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!
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On
The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.2.5
One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.
Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.
The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.
Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.
At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.
Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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