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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part II: Black Swan

Part of the reason I’m drunk on Black Sawn while still struggling to identify its taste has something to do with the film’s hallucination-filled narrative.

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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part II: Black Swan

Ed Howard: Jason, you ended the first half of our conversation about Darren Aronofsky by wondering both where the director would go next after his first four films and which Aronofsky would be represented in Black Swan, his fifth feature. Throughout that exchange, we mostly divided Aronofsky’s career in half, considering Pi and Requiem for a Dream as blunt, bleak rehearsals for the more fully realized explorations of thematically similar territory in The Fountain and The Wrestler. So I suppose it’s appropriate that for the first half of Black Swan, I found myself thinking I was watching another Requiem for a Dream, while the second half ventured into the richer, deeper territory of Aronofsky’s more recent career. It’s appropriate, too, that the film itself is so concerned with halving and doubling, with mirrors and doppelgangers, built as it is around a production of the ballet Swan Lake in which the dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the Swan Queen and her dark rival, the titular Black Swan.

It’s a fascinating film, and especially so in the context of Aronofsky’s career, because it feels like such a consolidation of everything he’s been exploring and dealing with in his other work. I haven’t read any reviews of Black Swan yet, but I feel pretty confident predicting that at least a few of them will call it “The Wrestler in ballet slippers,” or something similar, and they will be more or less accurate. As in The Wrestler and his other films, Aronofsky is exploring his protagonist’s singleminded pursuit of her obsession, in this case Nina’s pursuit of dancing perfection. As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky is recycling familiar cinematic clichés, drawing on the backstage movie’s tropes of domineering mothers, neurotic stars, ambitious rivals, aging hasbeens, and predatory/sexual relationships between male directors and female performers. In working with these clichés, however, Aronofsky reinvests them with vitality and freshness through the raw intensity of his filmmaking.

Nina wants, desperately and obsessively, to be “perfect,” though the film itself eschews this purity for grime, chaos and fragmentation, mocking Nina’s desire to be perfect by running her through an increasingly harrowing gauntlet of real and imagined trials and terrors. Black Swan begins in methodical, observational realism and slowly morphs, like a woman becoming a swan, into a psychological horror film, a dizzying fever dream that haunts the audience and the central character alike. I’m still wrestling with this dense film, and I’m sure we’ll delve more into its substance and its connections to Aronofsky’s oeuvre throughout this conversation. But one thing I’m already sure of is that I can’t forget this film; it’s provocative and viscerally exciting and visually compelling. I haven’t totally resolved my feelings about this film or its effect on me, but I’m already sure that it has affected me.

Jason Bellamy: I suppose this is only appropriate, given Black Swan’s mirroring motif, but reading your account felt like seeing my own feelings reflected back at me. I couldn’t agree more. Like you, I saw traces of Aronofsky’s earlier and later films. Like you, I noted the multiple clichés and archetypes. Like you, I’m still struggling to make sense of it all—cerebrally and emotionally. But most important of all, like you I feel affected; and I’m grateful for that. Maybe it was all that White Swan/Black Swan split-personality stuff, but as Black Swan ended I found myself confronted by two outwardly identical but attitudinally opposed thoughts: “That was something… (?)” and “That was something… (!).” In other words, I can’t yet tell you exactly what Black Swan is, exactly what it means to me, or exactly when the film is genius and when it’s trite, but I can tell you that it got under my skin, that it’s powerful in sum, if not incessantly, and that I expect its spell will linger.

Part of the reason I’m drunk on the film while still struggling to identify its taste has something to do with the film’s hallucination-filled narrative. Black Swan is no extreme Lynchian mindfuck, in the sense that its broad themes are always easily understood, and by the end there’s very little mystery left, as if there was never any mystery in the first place, but the film includes so many wild shifts and U-turns that experiencing it for the first time is like trying to balance on a seesaw in a windstorm. Over the second half of the film I was constantly recalibrating my understanding of what was happening: “OK, this scene isn’t real, but the last one was… no, wait, now this scene is imagined, so the previous two must have been genuine… or, wait, hang on, maybe all of the last three scenes were hallucinations… but, then again…” Aronofsky is putting us into the troubled mind of Portman’s Nina, who right up until the final moment never knows what to believe. And so Black Swan is appropriately discombobulating, even while it’s thematically direct. But having said that, I think the main reason for my dizziness is because I’m astonished at how familiar the film feels throughout, only to leave me feeling as if I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

You already listed off several of the film’s broad backstage drama clichés—domineering mothers, neurotic stars, etc.—but equally prevalent are the distinctive Aronofsky flourishes: a predilection for ghastliness that recalls Pi and Requiem for a Dream; a black-and-white (darkness and lightness) motif that recalls The Fountain (this time in reverse); the numerous follow-shots that recall The Wrestler; a general fondness for centered closeups that recalls all of his films; and so on. Maybe I’ll stumble upon something later, but at the moment I can’t think of anything about Black Swan that feels particularly new within Aronofsky’s oeuvre, never mind within all of cinema. And yet somehow Black Swan feels so distinct, so individual. Am I alone in that feeling? If not, can you explain that?

Black Swan

EH: You’re not alone, and I think Black Swan feels fresh, not so much for its individual elements as for its synthesis. As you say, Black Swan exists within the continuity of Aronofsky’s career, and yet there’s something bold and loose and appealingly ragged about the way Aronofsky mashes together his thematic and stylistic concerns here. Part of it is the film’s destabilizing approach to reality; Aronofsky’s first three films frequently diverged into fantasy, or blended the real and the unreal, but never so startlingly as here, where Nina often seems to be leaping jarringly from one form of hallucination into another. There’s also the fact that Aronofsky increasingly seems like a realist director who can’t help rendering fantasy and illusion with a realist’s eye for detail. When Nina picks at her skin and, at one point, suddenly peels off a whole strip of flesh from around her fingernail, it’s as viscerally disturbing as Harry’s festering needle wound in Requiem for a Dream; when it’s revealed as fantasy an eyeblink later, it doesn’t make it feel any less tangible. The Wrestler aside, Aronofsky’s films, and especially Black Swan, are strikingly concrete approaches to the abstract and the internal. Aronofsky renders Nina’s unstable dreamworld as a physical place, which only makes the sudden intrusions of Nina’s imagined horrors all the more disorienting.

The film opens with a hazy sequence of Nina dancing the role of the Swan Queen, swathed in white light in the center of a dark space. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a dream, and Aronofsky follows it with a sequence of Nina waking up, contrasting the surreal qualities of the dream against the slow dawning of natural light on Nina’s pale face, then focusing on the cracking of the joints in her toes, and the way she languidly stretches her neck, then cuts to her practicing ballet in front of a mirror and enthusing over the pinkness of a grapefruit. This sequence suggests, comfortingly, that the film is making a rigid distinction between the unreality of dreams and the prosaic corporeality of waking life, but in fact no such distinction exists. This film feels real even when its events are obviously surreal; it has that in common with David Lynch, who’s an obvious touchstone for Aronofsky here. Black Swan is a sister to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another film in which professional rivalry leads to lesbian desire, all of it tangled up in narcissism and questions of identity, and all of it heading towards violence, murder, and horror-movie flourishes.

What makes this so interesting is that, despite the film’s constant and purposeful confusion of illusion with reality, the film’s fantastic imagery is all in service to the deeper themes of identity and ambition. Nina finds doubles everywhere because she’s being pulled in so many different directions at once, and because her life is already so full of potential doppelgangers: her controlling mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who once had a less-than-successful dancing career of her own and now passive-aggressively encourages and demeans her daughter; Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging star whose place Nina is now taking; Lily (Mila Kunis), the rival dancer who is Nina’s opposite in so many ways and the obvious Black Swan to Nina’s White Swan; and of course the dark, smirking doppelganger who Nina keeps catching glimpses of out of the corner of her eye (Portman again). Over the course of the film, Nina keeps confusing herself with these other selves, and confusing them with one another, so that her rival becomes her lover, who becomes herself, who becomes her mother, who appears briefly as Beth, enraged that Nina is taking on the career she once had and should have kept. The film is such a pulse-pounding rollercoaster ride because it places us so completely into Nina’s subjectivity, seeing everything through her eyes, seeing how her intense desire to become a star dancer has made her own identity unstable, fluidly blending into the other women in her life.

Black Swan

JB: That’s true, and maybe that hints at another reason this film feels so similar-to-yet-different-from Aronofsky’s other films: its preponderance of female characters. Here the roles for Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis are relatively small and insignificant—Portman’s Nina is the only one whose feelings count— but this is still a female-dominated film, which is a first for Aronofsky, whose previous films maxed out at two semi-substantial female characters each (if that). Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that because Black Swan is about a female’s experience that the movie is about the Female Experience, because I don’t think that’s the case. From any other director, sure, I might be inclined to think that Black Swan is a specific metaphor for the metamorphosis from girlhood into womanhood—complete with unrealistic expectations for physical perfection, shame about sexual yearnings and even frustration with sporadic bleeding. But given Aronofsky’s body of work, Black Swan strikes me as another film about obsession—one that draws upon those female maturation stereotypes but isn’t about them. No doubt, I suspect many women could look at Nina, with her overprotective mother, her stuffed animals on the bed and her ballerina music box, and remember the period of adolescence when the Little Princess identity of childhood no longer aligned with maturing desires (sexual and otherwise). But Black Swan is so much more universal than that, because as much as it’s about obsession, it’s also about suppression—about bottling up who we are, or who we want to be, or who we could be, in order to meet outward expectations.

We talked about all the ways that Black Swan feels familiar, even recycled, but maybe the thing it does with singular superiority is make emotional suppression palpable. Black Swan achieves this palpability in a number of ways, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to Portman. Aronofsky’s film is terrifically cast from top to bottom, and we’ll get to some of the other performances later, but Portman’s turn as Nina is the most remarkable if for no other reason than because it dupes us (or at least me) into believing that when Portman embodies Nina’s repressed White Swan that she is acting according to type, when nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe I’m alone here, but I think most of us tend to pigeonhole Portman as some kind of Puritanical spirit, even though her career has defied that image with surprising consistency. Consider that in her first three films—The Professional (1994), Heat (1995) and especially Beautiful Girls (1996)—Portman played a character who was dealing with issues beyond the expected demands of her age. In Closer (2004) she played a conniving stripper. In Wes Anderson’s short Hotel Chevalier (2007), she played an emotionally manipulative (ex)girlfriend. Meantime, she’s mocked her wholesome image with a bleep-heavy rap on an SNL Digital Short. I could go on. Point is, Inhibited Nina should seem against-type for Portman, yet Portman wears the character so well that it would be easy to take her performance for granted. Throughout Black Swan, Aronofsky often evokes Nina’s emotional suppression via the soundtrack, by enhancing the sound of Nina’s breathing, or pumping up the intensity of Clint Mansell’s score as Nina gives in to her desires, only to take the score away when Nina’s self-regulating instinct kicks in. But Aronofksy’s most effective technique for evoking emotional suppression is to point his camera at Portman, who through her countenance and posture suggests a woman so bottled-up that at any moment she might explode. It’s a sneakily terrific performance.

Black Swan

EH: Yes, Portman is always at the center of this film, much as Mickey Rourke was in The Wrestler, and she responds by delivering a fantastic performance. Even in the early scenes, before we really understand what this character is about, there’s something strained and fake about the way she smiles and exclaims happily over a grapefruit breakfast with her mom; the cracks in her personality are so deep that they show even in the most prosaic details of her life. As the film progresses and Nina’s grip on reality becomes increasingly tenuous, Portman’s tight, neurotic smiles and flustered reactions to the outpourings of her imagination convey the sense of a girl who is genuinely scared of what’s inside her, genuinely terrified of loosening her grip on all the emotions and desires she’s suppressed for so long. It’s this aspect of the film that resonates most strongly with the girl-into-woman theme. It’s as though Nina is going through a delayed puberty, having long repressed her desires and her sexuality, probably at the not-so-subtle urging of a mother who obviously feels that her own sexuality—and the child that resulted from it—was a career-ending mistake. Aronofsky enhances this performance by placing the audience into the same position as Portman’s Nina, unsure of what’s real and what’s not, unable to get a steady foothold within the flow of fantasy and reality.

The film begins to slip between subjective visions and concrete reality, allowing identities to fluidly slide into one another. Nina’s mother becomes Beth, Nina’s metaphoric mother and predecessor within the dance company. Nina vacillates between virginal White Swan and angry, ravenous Black Swan. But the really complicated tension/fusion is the one between Nina and Lily—Lily with those black wings tattooed on her back, marking her out as embodying the darkness, freedom and sexual liberation of the Black Swan. (An interesting question is whether the wings are even really there, or if that’s just how Nina sees her rival; this film makes us question everything.) Lily becomes the external incarnation of the dark self lurking within Nina—and when Nina gets in touch with her own inner Black Swan, during the opening night performance of the ballet, she no longer needs Lily, and symbolically murders her. But before that performance finally shatters the last bonds of Nina’s restraint, she does need Lily as a dark doppelganger. When Nina returns home from partying with Lily, Lily seems to be there in the hallway—in a stunning, graceful shot of a segmented mirror, Lily seems to be splitting away from Nina, emerging from within her, the two girls separated by the mirror’s segmentation. As the drunken Nina taunts her mother, Lily skulks off to the side, mouthing the aggressive, confrontational words that then come out of Nina’s mouth. Just as earlier, Lily had first appeared at a crucial moment to disrupt Nina’s Black Swan tryout, as a physical manifestation of Nina’s discomfort with the dance, here Lily is again giving voice to the emotions lurking beneath Nina’s tightly constrained exterior.

When they go to the bedroom and Lily starts to go down on Nina, Nina periodically sees the other girl with her own face, as though she’s devouring herself, pleasuring herself—something she’d been typically embarrassed about earlier. And then, recalling the scene where Nina had been mortified to realize her mother was in the room with her while she was masturbating, the other girl, looking like Nina, calls her “sweet girl,” like her mother does, and smothers her with a pillow, the way Nina is metaphorically smothered by her real mother. This slippage continues, with Nina going to the hospital to see Beth, only to have Beth attack herself, repeatedly stabbing her own face with a blade (being pecked with a beak?) while screaming that she’s “nothing,” and then when Nina runs away she finds the bloody knife in her own bloody hands. This dissociation is wonderfully expressed in all the mirror shots where Nina’s reflection seems to be behaving independently of her. In the studio, late at night, her reflection continues to turn pirouettes after Nina has stopped, at first moving in subtly different ways, just a few beats off of Nina’s own motion, and then increasingly diverging. Later, she sees a hand in the mirror scratching her back, but it’s not one of her own hands, which remain at her sides: it’s one of the multiple reflections stretched out behind her, a different self reaching out to touch her. Her personality is fragmenting into two, splitting apart, the White Swan and the Black Swan within her becoming defined as two independent selves within one body, just as her role demands of her.

Black Swan

JB: It’s an interesting metamorphosis. By the final shot of the film, Nina has gone the way of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond—and considering that Nina begins the film as a longtime supporting player thirsting to be recognized just once, who could have seen that coming? As Nina gazes up into the stage lights, basking in the glory of the performance in which she transcends technique to become a true dancer, apparently oblivious of her self-inflicted abdominal wound, she is a portrait of euphoria and tragedy, not unlike our final glimpse of Jennifer Connelly’s Marion in Requiem for a Dream, actually. In Part I of this discussion I praised Aronofsky’s ability to end a movie with a wallop, and Black Swan continues his reputation: Just before Nina’s swan dive, she strikes a dramatic crucifixion pose that recalls the final shot of The Wrestler. And before that, Aronofsky’s camera swings around the stage as Nina loses herself to the dance amidst Mansell’s appropriately whirling interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original score. And just before that, Portman has what might be her most magical moment, when Nina, having just found a shard of glass in her stomach, realizes that her biggest enemy all along has been herself; Portman’s face first registers pain, then terror, then emotional exhaustion and then, in one brief moment, peace. As Nina dabs her tears into her heavily powdered cheeks, it marks the first, and really only, time that we can see both the timid White Swan and the confident Black Swan in the same expression. It’s a “Wow!” moment.

And of course it’s a challenging moment, too. As with Max in Pi and Randy in The Wrestler, it’s tough to know how to feel about Nina’s fate. The last shot might be out of Sunset Boulevard, but the shot of Nina at the makeup counter affords her a moment of exultation and liberation. Aronofsky has a habit of treating his characters with brutality, always pulling the rug out from under them, never allowing them anything approaching an idyllic happy ending, but with the exception of Requiem for a Dream his characters are almost always afforded a measure of triumph in the end. That it comes at such a high price in some ways makes it all the more rewarding. It’s as if Aronofsky is breaking down his characters so that eventually they might transcend their limits. In that sense, you could consider Black Swan an even more visceral cousin of David Fincher’s The Game. What’s real? What’s fake? What does it matter, if it knocks down your defense, opens you up, cleanses you of your fears and makes you cherish the moment in front of you as if it’s your last? (And in Nina’s case, it might be.) As dark and depressing as Black Swan might seem, it’s kind of uplifting too. Isn’t it?

Black Swan

EH: I think so, too. The final twenty minutes of the film, during the ballet performance, are downright exhilarating. Even knowing, logically, how tragic and bleak this ending is, I can’t help getting swept up in the glory of Nina’s performance, can’t help feeling awed and excited as she becomes, before my eyes, the wild, forceful Black Swan that she was suppressing beneath her good girl exterior for so long. Aronofsky has been building patiently towards this moment throughout the film, showing Nina’s struggles with injecting the proper level of intensity and energy into the role of the Black Swan. She becomes so invested in it that I do, too, so that by the end I’m cheering her on even as she transforms into this dark version of herself, destroying herself in the process. As she whirls around the stage, widening her eyes into a piercing stare, she sprouts feathers from her arms and shoulders, eventually taking a grand bow with full wings sloping up into the air over her head. Throughout the dance, in addition to the music, Aronofsky layers the sounds of rustling feathers into the soundtrack, the sound of Nina’s wings flapping around her as she prepares to take flight. Aronofsky, to his credit, allows the transformation to happen, via CGI, in a single long shot, not belaboring it but simply allowing the surreal shift to occur fluidly, until Nina, for her brief moment of glory, has fully inhabited the role of the Black Swan.

It’s exciting, because it’s exciting filmmaking, and because Portman’s Nina is so consistently neurotic and indrawn that it’s gratifying to see her breaking free of those restrictions, even if it means the loss of her sanity and, quite possibly, her life. That is, of course, a typical Aronofsky theme. All of his characters have one thing they care about more than living itself, and all of them pursue these obsessions to an unhealthy degree. Black Swan fits neatly into the rest of Aronofsky’s oeuvre, at least thematically. Aronofsky even nods back to his first film with the scene where Nina, riding the subway, encounters a creepy old man who makes kissy faces at her and touches his crotch; it’s hard to say with any certainty, but it seems likely that he’s another manifestation of her subconscious, expressing her discomfort with sexuality. In any event, this man is played by the same actor, Stanley Herman, who taunted Max on the train in Pi. It’s like Aronofsky is winking at the audience, acknowledging the continuity of his stories, enforcing the linkage between driven, damaged Nina and her predecessors in his work.

Black Swan

JB: No question about it. Likewise, the grapefruit shot is a wink back at Requiem for a Dream. And of course the aforementioned follow shots and the crucifixion pose reminds of The Wrestler. Speaking of which, when we discussed The Wrestler I asked you whether it was primarily Aronofsky’s movie or Rourke’s. You said both. I said that when push comes to shove it will always be Rourke’s movie to me, for all the meta reasons if nothing else—the way Rourke’s performance nods back to his previous roles on screen, in the ring and in life. But Black Swan is different. I’ve already praised Portman’s performance, and rightfully so, but this is always Aronofsky’s movie—because he nods back to his own previous films, and because of Black Swan’s familiar blend of showy technique and utter fearlessness. In Part I we discussed how Aronofsky’s films sometimes seem to play underneath a neon sign proclaiming “This movie is directed!” and the same could be said about Black Swan, but maybe the thing we overlooked about of Aronofsky’s in-your-face tactics is the brazenness, almost arrogance, of his filmmaking as a whole. In that sense, Aronofsky is a lot like Quentin Tarantino. And maybe that’s why Black Swan reminds me of my reaction to Inglourious Basterds. Make no mistake, I think Tarantino’s film is the richer of the two. But both films delight in mishmashing styles and in going beyond edgy into the completely outrageous. Not quite camp, but not far off.

It takes some pretty big balls to have Nina actually sprout feathers and turn into a swan, and I think what’s so beautiful about that scene is the same thing that makes it jarring: it feels completely fantastical at the same time as it feels, well, real. The moment’s sense of reality is delivered by the quality of the CGI itself, and also by the blatancy of Aronofsky’s metaphors: the imagery is so explicit that it transcends figurativeness. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. And that’s another reason why Black Swan recalls Inglourious Basterds, because it can be emotionally overpowering and positively silly from one instant to the next. Consider, for example, the moment when Nina’s legs collapse from underneath her, or when her mother’s paintings begin to speak to her, or, better yet, the moment when Nina strangles herself in her own dressing room. In that latter scene, the Black Swan version of Nina snaps up off the ground in one swift, rigid motion according to not-dead-yet horror film convention. It’s frightening but also funny. Yet just a few moments later, Nina will be staring in horror at Lily’s corpse, the tone shifting yet again to a kind of “Oh, shit!” consequentiality. I realize that for some these tonal shifts are distracting and that the film isn’t daringly outrageous so much as irritatingly preposterous. But for the most part, it works for me. The major exception is the scene in which Ryder’s Beth repeatedly stabs herself in the face, because that’s the moment that feels like Aronofsky is after nothing more than cheap shock value.

Black Swan

EH: What you say about the swan transformation sequence really resonates with me. That’s what I was getting at earlier when I said that Aronofsky films the surreal and the outrageous with a sense of the concrete that makes even the film’s most obviously absurd flourishes seem tangible, if not plausible. Although the second half of the film is dominated by illusions and hallucinations chained together, one fantasy superseding or reversing another, it doesn’t have the dreamlike vibe one would expect. Each illusion feels real, if only for the moment when it’s actually onscreen. When Nina comes home drunk, Lily both seems to be there and doesn’t: the mirror shot and the fact that Lily is mouthing the words that Nina then says suggest that she’s a mental projection, but then the subsequent sex scene is so tactile that it’s difficult to dismiss completely. The constant blurring of Lily and Nina, both here and during the “murder” sequence, is so disorienting because Lily is both a real person and a convenient stand-in for Nina’s mental projections of her own darker half.

Aronofsky and Tarantino are very different directors in most respects, but the Inglourious Basterds comparison is a good one in the sense that Aronofsky, like Tarantino, isn’t afraid to risk the ridiculous in his pursuit of the sublime, or rather he sees the two as inextricably tangled. I’ve criticized Aronofsky for his excesses before, notably in our discussion of Requiem for a Dream, but what’s interesting about him as a filmmaker is that the same tendencies that occasionally make him aggravating and offputting are also the wellsprings of his best work. I think that’s certainly the case here, where he displays welcome boldness in dealing with a potentially overwrought conceit that he manages to make genuinely affecting. In this, and in the film’s psychosexual confusions and absurdities, he’s like Tarantino but even more so like Paul Verhoeven, whose own bitchy backstage movie (Showgirls) is absurdly enjoyable and complex, it’s safe to say, in totally different ways.

It’s interesting: I thought Requiem for a Dream was, as you say about that scene with Beth, all cheap shocks and cheap horrors, so I wonder why the in some ways superficially similar Black Swan doesn’t really hit me the same way. I think it comes down to the sense of playfulness and dark humor that we’ve been talking about here. Pi and Requiem for a Dream are a lot of things—even, in some scenes, slightly humorous—but one thing they’re not is playful. I think Black Swan, for all its imperfections, represents Aronofsky coming to terms with the trashy schlockmeister he was in those first two films. He’s really embracing that aspect of his cinematic personality but without the mix of dour moralizing and exploitation filmmaking that was so hard to take in Requiem for a Dream. Instead, he’s winking at the audience with references to his earlier films, and conjuring up outrageous imagery that generates a queasy mix of emotions: shock, horror, sadness, confusion, laughter both appalled and genuinely delighted.

Black Swan

JB: That’s right. And at the same time he’s giving his characters room for a little variety, too. In Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky’s characters are in a constant freefall toward doom and despair; even seemingly happy moments are colored by the gut-wrenching queasiness of a nosedive. Black Swan, on the other hand, while too single-minded to be called nuanced, heads toward its grim conclusion like a feather fluttering toward the earth, rather than falling like a stone. Consider that Lily, Nina’s rival, is alternately friendly and conniving, depending on Nina’s grasp of reality. And Nina’s mother, Erica, is monstrous in most scenes—again, according to Nina’s skewed perspective—and yet Aronofsky allows her the moment toward the end of Nina’s triumphant performance, when Nina catches sight of Erica in the crowd, her eyes filled with tears, her expression one of pride and undeniable love. And of course there’s Vincent Cassel’s Thomas, the ballet instructor who is an emotional abuser, a sexual predator and a mindfucker who nevertheless goes from playboy to schoolboy when Nina walks off stage at the end of the second act, consumed with a Black Swan’s confidence, and plants an erotic kiss on her teacher. To some degree these variances are there just to make the line between reality and fantasy elusive. But I suspect they are also there because Aronofsky has matured as a filmmaker. No wonder Ryder’s Beth doesn’t quite belong; she seems to be a leftover from one of Aronofsky’s earlier pictures.

Yet Black Swan doesn’t just inspire thoughts of Aronofsky’s previous pictures, it also calls to mind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). That film, like this one, is about the obsessiveness of ballet dancing and the influence of love on performance, albeit from a different angle: In Black Swan, Thomas wants Nina to find her sexuality, to forget about the dance itself, to let herself go, to forget she’s on stage, whereas in The Red Shoes, ballet coordinator Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, in a terrifically over-the-top performance) wants his star, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), to ignore her womanhood, commit only to the dance, listen to the score and never forget she’s on stage. Nina’s epiphany is realizing that there’s nothing holding her back from being a great dancer, whereas Victoria’s epiphany is realizing that there are things in life she loves more than dance. These women end up in similar circumstances but at opposite ends of the spectrum from one another. Still, both films convey the idea that falling in love with something as deeply as Nina and Victoria fall in love with dance can be deadly.

Black Swan

EH: Yeah, The Red Shoes is a clear reference point for Aronofsky here, although he’s exploring, in some ways, a sexual dynamic that’s the reverse of the one in the Powell/Pressburger film. In Black Swan, sexuality unleashes creativity, and it’s getting in touch with the sensual urges she’s long suppressed that allows Nina to dance so well at the film’s climax; in The Red Shoes, sexuality leads away from the creative life, not deeper into it. I’m also reminded of another Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, in which Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) goes mad with desire for her convent’s local liaison, Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Ruth stalks through the convent, looking increasingly sinister and wild, her eyes wide and staring, her face made-up in garish colors on a pale white base. Her transformation from pure, innocent nun into sexually deranged madwoman isn’t quite as extreme as Nina’s transfiguration into the Black Swan, but it has a similar feeling, and I think Aronofsky is also nodding to this film.

In both Black Swan and Black Narcissus, female sexuality is seen as dangerous and violent, as a source of destructive urges, although these films also suggest that the repression of these urges can be just as dangerous, creating the pressure-cooker vibe that permeates both films. The idea of female sexuality as a powerful and potentially destructive force is a trope common to exploitation pictures, horror films, and film noir, all genres that Aronofsky is riffing on here. When Nina puts on bright red lipstick (stolen from Beth) to ask Thomas for the lead role, she’s echoing the actions of Ruth in Black Narcissus, who also dons red lipstick for her attempted seduction of Dean. Lipstick is often a symbol of worldliness and sensuality, in these films as well as at the end of Godard’s Hail Mary, where that film’s stand-in for the Virgin Mary, having put her spiritual task behind her, re-embraces her worldly, womanly, physical self.

These kinds of tensions percolate throughout Black Swan as well, although Nina’s purity is not spiritually motivated in the least. In fact, the treatment of female sexuality is one of the most problematic aspects of this film. Nina is a mess of contradictory impulses. She’s a repressed, confused young girl who’s obviously only been told negative things about sex by her mother, and yet she also has an instinct for using her sexuality to get what she wants, an instinct that fully flowers when she becomes the Black Swan. At various times she’s a victim and an aggressor, embodying both the virginal good girl and the sexually voracious femme fatale. As is often the case with Aronofsky, the film is trafficking in clichés about teacher/student sexual exploitation and the old virgin/whore dichotomy. But what does Aronofsky actually have to say about female sexuality? I’ve seen some people make the argument that the film’s treatment of women is regressive—notably advanced by Marilyn Ferdinand—and I think there’s more than a little truth to that criticism. At the same time, Nina is so screwed up in part because of regressive attitudes about female sexuality, because she’s been fed the idea that sexuality and desire are incompatible with professional success (an idea that’s implicitly embodied in The Red Shoes, as well), because she’s been encouraged to remain childlike and pure. These attitudes leave her open to be victimized and exploited by Thomas—although, on the other other hand, the film does at times implicitly affirm Thomas’ chauvinistic ideas about women and their sexuality. As is so often the case with Aronofsky, he seems to be balanced between regurgitating clichés and subverting them.

Black Swan

JB: Right, well, I think I agree with you on the last sentence, but otherwise you might be reading something into the film that isn’t there. Is it plausible that Nina’s mother has told her “negative things about sex”? Absolutely. Is it plausible that Nina represses her sexuality in order to prove her dedication to her career, and to avoid the appearance that she’s risen through the ranks because of what she can do on her back rather than what she can do on her toes? Sure. But what if it’s simpler than that? What if Nina’s sexual discomfort is simply the product of her stunted maturation? As Aronofsky repeatedly makes clear, Nina is a little girl in every way but her age. She lives with her mom. She goes to bed in a pink room, amidst cutesy stuffed animals and a music box with a spinning ballerina. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t party, doesn’t seem to have any friends whatsoever. She regards Beth with a tagalong’s awe. And her attraction to Thomas is a schoolgirl “hot for teacher” crush; she wants him, but wouldn’t know what to do with him if she got him. Sure enough, when Thomas doesn’t come on to Nina at his loft apartment, she’s disappointed. When he does come on to her, she resists—not because she’s playing hard to get but because she doesn’t know how to respond. Her sexuality is repressed because for all intents and purposes she’s a 9-year-old. And why? Because of her mother, certainly, but also because of fear. Nina has resisted growing up, possibly because so long as she’s just a little girl, she’s still an up-and-comer in the world of ballet, with room to dream that her best years are ahead of her.

Earlier I mentioned how Portman makes Nina look as if she could explode at any moment, and that’s what’s most astounding about her performance: that we can feel years of emotional repression in her countenance. Black Swan catches Nina at her breaking point, which of course explains all of her wild and tragic fantasies. It’s fitting that Nina imagines herself becoming the Black Swan when she gives into her foreign adult impulses, because ballet is the only world she knows. So, to answer your question, what does Aronofsky have to say about female sexuality? Maybe not very much. Because I don’t think he’s trying to say anything about female sexuality. Let’s remember: Thomas tells Nina that the way to become a better dancer is to go home and touch herself, but that’s not the way things actually play out. Nina tries to fondle herself, and wakes up to find her mother in her room. Then she appears to have what might be her first sexual experience, but it’s all an imagined affair with Lily, and at the end of it Nina gets suffocated by a pillow. In truth, Nina’s sexual experimentations are failed efforts that underline her repression. So Thomas is wrong, because what ultimately turns Nina into the Black Swan is a climax of rage, not a climax of hormones. Nina simply refuses to be a little girl anymore. Embracing her sexuality is part of that, sure, but only part. This is as much an Ugly Duckling-into-Swan story as it’s a White Swan-into-Black Swan story.

Now, having said that, I think it’s absolutely fair to criticize this film as a lewd male fantasy, because just like Fight Club’s ultimate anti-Tyler Durden moral can’t possibly overcome all of the Tyler Durden glorification that precedes it, Black Swan’s mostly asexual conclusion cannot undo the shot of Nina writhing in her bed, or the shot of Lily putting her face between Nina’s legs. This film would have a decidedly different atmosphere if Portman and Kunis weren’t so easy on the eyes. And besides, Black Swan is still about Nina’s discovery of her womanhood, even if she doesn’t discover her womanhood in quite the way that Thomas imagined. So I understand the objections completely. But as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes prove, extremeness isn’t always cheap.

Black Swan

EH: I know, I’m really just playing devil’s advocate here. As we’ve kept saying about Aronofsky, he’s temperamentally drawn to the extreme, the lurid, the melodramatic, and if that means that his films can often be accused of going too far in various directions, it’s also the source of the power in his filmmaking. Black Swan, I think, is more interesting, not less, for the ways in which it flirts with cliché and lewdness. It is at times a very troubling and problematic blend of mutually exclusive ideas and suggestions, but then so is Nina, caught between repression and liberation, passivity and aggression, naïveté and knowledge, girlhood and womanhood.

Incidentally, on the matter of the mother’s role in Nina’s sexual repression, I’m reading between the lines a bit but not, I don’t think, discovering things that aren’t there. In the scene where Erica talks to Nina about the notoriously lascivious Thomas, Erica’s tone isn’t merely one of parental concern: she seems to share with Lermontov from The Red Shoes the idea that a great dancer must remain pure and untainted by worldly matters like love or sex. Erica doesn’t want Nina to make the same mistake she made: the mistake of having sex, the mistake of getting pregnant. It’s obvious that if Nina has remained childlike into her early twenties, it’s largely because of the mother who sits by her bed each night, playing lullabies from a music box as a porcelain ballerina turns pirouettes.

If Nina is uncomfortable with sexuality, embarrassed and confused by it, Lily is exactly the opposite. The scene where Nina and Lily go out together develops this duality and opposition in even the smallest touches, like the way Lily orders a big, juicy cheeseburger and proceeds to devour it in big, sloppy bites while Nina nibbles at tiny crumbs poised on the tines of a fork, held ever so delicately and properly. The gap is further emphasized by the way the leering waiter banters sexually with Lily about her burger. Even food becomes sexual in this context, and every detail of the two girls’ manner and behavior suggests how, for Lily, everything can become sensual and provocative, while Nina is “frigid” and closed-off from such experiences, unable to handle the slightest suggestion of sex without growing frazzled. This distinction is at least partially erased later in the evening, when the girls take ecstasy together and dance with a pair of guys who pick them up.

The dance scene at the club is brilliantly conceived, a skipping, flickering encapsulation of that peculiar strobing quality where time seems to pass in snapshot fragments, halting sequences of images with gaping caesurae in between. In the flashing onrush of imagery, it’s seldom clear if we’re seeing Nina, or Lily, or both. The sequence ends with Nina waking up from this fluttering sequence of images and blank spots in a bathroom stall, realizing that she’s in the middle of passionately making out with a random guy. Later, time skips again when Nina decides to visit Beth in the hospital. One moment she’s walking out of the ballet studio, the next she’s in the hospital, the next she’s winding a corner into Beth’s room, with the sound of ambulance sirens bridging the cuts, providing continuity to the abrupt disjunction of time and space. Aronofsky’s editing suggests the sleepwalking quality of Nina’s experience of time at this point, the way her brain seems to black out and wander elsewhere at crucial points, as though her consciousness were taking a break while some other force directed her body around. The film is full of hallucinations and visions that replace objective reality with internal landscapes, but this is a more subtle example of the film’s visualization of subjective experiences, which has always been Aronofsky’s strong point.

Black Swan

JB: Absolutely. In an era of no-limits gross-outs—and in some respect, Requiem for a Dream qualifies under that heading—it’s rather remarkable how much Aronofsky can get under our skin in Black Swan via comparatively mundane unpleasantries, like Nina’s constant scratching, or her busted toenail, or that tiny hangnail that peels back to her knuckles. Just imagining those scenes puts a bitter taste in my mouth. Those instances are so much more disturbing than the sight of Beth’s gruesome leg injury, or even the sight of Beth stabbing herself in the face. I think there’s a lesson there—about the extra-visceral quality of easily relatable things, and about Aronofsky’s rather democratic approach to provocation: nothing is so dull that it can’t be made lurid.

But even though Aronofsky’s reestablished affinity for all things ugly might suggest that Black Swan signals a lack of growth, I think Aronofsky is indeed evolving, while boldly remaining the filmmaker he wanted to be in the first place. What Aronofsky has delivered in his three most recent pictures that was almost entirely lacking in his first two movies is palpable, genuine joy. The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan are all predominantly dark pictures, but their moments of lightness and happiness, even euphoria, feel equally invested in and realized. No longer is Aronofsky simply building up his characters so he can tear them down. He’s tearing them down so he can build them up.

That might seem like an insignificant change, but it isn’t. As bittersweet as the triumphs in Aronofsky’s movies can be—Tommy loses Izzi, Randy commits a form of suicide, Nina loses her mind (and perhaps more than that)—they are earned. Aronofsky may rely on cliché for many things, but his emotional crescendos aren’t the least bit formulaic. The Fountain remains my favorite of Aronofsky’s films, but over the course of this conversation, Black Swan is now threatening to overtake The Wrestler for the No. 2 spot. It’s an outrageous, unrestrained, heavy-handed, horny opera. And I love it.

Black Swan

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

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

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

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

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

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

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

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

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

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

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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