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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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