spoke offers an entertaining, sometimes slapdash, sometimes incisive look at the disappearing line separating entertainment and politics. Following the SNL vet and liberal satirist through brushes with Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Henry Kissinger, directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob use their experience working with renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker for the film’s fly-on-the-wall perspective, though, when Franken puckishly crashes a Republican convention, there’s little doubt whom the filmmakers side with. Humor is the pundit’s political tool, but hip-hop is the main instrument of expression in Favela Rising, a glimpse at how the Brazilian group AfroReggae used music and dancing as nonviolent forms of social protest amid the despair of Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished slums. Directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary, it’s a vivid, exhilarating view of art as resistance, even if festival members preferred to award Staley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a chilling look at the darkening Eden of Reverend Jim Jones; the narrative allows the surreal events to speak for themselves via vintage footage and interviews with shaken survivors, culminating in a stomach-churning evocation of the infamous 1978 communal “suicide” that claimed more than 900 lives.
Back to features with October 17, 1961, though Alain Tasma’s account of the controversial, seldom recalled 1961 massacre of over 200 Algerian protestors in Paris—a festering wound that recently provided Michael Haneke’s Caché with its main source of bourgeois anxiety—still hangs on to the documentary format for its immediacy. The eponymous date carries as much traumatic baggage in European soil as September 11, 2001 does in America, and, indeed, the film contrasts interestingly with another historical recreation, United 93: Where Paul Greengrass facilely, reductively raids Gillo Pontecorvo’s urgent style, Tasmas is more interested in the director’s examination of how imperialism mutually degrades both oppressor and oppressed.
Another peek at 1960s France came from Philippe Garrel, who distillates the hangover of the May ’68 upheavals with his lustrous, melancholy Regular Lovers. The presence of the filmmaker’s son, Louis, positions the work as a critique of The Dreamers, and Garrel’s camera movements are much less caressing than Bertolucci’s, just as his view of the potential revolution is harsher and less nostalgic; Molotov cocktails are hurled during the Night of the Barricades, but the young characters soon find themselves impotently awaiting adulthood as the moment for change passes by, vanquished. A cut from the dozing poet to a discarded axe-pick is enough to illustrate the dissipating flame of revolution, yet Garrel’s film, far from cynical, remains a tribute to the youthful characters’ manifesto: “Enough repetition. Move forward.”
The Regular Lovers dictum is one that, sad to say, Tsai Ming-liang perhaps should consider. Wayward Cloud could work a compilation reel presented before the great Taiwanese auteur’s lifetime achievement Oscar, but as a film it feels self-cannibalized. The big event is the reunion of Chen Shiang-chyi and Lee Kang-sheng, playing the characters from What Time Is It There?—“Do you still sell watches?” she asks him, in one of the dozen or so lines, but he’s actually doing low-budget porn now, a task made difficult by Taipei’s encroaching draught. Water is a rare commodity in the director’s alienated urban sprawls, although, as always, the tone is one of deadpan comedy, spiked with lush musical interludes pouring out of the characters’ fantasies. This would have been transcendental if not so obviously a recapitulation of the filmmaker’s motifs, of which only the sex element—with several shots toeing close to hardcore—comes off as an advance in Tsai’s style.
No déjà vu for Raúl Ruiz: The Lost Domain finds the venerable Chilean prankster in fine, unpredictable form, weaving between past, present, dream and reality as freely and assuredly as the great Buñuel. Following the memories of a tale-spinning French aviator (François Cluzet) landing in 1930s Chile, the picture suggests a particularly personal project for Ruiz, delving into the sadness of a time long gone without sacrificing any of his usual mischievous formalism and pleasurable sense of dislocation.
Speaking of dislocation, A Perfect Couple offers Japanese stylist Nobuhiro Suwa’s first international production, guiding a married couple (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Bruno Todeschini) through a friend’s wedding as their own marriage unravels. Just as Suwa’s H Story reworked Hiroshima Mon Amour, the movie might be his version of Viaggio in Italia, and an “artless” aesthetic (long takes and medium shots, mostly) duly follows suit. Incidentally, Roberto Rossellini’s spirit was also evoked by the decidedly un-Rossellinian Guy Maddin in My Dad Is 100 Years Old, by far the best of the festival’s shorts. Funny, lyrical and deeply felt, it features Roberto’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, dressing up as a cabal of Roberto’s friends and enemies before hilariously chiding Maddin’s camera for its “immoral” movement.
More Visconti than Rossellini, Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle locates another imploding French marriage, this time around Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory as an aristocratic couple in turn-of-the-century Paris. Adapting Joseph Conrad’s short story, Chéreau’s restless camerawork in the opening passages blows the dust off its fin-de-siecle society gatherings until it slows down for suffocating, Strindbergian intimacy as a sudden letter sends the characters’ stable lives into a tailspin and their emotions are finally allowed out of their corsets. The tasteful skin of Chéreau’s style all but quakes with emotional brutality, provided in no small amount by the actors’ lacerating fireworks of repressed passion.
And that’s just a small taste of the festival’s offerings. Not that it did not have its stumbles—the horror flick The Descent, the only outright genre piece (if one doesn’t count John Turturro’s leaden-footed Romance & Cigarettes as part of the strained-whimsy genre, that is), followed a batch of cave-exploring babes only to find gore-covered stupidity, while Anders Thomas Jensen’s Adam’s Apples only went to show that you can still have the snarky insipidity of the Dogme 95 movement even without the obligatory handheld shakes. Nevertheless, the quality and quantity of films on display proved rarely less than invigorating, particularly when capped by Prairie Home Companion as the closing night picture. Like his previous masterpiece The Company, Altman’s latest takes place in a deliberately hemmed-in milieu, a night backstage during the final broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s beloved radio variety show, the better to explore the exultant feel for performance and life coursing through his large ensemble (the festival’s sweetest surprise: Lindsay Lohan is an actress). Altman directing is by now akin to Bach composing, and Prairie Home Companion shows his vision at a radiant peak, the perfect ending for an event bent on making sure artistic voices ring out as clearly as music.
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
Interview: Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talk Luce’s Ambiguities
Onah and Harrison discuss their approach to creating the film’s central character and how they navigated his many dualities.
“Really, it’s just about people—whether they conform to what we think they are,” says Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s eponymous character in Luce. The high school student is engaged in a classroom debate with his history teacher, the self-appointed respectability politics enforcer Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), but he also speaks to the very essence of the film itself. Luce’s plot takes a number of engrossing turns as characters attempt to reconcile the disparities between the people they know so well and the deeds others allege they committed. But it all comes back to the characters themselves, Luce chief among them.
At his core, Luce is a model student thriving in suburban Arlington after being pulled out of an Eritrean war zone. Describing him further proves difficult because he means so many things to different people, some of whom—especially his adoptive white parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and school faculty—maintain an investment in seeing that he fulfills their expectations. From there, it only requires a few misunderstandings to ignite a powder keg of anxieties and assumptions surrounding race, class, immigration, and privilege.
While this description might seem to cast Luce as merely a passive participant in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth. He’s the film’s central enigma, with each scene concealing as much about his nature as it reveals. Harrison, a 25-year-old rising star who’s already turned in psychologically complex work in films such as Monsters and Men and It Comes at Night, endows the film with equal parts pathos and pathology through his performance. Shortly after Luce’s theatrical bow, I sat down with both Harrison and director Julius Onah to discuss their approach to creating the film’s central character, how they navigated his many dualities, and where they made determinations about his sincerity.
Who is Luce, for each of you? Inasmuch as it’s possible to pin him down.
Julius Onah: Whew!
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: He’s a 17-year-old kid who’s insanely intelligent. He’s gone through, seen, and overcome a lot. As he moves forward, he’s trying to make sure he feels protected and seen—that he’s not put, like he says, in a box and that his peers aren’t doing the same. He feels like the future generation is the future, so shouldn’t we all be supporting each other to do that? That makes him the budding revolutionary he wants to be—and is, in a lot of ways.
JO: As Kelvin said, we viewed him as this budding revolutionary, this kid who has incredible intellectual horsepower. But it’s like he’s got a Lamborghini with no license to drive. He contains all these multitudes within him, but, at the same time, has a tremendous amount of expectation on him from everyone around him who wants him to live his life on a symbolic, representational level, in order to prove whatever point they want. This kid is trying to negotiate the balance between “Who am I really?” and “Who do I have to be to make everyone around me happy and survive in America?”
How did you handle the meta consideration of finding the person of Luce without losing his symbolism?
KH: I’ve been telling this story that I grew up in New Orleans, the South, and went to a private school for high school. New Orleans is very laidback, we’ve got a lot of slang, which is what it is. But then I went to this majority white school and was one of five, six, less than 10 black people in the entire high school. The first thing they told me was, “You can’t say ‘yeah.’ It’s ‘yes.’” They were like, “What do your parents do? Why do you dress like that?” I started judging myself and changing who I was or what I looked like to assimilate to the culture. I took a lot of that and brought it into Luce and his journey coming from Eritrea, and to his parents saying, “We don’t know how to pronounce your name, so we’re changing it.” [laughs] And Harriet being like, “You need to do these things in order to be great.” It’s like [to her], “Whatever I am isn’t enough for you. You’re judging me based on where I came from, and now you’re telling my parents I wrote a violent paper.” It’s insane.
Watching Luce, I wondered if he’s played as if the character is the way that he is at his core and the audience just gets to discover that, or if the events of the film goad him into becoming the way that he is. Did either of you make a decision to play it one way?
JO: As a director, I have a conception of the character, but I always believe that the actor has to live it truthfully. We talked a tremendous amount about where this guy was coming from and the specific biographical details of that. But, at the same time, the beauty of it is these moments that just appear as actors are living it. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Luce is in the shed with his friend, Orlicki, who says, “DeShaun is black black.” And Luce instantly tries to defuse the situation. For a moment, he retreats into himself, but right after, he smacks his friend’s leg, and they start laughing. It tells you so much about who this guy is, constantly measuring every moment, situation and expectation from people.
So, in terms of the overall of the character, there’s that human part of him that’s just a 17-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is like most 17-year-old kids are. But then there’s a part of him that’s brilliant and well read; he’s been brought out of a real, physical war zone and thrust into this psychological, emotional and sociological war zone of culture in America. He’s taken some of the skills from survival there and applying it here, constantly reading everything around him looking for incoming fire, ducking and covering, reshaping and reforming himself as he navigates all of this. That’s where some of the symbolic version of this character comes from. He knows what he has to represent to literally survive.
You mention incoming fire, and it reminds me that I read about how every time Luce shuts his locker, you added in the sound of gunfire. Where did that idea come from?
JO: A lot of people, and this started at the script level and in friends and family screenings, they would say things like, “If we just had a flashback to when he was a child soldier…” Which, to me, was like saying, “If you just made it easier to pigeonhole this character…” The minute you start doing all that, they can say that this is some PTSD story. But when you see someone walking down the street, unless you’re Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, you can’t touch them and flash back to learn what happened to them. All you have are your eyes and ears, and from there we make judgments about who people are. But, at the same time, I did want to suggest some of his history, so I said, “What’s a more sophisticated way to make you feel some of the pressure this kid is coming from without spelling it out?” And that’s where I decided, “What if we embedded gunshots throughout the locker, but we changed the pitch of them throughout the movie?” And also, the bells in the hallway that he hears in the school get more pitched up. Slowly, over the course of the film, you’re feeling that pressure rising and don’t even know it.
If people wanted a flashback, do you think they really wanted to feel pity for Luce that they didn’t otherwise have an outlet for?
JO: For me, I think they want to be able to put him in a box, and we all have that tendency. We want to be able to explain away the things we don’t understand, and that defies the purpose of asking the question. Once we make it easy for the audience, there’s no point to tell the story.
I saw the film for the second time yesterday and found myself watching it like a courtroom drama, building cases for or against characters, looking for silver bullets that might explain them…
JO: That’s great to hear.
…but then I realized at some point that this way of viewing was leading me to look for some kind of coherent explanation. Luce is all this one way or Ms. Wilson is all that way, and that one silver bullet will explain who they are, which goes against exactly what the film wants us to think.
JO: Yeah, it’s not like some epiphany we’re stating here, but it’s not the way the world works. I feel like if we’re going to tell these stories, there’s often a version of the story—and I’m not going to criticize any of these films. I understand why these stories are told, whether to give us hope or understanding or a sense of clarity. But, at a certain point, you have to ask when it’s disserving us. There aren’t easy morals or digestible answers to hundreds, thousand-year-old questions of identity that are now really bubbling to the surface in this country. When you look at the headlines in this country, the more we continue to think there’s an easy answer, the more we’re going to deal with these problems in a way that doesn’t solve anything. I felt the only way—and this started with J.C. [Lee]’s brilliant play—to talk about these things is to grapple with the fact that there isn’t a silver bullet.
There’s such a push and pull between sincerity and deceit for the character of Luce. It’s tempting, based on what we learn about him, to doubt the authenticity of any given moment. How did you all handle that dissonance that we experience?
KH: Truthfully? Because everything is to be played with the truth, it’s almost hard to keep track of the truth, even as Luce, of when he’s trying to get something that he needs or when he’s genuine. I wouldn’t even know at a certain point because it was always being sincere. It all kind of blurs after a while.
JO: I think that’s a really astute observation of it because, as a 17-year-old kid, you don’t know all the time. You’re just reacting and dealing with the fire of the world around you.
There’s a very ambiguous scene about midway through the film when Luce practices his speech before an empty auditorium. Are we meant to know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling there? Did you make the determination of whether this is true self because he’s not performing before an audience, or just a rehearsal of emotion so he can play convincingly when the seats are full?
KH: I don’t think we made that determination, did we?
JO: Not explicitly. We never talked about it on that level. I think what’s so tricky and interesting with a character like this is that there’s always going to be an internal emotional life. However, it ends up being projected in that specific moment is going to be up to the audience. That’s why I love hearing this interpretation of yours. But what I think is sincere is this 17-year-old boy feeling the suffocating pressure of all these expectations, and it’s almost even harder when there’s nobody there in front of you because you realize what a performance it has to be. Whether there’s somebody there or not, you have to be on all the time.
KH: There’s some truth to that. I can remember being in the moment, considering the series of events that led up to it with being the star pupil, seeing what happened to DeShaun and Stephanie, and then my black teacher—who we talked about being in a weird way like a second mom—go behind my back and tell my white parents that maybe I’m a threat because of who I was is a lot! And then to have my dad turn on me like that [snaps fingers] on the drop of a dime simply because he heard an accusation and be like, “This is bullshit, you’re full of shit.” It’s a lot. I think to go through the process of fighting for his identity and rights, in that moment he’s saying this thing about how his mother couldn’t pronounce his name, so they renamed me, it hurts. Because it reminds him of the things he’s had to go through since the beginning that he’s had to suppress to move forward. There’s a lot of truth. He’s disappointed, and he feels scared and abandoned. He’s very alone in that moment, which you can see. But it could be performative because there are moments where he’s like, “I’m good at acting!” [laughs]
There are a pair of instances in the film where it’s alluded to that Luce showed cruelty to a fish. Is that at all a nod to the possibility that he might be a sociopath given that being a commonly recognized trait for them?
JO: Again, we’re just always trying to present things as truthfully as possible. I’m sure every person in this room has done something as a kid to a living creature where you’re just testing the limits. I remember things with my dogs when I was six or seven like, “What if we fold the dog’s legs this way?” You’re sort of playing, but you’re also testing your power. Down to holding the magnifying glass over ants, whatever the case might be. These are all things where we lay out the story and just tell it. Then it’s up to us as to how we want to view it. Do we want to view this as a child doing something or through the lens of race? His history coming from violence? And then how are we going to choose to feel about it afterwards.
Luce, both the film and the character, rail against the “model minority” archetype. But while he describes it as a straightjacket, is it possible that he also slyly sees it as a shield under which he can hide some of his actions?
KH: I think he’s aware of that. There’s a bit of not completely fully understanding the privilege he gets from his white parents. But at the same time, I do think he knows Principal Dan is like, “This one’s my thoroughbred. He’s on my team, I know how to work him, I know how to get him on my side, I know if I bring my parents they’ll probably donate money to the school.” He can finesse his mother right before, and she might do exactly what he needs her to. But there’s another part of him that doesn’t know how much he can do. He’s just testing it out. He’s reactive, just living in the moment and seeing what he’s capable of.
JO: What’s interesting about him is his duality. He’s grown up with a white family, adjacent to white privilege because he can walk into school with his mom and dad. They can offer him the kind of protection that DeShaun would never get. One of the things I would often tell Naomi and Octavia is, “Imagine if that big showdown happens in the third act, but it was DeShaun’s parents who walked in.” There’s no way they could engage and carry themselves in the way Luce’s parents do! But at the same time, Luce is still black. When he walks out of his house, he will be treated and viewed when he’s not with his parents in the same way that a young black man would be. He alludes to that when it comes to smoking weed.
So, part of all this is how far the model-minority thing can go for Luce. How far does this privilege extend for him? How much can he get away with, or when are they going to decide that he’s not a saint anymore, but a monster? And the inability to negotiate that. Because in either case, whether you’re a saint or a monster, it’s saying that you’re not human. Though one of them comes with privileges, it’s still saying that you don’t have access to a full spectrum of humanity. While on some level, everyone around Luce thinks that if they lift him up to perfection, it proves, one, how open-minded and progressive they are and, two, the system works. What they don’t always fully recognize is that not only is it discarding the people who aren’t doing that, it’s also creating—on an emotional and psychological level—an alienation within Luce. And, in this case, both people are hurt as opposed to arriving and doing the real work that makes it a possibility for everyone to have access to that full humanity.
You mention the big third-act showdown, and in both times I’ve seen Luce, the moment that gets the loudest gasp is when his adoptive white parents decide to go all in on a pretty bald-faced lie. What do you hope audiences take away about whiteness and its complicity in perpetuating the monster/saint dichotomy?
JO: An awareness of that complicity. There’s often the analogy used that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water—[the water’s] just there. When you have a space that’s built for your existence, you don’t feel the pressure points in the same way. You’re not always aware of the privileges you have and how those things can be weaponized. Sometimes, your good intentions can be a path that leads down—we know how the rest of that saying goes. I think the challenge for everybody, and that’s what I loved about telling this story, is that we are all limited and prisoners of our own perception. For some of us, that perception comes with more privilege. But specifically, for those who live on the top end of that power totem pole, there often isn’t an awareness of how even in the best of circumstances, one is contributing to the systems of power and privilege that exist. I think, hopefully, if we’ve done our job with the story, we’re not lecturing anybody or pointing the finger per se. We’re just asking the question.
Watching it again, I was struck by how many instances in the film there are where if the characters were just honest, transparent, or didn’t assume something about the other person, they could have avoided so many bad things. Is that a fair statement?
JO: Absolutely! I think we all know—and this is my first time meeting you, Marshall—how hard that is. It is so hard. It’s such a negotiation between ego and beliefs. All you have to do is look at who’s in power in this country right now and what he has the privilege to ignore. And then, by proxy, the people who choose to support him have the privilege to ignore. What was really interesting about Amy’s arc in the film is that you have her move from a lack of awareness to awareness, but then she has the privilege to decide how aware she wants to be or what she wants to turn off. She says, “You know, I just want to love my son, forget it!”
KH: Tim’s character is interesting because, from the get-go, he’s like, “Just tell him!”
JO: Tim and I often had these conversations about where Peter’s coming from. He came from more of a working-class background and rose to that level. But Amy grew up in the type of environment she’s already in, with more privilege. Peter very much just wants to parent. He’s always dealing with that, and this is where it gets so tricky with that negotiation of “when am I being a parent who just wants to look after my son? Or when am I being a white man who’s letting my baggage of privilege and my perceptions and assumptions about my son cloud the way I treat him?” And that’s where it becomes really messy and complicated.
The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival
Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: “It’s complicated.”
Gur Bentwich’s Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinema—claims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentich’s film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Cream’s wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwich—the two are deliberately indistinguishable—have both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.
I thought of Bentwich’s running joke when the international critics’ delegation of which I was a part—and which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakia—was treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the film’s references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israel’s cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writer’s sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.
Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the West’s great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.
Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The banner’s commanding image—of a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this year’s Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of Almodóvar himself against a red backdrop—had been merged with an advertisement for Bentwich’s film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that I’ve seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.
Generally, my fellow critics didn’t care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexist—qualities which struck me as part of the film’s joke. There’s no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festival’s taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.
Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the film’s first hour, the greatest achievement of Bong’s career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor family’s ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bong’s kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the film’s tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment that’s been percolating under the narrative’s surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.
The setting of Parasite’s premiere at the JFF intensified the film’s power, as it was shown at the Sultan’s Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue that’s hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultan’s Pool was a site for children’s sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalem’s water supply system. Before Parasite’s premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israel’s dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isn’t without tension, given the conservative government’s hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audience’s traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who’s wanted to cut the government’s funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.
Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, they’re the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though they’re also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Aren’t festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesn’t understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that he’s a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population that’s still nevertheless controlled.
Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ire—a topic we also touched on at the critics’ dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think we’ve initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: “It’s complicated.”
The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festival’s screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultan’s Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttman’s 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassi’s 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.
Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters who’re separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. It’s a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.
Starting with the film’s opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girls’ eventual plight, Aïnouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in Eurídice and Guida’s longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes, a streak of perversity that’s amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, Aïnouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square who’s stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his “good” daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the “bad” daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images I’ve seen this year.
Colors serve the story of Aïnouz’s film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that one’s encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss that’s occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story that’s truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.
Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that they’re sure they’ll despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until it’s revealed that they’re trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isn’t fed on time.
Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonists’ shoes. The filmmaker also doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tom’s no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, it’s all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The characters’ immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, there’s nowhere else for the film to go.
In certain fashions, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though it’s a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But there’s more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one can’t quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausner’s aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this year’s Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls “Little Joe” after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.
The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, can’t see the invasion that’s engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenberg’s The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenberg’s film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.
At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zauberman’s much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse that’s wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiwei’s The Rest continues the artist’s project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people who’re fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutes’ worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugees’ lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness that’s unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.
Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro director’s head, when they’re really works of communal endeavor. Catherine Hébert’s Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the world’s grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoah’s most important formal gambit—the contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the film’s production—didn’t crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. Hébert eventually connects Postec’s astonishing accomplishment with the editor’s own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her culture’s demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliation—of the demons of the past with the yearnings of the future—is what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.
The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25—August 4.
Interview: Rick Alverson on The Mountain and Challenging Narrative Convention
The filmmaker discusses his latest, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Writer-director Rick Alverson is as intense and intelligent as films like The Comedy, Entertainment, and the forthcoming The Mountain would lead you to believe, with a pointed distrust of sentiment that indicates an urge to forge a connection that isn’t muddied by platitude. Alverson’s protagonists yearn for connection, too, especially Tye Sheridan’s wounded and adrift young man in The Mountain, a pursuit that also mirrors the filmmaker’s urge to discard or challenge narrative convention in order to reach a kind of purity of observation. The Mountain is rich in self-consciously still and idyllic compositions that parody the characters’ various pretenses, while also capturing their internal reverberations.
Since at least the rise of postmodernism, artists and critics alike have been trying to free certain art forms—particularly the novel and later cinema—of the constrictions of plot, presumably to access a free-associative and primordial truth. This struggle was at the heart of Susan Sontag’s essay collection Against Interpretation, and it’s a concern shared by Alverson. Yet the filmmaker, in his art and in conversation, runs into the same irony as Sontag: Their rejection of interpretation, embodied mostly in Alverson’s case by the rejection of plot, is interpretation. Most critics and artists, even if they confine themselves to discussions of formalism (and Alverson and I did not) still run headfirst into ideas of meaning, which could be more prosaically and perhaps more truthfully be described as notions of theme.
However, it’s refreshing that Alverson even bothers to grapple with such paradoxes, and he has a knack for speaking in full and winding sentences that mirror the thorny poetry of his cinema. Alverson and I also happen to live in the same city—Richmond, Virginia—and we met last week over coffee in a local spot and chewed over The Mountain, Alverson’s earlier work, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.
Given that you travel quite a bit, is it comforting to have a central home to return to?
“Comfort” is a complex word. [laughs]
I know. I think I’m asking if the concept of a nest appeals to you.
Yeah, but there’s always acclimating to coming home. There’s this whole process of reevaluating things around you that have been with you for a quarter century. But, yeah, it’s nice being in a city that’s oblique and a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the industry obsessions. Now, if I can clean up my Twitter feed to reflect the world as opposed to the film industry, I’ll be a better person.
My Twitter game is extremely rudimentary. A variety of passing fancies.
Where did you go to film The Mountain? California?
It was shot in upstate New York, from the Seneca in the Finger Lakes to the Bronx—14 different towns. Then we took the production and did a leg out in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker and the Canadian border all the way through the rain forest. A company move across the country is substantial. [laughs]
Do you purposefully seek narratives in which characters are wandering?
Yeah, I’m sort of turned off by certainty in films. Movies that have always meant something to me are open and unmoored. The idea of resolution is so fantastical. In so much of consumer cinema, resolution is pushed as a necessary element. Not only as a cathartic moment in the last act, but the very nature in every journey in most films feels like it’s destined to be resolved. It’s so uninteresting to me. It’s so removed from the way we experience life.
When watching The Mountain and Entertainment, I thought at certain points that it’s a relief to be free of exposition. That opens films up, gives them space to do and say something else. Your characters don’t talk about a plot. I’m not saying that those films don’t have narratives, but your characters are allowed to say these poetic and surprising things because they are accorded both geographic and emotional space.
Yeah, in the consumer model for cinema, there isn’t that air in the thing. The act of “tightening it up”—from the script reviews to the test audiences—kills a thing and deprives it of its incoherence, which is poetry, the stuff of life. Also, I never like as a viewer to feel that I’m being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because it’s all laid out; there’s no place to maneuver in there. You’re supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live and find you and actually becomes your consciousness, because these movies aren’t giving your mind anything to do.
I think of the moment in The Mountain where the father tells his son, Andy, the Tye Sheridan character, that he never thought the boy would stop growing. And then he compares his son to the child’s mother, seemingly unflatteringly. There’s a lot of texture there in just a few lines. A conventional film might have elaborated more on the psychology, though we don’t need it. And those lines haunt the entire movie.
Well, good, I appreciate that. A lot of audiences are conditioned to let those things pass them by, because movies teach them to look for expositional triggers. Like “what is this telling me, does it make sense?”—and if it doesn’t they discard it. They’re conditioned in films and episodic television to do that. It’s literally a grammar that says “this is the particular kind of information that’s going to be valuable to you to be able to compartmentalize this whole thing when you’re done.” I think we’re being deprived of a lot of the stuff of life in these grammars.
Even in art cinema, there’s this narrative fixation, and The Mountain looks at this quite a lot, both as a toxic element for these men in this film, and for the audience that’s imbibing them. Is narrative, in the space of cinema, still functional? Even in a broader space, has narrative outlived its functionality as a delivery mechanism for complexity? We’re increasingly taught to have caches, and to reduce things down to very simple narrative ideas, and that’s weaponized by your Trumps and by everybody. The larger concern isn’t “Oh we should just tell more positive and better stories.” We’re using something that was designed in the oral tradition, and in the written tradition, for an entirely other space. Can we criticize the rules of the game?
I don’t want to put The Mountain in a box myself, but Jeff Goldblum’s character, Wallace, is himself addicted to a narrative, to an idea of how lobotomies work.
That’s a reduction of the complexity and nuance of his life into a tidy narrative bubble, essentially. That then allows for a hell of a lot of misfortune, because he’s succumbing to ignorance, and ignorance breeds that shit.
Andy, maybe like his mother, refutes ideas of how we should behave, and you wonder if they’re actually wrestling with madness. From what you give us lobotomizing Andy feels disproportionate to his actions, which is terrifying. We see the social bridge: He’s on the bench entirely accepted and a moment later he’s at society’s mercy.
It’s about surfaces, signifiers, and clarity. I hope the film looks at problems of clarity. We often speak of clarity in celebratory terms, but what is lost in that? The whole mission statement of the arts is to interrupt that idea somehow.
A scene that struck me in The Mountain, and that testifies to the benefits of how you work, making the audience come to you to a certain extent, is when Andy grasps the face of one of Wallace’s patients.
Yeah, I like that scene a lot.
It’s a profound moment. You’re thinking about the potential similarity of this woman to Andy’s mother, and what Andy thinks about that, and his desire for communion. It is poetry—a pure moment. It’s not emotion-by-the-yard, like in a more conventional narrative, with waves of catharses. This is a moment where you’re in this room and you have to look at these people. It reminds me a little bit of Bresson. He slows your biorhythms down, and when certain moments come they hit you in the solar plexus.
It’s funny with Bresson, you, and particularly a contemporary audience, have to be receptive to that state. And there are treasures in there, you know. I think about emotion and the capacity for cinema or what’s left of it to viscerally engage with you emotionally. The emotions that we typically experience in cinema are nostalgic and reverential. I’m not a fan of Tarantino because he’s very tightly recirculating something, and there’s no air in it. I understand he’s a great craftsman, but that’s not why I go to cinema. This idea of “oh this reminds me of this and now I’m reminded in the vein of nostalgia for this emotion”—it’s all triggering. And when the uncertain events of a natural experience, uncoupled with another experience, occurs to an audience, they just shut it out because it makes them uncomfortable. If your mission statement is to engineer that discomfort, it can be tricky.
I watched your first film, The Builder, last night for the first time. It’s very good.
It was a petri dish. Me shooting and, at any given time, one other person holding a boom mic, that was the extent of the crew for a year. It was an investigation into the relevance of the medium to me.
The Builder is shaggier visually than your recent films, but your aesthetic seems to be pretty fully formed. You seem to have already known what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be. Is that fair or off-key?
Yeah, I don’t believe we change very much as individuals in our lives. [laughs] We have a bandwidth, which is another reason why I’ve been forced to value limitations. Because the fact of the matter is that if we can better understand what that bandwidth is, we can explore it. One of my favorite writers is the novelist Thomas Bernhard, and every one of his books resemble one another. They have surrogates for the same position and value of characters in previous books, and so there’s this tonal exploration of a very small space over the course of many novels. I think there’s something beautiful about that.
It seems to me that most major artists have one idea that they’re seeking to express purely. They seem to be chasing a purity of expression.
Well, expression is a vocalization, and the process of cinema is still complex. It’s cumbersome it’s so complex, down to the distribution, and the promotion and development, and the number of people and orientations that are involved. It’s not tidy, but in that process there’s a potential wrestling with the medium itself, which I think is really vital. And if independent cinema has anything to offer, it’s in that contention with the shape and limitations of the medium, rather than it all being a well-oiled machine that you step into. I envy those directors who have that opportunity to create such enterprises. At the same time, it’s reflexive contention that has value.
Did the wide recognition of The Comedy place any pressure on you to try to broaden your audience, or did it enable you to further mine your own interests?
It did allow me to expand in terms of budget, and so the movies became less scrappy. Fortunately. There’re scenes in Entertainment that I couldn’t have shot on those earlier budgets. With any sort of mild recognition in a practitioner’s life, there are doors that open and people say, “Oh, step in, we’ve been waiting for you.”
How do you like to talk to actors? Are you someone who talks a lot to them?
I think there are actors with very particular curiosities that want to work with me, because it’s imperative that the person wrestle a little bit with the process, and that we go into that together and that there’s a discovery. I’m very physical, oriented toward physical concerns of the production, blocking, composition—those sorts of things. And, in casting, there are conversations about the objectives, so that motives—not the character’s motivations but our motivations as creators—are somewhat in concert. There’s a lot I don’t tell because it’s not necessary. During a film’s release or even a year afterward, an actor might discover something in it and ask me if it was intentional. They’ll discover something about how they were used.
Jeff Goldblum is extraordinary in The Mountain.
He should get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it. He honestly should.
He should. I’ve always liked him. I’m a very big fan of The Fly.
Yeah, I’m a Cronenberg fan. I love The Brood. I wish Jeff had played one of the diminutive personalities in that. [both laugh]
Goldblum’s energy in this film has a robustness that contrasts with the withdrawn mood of the other characters, and with the austerity of the film in general.
He’s incredibly curious as an individual and an artist. And his charisma has a life of its own. He’s great to work with and is a very kind person, and inevitably some of that comes across in the film.
This next question is motivated by that scene we discussed earlier, when Andy is looking at this woman and caressing her face: Are you minutely advising the physical gestures of the actors? Their movements feel very exact.
Yes. Me and my cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, who I did Entertainment with, designed this movie to be formal to a fault. It’s supposed to almost verge on the fastidious, with a kind of compulsive artificiality. It’s supposed to feel stilted. So, yeah, it’s rigorously blocked, even on a short production schedule. We don’t do a lot of rehearsals, but there are blocking rehearsals and those are, to me, also gestural. I also talk about physical components, and will give direction like “part your lips.” It’s nice to work with people who recognize our limitations of access to this two-dimensional space. First of all, there’s no interior beyond the screen. It literally is a flat expanse, in which you’re generating the illusion of access, which is really just an event that is occurring in the audience. Someone like Bresson proves that it’s silly to believe that an emotional event can’t be generated entirely on the surfaces, though it’s not where we typically look for it.
Do your actors ever resist this sort of direction?
Some, but not who I work with. Nobody has for a long time.
The Mountain reminded me a bit of The Master. Do you admire that movie?
I thought it had problems. I mean, I admire everybody involved in it. Paul Thomas Anderson is the last great steward of a dying part of the industry, he’s an astute craftsman with a conscience and a capacity for nuance that Tarantino doesn’t have. I don’t know. I can understand that they have some literal similarities: there’s a photographer in that film, and there’s this concept of a mentor. I’m fascinated with these huckster characters, and so is Goldblum, and we bonded over that. Essentially our nation was forged by entrepreneurial fraudulence, even if you’re going back to the entirety of the new world. What’s being searched for is a fantastical unreality, and that desire is harnessed by industry whether it’s the Virginia Company or Joseph Smith’s enterprises. I find these characters incredibly fascinating, and I think Paul Thomas Anderson has a mutual fixation with that. Of course, the two films were being made during the same time period.
To return to a familiar theme of this conversation, neither you nor Anderson are cowed by the idea of offering resolution. You’re both determined to forge your own paths, and you both follow your characters into the ether.
He’s more generous than I am. [both laugh]
He might be more of a humanist, though I wouldn’t call you ungenerous. There’s a lot of earnest searching in your films.
I feel deeply about people and their environments and frailties. I’m sometimes painted as a cynic or a contrarian.
I’ve heard that too, and I think that’s a misreading of your work.
I appreciate that. There’s this fella, I forget who, who said it was evident that I hate the medium, and that I hate humanity. Just because you’re trying to interrupt this greased conduit into self-absorption and validation, just because you’re trying to provide an obstacle. I believe that obstacle is constructive, and I want to become more alive and less pacified. Some critics get kind of personal about me and I’m like “Christ Almighty you don’t even know me.” What did Francis Bacon get for God’s sake, you know? Talk about obstinate.
Yeah, in Entertainment, I think your refusal to judge or editorialize that central character is humanistic. I think a lot of directors would’ve scored points off that character.
Well, yeah, and I got shit for The Comedy because there was no on-screen reckoning. The author didn’t imprint his morality on the thing and therefore the author is immoral. That’s tiredly outmoded. It’s like postmodernism never happened.
Contemporary moralism is often at war with empathy anyway. If you have this tidy moral point, you aren’t dealing with the characters, you’re dealing with the author’s preconceived intentions.
Yeah, there’s a lot of maneuvering for comfort, which I think is part of the reason why the medium is changing and some factions of it are dying. The works of someone like Bresson or Godard—although Godard’s work is the most experimental it’s ever been, and God bless Kino for releasing his films in the United States—are now mostly relegated to the museum set. When people wrestle with the form or the medium now, I would say that it’s strange that it’s not more welcomed in the critical community, since critics romanticize iconoclasts like the French New Wave directors.
Revolution looks better in retrospect, because we know the ending.
And before we go, I’d just like to say, for all the seriousness of your movies, there’s certainly a dollop of absurdism.
Oh, yeah, totally. And had The Mountain been less of a difficult process to make, I would’ve had a lot more fun. I’ve been watching the recent Bruno Dumont movies. With the Quinquin and Coincoin series, it’s fascinating to see how he weaponizes absurdist slapstick in order to have the audience become vulnerable, only to then have those characters moments later become grotesque bigots. That’s exactly what I was aiming for in The Comedy: to disarm some faction of the audience so they become complicit in the thing, and so that I become complicit too. A morality tale is uninteresting if it’s merely allowing you to shore up your moral voice.
Odessa IFF 2019: La Belle Epoque, Sorry We Missed You, & The Orphanage
The festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism.
The Odessa International Film Festival feels very much on the rise, both as an international industry shindig and a well-funded driver for cultural tourism. Free open-air screenings on the Potemkin Stairs ensured a broad public audience; festival branding adorned buildings all over the gently chaotic city center; a modest film market attracted buyers and sales agents from across Europe; and this year’s guests of honor included Mike Leigh, Catherine Denueve, and Rose McGowan. And yet, in the absence of any significant world premieres, the midsummer event seems to serve largely as a chance for local cinephiles to catch up with highlights from more venerable recent European festivals.
I was particularly struck by three titles, relatively fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, each of which takes a distinctive approach to depicting a family unit under duress. The 10th edition of Odessa IFF opened with Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Epoque, a crowd-pleasing comedy about a stale long-term relationship and the cultural impact of the digital revolution. Daniel Auteuil stars as Victor, an aging bourgeois Parisian who sees himself as a victim of technological advances: The slow death of print media has put an end to his lucrative job as a newspaper cartoonist, while his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), has taken to donning a VR headset at bedtime to distract herself from the monotony of their passionless marriage.
Victor, however, is offered a shot at regaining his joie de vivre by his son’s friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a screenwriter who’s amassed a fortune devising personalized interactive theater productions that allow wealthy clients to live out their historical fantasies—think Westworld staffed by temperamental actors rather than malevolent robots. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to the audience, Antoine owes Victor a debt of gratitude, and so offers the older man his first “experience” on the house. A sentimental soul at heart, Victor elects to relive the day he first met Marianne in a bohemian Lyon bar in 1974. Perhaps inevitably, he swiftly falls for Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress hired to play the young Marianne, who also happens to be Antoine’s on-and-off-again girlfriend.
La Belle Epoque sustains a compellingly off-kilter tone, bouncing viewers disorientingly between the real world and Antoine’s elaborate soundstages. One sequence, in which Victor and Margot escape the set of a weed-fueled ‘70s house party and find themselves in a painstaking reconstruction of Nazi Germany, feels decidedly Charlie Kaufman-esque. And yet the film never fully succumbs to whimsy, as Victor’s nostalgia trip ultimately proves deeply poignant, while the depiction of Antoine and Margot’s dysfunctional relationship introduces a darker view of romance. And while the gags and social commentary are often a little broad, Bedos admirably refuses to hold the viewer’s hand as the intricate plot unfolds, paving the way for several immensely satisfying moments as the puzzle pieces finally slot together.
Ken Loach’s bruising 2016 drama I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, tapped into mounting Brexit anxiety and anti-Tory sentiment to become both the director’s highest-grossing film in the U.K. to date and the subject of heated parliamentary debate over its damning portrayal of Britain’s broken welfare system. Sorry We Missed You sees the octogenarian filmmaker reteam with screenwriter Paul Laverty to deliver another timely, compassionate account of working-class life in North East England.
This time around, the focus is on a nuclear family suffering immensely as a consequence of the gig economy. Former builder Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has struggled to maintain a steady income since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and thus jumps hastily at the chance to sign a zero-hour contract as a delivery driver. What seems like a valuable opportunity to quickly accumulate cash soon begins to resemble a Kafkaesque nightmare, with humorless traffic wardens, obstinate customers, opportunistic thieves and a thuggish depot manager (Ross Brewster) conspiring to make Ricky’s work life borderline unbearable.
Things aren’t much better for his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a benevolent contract nurse with neither the time nor the resources to adequately care for her elderly patients. Adding insult to injury, the couple’s taciturn teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), seems intent on punishing Ricky for his failings. And to cap it all off, Seb’s sensitive younger sister, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), has started wetting the bed in response to this domestic disharmony.
In some regards, Sorry We Missed You is an even angrier, more urgent film than I, Daniel Blake. Scenes depicting Ricky’s delivery runs are mini master classes in stomach-churning tension, which hammer home the appalling precariousness of his existence. However, Loach offsets the mounting misery with moments of warmth. A sequence in which the family resolve to make the most of a rare evening together is particularly moving, and serves to make the bitter feuds that inevitably follow all the more heart-wrenching.
By and large, Sorry We Missed You is a little rough around the edges, as some of Ricky’s interactions with customers feel stilted and contrived, while Rhys Stone struggles to convey a convincing sense of Seb’s inner life. And yet, as a tirade against modern Britain’s obscene social inequality, Loach’s latest is undeniably propulsive and persuasive.
Shahrbanoo Sadat’s warmly received 2016 debut Wolf and Sheep tells a mildly fantastical tale of childhood in 1980s rural Afghanistan, centered partly around a boy named Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri). The Orphanage continues Quodrat’s story, catching up with him as a teenage orphan living on the streets of Kabul. After he’s caught by police selling cinema tickets on the black market, he’s sent to a Soviet-funded orphanage where bullying is widespread. The boy swiftly learns that he’ll need to form strong allegiances in order to keep his head above water, and thus he sets about building his own family unit.
For a large stretch, this is an enjoyable, if generic, coming-of-age drama, heightened chiefly by the novelty of its setting; Afghanistan’s brief period as a secular Soviet ally is a fascinating, oft-overlooked footnote in the country’s turbulent modern history. But the film really comes to life thanks to a smattering of charmingly shambolic Bollywood-style musical numbers, employed to offer insight into the withdrawn Quodrat’s desires and fears. Those paying close attention to the timeline may be anxious to learn what role the mujahideen, the Islamist guerilla groups committed to ending the Democratic Republic, might have to play in the narrative. Sadat’s bold decision to answer this question with a bombastic musical-action set piece pays off handsomely, bringing The Orphanage to an achingly bittersweet conclusion.
The Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 12—20.
All of Quentin Tarantino’s Movies Ranked
On the occasion of the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we ranked Tarantino’s feature films.
Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to fortifying the themes of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, makes the film one of his greatest—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. The film navigates late-‘60s Hollywood, an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, alongside Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), before then jumping six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality, with Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.
The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We won’t spoil the ending here, but we will tell you below where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood falls on our ranked list of Tarantino’s features. Sam C. Mac
10. Death Proof (2007)
With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Kurt Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur. Even in the universe of Tarantino, which suggests a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile’s mixtape of the countless films he’s absorbed throughout his life, Russell feels like a living, breathing human being. By comparison, Mike’s victims simply suggest regurgitating pop-culture sponges. Indeed, by the time Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life. When the female characters turn into avenging angels, their motivations seem to turn on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own (“I’m okay!” one of them happily beams right after she’s almost been decimated by Mike’s muscle car) or Mike’s, is so casually flippant that we’re denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it’s a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Death Proof is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck. Jeremiah Kipp
9. Django Unchained (2012)
With Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn’t transcend the tropes of the revenge film, or the odd-couple buddy comedy for that matter. For all the film’s ostentatiously shocking imagery and dialogue (Tarantino employs the n-word in a fashion that resembles the gimmicky scare tactics associated with director William Castle), one can’t escape the suspicion that this film’s a bloated vanity project with delusions of grandeur. Django Unchained features a blunter treatment of slavery than we routinely encounter in mainstream American cinema, but the garish fantasy violence only superficially distracts from Tarantino’s allegiance to the same damn clichés that govern politer “issue” films. Django Unchained is ultimately a white fantasy of purging shared cultural guilt, one that follows a benevolent white man (Christoph Waltz is the lead regardless of what his Oscar may say) as he befriends and liberates an appreciative black man who goes on to symbolically wipe the slate clean on subjugation. Chuck Bowen
8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, Tarantino, like Jean-Luc Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of spot-the-references playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in a QT film, they’re legion—mean something to viewers other than the fact that they’re referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. Although Tarantino’s films sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain, they almost invariably take place in a movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words. Kenji Fujishima
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Rather than following a clean genealogical path back to Hollywood westerns of the Golden Age, The Hateful Eight often resembles Italian giallo horror, less for that subgenre’s tendency to luxuriate in synth scores and extravagant lighting setups than for its less-celebrated preoccupation with cruelty and pain. As in those extravagant and supernaturally tinged slashers, characters in The Hateful Eight who choose to have any agency apart from maintaining a cover story find a nebulous reward for forcing fate’s hand. When the gun smoke clears, we somehow end up with more dead bodies than we had living ones at the start, and the film proves to have quite a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, apart from having the same lead actor (Kurt Russell) and largely identical blizzard conditions: Death emerges from the floorboards, and, following a crisis, an impromptu “court” is established to distinguish between friend and foe. Even the final moments echo the creature classic: Having dispensed justice at long last, two doomed men share a laugh over a great lie, and the camera retreats upward and away from their near-lifeless detente. The haberdashery, by design a sanctuary, has been transformed into a self-cleaning oven, now strewn with an assortment of particulate matter, and we arrive at an unexpected Reservoir Dogs callback: a vetting of moral arithmetic that leaves no survivors. Jaime N. Christley
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
From a structural standpoint, Kill Bill’s two volumes connect us to serial cinema past, specifically the two-part films of Fritz Lang. It’s a mess at times, but a seemingly intentional and glorious one. Certainly, Tarantino’s greatest skills are literary and his numerous digressions recall the stylistic flourishes of Thomas Pynchon. When Tarantino abandons the Bride (Uma Thurman) in her premature burial deathtrap to focus on an extended flashback of her martial arts training, it’s reminiscent of Pynchon’s nine-page aside in Gravity’s Rainbow, which details the biography of a light bulb named Byron. If that comparison makes Kill Bill sound like so much compulsive masturbation, rest assured that Tarantino has a point. Consider the movie’s two volumes as yin and yang: The first installment, focusing primarily on the Bride, corresponds to the Chinese principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity, while the second, with a tone heavily influenced by the charming and seductive Bill (David Carradine), corresponds to the opposing principle of light, heat, motivation, and masculinity. Tarantino revels in the filmic power of verbal and (meta)physical pas de deux, and it’s in the final section of the second part, detailing the Bride and Bill’s surprising confrontation, that the entire enterprise reveals its profoundly mortal (and moral) soul. Keith Uhlich
Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist
The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.
By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.
A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.
The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.
As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.
It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”
The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.
When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.
What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.
When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.
Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.
The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.
The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.
It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.
Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.
“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.
Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.
The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?
She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get on set with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
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