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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: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Film

Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Film

Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution

The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.

Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.

As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.

In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.

While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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