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The Conversations: An Autumn Afternoon

By the end of his career, Yasujirô Ozu had developed a singular style and a set of themes and stories that were wholly his own.



The Conversations: An Autumn Afternoon

Ed Howard: An Autumn Afternoon, the final film of Yasujirô Ozu, opens with an image that goes a long way towards establishing the film’s distinctive tone and atmosphere. It is a patiently held shot of a factory with red-striped smokestacks spewing puffs of white smoke into the breeze, an image that is simultaneously industrial/modern and poetic/timeless. The sequence of images that follows—indicative of Ozu’s characteristic “pillow shots” that establish setting and mood—traces the flowing smoke to a view through an open window, past which the smoke billows, and a hallway where the smoke casts a gently drifting shadow on the wall. Finally Ozu cuts to a shot of the film’s central character, the aging businessman Hirayama (Chishū Ryū), with the smoke drifting by outside, glimpsed through the window next to his desk. This evocative, wordless introduction effortlessly glides from the macro to the individual, bringing the viewer into Ozu’s unique world in the process.

By the end of his career, Yasujirô Ozu had developed a singular style and a set of themes and stories that were wholly his own. He was a director from 1927 to 1962, with World War II as an interruption dividing his early string of Hollywood-influenced comedies, melodramas and genre pictures from the mature style of his later years. An Autumn Afternoon is both representative of that style—quiet, carefully paced, built around static and strikingly framed shots—and a potent exemplar of the richness and emotional complexity of Ozu’s work. Like all his post-war films, it is a domestic drama concerned with the tensions of post-war Japan, with the gap between generations in a rapidly changing society, with the dialectic of traditionalism and modernization, and especially with the ways in which these forces and ideas are reflected within the Japanese family.

An Autumn Afternoon, though it wasn’t intended as Ozu’s swan song, is fitting as a summation of his career, another of his subtle variations on his signature concerns. Like the voluminous steam clouds that eventually become a wisp of smoke in the background, An Autumn Afternoon is concerned with both the big picture changes affecting Ozu’s society and the individuals living within that society.

Jason Bellamy: That’s a fitting introduction, because as with An Autumn Afternoon (1962)—or Floating Weeds (1959) or Late Autumn (1960), the only other Ozu films I’ve seen (so sue me)—your attention to poetic imagery suggests greater “richness and emotional complexity” than I think is actually produced by those images. Throughout this discussion of Ozu’s final film I’m going to find many opportunities to celebrate the legendary director’s artistic eye, but I suppose we might as well begin this conversation by confronting my principal complaint about Ozu: I don’t think his attention to detail is particularly productive.

I cringe a bit as I write that, because what richness and emotional complexity I do find in Ozu’s films, and in An Autumn Afternoon in particular, is almost always a direct result of pure cinematic artistry. Ozu has a photographer’s sensibility and technique—the ability to find both visual and emotional depth in static, carefully composed shots—and so his films’ most affecting moments are often silent portraits, like the one that finds the old former professor Sakuma (Eijiro Tono), “The Gourd,” sitting forlornly in his noodle shop after one of his former students has left to have a drink with an old military buddy who just criticized Sakuma’s cooking. In that instance, Ozu’s composition is truly poignant, truly rich, truly complex. But in other moments, I don’t get much out of Ozu’s cinema beyond my admiration for the shots themselves.

Before we go further, let me offer that the thrill of cinematic imagery can be fulfilling in and of itself. Just like I would argue that a film can succeed almost solely because of its writing, acting or basic dramatic construction (execution of plot), I think a film can also succeed purely because of its visual splendor. In this country we have a tendency to evaluate films mostly on plot (does it make sense? is it “new”? is it suspenseful? is it mysterious? is it intricate?), and I think that sets up American audiences to overlook and under-appreciate Ozu’s cinema, which if not quite plotless is at least dramatically plain, relatively speaking. But, that said, I think it’s a mistake to regard Ozu’s visual splendor and attribute to it emotions that it doesn’t actually produce.

Admittedly, this will inevitably lead us into subjective ground: you say a shot makes you feel X, and I say the same shot makes me feel Y, or nothing at all. So let’s start here: You rightfully called attention to the imagery of the film’s opening, which begins with that painterly shot of those smoke stacks and leads us, through a few more fixed portraits, to the shot of Hirayama at his desk. It’s striking imagery, indeed. But you also called it “evocative” and said it brings the viewer into Ozu’s “unique world.” So, let me ask you: Those shots are evocative of what, exactly? They reveal the film’s emotional themes how? Ozu’s world is unique in what way? In short, other than the vividness of the shots themselves, is this sequence all that remarkable compared to any director’s typical establishing shots?

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: Those are a lot of big questions, the kinds of questions that fill whole books about Ozu. So I’ll start with your last question by suggesting that, indeed, there is something qualitatively different about Ozu’s “pillow shots” as compared with the typical establishing shots of other directors. Establishing shots, generally speaking, do exactly what their name would suggest: they establish the geography and feel of a place, providing a sense of context and setting for what happens next. Ozu’s scenic inserts do this, too, of course, but it is only one function of these interludes. The difference lies largely in the syntax, the way each shot within these groupings observes a particular scene or object from a slightly different angle; there’s a sense of an artist trying to capture the poetic essence of what he sees by sketching it from all sides. It’s practically a cliché to say that a filmmaker’s sensibility is “poetic,” but with Ozu the description really fits. At times, the parallels even seem literal: it can be productive to think of each individual shot as a line of a written poem, with the meanings and subtexts generated between the lines.

There’s also a powerful but perhaps easily overlooked thematic component to these shots. One of the dominant themes of An Autumn Afternoon—and many other Ozu films—is the state of post-war Japan as a country increasingly torn between traditional values and the Westernization and modernization that took over as Japan developed from devastation to renewed prosperity in the decades after the war. This theme is reflected not only in dialogue and plotting, but quite frequently in the images themselves, which juxtapose traditional Japanese-style architecture and clothing against modern conveniences and other changes: vacuum cleaners as bright and prominent as the more traditional red teapots that Ozu also often highlights within his carefully composed frames, or neon signs glimpsed out windows while women in kimonos and wooden sandals flutter past. In a similar way, the fluttering smoke of the opening scenes, industrial pollution filmed in such a way as to make it seem pastorally beautiful, subtly introduces the kinds of tensions that will drift through the rest of the film.

What I love about these images is how subtle they are. When I say that Ozu’s inserts evoke ideas about modernization and nostalgia that are more overtly stated in the film’s text, I don’t mean that these are nakedly symbolic images. Ozu seldom resorts to surface symbols. Instead, these scene-setting images have multi-faceted, quietly suggested implications that resonate with the film’s themes and emotions in indirect ways. They are invitations to silent contemplation: When, later in the film, Ozu abruptly inserts a shot of a lantern to interrupt Hirayama’s musings about his military service and his family, the lantern does not directly comment on what’s happening in the scene but nevertheless has a poetic relationship to the central character’s emotions and thoughts. I think, just as Western audiences sometimes overvalue plot, there’s a risk also of overvaluing direct symbolism and, as a result, failing to see the merit, or the meaning, in Ozu’s more open-ended, less deterministic approach.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: See, here’s my problem: I hardly disagree with anything you wrote there. It all sounds good in principle. But at the same time, is it really fair to call something “symbolic” when the supposed symbolism in question is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in multiple and perhaps contradictory ways? To my thinking, within the art form of film, “cinematography” and “symbolism” should be mostly synonymous, essentially both defined as “visual storytelling.” My objection here isn’t to ambiguity itself, because ambiguity is fine and good. Likewise, my objection isn’t to the idea that very specific cinematography can create something unspecific, because of course that happens all the time.

In fact, a perfect example of the latter can be found in one of the best shots in An Autumn Afternoon when, just before Hirayama’s daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) is about to be married, Michiko kneels in her formal wedding attire and looks up at her father with an expression that seems to suggest so many things at once—nervousness, sadness, regret, nostalgia, embarrassment—that it (wonderfully) doesn’t have any specific meaning. In that case, what’s being symbolized is ambiguity itself. There are multiple ways to interpret Michiko’s emotions in that scene, and that’s exactly what’s being symbolized: her emotional chaos and uncertainty. Her specific emotions are buried, but her emotional conflict is unmistakable. To use your terminology, that’s a “nakedly symbolic” image, even if it’s filled with uncertainty. But I think that stands in stark contrast to the lantern shot you mentioned, which could mean many things or nothing at all. We can interpret meaning into it, but it isn’t giving meaning to us. If a shot like that doesn’t specifically tell us something, I question whether it is indeed “symbolic,” the same way that the shot of the vacuum cleaner in the apartment of Koichi (Keiji Sada) and Akiko (Mariko Okada) directly informs us about their place in Japan’s post-war modernity.

I understand the obvious counterargument: The lantern shot in and of itself might not tell us anything specifically, but shots like it, over time, contribute to the mood of the film. The lantern shot might be incidental on its own—remove that cutaway from the film, and you wouldn’t significantly alter the scene or the film as a whole—but over time all those cutaways, all those “pillow shots,” contribute to the feeling of being within Ozu’s Japan. With that, I don’t disagree. Not in the slightest. And yet when discussing Ozu there’s a tendency to want to ascribe a meaning to specific shots that just isn’t there within the shot (or brief series of shots) itself. So when we go back to your initial suggestion that the shots of the factory are “evocative,” I think that’s overstatement. Yes, those shots begin to suggest the modernized, post-war world in which this entire story will take place—but they only begin to do that. Yes, those shots begin to set the mood—but they only begin to do that. We have the benefit of seeing in hindsight a significance to those images that isn’t immediately apparent. And whereas the shot of Michiko before her wedding speaks for itself, the factory shots only find meaning when coupled with many other exterior shots in this film. (Interestingly, I think many of Ozu’s interiors are, on the contrary, immediately evocative, which is a topic for later.)

If it seems like I’m making a big deal out of your word choice to describe a series of four shots that account for less than 30 seconds of this film, it’s because I think there’s a tendency when admiring Ozu’s very technical and undeniably striking compositions to read into them an emotional subtext that isn’t there, as if to justify their meticulousness. To try to read emotional depth and complexity into every shot is, in my mind, an insult to the many Ozu shots that are truly powerful and indeed evocative. Over the rest of this conversation, we’ll be coming back to this theme a lot, I’m sure.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: In one sense, I see your point, although I did say that Ozu’s images are not symbolic, at least not in the conventional sense. Many of Ozu’s “pillow shots,” by themselves, might not mean much. Many of these shots don’t have any obvious symbolic or thematic interpretation. On that much, we agree. But we’re not looking at these shots in isolation. Their cumulative impact, over the course of a film—and, not incidentally, over the course of a career in which Ozu very meticulously and consistently developed his visual language—can be tremendous. If the opening shots only “begin” to suggest the themes and imagery that will drive the remainder of the film, that’s to be expected; it’s the beginning of the film. But I don’t think it’s overstretching to suggest that not only are these images poetically beautiful in their own right, they also suggest emotions that are not yet fully expressed but that are nevertheless felt in a more amorphous way. Over the course of this film, those initially amorphous feelings are sharpened and clarified. To put it another way: right from the start, An Autumn Afternoon makes me feel something, stirring me with the suggestiveness of those opening images, and subsequent images and scenes build upon that foundation to express more fully developed ideas. It’s Ozu’s way of gently guiding the viewer into the film’s substance, developing his ideas and stories slowly rather than hammering his point home more forcefully.

Maybe we can agree more about a sequence of silent, unpopulated still shots that occurs later in the film. After Michiko’s wedding, Ozu twice inserts a series of views of the interior of Hirayama’s empty, quiet home. The meaning is obvious—the old man is feeling lonely and abandoned now that his daughter has left to get married—but it’s obvious, to some extent, because these kinds of feelings have been building up throughout the film. By themselves, these images don’t directly say anything about loneliness, though one could argue that the image of an empty stool placed in front of a mirror, repeated several times in the film’s last act, is a direct representation of absence. More importantly, these images are affecting because Ozu has been so attentive to mood-setting in the scenes leading up to this denouement. The image of a staircase shrouded in shadows is beautiful and sad in its own right, but it’s doubly moving with the knowledge that this is the staircase leading up to Michiko’s now empty room. The film’s final image, of Hirayama sitting in his kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water in the darkness, mirrors an earlier, nearly identical shot in which this same frame was filled by the bustling activity of Michiko, running back and forth across the frame as she performed household chores. It’s a pointed but still subtle demonstration of the hole left in Hirayama’s life by the departure of his daughter.

The finale is, on its surface, as undramatic as the rest of the film; there is no big climax, no confrontation between the characters, and the only direct expression of feelings is Hirayama’s drunken lamentations. The pivotal event of the story, Michiko’s wedding, takes place offscreen, and her husband is talked about but never seen. As with so many of Ozu’s films, emotions are largely contained beneath the surface. One of Ozu’s points about Japanese society is his observation—and criticism—of the excessive politeness and reticence that can prevent his characters from expressing themselves clearly. This is especially apparent in the scene where Michiko talks with her brother’s friend Miura (Teruo Yoshida) at a train station; their conversation is superficial and banal, but there’s a sense of something deeper lingering beneath the surface, a hint of unarticulated attraction passing between this pair. But neither says anything to reveal their feelings, and later in the film this scene becomes emblematic of the missed opportunities that result from this failure to communicate. (Ozu had already made a similar point in a more lighthearted way in Good Morning, which contrasted the empty small talk of adults against the directness of children.) In a cinematic conception where words only rarely reflect anything more consequential than formalities, the images in Ozu’s films—whether it’s Michiko’s shy sideways glances at her brother’s friend or the periodic inserts of unpopulated interiors—convey the nuances of thought and feeling that too often are left unspoken.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: With that I agree. Despite my negative tone thus far, which is sparked by my objections to overly generous readings of the emotionality and meaning of Ozu’s compositions, I do believe that his films are most expressive when his characters aren’t speaking at all, or when their conversations are so mundane that they’re hardly worth listening to, which is most of the time. Yes, those shots of the empty house are especially poignant as employed toward the end of the film, because by that time we know precisely how much Hirayama will miss his daughter’s nurturing presence. Having said that, Ozu consistently displays a knack for generating emotion from empty-room shots no matter the context, at least to some degree because empty rooms are inherently lonely. Ozu’s exteriors I find less impressive. Sure, I suppose the smokestack shots might have greater impact if employed later in the film, but I can’t say I find a tremendous amount of mood in any of Ozu’s exteriors, save for the shots of bar and restaurant signs shining brightly in the dark outside the Gourd’s noodle shop. The problem isn’t that Ozu is less artful with his exteriors, necessarily. It’s that, with the exception of those sign shots, his exteriors rarely feel connected to his interiors, no matter how much smoke we see billowing on the other side of Hirayama’s window. In fact, Ozu’s exteriors sometimes seem like less than establishing shots for that very reason, which only makes them feel all the more random, all the less expressive.

In a sense, Ozu doesn’t help his case when so many of his shots are visually artistic for the sake of being visually artistic. A perfect example in my mind would be his fascination with corridor shots. Corridors make for perfect Ozu landscapes, of course, because they allow him to quite naturally play with visual depth, layering and patterning, which are things that Ozu otherwise had a habit of forcing into his compositions (think of the way he arranges teacups and beer bottles in the foreground of so many of his otherwise bland one-shots). In another director’s work, say Pedro Almodóvar’s, such an intense fascination with corridors would almost have to be symbolic (the corridor as birth canal, or some such thing), but all I think it reveals in An Autumn Afternoon is Ozu’s fondness for those compositions. He ogles corridors the way Quentin Tarantino ogles women’s feet. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, per se, so long as we don’t force a meaning onto those shots that I don’t believe is there to be found.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: I feel like we’re starting to run aground on the reef of subjectivity with this topic. Partly, that’s because Ozu’s cinema steadfastly refuses the kinds of concrete meanings that would allow for more solid, definitive interpretations. That’s why I’ve tried so hard to avoid suggesting that Ozu’s images are overtly symbolic; there’s no trace of that “corridor as birth canal” type of sensibility that finds symbols everywhere. Generally speaking, Ozu’s corridors are just corridors, and his bar signs are just bar signs, but they still fulfill multiple roles within his films. At the most basic level, they transition from place to place or character to character. They are also visual signals for recurring locations, which is why Ozu sometimes walks through similar sequences of shots several times to create an association between a location, its surroundings and the emotional undercurrents of that place. And in the tensions Ozu sets up between the different elements that he places so carefully within the frame, the tensions of the narrative are often worked out in miniature. When Ozu positions a small black-and-white TV set amidst the clutter of traditional tea cups and sake pitchers, it’s yet another small suggestion of modernity and traditionalism coexisting, though it’s also (and perhaps more obviously) simply a way of setting the scene at a small bar where businessmen are watching a baseball game after work.

In the past, I’ve compared Ozu’s exteriors to the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famed Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, a set of woodblock prints depicting the mountain from various angles and in different lightings and seasons. Ozu’s methodical examination of exterior locales—a cluster of shots of baseball stadium lights, a progression down a street lined with bars, a rubble-strewn and rundown area with apartments overlooking its disarray—seems like a modern expression of the same impulse to limn a setting’s visual and poetic possibilities. That, and not the need to pin a single meaning or intent on each frame of the film, is what I’m talking about when I say that Ozu’s exteriors are “evocative” or “suggestive.”

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: Fair enough. Again, I agree that Ozu’s shots are evocative in the collective. That said, I think this was a worthwhile discussion to have, because I think we’ve just demonstrated how easy it is to exaggerate the evocativeness or symbolism of a specific shot in Ozu’s oeuvre, either by reading more into the composition than is actually there to be found or by not specifically tying a shot’s evocativeness to other shots that are crucial to giving that single shot meaning.

In my mind, David Bordwell makes at least one of those mistakes in his audio commentary for the Criterion edition of An Autumn Afternoon. As the author of the book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (which, for the record, I haven’t read), Bordwell might be the foremost expert on Ozu. So of course his commentary is packed with sharp analysis and interesting historical anecdotes. But as I listened to his commentary, I came away with the feeling that Bordwell knows Ozu and this film almost too well, because at this point he seems to see An Autumn Afternoon through Ozu’s eyes and with Ozu’s sensibility: Ozu was obsessed with color, particularly red, and so Bordwell fittingly calls attention to the presence of color in many shots. Ozu was also obsessed with the general compositions of his shots and with the duration of each shot, and so Bordwell calls attention to that, too. It’s all very educational. But it’s also a little like an algebra equation. Bordwell frequently combines Ozu’s cinematic instinct with Ozu’s cinematic execution of his intent and comes to a result that, in my opinion, is greater than the sum of those parts. In other words, Bordwell doesn’t solve for x.

For example: In a scene where Hirayama is drinking with his friends, Bordwell notes how a small flower in the background “provides a nice burst of red,” and then he refers to a pair of mirroring shots of two men drinking as a “visual flourish.” Later, he raves about Ozu’s (carefully preplanned) editing in a scene that uses multiple angles to show Koichi lying on his back and then standing up, commenting that Ozu “daringly cuts on [Koichi’s] movement but flips [our view] 180 degrees to the opposite side”—just one of one of the many times he praises Ozu’s “action cuts.” I have no objections to Bordwell’s specific observations, but what’s frequently missing is any convincing description of how or why these elements of Ozu’s filmmaking serve the drama of the story. I suspect Bordwell could make those arguments convincingly, he just doesn’t do that in his audio commentary, which seems to assume that because Ozu was a skilled perfectionist who “obsessively” composed each frame, that his intent-laden compositions must succeed in enhancing the film’s emotional depth and complexity—because otherwise we’d have to call many of Ozu’s shots visually resplendent and nothing more.

Perhaps the best illustration of what I’m talking about comes in Bordwell’s description of the acting in this film. When I watched An Autumn Afternoon, I scribbled down the words “animatronic” and “confined.” In this film, and in the other Ozu films I’ve seen, the actors often seem bolted in place, as rigid as something out of a Star Wars prequel. (There are extreme exceptions to this of course, one of them being the comical scene at the bar in which Hirayama’s military buddy, Sakamoto (Daisuke Kato), performs a drunken march.) Prior to listening to Bordwell’s audio commentary, I always assumed that the rigidness of the acting was indicative of the time and place in which it was made—Japan in the early 1960s—but then Bordwell’s commentary track informed me that Ozu provided “hyper-exact direction” to his actors, going so far as to regularly demand specific expressions and movements, which were often timed on a stopwatch to ensure they complied with Ozu’s planned pacing. Once I learned that, it all made sense: The acting is often rigid because the actors are constantly trying to hit their marks, even when they’re sitting down. This seems a fairly obvious and almost inarguable conclusion, even if subjectively we might disagree on how often the acting is “rigid.” Yet somehow Bordwell concludes that the acting of this film is impressively “not robotic.” To that point, I’ll give Ozu (and Bordwell) this much: Considering how much Ozu micromanaged each shot, it’s amazing that the acting is as natural as it is. But here’s a case in which I feel like Ozu is being celebrated for a meticulousness that in fact might have been detrimental to his film, whereas in the cases above, when Bordwell compliments Ozu’s “action cuts,” I feel as if Ozu is being complimented for a technical skill, without instead considering the degree to which that skill affects (if at all) the emotions of his film.

I respect that Bordwell, like many film buffs (Jim Emerson comes to mind), thrills to technical execution almost as much as to what that technical execution achieves. I’m not trying to disqualify that reaction. (If it thrills, it thrills.) But if that’s the case, Ozu should be praised explicitly (and justifiably) for his craftsmanship. I think sometimes knowing or suspecting Ozu’s intent can be an obstacle to seeing what the filmmaking actually achieves.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: I’m totally with Bordwell on the acting in this film. The performances never strike me as the least bit “robotic” or “rigid,” except in the sense that the actors are portraying people who purposefully (try to) disguise their emotions behind pleasantries and formalities. This type of restrained performance is essential to Ozu’s aesthetic, and to the points he’s making about Japanese society. This approach to performance is as much a part of Ozu’s carefully constructed milieu as his static camera placement, finicky mise en scène and avoidance of dissolves and fades. The characters in Ozu’s films don’t generally express themselves directly, seldom diverting from meaningless social chit-chat. This is something that Western audiences understand intuitively when Ozu is depicting the relationships between businessmen, but it can be disconcerting to realize that the private, familial relationships in Ozu’s films often seem nearly as formal, nearly as bound by rules of decorum and politeness.

Furthermore, I’d argue that An Autumn Afternoon, more than most other Ozu films, depicts the cracks in this system of emotional restraint. The relationship between Koichi and Akiko is held up in many ways as a more “modern” template than the traditional relationship where feelings are suppressed and conversation is limited to trivialities. Akiko in particular is a more liberated woman than many of the female characters in Ozu’s oeuvre; she banters with her husband, negotiating to get what she wants. Ozu partly plays this off as a joke on Koichi, who seems weak and hesitant as a consequence of his wife’s forcefulness, but I think Ozu also gets a kick out of Akiko’s sharp wit. There’s also the scene in which Koichi is shown preparing dinner for the couple, which seems like a small thing except in the context of Ozu’s Japan, where women are often attentive servants to the men, who don’t contribute to the household chores at all. This film, more than any of Ozu’s others, shows a Japan in flux between traditional values and a new modern era, and the shifting dynamic between men and women—as represented in the dialectic between the shy, hesitant Michiko and the outspoken Akiko—is one site of this transformation.

As usual with Ozu, one has to be attentive to nuances to pick up on the emotional stakes of these performances: Akiko’s sly smirk and mock surprise when she’s taunting her husband; Michiko’s shyly smiling complicity with her sister-in-law’s maneuvers; Koichi’s petulant, boyish pouting when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s frankly surprising to me that you’d denounce these performances as stiff when, to me, beneath their surface reticence, these performances are practically bursting with subtle gestural cues and slight shifts of expression that signal the churning emotions or comical subtext of these scenes. This submerged expressionism is evident in dramatic scenes as well: I already mentioned the subtle, meaningful glances during Michiko’s seemingly banal conversation with Miura, and you brought up the mysterious but nonetheless affecting emotions running through the wedding preparations. It’s equally evident in seemingly minor sequences, like the way Hirayama interacts with a secretary who’s leaving to get married, and his tenderness with her reflects his confused feelings about his own daughter of the same marriage-ready age. Far from feeling that Ozu’s meticulous, rigid scene construction unnecessarily restricts the actors, I think Ozu is trying to convey a societal structure that is restricting the characters—who, nonetheless, betray the true depths of their feelings in small ways despite all the pressures on them to hold back.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: I think you’ve made strong points and identified scenes in which emotion slips through the cracks of the film’s rigid structure. And I agree that Ozu is trying to say something about the relationships between the characters, and indeed about the evolution of social behavior in Japan, by contrasting the more uptight manner of Hirayama and his friends with the considerably more relaxed manner (in some scenes) of his son Koichi and people from that younger generation. So it’s here that I backtrack to admit that in the same rant in which I expressed frustration with Bordwell’s lack of specificity, I made the same mistake. Because in saying that the acting in this film is robotic, I wasn’t trying to imply that An Autumn Afternoon lacks characters with character, if you will. Instead, I was trying to make the point that even the most boisterous acting—Akiko yelling at Koichi, for example—is made to fit into such a specific space that it’s as if the characters are moving on rails, as in a Disneyland ride.

That’s why I identified Sakamoto’s drunken march as an exception, because it’s one of the few times when the actors don’t seem bolted down, pivoting on one specific point. Does it really seem in character that a modern wife like Akiko would lecture her husband while leaving her lower body perfectly still, as if standing at attention? To me it seems forced—forced not by a desire to dig into themes but to ensure that Ozu’s precious compositions are preserved. (If Akiko moved a foot to the left or the right, it would throw Ozu’s shot out of balance.) Other than Sakamato’s march and the scene in which Koichi hits golf balls on the roof of his office building, there aren’t many moments in this film in which the characters are allowed to move of their own free will, which perhaps explains why Ozu has so many ancillary shots of people walking up and down corridors and in and out of doors, as if to make up for the, yes, robotic visual plotting of the other scenes.

In his commentary, Bordwell says that one of Ozu’s longtime assistants thought it was unusual, and un-Japanese, for a filmmaker to be so fixated on a specific visual approach that he would essentially force each scene into that mold. So what I’m trying to get at is the idea that Ozu’s meticulousness sometimes led him to construct the action in a way that confined his actors, that made their movements seems programmed, not for dramatic reasons but for aesthetic ones.

Take, for example, the scene in which Koichi and Miura have drinks late in the film: Ozu shoots most of the scene in his distinctive straight-ahead singles in which the speaking actor looks directly into the camera, or sometimes just above it, as if looking into the eyes of the person he’s talking to. Between Koichi and Miura are various items on a table, including a bottle of soy sauce. To the right of each man, as established in an initial two-shot, is an oversized beer bottle. The way Ozu films the scene, the soy sauce bottle jumps from one side of the table to the other in each alternating shot, to reflect each man’s perspective (the soy sauce bottle is slightly to Koichi’s left, and thus it’s slightly to Miura’s right). The beer bottles, on the other hand, only appear one at a time in each alternating shot, and always to the character’s right, which means always on the left edge of the frame.

Bordwell seems to suggest that this is a continuity error, but it isn’t; the shot structure implies that each character is looking over his own bottle (and glass) of beer to see his friend’s bottle, whereas the soy sauce bottle appears in each shot—and jumps from one half of the screen to the other—because it’s in the middle of the table. Still, this scene exemplifies Ozu’s obsession with visual patterning and, in my opinion, demonstrates how he painted his actors into corners. The actors playing Koichi and Miura have no choice but to sit in the same erect posture, not because it’s “in character” (in the scene on the rooftop, they’re much more relaxed) but because that’s what Ozu’s visual aesthetic requires. Bordwell theorizes that perhaps Ozu is trying to suggest the men are mirrors of one another, but he doesn’t seem convinced, noting in the end that Ozu probably shot the scene this way because it’s “cool.” And that’s fine by me. As I said before, if it thrills, it thrills. But whereas you feel that Ozu created this kind of patterning to convey a social structure that restricts these characters, I don’t buy it. Or, more specifically, I don’t think that was the main impetus for the rigid structure of Ozu’s compositions, which I feel often overcame the emotions and story he was supposedly trying to evoke and explore. I don’t expect to convince you of this point. I merely mean to explain why I feel as if Ozu’s compositions don’t always translate into emotion, mood, theme or social commentary. Sometimes I think they reveal the director’s passion for composition itself.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: That makes sense to me. It seems like, rather than thinking the performances themselves are rigid or robotic, it’s the blocking of the actors and their carefully managed arrangement within the frame that strikes you as restrictive. I don’t see it as a problem—for one thing, there’s no reason it can’t be both an aesthetic/pictorial choice and a reflection of Ozu’s themes of societal rigidity—but I understand what you’re seeing. To some extent, we’re seeing the same thing—Ozu denying his actors much mobility within the frame—and disagreeing about its effects. You say that “there aren’t many moments in this film in which the characters are allowed to move of their own free will,” and that’s a very telling description. The central theme of the film is precisely that lack of control over one’s life. Hirayama is caught between two bad choices, the loneliness of a solitary old age versus the misery of forcing his daughter to sacrifice her own independent life for him, likely leading towards a future very similar to the Gourd’s unhappy situation. If these characters often seem like they’re on rails, unable to move freely, that’s because they are; they are tied to seemingly unavoidable destinies mandated by culture and tradition. Hirayama looks to the past so much, with his school reunions and reminiscences of his military career, because he has so little to look forward to in the future. Even Michiko, who at times shows signs of modernity and independence, winds up with little role in her own fate, acquiescing to her father’s choice of husband when her own choice falls through. Ozu purposefully never shows her with her new husband to emphasize how little it matters, to anyone, who she marries, as long as she marries someone to fulfill the role that’s expected of her.

At the same time, I don’t think our views of Ozu’s rigidity are entirely incompatible. There’s no question that Ozu was a formalist, and that there are many images and sequences within his oeuvre where formal and aesthetic concerns are foremost. The examples you cite do seem like moments where Ozu is simply delighting in visual patterns and, certainly in the scene with the bottles that dance around the frame as Ozu dispassionately cuts back and forth from speaker to speaker, expressing his wry sense of humor. Humor, in general, is probably the most consistently undervalued aspect of Ozu’s cinema, and it manifests itself not only in the playful touches he sometimes applies to his scene decoration, but in his characters and dialogue as well. We’ve already touched on some of the most comical scenes in An Autumn Afternoon, like Sakamoto’s goofy military march, which only gets funnier the longer it goes on, and the more angles that Ozu provides on this earnestly silly spectacle. There’s also a lot of comedy in the banter between Hirayama and his friends Horie (Ryuji Kita) and Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), a trio of friends who have known each other for a long time and have, in their own quiet way, developed a camaraderie and rivalry that’s both touching and a rich source of humor. This is particularly true of Horie’s relationship with his young new wife, which prompts lots of jokes about impotence and vitality, as well as some jabs at henpecked husbands. When the wife comes to visit Horie at a lunch with his friends, her subtle manipulation of her husband into going home with her rather than staying to eat with his friends is made even funnier by Ozu’s characteristic restraint: She gets what she wants without saying anything overtly, a nice twist on Ozu’s more general point that his characters’ reticence prevents them from being happy.

This scene, in addition to being rich in low-key humor, is exemplary of the way Ozu uses ancillary characters to sharpen and comment upon the central dilemma of Hirayama and his daughter. It’s never made explicit, but Horie’s choice is implicitly one option that Hirayama could pursue for his future, to stave off the loneliness of old age. Similarly, the half-joking bickering of Koichi and Akiko provides a portrait of married life for Michiko to observe, while the plight of the Gourd and his bitter daughter (Haruko Sugimura) is a cautionary tale for father and daughter. Ozu weaves these different characters and their stories into a web of possibilities, images of what life could be like in the society of the time.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: Right, and by the end of the film, Hirayama proves there’s yet another option: solitude. The final shot of the film, of a drunk Hirayama pouring himself some water, is bittersweet: on the one hand, he’s behaving the way his daughter would have wanted, the way he probably would have resisted if she were still there caring for him, and yet on the other hand he’s such a lonely and pitiful figure. That final shot is signature Ozu: a layered corridor shot that captures an ultimately still and unspeaking character. But it also reminds me of the final scene in John Ford’s The Searchers. Hirayama, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, is destined for a life of solitude, and whereas Ethan’s isolation is symbolized by his position outside the home, Hirayama’s is symbolized by his place in the background of the shot.

That’s not the only time some of Ozu’s late work seems linked to The Searchers. Floating Weeds, in particular, has several interior shots that remind of the scene in which Ford allows us to learn about the dynamics of the Edwards family just by watching them move within the hustle and bustle of their home. It’s in cases like these that I think Ozu’s passion for layered, almost deep-focus compositions, and his desire to evoke the personalities of his characters by showing how they fit within their living spaces, are perfectly harmonious. In An Autumn Afternoon, I love the shots of Akiko in her kitchen and of Koichi in their living room, with the relative clutter of their apartment contrasting with the more ascetic home of the former military commander, Hirayama. In my opinion it’s those shots that best show the divide between the older generation and the post-war generation.

Of course, there’s also the conversation between Hirayama and Sakamoto at the bar, which is the scene in which the film is most overt in pointing out the generation gap. Hirayama and Sakamoto refrain from telling war stories, but it becomes clear how much they still self-identify as soldiers, as if that was their true calling, as if everything since has been a form of dress-up in the name of just getting by. Eventually Sakamoto wonders what their lives would have been like had they won the war and taken over the United States, but Hirayama decides almost immediately that it was probably better that Japan lost. It’s a shocking moment in the film, not just because Hirayama suggests that defeat was a good thing but also because he seems so ill-fit for post-war life that you might have suspected he’d spent those years bitter that his life had been defined by a losing effort. I’m curious what you think about that scene.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: I think it’s one of the scenes in An Autumn Afternoon where Ozu’s ambiguity and reticence are most effective. What makes it such a fascinating scene is how Ozu shifts between tones, introducing bitter and resigned notes only after the initial comic spectacle of Sakamoto’s march and his grinning fantasy of what things might be like if Japan hadn’t lost the war. He imagines that Americans would have been taking their cultural cues from the Japanese, rather than the other way around: Americans would be chewing gum while playing the shamisen instead of Japan importing rock n’ roll and American fashions. It’s played off as a joke, but it’s actually a pretty layered scene. Sakamoto’s revisionist history fantasy is funny, yes, but buried within it is a lamentation for Japan’s defeat, and for its increasing reliance on the Western world for the direction the country is heading in the future. In this context, Hirayama’s admission that maybe Japan’s defeat wasn’t so bad carries with it a subdued hint of regret. He’s ruefully commenting on the absurdity of Sakamoto’s vision of victory, and perhaps acknowledging that that kind of victory was never especially likely in reality, but I do detect a bittersweet tone that suggests he’s still not happy about the loss.

Indeed, the war lingers subtly over the film, as both Sakamoto and Hirayama remember how hard it was in the years immediately following the war, when they returned in defeat to ruined homes, high prices for everything and few job prospects. Both men have since recovered and gone on to success, but it’s apparent that they—and perhaps all those Japanese of a generation old enough to have experienced the war directly—are still haunted by its memory. The war is tied up in Hirayama’s backward-looking mentality, as even his nostalgia for his school days can be viewed as a desire to reach back to the days before the war. That’s perhaps one subtextual reason for the many incidences of class reunions in Ozu’s work, class reunions where, as often as not, the former classmates engage in chanting singalongs of old songs with near-militaristic fervor. The Japan of An Autumn Afternoon is a country that’s aggressively leaping into the future, importing modern appliances and filling its traditional homes, with their sliding screens and tatami mats, with modern accoutrements that make the film’s interiors into a mish-mash of styles and eras. But people like Hirayama are being left behind by these advances, still wedded to traditional ideas like arranged marriages, still moping over the defeat of World War II and the economic stagnation that followed it. When Hirayama says that it’s a good thing that Japan lost, he’s basically parroting back the idea that wartime defeat had led to a period of rapid recovery and rebirth—but it certainly doesn’t sound like he fully believes in what he’s saying.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: That sounds about right, though I think Hirayama is being sincere when he says it’s probably better Japan lost the war, and I take his admission as a sign of his surrender to old-age irrelevancy. I’m not sure it’s directly implied in the film, but I get the sense that 10 years ago Hirayama was still resisting Japan’s defeat. Now it’s as if he’s coming to terms with the way things are. For too many years he kept his daughter at home, unwilling to face the reality that she needed to be married off to take care of someone else, per the culture. And so I suspect that for too many years Hirayama clung to his fantasy of a victorious Japan. (Incidentally, this is one of several scenes in which Chishū Ryū reminds me of a Japanese version of Tom Skerritt, circa A River Runs Through It, and with that in mind it’s easy for me to picture Hirayama in his younger Top Gun-esque days in the military.)

I already cited the scene at the bar as a welcome relief from the rigidity of many of Ozu’s compositions, and the other one that stands out in my mind is the scene with Koichi and Miura on the roof of their office building, as Koichi hits golf balls into a canvas target. Koichi has a graceful swing and he looks so comfortable yet chic in his pressed dress shirt and tie that the scene could double for a modern American fashion ad for Banana Republic. But I’m calling attention to it now because the juxtaposition of that scene with Sakamoto’s march reminds us of how different life is for a son and his father. Hirayama was consumed with order and the military. Koichi is consumed with MacGregor golf clubs. About all the men have in common now is a taste for alcohol.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: Very true. At the heart of this film is the sharp divide between the generations in post-war Japan. Hirayama, still stung by military defeat and still clinging stubbornly to the old ways, really doesn’t share much common ground with his sons, who are much more concerned with material wealth and the luxuries available in a growing consumer economy. This isn’t the only Ozu film in which he explores the theme of the elderly being out of touch with the priorities of the younger generation. Tokyo Story, arguably Ozu’s most famous film, deals with an old couple who are increasingly isolated as their children move on with their own lives. That film, though, is a much more universal examination of generational cruelty and neglect, as the children of this elderly couple (the patriarch played, as here, by Chishū Ryū) are reluctant to interrupt their busy lives to spend time with or care for their parents. Its most famous exchange, offered as a coda to this heartbreaking melodrama, is the question, “Isn’t life disappointing?” and a straightforward, resigned reply: “Yes, it is.” An Autumn Afternoon has similar themes and concerns, but Ryu’s character here isn’t left behind by familial neglect or the shallowness of his children; he’s left behind by society itself.

This makes An Autumn Afternoon both a poignant narrative of disappointment and aging, and a probing examination of a society in flux; it’s emotionally resonant on multiple levels, in other words. One thing I fear I haven’t gotten across in this conversation thus far is the extent to which Ozu affects me. His best films—and An Autumn Afternoon unquestionably belongs in that category—are overwhelming, but overwhelming in a very subtle and specific way. It’s this aspect of his work, in part, that I was getting at by leading off with a discussion of the poetic quality of the film’s opening images. Ozu’s aesthetic, his patient way of slowly building up thematic and emotional material from a minimal foundation, is unbelievably moving to me. We already mentioned the scene where Hirayama and Kawai return their former teacher home to his noodle shop and meet the Gourd’s daughter, Tomoko. It’s a devastating scene: Tomoko barely maintains a veneer of civility with her father’s former students, giving them a tight-lipped smile while speaking to her father in clipped, condescending tones. It’s a portrait of a shrewish, nasty old maid. But after the two younger men have left, Tomoko sits down next to her father and looks at him with an expression of despair and disgust. The caricatured emotions she’d projected earlier melt away, replaced by an unnerving emotional nakedness as she breaks down, her head bowed into a handkerchief in the shadowy shop.

This scene is so effective because so much of Ozu’s cinema generally revolves around the suppression of emotions. His characters aren’t prone to melodramatics: like real people, they hide the full extent of their feelings around others, putting up brave fronts in everyday discourse, having conversations where the subtext carries the deeper meaning beneath the trivialities and niceties of prosaic conversation. When Michiko learns that Miura, who she’d liked, is already engaged to someone else, she has a moment where she bows her head in quiet contemplation, and then she becomes chipper and upbeat, agreeing to meet with another prospect her father has in mind. After she leaves, Hirayama and Koichi marvel over how composed she’d been, how well she’d taken the news, but this only shows how oblivious they are, as Michiko’s attempts to seem happy are transparently false. This layering of appearance and truth is a big part of what makes Ozu’s cinema so powerful despite its surface tranquility and simplicity. Something as simple as a bowed head, an averted gaze, a shy smile, takes on seismic significance within this careful aesthetic of understatement.

An Autumn Afternoon

JB: I wish I could second your praise for the emotionality of Ozu’s films, and An Autumn Afternoon in particular, because that would mean I shared the impact of all that emotional weight. But I just don’t, at least not as a norm. I find specific moments in Ozu fairly devastating, but they are the exception to the rule, and so “probing examination” and “overwhelming” aren’t words I’d use to describe this film on the whole. Maybe the problem is that the characters are so skilled at hiding their emotions that many scenes play flat, even if later they are revealed to be false demonstrations of composure. But I suspect the real problem for me is the fact that I always sense Ozu’s presence pulling the strings of his marionettes. These characters rarely feel like they become real boys and girls, in the parlance of Pinocchio. They are puppets, props almost, in someone else’s make believe.

If all of this makes it seem like I dislike An Autumn Afternoon or Ozu in general, that’s not the case. I’ve said before in these conversations that I’m a fan of intentionality, of films that reveal the specificity of the artist’s vision. Ozu’s cinema is nothing if not purposeful, thoughtful and calculated. But my admiration for his films tends to be an admiration of craft before anything else, and, personally, that’s not the way I prefer to “feel” a movie. Even in the final shot, of Hirayama slouched at the kitchen table, drunk and depressed—a shot I would classify as indeed devastating—my first reaction to that shot was less, “Oh, that’s painful!” than it was, “Oh, look how Ozu evokes Hirayama’s loneliness by capturing him at length, down a corridor, and in the dark!”

I realize that there are many cinema fans who perhaps prefer to have the mechanics of cinema be as visible as the emotions those mechanics are trying to convey, I’m just not one of them. I also realize that many people could watch the scene I just mentioned and be so overwhelmed with Hirayama’s pain that they wouldn’t begin to unlock the craftiness of the cinematography until later. But Ozu’s craft is so apparent that for me it overshadows the drama of his films, even if the drama does succeed in stepping into the spotlight here and there. Maybe this is another way to explain it: If I were talking to an aspiring filmmaker, I’d tell him/her to watch Ozu, to see just how much can be accomplished with a fixed camera, with repeated compositions, with (relatively) long takes, with basic cuts and with dialogue so patient that characters never talk over one another. I think that suggests how much I admire Ozu. But it also reveals how much I see his films as exhibitions of craft. When I watch Ozu, I see the little man behind the curtain, instead of falling under the spell of the Great and Powerful Oz.

An Autumn Afternoon

EH: Well, there’s no arguing what you feel, and if you find that Ozu’s undeniable formalist craftsmanship overshadows the subtle emotions at the core of his stories, that’s simply a very different response than the one I have. We’ve talked before about Matt Zoller Seitz’s “best friend theory” of directors, and I’m going to suggest a related paradigm that might have some special resonance for Ozu. It’s the idea that watching a film can be analogous to being invited into someone’s home and taken on a tour. The host, or the director, shows you what he wants you to see, and to be comfortable in this unfamiliar place you have to adjust to the style and customs of his home. Maybe it’s Ozu’s homey but distinctly foreign—both in time and place—interiors that make me think of this analogy. To get the most out of his films, one must be immersed in them, attuned to both his singular aesthetic and the distinctive characteristics of the culture he’s depicting. Ozu’s attentiveness to domesticity and ordinary rituals—like the pouring of sake, around which so many scenes in his films are structured—only accentuates the extent to which his films are windows into life in a very particular time and place.

For me, at least, Ozu’s style never distracts from the deeper stakes of his stories. His aesthetic is measured and attentive to nuance, and he favors compositions that are bold but also practical, in that his intimate vantage point and love of cluttered frames help establish the context for his narratives. He developed a style that was perfectly suited to the kinds of stories he wanted to tell and the milieu in which his work was set: his patience and his keen observational eye are especially relevant virtues when applied to characters, and a society, where restraint and calm are highly valued. Ozu’s scripts could, as you say, seem “flat” in the hands of another director, as little seems to happen overtly and the characters consistently underplay their own dramas. But Ozu’s directorial choices, I would argue, consistently draw attention to the unspoken subtexts of these understated tales, by investing small gestures and seemingly inscrutable expressions with such weight and importance. Far from believing that form eclipses content in Ozu’s oeuvre, I’d hold him up as a perfect example of form in service to character and themes.

That’s as true of An Autumn Afternoon as it is of the rest of Ozu’s work. Despite its old-age themes, An Autumn Afternoon wasn’t intended to be the director’s final film—he was actively working on a new script when he died—but it’s a fine capstone to a career in which he frequently returned to the same themes and basic situations. An Autumn Afternoon recycles ideas from Late Spring (which has a nearly identical plot), Good Morning, and Equinox Flower, among others, suggesting that Ozu saw life as consisting of the same basic stories repeated, with variations, in slightly different contexts. This is why films like An Autumn Afternoon, despite the specificity of Ozu’s commentary about post-war Japanese society, resonate with me in more universal ways as well. This film, with its emphasis on nostalgia, family, love and tradition, is heartbreaking, moving, thought-provoking, frequently quite funny, and a fascinating look at social structures through the prism of thoroughly personal and small-scale dramas. If Ozu’s films are domestic spaces in which the viewer is invited to settle in and slowly get acquainted with the residents, An Autumn Afternoon, like so many other Ozu films, is somewhere I’m happy to visit very often.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.



Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.



Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.




Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.



Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.




Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.




The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.




Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.




Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.



The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.




The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.



The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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