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The Conversations: Bamboozled

Throughout the film, Spike Lee has multiple characters try to take on the attributes of a race other than the one indicated by the color of their skin.

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The Conversations: Bamboozled

Ed Howard: Towards the end of Spike Lee’s viciously funny media parody Bamboozled, there’s a shootout between the police and a militant rap group in which all the black members of the group are quickly killed, leaving behind the one white guy (played by MC Serch of real-life hip-hop outfit 3rd Bass). As the cops put him in cuffs, this one survivor repeatedly cries out to them, “Why didn’t you shoot me?” It’s such a poignant moment because he seems to be pleading with them, begging them to treat him the way they’d treated the black members of the group, demanding that he not be spared because of the color of his skin. He’s so upset, not only because his friends are all dead, but because he’s realized an essential truth that Lee is getting at in this movie: no matter how well he’d fit in with his black peers, no matter how fully he’d been accepted by them and participated in their work, he was still separated from them, cut off from their experience of the world at a very basic level over which he could have no control.

Throughout the film, Lee has multiple characters try to take on the attributes of a race other than the one indicated by the color of their skin: black people trying to sound white, white people trying to sound black, and of course many people of various races donning blackface as a TV-inspired fad. For the most part, Lee has nothing but contempt for these characters; MC Serch’s character is the one arguable exception, and in the end he can no more escape the color of his skin and what it means than anyone else in the film. I’m starting at the end, to some degree, because this sequence is so suggestive of the film’s themes, and also because we should probably admit up front that we’re two white guys about to discuss a film that has a very provocative and challenging view of race and racism. It’s a film that’s at least in part about how it’s all but impossible for one race to understand the experience of another—especially whites thinking they understand what it means to be black.

Bamboozled follows the black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as he develops a blackface minstrel show that he thinks will expose the racist attitudes of the media but only winds up feeding into and inflaming that racism. I didn’t entirely know what to make of this movie when it came out in 2000, but I’ve come to believe that it’s one of Lee’s best, right up there with Do the Right Thing. A bold satire that doesn’t pull any punches, Bamboozled is a deeply discomfiting film that’s purposefully exaggerated and outlandish and yet is packed with real-world references that ground its satire—even that shootout with the white survivor is based on real events. Lee is exploring the history of racist entertainment in the US, and as the closing montage makes clear, he’s suggesting that the same forces that made Birth of a Nation and the vaudeville caricatures of comics like Mantan Moreland so popular are still very much present, in a more covert way, in the modern American entertainment industry. As a result, Bamboozled does what great satire always does: it takes a scenario that should seem ridiculous—it’s hard to imagine an actual blackface variety show being aired on American TV today—and uses it to explore the submerged but very real racial attitudes that underpin all sorts of entertainment that only seems less racist than Delacroix’s Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

Jason Bellamy: This was my first time watching Bamboozled, which I’d only known as “Spike Lee’s blackface movie,” and while I have mixed feelings about Lee as a filmmaker, and I have somewhat mixed feelings about Bamboozled itself, this might be my favorite Spike Lee joint, and I don’t mean that as some kind of backhanded compliment designed to disparage his other movies. Although I haven’t seen all of them, Lee’s films are typified by their outbursts of awkward blatancy, moments when the action stops so that two or more characters can engage in on-the-nose dialogue that either explicitly analyzes a social issue (think: Mookie challenging Pino about his hatred of “niggers,” even though all his favorite athletes are black, in Do the Right Thing) or represents it (think: the Sikh character in Inside Man complaining about all the “random” searches he’s been put through since 9/11). What’s different about Bamboozled is that the entire film is one giant outburst of awkward blatancy, which over time makes it seem not awkward at all. From the opening scene, in which Wayans’ Delacroix defines satire, Bamboozled presents itself more as a hypothetical thought exercise than as a drama, comedy or otherwise more conventional narrative, to the point that the movie seems awkward when its sociological experiment isn’t in the foreground, such as the brief, lovely scene in which Delacroix has a backstage conversation with his comedian father Junebug (Paul Mooney) and the emotional distance between them is so poignant that the stuff of their conversation seems momentarily trivial.

If Bamboozled does pull any punches, it’s due to the blatancy of its hypothetical design. It’s a challenging film, sure, and it never implies that there are easy answers, but because the film is literally announced as a satire in its opening seconds, and because the thought of a modern blackface minstrel show is so outlandish, and because the thought of an audience in blackface is even more outlandish than that, it’s easier to keep Bamboozled at arm’s length, because we instantly recognize it as an intentionally exaggerated editorial cartoon. Compare that to Do the Right Thing, which despite its own flourishes of caricature was packed with enough realism that some critics feared it wasn’t just an accurate depiction of real-world racial tension but a fuse for it, too.

I find it interesting that you think Lee might have less contempt for MC Serch’s character than others, because one of the things that I most admire about Bamboozled is the way it makes almost every character a clown, a culprit and a victim all at once. Lee’s contempt, in my opinion, isn’t for the characters. It’s for the whole fucking system, by which I mean not just the entertainment industry but the societal structure, too, which of course is borne of America’s shameful past. Lee seems to recognize that some of the things people do in an attempt to correct the record only end up creating new problems. A great example would be the character played by Mos Def, who insists that even his sister, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Sloan, calls him by his chosen name, Big Blak Afrika, and not by his “slave name” of Julius (given to him by his parents). In his attempt to reject the expectations and/or demands of a mostly white society, Big Blak Afrika manages to reject his parents, without even fully realizing it, and then he rejects his sister, inadvertently calling her a “house nigger” because she has aspirations within that mostly white world. From Big Blak Afrika’s perspective, he’s keeping it real. From his sister’s perspective, he’s clowning (she calls him “ignorant,” “retarded” and “embarrassing”). Lee never suggests that only one of them is right, because the point he’s trying to make is about perception, and what’s clear is that one black person’s black pride is another’s pathetic acceptance of buffoonery.

Bamboozled

EH: That ambiguity is one of the most interesting things about the film, and it’s especially apparent in any of the scenes involving Big Blak Afrika’s rap group, the Mau Maus. It’s hard to know what Lee thinks about them, which is curious because they’re the characters who come closest to articulating Lee’s own ideas, the ideas of the film. They’re all about black pride and black consciousness, about making art that deals with serious issues and confronts prejudice rather than trying to fit into a racist system. To some degree, they’re contrasted against Delacroix, who’s increasingly absorbed by the white system, and Manray/Mantan (Savion Glover), who shrugs off whatever compunctions he might have for the chance to make some money. It’s obvious that Lee sympathizes with Big Blak Afrika when he complains about a famous rapper, saying, “That motherfucker’s a millionaire, grunting on record.” He’s lamenting the fact that black entertainment that enforces negative stereotypes—“bling” and gangstas—is so successful while more politically, racially and socially conscious art is, in Sloan’s word, just thought of as “embarrassing.” And yet Lee often seems to be mocking the Mau Maus as well, for having a political consciousness and then being unable to articulate their ideas except with empty posturing and, ultimately, useless violence.

In one key scene, Delacroix and Sloan are auditioning various black performers for the Mantan show. They see a parade of comics, singers and performers, mostly validating Big Blak Afrika’s complaint, since Delacroix is delighted by anything crude and abrasive, while looking on with bafflement at the musician who plays the didgeridoo, because his beautiful, melancholy music doesn’t fit at all with the image of blackness that Delacroix is envisioning here—anything that displays black people as capable of grace and beauty is out. And then the Mau Maus themselves come out, rapping and shouting, delivering their in-your-face aggressive style of performance, and Delacroix seems physically disgusted. Because of the rest of the sequence, one might think that Lee is once again showing Delacroix missing the point, but it’s hard to tell, mainly because after all the rhetoric delivered by the Mau Maus throughout the film, their actual performance is incoherent and empty, their presumably political lyrics entirely indecipherable amidst all the shouting.

This impression is confirmed by the finale, in which the Mau Maus simply wind up conforming to—and broadcasting through the media—the black stereotype of the violent gangster that they’d claimed to oppose. Ultimately, these activists have nothing to offer but guns and senseless death. How Lee feels about them, in the end, is suggested by the scene where they’re killed by the cops. They’re celebrating their murder of Mantan by drinking big bottles of Da Bomb, the malt liquor that Lee had earlier lampooned in a sequence parodying advertising targeted at black people. This film, for all its humor and outrageousness, is ultimately extremely bleak, because this ending suggests just how difficult it is to escape the expectations and stereotypes of a predominantly white society. Society expects black people, and especially black men, to be either buffoons or killers, and almost everyone in this film is all too eager to feed into that system, on the air or off.

Bamboozled

JB: To rewrite your last sentence a bit, I think the larger issue is that blackness is often closely associated with violence and thuggishness (be it substantive or merely stylistic), which creates that “house nigger/field nigger” division exemplified by the relationship of Sloan and Big Blak Afrika, in which a black person who takes a white-collar job and speaks in grammatically correct sentences is regarded as somehow faux black while a black person who embraces baggy jeans and rap is regarded as accepting, and furthermore perpetuating, the larger society’s lowered expectations. Exactly what Lee thinks about the Mau Maus is unclear: are they genuinely violent thugs all along, or does the system force them to fulfill the stereotype? What is clear is that the Mau Maus’ determination to exhibit their blackness renders any deeper intentions moot, at least to the white-dominated entertainment industry, exemplified by Delacroix, who recoils in horror at their audition and then says, “It’s frightening; I don’t want anything to do with anything black for at least a week.”

Delacroix is the movie’s whiteface performance. Not literally, of course. But almost. Wayans’ portrayal is dominated by a pinched, nasally voice, a rigid stick-up-the-ass posture and frequent hand gestures. It’s a performance that suggests the absurdity of white people “acting black,” and beyond that the extremeness of it implies that there’s a lot of room between succeeding in a predominantly white man’s world (in the United States, I mean) and actually trying to become white. Wayans’ Delacroix is pure caricature, obviously, and I’m impressed at the consistency of the performance throughout, but even more I’m intrigued by the character’s contradictions.

In a piece for his Black History Mumf at Big Media Vandalism, Odie Henderson points out that Delacroix’s motivations often turn on a dime. “First, Delacroix wants to do the show to get fired, then he wants to do it to prove a point, then he’s happy about the show despite several scenes of him being upset by what his White writers are putting into the mouths of his characters. Then we see him laughing at some of the Mantan show. When he wins awards, he dances around like the coons on his show. Why?” The answer, I think, is this: Delacroix creates his minstrel show as an attempt to be the tail that wags the dog, but somewhere along the way, and without him entirely noticing it, the system reasserts its dominance. Maybe it’s fame that corrupts. Maybe fortune. It doesn’t really matter. To swap metaphors, the bottom line is that the house always wins.

Bamboozled

EH: Odie sees that inconsistency as a sign of the movie’s script weaknesses, but I think you’re on to something there. Delacroix’s motivations are constantly changing because the character isn’t quite sure what he wants, which makes him an easy target for assimilation by a system that can absorb and appropriate pretty much anything to its own purposes. Bamboozled shows a process that’s been going on in the entertainment industry at least since the industry figured out that they could even market punk rock, a music ostensibly defined by rebellion, political engagement and non-commercialism. Delacroix’s initial subversive agenda, like the Mau Maus’, is very poorly defined—because the character is confused, I think, not because of a failure of the script—and Delacroix, who should understand all too well how the media works, is kidding himself that he can get any of his ideas across in his show.

Not that Delacroix has many well-defined ideas, really. Lee mocks almost everyone in this film to some extent, but he’s most unsparing of Delacroix and his boss, the white Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). That’s because they’re the characters who are most strenuously trying to deny their respective races and act like something they’re not. That seems to be the biggest crime for Lee. Delacroix’s exaggeratedly nasal elocution is the kind of voice that Lee has always used to signal a character, generally a villain, who’s trying to pretend that he’s white—in that respect, Wayans’ Delacroix is a descendant of Giancarlo Esposito’s Julian in Lee’s sophomore film School Daze, though Wayans’ performance is far better. Delacroix is also the counterpart to Dunwitty, a white Irish guy who speaks with what he imagines to be a black dialect, and who thinks he has the right to say “nigger” because he has a black wife and “biracial kids.” He gets a great meta line that signals Lee’s contempt for this kind of cross-racial acting: “I don’t care what Spike Lee says, Tarantino was right, it’s just a word.”

At the root of Dunwitty’s attitude about race is a confidence in the progress that has been made in civil rights in the United States. As Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) says on the Mantan show, dressed up as a blackface Abraham Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago, they was kicking our ass. … But this is the new millennium!” The agenda that this minstrel show eventually ends up pushing is based on the idea that racism exists only in the past, a relic of a previous era with no relation to the post-racial present. By broadcasting a minstrel show full of outdated racist imagery, they’re suggesting that the only form of racism is this kind of super-obvious stereotyping, which is so blatant that it’s easy to think that racism no longer exists, that there’s no relation between blackface and the much more insidious and undercover racism that keeps black entertainers like Delacroix, his father and Manray ghettoized and marginalized, or the kind of racism that leads to situations like having a roomful of white writers writing for a supposedly black show and providing readymade excuses for the lack of black writers, including a dearth of qualified black people being available.

Bamboozled

JB: Perhaps even more significantly, Bamboozled via Mantan explores the ramifications of asserting one’s strength through an attempt to reclaim and redefine words and stereotypes that were designed to be pejorative. In the early days of the Mantan show, the actors wear blackface with a certain amount of excitement. It’s their show. It’s their path to stardom. Thus, their adoption of blackface feels like a symbol of their independence and control—they take ownership of the blackface/minstrel identity so that the identity doesn’t own them. It all makes sense on paper, but in reality it proves problematic. The second time we see Womack (Tommy Davidson), aka Sleep’n Eat, applying the mixture of burned cork to his face, he does so angrily, and Manray looks at himself in the mirror with an expression of disillusionment. The implication of this shift is that blackface is inherently and inescapably vile and demeaning: Manray and Womack can wear blackface without malice and maybe even without insensitivity, but they can never truly wear it with pride, because the negative history of blackface is too powerful to be fully neutralized.

On that note, I’m glad you brought up the meta reference to Lee’s spat with Tarantino, because I can’t help but wonder if this is partly Lee’s attempt to comment on Tarantino’s frequent use of the word “nigger” in his films. Tarantino isn’t trying to be demeaning—shocking, maybe—when he has Samuel L. Jackson’s characters (among others) drop the n-bomb as freely as Martin Scorsese characters drop the f-bomb. Quite the contrary. Tarantino adores and even over-romanticizes black culture, as defined through Blaxploitation films, and it’s fairly obvious he thinks there’s little more emboldening than a black person saying “nigger.” But while that might make sense on paper, again in reality it proves problematic. No sensible person can argue that “nigger” is “just a word.” If it were “just a word,” Tarantino wouldn’t be so giddy about using it. So while Tarantino seems to believe he can rewrite the definition of “nigger,” it’s worth asking whether all he’s really doing is desensitizing his audience to the word and—this is crucial—to all the hateful implications buried within it.

One of the most disturbing moments in Bamboozled is the one just after we’ve watched Manray and Womack don blackface for the second time. As they stare into their makeup mirrors backstage, we can hear the sounds of Honeycutt exciting the studio audience, inciting them into a spirited, anticipatory chant of “Niggers! Niggers!” As with their blackface attire, the audience means no harm with their chant. In fact, much like Tarantino, they’re trying to express their fondness. But the combination of that chant with those images of two men in blackface is particularly revolting, and it sets us up for what I think is the most important moment in the film, the one much later when Manray appears on stage in street clothes and stuns a raucous, standing crowd into silence. This is the moment when Manray delivers his Howard Beale speech, but his words are remarkably irrelevant. His statement is made simply through his refusal to perpetuate the Mantan show’s myth, thereby breaking the spell of mutual and willful blindness and holding the audience accountable for their behavior. Meanwhile, Lee’s statement is made through shots of the crowd’s stunned yet immediately understanding reaction, which implies that underneath all the external insensitivity and self-delusion, the audience knew that a minstrel show was revolting and shameful all along.

Bamboozled

EH: Even more stunning, and revolting, is Delacroix’s lame attempt to pass off the moment as yet another joke, saying that they’re going to take Mantan out back and whip him. That’s a shocking moment because it drives home just how easy it is to be desensitized to this kind of racism, to the point where Delacroix doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s crossing a line by so nakedly evoking the violence that had been the subtext of the Mantan show all along, as in the scene where the plantation owner finds Mantan and Sleep’n Eat in the chicken coop and starts shooting at them with a shotgun. As you say, this kind of history can never be neutralized, which is what Delacroix and the other showrunners don’t seem to realize. Dunwitty, in particular, likes to think that things have changed enough that there’s no longer any need to be P.C., no need for any special attention to matters of race, even though almost all of his staff is white with only token black writers and executives. Through marketing and the sheep-like mentality of entertainment audiences, they’re able to cram this stuff down people’s throats for a while, and even convince people that it’s great, but eventually it’s seen for what it is, an ugly reminder of the ways in which black people have been treated in the United States for much of the country’s history.

Lee provides this reminder himself, throughout the film, by cutting in excerpts from various pieces of entertainment: Birth of a Nation, racial caricatures in cartoons, The Jeffersons and Good Times, and the old Hollywood blackface comedians who provided the principal impetus for this film, those guys like Mantan Moreland and Bert Williams who did their pop-eyed, subservient, buffoonish schtick while playing sidekicks, chauffeurs and servants for white stars. There’s also plenty of iconography from the history of blackface, which Delacroix begins accumulating after receiving the rather sarcastic gift of a “jolly nigger bank” from Sloan, who seems to be giving it to him as a not-too-subtle way of calling him a sellout. Soon enough, whenever Lee shows Delacroix’s office, he’s surrounded with more and more blackface memorabilia, presumably displayed in a spirit of reclaiming the imagery, but again, he can’t escape its negative connotations, and the more blackface junk he piles on the shelves of his office, the more all those big lips and wide eyes seem to be mocking him. It’s obviously important for Lee that this film be seen in its context, as a critique of a long history of racism and marginalization of black performers in American cultural history, a critique that includes the more subtle ways in which that history extends into the present day.

Bamboozled

JB: That’s well said. You know, the timing of this conversation is interesting in a few ways, but one of them is this: Bamboozled ends with a montage retrospective of film/TV history that’s quite similar to the one at the end of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 ode Hugo, except of course in tone and intent. Whereas Scorsese’s film pays nostalgic tribute to cinema history (and in particular the works of Georges Méliès), Lee’s montage is mournful, featuring clips of white actors in blackface, black actors in caricature roles and cartoon characters drawn according to degrading stereotypes. The Bamboozled montage is set to a musical arrangement by Terence Blanchard that’s so mellow and inviting that it could have just as easily scored the uplifting Hugo sequence, except that when paired with these shameful images it takes on a funereal tone. Lee’s montage isn’t angry, it’s worth underlining. In fact, while it’s confrontational, Bamboozled isn’t a particularly angry film as a whole. Instead, the mood is melancholy, full of sadness for this country’s troubled past and for the way those sins of yesterday still affect us today.

Bamboozled’s climactic montage (actually the first of two montages, because the closing credits scroll over images of those antique blackface toys) concludes with clips of black actors in relatively straightforward “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” portrayals of plantation-era servants in which offensiveness isn’t found in the dramatic performances themselves so much as the historic bases for those performances. In other words, those servant performances have less in common with Manray-as-Mantan’s minstrel antics than with, say, Viola Davis’ performance in The Help, the 2011 movie that enraged some critics and audiences by rewriting history at least as often as it reflects it. In a recent interview with Davis and her costar Octavia Spencer, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley noted that while he was hopeful that both actresses would win Oscars for their performances he was “ambivalent” about what they would be winning for, expressing frustration that more than seven decades after Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for playing a servant, Davis and Spencer might be relegated to the same.

Smiley’s ambivalence is understandable, but Davis’ response was just as compelling: “That very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist,” she said. “The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. … We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they’ve been watered down to the point where they are not realistic at all. … My whole thing is, do I always have to be noble? As an artist you’ve got to see the mess.”

“The Mess” seems to me the perfect way to describe not just the complicatedness of humanity but also the predicament of the modern black artist, which is one of the things Bamboozled explores. Smiley concluded his interview with Davis and Spencer by saying, “Let’s move on. Let’s tell some other stories about the character and the complexity and the humanity of black people.” But while that sounds straightforward, especially when said in relation to a troublesome film like The Help, Bamboozled shows that it isn’t so simple, because while certain roles have the potential to offend by reestablishing negative stereotypes (as true to life as they might be in some cases), other more politically correct roles have the potential to offend by straying too far from the typical “black” experience, as if black culture and/or the difficult economic realities facing many African-Americans are something to be ashamed of. Thus, Davis’ comments are interesting because in fact her character in The Help is extremely noble in terms of character and humanity; it’s the character’s predicament and the oversimplified film around her that are ignoble. Davis should have nothing to apologize for, and yet in press tours for the film she’s constantly been on the defensive.

Bamboozled

EH: I haven’t seen The Help, and have little desire to, but I can only imagine what Lee would have to say about it. Not that Bamboozled ever suggests that there are any easy answers for black artists, and a version of the debate between Smiley and Davis is at the core of this film, which is all about trying to move on from the past without forgetting it, which is an extraordinarily difficult tightrope to walk. On the one hand, there’s entertainment that wallows in negative stereotypes, like Mantan. For Lee, as outrageous as the idea of a modern minstrel show is, there’s plenty of modern entertainment that fulfills this stereotype without the actual blackface. In real life, Lee has lobbed these accusations at Tyler Perry, among others. That’s the point of the bluntly parodic “Timmi Hillnigger” commercial: “If you want to keep it really real, never get out of the gee-to, stay broke, and continue to add to my multibillion dollar corporation, keep buying all my gear. … We keep it so real, we give you the bullet holes.” Lee is pointing out how much of modern culture targeted at black people subliminally delivers messages like that—that to “keep it real” is to live up, or rather down, to a certain stereotype of blackness. That’s why, when Delacroix rattles off the character traits of his proposed new stars—ignorant, dull-witted, lazy, unlucky—Dunwitty squeals with delight after each one, bouncing in his chair, unable to contain his excitement. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

On the other hand, Lee is also critical of the kinds of Cosby-like, whitewashed shows that Delacroix was making for his network before Mantan, which in their eagerness to present very positive images of blackness also don’t really say much about the black experience or the real lives of black people. In some ways, this double-barreled criticism is a little self-serving—what’s the right kind of black movie? The kind Spike Lee makes, of course—but it also suggests the legitimate problems of black entertainment, which for much of American history has been saddled with stereotypes and limiting roles. I don’t think Lee’s suggesting that every black movie has to be Bamboozled as a result, but he is advocating for an awareness of this history, a refusal to act in ways that simply feed into the opposing stereotypes of the violent gangster and the subservient “house nigger.” That’s why so much of the mockery in Bamboozled isn’t simply directed at the characters within the film but resonates outwards to real incidents, like Delacroix’s faux-humble award acceptance speeches, which parody real speeches by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ving Rhames that Lee had criticized for buffoonery and a “yes, massa” tone towards the white-run entertainment industry.

Bamboozled

JB: And that’s where the debate gets really messy. I mean, why should Adam Sandler have a monopoly on cartoonish movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator of humor? Shouldn’t Tyler Perry be able to get in on that? Likewise, why should Roberto Benigni get to be the only one who acts like a clown at the Oscars? And why should Sean Penn get to be the only one to act obnoxiously humble in the presence of a fellow nominee when delivering his acceptance speech? While I greatly admire the way Bamboozled avoids oversimplification, this is where some of its implications become potentially hypocritical. Because in implying that Gooding and Rhames were being “Grateful Negroes” in their famous Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards moments, Lee isn’t just distrusting their sincerity, he’s also eliminating such behavior from the realm of acceptability. In other words, he’s delivering a not-so-subliminal message that to “keep it real” means avoiding those kinds of displays. It’s a disheartening implication, less because of where Lee draws those lines than because the mere existence of such lines creates a no-win situation. Once again, “keeping it real” means being sincere unless one’s sincerity violates the black code, in which case outward appearances trump truth, and Viola Davis’ words seem particularly astute.

That said, while I think Bamboozled has moments of hypocrisy within it, I want to be clear that I think Lee is very aware of that hypocrisy, at least broadly speaking. One thing we’ve yet to mention explicitly is that Bamboozled is a critique of the treatment of blacks by blacks as much as it’s a critique of the system (although, no doubt, the overarching hypothesis suggests that the system is the primary influencer and that the other dominos fall from there). One of my favorite images of the film finds Delacroix in his apartment, kneading his bald head in confusion after the pilot taping of Mantan turns out to be a rousing success. Sitting in the dark, Delacroix stares into his computer screen at a cross-section diagram of a slave ship, which serves as Lee’s blatant acknowledgement that Delacroix is ever aware that his minstrel show is institutionalizing racism. Equally telling is the experience of Sloan, who is called a “house nigger” by her own brother, then is dismissed as “the help” by Delacroix and then is paradoxically called Delacroix’s puppet and manipulator by Manray after he learns that Sloan had slept with Delacroix prior to their relationship, which Manray assumes was a calculated business tactic.

Naturally, Sloan is offended. “It’s funny how a man always has to perceive an attractive young lady as having to fuck or suck somebody in order to get to the top,” she says in her own defense. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m intelligent maybe? Or have anything to do with the fact that I have drive?” The underlying message of that scene, when coupled with her earlier argument with her brother, is that whether a black person is perceived as an upstanding “house nigger” or a scheming “field nigger” doesn’t matter. A “nigger” is a “nigger”—and not Tarantino’s super-cool kind—and all the negative stereotypes attached to that identity can create prejudice between blacks and other blacks as easily as between whites and blacks.

Bamboozled

EH: That scene with Sloan certainly shows that Lee understands just how tricky and contradictory the situation can be, creating a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma for black entertainers and professionals, where even when they succeed, when they beat the odds and make it to the top in a game rigged in favor of white people, they’re not given credit for their successes. It’s worse for women like Sloan, who also have to deal with sexism and accusations of sexual manipulation, but even when that’s not a consideration, there will inevitably be accusations of tokenism, a suggestion that any successful black person only got to where they are through the help of affirmative action. That implication is certainly there when Delacroix’s all-white writing staff scrambles to justify the lack of any black writers in the room, suggesting that there were no qualified black people available, that the only way they could have hired someone black was by lowering their standards.

At the same time, you’re right that Lee is equally interested in the way that the system makes black people act towards each other. In that respect, the Lee film that Bamboozled most resembles is School Daze, which also deals with conflicting, opposing images of blackness: a black fraternity at an all-black college representing the buffoons and those who are trying to fit in and assimilate with whites, as opposed to a group of radical, politicized students who extol racial consciousness and awareness of African identity. That film is very awkward in typical Lee fashion, but it’s definitely a forerunner to the ideas he’s exploring in Bamboozled. Notably, School Daze opens with a montage of photographs from black American history (including the same slave ship cross-section that Delacroix looks at) and closes with a literal call to “wake up” that seems to be targeted specifically at black audiences, with Laurence Fishburne’s Dap turning to the camera and demanding that the audience think about the questions of black roles and stereotypes raised by the film.

Similarly, Bamboozled is pitched as a wake-up call. There might be some hypocrisy in Lee’s approach when he seems to be setting down his own rules for what it means to “keep it real,” but mostly the film isn’t advocating for any particular model of black behavior so much as it’s asking people to simply think about these issues, to be aware of the lessons of the past.

Bamboozled

JB: And to be aware of the problems of the present, I agree. The Help certainly isn’t the first movie to grossly oversimplify racial or social issues, and so especially in this era of extreme Kool-Aid drinking, in which MSNBC, Fox News and so many other media channels (television and otherwise) peddle the notion that anyone who disagrees with you must be ignorant or pure evil, it’s refreshing to watch a movie so comfortable with its loose ends, a movie that’s satisfied with being a wake-up call rather than needing to impart a strict dogma of its own. Sure, Bamboozled is stagy. Sure, it’s blatant. (When Sloan isn’t being demeaned by the men around her she’s usually stopping to give them, and us, a history lesson.) But I don’t see how it would be possible to watch this movie without being at least sporadically unsettled by it, and that’s half the battle. Bamboozled is designed to spark reevaluation, and to do that it needs to shock us from complacency. It does that.

The movie may be hypocritical in spots, but that’s okay because it’s genuine where it counts. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, for example, Lee never makes the mistake of thinking he can condemn these hateful stereotypes and revel in them at the same time. Blackface should make us uncomfortable, and so Lee keeps upping the ante to make sure we never accept it. First there’s the shock value of seeing Manray and Womack in the minstrel show; then there’s the shock value of the Halloween costumes and a packed studio audience in blackface; then there’s Dunwitty attending a Mantan taping in blackface; then there’s the montage of all those blackface movie moments, including a scene from Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby; and then there’s the montage of all those despicable antique toys. “Always keep ’em laughing” is Delacroix’s mission statement, imparted by his father, but while Bamboozled is an often funny film, each and every laugh is chased with bile—the flavor of knowing that just beyond the joke is a bitter, ugly truth.

Bamboozled

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

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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