Jason Bellamy: Both in chronology and in tone, Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic middle child. Sandwiched between more provocative films like Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Barry Lyndon is comparatively subdued, straightforward and introverted. Overlooked, too. Released in 1975 to less than breathtaking box office figures and only slightly more enthusiastic reviews, the film has since gained a considerable amount of praise and respect, yet it remains somewhat underground. Part of Barry Lyndon’s relative anonymity is due to its surroundings: one mountain amongst a mighty range, all too easily ignored in the vast panorama of Kubrick’s achievements. Part is attributable to the self-perpetuating cycle of anonymity (I suspect Barry Lyndon might be the most unseen of the Kubrick films I mentioned above, making it difficult to attain grassroots popularity). Part might even be attributable to the film’s unsexy poster, which became its unsexy VHS/DVD cover. (Back in the day when folks used to browse Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, which cover do you think popped off the shelf: this one or this one?) But I suspect the biggest reason Barry Lyndon is overlooked is because of its slow, deliberate, drawn-out pace and, this is crucial, its lack of a signature moment.
What I mean by the latter is that Barry Lyndon, so far as I can tell, has no iconic image or quote or scene or plot twist. Based on the 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, and adapted for the screen by Kubrick himself, Barry Lyndon tells the story of a man who thirsts for love and loses it, thirsts for wealth and finds it, thirsts for status and nearly attains it, and then loses it all. It’s the story of a man who engages in duels, war, cons and affairs. And yet despite all that action, despite all that conflict, Barry Lyndon unfolds with astonishing evenness. I wouldn’t say it’s an emotional flatline, because that would imply lifelessness, but it’s certainly an atypically level film. Almost monotonously so. While Howard Hawks said that a good film is three good scenes and no bad ones, Barry Lyndon might be described as a long film with no great scenes and no bad ones. If that sounds like an insult, I don’t mean it to. Rather, it’s an attempt to capture the feeling of watching this film. As Martin Scorsese said of Barry Lyndon, “People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness—and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival.” In many ways, Barry Lyndon is a simple, elemental film, too, is it not?
Ed Howard: I don’t know about “simple,” but there’s no doubt that Barry Lyndon looks, on the surface, like an uncharacteristically direct film from Kubrick, and your list of the films that preceded and followed this one in his filmography emphasizes how strangely this period piece character study sits within the context of his career. But appearances can be deceiving. The film opens with a few indications that this is not the staid period piece it sometimes might seem to be. The detached irony of the narration subtly tweaks the conventions of the historical epic right from the start, highlighting the absurdity of the duel where Barry’s father dies, an early foreshadowing of Barry’s own future fate. Soon after, Kubrick further announces his sense of humor when, during a scene of Barry and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) silently, sullenly playing cards, the narrator drolly intones, “First love, what a change it makes in a lad.” It’s a joke worthy of Woody Allen, introducing a wryly ironic disconnect between words and images that makes the film complex, satirical and multilayered more than simple or elemental—especially when it later becomes clear just what changes this love will cause in Barry’s life.
That said, your point that the film doesn’t have any scenes that really stand out is confirmed by my own experience with it. Until recently, I last saw Barry Lyndon over a decade ago, when I was going through a big Kubrick phase, like I suspect a lot of young cinephiles do. Though I know I liked it at the time, going into this conversation I can’t say I remembered a single concrete scene. What had stayed with me from the film, it turned out, was an overall mood, an aura: languid, beautiful, melancholy. The lighting stayed with me long after the plot had evaporated from my mind. Kubrick shot the film in predominantly natural light for both exteriors and interiors, and the effect is striking, particularly in the indoor scenes where the frame is bathed in the flickering golden glow of candles.
Most of Kubrick’s other films have scenes and images that are instantly recognizable and eminently quotable, sometimes to the detriment of the films as a whole, which threaten to be dwarfed by all the parodies and tributes to “Here’s Johnny” or the apes in 2001. Barry Lyndon doesn’t have any similarly iconic moments, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have affecting and powerful individual scenes. It just hasn’t passed into pop culture infamy the way so much of the rest of Kubrick’s work has. That only makes it easier to appreciate the film as a whole, as a unified work that has Kubrick’s characteristic dry wit, his formalist rigor, his slightly detached perspective on the sufferings of his characters. In other words, though Barry Lyndon seems in many superficial ways like a very atypical Kubrick film, an exception in a fairly cohesive career, it’s a lot less simple than it seems—and a lot more Kubrickian.
JB: Absolutely. By calling it simple, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s simple-minded, or that it lacks in cinematic grandiosity. Indeed, if Barry Lyndon has a signature, it would be its breathtaking “natural” lighting. (It’s difficult to have a discussion about natural lighting without mentioning Barry Lyndon, and vice versa.) Visually, the film is striking and ornate—anyone with even a cursory understanding of the challenges of shooting with natural light can’t help but appreciate its mastery—and yet Barry Lyndon is also, well, natural. Whereas Terrence Malick, another fan of shooting in natural light, spends a considerable amount of time in the magic hour, and Wong Kar-wai has a penchant for deeply saturated images and Yasujio Ozu’s films are rigidly composed, Barry Lyndon doesn’t exist in quite the same state of heightened reality. It’s an anachronistically clean period piece (as so many are), one in which the costumes always seem freshly cleaned and pressed, as if mud and wrinkles didn’t exist in the 18th century. But beyond that, the visual allure feels surprisingly organic, as if Kubrick has discovered a world where, day or night, indoors or out, at play or at war, exquisite beauty is inescapable.
That said, the precision of Kubrick’s cinematography is unmistakable, too. An inordinate number of the film’s compositions put the focal point of the action in the dead center of the frame. And of course Barry Lyndon is also full of Kubrick’s familiar slow pans and zooms (forward and reverse). In those respects, Barry Lyndon is quite Kubrickian. And then, as you mentioned, there’s the film’s detached tone. As he often does, Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly in his Great Movies essay: “[Barry Lyndon] is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. … Barry Lyndon is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately excellence.”
Later, Ebert asks: “How many directors would have had Kubrick’s confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man’s rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don’t simply see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on—unless we’re so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him.” So let’s build on that. Ed, how does Kubrick see Barry Lyndon?
EH: That’s a very apt question. Kubrick has, I think, a very strong attitude about Barry. There’s ambiguity and subtlety in Barry Lyndon, but nevertheless Kubrick does seem to have a very particular attitude that he wants to communicate about his main character—and indeed about all the characters in this film. Though this attitude is apparent throughout, I think it’s most obvious in the succinct “epilogue,” a sentence of onscreen text that sums up the film’s thrust perfectly. Such textual codas are often (lazily) used to track the progress of characters after the film’s action ends, but in this case Kubrick’s narrator has already noted that there is nothing further to say about Barry’s adventures after the film’s final image of him, limping into a carriage with one leg, fated to disappear into a long, sad decline.
Instead of wrapping up loose ends, the epilogue provides an elegantly stated moral takeaway: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.” That’s the key to the film, and to Kubrick’s attitude about Barry. It’s a radical historical perspective that upturns all the artificial distinctions and boundaries raised by society and emphasizes the common humanity of all these people, most of them cruel and petty and greedy and foolish, whatever their class or background. They fight and scrape for some material rewards, for a noble title or riches, for the esteem granted by a lordship or a fancy estate, but they are all forgotten by time regardless. They all die and once in the ground there’s nothing to distinguish the lords from the low-born, the kings from the con men, the sophisticated ladies from the farmers’ wives.
In that respect, Barry Lyndon is the story of a man’s wasted life. To answer your question, Kubrick sees Barry as a foolish man who never managed to grasp what’s really important in life. He spends his whole life pursuing material rewards, claiming to be taking the long view—he desires security and comfort for his beloved son—but really existing in a very shortsighted manner. The film is about how petty and inconsequential life can be if we allow it to be, and about the folly of living with an eye towards posterity. In the pursuit of wealth and social status, Barry never seems to realize just how miserable his life has become. Kubrick is a master of depicting boredom and ugliness, and the nearly silent scenes of Barry and his wife endlessly shuffling papers and settling bills capture the emptiness of a life devoted exclusively to the material. The film’s epilogue negates everything else that happens in the film; it’s as though Kubrick is underlining just how little anything Barry does really matters in any larger sense. Kubrick sees Barry as a tragic figure, and the tragedy is not so much that he doesn’t get what he wants, but that even if he had gotten it, it wouldn’t have meant much, it wouldn’t have made his life full or meaningful.
JB: I think that’s quite right, provided we recognize that Barry does wind up finding momentary fulfillment in being a father—perhaps the one thing he didn’t yearn for as a young man—only to have that meaningfulness taken away from him. While I wholly agree that the epilogue does well to illustrate Kubrick’s view of Barry, there’s a two-shot sequence late in the film that is equally telling, and nearly as succinct.
After Barry loses his composure and beats his stepson, which causes him to lose his fortune and social standing, Kubrick cuts from a slow reverse zoom of Barry and his son (David Morley’s Bryan) quietly fishing together in a small rowboat to a fairly tight shot of father and son sitting together and reading. It’s an intimate shot: a book on Bryan’s lap and Bryan on Barry’s lap. Together they flip through the pages and speak in whispered tones, Barry’s smile broad and warm, their mutual affection unmistakable. After a few seconds, Kubrick cuts to a wide shot of the same tableau. There are Barry and Bryan, like before, but now the intimacy of their moment is contrasted by the ornateness of their surroundings. The wide shot reveals that Barry and Bryan are sitting on a couch perhaps 15 feet long, in front of a rug that’s just as wide, beneath a painting that’s just as tall. And yet the massive room they’re sitting in feels, if anything, underfurnished. This shot, for me, illustrates the emptiness of all of Barry’s previous pursuits better than any other. Barry spends the film looking for wealth and status, but in truth all he needed to be happy was a small bit of quiet space in which to be a father to an adoring son.
The great tragedy is that Barry never seems to realize this. Except when he’s playing father to Bryan, Barry is a man without a genuine identity. He begins the film as an Irishman named Redmond Barry and soon is fighting for the British, eluding his scandalous past. He then escapes his military service and briefly plays husband to a German woman he meets during his flight. He then comes across some Prussian officers and pretends to be a British lieutenant. He’s then exposed as a fraud and ends up in a Prussian soldier’s uniform instead. He’s then sent to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, at which time he’s told to pose as a Hungarian, but instead he admits his Irish roots to the chevalier and becomes a double-agent, meanwhile posing as a simple butler to help the chevalier cheat at cards. Barry then poses as the chevalier in order that the two might escape Prussian surveillance and continue their cons indefinitely. Finally, he meets and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Barenson) and thus becomes Barry Lyndon.
Near the start of the film’s second chapter, Barry sits in the back of a carriage with Lady Lyndon, smoking on a pipe with a smug expression on his face that exhibits his pride over fooling all of those around him. But mostly he’s fooling himself. In the carriage directly behind Barry rides his stepson who sees his mother’s new husband for exactly what he is: “a common opportunist.” Barry might accept opportunist, but he wants to be anything but common. It’s not enough to spoil Bryan rotten; Barry regales his young son with stories of his heroism in war, spinning a clearly bullshit tale in which he’s the first man over the wall before cutting off the heads of 19 men while wounding several others. Bryan loves the tale so much that he requests it on his deathbed. And thus Barry’s fraudulence extends into the one thing in his life that was otherwise pure: his love of his son.
EH: Yes, it does, and one of the curious things about the movie is that for some time Barry is defrauding even the audience, at least in part because Kubrick keeps Barry’s motivations and thoughts somewhat hidden and obscure. Barry’s pursuit of Lady Lyndon is probably the turning point in that respect. His courtship of her initially appears as sincere to the audience as it presumably does to the woman herself. Barry seems genuinely fascinated with her and attracted to her, pursuing her during a card game and keeping constant company with her thereafter. Although the narrator makes some typically snarky remarks about Barry continuing his rise in the world and gaining advantage through his intimacy with the lady, there is otherwise very little hint that this is anything other than a romance, albeit one that takes place largely offscreen.
The wedding helps to disintegrate those romantic notions, because it’s staged as such a joyless affair, with Kubrick’s characteristic flat affect and ironic distance. The preacher, with a bland and expressionless face, drily recounts all the church-sanctioned justifications for marriage, but love doesn’t enter into the equation. Instead, he suggests that marriage is important mainly as a “defense against sin,” a way to avoid fornication, which in a very different way is as utilitarian and unsentimental a view of marriage as Barry’s own perspective on it. And then the carriage ride exposes the true nature of Barry’s ambition: having achieved his goal of wooing and marrying Lady Lyndon, he lets the mask drop, both to her and to the film’s audience, by coolly blowing smoke in her face while the narrator informs us that Barry soon views his wife as little more than decorative furniture. Like Barry’s new wife, only then do we really grasp the full extent of Barry’s emptiness and deception, only then do we realize just what kind of a man he actually is.
Shortly after this scene, Kubrick cuts from Barry and Lady Lyndon in bed, cradling their newborn son—“her ladyship presented Barry with a son,” is the narrator’s stiff, emotionless way of putting it—directly to Barry in the midst of an orgy, making out with a pair of topless girls. Kubrick then cuts back to Barry’s wife lying with her older son resting his head on her shoulder and her new baby in a cradle that she’s distractedly rocking. Both Lady Lyndon and her son look narcotized and distant, staring blankly past the camera without seeming to see anything. The composition is static and still, with only one of Kubrick’s slow backwards tracking shots introducing some movement into the frame, pulling away from the figures to enhance the sense of absence and emotional deadness. The narration juxtaposes Lady Lyndon’s zombie-like demeanor against Barry’s belief that she should be taking joy in the raising of her sons while Barry concerns himself with society and pleasure. By this point, Barry, who started out as an unfortunate young man struggling to better himself, has become the villain of his own story.
JB: He’s become the villain, yes, but it’s important to note that he’s never the hero. Over the first half of the picture, Barry is repeatedly shown to be a fool—and his foolishness is exacerbated by his lack of self-awareness (he doesn’t realize he’s a fool). It all begins with that early scene of Barry playing cards with his cousin Nora, for whom he has a crush. The narrator suggests that love flows “instinctively from a man…like a bird sings,” but not for Barry. Nora stuffs a ribbon in her cleavage and urges Barry to find and remove it, saying she’ll think very little of him if he doesn’t, but Barry is so intimidated by the moment that he gives up without trying. Only when Nora takes his hand and places it on her breast does Barry locate the ribbon, but even then he can’t quite find his manhood. At this point, Nora notes that Barry’s hand is trembling, and when he suggests that it’s due to excitement, not fear, Nora calls him on it. “You’re a liar,” she says, and as she bends down to kiss him, Barry closes his eyes and waits submissively.
It’s a testament to Barry’s foolishness that his uncle arranges to con him through a fake duel with Captain Quin (Leonard Rossiter) in order to get him out of the way. And it’s further testament to Barry’s foolishness that Captain Feeny (Arthur O’Sullivan) so quickly sizes him up as a ripe target for a robbery. But the best evidence of Barry’s ineptitude is found in his interactions with Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger). We can tell from their first meeting, when Barry says he’s riding toward a town that in fact is behind him, that he’s in over his head, but Barry’s deception fully unravels later on, in a private candlelit conversation with Potzdorf in which Barry seems to think he has the upper hand. What’s telling isn’t that Barry is exposed as liar, imposter and deserter, it’s how he’s exposed, through what the narrator describes as a combination of “questions and flattery.” Essentially, Barry is so full of himself that when Potzdorf says that all he knows of England is that it’s the “bravest country in the world, and that we’re really lucky to have such allies,” Barry doesn’t detect that he’s being led on. Indeed, even when Potzdorf summons a sergeant to perform an arrest, Barry momentarily believes he can still talk his way out of the jam; up until then, he’s found himself quite convincing.
Of course, later on, Barry will indeed con Potzdorf, with the guidance of the Chevalier de Balibari. And he’ll con Lady Lyndon. And he’ll con his son with stories of heroism in war. So Barry isn’t completely lacking in cleverness. But his weakness is his inflated self-perception. He’s so convinced that he’s a man of intelligence, grace and stature that he assumes everyone around him thinks so, too.
EH: Barry is a paragon of self-deception, and at the heart of this deception is a popular democratic ideal that he’s fully internalized, the idea of class mobility. Barry, for all his faults and follies, is a real believer in the possibility of advancement; he’s an American-style social striver in an earlier era and another continent, who thinks that he can force himself upwards from poverty and ruin to the highest strata of society. In that sense, Barry isn’t just a fool or a villain—he’s also a victim. A victim, primarily, of a social structure in which his ambitions and his ideals would be impossible to realize even if he had gone about things in a more intelligent manner. Kubrick isn’t just crafting a portrait of a fool, which would be all too easy. He’s suggesting that Barry’s particular brand of foolishness is a symptom of a society that restricts the opportunities of the lower classes at every opportunity.
Barry learns this lesson most ruinously when he contrives to earn a title for himself through bribery and flattery, believing that he can propel himself into a lordship and earn the respect and status he so desperately wants. Instead, he destroys his wife’s fortune for naught, setting up the devastating sequence of tragedies in the film’s final act. It’s telling that when Barry assembles a troop of soldiers to fight in the Americas, hoping to impress the English king, the blunt, somewhat sarcastic response is that he should gather more troops and go fight himself. To the end, Barry is seen as good enough to be a soldier but not to be a lord. Earlier in the film, the scenes of Barry at war, first with the English army and then with the Prussians, establish that these wars are motivated by upper-class concerns, rooted in the interests of lords and kings, but fought by the poor, by criminals and conscripts. The armies are assembled by force and trickery: some people are literally kidnapped from their homes and forced into duty, while others are offered some small amount of money to serve in the (slim) hope of escaping poverty. When Barry is recruited into the army, the recruiter says that they need new men to replace those who have retired with a pension, a laughable and transparent ruse. But Barry, always a fool, and with few enough prospects anyway, truly believes that the army will be his route out of poverty, his first step towards respectability and prestige.
One crucial battle of Barry’s brief but bloody military career is a skirmish over a section of road that the English army wants to cross. As the narrator says, this is not the kind of epic battle that the history books immortalize. It is a petty, insignificant exchange, a fight over a small strip of land of dubious importance, one with little ultimate impact except for the men who die during its course. Kubrick’s compositions emphasize the absurdity of this style of battle, as the English soldiers march solidly forward towards the enemy lines, not breaking ranks as the enemy fires on them, many men dropping to the ground with each barrage as the men next to them continue marching forward without even looking around them. Kubrick maintains a characteristic stoic distance that emphasizes just how meaningless any individual life is in the midst of this absurd, anti-human war machine. Men fall and die and their comrades simply step over them, eyes locked straight ahead on the enemy, marching towards death with the determination of men whose lives aren’t valued any higher than the cost of a bullet. Barry, through some outrageous luck and his own oversized ambition, eventually does transcend this low level, but in a deeper sense he never quite escapes this devaluation of his life and his worth. Even when he is being honored by the Prussian army, the officer who presents him with his award can’t resist delivering a speech about what an anomaly his bravery was, about how Barry remains low class trash in spite of his achievements. Actions don’t matter nearly as much as origins. That’s the dominant ideology of this society, and though Barry occasionally manages to circumvent its rigid boundaries, they will ultimately suffocate him.
JB: Considering all that we’ve said about Barry thus far, it’s probably past time for discussing the actor who plays him: Ryan O’Neal. It’s certainly an interesting casting choice, perhaps more so in retrospect than at the time, and that’s saying something. When Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, O’Neal had been a regular on TV’s Peyton Place, and he’d starred in one of the most successful modern romances in cinema history, 1970’s Love Story, so he was hardly anonymous, but I’m not sure there was anything about his early career that suggested that he was on the path to playing complex leading men—although perhaps I’m letting my awareness of O’Neal’s post-Barry Lyndon roles overly influence that analysis. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that O’Neal’s performance here is an outlier in his career, a rare opportunity to work with strong material and a talented director.
That said, despite the fact that Barry Lyndon is almost always thought of as a Kubrickian achievement, I think O’Neal’s performance is one of its great strengths. O’Neal is what you might call memorably forgettable here. By that I mean that it’s impossible to think of Barry Lyndon without thinking about O’Neal, because indeed O’Neal’s character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. He isn’t Charles Foster Kane, or Michael Corleone, or T.E. Lawrence, or Daniel Plainview; indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.
Barry is a blank. I’m not an actor, but I suspect that’s much harder to play than it seems. O’Neal isn’t totally without big acting moments—his brawl with his stepson and his tearful exchange with his dying son leap to mind—but for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It’s an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry’s lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O’Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what’s remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O’Neal never seems to be.
EH: O’Neal’s unshowy performance is indeed another example of this film’s admirable restraint. In terms of performances, O’Neal’s portrayal of Barry reminds me very much of Tom Cruise’s turn as the similarly blank, unsympathetic Dr. Bill in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Barry and Bill are both intentionally flat protagonists whose emotional range is rather stunted, and who seem rather clueless and lost when faced with the realization that they are not, in fact, the centers of their respective universes. Like Bill, over the course of this film Barry must come to terms with a cruel world that foils all his plans and continually shatters his illusion of himself as a strong, clever schemer. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon are Kubrick’s stabs at masculine pride, though the two films go about tearing down their male archetypes in very different fashions.
If Eyes Wide Shut is all about male identity as defined by sex, Barry Lyndon is about worldly masculine ambition, the desire for power and money. That’s because Bill has accomplished the ideal that Barry can only haplessly reach for: Bill is rich and successful, his life furnished with all the conventional signifiers of status and prestige. Bill doesn’t need to grasp for a higher status the way Barry does, but the fact that he’s still striving for something more, that he still feels unfulfilled, suggests that this is a neverending quest. Bill is a Barry-like figure who has attained what he thought he wanted and now channels his unquenchable desire into sexuality, desperately trying to feel fulfilled in the same way that Barry is continually setting new goals for himself in his one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts to climb the social ladder. In contrast to Bill, who is engulfed by sexuality everywhere he turns, Barry, with the exception of his supposedly genuine feelings for Nora, seems ambivalent about sex. He pursues the lovely Lady Lyndon but as soon as he has her he wants very little to do with her. Sex is a means to an end for Barry; he defines himself not by his sexuality but by his ambition, by his desire for social and economic status. Bill, who has the social and economic success that Barry craves, instead feels inadequate in his sexuality. It’s as though these blank-faced, remote men are yawning voids who feel a profound absence in their lives and attempt to fill it with whatever they think is missing. If they achieve success in one area, it only makes them aware of what they lack elsewhere.
JB: It might be a bit misleading to suggest that Barry is ambivalent about sex, considering that once he’s married we see him cavorting with a few women not his wife. Barry uses sex as a means to an end with Lady Lyndon, sure, but he also seems to view wanton extramarital sex as a status symbol—although I agree it’s a desire for status, not for sex itself, that seems to give Barry his hard-on. Of course, broadly speaking, you’re correct that Barry is seeking to gain the same kind of status and prestige that Bill already has in Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between those two lead characters is that while both of them operate as if they are the center of their universe, and while both of them are surprised whenever someone around them sees them as anything less than that, Barry knows exactly what he wants, while Bill spends the majority of Eyes Wide Shut more or less pretending to himself that he knows what he wants. (Bill, too, is actually driven by something other than sex itself: a need to reassure himself that he can have whatever he wants, thus living up to the status he has achieved.)
Certainly Barry is the center of this film’s universe, and yet we’re constantly reminded of his smallness, his insignificance. And that leads us to perhaps the second most significant “character” in this film: the narrator. It’s impossible for me to imagine how Barry Lyndon would function without “him.” Voiced by Michael Hordern, the narration has a children’s storybook quality that on first viewing conjured in my mind images of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood. (Turns out I wasn’t far off: Hordern eventually went on to narrate a TV adaptation of Paddington Bear.) The narration is quaint, soothing, sympathetic, and yet at the same time it can be wry and critical, commenting on the action in a way that provides necessary context or sharpens our focus. It’s often argued that filmmakers should strive to “show not tell” the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story’s broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.
A terrific example is the scene in which Barry first meets the Chevalier de Balibari, having been sent by Potzdorf as a spy. Barry isn’t supposed to know English, but once in the presence of the chevalier, Barry is overcome by the chevalier’s regal appearance and nobility, and by an accent that reminds him of home, and he finds it impossible to continue with the charade. These details are imparted to us almost solely from the narration; Kubrick’s camera simply shows Barry’s pensive face. But through the combination of the narration and physical action, the scene delivers a sharp emotional punch. “Those who have never been out of their country know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity,” the narrator says, as if admitting that even he is at a loss to explain completely the tearful scene that follows, when Barry drops his disguise and the chevalier consoles him. But in Barry’s pained face, we feel what the words can’t describe. In this scene and others, the narration is crucial to our basic understanding of what’s happening, and it’s also a key to a deeper understanding.
EH: What I love about the narration in Barry Lyndon is that, as you say, it breaks what is often considered to be one of the central rules of screenwriting and writing in general: show, don’t tell. That idea is sometimes considered such a hard-and-fast rule that voiceovers are disparaged on principle, but here Kubrick demonstrates just how powerful and effective a voiceover, even or especially one that tells us outright what the characters are feeling, can be. The narrator is crucial to the film because he provides a perspective outside of Barry. The narrator, with his removed, quasi-omniscient perspective, is evidence that Barry’s delusion of himself as the center of the world is just that, a delusion. The narrator’s irony is necessary because it undermines Barry’s earnestness at every turn. Throughout his rise to high society, Barry keeps telling himself that he’ll never again allow himself to be lowered or prevented from attaining what he believes is his deserved status. But we only hear this through the narrator, whose wry, detached tones—and the repetition of this mantra after each of Barry’s failures—suggests just how ridiculous Barry is, just how distorted his vision of the world actually is.
If the film were narrated by Barry, or if Barry made his feelings known more directly, there would be no distance from Barry’s skewed perspective on his own life. The narrator allows Kubrick—and the audience—to observe Barry’s flounderings from a greater distance, to see his self-deceptions and blatant manipulations for what they are. We feel for Barry, but not in the same intimate way that we would in a film that was more closely aligned with his point of view. Instead, we’re encouraged not only to sympathize with Barry and to share his emotions, but to understand him; in that sense, you’re absolutely right, the voiceover is the path leading to a deeper understanding of Barry the man and the social forces that define and drive him. It strikes me that Woody Allen definitely took a page from Kubrick’s book when making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which similarly uses a wry, detached voiceover to obliquely comment on the misguidedness of his characters’ strivings.
The narration isn’t the only way in which Kubrick undercuts Barry’s progress into high society. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one where Barry, in a rage over his stepson Lord Bullingdon’s open insults, leaps onto the young man and beats him during a concert. Despite the strong emotions that provoke Barry’s actions, this is a comic set piece, as the assembled nobles go slipping and falling in an attempt to break the two men apart. One man slides across the floor towards the camera, and it ends with all the powdered wigs in a football pileup on top of Barry. This scene shares with the narration a wry tone that finds the comedy and the absurdity in emotions and incidents that are deadly serious for the people involved.
JB: Barry’s attack on his stepson reminds me of Daniel Plainview’s brawl with Eli Sunday at the end of There Will Be Blood. It’s violent, terrifying, oversized and, yes, at the same time it’s hilariously absurd. Kubrick seems to delight in the sight of dandified men trying to mix it up in a scuffle, and so after Barry gets in a few licks, Kubrick hangs around to watch all the other men ineptly trying to break up the fight, giving us a broad shot full of wigs, powdered faces and stockings running up to the knee churning in a rugby pile of immaculately dressed men.
In addition to exposing Barry as a “common opportunist” in a nobleman’s clothing, Kubrick seems to be skewering the supposed nobility of the era at large. I mentioned earlier the scene in which Barry meets the chevalier, and that’s another good example. The narrator says that Barry was swayed by the “splendor” of the chevalier’s appearance and the “nobility” of his manner, but to our eyes there’s nothing striking about the chevalier whatsoever. His painted pink cheeks are especially clownish. The painted moles on his face seem randomly placed. And then there’s his eye patch. Splendor? Hardly. As for his manner, the chevalier seems less noble than spiritless, bored. This is what Barry finds glamorous? Why? Only a silly people—the kind of people who would give their young son a sheep-drawn carriage to ride on his birthday and then use that same sheep-drawn carriage as a hearse when the son dies—would dress and behave this way, Kubrick seems to be implying. And, furthermore, only an especially silly people would duel.
Barry Lyndon is punctuated by no less than three duels: the one that opens the film, in which Barry’s father is killed; the one that sends Barry on the lam, in which Barry appears to kill Captain Quin; and the one near the end of the film, in which Barry and Lord Bullingdon seem determined not to kill one another. Each scene has a slightly different mood—from swift and deadly to drawn out and inconsequential (relatively speaking)—but each scene highlights the absurdities of dueling, and thus the foolishness of any people who would partake in the ritual. In the first duel, the absurdity of the activity is made clear when the narrator notes that Barry’s father’s promising life was cut short because of something as trivial as “the sale of some horses.” The stakes are even more ridiculous in the second duel, between Barry and Captain Quin, because if Barry loses the duel he’s potentially dead, but by winning the duel he is cast out by the very family that he hoped to impress so that he might continue his love affair with his cousin; a true no-win situation. The greatest absurdity of this duel, though, turns out to be the revelation that Barry’s duel with Quin wasn’t a duel at all but a ruse designed to trick the ignorant youngster into leaving town.
As for the final duel, Kubrick milks it for all the tension he can: showing the guns being carefully loaded, observing the pre-duel coin-toss, watching the men take their places 10 paces apart, letting the referee’s instructions echo through the cavernous space, all while menacing strings and kettle drums of the score groan and pound in a steady rhythm. But there’s absurdity here, too, in the constantly cooing pigeons, in the accidental discharge of Lord Bullingdon’s gun and in the way Barry bravely and nobly faces his death only to be shot in the leg, leading to a lot of undignified moaning. You mentioned earlier the “all are equal now” epilogue, and sure enough there are clues throughout Barry Lyndon that this era, like this main character, wasn’t nearly as special, noble or otherwise impressive as the people within it seemed to believe.
EH: The duels are indeed one of the primary vehicles for Kubrick’s satire of the “noble” class and their silly, artificial rules for living. As you say, the film opens with a duel, which immediately establishes the absurdity of staking one’s life over minor slights of “honor,” so that a life is erased in mere seconds. This absurdity calls into question the whole concept of honor as it’s understood by the society depicted in this film—duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults. Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, released 10 years earlier, similarly skewers the aristocratic class for its eagerness to waste lives in petty duels: the main character remembers that his father once fought 10 duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument, a hilarious formulation that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Barry Lyndon.
The interesting thing about Kubrick’s approach to duels is that, as absurd and wasteful as he makes them seem, he doesn’t eliminate the genuine tension and emotion of these showdowns, at least in the two duels in which Barry takes part. When Barry faces Captain Quin, Kubrick emphasizes the fear and hesitance of the duelists, who quiver and tremble, barely disguising their terror at facing death. The romanticized ideal of dueling—stoic nobleman bravely staking their lives to maintain their honor—is quite different from the way Kubrick presents dueling, as this pointless face-off between shaky-handed men who stare at one another in abject horror. Quin’s wide-eyed expression is both poignant and comical—but tips more towards the latter in light of the eventual revelation that he knew the duel was a farce all along, so in hindsight we realize he was scared not of death but of being shot with a blank.
In Barry’s second duel, Kubrick draws out the preparation for the showdown with such portentousness that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The martial strings drone in the background, blending with the cooing of the birds and the papery rustle of wings as pigeons flutter around the barn. The scene is solemn, even ritualistic, with thin slit windows and crosses carved into the stone walls behind the duelists, letting in slivers of bluish light that make the scene seem holy and eerie, a place of worship rather than a place of idiotic death and maiming. The long shots of the barn with the two men setting up to shoot each other are especially breathtaking, finding a weird kind of beauty in this slow, mechanical ritual. The aesthetic gloss of this scene, however, only makes it all the more startling when the duel itself quickly descends into comedy. The arcane rules for this particular duel, where the men take turns shooting each other, with chance determining who shoots first, make it especially silly, and then Lord Bullingdon’s accidental firing of his gun into the ground—and his terrified, little-boy-in-trouble expression afterwards—only exacerbate the lunatic surrealism of this practice.
JB: By the time Barry enters into that final duel, he’s seemingly lost everything. We’ve seen him shunned from his old social circle. We’ve watched his son die. And then, in the duel with his stepson, Barry is shot by Lord Bullingdon even after he spares his stepson by intentionally firing into the ground. Barry’s sacrificed shot seems less a matter of etiquette (you wasted a shot, so I will) and more like an olive branch, an admission of guilt, an act of atonement. Barry knows that he has treated his stepson poorly, so he understands Lord Bullingdon’s rage, much like Captain Quin must have understood Barry’s rage all those years ago. There’s a sense when Barry fires his shot into the ground that he hopes Lord Bullingdon will shoot him dead and end his misery, but when Lord Bullingdon announces that he has not received “satisfaction” there’s a subtle expression of surprise that flashes across Barry’s face, as if the last thing he imagined is that Lord Bullingdon would continue with the duel after Barry spared him.
Of course, Barry’s ultimate fate in the duel is the worst thing he can imagine. He isn’t spared. He isn’t killed. He’s maimed, blasted in the leg. In the next scene, the doctor examines Barry’s leg and says he’ll have to amputate. “Lose the leg? What for?” Barry asks. “The simple answer to that is ’to save your life,’” the doctor replies. This, it turns out, is the low point for Barry. Suddenly it registers for him that there’s no coming back from this duel, the way he’d reinvented himself all those years ago. He’ll forever be crippled, and he’ll forever have a physical reminder of his sins. And as Barry comes to this realization, weeping in bed, a church bell tolls in the background.
The next scene finds Lord Bullingdon heading to the Lyndon estate by carriage, hatching a plan by which to get Barry’s mother out of the house before he steps foot through the door. While Lord Bullingdon schemes, the same priest who married Barry and Lady Lyndon can’t suppress a smile, realizing in that moment that Barry has been cast out by a man who shows signs of being as conniving as he was. Kubrick seems to be reminding us that when one selfish asshole steps out of the spotlight, another one comes along to take his place.
EH: That sense of progression is important because Barry Lyndon is, in the end, as much about society as a whole as it is about the one man who gives the film its title. All of this maneuvering for wealth and prestige doesn’t actually make anyone happy, neither the victors nor the losers like Barry. In the last scene of the film, Lady Lyndon and her son somberly shuffle through piles of paper for Lady Lyndon to sign, the endless bills and paperwork associated with their life of privilege and success. This scene intentionally mirrors the earlier one in which Lady Lyndon and Barry joylessly went through these same paper rituals: there’s no pleasure, no contentment, in the management of the massive wealth for which these people fight so tirelessly.
Instead, there’s only loss and sadness. Kubrick alternates closeups of Lady Lyndon and her son in the final moments of the film, focusing on the moment when she has to sign for the annuity paid to Barry to keep him away from the family. Lady Lyndon seems lost in thought, and her red-rimmed eyes, used to crying, well up a bit. But there’s also the very slightest of smiles dancing briefly at the corners of her mouth, as though she’s remembering whatever small happy moments the couple might have had together, or the son they’d so loved. Those fleeting moments of pleasure are ultimately lost in the struggle to live, not for the moment, not for the sake of enjoying life, but for accumulating reputation and wealth for posterity. Barry Lyndon demonstrates the folly of such an attitude, and it does so by completely embodying it in Barry, an empty vessel filled almost entirely with base urges and stupidity. Kubrick harshly satirizes this man and the grabby approach to life he represents, but more remarkably he also makes us feel for Barry, lamenting the waste of time and life that disappear into the vacuum of Barry’s ambition. That’s why the final moments of the film are so devastating, so sad, embodying in the exchange of glances between Lady Lyndon and her son a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and lost opportunities.
JB: It really does feel like a lifetime. The coupling of the narration and the deliberate pace give Barry Lyndon a decidedly novel-esque feel, as if we’re paging through Barry’s life in Thackeray’s original. Like so much of Kubrick’s work, the atmosphere of the whole is more telling than any specific gesture, line or scene. Barry Lyndon is an experience more than a plot, wrapping us up in its colorful panoramas and moody candlelit closeups to create a precise sense of time and space. If it’s best remembered for the way it looks, perhaps that’s fitting, given that it’s about a man who at his height only appears remarkable. But clearly there is more to Barry Lyndon than lush visuals. It’s a film with character about a man who lacks it.
Nevertheless, the praise for the film’s visual splendor is hardly misplaced. Kubrick gives us a bland character in a movie dominated by visuals that are anything but. To quote Scorsese again, Barry Lyndon really is “one exquisitely beautiful image after another,” and it’s the consistency of those breathtaking compositions that gives this deliberately methodical film its undeniable momentum. It’s not a film one is drawn to so much as a film one can’t break away from. For all of Barry Lyndon’s cool detachment, the obvious care of Kubrick’s filmmaking gives it a strange warmth.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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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