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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
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