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The Conversations: Crash

In David Cronenberg’s Crash we are given a collection of characters with often overlapping but not always similar sexual fetishes.

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The Conversations: Crash

Jason Bellamy: In David Cronenberg’s Crash we are given a collection of characters with often overlapping but not always similar sexual fetishes. There are characters turned on by automobile crashes—either as foreplay or as self-contained experiences. There are characters turned on by pain. There are characters turned on by scars and disfigurement. There are characters turned on by the turn-ons of others. There are characters turned on by the prospect of being caught having sex in public and there are others turned on just by having sex in cars in public places, seemingly oblivious to whether anyone will notice. The film has sex. The film has nudity. The film has oddity. This is what Crash is. But what is Crash about?

Seeing the film for the first time since its 1997 release, that’s the question I asked myself over and over. What is this about? What is the meaning of this? Are these demonstrations of peculiar eroticism an ingenious metaphor or are they self-evident? Is Crash an examination of something or simply an exhibition? I suspect that our discussion of this film will repeatedly come back to these questions, but it seems this is where we must begin. And so I repeat: What is Crash about?

Ed Howard: That’s a good question to start with, though I’m not sure it has a single right answer, or even a right answer at all. The most challenging aspect of Crash, for me, is its utter refusal to express its ideology in unambiguous terms. Sure, there are expressions of ideology, mostly from Elias Koteas’ Vaughan, but it’s by no means clear what the film’s perspective on him is, either. He even contradicts himself, first maintaining that he’s interested in remolding the human body through technology and then later saying that mantra was just a ruse, and what he’s really after is unleashing the sexuality of the car crash. In a way, the two purposes of Vaughan reveal the film’s true roots, in the dialectic between the worldviews of author J.G. Ballard, whose novel is being adapted here, and David Cronenberg, who’s adapting it. Reshaping the human body through science and technology is of course a central theme of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, from the head-exploding telepathy of Scanners to the televisual mutations of Videodrome to the species shift of The Fly. Cronenberg continually returns to this idea: the ways in which our very minds and physiology have been drastically altered by the tireless advance of modernity. On the other hand, Ballard, though also concerned with the changes wrought by modernity, is more interested in the sexual component of this material: the extremes that people are willing to go to in search of eroticism in a media-saturated, spectacle-numbed age. These two tendencies, not unrelated but not entirely overlapping either, create the film’s central tension.

That tension, I submit, is one reason why the film is so hard to figure out. That’s not to say that the film isn’t also anchored by an elegant metaphor—I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s “ingenious”—that makes its sexual excesses more than mere exhibition. That metaphor is the film’s most common occurrence (besides sex, maybe): the car crash. For Cronenberg, as for Ballard, the car crash is an emotionally and thematically rich event, a moment fraught with multiple possibilities and meanings. It’s the moment, most notably, when the modern technology we rely on the most betrays us in a profound and disturbing way, not only in the most obvious sense, but because it shatters the barriers of isolation that technology places between us. As you point out, the film’s characters have different fetishes and obsessions, but one thing they share is the sense that they’re alienated from normal sexual, romantic and interpersonal relationships. Even before they become involved in Vaughan’s car crash manias, James Ballard (James Spader, playing the novelist’s stand-in) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an abstracted, stylized sexual relationship based on telling each other stories about their adulterous trysts. These people are at a remove from their sexuality; in the opening scene, Catherine seems as aroused by the cold, sleek surface of a phallic airplane nose as by her lover’s caresses.

The car, and the highway, is a perfect metaphor for this disconnection: all those people encased in metal, speeding across the pavement, surrounded by others like them but with no possibility of ever making a connection with any of them. No possibility, that is, but a car crash. That’s why the crash between Ballard and Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is staged as a moment of startling, uncomfortable intimacy, their eyes locked, Remington inadvertently flashing her breast as she struggles to remove her seatbelt. The car crash is so important to these people because it’s an escape from their isolation and lack of affect, a way to feel something, even if it’s pain and perverse arousal.

Crash

JB: Yeah, I’ve considered that reading, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The problem I have with it is that we don’t really have any on-screen evidence that these characters are lost or isolated, at least not in any painful or unwilling way. Yes, the characters of this film seem removed from the world around them, to the point that we almost have to remind ourselves that a larger world exists, but that’s true of most films. Crash is about its characters; there’s nothing unusual there. And so I’m left searching for a moment that shows these characters looking at the world around them and feeling like they don’t belong or can’t connect, and I can’t find it.

Of course, your reading is tempting because it’s the best way to rationalize—to whatever degree it’s possible—the peculiarity of the characters’ fetishes, obsessions and behaviors. “Why would these people go to these extremes?” “It must be because they can’t connect otherwise.” But as convenient as that answer is, and as logical as it feels, I don’t think it’s earned. I don’t think it’s in the “text” of the film. Instead I think it’s an understandable knee-jerk attempt to try to place Crash into a somewhat familiar dramatic arc or genre type. Because, again, I don’t think Cronenberg actually establishes that these people can’t connect. In fact, I’d argue he does the opposite. All we see are these characters connecting, again and again and again. They just happen to connect with each other in what happens to be a niche group. As a result, since Cronenberg doesn’t develop this loneliness, longing or isolation, when we suggest that these characters resort to this behavior because they can’t connect we are dismissing their urges as the product of some kind of deficiency. And the problem I have with that is that it puts us in the same position as the bigot who assumes that homosexuals couldn’t possibly be born with homosexual urges and so must have suffered a childhood trauma or lacked proper parenting. (Ditto bisexuality or sadomasochism or any other sexual orientation or behavior that’s outside of the heterosexual-missionary-position “norm.”)

A somewhat similar but different way to look at the film is provided in a particularly good review by Roger Ebert, who suggests that Crash is, in effect, “a dissection of the mechanics of pornography.” He argues that by presenting characters who are “entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no one has,” and “by deliberately removing anything that an audience member is likely to find even remotely erotic, Cronenberg has brought a kind of icy, abstract purity to his subject.” In other words, rather than getting consumed by our own arousal, we are able to analyze arousal itself.

Now, I have some problems with this, too, because Crash of course does include things that many audience members will find incredibly erotic. For starters, there’s nudity—and if we’re not supposed to be in any way turned on by what we see, Cronenberg wouldn’t cast someone with the body of Deborah Kara Unger. Secondly, there’s arousal; seeing people sexually stimulated is often sexually stimulating in itself. Furthermore, deviance, or any behavior outside of the politically correct “norm” (whatever that is), is for many people a significant source of arousal (which is partly what’s on display in this film). Sure, the car crash stimulus might be impossible for almost anyone to relate to, but some of the other fetishistic arousals portrayed here aren’t that far outside of fairly standard sexual urges. Just as I suspect there are more men who consume pornography showing women being simultaneously penetrated by multiple men than there are men would actually feel comfortable engaging in that kind of activity, I suspect that many people would feel aroused by James Ballard’s ogling of the vagina-esque scars of Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), even if they don’t share his specific arousal. Nevertheless, Ebert’s analogy at least explains the, um, auto(mobile) eroticism in a somewhat more satisfying way. What do you think?

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EH: I think that’s all very interesting and relevant, all part of a film that can be read and understood in multiple ways that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s possible that in talking about the film in terms of isolation, I’m carrying over my impressions of Ballard’s Crash rather than looking solely at the text of Cronenberg’s film. Cronenberg adapts a lot of his dialogue from Ballard but of course elides the narrator’s interior monologues, which communicate much of the novel’s thematic core.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that these characters feel disconnected even in Cronenberg’s film. Before James’ crash, he and Catherine have a chilly and abstracted relationship where most of the sex occurs outside the marriage. They talk to each other in flat, affectless tones about their indiscretions, and seem more turned on by ideas, by words, than by anything concrete. I’d say that’s the definition of disconnection from the world: a preference for the abstract over the tangible. The crash seems to awaken them both to other erotic possibilities, as a continuation of the games they were previously playing to keep themselves at a distance from one another. It’s a step towards the world, though not all the way. Instead of getting aroused by abstractions, they’re aroused by inanimate objects, but they’re still not exactly connecting with other people except in ways mediated by technology, by cold metal and pavement. In saying this, I don’t want to judge the characters, and I don’t think Cronenberg or Ballard want to either. If there are “deficiencies” in these characters, they’re shared by the whole of our media-saturated, stimulation-numbed modern society.

Anyway, I hadn’t read Ebert’s review previously, but I’ve also always thought of this film as being closely modeled on pornography. It even follows the structure of porn: a scene, often brief, establishing some hint of character motivation or narrative advancement, followed by a sex scene. Orgasm, then repeat. The film cycles through most of the possible pairings by the time it’s through, and there’s a degree of mechanism in this exchange of partners: Catherine with a lover, then James with a lover, then James and Catherine, then James and Helen, James and Catherine again, then Vaughan and Gabrielle are added to the mix as well. There are even gay encounters between Vaughan and James, and between Helen and Gabrielle, though these are curiously chaste in comparison to the heterosexual matches. At one point there’s a ménage a trois of fondling between Gabrielle, Helen and James. In other scenes, James takes on a voyeuristic role watching Vaughan with a prostitute or Vaughan with Catherine. It’s as though Cronenberg is systematically examining the possibilities of the porn form and the sex act, parodying the rote set-up/sex scene structure of the average porn feature.

Porn was of course very much on Ballard’s mind in writing the novel, as well. In his 1990 annotations to his pre-Crash collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:

”[S]exual imagination is unlimited in scope and metaphoric power, and can never be successfully repressed. In many ways pornography is the most literary form of fiction—a verbal text with the smallest attachment to external reality, and with only its own resources to create a complex and exhilarating narrative… Pornography is a powerful catalyst for social change, and its periods of greatest availability have frequently coincided with times of greatest economic and scientific advance.”

In some ways, that sounds like a good description of Cronenberg’s Crash, especially the part about the disconnect from “external reality.” I’m more doubtful about whether Cronenberg would agree with the last sentence: his Crash is many things, but a “catalyst for social change”? So if Cronenberg’s film mimics the form of pornography, as I agree it does, what’s the purpose of this mimicry?

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JB: That’s a good question. But before we get into that, I’d like to talk more about the characters and how they connect with one another, or don’t. Because while I wholeheartedly agree with you that the relationship between James and Catherine is “chilly and abstracted” at the start of the film, I would disagree with any implication that their relationship ever evolves from that point (or even that they evolve individually). Sure, James and Catherine have a passionate looking sex scene near the middle of the film, but even in that scene they are essentially fucking someone else. Their arousal is just as individual as it was before and is just as tied to one another’s other sexual pursuits as it was before. (Catherine spends the whole time getting turned on, and turning on James, by describing him having sex with Vaughan.) One could say that they are having intercourse with one another but having sex with someone else, if you know what I mean. And this isn’t unique to James and Catherine. Over the course of the film we see these characters continue to explore their sexual desires, but do we ever see them connecting? In the backseat of a car, James and Helen have sex in which he’s little more than an apparatus—both in emotion and in use. James has sex in a car with Gabrielle, but he’s attracted to her scars, not to her, and she’s turned on by his attraction to her deformities, not by him. The most engaged sex in the film, “curiously chaste” though it is, might be between James and Vaughan, in that they both of them seem to desire one another—rather than using one another as stand-ins for someone or something else. But maybe I only think that because Cronenberg stays at a distance, not allowing me to observe their vacant expressions during intercourse.

All of this indeed means Crash is very much like porn, because there’s little evidence that there’s any engagement between partners beyond the explicit pursuit of sexual gratification. That is, these individuals aren’t looking to connect with one another; they’re looking to be aroused by whatever means necessary. This is significant because the scenes that would be used to suggest connection are hard to distinguish from the ones that would suggest disconnection, which leads me to one of my problems with this film: I fail to detect any interesting evolution. The characters don’t change. Only the specific focus of their arousal changes, from having sex in public places in the beginning to car crashes by the end, plus some other harder to define stuff in between. There’s no real metamorphosis here. Instead it’s like watching a drug user switch from heroin to crack. At the root, there’s no difference in impulse, desire or behavior.

I don’t mean to imply that films need to be about characters growing, learning or evolving. But when I find no deeper significance in Crash’s fifth sexual encounter than in its second, it feels all too close to porn to me, but in all the wrong ways—repetitive, empty, untitillating.

Crash

EH: Well, I never said any of the film’s characters actually succeed in overcoming their disconnection, just that all these car crashes and fetishes are ways of trying to find something more authentic, more satisfying. James’ car crash is a triggering event that unleashes some new sexual possibilities, but nothing that happens here necessarily constitutes a deep human bond. I think you’re right that throughout the film, none of these people experience a true emotional connection to another person, though the mutual fascination between Vaughan and James comes close. So does the enigmatic last scene, which has more than a hint of nihilistic, apocalyptic finality, but also contains, in James’ urgently repeated “maybe the next one,” a faintly optimistic suggestion that they’ll keep trying: to feel something, to connect to each other, to kill each other? Who knows? The point is they’re trying; they haven’t given in to the general deadening of sensation and instead keep looking for increasingly outlandish ways to reawaken their numbed sensibilities.

In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes a great deal about this distanced modern condition. After listing a number of body parts and isolated descriptive details about a woman, one of that book’s characters says:

“There are one or two other bits and pieces, but together the inventory is an adequate picture of a woman, who could easily be reconstituted from it. In fact, such a list may well be more stimulating than the real thing. Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions…[C]heap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.”

I think this is the spirit of Cronenberg’s film and his sex scenes, portraying people who have become numb to conventional emotional and sexual pleasures, and thus turn to inventive extremes for some satisfaction. The film, like Ballard’s fiction, documents a world where sex, like every other aspect of human experience, has been obsessively catalogued into lists, charts, data and words rather than feelings and sensations. Ballard compares this situation to the pop art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, the latter of whom is especially relevant, with his paintings of plastic-looking nudes, like desexualized naked Barbie dolls. It sounds, though, like you believe Cronenberg’s film is simply a surface presentation of this phenomenon, a reflection of the flat colors and slick surfaces in Wesselmann’s work rather than any kind of commentary on or response to the situation.

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JB: Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’m saying. See, we still disagree about what we’re actually looking at here. You say that the characters are “trying to find something more.” And that’s true, to a point. But I see characters who just want more, and I think there’s a difference. The way you describe the movie implies that these characters are reaching for something, as if they’re on a quest, as if their search might actually have a destination that will leave them satisfied. The way I see the film, these characters just want roughly the same sensation over and over again, and the only reason their interests or desires might seem to evolve is because their satisfaction requires them to push their limits just to stay in the same place. They’re like the drinker who used to be able to get drunk on two beers who now needs five shots just to feel buzzed. That drinker isn’t trying to connect. There’s no deep significance to the drinking. There’s no attempt at growth. The significance is only that they want to get drunk. They want to satisfy an itch.

Now, it’s here that I find Ebert’s analysis applies well. He writes, “There are no moments of healing sanity because the characters are comatose with lust and fascination. They follow their self-destructive courses because they do not want to stop. If you seek to understand them, ignore their turn-ons and substitute your own.” Using this logic, Crash could be seen as metaphor for any destructive activity, particularly drug abuse. “Why would someone risk injury to their family, their job, their reputation, their body, etc, to abuse a drug?” “Because when the compulsion to scratch that itch is so overpowering, everything else is irrelevant.” The trouble is, I find Ebert’s description of the film more fascinating than the film itself. And just because depth can be implanted into this film, I’m not sure that means the film has much if anything to say on these themes. I think it might be telling that in order to find rewarding complexity in Cronenberg’s film we’ve had to draw upon the written work of Ballard (not to mention Ebert). On screen I don’t find much there. So what I am I missing?

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EH: Fair enough. I keep returning to the Ballard novel because, frankly, the film is most interesting to me in relation to its source (and to other texts and films), and even Cronenberg seems to know it: it only takes until the film’s second scene before somebody asks, “has anybody seen James Ballard?” So, yeah, maybe that’s damning. Regardless, I certainly think there’s a lot of interest right up there on the screen. Cronenberg removes the novel’s intensely internal focus, taking away our ability to see within the mind of James Ballard, who narrates the book. The result is that the film is resolutely concerned with exteriors. How you feel about the film probably depends on how you feel about this refusal to get inside these chilly, distant characters. For me, this decision makes the film more abstract than conventionally narrative. Because in normal terms, you’re right, there’s not much character development here, there’s not much of a dramatic arc.

Instead, Cronenberg presents these bizarre porn scenarios with a deadpan lack of commentary, watching with the same mechanical fascination that we see in James Spader’s eyes as he arranges Gabrielle’s stiff, metal-encased limbs in the confined space of her car. In that scene especially, Cronenberg’s perspective on this material is clear. He’s subtly warping it to his own interests, examining the ways in which the technology of the car, and of advanced reconstructive surgeries, have created new hybrid forms for the human body. In the midst of Gabrielle and James’ grappling, Cronenberg inserts a shot of the complicated system of metal rods and levers under the steering column, the special tools Gabrielle needs to be able to drive. It visually rhymes, not only with phallic imagery (another current running through the film) and with the metal surrounding the woman’s legs, but with the similar system of metal rods that had earlier been digging into and supporting James’ own post-crash leg wounds. By highlighting these images, Cronenberg makes these characters look like cyborgs, merging with the metal that’s holding their bodies together and which allows them to get around. As a result, they come to identify as much with steel and electronics as with other people.

Later, James caresses a vagina-like wound in the surface of his wife’s car in exactly the same way as he had with the scars on Gabrielle’s legs: this sign of Vaughan’s presence is as sexual for him as anything organic. The film is packed with subtle parallels like this, linkages between the organic and the artificial, like the way, during the car wash scene, Cronenberg draws a connection between the white foamy liquid streaming across the windshield, and Catherine’s cum-sticky hand after her violent sexual encounter with Vaughan. Cronenberg’s images consistently bring together messy human exigency with mechanical and artificial cleanliness: Rosanna Arquette, delivering the film’s best and most playful performance, seeming to have sex with a showroom car, rubbing her ass against its sleek surface and suggestively spreading her stiff legs as she leans against it. Visually, the film is all about these kinds of junction points between human softness and the hard lines of the objects and technology surrounding us.

So what are you missing? In focusing on the film’s undeniable lack of affect and pornographic structure, you’re maybe missing out on the ways in which Cronenberg’s imagery cleverly plays with the themes and ideas at the film’s core. There’s a streak of perverse playfulness running beneath its icy exterior, like the way James’ time spent as an invalid on his balcony, watching cars go by through binoculars with an elegant blonde by his side, mirrors the basic set-up of Rear Window—with the obvious and thematically important difference that Hitchcock’s voyeur was watching his fellow humans, while James’ voyeurism is directed at cars.

There’s also the great scene where Catherine, James and Vaughan are wandering through the dreamlike, fog-shrouded scene of a car crash, curiously unhindered amidst all the chaos. At one point, Catherine sits down next to a female accident victim, smoking, and Cronenberg shoots both women in profile, the accident victim slightly blurry in the foreground, turning to the camera to reveal her scarred visage, offsetting Catherine’s blank, perfect features in the background. By framing the two women like this, Cronenberg makes it look like a before-and-after photo, foreshadowing Catherine’s future and suggesting the fragility of her flawless, plastic beauty.

Basically, I think the film opens up and becomes far richer when considered on a shot-by-shot basis like this rather than looking at the big picture. Cronenberg’s film is precise and very formalist: he carefully frames his images, carrying certain visual motifs through the film in order to express the thematic undercurrents of this material. As much as I love thinking about the film in relation to Ballard and American car culture and other outside reference points, this shouldn’t obscure the extent to which Cronenberg explores his ideas, subtly and without exposition, in the visual choices he makes.

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JB: What’s interesting about your latest comments is that they contrast with what was going to be my next complaint: I don’t think the film is visually interesting. If it were, the lack of character (never mind character development, because there’s hardly character establishment) and the lack of interesting commentary within the film (in my opinion) wouldn’t be such a problem. As before, I found your latest descriptions of what Crash does to be more interesting than Crash itself. That said, I don’t want this to come off like a slam of your analysis, but in large part couldn’t we narrow down many of your observations to a single sentence? Couldn’t we simply say that Cronenberg eroticizes car parts (or the scars of car crashes) in all the places where we’d usually see body parts? So instead of caressing a breast, someone caresses the hood of a car. Instead of semen, we get car-wash foam. Instead of jerking off to porn movies, people get off to car crash videos. Instead of role-playing human sexual encounters, we get reenactments of car crashes. And so on.

Is this clever? Sure. More on that in a bit. But it’s also the same technique/gimmick/joke over and over again, which makes Crash like a stationary bicycle. We go round and round but we don’t get anywhere. You would disagree, obviously, because you’re fascinated by how Crash falls in line with “Cronenberg’s own interests,” as established by looking at his career as a whole. I get that, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that’s invalid. Context is significant. Awareness should be rewarded. But there’s a difference between saying that the best way to appreciate Crash is to see how it fits within Cronenberg’s oeuvre and saying that an understanding of Cronenberg’s oeuvre is essential to one’s appreciation of this film. Because within Crash itself I don’t see much exploration of, or comment on, Cronenberg’s interest with “new hybrid forms for the human body.” I see where you see it. I realize how Crash overlaps with, say, The Fly, and I assume that’s what drew Cronenberg to the project. And so if we were examining Cronenberg’s career, I’d say that’s an important thread weaving through his filmography. But, within Crash itself, do I think that subject is confronted in any compelling way? No. Within Crash itself it’s an irrelevant byproduct of the technology-for-flesh eroticization swap.

In terms of that swap, Crash is indeed quite successful. As I said earlier, there is cleverness in the number of ways that traditional human eroticism can be translated into automobile form, which is why I’d like to propose that Crash is best enjoyed as a comedy. Except I’m hesitant to do so. Though I have no doubt that there is some very intentional humor here, I’m a little unclear about how much. There are times when I wanted to be laughing with Crash but had a guilty feeling that I was laughing at it instead.

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EH: Well, if you don’t find the film visually interesting, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that front. I think of the most prolonged sex scene between James and Catherine—the one where she dispassionately monologues about her husband having anal sex with Vaughan—and I can only marvel at Cronenberg’s formal precision. The scene opens with a tracking shot where the copulating couple is first seen through a segmented window that chops up their naked bodies into Cubist fragments and overlays the sex with a lit-up urban skyline, phallic skyscrapers layered over the jumble of limbs, which blend together with the tangled sheets and pillows. We hardly know what we’re seeing at first. Then throughout most of the sex the camera remains in closeup on one partner or the other, capturing their unreadable facial expressions, before Cronenberg brings them together into the same shot for the, ahem, climax. The shot sequence implies a coming-together, a connection, but of course the running dialogue throughout the scene only reinforces the couple’s isolation from one another, the extent to which their marital sexuality is still defined through stories and fantasies about other people and objects. There’s a push-and-pull tension here between connection and disconnection, just as there is in the film as a whole. Scenes like this, with these meaning-charged compositions and the interplay between dialogue and image, belie the idea that Crash is lacking in visual or thematic complexity.

Maybe Cronenberg does return to the same well again and again throughout this film, consistently substituting technological eroticization for more conventional erotic images. Must we fault the film for this single-mindedness? It’s a film about sex in the modern, technological era becoming increasingly disconnected from human feeling, so of course it keeps returning to these images where people feel more of a connection with metal constructs than with other people. It’s almost like you’re dismissing the film’s whole central concept—that sex in the age of technology is wound up as much with our surroundings as with the people involved—and then asking what’s left. Any film or idea can be reduced to a single reductive sentence, like your accurate summary that “Cronenberg eroticizes car parts… in all the places where we’d usually see body parts.” The film is concerned with the examination of this one idea in detail, and personally I find a great deal of interest in Cronenberg’s relentless exploration of this theme.

As for Crash’s place in Cronenberg’s career, as I’ve suggested, I think this film is best understood as a junction point between Cronenberg and Ballard, which perhaps accounts for some of its more schizophrenic tendencies. There isn’t the purity of The Fly and Videodrome, both films where the hero literally transforms under the influence of modern technology, at first unwillingly but eventually with the eagerness and passion of a convert. The ending of Videodrome, in particular, is inflected with a strain of apocalyptic optimism, a cathartic celebration of the way the hero takes what’s violent and ugly in our televisual culture and appropriates it into a new sense of identity. In Crash, Cronenberg’s enthusiasm for this kind of spectacle is tempered by Ballard’s influence, which encourages more of an observational, coldly voyeuristic perspective. Both Ballard’s Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are full of lists, clinical recitations of various possibilities for car crash injuries and sexual experiences. It’s this emphasis on pseudo-scientific jargon and structural repetition that gives the film its form, shaping Cronenberg’s examinations of sexual perversion and relational disconnect.

All of which would probably be rather dry and formalist if not for, yes, the film’s darkly humorous streak. I’m with you there, though for me it’s unquestionable that Cronenberg (and Ballard, for that matter) recognizes the humor in this material and intentionally plays to it. The scene where Gabrielle toys with a nerdy car salesman is a perfect case in point: she intentionally flaunts her unconventional sexuality, getting into the car in an awkward way that hikes her skirt up to reveal the black panties beneath, then penetrating the vinyl seat with one of her leg brace’s metal hooks. It’s played as sexual comedy, no question about it, and Arquette’s broad, smirking performance only drives home the humor. The same goes for the sudden insert of the stunt man Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) feeling up his fake, bra-clad breasts, or the sardonic look on the face of a tattoo artist after James asks her where he should put his tattoo (“where the sun don’t shine,” is the answer implied in her deadpan expression). By the same token, I don’t think Cronenberg takes Vaughan’s ranting, apocalyptic speeches nearly as seriously as Ballard does; by chopping up Ballard’s prose into bite-size fragments and having Vaughan spit out pretentious monologues at every opportunity, Cronenberg makes him a vaguely silly and ludicrous figure, less menacing than absurd. There are signs here that Cronenberg recognizes the absurdity of his premise, that while these people’s obsessions might be deadly-serious for them, they are, after all, getting hard from watching car crashes.

Crash

JB: Oh, I have no doubt that Cronenberg is having fun with the material. My favorite moment of obvious humor comes just after that sex scene between James and Catherine, when Cronenberg leaps from one of the film’s longest and most passionate sexual encounters to one of its shortest and blandest. We see Hunter’s Helen, centered in the frame and staring straight at us, writhing up and down as if we’re the person she’s straddling. “Have you cum?” she asks a then-anonymous partner behind her, clearly lost to her own interests. “I’m alright,” an obscured and utterly disinterested James responds from the shadows, as if he’s turning down the offer of a sandwich. That’s great stuff, and clearly it’s comedy by design. But other times I’m not so sure. For example, that sex scene between Catherine and James, when she informs him that “some semen is saltier than others.” Is that eroticism or humor or just casual conversation? I can’t decide.

While we’re here, I want to stick with that Catherine-and-James sex scene for a bit to get back to your praise for Cronenberg’s “formal precision.” I will agree with you that the initial through-the-window shot of the couple that bathes them in light from the cityscape behind them is absolutely gorgeous. Beyond that, however, the scene you describe isn’t the scene I see. According to your description, the couple is apart and then comes together at the moment of climax. But that’s only half true. Yes, at the start of the scene both James and Catherine get their own closeups. Yes, at the end they share the same shot. But in between Cronenberg uses several wide shots of the couple fucking that suggest they are connecting, and he goes to the two-shot closeup of them rather quickly. So where you see “visual and thematic complexity,” I see a director who goes wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, etc. Pretty standard. The best compliment I can give to that scene’s design is that by using only about four shots—Catherine closeup, James closeup, Catherine-and-James wide shot and Catherine-and-James closeup—within a four-minute scene, Cronenberg keeps us at a scientific distance from which we are more likely to study these actions rather than get swept up in their passion. Other scenes have even fewer camera movements, like the one in which James inspects the body of a bruised Catherine after her tumble with Vaughan, which is little more than a zoom.

In your last response you suggested that I am unfairly dismissing the film for single-mindedly focusing on exactly what it’s about—dismissing its central concept and asking what’s left. Looking back, I admit I’m guilty as charged. I agree that most movies are as single-minded as Crash, but it seems to me that few movies are so flat and vacant, and that’s where the problem lies. We agree there is little character development. In fact, as I said, there’s hardly any character establishment. Spader and Unger strip out as much emotion as possible, even in the throes of passion. Hunter is almost equally robotic. Koteas provides a demonstration of postures more than a performance. And that leaves Arquette, whose smirk constitutes the majority of her portrayal. This is all by design, I realize. Fair enough. But studying the faces of these characters is like getting lost in the expressions of mannequins, and to this we add Cronenberg’s minimalist camera movements. The result is that just about the only thing worth sinking our teeth into is the film’s theme. But I didn’t find my bites very savory, and by the midpoint I was full.

Crash

EH: That’s admittedly an understandable reaction. Though I’ve been defending the film thus far, I realize that it’s not without its problems and limitations. As much as I enjoy its rigidly framed imagery, and as stimulated as I am by its thematic depths, I recognize that it’s intentionally working within a very narrow range. Cronenberg, there’s no doubt, has made richer and better films, films where his own sensibility is undiluted and raw. As in his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, seeing Cronenberg confront another equally strong artist head-on is fascinating, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a fully satisfying film that can stand up with the director’s masterpieces like Videodrome, or Scanners.

This brings me to one of my problems with the film, essentially the same problem that Iain Sinclair highlights in his deeply ambivalent BFI book. Sinclair shifts, throughout his book, back and forth between the Ballard original and the Cronenberg film, and ultimately concludes that Cronenberg’s Crash “depoliticizes Ballard’s frenzied satire,” making its “pornography safe and elegant.” As much as I admire Cronenberg’s chilly, abstract take on this material, I think that’s a fair criticism. Earlier I brought up Ballard’s quote about pornography being “a catalyst for social change,” but we kind of got detoured into other subjects. I want to bring it back up because this political context, this sense of revolutionary provocation, is arguably what’s missing from Cronenberg’s Crash.

For Sinclair, Cronenberg’s Crash is a more conservative work than its source novel, and not only because it sanitizes and downplays much of the homoerotic content, shifting the central relationship of the work from James/Vaughan to James/Catherine. (Cronenberg would also remove the homosexual content, with much more questionable results, from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.) More than this process of sanitization, though, the film is somewhat lessened by its lack of context. Some sense of Ballard’s radical political screeds would likely go a long way towards making the work’s “point” clearer to those, like you, who find it mostly pointless as is. In his annotations for The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:

“A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash?”

These ideas, so vital to Ballard, are at best an undercurrent in Cronenberg’s Crash. The interest in celebrities and media still percolates in the background, especially in the hauntingly staged scene where Vaughan re-enacts James Dean’s death, or in Seagrave’s cross-dressing Jayne Mansfield fantasies, but it’s not the driving force of the film the way it is for Ballard in his novel. That’s OK, of course, since Cronenberg’s interests lie elsewhere. But it still creates a sense of absence at the film’s core, which Cronenberg’s more formalist engagement with this story can’t quite fill.

Crash

JB: I think all of that folds into my previous complaints that the film, in and of itself, doesn’t have much of anything to say. That passage you cite from The Atrocity Exhibition ponders how the “ceaseless flow” of stimuli might cause the barriers between non-homogenized elements to disintegrate, to alarming results. And that’s interesting. But that’s not Cronenberg’s Crash. Instead of focusing on the “problem,” Cronenberg only shows one result. The damage, if you will, has already been done. James and Catherine wander through this netherworld of automobile erotica, but there’s no glimpse of what their life might have been otherwise, no sense that a world exists beyond this one. To go back to something I said earlier, James and Catherine are users searching for an erotic high from the very start, and all that changes is their drug of choice. My complaint isn’t that Cronenberg eschews a conventional conflict-and-resolution arc—though that might give the film some needed lift. My complaint is that, as you said, this film is without context. It’s like watching Planet of the Apes without Charlton Heston. If all we see are apes, the unusual is usual, and so what’s the point?

This lack of context or sensationalism, this suggestion that these characters are essentially as normal or abnormal as the rest of us, works quite well along the lines of Ebert’s analysis, because by failing to relate to these characters we can better study their behaviors. But it hurts Cronenberg’s film at the same time because we have nothing to compare these actions against. Are we supposed to be horrified by what we see here? Why? These characters partake in activities that seem to improve their happiness and that endanger only them. Their actions are so extreme that we can take them seriously but not personally.

If this is a cautionary tale, it’s one I don’t need. There’s very little in Crash that suggests this could be my destiny. (You might as well tell me to beware becoming the best golfer in the world and having multiple affairs with waitresses because my Swedish model wife might someday chase me out of our house with a golf club. It’s all so alien to me.) I do find Crash interesting on some level, but it’s a lot like watching expressionless fish swim by at an aquarium. I sometimes enjoy the view, but I never worry I’m going to end up in the tank or think that their experiences on the other side of the glass say much about the world I live in.

Crash

EH: I don’t know. Is Cronenberg’s film as thematically rich as Ballard’s novel? No, definitely not. And I can understand if you don’t see yourself in these characters; if I remember correctly, you had the same reservations about Trouble Every Day, albeit not as strongly in that case. I don’t think Cronenberg is presenting a “cautionary tale” here—that’s not his style. The more important question is whether it’s really so important that we see ourselves in these characters. The film presents the characters’ sexual perversions and their icy disconnection without telling us how to feel about them, without providing a definitive interpretation. Maybe that’s OK; maybe we don’t need to settle on one interpretation or feel like we’re seeing our possible future selves on the screen.

Throughout this conversation, we’ve wrestled with a few possible readings for Cronenberg’s film, none of them entirely satisfying and none of them necessarily exclusive. There is another possibility, of course, which is the one you’ve been advancing. Sometimes a film, or a work of art, doesn’t need to engage so directly with the world, or tell us anything about ourselves. Sometimes a work of art is, like Cronenberg’s Crash, just its own weird, self-contained object, creating its own rules and its own skewed way of looking at things. Where Ballard’s Crash engages with the world, commenting on the omnipresence of media and the warping of sexuality by modern conditions, Cronenberg’s Crash seems to exist in its own strange world, cut off from ordinary reality. It seems we agree on that much. We just disagree about whether that’s a worthwhile approach.

My question for you, then, is whether you see any value in a piece of art that simply is, that doesn’t necessarily relate directly back to reality or tell you anything about yourself. Way back in our conversation about Solaris, we talked about Stanislaw Lem’s idea that “we don’t want other worlds… we want mirrors.” So is that it? Does our art always have to give us mirrors? Or can it—should it—sometimes provide us with a puzzling, enigmatic glimpse of something else altogether, some strange alternate world that exists at right angles to our own?

Crash

JB: It’s a good topic, and it’s neat that we’ve done enough of these conversations to see them beginning to overlap. (If it hasn’t happened already, I feel like we’re only a conversation or two away from me totally contradicting myself. But I digress.) Obviously when art acts as a mirror, at least to some degree, it’s easier to identify with the material and thus be “moved” by it—cerebrally, emotionally, erotically, whatever. In my case that’s what I’m looking for: to be moved. But I don’t think I need a mirror to do that. Not at all.

I think Crash is in rare territory, because it offers an unusually low number of opportunities for connectivity or empathy or any other kind of vicarious emotion. I’m not just talking about something as specific as the characters and their interests. I’m talking about the general structure of the film. Crash is ambiguous, but it isn’t a mystery. Crash has some confrontational scenes, but it isn’t combative. Crash has scenes with life-or-death implications, and yet the film isn’t suspenseful. (Perhaps the only suspenseful moment comes in the reenactment of the James Dean car crash when we wait to see if Vaughan and his driver survived the stunt.) And so when I say that the film doesn’t move me, affect me, provoke me, my lack of identification with these characters and with the film’s themes is only part of the reason.

That said, I believe that Cronenberg intends for Crash to be chilly, distant and even boring. He’s certainly trying to avoid giving us mirrors. He doesn’t want us to identify with these characters, I don’t believe. He wants us to observe them and focus on their behavior. And so it is that Crash feels to me like some kind of cinematic experiment more than it feels like art. I am impressed that Cronenberg manages to make an explicit NC-17-rated film about sex and car crashes that is less stimulating than your average television commercial, but I’m not moved, affected or provoked. Not on the whole, at least. Crash might be inscrutable on some level, but I don’t find it puzzling. It doesn’t convince me that it contains hidden depths worth discovering.

Crash

EH: For me, on the other hand, Crash is an interesting artifact, not so much for what it has to say but for its own sake, and for its interesting resonances with other reference points, among them its own source material. The film, like the novel before it, comments on the romance of the car crash: the modern-day obsession with this most modern of deaths and the celebrity lives it has claimed. More than the novel, however, Cronenberg’s Crash also exists as a part of this continuum, as another entry in the media and artistic fascination with the car crash and its implications. Cronenberg thus draws, like Ballard, not only on real-life stories—James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, JFK (“a special kind of car accident”), Albert Camus—but on the cinematic and cultural heritage of the car crash’s representation.

In particular, Cronenberg and Ballard are heirs to Jean-Luc’s Godard’s late 60s fascination with the car crash. Brigette Bardot is referenced in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, inevitably recalling her appearance in Godard’s Contempt, particularly the famed scene when the actress lounges in bed while her lover expresses his affection for her as tributes to her individual body parts, enumerating one by one the individual elements that together add up to his desire and love for her. It’s sex as an equation, a concept that reverberates throughout Ballard’s work. Cronenberg echoes this scene in the one where James and Catherine have slow, mechanical sex while Catherine enumerates her fantasies about James and Vaughan. Of course, Contempt ends with an ostentatiously phony car crash, a crash where the artifice is so obvious that it’s a stylized symbol of a crash rather than the real thing. Similar scenes proliferate in Weekend as well, scenes where the audience’s only possible reaction is a distanced, clinical observation of body postures and crushed metal sculptures.

Cronenberg is crafting his own modern take on Godard’s 60s studies in alienation and disconnection, and also drawing on other New Wave-era studies in ennui—all those films, like Godard’s A Married Woman or Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, where blank, disinterested middle class people struggle to find a way of jolting some life into their emotionally flat-lined existence. If Cronenberg’s film sometimes seems to be something of a blank slate, a mystery with no solution, maybe that’s exactly the troubling feeling the film seeks to engender.

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

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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

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

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

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

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

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

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

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

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

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

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

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

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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