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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.

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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.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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