Ed Howard: If there’s anything that can excite an impassioned debate among film fans, it’s the topic of 3D. The technology has been around for a long time in one form or another—the first 3D films were released in the 1950s—but its popularity tends to wax and wane, sometimes reaching peaks where it’s a huge fad and a box office draw, while at other times the technology falls into disfavor and disuse. We are currently, without a doubt, in the middle of one of 3D’s peak periods, and there are even those, like James Cameron, who argue that 3D is the future of film. It’s pretty rare these days for any big animated film or summer blockbuster to get released to theaters without being in 3D, and older hits from the Star Wars series to Titanic are being refitted and re-released with 3D effects grafted on.
Our entry point for this conversation is provided by the release of two 3D family/adventure flicks made by esteemed directors working in the 3D format for the first time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin are very different movies, both in their own right and in how they use 3D. Scorsese’s latest work is a deeply personal (but also, paradoxically, uncharacteristic) ode to the early cinema, a formalist celebration of the joys of movies. Spielberg’s film, an adaptation of the beloved comics by Belgian artist Hergé, is arguably less of a personal work, a propulsive, often funny, action movie that hardly ever pauses for breath. Though both films share a certain witty European sensibility and both are family-friendly crowd-pleasers, it’s hard to imagine two more different movies in terms of tone: the breathless, wide-eyed wonder of Hugo and the kinetic, nearly slapstick violence and adventure of Tintin.
Precisely because these films are so different, and because they’re the product of two highly respected American directors rather than just two more disposable holiday-season spectacles, they provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the merits of 3D, to consider whether this technology really is, as filmmakers like Cameron seem to think, the future of film and a valuable aesthetic tool, or if it’s simply a faddy gimmick that’s cycled back into popularity before people get tired of it again. These films provide an interesting case study for these questions. One curiosity is that the brasher, louder Tintin arguably uses 3D effects much more subtly and minimally than the comparatively low-key Hugo, which suggests that 3D can easily be separated from the other elements of a film’s style and tone. I wonder if that disconnect between 3D and the rest of a film’s elements provides some proof for the viewpoint that 3D is an unnecessary gimmick rather than a truly vital means of expression.
Jason Bellamy: Before I grapple with that thought, let me back up a moment and provide a brief account of my history with 3D as context. I don’t remember exactly when I first donned a set of perception-distorting glasses, but I do know that prior to this recent 3D craze I experienced the sensation of swimming with fish through a vertical kelp maze in an underwater short at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and long before that I saw portions of The Birds in 3D at MGM Studios and had a Muppets 3D experience at another theme park (Disney’s California Adventure, I think). There were other 3D exposures, too, here and there, but the first 3D Hollywood feature film that I saw in its entirety was Cameron’s Avatar. Since then I have seen four 3D movies: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo (twice), Tarsem’s Immortals and Tintin, in that order. Of course, seeing a 3D film these days means suffering through about 20 minutes of 3D trailers, so while I didn’t actually attend recent releases like The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or The Three Musketeers, I saw enough of their 3D imagery to get a sense for the way those movies try to swashbuckle into the audience’s lap with penetrating swords. Likewise, I have a sense for how the re-releases of Star Wars and Titanic will look with an extra “dimension.”
I mention all of that to make it clear that my experience with 3D makes for an extremely small sample size. But, if we’re honest, that’s true for almost everyone. We’re having this conversation now because two revered 2D directors, Scorsese and Spielberg, have dipped their toes into 3D waters. But that leaves countless revered 2D directors who haven’t come anywhere close to the pool (and it ignores the possibility, however doubtful, that Scorsese or Spielberg might someday decide to commit to 3D altogether). 3D might not be “new,” but as an art form it’s in its infancy, and great filmmakers like Scorsese and Spielberg are in the infancy of their 3D careers. With improving technology, there are possibilities available to 3D filmmakers today that weren’t available 50 years ago, certainly, and probably even 5, and even if those technological developments don’t continue (and I suspect they will, for a while), 3D could remain cinema’s New World for decades, as filmmakers partake in a kind of 3D land-grab, racing to be the first to put their signature on a shot in the 3D format that might have been memorably accomplished in 2D before they were born. (Whether there’s true “invention” in that is another debate altogether. Point is, someone will look to be 3D’s Orson Welles.)
Time will tell how this all plays out, but I’ll admit at the outset that I’m stunned at how much my physical response to 3D—never mind my critical opinion of it—has changed since seeing Avatar only two years ago. What not so long ago felt distinct, odd and even nauseating (the 3D effect has been known to give me migraines lasting for hours), now feels startlingly, well, normal. Put another way, the more 3D I see, the less 3D I “notice.” And while that might sound damning (and, indeed, maybe it is), and while you wonder if the disconnect between the overtness of the 3D effect in Hugo and Tintin and the overall style and tone of those movies might expose 3D as empty gimmickry, I see the same thing and wonder if we might be heading toward a time, maybe even very soon, in which 3D becomes so unassuming that it becomes difficult to argue that it has a significant negative effect, as many traditionalist cinephiles are quick to argue. So while today the challenge is often to demonstrate 3D’s value in order to justify its very existence, are we approaching a point in which the more difficult challenge becomes arguing 3D’s impediment and/or impairment?
EH: That’s a good question, and before I answer it, I’ll admit that, like you, my experience with 3D is fairly limited. I don’t enjoy the effect, so I tend to avoid 3D showings unless I have a really strong motivation to go, like the opportunity to see what a favorite director like Herzog or Scorsese does with the technology. For me, anyway, 3D still has substantial impediments. I agree with Jim Emerson, who wrote (regarding Avatar, though his words are equally true for almost any 3D feature), “[Each] layer looks flat, stacked in front of or behind some other layer. So, people for example look like cardboard cutouts rather than rounded figures. What’s worse, if the camera’s depth of field holds something out of focus in the foreground or background, you can’t do anything about it. If you look at something that’s closer or farther away, your eyes have a natural tendency to bring it into focus. 3D camerawork frustrates that instinct.”
The technology keeps improving, and filmmakers may get better at avoiding the worst headache-inducing tendencies of the form, but I don’t think the basic situation has changed since Emerson wrote that in 2009. I think he’s right that 3D filmmaking is essentially “dictatorial” in a way that 2D imagery is not: 3D assumes a certain way of looking at an image, and a viewer who tries to see the image in a different way than the director intended will only be rewarded with eyestrain. A good 2D director tries to guide the viewer’s eyes to the important aspects of an image, not to force the viewer to look at one part of the image and one part only. There’s little room in 3D for visual ambiguity: try to imagine a 3D version of the final shot from Michael Haneke’s Caché, a crowd scene in which the viewer must scan and search for the meaning. I think that 3D encourages a substantially different—and more limited—way of seeing than we’re accustomed to from 2D movies, or indeed any other art form. Whereas in most art the ideal viewer is an active viewer, the ideal viewer for a 3D movie is passive, because being a thinking film viewer—really looking at the composition as a whole—is strongly discouraged by a format in which certain parts of the frame seem to be hovering in midair while other parts are blurry and indistinct.
For that reason, 3D has, historically, primarily been a medium of spectacle and entertainment, and in my opinion there are serious obstacles to it being anything but that. Even if the technology improves to the point where some of the current visual limitations—like the dimmer colors and blurriness—are overcome, which is very possible, the larger issue of active versus passive viewership remains. The two movies we’re focusing on during this conversation are again a perfect example. With Hugo, I had two extreme reactions to the 3D imagery: I thought it was inventive and powerful at times (especially in the recreations of Georges Méliès’ films) and distracting and gimmicky at others, as in all the shots where something juts out of the frame just because it can. While watching Tintin, on the other hand, there were long stretches where I barely noticed the 3D. Some of the frenzied action sequences were perhaps a little more disorienting than they would have been in 2D, and occasionally I felt that familiar and uncomfortable 3D sensation of having my gaze ripped from one focus to another. For the most part, though, I felt like Tintin did very little with 3D, for good or ill, but maybe that’s just because it’s such a different movie than Hugo. Tintin hurtles along, delivering one action set piece after another, ramping up the outrageousness until it climaxes with that ludicrous crane duel at the end, and it’s easy to get swept up in its rush of images. Hugo is a much more deliberate and patiently paced film, and its 3D compositions seem more deliberate, too. Scorsese does some interesting things with 3D in Hugo, but because he calls more attention to the 3D effects, I found that on the whole I enjoyed the easy-to-forget, unambitious 3D in Tintin more. Which, again, raises the question: even if we leave aside the technological and physiological issues with 3D, if the more enjoyable 3D movie is the one that does so little with the device that it can mostly be ignored, what does this say about the creative possibilities of the form?
JB: I’m not sure it says anything, actually. See, the trouble with much of the conversation about 3D at the moment is that it supposes that this effect with the rare ability to be in your face must wow us with in-your-face imagery to be valid, because otherwise why bother? I understand that line of thinking, but I wonder if it might be outdated. If we were to discuss great achievements in CGI, for example, your mind might reflexively call up images from innumerable summer blockbusters that exist primarily to show off their ostentatious effects, and yet some of the best CGI is the stuff that goes entirely unnoticed. (As luck would have it, one of Emerson’s latest posts at Scanners touches on this very subject in describing how David Fincher combines multiple takes within the same frame in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) So I wonder: why doesn’t 3D deserve the chance to be thought of in the same light, as an effect to subtly accentuate compositions or to lie dormant for the majority of the film and come out of hibernation only when needed?
That’s kind of the way Herzog uses 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Each scene isn’t approached with the intent to embrace the 3D effect, as there are numerous traditional sit-down interviews that render the effect moot. But we accept the moments in which the 3D is incidental for the opportunity to see 3D put to brilliant effect in Herzog’s examination of the Chauvet caves. Before I saw the documentary I came across several interviews in which Herzog insisted that 3D was the “only way” to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, because it was the “only way” he could accurately convey how the ancient cave art makes use of the natural undulations of the rock canvas, so that a bulge in a cave wall accentuates the hump of an animal’s back, and so on. Uncle Werner is prone to exaggeration, so I must admit that when I heard these claims I assumed he was merely trying to hype his film and validate his use of 3D without losing his art-house cred. Once I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams, however, I couldn’t help but agree. Indeed, the 3D improved my appreciation of the cave art’s use of the topography of the rock walls while also enhancing my basic understanding of the overall cave environment, all of which heightened the all-important feeling of being there.
Looping back to your previous comment about the compatibility of the 3D effect with a film’s overall tone, Herzog’s 3D use would seem more than justified, because the effect is a direct extension of Herzog’s cinematic intent. And yet it’s only fair to point out that one of the reasons the 3D is so noticeable in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is because Herzog is constantly calling attention to it by explicitly commenting on the shape of the caves. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t feel the power of the 3D on our own, but it’s worth asking, what if the Chauvet caves were simply the setting and not the subject of Herzog’s documentary? What if the caves provided the environment for a movie like The Descent? In that case, the 3D effect might not seem necessary, and certainly it wouldn’t be so pronounced, as our focus would be on the action in the narrative and physical foreground, but that doesn’t mean the 3D wouldn’t be effective, enhancing our claustrophobia and/or sense of confinement on a comparatively subconscious level, heightening our feeling of being there.
I bring that up to get us here: If we approach 3D with the attitude that it can only be justified when the effect is noticeable and significant, what we’re essentially saying, I think, is that 3D is valid only if a 2D projection of the same film would be cinematically and dramatically inferior. In the case of Cave of Forgotten Dreams I would argue that, yes, a 2D projection is inferior to the 3D version. I wouldn’t say the same of Hugo and Tintin, I admit, but I’m not sure it’s actually fair to look at them that way. After all, if we were to adjust our collective attitude and put the burden of proof on 2D, I wouldn’t call the 3D projections of Hugo and Tintin inferior either. In moments? Absolutely. On the whole? No.
EH: The thing is, I do think that 3D projections of all of these films are inferior to 2D projections. At the very least, any benefits of the 3D projection are always counterbalanced by the limitations of 3D and the (many) things it displays poorly. Granted, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a special case because Herzog does make very inventive use of the technology, and he gets some very striking effects in which he uses 3D to explore the curved, uneven surfaces of the cave walls he’s filming. But, as I commented when I reviewed the film for the 2010 DOC NYC festival, there are some tradeoffs involved: the cave interiors benefit from Herzog’s ability to emphasize the paintings’ use of the rock contours, but the exteriors are often a blurry, disorienting mess, and the artificial depth of 3D often ruins the much more sophisticated 2D/compositional sense of depth already present in Herzog’s sweeping natural vistas. Even films that use 3D well, in ways subtle or obvious, are still hampered by basic deficiencies in the format that seem to afflict all 3D films. Moreover, I’ve since revisited Cave of Forgotten Dreams on 2D DVD and I can’t say that I missed the 3D: we sometimes forget, in the hype over 3D’s in-your-face extra dimension, that there are perfectly fine ways to convey depth and contour in 2D through shadows and compositional cues.
That’s why I, as you say, put the burden of proof on 3D rather than 2D. My feeling is, if I’m going to be putting up with dull colors and blurry motion and the flatness of individual layers that Emerson mentions, the director better be doing something especially interesting with 3D to compensate for these problems. To some extent, Herzog and Scorsese do make interesting use of 3D in their experiments with it, and even then I’m not convinced that either film had to be made in 3D, no matter what the directors say. With a film like Tintin, in which the 3D basically just adds some subtle depth effects, it feels like what’s added by 3D is negligible whereas what’s lost is fairly significant.
The 3D in Hugo has more to recommend it. I especially loved a few of the shots late in the film in which Scorsese cleverly uses 3D to create layers separating the audience from the movie sets of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). In one of these scenes, Scorsese shoots through a lobster tank, so that in the foreground, fish flutter around in 3D and lobsters are dropped into the water, gracefully sinking down towards the bottom of the frame, while the actors scurry into position in the background, distorted by the water. The shot is still striking in 2D, but the 3D adds an additional sensation of depth and layering that provides a visual echo of the arts-and-crafts-like cutout sets of Méliès’ films, with their layered backdrops. In another shot, sparklers erupt and sizzle in the foreground, floating outside the screen, while behind the colored lights Méliès’ wife Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McCrory) reclines, her figure partially obscured by the shower of sparks. These shots are especially effective because they seem like Scorsese’s tribute to the joyous, creative and much cruder special effects that Méliès himself coaxed from the theatrical and magical bag of tricks available to him in the early 1900s.
Part of Scorsese’s project here is to celebrate a director who stretched the boundaries of the primitive filmmaking technology of his era, so it makes sense that in the 3D version of Hugo, Scorsese would be similarly playful with the much more advanced technology of our time. If Méliès, who always loved a spectacle, had had 3D available to play with, he surely would have, so Scorsese’s use of it in this film is another aspect of the film’s delight in visual experimentation. For me, that resonance between technology and content justifies the use of 3D here and compensates for the usual issues with the technology—which Scorsese by no means avoids entirely.
JB: I think we agree on Hugo. It’s been argued more than once, in the relatively short aftermath of the film’s release, that Scorsese misses the very point he’s trying to make with his tribute to cinema by presenting the snippets of Méliès’ films in 3D, as if Scorsese is distorting the history he’s celebrating, but I disagree. If the 3D-ized Méliès footage in Hugo was dominated by images flying off the screen then, sure, Scorsese might be misleading the audience about the charms of Méliès’ cinema, but as it is the 3D presentation simply ensures that the montage of Méliès footage remains consistent within the 3D universe in which Hugo unfolds. To have presented the Méliès footage in 2D would have called attention to its antiqueness, which would have worked against Hugo’s core themes about the timelessness of cinematic imagination and magic.
In the scenes you mentioned and others, you’re right, of course, that Scorsese often turns the weaknesses of 3D into strengths, particularly when he captures the layered sets of Méliès’ movie studio, and also when he introduces us to Méliès’ toy shop, which with its vibrant colors, jagged edges and multiple overlapping flat layers looks like a masterful diorama—an intricate toy model of a toy store that made for one of my favorite images of 2011. Likewise, Scorsese wisely uses 3D mostly to bring the center of the screen away from us, rather than toward us, enhancing the depth of the “stage” rather than projecting elements “off the screen,” which allows him to avoid the typical trap of 3D in which our attention is drawn to a point on the screen that will inevitably get blurry as it passes out of focus. One of the movie’s first shots presents the sensation of hurtling through the train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives, with its many stores and commuters whizzing by in the periphery. Later, Scorsese amplifies the dizzying heights of the station’s massive clock tower with a Vertigo-inspired glimpse downward through its well of winding staircases. Thus, when Scorsese chooses to let the action project toward us, such as the shot of the clock tower’s swaying pendulum or during the sequence in which the Station Inspector’s Doberman Pinscher first gives chase of Hugo, the 3D effect is glaring and awkward not simply because the focal point of the image is out of focus but also because the implementation of 3D as an “outward” effect rather than an “inward” effect is a diversion from Scorsese’s norm.
If I were going to build the case against 3D, I’d start there: often the very element on (or “off”) the screen that 3D means to enhance is, paradoxically, the least focused. That chase sequence is the perfect example: as the Doberman runs toward the camera, its legs and ears are in focus, but its eyes, muzzle and nose, the very features that give the dog and the shot character, are a muddy blur. That, to me, is the dirty little secret of this recent 3D craze, in which Hollywood has tried to lure moviegoers off the couch and back into the multiplexes (at higher prices) by turning out action movies in 3D, because action is one of the things that 3D struggles to present with clarity. The second most compelling argument against 3D is the flatness of each layer (the “cardboard cutout” effect Emerson rightfully targets), although in my experience my brain quickly learns to ignore those edges and see everything as one piece, so while I agree it’s a fault, it’s a potentially negligible one.
All of that said, the argument that I find weakest is the one that suggests that 3D filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen or otherwise thwart our ability to “look around” a shot. Is it true? No question. But the problem with that argument is that it falsely implies that 2D films aren’t full of the same: moments in which filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen, either by what they choose to leave in focus or by what they choose to leave outside of the frame altogether. David Cronenberg’s recent A Dangerous Method provides an interesting comparison in this regard, because in many shots Cronenberg focuses on a talking-head in the foreground and one in the background by using a split diopter (a familiar Cronenberg toy not popular among other filmmakers), while in other shots he puts the foreground or background out of focus, “forcing” our eyes to one region of the screen. There’s no “wrong” or “right” in either approach, or in the mixture of the two, and any decent cinephile would rightly protect Cronenberg’s license to draw our attention to whatever he sees fit, by whatever means necessary. And yet when 3D and 2D compositions are casually compared you’d get the sense that the majority of 2D compositions are shot in deep focus or that they otherwise resemble that memorable “look around” shot at the end of Caché. (Never mind, by the way, that many of the train station shots in Hugo invite some amount of looking around, so it’s a fallacy to suggest 3D must always have a small focal point.) I don’t mean to imply that as moviegoers we can’t have preferences; of course we can. But when it comes to directing our focus, 3D films that “force” our attention to one particular feature are really no different than 2D movies that utilize a lot of closeups.
EH: As you say, Scorsese definitely doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of 3D at all times. There always seems to be a temptation with 3D to indulge in attention-grabbing effects that exist for no other reason than to wow the audience with objects that seem to stick out into the theater. There are several shots like this in Hugo, like a watch fob that dangles out into three-dimensional space in front of a blurry backdrop, or some shots where the gears and mechanisms in the train station’s walls project out of the screen. In one shot, Hugo pushes a lever, and for some reason Scorsese shoots it from below like it’s Charles Foster Kane giving a speech, with the boy towering over the audience and the lever projecting out from the foreground in 3D. It’s a disconcerting composition that seems to exist only to provide the expected 3D “thrill” of things jutting out of the screen above the audience’s heads. Such moments never fail to take me out of the movie, since I’m left with the suspicion that there’s little narrative or thematic purpose to many of these shots beyond technical grandstanding.
Granted, this complaint is not inherently about 3D technology, but rather about the way in which the technology is typically used. More problematic are the instances in which 3D’s to-some-extent-unavoidable failings detract from a film’s aesthetics. You’ve pinpointed one weakness of the format in discussing 3D’s problems with clarity in scenes with a lot of action and motion. Indeed, I find that 3D is generally much more effective when the images are relatively static. Towards the end of Hugo, there’s a shot of Méliès addressing a crowd, which Scorsese shoots so that the camera is behind the filmmaker, with the crowd spread out in the auditorium below him. The 3D subtly enhances the sense of depth that’s already communicated by the way Scorsese composed the shot, and adds to the sense of Méliès being awed and moved by so many people belatedly appreciating his art. It also has a subtle mirroring effect, in that the film’s audience in the movie theater is mirrored by the audience for Méliès’ speech, with Méliès himself as the plane of the mirror. Similarly, one of the shots I most admired in Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a quirky composition in which Herzog placed the head of a female scientist in the foreground, staring out at the audience, with the 3D effect heightening the awkward tension of this fourth-wall-breaking moment.
Such shots are largely static, and they achieve their effectiveness by using 3D to exaggerate the illusion of depth or spatiality within a frame over a sustained period of time. When 3D is combined with rapid motion and rapid cutting, though, the result is often just confounding and eye-straining. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the shakycam shots where Herzog follows a group of scientists along a rocky path, or a shot where he tracks a bird in flight, are blurry and hard to watch, even though the 3D effect in these scenes isn’t pronounced at all. In Hugo, Scorsese uses 3D to create a pop-up layer of falling snowflakes in certain outdoor scenes, an effect I found tremendously distracting, like being asked to look at the image through a hazy curtain.
These are the most obvious failings of 3D as a technology, in that it’s often simply ugly: Hugo’s snowy exteriors when seen in 2D are absolutely lovely, and look much crisper when the snow is contained within the frame rather than seeming to hover in a flat layer outside of it. However, I still contend that Emerson’s complaint about 3D’s “dictatorial” control of the viewer is a valid one as well. I don’t think it’s correct to say that there’s no difference between the way we view a 3D film and the way we view a 2D film with a lot of closeups. The directing of attention that goes on in a 3D film is often physiological as much as aesthetic, in that it can be physically uncomfortable to look somewhere other than where the director intends. To me, that is not at all the same as the comparatively gentle ways in which a director can compose and cut 2D images to guide the viewer’s attention to one point or another. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, and just as there are 2D films that might be more “dictatorial,” allowing for only limited viewer freedom, there might be 3D films or 3D scenes in which the viewer has some ability to look around within the frame without experiencing eyeball fatigue. But in general, I find 3D images more limiting and less free than 2D compositions.
JB: As a general rule, yeah. Still, there’s danger in looking at 3D as an inherently flawed approach by comparing it to 2D, somewhat akin to considering silent films as inherently flawed compared to “talkies” (do we still call them that?), or black-and-white to color, simply because in one obvious area they are “less than.” It seems unfair to demand that 3D be everything that 2D is “and more.” Sure, that’s the way that Hollywood is marketing these pictures, but Hollywood also markets the idea of Adam Sandler playing two roles in the same film as double the fun; that’s marketing. Why can’t 3D be “more” of one thing and less of something else, with those strengths and limitations understood and expected, rather than constantly praised and ridiculed? No one would take seriously a complaint from a 3D fan that the chariot race in Ben-Hur sucks because the horses don’t seem to break the plane of the screen, so why should we be so quick to repeatedly slam 3D for being what it isn’t and never tried to be? There’s a kind of artistic bigotry in that, is there not?
To be clear, I say that as a means of trying to reframe the discussion that so often happens in relation to 3D, not to discourage debate (especially this one). Nor do I mean to imply that criticisms of 3D are invalid. Indeed, the “cardboard cutout” effect is the perfect example of how 3D creates dimension and removes it simultaneously (kind of like the kid who puts one foot back in the bathtub in order to dry the other one), which raises legitimate questions about whether 3D achieves its supposed aims. But to complain that images in the periphery of a composition’s focal point are out of focus strikes me as akin to complaining that there’s no sound in a silent picture—those complaints look for things that the filmmaker isn’t (necessarily) attempting to provide.
Then again, if 3D’s critics accept it for what it is, its fans should do the same, because ultimately praising the depth of a 3D picture is akin to praising the absence of color in a black-and-white movie. True, some 3D films will achieve that depth better than others, just like some black-and-white imagery is better than others. And, true, in this regenerated infancy of 3D movies, it’s to be expected that there will be routine noticeable improvements in the craft that merit mentioning. Still, as much as I don’t think 3D needs to be approached by traditionalist cinephiles with the revolted disgust usually reserved for sex offenders, and as much as movies like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo have made me curious, and maybe even a tiny bit hopeful, about the potential for 3D, I do wonder if 3D’s worst enemy is in fact the 3D movement itself.
While only time will tell if this latest 3D craze is nothing more than a passing fad, I think it’s fair to say that up to this point 3D films have, as a whole, thrived at the box office in large part due to their element of deviation, and even if 3D is here to stay, the newness and unusualness of 3D absolutely has an expiration date. Thus, while the parade of commercials for 3D TVs this past holiday season could signal the ingraining of 3D as an artistic norm (which is theoretically good for the 3D movement), it might also signal the demystification of 3D. And if that sounds like it’s simply a concern for marketers trying to coax people to the multiplex, I don’t think it is. Avatar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo each, in its own way, thrives on the delivery of an “alternate-world” experience that is diminished the closer that 3D gets to the norm. It stands to reason then that the more prevalent that 3D becomes, the less apparent its effect will be. And at that point the limitations of 3D might be what truly stands out.
EH: I agree that there’s a certain novelty factor to 3D, which is why the technology has gone through such dramatic cycles of hype and disinterest. Maybe that cycle will be different this time, maybe 3D will be here to stay, but history makes me doubt it. Part of the cyclic appeal of 3D comes from the idea, instilled largely by marketing and hype, that 3D is somehow more “immersive” than plain old 2D film. This is patently false—we’ve already mentioned some of the ways in which 3D is actually less immersive—but it’s nevertheless an appealing concept to a lot of filmmakers and viewers. Particularly with mainstream blockbusters and action movies, the idea of greater immersion has often been touted as a feature of both 3D and IMAX, sometimes even in combination with one another for some kind of mind-blowing ultimate immersion experience.
This obsession with immersion can be connected to the sci-fi promise of virtual reality, which would be the ultimate form of immersive entertainment. Some prophets of 3D would have us believe that the recent incarnation of the technology is a step forward, a baby step on the path towards the eventual realization of truly virtual reality media, but I just don’t buy it. Even if we assume that total immersion is a desirable goal, which I’m not at all sure it is, 3D can provide only an approximation of such immersion, and a rather unconvincing one at that. 3D never makes me think, “Wow, Tintin is actually in the theater with me,” because the effect is so artificial, relying on a quirk of human vision to create an illusion of depth. 2D movies have varying levels of immersion, too, in part because certain directors want viewers to forget they’re watching a movie and focus on the story and characters, while more formalist and self-conscious directors deliberately break immersion with stylistic maneuvers. But that’s a deliberate stylistic choice, and directors working in 2D have the freedom to make those choices, while whenever 3D does anything more than provide the kind of subtle depth cues that Spielberg mostly sticks to in Tintin, the audience is unavoidably going to be aware of the device.
That’s why I still think that 3D is a fairly limited stylistic tool. It’s not especially versatile: either things are flying out of the screen for sensationalist rollercoaster-like thrills, or the effect is barely noticeable. And often, when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. One shot in Tintin that stuck out for me was an image of Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) singing, in which she’s at the center of the frame, while off to the left the blurry arm of an audience member juts out of the screen in the foreground. The shot should be directing all attention towards Bianca as she performs, but instead there’s this ugly, out-of-focus appendage that’s being jammed into my peripheral vision and distracting me. The composition is perfectly balanced in 2D, giving the impression that the shot is taken from the vantage point of an audience member listening to the concert, while the 3D is ridiculous.
JB: I’m glad you brought up Tintin, although it’s probably telling that we haven’t discussed it much to this point: it’s an action-packed movie that’s unbelievably unexciting. But that’s no fault of the visuals. Although I have no doubt that scattered throughout the movie there are several moments like the one you just identified in which objects are distractingly out of focus, for the most part the 3D compositions are rich with color and texture, dramatically lit, thoughtfully arranged and cleverly staged. The hitch in the movie’s giddy-up is that these incredible visual spectacles aren’t rooted in any sort of emotional investment or dramatic consequence, which is a sin I didn’t think the oh-so-sentimental Spielberg was capable of committing.
Part of the problem is probably the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, which seems to assume an emotional investment in the main character per the comic book series that most members of the audience are unlikely to have. But the biggest snag is the motion-capture/digital animation format, which on the one hand frees Spielberg to stage wildly elaborate action sequences without “cuts” but on the other hand neuters the power of some of Spielberg’s signature shots, among them “The Spielberg Face,” a term explored by Kevin B. Lee in his recent (and terrific) video essay. Tintin seems to be evidence that Spielberg needs real eyes to gaze into to find emotion. Or maybe the movie just doesn’t slow down long enough to be “about” anything other than the frenetic action sequence of the moment, leaving Tintin to play out like some digital tribute mashup to all the action sequences Spielberg has shot to this point or ever hoped to do. Either one.
To echo something you said near the start of this discussion, what’s interesting to me about Tintin is that while I was constantly delighted by the movie’s compositions, in particular its use of color, I was almost never consciously aware of its 3D. To some degree, I’m sure that’s a product of my slow but steady acclimation to that visual format; Tintin was my fourth 3D experience in about a one-month span. But even if the subtlety of the 3D can be considered a filmmaking triumph, a sign that the effect can be applied inoffensively, accentuating but not dominating our experience, the inherent drawback is this: in memory, nothing about Tintin is “in 3D,” not more so than any 2D movie, at least, and that’s damning. When I reflect on Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first image I recall is a shot in which the cave floor, littered with bone fragments and other debris, extends up and “away” from us, creating perhaps the most “authentic” 3D effect I’ve yet to encounter. And when I think of Hugo, I picture the aforementioned diorama effect of Méliès toy shop, or the way the dust particles in the train station twinkle in the foreground of several shots. But Tintin? I remember the fun shootout on the boat at night, which recalls a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the shots of Tintin flying a biplane into an enormous storm, but in my memory those scenes play out like standard 2D movie sequences. And while that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, the fleeting impact of the 3D effects does invite the question of whether the 3D had any significant immediate impact whatsoever. Maybe the 3D in Tintin is just “there.”
EH: That’s my feeling as well. And while I can’t really disagree with anything you say about Tintin, I think I do have somewhat warmer feelings towards the movie on the whole. The motion capture animation that the film uses is another technology, like 3D, that has made tremendous advances and improvements without quite overcoming its fundamental flaws, so all the human characters fall into the “uncanny valley” of being too realistic to register as a cartoon and too unreal to register as fully human. Motion capture has gotten better, and Tintin is probably the best I’ve ever seen the style look, but it’s still distracting, as well as being an especially poor substitute for the elegant, artful linework of Hergé, the master cartoonist whose work Spielberg is adapting here. Even so, as an adaptation of this great source material, Spielberg does a fine job of capturing the gentle humor and boyish glee of the intrepid boy reporter as he careens around the world on his adventures, and a somewhat lesser job of capturing the subtle, elusive emotional subtexts that often glide through the comics.
That might be okay, though. Spielberg’s Tintin is unrelentingly kinetic and intense, barreling through one grand set piece after another. This approach reaches overkill levels towards the end of the picture with an epic duel between dock cranes, which is too much, too soon after the adrenaline rush pleasures of the seemingly unending chase sequence through Bagghar. Before the crane duel, though, the film is unceasingly thrilling and fun, whether Spielberg’s cramming in character humor—Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Thomson and Thompson are note-perfect, as is the cameo by Bianca Castafiore—or unleashing one great action scene after another. I can see why some would complain that the film is emotionally empty, but for my part I appreciate that Spielberg made such a well-paced, exhilarating action flick without sentimentalizing the source material.
As you say, though, whatever else Tintin is, it plays in memory—and often even while it’s on—as a 2D movie. That’s certainly not the case with Hugo, a much more complex and emotionally compelling movie that’s also far more aggressive in its application of 3D. If 3D is to have a future, it’s not going to be with movies like Tintin, which use the effect mostly unobtrusively but also unimpressively. Although I’m still ambivalent about 3D, and on the whole I won’t mind if the fad once more dies out (as unlikely as that seems at the moment), I will say that movies like Hugo or Cave of Forgotten Dreams alternately impress and annoy me with their 3D effects, but at least they really embrace the technology wholeheartedly and do something bold with it.
JB: My guess is you’ll see more of that, because I don’t think 3D is going away anytime soon. There were reports over the summer that the allure of 3D at the box office had waned, but I doubt that means much. First of all, the modern 3D craze can be drawn back to Cameron’s Avatar, which was a record-setting hit, so of course interest was going to fall from there. More importantly, I haven’t seen any reports that convince me the failing movies in question would have done better in plain old 2D. (Readers: If I’m wrong about this, please provide links.) Regardless, there’s just too much money to be made in 3D right now, which is why Beauty and the Beast just came back in 3D, following in the paw prints of The Lion King over the summer, and the Star Wars movies will come back to the big screen in 3D later this year, and so will Titanic. I suspect that these enormously popular 2D films could be return-engagement hits in their original formats if they were marketed just as aggressively, but so long as a 3D ticket costs more, 3D creates the greater chance for big profits while giving marketers an excuse to pass off old as new.
Then there’s this: since Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in the early 1990s, the highest grossing movies of any year have predominantly been adventure-based CGI spectacles. I don’t want to imply that all of those movies were empty cash grabs, but Hollywood was already deeply entrenched in the practice of equating scale with awesomeness, and 3D fits into that business model much too neatly to be discarded. Thus, I fear the only way that 3D would really, truly go away would be if audiences completely gave up on the format, making a statement with their wallets, which is difficult to do when many multiplexes don’t offer a 2D equivalent or make those screenings so limited that they are difficult to attend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the big-name directors refused to work in the format, because otherwise Hollywood has even the 3D-averse cinephiles by the balls. (Why did I see Hugo and Tintin in 3D? Two reasons: Scoresese and Spielberg.)
No doubt, many of us will keep bitching about 3D for as long as it hangs around, while others shrug and accept it. At the moment, I feel somewhere between those two poles. The only thing that would make me “want” to see a 3D movie would be curiosity about how a great filmmaker would use it, and yet I find the witch-hunt against 3D to be mostly silly and hypocritical. It was by embracing the new that motion pictures came along in the first place and then added sound and color, which no one seems to be protesting these days. Make no mistake, I don’t view 3D as some natural evolutionary state of cinema by any means. But I predict it will remain in our future, even if I don’t think it’s the future. All of which means that 3D flicks like Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin will start to feel as ubiquitous as superhero movies. Now there’s a genre of filmmaking that needs to go away!
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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