Connect with us

Film

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.

Published

on

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.

Published

on

Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Photo: Utopia

The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.

The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.

On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.

Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?

Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.

Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

A scene from Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?

TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.

You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?

BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.

TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.

BR: We know if we had made it 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been a bar film. I think it would have been much more like Martin Bell’s Streetwise or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog.

TR: I’d love to see that film!

BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.

You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?

TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Michael Martin as seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?

BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.

TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.

How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?

BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…

TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.

We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?

BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.

A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?

BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.

TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Bruce Hadnot as seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.

Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?

BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]

TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.

Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?

BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.

TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.

Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?

BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.

TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.

BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]

TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.

I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?

BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!

TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.

BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.

TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.

It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?

BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.

TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.

3.5

Published

on

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

2.5

Published

on

Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

Where to Watch Relic:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

Published

on

Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

Published

on

Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

Where to Watch Greyhound:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

Published

on

The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

Where to Watch The Beach House:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

2

Published

on

The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

Where to Watch The Old Guard:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

3

Published

on

We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

Published

on

Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

Published

on

Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

Where to Watch Hamilton:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending