Ed Howard: If there’s anything that can excite an impassioned debate among film fans, it’s the topic of 3D. The technology has been around for a long time in one form or another—the first 3D films were released in the 1950s—but its popularity tends to wax and wane, sometimes reaching peaks where it’s a huge fad and a box office draw, while at other times the technology falls into disfavor and disuse. We are currently, without a doubt, in the middle of one of 3D’s peak periods, and there are even those, like James Cameron, who argue that 3D is the future of film. It’s pretty rare these days for any big animated film or summer blockbuster to get released to theaters without being in 3D, and older hits from the Star Wars series to Titanic are being refitted and re-released with 3D effects grafted on.
Our entry point for this conversation is provided by the release of two 3D family/adventure flicks made by esteemed directors working in the 3D format for the first time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin are very different movies, both in their own right and in how they use 3D. Scorsese’s latest work is a deeply personal (but also, paradoxically, uncharacteristic) ode to the early cinema, a formalist celebration of the joys of movies. Spielberg’s film, an adaptation of the beloved comics by Belgian artist Hergé, is arguably less of a personal work, a propulsive, often funny, action movie that hardly ever pauses for breath. Though both films share a certain witty European sensibility and both are family-friendly crowd-pleasers, it’s hard to imagine two more different movies in terms of tone: the breathless, wide-eyed wonder of Hugo and the kinetic, nearly slapstick violence and adventure of Tintin.
Precisely because these films are so different, and because they’re the product of two highly respected American directors rather than just two more disposable holiday-season spectacles, they provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the merits of 3D, to consider whether this technology really is, as filmmakers like Cameron seem to think, the future of film and a valuable aesthetic tool, or if it’s simply a faddy gimmick that’s cycled back into popularity before people get tired of it again. These films provide an interesting case study for these questions. One curiosity is that the brasher, louder Tintin arguably uses 3D effects much more subtly and minimally than the comparatively low-key Hugo, which suggests that 3D can easily be separated from the other elements of a film’s style and tone. I wonder if that disconnect between 3D and the rest of a film’s elements provides some proof for the viewpoint that 3D is an unnecessary gimmick rather than a truly vital means of expression.
Jason Bellamy: Before I grapple with that thought, let me back up a moment and provide a brief account of my history with 3D as context. I don’t remember exactly when I first donned a set of perception-distorting glasses, but I do know that prior to this recent 3D craze I experienced the sensation of swimming with fish through a vertical kelp maze in an underwater short at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and long before that I saw portions of The Birds in 3D at MGM Studios and had a Muppets 3D experience at another theme park (Disney’s California Adventure, I think). There were other 3D exposures, too, here and there, but the first 3D Hollywood feature film that I saw in its entirety was Cameron’s Avatar. Since then I have seen four 3D movies: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo (twice), Tarsem’s Immortals and Tintin, in that order. Of course, seeing a 3D film these days means suffering through about 20 minutes of 3D trailers, so while I didn’t actually attend recent releases like The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or The Three Musketeers, I saw enough of their 3D imagery to get a sense for the way those movies try to swashbuckle into the audience’s lap with penetrating swords. Likewise, I have a sense for how the re-releases of Star Wars and Titanic will look with an extra “dimension.”
I mention all of that to make it clear that my experience with 3D makes for an extremely small sample size. But, if we’re honest, that’s true for almost everyone. We’re having this conversation now because two revered 2D directors, Scorsese and Spielberg, have dipped their toes into 3D waters. But that leaves countless revered 2D directors who haven’t come anywhere close to the pool (and it ignores the possibility, however doubtful, that Scorsese or Spielberg might someday decide to commit to 3D altogether). 3D might not be “new,” but as an art form it’s in its infancy, and great filmmakers like Scorsese and Spielberg are in the infancy of their 3D careers. With improving technology, there are possibilities available to 3D filmmakers today that weren’t available 50 years ago, certainly, and probably even 5, and even if those technological developments don’t continue (and I suspect they will, for a while), 3D could remain cinema’s New World for decades, as filmmakers partake in a kind of 3D land-grab, racing to be the first to put their signature on a shot in the 3D format that might have been memorably accomplished in 2D before they were born. (Whether there’s true “invention” in that is another debate altogether. Point is, someone will look to be 3D’s Orson Welles.)
Time will tell how this all plays out, but I’ll admit at the outset that I’m stunned at how much my physical response to 3D—never mind my critical opinion of it—has changed since seeing Avatar only two years ago. What not so long ago felt distinct, odd and even nauseating (the 3D effect has been known to give me migraines lasting for hours), now feels startlingly, well, normal. Put another way, the more 3D I see, the less 3D I “notice.” And while that might sound damning (and, indeed, maybe it is), and while you wonder if the disconnect between the overtness of the 3D effect in Hugo and Tintin and the overall style and tone of those movies might expose 3D as empty gimmickry, I see the same thing and wonder if we might be heading toward a time, maybe even very soon, in which 3D becomes so unassuming that it becomes difficult to argue that it has a significant negative effect, as many traditionalist cinephiles are quick to argue. So while today the challenge is often to demonstrate 3D’s value in order to justify its very existence, are we approaching a point in which the more difficult challenge becomes arguing 3D’s impediment and/or impairment?
EH: That’s a good question, and before I answer it, I’ll admit that, like you, my experience with 3D is fairly limited. I don’t enjoy the effect, so I tend to avoid 3D showings unless I have a really strong motivation to go, like the opportunity to see what a favorite director like Herzog or Scorsese does with the technology. For me, anyway, 3D still has substantial impediments. I agree with Jim Emerson, who wrote (regarding Avatar, though his words are equally true for almost any 3D feature), “[Each] layer looks flat, stacked in front of or behind some other layer. So, people for example look like cardboard cutouts rather than rounded figures. What’s worse, if the camera’s depth of field holds something out of focus in the foreground or background, you can’t do anything about it. If you look at something that’s closer or farther away, your eyes have a natural tendency to bring it into focus. 3D camerawork frustrates that instinct.”
The technology keeps improving, and filmmakers may get better at avoiding the worst headache-inducing tendencies of the form, but I don’t think the basic situation has changed since Emerson wrote that in 2009. I think he’s right that 3D filmmaking is essentially “dictatorial” in a way that 2D imagery is not: 3D assumes a certain way of looking at an image, and a viewer who tries to see the image in a different way than the director intended will only be rewarded with eyestrain. A good 2D director tries to guide the viewer’s eyes to the important aspects of an image, not to force the viewer to look at one part of the image and one part only. There’s little room in 3D for visual ambiguity: try to imagine a 3D version of the final shot from Michael Haneke’s Caché, a crowd scene in which the viewer must scan and search for the meaning. I think that 3D encourages a substantially different—and more limited—way of seeing than we’re accustomed to from 2D movies, or indeed any other art form. Whereas in most art the ideal viewer is an active viewer, the ideal viewer for a 3D movie is passive, because being a thinking film viewer—really looking at the composition as a whole—is strongly discouraged by a format in which certain parts of the frame seem to be hovering in midair while other parts are blurry and indistinct.
For that reason, 3D has, historically, primarily been a medium of spectacle and entertainment, and in my opinion there are serious obstacles to it being anything but that. Even if the technology improves to the point where some of the current visual limitations—like the dimmer colors and blurriness—are overcome, which is very possible, the larger issue of active versus passive viewership remains. The two movies we’re focusing on during this conversation are again a perfect example. With Hugo, I had two extreme reactions to the 3D imagery: I thought it was inventive and powerful at times (especially in the recreations of Georges Méliès’ films) and distracting and gimmicky at others, as in all the shots where something juts out of the frame just because it can. While watching Tintin, on the other hand, there were long stretches where I barely noticed the 3D. Some of the frenzied action sequences were perhaps a little more disorienting than they would have been in 2D, and occasionally I felt that familiar and uncomfortable 3D sensation of having my gaze ripped from one focus to another. For the most part, though, I felt like Tintin did very little with 3D, for good or ill, but maybe that’s just because it’s such a different movie than Hugo. Tintin hurtles along, delivering one action set piece after another, ramping up the outrageousness until it climaxes with that ludicrous crane duel at the end, and it’s easy to get swept up in its rush of images. Hugo is a much more deliberate and patiently paced film, and its 3D compositions seem more deliberate, too. Scorsese does some interesting things with 3D in Hugo, but because he calls more attention to the 3D effects, I found that on the whole I enjoyed the easy-to-forget, unambitious 3D in Tintin more. Which, again, raises the question: even if we leave aside the technological and physiological issues with 3D, if the more enjoyable 3D movie is the one that does so little with the device that it can mostly be ignored, what does this say about the creative possibilities of the form?
JB: I’m not sure it says anything, actually. See, the trouble with much of the conversation about 3D at the moment is that it supposes that this effect with the rare ability to be in your face must wow us with in-your-face imagery to be valid, because otherwise why bother? I understand that line of thinking, but I wonder if it might be outdated. If we were to discuss great achievements in CGI, for example, your mind might reflexively call up images from innumerable summer blockbusters that exist primarily to show off their ostentatious effects, and yet some of the best CGI is the stuff that goes entirely unnoticed. (As luck would have it, one of Emerson’s latest posts at Scanners touches on this very subject in describing how David Fincher combines multiple takes within the same frame in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) So I wonder: why doesn’t 3D deserve the chance to be thought of in the same light, as an effect to subtly accentuate compositions or to lie dormant for the majority of the film and come out of hibernation only when needed?
That’s kind of the way Herzog uses 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Each scene isn’t approached with the intent to embrace the 3D effect, as there are numerous traditional sit-down interviews that render the effect moot. But we accept the moments in which the 3D is incidental for the opportunity to see 3D put to brilliant effect in Herzog’s examination of the Chauvet caves. Before I saw the documentary I came across several interviews in which Herzog insisted that 3D was the “only way” to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, because it was the “only way” he could accurately convey how the ancient cave art makes use of the natural undulations of the rock canvas, so that a bulge in a cave wall accentuates the hump of an animal’s back, and so on. Uncle Werner is prone to exaggeration, so I must admit that when I heard these claims I assumed he was merely trying to hype his film and validate his use of 3D without losing his art-house cred. Once I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams, however, I couldn’t help but agree. Indeed, the 3D improved my appreciation of the cave art’s use of the topography of the rock walls while also enhancing my basic understanding of the overall cave environment, all of which heightened the all-important feeling of being there.
Looping back to your previous comment about the compatibility of the 3D effect with a film’s overall tone, Herzog’s 3D use would seem more than justified, because the effect is a direct extension of Herzog’s cinematic intent. And yet it’s only fair to point out that one of the reasons the 3D is so noticeable in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is because Herzog is constantly calling attention to it by explicitly commenting on the shape of the caves. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t feel the power of the 3D on our own, but it’s worth asking, what if the Chauvet caves were simply the setting and not the subject of Herzog’s documentary? What if the caves provided the environment for a movie like The Descent? In that case, the 3D effect might not seem necessary, and certainly it wouldn’t be so pronounced, as our focus would be on the action in the narrative and physical foreground, but that doesn’t mean the 3D wouldn’t be effective, enhancing our claustrophobia and/or sense of confinement on a comparatively subconscious level, heightening our feeling of being there.
I bring that up to get us here: If we approach 3D with the attitude that it can only be justified when the effect is noticeable and significant, what we’re essentially saying, I think, is that 3D is valid only if a 2D projection of the same film would be cinematically and dramatically inferior. In the case of Cave of Forgotten Dreams I would argue that, yes, a 2D projection is inferior to the 3D version. I wouldn’t say the same of Hugo and Tintin, I admit, but I’m not sure it’s actually fair to look at them that way. After all, if we were to adjust our collective attitude and put the burden of proof on 2D, I wouldn’t call the 3D projections of Hugo and Tintin inferior either. In moments? Absolutely. On the whole? No.
EH: The thing is, I do think that 3D projections of all of these films are inferior to 2D projections. At the very least, any benefits of the 3D projection are always counterbalanced by the limitations of 3D and the (many) things it displays poorly. Granted, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a special case because Herzog does make very inventive use of the technology, and he gets some very striking effects in which he uses 3D to explore the curved, uneven surfaces of the cave walls he’s filming. But, as I commented when I reviewed the film for the 2010 DOC NYC festival, there are some tradeoffs involved: the cave interiors benefit from Herzog’s ability to emphasize the paintings’ use of the rock contours, but the exteriors are often a blurry, disorienting mess, and the artificial depth of 3D often ruins the much more sophisticated 2D/compositional sense of depth already present in Herzog’s sweeping natural vistas. Even films that use 3D well, in ways subtle or obvious, are still hampered by basic deficiencies in the format that seem to afflict all 3D films. Moreover, I’ve since revisited Cave of Forgotten Dreams on 2D DVD and I can’t say that I missed the 3D: we sometimes forget, in the hype over 3D’s in-your-face extra dimension, that there are perfectly fine ways to convey depth and contour in 2D through shadows and compositional cues.
That’s why I, as you say, put the burden of proof on 3D rather than 2D. My feeling is, if I’m going to be putting up with dull colors and blurry motion and the flatness of individual layers that Emerson mentions, the director better be doing something especially interesting with 3D to compensate for these problems. To some extent, Herzog and Scorsese do make interesting use of 3D in their experiments with it, and even then I’m not convinced that either film had to be made in 3D, no matter what the directors say. With a film like Tintin, in which the 3D basically just adds some subtle depth effects, it feels like what’s added by 3D is negligible whereas what’s lost is fairly significant.
The 3D in Hugo has more to recommend it. I especially loved a few of the shots late in the film in which Scorsese cleverly uses 3D to create layers separating the audience from the movie sets of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). In one of these scenes, Scorsese shoots through a lobster tank, so that in the foreground, fish flutter around in 3D and lobsters are dropped into the water, gracefully sinking down towards the bottom of the frame, while the actors scurry into position in the background, distorted by the water. The shot is still striking in 2D, but the 3D adds an additional sensation of depth and layering that provides a visual echo of the arts-and-crafts-like cutout sets of Méliès’ films, with their layered backdrops. In another shot, sparklers erupt and sizzle in the foreground, floating outside the screen, while behind the colored lights Méliès’ wife Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McCrory) reclines, her figure partially obscured by the shower of sparks. These shots are especially effective because they seem like Scorsese’s tribute to the joyous, creative and much cruder special effects that Méliès himself coaxed from the theatrical and magical bag of tricks available to him in the early 1900s.
Part of Scorsese’s project here is to celebrate a director who stretched the boundaries of the primitive filmmaking technology of his era, so it makes sense that in the 3D version of Hugo, Scorsese would be similarly playful with the much more advanced technology of our time. If Méliès, who always loved a spectacle, had had 3D available to play with, he surely would have, so Scorsese’s use of it in this film is another aspect of the film’s delight in visual experimentation. For me, that resonance between technology and content justifies the use of 3D here and compensates for the usual issues with the technology—which Scorsese by no means avoids entirely.
JB: I think we agree on Hugo. It’s been argued more than once, in the relatively short aftermath of the film’s release, that Scorsese misses the very point he’s trying to make with his tribute to cinema by presenting the snippets of Méliès’ films in 3D, as if Scorsese is distorting the history he’s celebrating, but I disagree. If the 3D-ized Méliès footage in Hugo was dominated by images flying off the screen then, sure, Scorsese might be misleading the audience about the charms of Méliès’ cinema, but as it is the 3D presentation simply ensures that the montage of Méliès footage remains consistent within the 3D universe in which Hugo unfolds. To have presented the Méliès footage in 2D would have called attention to its antiqueness, which would have worked against Hugo’s core themes about the timelessness of cinematic imagination and magic.
In the scenes you mentioned and others, you’re right, of course, that Scorsese often turns the weaknesses of 3D into strengths, particularly when he captures the layered sets of Méliès’ movie studio, and also when he introduces us to Méliès’ toy shop, which with its vibrant colors, jagged edges and multiple overlapping flat layers looks like a masterful diorama—an intricate toy model of a toy store that made for one of my favorite images of 2011. Likewise, Scorsese wisely uses 3D mostly to bring the center of the screen away from us, rather than toward us, enhancing the depth of the “stage” rather than projecting elements “off the screen,” which allows him to avoid the typical trap of 3D in which our attention is drawn to a point on the screen that will inevitably get blurry as it passes out of focus. One of the movie’s first shots presents the sensation of hurtling through the train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives, with its many stores and commuters whizzing by in the periphery. Later, Scorsese amplifies the dizzying heights of the station’s massive clock tower with a Vertigo-inspired glimpse downward through its well of winding staircases. Thus, when Scorsese chooses to let the action project toward us, such as the shot of the clock tower’s swaying pendulum or during the sequence in which the Station Inspector’s Doberman Pinscher first gives chase of Hugo, the 3D effect is glaring and awkward not simply because the focal point of the image is out of focus but also because the implementation of 3D as an “outward” effect rather than an “inward” effect is a diversion from Scorsese’s norm.
If I were going to build the case against 3D, I’d start there: often the very element on (or “off”) the screen that 3D means to enhance is, paradoxically, the least focused. That chase sequence is the perfect example: as the Doberman runs toward the camera, its legs and ears are in focus, but its eyes, muzzle and nose, the very features that give the dog and the shot character, are a muddy blur. That, to me, is the dirty little secret of this recent 3D craze, in which Hollywood has tried to lure moviegoers off the couch and back into the multiplexes (at higher prices) by turning out action movies in 3D, because action is one of the things that 3D struggles to present with clarity. The second most compelling argument against 3D is the flatness of each layer (the “cardboard cutout” effect Emerson rightfully targets), although in my experience my brain quickly learns to ignore those edges and see everything as one piece, so while I agree it’s a fault, it’s a potentially negligible one.
All of that said, the argument that I find weakest is the one that suggests that 3D filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen or otherwise thwart our ability to “look around” a shot. Is it true? No question. But the problem with that argument is that it falsely implies that 2D films aren’t full of the same: moments in which filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen, either by what they choose to leave in focus or by what they choose to leave outside of the frame altogether. David Cronenberg’s recent A Dangerous Method provides an interesting comparison in this regard, because in many shots Cronenberg focuses on a talking-head in the foreground and one in the background by using a split diopter (a familiar Cronenberg toy not popular among other filmmakers), while in other shots he puts the foreground or background out of focus, “forcing” our eyes to one region of the screen. There’s no “wrong” or “right” in either approach, or in the mixture of the two, and any decent cinephile would rightly protect Cronenberg’s license to draw our attention to whatever he sees fit, by whatever means necessary. And yet when 3D and 2D compositions are casually compared you’d get the sense that the majority of 2D compositions are shot in deep focus or that they otherwise resemble that memorable “look around” shot at the end of Caché. (Never mind, by the way, that many of the train station shots in Hugo invite some amount of looking around, so it’s a fallacy to suggest 3D must always have a small focal point.) I don’t mean to imply that as moviegoers we can’t have preferences; of course we can. But when it comes to directing our focus, 3D films that “force” our attention to one particular feature are really no different than 2D movies that utilize a lot of closeups.
EH: As you say, Scorsese definitely doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of 3D at all times. There always seems to be a temptation with 3D to indulge in attention-grabbing effects that exist for no other reason than to wow the audience with objects that seem to stick out into the theater. There are several shots like this in Hugo, like a watch fob that dangles out into three-dimensional space in front of a blurry backdrop, or some shots where the gears and mechanisms in the train station’s walls project out of the screen. In one shot, Hugo pushes a lever, and for some reason Scorsese shoots it from below like it’s Charles Foster Kane giving a speech, with the boy towering over the audience and the lever projecting out from the foreground in 3D. It’s a disconcerting composition that seems to exist only to provide the expected 3D “thrill” of things jutting out of the screen above the audience’s heads. Such moments never fail to take me out of the movie, since I’m left with the suspicion that there’s little narrative or thematic purpose to many of these shots beyond technical grandstanding.
Granted, this complaint is not inherently about 3D technology, but rather about the way in which the technology is typically used. More problematic are the instances in which 3D’s to-some-extent-unavoidable failings detract from a film’s aesthetics. You’ve pinpointed one weakness of the format in discussing 3D’s problems with clarity in scenes with a lot of action and motion. Indeed, I find that 3D is generally much more effective when the images are relatively static. Towards the end of Hugo, there’s a shot of Méliès addressing a crowd, which Scorsese shoots so that the camera is behind the filmmaker, with the crowd spread out in the auditorium below him. The 3D subtly enhances the sense of depth that’s already communicated by the way Scorsese composed the shot, and adds to the sense of Méliès being awed and moved by so many people belatedly appreciating his art. It also has a subtle mirroring effect, in that the film’s audience in the movie theater is mirrored by the audience for Méliès’ speech, with Méliès himself as the plane of the mirror. Similarly, one of the shots I most admired in Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a quirky composition in which Herzog placed the head of a female scientist in the foreground, staring out at the audience, with the 3D effect heightening the awkward tension of this fourth-wall-breaking moment.
Such shots are largely static, and they achieve their effectiveness by using 3D to exaggerate the illusion of depth or spatiality within a frame over a sustained period of time. When 3D is combined with rapid motion and rapid cutting, though, the result is often just confounding and eye-straining. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the shakycam shots where Herzog follows a group of scientists along a rocky path, or a shot where he tracks a bird in flight, are blurry and hard to watch, even though the 3D effect in these scenes isn’t pronounced at all. In Hugo, Scorsese uses 3D to create a pop-up layer of falling snowflakes in certain outdoor scenes, an effect I found tremendously distracting, like being asked to look at the image through a hazy curtain.
These are the most obvious failings of 3D as a technology, in that it’s often simply ugly: Hugo’s snowy exteriors when seen in 2D are absolutely lovely, and look much crisper when the snow is contained within the frame rather than seeming to hover in a flat layer outside of it. However, I still contend that Emerson’s complaint about 3D’s “dictatorial” control of the viewer is a valid one as well. I don’t think it’s correct to say that there’s no difference between the way we view a 3D film and the way we view a 2D film with a lot of closeups. The directing of attention that goes on in a 3D film is often physiological as much as aesthetic, in that it can be physically uncomfortable to look somewhere other than where the director intends. To me, that is not at all the same as the comparatively gentle ways in which a director can compose and cut 2D images to guide the viewer’s attention to one point or another. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, and just as there are 2D films that might be more “dictatorial,” allowing for only limited viewer freedom, there might be 3D films or 3D scenes in which the viewer has some ability to look around within the frame without experiencing eyeball fatigue. But in general, I find 3D images more limiting and less free than 2D compositions.
JB: As a general rule, yeah. Still, there’s danger in looking at 3D as an inherently flawed approach by comparing it to 2D, somewhat akin to considering silent films as inherently flawed compared to “talkies” (do we still call them that?), or black-and-white to color, simply because in one obvious area they are “less than.” It seems unfair to demand that 3D be everything that 2D is “and more.” Sure, that’s the way that Hollywood is marketing these pictures, but Hollywood also markets the idea of Adam Sandler playing two roles in the same film as double the fun; that’s marketing. Why can’t 3D be “more” of one thing and less of something else, with those strengths and limitations understood and expected, rather than constantly praised and ridiculed? No one would take seriously a complaint from a 3D fan that the chariot race in Ben-Hur sucks because the horses don’t seem to break the plane of the screen, so why should we be so quick to repeatedly slam 3D for being what it isn’t and never tried to be? There’s a kind of artistic bigotry in that, is there not?
To be clear, I say that as a means of trying to reframe the discussion that so often happens in relation to 3D, not to discourage debate (especially this one). Nor do I mean to imply that criticisms of 3D are invalid. Indeed, the “cardboard cutout” effect is the perfect example of how 3D creates dimension and removes it simultaneously (kind of like the kid who puts one foot back in the bathtub in order to dry the other one), which raises legitimate questions about whether 3D achieves its supposed aims. But to complain that images in the periphery of a composition’s focal point are out of focus strikes me as akin to complaining that there’s no sound in a silent picture—those complaints look for things that the filmmaker isn’t (necessarily) attempting to provide.
Then again, if 3D’s critics accept it for what it is, its fans should do the same, because ultimately praising the depth of a 3D picture is akin to praising the absence of color in a black-and-white movie. True, some 3D films will achieve that depth better than others, just like some black-and-white imagery is better than others. And, true, in this regenerated infancy of 3D movies, it’s to be expected that there will be routine noticeable improvements in the craft that merit mentioning. Still, as much as I don’t think 3D needs to be approached by traditionalist cinephiles with the revolted disgust usually reserved for sex offenders, and as much as movies like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo have made me curious, and maybe even a tiny bit hopeful, about the potential for 3D, I do wonder if 3D’s worst enemy is in fact the 3D movement itself.
While only time will tell if this latest 3D craze is nothing more than a passing fad, I think it’s fair to say that up to this point 3D films have, as a whole, thrived at the box office in large part due to their element of deviation, and even if 3D is here to stay, the newness and unusualness of 3D absolutely has an expiration date. Thus, while the parade of commercials for 3D TVs this past holiday season could signal the ingraining of 3D as an artistic norm (which is theoretically good for the 3D movement), it might also signal the demystification of 3D. And if that sounds like it’s simply a concern for marketers trying to coax people to the multiplex, I don’t think it is. Avatar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo each, in its own way, thrives on the delivery of an “alternate-world” experience that is diminished the closer that 3D gets to the norm. It stands to reason then that the more prevalent that 3D becomes, the less apparent its effect will be. And at that point the limitations of 3D might be what truly stands out.
EH: I agree that there’s a certain novelty factor to 3D, which is why the technology has gone through such dramatic cycles of hype and disinterest. Maybe that cycle will be different this time, maybe 3D will be here to stay, but history makes me doubt it. Part of the cyclic appeal of 3D comes from the idea, instilled largely by marketing and hype, that 3D is somehow more “immersive” than plain old 2D film. This is patently false—we’ve already mentioned some of the ways in which 3D is actually less immersive—but it’s nevertheless an appealing concept to a lot of filmmakers and viewers. Particularly with mainstream blockbusters and action movies, the idea of greater immersion has often been touted as a feature of both 3D and IMAX, sometimes even in combination with one another for some kind of mind-blowing ultimate immersion experience.
This obsession with immersion can be connected to the sci-fi promise of virtual reality, which would be the ultimate form of immersive entertainment. Some prophets of 3D would have us believe that the recent incarnation of the technology is a step forward, a baby step on the path towards the eventual realization of truly virtual reality media, but I just don’t buy it. Even if we assume that total immersion is a desirable goal, which I’m not at all sure it is, 3D can provide only an approximation of such immersion, and a rather unconvincing one at that. 3D never makes me think, “Wow, Tintin is actually in the theater with me,” because the effect is so artificial, relying on a quirk of human vision to create an illusion of depth. 2D movies have varying levels of immersion, too, in part because certain directors want viewers to forget they’re watching a movie and focus on the story and characters, while more formalist and self-conscious directors deliberately break immersion with stylistic maneuvers. But that’s a deliberate stylistic choice, and directors working in 2D have the freedom to make those choices, while whenever 3D does anything more than provide the kind of subtle depth cues that Spielberg mostly sticks to in Tintin, the audience is unavoidably going to be aware of the device.
That’s why I still think that 3D is a fairly limited stylistic tool. It’s not especially versatile: either things are flying out of the screen for sensationalist rollercoaster-like thrills, or the effect is barely noticeable. And often, when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. One shot in Tintin that stuck out for me was an image of Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) singing, in which she’s at the center of the frame, while off to the left the blurry arm of an audience member juts out of the screen in the foreground. The shot should be directing all attention towards Bianca as she performs, but instead there’s this ugly, out-of-focus appendage that’s being jammed into my peripheral vision and distracting me. The composition is perfectly balanced in 2D, giving the impression that the shot is taken from the vantage point of an audience member listening to the concert, while the 3D is ridiculous.
JB: I’m glad you brought up Tintin, although it’s probably telling that we haven’t discussed it much to this point: it’s an action-packed movie that’s unbelievably unexciting. But that’s no fault of the visuals. Although I have no doubt that scattered throughout the movie there are several moments like the one you just identified in which objects are distractingly out of focus, for the most part the 3D compositions are rich with color and texture, dramatically lit, thoughtfully arranged and cleverly staged. The hitch in the movie’s giddy-up is that these incredible visual spectacles aren’t rooted in any sort of emotional investment or dramatic consequence, which is a sin I didn’t think the oh-so-sentimental Spielberg was capable of committing.
Part of the problem is probably the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, which seems to assume an emotional investment in the main character per the comic book series that most members of the audience are unlikely to have. But the biggest snag is the motion-capture/digital animation format, which on the one hand frees Spielberg to stage wildly elaborate action sequences without “cuts” but on the other hand neuters the power of some of Spielberg’s signature shots, among them “The Spielberg Face,” a term explored by Kevin B. Lee in his recent (and terrific) video essay. Tintin seems to be evidence that Spielberg needs real eyes to gaze into to find emotion. Or maybe the movie just doesn’t slow down long enough to be “about” anything other than the frenetic action sequence of the moment, leaving Tintin to play out like some digital tribute mashup to all the action sequences Spielberg has shot to this point or ever hoped to do. Either one.
To echo something you said near the start of this discussion, what’s interesting to me about Tintin is that while I was constantly delighted by the movie’s compositions, in particular its use of color, I was almost never consciously aware of its 3D. To some degree, I’m sure that’s a product of my slow but steady acclimation to that visual format; Tintin was my fourth 3D experience in about a one-month span. But even if the subtlety of the 3D can be considered a filmmaking triumph, a sign that the effect can be applied inoffensively, accentuating but not dominating our experience, the inherent drawback is this: in memory, nothing about Tintin is “in 3D,” not more so than any 2D movie, at least, and that’s damning. When I reflect on Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first image I recall is a shot in which the cave floor, littered with bone fragments and other debris, extends up and “away” from us, creating perhaps the most “authentic” 3D effect I’ve yet to encounter. And when I think of Hugo, I picture the aforementioned diorama effect of Méliès toy shop, or the way the dust particles in the train station twinkle in the foreground of several shots. But Tintin? I remember the fun shootout on the boat at night, which recalls a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the shots of Tintin flying a biplane into an enormous storm, but in my memory those scenes play out like standard 2D movie sequences. And while that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, the fleeting impact of the 3D effects does invite the question of whether the 3D had any significant immediate impact whatsoever. Maybe the 3D in Tintin is just “there.”
EH: That’s my feeling as well. And while I can’t really disagree with anything you say about Tintin, I think I do have somewhat warmer feelings towards the movie on the whole. The motion capture animation that the film uses is another technology, like 3D, that has made tremendous advances and improvements without quite overcoming its fundamental flaws, so all the human characters fall into the “uncanny valley” of being too realistic to register as a cartoon and too unreal to register as fully human. Motion capture has gotten better, and Tintin is probably the best I’ve ever seen the style look, but it’s still distracting, as well as being an especially poor substitute for the elegant, artful linework of Hergé, the master cartoonist whose work Spielberg is adapting here. Even so, as an adaptation of this great source material, Spielberg does a fine job of capturing the gentle humor and boyish glee of the intrepid boy reporter as he careens around the world on his adventures, and a somewhat lesser job of capturing the subtle, elusive emotional subtexts that often glide through the comics.
That might be okay, though. Spielberg’s Tintin is unrelentingly kinetic and intense, barreling through one grand set piece after another. This approach reaches overkill levels towards the end of the picture with an epic duel between dock cranes, which is too much, too soon after the adrenaline rush pleasures of the seemingly unending chase sequence through Bagghar. Before the crane duel, though, the film is unceasingly thrilling and fun, whether Spielberg’s cramming in character humor—Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Thomson and Thompson are note-perfect, as is the cameo by Bianca Castafiore—or unleashing one great action scene after another. I can see why some would complain that the film is emotionally empty, but for my part I appreciate that Spielberg made such a well-paced, exhilarating action flick without sentimentalizing the source material.
As you say, though, whatever else Tintin is, it plays in memory—and often even while it’s on—as a 2D movie. That’s certainly not the case with Hugo, a much more complex and emotionally compelling movie that’s also far more aggressive in its application of 3D. If 3D is to have a future, it’s not going to be with movies like Tintin, which use the effect mostly unobtrusively but also unimpressively. Although I’m still ambivalent about 3D, and on the whole I won’t mind if the fad once more dies out (as unlikely as that seems at the moment), I will say that movies like Hugo or Cave of Forgotten Dreams alternately impress and annoy me with their 3D effects, but at least they really embrace the technology wholeheartedly and do something bold with it.
JB: My guess is you’ll see more of that, because I don’t think 3D is going away anytime soon. There were reports over the summer that the allure of 3D at the box office had waned, but I doubt that means much. First of all, the modern 3D craze can be drawn back to Cameron’s Avatar, which was a record-setting hit, so of course interest was going to fall from there. More importantly, I haven’t seen any reports that convince me the failing movies in question would have done better in plain old 2D. (Readers: If I’m wrong about this, please provide links.) Regardless, there’s just too much money to be made in 3D right now, which is why Beauty and the Beast just came back in 3D, following in the paw prints of The Lion King over the summer, and the Star Wars movies will come back to the big screen in 3D later this year, and so will Titanic. I suspect that these enormously popular 2D films could be return-engagement hits in their original formats if they were marketed just as aggressively, but so long as a 3D ticket costs more, 3D creates the greater chance for big profits while giving marketers an excuse to pass off old as new.
Then there’s this: since Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in the early 1990s, the highest grossing movies of any year have predominantly been adventure-based CGI spectacles. I don’t want to imply that all of those movies were empty cash grabs, but Hollywood was already deeply entrenched in the practice of equating scale with awesomeness, and 3D fits into that business model much too neatly to be discarded. Thus, I fear the only way that 3D would really, truly go away would be if audiences completely gave up on the format, making a statement with their wallets, which is difficult to do when many multiplexes don’t offer a 2D equivalent or make those screenings so limited that they are difficult to attend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the big-name directors refused to work in the format, because otherwise Hollywood has even the 3D-averse cinephiles by the balls. (Why did I see Hugo and Tintin in 3D? Two reasons: Scoresese and Spielberg.)
No doubt, many of us will keep bitching about 3D for as long as it hangs around, while others shrug and accept it. At the moment, I feel somewhere between those two poles. The only thing that would make me “want” to see a 3D movie would be curiosity about how a great filmmaker would use it, and yet I find the witch-hunt against 3D to be mostly silly and hypocritical. It was by embracing the new that motion pictures came along in the first place and then added sound and color, which no one seems to be protesting these days. Make no mistake, I don’t view 3D as some natural evolutionary state of cinema by any means. But I predict it will remain in our future, even if I don’t think it’s the future. All of which means that 3D flicks like Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin will start to feel as ubiquitous as superhero movies. Now there’s a genre of filmmaking that needs to go away!
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.3
Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.
After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.
As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.
These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.
As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”
This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.
In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Pascale Ramonda.
Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir
The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.3
Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.
When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.
Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.
At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.
In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.
Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020
25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.
It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.
The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.
The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.
As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown
Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard
Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)
A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson
Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)
If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson
Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)
Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown
Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility
In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.3
Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.
A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.
These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.
This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.
Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.
The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.
Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.
But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.
I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.
Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?
They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.
That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?
And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.
Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?
“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.
Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?
I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.
Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?
I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.
And how do you go about bringing all that to life?
Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.
The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.
They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.
Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?
The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”
Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?
In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.
You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.
No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.
Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?
I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.
The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.
Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.
Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?
I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.
I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?
I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.
With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.
I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.
Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau’s Politics
In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
It takes a rich cinematic text to inspire not one but two separate repertory programs in New York, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau fits the bill. When I caught up with the Brazilian filmmaking team, they were in town for an extended stay to help kick off Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau,” a series of their genre influences ranging from horror to action to westerns. (This series, unfortunately, will no longer proceed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.) While they had a direct hand in choosing the films in that lineup, they had no involvement in the second program, BAM’s “Rise Up!: Portraits of Resistance,” which placed Bacurau in conversation with such protest films as Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics.
It’s the latter thematic thread that I spent most of my time discussing with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles, his longtime friend and collaborator. While an appreciation of their cinematic antecedents and inspirations for Bacurau enhances the viewing experience, it isn’t as vital as a knowledge of Brazilian history and politics. Mendonça Filho’s third film, his first sharing a directing credit with Dornelles, feels like both a continuation and escalation of his previous features, Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Both films located simmering tensions in Brazilian society surrounding corruption and inequality that explode in the near future of Bacurau. Residents of the titular village, facing an invasion by mercenaries willing to quite literally wipe them off the map, must take up arms in solidarity to protect their lives and land.
Don’t mistake the film for a statement on Jair Bolsonaro, however, as it was conceived years ago and shot months prior to his election. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles pointed out, Bacurau speaks to the present only by coincidence. Yet in their recognition of history’s cyclical nature, their dystopian romp about society’s unaddressed faults can remain relevant through just about any president or administration. In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
Your three features feel like they’re circling similar questions about land, heritage, and resistance, and community against a backdrop of capitalist crisis and inequality. In Bacurau, there’s this all-out warfare against imperialist intruders. Is that a reflection of the country and the world around you, or something completely separate?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how we never really discussed any of that while making the films. But once we begin to talk about them, we learn a lot from critics and observers. It’s then that we realize that each one of the films has a very specific tone and speed, and it seems to match the times in which they were made. So, Brazil was actually very stable in the later years of the last decade when I wrote and shot Neighboring Sounds, but, of course, stable doesn’t mean that everything is fine. It means that there’s some disturbance, some diffused tension in society like all societies have. And I think that’s what the idea of “neighboring sounds” is. It’s kind of ethereal, and you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong and what [has the potential to] happen. Then there’s Aquarius, which was done in 2015. By 2013, things were beginning to go very wrong in Brazil, and I think the film rose out of that. We have been talking for years about Bacurau, and, of course, with everything that happened in 2016 in Brazil, when millions of Brazilians saw a soft coup d’etat—
Juliano Dornelles: I don’t see it as soft.
KMF: It’s soft because you expect tanks. That’s when Brazil began to deviate from what we see as democracy. And then, incredibly, we got to Bacurau, and it’s almost like we’re entering what should be dystopian fiction, literature or film, but it’s actually reality. I have to say, Mr. Trump’s election in the U.S. was part of what we were feeling, a change in the rotation of the political temperature. And then, we just wrote the film, feeling very connected [to the moment]. Then people, even in Cannes, tried to insinuate that the film was, or even interpreted the film as, a vision of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This, of course, doesn’t make any sense because we shot the film seven months before he was elected. When we were shooting the film, I don’t know if you [to Darnelles] ever thought…he wasn’t even a candidate.
JD: It wasn’t even a possibility in the same year that he got elected. The beginning of the year, it was just a joke. It all happened pretty fast.
KMF: But it’s fascinating how you can be truthful to tone and atmosphere, which doesn’t really go through fact. I think truth is stronger in the atmosphere of things in society, than if you start discussing actual fact. I think we were truthful to what was happening.
Each of the films, by chance of what happened in between the time that they were shot or conceived and when they were released, looks prophetic in a way. You’re picking up on the tremors that lead to these earthquakes that we see and observe.
JD: Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re about to show 20 Years Later, Cabra Marcado [the directing duo had programmed this film in Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau” series]. It’s a documentary about, how can you say?
KMF: A community leader and a peasant…
JD: …a community leader in the moment of the dictatorship, the ‘60s and ‘70s. He got assassinated in ‘64, the same year of the beginning of the coup. The other coup.
KMF: A hard coup, with attacks and guns.
JD: In this film, it’s crazy because it started like your definition [of how the film picked up on political undercurrents]. And then began to be an idea.
KMF: Maybe we’re moving on to the second [a hard coup in Brazil].
JD: Probably, I don’t know. So, in this film, they show some images of newspapers. The film is filled with fake news, calling people communists. They aren’t communists, but they’re called that. So it’s crazy because it’s the same thing. It’s crazy because this film is prophetic, and now Bacurau can be called prophetic. But it’s interesting because it’s just a look into the past. You can find the same situations all of our history.
KMF: I can almost see some place in the world using guillotines to punish people, kill people through the power of the state. And then, of course, we go back to almost 300 years to the French Revolution. I don’t think that’s too far off. It’s very scary to think about that.
Nowadays, I think you could get away with that but for the optics. If you could somehow do it in a more palatable way—
KMF: There’s a very frightening moment that I don’t know why we didn’t subtitle. Maybe because we thought it would become a political event inside the film, and it was designed just to be on the corner of the screen, which is a very white screen. When Terry [one of the mercenaries] is inside one of the houses in Bacurau, there’s a television which is on. And it says that public executions are restarting at 2 p.m. And it’s like a live feed. So, there are executions. There are executions all over the world. They’re in Brazil, in America, in Mexico.
JD: Black and poor people are being executed. Right now [points to watch]. Another one. Another one.
KMF: We don’t quite have a public execution on television at 2 p.m. That’s one thing we don’t have, but we have all kinds of different executions. It’s a fascinating idea when just the use of words takes things one notch up, and it becomes tougher.
The setting of Bacurau is “a few years from now.” Was it always this indefinite looming specter of the future as supposed to a fixed date? If you enumerate it, you start thinking, “Okay, how long did it take to get to this point, and that point?”
KMF: I love those questions the viewers find themselves with when they see the film. We always talk that it’s the best and cheapest special effect in film. Just five words.
JD: A few years from now.
KMF: It puts you in a heightened state of alert. So, you begin to scan the screen and look for evidence of the future. There’s very little evidence of anything related to the future because the future is actually now.
Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius open with montages of black-and-white vintage photographs of the past. It’s not how Bacurau opens, but we see the same types of photos inside the museum and inside the houses. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the climactic battle takes place inside the museum, the past and the future overlapping.
KMF: My mother was a historian so maybe that’s one explanation. I love documents, photographs, archives. Aquarius is actually about that, but it doesn’t tell you that. You can tell by watching the film that this is gone. This [film] is completely obsessed with objects, archives. Neighboring Sounds doesn’t really feel that way. But it’s very much about the weight of history and how people carry history on their back. And of course, in Bacurau, people keep inviting other people to come visit the museum.
JD: One thing that I like to think also is that we come from the big city, not from that particular region. We’re from the northeast region, which is a huge region. So, the culture is very different there. We were always concerned about not making a film of people that we don’t really know. So, I think this contact, this wish to use archive images and history, it kind of gives us more safety to walk into this terrain. And, yeah, it brought a beautiful confirmation when we started to look for this particular location, that village, we discovered that many other little villages like that had their own museums. But these museums, we didn’t know about them, and we just wrote them. It was great.
KMF: But I think we were familiar with the kind of cultural profile that these communities have. We loved them very much. And they’re so full of culture and understanding of history. It doesn’t mean that everybody is into all of that. We have the special people in each community.
JD: And this kind of thing about people from the sertão [the “outback” region in which the film is set] is starting to change more and more because, of course, everything that happened in the bigger cities is starting to happen there. The growing of the evangelical Pentecostal churches, for example. And everybody is very connected to the internet. So, they have access to the same stuff that we do so. They’re starting to change.
KMF: Have you seen Central Station by Walter Salles?
I have not.
KMF: It was shot in ‘97. The sertão that Walter shot doesn’t exist anymore. That was 20 years ago. But the sertão he shot still resembles very much the sertão from the ‘80s, ‘70s, and ‘60s, which means that, economically speaking, it’s a region that was pretty much left to its own devices. Just by having a complete lack of access to goods from the industry, it protected itself. Not because it wanted to, but just because it had to, in terms of not really changing much architecture and clothing and colors and things like that. But then, in the last 20 years, two things happened: the internet and Lula’s presidency, which brought quite a lot of change to the sertão. So, the sertão we shot in Bacurau is actually, I think, a modified version of the classic images of the sertão. It’s not the only film project [to depict the region]. There are a number of other interesting films: Love for Sale by Karim Aïnouz, and I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You is a wonderful documentary.
JD: They have already observed those kinds of changes.
KMF: And then when we do the futuristic thing, we basically use the system we have now with some touches [of the future], which come from costumes, art direction, and production design.
That’s a very interesting way to kind of approach the past because a lot of filmmakers, whenever they look backwards, employ a nostalgic glance. And you’re recognizing that it’s not just that. The past is a prologue. We’re living with the past all the time in the present, and when we try to go forward, we can’t seem to escape our history. We’re locked into repeating the cycle.
JD: We actually say this a lot in the Q&As!
KMF: You’re saying that we look towards the future by thinking about the past. Yeah, that’s what I said about the guillotines. We made a film about the future, which is basically about all the mistakes and keep being repeated in Brazilian society and, well, maybe other societies also. It’s a classic situation. For instance, we have a classic problem with water in the northeastern region, and it’s been going on for over 100 years. And, of course, we have the technology, and Brazil is a rich country. Brazil can fix that, but apparently, a number of people aren’t interested in fixing that. I don’t know why.
JD: Uh, we can guess why! [laughs]
We’re sitting here eye-rolling about how the past is going to keep repeating itself, and I’m curious, do you feel any hope that maybe we can break the cycle? Is it going to take all-out violent rebellion to arrive there, or even move the needle at all?
JD: My way of thinking is that we have this kind of cycle that always tries to go backwards, and we have other cycles where we try to make some advances. We start to do it, and we build something. I’m trying to believe that what we build in people’s spirits and minds, maybe it’s hard to destroy. Because talking about the Brazilian government, they can instantaneously destroy a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of hard now to convince a lot of poor people that were used to being helped with money, actual money from the government, to improve their lives. It’s very difficult now to take this [back] again. So, he [Bolsonaro] tried, and he couldn’t do this, he needed to restart. Everybody will understand that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, life was much better. So, I think this is some something that it’s not easy to just destroy. And, on the matter of the education also, I think we didn’t advance everything that we could. But we were seeing many people from lower classes, black people are just getting their college degrees now.
KMF: Because of the investment that was done 15 years ago.
JD: This can be something that will make some difference in the future.
KMF: The investments done 15 years ago are beginning to bear fruit. Now we’re beginning to get doctors, engineers, and judges coming from the lower classes and from people coming from the racial divide. Now, we have a government that actually believes that the poor part of the population really has to basically only do manual labor. Not necessarily go to university because universities are for those who “deserve” to. You actually hear people from the government saying that. We are now stuck in a moment of history, which will inevitably lead to good things, but there’s a lot of terrible events, which are still taking place.
JD: We are in the middle of the bad cycle, but I believe that it will change.
KMF: Juliano made an interesting point about how people remember. The problem is, I’m not sure they remember. We all go and have an amazing time at a friend’s house some Saturday evening, and we all remember that evening with great affection. It was a wonderful gathering of people. And then, over the following months, we begin to read about that gathering as the worst, most horrible, nastiest experience that human beings have ever experienced. And then, slowly, we begin to change our own memory of what happened that day. And now, we believe what was written about that evening, and we never say, “But wait, guys, we were there. It was. It was amazing. It was just wonderful people. We had great conversations. It was fantastic.” But, no, people are actually believing the official story. And the way this has been rewritten is quite scary. Because they use technology and the internet for bombardment of this other version. And now, in Brazil, it’s crazy because people just do not remember what was happening in the last decade. They’re now using the official version, which came in the shape of press, the internet, and what we now understand as fake news.
JD: I want to believe that there are two ways. One, all that suffering from before the Lula years…[there] was huge suffering, hunger, and poverty. The highest rates of poverty that are still the same now. If this kind of thing returns, maybe they will remember, that’s my point. Because now we’re on the verge of currency devaluation. So, people will start to not be able to buy anything more. And when it starts to hurt their pockets, they will [remember].
KMF: The Financial Times ran a great piece on us in London on Saturday. However, in one paragraph, he writes about when [the cast and crew of] Aquarius did the protests on the red carpets against the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing corruption charges, which means we support a corrupt president. The word that was missing in the piece was who was facing trumped-up corruption charges. That’s the way it should have been written. And I wish I could have a cup of coffee with that journalist and say, “Listen, do you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of what you’re doing?” Because it’s not accurate information.
It’s buying into the alternate history that you’re talking about and erasing what actually happened.
KMF: Exactly. It’s very subtle, but I keep thinking about, I don’t know, some student in Berlin reading this over breakfast, or some guy reading this in South Africa, and then you spread this version of things, which I find quite incredibly naïve.
It’s an interesting choice that, at the end of the film, the villagers choose to bury Udo Kier’s mercenary character alive rather than just finishing him off. That feels like it’s setting the stage for this to happen again, as we all know what happens to bodies that get buried in genre films.
KMF: We actually wrote a war-style execution engine, like with hands tied in the Second World War. Pacote [a villager] would come and just shoot him in the head, and he would fall into the hole. But I just told Juliano, I don’t want to shoot this.
JD: It’s boring.
If you’d done that, too, I think you might have opened up the film to “both sides” criticism around violence.
KMF: We have this image of fascism coming back. It’s a little plant, which it is, over the last 10 years.
JD: It starts little, and then it’s a big tree.
KMF: I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, the whole idea of fascism was just impossible. It never worked. It’s horrible. It killed millions of people. And now, it’s like, time has passed. It’s like [people think], oh, maybe fascism is interesting.
JD: It’s started to flourish again.
KMF: So, Udo is like a seed. A plant.