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!
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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